Year: 2009


Retrospect | Prospect


Here we are, at an end and a beginning — as much a time of retrospection as of prospection and prediction. It is also a time to stop and take a look at the present.

I know it’s quite customary at this time of year to do recaps, years in review, forecasts, predictions, etc. Rather than list all the top news headlines of the past decade or make speculations into an uncertain future, I would like to offer some personal observations. It may be rambling and choppy, but I wanted to get these thoughts out in time for New Years.

What has happened in the past 10 years?

The opening chapter of the 21st century has been eventful to say the least: terrorism, global conflict, natural disasters, economic decline, health epidemics, and environmental degradation numbered among our biggest (ongoing) challenges. Among all the bad news items since 2000, there were the inevitable (hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis), the despicable (political and financial scandals galore), the reprehensible (terror attacks, shootings, murders), the lamentable (accidents, deaths of notable figures in history), and the seemingly insurmountable (poverty, inequity, global development issues). Of course, at the individual level there was much to struggle with, from unemployment to the high cost of living to poor quality health care. Thinking back on all of this, I’d say that this was the decade that many people didn’t just see or hear about passively, their lives largely unaffected. This was the decade and specifically the year people actually felt.

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. Science and technology blossomed: our view of the universe and the natural world expanded (Mars exploration, Large Hadron Collider), our knowledge of ourselves and our origins deepened (Human Genome Project, Ardipithecus discovery) and our capabilities to communicate stretched further (broadband, mobile computing). We grew more comfortable with the quickening pace of innovation around the internet, and in turn have allowed it to shape our lives.

What is the world we live in now?

One approach to understanding the present is to use the same “good/bad” construct, as with the past. Much of what we saw continues to this day. However, we have landed in a unique place as a result of the complexities we’re facing, and our present response as a society is a reflection of our place in history:

Social consciousness, which was largely absent or hidden from sight in the decades preceding, is emerging as a defining characteristic of the times. We are focusing more attention on solving human challenges today, locally and globally. Volunteerism and not-for-profit work are now more appealing than traditional corporate jobs, and traditional corporations are catching up to this phenomenon through corporate citizenship initiatives.

Environmental awareness has remarkably become a mainstream phenomenon, no longer the province of “60’s throwbacks.” Nations are now convening to address climate change issues, major corporations are championing green initiatives, and nearly every consumer product and manufacturing process is scrutinized through the lens of sustainability. Collectively, there is a determination to undo the mistakes of the past and instill environmentally sound practices in all areas of society.

Pro-active government is taking bold steps to work for the people, not against them. The Obama administration, in its first year, is showing tremendous resolve in tackling one of our biggest domestic challenges: health care reform. Transparency in government through open data access is another significant shift.

The personal data and smart device explosion is ever-present. Our lives are migrating to digital platforms, where more of our interactions are taking place. The lives of distant others are becoming more detailed and more colorful, as is our own, by news and social networks. Thanks to the multitude of smart gadgets at our disposal, we are always connected, always walking the fine line between our virtual and real lives (sometimes while driving!).

What visions exist for the years ahead?

In the near term, there is a strong sense of guarded optimism about what 2010 holds, particularly with regard to the economy and government. There is little to indicate when or how economic stability will be restored, as there are multiple variables at play. Obama and his administration still have much work to do; unfortunately, immediate results are difficult to realize with monumental foreign and domestic priorities on the agenda competing for attention. Hopefully the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will end soon, terrorists will be defeated, and America’s image will be restored in the eyes of a global community, but again, a clear and direct roadmap remains elusive. A “wait and see” approach seems to be the best we can afford as the year unfolds and the fog of uncertainty slowly dissolves away.

Looking long term, we are still at the start of a millennium, only 1% of the way through. There is great interest these days in the future, perhaps more noticeably this year than in the past 10 years. I wonder if this is due to a longing for a more exciting life enriched by fantastic technologies and scientific breakthroughs, aligned with the science fiction fantasies so vividly rendered in movies and television. Perhaps this is how the future is created — by envisioning potential realities just on the horizon and charting a slow, steady course in their direction. To that end, several communities, groups and organizations such as The Institute for the Future (IFTF), SpaceCollective, and Humanity+ are stirring imaginations and debate about where we may be headed.

As days blur into months and years to come, I hope that progress will continue towards solving our toughest problems, and that we all keep searching for new opportunities to advance our world and ourselves.

Happy New Year!


BONUS: My website: one year later

It has also been a year since I launched this incarnation of my personal website, and it’s been quite a learning experience in itself:

I found myself writing only a fraction as much as I thought I would. While I lean toward creating long-form original content versus repackaging or republishing existing short-form content with commentary, I think there’s room for a mixture of both, if only for the sake of variety and personal interest.

