Takeaway 9/11

What if we could? What if we could scratch it from our history? Just remove it. The catastrophic event so tragic for a nation, typically the purveyor of large scale tragedies since our very beginning. So much of our existence in these 2000s have been defined by our collective shock, trauma, and fear by September 11, 2001. If we could simply cut it out, like you would a tumor, how would we be different? How would we look today without the weight of that epic day, that generation defining tragedy, no longer the heavy burden around our necks as we try to trudge forward?

Exhausted Capitalism

Aren’t you tired of it all? I am. All the buying and selling, selling and buying. America has too much of it. This “marketing mindset” is just getting old. The constant message barrage in one media stream after another is that buying is the key to everything; happiness, success, love, fame. Sure, family is important, community is key, leisure is a must, but before you get to any of that, gotta buy-buy-buy. This ad says so, as does that one. It’s all fucking exhausting. Nothing is ever enough. You can never be satisfied. There is no turning back. Can we simply push pause on this whole enterprise and just see what happens?

So what’s my problem with capitalism? I have lots.

With capitalism, your hands are tied. With capitalism, you don’t see a full picture. With capitalism, there isn’t room for much else. Every person in the world is a potential consumer, buyer, or supporter of X, Y, or Z? That sounds terrible, even if it’s in reference to creativity, an industry that I love.

Capitalism leaves us collectively unable to fully address our health care crisis, climate change crisis, or education crisis. All areas in which the crisis being faced has been exacerbated by capitalism.

Capitalism leaves us personally lacking, stunted, or spinning in circles chasing money first and foremost. A mindset focused squarely on capital can only take you so far.

There’s a difference between making a good living in the creative industry and capitalism. I like to think I’m good at the former, not so much at the latter. And I am inherently suspicious of people who are really good at capitalism. Because for people who are really good at capitalism, they fall into a line of thinking that will always answer the question of how much is enough with this very simple word: more.

In a finite world, never being satisfied, always needing more, eventually leaves you with nothing. In body, mind, spirit, and even in your bank account.

Embrace capitalism? Oh hell no.

If we’re going to move forward as a society, to create more equitable economies, healthier environments, functioning governments, and inclusive spaces for creativity to flourish in, then we need less capitalism, not more.

Again, on Facebook

Primer #1: The Facebook Dilemma

Primer #2: Operation Infektion

Primer #3: What Facebook Knew and Tried to Hide

Primer #4: On Facebook

I loved the middle years of Facebook. The optimism and the spirit of it all. Connecting the world, making it more open and better for everyone. And that optimism was everywhere in the world of tech startups. I worked with one during that time. It was great. Until it wasn’t.

There’s something to be said about thinking the thing you’re working on can never be bad. That notion can really fuel your day. It can drive you to work harder, faster, and more often. It can also blind you. When you refuse to stop, look twice, and listen more, you fail to see if the place you’re heading could end up being bad. I’m not talking about failure and failing often, all that pep talk stuff. I’m talking about the opposite of good. To the point where there are significant consequences.

I was hesitant to create a Facebook account all those years ago, but then close friends would tell me how great it was for getting your ideas out there. When true believers told me Mark Zuckerberg just had a more advanced view of privacy and that was a good thing, I paused, but then nodded and went along. Having a big private company control all my personal data sounded wrong, but then I continued to share personal data on my “timeline” anyway. Using the Login/Signup with Facebook button for other sites was weird to me, but eventually I used it all the time. The idea of scrolling forever looking for content to hit the like button on seemed sad, but there I was, scrolling and liking because it felt so delightful. So many red flags ignored, all in the name of wanting to be “liked.”

As the story of fake news, Russian trolls, and data misuse has continued to grow, my rage at the company has followed suit. It’s funny to think about how I used to see Facebook. It was a massive company full of young people working hard to change the world for the better, in a liberal state, with a cool vibe, building a product and a culture everyone was on board with. Despite my innate suspicion with corporations and cults, I failed to scrutinize Facebook in any real way. And as with most people who have used their product, that’s changing now.

Because now it’s painfully obvious they’re just like any monopoly who has abused power throughout history. They lack ethics, they fail to take responsibility, and they simply want their customers to trust them, no matter what. Those days are over.

