The Long Con
My freshman year of college I took a class called “Design Foundations.” For all freshman design students at the university, this class is the beginning of their formal design education. My class was Monday and Wednesday mornings at 8:00am in the basement of a building in the middle of the campus. I can still smell the Autumn leaves and feel the crisp air of walking to that class each morning. We had an adjunct professor who only taught this course, and he taught it differently than the rest of the Design Foundations that semester.
There were were no computers; our supplies for his class were simple: a few black pens of various thickness, a 24x36 white Bristol tablet, bottles of black and white paint, a ruler and an X-ACTO knife. We never used color in his class, every project was completed in black and white. Every project completed in his class that semester was to teach us the foundations (see what I did there?) to a good piece of design: contrast, motion, and noise. The professor believed that by learning how to achieve and utilize these three elements, we’d be able to skillfully guide our viewer’s eye through the page. The class was very abstract and I remember not understanding why we were drawing lines with Sharpies or painting various size cubes in 10 different shades of gray. It wouldn’t be until after the class was over that I discovered that with our simple tools, we were learning how to arrange layouts, how to control space, set up a heirarchy, and create balanced compositions.
“In reality, every morning is election day and we never stop voting with our attention.”
—Rob Giampietro, from the Graphic Design—Under Discussion panel discussion on the current Graphic Design—Now In Production exhibition
He’s commenting on Metahaven’s Facestate, a intriguing part of the exhibition, that deals with Facebook and power imagining a fictitious future where Facebook and the government are one (with ideas like voting in elections on Facebook). What Rob points out, however, is that we already are voting on the things we care about by the way we spend our time each day.
Rebekah Cox on the nature of identity:
To start it’s important to understand what identity isn’t: Identity is not a password, it’s not root access, it’s not your calendar, it’s not your email, it’s not a technical achievement, it’s not your location, it’s not a user account in a system, it’s not your contacts and it’s not a feature.
So, what is identity? I think in its most basic form, your identity is the product of how you manage your attention and others’ access to that attention. Those areas where your attention is focused assemble to form a set of experiences that shape and influence where you’ll direct future attention. But that attention is interrupted all the time by people, events, things, desires, boredom, weather, etc. and that process of interruption is, largely, contained to physical space because that is a natural gate on access.
Her whole post is worth reading and reminded me of Rob Giampietro’s rumination on identity from The Mavenist, that I find myself thinking about often:
Where does the identifiable part of an identity reside? Maybe it’s related to the nesting dolls you’ve mentioned and this “sheathing effect.” Returning to Stuart Brand, he describes the identity of a building along similar lines with his notion of “shearing layers.” Brand notes that just as people grow and change, buildings grow and change—they are not static or fixed.
“Time is less a rigid vase and more an unfired lump of clay, malleable at the hands of experience, better measured by the richness of our memories than any clock or calendar.”
—Jack Cheng, on an idea his dad has about time and memory and meaning and experience.
I don’t want him to ever stop asking me about it, because every time he asks, it’s a reminder. To make next week longer and more memorable than this one. To make each subsequent year slower than the one before, by going off the rails, opening myself to richer memories. Every time Dad tells me his idea, it’s a reminder to step away from the machine and pay attention to the world.
Oh man, this is good.
“The greatest things you make and do are the ones that get your full attention. It’s helpful to take an inventory of what you’re doing and then ask yourself where you’re spending your best attention. You can fill your time, but you have to spend your attention. How you spend it is probably a better measure of priority than anything else.”
“You eventually realize that the only secret ingredient that matters is paying attention to what you’re eating — and a dash of gratitude.”
“How thoroughly and how radically Google has already transformed the information economy has not been well understood. The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive. Attention is what we, the users, give to Google, and our attention is what Google sells—concentrated, focused, and crystallized. Google’s business is not search but advertising. More than 96 percent of its $29 billion in revenue last year came directly from advertising, and most of the rest came from advertising-related services. Google makes more from advertising than all the nation’s newspapers combined. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media scholar at the University of Virginia, puts it this way: “We are not Google’s customers: we are its product. We—our fancies, fetishes, predilections, and preferences—are what Google sells to advertisers.”
Attention is a bit like real estate, in that they’re not making any more of it. Unlike real estate, though, it keeps going up in value.
I think your attention is one of the best gifts you can give. Whether it’s to your family, to your friends, to your craft, to the companies you care about, your attention is a limited resource. Give it to things that are most important.
“I read with continuous partial attention and I don’t care that I am frequently interrupting my own reading. I despise the discourse that says we are all shallow, that we are all flighty, distracted, not paying attention. I am paying attention, but I am paying attention to everything, and even if my knowledge is fragmented and hard to synthesise it is wider, and it plays in a vaster sphere, than any knowledge that has gone before.”
“Simplicity isn’t a goal or an end result. Simplicity is a means to an end, with the ultimate destination being a remarkable life focused on what matters most to you. You don’t practice simplicity for simplicity’s sake, you practice simplicity to clear the distractions that get in the way of the life you desire.”
Less, but Better (Or, how to make time for meaningful work)
So I read this article this morning from Unclutterer on living the life you want and it really resonated with a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about lately.
