What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to doing work that matters?
A lot of people say money. As in, a lack of money.
A lack of money can certainly be an obstacle. But it can also be an excuse.
It’s awesome to have the funds we need to give us the time and other resources that will help us do work that matters. But if we say we can’t do anything meaningful because it’s not our full-time job, that’s fear talking.
Now, there are cases where money truly is a debilitating issue. I have friends and family members who just can’t seem to get ahead — at times they feel as if they’re drowning. Money problems can be extremely demotivating, crippling, and depressing.
However, right now I want to talk about those who see money as their biggest challenge to doing work that matters and yet have never stopped to consider if there are alternatives. Or perhaps you see the paycheck as a validation of the work you’re doing — you need the promise of income as a pat on the back that you’re doing something valuable.
But the truth is…
Money is a tool, not a validation
You with money may have an advantage over you without money, but it’s not a guarantee. At the end of the day, what money does is buy opportunity.
Opportunity of time: if you had a million dollars in the bank to pay all your monthly living expenses and to pay someone else to handle all the menial tasks of your life, then you could spend all your time working on your craft. But even if you had all the time in the world, it doesn’t guarantee you’d choose to do meaningful work.
Opportunity of collaboration and community: if you had a million dollars, you could hire a team to work with. But even with a hundred million, there’s no guarantee that you’d be able to hire an all-star staff of hard-working, kind, fun, brilliant, self-starters who all get along.
Opportunity of networking: if you had a million dollars, people might invite you to their fancy dinners, and ask you to collaborate with them. But even if so, there’s no guarantee that the right people will notice you
Opportunity of research and discovery: if you had a million dollars you could buy all the books you need to learn up on a subject, travel somewhere to a conference to meet new people and learn new things, and more.
Opportunity to use better tools: if you had a million dollars you could buy the nicest camera, the fastest computer, the highest quality paint brushes. But even then, there’s no guarantee that the tools at your disposal would empower you do to work that matters.
If money is your biggest challenge to doing your best creative work, ask yourself what advantage or opportunity it is that you’re looking to money to solve. Once you figure that out, ask yourself if there’s a different solution to your challenge.
If you say you need money so you can have more time to do the work that matters to you, and yet you’re watching an hour of TV every day, then money’s not the first problem. How you’re spending your time is.
If you say you need money to afford the right tools, yet you go out to eat every day and have a monthly car payment, perhaps you should assess your spending and budgeting.
The real obstacles are fear and not being willing to sacrifice
I spent four years writing shawnblanc.net during evenings, weekends, and lunch breaks before I was able to quit my job and take the website full time. Jason Kottke had been writing online for 7 years before he quit his job to take kottke.org full-time. Myke Hurley spent four years podcasting before he was able to take his passion full-time. John Gruber wrote Daring Fireball on the side for 4 years before making it his full-time gig.
In short, it takes time — years, usually — before doing the work you love can get to a point where it is also the work that pays the bills. But sometimes, it never pays the bills.
Are you willing to show up every day for 4 years?
Talking to a friend about this just this morning, he said that he doesn’t think it’s about money at all — it’s about how much people are willing to sacrifice to do the work they love. People don’t want to give up all the things they need to give up, so instead they place the burden of action on having more money.
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In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna writes that there are four obstacles to doing our most important work: Money, Time, Space, and Vulnerability.
While money, time, and space are the reasons given most often for not choosing Must, there’s another fear that’s far scarier and spoon about much less.
Choosing Must means that you have to confront some very big fears. It will make you feel vulnerable.
Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. As anyone who writes, draws, or takes pictures on a regular basis can tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be hard and frightful.
I don’t want to minimize how helpful it can be to have a financial safety net in place, nor how frightening it can be when you’re barely scraping by. I’ve been in debt, I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck even though I didn’t have to, I’ve survived on less than minimum wage, and I’ve had enough money to take a year off if I wanted. In all those seasons, there were still challenges and fears that I had to press through in order to do work that mattered.
Elle Luna also writes: “It is here, standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, that we feel the enormous reality of our fears, and this is the moment when many of us decide against following our intuition, turning away from that place where nothing is guaranteed, nothing is known, and everything is possible.”
With all kindness and tenderness, let me challenge you: If it’s mostly about the money, then perhaps it’s not about doing your best creative work after all. If you see money as your biggest challenge, perhaps you’re not being honest with yourself.
On this week’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly, I seek to define what “Your Best Creative Work” actually means.
It’s a phrase I’ve been thinking and talking about for years. Does it only relate to “artsy” stuff? I don’t think so.
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Here’s a picture of someone doing her best creative work:
She shows up every day. When it’s easy and when it’s hard. It doesn’t matter. She is committed.
This is something only she can do. Yet even still, it might not all work out as planned. There is no clear path about comes next. There is a lot of guessing. There is fear.
Some days the work is so much harder than others. Some days everything comes together and it’s amazing. At the end of the day, it’s always rewarding.
She is telling a story. Every day she is trying to connect with others. Her work is emotional. Relational. There is learning. Teaching. Guessing. Loving. She is a mother.
* * *
When we talk about “doing our best creative work”, it’s easy to define creativity as “artsy”. Writing. Designing. Taking photographs. But creative work happens in a variety of forms.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a project manager, and he very much views his work as creative. Creating a spreadsheet to analyze data — that is a form of creativity, and it should be validated as creative. The way a mother or father raises their children and the tactics they deploy. The choices we make as freelancers, small-business owners, founders, or CEOs. It’s all creative
The scope of creativity and meaningful work goes far beyond art.