I spent more time crafting and revising my posts than I expected. Cranking out mini journal-type entries online seemed a simple concept at first, but really putting thought and effort into developing posts proved to be an exercise. Then again, I tend to be a bit fussy with language, so perhaps a punchier journalistic style would suit this medium better.

I finally “got” Twitter. It took a long time for me to even consider getting a Twitter account, and almost as long to start tweeting. Much like this site, I saw it as another experiment in online communication, but with more of a novelty appeal. I didn’t realize it’s potential until I saw it in action: it allows ideas to be spread lightning fast and to be buoyed up and amplified by a multitude of networks.

My intent with this site has always been to share a bit about myself personally and professionally, and to write about what I find interesting, peculiar, or relevant to others. I haven’t gotten much input or feedback on this site this year, and I’m sure there are many people out there like myself who don’t see the need to comment on everything they like or dislike online. Nevertheless, I would like to provide more opportunities for conversation, especially when a healthy debate or discussion might be in order.


10 Years / 10 Learnings


Back in 1999, when I began my career as a graphic designer, I really had very little idea of what I was in for. Sure, there were plenty of glimpses into the field from classes, design lectures, books, magazine articles, and conversations with professional designers, but nothing ever spelled out what it was like to be a designer. Internships, while helpful, offered only a brief taste of real design work. The only of way of truly knowing and understanding design was to dive in and do it.

Now, as 2009 draws to a close, I look back on my career with some sense of accomplishment. There is much I have yet to learn, many more challenges to overcome. So, for those who may be embarking on their own journey as designers or whose careers may already be underway, I present the following top 10 learnings in 10 years:

  1. Design is a service, above all. Contrary to popular design press, professional design work isn’t about pure self-expression or self-gratification. Nor is it about executing orders just to please a client. It’s about understanding clients’ problems and devoting serious time and effort to solving them — “creating value” for them and their customers (apologies for the cliché). Good service is the foundation upon which rewarding long-term relationships are built. Of course, recognition and praise are always welcome outcomes of the process.
  2. Design is a business, like any other. The toughest lessons to learn about design revolve around business: contracts, finances, client relations, hiring, et cetera. Regardless of your role, being knowledgeable in the business side of design helps you work smarter and handle many on-the-job challenges with the big picture in mind. In the later stages of your design career, business savvy pays off huge dividends, so it’s never too early to start learning.
  3. Clients aren’t the problem. Misunderstandings are. All too often, well-intentioned designers and clients end up at each other’s throats over easily-avoidable mistakes. Assumptions, misinterpretations, and other communication gaps can quickly grow into giant chasms as clarity and common grounding are sacrificed for expediency or “efficiency.” Communication skills are critical in all aspects of design work and life in general. As Steven R. Covey states in Habit 5 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.”
  4. Creativity is more important than craft. I like experimenting with software and cool “designy” effects as much as anyone, but I came to recognize early on that the capabilities design programs offer can actually constrain the depth and quality of solutions you develop. Proportionally speaking, getting to the core of a problem and generating solutions should occupy no less than half your time, and should involve generous amounts of investigation, exploration, sketching, rough prototyping, modeling, and experimentation. Simply put: invest in process before product.
  5. Be fast. Be good. But don’t be cheap unless it’s for a good cause. Design work should be based on an agreement that is fair to both designer and client, a “value for value” exchange. However, a designer must be careful to maintain the balance between work expended and profit received. Making accurate project estimates is critical, as is constant communication with a client over the course of a project as time and budget are spent. When deciding on nonprofit clients and/or pro bono work, weigh the benefits and potential positive outcomes against the resources you’ll need to devote to the work.
  6. Back up every design decision you make with sound reasoning. Design solutions don’t sell themselves; make sure everything from the high-level concept down to the finishing techniques you choose link together seamlessly. “Because it looks cool” or “because I like it” aren’t valid justifications for the choices you make.
  7. The devil is in the details. Whether it’s the final files you’re sending to the printer, the e-mail you’re drafting to a client at a critical point in a project, or a big design presentation to win an account, you must vigilantly mind the details. Failure to do so (especially under a tight deadline or in the late evening hours) can be costly, both financially and professionally. Leave time for revision, and try to enlist the help of a fresh pair of eyes to cover your blind spots.
  8. Maintain professionalism at all times. It may seem like a given in a field like design, but it’s astonishing how often professionalism is disregarded by designers, especially those just starting out. It spans everything from e-mails and written communication to telephone demeanor and face-to-face interactions. Professional conduct is less about being impersonal and stiff than it is about respectfulness, sincerity, and consideration in all business contexts. That means biting one’s tongue in the face of criticism, keeping a cool head under stress, and not letting conversations get too personal or casual with clients. We’re all human, but we should be mindful of the boundaries that define our role as designers.
  9. You never stop paying your dues. I still have a hard time with this one, but I’m slowly coming to terms. At every stage in one’s career, there’s always a new challenge or obstacle to overcome: long hours to be logged, tight deadlines to meet, sensitive situations to defuse, new fires to put out. Waiting for the day when you can kick your feet up and reap the rewards of your success can ultimately lead to frustration. If you’re lucky enough to achieve such rare success in design, then congratulations. The best the rest of us can do is to persevere. Sometimes the payoff comes in ways you don’t expect.
  10. Broaden your horizons outside of design. It’s a common trap to fall into: having lots of designer friends, going to design events, reading design magazines and websites, and doing mostly design-related things. A solid diet of design can quickly lead to staleness. Being a designer means participating in the world at large and pursuing diverse interests. By absorbing a range of experiences, you deepen your cultural savvy, broaden your visual vocabulary, and can carry more interesting conversations at design events.