You should go read it.
This paragraph really struck a chord with me:
When was the last time you sat down and asked yourself what you really want from life? What makes you happy? What matters — really matters — to you? Maybe it is home ownership and 2.1 children that you want? Or, maybe instead of the suburban life, you would rather travel the world on your own and work only when you need a little cash?
What do you actually enjoy doing? What inspires you?
As I’ve mentioned multiple times the past few months, this has easily been the busiest season of my life (This is the last week of busiest semester of college I’ve even been though) and this got me thinking about all sort of topics like the importance of keeping busy versus the importance of rest, and how to focus your time and attention to get things done.
There was something about that busyness that drove me towards simplification. As I found myself getting to bed later and later, finding it harder and harder to get up each morning, and drinking more and more cups of coffee, I realized I need to make some changes because it was physically impossible to keep up at this pace and I was dangerously close to burning out.
So I asked myself those very questions over and over. What kind of life do I want? What matters to me? What do I want to do? And I concluded that in the end, I really just want to make meaningful creative work. I want to work on things that I’m immensely passionate about. When I can clearly define what’s most important to me, nothing else matters and I can start making changes to make sure the things I say are important get the time and attention they deserve.
Because you can easily say that family is most important. Or friends. Or some cause. But would your calendar reflect that? If we tracked how you spent your time, how much time are you spending doing things with and for your family or friends or that cause? I bet if we looked at how your time was spent to gauge what was most important to you, we’d think Facebook was the most important part of your life.
I know it sounds like I’m getting all self-help with this “be-a-better-you” crap, but really, I think this is all part of the creative process. I’d argue things like this will help you make the really cool stuff you’ve always wanted to create more than a blog of design tips and tricks.
My favorite design maxim; the one I refer to more than any other, is from the industrial designer Deiter Rams who says “less, but better.” To me, that’s the key to good design. And, ironically, it’s probably also the key to good living. Just like in the design process, you remove all the unnecessary elements, in life you need to remove everything that doesn’t matter so you can focus on the few things that do so you can start living that life you envision and producing the work you want to.
So spend time with friends and family. Work on things that are meaningful and important to you. Go take a walk. Read a good book. You’ll work will be better. You’ll feel better. It worked for me.
Time, Attention, and Simplification
I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately. As I quickly approach finals week for this semester, the workload is piling up and I find myself wondering how I’ll get it all done; how I’ll have the time to put in the care and detail and attention I think each project deserves. How often do we find ourselves saying we are too busy? That we just don’t have enough time. If only there were more hours in a day.
But the funny thing is, we all have the same amount of time. My day is the same length as your day. I’m sure you spend your day differently than I spend mine. We are working on different things, we have different responsibilities and commitments and engagements. You might have more to do than I have to do. But we both have the same amount of time.
So maybe time isn’t the problem. What if the bigger problem lies in our attention?
When we make a conscious decision to do something—to work on one task or check something off the to-do list—we are making an unconscious decision not to do the 10,000 other things we also could be doing. When we put out attention on one task, we are saying that particular task is most important to us.
I always find it interesting when I see tweets and Facebook statuses about not having enough time or how you are going to pull an all-nighter because of all the work you have. You see the irony in this, don’t you? Don’t spend your time complaining in a public forum (or to yourself for that matter) about not having enough time to get your work done or whittle down the to-do list because that’s when it becomes apparent that time isn’t your problem. You’re simply directing your attention somewhere else. You are saying that Facebook and Twitter is what’s most important to you at that time. Think of the time you’d save if you just signed out of Twitter and Facebook for an hour and actually sat and worked. It’s all about simplification. It seems so simple, so obvious, but all too often we overlook it. Mind blowing, I know.
Where are you putting your attention? I’ve found that the less distractions I have in my life, the less options fighting for my attention, the more I can get done. For me, that means less time in the RSS reader, less time on FFFFound, less time on Twitter and Facebook. And guess what? Because I’ve reduced those distractions, my attention is more focused and I can actually do better work, quicker, giving me more time at the end of day to either take on more projects or check the feeds or Twitter or Facebook. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
Reduce the distractions fighting for your attention. Remove tasks that are not most important and make conscious decisions to direct your attention to things that matter. Until you do, just know you’ll be pulling all-nighters while I’m sleeping soundly in my bed getting ready to take it all on again tomorrow.
Scott Berkun on the problem with being too busy:
This means people who are always busy are time poor. They have a time shortage. They have time debt. They are either trying to do too much, or they aren’t doing what they’re doing very well. They are failing to either a) be effective with their time b) don’t know what they’re trying to effect, so they scramble away at trying to optimize for everything, which leads to optimizing nothing.
Some of the best thinkers throughout history had some of their best thoughts while going for walks, playing cards with friends, little things things that generally would not be considered the hallmarks of busy people. It’s the ability to pause, to reflect, and relax, to let the mind wander, that’s perhaps the true sign of time mastery, for when the mind returns it’s often sharper and more efficient, but most important perhaps, happier than it was before.
I couldn’t say this any better. This is the exact thing I’ve been writing about the past few weeks.