Any degree of freedom you use to do your work means you have a choice about how you go about it. And that is creativity. You’ve been given the gift of choice, and you can use that to give back and do work that matters.
* * *
What do you think about when you think about art and creativity?
I think about emotions. Fear, doubt, joy, happiness, love, and honesty.
I think about telling a story. Encouraging, inspiring, educating, and entertaining others.
I think about people. Relationships and connecting.
* * *
Doing my best creative work is an amalgamation of both doing work that matters and also taking joy in the journey.
Meaningful work, work that matters, is something that I have to do. I am compelled to do it. If it doesn’t work out, if nobody likes it, if I never make a dollar, that’s unfortunate. But I still had to do it. And so, if it didn’t work out or it didn’t make a dollar, I have to figure out how to keep doing it better. Meaningful work is also something which I hope will make the lives of other people better. Either by entertaining them, educating them, or helping them in their journey.
Having joy in the journey is just that. Having fun. Pursuing “mastery”. Being present in the moment. Getting in the zone. Creating without inhibition. Trusting your gut.
Put these two together, and boom. You’ve got yourself a recipe for your best creative work.
When you define your best creative work like this, it changes everything. Suddenly it’s less about the quality of art you produce and it’s more about being valuable, meaningful, and honest.
And you realize that your best creative work is part of every area of your life: work, family, rest, personal life, etc.
Doing your best creative work every day is a choice. You get to choose to do work that matters.
I try to make that choice when I’m at my keyboard, when I’m on a date with my wife, when I have half an hour of quiet alone time, and when I’m playing catch in the back yard with my two boys. In those moments, it’s not about the context. Art. Relationships. Business. Each one is a chance to choose to be honest, true, vulnerable, and personal.
This is what my home office workspace looked like in 2007:
(I still have that trashcan. And the weird blocks underneath the legs of the desk are there because I mis-measured by about 3/4 of an inch when I tried to shortening the height of the desk to something more comfortable.)
It was dorky, but it was also inspirational. Inspirational for what it stood for, really. That photo was taken around the same time as the beginning of my weekends-and-evenings freelancing career. I had just bought that refurbished Mac Pro and 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, and now I was ready for the big leagues. It felt great to have a new machine (doing print design on the 12-inch PowerBook was not very ideal), and a newly organized workspace with some semblance of organization and structure. You know the feeling.
A few years later, we ripped out the carpet to reveal the hardwood underneath. Painted the walls, got a new desk from IKEA, and bought a lamp.
That’s the desk where I launched my full-time gig writing shawnblanc.net.
A few years after that, we moved my office downstairs because the upstairs room was to become a nursery for our first son, Noah.
Here’s what my space looked like last year:
Since that time things have de-cluttered a bit. Mostly thanks to the Retina iMac (which is still incredible by the way).
Here’s what my desk looks like today:
As desks are wont to do, mine certainly gets cluttered and messy. But I try to keep it clean and not just let the mess get out of control. For me, inspiration and ideas and calm are more prevalent when the peripherals are dealt with.
My desk is where I spend so much of my time. It’s where I work and where I create. I write, design, pay bills, ignore emails, edit and share pictures with my family, and more… all from here. I’m here right now, in fact.
When I think about showing up every day and doing my best creative work, I think about this space. It has certainly changed and evolved over the past decade, but one thing it’s always had has been a surface to work on, a keyboard to type on, and an internet connection to publish through.
Your creative workspace may be different. But regardless of what or why you’ve got what you’ve got, here are a few things every good creative workspace needs:
Ritual: As I wrote last week, by far and away, the best thing you can do for your creative workspace is to build some ritual / routine into it. When you combine the power of a consistent “where” along with a consistent “what and when”, then you’re basically putting your creative genius on autopilot.
Fun: Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work. If there’s nothing playful, enjoyable, or fun about your workspace how can you hope to create anything inspirational or vibrant? All work and no play makes our creative work very dull indeed.
For me, I have fun built right into the very core of what I do: writing. My keyboard is as clicky as they come, and I love it. Secondly, I have a computer that I love to use: the Retina iMac which is a marvel. As someone who works with words all day long not only do I have my favorite way to type them with, I also have a jaw-dropping display to view them on.
Inspiration Rich: Speaking of fun, a good workspace is inspirational. A few friends of mine who have some pretty great workspaces include: Sean McCabe’s office, which is filled with art prints; Cameron Moll’s space which is very open and organized, but yet also is clearly lived in; and Jeff Sheldon’s office studio, which, like Cameron’s is very organized but very lived in.
I have a bit of inspiration in my place. My bookcase is packed with hardbacks, paperbacks, magazines, Field Notes, Moleskins, and Baron Figs. On the walls are prints of photographs I’ve taken over the years. But looking at some of the aforementioned office spaces, I know there is much I could do to enhance the life, vibrancy, and overall inspiration of my own workspace.
Distraction Poor: A good workspace empowers us to do our best creative work. Distractions are pretty much the opposite of inspiration and motivation. In addition to not letting myself check any stats or social media before I’ve put in my morning writing time, I also get rid of physical distractions in a couple of ways.
For one, I clean up my desk at the end of the day so that tomorrow when I come down to work, there’s nothing left undone that I need to tend to first. Secondly, I put on headphones. I work form home, but right upstairs are two toddler boys whose superpowers include turning into tornadoes.
Efficiency: This is threefold. For one, it’s critical to have the right tools for the right job. You wouldn’t want a butter knife when you’re trying to cut down an oak tree. Secondly, get the best tools you can. I don’t mean get the best tools period, get what you can afford and what you can handle. Lastly, a good workspace is efficient in that it can accommodate what you use on a regular basis and that everything is easily accessible while not also being in the way.
