April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment
Well, for those few of you out there who check my blog every so often, it’s become pretty clear that I’ve let it languish, set sail, twist in the wind, bleach and dry out underneath the shine of the Internet’s sun, erode against the relentless Internet wind.
Yeah, it’s a ghost town here.
The long and short is that I just haven’t had time to really update this. For the past 18-20 months, I’ve been working two jobs: 1) Full-time Professor, and 2) Practicing Designer. It leaves me little time or energy to gather the thoughts necessary to publish frequently.
Further, a lot of the stuff I’d like to write about, I can’t. I can’t talk about my impressions of my students, my impressions of the current political climate (as it relates to messaging), or my feelings on the world in general as it relates to design, thoughtfulness, purpose, and all that good stuff.
It’s obvious why I can’t talk about my students (unseemly and unprofessional). I won’t talk about politics because most folks can’t separate the medium from the message and I’ve gotta make a living. Ya know? And I simply don’t have the time to dive in to this messy world and the wonderings of purpose, intent, and the big Why. Why not? I don’t want to do it carelessly, without much consideration. That takes time and that is something I don’t have much of these days.
Perhaps when the school year finishes, I will find the time to update this lovely sojourn in word.
October 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Upon reading a recent article about the role of women as central characters in TV shows, specifically Mad Men, it got me thinking about the show and work and life and what the show is really about.
In the article, they ask the question about whether Mad Men would be as compelling or popular if Peggy Olson, Don’s protege, was the lead character instead of Don.
To which, I answer simply: No.
Why? While the central plot line through the show has mostly been “Who is Don Draper?”, that’s not what the show is ultimately about. It’s about masks. Don’s mask is more interesting and somehow, more relatable than Peggy’s.
The central tension in Mad Men is the masks they all wear. We see deep inside each character’s actions and then we see their interactions as they hide what’s inside.
Don with his philandering, drinking, workaholism, and his mysterious past all butting up against his reputation and family life.
Roger Sterling with his family inheritance, drinking, and womanizing pushing up against his desire to put on an air of credibility and infallibility.
Pete Campbell with his holier-than-thou attitude and domestic aspirations coming face-to-face with his sense of entitlement, smarminess, and affair with Peggy.
Peggy Olson with her career, desire to grow independently, yet hiding her pregnancy from Pete, and becoming whoever she needs to be for whatever boyfriend she gets (going so far as to act as if she a virgin).
Joan with her blend of social intelligence, control, and put-together perfection—all while she’s had three abortions. (The most recent being one that happened in an affair with Roger while her husband is in Vietnam.)
Bert Cooper has his masks as well. He comes off cultured, refined in a 1950s-meets-Eastern culture way. But we learned recently he used to be a bit of a womanizer himself before he literally had his testicles removed. Who is this guy really?
The firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is one big mask as they try to appear stable while the ground is falling out from underneath them.
The mask of advertising: Attempting to sell someone a thought or feeling that may or may not be real so that they, too, can wear that mask for others.
Rarely has a show delved so deeply in to the contradiction between who we present we are versus the reality of who we are.
Don’s masks are probably the most unique of them all, if not the deepest. If Mad Men were about anyone else, that character’s masks would have to be deeper, more interesting, or more relevant today than Don’s. That simply doesn’t exist with any other character on Mad Men than it does with Don.
For those who watch Mad Men, we know that Peggy’s struggles are the most closely aligned to Don’s. Yes, she’s a very interesting character I want to know more about. But her struggles are tied more closely to a period-specific set of troubles, which changes everything.
MIx It All Together
If Mad Men were a show about Peggy Olson, it wouldn’t be Mad Men. Her external circumstances of being in a male-dominated world would be immediate and pressing—and largely out of her control. This is depressing and frankly, Mad Men is depressing enough already. Mad Men with Peggy as the central character would be a different story, one that would likely be about her triumph in the face of her cultural circumstances. Again, that’s a different show.
