Steven Levy on the iPhone 6 Plus:

The smartphone as we know it (i.e. the iPhone and its followers) is only seven years old — and already it has seen dramatic changes in form. There’s nothing that indicates that we’ve frozen the form factor. Companies like Apple, Google, Samsung and others yet to be founded are going to try all sorts of sizes and shapes. The functions of our phones and tablets will probably be portioned out in wearables, in spectacles, and maybe even tie tacks.

The Normal earbuds are a pretty wild product. Using their iPhone app, you take a few pictures of your ears. Then, they 3D print the earbuds to be a custom fit. If they don’t quite fit, you take a few more pictures with the earbuds in place, they’ll make adjustments and ship you new ones.

Tyler Hays wrote a review of the whole process and the earbuds themselves for Tools & Toys.

Over on The Sweet Setup, Dropbox is smack in the middle of Mac apps we think you should be using.

And our senior editor, Jeff Abbott, wrote an excellent guide to using Dropbox. The guide covers the basics of how to get up and running, and it outlines how to get additional storage space for free. But it also covers expert-level tips such as syncing your application support files, setting up symlinks, integrating with 3rd-party services like IFTTT and Wufoo, and so much more.

There are also organization tips for how to best keep your synced files and folders free from chaos and clutter. Plus there are three bonus documents that cover photo sharing and how families can get the most out of Dropbox.

The guide is brand new, and this week it’s on sale for 25% off. Not to mention we’re bundling it with another great ebook by Bradley Chambers: Learning to Love Photo Management

You can read more about the guide here, or go ahead and buy your discounted copy right now.

Monday, December 8

Mandrill is an email infrastructure service that started as an idea in 2010. That idea became reality in 2012, when Mandrill cannibalized a crew of MailChimp’s best engineers. Isolated from the rest of the team, they turned the idea from a skunkworks project into a product that outperforms competitor services. Growing fast and innovating faster, Mandrill is now the largest Email as a Service platform on the market, with more than 250,000 active customers.

Use Mandrill to send automated one-to-one email like password resets and welcome messages, as well as marketing emails and customized newsletters. Mandrill is quick to set up, easy to use, and ridiculously stable. We made it for developers, who love documentation, integrations, high delivery rates, webhooks, and analytics. If you’re not comfortable with code and APIs, we recommend finding someone who is before getting started.

Mandrill comes with a beautiful interface, flexible template options, custom tagging, and advanced tracking and reports. Mandrill is the only email infrastructure service with a mobile app that lets you monitor delivery and troubleshoot from wherever you are. It’s also powerful, scalable, and affordable. But you don’t have to take our word for it.

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My thanks to Mandrill for sponsoring the site this week. Sponsorship via Syndicate Ads.

This week’s setup interview is with Tom Carmony, the design director at Black Pixel:

In recent months, I’ve made a concerted effort to use as many stock apps as possible to better simplify my workflows. I’m generally pretty happy with that move, and regularly put Reminders, Notes, Mail, Contacts, and Calendar to use on both desktop and mobile.

Threes is the Name of the Game of the Year

App Store Best of 2014

The iTunes App Store Best of 2014 list is out, and Threes won game of the year for iPhone.

I love this game. Not only is it absolutely fantastic and fun, but it’s so delightfully designed for the iPhone.

To celebrate, here’s some Threes-related trivia and tips that will make you a skilled master in no time:

My former podcasting partner in crime, Ben Brooks, wrote an awesome review / gear guide for us on Tools & Toys. He covered basic EDC knives, outdoor knives, and hiking knives. I’ve long been a fan of Spyderco knives — I’ve got one of my own that I keep on me, and whenever I’m in doubt about a gift to give to a friend, the Sage 1 is my go-to pick because who doesn’t like a(nother) great pocket knife?

Friday, December 5

The Twelve South SurfacePad iPhone 6 Case

To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable using my iPhone 6 without a case — especially now that the colder winter weather has arrived. And so, I’m trying out a few different cases for the first time ever. This is literally the first iPhone I’ve ever owned that I’ve sought out a case for.

