August 11, 2020No Comments

You could plan your life, or you could design it

The human-centered design process — from empathy and research to rapid prototyping, iteration and so forth — often helps us to bring meaning, joy and discovery into other people's worlds. But what if this same design mindset could be used to design ourselves and our lives? 

What if we perceived our own abilities, lives, and careers as opportunities for discovery, rapid prototyping and iteration? In other words, what happens when we are the product?

This phenomenon originated at the Stanford, where students across majors scramble each year to enroll in a course called Designing Your Life. The curriculum’s core frameworks have now been disseminated through a best-selling book and bundle of online resources to equip students, mid-career professionals and elders alike with the tools to reimagine their lives through a design lens. 

Take a moment to try one of the Designing Your Life exercises right now, using this worksheet

The idea is this: Instead of envisioning your life as a linear route from Point A to Point B, imagine three disparate paths forward, each addressing a unique set of questions you might have about your future life and career. Title each path like a story, and rank your resources, enthusiasm, confidence and coherence in moving forward. You might be surprised by the unique directions you explore when you give yourself permission to dream a little longer.

This exercise is only scratching the surface. Like other “self-help” approaches, designing your life is a process that requires deep self-reflection, personal awareness, time and courage. And like other design processes, it’s one that involves frequent iteration.

When the methodologies first sunk in for me during my freshman year at Stanford, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I had learned this back in middle school.”

Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, I attended a competitive all-girls school for seven years that championed the motto, “Women Learning, Women Leading.” Being surrounded by high-achieving peers plus teachers with high expectations turned out to be a double-edged sword. My 13-year-old self was ambitious, inspired and motivated… to be perfect.

"I remember once literally wrapping my report card into a gift box to give my parents for Christmas, hearing repeatedly that this was all they wanted."

I was trained to see the world as right and wrong, yes and no, A+ and A-. I would hand-write my essays first in pencil and then over in pen, dutifully erasing the pencil marks from underneath to make my homework as neat as possible. I would raise my hand in class to repeat exactly what the textbook said. I once literally wrapped my report card into a gift box to give my parents for Christmas, hearing repeatedly that this was all they wanted.

Most of all, I remember spending hours with my back curled over a spiral-bound notebook, my right hand vigorously racing across the pages. Through adolescence, I would fill dozens of journals with written reflections on my feelings, relationships and “plans for the future.”

Katie and her Girl Possible team on the road.

Planning our lives is a perfectionist’s dream but the antithesis of designing our lives. Unlike planning events, meetings or meals —which are quite useful exercises with direct, tangible benefits — planning our lives can be futile at best and destructive at worst. The process confines our dreams to the little we know, locking doors before we consider they might exist in the first place.

What color, texture and magic the world opens up to us when we stop having a plan and start exercising a mindset for constantly learning, pivoting and immersing in every moment.

Here are two more exercises you might explore to further apply a design mindset to your life:

1. Lean into your discomfort zone.

a. Draw three concentric circles on a piece of paper, like a target. The innermost circle is your comfort zone. As you move farther from the bullseye, you get farther outside your comfort zone. Everything outside the circle or by the edges of the paper are activities you need the most courage to do.

b. Starting from the center and extending to the outermost ring, write down five to 10 activities in each area that you want to do but might need a little extra nudge to make happen.

c. Finally, compare your comfort zone map with a partner. Did you flag skydiving as “level-three scary,” only to find that it’s squarely within your partner’s innermost comfort zone? Maybe they could show you the ropes. See if there are also activities where the opposite is true and your partner can lean on you in return.

2. Challenge your assumptions and hypotheses.

a. As with any design project, start with what (you think) you know. What are your assumptions about the type of work or environment that makes you feel happy, fulfilled or grounded? What are your hypotheses about the type of industry, role, or company where you belong?

b. Design a low-risk experiment where you can test these assumptions. Are you curious about what it would be like to work at an early-stage startup? Set up a few “lunch and learns” (similar to design research interviews) with people employed at seed-stage companies you admire. Do you fear that you might hate working in sales but recognize a small part of you that wonders, “What if?” Draw analogous inspiration by making calls to boost voter registration or to support a political candidate. Catalog the things you hear, learn and feel along the way.

c. Synthesize your learnings and insights, and keep going.

When I first learned this way of thinking, learning and doing, it flipped my worldview and set me free. I was determined to help bring this mindset to more people — especially youth who might be struggling with the same pressures that had held me back when I was their age.

A few colleagues and I co-founded Girl Possible, a 501(c)3 nonprofit geared towards empowering middle-school girls to become leaders of social change through design thinking. We raised $35,000 on Kickstarter to spend 14 weeks driving across the US in an RV, teaching design thinking and leadership workshops to 1,500 girls across 32 states. Since then, we’ve evolved our curriculum into a series of teaching toolkits, a summer program and more.

Girl Possible helps middle school girls uncover their individual leadership abilities, think critically, articulate their ideas and connect with others to tackle real issues in their communities. Photo credit: Austin Meyer

In our workshops, we address the million-dollar question that every student has been asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer? Doctor? Lawyer? Musician? This question suggests that at some point, we suddenly “grow up” and become a single entity that already exists in the world and has a name. It assumes our journey to be finite, our path linear, and our destiny meant to be predetermined.

At Girl Possible, we flip this question and ask girls instead, “What kind of change do you want to create in the world, and how can you take the first step towards achieving that dream today?” In other words, we ask girls to stop planning their lives and start designing them.

Katie leading a Girl Possible camp session. Photo credit: Austin Meyer

Most recently, I co-founded Period Futures to help spark curiosity and conversation on the future of periods. Inspired by the same design mindset and question of “What if?”, our team regularly releases design provocations intended to push the boundaries on what’s possible, equitable and culturally-acceptable in menstrual health.

For example, what if “leak-free” apparel were no longer the exception, but the norm? Imagine a world where “100% period-friendly” was a universal standard or formal certification for clothing manufacturing that you could expect to see clearly marked on the tags of underwear, shorts, skirts, pants, dresses and suits across major brands and suppliers.

Or, what if middle schools were visited by a traveling “maker-space on wheels” where students could build their own custom period product? Envision 11- and 12-year-olds gaining hands-on learning experiences on the menstrual cycle as they 3D-print their own menstrual cup or disc, or sew their own washable pad.

Katie also co-founded Period Futures, which sparks curiosity and conversation around the future of periods. Illustration by Roshi Rouzbehani

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have categorized “talking about periods” squarely within my discomfort zone—let alone launching an organization focused on igniting more conversations in this space. Now, it’s difficult for me to imagine a more fascinating or meaningful sector to explore. Designing around the future of periods has unlocked new ideas for me around what my own future might hold, too.

We are all living, breathing prototypes, constantly growing, evolving and transforming in beautiful ways. Forget perfect plans, narrow paths, and what we should say when we raise our hand and voice. Through designing our lives, we can unlock futures we might have never thought possible.

August 6, 2020No Comments

An ancient, long-forgotten trick for doing good work

In this industry, we live and breathe productivity. We tap our forearms and inject articles about optimization and efficiency into our veins. We are rabid for hacks, tips, shortcuts, templates, tutorials that allow us to accomplish as much as possible, in as little time as possible. We praise the people who consistently ship new work.

We are conditioned this way. Rewarded for coming in under hours, under budget, ahead of the timeline. We are taught to create workflows and follow standards that allow us to function like Ford factories. 

And all the time, we wonder: Are we doing good work? Can it be better? Are we proud of what we’re creating?

No matter the industry, we want the job to be done fast. Production increases, profit margin improves, money flows. 

But the secret to truly great work – work that lasts, that is noticed, work that makes a difference – is taking the time it requires.

“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” Raymond Joseph Teller

I pride myself on the ability to work fast and work well. But when I look back on some of my best work, the projects that changed my career, it wasn’t the work I knocked out under budget. It was the work I spent laborious, painstaking hours on.

Sometimes, the secret to great work is simply time. 

Time you didn’t scope for. 

Time the client may not have budgeted.

Time that doesn’t necessarily make you the most productive, efficient designer in the business, but does make you a better one.

August 3, 2020No Comments

For ONE magazine, print is far from dead

We've been talking about the death of print for so long now, the conversation itself long dead. While its true media has moved mostly online, print has persisted. That's especially true for the fashion industry.

We first started following the story of ONE, a fashion photography magazine, in 2017. At the time, founder Nicole Gavrilles had been running the magazine singlehandedly for seven years as a print-on-demand publication (meaning issues are only printed, in low quality, as they are ordered). Now she's celebrating the 10th anniversary of her "side project" with some significant changes in direction and process. A big one: Going full print.

We caught up with Nicole to talk about the challenges and opportunities of embracing print in the fashion industry, how she manages to get all her shit done between her full-time job, and what lies ahead for the new ONE magazine.

Nicole Gavrilles, founder of ONE magazine

It’s been three years since we last talked on DESK. What’s happening with ONE now? I hear rumors your printing process is changing and a redesign is coming. Tell us more.

Yes! A lot has evolved since the last time we talked. I continued my process of running the magazine on my own, but I came across more challenges along the way. Most of the challenges were around adding more written content or not having budgets to supply photographers with when shooting editorials for ONE. This always came back to the question I had to keep asking myself: How can I take on more work when I’m the only person running the magazine?

This year marks 10 years the magazine has been up and running. I’ve reflected on this milestone at the end of last year and the beginning of this year while also asking myself, what next and do I have it in me to keep going? A stylist I’ve worked with on a few past covers shared some interest in learning more about my process with running the magazine. After meeting up and us connecting so well, she and another photographer joined to help reshape the magazine’s next chapter.

We’ve been changing the process completely – from digital, to social and print. With our new mission statement for a better tomorrow; a cleaner, greener, more inclusive future. We’re now a womenswear fashion editorial magazine dedicated to sustainable and ethical production. This includes featuring only sustainable fashion and beauty brands as well as shifting our entire printing approach to be fully sustainable. With this new mission comes a new brand voice and aesthetic – something I’ve always wanted to take the magazine visually, and now have the moment to do so.

