The “Busy” Trap

September 24, 2014

busy-trap

I used to think being busy was a good thing, a necessary thing. “Busy” meant your mind was occupied, gears turning, neurons firing, things getting done. A mind at work was a healthy mind, an efficient mind that saw no challenge too great, no work pile too daunting. As I’ve cycled through different phases of “busy” in my still evolving career, I’ve come to realize what a Faustean bargain working hard and overachieving really is. Lots of work may mean more billable hours, flow-like waves of productive output, and seemingly blissful distraction from other less desirable aspects of life, like loneliness or an unpleasant home environment. But the real detriment of overwork, aside from the stress and nasty health problems, is the emptiness it creates — the lack of intellectual stimulation, the creative deprivation, and the psychological alienation. At its worst, work becomes meaning when meaning cannot be salvaged from anywhere else.

This is starting to sound melodramatic, I know. The reality is that life gives us chances (or we create the chances) to stop and reflect. Sometimes a sudden event like an illness or job loss jolts our routine and challenges us to either lament the setback and curse our misfortune or seize the opportunity to re-evaluate our lives. At other times, like the gaps between big projects or right after major deadlines, we can take a deep breath, look back on how we handled ourselves in the midst of our daily grind, and think deeply about what kind of person we became in the process:

  • When and why did values flip in favor doing that “one more thing” and staying later than planned?
  • How many recreational events and activities had to be passed up for work? Did it become a pattern?
  • How many personal relationships were affected by late night or weekend work?
  • Were mornings greeted with joy or dread?
  • Did the outcome measure up to the sacrifices?

Sadly, I can picture a reverse-Feltron annual report of my former work-life experience: bars not visited, bands not heard, number of locations in NYC not visited, restaurants not frequented, etc. The real data would be considerably less appealing: hours waiting on bus/train platforms after midnight, number of mistakes noticed the next morning (after sending off “final” files), most eaten meal substitute for dinner, etc.

Everybody’s situation and experiences are different, so I won’t rattle off advice like I’m a fully rehabilitated workaholic who’s figured it all out (which I’m not, and I haven’t). I work for myself, which comes with its own demands as well as an even greater need for discipline and boundaries. I occasionally find myself walking into the same old traps, but slowly my foresight is improving. I’m getting better at framing projects with more reasonable expectations and timeframes, yet without compromising the quality of the end result or my quality of life. Most importantly, I’m actively trying to instill better patterns, like a clear start and end to the work day, unplugged weekends, more frequent visits with family and friends, and some completely unproductive — but immensely gratifying — daydreaming.


Putting Visual Thinking to Work

October 16, 2012

Much like other crossover sensations from the creative world such as design thinking and information design, the visual thinking phenomenon has sustained interest for some time now. From the most staid corporate institutions to the most enlightened young startups, visual thinking techniques are being sought after as part of a new business toolkit in the quest to create “cultures of innovation.” Post-its, whiteboards, and flipcharts are infiltrating once stodgy conference rooms and work spaces. Unbridled creativity — not industrial-era efficiency — is the key to better products, smarter services, and increased profit.

But behind the glowing promise of the vizthink movement, a challenge persists for many in the business world: how best to harness the power of visual thinking to achieve real results?

There are already countless answers to that question tied to specific practices. Some would argue that free-form “doodling” (now scientifically proven to aid attention and memory) is integral to more engaging meetings because it ensures participants are actively tracking along with the conversation. Others might champion visual facilitation methods such as graphic recording, the mural-style translation of words to pictures, as the key to making strategy sessions memorable. There’s also the smorgasbord of activities known as gamestorming, meant to enrich collaboration by incorporating elements of play into the workplace. But for the beginner unsure of where to get the most value out of visual thinking, the variety of options can be difficult to navigate, and the time and energy it takes to reach a conclusion on one’s own can be daunting.

A number of guiding lights provide practical instruction and systems for learning core visual thinking principles, yet there is still room to close the gap between the vision of vizthink and everyday workplace realities.

Thinking First, Visuals Second

It’s easy to think that beautifully penned sketchnotes or delightfully illustrated graphic recordings are the hallmark of good visual thinking: they demonstrate great technical skill and creativity, and they certainly appeal to the eye. In reality, they might only succeed at just the visual part while providing little insight or fuel for the thinking part. Quite often, the artistic production of these visual artifacts takes precedence over the process that they support and the outcomes they are meant to deliver. To be blunt, if a visual fails to convey an idea clearly, enhance understanding (for oneself and for a group), inform decisions, or drive toward a goal, then it benefits no one. Visual thinking is more than just drawing for the sake of drawing, capturing something for posterity, or aiding memory. It boosts our capacity to process information and create new knowledge by enabling specific cognitive tasks. In a business context, visual thinking facilitates knowledge work in teams by dissolving communication barriers and allowing many different minds to work together towards a common goal. It is the glue of human collaboration.