And so, in this week’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly, I talk about the two current contenders:

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Sponsored by Symbolicons: Vector Icon Sets for Awesome Designers & Developers. Use use this super special link to get 40% off the master bundle (that’s every single icon from Symbolicons). Or use code TOOLSTOYS to save 20% of any individual icon set at symbol icons.com

If Diligence is a Skill

Then we can get better at it.

We can learn to throw a baseball, to drive a car, and to build a website. So why not also learn to be diligent? Focus, self-control, time management, money management, integrity, creative output, communication skills. These aren’t personality traits, they’re skills we learn.

And just like with any skill, practice is how we get better.

Practice and Improvement

Everyone knows that practicing on the ball field is how to get better at a sport. And the more time we spend in a field of study the more we will learn and grow.

Yet how many of us have settled with the feeling that we are just bad at getting things done? That we are not good at focusing? That distractions are going to get the best of us? That our best creative work is behind us? That’s bullarky. Don’t give up so easily.

Every day, the blank page is your batting practice. You’re not here because you’ve arrived, nor because you’re a superhero of focus and creative output. No, you’re here because you love it and you want to get better. Learn a little about yourself and how you work, find something small you can do to get better, and then add that to tomorrow’s practice.

Tuesday, December 2

Seth Godin:

The thing is, everything worth doing is done to excess, poorly, immorally, inefficiently, by someone. But that doesn’t change the fact that the very same thing done right is worth doing.

I’ve been publishing my writing online — a.k.a. “blogging” — for almost a decade. And I’ve been doing this professionally for almost four years now. During that time I’ve seen and spoken with a lot of would-be writers who gave up (or quit before they even started) because they’re cynical and angry at all the folks out there who are contributing only to the noise.

If you’re waiting for all the shovel blogs and all the waste-of-bandwidth websites to go away before you start doing something great, you’ll never get started. Don’t let the spammers or the jerks or the goof-balls steal your dreams.

Speaking of big reviews recently published on our other websites, over on The Sweet Setup we spent a bunch of time using different apps and services for easy file / link / image sharing.

Dropbox, CloudApp, and Droplr were the main contenders and the latter is our favorite:

The Apple ecosystem has no shortage of ways to share files. There are countless apps and services that aim to make this as easy as possible. With a lot of the articles we write here at The Sweet Setup, we are comparing apps and services that are virtually identical outside of user interface. With this category, that is not the case. These apps, while appearing similar, all have a different focus.

With a plethora of options, what is our favorite cloud service/app for file sharing? With an incredible feature set, active development, and a sustainable business model, Droplr is our favorite way to share files, make simple annotations, and track links.

Over on Tools & Toys, Josh Ginter reviewed the DDC Stuff Sheath.

Monday, December 1

Symbolicons are a family of icon sets designed by Jory Raphael. They’re simple, friendly, and styled to visually match one another, which means they can be used pretty much anywhere to add flavor and style. With nine icon sets and over 2,400 icons available, the possibilities are endless.

As a thank you to Tools & Toys (and shawnblanc.net) readers, use the code TOOLSTOYS to get 20% off any individual icon set.

Or, use this super special link to get 40% off the master bundle (that’s every single icon from Symbolicons).


My thanks to Jory for sponsoring the site this week to promote his truly awesome icon sets, Symbolicons. We use the Symbolicons web font over on The Sweet Setup, and it’s awesome.

If you need something for your app, your eBook, your website, your printed publication, your poster — whatever — the Symbolicons sets should be the first place you start looking. Naturally, the icon files are all neatly organized and professionally packaged. And the promotion you can get this week to save 40% off the master bundle (All 9 sets! 2,400 unique icons!) is an amazing deal.

Great interview this week with Kyle Gray over on The Sweet Setup. Kyle’s a full-time business marketing student and web developer at his university.

Some excellent ideas and advice here from Lucy Beer. It’s targeted towards customizing the WP Admin area for clients after you’ve built a custom site, but it’s just as relevant for those of us who run our own WP sites and want to clean things up to have easier access to the areas of the Dashboard we use most.

