Category Archives: Design

In Praise of Kitchy

Way back in the early days of non-linear editing, one could sit in front of the television and figure out the model and version of NLE used to cut the program. Each time a new effect was introduced it was quickly overused. Editors could play drinking games. Versions of After Effects and popular plug-ins were as easily identifiable. It wasn’t that editors were less creative or took more shortcuts 20 years ago. It was the novelty of being able to do something previously difficult or expensive. Eventually the novelty passed.

Manhattan from Times Square

Shot with an iPhone 4S using Hipstamatic

Today technology has advanced to the point that consumers fall prey to the same creative tendencies editors and designers did two decades ago. Instagram, Hipstamatic, and a bevy of other mobile photo apps allow users to apply all sorts of retro filters to give their snapshots an air of sentimentality with a twist of grunge. Professional photographers and videographers cringe. It’s artificial. It degrades the image. The same effect can be achieved more authentically in Photoshop.

But the fact is that few are going master Photoshop or After Effects. Few editors took up After Effects. Good enough is good enough for most.

Rather than turn our professional noses up at these apps, let’s give them their due. They make image creation and sharing fun. In doing so they encourage some to take visual design to the next level. Even more gain a greater appreciation for photography. Many looked over their reading glasses and down their noses at Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, but educators loved the books. Anything to get kids reading.

We should embrace Cinemagram and Flickr filters. Not because they help create high art, but because they help people develop their eye. I love to send students out with Hipstamatic. It teaches them to look at a scene critically and determine in real-time what lens and film combination will accentuate the emotions they want to elicit from the viewer. They don’t get to fix it in post. Like acid washed jeans and Oasis, these apps and their kitchy effects won’t have a great shelf life. But we should enjoy them while they last.

A simple design philosophy

One of my favorite quotes is from Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Good old Antoine has surfaced in my consciousness periodically since high school when I was introduced to his most famous work, Le Petit Prince in Mr. Steindler’s French class. Saint-Exupery’s take on design has served me well no matter what I was designing. Simplify it until you can’t any more. It works for photography, motion design, web apps, and even large, complex professional tools.

Media Composer boxSpending three years designing components for Media Composer, keeping it simple can be tough. Our customers aren’t doing simple things. They are crafting very complex stories with hugely complex systems delivering their raw materials. There’s only so much you can do to simplify extremely detailed workflows that require a high degree of customizability. But it’s clear, our best received features have been those with fewer buttons, fewer menu commands, and fewer settings. A good example of what I mean is Media Composer 6’s in-app stock footage purchasing workflow. Here the designers and engineers took the often exasperating process of searching, browsing, organizing, downloading, purchasing, and conforming stock footage and made it simple. Find it, edit with it, and buy it. The software does the rest.

There are two ways to delight the user. Either give him something absolutely new and wonderful that changes his approach to his craft, or allow him to stop banging his head against the wall. We all love to achieve the former, but the latter should be just as satisfying to the designer.

Creativity and execution

I’ve had the honor of working with some of the most brilliant people on the planet across several industries, and have often marveled they they are not the most successful.

“People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don’t know when to quit.”

George Allen,  NFL Coach

Tenacity. Give me a half-baked idea that gets to market over the perfect idea stuck on a whiteboard.

“A little less conversation, a little more action.”

Elvis Presley

It really is possible to talk an idea to death. In business school they place a huge emphasis on business plans. Business plans serve a singular purpose. They validate ideas, but not through addressable market analysis and discounted cash flows. If you’re still passionate about your idea after all that analysis, odds are it’s a pretty good idea.

Every book on entrepreneurship tells the reader the business plan is a living document. Yeah, it lives in some folder on some hard disk. The most action it sees is getting scanned for viruses once a month.

Making the magic happen

After almost three years working among some of the best product managers, designers, and engineers at Avid, I’ve learned that great ideas will always come. We joke that if you build a company around a bunch of rock musicians and filmmakers cool shit is bound to happen. But the fact is that emphasis on execution is the path to success. Creative people instinctively hate process, but a healthy dose of process can be liberating. Media Composer 5.x and Pro Tools 9 were conceived from brilliant ideas, but they were born on ruthless execution.

Every effective team in any company has its own tricks. Here are a few I’ve seen work over the years.

Write it down

Creative people are easily distracted. The trick is to manage the distractions, and the best way to do that is to record everything. That stray thought, although profoundly brilliant, will hang around much longer if you’re afraid of losing it. Jot it down. Record a voice memo. Anything. What’s important is that you find a tool you enjoy using. Most productivity gurus recommend having one, single repository. That’s never worked for me. I use paper notebooks (with numbered pages), Livescribe notebooks, online notebooks, Post-its, photo albums on my phone, and good, old file folders. My index for this system lives online in an Evernote notebook.

Though it sounds like I use a confusing jumble of tools, it’s really a simple system.