Different Modes for Different Goals

At a fundamental level, visual thinking operates in three modes, with corresponding tools and techniques:

GENERATING

Visual thinking is generative — that is, it relies on the output of ideas and content in tangible, visual form. It may sound simplistic, but without the externalization of thought in some representational form — text, drawing, symbol, etc. — visual thinking cannot happen past the mind’s eye.

Doodling is the most common generative activity since it channels stream of consciousness thoughts in an unstructured form. The lack of inhibition and freedom to put pen to paper that doodling affords, rather than the quality of visual output, is perhaps of greatest value when solving problems. Related activities such as graphic recording and sketch-noting are also generative in that they convert spoken and written thoughts into pictures, with the intent of making key ideas resonate in memory. Mind mapping and visual brainstorming also fit in this category since they allow many ideas to be generated rapidly.

ANALYZING

Visual thinking can also be analytic. It breaks down raw content to uncover patterns and define relationships. Tied to the generative function, analysis cannot occur without something to analyze, such as meeting notes, PowerPoint decks, and other documents.

Analysis seeks to create order and includes non-drawing-based methods that take advantage of spatial relationships. Pinning up, clustering, and color-coding materials are classic ways to organize content into categories for analysis. Visual frameworks such as axis plots, charts, and graphs help capture and distill the findings of analysis into a usable form.

SYNTHESIZING

Finally, visual thinking can be synthetic by combining previously disparate or disconnected ideas to create newer and clearer ones. Synthesis typically feeds off of the findings of an analysis and produces tighter pictures of a situation than previously known.

Synthesis can take the form of diagrams, concept sketches, and visual stories, among other methods. Multiple iterations strengthen synthesis: trial and error with different formats, configurations, and graphic approaches ensures that all essential elements of an explanation work together to communicate effectively.

All three modes of visual thinking are essential to problem solving, but I find that the real power of visual thinking lies in the second and third modes. This is where the thinking side of the equation really shines — where “aha” moments happen.

Finding the Right Mode for the Job

With a basic understanding of visual thinking’s distinct but related functions, it’s easier to diagnose common work situations and take action. Here are six common scenarios and some possible approaches:

Do you need to get a quick grip on a situation?

GENERATE: Draw a very simple picture of what you know and don’t know — who’s involved, what their roles are, where the situation is happening, etc. Add to the picture as you learn more, even if the picture gets messy. You can take a more considered approach once you know what you’re dealing with.

Do you need to dig deeper and learn more?

GENERATE: Ask probing questions to capture as much information as possible verbally, using visual frameworks as needed when words get cumbersome (eg, organizational structures, process flows, etc). Just stick to generating facts without making assumptions or drawing conclusions.

Do you need to sort through research or extract the most essential information from a pile of documents?

ANALYZE: Read through the content in several passes until you see a pattern emerge. Pin up, number, color, stack, label — use whatever means necessary to clearly distinguish one category from another. Track your findings along the way to synthesize later.

Do you need to put all the facts together and see the big picture?

SYNTHESIZE: Explore multiple different ways to put together the key findings from your analysis until the story or message comes through clearly. Aim for balance and visual harmony rather than superfluous detail to refine the picture.

Do you need to come up with ideas for something?

GENERATE: Try visual brainstorming. Take a stack of index cards (or post-its) and draw one idea per card, using only enough visual detail to get the idea across quickly. Go for quantity and pin them up or arrange on a table for analysis only when you’ve exhausted all possibilities.

Do you need to explain a concept to colleagues?

SYNTHESIZE: Sketch out the three to five important points you want to highlight in your story, then draw and redraw until your pictures are both complete and easy for your audience to understand. Rather than jump to PowerPoint, consider presenting in storyboard format or in a sequence of flipchart drawings. This format saves time and invites additional comments and feedback.

There are many more techniques (and entire systems) available to accomplish the above tasks depending on the situation, time/location constraints, and whether you are working solo or in a group. As a general rule, I find that simpler is always better when it comes to doing visual thinking in a business setting. Setup should be easy, tools and materials should be readily available, and visual methods should maximize inclusion and understanding — always keep everyone engaged and the process flowing. With experience, one comes to realize that almost any challenge can be made manageable with a keen situational awareness, a few workhorse pictographs and frameworks, and a bare-bones toolkit.

 

Technical note: I’ve started using Bamboo Paper on my iPad more frequently these days. It’s tremendously helpful in creating natural-looking drawings and outputting them digitally. The visuals in this post and the last were created with this method.


10 Years / 10 Learnings

November 8, 2009

10learnings

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.


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