I love design, but I also hate design.

The unbearable lightness of designing

Most of the time, I love my job. I love being able to create something out of nothing. I love helping my clients figure out what it is they need, and how to give it to them. I love making things look beautiful. I love that I can listen to aggressive music and drink wine while I work. I love that I get to use both the left and the right sides of my brain in equal measures. I love making gorgeous things that people use and love, and I adore that feeling that I’m producing something tangible.

But sometimes, it’s so wildly frustrating that I want to throw my computer out the window.

When I was sixteen, I went through a phase of experimentation with religions, trying different ones on the way you’d try on a pair of shoes. Buddhism appealed to me quite a bit, and, while I ended up discarding it eventually, the concept of dukkha stuck with me. Put succinctly, dukkha is the idea that, once we achieve a goal, we are left unsatisfied—wanting more. In effect, this means that it’s impossible to be satisfied with an accomplishment, because each one leads to a redoubled yearning.

I don’t necessarily think this a bad thing. In fact, part of the issues I have with Eastern philosophies is that I feel they reject part of what it means to be human: that constant striving. Sure, it creates suffering and unhappiness, but I believe that’s an inherent part of being alive. We are constantly fighting: against entropy, against death, against our own limitations and restrictions, against ourselves and against others. It’s this striving that makes humanity learn new things and create great things. Enlightenment might be nice, but it’s analogous to death in my mind.

Even though I think it’s normal, positive, and healthy, I still struggle with dukkha on a regular basis. And being a designer—well, being a designer really brings that out in me. Every time I finish something I’m happy with, I get this brief, momentary feeling of elation. And then, almost as quickly as it appeared, it falls. I see something else that’s better. I realize it’s not quite perfect. And then that happy, satisfied feeling dissipates, and I’m left wishing I’d done better. Frustrated that I failed to achieve some impossible standard.

Sometimes, I think this is because I spend too much time poring over the details of a project. It’s very rare that I don’t hate a piece of work by the time it’s finished, simply because I’ve spent so much time staring at it and adjusting it, pixel by pixel. This problem is then compounded by those projects that drag on forever due to causes beyond my own control. I’ve been working on a fairly extensive and involved website design for the past year and a half: at this point, I’ve been staring at it for so long I just can’t tell if I like it anymore.

I think it’s very difficult to love something you worked on two years ago, simply because design tends to be a temporal thing, and often can become dated, especially when you’re working in web design. Some of the work I actually end up liking again (once I’ve ignored it for a while) is the work that’s timeless, but I’ll admit there is a great deal of it that doesn’t stand up to the passage of time. And when you’re a web designer, time is particularly important.

Wicker Emporium blog
This is part of the Wicker Emporium’s greater redesign, and the only part that’s live as of yet. The original CSS code was written a year ago. By the time we launch, I’ll have basically ripped the whole thing up and rewritten it, just to meet my own quality standards.

I’ve always said that a year in internet time is like ten years of normal time, and I still maintain that’s true. Thing is, web design changes so quickly. I was thinking the other day about the ageism in web design when I met an older fellow who I thought was—let’s be frank—just terrible. I finally realized it’s not that being older makes you a worse, or less relevant, designer—and in fact there are a great many fantastic designers who are over forty, and god knows I’m not getting any younger—but in order to stay relevant, you need to stay on top of the ever-changing trends and technologies of the web. Sometimes it feels almost as though, just to stay on top of everything, I need to spend half of my time reading and learning new things.

Admittedly, this is something I love about design anyway, but I do always feel as though I’m out of time. Just on the creative side of things, I’ve taught myself a great number of things—I’ve dabbled in letterpress and screenprinting, both of which I intended to get more involved with but ended up dropping for logistical reasons. I taught myself calligraphy and still have best intentions to get really deeply into lettering. I very nearly signed up for a typography workshop in Boston, then decided it was too extravagant an idea. And then there’s all the technical stuff you need to learn. Responsive design. Retina images. How to prevent my WordPress site from being hacked this week. The latest developments in bizarre CSS selectors and how they work across six different browsers. Best coding practises. Using a CDN to make sure that my site runs crazy-fast, even if it’s hosted on GoDaddy. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ll just never be good, smart, or fast enough. When do I have time for a life outside this?

The problem is that there will always be a million people who are better than me. I’m not so much an egoist to believe that this wouldn’t be the case regardless of which particular career path I’d chosen. But with design—and especially with web design—I can see everyone who’s better than me. If I were a doctor, at least I’d only be competing against the other fifty doctors in the hospital. But as a designer, I’m completing against an entire world full of designers, lots of whom are way, way better than I’ll ever be. And if I’m feeling frustrated and angry and like my work will never be good enough and I should just pack it all in and move to Costa Rica to become a banana farmer—a phenomenon that usually occurs about once a week—the only way to avoid seeing work that’s better than mine is to unplug my internet and hide in bed. That’s not really a sane option.

Book cover mockups
Book cover mockups I’ve been working on this week. I was really happy with them at some point in the process, but I can’t tell anymore if they’re any good.

Ultimately, I think that, in order to be a designer, you need to have this feeling of dukkha. Striving for more is what keeps us constantly learning, changing, and developing. To be a good designer, you need this bizarre mix of humility and self-confidence, just to keep from going completely insane. Most of us are strong enough to withstand the pressure of an art-school critique, something that’s hard enough on its own. But once you’re out in the real world, you need to be your own critic—pulling apart and attacking something you created, something you poured your heart into.

So maybe the trick to being a good designer is embracing the existentialist angst behind it all. Realizing that no matter what you do, you’ll always be frustrated. But that it’s that willingness to throw yourself to your own inner critic, to face your own demons, and to suffer through endless self-doubt—it’s all that that will make you a good designer.