Don’s circumstances, on the other hand, are largely of his own doing, his own demons. Yet it’s mostly in his control, free of the cultural oppression of the times. However, he is not free from the culture in which he lives.
That is where Mad Men gets interesting. You mix the masks with the 50s & 60s culture and it forms a toxic, exciting soup to taste. As viewers, we get to see both sides of all their lives, so out there, obvious, sinful, and yet still beholden to the decorum of their day. To our modern senses, it creates a heightened reality that leaves no doubt as to the tension, the masks.
Today, we all wear masks to get forward in the world. Same as it ever was. We may have exchanged daytime drinking for daytime running. Smoking for yoga. Office affairs for online affairs. Steak for sushi. We may feel better physically, but we are no less beholden to our culture than Don or Peggy or Roger or Bert was by theirs. We may be more Puritanical, but we are no more pure.
The difference is that, today, men and women often stand shoulder to shoulder in the workplace. (I have worked for many female bosses.) Further, with facebook, twitter, email, and everything else, our work lives and professional lives are constantly crashing into each other. We may wear our masks more subtly, but we also rarely get a break from them. We are acutely aware of our own masks, yet we are unsure that others wear them, too. But, we all do.
This is why Don Draper is the central character and not Peggy: Don’s struggles and his masks more closely reflect the broad spectrum of today’s masks in society than do Peggy’s. This is a good thing. The best thing, actually.
Sure, Don comes from nothing, he hides his past, and drinks, smokes, and has sex in ways that only James Bond could relate. But more and more women today wear the Don Draper mask than the Peggy Olson mask: The balance of work, life, family, and the suffering of choices not limited so much by external circumstance as much as by their own choices, for good or ill. We can relate to Don even as our jaws drop at his actions.
The best thing, it turns out, is to fail of your own doing, and to relate to that—not because someone stopped you for no good reason. The best thing, in this case, is that women are more able to relate to Don Draper than ever before, not Peggy Olson.
Mad Men, indeed.
August 2, 2010 § 1 Comment
About a month ago, Bruce Nussbaum, a popular Design + Business guru and writer for Business Week, wrote an article called F*** the Boomers, Screw the Xers, Give Gen Y Power Now. In it, he proclaims the Boomers need to step aside and let the Gen Yers (a “search-learn-make-share” demographic) take over because they are better equipped than Boomers and Gen Xers to remake and reverse the US’s global decline.
All of which is fine enough. But, Mr Nussbaum goes so far to say that the reason Gen Xers should be skipped over is because “Xers still don’t get it” and that “Sure the Xers will whine but they will follow (they always do). And deep down, they’ll feel relieved of the burden of responsibility and embrace the irony of losing out (once again).”
As one of the younger members of Gen X (I was born in 1976), I fail to see how Mr. Nussbaum’s viewpoint makes any sense at all. I would go so far to say that he is misinformed, possibly delusional.
Sure, it may be true that we are the generation of Slacker and many of us spent many years wandering the wilderness of society, but the Xers I know are nothing like what Mr Nussbaum portrays.
The Xers I know are entrepreneurs, educators, leaders, hard workers, committed to family and community, world travelers, intellectually curious, and perhaps most importantly, fighters.
(Fighters? You must be joking, right? No.)
The oldest of the Xers began their journey in the workforce right as the 1988 recession hit. Some of us were the soldiers in the first Gulf War. We enjoyed a few good economic years in the go-go 90s, where we were the workforce behind the web’s explosion before the boom went bust. We have since led the charge for the much-more successful second generation of the web. All Xers were adults during the tragic events of 9/11 and its ensuing recession and war. We’ve had no choice but to sit by and watch as the Boomers-in-charge began shipping manufacturing jobs overseas. We are now dealing with the “Great Recession” that has caused the greatest levels of chronic unemployment since the Great Depression.