I used to never write in the browser, but WordPress has grown and improved significantly over the past couple of years. It’s now far more than just a good CMS, it’s also a good Web app.

The new site for 2015’s Circles Conference is now live. And, I’ll be there, giving the opening talk on the first day.

I attendee the very first Circle’s Conference in 2012, and it was fantastic. Kyle Steed gave the the opening talk on the first day, and I still remember what he said. He talked about the chasm between surface-level creative output and the truth of where creativity comes from. Drawing a contrast between things like using photoshop vs. actually solving design problems.

I missed the 2013 and 2014 Circles Conferences because my wife and I had a son and I went to XOXO (respectively). I’m very much looking forward to going back, not just as a speaker but as an attendee.

This next year’s lineup is absolutely fantastic. And I know that the crowd of attendees will be some of the nicest, funnest, most-creative folks you’ve ever met. So, mark it on your calendar. I’ll see you there.

P.S. The early-bird pricing runs through to the end of the year. If you register today, you can save 15% if you use the promo “CYBERMONDAY”.

Wednesday, November 26

It’s Thanksgiving week, and my book, Delight is in the Details, is on sale for 25-percent off.

For you, hopefully the holiday season will include a little bit of down time to do some extra reading as well as some time to think about new ideas and projects you want to tackle the upcoming year. Also, perhaps you’ve got a road trip and the need for something great to listen to.

Which is why Delight is in the Details is on sale this week. You can read it on your Kindle, iPad, or Computer; between the audio book and the interviews, there is 7 hours of audio; and the whole book and interview series is geared toward doing our best creative work.

If you’ve been on the fence about picking up a copy, now’s a great time.

My First Baron Fig

It was the middle of March that I began my first Baron Fig notebook. About 255 days later, I’ve now hit the end of its 192 pages. About one page every 32 hours.

Baron Fig

I ordered the Dot Grid, of course. As water tends to flow downward, I tend to choose black when buying gadgets, devices, and cars and I choose grid when buying notebooks.

The design of a Baron Fig notebook itself is full of character. The yellow ribbon and the grey cloth cover are both unique and friendly. The binding is of the upmost quality. And the notebook is sized to the exact dimensions of an iPad mini. Making it an ideal analog sidekick to the mostly-digital worker.

Baron Fig

Baron Fig

There are flaws to the notebook. For example, the cover doesn’t lay flat when closed. And I had to take a lighter to tend of the ribbon because it was fraying. Yet, after 9 months of use, these flaws are not points of frustration. Rather, they’ve become endearing shortcomings. Much like the flaws found in ourselves and in our friends — these are no longer flaws, they are quirks we’ve come to love.

Baron Fig

Baron Fig

I’ve owned and used many different journals and notebooks over the years. I have a growing collection of Field Notes which I don’t even use, but love to collect. My first foray into the world of “GTD” was my own version of a Hipster PDA (remember the Hipster PDA?). Mine was a pocket-sized Moleskine, with a few sticky-notes for tabs.

The Baron Fig may be my favorite notebook I’ve ever used. If I’m at my desk, it’s at my desk. I’ve taken it with me on many trips this year — traveling to WWDC in San Francisco; a family vacation to Colorado in August; Portland for XOXO; Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And it’s been to just about every (good) coffee shop in the greater Kansas City area.

As may be evident with my aforementioned collection of mint-condition Field Notes, I often self-sabotage my own notebook usage. A brand new notebook is too nice to be used. Paper is so full of character. It’s tactile. Real. Fragile. Permanent and impermanent at the same time. It just begs to be used for something awesome. And I never feel that my silly ideas and temporary to-do lists qualify. But if not those, then what?

My Baron Fig and I made a pact. I would use it for the most mundane, menial, impermanent things I could think of. And if I ruined this book by filling it with nothing of consequence, then I would order another to sit on the shelf and collect dust as it waited patiently for something more historic and epic.