And ultimately, maybe all that turmoil and suffering will make me a better person, as well.

Elephant crossing!

My night in a Thai jail, and other sordid tales of despair

When I wrote about losing my mind in Cambodia, I wasn’t kidding. I really did start to feel as though I was losing my grip on sanity. I’d love to tell you I’ve beat it and everything is hunky-dory, but that hasn’t been the case. Some days over the last month, I’ve felt great. Most days, though, I’ve been breaking down into panic attacks at least once a day. I’ve been working essentially from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep. I know it isn’t healthy, but I’ve been stressed about money—especially with my upcoming jaunt to Europe coinciding with that delightful time at which the taxman cometh—which means I’ve been taking on everything I can and trying as much as possible to get work out the door.

Working that obsessively for such a long period has only increased my stress levels. I wasn’t sleeping much either, so I went to a doctor in Thailand. He watched me as I wrung my wrists and rambled manically about all sorts of things, then prescribed me a whole slew of sedatives. I was hoping that would help me relax.

It did not.

The first night I was on these sedatives, I met a friend for drinks. Now, I’ve made some fairly wretched decisions in my life, and I’m certain I’ll make more. This was, undoubtedly, one of the absolute worst.

I remember a good portion of the evening. Then it starts getting hazy. Then it turns completely black until I’m somewhere, alone, shoeless, being picked up by the Thai police. I remember getting into their car only because I was convinced they had my purse, and they said they’d return it to me if I came with them.

Whether it was the Thai police or someone else who stole my purse, I’ll never know. My stint in the police station mostly consisted of me alternately breaking down into panicked tears or yelling at the police about my purse. Not surprisingly, neither of these tactics helped matters. At one point, I started rifling through the station, opening drawers and cabinets in the desperate hope of finding my bag. I didn’t, of course, but I did find a machete, which I carried around pretty purposefully for a bit before realizing I’d be in far, far more trouble if I threatened a cop with a machete.

Eventually, after my head started to clear, I started asking the police, quite aggressively, if they were planning on charging me with anything. They started being nicer to me. Somewhere along the line, I signed something written only in Thai. I’m so terrified of what it was, and honestly, I think this was the stupidest of my many stupid mistakes that night. With a clear head, I would never have signed something I couldn’t read. I’ve seen Brokedown Palace. I know how these things work.

But in a terrified, drugged haze, I signed.

And then I left, shoeless and lost. I was missing my Canadian passport, my money, my phone, and my cigarette-case. I wasn’t sure I’d make it home. According to the computer I snuck on in the police station, I was three hours’ walk from home. I debated the morality of the issue, then found the nearest subway station and jumped the stiles. I was so destroyed, I actually passed out on the floor of the train on my way home.

It was a nightmare.

Dragon temple in Kanchanaburi
Not the dragon that bit me, but he seemed about the size of it. He was part of a temple complex half in ruins outside Kanchanaburi, and he was at least thirty feet tall.

But landing myself in a Thai jail wasn’t even the worst thing I’d endured those last few weeks. I seem to be attracting trouble. First, there was the friendly gentleman who accosted me outside my house, grabbing his crotch and shoving it in my face until I shut the door on his. Then there was a man I met at a pub, who seemed perfectly pleasant until he attempted to forcibly have sex with me in an elevator. A muscled boy I danced with in a Khao San Road club pushed things too far. And I’m fairly certain I was attacked the night I ended up in the police station.

Overall, I’m not impressed with the men of Southeast Asia.

And then I had to deal with the Stolen Passport Problem. Of course it was a bigger problem than it needed to be, primarily because I’d last entered Thailand on my Canadian, rather than my British, passport, and thus I lacked the entry stamp required to exit the country. Fixing the Problem involved three separate trips to the Canadian embassy, a visit to a different Thai police station that nearly gave me PSTD flashbacks, and a trip to the Thai immigration bureau—a place that makes the DMV seem timely and organized. All this while balancing a complex array of impending travel plans, and soon-to-expire visas. Oh, and of course, I still had that giant pile of work that originally got me so stressed out to begin with.

The last few weeks have been such chaos, I can’t actually piece together in which order various events occurred. My sense of time is completely mangled. I can actually physically feel my stress levels spike.

So I did what any sane person would: I ran away from Bangkok. I didn’t even take my laptop with me. For twenty-six hours, I was actually incapable of working. In effect, I forced myself into holiday mode. For me, this meant swimming, sleeping like a human, then renting a motorbike and riding it around Kanchanaburi province.

Elephant crossing!
Hopefully I would have noticed if an elephant had been crossing. Otherwise, between me, the bike, and the elephant, I’m quite certain the elephant would have won.

I’m now in Malaysia for my last government-mandated visa run before I leave Thailand. My hosts here keep telling me to stop being such a workaholic, so clearly I haven’t entirely mended my ways. But I’ve been getting better, slowly, and I’ve stopped working quite so much. My stress levels feel as though they’re dropping, although I won’t be able to tell for certain until I’m back “home.” I’ve at least learned I can’t sustain working like a maniac every waking hour. For at least an hour every day, I’m stepping away from The Machine. It’s progress.

Something about that motorbike ride flicked a switch in my brain. When I started out, I was so terrified that I was visibly shaking. Mostly, I was worried that I’d make a mistake and break something—or myself—and have no way to cover the costs. Thailand happens to have one of the world’s highest motorbike-mortality rates: probably because they all drive like coked-out hyenas. And of course, I never have travel or health insurance. I consider them to be a form of gambling, which is the one vice I’ve never taken to. I was worried that I’d make another bad decision and end up in the hospital with no way to pay my bills and no way home.

