Close Quarters – Angus McAllister
Oasis the Truth: My Life as Oasis's Drummer – Tony McCarroll
Now You See It and Other Essays on Design – Michael Bierut
Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Fili – Louise Fili
Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity – Kim Scott
Draplin Design Co.: Pretty Much Everything – Aaron James Draplin
Any Road Will Get Us There (If We Don't Know Where We're Going) – Noel Gallagher and Sharon Latham
The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders – Jacob Needleman
Creating Signature Stories: Strategic Messaging that Energizes, Persuades and Inspires – David Aaker
Lost Cat – Jason
Long before I started my career in design I knew I wanted to work in an agency. It wasn’t even a question. I wanted eclectic, exciting work with consumer-facing clients, so I consider myself fortunate to have worked for boutique agencies in New York and the UK. Not every client was a household name, but every day was challenging and our small, agile teams were never bored. After a decade though, I was curious about other paths and decided to try something new.
Now, on the third anniversary of my tenure with the in-house design team for a B2B tech company, AppDirect, and having been honored to sit on a San Francisco Design Week panel focused on the subject of enterprise design, I’ve been reflecting on both aspects, and the misconceptions I had about this side of the fence.
Going deep with a brand
In agency life we created identities from scratch, breathed life into them, and got them walking. But having a client select your design and releasing it into the wild was often a short-lived thrill. As part of an in-house team we nurture the brand every step of the way and it’s so rewarding to write an ongoing story, not just the introduction.
Living with the consequences of our actions
Good designers always care deeply about building successful brands, but when your touch-points are limited, success in an agency is often measured by having your design accepted and getting paid. In-house we support a sales function and share their success. That doesn’t end once the design is shipped, and the consequences of decisions we make today are our concern long into the future. If you enjoy strategic thinking and directly impacting the health of the business, that’s a challenge you can get your teeth into.
Not being the person we’re designing for
As part of an B2B company, our team market a large product suite to multiple industries. Personas, strategies, and messaging frameworks are incredibly diverse, so design skills like research and testing go hand-in-hand with business and marketing expertise. If you enjoy learning the things they don’t teach you in design school there’s no better place to be.
But, sometimes being the person we’re designing for
The buyer might have a very different persona to anyone on our team, but our brand represents our company, and as an employee there, it represents us. We’re not just designing something that works, we’re invested because we’re expressing ourselves.
Dealing with internal vs. external stakeholders
When the decision makers work in the same office you do, it presents a unique challenge. I assumed that design presentations would theoretically be simpler because you have an established relationship and you know how they think. But the problem is, you have an established relationship and you know how they think. That makes it easy to get caught in the trap of designing something you know will get sign-off, not necessarily the right solution. Continually checking yourself is essential.
Fighting for user experience
Enterprise design is inherently different. As the saying goes, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM. When that was coined––with the best will in the world––IBM wasn’t the sexy option (although it might be now), it was the safe bet because it worked. That cuts to the heart of the issue that people traditionally bought enterprise software based on features, not user experience, but in a fragmented marketplace there’s more choice than ever and users have a louder voice. As a designer, with the skills to improve user experience, that presents a massive opportunity to impact business success.
Thinking big picture
Design systems are a hot topic at the moment as brands are expected to stretch across every conceivable application with consistency and personality. Establishing brand guidelines isn’t enough; we need pattern libraries, style sheets, and content management systems. Crafting the details is essential, but understanding how they fit into a much larger picture, and then maintaining that system, is where the real challenge lies.
Staying in motion
Just when you think you have your design system in place and there’s a harmony to everything, you remember that a brand is always evolving and done is never the end. You’re not going to get bored in this field.
Raising the bar
Quality design hasn’t been exclusive to consumer-facing businesses for a long time. Take a look at any successful B2B company and you’ll find impressive, creative design at its core. In a world where analytics and user experience count, enterprise design is finding it’s voice. There’s no room for excuses, just opportunities.
Even if everything else here fails to convince you that enterprise and in-house design positions have more than enough to keep you interested––and we all have days when it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm––there’s always your team. Having people around you on the same mission is a great boost when you’re in the trenches. If you need ideas on how to foster that kind of support I recommend checking out this article by Samantha Salvaggio.
I’d never steer a new designer away from exploring agency life. To bust out all the clichés, it really is a trial by fire and a great way to cut your teeth, but just sometimes, the grass actually is greener on the other side of the fence.
- Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration – Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull
- One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories – B. J. Novak
- Wintering – Peter Geye
- Welcome to the Monkey House – Kurt Vonnegut
- Mr. Dickens and His Carol – Samantha Silva
- Astrophysics for People In A Hurry – Neil DeGrasse Tyson
- Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
- The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon – Stephen King
- On the Camino – Jason
- Walden – Henry David Thoreau
As a design manager I’m constantly looking for good sources of advice on the challenges I face, but in a sea of corporate textbooks it’s difficult to find meaningful guidance for a creative environment. So, when one of my teammates referred to Creativity, Inc. as the best book on creative culture he’d ever read I immediately ordered a copy. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull is the story of Pixar Animation Studios from the truly thoughtful perspective of their management and leadership philosophies. Capturing everything I learned from this book would involve writing another but I wanted to share five of the lessons that resonated most in the context of my own team.
1 . Managing Isn’t Easy
Who knew, right? It should be a given that leading is hard but the best managers I know give the impression they were born with it and the poor ones just appear to lack the personality. In either case it seems more like a natural ability (or inability) than a learned skill. I’m sure many Pixar employees consider Catmull a natural leader but he was honest about his initial shortcomings in the book.
In the early days of the company Catmull jumped on the pricing advice of other executives. Being unsure of himself, it turned out to be a mistake born from “seeking simple answers to complex questions”. Resolving problems and choosing a course of action usually require some experience and deeper consideration. Maybe that’s common sense but it’s easy to forget when others make it look easy, and quick fixes are seductive.