Multiple Spaces: This one’s a luxury, but it’s also so great. If you checked out the photos of Sean, Cameron, and/or Jeff’s offices you may have noticed that there were multiple “stations”. They’re offices have more than one physical place to do work.
In my office there is my desk, but on the other half of the room is a couch and coffee table. And, even my desk converts between a sitting and standing desk. I have these different stations because not all creative work is created equal. I spend at least as much time writing as I do reading and researching. And that latter activity is better spent not in front of my computer.
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In her book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna lists Space (as in Workspace, not Outer Space), as one of the four obstacles that stand in the way of us doing our most important work — what she calls our “Must”.
You need a physical space — private, safe, and just for you. When you are in this space, you are not available. I repeat, you are not available. This is your sacred space to be by and with yourself. We all need safe containers. How might you create a safe space that you can spend time in daily? How might you get creative with where it begins and ends? Find this place and make it your own.
The unsung hero of showing up every day and doing your best creative work is your workspace. You may think it’s your determination, zeal, and creative genius. And it probably is. But it’s also that you’ve somehow managed to carve out a spot where you can think and work without judgment, inhibition, or distraction.
Perhaps you’ve created your workspace intentionally, or perhaps unintentionally. But either way, if you find that you’ve been doing some of your best work lately, take a moment to thank your space.
However, if you’re struggling — if you don’t have a space — it’s time to make one.
Your space doesn’t have to be made with a desk or a computer. I read about one woman who made her workspace by using painter’s tape to sectioning off part of her living room. She ran the tape across the ceiling, down the walls, and back over the floor.
I’ve had many productive days at coffee shops. Find a table where nobody will give you the stink eye if you’re there for too long, put on headphones if you like, and make your space with an Americano as your wingman.
On a recent edition of The Fight Spot, I wrote about one of the aspects of doing our best creative work: stepping out of the echo chamber.
The dictionary definition of echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
An enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal (a multi-dimensional repeating of what was once said) and whatever you say is echoed back to you.
Echo Chamber is also a metaphor. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: In media, an echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored or disallowed.
By nature, each of us tend to sit in the center of our own echo chamber.
When we get too absorbed in the platform, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It becomes noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. And it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
When we look to the echo chamber as our sole source of inspiration, it’s like looking to a bag of chips for our sole source of nourishment. The constant barrage of our timelines and inboxes — those “little updates” — are like snacks and junk food. They will fill you up but they are not a significant form of nourishment.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
The inspiration and motivation needed for your best creative work will not come from the echo chamber.
Limit your feeds and inboxes. Subscribe only to the people and sources of input that enrich your life and give you the motivation and tools to do your best creative work.
Seek out inspiration from offline sources. Such as books, nature, conferences, silence, prayer and meditation, relationships, journaling, building your own projects, etc.
Create something every day. Write in your journal, come up with 10 ideas, take a photograph, draw a sketch, etc.
Curate what you share. Be a source of motivation, encouragement, and equipping to those who follow you. Put thought into the work you publish. Even your tweets and Facebook updates can be nuggets that motivate, equip, and encourage.
A Challenge to You
At some point this week, do one of these things:
Unsubscribe from one RSS feed or email newsletter, or unfollow one person on Twitter or Facebook.
(You should feel free to unsubscribe from my site / newsletter / unfollow me on Twitter — if what I am writing isn’t helpful to you at this time, or isn’t providing you with the motivation and tools to do your best creative work, then cut it out. You only have so much time, and the last thing I want is to be a non-helpful source of input in your day.)
- Take 15 minutes to find inspiration from an offline source. Read a chapter from a favorite book, put your phone in another room and just sit in silence, take a walk outside, etc.
Create something. Write a journal entry, take a photograph, draw something, come up with 10 ideas for little ways you can show your friends and family how much you love them (you don’t even have to act on the 10 ideas you come up with).
Do something to encourage or equip someone else.
Before you move on from this article, decide which one of the above challenges you’re going to do and make a time in your week for when you’re going to do it.
Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work.
But as anyone who writes or draws or takes pictures for a living will tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be excruciatingly painful. Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. Creative work wears on your mind and your emotions instead of on your joints and muscles. Not to mention the sheer horror involved in the act of taking something you’ve created and putting it out there in public in the hopes of making a dollar so you can make something else and put it out there again.
* * *
On Episode 5 of The Weekly Briefly, Patrick Rhone was my guest and we were sharing some bits of writing advice for people wanting to build a website audience. One of the foundational principals we both agreed on was the immeasurable importance of having fun, which is not as easy as it sounds. As I mentioned above, publishing your creative work to the internet for all the world to see is often a very not-fun thing to do.
Patrick said something that is an excellent guiding principal to help you keep your writing fun: write the internet that you want to read.
There is something freeing about creating for yourself. When we take hold of that baton and create for that second version of ourselves, it’s like having a permission slip to do awesome work. And what better way to have fun than to do awesome work? There’s an inverse truth here as well: most of our best work comes from the place of delight. When we are excited about a project, that creative momentum propels us to think outside the box and to dream new ideas as the project takes residence as the top idea in our mind.
Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, would agree. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in 1990 at the Kenyon College commencement ceremony:
If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.
And here’s James Altucher in a Facebook status update about how to write for a living:
The most important thing for me: writing without fear. Writing without judgment. Writing without anger. Making writing fun. Writing right now. Writing is about freedom and not money.