But an hour or so into the ride, I realized something: I was doing alright! I started to relax for the first time in weeks, if not months. I started to enjoy myself. I smiled. I started to pay attention to the wind in my hair and the leaves on the trees, rather than focusing on where I was going. And when I pulled the bike back into the rental lot, the adrenaline surged, all my endorphins went crazy, and I was on the most massive high I’ve felt in some time.

I’d done it. One of the things that initially brought me to Thailand was the allure of renting a cheap bike and driving it about. Then my plans changed and I honestly thought it wouldn’t happen. But I did it! I drove a motorbike around Thailand, and I didn’t screw up once. I came out alive and unscathed, and totally thrilled by the whole experience.

Fiona, a Honda Click.
Fiona, my second motorcycle-love. Or maybe my third. I’ve got a lot of love to give, and I’m not stingy. I’ll always remember her fondly for my initial inability to get her started, and how ferocious she made me feel once I got a feel for her.

Thailand may have tried to take a bite out of me, and it sure as hell has given me some battle scars.

But ultimately, I came out the winner.

Siem Reap

Lost and displaced like never before: a farang in Asia

I’ve been in Asia a little over a month now, and something strange has been happening. Something I’ve never experienced before. Something I never expected. Something I just don’t know how to handle.

I’m homesick.

I have never, ever, been homesick before. Maybe that sounds strange coming from someone who travels so much, for such long periods of time, or in such a weird way, but I think I’m suited to being a vagabond. I feel more grounded when I’m constantly moving and my environment is always changing. I miss the people I love, and it’s often heart-wrenching to say goodbyes, but there’s a part of me that really enjoys being a temporary presence in people’s lives. (My abandonment complex may also take pleasure in leaving others behind, rather than them leaving me, as a defense mechanism, but that’s between Freud and my brain, so let’s just ignore it.)

Admittedly, Asia is different from anything I’ve ever seen or experienced before. Europe, Mexico, and South America, while culturally quite different from what I know, are still infinitely more familiar than Asia is. The difference between Occident and Orient is far larger than I ever would have anticipated. I feel, to a certain degree, “at home” in European-derived cultures, given that my upbringing was mostly British in nature and Canadian in environment. The west, barring the small differences, isn’t really all that different, once you get right down to it.

Shanghai
This was my first view of Asia that wasn’t from an airport—from a hotel room in Shanghai, which I booked because I was exhausted after spending twelve hours on various forms of transit between Ensenada to LA for my sixteen-hour flight. I lay down at 10pm to “close my eyes for a second” and woke up at 2am.

Asia, on the other hand, is a totally different world. As much as I’m always drawn to places that are far from what I’m accustomed to, the places I’ve visited and lived, up to now, aren’t all that fundamentally different from North-North America. If nothing else, at least in the western world, I can understand the script, if not so much the languages—with the minor exception of places like Serbia/Bosnia. Here, I’ve got no footing at all. The languages I’ve come across thus far tend to be tonal, and use sentence structure that’s bizarre to me. The scripts, much as I’ve tried to learn them, pretty much make my mind implode entirely. (I think I can recognize about six characters in Thai now. If I’m lucky.)

As much as I try to keep an open mind, I’m just not sure I like Asian culture. Certain aspects I think are charming: the barefootedness, the tendency to eat on the streets, the constant use of motorbikes everywhere. But then there’s the abject poverty and lack of infrastructure (Cambodia is the poorest country I’ve ever visited, and it’s a little heartbreaking), the subtle misogyny underscoring the culture (in a way that’s more pervasive in part because it’s less blatant than it is in machismo-heavy cultures like Mexico and Argentina), and the parallel concepts of subservience and humility (both of which are certainly nice in some respects, but ultimately lead to people being constantly trampled on by, and accepting, their horrifically corrupt governments, often without question).

These are sweeping generalizations, of course, but they’re overarching concepts I’m struggling to come to terms with at this point, and I think they’re a large part of what makes me feel displaced.

Siem Reap
Siem Reap, Cambodia. Surprisingly pretty, although because of Ankor Wat, it was insanely tourist-laden, which I didn’t much care for. Most notably, it seemed that most of the tourists were completely blind to the state of the country surrounding them, which interests me far more than the temples and ruins.

There are other things, of course. My interpersonal relationships have shifted substantially since Mexico: I’ve been lucky enough to have people come visit me, but I’ve had a grand total of a week to myself, and that was my first week in Bangkok. Since then, I’ve been sharing rooms with others and spending vast tracts of time with friends of mine, every single day. Which is great, I mean, I’m so damned lucky—I was most worried about becoming lonely and missing people—but it’s still hard on me. At one point, when I spent a week in Oaxaca and Mexico City with some friends, I fell into a pretty harsh depression for about a day because I’d spent so much time around other people. I love my friends and I wouldn’t be half the person I am without them, but I cannot survive without “recharging” time away from everyone.

Much of this article about “caring for your inner introvert” applies to me. I know a lot of people who don’t believe I’m an introvert because I’m friendly and open (most of the time), but much of that is exhausting to me. While I enjoy, require, and thrive on socialization, it’s best in small doses. I often need to force myself to socialize, because my instinct is to shy away from others, but I know it teaches me a lot and I really do enjoy meeting new people. That is, when I’m not feeling like a misanthropic hermit—which is only about 30% of the time.