Looking ahead, I’m not sure what the next 10 years will bring, but I’m trying to be optimistic. The economy may continue to expand and contract, markets may emerge and vanish, and the design profession itself may continue to evolve through it all, but some lessons will probably always hold true.


Time Away

White Mountains, New Hampshire, USA. Photo by Jason Ford.

Vacation season is here, and schedules are getting blocked out left and right. While some folks may be heading off to exotic places or taking lengthy excursions closer to home, I’m planning something in between: a week-long hiking and camping trip in scenic New Hampshire and Vermont with a good friend. It’s partly exotic, to me at least, because it involves sleeping outdoors in a tent, but it’s more or less within manageable driving distance from home (which in this case is about 330 miles).

So why did I choose this for my summer vacation? Here are several reasons:

  • I’ve been quite anxious to get out of this area for a while. Nothing like a few days in the mountains to “detoxify.” Besides, I can’t even remember the last time I saw a night sky filled with nothing but stars.
  • It’s too expensive to fly anywhere interesting. Better luck around Christmas time, I hope.
  • It’s too expensive to do much of anything these days. Hiking and camping are relatively inexpensive activities, yet the rewards are plenty.
  • I enjoy hiking very much and haven’t done it in years.
  • I get to spend quality time with an old friend, who happens to be a formidable outdoorsman.
  • I want to do something different, and even partly unplanned. Part of this trip we’re going to play by ear, which makes it all the more fun.

Of course, there were many other great vacation ideas I considered, but for right now, this suits me just fine. Maybe next time, if all goes well, I might do the same.


UPDATE: This comic/infographic pretty much sums up the vacation experience.


Brooklyn, Outside In


For the sheer variety and quality of stuff to see and do, you can’t beat New York. I live about an hour outside New York (by mass transit), but I’ve been working in Manhattan for the past 10 years in different locations and have spent much of my free time there since my teen years. SoHo, Greenwich Village, Flatiron, Union Square, and occasionally the Lower East Side are where I usually find myself browsing bookstores, enjoying parks, viewing art, listening to live music, among other random activities. It’s become a second home of sorts, and I feel like a permanent guest/visitor coming and going almost every day.

Some years ago, I’d begun making occasional trips further east, to the land of Brooklyn. Most of those trips were to visit friends or go see a friend’s band play — not really compelled by any personal interest in Brooklyn itself. I never knew what was really out there, beyond stereotypical images of art school students and assorted hipsters in Williamsburg, successful young professionals in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, and diverse ethnic groups in Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, and other places popularized by news, TV and movies.

I couldn’t see what was so special or particularly compelling about living there, aside from the proximity to Manhattan. Friends and co-workers would rave about the (once) affordable apartments, the sense of community, and the easy access to pretty much everything from grocery stores to parks to nightlife. While I acknowledged these things somewhat grudgingly, I couldn’t find a strong personal connection to Brooklyn (I’m not terribly connected to where I am presently). I wasn’t sure I could ever call Brooklyn my home.

Recognizing my heavily subjective bias against Brooklyn, I’ve decided to balance my knowledge with more first-hand experience. Lately, I’ve been taking more frequent trips to Brooklyn, mostly to Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, and DUMBO. I’ve even brought family visiting from outside the U.S. to visit the Brooklyn Museum (while doing a poor job of playing tour guide in semi-unfamiliar territory). There’s plenty I have yet to see and do, so I’m hoping to devote a few summer weekends to my on-going “research.”

