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The doldrums are ever ready to snatch our momentum away…

Uhg. I’ve been so down the last 2 days,and I am fighting like hell to get out of it. I figured one way to make this worth going through is by coming up with a list of anti-dejection methods you might find useful.

I don’t know about you, but my doldrums come in distinct flavors. This time, it’s the my-work-is-meaningless one, all juicy and fetid and festering. It is a whopper for me, very seductive in lulling me to my inner rocky bottom. I am, for all my aw goshery, really rather ambitious. I’d like to matter to a few people, be a resource for others in my field. This is slowly, SLOWLY happening to be sure, but there are times when my demons decide that it’s never going to happen: I’m destined to reside in obscurity forever, all my work is for naught, the only way I can get people to look at my work is to give it to them for free… The inner chorus continues and I spiral down to my most inert state, curled up in the fetal position.

I have to fight the pull of my personal vortex, but how?  How can a person combat her most compelling strain of despair?

Take a long walk. 

It sounds so super cheesy, but it’s the one thing I could drag myself out of the house to do. I put the latest album by Passion Pit on repeat and hauled my sorry ass around the park. Then I walked across town to my studio, just to soak up some extra exercise. I felt a bit better, so I did it again today.  In fact, I do it most days and it helps, it really does.

Look back with compassion.

I am lucky to have a lot of my old work online here and there. When I start to feel hopeless, I go and look at what I have done and try not to tear myself to shreds. After a while, the circulation returns to my compassion nodule and I begin to see my efforts for what they are: honest attempts at improving some little iota of the world. I think everyone can do this in one way or another, just try and be gentle with yourself. Look in the faces of your children, feel your weathered hands, remember some accomplishment that usually brings you a measure of happiness and repeat the following to yourself: “I did this, I can’t be all bad.”

All you are trying to do is to make the tiniest of cracks in the onslaught of sadness, so keep it simple. Breathe.

Open up and let it out.

This is hard for me: I am kind of a loner in a lot of respects. I don’t like to be a bother, whatever that means. But if I let this feeling just sit here and stew undisturbed, it will only grow stronger. I finally opened my mouth and told my partner what was going on. She listened until I had spat most of it out, then made some gentle suggestions when I could actually hear them. The magical thing about telling someone what you are actually going through is that your emotional state becomes more human-sized in the telling: it is no longer some untraversed, endless continent to cross. It’s a mood, a feeling, and it will pass.

Don’t live in dread of your feelings.

I run on the moody side–this is something I have known for a long time. I have learned to respect every part of my emotional spectrum, even the unpleasant parts. As I have learned to respect them, I have learned to take responsibility for them, to not take them out on other people for the hell of it. I do not like feeling so down, but it does throw the rest of my life into a lovely high relief, highlighting how great life actually is. I am not thrilled that I am so sad, but I refuse to ignore it or pretend it never happens. No way. I doff my cap and give the mood its due, then I inch my way away from it as best I can. Feelings are important though unreliable sources of data–they are the filtered feedback that only we as individuals can produce. I try to pan for what truths they reveal then let the rest go. 

Get up and fight like hell.

Now that I feel a little better, I am scrambling to take action. I woke up early and finished packing up work to send to my heroes, a chore I had let slip for weeks. I wrote this essay. After this, I am going to take a break and have a nice hour or so with my sweetie. I am doing things that may not be the top of my to-do list, but they are things that I really enjoy doing. To hell with efficiency, I am fighting for some pure, unadulterated quality here. I’ll get back on schedule when I am feeling a bit stronger, which should be soon. I just have to pop-start my motivation by doing the things I really want to do. A little indulgence can be a good thing.

So that’s what I have done for myself today, and I can feel the mood breaking slowly like a fog in early morning. The one big lesson I have learned over the last few years is that I do have control over my own perspective. I can change how I look at my situation, and sometimes that alone makes it better. I do these few simple things to shake my frame of reference up so that I may be able to reposition it if only slightly. Most of the time, that is all I need to start my way back to the land of the living.

Help me design the Game of Love! Make Monstress history!

I am working on the next big Monstress product: the Game of Love. Right now, it is in board game form. I have decided that I will try to tap the power of crowdsourcing, just as I did with Here & Now. I will send out prototypes of this game to anyone who cares to try it out and will then adjust the design according to the feedback I receive.

The way I used to work went like this: I would get an idea, run off to my studio for a few months to perfect it in secret, then spring it on the world. The work was cute, idiosyncratic… it was okay, I am proud of it. I want to push myself past my own limits, I want to make something that could truly reach a mass audience. Some will say I risk losing that special touch of personality, but I don’t think so, not if I approach the process the right way. 