A big part of travelling for me is that sense of independence I derive from landing in a foreign city. I love feeling lost and alone, forced to figure out my own way of surviving. I like walking down streets, watching, listening to music, turning at my own whims. With others, it’s a different experience altogether. There’s a certain amount of compromise that needs to be made, and you have to spend a lot of time talking. While it’s certainly enjoyable—which oftentimes, travelling solo is not—it’s different.

Din Daeng
My “home” in Bangkok right now. I think I’d feel more sane if I were back here, even, just for a bit of familiarity to my environment (even though it looks rather gray and sad). I’d hate to think a place only resonates with me when I spend time exploring its dark little corners on my own, but it’s entirely possible that’s the case. Can you be homesick for multiple places and faces simultaneously?

It’s hard for me to admit that I’m having so much trouble. It feels, ultimately, like a failure on my part. I’m only halfway through my grand world tour—why the fuck isn’t everything all flowers and roses? Why is it that my brain keeps desperately contemplating booking a flight back “home”? I’m not even sure where I’m homesick for—I just want to be in a place that feels like home. It could probably be Bangkok, or Mexico, or Halifax, or even Buenos Aires maybe. There’s a part of me that is just screaming out for a space I feel is mine and for environs that feel at least vaguely familiar.

Having never really dealt with this before, I don’t have a good solution that isn’t “drinking large quantities of wine and hoping it goes away.” Luckily, I have a travel companion who’s good about understanding my particular quirks. I also have the resources to change and adapt my plans (inasmuch as I actually make plans) in order to ensure I don’t go stark raving mad. I have a few more weeks of travel through Southeast Asia before I go back “home” to Bangkok, and I’m more interested in seeing the Mekong Delta and Saigon than I am in giving in to the whiny little child inside my head who needs things to be a certain way.

Maybe the trick, then, is accepting it for what it is, facing up to it, and making adjustments to keep it manageable. I’d hate myself if I let my own frustrations stop me from seeing and doing all the things I’d like to do and see. Ultimately, I don’t think I’m a failure for finding things hard, but I think I’d be failing if I hid away from those hard things.

And so: I’ll just keep going. If I were to run back “home” now, I’d probably feel equally displaced. Maybe by the time I hit Spain, I’ll start to feel at home again.

Bombos?

The sacred and the profound: surrealism in Mexico

Mexico will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the first country I travelled to on my own, impetuously, at a time when I was an emotional basket case on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I showed up late at night carrying only a vague address of a woman who didn’t seem aware I was coming, carrying nothing but a little kid’s backpack and a knowledge of Spanish far more rustic than I have now. I had a hand full of fresh new stitches and nerve damage. Everyone who knew me was pretty convinced I’d either come back dead or land myself in jail.

Buildings in Ensenada
Colourful buildings, replete with seemingly arbitrary paintings along the walls, are so common a part of the visual culture even in Ensenada, where I lived (mostly) for my time in Mexico. Just walking the streets makes me want to start painting in vibrant colours.

Instead, Mexico fixed me. My experience there is a big part of why I’m so driven to travel now. I have long wanted to return to Mexico, but I’ll admit I think a large part of my original infatuation with the country was an emotional one—I wanted a chance to see the country itself, rather than just seeing how it changed me.

What I discovered, living in Mexico for three months, was a place that never stopped surprising me.

There’s this story about French Surrealist André Breton coming to Mexico, and asking a carpenter to build him a table. The carpenter requested a drawing to follow. Breton draw a quick sketch of a table, rendering it in three dimensions, that way you would once you’re older than, say, six, and understand a bit better that very little—beyond paper and anorexic models—in the world is flat.

The carpenter, of course, came back with a triangular table with two legs shorter than the other two.

Go VISA
Somewhere along the highway between Mexico City and Oaxaca, I found this giant advertising structure built into the hill. This is, in case you’re wondering, in the absolute middle of nowhere, and it must be about twenty feet tall. Like their flags, apparently Mexico likes its ads giant. I also saw a man on an open truck, seated at a rifle mounted on the cab roof, and thought this the far more bizarre element on that ride.

This story came up a few times in different conversations with people. So did stories of a remote spot in the jungle near Xlitla. There, an eccentric British millionaire—who kept boa constrictors as pets—built a surrealist garden, complete with a stairway leading to nothing and something titled “The House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six”. In Tijuana, there’s a giant naked woman built by a sculptor who lived in her with his wife and children. Try as I might, I couldn’t find her anywhere; everyone I met in Tijuana had never even heard of her. And of course there’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, living around the corner from Trotsky in Mexico City, and a whole slew of surrealist writers and artists. Salvador Dali, apparently, at one point said that he hated Mexico.

He couldn’t, he said, return to a country that was more surreal than his own paintings.

I became fascinated with the surreal in Mexico. The more interested I became, the more I noticed it. Almost everyone I spoke to about it had something to contribute, and a lot of people started to point out strange things to me. Much of the surreal in Mexico, I think, lies in the juxtapositions. The country still retains elements of its ancient cultures in a way many others don’t, but adds in the overwhelmingly oppressive influence of the Spanish conquistadoras, who quite literally built their Catholic churches atop the Aztec pyramids.

Aztec (I think) imagery
I think this was Aztec, but I don’t quite remember. The clean lines and bold colours are used throughout all sorts of Mexican art, both pre and post Colombian. Somehow it manages to be ornate without sacrificing a sense of simplicity. The colours used are so super-saturated that they verge on fluorescent and clashing, but again, somehow it works. I saw these sorts of colour schemes everywhere, especially in the folk art in Oaxaca, which used intensely bright colours on little surrealist animal sculptures.