Print is, of course, a whole different game than digital. The costs increase, the planning process changes, the room for error is much smaller. Do you plan to finance the print version via something like Kickstarter, or will there be ads in this new version? And why do this now and not five years ago? 

Print is a whole different game field. But now, communicating you’re printing the magazine, people take you more seriously. I wish there was an easier way but in the fashion world, this is what it takes. I always knew one day if I was going to take the next step, I had to work with a printer. We will have ads throughout the magazine which will finance a huge portion of the magazine. Any remaining balance, I’m planning to finance. And we’re splitting the costs of providing budgets to certain photographers to shoot stories for us.

Five years ago, I wasn’t mentally or financially capable of making this huge step. Also, the magazine wasn’t at the place I wanted it to be in 2015. I knew I needed people to help advance the magazine to where we’re at now, but that wasn’t available for me back then. Everything happens for a reason, and having two people help shift and grow the magazine now, was the right timing.

"We’re not just any other fashion editorial magazine anymore. We’re carving a niche path into the fashion industry that’s been lacking a much-deserved spotlight."

We’ve said print is dying for the last 10 years at least. But I think it’s only made publications like yours even more special, almost an art form. A printed mag now is a gift to an industry and a treasure for readers. Are you concerned at all about the reach/power of print, or do you see it the same way as I do? 

I’ve definitely seen an interesting shift in some independent fashion publications in the past year or two. If presented and curated like a timeless art piece, it becomes more valuable to a follower and hopefully, becomes part of their collection.

We’ve received so much positive feedback and excitement about our new mission. I think that’s what makes our publication unique. We’ll be touching upon environmental issues within the fashion industry, on how designers and creators are rising above with innovative sustainable solutions. More people have shown interest in contributing because there’s a positive message attached to our new presence. We’re not just any other fashion editorial magazine anymore. We’re carving a niche path into the fashion industry that’s been lacking a much-deserved spotlight.

Before, you were doing every part of the planning and production process: Researching trends, planning issues and themes, selecting talent, coordinating and directing photoshoots, planning and editing stories. How is it working now that you have a small team of three?

It was definitely a handful, haha. Thankfully with having two editors now, we’ve divided up the work so each has their focus and checklist of items. A lot of the bones from the years of work I’ve put into the magazine were there, but we had to go in and refresh a lot of key areas such as the website, Instagram and media kit. But we also had to create some new organizational methods to track our progress on the stories for print and online, finances, etc. A lot of the day-to-day communication with contributors and running the Instagram are off my plate, since my editors handle that now. 

To be honest, we’re taking everything day by day. Since this is our first time working on a printed and distributed issue, we’re learning things as we go, connecting to people providing more insight and knowledge into the business/marketing side of the magazine and working on solidifying an LLC at the moment. This process is definitely an experiment and once we get through launching this issue, we’ll have our process in a better place for the next one.

Ten years is a long time to work on the same side project. How have you managed to keep it fresh over the years? Did you ever hit points where you felt you had to shake things up, or has it been a steady evolution all along?

Ten years is indeed a long time to work on the same side project.

Looking through the past 19 issues, a lot of them definitely feel dated and more relevant during the time they were released. It took me a long time to get the editorial design and photography aesthetic to where I wanted it to be. I wanted to shake things up every issue but I was always faced with, how much time do I have to get this out?

Most of the time, I didn’t have the time to update the editorial design, so it stayed as-is for years and it always bothered me. 

I would say the moment I finally sat down and redesigned the magazine was Issue No.16, which was released September 2018. Around that time, I quit my full-time job at a design agency where I spent over six years of my career, and then joined Squarespace as a product designer. In between jobs, which was 2.5 weeks, I spent the entire time redesigning the magazine. As much as I would have wanted to spend that time doing something else, it was my chance to make that visual upgrade I was yearning to work on.

"For the fashion industry, true print is still considered the most important. 'If it’s not in print, we’re going to pass.'"

I always enjoy reading earlier essays I’ve written here on DESK, because I can see clearly how my writing and my mind has changed and grown over the years. Looking back on your catalog of work, do you see any issues or articles that mark a change in how you work or how you think?

I think my previous issue, No.17, was where I could see things coming together more seamlessly. When I reworked my process two years ago, I outlined the areas that caused a lot of stress and redefined a new process to alleviate that stress from occurring. I became way more on top of things, starting earlier on checking off tasks by process of elimination, instead of leaving a lot of tasks towards the end. It helped streamline my process to work faster and more effectively.

How have you seen the magazine itself evolve, aside from its format? Has its style or voice developed in any noticeable way?

The style has evolved immensely. It evolved in the direction I wanted it to. It took a bit of time to get it there but I’m very happy with where we’re taking it now. The voice of a publication’s brand is an interesting piece and when working on this rebrand, we noticed the magazine doesn’t have a voice. Because the magazine was primarily imagery with either 1-2 articles, there was no place for it. The magazine stood as a platform for emerging fashion and photography talent, but I never had the time to establish its voice. Now with the rebrand, we have a clear voice and mission statement moving forward, where a true community can finally be built.

You’ve had a close eye on the fashion industry over the last decade, which seems to move on its own timeline – incredibly fast yet sometimes circular. How has fashion, or even just fashion photography, changed since you first started publishing in 2010?

What’s interesting is, the fashion industry hasn’t changed too much but fashion photography has. 

Within both, social media has changed everything. It’s the main platform you use to find emerging photographers, stylists, models. It’s the main platform to create and develop connections, and it’s the main platform that gives everyone access to “who's who” and “who knows who.” 

For the fashion industry, true print is still considered the most important. “If it’s not in print, we’re going to pass.” 

The process of making things happen is truly about who you know, and that still hasn’t changed within the fashion industry. For years I was able to run and produce issues without having to jump hoops just to be noticed, mostly because I didn’t care if people knew of me or not. The magazine spoke for itself over the years and it spread naturally by word of mouth. I was in no rush either; I just let things happen and come my way, and went from there.

In our last interview, we talked about the demands of work/life/side project, and how you were making an effort to balance your schedule and make time for yourself outside of work. What’s your view on that these days?

Well, it's an interesting time these days with being in quarantine in Brooklyn for the past four months. I’ve had a more difficult time during quarantine with a balance between work and life. 

Once the lockdown went into place in New York City, my work for my full-time job tripled. I’m in back to back meetings filling up my days with barely any time to get any work done. This has pushed me to work after hours to get actual work, done plus also being spread thin across multiple projects. I think I’ve been burnt out for the past few months? Haha, I don’t even know anymore. 

I’m being honest when I say this time hasn’t been easy for me. But it hasn’t been easy for anyone these days. I’m trying to do what I can by staying active, cooking, seeing friends and any other simple thing that provides some relaxation, like laying out in Prospect Park catching up on a good read.

You’ve reached out to so many people and coordinated so many projects online at this point, I imagine you are a master at the cold email, or just remote project management in general. Any practical tips for reaching out to people you don’t know, managing “creative types” online and getting shit done?

It’s always trial and error, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. First define the process that works best for you and once proven successful a few times, write down and stick to your process (reuse and improve on as you go). 

Setting myself goals is how I get shit done. If I set up a personal goal to have all images and content sent to me by X date, then that’ll give me a few weeks to construct the issue and release it by X date. Once you’ve got that down, it becomes a mental memory at that point.

For reaching out to people you don’t know, you’d be surprised how receptive people are if you add context in your approach. If you make your message seem more approachable to this person you’re cold-emailing, it’ll show that you care and spent time formatting this email for them. Adding touches of thought, research, care and a bit of your personality is a key to cold emailing / Instagram DM success.

In my experience, side projects always lead to more side projects, new opportunities and new relationships. What was the most unexpected thing to come from your work with ONE?

I think the most unexpected thing was one of my professors asking me to come visit and give a talk about my design career and how the magazine came to life. In early February of this year, I flew down to my alma mater, Ringling College of Art and Design, and did just that. It was a really special moment for me to connect with my professors and the place that gave me a platform to discover my passion and grow my skills in design. 

I think I’ve learned so much throughout these past 10 years that I now enjoy helping and encouraging people to discover and grow their passions.

Is there anything else you’ve been wanting to do with the mag that’s still on the horizon? For example, I’m curious if you’ve ever considered (or already done) paid partnerships with fashion brands or designers to feature their clothing lines and fund the magazine. 

You’re always one step ahead of me, Tobias! Yes, we are going to be working on expanding our online social presence, and paid partnerships is one of the main areas we’re going to tackle after the launch of this issue and in 2021.

You started ONE out of a desire to champion your friends and spotlight their work. Is that still your main goal today? What’s motivated you to continue doing this for the past 10 years? What makes it rewarding?

With our new mission, it’s still in our DNA, however, we are primarily focusing on providing a spotlight for sustainable and ethical brands moving forward. We will continue to collaborate and highlight work from emerging brands, but our new area of focus will make us stand out within the world of numerous fashion editorial publications. 

I’m more motivated and passionate about this new chapter because we’ve established a purpose and meaning to the magazine that was lacking before. I’m very passionate about environmentalism and climate change. And now that we’ve established this new mission, I believe our new vision can truly make a difference by helping creatives and educating viewers about sustainability within fashion. We’re also planning to donate all proceeds to an environmental organization/non-profit.

What advice do you have for those of us who dream of doing a similar side project (essentially a second job) we’re passionate about, but feeling unsure where to begin or how to manage it all (the finances, time, resources, energy, etc)?

Start small. It’s easier to grow a business/hobby/side-project when you take baby steps. Putting all your eggs in one basket all at the beginning could be super risky. Think of it as launching a new product – you want to test how your users interact with it first, then keep iterating and slowly expanding from there. This will help with discovering your process and how it works best for you, the resources and tools you'll need and the amount of time you'll dedicate per week.

What are a few of your favorite features in ONE from the last decade?

Most recently, we interviewed and photographed the recent collection of handmade organic materials by designer Signe Rødbro of Signe.  She took her production to Turkey where she opened Moon Tekstil, a sustainable and ethical factory in Izmir that offers fair wages, transportation, lunch and a comfortable, happy place to work for its employees.

Beginning of this year, I loved this story by Martina Keenan. Her effortless style captures such visually captivating moments.