Now, as you probably know all too well, in practice it’s not that easy. But you and I are not alone in our fight to stay creative. We can (and we should!) set ourselves up for success. By identifying the things that suffocate fun and creativity, as well as knowing the things that encourage creativity, we can wage war against the former and cultivate the latter.
Let’s start with the bad news first.
Stiflers of creativity
Below, I’ve listed the things that will cut off our ability and/or desire to do our best creative work. These are things that will whisper in our ear that our idea is pathetic and our implementation of it even worse. They urge us to give up, to move on, to quit, and to pacify our minds. They tell us that we have nothing unique to offer, that we have no value, and that everything will come crashing down any minute, so why even bother.
Isolation: Being alone from any community, any peer group, and anybody who you can bounce ideas off of, get feedback from, and just other general human contact that reminds you of the fact you’re a real human being.
Ambiguity: Having unknown goals and trying to complete them in an undefined manner with a hazy schedule. Without clear goals, an action plan to accomplish them, and a schedule for when we are going to work, then we just meander around not actually doing anything.
Fear & anxiety: This includes fear of failure, fear of rejection. It can paralyze us from even getting started on our ideas because we fear it will come to nothing in the end anyway. Or we fear that when we are finished, people will reject our work and reject us as the author behind it. The problem here is that it puts all the value on the end result only, and places no value at all in the journey of the creative process itself. There is nothing wrong with failure and rejection — we can learn so much from those things! And there is no shortcut for experience. We mustn’t be afraid of failing nor of being rejected, and we must place more value on the act of creating so we can find joy in the journey and develop a lifetime of experience in making things.
Shame: Feeling inadequate as an artist at all, embarrassed about the work we’ve done, even embarrassed about the future work we haven’t even done yet. When we feel shame, we shy away from our big bold ideas and the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and we make something completely devoid of life and opinion.
Doubt: Doubting that we have the skills to make anything at all; doubting our value as a creative person.
Comparison: There is a difference between learning and gleaning from others and comparing our work to theirs. Where there is comparison there is often envy as well. And this deadly pair will choke out any originality we have. Ray Bradbury, from his Martian Chronicles introduction, wrote: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”
Disillusionment: This is “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.” We can get disillusioned in a million ways, and often the result is a loss of vision for doing our creative work. I avoid disillusionment by steering clear of the things and the people that represent what I consider the “worst” things of my areas of interest and work.
When we live with these stiflers of creativity as a permanent ailment for too long, it can lead to burn out. The solution isn’t to quit our creative endeavors altogether, but rather to get rid of the ailment. I will say, however, that quitting (or taking a sabbatical) works sometimes because when you fully remove yourself from the situation you have a chance to deal with the ailment in a new environment.
Identify these enemies in your creative life and wage war against them. Give yourself permission to do what it takes to set yourself up to do the best creative work you can do. Quit Twitter. Move to Atlanta. Only write and publish after 9pm at night. Whatever.
Stimulators and proponents of creativity
These are the things we want to cultivate as much as possible. Build these into your life and guard them with tenacity. These are not replacements for talent, knowledge, and perseverance — rather they are the things that serve as both the seedbed and the greenhouse in which creativity grows and flourishes.
Community: You need community to help cultivate your ideas, encourage you to keep working, and to speak truth to you about the things you’re afraid of. If you work from home, community can be tricky. Have a chat room where some of your close friends are available; get out and go to coffee shops or parks; work from a coworking space regularly; eat meals with friends; actively engage in non-work-related relationships.
Clear goals: Having a defined goal can help us to focus on actually accomplishing our idea and making it happen. Looming, unanswered questions often lead to inaction and procrastination. Overcoming that is often as simple as defining an end goal. Of course, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just want to go out and take photographs and who cares what you shoot. Nothing wrong with that either, of course.
Trust: You have to trust your skills, trust your gut, and trust your value as a contributor. You’re not an impostor. And the more you learn and the more experience you gain, the more your skills will grow. But if you wait until you’ve “arrived” to begin your journey, it’s a logical impossibility that you will ever actually arrive. You have to step out the front door and start walking.
Experience: The more times we’ve gone down the same path, the more familiar with it we become. Experience breeds confidence. And confidence is the opposite of doubt. Thus, the more we do the work, the better we get at it. In part, we are getting better because that’s what happens when you practice. But also, we get better because the confidence which experience breeds helps us to loosen up, relax, and take new risks.
Rest: A surprisingly critical part of maintaining a consistently creative lifestyle is stepping away from the creative work at hand in order to recharge. The mind is like a battery, however — it recharges by running. Don’t default to TV and video games as your forms of rest. Get plenty of sleep. Take walks or drives. If you work with your mind, try resting with your hands and build something out of wood or plant a garden. Read. Etc.
Diligence: This includes spending our time wisely, having a routine, focus, and automation. Diligence isn’t a personality type, it’s a skill we learn. Some of us had a good work ethic instilled in us by our parents, some of us have had to cultivate it on our own later in life. It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability. Sure, inspiration often comes to us when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while we wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.
Other factors and variables
There are some response-based factors that don’t make or break an artist in and of themselves, but, depending on what they are (and our response to them), they can empower or handicap us.
Tools: Tools do not an artist make nor break; but the right tools can empower us to be more efficient and the wrong tools can slow us down.
Constraint: Constraint often breeds creativity because it forces us to think outside of the box, but too much constraint can actually stifle a project’s full potential.
Praise & criticism: The positive and negative feedback of people can be dangerous. If we take it to heart too much, it can easily lead to pride or depression. We should glean from the feedback we get, but not let it steer us in our goals and direction. One of the most dangerous questions a creative person can ask themselves is: “What if the critics are right?” If they’re right, you’ll already have known it. Let the council of your peers lead you, not the one-off praise or rejection of strangers.