I read somewhere that Mexico is actually one of the most Catholic countries in the world, and it doesn’t surprise me. Catholicism is evident everywhere, from the altars set up in the most unexpected of places to to the processions marching down the streets singing during various Christmastime holidays. I’ve taken to drinking a lot of tequila straight—sipping it like scotch, which you can do in Mexico because tequila isn’t firewater here unless you buy the lighter-fluid kind for six dollars—when these things happen, and just wandering out into the crowds to see what on earth is going on. My favourite was the first day of the Virgin of Guadalupe festival: there was a huge feria, with food and amusement park rides and gaudy images of religious figures to be purchased, all set up around the church (which was lighting off fireworks, of course). On the steps on the church, a priest was throwing holy water on the heads of the amassed throngs.

But Catholicism in Mexico is different from Catholicism in other places. Here, there are holidays that don’t exist anywhere else. There are saints and revered figures that don’t exist anywhere, in any liturgy, or in fact in any country other than Mexico at all. Santa Muerte is a prime example of this. She’s quite likely one of the most revered “religious” figures in Mexico, especially by the criminal and lower-class elements, but she’s actually shunned by the Catholic church. They just made her up.

In spite of this, people build massive shrines to her, and many pray to her more religiously than the any properly-sanctioned non-secular hero. Again, this goes all the way back into the country’s Aztec roots. The continued infatuation in Mexico with death has roots all the way back into the ancient pre-Columbian societies, who cannibalized their friends, sacrificed their young, and built elaborate graves for their deceased.

Crypt
An elaborately prepared crypt, found in a hole in the floor somewhere in the amazing Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The skull or skeleton motif recurs constantly in Mexico. It’s one of the unshakable realities of Mexican imagery, and I think a part of what draws me to Mexico as well, at least on a visual level. I was so excited for Día de los Muertos, and rather disappointed when I discovered there weren’t huge parades of people in costume those days in Ensenada (in Mexico City or Oaxaca, both of which I visited later, the story would be quite different, but Ensenada, while it has its charms, is not Real Mexico.)

This infatuation with death often manifests as a celebration of life instead. Far from grisly, the imagery is most often cartoonish, playful, or replete with bright colours. Skeleton figures are often presented as a bride and groom, perhaps mocking the institution that is so highly revered in Mexico. There’s a synthesis here between the ancient and the relatively new Catholic traditions, and they meet in strange and unexpected ways.

Bombos?
I have no idea what this vehicle is used for, if anything, but I like it. The hand-painted typography everywhere was really lovely.

Having lived in Mexico for nearly three months, I started to notice how incredibly rich the visual narrative of the country is, and that there are certain elements that recur consistently, no matter what you’re looking at. For me, the bright colour palettes, the continual images of death, blood, and violence, are as much a part of Mexico as the tacos.

I came to Mexico hoping to answer the riddle—to figure out where all the surreal rooted from. I learned a lot, and I saw a lot. But ultimately, I think I ended up leaving with more questions than I had when I first arrived.

I suppose that means someday I’ll be back again.

Gas-nap

How a motorcycle made me a better businessperson

Last weekend was my birthday. (I won’t tell you how old I turned, but I am now officially starting to feel old. If you’re really interested, I’m sure a quick Google search will turn up something that’s not yet a lie.) As a present, my boyfriend took me on what can best be described as a “whirlwind trip”: we rode his motorcycle 3000 kilometers to New York City, and back, in four days.

It wasn’t until we’d hit Bangor, Maine on the second day that I realized just how insane of an idea that was.

For starters, when I say “motorcycle”, I don’t mean a cushy touring bike with backrests, stereo speakers, massive windshields, luggage racks, and padded seats. This was a beast of a superbike, with a tiny little triangular seat on the back that looks like a miniature rocket. I jammed all of our vital belongings–two computers, several pairs of shoes (Excessive maybe, but it can’t come as a surprise), my flat-iron, three books, clothing–into my giant orange backpack and strapped it to my back. The effect was as though I’d gained a 30lb hunchback, and my balance was thrown so out of whack that climbing up on the bike was roughly akin to mounting a nine-foot tall horse with a broken leg. After an hour, my bum ached like I’d never felt before, and my feet would keep going numb. By the end of the trip, I had friction burns on my thighs and back pain that lasted for days—along with a giant smile on my face.

It was most assuredly one of the most insane, intense, incredible things I’d ever done.

Motorcycle!

Yep. This thing. I may as well have ridden a rocketship. It was also hot as hell, so every time we stopped I’d strip off the moment I clambered down and fling my things all over the place, as evidenced here.

Things I think I can’t do

When the constant pain wasn’t distracting me, I was busy being terrified. Three deer standing at the edge of the road waiting to jump out and kill me. Taking turns at 100 and leaning 45 degrees with the bike. Flying into my driver during an emergency stop coming into the city. Foggy night riding while a thunderstorm lit up the sky around us. Lane-splitting between trucks. Construction coming out of nowhere. Other cars cutting and swerving in. I’m a nervous passenger. There were so many times when all I wanted to do was say, “Listen. I cannot do this anymore. Drop me off at the nearest exit, and I will hitchhike my way home. Thanks for the ride!” By day four, when we needed to make good time, and the riding was getting intense, and the wind blast was so crazy I was convinced I was going to be pushed off that tiny little seat, I was verging on downright miserable. The only thing that got me through was sheer determination.

That determination—less charitable people would call it “bull-headedness”—has gotten me through so much. Earlier this summer, I went to Cape Breton with a friend. We found this charming place where you walk through the woods, clamber down a cliff using a system of ropes, cross through a rumbly river, and swim in ice-cold saltwater through a cavern until you reach this lagoon amid the rocks. Above it, there’s a cave in the side of the cliff, and more ropes. The boys who had gone the day prior told us we’d need lots of upper-body strength to pull ourselves up. One of them had even needed to be pushed up.