I want to see what makes Brooklyn so special, so “perfect” for all those die-hard Brooklynites. But would I ever actually pull the trigger and move there? Is that what it takes to know for sure? We’ll see…


Escaping Flatland


I usually put more effort into coming up with titles, but this time I settled on what was nearer to hand (thanks to Edward Tufte). In a metaphorical sense, the idea of escaping flatland sums up much of what’s been on my mind lately: breaking free from the mundane “two-dimensional” aspects of daily life and experiencing the world in multiple dimensions. And by that I don’t mean the Michio Kaku sense of alternate realities, but by improving the here and now.

Flatland, to me, is marked by a largely functional existence — just getting by, day after day after day. In the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this applies to fulfilling the lowest 2 levels of needs: physiological and safety. I would venture a generalization that many people these days are worrying about and focusing more attention on these 2 levels than the other 3 (social needs, esteem needs, and self actualization needs).

From personal experience, work, finances, and other related matters have absorbed most of my attention for quite some time. The economic decline has caused quite a significant shift in priorities, leading to more frugality and thrift. Consequently, I’ve been visiting my local library more often, partly to curb my book-buying habit, but also to find a brief escape in works of fiction like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The same applies to listening to music, watching movies, and going to art exhibits — in bits and bites, they’re enjoyable, but momentary distractions nonetheless.

So how does one truly escape flatland — even in times like these?
(I’m still working on this, so bear with me.)

The first step for me was to identify the activities that are no longer taking place, or that ought to be part of everyday life but got pushed aside. What was missing for me were the things I enjoyed long before the “real world” took center stage: drawing, painting, playing music, cycling, travel, hiking, and many other pursuits that made life multi-dimensional (sorry if that sounds cheesy). They used to happen spontaneously, without too much thought or effort; several of those activities were once a regular part of my day. Now, many years later, I realize how important they were and seek to bring them back. While travel may have to wait a while because of cost, I’m looking into doing more art-making as well as more light hiking in nearby parks. If I can re-work my schedule to balance out all the pieces, I think it might work.


A Second Look


About a year ago, I attended an AIGA panel discussion spotlighting designers who create and work with data displays (I could call them information designers, but that wouldn’t be entirely true). Information design typically gets short shrift in the design community — a tip of the hat at best in annual competitions — so I was quite surprised and encouraged by this event. I was even more surprised to find the venue completely packed.

Part of the answer had to do with who was on stage. John Maeda, the moderator, had attracted plenty of attention at the time with his appointment as head of RISD. He could fill a room on name recognition alone. Two of the panelists were what I’d call hard-core data visualization experts: Steve Duenes of the New York Times Graphics Desk and Fernanda Viegas of Many Eyes. However, the third panelist, Andrew Kuo, seemed to me a bit out of place in this context. He is an artist who visualizes his thoughts and feelings in the form of multi-colored charts and graphs, some of which have been published in the New York Times. While Steve and Fernanda come from the world of objective and accurate representation of facts and quantities, Andrew’s work conversely deals in the subjective and somewhat murky expression of personal emotions. For me this was a jarring combination, as I was looking forward to a serious exchange on professionally relevant issues. The gap between Steve / Fernanda and Andrew was bridged rather poorly, if only by Maeda’s repeated quips to lighten the conversational load and keep the audience entertained. I ended up leaving the event feeling disappointed and, I hate to admit, even less fond of Andrew’s work.

Fast forward to yesterday. I’m walking down 12th Street toward 3rd Avenue when, out of the blue, my eye catches a pie chart hanging on a wall inside a gallery. I take a closer look and immediately recognize the style as Andrew Kuo’s. The execution was unexpected: acrylic paint and carbon transfer lettering on paper, instead of digital output of an Adobe Illustrator graphic. Other works including intricate cut paper pieces, figurative and abstract paintings, and sculptural data displays were interspersed throughout the space.

Overall, seeing the exhibit gave Andrew’s work new meaning for me. While I was initially turned off by the apparent inanity of his charts and graphs, I realized that there was more to it than some attempt at pseudo info design. He’s using that language to tell a story and to try to make sense of everything floating around in his mind. Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s sad, but it’s all honest. And as I thought about my own work, I couldn’t bring myself to draw comparisons or make judgements one way or the other. This type of work is simply different by nature of what it is, not measurable by any presumed info design standards.

So I encourage everyone out there to go check out the exhibit if you’re in the NYC area. It runs through May 16 at Taxter & Spengemann, and it’s called “I’m Dyin Over Here!”