Steve Jobs, who Catmull spoke of him in glowing terms, is often considered one of the most intuitive leaders the business world has ever known but even he tripped up occasionally. When he licensed NeXT software to IBM he seemed to play all his cards correctly, but in reality the terms created bad feeling. Catmull relayed how Jobs learned from the experience and that over time he “became fairer and wiser, and his understanding of partnership deepened”. I’m sure good intuitions give you a head start but it’s reassuring to hear that even great leaders are constantly learning.
2 . Build the Right Team or Nothing Else Matters
The first time I hired someone the process felt like a full time job. Reading resumes, reviewing portfolios and screening candidates was overwhelming and exhausting. There were so many variables and I felt the weight of getting it right, but I was wrestling with another concern too. More than one person advised me, ‘hire someone better than you’, but it’s human nature to feel a little threatened by that.
In his first hire Catmull recalled the same uneasiness as an “instinctual twinge”. Thankfully we both ignored it and learned, as he said, “the obvious payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel and generally make your company — and, by extension, you — look better.” The validation was nice but it’s not always possible to hire people with the track record you need to make that call, so what then?
Catmull had advice for that situation too, suggesting, “Give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today.” These two approaches have helped me build a great team of designers with different levels of experience, but I also learned they’re easier to follow under ideal circumstances. When you’re in growth mode and the work is piling up it can be tempting to just fill a position, so maybe the most important advice is to remember why it’s so critical to be diligent and put the best people in place.
“Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea”, Catmull explained. “If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.” Essentially, if you don’t do your job when building a team, you can’t expect them to do their job when they they join it.
3. It’s Your Responsibility to Establish the Right Environment for Your Team
I wasn’t naive enough to think that hiring the right blend of talented people would mean time to sit back and let the results role in. I knew there were all kinds of challenges ahead, but one of the biggest pain points I’ve seen in my career has been any kind of design review. Whenever you ask people to exercise their creativity before opening themselves to feedback it’s a potential recipe for disaster. They can take things personally, doubt themselves, force their opinion, or fail to speak up. But a design team is only a team when they leverage their collective ideas and I worried about how to nurture that. Catmull knew how critical this was too and said, “My job as a manager is to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for the things that undermine it.”
Maybe the first challenge is getting people to speak up, and sometimes that means coaxing opinions out of them. “There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment.” said Catmull. “Your job is to search for those reasons and then address them.” He goes on to suggest framing feedback as candor rather than honesty because it sounds less like something they’ll suffer repercussions from. To be honest, that seemed like semantics rather than a game-changer to me, but every little helps. The more important part is being receptive to feedback in the first place.
The idea of constructive criticism and focusing on the problem, not the person, are not radical, but they’re tougher than you’d think to achieve. Catmull said, “Candor is only valuable if the person on the receiving end is open to it and willing, if necessary, to let go of the things that don’t work.” Pixar’s solution for this is a regular forum known as ‘The Braintrust’. During the making of a movie periodic Braintrust meetings are held to identify and solve problems with the script in an environment where straight talk is nurtured.
During Braintrust meetings team members challenge anything they think could be improved and throw out lots of solutions. But critically, the director has the autonomy to use (or not use) feedback as he sees fit. “The Braintrust has no authority.” Catmull wrote. “This is crucial: The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions given. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback.” And he suggested the format can be used by any creative team. As a manager I’ll admit it’s sometimes hard to take my hands off those reins but that’s why you build a team in the first place.
4. Failure is an Essential Part of the Process
The benefit of a nurturing environment within your team is that you work through problems together, but that doesn’t mean eliminating failure. I know that my personality type, like many others’, is driven by the desire to avoid mistakes, but I’ve learned that they’re not only an essential part of the creative process but that leaders must show that failure isn’t something to be feared. “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all.” explained Catmull, “They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them we’d have no originality).”
It makes sense in theory, but most people aren’t naturally wired that way. We like to plan ahead and show our best work. Basking in the glow of success is much more fun than publicly tripping up so design teams need to remember that, as Catmull said, “The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction.” Essentially, mistakes may be necessary, but so is the ability to move past them, and that’s where the manager can help.
Catmull suggests two techniques to embrace mistakes and the first is to account for them in the process. Showing your work early and often will allow mistakes to be identified and resolved before they become a bigger deal. The second techniques is harder and it involves building trust. He wrote, “It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” They can do that by showing that creating an environment where fear doesn’t come hand-in-hand with fear. Unfortunately that’s not easy, but Catmull said, “Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions–and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure.”
5 . Research is the Difference Between Craft and Artistry
Lots of designers will identify with this process: collect a bunch of inspiration, assemble it into moodboards, pick a direction, and create something new from the pieces. More often than not it’s a serviceable solution to produce a design, but, as Catmull said, “When filmmakers … or people in any other creative profession merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is craft without art. Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.”
Not every design project can be a masterpiece, and not every design can achieve the prestige of a Pixar movie, but surely it’s worth shooting for the stars when you have the opportunity. So how can you elevate the craft and make sure it’s not derivative, especially when you’re producing it to order?
Catmull suggests authenticity, fueled by research: “Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspirations. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.” That’s hard when you don’t know what you’re looking for but breaking out of the design blogs and thinking about the user or industry in question is more likely to produce something meaningful and original.
I encourage everyone who works or manages in a creative environment to read Creativity, Inc. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Landscape photography is way harder in Scotland than California!
I just spent ten days back home in Scotland visiting some places I'd wanted to photograph for years. It was the first time in a while I'd been home in the summer so I was hoping that would allow for more outdoor photography, but the weather was brutal. It wasn't just unpredictable and changeable, it was near impossible. At Eilean Donan Castle, above, in the thirty seconds it took to put my camera on a tripod the scene changed from glorious light to a rain soaked blur. And at the Coral Beach on Skye it was sunny on one side of the frame, grey and wet on the other.
