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Field Study

An Unedited view of design and thought process:

work, experimental and otherwise by Keenan Cummings

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Silas, our son, is almost three years old now. He has been talking since his second birthday. But only recently he has begun to stutter.

Stuttering is common at this age. It can be a problem, but it is hard to tell just yet. The fear is that we, his parents, are somehow the cause of it. Are we too short on attention? Do we talk to fast, answer too soon? These are the questions a paranoid parent will ask themselves every time a developmental milestone is missed or something looks out of place.

But the likely explanation, the most common reason for a toddler’s stutter, is that their speech can’t keep up with their mind. What a relief. It’s a beautiful revelation really. Nothing is out place. There is just so much going on inside of him that his words can’t keep up.

But there is one word that he has had no trouble with. In fact, on several occasions he has stumbled into our room, rubbing his eyes after a nap, and half consciously mumbled with a two-year-old’s fluency “pway”.

His words haven’t yet caught up with his mind, but he doesn’t need words to play. He is in the business of play. This is serious, authentic, uninhibited, tireless play. He does this all day, every day. He has the job I want.

I roll out of bed and too soon the words roll out of my mouth. “Papas gotta go to work”. He stays and plays; I go and work.

I’ve never wanted to work. My earliest aspirations tended toward play. My first love was science, but not the lab-coat-wearing, grant-seeking academic sort. I wanted to be Charles Darwin. I wanted a boat, a sketch book, and a few islands-worth of untouched biology to explore.

Will my son know me as someone that plays. Will he one day catch on and realize I’m only humoring him when I ask him if he wants to play cards; feeding a developmental need when I offer to play catch. Or will we play together. Can his kind of play and my kind of play be different only by degree, by subject matter, by motive and by goal, but identical as genuine, authentic, inhibited, tireless play.

Ello

GIF by Berger&Föhr

I don’t have much to say about Ello. At this point it is an unknown quantity, which means unknown potential, which means a small group of smart founders are swimming through an emotional mix of stress, excitement, anxiety, fear, disbelief, a million other emotions and of course tons of hard, hard work.

I have my own reasons for using it but those don’t really matter. What matters is that I use it, along with a growing group of pretty interesting people. Our industry will try to dig in and pick apart our motivations. They’ll refer to them as “use cases”, or tag them with pseudo-psychology half-truths like “FOMO”, “exclusivity”, and “network effects”. The principles are real, but the pundits that use them tend to be over prescriptive and absolute. It’s grasping for understanding when there is none to be had.

The reality is that no one knows why one thing works out, while another surges and dwindles, and some just fall flat. These things are birthed into the world while we all scratch our heads wondering where the hell it came from and how it survived the awesome force that throws something so delicate into a place so raw and brutal. In the truest sense of the word, it is awesome.

Soon the postpartum revisionist histories will begin to emerge. Some will claim that some moment, some event, some feature was the inflection point that pushed everything over the edge. In reality, no one know what works. Not Facebook, not Instagram, not Twitter. Everyone has an explanation after the fact, but they start to believe they somehow engineered the magic. The magic is in the people that use it and the humble grind of trying to make the product better for them.

I know some of these guys. They are in it for the right measures of success, the stuff the press will never cover. Sign up surges and server outages are rewarding moments along the way. But this thing is already successful in so many ways that matter. That can never die down or go away.

Hats off to team Ello.

Buy a poster, help a friend do a good thing.
Friends and fierce talent Tyler and Noel Deeb (who you may know as Miscellaneous Good Co.) are raising money to help offset the cost of adopting a child from China. I made a poster that you can purchase along with works from some industry giants that put me to shame: Scott Allen, Michael Cina, Damien Correll, Matt Lehman, Dana Tanamachi, Mikey Burton, Tad Carpenter, Bobby McKenna, David Smith, Simon Walker, Alex Griendling, and, of course, Tyler Deeb Himself. 
buy a poster, help a friend

Buy a poster, help a friend do a good thing.

Friends and fierce talent Tyler and Noel Deeb (who you may know as Miscellaneous Good Co.) are raising money to help offset the cost of adopting a child from China. I made a poster that you can purchase along with works from some industry giants that put me to shame: Scott Allen, Michael Cina, Damien Correll, Matt Lehman, Dana Tanamachi, Mikey Burton, Tad Carpenter, Bobby McKenna, David Smith, Simon Walker, Alex Griendling, and, of course, Tyler Deeb Himself. 

buy a poster, help a friend

The Bold Designer

The ever eloquent Cap Watkins wrote a great post this week about The Boring Designer. I appreciate but don’t fully *identify with the Boring Designer. As a counter point, I wanted to write an ode to the bold designers among us, the designers who…


…are always trying to make it weird.