And we did all this while having come of age right as the US was changing from an analog, monolithic, and segregated society to a digital, diverse, and integrated society. We have been (and are) the bridge between the analog-inclined Boomers and the digital-savvy Gen Yers. This is no small feat or task.
Boy oh boy, my rankle is rousing.
We are a rather small generation compared to the Boomers and Yers, leaving us with less people to do more.
While the Boomers may have made it cool to care about the environment, Xers have carried the torch and spread the fire, if you will.
While the boomers may have started the running and fitness craze, it is the Xers who made it mainstream.
We have been leaders in urban revitalization efforts, populating cities left for dead by the Boomers. (This conveniently helps work towards solving both the health and environment problems in one efficient stroke.)
Throughout the recessions and wars, we were given hope the Boomers would start retiring and we would fill those jobs. It hasn’t happened. So, instead, we’ve had to innovate and find new ways to make a living.
All this doesn’t even begin to touch the millions of Xers who work in the civil sector, fight our wars, work in the arts, volunteer for non-profits, went in to the Peace Corps, or simply do whatever they have to do to to feed their families.
Go on, tell me that Gen Xers “don’t get it.” What a smug, careless statement.
Instead of gaining respect for our tenacity and savvy, we’re overwhelmed by a media that celebrates the 60s and Boomer culture while cooing over Gen Yers that have had very little time to accomplish anything. All this while our achievements and cultural touchstones are barely acknowledged in any meaningful way besides infomercials for 80s and 90s pop music. Sweet.
But, ya know, hey, it’s cool. We’re used to it by now.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a rant against Gen Yers. This is about the popular perception from a Boomer culture loathe to admit that Xers, for all our warts and bruises and worries, have earned the right to more respect than a dismissive comment by a popular business + design writer and educator.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though: Grandparents are always harder on their own children than their grandchildren.
Before all is said and done, Gen X will have left its mark. We are the bridge between the old America and the new one. We are the translators and innovators between two generations within a culture shifting markedly day-by-day.
If anyone thinks the Xers are done or to be passed over, I wouldn’t bet against us. We’re still relatively young and if history has shown anything, we’re relentless. Quite the opposite of Mr. Nussbaum’s blind, bland, boring, and bumbling notion of a generation of irony-seeking slackers.
After all, I would argue that we were slackers not because we didn’t care, we were slackers because we did care, but had no meaningful outlet. That has changed.
Our dissatisfaction is our fuel. And trust me, we have plenty of it.
July 2, 2010 § 4 Comments
A story to share.
Sitting at the bar the other night, an acquaintance of mine walked by with his new girlfriend at his side. She’s also an acquaintance of mine, almost a full-fledged friend. I turned to say hello to him. His face lights up, he sticks his hand out to shake mine and then goes in for a full man-hug.
I hug him back.
“Dude!” He says. “Great to see you!”
His exuberance caught me by surprise.
“Good to see you, too.” I reply in kind, smiling. Always nice to get some love.
“I haven’t seen you in forever!” He says.
“Yeah, it’s been a while. How you been?” I ask, trying to keep my voice up to match his mood.
“It has, it has been a while. I’m doing well!” He says. He then looks down, snaps his fingers a couple times, then raises his head and looks me in the eye. “I haven’t seen you since that time you were walking out of the Red Garter Lounge with Josh.”
(For those who need the obvious spelled out for them, the Red Garter Lounge is a house of moderately ill repute.)
“That’s weird.” I say. “I’ve never been there.”
“Really?” He asks, his face paling, grasping for answers.
“No, man.” I say, shaking my head. “I don’t even know where it is.”
“Oh my God, man. I’m so sorry.” Scrambling, he asks, “You know a guy named Josh Smith?”
“No.” I say. “Never heard of him.”
Then his face, once drawn, suddenly lights up. He puts his hand on my shoulder, leans in a touch. “Man, I’m so sorry, you look just like this guy I know. It’s amazing.”