I will forever cherish this stunning cover story for Issue No.13 by Manolo Campion, featuring Claudia Li.

Issue No.18 of ONE magazine,  featuring the rebrand and ONE's new mission dedicated to sustainable and ethical production,  will be out this fall. Follow @one_magazine for news and, of course, always-beautiful fashion photography.

June 16, 2020No Comments

You could monitor your team, or you could motivate them

Given the past several months, it’s no wonder everyone’s feeling tired, distracted and unproductive. Employees and managers are doing their best to navigate uncharted waters. And those waters are choppy.

Companies, concerned about their employees’ productivity and with little experience managing remote teams, are turning to micromanagement. Technology is even being developed to monitor employees’ performance, going so far as to record screen behavior and users’ keystrokes. When I talk to friends accustomed to working in an office environment, they say they’re having more meetings than ever. When do they get their actual work done? Apparently, late at night after the Zoom calls are finally over.

I suspect the insecurity from the top is doing little to motivate employees and instead having the opposite effect. After managing a fully dispersed team for the last six or so years, I’ve learned what keeps my team’s spirits up, and unsurprisingly, it’s not surveillance technology or constant check-in meetings.

Our industry’s obsession with productivity was in question long before this year, so let me first state that this isn’t about squeezing more work from your employees. It’s about maintaining excitement about the work you’re doing together, and enabling your team to do their best.

Self-management over micro-management

If you’re constantly breathing down your employees’ necks, reminding them of their deadlines, checking their work, redoing their work and picking up after them, they will learn to lean on that. They’ll wait for you to check on a task instead of running with it on their own. They’ll look to you to make a decision instead of owning it themselves. They will do the work exactly as you tell them and nothing more.

Instead, set an expectation of personal responsibility. Make it known that you expect your team to manage themselves. Show you trust them and leave it in their hands. Of course, you are still here to support and lead. But when your team knows they are personally responsible for the success or failure of a project, they will own it more.

If you try to control every aspect of your team’s workday, they will eventually throw their hands up and let you have it. If you trust them to manage themselves, they will feel more invested in the work they do and feel ownership for the finished product.

Remember one management technique doesn’t apply to all

This is why so many creative companies today have their potential hires take a personality test during the application process. It may seem a bit hokey and pointless, and sometimes it is. But when managers understand how their individual employees think and work – what drives them, what discourages them and how they fit into a team – it makes a difference.

I don’t force my team to take a personality test, but I do pay keen attention to who they are and what they need from me as their manager. Some of them are social types. They need a sense of teamwork and camaraderie to stay motivated and feel connected to what they do. Others prefer to work silently alone. Others are right in the middle. They like to work independently but still need frequent one-on-ones to stay on track and feel excited about what they do.

There’s a balance for all types, but what may work for one person can completely demotivate the other. Learn their personality and working styles and try your best, within the context of your company and process, to make it work for them.

Recognize and celebrate even small achievements

Some people need this more than others. But everyone likes positivity and recognition of hard work, especially if they’re working behind the scenes. Aim to not only celebrate your team, but encourage them to celebrate each other.

My customer support team is always sharing positive feedback on Slack from our users. Our developer is building our product every day but doesn’t interact with our community like some of us do. A screenshot from a customer that says “Semplice is the best” can make his day and shows how his work is meaningful.

It takes little effort to screenshot an email and share it with the team, or give a shoutout in a group channel to someone who did particularly good work that day. These little gestures show your team that you’re paying attention and see value in even the small stuff they’re doing.

Challenge your team without breaking them

If someone doesn’t feel challenged, they will quickly lose motivation. But if you constantly throw them in the deep end where they feel like they’re just trying to keep their head above water, they will quickly fizzle out.

Find the balance. Give people space and support to own what they do, but challenge them along the way. They should feel like they are constantly learning and having opportunities to grow. The minute you or your team feels comfortable, you know something is wrong. If they are continually learning something new and pushing themselves, you’re on the right path.

Reward loyalty

That said, it’s easy to take those with a strong work ethic for granted. The people who, with or without validation, consistently show up, put in the hours and pay attention to the details. It’s these people you feel like you “don’t need to worry about.” They always do the work, they seem fine and you have other people you actually need to manage.

While we should expect everyone’s best work, it’s rare to find the person who is steady and self-motivated on their own. Don’t take these people for granted. If you value them, try to always give them opportunities to move forward, take on new responsibilities and feel fresh in their work.


Read more thoughts on working remotely:

Running a remote company for the first time
The #1 key to successful remote working
How to work from home

May 19, 2020No Comments

How can we build an extension of your mind?

For the first time last week, I wrote about a new project that has consumed a large part of the last year for me.

I shared my frustration with the current landscape, how instead of mastering our tools, we’ve let our tools become our masters. Modern tools pull us in with flashy features and the promise of an easier life. Yet we spend hours managing, organizing and cleaning up the mess these tools create for us.

Our note-taking apps and hard drives have become graveyards of information. Our carefully considered systems and structures become obsolete only shortly after we put them in place. There's a disconnect between the way we like to organize ourselves and how our tools like to organize us.

Our tools tend to see the ideal version of us, which is also why we're attracted to them. They promise a better, more efficient *you.* But the assumptions our tools make about us are not who we are.

Are we failing to keep our shit in order, or are our tools failing us?

We’re only human, after all. And knowing this, I believe there is a way to leverage how our mind already works, rather than trying to change it.

Creating an extension for your mind

To create a tool that complements how your mind works, we first have to understand what that means, both philosophically and practically.

If our goal was to create a NEW mind, we'd have to change the way your mind works right now. We would fall into the same trap as every other tool, forcing you to adapt to structures and mental models that conflict with the way your brain naturally operates. Instead, we're trying to build an extension of your mind. One compatible with the way you're already thinking and working.

The reason you're constantly trying new tools or setting up new structures is because they're aspirational by nature. You can compare them to strict weight-loss diets. They seem great in the beginning, but they're abandoned soon after. They're just too much work to sustain.

The most effective diets are those that stick with you. And the diets that stick tend to be those that fit into your existing lifestyle and way of thinking. They give you power, rather than holding power over you.

It's the same with everything else in life, including our knowledge and productivity tools.

So how does our mind work?

If there is one thing we know about our brain, it's that we know very little. While we’ve made advances in neuroscience over the years, the brain is still one of the least understood parts of our body.

But let's see what we do know. To build an extension of your mind, we're interested in three fundamental questions:

1. What type of memories do we have?
2. How does the input of these memories work?
3. How are these memories accessed?

We’ll start with the first: The types of memories we have in our minds.

💭 Implicit memories

Your implicit memories are usually acquired over time and unconsciously. They can affect your thoughts and behaviors in ways you don't even notice. Riding your bike is an implicit memory; even after years of not riding your bike, you'd still know how to do it. Same with swimming or brushing your teeth.

Simply put: Implicit memories are automatic memories. They're enabled and recalled by past experiences no matter how long ago you experienced them. They last a lifetime.

💭 Explicit memories

This is what we mean when we talk about "remembering something.” An explicit memory is consciously recalled. Explicit memories can be episodic, meaning they relate to a specific experience in your life, such as a holiday or traumatic event. Or they can be semantic, meaning they relate to facts or general knowledge you've acquired for a specific purpose.

Both implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) memories are usually filed under your long-term memory, which can be recalled later or added as automated functions of your behavior.

Your short-term memory or "working memory," on the other hand, is what you're currently thinking about. It’s the part of your brain that helps you remember a small amount of information for a short period of time while you juggle other cognitive processes.

Since your memories are scattered all over different parts of your brain, depending on the type of memory, we rely on strong connections between neurons to complete the picture. And those connections can be strengthened or weakened over time depending on how they’re used. If those connections weaken, we lose access to our memories or can only dredge up partial information. And our minds attempt, whether accurately or inaccurately, to fill in the rest.

Memories tend to be formed more strongly if they're related to a strong emotional experience, and if the experience involves a combination of your senses.

You have no trouble accessing a memory of coffee with a friend because it involves multiple points of access in your mind. You remember seeing your friend, seeing the interior of the coffee shop. You can remember the taste of the coffee. You remember the smell of the cake in front of you. You can hear the chatter around you and the sirens across the busy street of New York.

These are all data points in your mind. If you can access one of them, they can trigger each other so you can eventually recall the entire memory. The fewer access or trigger points a memory has, the harder it will be for you to recall it.

If our experience isn’t accompanied by strong emotions or involves multiple senses, we'll need to work even harder to commit it to memory.

This idea of memory indexing is still only a theory, but we know when it works and we know when it fails. For example: You know this feeling when you're talking with a friend and trying to recall a specific fact you learned, but you can't seem to access it?

Interestingly, you CAN recall that you learned the fact, yet you can’t bring the full memory to the surface. Meaning, you know that you know it, but you just don't know it right now. Often what that means is that our neurons aren't firing the way we want them to be.

This is where our brain fails us, and it does so often.

Say you’re trying to recall an article you saw a week ago while browsing. You remember you saw the website, but you can't seem to remember which publication it was. You do know if someone showed it to you, you'd remember it again.

It might help if a friend helped “trace your steps” or threw a bunch of triggers at you, such as a color or keywords. The more trigger points, the more neurons firing, making connections and giving you the information you know you have in your mind, but just can't access.

Today, we’ve come to terms with not knowing everything – because we know where to find it. We have Google and Wikipedia, both great collective databases with a vast universe of information and knowledge. But these collective databases are full of things that aren’t connected to our own memories, which makes it harder to find that one thing we care about.

What we don't have is an extension for our OWN mind. One that picks up where our brains stop doing the work for us. One that enables us to collect pieces of information that might seem trivial in the moment, but important a week later when we’re trying to tell a story at a dinner party.

An extension of your mind should work the exact same way as your mind already works, but better. Think of it like your own little knowledge base, but without the effort of categorizing everything. It should be a supplement. Like an enhancement drug for your brain, but without the side effects.

This extension of your mind should be as messy and intuitive as your real mind, but it should sort itself automatically when you need it to. It should be a place for the information in your brain to spill over, without the fear of losing it. It shouldn’t aim to change how your mind works, or even teach it something new. It should support your mind, without you even having to think about it.

