Buenos Aires

Saying goodbye to South America

Three months in South America turned into five months, and I was still sad when it came time to come home. Somewhere in the JFK airport, exhausted from my eleven-hour flight and an hour and a half of standing in line, waiting for US customs to harass me for flying through a country I had no time to step outside in, I started to get horribly depressed. It was cold and grey. Everyone around me was speaking English again. Everything looked so familiar, too perfect and sterile.

Luckily, by the time I got to Halifax (and another long wait at customs while they inspected every single item in my giant suitcases), I returned to the most enthusiastic homecoming, otherwise I might well have turned around and gone back home.

When both the destination and the origin are “home”

The concept of home has always been strange for me. When I moved to Canada as a little kid, I felt always felt weird singing the national anthem, which my teachers insisted I do loudly and proudly. This cold foreign country wasn’t my “home and native land”, it was just the place I happened to be at the time. Years later, I do consider parts of Canada home, but it still feels like an adopted home—somewhere I’ve spent most of my life, but I never entirely feel like I fit. For this reason, I think, it’s easy for me to adopt new places that feel like home. After the time I spent there, Buenos Aires also feels like home.

Buenos Aires

Photos like this make me homesick.

Traveling long-term is so different from traveling short-term. When I spent five weeks circling through central Europe, I changed and grew so quickly, but no place ever felt like home, as I was constantly in transit. In Argentina, where I eventually settled into something resembling a routine, change was so subtle that I’ve only now started to notice it.

Be stronger. Less scared.

Given how much of last year I spent hanging out in the hospital with broken wrists, it’s not surprising that I ended up a little on the paranoid side. I felt weak and breakable. When I first got to Argentina, I’d been out of my second cast for nine days. I couldn’t do a single pushup or open a bottle of wine. Worse still, I was so aware of my own vincibility that certain things scared me that never used to—riding downhill on a bicycle, slipping down a stair.

I picked up an exercise habit in Argentina (probably the first time I’ve picked up a good habit!) and it changed me so fundamentally that I’m insistent on carrying the change over. Yoga, especially, turned out to be pretty miraculous for my poor wrists. I’m slowly getting stronger, and I can do all sorts of things I couldn’t before—pushups, yes, but I can also balance on my hands for short periods of time, hold myself up in a bridge, and open a bottle of wine with nothing but the most primitive of corkscrews.

I had a few moments in South America that utterly terrified me. There was that incident in the Amazon rainforest where I cut off my fingertip with a machete. Driving in cabs, and oftentimes just crossing the streets in Buenos Aires, where the bus drivers stop for nothing, held some surprisingly frightful moments. I drove around some pretty insane roads winding around the cliffs of Chile’s coast, in some cases nearly running into other vehicles when there was only room for one. The final, and most innocuous moment was the smallest—running down the stairs in my building, my foot slipped. I caught myself, but for a brief moment, my mind was paralyzed with fear (the second time I broke my wrist was due to a slip on a single stair). I just kept thinking how much people would laugh if I came home in yet another cast.

But I survived everything. When a friend took me out for a scooter ride upon my return, I realized something—I wasn’t scared anymore. We’d gone for a ride the night before I left as well, and I remember closing my eyes on some of the turns, holding on for dear life, my logical brain certain I’d be fine, but my heart still in my mouth. After five months of traveling through South America, I’m finally feeling stronger.

Work less. Worry less.

North Americans are workaholics. We have less holiday time than pretty much everyone else on the planet. Oftentimes, being a workaholic is considered a badge of honour. Small business people, especially, are prone to a form of boasting/complaining about working sixteen hour days as though it’s proof of their fortitude and commitment.

I used to be one of these people, but I’ve been slowly coming out of it. It’s surprising how much of life you can miss out on when all you do is work, and how easily you get burned out. I’m not entirely sure how I managed the first few years of my business.

The nice thing about traveling is that I simply couldn’t allow myself to be that much of a crazy workaholic, or I’d never have an opportunity to see anything at all. (Admittedly, I did spend way too much time working in Chile, but that was mostly because I was on a roll with a project.) I actually took days off. Some days I wouldn’t work a full eight hours.

Argentina was a great influence in this respect, because… well, I’m not sure how to put it delicately. They aren’t workaholics, let’s say. There were public holidays every other day, and some days when it wasn’t a holiday, everyone would just take to the streets for a good political protest. I got the impression that while a great many of the participants were truly involved in the affair—lighting off gunpowder and cheering and such—a large percentage would be hanging about, lazily chatting with one another. This attitude pervades throughout much of the city—service in bars and restaurants tends to be notoriously slow, and there’s a general sort of unhurried pace. This gets infuriating when you’re waiting in line for hours, but it did help me learn a bit of patience.


Me, leaning out over one of the balconies in my apartment in Buenos Aires. I spent a lot of time in this spot, watching the street below.

…what next?

This whole slow-traveling of the world thing is something I’ve wanted to do for at least a couple of years now, and my time in Argentina was a litmus test. It didn’t turn out perfectly—I didn’t travel nearly as much as I’d wanted to, and I ran into all kinds of electronics-related issues that made things quite difficult. But I had such an amazing time there. I camped on the beach by the cliffs along Chile’s northern coast. I drove all the way around the coast of Uruguay and nearly ran over an armadillo. I crossed the Andes in a giant double-decker bus. I kayaked for three hours through the rivers of a sprawling delta. I learned how to set up a minimalistic camp in the middle of the Amazon jungle. I learned how to make jokes in Spanish that people would laugh at. I wandered through beautiful cities old and new, I explored, and I saw so many things I thought my head might explode. I fell in love with a chaotic city that I hated at first, and I even made new friends. At times, it was frustrating, infuriating, and I just wanted to go home. But I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

I’m already plotting my next adventure.

