The Basics of Breakfast

It’s been kind of a refreshing past few months for me. I’ve been really nerdy about my budgeting so far, and I find that I’m a bit better at budgeting my money than my calories.

I comfort myself in the fact that I can at least succeed in something, if not attaining rock-hard abs, then controlling myself to not fall into a pit of uncontrollable debt.

More importantly, I’ve been really looking at defining these measures of success.

Surprisingly, I find victories not in the overall idea of spending as little as possible, but rather, in the value of what I spend the money and time in.

In a way, I might be spending the same amount of money as in the past, but now I find I am getting much, much more value out of it.

It feels very progressive.

I found out some pretty interesting things about myself.

I haven’t purchased butter or milk or flour for over three months.

I used to think that these were food staples in the house. For a while, I was kind of into baking and making crackers and bread. It was a nice thing to do to keep busy, and I did enjoy it once in a while.

The problem was that Trung did not like eating cookies or pastries. He enjoyed fruits and nuts more, and always made a stupid face when I would offer him a cinnamon bun that I made or a slice of banana bread. (I know. What a weirdo.)

And secondly, I was getting fatter because I was alone in eating all this junk.

Thirdly, I don’t like milk. I don’t eat cereal. I was buying milk because I figured all people had milk in their fridges.

And so, the milk always went bad, the flour would sit in the pantry for months, and the butter… was in the fridge forever. I would bake stuff just to get rid of it.

Once I cut that out of my grocery list, I started opting for one-time/single-serve trips to the bakery nearby. I really like pastries, but I also didn’t want to store them in bulk.

While it was definitely cheaper to make your own bread and snacks, in the long run, I was getting fatter and eating more stuff that really slowed me down during the day.

Sure, a fancy pastry would ring up to about $4 for a croissant, but that also came with the exercise to walk to said bakery and get out of the house.

Plus, working with my own flaws, I knew that I would almost always be too lazy to go out for the fancy pastry anyway.

And unsurprisingly, this turned out to be true. In the last month, I’ve only gone for the fancy pastry once.

So in the end, I was actually not spending any more money on fancy pastries and coffee than I had been when I was making them on my own.

Weird, right?

I put that money into fruits and veggies instead. Okay, I put it to wine.

So that adjustment resulted in me spending a bit more money on different staples.

Instead of bread and jam and butter for go-to breakfast staples, I swapped this out with fruits and vegetables. Now, there is always either a banana, an apple, or a small container of baby carrots within reach.

I thought I’d get sick of this shit, eating the same stuff over and over, but to be honest, I haven’t yet.

Come to think of it, crackers and bread are a lot more boring to eat over and over; compared to fruits, where you can rotate between sweet and sour a lot of the time. Green apple one day, a sweet banana the next.

Sometimes, I’d even spring for a nice Asian mini-rice bowl. Simple rice, egg, and soy sauce. Some green onions chopped up, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and I’m golden.

Now, a few months later, I don’t find myself missing the bread and pastries too terribly. It’s kind of like getting used to a haircut or new shoes. I’m eating way healthier, too!

Also, the part of my fridge where the milk used to be has now been replaced with a bottle of wine. So much better!

Again, I’m not necessarily spending any less money, but come on. Wine!

Keeping to the Basics

I think it really does come down to how well you know yourself, and not letting the idea of “the perfect X” dictate your actions.

The idea of the perfect breakfast for me used to be a hot cup of coffee and a beautiful croissant slathered in butter and jam, some kind of nice omelette, and a folded newspaper off to the side. I think it’s because I grew up with those images from movies and shows that I watched. Even commercials. Especially commercials.

Occasionally, yes. But not every day!

The thought extends itself to the idea of “Keeping up with the Jones’s” and really, how absolutely awful and ridiculous it is to keep comparing yourself to others.

Being really honest with myself, my breakfast actually just consists of a hot cup of coffee, a piece of fruit, and looking at Facebook on my phone while Tina Tuna relaxes in a patch of sunlight on the floor.