Success & failure: Similar to praise and criticism, success and failure can be dangerous. Our successes and failures should be things we learn from and use as stepping stones in our ever-continuing journey to make awesome things. Successes and failures should be celebrated and learned from, but don’t treat them as stopping points.
Environment: A positive work environment can do wonders for your daily creative productivity. A distracting environment can stifle things. Do what you can to set up and maintain an awesome environment that fosters inspiration, creativity, focus, and fun.
* * *
As Hemingway said: “Write drunk; edit sober.” Alcohol aside, the point is that creating without inhibition results in better work in the end. Have fun when making, and go back later to fix those typos and bunny trails.
But, that’s not to say fun is the premier goal that in the fight to stay creative. The goal — the hope — is that we can do our best creative work, day in and day out, for years and years.
What’s so great about having fun in our creative work is that it stands as a signal, telling us we are “in the zone”. When we’re having fun in our creative work it usually means we feel safe to dream big and to take new risks. Not to mention, when we’re having fun, it gives us a natural energy that helps us persevere and bring our ideas to life.
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P.S. This topic of staying creative has a significant presence in my book, Delight is in the Details. It’s such a critical discussion that I also made a video about it. You can watch the video here and buy the book here.
There are some apps which, due to the nature of their usage and/or contents, seem to earn a more personal connection from the user than other apps. Twitter apps I think are like this because they’re filled with the life updates, corny jokes, and selfies of our friends and family. Writing apps also can garner a connection with their users because they serve as the tool where we express our thoughts and feelings.
And though one might expect an RSS app to be insipid, or, at best, utilitarian, I find them quite the opposite — because they’re filled with the recent articles, photographs, and stories of my hand-chosen, favorite writers, photographers, and news outlets.
An RSS reader is the window into your curated world.
* * *
Like so many other life-changing moments, my relationship with RSS readers began in a church pew.
It was a Sunday morning in early 2007, and our Church had Wi-Fi, and I was sitting in a back corner with a friend, and instead of using my PowerBook G4 to take notes I was surfing the web reading all my favorite blogs.
If you’ve read my review of NetNewsWire, you’re already familiar with the story: I used to keep all the blogs I enjoyed reading in a bookmark folder in Safari on my Mac. But that Sunday morning, sitting next to my friend, he introduced me to an RSS reader.
“You can follow all those sites in one spot, you know?”
I didn’t know.
He set me up with the RSS reader in Safari (which has long since been removed). But I soon moved on to Vienna, and then NetNewsWire 3.1 on the Mac (which, in my humble opinion, is one of the all-time best pieces of Mac software ever).
I’ve also used Google Reader, NewsGator Online, Reeder for Mac, iPad, and iPhone, ReadKit, NetNewsWire on my iPhone, Byline, Fever, and probably a few more.
And now, today, we have Unread. It’s a brand new RSS app for the iPhone, and it is fantastic.
I have been using Unread throughout its beta period for the past two months, and in that time it has quietly usurped the previous RSS reader on my home screen.
Unread works with Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, and Feedly. I’ve been using it with my Feed Wrangler account and it loads my unread items extremely quickly.
Unread is also very fun. It’s full of subtle animations and easy gestures. The app is understated, extremely readable, and welcoming.
It’s not that there’s anything in particular. There’s just a simple elegance to it. The app is well designed and nice to use.
It’s on launch sale for just $3 and I think it’s worth 10 times that. I paid $30 for NetNewsWire on my Mac half a decade ago, and now, years later, I’m using Unread on my iPhone instead.
Unread is somewhat different than any other app I’ve used before. And yet it’s also quite familiar. It has all the expected features — you can send an article to Instapaper or share it on Twitter or text message it to your friends — and yet they feel unexpected. The share sheet slides in from the right-hand side, and feels akin to the bouncy and playful animations of Tweetbot 3.
I’ve long been a fan of Jared Sinclair’s design taste, and I consider Riposte to be one of the finest apps on my iPhone. I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is, but if I had to explain it in one word then I’d say Unread is peaceful.
But my hunch is that Unread will prove to be a somewhat polarizing app. Some, like me, will love it. Others, undoubtedly, will not like it.
The app has nearly both feet in iOS 7, but there is still a toe or two in iOS 6. There are little things — such as the design of the status bar at the top of the screen — that still feel reminiscent of iOS designs from yesteryear. But don’t read that as a dig against the app’s design…
The status bar doesn’t look like it belongs in the past, but it does have a slight nostalgic feel to it that is reminiscent of the more skeumorphic, graphics-heavy iOS designs of old. I am a fan of the status bar.
When talking about Riposte, developer Jared Sinclair, said this:
We take push/pop transitions at face value: swiping to go back is like pulling yourself back to where you were before. If I can’t picture an app as a set of cards laid out in a grid on a table, I can’t understand it.
That exact same gesture-reliant design philosophy is prevalent all throughout Unread as well. The set of cards include (starting at the left-most, topmost “card”) the Home screen, the list of subscribed feeds and any folders or groups, the list of articles in those feeds, and then the article itself.
Hovering (theoretically) at all times to the right, is the share/action card. Pulling from right-to-left in any screen slides in the share sheet. From there you get access to a list of relevant actions and settings.
Common settings include changing themes (dark, light, and others), marking all articles as read, and more.
But the action sheet shows different options based on the context of when it was summoned. If you’re acting on a specific article, for example, then you have the option to “Share” the article and thus send it to Instapaper, Pinboard, OmniFocus, Twitter, your Safari Reading List, and more. To share a specific article directly from the article list view you have to tap and hold on that article.