At the top of the tech/startup food chain, Facebook set the tone. How it chose to work, what it valued, and what lines it would not cross. (Apparently there are no lines it would not cross.) In my experience in the tech space, so often companies were trying to be the Facebook of this or that, or create something like a Facebook feature or engagement metric. And it’s my biggest issue with the world of tech, as well as design, that can be found in so much of the scandals at Facebook.

That issue is this. In its vision, it proclaims it’s doing world-changing stuff that’s making a real difference in the lives of everyone who comes into contact with their mighty product/idea. Yet on the flip side, when something goes awry, the tepid response deflects any notion of responsibility because they are in no way in the business of effecting the real world lives of anyone who comes into contact with their inconsequential product/idea.

Facebook, as well as anyone in the tech or design space, can’t have it both ways.

The lesson in all of this, establish your ethics, and then hold firm. Because without them, you’re just an asshole trying to make a quick buck, regardless of the consequences. And as with Facebook, those consequences can be dire.

We can all hope for Facebook to be better. I want them to be. I’ll be following along from the outside as I deactivated my account last week. But also, anyone in the world of tech and design needs to take a hard look at Facebook and not be like them. We need more technologists, designers, and entrepreneurs to take responsibility for what they create, all the time. Not only when it’s making us look good, but also when it’s making us look really bad. Because with both the good and the bad, things turn out that way due to the actions we chose to take. And we simply have to take responsibility for our choices, there’s no other way forward.

A conference full of educators

I’ve been to my fair share of conferences. Design, tech, sustainability, activism. Last week I made it to my first conference focused on education. Hosted by the BARR Center, over 300 teachers, administrators, and advocates came together in Moreno Valley, California to learn from each other and immerse themselves in the challenges facing public education in America.

When it comes to the education of our kids, I feel that nothing should stand in the way. But as we all know, so much stands in the way. Funding, resources, bureaucracy, poverty, racism, apathy, and on and on. The question of how can we provide high-quality education for all is often replaced with how can we just get through the day. Which is absolutely heartbreaking. 

However, at this conference, the educators in attendance brought their passion for teaching and optimism for change in education that is very much possible.

The story of BARR is one of success, from 1998 to now. Started by Angela Jerabek in one school just outside of Minneapolis, the program is currently in 88 schools in 13 states. In all cases, no matter the school size or makeup, there are proven results. Better attendance rates, decreases in suspension days, and higher GPAs.Whatever metric is looked at, the results are there. 

How is this possible? I think it’s because it’s a program by teachers, for teachers, with the goal of doing their very best by every single one of their students. The other thing I kept hearing at the conference from everyone who was using the program is that it’s both firm and flexible, which means it can be applied anywhere.

I also heard plenty of success stories. From principal Karen Johnson at Valley View High and from the superintendent of Moreno Valley Unified School District Martinrex Kedziora. From veteran teachers 20+ years in the profession to those just starting out.

Speakers who are leaders in the movement for education reform included Dr. Pedro Noguera who spoke about leading with equity, Nadya Chinoy Dabby who spoke about how we can model the best of our cultural values through education, and LaShawn Routé Chatmon spoke about turning toward one another with constructivist listening.

All in all, I left feeling inspired and energized. With the division the country is dealing with currently, working to make education available for all our kids no matter what is the type of work where we can all come together to make lasting change happen. And if we do that, we’ll all be better off for it.

Wanna dance (freelance)?

I’ve met up with a few designers over the last couple weeks to discuss design and its challenges. One topic that came up repeatedly was on the business of going independent. The how and the why, the pros and cons. Questions around such things always seem timely, especially as the workforce in general continues to be filled with more independent contractors. 99u has a good article on the subject, including a lot of stuff I’ve discussed before and certainly agree with.

So to supplement, if I were to distill down the main points I want young (and old) designers to consider before going freelance, I’d want you to focus in on these points:

  1. You get the clients, you retain the clients. And you should have a few before you even think about going out on your own.
  2. If you’re worried about where your next projects will come from or if you’re worried about delivering on the projects you currently have, that’s good. That worry will never go away. Get used to it.
  3. When you work for yourself, you work more, not less. And not just on the “cool” stuff. But on administration, project management, proposals for work you don’t get, paying taxes, selling the work, making changes, getting feedback, doing QA, instructing the printer, responding to emails, and juggling and juggling and juggling. That last one is a metaphor.
  4. What if you say yes to this one project, a project you’re pretty into, you get all booked up and busy, and then another project comes along that’s even better, in fact you’re way more excited about this new one, but the timeline is way too fast, you can’t do both, and because you’re already committed, you have to say no, and it sucks, and you feel terrible about what was lost that could’ve been. Yep, that’s a thing. Deal with it.
  5. Come up with incentives to get clients to do what you want. Whether that’s related to timelines, budgets, or both.
  6. And finally, this list has gone on long enough, you need to get back to work. My final thing is this: Before you go out on your own, you need to know how much design work costs a client for them to utilize your design skills on any number of projects in varying degrees of need and complexity. If you don’t, it’s going to be a rocky, uncertain road. It already will be, but more so. 

We invaded Iraq 15 years ago

Hard to believe. I remember watching the invasion unfold on CNN. The bombs and the blasts. Operation Iraqi Freedom. American boots on the ground. Ready to be treated as liberators. Because we couldn’t allow a madman to remain in control. And he had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). So we would invade quick, liberate quick, be out quick. For the cost of about $200 million. Small price to pay for freedom of the people and stability in the region.

What’s unfolded since has been absolutely horrific. Maiming and torture and death. More than $3 trillion later, and counting. All because of a dangerous ideology held by a majority of the American government. And for that matter, its citizens. That we are exceptional and we are called to shape the world in our image of capitalist democracy. Very manifest destiny.

Now, I’m not qualified to comment on such things in any official capacity, aside from being a citizen. The Iraq War is an issue of geopolitics and this is a collection of writing about design and collaboration. But it should be noted, that as a life event, the war in Iraq was incredibly formative for how I think about design’s place in the world.

My grandfather fought in WWII. He was in the shit. D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, real “Band of Brothers” situations. He lived through it and the medals he earned were displayed in his modest farm house. The stories he shared always left me in awe. He was a simple man who participated in great, consequential events. When he was 22, he was fighting Nazis in far off lands. For freedom, against fascism. When I was 22, right before the Iraq War started, I was trying to cobble together a design portfolio.

Unsure of my future, I had thoughts of what a potential draft would look like. After 9-11, America was now fighting the War on Terror. For freedom, against terrorism. Why wouldn’t it call to arms its citizens to join the fighting ranks and take on our existential enemy? Because shopping was America’s call to action. Capitalism, after all, requires people to spend their capital, no matter the national mood. Not to join a government-run bureaucracy like the military. Hence, no draft. But a plea to buy, buy, buy.

I got my first real job at an ad agency when the invasion took place. Designing for sprinkler systems. Paying off my student loans. Using my health insurance. Trying to find my place in America. As I was learning on the job how to be a graphic designer, while being highly tuned into the war playing out in the media, I got really interested in protest posters and design for a cause. I contacted anti-war groups and started designing for them for free—flyers, banners, signs, websites. With a few other designers, I put on art exhibitions and created other projects centered around activism and opposition to the war.

As the fighting went on, getting worse and worse, it felt like the lies and deception would always be us. As would the blind patriotism and unquestioning dedication of flag-waving USA-USA-USA chants. How long it took for it to be okay to criticize the war was really unsettling. Speak out and be written off as young and naive, incapable of understanding a dangerous new world. A new world where we just had to torture people because those were the stakes now. Speak out more and be called an unpatriotic member of the angry left. Be labeled a troublemaker, weakening America, a threat to the nation.

But eventually, we got to Obama. The fog of war seemed to clear away. We were going to be sensible moving forward. Now the government would be better, the media would be better, the citizens would be better.

As great as all it seemed in 2008, we’ve learned little. As a country, we are still struggling with who we are, how we should behave, and where it is we’re going.

I’ve since left that first real job and have tried to use my design skills as a citizen would, part of the effort to make a better world. Using various mediums, crafting messages, collaborating with activists, in the cause of truth and justice and peace. Fighting less against a threat from the outside, but instead battling with America’s own internal divisions. How we thought we were when we invaded Iraq was completely wrong. That thinking has been proven dangerous. How we think of ourselves now, we aren’t sure, but we need to figure it out quickly. Given the state of the world and the forces at play in it.

Yes, we invaded Iraq 15 years ago. We’re still there. And I don’t think America has fully grasped the implications for not only how we view our past, but how we plan to move into the future.