When I embraced the weather I loved the drama and atmosphere it brought, but sometimes you have to weigh that up against destroying your camera. On the beach at St Andrews the rain soaked my kit and at the Old Man of Storr the wind toppled my tripod. Battling the elements was exciting though and I learned some valuable lessons. As I moved from place to place, no matter how difficult the conditions, I knew I could rely on a couple of things...
Firstly, I've begun to define a style that is repeatable and my own; if I felt inspired and followed my process I would always express myself and capture something consistent. The fact that it doesn't just apply to sunny California was reassuring. Secondly, I've learned how to be selective. I used to feel the urge to take photos of absolutely everything from every possible angle, but that was born from a lack of direction and confidence. When I visit somewhere new it's easier to focus my attention to produce an image I'm pleased with.
When I originally set out to better express myself through photography I got the process the wrong way around. I thought I needed to work out what I wanted to say and then decide how to do that through my images. In the meantime I followed my instincts to refine a style that I liked, and as it happened, the photos I created were helping me to know myself better. I'm proud of these images because they're so personal.
Ever since we moved to the West Coast I've been trying to capture one of California's most iconic images; the low fog rolling into the San Francisco Bay and engulfing the Golden Gate Bridge. The world might not need another shot like that but I did, and on the second anniversary of moving here I finally got a chance.
Over the past two years I've seen perfect moments come and go while I was stuck at work or running out of light. There was one day when I was positioned on top of the headlands trying to photograph fog that looked more like low, whips clouds but even then my memory card became corrupted and I lost the best shots.
This weekend we were taking part in another iconic San Francisco moment, Bay to Breakers, while the fog poured in from the Pacific Ocean. By the team I was home it had gone and I thought I'd missed my chance again, but later in the day I looked at the webcam and realized the fog was back. I raced up there so fast I didn't even grab a coat and soon found myself freezing on top of Slacker Point.
I thought being in the right place at the right time would be the hard part but getting a decent image was still really difficult. The fog either stayed on one side of the nearest tower or lay too thick between there and my camera for a clear image. My ideal image would be a long exposure that smooths out the fog patterns, and a setting sun for warm atmosphere, but in the end I'm happy with the handful of shots I captured even if I know I can do better.
Ever since I moved to California I’ve been edging closer to something with my photography without articulating it or settling on something definitive. I’ve been improving technically and focused on the natural world as subject matter, but that doesn’t seem enough anymore; I want to express something of myself in my photos and approach it as an artist. When Ansel Adams created ‘Monolith, the Face of Half Dome’ in 1927 he fulfilled his vision and truly expressed himself for the first time. I’ve been trying to do the same, but my recent photograph of Black Sands Beach is the first time I really felt like I put something of myself into the image. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to progress, but this isn’t an artist’s statement—I need to create to the work first—this is simply my attempt to distill my ideas into a clear vision and a path I want to explore in 2017.
There are two aspects to my ideas: my visual style and my voice. Inevitably, though, the two are intertwined. The last time I wrote about expressing myself I concluded that as an immigrant a big part of my photography was building a relationship with the place I live, so that’s framed much of my thinking and provided the traditional landscape as a starting point. Stepping into years of tradition comes with an in-built sense of belonging and provides direct access to a shared cultural experience. Ultimately, however, I need to evolve or defy that framework to express what is uniquely important to me about this place.
Ultimately, I choose to photograph the natural world because I think it’s beautiful, but, if I’m honest with myself, the reasons why are more complex. There’s a sense of loneliness in being a newcomer anywhere, but bizarrely it’s more acute when surrounded by people and the city. In those situations you have to face up to the disconnect, but in the wilderness if feels somehow appropriate and as an introvert I can embrace that solitude. I need to capture that mixture of loneliness, joyful solitude and belonging in my landscapes.
It feels like I have contrasting emotions in the outdoors, but there’s an inherent duality in all aspects of my life. I’m from one place but live in another, and while I spend most of my life in the city I feel at ease away from it. With the recent election, a deep division in this country is ever-present too. There are a couple of methods I aim to capture that in my photography. The first is through timing. The transition from day to night, night to day often brings the most interesting light but it shows a place caught between two states. The second way found in ecotones. Focusing on the natural transition between two biological communities—land to ocean or forest to meadow—can highlight duality.
As I study the landscape before me I’m often faced with vast and epic scenery. Traditional landscape views often strive for grandeur and frame as much as possible, but I find myself trying to get closer to the details. To build an intimacy with a place means feeling its textures and filling your senses with everything it has to offer. Positioning myself and the camera low to the ground is another way to get closer to the land and force a depth into the frame. Selecting a depth of field that focuses on the immediate sometime adds to the dual lines of tension while capturing the intimate quality I’ve been looking for.
The role of people in my photography are significant by their absence. Two of the artists I admire the most have an interesting take on the subject. Edward Hopper’s landscapes were visions of the frontier: a fundamental part of the American identity. Civilization and nature meet, but they exist to provide a juxtaposition. Hopper famously said, “What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house” but a significant part of that quote is the clause the preceded it, “Maybe I'm not very human”. His paintings contain isolated people and buildings as evidence of humanity, but there’s an uneasy relationship and inherent tension. I like that.
By contrast, people are often missing from Ansel Adams’ work entirely as he photographed landscapes that appeared to be pristine and untouched. Other photographers, like Roger Minick, have poked fun at that myth by showing the same landscapes with tourists in frame. But the interesting thing is that he was striving for beauty through a vision of wilderness, but by today’s standards that can receive a different interpretation. In National Geographic, Timothy Egan recently described how inner-city kids saw an iconic view of Grand Teton National Park, "bathed in glorious evening light”, but thought the vision was “scary ... Empty. Forbidding. Not welcoming. They said, ‘Where are all the people?’” When I see a deserted landscape I’m happy, but I also embrace the notion that a place which makes my heart soar could strike dread into someone else’s. I want my landscapes to be free of people, or failing that, I want any trace of civilization in my photography to feel adrift or isolated.