“That’s funny.” I say. “You’ve told me that before.” (He has.)
“No, man. You really do.” Pause. “But it’s cool you’re not him. Because that guy’s a douchebag.”
I furrow my brow. “But you seemed so happy to see that guy. You even hugged me thinking it was him.”
“Yeah, I know.” He said. “But trust me, that guy’s a douchebag.”
“Cool, I guess.” I said.
We talked for a few more moments and then he left.
This story, albeit extreme in example, illuminated the many ways we interact with each other. Nearly all of us do this on some level. Sometimes, it’s a relative we can’t stand and end up treating them like royalty. Sometimes, it’s an old acquaintance that we never had strong feelings for and we ask them a million questions about their lives to feign interest.
Other times, it works the other way. Sometimes, we really like someone, but we don’t want them to think we like them too much, so we dampen our mood. Or maybe we try really hard to act a certain way because we think a person will accept us better if we act that certain way. We are weird beings.
We act this way to grease the skids of society. Our personal worlds—and the world at large—tend to function better when we are all getting along, our actual feelings aside. This is basic human interaction. How we act in a scenario where we are changing the face of our actual feelings is human interaction design.
That guy in the bar that night obviously thinks my doppelganger is a douchebag. Why would he treat me so exuberantly, then? Maybe the guy in the bar likes hanging out with douchebags because he himself is a douchebag. Maybe the guy in the bar is in a one-down position at work and needs to be nice to the douchebag. Or maybe he acts that way because he feels compelled by religious or spiritual reasons. Who knows. Ultimately, though, his overreaction to seeing his douchebag friend ultimately served to let the world function a little better. All this even if his act of exuberance bred discomfort in him.
Or he could just be a heartless manipulator who doesn’t feel discomfort. All of which would make his design much more complex and disturbing.
June 14, 2010 § 1 Comment
- The best a trend can be is a signpost. Eventually, you can’t keep up because trends trend away from the trend. Make your own trend.
- I like to listen. Sometimes this brings enlightenment, sometimes toxic self-doubt.
- The more I do visual design, the more I see the cold, unromantic math behind it. Align this, grid that. But, for something to be truly memorable, it needs a hook. A good hook is magic, can be found through process, but it can’t be taught.
- The more I think about “Design Thinking”, the more I think it’s not “Thinking”, but rather “Process”. Thinking is a bit like happiness–you can’t aim for it, it’s the fruit of other labors.
- The most perfectly designed thing is a blank sheet of paper. It communicates exactly what it is, nothing more can be taken away, anything can be added, and has been a part of every major movement in Western Civilization.
- Making a design “feel” right rhetorically is 90% done before you even start. The remaining 10% can destroy that 90%, though.
- There comes a point where you know the rules and break them willfully. So, don’t be offended if I ignore your feedback because I already knew what you’d say and didn’t care.
- If you show your in-process work to others, they will only see a fixed result—concrete, not fluid. They will critique it as such. Be dead-on specific about what you want feedback on and ignore everything else said or done.
- You will try to ignore what they say, but you won’t be able to. Have fun with that.
- There’s a pea underneath your mattress and you can’t sleep a wink. Sound familiar? A designer is innately sensitive to the most minute of details—don’t let them drive you crazy. Learn to let go.
- Go be analog. No computer, no cell phone, no nothing. Your thoughts, creativity, and insights are your capital. This takes time and reflection. You can’t do this being constantly interrupted.
- If you manage your time well and ignore those interruptions, people won’t be angry—they’ll be jealous.
- If you can’t work your way through a problem, it’s OK to close your eyes for 20 mins to let your brain filter the problem. It’s amazing what a little rest can do.
- Let nothing distract you in your interactions except dire emergencies.
- I’m convinced you can often get 80% of the design research value for 20% of the cost for 95% of your clients. Do that more of the time.