May 7, 2020No Comments

My new secret project — an extension of your mind

The time has come. I'm ready to talk about a product I've been working on with my partner for almost a year now. I first shared this last week with my personal email list.

It's a different kind of product than you'd expect from me. It's not a portfolio tool – I think I’m good with Semplice and Carbonmade on that end. It's also not specifically related to the design industry. It's something new. Something I've wanted for a long time myself, and now we’ve built it.

I've used this product every day for the past 10 months. It's become an indispensable part of my workflow. And this is all my partner and I ever wanted: To build something we love to use ourselves.

Of course, we're not going to stop there. I want you to use it too, to see the benefits and hopefully enjoy it as much as we do.

I still have to keep you in suspense for now. So think of this as “part 1” in a series of articles I’m going to publish over the next month. I won't be able to share the name or the details of the product with you yet. But I can give you a little back story. I’ll tell you how we landed on this idea and what we felt was missing in the products currently out there. And from there, I’ll give you an opportunity to follow along as we're building and launching this new product.

"An extension of my mind"

This is what came first. Just a daydream, really, something we wished existed. Everything we built followed this mantra.

What I wanted was simple, in theory. If I see something I like, something I want to remember, I want to save it within a second. And if I'm trying to remember it later, I want to be able to find it within seconds. That’s it.

I don't want to deal with organizing things. I don't want folders. I don't want categories or structures. I don't want to think about how to make sure I’ll be able to find this later. I want something to do the job FOR ME instantly. An extension of my mind.

Of course, you might ask, aren't there already tools you can use to achieve those things?

I've tried them all. There's not a single tool you can show me that I haven't tried. Either the tools are too complicated, bloated, outdated or too specific. Without exception, I'm left with a Frankenstein model pieced together from a mix of tools that collect dust more than anything else. And talking to people around me, it seems like everyone is dealing with similar issues.

"We tend to take the path of the least resistance. When we're in the flow, we don't want to think about organization. We want to stay in the flow."

Our tools for simple tasks are broken

Our new product is born out of this frustration.

You may not be aware of it, but everyone has built their own little Frankenstein system. We can’t necessarily find anything with this system, but we feel some pleasure in managing our chaos. It's the sunk cost fallacy mixed with the illusion of productivity.

But we don't even WANT to build these rigged up systems. The majority of us aren’t interested in creating our own Wikipedia or our own knowledgebase. What we want, whether we realize it or not, is for our tools to get out of our way and simply do what we expected them to do in the first place.

We’ve got shit to do.

Our tools should help us spend LESS time managing information, not force us to adopt complex new mental models and build structures of folders, tags and categories. Software is supposed to take the work out of it, not add to it.

Our biggest challenge with modern productivity tools is that they’re asking us to build, maintain and control our own system. This all sounds and looks great in the beginning, but unless we’re a database structure genius with a love for documentation, we will be making mistakes in the initial setup of our system. And those mistakes will only waste our time instead of doing what we set out to do: save it.

At the time we’re putting our structure in place (folders, tags, categories) we’re doing it with our current knowledge of how things work. And it may function beautifully for about a week or two. We feel productive categorizing things, putting them in folders and maintaining our new system. But then a normal day takes over. Eventually, a piece of information, be it a note, an image or a bookmark, won’t fit into our existing structure. But we don’t feel like this single aberration justifies an adjustment or re-work of our entire structure, and we don’t have the time to revisit it anyway. 

Ultimately, our system falls apart. We become our lazy selves again and abandon the tools and the structure we so carefully put in place. What ensues is chaos – at least until the next time we muster up the willpower to do this all over again.

Let's look at some examples:

How are we dealing with note-taking these days?

The majority of the notes we take are "throwaway" notes. Often they're little snippets of something on our mind, something we want to remember later. The average note is no longer than a tweet and likely captured in 30 seconds or less. They're the digital equivalent of sticky notes. Some we want to stick around, some we don't. But each note usually has a clear purpose toward achieving a specific goal.

We eventually end up with a monster like Evernote where each note is a huge document with dozens of little snippets and styling options we never asked for. Other tools ask us to build entirely new mental models in order to use them, to inspire us to create our own Wikipedia. These tools cater to the information hoarder and tend to give us a sense of false productivity. They're a time sink.

When we're in the middle of creative flow, thinking about maintaining structures adds unnecessary cognitive load.

Evernote and most note-taking apps force us to stop and think in structures we don't care about. There are “notebooks” and lists of notes that all look the same on the surface. The visual cues are all the same. We can't find things at a quick glance, and often what we’re looking for is buried deep inside a note within a note within a notebook.

To avoid the forceful structure of our tools, we create a note called "Random Shit" and put individual, unrelated notes inside it. Later, when trying to recall that one piece of important information, we have to sift through all our random shit to get there. Sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

Our minds aren't built this way, so why are our tools?

I've seen people use Evernote or other note-taking apps but still avoid them in the most crucial moments. It's often faster to just write it on a post-it note and stick it on your computer. It's even easier to just send yourself a quick email (yes, we all do it). Others use the MacOSX notes app together with three other apps, depending on what "feels right in the moment.” I even write myself a Slack message sometimes because that's the fastest way to leave a note to myself, even though I'm swimming in tools that *should* be better for it.

We tend to take the path of the least resistance. When we're in the flow, we don't want to think about organization. We want to stay in the flow.

We're not using our current tools properly because they're too complex in the moment we need them the most. As a result, the tools we do end up using are not designed for this specific purpose. Ultimately, we end up losing things we wanted to remember.

We avoid our current tools because they're asking too much from us.

Which leads me to more pet peeves:

How do you bookmark websites you like? Articles? Videos on YouTube? A product on Amazon?

The process of bookmarking is completely messed up for most people. Here's what I've seen with my friends and myself.

If the website is an article, I may save it to my Pocket account to read later. Or I’ll write myself an email with the URL. Or I’ll Slack myself the URL. Whatever’s “closest” at the time. 

Even better: I’ll leave the tab open in my browser, i.e. my list of things "I want to remember for later.” Eventually my browser crashes and relieves me from the burden of things I wanted to remember (I'm aware of browser extensions that save all my open tabs into an archive I'm never going to look at again).

Or perhaps I’ll just bookmark the URL in my browser. I can put it in one of the dozen folders I have, with lists of websites I'm never going to look at again because how the hell should I find anything in there? All I see is link names, but I’m a visual person. I don't remember half of these websites or why I saved them, and I'd have to click on it to find out. Sure, I could use a more visual bookmarking tool made for that purpose. I'm sure there are enough out there. Just one more tool for one more very specific use case.

Or maybe I could just create a note in Evernote called "Links I like" and then just put lists of URLs in there. Forever to be forgotten and never even stumbled upon again because they're not visual enough for me to recognize at first glance.

We don't think in lists. We think in images. Our minds are visual by nature.

Bookmarks are strange. While the source is always just a URL, the reasons we bookmark a URL are very different. We might bookmark it because it's an article we want to read. We might bookmark it because it’s a website design we like. Or we bookmark it because it's a podcast we want to listen to, a video we want to watch or a product we want to buy. The use cases are endless, even though technically it’s always just a link. But each forces us to think differently when it comes to organization. Ultimately we end up with one tool for articles, one for visual website inspiration, one for products we want to buy and so on.

"New tools launching right now attempt to change our mind, rather than supporting it. While they may give us the illusion of control, the reality is that the tools control us."

What about visual imagery?

If you’re a designer or an art director, you know what mood boards are. We have tons of them because it's part of our inspiration and research process.

But everyone has mood boards, not just designers. Yours may be scattered across different places: Your desktop, your camera roll, your Instagram collections, your Pinterest. No matter what shape it takes, we all have a mood board somewhere.

If you see an image of a haircut you like online, you want to remember and reference it later. Or this nice chair you’re thinking about for your new apartment. Or this wedding dress you want to remember, not now, but maybe in a year or two.

Right now, you could use Pinterest for it, although it forces you to organize everything in boards and tag it. Pinterest is also public by default, so you need to make an effort to either curate for your followers or keep everything private (and I have a lot more to say about privacy soon). In reality, you only want to save this ONE image of a wedding dress. You don't want to create an entire board of wedding dresses yet. It’s overkill, and so is any tool specifically for mood boards. 

Many of us just save images or screenshots straight to our computer. We save things to our desktop because it's frictionless. Again: the path of the least resistance. I don't have to think about organization, folders, categories. I just save it, quick and dirty. And I will probably never find it again. Our desktop is the best solution we have, yet also the worst.

More often than not, we just take a screenshot on our phone to save it to the camera roll, the equivalent of the desktop on our computer. Quick, easy, painless. But again, most likely forgotten and never found again. I'm sure you've experienced the moment where you frantically browse through your camera roll trying to find an image or screenshot you saved because you wanted to show it to a friend.

What else do we save?

What about quotes or highlights I made in books I really enjoy? Do I mix them in with my notes? Create a big document? Do I need to find another tool for this?

Or this PDF white paper I found online I want to read later? Should I bookmark it? Save it? Upload it into a note?

What about my favorite memes I love to come back to and reference more often?

Is this turning into a rant?

I think you're getting my point. We have hundreds of tools, yet we're still struggling to find something when we need it the most. Our tools aren't built the way our mind is built.

New tools launching right now attempt to CHANGE our mind, rather than supporting it. They try to re-program how we think and operate, giving us more work than we had before. They’re new systems that need to be managed. While these tools may give us the illusion of control, the reality is that the tools control us.

All I want is an extension of my mind. Something where I can put things in and commit it to “my memory” as I go about my day, without any hassle. A place for my ideas and thoughts to spill over when my own mind can’t hold it all. And I want my extended mind to organize it, better than my own mind can, and make sure I find what I need again when the time comes.

It’d be designed just like our own minds, but enhanced with artificial intelligence. And this is what we've built.

Will it be great? We don't know yet, but what we do know is that we're obsessed with using it ourselves. And that's a good start.

While we focused more here on the flaws of existing tools and workflows, next I will talk about how we think it *should* be. I'm excited to share more with you soon!