And I don’t feel any less ashamed about that!

The Perks of Making Your Own Clothing

One of my favourite things ever about knitting is that I can re-do a lot of my old projects. Because I know how it’s constructed, I’m able to adjust. “Frogging” is a term for when you unravel a garment, I think because the yarn makes a funny “rrrrrrbbbbbb” sound when you yank on it.

Some people may hate the idea of frogging a project, but I’m kind of okay with it. For example, this bad boy was a cardigan I made a few years back:

Amiga

It was one of the first sweaters I had tried with a seed stitch, along with a few other modifications. It was a great sweater to learn on.

I had also splurged a little on the yarn and bought my first handful of SweetGeorgia Yarn’s Superwash Worsted. I still recall walking into the yarn store for the first time and feeling so excited to purchase “legit yarn.”

But every time I wore it, part of the neck and shoulders didn’t sit right. Perhaps I had modified it too much, or I had missed a few structural elements, but it kept sliding off my shoulders.

I researched all the ways I could possibly fix this; including reinforcing the back neck with single crochet stitches, as well as lining the edges with thicker hemming. I even thought about just knitting the cardigan shut and turning it into a pullover.

In the end, I realized that I was beginning to hate wearing this sweater as much as I had enjoyed making it.

And the very cool thing I realized is that I could just start over.

I didn’t have to give it away to some poor sod who would have to deal with the shitty construction. I didn’t have to feel bad and stuff it in the back of my closet. Best of all, I didn’t need to throw it away.

Another thing to note is the quality of this yarn. Because of my little splurge, the yarn itself held strong over the years, even after a few trips to the washing machine. It didn’t break apart when I frogged it, and neither did the colours really change.

It was like I went yarn shopping inside my closet and found a new addition to my stash.

Awesome, right?!

Bottom Lines

Trung and I talk about our work often, as most good friends do. And what usually ends up happening is a dissection of the personalities that we both deal with in our lines of work.

Okay, it usually ends up with both of us getting drunk and then watching Midsomer Murders to yell about how much we miss Sgt. Troy, but the lead-up to that is always interesting.

One of our general themes has been to differentiate people by their bottom lines.

Despite the differences in web development and commercial plumbing, our conversations always boil down to this saying, which I think Trung really should trademark:

It’s not the job, it’s the people.

What is this person’s bottom line?

This almost always affects the outcome of the work and how many fistfights you are bound to have.

Money as Bottom Line

There are the old school folks, where the bottom line is money. There is absolutely nothing wrong with people being aware, or even prudent, about costs.

But in a sense (and based on past experiences), they are the ones who tend to reserve spending on materials or resources and almost always settle for “Good enough,” look at the end result, and however we all get there, the ends justify the means.

The bottom line is having enough resources at the very end, so that it can be spent on something else.

The tough thing, though, is when you start having awful conversations about reaching the bare minimum, and how it could also be possible to bring that standard even lower to save another $10.

I find that these people do tend to have more money, and that’s great. Because that’s their bottom line. They’re able to shell out for emergency dental work or send their kids off to boarding school. Damages that occur without home insurance could easily be paid for by the money that they saved from not getting it in the first place.

They spend more time on the same project. And maybe because they just have better focus. I really don’t know.

Convenience as Bottom Line

Then there are the Convenience as Bottom Line People, which I think I am definitely a subsect of.

I don’t think we are a particularly smart bunch, but I’ll be honest in saying that I have fewer regrets. It’s almost like I’ve spread out my stress over time, instead of collecting it all at the very end.

For this tribe, it’s more about freeing up certain resources to be able to focus on or achieve a goal. And if that means paying more for something, so be it.

And this doesn’t necessarily equate to just money or expenses. To me at least, the bottom line question is:

What is your time worth?

I would rather invest in a $1000 tool that saves me 6 hours of work than use a hand-crank or screwdriver.