Conventions are conventions for a reason — they really do work. Our primary goal is to make something that works. But conventions don’t imply a an ultimate best answer, an single ideal solution. The bold designer is always playing at the fuzzy edges of functional. They’re seeing just how weird things can get before function breaks, because they know that there are unknown opportunities and undiscovered truths in the murk. Their response to a conventional solution isn’t “go with it”; it’s “yes, but what if”. A user’s needs, human motivations — those are the universals. The things we make to satisfy those motivations can take infinite forms. Convention is the tip of a super interesting iceberg.


…are in it for themselves.

The bold designer knows that their technical ability is a commodity. The only truly unique thing they bring to the table is a voice and point of view informed by their experience, ideas, and—most importantly—their curiosities. They know an idea cannot be optimized. There is no platonic ideal. They chase their own curiosities and try to align very real demands (that a product needs to function) with the desire to have a product inspire. They are not selfish; they are self-aware. They know their voice. And they believe it is in the user’s best interest to make that voice heard. They are competitive collaborators, but in the end they are happy to concede to a better solution, because it is in the struggle, the push and pull, that everyone brings their best work.


…are suspicious of process.

The bold designer is resistant to too much planning and process. They know what worked yesterday may not work today, and are weary of too many assumptions. They are protective of and try to remain in a state of play where curiosity trumps past experience (and sometimes even data!). They buck bureaucratic prowess in favor of raw skill. They avoid developing any skill set that isn’t directly relevant to success of their work (they will never master Power Point, they will never consistently log tasks into agile tracking software).

…do it the hard way every time.

They respect individuals but have little regard for artificial boundaries. They will take an idealized view of their work, the team, the organization — so much so that they are often left disappointed. And they will not stop pushing back on things that aren’t great. They can be uncompromising, unforgiving even, but they are hardest on themselves. They never try to make things go smoothly. Smooth is a welcomes side effect but they know that their best work always came by struggle.

*some of these ideas taken from this amazing post [LINK] http://randsinrepose.com/archives/the-wolf/

…value their voice.

They’re existential calculus is as follow: “if *I* am going to be *here* working on *this thing*, it must be influenced in a way that is unique to my approach, preferences, style, and opinions”. For the bold designer to be willing to exchange any measure of their life for the success of this thing, it must reflect them in some way. Everyone around them can execute, but the voice of that execution will be, must be unique to each designer.

The bold designer doesn’t lead with professionalism; they lead with energy and vulnerability. They assume everything beyond convention is subjective. That is the space where really interesting things happen. They don’t measure ideas by quality. For them, and idea is only as good as the conviction behind it. They have a strong voice and they try to bring that voice out of others. They ask others to meet them with enthusiasm and authenticity. They’re in for the struggle. They hold on to the idea that there is some illusive but very real greatness among all the button states, style guides, wireframes and flows.

The bold designer is a powder keg. But when harnessed the results can be explosive.a

So be great. Be bold!


*And my feeling is the the so-called “boring designer” maps to many of these traits, but they may manifest more internally than externally. When you work with good people, everyone cares, everyone has a unique and strong voice, and everyone has their opportunities to be bold, even quietly bold. Boring designer—you’re not as boring as you think :)

Drawing zodiacs

Drawing zodiacs

Everything we do has a very primal base to it, even this idea of competition. And I don’t deny that it is in me, and i don’t believe that anybody is free of that…

it is possible to really like competing against somebody that you don’t like. You like them for what they are giving you, which is a test that takes you to the limits of your talent.

Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner, former world record holding stone skipper (via Skips Stones for Fudge on Kickstarter)

Trying the find the virtue in my competitiveness, and appreciate rather than antagonize those I compete with.

My soul is impatient with itself, as with a bothersome child; its restlessness keeps growing and is forever the same. Everything interests me, but nothing holds me.

—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (via wordsnquotes)

(via mikerugnetta)

The Great Un-Maturing

"It’s about infinitely flexible, sunny appropriation."

At what point did a generation shed the pressure of “figuring it out”? At what point did we no longer feel the need to answer the question: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”?. I’m sure there is a long list of factors, including a social promiscuity only afforded in an internet age, and an economic promise that’s held true since WWII and only recently fallen completely apart (ie. commit your life, your identity, your soul to a life as a “company man” in exchange for a safe, predictable, and prosperous life).