May 6, 2020No Comments

Julie Kraulis’ timepiece drawings are an ode to detail

I first discovered Julie Kraulis' work at the A. Lange & Söhne boutique in New York. It was astounding.

It's something you appreciate in layers: First, you register the fact that it's a pencil drawing, not a rendering or photograph. Then, if you're a watch nerd like me, you hone in on the gears and inner workings, the mysterious details of the machine. Then you see the shading, the incredible detail where Julie captured a nick in the metal, the shadow on a dial, the slightest wear on the wristband. You consider the scale of the thing, at least three feet in height, and eventually, you find you've been standing there studying the piece for 10 minutes. At least that was my experience.

After talking with Julie about her work here, I have a whole other level of appreciation for it.

Julie signing her A. Lange & Söhne Datograph piece, which she describes as her most challenging project.

From your previous interviews, I already know where your fascination with watches came from. What I’m curious about is how it’s held your focus so sharply.

Are you a person who typically gets fixated on one thing and wants to master it, or are you always experimenting with different subjects, mediums and interests? What are some other subjects that have captured your interest over the years?

I stumbled into watches serendipitously but I feel like it was fated, in a sense. There is so much I’m drawn to; abstractly with the concept of time and our relationship to it, as well as the concrete aspects of design. A few years back, I had wanted to focus on a collection of work that would engage both my head and heart. Something to keep me curious and interested in the intellectual realm, and something to capture me on the soul level. The art of watchmaking does both.

I’ve always loved design and I’m intrigued by what makes something timeless in any form of it. I’m fascinated by objects and spaces designed decades ago that achieve cult status, continuing to capture and enthrall a following. There are principles of design and then there’s the layer of mystery as to what makes something tick. This is what keeps my focus.

I am definitely someone who focuses deeply on something, working to understand and glean as much as I can. And then, eventually, I’ll get this feeling to pivot and move on to something else. At any given time, I always have side projects on the go – a variety of creative outlets and interests separate from my ‘day work.’ I have this compulsion to always be making things and I’ve got a list of creative skills I’d like to learn, including printmaking and textiles at some point.

I feel I’ve just scraped the surface with the timepiece collection. It’s the first subject I’ve explored this deeply and I’ve got a bunch of big dreams within it to keep me inspired and hustling.

"Possibility makes me tick; I love the challenge of figuring out something I’ve not yet done."

The GMT Meteorite in progress

I know you like to work in the history and story of the watch into your drawings. How much creative freedom do you typically have in doing that for commissioned pieces? Do you often brainstorm with clients or do they trust you to run with it?

I look to weave in history and narrative elements within each piece I create and I work closely with clients to find these unique notes to emphasize. In the preliminary stages, I glean as much as I can about a timepiece through research and conversation. I let it all roll around and eventually, all of these details will distill into ideas.

Most of the time, the client is completely open to what I come up with and after proposing a few different design approaches, we’ll refine the selected one together. Up to this point, most have desired a fairly straightforward capture of the timepiece, but I’ve got plans for pieces with a deconstructed, conceptual approach.

Julie's interpretation of the Rolex Submariner

I’ve seen artists recently who do technical drawings, either with watches, sneakers or other objects. Yet your work is unique because you add your own artistic twist to these paintings that, as far as I can tell, increase the difficulty 100x fold.

While others might just try to draw a perfectly realistic and technical drawing, you go one step further and do things like the overlapping effect on the Dategraph. In the end, we’re seeing the timepiece in a completely new perspective, one we would never get from a purely technical/photorealistic drawing.

Is this something that just comes naturally to you? I’m curious how you go about marrying the unique visuals with the watch itself.

From the beginning, I knew I wanted to go beyond just a hyper-realistic approach. I wanted to capture these iconic timepieces with a different perspective, adding layers to create a bespoke piece. These added elements make the work unique and visually interesting.

I think it comes naturally but not necessarily easily! Picasso’s sentiment resonates: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” Possibility makes me tick; I love the challenge of figuring out something I’ve not yet done. For each piece, I usually have a clear image in mind and then work to figure out how to translate it on the page.

You’ll often see natural elements in my drawings. Textures in the natural world have always captivated me and it’s been a super fun challenge learning out how to draw them when they suit the context of certain timepieces, like water for the Rolex Submariner or meteorite for the GMT Master II.

"We live the ever-present dance between hope and doubt. The questioning of the work is an invaluable part of creating, I think."

Julie at work on the Heuer-Monaco Movement.

I saw your work many times on Instagram before, but then one day I spotted your Datograph piece hanging on the wall at A. Lange & Söhne in New York. My friend and I kept admiring one particular part that probably only watch nerds like ourselves would obsess over – it was the pure dark grey shade of the dial itself.

While some may think this is the easiest part of the drawing, I have a feeling you can tell us the exact opposite.

Exactly right. There is a magic to graphite in real life. It’s a very lively medium – there is a shimmer and a depth. I love the idea of using one of the humblest tools around to push its boundaries and find luxury in huge, intricate work. There is also a special metamorphosis that takes place as the wood is shaved off layer by layer, transforming the tool in hand into something on a page.

As is often the case, simple is the most difficult. Pure, even planes of graphite can be the most challenging element of any drawing. Gradients on a bezel or bracelet, as well. I have to move around the piece in all different types of light to refine these areas.

The exquisite A. Lange & Söhne Datograph, which took Julie more than 400 hours to complete. I saw it in person!

Each piece you create takes hundreds of hours of work – you’ve studied the mechanics of timepieces as much as a horologist. Do you feel like you understand the inner workings in a mechanical way, beyond an artistic standpoint?

The timepiece drawings take anywhere from 250-450 hours, depending on the level of difficulty and intricacy. Over the last year, I’ve started drawing movements but I don’t have a grasp on the mechanical engineering bit just yet. I plan to take the Horological Society of New York watchmaking course to better understand a movement and what makes a watch tick. The next phase of this collection will have a conceptual focus based on the inner workings, and this is an essential course I have to take to really explore these ideas.

I had the great pleasure of visiting the A. Lange & Söhne HQ in Dresden last year. While I was touring all of the labs and workshops, I was spellbound at the watchmakers’ benches. These tiny intricately crafted pieces lay still and inanimate and by an order of expert assembly, they come alive and there’s a heartbeat. Just amazing, undeniable soul.

Julie drawing the A. Lange & Söhne Triple Split for a client. The wristband alone is just insane.

I know for many designers, if they’re looking at their own work for that long, hit a point where they question everything and suddenly want to destroy it and start over, or move on to something else entirely.

Does that ever happen to you? What do you do to keep your mind fresh and see an extremely long & detailed project through to the end?

OH, yes. This is the natural state of being for anyone in a creative field! We live the ever-present dance between hope and doubt. The questioning of the work is an invaluable part of creating, I think. It’s also necessary to find moments to see the work through fresh eyes; whether stepping away, putting it aside or seeking feedback from trusted voices. Sometimes it’s just necessary to destroy the work and begin again.

The timeline for each timepiece drawing is long and intense but because of this, I focus on small areas at a time and build slowly. There are many days where I find myself in a meditative, flow state focusing on texture and form. I almost always lack confidence in a piece until about three-quarters of the way. At that point, things start to come together.

The OMEGA Speedmaster CK2998 – the first watch worn in space.

I read you don’t own a watch yourself yet and you’re constantly discovering new ones to love.

Two questions here: 1. What classic timepiece is most your style right now? 2. What would be your ideal watch, if you could dream/draw one up and have it created by the masters?

I know, it’s crazy. I’ve never worn a watch but after spending a decent chunk of time with them, I’ve now got a bunch on my list. I have a special affinity for vintage timepieces; they have stories to tell and secrets to keep. It took me a while to settle on and find my first one: A pink gold Lange 1. I was living in Portugal earlier this year and on the day I was supposed to fly to Germany to pick it up, I had to fly home to Toronto instead due to the upheaval of the coronavirus. So, it’s currently spending life quarantined in Dresden for the next little while…

I couldn’t say what my ideal watch would be. I think that’s the beauty of collecting, to have watches that suit all sorts of moods and occasions. I can say it’d be a dream to create something with Lange, F.P. Journe and Voutilainen, to name a few.

Some favorites across the spectrum: Rolex GMT-Master II 1675 tropical dial, Omega Speedmaster Alaska Project, Lange Zeitwerk, Journe Chronometre à Resonance, Heuer Skipper, Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso.


Follow Julie Kraulis' work on her website and Instagram.


April 28, 2020No Comments

Designing in quarantine

Many of us are nearly through our second month working from home during the pandemic, and if you’re like me, it’s been difficult to navigate how to be a good employee and maintain focus.

Every week, there’s something new to worry about. Are my loved ones staying safe and healthy? Will I still have a job? If so, will my salary be cut? Why is my throat suddenly itchy?

At my agency, we’ve always had a very flexible remote working policy, so we didn’t have much to worry about in terms of logistics. The biggest challenge for me was changing my daily routine and my mentality toward working. And for the company as a whole, we’ve had to learn how we can best support one another from a distance.

Can company culture exist online?

It’s awesome that we live in a time where we can connect with one another so easily across locations, but no matter how many Zoom calls and happy hours you have, it’s just not the same as sharing a physical space with your team (at least, when that’s what you’re used to). Meeting and interacting with people face to face helps us connect and empathize with each other better.

While I do miss my teammates and love seeing their faces on my screen, I don’t always love calling in to our huge Zoom calls. I don’t like being put on the spot, and in a Zoom call of 20 people, only 2-3 people can really talk at a time, as opposed to a meeting room where multiple conversations between smaller groups of people can occur simultaneously.

And of course, without being in the same room as my coworkers, I lose the ability to read any physical cues such as someone’s body language or facial expressions. This makes collaboration and presentations even harder. For example, during our regular show and tells, I can present my work and read the room – are people interested in what’s on the screen? Are they confused by what I’m saying (in which case I would elaborate or clarify)? Does it look like someone wants to ask me a question (I would then pause and allow them to speak up)?

"Company parties or the office ping pong table weren't solely responsible for our culture before, just like Zoom calls and online happy hours aren't now."