Space is a big consideration for any photographer but I’ve also been thinking a lot about time. When I look at a landscape I like to imagine it as untouched. Maybe I’m looking for something that’s not there, at least not any more, but if I imagine it to be virgin then it doesn’t come weighted with the identity other people have given it. Trying to capture something with a timeless quality uproots it from the moment and I can lay as much claim to it as anyone else. Long exposures have become a common feature of my photography because those shots aren’t just about the fraction of a second when I opened the shutter. It’s one way to uproot the scene in time. I find something comforting about a scene that’s not anchored in one frozen moment. And what I capture is real, everything in the frame is there–stars are trailing overhead, tides come and go, light is changing–but it’s a different kind of seeing.
Maybe there’s an element of mid-life crisis in my thinking as I try to control time, to slow it or stop it, but I don’t think so. For my whole life I’ve felt out of sync with the rest of the world. I’ve always sympathized with the Brian Wilson/Tony Asher line, “I guess I just wasn't made for these times.” I feel a tension between modern life and the natural world and that relates directly back to the idea of ecotones, and as Timothy Egan wrote in the article mentioned above, “What could be a better antidote to our 8-second attention span than a landscape that is nearly 2 billion years old?”
Finally, in terms of personal aesthetics it’s no surprise that I think like a designer. I’ve come to realize that I’m drawn to simple and graphic compositions, so deciding what to frame is also about choosing what not to frame. I make an effort to remove anything distracting. I’m searching for something minimal because it’s an extension of how I think about the natural world and timeless landscapes. It also allows me to focus on the feel of a place.
When it comes to color I’ve tried a range of palettes and been pleased with many, from vibrant to muted, but the system that seems to make sense is something natural but selective because it relates directly to everything else I’m trying to accomplish.
Working through all of these aspects hasn’t set me apart from every other photographer or broken new ground, but arranging my thoughts has allowed me to work out how I can create photos that are consistent in terms of style and concept, and most importantly, an expression of myself. That’s what I’ll be working on in 2017.
- The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel – Anthony Horowitz
- Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
- Moriarty: A Novel – Anthony Horowitz
- The Long Walk – Stephen King
- The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks – Terry Tempest Williams
- The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson
- Adrian Mole: the Prostrate Years – Sue Townsend
- The Mountains Of California – John Muir
- Hopper – Rolf G. Renner
- Ansel Adams: An Autobiography – Ansel Adams
I’ve been reading Edward Hopper, about the artist, by Rolf G. Renner. I’ve always been drawn to Hopper’s paintings and wanted to know more about him and his work, but I also wanted to get a better grasp of understanding art in general. It’s to my eternal shame that I only have the most surface-level appreciation for most art given my interests and career path. I wanted to get better at reading artwork and working out how to be a better artist myself when it comes to photography.
Hopper’s work, from landscapes to cityscapes, and the lonely people and architecture that live in them have always spoken to me in a way that I understood on a very subconscious level, but never took the time or effort to articulate. Between that and an appreciation for his rendering style and color palettes I just knew I liked them and that was it.
Evan Paschal of Nerdwriter said of Hopper, “I’ve always thought of him in a sort of aromatic way, because his paintings evoke the same kind of feelings and memories in me that I get from the sense of smell, as if he was channeling directly into my limbic system, excavating moments that were stored deeply away.”
The artist Richard Diebenkorn said, “I embraced Hopper completely…It was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere…kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity. It was the kind of work that just seemed made for me. I looked at it and it was mine.” I couldn’t agree more with Parchal or Diebenkorn.
The book was absolutely fascinating. It explained the periods Hopper worked through and why everything from his choice of perspective to the composition was a deliberate choice to present something that meant more than a nice visual. I found myself skipping ahead to other paintings and trying to decode them before going back and reading the author’s take. By the end I was getting pretty good at it.
I’ve been saving most of the notes I made for something I’m trying to write about photography – something that forces me to focus on what I want to accomplish and say with my shots. But the main takeaways have been the way he treated people in his paintings as silent or completely vacant. And the way he made beautiful landscapes slightly off-kilter with perspective, or drew physical barriers between nature and civilization to establish an uneasy tension. That suddenly made sense to me.
I think I got a lot more from this book than just a deeper understanding of Hopper’s work, but a better understanding of how to appreciate artwork in general.
Comic Artists Inspiration, Part 3
If Hergé was an inspiration to me because of his clean, considered style, Bill Watterson, and his newspaper strip Calvin and Hobbes, was an inspiration for the opposite reason. That’s not to say his style was unrefined – I’m sure he worked hard to perfect such a consistent look – but it wasn’t clean. You could see the brush strokes and lines were loose, but it was so expressive it felt packed with energy. Where some newspaper strips feel tightly constrained in three sharp panels, Calvin and Hobbes was full of motion. It was fun and it taught me how to appreciate contrasting styles.
If the most important parts of a newspaper strip are the humor and the artwork, Calvin and Hobbes was one of the greatest because it consistently delivered on both accounts. The drawings were not only expressive, but full of emotion, imagination and beauty. In addition the stories provided plenty of slapstick and one-liners, but the longer plots and well developed characters produced a more subtle and genuine humor too. I learned that consistent success requires a more complex application of multiple skills.
The final aspect of Watterson’s work I drew inspiration from was his integrity. In a world awash with Garfield merchandise there was surely a huge market for Calvin and Hobbes products, but Watterson stuck to his artistic principles and resisted the licensing of his characters outside the medium. As a result, when the strip leaned towards social commentary and took a principled stand, it rang true. And Watterson also knew when to quit. After a decade of Calvin and Hobbes his interests and priorities shifted. It seemed like this wasn’t something he was willing to compromise on and made sure to leave with his legacy intact.