  • Old fashioned computation notebook: I use the numbered graph paper pages for sketching. I often staple magazine clippings, Post-It notes, and other paper items to the pages. (I don’t use Livescribe notebooks this way simply because the electronically archivable dot paper notebooks are so damn expensive.)
  • Livescribe notebook: I use these mostly for meeting notes. The smart pens have built-in audio recorders, so that as I fall behind in my note taking I can start recording. The ability to electronically search hand-written notes in invaluable.
  • Blackberry: The camera records whiteboards, clever billboards, store displays, movie posters, and book covers. Anything I need to be reminded of. At the end of every week or so, I take what I want to keep and upload it to Evernote or Flickr.
  • Evernote: Once an idea gains some traction its detritus is gathered into a single entry in the online notebook. Every few days I catalog all the stuff I’ve recorded that’s worth keeping in Evernote. I just add a note on a topic and index where all the physical and electronic clippings live. Evernote’s super fast at searching hundreds of pages of notes. (It’s worth mentioning here that Springpad is another online notebook I use frequently. I find it stores personal data like restaurants, movies, etc. better than Evernote.)

As confusing and cluttered as this hodgepodge of recording methods sounds, it’s remarkably simple. And it’s visual, so it can be very inspiring.

Have a framework for action

Personal productivity methodologies like GTD (Getting Things Done) and Action Method are more like cults than tools, but if you take the parts of them you like and ignore the stuff that just feels too OCD-ish, they can be effective. OK, I admit I’m a recovering GTD addict. Action Method is now my tool of choice — simply because it looks like Greenhopper’s Jira, the tool we use to track Agile/Scrum development at Avid. At the end of the day it’s an online to-do list that cost $99/year unless you can persuade a fair number of colleagues to use its collaboration features. Most people will do just as well with the free, but visually ugly Voo2do.

Set aside playtime

My mid-afternoon lulls are the stuff of legend. I crash like no one else I know. So I set aside the time from about 2:00 to 3:30 as creative exploration time. I’m not going to get anything productive done in that time, so I find a way to put it to use. That includes those oft-forbidden office activities such as scanning Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Once I was caught perusing Monster. I was trying to figure out what other companies in our space were working on by checking out what positions they were filling in the down economy, but I’m not sure my colleague believed that at the time.

Have a sacred creative space (or two)

Ideally your special place is at the office, but as Jason Fried of 37 Signals noted in his TED talk Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work, that’s rarely the case. Go ahead, use your first dedicated playtime to watch Fried’s talk.

My sacred creative space is my home office. It’s in the corner of the basement – away from the madding crowd. It’s got a great view of the conservation land behind my house for me to stare out at and ponder great things. But what’s really special is that I’ve set up two workspaces in it – one for the left brain, and one for the right.

The left-brained desk has my PC laptop and an iMac with all the expected office software. The desk phone and mobile phone are kept there. It’s where I take Skype and iChat meetings, and where I make conference calls. The right-brained desk and rack contains all my audio and video gear for Media Composer and Pro Tools. It’s where I edit my digital photos, and where I build my experimental little apps. It’s where I try out competitors’ products, and play meaningless games. Nothing to be done under deadline is taken on at that desk. It’s play space.

It’s amazing how my attitude, my posture, and my frame of mind change depending on the chair I occupy.  When in the work chair, it’s all about execution. When the going gets tough, I use the other chair as a carrot.

Work where you can get stuff done

Unfortunately most offices are not conducive to creativity. Has anyone ever had a good idea in an hour meeting with more more than a few people in the room? Work at home. Work at Starbucks. Work in the cafeteria. Just get away from Outlook.

Good luck. Please feel free to add comments about what works for you.


Wooden pencils and NLEs

Think of commodities and hardly anything fits the bill better than the wooden pencil. It hasn’t changed in years. It’s difficult to imagine anyone making a purchasing decision on anything but price. Now try to imagine being the product designer at a wooden pencil company. On the worst day, virtually any job on the planet from toll taker to undertaker is light years more interesting.

Perhaps not.

In last week’s Economist, the Future of the Pencil outlined how Faber-Castell stays atop of the wooden pencil market. From non-toxic paint pledges during the age Chinese manufacturing lead scares to adding little rubber dots to help school kids get a grip, the eight-generation family-owned business continues to innovate — and maintain some pricing power where you’d least expect it.

I’m just as uninterested in wooden pencil market dynamics as the next guy, but the lesson any designer or creative professional should take from all this is that there’s room for innovation and creativity in nearly every endeavor. Two and a half years ago a lot of people were saying the non-linear editor was done. It was complete, a commodity. Cash cow it and innovate elsewhere was the common wisdom. Like the designers at Faber-Castell, the newly hired leadership team at Avid thought differently, and if not for that I’d have a pretty boring gig. Whether it’s editing directly from XDCAM media or editing on the cloud, the NLE market remains vibrant. And I remain gainfully employed.

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