So I am looking for some testers. I will be testing the current version out in LA this fall, but I want as many people looking at it as possible. If you are interested, just email me and I will send you a copy via post.

Why mess with my process now?

I make work that examines the nature of persuasive design. I think I can add a layer of meaning by also following the production cycle I learned while working in the advertising industry, it may lend more credence to the final work and may improve the quality of the overall product. I am tired of only making art for my friends–I love you all, but there is no way I’d ever make my living sending you valentines. I want my art to get out there, make a difference! So this is what I am doing to make that happen.

I create because I believe people are essentially good.

Before you click away, just wait. I’m not saying every person in the world behaves in ways that are always good. That is not possible, and I know that. I am saying that each and every one of us has the potential to be and do good. That’s the whole reason I get out of bed in the morning, make stuff, and generally live. It’s important to check in with your core motivations once in a while–that way you can tell if you are still on course, as it were.

My logic goes like this: 

  1. People have the potential to be and do good. In fact, unless we are stunted in some way, we just naturally tend to do and be good.
  2. Any person can do good by reaching out and helping others learn to tap that potential. 
  3. The entire world gets incrementally better the more #2 happens.
  4. There will come a day when everybody born will have a reasonable chance to be and do good.

This is all fine and dandy, but what does the word “good” mean? I am not a philosopher, so forgive any vast generalities, but I think at the very least, being “good” entails the following:

  1. You are kind to yourself (meaning you don’t harm yourself).
  2. You are kind to others (meaning you don’t harm others).
  3. You contribute to society while doing #1 and #2. 

Just to be clear, “bad” is not necessarily the opposite of this “good.” If a person is addicted to drugs, he is not bad so much as seriously dysfuntional. I am still trying to figure out if I believe in evil–look at the shootings in Colorado. Is that perpetrator simply evil, or is he massively twisted into a state of not-goodness? Can someone be irredeemable, or is everyone worth trying to reach? Ugh, it sometimes keeps me up at night, thinking about it.

There is more to life than just contributing to society at a basic level. There is the state of being wherein you contribute to the best of your ability, at the top of your particular, individual form. There are great theories on this state, as found in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is the state I am shooting for, it’s what I think every person capable of thought should be helped to reach. This, this is why I create on every front of my work. On the one hand, I hope to help others reach their fullest potential, and on the other, I am trying to reach my own. It’s win-win. Thus the world slowly notches upwards on its spiral, and eventually it will evolve on the whole into a better place than it is now. Just think of how far we have come–on the front of illness, think of polio, or the guinea fly. We have made progress, however small. Better to be a part of the upward evolution then part of the grinding friction that slows us down as a whole.

How can I be so optimistic about humanity as a whole? Because I look at the units of which it is made up: individual humans. We crave stimulation, and our natural tendency is towards reciprocal altruism. We want to improve ourselves and one of our best and most used strategies is to do things that benefit ourselves and those around us, especially those we love. We continue to improve (or are at least capable of improving) throughout our lives, barring illness or serious misfortune. 

Graphic design and visual art are the avenues I found first for self-expression, and they led me deep into working to make the world a better place in my own little way. But teaching has been absolutely instrumental in getting me to truly give back while adding to my own knowledge pool.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

All of this leads me to the point of this whole essay: what about you? What is your core philosophy? I’m not looking to argue it out at all, I just want to know. Are you on the path that you intended to be on in your idealistic youth? What beliefs have you discovered as you have moved on? What books, ideas, or people have influenced you? Where have your ideals led you? Please leave a comment below, or email me your thoughts.

 

Use the tools you were born with before the ones you buy.

I was born short, gay, near-sighted, chubby, and slightly odd all around. Oh, and female. What the hell was I going to do with that in a sexist, homophobic, pro-skinny world? As it turns out, just about anything I damn well please.

The biggest hurdle I always have had to conquer is my underestimation of self. Society can be prickly at times, but in reality no one person usually gives enough of a damn to hurt someone else. We are all way too concerned about ourselves to mess up another person’s day–unless we are obsessed or imbalanced in some way. I have been the target of haters, so yes, it is possible to evoke active resistance from other people. It just isn’t all that likely. Society may like to whisper some poison nothings in our ears, but it’s up to each of us to give them life by believing them. I chose to believe the crappiest stuff for a long time and ended up feeling alientaed, frustrated and generally miserable. I’d like to share my experiences in hopes of helping someone out there shed a little unneeded baggage.