But the truth is, when it comes to using our everyday notebooks, quality is found in quantity; meaning in the mundane.

As I thumb through the pages of my spent Baron Fig, the early pages reveal tasks both accomplished and unacomplished. The very first to-do item is a reminder to buy a screen protector for my then-new Olympus E-M10 (something I never did get around to doing until many months later). A few pages further I find my review notes for the Flickr iPhone app which came out in March.

Further in I continue to find scattered notes, ideas, and sketches for the big update to Delight is in the Details that I shipped a few months ago. I also find outlines for reviews I was working on and have since published, notes for the book I’m writing now, budgeting math, and more.

Since I started this notebook, my wife and I celebrated our 9-year anniversary as well as each of our birthdays; my youngest son turned one; a huge re-design to Tools & Toys was concieved, built, and launched; and I wrote and shipped a significant update to my book, Delight is in the Details.

The two biggest trends found in my notebook are regarding my daily tasks and my podcasts. I often write down the talking points and outlines for my Shawn Today and The Weekly Briefly podcasts. And the vast majority of pages are filled with my daily action items and schedule.

According to my own handwriting, it was on May 6 that I adopted a much more analog approach to my tasks and routine. It was then that I began writing down my “big three” projects for the day along with any additional admin tasks, and then scheduling time for those things to get done during the day. For most days from May until October I did this. I would sit down with OmniFocus on my iPad and I would review through the items which were due, and I’d transfer things out of OmniFocus and in to my Baron Fig.

Baron Fig

I’ve slowly moved away from this routine over the past month or so since I re-vamped my usage of OmniFocus to make better use of due dates and flags. However, there is something awesome about having 255 days worth of crossed-off to-do items, notes, and the like. And the fear of losing this ability to flip back through the pages is one thing that keeps me tethered to the analog.

As interesting as all of the text in this notebook is, aside from what’s written down on the most recent 8 or 9 pages, I’m not sure if anything is still needed. My Baron Fig is has 192 some odd pages of nothing in particular. And yet, in aggregate, it’s everything. In here are the footprints of my life from the Spring to the Fall of 2014.

Baron Fig

Baron Fig

Comparing the old notebook to the new one, I am impressed with how well it has worn. There are a few scuffs and stains on the old cover, but it’s not dramatic.

As I open up my new notebook, the binding cracks and stretches. It’s now ready to get to work. This new one will probably see me through to next summer, sometime around my 34th birthday. What will be done between now and then?

Baron Fig

Tuesday, November 25

This week I’m publishing an early episode of The Weekly Briefly because it’s Thanksgiving week. On today’s show I talk about the glories and the perils of running your own business. Why showing up every day is important for building an audience. Why trust and transparency are important for keeping an audience. And why doing our best creative work has very little to do with the tools we use, and quite a bit to do with knowing where our best creative work is born.

Sponsored By:

Monday, November 24

TOM BIHN has been designing and making backpacks and travel bags since 1972 — it’s what we know. We use the best materials, innovative design and superior construction techniques to build a better bag.

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My thanks to TOM BIHN for sponsoring the site this week. They’ve got an incredible array of laptop bags, travel bags, backpacks, and more. Need something simple and low-profile to carry your iPad and a notebook? Check out the Cafe Bag. Need something handsome and rugged that you cantravel with? They’ve got you covered there, too.

Owen Williams (via The Tech Block):

When trimming down your notifications, ask yourself these questions: Am I willing to let this interrupt me at any given moment during my day? Is this information critical to my life?

Glancing in my iPhone’s system settings at the apps which I’ve granted permission to send me push notifications, I see a lot listed in there. However, most of them don’t actually send any push notifications. The notifications I do get on a regular basis are:

  • ESPN: Injury / projection updates for my Fantasy Foobtall league
  • Email: Emails from my VIP list (which is just my CPA and my wife)
  • Twitter DMs
  • Slack mentions and direct messages
  • Flickr comments
  • Dark Sky weather updates
  • Calendar alerts
  • Reminders: (time / location)
  • Deliveries: when a delivery status changes
  • Overcast: new podcast episodes are available
  • Circa: breaking news alerts
  • The Magazine: new issues available

I’ve decided to turn off notifications for Overcast, Deliveries, The Magazine, and Flickr.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d wager that most of you have a pretty conservative approach to push notifications as well. But what I just realized after reading Owen’s article and then thinking about what push notifications I have on, is that there’s a difference between needing to be informed of something and wanting to be informed.