By using this gesture-based share sheet, Unread has no persistent toolbar when reading an article. When in the various list views you see the status bar on top and a “navigation” bar on bottom that tells you where you are in the app. But when reading an individual article, you’re in full screen mode with nothing visible but the article itself.
Navigation and density
Unread’s home screen is where you start with access to the app’s settings and other special miscellany, as well as the RSS syncing platform of your choice (FeedWrangler, Feedbin, and/or Feedly). You then drill down to the high-level list of your feeds under your syncing engine account, and from there you can select which list of your articles you want to dig in to: all unread, all articles, one of your smart streams or folders, or your specific site feeds.
All of these sections — these “cards” — exude the basic design philosophy and opinion of Jared Sinclair: that the app would be a relaxing and enjoyable experience. But it is especially present when perusing down your list of individual unread articles.
Unlike most other RSS apps I’ve used, Unread shows considerably more content-per-article when viewing the list of articles. I’m used to seeing a condensed list of articles that shows each article title and time of posting (akin to email). In Unread, however, you see the article title, name of the website, time of posting, the first few sentences of the article, and, if there is an image as part of the article, then the image is shown as well.
Unread is not dense.
At first, this less-dense view irked me. But I quickly acclimated to it and now prefer it, even look forward to it.
Scrolling is free. In a context where I am assessing each individual article to decide if I want to read it or not, viewing just 2 or 3 article summaries on the screen at a time can be just as efficient as viewing 5 or 6 headlines. In fact, I’d argue that this less-dense list view is more efficient. For one, it presents more data per article, allowing you to read a bit of the article to help with your decision to drill down and read it in its entirety or not. And secondly, it is far easier to make a choice between 2 options than 6.
I do have a few nits to pick, however.
As it is now, when you are done reading an article, you can not go directly on to the next unread article. It would be nice to be able to go from one unread article to the next without having to go back to the list first.
By default, unread items persist in the list of articles (in a grayed-out state). You can get around this by tapping directly on the unread item count in a list instead of tapping on the list’s name in which you will see only the unread items in the list. However, I wish this behavior were reversed.
When you’re going to read a web page, the previously-loaded web page is there waiting for you until the new one comes up. Something about this feels slow or unconsidered to me.
It was the design of Unread that hooked me right away — the app is clean, friendly, and warm, and all its type is set in Whitney — but the more I used it the more I began to appreciate and enjoy the functionality and feature decisions built into the app.
Unread is refreshingly simple and elegant. If you subscribe to RSS feeds and read them on your iPhone, take some time and use Unread for a while — I think you’ll be glad you did.
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You can get Unread on the App Store (still propagating) for just $2.99.
This is a guest post, written by my good friend, Josh Farmer.
I may have a mild form of Aspergers, which makes me somewhat awkward in social situations. This is especially true when I get into nerdy conversations about very specific topics I enjoy. Typefaces are one of those topics.
What follows is an alphabetical listing of great typefaces from 2013. I hope it gets you thinking about how to branch out more into the world of type, whether in your creative ventures or as an informed reader.
Alverata by Gerard Unger
Gerard Unger, one of the patriarchs of modern type design, is still going strong. For part of his Ph.D., he created Alverata as a new take on Romanesque forms. Inscription is the basis for this face, which can be seen in its sharp, short serifs and flared forms.
Alverata comes in three weights (Regular, Informal, and Alternates), each with their own purpose and feel. The Regular is just what it says on the tin: basic characters that play well with eleventh- and twelfth-century history. The Informal set introduces an unexpected softness with such things as a single-story a and calligraphic terminals. The Alternate weight is made for all kinds of medieval scenarios, goth lite logos, or maybe the next dragon movie.
Bree Serif by Veronika Burian & José Scaglione
The extremely popular upright italic, Bree, got a charming seriffed cousin this year. All the personality is alive and well in Bree Serif, and now it has the added benefit of working in more scenarios.
Bree began as the typeface based on TypeTogether’s logo; it was an expansion of the e–T ligature Veronika created for their wordmark. The spry upright italic has been one of their most adored and most used typefaces since its creation. Bree Serif began as a Google Fonts project and matured into a full-fledged counterpart to Bree that comes in 12 weights and speaks multiple languages. It still has the looped g, y, and z that everyone recognizes and it includes alternate forms. As readable in text sizes as it is distinct in headlines, Bree Serif puts a pair of modern glasses on Bree’s face. We all know it’s our fun-loving friend, but now we know she’s serious about having a fun night out.
Domaine by Kris Sowersby
What can I say about this type family? It’s gorgeous. Every curve is considered, every sharp point inviting. Its high class contrast will steal the money right out of your wallet and you will be all the richer for it. Seriously. Your type IQ will increase by using Domaine, which will cause others to rush to join your elite fan club. (Elite fan club not included.) Domaine is classy, erudite, and still fun. Its characters look like they began with a paintbrush and were finished with pen. It’s James Bond with a loosened tie.
FF Dora by Slávka Pauliková
Yet another strong release from FontFont, the team behind fontshop.com. FF Dora’s hybrid personality mixes the freedom of brush strokes with the restraint needed for a text serif. It strikes me as a contender to the great Skolar family, though it has only six weights so far. I love seeing the bulge created by the turns of the brush at the baseline when retracing a stem, such as with the italic m. Other lovely touches: the asymmetrical dot on the i, the inktraps on stem–curve joins, the italic k, the wide stance of the typeface itself, and how the stems are slightly flared.