One year on the West Coast, Part 5
One year ago I moved from New York to California. I decided to undertake a photo-a-week project to document my first year on the West Coast while trying to become a better photographer and refine my style. Here are ten things I learned in the process:
- I’m a nature photographer
When I started this project I had vague ideas about San Francisco landmarks and signs of life around the city I could photograph, but I soon discovered they inspired me less than the natural world. I listened to my instincts and soon portraits, still life compositions and street photography took a back seat to coastlines, forests and mountains. I found a subject I want to focus on.
- Studying the conditions is critical
I started scouting locations before taking shots and this helped immensely. This wasn’t just about finding the right places but considering the optimal conditions. I started looking at the times of sunrise and sunset, the position of the sun on the horizon and the way it tracked across the sky, the weather, and even the pattern of the tides. Understanding all of these elements and how they affect the scene allowed me to make better choices and produce better results.
- Accidents happen
So far I’ve had tripods tumble, memory cards corrupt, filters shatter, cameras drown and viewfinders crack. Each incident has been painful and costly. They taught me how to minimize the risk and take better care of my equipment, but I also learned that sometimes shit just happens. Sometimes you need to take chances for the best photographs.
- I like refined elements
Maybe this relates to my work as a designer, but simple, bold and graphic compositions with a clear focal point hold more appeal for me than highly detailed, busy images. I also like refined but vibrant color palettes. These are things I’ve achieved sporadically and areas I want to work on.
- Aesthetic consistency is surprisingly difficult
In designing a book to collect the best photographs I’ve taken over the past year I found selecting which ones to include was the easy part. When I began to study which ones would pair well on a page the inconsistencies became glaring. Photos often featured similar subjects but varied depth of field and vibrancy presented a body of work which was far more inconsistent than I had previously appreciated.
- Filters make a huge difference
I’ve studied a lot of processing techniques and I know my way around Photoshop, but there’s no substitute for getting it right in camera. Filters helped me balance the light and handle exposure. Picking the right ones and learning which filters add little value have helped, but also forced me to slow down and be more considered. I’ve taken better shots as a result.
- The pros and cons of social media
I post my images on Flickr (everything), Instagram (a lot of stuff), and 500px (only the best). I try not to think about that when I’m taking photos though, because they’re for me. Likes are great for the ego but it’s easy to get distracted and lose sight of why you’re taking the shots. Social media is great for inspiration and support though, and I've learned that the more you engage with a community the more you get out of it.
- The subtleties of long exposures
I’m fascinated by long exposures. Photography is often about capturing a moment in time but long exposures allow me to study the passing of time on a place and uncover aspects of a scene that aren’t immediately visible. The difficult part is deciding when to use the technique and how to control the effect: sometimes I want to simplify the composition and create a sense of peace by turning water into glass, other times I want to hint at motion without blurring it completely.
- Visualize first
It’s so tempting to walk around with the camera in front of your face looking at everything through a lens and using that as a guide for what to shoot. Studying Ansel Adams taught me to slow down and tap into how I feel about a location. Taking the time to think, then visualizing how an image could reflect those thoughts, forces you to decide what a photograph should express before taking it. The resulting image will be more meaningful with a degree of self-expression.
- I’ve only started finding my voice
One lofty goal I set for myself was to find my voice as a photographer. I learned that my photos are are about building a connection with the new place I call home and that self expression can be very subtle. I’m moving in the right direction but I have a long way to go.
At the end of this project I feel like a better photographer; not a great one, but a better one. I aim to keep improving through refining my skills and greater continuity, but I also want to become a better artist and that’s going to be harder.
Comic Artists Inspiration, Part 2
The second comic artist I highlighted as an inspiration was Hergé, the creator of Tintin. His artwork was defined by his 'ligne claire' style: clean lines, all of the same weight and without the shading and solid black areas that define much of the genre. The tidy, considered style appealed to me on an aesthetic level and his choice of colors looked so refined. It seemed like he was making a lot of smart and informed decisions.
If Dudley Watkins was the first comic artist I actually realized was creating this artwork, Hergé was the first I saw to be elevating the medium and going beyond what was either necessary or expected. I didn’t immediately appreciate this, but he studied Constructivist design, Modernist architecture, and Eastern art. They all influenced his work and as a result his compositions and color schemes were far beyond anything else I saw. It made the whole genre seem more credible.
Today one of my favorite comic artists and writers is John Arne Sæterøy (usually just called Jason), a Norwegian who tells short stories with expressionless anthropomorphic animals. They’re often dark, subtle and touching stories, delivered with a very dry sense of humor. These are perfectly to my taste, and while they’re not for kids, I see a direct relationship in the artwork to Hergé’s style. To think that you can find inspiration in one aspect of something, then take in another completely different direction and make your own thing is very exciting.
If there’s one other aspect of Hergé's work I find inspiring it’s the evolution of his craft. Looking at the early books beside the later ones you can see how the artwork evolved from simple comic strips to sophisticated graphics. And it wasn’t just the artwork. Some of the early books have been called racist. They're certainly of their time and occasionally depict characters that are, at best, racial stereotypes, but just as the drawings evolved so did his writing. Hergé not only improved in that aspect, he became critical of racist attitudes and attempted to educate his audience on that subject in books like The Blue Lotus. In a time when artists aren’t always given the opportunity to develop it’s fascinating to study the transitions in Hergé's work.
Respond on Twitter: @derickcarss
Comic Artists Inspiration, Part 1
In a recent DSGN HAUS Design Jam, a monthly get-together where we discuss our work, influences and design in general, everyone on the team shared someone or something that inspired us. The only requirement was to choose something that wasn’t directly related to our specific roles. That could, for example, be a film, a genre of music or an author, but not another designer or developer.