With notifications from Overcast, Deliveries, and Flickr — yeah, it’s great to know when a new podcast episode is available or to know that my recent order is on the truck for delivery, but those are also bits of information that I seek out on my own anyway. And so the push notification is superfluous.

This week’s setup interview is with Faith Korpi, writer, ballet teacher, and co-host of the IRL Talk Podcast. I loved this bit at the end of Faith’s interview:

Well, my ideal setup would be a tree house high up in a tree guarded by panda bears. There’d be a desk with an old tangerine iMac that I’d use exclusively for writing and another desk with a new iMac that I’d use for recording and video editing. It’d be the only tree house in the world with Google Fiber and my internet speed would make you weep tears of joy.

Absolutely amazing. And, turns out, Beckham practices making one-handed catches.

Friday, November 21

On this week’s episode of The Weekly Briefly, I talk about hiring help and how it should be seen as an investment.

I share about the people I’ve hired to help me with Tools & Toys and The Sweet Setup, how I found them, and why I brought them on. I also discuss knowing when it’s the right time to hire help, and how you can get out of the way so that the people you’ve brought on are empowered to do their best work.

Sponsored by:

Over on the Sweet Setup we compared Delivery Tracking Apps. Just in time for the holidays!

Many of us have been using Deliveries for years and it’s still the best one out there (though there are some other great options as well).

I’m an Amazon Prime member, and so I get a lot of stuff shipped from Amazon. (What’s that? We’re out of organic coconut oil? Just get it off Amazon. It’s cheaper than driving to the store, and it’ll be here in 2 days and we aren’t going shopping again until next week.) Anyway, one of the best things about Deliveries is how it can connect with Amazon to auto-import your shipments. Also, you can forward emails to the Junecloud server and it can grab the tracking number out of the email. Really cool.

Thursday, November 20

Just a reminder to those of you in the Kansas City area: tomorrow (Friday) morning I’ll be speaking at this month’s Coffee & Design meet-up. It’s free, and it’ll be fun. You should come.

Update: A huge thanks to all of you who came out. It went great.

An excellent review:

[T]he most impressive thing about the iPad Air 2 is not its screen or its thinness or its camera, though those are all quite lovely. It’s the speed, and the extra RAM. Using the iPad Air 2 while flipping around from app to app feels like an entirely upgraded experience from performing the same tasks on my iPad mini 2. You learn to blot out the time you spend waiting for apps to open and Safari tabs to reload, but once you spend time on a device that doesn’t need to take those pauses, they become obvious. Painfully obvious.

I wish the iPad mini 3 featured all these same improvements, but it doesn’t.

And:

[W]hen I look at the power that Apple’s dropped into the iPad Air 2, I’m convinced that the use of iPads as everyday tools will just keep on growing. These devices are in their infancy; the iPad has existed for less than five years, and is now on its sixth generation. They’ve come a long way, and in some ways the software hasn’t really kept up with the hardware.

Wednesday, November 19

Josh Ginter wrote an excellent review of a seemingly mundane product: a laptop stand.

The Rain Design mStand hoists your laptop up to a height that promotes better posture and viewing angles. Combine excellent utility with a solid aluminum design that matches the aesthetic of your MacBook Pro, and you’ve got yourself one of the best laptop stands you can buy.

Over the years of doing the Sweet Mac Setup interviews (both the original series here, and the new ones over on The Sweet Setup), I’ve seen this stand being used by a lot of folks. In fact, it was in the very first Sweet Mac Setup interview ever with Mark Jardine.

Great for ergonomics and also great if you use your laptop with an external display but don’t want to do clamshell mode.

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