Of course, I figured I wouldn’t be able to make it. Possessing an extra x chromosome already predisposes me to be rather lacking in the upper-body department, and my twice-broken wrists of last year put me at something of a disadvantage. I remember perching atop one of the rocks, about to jump into the icy lagoon, looking up at the cave in the cliff and being convinced I’d never make it.

Then I gritted my teeth, pulled everything in my body together, and I made it! I’m certain it was that stubbornness, not any hidden reserves of strength, that fuelled my success. I’m also pretty sure that’s how I’ve structured the entirety of my life.

Things that scare me

Breaking both my wrists last year made me pretty skittish about my vulnerability. Being in a couple of car crashes in quick succession when I was eighteen made me an extremely nervous passenger. As a general rule, I very much dislike things that are beyond my control.

Obviously, riding pillion on a motorcycle is sort of a double-whammy for me. But I’m quite certain that forcing yourself to face things you fear makes you a stronger person. As a result, anytime I think “Oh, gracious. That sounds scary.” or “That sounds hard. I wonder if I’m capable of doing it?”, I take it as a sign that I must do it. Learning to ride a motorcycle (I have a license now!)? Moving to South America for five months? Going ziplining? Life modelling? Bring it on.

And of course, running a business is one of these things. I’m amazed that I’ve been doing this for so long and I’m still terrified of it and convinced I can’t do it at all. What if I mess things up and ruin my reputation? What if I get jerked around and can’t pay my bills anymore? What if the stress drives me totally insane and I end up wandering about aimlessly, muttering about em-heights and kerning?

Running a business is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, and it never stops being terrifying.

Being a brave little toaster

Facing fears in other areas of your life forces you to become stronger and more self-assured. That sense of determination—the “I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m damn well going to try as hard as I possibly can”—is enough to push you to do everything you can in order to make it happen. I think, ultimately, I would have killed my business had I not started pushing myself to confront fears in other aspects of my life.

I’m a big fan, however, of pushing boundaries incrementally. If you suddenly dive into something terrifying, it’s easy to become paralyzed by fear, and no longer retain the ability to respond in an agile way when things change, as they invariably do. It’s important to push through things you’re afraid of, and things you don’t believe you’re capable of doing, but you can’t allow yourself to become locked up by them if you take on too much at once. It’s a fine balance.

It’s for this reason that I keep ramping up my adventures. I’m deep in planning mode (by which I mean “vaguely thinking about from time to time”) for my next crazy adventure, which is shaping up to involve a few different continents. By pushing things a little further every time I do them, my brain starts learning that it can handle whatever challenges I can throw at it. I stop being apprehensive when something crops up and I think I can’t manage it, because consistent experience tells me that I can.

Gas-nap

This is the classy way to relax. (Don’t worry, I’m in Connecticut. The gas stations are spotless.) I was performing some variant of this sprawl, often with the backpack still strapped on, at every gas station down the eastern seaboard (when I wasn’t busy doing cartwheels to stretch out.) Coincidentally, this is also how I look when I’ve had the week from hell and have been working nonstop putting out fires, scrambling to get things done, and generally going crazy. Like this one! Good times.

And hey, if I hadn’t pushed myself to make it through this trip, I may not have learned how to smoke a cigarette while riding a motorcycle in New York City. You’re welcome, lovely clients. I do crazy things to make you happy.

Birthday

Five things I’ve learned during five years in business

Every year, I have the best intentions to celebrate my business’ birthday in some fashion. Every year, I remember two weeks too late. Triggers & Sparks is basically my neglected child. I suppose that might explain why every now and again, it throws temper tantrums.

There are a number of anniversaries I could celebrate—the day I left my full-time job, or the day I was first paid for work, but this one falls nicely in the middle and is simple enough to remember: by sheer coincidence, the date on my official business registration is 06.06.06. While I’m neither religious or satanistic, I do believe in serendipity, and thought a pattern of numbers that has such impact on people could only be a good sign. Next year will mark my official six-year anniversary. Maybe if I set an alarm for it now, I’ll actually remember to break out the champagne and fireworks when it rolls around.

Birthday

Alright, so I did throw a birthday party in early June, but I must have been so distracted with celebrating human birthdays that I totally forgot about my poor little business.

I’ve learned a lot since I built my first “professional” website—obviously—in trade for a beautiful bicycle that was stolen about ten minutes after I got it. Here are the most important things.

1. Never say no. Instead, say “expensive”.

This flies in the face of everything that everyone says about being a freelancer, but I stick by it, and it’s worked quite nicely for me. If someone comes to me with a project that sounds boring, tedious, or generally awful, I won’t say “no, I won’t do that” unless I know I’m not capable of seeing the project through to its completion well. I’ll just say “sure, I can do that” and quote a nice high figure. That way, if the client balks at the price and tells me they can’t afford it, nobody’s lost out—it’s basically like I’ve said no. However, if they say yes, I’ll proceed with the project and be well-compensated for whatever additional frustrations or tediums come along with the project.

This approach may sound mean, but it works. It also means that sometimes I can charge less for the projects that are going to be more fun, but may not have as large a budget. Of course, this only works so well because I abandoned hourly billing for almost all projects and switched to a flat-rate, which has been a major blessing. And switching to flat-rate only worked once I’d been doing this for long enough to be able to tell how long certain tasks take, which took at least a year.