The display version takes every aspect three steps further, daring you to slather its personality across something mundane. And who doesn’t love the section and dagger symbols? The only improvement I would have requested is more alternates for each character to expand the painterly possibilities. And ponies and world peace, but one thing at a time.
Exquise FY by FontYou
Exquise is great when you want some pizzazz with your Didone substitute. I love the diagonal modified terminals that curve in on themselves, the numerous beautiful ligatures, and the gently curved strokes that finish off some letters, such as the lower- and uppercase k, v, and w. Due to these qualities, Exquise is elegant when used large and it won’t let you skip too quickly when used smaller in text.
Haven’t heard of FontYou? Think of it as a font hub where you can submit your type doodles, see those from others, vote, and then buy the ones that get awsome-ized (that is, made into real typefaces). It’s your neighborhood farm-to-market fonts that you can have a hand in creating. This is organic at its finest.
Kumla by Göran Söderström
Söderström has put out some fantastic typefaces over the years, such as Trim, Siri, Heroine, and FF Dagny — each with a very specific goal in mind. Now we are treated to the best remake of something worthy of a Russian version of Star Trek.
This high-waisted typeface feels that way thanks to the shallow bowl on the R and P, the quick curve of the S, and how the N connects its two stems. Use it in place of Eurostile, as a futuristic replacement for Helvetica (gasp, sacrilege!), as a more industrial version of Neo Sans, or to create some unforgettable branding.
MVB Solitaire by Mark van Bronkhorst
Sometimes what you need isn’t so much a show stopper as a workhorse that blends into an overall scheme. Web historians might put Verdana and Lucida in that do-it-all wallflower category. Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Mark Simonson have winners in this category with Whitney and Proxima Nova, respectively. MVB Solitaire belongs in that dignified grouping. Its enormous x-height means it’s easy to set as small as you want without any worries about legibility, and the lowercase g takes on different personalities in each weight.
MVB Solitaire is a straight shooter with just enough personality to pair well with almost anything. This means that, though no one would put these faces in the same category, MVB Solitaire can stand in equally well for Gill Sans, Myriad, Futura, or Verdana.
Magasin by Laura Meseguer
Magasin is a friendly connected script based on the flattened oval. That geometric foundation makes way for the connections to be seen, and the separated strokes show how each letter was formed. As for me, I love the pilcrow, British pound, and Registered symbols. If you ever get the chance to rebrand the Madeline cartoon and they’re ready to change the hand-drawn wordmark, put Magasin on the list.
Dieter Hofrichter of hoftype.com
Dieter Hofrichter gets the award as one of the most prolific typeface producers each year. Last year he released 11 faces; this year it was six, of which my eye is drawn to Capita, Foro Rounded, Quant, and Qubo.
Granted, some releases are rounded versions of typefaces Hofrichter has already created, but that doesn’t make his productivity any less impressive. His typefaces are great for setting a textual tone and are optimized for setting medium or long texts, so try one of his to replace your normal text face. How easy is this to do? Super easy, because Hoftype usually gives away one weight of each new family for free. Keep an eye on Hoftype next year. Who knows how many new faces we will be graced with in 2014.
Remo by Thomas Thiemich
Oh, happy retinas, Remo is here! Thiemich has a way of crossing categories better than almost anyone in type design today. I was immediately drawn to his exhaustive Alto type family, with its friendly inner raindrop shape and variety of widths and weights. He’s back once again showing off his serious design skills and his eye for what works across several decades of type design. If a relaxed geometric is what you need, instead of another strict redrawing on a grid, Remo is it.
Thiemich started with strict geometry, but then moved on with more charm and maturity than you would expect from a turn-of-the-century typeface. Each stroke is pushed toward the outside of the block of space it inhabits, so the thin glyphs feel like they maintain about the same area as the heavy weights. If Remo were alive, I’d imagine it got frozen in time as it inhaled.
Check out the difference between the thin and light weights of the M; the center apex moved down. The curls added to the a, d, and l, along with the cheery s, create gentility. The low-waisted R, Y, and S are begging for some Broadway attention, but don’t pigeonhole it to 1920s New York; the a, J, Q, and l would never feel at home there. And that’s the genius of this type family — it fits multiple styles like a glove. I love the descending italic f and the face’s enormous x-height, but you might be just as happy to replace the overused Futura. Or Univers. Or Avenir. Or Mr. Eaves. Or Broadway, you Windows users who still want to use the marching ants effect. When you’re ready to get a typeface that can handle so many different decades, Remo is your man. This typeface makes me happy.
Sauna Mono by Underware at underware.nl
Forget the days of coding headaches. Sauna is interesting to look at — even fun. So far, monospaced typefaces have been bitmappy, annoying, and just horrid. Nitti put a dent in that universe but didn’t truly change the expectation. Sauna Mono is the answer to, “And what normal person would ever want to look at a coding font for hours each day?” Someone who is staring at Sauna Mono, that’s who. Sauna has personality and good looks; it’s definitely not your grandma’s mono, which sounds weird now that I’ve said it. Classy, readable, and with another text and display family just waiting to be discovered. If you do any coding behind the scenes or screenwriting important scenes, you should check Sauna Mono out. Why not do your job well and love the typeface you’re using at the same time? And I do mean love. Don’t just take whatever mono Sublime Text has packaged, get something you will love. Sauna Mono fits this bill.
Supernova by Martina Flor
Ever since Lettering vs. Calligraphy took the font world by storm, I’ve been waiting to see a brush script come from Martina Flor’s hand. Supernova is her brilliant release that doesn’t lose one ounce of energy, regardless how it’s used.