I was closeted about being a lesbian to my family until I was in my mid 20s. When I finally told them, my parents were a little sad that I might have a tougher row to hoe but they loved me just as much as before. I’d tip-toed, lied, and played the pronoun game* for decades and it was all for naught: they’d known for years. I’d solemnly pledged to myself that I would not come out until the eldest members of my family–my grandma and great aunt–were dead. Ridiculous, and more than a little selfish. They were both amazing, intelligent women, and even if they might not have accepted my being gay, they would still have loved me. I withheld entire sections of my life from my dearest loved ones and developed the habit of heavily editing the self I presented to people. Basically being closeted just made me a better liar… all because I thought I could not handle other peoples’ reactions.

Yes, there are times when it’s best not to let your freak flag fly–like when it might get you hurt or worse. But 99%of the time, it has been so much better in the long run to be perfectly honest. I used to insist on not revealing my orientation to new acquaintances until the other person considered me a friend in an attempt to ensure she or he would not reject me. It was silly, evasive, and it lent a power and significance to  a single attribute that did not merit such sway.

I did all sorts of stuff to compensate for what I thought were my deficits: I went to the fanciest school I could to get my Master’s degree to prove I was smart. I moved to New York City to prove I could make it anywhere. I became loud and outspoken so people would pay attention. I tried to be one of the boys until I wrecked my shoulder and couldn’t work in a warehouse any longer. I drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney to fit in until my body flatly refused to deal with that behavior anymore. See the pattern? It’s blaringly obvious now, but at the time, I couldn’t figure out why the hell I was so tortured all the time. It all boiled down to the fact that I was terrified that other people would not like me. And no matter what I did to puff myself up, I ended up still being me.

Slowly, I have learned to let go of my fear of rejection and just get on with my life. It’s not really my business what others think of me anyway–all I can do is be a good person according to my most deeply held beliefs and hope for the best. And if someone doesn’t like me, it isn’t simply a case of that person being an asshole. He or she has a point of view, and I can glean some meaning and value from that–although my conclusions may run counter to that person’s intent. Turns out the world is not sexist, homophobic, or pro-skinny unless I believe it is. And I am not the freak I always thought I was. Once the spell is broken, I can easily find some hope and move the hell on.

I was so fortunate to be born part of so many “Others:” it has taught me to always work to be circumspect and compassionate. I may not directly know what it is like to be the object of racism, but I sure as hell can identify with the shock, the hurt, and the anger it engenders. I may have the use of all my limbs, but all I have to do is struggle with an object designed for someone 6 inches taller to gain an inkling of what it’s like to be excluded. I have very little experience being an ultra-conservative Christian in the middle of liberal territory, but I can certainly see the isolation that could evoke. It sounds strange to say it, but my believing I was an Other has helped me in my design, art , and teaching. Immensely.

The biggest irony is that every single person out there can feel like the Other in one way or another. We have a choice to make: either we can hide behind trappings we acquire or we can work with what we’ve got at hand. It’s not that huge a leap once the fever of fear passes and we are left dazzled by the morning sun. 

*The pronoun game: never specifying the gender of the people with whom you’re hanging out.

Having children will make my career more meaningful.

My partner Jen is 5 and a half months into her pregnancy and I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of our daughter. I have to admit when we learned she had gotten pregnant, I had this flash of terror that my career, for which I had worked so hard, was over. It was going to be subsumed by diapers and play dates and burping, I was going to lose all touch with who I was, the whole bit. I rode out a few little waves of aftershock for the next couple of hours as I got my head around the idea and became more and more overjoyed with the news.

It all got me to thinking, and then I happened upon Tina Roth Eisenberg: The Power of Side Projects and Eccentric Aunts, a talk given by Swiss Miss earlier this year. In it, she speaks about using the births of her children as inspiration for her work. She said that when each of her children were born, she used it as an opportunity to reassess and evaluate her life and career. She has used their births as catalysts for major life changes.

How my child’s arrival can change me for the better

I see the impending birth of my daughter as an opportunity to leave behind the last remnants of my wilderness years, when I just looked out for me. The things that have slowed me down at times–my goofing off, my self-indulgence–will have to take a back seat to parenting, there are no ands, ifs, or buts about that.

  • I get to learn what my priorities actually are in the face of exhaustion and amazing, never-before-experienced love
  • I get to work with my partner to figure out how to parent, thereby growing all the closer to her.
  • I get to learn how to balance work and family… I have never had a balance like that before. I’ve always just lived to work.

How I am preparing myself for motherhood

I haven’t been reading the manuals and such as much as I would like, but I have been cleaning house on a personal level.