2. Stop working 18 hour days.

This is a constant process for me. My five months in South America helped me enormously with my workaholicism. I actually find it challenging to work weekends now, and I usually only work around ten hours a day—sometimes even less!

For years, I’d to work every single day, from the moment I woke in the morning until the wee hours of the night. This felt normal, after all—when I was in school, I was always working as well, and even when I was working, I was doing freelance work after getting home. I’ve always been like this—I have a lot of energy and I feel better when I’m productive. But running a business is so unstructured (at least the way that I do it) that Extreme Workaholic Behaviours simply aren’t sustainable long-term.

I spent the first few years of business constantly burnt out, and eventually it really started to get to me. I was letting things slip. I’d have little mental breakdowns in which I’d burst into tears, babbling about “the juggling balls break when I drop them!”, and then would refuse to leave my bedroom for a few days until I’d recovered. My work was suffering, and my brain would probably have eventually imploded on itself.

These days, I work less. I socialize more, and I try to do healthy things I never had time for before like eat and exercise on a daily basis. I’m happier, I’m doing better work, and my clients are happier. Everyone wins!

3. Talk to everyone and their dog.

I will take a meeting with anyone. Anyone! Since coming back to Canada I’ve actually been having lots of in-person meetings and I’ve realized I really miss it. (That may just be because I don’t usually drink coffee unless I’m going to meetings, and it makes me very excitable.)

Oftentimes these meetings won’t lead to business at all, so they’re a time investment that may not pay off. I’ve actually been tricked into “meetings” that turned out to be more like “dates” more than once, which can be a little awkward when you realize what’s happened.

Meeting people and talking to them is never an efficient use of my time. However, it allows me human interaction that I often lack sitting in front of a screen all day, and I often learn things I wouldn’t otherwise from an email conversation. There’s something to be said for sitting down with a stranger for an hour. Everyone—generally speaking—can teach me something, whether it’s of relevance to my work or not, and I’ve learned so many things for all these millions of meetings over the years. They’ve also helped me become exponentially more sure of myself. Sometimes just hearing yourself talk and realizing that—surprise!—you know what you’re talking about can do just that.

4. Constant work is worth its weight in platinum.

Cash flow issues can really make or break a business. (Canada Post employees, this is why I give you dirty looks when I pass you milling about in front of the dead post office that contains my cheques.) I have a line of credit that covers me when I’m waiting for invoices to be paid, but it’s not an ideal situation as it becomes very easy to accidentally end up in over your head when you can’t really budget effectively.

Years ago, I started doing regular weekly work for a local clients. It’s often not the most wildly exciting work, and it doesn’t pay nearly as well as the one-off project I do, but it’s been a lifeline for me. The fact that I don’t have to write up estimates, go to meetings, send endless emails, negotiate or wait for the work, means that I can offer a lower (hourly) rate than I usually would, and getting paid every two weeks means I don’t worry so much about my cash flow anymore. Basically, it gives me the bits that I liked about having a “real job”—stability—without cramping my vagabonding-unscheduled-flower-child sort of style of business.

5. Work less, charge more.

I charged all of $300 for one of my very first websites. It was such a bad idea, and the incredibly low rates I started off charging definitely explain why it took me a few years to actually be making any money at all. My rates increased fairly dramatically for a little while until they reached something of a plateau. I’ve hit the balance point where I feel that what I charge is fair, indicative of my ability, and allows me to buy shoes every now and again (okay, sometimes more often than that, but don’t tell).

Charging more means that I can spend more time on projects, which I like to do. I’m kind of on the anal-retentive super-detail-oriented side anyway, and charging $300 for a website simply doesn’t allow me to do the kind of quality work that I like to. From time to time, people still email me looking for the cheapest option, and I explain that I’m no longer competing on price. I don’t want to be the IKEA of graphic design. I want my design work to stand up, and I’d rather my clients not have to build everything themselves from incomprehensible diagrams. My clients pay more now than they used to, but the work they get is infinitely better. They get my full attention, they get support whenever they need it, and the end result is always much, much better than it would have been had I been charging bargain-basement prices.

And again, my clients are happier. More and more, I’m working with clients I love, who respect my work and my suggestions, and who really are a delight to work for. I’m happier working for these people, and they in turn refer other awesome clients over to me. It’s a lovely cycle.

Budapest

Just one part of world I've seen—the beautiful, complicated Budapest. Summer 2009.

All told, I’m so lucky to have come this far and still be running my business. I have the kind of freedom I’ve always wanted—I can travel the world, I can sit outside and work on sunny days, and I’m constantly challenged and excited by new projects. I’m never bored, I get to meet some great people, I make my own rules, and I very rarely have to wake up at 8am.

I never intended to start a business, and every now and again, I consider going back to a real-live job. However, the longer I do this, the less and less likely that becomes. I really do love my job.

Building from a feeling

How to give feedback (without driving your designer insane!)

Giving good feedback is integral to good design. While I’m sure all designers—myself included–would love to just whip up a gorgeous design without asking anyone else for their opinion, good design can be made better by working within limitations and incorporating the feedback of others. And of course, we generally want to make our clients happy and give them what they want. Accordingly, any designer worth his salt will make sure that the design process includes his client: we make mockups, ask for feedback, then refine, ask for more feedback, refine, ask for more, refine—and so on and so forth, until everyone’s happy.

Sometimes everyone really is happy, and the end result is something that’s beautiful and usable. Other times, though, one of us is going to end up miserable. The design can end up so off-target, messy, or downright ugly that your designer doesn’t even want to have his name attached to it. That’s a bad scene.

I’ve been going through this process for years, with a whole range of different clients, both of the dream and the nightmare variety. Here are a few tips I’ve rounded up to make this feedback process as efficient as possible.