I also miss the opportunities to engage in “water cooler” conversations with my teammates as I bump into them in the kitchen or pass by their desk. Now that our interactions are limited to the digital space, it means I have to be much more intentional about keeping in touch. And I haven’t been great at this. Before, I’d happily chat with my desk neighbors or whoever happens to be eating lunch at the same time as I am, but now I’m mostly talking with the people who are working on the same project I am. It’s not hard to shoot my teammates a DM, but it feels strange for me to message them just wanting to chat without a work-related purpose.

In comparison to other workplaces, I’d say our team is tight-knit. We attend each other's birthday parties and dinner parties; some of us work out together, and others have even taken vacations together. We’re a family, and one of the reasons I love working where I do is because of the genuine culture I’ve become a part of. But the longer we’re forced to be apart, I wonder how much we’ll lose.

Company parties or the office ping pong table weren't solely responsible for our culture before, just like Zoom calls and online happy hours aren't now. What makes the culture are the people. So I've concluded I need to step up and do my part in maintaining my work relationships, beyond the scheduled events. While I might feel uncomfortable randomly messaging coworkers to ask them how their weekend was, or scheduling my own one-on-one call with them, a unique situation like the one we’re in requires changing my mentality.

How do I maintain a work/life balance during this time?

I’ll first preface this by saying I’m in a comfortable living situation; I don’t have any children and I don’t live with a Craigslist roommate (although I have in the past!). Next, I’ll say that a bulk of my sanity has been retained thanks to the expectations my company has already set for employees. Like any good relationship, there’s trust. We are trusted to get our work done and do it well, and in return, we have a lot of flexibility.

Yet after the first week of our mandated work from home schedule, I felt exhausted and sad due to the sudden shift in my daily routine, along with my growing anxiety around the unknowns of our company, economy and global health. So in the weeks to come, I set two goals for myself: creating a new daily routine and setting boundaries for myself.

"It’s much harder to 'leave work' when the area where you do all your work is just a few feet away from where you’d normally relax and unwind."

Creating a new daily routine

While I used to love waking up and eating breakfast while watching the news on TV, these days I choose to eat breakfast while reading a book or journaling. Personally, I hate watching or reading the news now – there’s just an overload of information that doesn’t seem to do me any good. Instead, I’ve found that beginning my day with some reflection and intention-setting while journaling, or consumption of some inspiring content (I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama), has done wonders for my day. If I do decide to tune into any COVID-related news, it’s usually in the form of an email newsletter I like that discusses business and finance, or a short YouTube clip from John Oliver (the humor really helps bring some lightness to the serious situation we’re in!).

I also do my best to maintain the breaks I would normally take if I were working in the office. That means an hour or so for lunch, and a few breaks in the morning and afternoon. Usually, I’ll use this time to walk my dog, which doubles as getting some fresh air and physical exercise since I’ve undoubtedly become more sedentary these past few weeks. Taking my breaks as usual also gives me some semblance of continuity from my pre-COVID life.

Setting boundaries for myself

When working remotely, we don’t have the luxury of physically “leaving work.” You know that feeling when you’ve had a hard day and finally leave the office to enjoy a nice dinner or drink out, or maybe just relax on your couch for a bit? It doesn’t seem so significant at the time, but now I really miss those moments. It’s much harder to “leave work” when the area where you do all your work is just a few feet away (or maybe in the same area for some) from where you’d normally relax and unwind. What we do physically has a strong influence on our mental states, so now that that element of physicality is gone, I need to work that much harder to make a mental switch from “work mode” to “home mode.”

While I’m no workaholic, it can be difficult to commit to “home mode” after I’ve logged off for the day. I’m probably using my computer in the evenings for one reason or another, and I’m definitely using my phone, both of which have my work email, Slack workspaces, and access to work files. When we’re stuck at home, we’re all more likely to be using our screens, and what’s one more reply to my client or one quick design fix? I’ve had to learn that adhering to the boundaries I’ve set is important for my well-being and for client expectations, even if I do slip up and give in once in a while.

I’ve also found it useful to turn on Do Not Disturb mode for Slack while working. I used to do this at the office if I was in deep flow, but now I find myself in DND mode much more often. While I enjoy seeing all the memes my coworkers are sending and catching up on our many Slack channels, it seems there’s been an increase in online noise since we’re all desperate for social interaction of any sort. It’s easy to get sucked into Slack threads, but 30 minutes later I realize I didn’t get anything done and now I’m even more stressed than before.

Likewise, I use a Chrome plugin that allows me to create blacklists during working hours. Included in my blacklist are any social media and news sites. Early on during our work from home mandate, I found myself scrolling through Twitter or Reddit under the guise of “reading news” when I was really just being unproductive.

Lastly, an important learning for me is letting go of the idea that working from home means working 24/7 because I have “nothing else to do.” I’ve felt guilty taking my regular breaks, fearing I’ll miss a Slack DM or that someone will be wondering why I’m not online, even though that has literally never happened during my time at Funsize. Now, more than ever, we need to prioritize our mental, emotional, and physical health, and for me that means knowing when to work and when to rest.

April 6, 2020No Comments

How to be helpful

This applies whether you’re working with a client, running a business, doing customer support, trying to be useful within your team or simply trying to help someone out.

“Be useful.” As I’ve said many times here, I live by this rule. It’s what inspires my product, my work and my life day-to-day. Admittedly, it can take effort. Looking out for myself and my own time comes more naturally than going out of my way for others. And despite my best intentions, the efforts I do make aren’t always as helpful as I imagine they will be.

Through it, I've learned what works and doesn't work when I'm trying to help others, no matter the context.

Get to the point.

Cut out the disclaimers, small talk, excuses, buzz words or lengthy introductions. Help as soon as possible, as clearly as possible.

Especially when it comes to emails, we tend to pad our messages with fluff. Rather than helping, this wastes your time and the receiver’s time. Just give people the answer or the assistance they need from the start.

Don’t make assumptions about the person you are helping.

Our biases blind us. We assume people are using our product a certain way, or need a specific solution, or are struggling in a way we’ve personally struggled, and we act based on those assumptions.

This only wastes time and leads to errors. Instead of assuming you know what the painpoint or solution is, ask questions. Dig around about and seek other perspectives. When it comes to your product or company, this is even more important. Every time you help someone, you learn how your product can be better. Making assumptions about your users removes that possibility.

Don’t make people do more work for your help.

Aim to make it as easy as possible for the person you’re helping:

Try to answer your own questions before you ask them.
Anticipate the other person’s questions before they ask them.
Try to go as far as possible with the information you’ve been given.
Don’t make people chase you down for the help you promised.
Deliver your help in the time period you said you would.
When possible, exceed expectations and overdeliver.

Don't avoid or bury the bad news.

People can sense bullshit, and they don’t respond well to it. It may be tempting to circle around the truth, but it will usually backfire and lead people to lose trust in you or your business.

When you make it an unwavering policy, transparency is surprisingly easy. You find yourself in a tricky situation with your back against the wall and instead of panicking and scheming, you immediately know what to do: Tell the truth. Of course, you should have tact when you do so, but don’t mistake bullshitting for tact.

A good rule: If you find yourself working and reworking your message to get it just right, you're probably bullshitting.

Talking around the negatives causes more confusion and frustration. Honesty makes you appear confident and builds trust.

Apologize when necessary. And when not necessary.

Hearing an apology from someone (sometimes, even if no one is at fault), goes a long way for the person in need. If you’re not apologizing for something you actually did, be sorry they are frustrated, sorry the information was unclear, sorry your product didn’t meet their expectations. If you actually did something wrong, acknowledge it quickly and genuinely, then and immediately offer your best solution.

Swallow your pride and strive for genuine empathy. It can make all the difference.

March 17, 2020No Comments

Design school vs. the real world: My first month as a design intern

It's been just over a month since I received my offer for a three-month design internship with House of van Schneider. It has been an exciting time as I learn, for the first time, to be a productive and efficient designer in a fast-paced world. It's also quite different from my experience in design and graduate school.

So far, practical skills and a willingness to learn have been key to this internship. But I've already picked up a few new philosophies and habits I know I'll take with me after these three months.

Here's what I've learned so far as I work on Semplice, Carbonmade and all things HOVS through my design internship. If you're working on your first design job or internship yourself, maybe these insights will be helpful to you.

Go as far as you can on your own first, then ask for help.

Being a newcomer and understanding what DESK represents for many designers, it was intimidating yet exciting to design one of the iconic article covers.

At first, I would spend hours on a single concept, only to finally share my work and realize it wasn’t quite on-brand with DESK’s style. At that point, I had already sunk hours into one idea and didn’t have other options to offer.

I quickly learned that by exploring many different directions at the beginning, I could give my team more to respond to and save time obsessing over a single idea. This is a big difference from design school, where students tend to be concerned about one perfect execution, even if the idea isn't necessarily strong from the start.

I was also a beginner to the Semplice platform when I started helping out with the Semplice customer support. At first, I was slow and not 100% familiar with the Semplice interface and functionality. It was tempting to ask the team for answers every time I got stuck, but I realized the best way to learn is to try solving the answers myself first. If I still can’t figure it out, only then do I ask the team for help (and I always test their theory before I respond back). Now I am now more efficient, know the answers from the top of my head and speak to the customer the way I liked to be spoken to.

My attitude throughout this internship is to be an added asset and be useful in any way possible. I realized by testing and exploring on my own, I am opening new doors to new possibilities –instead of getting stuck at one closed door and asking someone else to open it.

"It’s better to set deadlines and provide hour estimates I can meet, rather than making grand promises and setting myself and my team up for failure."

Be realistic, not idealistic

Before I’ve started my internship, I’ve always been able to plan my schedule to make sure everything is done and my assignments are submitted on time. I now know the "real world" is more fluid than that. I might have a nice to-do list planned out for the day, then get three new tasks added to my plate the next hour. Learning to manage my time in this environment took some adjustments.

My perfectionist nature made me want to accomplish everything assigned to me immediately. This translated to jumping between half-finished tasks and finishing nothing. Now I try to be realistic about my work so I can follow through.

It’s better to set deadlines and provide hour estimates I can meet, rather than making grand promises and setting myself and my team up for failure. It's better to prioritize and re-prioritize my tasks throughout the day, rather than sticking to one rigid list. Planning my day and using my time strategically this way allows me to overdeliver, rather than setting myself up to fall short.