I would rather pay someone to paint the apartment in a day than spending two weeks stepping in plastic dropcloths and shit, doing it on my own, and getting really shitty results. I’ve had experience with painting spaces before, and while I do consider myself capable of doing this myself, I would much rather be doing something else. Like working my actual job.

I would rather share the job, make less profit, and get it done faster and more efficiently, instead of doing everything ourselves, stretching ourselves thin to deliver a kind of passable outcome.

Not to say one is better than the other

I find that at least in my conversations with Trung, this dichotomy of people exist like people who prefer showers over baths; people who eat the soup first before noodles; or people who really like Metallica or just think that they are self-centered babies because of that documentary.

There are downsides and upsides to being either type of person. I always concede with the knowledge that I will never become rich, but also comfort myself with the idea that at least I won’t spend 90% of my life being tired or sweaty or stressed out. All of the things I hate being.

I’m pretty comfortable with where I stand on this, and I have to admit also that I kind of enjoy talking about these differences with people.

To some extent, I also see it related to the type of people who either like super focused projects or those who like various things happening at once.

#AEASea: “Faster Decisions With Style Tiles” by Samantha Warren

Samantha Warren. What a cutie-pie. Anybody who starts a talk with a story about bananas and monkeys is a gold star in my books.

Design tiles are her way of building a pattern library for clients.

In her talk, “Faster Design Decisions with Style Tiles,” Samantha brought up a really big shift in how we handle websites today. I don’t know exactly when this thing exploded, but D-I-Y has stretched itself from handymen and Martha Stewart floral arrangements to how we all manage ourselves online. Whether it’s a personal blog, portfolio, or a giant conglomerate’s website, we all want control over our content.

It’s not enough to have a static HTML page that you set and forget like a Ronco Rotisserie anymore. And with good reason. We’re all realizing what we’re capable of, and long gone are the little lines of text that say, “Questions? Contact the webmaster.”

We’re all fucking webmasters now! (I mean “fucking” as a gerund, not a verb.)

In her talk, Samantha points out that we aren’t just putting together mock-ups for people, but systems for them to work with.

Websites aren’t just store-fronts to display our wares. They’ve now become actual platforms for communication, and that’s what’s so exciting about it. I love this idea because it’s a focus on exchanging information and growing together, rather than just throwing your hat in the ring and hoping for the best.

There is push and pull content, not just push alone.

It’s easy to fall back on blaming the client for their lack of creativity or imagination. And I know there are tough discussions about that. But the more I think about it, the more I think it a poor excuse for doing a bad job.

In most cases, projects can go to hell because everyone is looking out for their own best interests. And of course if something is always someone else’s fault, then everyone ends up sucking monkey balls on a hot day.

Her suggestions about abstracting a website’s look and feel goes much further than avoiding “franken-comps” and fights with the client. Style tiles and other such methods give value to the designer-client relationship, in my opinion. It becomes less about giving someone a product, and more about engaging them in an actual conversation.

We then allow ourselves to reflect and consider different options, rethink certain decisions, and maybe get to better solutions than what we first pitched.

I like the notion of working with your clients as people who have their own thoughts and ideas, and giving them the platform to share this—not just giving them a product in a box. It makes the job sound less stupid and a little more meaningful.

Just as we are realizing that the web is fluid and alive and organic, I think we should be transferring that idea into how we treat the people we work with, too.

The client shouldn’t be some kind of cartoon in a suit talking to a car-phone. The same way designers shouldn’t be thought of as pixel-pushers and drones in black turtlenecks.

How much confidence and good will can you foster with this approach? I think a lot. The same way you have charities and organizations empowering women, kids, minorities that change social perspectives; giving anyone a great set of tools and the opportunity can set so many things in motion.

While design can ultimately seen as a service, I think it also helps to see it as a relationship. There is trust needed and guidance involved from both parties. It isn’t one person pushing their expertise on another, but equals with each something to offer.