I chose to share five comic book artists who have provided me with inspiration. I didn’t go into great depth with any, just touching on a few key points of influence, but I thought they’d be worth sharing here too. The first person I chose was Dudley D. Watkins.
Watkins was an illustrator who made his name at D.C. Thomson in Dundee, working as a cartoonist from the twenties through to the sixties. He contributed to most of the comics they produced, although probably most famously for their leading publications The Beano and The Dandy. His style was widely recognized and influenced a generation of British comic artists.
I think Watkins was the first person I ever realized was behind the curtain. When you’re a young kid reading comics you take it for granted they arrive fully-formed in the newsagent. I didn’t stop to consider that someone has to write the stories, someone has to draw them, and often there’s a colorist, typographer or other specialist crafting everything into a finished product. I remember seeing Watkins’ signature in the corner of some panels and it began to dawn on me that someone was responsible for creating these. And maybe they were actually getting paid for it! That seemed like a job I wanted.
As I learned more about the Watkins and his work I realized how prolific he had been. I had to pick up old comics and annuals at thrift stores and jumble sales, but his unmistakable style was everywhere. He drew Desperate Dan, Lord Snooty, Biffo the Bear, Ginger and a bunch of other strips. The output wasn’t something I admired until much later, but it seemed like he worked the way a child does: don’t overthink it, just sit down and draw. It all seemed so effortless, natural and a lot of fun. It made me think there was a creative job waiting for me one day.
The final reason I saw Watkins as a source of inspiration was his work for the Sunday Post. His two full-page strips every week, Oor Wullie and The Broons, were the highlight of the day. They were just as entertaining as his other strips, but the characters spoke in a Scottish dialect decades before Irvin Welsh was acclaimed for the same thing with Trainspotting. It was like being in a select group who could decode something secret. I started to sense that no matter where you were from you could create something with your own voice and it would always be valued.
Respond on Twitter: @derickcarss
One Year on the West Coast, Part 4
With every photo I’ve taken as part of this project, good or bad, I’ve learned something. And with every article I’ve read or tutorial I’ve watched my technical abilities have improved. I’ve made definite progress, but while there’s no shortage of educational resources or opportunities to try new skills, there’s a part of the equation that’s been missing: self expression.
One of the goals I set for myself with this project was to find my voice as a photographer, but honestly, I had no idea how to begin. It seemed like it should be obvious but when I asked myself what I wanted to say I didn’t have an answer. Photographers love to review equipment or explain the finer points of exposure but they’re not as forthcoming with an explanation of how to use that knowledge as an artist. It’s not even clear what makes an artist an artist, so I looked to an undisputed recipient of the term for answers: Ansel Adams.
Ansel Adams was one of America’s greatest photographers. I came to appreciate his work through my love for the national parks he’s synonymous with, both as a photographer and environmentalist. His striking black and white landscapes, especially from Yosemite, are greater than the sum of their parts, but I found it hard to explain why. As his work evolved Adams drew inspiration from many sources including the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. He said, “Rather than say Stieglitz influenced me in my work, I would say that he revealed me to myself.” That’s exactly what I wanted; I knew I didn’t want to copy Adams’ work, but I hoped he would provide me with enough insight to find my own path.
I turned to Adams’ autobiography for some direction. He too focused on establishing strong technical abilities first, then used them as a vehicle for his creativity, saying, “I consider myself an artist who employs certain techniques to free my vision.” As an example, his ‘Zone System’ for understanding exposure was a skill he passed on to students so they could work effectively with the medium and, “express themselves with conviction and enthusiasm.”
As such, Adams preferred the term ‘making a picture’ to shooting or taking because it referenced that creative process. But even then, being creative isn’t necessarily being artistic. As a designer I’m expected to be creative on a daily basis, but sometimes that’s about problem solving and sometimes it’s about helping others express themselves. I don’t believe creativity produces art without a degree of self expression and Adams himself said, “what counts in art is what’s inside of us.” Expressing myself, however, hasn’t come as easily.
“Visualization is not simply choosing the best filter…” Adams explained, “The photographer visualizes his conception of the subject as presented in the final print. He achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique — aesthetic, mechanical and intellectual.” It goes without saying that the intellectual part is the most difficult but visualizing the image before you take the picture forces you to ask what you want to create; you must tap into something personal before using your technical skills to capture it.
Adams said, “If something moves me, I do not question what it is or why; I am content to be moved. If I am sufficiently moved and it has aesthetic potential, I will make a picture.” This reassured me because following my instincts seemed a realistic approach towards self expression, and personal aesthetics were something I already had ideas about. I couldn’t do my job without a grasp of such fundamentals as composition, texture and tone. I prefer simple, graphic compositions and refined color palettes. Black Sands Beach, probably my most successful photo so far, is the best example I have of this.
At that point I definitely felt like I was getting somewhere. I was establishing my own graphic qualities and following my instincts, but there were two stumbling blocks that made me second-guess things. Firstly, I was expecting to tap into big emotions and ideas that would now come shining through if I only listened to my instincts but that never happened. And secondly, anything which feels ‘arty’ is an immediate turn off for me. I’ve never enjoyed any medium when it seems overtly theatrical, but somehow a photo in itself didn’t seem substantial enough.
Looking to the work of Adams again I began to realize both sticking points were products of my own pre-conceived ideas of what art is. Reassurances on both issues came from the ‘straight photography’ movement Adams associated himself with. He described their philosophy as, “photographs that looked like photographs, not imitations of other art forms.” Similarly, he praised the work of Eugène Atget because, “His work is a revelation of the simplest aspects of his environment. There is no superimposed symbolic motive, no tortured application of design, no intellectual axe to grind.” Not only can a successful photograph be free from the hangups that define other mediums, it may be a direct result of that approach.
This project is about more than photography, it’s also about getting to know the new landscape I now call home.