Don’t sit around and wait for approval. Keep moving forward.

In the beginning, I felt like I was a fish out of water as I developed my new routine as part of a team. I felt scared about doing something wrong and would always be waiting for the approval for each little detail, because I was afraid of making a costly mistake. While I was waiting for feedback on my design, I would halt on the project and even wait to move on to something else until I heard back.

I eventually saw that my waiting for the approval not only slowed down operations for the team, but halted my own momentum. The time I spent waiting, I could have used to iterate and explore further, or move on to the next task. Yet I was too afraid of doing it wrong, so I did nothing instead.

I realized this habit was developed during my design school days, where we would pin the work on the wall and wait for the professor’s feedback. In this way, the professor’s feedback becomes the law. When a designer gets accustomed to being told what's right or wrong, their self-confidence dwindles and they are less willing to take risks.

It made me realize my potential was hindered by not believing in myself. I feared making mistakes, but those mistakes can be better lessons than someone giving you a grade or saying yes or no.

On to the next month

Working with the HOVS team while doing my graduate thesis does take a toll, but it is important to remind myself about the long term gain. After working with the team for one month, I felt I am slowly becoming a better designer, more efficient communicator and a faster learner. I am learning to design for an established brand and a product while still allowing my personal stamp to be embedded.

My main focus for the next month will be to become more efficient, remain open-minded and be a motivator in a team. Not everything is flowers and unicorns, but I know I have a choice of how our day will be set out. I do stress out from time to time, but I remind myself that everyone has the same amount of hours in the day. I decide how I want to spend it.

December 6, 2019No Comments

How to stay motivated when you’re spread thin

With this series, I am attempting to answer questions from readers asking for design advice. I can’t promise I know the right answer, but I’ll always do my best to be honest and share the most practical information I know.

This question interestingly relates to the first one. It seems as designers, we are prone to losing motivation for a number of reasons. I know I can relate:


Hi Tobias,

UI & UX designer here. I have been a by-standing reader for a year now. Finally, I got the courage to write about "a problem" that has been bugging me.

The problem I am facing is how to spread my excitement and hype between multiple projects at the same time.

Once I start reading a specification, or meet a client and start to put the first lines of design on screen, I always feel this excitement and ideas / visions of what the project could become. I'm hyped to work on the project. Before finishing this project, I meet the next client. I start to lay down the first designs for the new project while still working on the first one, and my excitement kind of shifts and my mind is overwhelmed with the new project. It's like I almost don't want to work on first project anymore.

It's a cycle where the more projects I work on at the same time, the less projects I care about in the long run. Only the most recent one excites me. It always leaves me with this empty feeling inside that I could have done something better.

Have a nice weekend,


I am always working on at least 3-4 projects at the same time. Right now, among other projects, I am running Semplice and building an entirely new product at the same time. I’ll admit, the new product has consumed me at times. Ideally, I would be able to devote equal time to both projects and teams consistently. Ideally, I would be equally excited about both projects at all times. But the ideal scenario is rarely the reality.

I saw a comic somewhere depicting the typical agency project with a graph that measures excitement level. At the beginning of the project, excitement is off the charts. In the next phase, it drops a little. It spikes here and there, then plunges abysmally low before launch and spikes again right after. This is typical enough that someone decided it was worth making a comic about. It happens enough that people see this comic, laugh and share it. We’re not the only people who feel like this.

"Don’t feel guilty about the ebbs and flows. Take advantage of them."

My excitement level or interest in a project fluctuates depending on my day and my mood. If I can afford to, I follow that excitement. If I’m in a good flow with a particular project and I’m feeling inspired, I don’t question it. I run with it and don’t stop until I have to. I create my best work in this state of mind and I imagine most others do too. I might still break to answer a few emails or put in an hour or two of necessary work if I need to. I might even bounce back and forth between the two projects from hour to hour if that’s what I’m drawn to do. My point is: Don’t feel guilty about the ebbs and flows. Take advantage of them.

In fact, this is one of my best strategies to stay productive. I choose to work on many projects at the same time, adding a bit of pressure and allowing me to “procrastinate” by jumping between equally important work. If I’m feeling stuck or just unmotivated about one project, I will move on to the next one. Instead of procrastinating by checking emails or watching TV, I procrastinate by working toward other project deadlines. The constant shift in focus keeps things fresh for me, helping me avoid that burnout feeling on one particular project. And it only works if you have lots of projects to do at the same time.

If that strategy doesn’t work for you, perhaps you need to be more strategic about the projects you work on and when. Of course, we have to consider the bills and we can’t always control the timing of new projects, but with experience and some long-term planning, you can eventually make it work better for you. If you can afford it, start by seeking one larger project that will cover what two or three projects would normally make you. See if you can arrange projects and schedules so that you have a full two or three weeks to focus on a singular project, or maybe even a month. I realize we can’t always afford to be selective, but by setting expectations with our clients from the beginning, we can gain a little more control over our project schedules and arrange them in a way that makes sense for our workflow.

"Naturally, deadlines don’t change with our moods. There are times we just need to buck up and do the work. And often, once we begin, we find energy and momentum."

If you’re struggling with a particular project consistently, you may just need to get a fresh perspective. Do research and find inspiration related to the project. Schedule lunch with the client so you can hear how much they care about this project and their goals. Tell a friend what originally excited you about the project. Start at a different point than you normally would and work backward – ignore the assumption that you need to work linearly and start anywhere. It might just jumpstart your brain and get you back into the rhythm again.

Naturally, deadlines don’t change with our moods. We can’t always silo our work or we’d fall behind all the time. We can’t wait for inspiration or we may never begin. We can’t always plan our projects perfectly. There are times we just need to buck up and do the work. And often, once we begin, we find energy and momentum.

A psychologist doesn’t only take the cases that excite them – the people with multiple personalities or type of trauma that inspires medical papers – but they help their patients to the best of their ability anyway, every day. Accept that you won’t feel inspired about your work every day. Do it anyway. Do your best anyway. Sometimes we just need to get to work, and excitement will follow.

November 5, 2019No Comments

The art of doing

I’ve written about this so many times. Directly and indirectly, inspired not only by my own thoughts, dreams or concerns, but often those around me. A conversation with a friend that keeps repeating itself, in circles, again and again.

Why is it so hard to do the things we want to do?

Do we not want it enough?

Are we afraid of what happens if we fail?

Are we afraid of what happens if we succeed?

We can come up with myriad reasons, some valid and others perhaps not so much. Some say the start is the most crucial part of every project. Most fail before they even begin. The rest fail at the last 10% (but that’s a different story for another time).

Below are some tips and tricks I find helpful when working on my own projects, or starting up a new one.

The name is temporary

If you can’t find a name for your project, don’t worry. A name is temporary and can be changed any time. This is even more true in the early days of your project. While a good name can make a huge difference later on (those who work in branding know this), it doesn’t really matter in the beginning.

Move quick. Pick a “working title” as they do with movies. Don’t get held up because you can’t find the perfect name. Chances are you won’t find it for a while and you will just stumble upon it while working on something else.

"What problem are you trying to solve, and how can you solve it in the hackiest, most minimalistic way possible?"

You don't always need the .com

Don’t postpone your projects because you couldn’t find your perfect domain name or social media username. Focus on what’s important; you can always take care of the domain later. My own company, Semplice, started out as and only years later were we able to get the domain. If you have a name you like, use .io or .co domains or whatever else is available and works for you in the meantime.

Don't overthink the technicalities

If you have an idea for an app, your first prototype might not need to be a fully-fledged app. Perhaps it can start out as an email list or a spreadsheet. What problem are you trying to solve, and how can you solve it in the hackiest, most minimalistic way possible?

Don't let overthinking or perfectionism kill your project before you even begin. If your idea is to create an e-commerce platform, don’t yet worry about logistics or hiring an engineering team to build out your online shop. Take the core of your idea and simply start an Instagram account or a YouTube channel.  Build an audience, test the idea, see if people like it and only then move forward. If you find you have high demand and no platform to support it, that’s a good problem and where you want to be.

"All you want in the beginning is to see some momentum."

Build light and validate fast — "The minimum love-able product"

What’s the minimum you can do to make people understand and love the idea of your project? Create a landing page, curate a small Instagram account and run a few very specific ads to drive some traffic to your product. Watch the numbers and go from there. All you want in the beginning is to see some momentum. This is not only good for your product, but also your mind. You need it to stay motivated and keep moving forward yourself.

Keep it stupid

I've been preaching this message for a long time now. “Keeping it stupid” means you’re not over-complicating your idea and finding an excuse to procrastinate. Your idea and execution should be so simple that others might think it’s stupid. That’s when you hit the sweet spot of just enough challenge to move forward, but not too much to get stuck.

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” It's a good way to keep your idea simple, for yourself and those around you, and actually launch it.

June 28, 2019No Comments

The writer’s secret for designers

For writers, first drafts are celebrated. In theory, they present opportunity and promise with none of the pressure. They say a wastepaper basket is a writer’s best friend.

Writers are encouraged to bang out the first draft, throw it away and make the next one better. It’s part of the process. A place where judgment is reserved, where even constructive criticism is not welcome, where the fragile first steps of an idea are respected.

Design, like any other creative practice, also starts with a first draft. But it is not held in such a reverent light. Design as a profession is increasingly a non-isolated activity. A first draft is often confined by a wireframe. It involves creative directors standing over shoulders. It’s made with business goals in mind. For product designers, design decisions are based on data analytics or user research. There are best practices and trends and design patterns and systems to consider. Technical restrictions apply. Generally speaking, the first draft is defined in some way for a designer from the beginning.

The writer’s approach would benefit designers, especially young designers. Early in their career, a designer will frantically create their first draft and turn it in immediately. The goal in their eyes is completion, following the rules they learned in school, checking the item off their to-do list. Instead of exploring and trying as many drafts and angles as possible without the fear of being wrong, they do what they believe is expected of them.

When a young designer shares their first draft, senior designers are tempted to turn it into a teaching moment: This isn’t working because X. Try something more along this angle. A writer rarely receives feedback this early. It would kill their creative process.