Somehow, a generation has unburdened itself from the demand for maturity, the need for a 5-year plan, the pressure to adopt an identity with clear and defined edges. The “self” is now a fluid concept. And rather than panicking over the lack of a solid foundation, we are embracing the freedom. It’s not that there is no more normal (the so-called “post-normal”), it’s that now everything is normal

"Basically, normcore has… more to do with personalities: it’s the idea that an individual adapts to a situation at hand and embraces the normalcy of where they are and who they’re with. So you could go to a football match during the day and wear a replica football strip like everyone else, then go to a cyberpunk night later on and wear head-to-toe Cyberdog. Normcore represents a fluidity of identity that’s emerging in youth culture: a willingness to forgo a consistent individuality in order to embrace acceptance. As Luke O’Neill puts: ‘Normcore then, in its pure state, is about empathy and connectivity.’”

- Everyone’s Getting Normcore Wrong

(It always comes back to the Human Universals)

I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where each new hobby was fully supported, each new curiosity enthusiastically encouraged. Someone recently accused me of “collecting hobbies”. I do collect hobbies. I also collect passions, curiosities, threads of questioning, social groups, personalities, heritages, etc. As a generation comes of age being completely comfortable not knowing exactly who they are and perpetually figuring it out, we’ll see more interesting lives take shape, more daring ideas, more diverse thinking. 

It’s the most valuable lesson we can learn — that we all need to go through a painful, awkward un-maturing process if we want to be as authentically ourselves as we can be. In a Benjamin Button like process, we can all crawl back in time: at first we will have a hard time admitting that we don’t know ourselves as well as we had thought; then, all over again, we traverse the awkwardness of our teenage years: self-conscious, scared, and trying to just fit comfortably into the world as we shape and reshape ourselves; then ultimately we get back to a child-like place where we have few concerns other than satisfying curiosity and engaging in pure play. We go from having a stake in the ground on who we are to playing with and entertaining all the possibilities of who we could be.

There is a thread in our culture that is still demanding that a generation grow up. But it’s not going to happen that way. This isn’t a group of the lost and lazy who have deferred adulthood. We are comfortable in the fluidity that the world now affords. And so we continue to play. They play gets more and more sophisticated, the consequences larger and deeper. 

Best learn to play. Best get comfortable. Best start to un-mature.

Thought I would throw in some links to some ways to engage in some sophisticated play, for the newly un-matured:

Killscreen Magazine : an amazing journal-style publication covering “the intersection between games, play, and other seats of culture from art to music to design.”

Geoff McFetridge: every.single.thing — so good!

Patatap: just click the link and start playing!

Playmobil - *I* collect these — my kids are too young. They would choke.

Teenage Engineering: amazing sound toys (that I wish I had)

Yuichi Yokoyama: his stuff is minimal but puts your brain to work and completely absorbs you. 

A failed experiment from over the weekend. Going to let this one rest and revisit it later. TOYU!

A failed experiment from over the weekend. Going to let this one rest and revisit it later. TOYU!

summer

summer

What Really Happens When a Company is Acquired

Since February, I’ve been trying to articulate just what happened through the course of our acquisition process. It turns out that the process is still ongoing. 

So what happens in an acquisition?

First off, why do acquisitions happen? This type of smaller acquisition that I’m talking about is becoming more and more common. It’s not an indicator of an economic bubble. It’s not about a tech talent arms race. Buying a company for the expertise or processes embodied in a great team has become a reliable channel for sourcing ‘talent’. It all looks sensational from the outside, but the reality is that the math just adds up: finding the right people is costly; not finding the right people is a huge risk as large incumbents are under constant pressure to keep a step ahead of the small and fast innovators at the bottom of the market. Acquiring teams is becoming standard procedure(1) for big companies that want to maintain relevance by moving at least as fast as these ever-emerging competitive threats. In a market where driven individuals gravitate toward assembling a small scrappy team and taking a shot at something big, there is an ample supply of preassembled teams ready to be integrated into a bigger company and get to work.

So in this kind of environment, most companies — at some point in their lifecycle — end up entertaining the option of an acquisition.

Read More

To extrapolate from today’s rudimentary fragments resembles an attempt to predict the publication of [Joyce’s Ulysses] after just having invented writing on clay tablets. Nevertheless the effort is probably worthwhile.

The Computer for the 21st Century (Mark Weiser, 1991)

I’ll identify something I want to change about myself, and then I’ll design a project to help me do it… For each of my deficiencies, I designed a project to help me confront it, which I hoped would help me transcend it. In a way, this worked. My life suddenly got interesting. People were curious. I always had outrageous stories to tell. I’d present these stories in intricate interactive frameworks of my own design, and I’d release them on the web.