- Just because something costs more money doesn’t mean it has more value. Donuts cost more than broccoli.
- Respect is the hardest thing to earn and the easiest thing to lose. Integrity can pull you through.
- Difficult clients make you better. Too difficult of clients can make you bitter.
- Some people practice design. Some people schmooze design. Both have their place, but one of them sucks and the other doesn’t.
- Thinking is not a deliverable. If you don’t give it a form, it never happened.
- Design is not unlike songwriting. You listen to songs, get inspired, practice, and then write your own songs. It is impossible to escape influence. But, taking a song, changing the key, and playing it for a different audience doesn’t make it your song. Don’t act like it does.
- With that, standing on the shoulders of giants doesn’t mean their shoulders are yours. Acknowledge what you’ve learned and from where.
- Nobody knows what you left out unless it cripples the design. Even then, most won’t notice or care. They’ll just tell themselves a story.
- The more refined your design, the more people will start picking on the smallest unrefined parts that you don’t care about yet.
- Pull a string, unravel the sweater. Make sure it’s worth it.
February 24, 2010 § 3 Comments
I’m going to make an argument and it’s not going to be popular, but it’s going to be harshly real, if not a tad cynical and just a bit sad.
If you have to take out large student loans for school, don’t go. It’s not worth it and probably never will be.
There. I said it. Whew. I feel better.
Really? Don’t go? Isn’t it at least worth it for some people?
OK, for some the debt is worth it: Those folks for whom a grad degree can truly vault them into another earning bracket or those who seek professional degrees for which there is no other path (i.e. doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists). But for everyone else, if your debt is going to be larger than $20,000, my advice is to seriously debate what you’re losing before taking the plunge.
I speak from experience. I have a Masters Degree in Design and now, 20 months after graduation, the reality is there’s a financial icepick in my ear that I can feel all the time and if I move in the wrong direction, it could kill me.
That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think? How much did you borrow?
My two years of living expenses, tuition, books, and all that good stuff totaled $75,596.00. But, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to find work and start paying them back for one year. One year after graduation, my debt had ballooned to $83,754.40.
Yes, before I even made one payment, I had an extra $8,000+ to pay. To boot, I have one of the highest interest rates for student loans in the recent past of 6.8%. This rate is completely and utterly non-negotiable besides some on-time payment incentives after 36 months.
My viewpoint on the cost of higher education is not new, but relatively undiscussed and undebated. After all, it’s not exactly fashionable to diss or bemoan your education. Don’t get me wrong, none of this makes me feel good. At all. But, this discussion needs to be had.
Thomas Benton, an Associate Professor of English at Hope College, recently wrote fairly adamantly about not going to grad school for the Humanities [ part 1 | part 2 ] in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (It’s worth a read. Really. Go read it.) His general point is that grad school outside of certain fields is not only not worth it, universities are perpetuating the problem. According to Mr. Benton, what happens to many students is they end up with a staggering amount of debt, have no real future in their field (including academia), and end up unemployable because they have a graduate degree with little work experience.
I’m going to take a slightly different tack than Mr. Benton: Numbers. Raw, heartless, unsentimental, emotionless numbers. Here goes.
The first arm of the math:
I keep an Excel spreadsheet of how much money I’ve paid on my loans, including the interest and principal amounts. The skinny is that, in the past 8 months, I’ve paid my lenders $5,700.87, of which only $1419.98 went to the principal. For those keeping score, that means I’ve paid interest of $4280.89. This brings my loan from the initial starting point of $83,574.40 down to a not-so-svelte $82,154.56. To say this is disheartening is an understatement.
(In case you’re wondering, student loan balances are not fixed. Like credit cards, the loans capitalize, meaning the balance is constantly rising until I pay something. Kinda like running up a muddy hillside in the rain.)
Yeah, but people with graduate degrees tend to make more money over the course of their lives.
This is true on the surface—and certainly true for those with professional degrees. For others, not so much. These are the lifetime earning figures from the government for each degree level.