And if we start with that common ground, instead of “I am here to fix things for you,” then we all get to have a nice time at the party. Nobody wants to talk to that asshole who thinks they know everything. And nobody wants to be said asshole, either.

#AEASea 2014: “Understanding Web Design” by Jeffrey Zeldman

I don’t know if this will work out well, but I’ve set myself up with the task goal of writing entries for each talk from An Event Apart, a conference I attended this week in Seattle, WA.

So in short, this will be long.

“These eggs look really weird.”

That was the first thing that was said to me on the first morning of An Event Apart in Seattle. I looked up from my cup of coffee and found a man offering a view of two very sorry looking hard-boiled eggs. They were nested rather awkwardly inside his little white bowl. He was wearing a suit, all black, and looking quite pro.

Immediately, I was made very aware of my Nike runners and that my hair was probably sticking up in some weird way or another. I tried my best to look nice. It’s just that I don’t pack for travel very well. And the blow dryer in the hotel was really strong and I didn’t use any conditioner that morning. My guess was that the heat from the blow dryer had somehow chemically compounded to lightly shellack the wisps of hair behind my ears. Did I look like Wolverine? Possibly.

“Beware!” I joked, offering him a casual bump of my elbow. Jesus Christ. Less than five minutes in and I was already literally rubbing elbows. That warning seemed more appropriate for me than his eggs, at this point.

“Oh, I’m very wary,” he replied as he gave me a friendly nod of his head and walked away.

And no sooner did I get settled down into my seat when I discovered that my friend with the doubtful eggs was actually the first speaker of the day, Jeffrey Zeldman.

It’s an interesting experience to witness people “in real life.” I put those in quotes because I feel like I sound less crazy when it’s put that way. Real life is still real life, but there’s so much discussion about “the online realm” and “profiles” and “avatars” and “digital presence.”

And my introduction to Jeffrey Zeldman at that point hand only been a pixel-based Twitter profile image of a bearded man with a toque.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 8.07.56 PM

And so, as our brains tend to fill in blanks (read: assume and create weird cartoonish versions of what we perceive), I had this image of Jeffrey Zeldman perpetually wearing this blue toque, walking around in parachute pants, a white sweatshirt and holding up a boom box. I don’t know. My brain works like that. I’m sorry, Mr. Zeldman. I hope that didn’t offend you. I used to wear parachute pants as well.

Anyway, my point being… I think we all have ways of looking at things as they are, or what they could be, or what we want them to be. And for me, attending An Event Apart was one of those times where the blurred lines become distinct for a moment, and the blood, sweat and tears somehow part rather pleasantly to reveal bits and gems of clarity.

I hope I’m not elevating the event to anything more than it is, like some beautiful womanly journey to self-discovery and self-awareness directed by Gary Marshall. If anything, it was more like Harry and Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber. I’m saying I’m Lloyd, my view of my career was Harry, the actual industry I was in was Mary, and Seattle was Aspen.

The Meat & Potatoes

Mr. Zeldman’s opening talk was a good primer for the event, in my opinion. It struck a chord with me—as I’m sure it did with other folks—particularly when it came to describing what we do. Describing our profession. He went on to talk about actually owning our profession—whatever we choose to call it or however we choose to define it—with the important distinction of what it is for.

To me, it’s this weird Hydra-ish monster with a billion heads, where we build things, we design things. We solve problems, we suggest fixes. We innovate, but we also tend to inundate.

And so how do you do a job, which is based almost completely on communication, when it is this difficult to communicate the very idea to someone else?

How do you communicate the act of facilitating communication? How meta.

I think the issue still stands, and particularly for me, it will probably take much longer for me to figure this shit out than the rest of the people in that room. At least they knew what the hell an SVG was on March 30th, 2014. I did not.

But I did uncover a tiny piece of the puzzle, though. And it seems to boil down to a group of misunderstood people misunderstanding a subset of their own group.

Designers have enough trouble explaining what they do to their clients. Now it seems that web designers, interaction designers, UX designers, whatever—we also have trouble explaining what we do to other designers.