  • I have been reestablishing friendships with people I love so I can introduce my daughter to those I think most of. 
  • I’ve been purging all kinds of crap I have held onto for years. 
  • I’ve been working to be a better family member both to my own fam and to that of my partner–I am part of a larger whole now, got to get better at being a reliable part of it.
  • I’ve completed several projects that I had put on the back burner and tried to establish some key contacts in the industry. I need to be the designer I have only dreamed of being before.
  • I have tried to go through my client list and pare off any that expect me to be on call 24/7.
  • I have tried to pick up some key good habits like working efficiently. Normally, I tend to dawdle a bit…

How having children will make my career more meaningful

I think of my mom, who raised three of us in the backwoods of Virginia. She was amazing: despite the fact that we were poor, she always made sure we were well taken care of. No matter what, she also always held onto her dreams: she fought hard to always own horses, even if she had to buy them from the meat-market guy. I grew up riding beside her on my very own pony–I cannot complain about my childhood at all. Instead of feeling neglected when my mom worked with her horses, I felt proud of her. 

  • By making sure my work life means something to me, I will be in a position to enrich my child’s life immensely. My mom shared her passion with us and taught us so much in the process.
  • By having a healthy sense of perspective, I’ll be all the more effective at work. Instead of getting wrapped up in the academic drama, I will do what I need to do and get the hell home.
  • I’ll not be as tempted to take on too much at work, leaving my focus clear and concentrated.
  • I get to set an example for my children using my career as teaching material.
I am so looking forward to becoming a mom. I feel as if my whole life has been leading up to this, and I’ve never been more ready. Luckily, I have built up some good career momentum and I know what I want to accomplish and why–I have a purpose to my life, so I won’t have to live vicariously through my children. I am so looking forward to showing them the ropes of the world, showing them what is possible, what is quality. I get to help establish their sense of value and worth, and those are the very battles I have been working so hard on in my career! This is all good. I can’t wait to get started!
 

How has having children enriched your life?

Bread-and-butter work can make or break a designer.

Think of this as a primer for the novice designer and a call back to arms for the experienced art director. 

For those of you unfamiliar with design work, there are different chunks to be done. There is the high-level thinking where you come up with ideas, there is sketching where you develop your ideas visually, and finally there is production, where most of the thinking has already been done and all you do is implement the design. In general, production is viewed as the least challenging from a design point of view, and it usually falls upon the lower-level employees to complete it. For the most part, I call the routine, lower-level stuff bread-and-butter work as it puts a lot of food on the table.

I used to work in a small agency where I handled all of the interaction design. Occasionally, I had access to interns who could do the grunt work for me, and certainly, these were respites from the crush of jobs. I started to think that perhaps I needed to find a position where I would never be asked to perform the less glamorous tasks, where I would only be given the high-end design ideation. I thought about it, though–basically, the grunt work is what taught me whole swaths of my marketable skills, so I need it to continue growing as a designer.

The work may be rote, but you can use it as an opportunity to grow.

I remember my first real design job, at Agency.com. I knew next to nothing about design, but I was young, eager, and willing to learn. I was immediately given gobs of production work to perform: re-coloring buttons, applying templates, and archiving old files. I soaked it all up and learned at an exponential rate. Wax on, wax off! These little repeated gestures eventually teach us steps to entire dances! I still use production work as an opportunity to master new skills. Also, I have had to learn that the job of graphic designer can’t be all bubbles and puppies. It entails loads of hard, repetitive tasks. Even this far into my career, I have to be willing to do the grunt work. 

If you lose touch with the overall process, you risk losing touch with the work entirely.

Nothing within the process of design should be below you. You can’t afford that kind of snobbery. Take interaction design, for instance: things change constantly, technology advances, styles age and wither. I have never been able to claim programming as being a huge skill, but I dabble as much as I possibly can because it informs my design intimately. I try to build at least some of the sites I design because it teaches me what is possible and what is to be avoided. Programming is not grunt work by any means, but there is an intersection between programming and design where all there is to do is production. If I do not stay informed about what is new with HTML, CSS, and Javascript, I lose touch with what I can do with my design. If I don’t learn how programmers implement my designs, I am going into projects blind. I will make bad decisions that will cost my client and eventually myself. The same applies to every type of design, be it print, installation or screen.

You have to establish your own level of excellence, and that should become your everyday standard.

No matter how small the gig, every client deserves my very best work. Now that I am a freelancer, I am responsible for every step of the design process. I have never grown so much as a designer as I have since leaving the office-jockey life. I have had to teach myself how to do everything better than I ever did before because it’s my reputation on the line. I wish I could say I held myself as strictly to an ideal of excellence when I was an employee, but it’s simply not true. I worked very hard, but if I didn’t agree with the art direction, I could let things slide. I had a little maturing to do, obviously… So all I can say is I now have a base-line standard, and it is higher than I ever knew I could maintain.