Supernova’s most amazing feature? It’s readable. Yes, it actually works in short- to medium-length text. She made five weights specifically for text and one with more expressiveness for use in huge sizes, appropriately called the poster weight. She then added a few alternates for each glyph and some decorative elements such as curls, frames, slathers, and dollops. My gut feeling is that she had to force herself to stop adding alternates and decoration. Supernova is cheeky and vibrant. It’s perfect for packaging and will also add some much-needed charm to the neutral or overwrought geometric typeface you were forced to pick by some faceless committee. Not that this has ever happened to me you.
Zulia by Joluvian and Ale Paul
Zulia is an expressive, legible paintbrush face with great alternates. Quick turns and extended swashes are the easiest to notice, but look at the downward strokes for a lesson in controlled speed. This typeface is precisely what Sudtipos are known for.
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A final thought. I’m making two calls: This will be the year of the alternate glyphs, and a year of focusing more on multilingualism in type.
We’ve seen much of these before, but I think it’s increasing substantially. We’ve seen type designers create awesome things from scratch and breathe new life into entire categories, so now I think many designers will use alternate glyphs to distinguish themselves and their typefaces. We’ve seen a bit of this in the past, especially with well done scripts such as Underware’s Liza. Lately there’s been a trend toward sans and serif families with a greater range and the ability to switch tones. Alternates for characters such as a, g, e, s, and l provide just such a tonal distinction. Read Kris Sowersby’s article on Metric & Calibre to see how easily and effectively tone can be changed through just a few letters. I’m guessing this will become standard practice, in tandem with a long-awaited multilingualism for major releases, in which type families are created from the start with something more than the Latin alphabet as the driving force. What would the Latin alphabet look like if it came through the filter of the Cherokee language first? Little experiments like this are happening all the time, and I think the world sees better with pluralistic, artistic glasses on.
So here’s to this past year in typefaces and to the great start of 2014. Because, in case you didn’t know, just since I began writing this article several more typefaces were released. And that’s great news.
August is a great month to shake off the late-summer slumber and gear back up for the awesome work you’ll be doing the rest of the year.
In my time working on Delight is in the Details I did a lot of reading. I read some new (to me) books and revisited some books I’ve read over the years in my own journey to become a better writer and designer.
Here are some books I recommend adding to your queue. Some are practical, some are inspirational, all are awesome.
By Frank Chimero.
We all believe that design’s primary job is to be useful. Our minds say that so long as the design works well, the work’s appearance does not necessarily matter. And yet, our hearts say otherwise. No matter how rational our thinking, we hear a voice whisper that beauty has an important role to play.
The Shape of Design is one of most enjoyable and inspirational books I’ve ever read on the subject of design. Frank is a genuine artist, through and through. After I finished his book I felt empowered and encouraged as a designer.
By 99U (edited by Jocelyn K. Glei)
These people sabotage themselves because the alternative is to put themselves into the world as someone who knows what they are doing. They are afraid that if they do that, they will be seen as a fraud.
This book is filled with about 20 short chapters, each one written by someone else (the above quote is from Seth Godin’s chapter). The book talks a lot about time management, focus, and creativity.
By Seth Godin
Don’t worry about your stuff. Worry about making meaning instead.
Seth has an uncanny way of encouraging creative individuals to make great art while reminding them that they are not frauds.
By Stephen King
I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.
Much of this book is filled with stories by Stephen King about his life and childhood and how he became a writer. Just writing about it here makes me want to pick it up and read it again.
By Anne Lamott
My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.
Another one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. Anne’s writing is enjoyable and entertaining. Some of the best writing and design advice I’ve ever heard comes from Anne, especially her emphasis on writing a crappy first draft because the most important part of writing is to sit down and actually begin doing the work.
By Natalie Goldberg
(I gave away my copy of Writing Down the Bones and have not yet replaced it. So, alas, I can’t pull any highlighted passages to quote here. You’ll just have to get your own copy and read the whole thing for yourself.)
Reading Natalie’s book is a lot like sitting in on a question and answer time where people ask all the right questions and she gives all the right answers.
You don’t have to read the book front to back. The chapters are short and fast and can be read completely out of order because each one is its own nugget of advice or food for thought. And quickly, Natalie begins to feel like a trusted friend — someone who’s not afraid to shoot it straight and who has nothing to hide.
Some books tutor you on how to write better; Writing Down the Bones will help you to become a better writer.
By Scott Belsky
You can only stay loyal to your creative pursuits through the awareness and control of your impulses. Along the journey to making ideas happen, you must reduce the amount of energy you spend on stuff related to your insecurities.
Centered around Thomas Edison’s famous quote that Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, Scott writes with a fondness towards the creative professional. This book is a guide for taking the constant flow of ideas we have and turning them into reality.
This is one of the few books that I have gone out and bought multiple copies of so I could give them away. I highly recommend it to anyone with a creative, entrepreneurial, or otherwise adventurous bend towards life.
If you like interviews and behind-the-scenes personal stories, then you’ll love Insites. Keir Whitaker and Elliot Jay Stocks conducted quite a few interviews with some well-known folks (such as Mandy Brown, Jim Coudal, Jeffrey Zeldman, Tim Van Damme, Jon Hicks, Jason Santa Maria, and Tina Roth Eisenberg to name a few). It’s beautifully laid out, printed in full color, and is full of, well, insights from some of the best creative professionals in the web community.
What’s in my Queue?
What’s next for me? Here are a few of the books in my queue:
P.S. If you’ve got a suggestion that should be in that list, feel free to pass it along.