Actrees Website Before & After

6 tips to get the most out of your website redesign

So, you’ve decided it’s time for a redesign. All the signs are there, and you’re ready to take the plunge. But where do you start? I’ve seen too many people launch into a website redesign without serious consideration first, and unfortunately this can often mean that they’re not getting everything they should be from their redesign. A redesign is an investment on your part—both in time and money—and can be a great opportunity to turn your business around.

1. Get strategic.

Before doing anything else, you need to sit down and figure out what you want out of your website. The more clearly defined your goals are, the easier it will be for your designer, your copywriter, and you to direct the project in order to meet these goals. “I want to promote my company” isn’t a clearly defined goal! You should be thinking instead about who your audience is and what you want them to take away from the website. Do you want them to interact with it? Buy products? Send you a quote request? Come back every week to read your blog? Consider how you want them to react, feel, and interact with your website, and you’ll be closer to having clearly-defined goals.

If you’re having difficulty defining these goals, it may be helpful to work with a strategic consultant, who’ll bring an outside perspective to the project. Anyone outside of your business will see it in a very different light than you do, which will help you to get a better grasp of what your users are thinking.

2. Evaluate what works—and what doesn’t—in your current website

This is the time to be brutally honest. If your CEO designed your website five years ago, you shouldn’t be afraid to tell him it stinks—if I designed your website five years ago, feel free to tell me it stinks! I won’t be offended, it’s probably true. Five years is more like thirty in internet years, and most businesses—and people—will have changed considerably in that span of time. Once you’ve realized it’s time for change, you need to be frank in your assessment of what’s in place now.

Look at design, SEO, content, and ease-of-use (both for you in updating the site, and for your customers in using the site). Ask anyone who’ll tell you what they think. Spend a few hours poring over your Analytics to see how users are interacting with the site. Better still, drag someone in from off the street, sit him down with your site, and hover over his shoulder while he looks through it. You’ll most likely infuriate him, but it’s incredibly useful to actually watch how someone parses your site, and you’ll get an idea of what gets read—and what gets ignored—as well as any elements of the site that are currently causing confusion.

Actrees Website Before & After

The Alliance for Community Trees website, before and after. The logo was retained, and we used the same basic colour scheme. The end result was that returning users didn't feel as though they'd landed on some other site accidentally, and they welcomed the change.

3. While you’re at it, seriously consider your branding.

If you’re redesigning your website anyway, it may be a great time to consider redesigning your logo and branding as well. A gorgeous, well-thought-out redesign is going to have limited impact if your logo sucks. When redesigning, you often don’t necessarily want to rebuild everything from the ground up—you’re best off taking what’s there and subtly changing it to make it better. A great way to do this is to change the structure and graphic elements, but retain the same (or similar) colour scheme and typography. This way, it won’t be so jarring to return visitors as it would be if you were to rebuild everything from scratch. Basically, the more established your business is, the more established your branding will (or at least should!) be in your customers’ eyes. This means you’ll need to make more subtle changes to avoid alienating your clientele.  Realign, don’t redesign.

DVD Edge before and after

The DVD Edge website, however, had a less established brand and a less strong logo, so we were able to play with the logo a bit. Keeping the overall image means that it's still not such a dramatic change, but redrawing it to be a little cleaner and more modern made it stronger.

4. Consider a CMS.

I feel like I extoll the virtues of WordPress a lot, but it’s seriously fantastic. If you’re already revamping your website, and you’d like a way to manage your content more easily, I’d recommend getting the whole thing built in WordPress (or another CMS that suits your needs). While you’re at it, you can also add a blog to the site, which is great for bringing in traffic, boosting search engine results, building valuable content, and increasing conversation with your users. Static websites are out. Websites you can update easily and quickly the moment someone sends you a glowing testimonial are in.

5. Work on your content first.

I’m willing to bet that your content could be better. If you can’t write it yourself, hire someone. Great content is every bit as important as great design, and if you’ve already got great content plotted out, a great designer will be able to work with it in order to make the whole thing come together nicely.

Fernwood Before and After

Fernwood Publishing went for a complete overhaul and a custom-build CMS, while they were at it. The end result is a sleek, easy-to-use website that allows them to manage their large inventory of titles.

Consider the voice of your website—too many sites read like brochure copy written ten years ago by someone with an MBA. If your audience is other people with MBAs, that’s fine, but chances are, your audience is just put off by buzzwords. If you speak to them in an honest and friendly way, you’ll find your audience is much more receptive, engaged, and more likely to hand over their money to you.

6. Hire great people, and let them do their jobs.

Who you hire for the project is up to you, but I recommend at least a designer—obviously! A copywriter and a strategic consultant, as mentioned earlier, will also be a great help. When you’re looking to hire someone, you obviously want to be sure they’ve got a great website already. Unfortunately, while many people in the website-making industry suffer from pretty severe cases of “carpenter’s house”, their websites are the best way for you to determine their abilities. Past projects, of course, are also quite telling, as are client testimonials. Once you’ve found someone that seems like they may be good, send them a few emails. Ask questions. Make sure that they respond within a reasonable timeframe, answer your questions to your satisfaction, and know what they’re talking about.

Then, hire these great people. Send them your strategic plans, your content, everything you’ve already worked on—and let them build you something great. Design is very much a collaborative process, and a good designer should lead you through the process, keeping your goals in mind at all times, making suggestions for improvements. Remember you hired these people for a reason, and you should be able to trust their professional guidance! If you allow the process to play out like a partnership, rather than a dictatorship, you’ll find yourself with a much stronger end result.

And I recommend that you hire Triggers & Sparks.