Adams also admired the work of another ‘straight photographer’, Edward Weston. He recalling that Weston, “rarely photographed anything he did not find interest in; his pictures were reflections of his inner spiritual and unconscious drive.” For his own work he simply stated, “the Natural Scene — just nature — is a symbol of many things to me, a never ending potential.” When I began to appreciate the more sophisticated depth of feeling these artists felt for their surroundings I had a breakthrough of sorts. Their expression didn’t have to reflect overwhelming emotions or a world-changing viewpoint.
As I came to terms with the fact that most of us experience our passions in more subtle ways I found a moment of clarity in what I was trying to achieve. This project is about more than photography, it’s also about getting to know the new landscape I now call home. As an immigrant, place is extremely important to me; processing the complex way I feel about that is essential if I want to feel a connection with it. When Adams said, “I believe one must live in a region for a considerable time and absorb it’s character and spirit before the work can truly reflect the experience of the place” my goals came into focus. In time I might be able to capture the experience of this place, but right now I’m trying to capture my experience with it and express either a struggle with the unfamiliar or a growing sense of belonging.
Adams said, “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed, and is, thereby, a true manifestation of what one feels about life in its entirety.” That’s an overwhelming statement, so huge it’s crippling. But working through this process has suggested some small steps in the right direction. I want to continue making photos of natural scenes, spending more time with them and refining my own graphic aesthetics. By following my instincts, considering how I feel about my surrounds, and visualizing the end result before pressing the shutter release I hope the end results will be more meaningful and expressive.
Learn more about Ansel Adams at Artsy.
- Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis – Timothy Egan
- Lolito – Ben Brooks
- Dark Lies the Island – Kevin Barry
- The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ – Sue Townsend
- Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
- Galápagos – Kurt Vonnegut
- The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor – Gabriel García Márquez
- Redemption Falls – Joseph O'Connor
- In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette – Hampton Sides
- The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America – Bill Bryson
One Year on the West Coast, Part 3
This morning I got out of bed while it was still dark and drove to the Marin Headlands. I found the trailhead and climbed half a mile uphill by the light of my phone. As the sun began to rise over San Francisco I set up my tripod and started to photograph the scene. I spent an hour experimenting with filters and compositions as the light changed and everything seemed right with the world.
“I was in the right place at the right time and it felt like I was taking my best photographs so far.”
Just as I was about to head home I noticed the fog inching in from the ocean. I knew if it crept all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge I had a chance to take an iconic Californian shot, so I decided to wait. It took well over an hour to reach the bridge but as the fog tickled the towers and slid over the hillside I was ready. My composition was framed and my setup balanced the light. I was in the right place at the right time and it felt like I was taking my best photographs so far. And then my memory card corrupted.
I swapped in a spare card and grabbed a couple more shots. They looked good but the light had changed and the moment was essentially gone. I tried everything to recover the images when I got home, but they were beyond repair. On the bright side I had those final images and even if I didn’t capture that moment, I got to experience it. A small consolation, but it was something.
This situation seemed to typify the last three months of the project. A few weeks previously I’d been at Baker Beach hoping to capture the sunset. I sidestepped the sunbathing nudists and climbed over multiple rocks to find the right angle and a bit of peace. Everything was going well until my tripod toppled in a moment of carelessness. Two filters shattered on the rocks and the shoot ran aground. Again, I tried to be positive; my camera and lens survived the fall, a minor miracle in itself, and the shot I captured before the accident seemed reasonably good.
Between those two incidents I’d dedicated myself to learning new skills. I undertook numerous SkillShare classes on landscape photography andprocessing skills. I read books about filter techniques and studied other photographers’ portfolios. The more I learned, however, the more I fell short of my own rising standards, but there is hope.
The two disastrous shoots I described produced two of my most popular photos online. One was featured in Flickr Explore and both reached ‘Popular’ on 500px. These are small victories in the face of defeat, but I’ve learned a painful lesson. You can have all the equipment, skill and education, but timing and luck are beyond your control. The best I can do is take some risks and try. As they say in Scotland, failing means you’re playing.
One year on the West Coast, Part 2
When I decided to take a photo per week for my first year in California it seemed like a huge project, but time flies when you’re having fun and a quarter of the year is already behind me. With thirteen photos captured I’ve already learned more than I hoped to.
The first lesson is that composition is crucial. I used to judge everything by eye, and usually the results were half decent, but using my camera’s grid function and Photoshop’s smart crop tool have made a noticeable difference. Paying attention to the rule of thirds when I’m setting up the shot has led to more pleasing layouts and less effort in development.
Any photographer will tell you that an awareness of light conditions is essential when shooting landscapes. I knew this in theory and clearly it’s easier to take a photo when it’s bright, but the light in California is so dramatic, especially at dusk and dawn, I’ve been willing to chase it. It’s worth rising before the sun to watch the colors change over San Rafael Bay, and while the view from Mount Tamalpais is always impressive, when the sun is sinking behind an ocean of cloud it’s magnificent.
Previously many of my best shots benefited from some human interest, but … people don’t really interest me. That sounds terrible and I’d like to think I’m not a misanthrope — I certainly enjoy taking snaps of my family and friends — but I am introverted and the natural world holds more fascination. Every time we go hiking we see tiny lizards and I always try to take their photograph. It’s amazing when one sits still long enough for a portrait.
On the subject of photographing wildlife, however, it’s a skill that still largely evades me. My wife discovered there were a pair of Bald Eagles frequenting the beach near Jenner and three times we drove up there at six o’clock in the morning to see. Watching them fish, fight and fly was an amazing experience but even when I rented a 400mm lens I struggled to geta shot I was happy with. Due to the patience, timing and sheer luck involved the best I could do was a Peregrine Falcon hunting in a field nearby. I don’t like to blame my tools but until I can afford a seriously expensive lens I’ll most likely be disappointed with the results.