I cross all my t’s and dot all my i’s because I love what I do. Or maybe I love what I do because I craft each detail as carefully as I can. I don’t know, but whatever, it’s working.

 

Since becoming a designer, I have become a better person.

Since becoming a design instructor, I have become a better designer. And amidst all of this, I have become a much better artist. I am incredibly lucky to be caught in this particular upward spiral, and I hope to help others find their own cycle of growth through teaching and writing.

I started out as a fine artist, specifically a printmaker. My work was diaristic in nature, a lot of pictorial navel-gazing. Nothing much remarkable happened until I got to grad school and switched unexpectedly (involuntarily, even) to graphic design. All of a sudden, I had to confront and examine all these presuppositions I held about the act of cultural production. Here are a few I have successfully unraveled:

You have to be obscure to have street cred

I had always seen myself operating on the fringes of society, speaking to a select few. In the graphic design department at school, the designers were all striving to reach entire strata of the general population. Speaking to the mainstream in any way seemed like an immediate loss of credibility to me. It took a while for me to finally see that the point of creating work should be inclusiveness. I had this moment of revelation when I realized I could strive to bring the very best work to as many people as possible and still be a relevant creator. I’d been an elitest snob for years and hadn’t even known it. 

Graphic designers are sell-outs

I thought that graphic designers were all sell-outs, using their creative powers only for monetary gain. This was a hard idea to unlearn–there is no denying that designers work for clients a lot of the time, and sometimes for unsavory ones. Such is the nature of making a living: you occasionally have to do something unpleasant or even counter to your ideals. I just had to do a little growing up to start to see how wrong this idea really was, there was no short way around it. Graphic designers (including myself) are here to help clients formulate and broadcast their message to select audiences with panache and circumspection.

If a client wants to lie or cheat his audience through your work, you can turn him down or walk away. If you can’t get away immediately, start looking for a new job with a better agency. No matter your situation, your ethics can guide you in making the best work you can. Certainly, I have done my share of unsavory bread-and-butter work, but over the years I have structured my life so I can curate the jobs I take carefully.

It’s fame or failure

I assumed I’d either become famous or die trying for a very long time. I assumed there was no point to being an artist unless you were showing in MOMA. I secretly dreamed of becoming the next art rock star, taking the Whitney Biennial by storm. I had no real conception of what making a living as an artist really meant. I got a pretty clear picture once I moved to Brooklyn and tried to keep my art practice alive amidst all the jobs I had to work to keep food on the table. I eventually had to choose between art materials and rent, and I chose to keep the roof over my head. Once this happened, I felt like a failure and my art practice ground to a halt.

What came to the rescue? Graphic Design! It was how I was able to get on my feet financially. It taught me how to work consistently and finish projects. It taught me how to ideate well past the clichés. It taught me how to use a computer, how to build a website, how to break down a project into manageable chunks. In essence, it kept my creativity alive for the years in the wilderness, when I thought all was lost from an artistic point of view. It was also the context in which I became a full-fledged adult, and as such I am eternally grateful to the entire discipline. 

Typography is easy

Holy cow, did this belief have to go. I thought there was nothing to it, you just grab whatever font is on the computer and have at it. It didn’t take long for my fellow designers to point out that my work was nearly unreadable. Luckily, I had learned about letterpress typesetting while I was training as a printmaker. I dug up my notes and started to realize that setting type is this lovely artform, and it can be performed with compassion and grace. I love type, I love letterforms, and now I can safely say I love typography. I view the act of setting type well as activism: facilitating the transmission of a message to audiences with the finesse it needs to ring brightly is a task to be performed with honor.


All in all, I have learned a great deal from Graphic Design and its practitioners over the last 12 years. I now proudly count myself as a designer myself, one who can constantly improve if I keep an open mind. That has been the biggest gift of all from Design: I am now aware of and responsible for my own perspective. It is up to me to get off my ass, own my real motives, and finally to assess the situation with a little wisdom. You know what taught me that? The design process. Working with clients. Taking a problem apart and finding out what possible solutions exist. 

I mentioned earlier that I am grateful, and I’d like to end on that note as well. My life is enormously improved, my career is taking off, and my artwork is bubbling happily along, all because I stumbled into a profession upon which I once looked down. I feel very, very lucky that I ended up where I did all those years ago.

What mindsets have you had to unlearn as you have established your career path?