1. Don’t micro-manage…

This is, bar none, the fastest way to quash your designer’s spirit. I’ve gotten to the point where, if I suspect someone’s going to micro-manage me, I’ll walk away from the project. It’s one thing to give your opinions; it’s another thing to tell me exactly what to do. Usually when this happens, I’ll argue for a bit, citing rational reasons why the particular edit isn’t a good idea and backing my objections up with design theory points. The micro-manager client generally knows better, and eventually my spirit dies, and I become an unskilled, untrained monkey who happens to own a copy of Photoshop. “You want that font in 60pt lime green Comic Sans for your investment banking brochure? …fine.” This might be perceived by some as being inflexible, but it isn’t. I encourage feedback, but if I’m not arguing with you, you’re not getting my best design work. Ultimately, you hire a designer because they know stuff you don’t, and if you don’t respect their opinions, you might as well build it yourself.

2. …but don’t macro-manage, either.

The converse of this, of course, is the client who says “just do whatever you feel is right.” In theory, that would be lovely. But I always feel as though I’m cheating these clients out of really getting what they want. You have an opinion; I’d like to hear it. I want you to be happy with my work, and I really can’t read your mind (yet)!

3. Be specific.

Design is highly subjective. You can tell me that you don’t like something, but I oftentimes don’t know how to fix it for you—chances are good that I put it there because I like it, after all! What element don’t you like? Is it the type style, the colour, the juxtaposition of elements, the spacing between those two lines?

Building from a feeling
Snarkiness courtesy of the charming (and sometimes rather gruesome) the Oatmeal.

It’s true, designers do often need to design from a feeling and other vague, hard to define concepts. While it’s true that it’s our job to translate an immaterial concept into a tangible, visible entity, the more specific you are, the easier it’s going to be for us to figure out what you want. Which leads me to my next point:

4. Know what you want.

If you don’t know what you want, there is no way in hell I will ever figure it out. A good designer can help guide you, by asking questions and trying out different styles, but ultimately, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re extremely unlikely to get it.

5. Realize that design is about solving problems.

Not like “world hunger” sort of problems, but visual problems. You’ve got something you want to communicate to your audience, and you need it to be easy to read, to communicate your brand message, to make the audience feel a certain way. You want to be able to lead them into bits of information, guiding them through your information in a very particular manner. While I often trivialize design by saying “I make pretty things” (which is true), I also make stuff that works, and stuff that takes into consideration your goals for the project.

Therefore, when I make suggestions for ways we could make the overall design better, take them into consideration. If I don’t immediately do everything you ask for, this is because I’m keeping your aims and needs in mind, not because I’m obstinate. (I mean, I am, but that’s something altogether different.) To make a design truly great, we need to work together to solve your problems—that means that I need to listen to your feedback, and you need to consider my advice.

6. Never, never, ever use the phrase “you’re the designer.”

In theory, this would mean that you trust my decisions, value my input, and recognize that, since I’m a professional that you’re paying to do this work, I must know what I’m doing. In actuality, it means that you’re going to be the epitome of a Difficult Client: you’ll constantly say the designs I present to you are no good, but you won’t give any concrete explanations of why; you’ll insist that I make every single tiny, micro-managing alteration you request, then complain when the design starts to erode and the whole thing ends up a giant mess; and you’ll ignore all of my advice and opinions.

This makes me crazy.

Freelance Freedom
That dude in the last panel? He might end up being a "you're the designer" client.

Really, it’s not hard to give good feedback. Just be specific, give examples, and respect your designer’s expertise. If you do that, you’ll both end up happy, and you’ll have a design that you love.

And then everyone wins!

Think before you ink: a treatise on decision-making

I get asked questions about my tattoos a lot. It sometimes strikes me as strange—I have seven of them, which I suppose is quite a few, but they’re all really tiny black symbols—so it’s hardly as though they’re at all surprising.

A few years ago, before I quit my job to launch a business, I had my logo tattooed to my shoulder blade. (And actually, I haven’t been tattooed since—I’ve run out of strategic body space!) People thought I was insane. “What happens if your business tanks?” was the popular question.

Of all the tattoos I’ve had done, I’m furthest from regretting this one. Admittedly, my business didn’t tank, but I don’t think it would have made much difference if it had. It’s impossible to start a business without having it become a major event in your life—to me, tattooing my logo to my shoulder was no crazier than the people who tattoo their kids’ names to themselves. (And it’s certainly less crazy than those who tattoo their lovers’ names on themselves. As far as I can tell, my business will never leave me for a younger woman or run away with all my money. I hope.)

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5 reasons I don’t pick up my phone (and neither should you!)

So my poor telephone is on its last legs, and I’m finally breaking down and getting a shiny new iPhone, for a wide variety of reasons. (It’s pretty! It does “smart” stuff that my StupidPhone Blackberry can’t! It can play music and take photos that don’t look totally terrible! Designing iPhone apps will be easier if I can actually see how things work!)

This probably means that I’ll be forced to finally change my voicemail message, which is faulted for featuring a lengthy pause between me speaking and the beep, among other things like being mumbly and unclear. Since I very rarely pick up the phone, and I never pick it up when I don’t recognize the number, I am thinking I’ll change the message to read: “Hi! This is Sarah. I’m not picking up because I’m busy working on your project. Send me an email instead!”

My hatred for the telephone, I think, is well-justified. (I sound a little like a monkey on meth while on the telephone as well, but that’s irrelevant. Mostly.) While some people seem to think it’s annoying that it’s so hard to get me on the telephone, I have my reasons, and I’m sticking by my guns.

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