Finally, I’ve really enjoyed worked with long exposures. Sometimes that means shooting in darkness and sometimes using a neutral density filter. I’ve been using the Lee Big Stopper (a 10-stop ND filter) for many of these and I’m really happy with the results. Using a tripod, filters and manual focus has forced me to slow down and craft the shot. That doesn’t always mean it’s better but it always feels more rewarding. My natural reaction has been to shy away from overplaying this hand because it’s just one solution and a shot can’t rely on that alone, but given that I enjoy it and I want to find my own style it’s worth following that path to its conclusion.
One year on the West Coast, Part 1
Three months ago my wife and I packed up our lives and headed West, moving from New York to San Francisco. It was our second long-distance move in a few years, having emigrated from Scotland to America in the fall of 2011. The fact I initially chose the word fall and not autumn probably tells how settled I feel in this country, and rather than seeing this move as an upheaval, it seemed like another adventure.
Adventures should always be documented, and I’m glad I chose to do so in my first year on the East Coast. I undertook a photo-a-day project, and while it occasionally became a chore and there were inevitably days when I felt uninspired, I still carried my camera and grabbed a shot of something. On the best days I captured something special, on the worst something mundane, but more often than not I forced myself to explore in hope of finding something weird or wonderful and it helped me get to know my new home.
Looking back on that collection of photos with the perspective of a few years I can see a story and, like the folded page of a novel, every image takes me right back to that chapter. I can also see what I learned as a photographer. The hectic schedule forced me to be inventive and undiscriminating; I shot everything from candid street shots, portraits and considered landscapes tothe seasons and abstract compositions. I can see where I succeeded and where I failed, but I also began to appreciate which shots I enjoy taking most.
When we decided to move to California I knew I’d have to undertake a new project that would capture the adventure, but I wanted different parameters and outcomes. Taking a photo every day sometimes meant gathering a lot of average shots, so my first decision was to focus on one per week. At a slower pace each shot could be researched, planned and considered. I could take the lessons I learned previously and try to apply them with more craft. The second decision was to keep all the photos landscape in orientation. This restriction may be problematic at times, but it may also force creativity when those situations arise.
Beyond these simple rules I only had one concern: by the end of this project I want to find my voice as a photographer. It sounds pretentious but developing a style will give me a greater chance to become really competent in one area. I’d rather be a master of one trade than a jack of them all and pursuing the type of shots I enjoy most will make the whole project more fun. I plan to write updates on how the project progresses and what I learn.
Learning from first-hand experience
Before I moved to San Francisco I was a designer at Bureau Blank. As a consultancy we valued the importance our clients’ specialities and knew great work begins with a deep understanding of the problem, the context around it and those who experience it. Research can take many forms but sometimes it’s useful to take a step back and get to know your client’s business from a holistic point of view. On a photography project for one of our clients, an expert developer and operator of energy businesses, I was lucky enough to experience this perspective with site visits in three countries.
Our first stop was a wind farm in Brazil. It was fascinating to see the huge turbines towering over the landscape, but it was the company’s social projects that really made an impact on me. I understood their commitment to sustainable energy but as we visited schools, arts classes and sports activities I better understood their vision of sustainable communities. Meeting the children who benefited from guitar lessons or learning how to grow vegetables gave their work a sense of authenticity I could bring to the designs I produced.
From Latin America we flew to Europe to visit solar energy and natural gas plants in Italy. The employees ensured we were properly instructed on all the safety procedures and wearing the correct equipment. It’s easy to grasp the importance of safety in principle, but as we stood on the roof of a factory fitted with solar panels, carefully harnessed to the support wires, the reality of the situation for those who work there ceased to be theoretical. When I think of the employees they’re no longer personas to consider, they’re real people with genuine use-case scenarios.
Our final location was Bulgaria where the alphabet is constructed with Cyrillic script. As I studied corporate newsletters and posters in a language I couldn’t read the familiar aspects of the business came into clear focus. The words may have been translated but everyone was dealing with the same challenges and goals. It was through these channels that the importance of a united brand shone through.
In total I traveled to five power plants with a photographer to capture images of the client’s work. Seeing things first hand brought a deeper level of understanding and a fresh sense of their mission. We may have spent the majority of the trip looking through a camera lens, but really I was looking through a new perspective, one I recommend seeking out in every client relationship.
The importance of ongoing learning
Originally published on the Bureau Blank Blog
In a recent blog post I discussed the myth that design is the mastery of a medium. The concept of specific skills and techniques that someone could become proficient in, then apply over and over with successful results was always a simplified view that didn’t encourage new ideas and fresh thinking, but as both technology and its users evolve at pace, anyone who stands still is soon left behind. Ongoing education has never been more important in the field.
Over the past three months I’ve been studying User Experience Design at General Assembly. While some of the curriculum covered issues I was already engaged with in my day-to-day work, I had a fantastic tutor, Luke Miller, who brought a great deal of real-world experience to every lesson and encouraged me to tackle a project that would really push me. I decided to create the user experience for a hiking app on the Apple Watch, a technology that isn’t even available yet.
In the course of my research I defined a user persona who didn’t really want to engage with technology at all; they simply wanted to enjoy the great outdoors without the interruptions of a glowing screen, but they still needed subtle directional cues. This was an interesting challenge that meant focusing on the essentials, but designing for the Apple Watch pushed things to the extreme because the tiny screen left no room for embellishment.
Thinking in the context of a device that functions differently to every other medium I’ve designed for forced me to focus purely on the problem and move away from design patterns I was familiar with. I had no benchmarks for reference and had to rely on user testing for guidance on what was successful. This is where the real lessons were learned and by application, became ingrained.
In the end I was really pleased with the concept I produced and the skills I learned, but there were other benefits too. In my classmates I met a great group of people with a diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives. Their creativity both inspired and energized me. This explains our belief at Bureau Blank that ongoing learning is not an optional extra but an essential part of the designer’s role.