We’re all designers. You’re just a different kind of designer from me.

And perhaps therein lies part of the problem. Maybe we just get too caught up in labels and roles and titles, in that we forget that we actually have shit we need to do. “Do” being the operative word.

We pile ourselves with the pressures of winning awards and accolades to help clients recognize our worth. We invent words and abbreviations that make it sound like we’re Tom Cruise in Minority Report. We’re constantly printing different versions of business cards with titles that range from “problem-solver” to “interaction designer” to “director” to “thought-gooder-doer” to “pizza-pepperoni-measurer” when all that really matters is that some person is just trying to launch a fucking nail salon with your input.

As Jeffrey pointed out, what we do is for people. Not products, not browsers, and definitely not for ourselves. Or at least it really shouldn’t be.

But how can we be evangelists of our profession, tasked with spreading the word, when all we do is check ourselves out in the mirror?

“I’m a web designer. I like to make things. I love turtlenecks and white desks. I like straight lines and a perfect grid.”

Who doesn’t like making things? What makes making things so special? My dad makes walking around in his shorts an art from.

I’m not saying defining who you are and what you love are terrible things. I love making sandwiches. I love making sweaters. I love making waffles. It’s wonderful to know these things either about you or about me. If you love typography, that is awesome. Let’s have a pint and talk about it until we die. Or let’s have a conference about it in Seattle and be comfortable speaking the same language. We’ll be in a safe space there. And there will be candy, I hear.

But all I’m saying is, in the context of our professions, our careers, our industry, to our clients and their end goals… does it, you know… matter?

Really, I don’t think it’s about us and what we do. It’s not about us at all. It’s about other people and what we can do for them. Jeffrey talked about type design and architecture, their respective products becoming vessels for meaning.

Without users, a typeface is just a bunch of letters. A skyscraper is just a tall box that gets in the way of my view of the mountains.

Good typefaces empower a graphic designer to create that bitchin’ dental office brochure. Wonderfully built houses allow parents to raise kids in them without fear that they’ll die by falling off a staircase or some shit.

Both these end products matter to someone else in the world, and we can now carry on talking about the best Sublime Text theme to use. We do our jobs and then carry on.

There’s this constant whining discussion I have ignore tune out hear from designers, both from those I know personally and those I admire from afar, and it’s always this weird complaint about how nobody understands what we do and what our profession means to the world.

Well maybe it’s because all everyone hears is, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

I don’t want to be mean-spirited, and I especially don’t want to place blame on anyone. I’m guilty of it too.

Ginger as a noun, no verbs.
Ginger as a noun, no verbs.

But again, there should be a safe, but separate, space for that.

Maybe we just all love what we do so much that we want other people to love it too. But guys, I’ve been telling everyone that Reba is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen, and it’s just as difficult to convince other people of that. I have all the DVD’s and I think Barbra Jean is an amazing character. But again, nobody cares.

And does it matter that I love Reba and you don’t?

We all struggle with how we present ourselves. (Clearly. It’s three days later, and my hair is still sticking up funny.) But as we all slog through the same shit, there’s one nugget I’ve come to realize: Maybe we’re going about it the wrong way, in that we shouldn’t be tasked with defining ourselves and pushing this onto others. Maybe we should let ourselves be defined by what we do.

Let our profession be the empty vessels that our clients can offer meaning to.

So instead of trying to quantify and box ourselves into these plastic name tags that we can all magically refer to and understand, maybe when somebody asks us what we do for a living, we can respond with more verbs than nouns, and adding “because” to put things into perspective.

“I help this guy make apps about hockey because he fucking loves sports.”

“I help these two women run an events company about knitting because they fucking love knitting.”

“I help these music nerds show off their performances online because they are fucking amazing.”

Aren’t these more interesting to talk about? It brings everyone on the same level and makes it easier to get shit done.

And then we can stop relying on clever catchphrases we invent, and instead count on the kind words that our clients extend to their friends and colleagues.