—Jonathan Harris for Transom

We’ve spent the past few years figuring out how to make content creation as habitual as content consumption. That’s the idea behind Days, the daily visual diary we launched in May 2013. Nine months later, we’re excited to announce that we’ve accepted an offer to bring our work on daily habits to Yahoo. We started our company with the vision of transforming daily habits, and we’re proud to be joining a new one that shares that mission.
Our entire team will be joining Yahoo’s NYC-based Mobile and Emerging Products group, where we’ll continue on as a startup team within a larger organization. The Days app will live on as a standalone entity, and we’ll also be working on some exciting new projects that we can’t talk about just yet.
Sincerest appreciation to our investors, our advisors, our friends and families, the good folks at Apple, and, most importantly, our users! Your days have inspired us and it’s been beyond rewarding watching the product and community we’ve built together evolve and grow. We are so grateful, thank you!
If you have any questions, please tweet @wander or email us via founders@onwander.com.
Happy Days,
-Jeremy, Keenan, Lara, Sean, and Whitney

—

PS - I’ll be writing more soon about my personal experience with this process but just wanted to share the news from the team. Thanks for the support.

We’ve spent the past few years figuring out how to make content creation as habitual as content consumption. That’s the idea behind Days, the daily visual diary we launched in May 2013. Nine months later, we’re excited to announce that we’ve accepted an offer to bring our work on daily habits to Yahoo. We started our company with the vision of transforming daily habits, and we’re proud to be joining a new one that shares that mission.

Our entire team will be joining Yahoo’s NYC-based Mobile and Emerging Products group, where we’ll continue on as a startup team within a larger organization. The Days app will live on as a standalone entity, and we’ll also be working on some exciting new projects that we can’t talk about just yet.

Sincerest appreciation to our investors, our advisors, our friends and families, the good folks at Apple, and, most importantly, our users! Your days have inspired us and it’s been beyond rewarding watching the product and community we’ve built together evolve and grow. We are so grateful, thank you!

If you have any questions, please tweet @wander or email us via founders@onwander.com.

Happy Days,

-JeremyKeenanLaraSean, and Whitney

PS - I’ll be writing more soon about my personal experience with this process but just wanted to share the news from the team. Thanks for the support.

Looking for Home - A request to my NYC friends
We are officially on the search for a new home. We’ve been scouring the listings of New York City apartments and have some capable folks in our corner helping us navigate the process.
This process — it is daunting. The renters market is brutally competitive. The apartments are mostly overpriced and often in bad shape. The trick seems to be: keep at it until you find that one perfect place, that rare jewel, and when you spot it, go for it with everything you have. 
The application process is an intimidating leap through a series of hoops, flaming hoops, hoops that want to pry deep into your financial history and personal life. If the stars have aligned in your favor, you come out the other end with a place to live, and somehow, you feel grateful. “Thank you New York City for crushing my soul and then offering me a grossly expensive space to rest said crushed soul. I owe you one.” (I think this is an unhealthy relationship.)
Something always works out. We are confident of that. My faith is in the people that help along the way. If you have any tips, tricks, or leads on a good place do let me know. We’re looking for a 2 bedroom (a family of four all sleeping in one room has worn out its charm), mostly looking at Fort Greene or Clinton Hill. Tweet at me or comment if you got anything. Any help will be greatly appreciated!
Cheers to NYC!

Looking for Home - A request to my NYC friends

We are officially on the search for a new home. We’ve been scouring the listings of New York City apartments and have some capable folks in our corner helping us navigate the process.

This process — it is daunting. The renters market is brutally competitive. The apartments are mostly overpriced and often in bad shape. The trick seems to be: keep at it until you find that one perfect place, that rare jewel, and when you spot it, go for it with everything you have. 

The application process is an intimidating leap through a series of hoops, flaming hoops, hoops that want to pry deep into your financial history and personal life. If the stars have aligned in your favor, you come out the other end with a place to live, and somehow, you feel grateful. “Thank you New York City for crushing my soul and then offering me a grossly expensive space to rest said crushed soul. I owe you one.” (I think this is an unhealthy relationship.)

Something always works out. We are confident of that. My faith is in the people that help along the way. If you have any tips, tricks, or leads on a good place do let me know. We’re looking for a 2 bedroom (a family of four all sleeping in one room has worn out its charm), mostly looking at Fort Greene or Clinton Hill. Tweet at me or comment if you got anything. Any help will be greatly appreciated!

Cheers to NYC!