- High School Degree – $1.2 mil
- Bachelors Degree – $2.1 mil
- Masters Degree – $2.5 mil
As I have a Masters Degree, according to these numbers, I can reasonably expect to make $400,000 more over the course of my lifetime than those with a Bachelors. Sounds great, right? Not really.
If I pay back my loan on the 30-year plan they offer, my payment is about $564.00 a month. With that payment plan, my initial loan and payments will end up totaling nearly $200,000 (about $115,000 in interest over the course of the payback plan + the $83,754 starting point). Keeping in mind that my initial loan was for $75,596, this means my education’s real cost is 165% higher than my tuition and living expenses.
Immediately, I’m already down to a net lifetime earning potential of $200,000, which isn’t bad. But taken over the course of 30 years (assuming that’s my earning horizon), it’s only about $6,666 more a year. That doesn’t even include all the mess with taxes, of which only $2500 in interest is tax deductible. See the problem here? If you’ve taken on a lot of debt and find yourself underemployed or in a field that doesn’t pay much money, you’re in for a long ride with barely an end in sight.
That’s kinda crazy.
Yeah, it is.
So do you regret going to grad school?
For the experience? No. For how much I grew and learned? No. For the great people I met? No. For my long-term financial health? Yes. I’m kinda freaking out.
The second arm of the math:
My student loan’s real value? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $665,000.
Huh? How’s that?
It’s being a little cheeky, but consider: The money that I pay each month is money lost that I could be investing for 30 years. So, let’s say that instead of paying $564 a month to my student loans for 30 years, I invested it. And let’s say, for posterity’s sake, that I received a modest return equal to that of my student loan interest rate of 6.8%. If that’s the case (which 6.8% is not a hard number to hit), then that $564 dollars a month over 30 years would’ve compounded to a nice sum of $665,266.38. Don’t believe it? Try this compound interest calculator.
Mathematically, if you never went to grad school (taking away $400,000 in lifetime earnings) and add the $665,000 you made investing, you’d actually be up $265,000 overall in lifetime earnings having only a Bachelors degree. So, how ’bout that: Getting a Masters could potentially cost you a fairly significant amount of money.
But Jeff, you have the pursuit of education. The life of the mind. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s hard to put a price on that.
And you’d be right. Education is a wonderful thing. I love my education. Obtaining a grad degree is, to this point in my life, my most proud achievement. It’s certainly a nice cushion for the fall I’ve taken financially so far.
But, the real cost of a pricey education is not just the money, it’s something else: Freedom. If you wanted to take a year and go sell trinkets on the beach in Mexico, you can’t. That’s over. You won’t make enough money to pay your loans as they mount mercilessly. Or let’s say you don’t like your field after a few years and you want to try something else. What are you going to do if you need to take a steep pay cut? You’re likely stuck.
Worse, if you default on your loans, there is hardly any way out of being responsible for them. There is essentially no bankruptcy protection for student loans (a fact I didn’t know before school). And if you do default, the lenders have the right to go after your loan co-signers for the money (in my case, my parents and brother). Fun, right?
Jeff, it really feels like you’re complaining awfully hard about a choice you made and should’ve been smarter about. It’s hard to feel sorry for you.
To an extent, I am complaining, but I don’t expect sympathy. Heck, even thinking about any regret about grad school only brings me a dark sadness I can hardly deal with. But I will deal—I made my bed, I’ll sleep in it.
So what’s your point?
For some, perhaps many, it may be a better choice to find something you like to do, find a job in your chosen field, and then just work your way up. You won’t have the degree, but you won’t have the debt and you’ll make money along the way.
Then, only after you’ve exhausted every option in your working life, if you absolutely can’t get to where you want to go without earning a certain degree, then and only then should you consider taking out loans to go to school. There’s a lot to be said for going that route.
And not enough people are saying it.