Of course, writers have restrictions too, depending on the type of work they do. And the solitary nature of writing is inherently different than the more collaborative nature of today’s design. But to writers as a whole (at least to my understanding), first drafts are considered a sacred space. A writer may explore dozens of different approaches, adding something here, cutting something there, restructuring and researching until the semblance of a story appears. Then it grows, potentially becoming something else entirely from draft to draft.

Instead of approaching your first draft with outside forces, deadlines and fear in mind, make a safe space for it. Tell yourself this is only the start. That it’s OK if it’s imperfect, even flat out bad. Protect your first draft and keep it for yourself. Let your idea stand on its wobbly legs and watch where it leads you – before anyone else takes the leash and points it in another direction.

And instead of giving immediate direction to a young designer, or to any designer, give them this space to explore their first draft. Instead of pointing out what they did wrong or where they should go, our first response should be, “Thank you. Keep exploring. I can’t wait to see more.”

June 26, 2019No Comments

How to procrastinate

How I turned my ability to procrastinate on pretty much everything into one of my strategies to get shit done.

Read more

May 29, 2019No Comments


With every project I do, I aim to overdeliver. I built my career on this attitude. I try to take every step of the project, down to the smallest details, above and beyond what’s expected. In an industry defined by billable hours and budgets, some might say it's a dangerous approach. For me, it’s the only way to work.

No matter the size of the project or the open-mindedness of the client, it’s possible to exceed expectations. The question is: How do you take a project as far as it can go while still protecting yourself? How do you go above and beyond with limited budget? How do you overdeliver on a tight timeline?

By creating smart estimates.

The client needs to understand what goes into your work to understand what’s going above and beyond. This does not mean you should "underpromise and overdeliver." Just be straightforward and honest with your client from the start. Detail your process in your estimate. Be realistic about the time you need when scoping hours. Include time for explorations. Make it crystal clear how many reviews and revisions are built into each phase.

By setting clear expectations for yourself and your client, it’s easier to exceed them.

By learning to be efficient.

If you use your time wisely, overdelivering does not need to translate to over budget. Learn to prioritize. Know when to take a break. It may be easier to do an excellent job after you step away and come back with fresh eyes. It might be better to spend those three hours building that feature rather than organizing assets from your client. Learn to be efficient with the time you have so you can spend it well.

By not over-committing.

Many of us can’t afford to turn down work. But we can still be wise about our time and our mental energy. Can you schedule a project differently so it starts after this one wraps up? Can you sit that meeting out or move it to a different day? Can you aim to score one big project that takes the place of two? Can you delegate that part of the project to someone else? Protect your time and your energy. Give yourself the space and the clarity to give the project your best.

By weighing the risk vs. reward.

What could you do if you had an hour more on this part of the project? Would you try out another idea you’ve had on your mind? Would you perfect the one you already created? If that hour would make a significant difference on the project, use the damn hour. Depending on your situation, you can even ask the client to pay for it. Whether you do or not, tell them you spent it.

When I can afford it, I put in that extra hour or two because I know that time will take this project from good to brilliant. Brilliant projects bring more brilliant projects, and that extra hour pays for itself a hundred times over. Consider those extra couple hours, if you’re in a position to take them, as an investment.


Of course, exceptions exist. Overdelivery within a negative client relationship often brings negative returns. The client who:

doesn't recognize boundaries...

doesn't respect you and your work...

fails to appreciate overdelivery and always demands more...

... is a waste of your time. Save your time and effort for the clients who give you room for it. Then go above and beyond.

May 23, 2019No Comments

Drip project management

If you need something from someone, don’t ask for it all at once. This only overwhelms a person. They will mark your message “unread” and let it sink into the abyss of their inbox until you follow up. Again.

When you need something from someone, first prioritize your list.

What do you need immediately? What can wait until later?

Ask for your immediate needs first. Keep it short and simple. Ask one question rather than three. Either lead with your question or end with it, bolded. The goal: Make it as easy as possible for someone to help you.

It’s a fine balance between not annoying someone by sending piecemeal requests, but not overwhelming them with long lists. It's a drip, not a gush.

The smarter we are about asking questions and sending requests, the less time we spend chasing down answers.

February 12, 2019No Comments

You only have to start

Many designers, both early and far into their career, do daily challenges. Most notably the “poster a day” projects and “daily UX challenge.” These exercises have become so popular that some, naturally, have begun to criticize it for a number of stupid reasons.

I see many benefits in daily challenges, some of which are establishing routine, refining skills, learning to produce faster and more efficiently and of course, providing a creative outlet. But the one downside is the pressure of committing to finish something daily. If you miss one day, you feel like a failure, and the fear of failing discourages many of us from starting in the first place. That’s why I suggest taking a slightly different approach.

Instead of committing to finish something every day, commit to starting it.

Knowing you don’t have to finish anything removes the pressure and allows you to create freely. You only have to begin. That could mean you brainstorm themes or gather inspiration. It could mean you set up the structure or sketch a first draft. It could mean 5 minutes of work or 40 minutes. You still have to commit to something every day, but you are only committing to put pencil to paper and make some sort of start. That’s it.

The beauty of this approach is that once you begin, you likely won’t stop at just a few paint strokes or pixels. Once you get past the hurdle of beginning and into create mode, you will almost always go a little further. You might even finish, but you don’t have to. And ideas come easier because they don't have to be award-winning or life-changing. If they're not, you will always have a fresh start tomorrow. So go ahead and waste your ideas. You don’t have to know where this will go or if it will work. That’s for another day. 

On that future day, you will already have a base to work from. It’s much easier to create once you have a starting point. But even if you do finish a project you started before, you will still begin a new one. Every day. Just a beginning.

I recently read an article in which the author describes how she achieved a goal of doing 1,000 push-ups a day. She had a similar approach which she called her “minimum commitment.” She knew she wanted to work out every day, but she was also aware life gets in the way. So she told herself that, at a minimum, she needed to do one push-up a day.

"I started by reframing my minimum commitment as something that could give me a consistent sense of competence," she writes. "All I had to do every day was one push-up, one bodyweight squat, and one crunch in 30 seconds. (This almost always led to doing more.)"

By changing the way she thought about her exercise routine, she set a goal she could actually achieve. And that led to her eventually completing her goal of 1,000 push-ups.

I don’t even recommend setting a minimum time or progress to your daily challenge. If you have some integrity about your work, your conscience won’t let you just drop a line on a page and call that “starting.” Setting a minimum can create the same anxiety as committing to finish. You only have to start.

With side projects especially, you don’t even have to know where to start. You can begin anywhere. But this can apply to work projects as well. We often put off ideas or tasks on our to-do list because we feel we “don’t know where to begin.” The truth is that there is always a step you can take, no matter how clueless you may feel. Once you start, even by doing something as simple as research, the block is lifted and you can more easily move forward. We all know those tasks we procrastinated on for days, only to finally begin and realize it was much easier than we imagined. Just take the first step and see what happens. It’s better than doing nothing at all.

At the end of this experiment, you may have dozens of starts filed away. This is a goldmine of potential that can fuel your creative work. Maybe you’ll actually finish those beginnings. Or maybe you won’t. In any case, you’ll start something new tomorrow.

December 14, 2018No Comments

The struggle for simplicity

In all the work I do, I strive for the most simple solution. I mean, the name of my business literally translates to “simple.” But simplicity is ironically one of the most difficult things to do well. Usually, the more effortless something appears, the more effort it took.

Throughout my relatively short career, I’ve found these ingredients to be key for simplicity. Some of them more difficult to attain than others.

A deep understanding of the subject

We naturally overcomplicate things we don’t understand. Usually, if I can’t explain the problem easily to someone, I’m not going to find an easy solution. So first, I do my research and try to become an expert on the subject.

I learn the ins and outs of the business or challenge, ask every question I can think of (even the ones that may seem dumb) and try to wrap my mind around it. Sometimes this means I have to read additional books on a topic, watch a documentary or go to some industry-specific events.

Once I know I can verbally explain it to someone else in a simple way, I’m ready to find a simple solution.


This is less about an attitude and more about trusting your gut. We often land on a simple idea somewhere along the way but we don’t trust it. We think surely, it can’t be this easy. Sometimes, it is.


A maxim you’ve already heard, but worth repeating: creativity needs constraints. A brief that says “do whatever you want” is a curse. Most of our brains need to work within some kind of lines or we spiral out of control. Setting boundaries also forces you to keep things simple. It strips out the unnecessary and focuses your mind on only the essentials.

Boundaries can be based on time, a set of features or even financials. The best projects are often those that happened through limited financial resources and a very limited amount of time.


It's easy to observe the finished product and overlook the skill it took to make it happen.

How many times have you seen a piece of work and thought, “I could have done that.Sometimes, that’s true – the difference is that you could have done it, but the other person actually did it. In other cases, the most seemingly simple work is made by people who have practiced for years at their profession.


We all know that person who breezes by the conference room, looks at our mad scribbles on the wall and says “but why don’t you just do this?” They have distance from the subject, an aerial perspective which lets them spot that one flower in a field of weeds.

If you find something becoming too complicated, step away from it for a while. When we’re too deep in it or too close to a project, we lose that perspective.


Naturally, most of these things go hand in hand with experience. The more you work, the more skilled you become. The more skilled you are, the more you can trust your instincts. You learn to set boundaries for yourself and can more easily sense when you need to step away or find perspective. But no matter how long you've been working, simple is usually preceded by chaos. It takes a conscious effort to stay simple. The result is always worth it.

Article image from Dieter Rams' "Less But Better"

November 29, 2018No Comments

Dreams vs. goals

The end of the year is quickly approaching and with it, New Year's Resolutions. Studies say only 8% of people achieve their resolutions, mostly because we set unrealistic or unspecific goals. I believe part of that could be solved by recognizing the difference between a dream and a goal.

Practical goals are concrete, with tangible steps on a timeline. Dreams are aspirational. With a dream there is likely no timeline – we may not pursue a dream at all. But dreams give us hope. They are the futures we fantasize about. The issue is when we mix the two up.

We look at our desires differently depending on whether we see them as a goal or a dream. If we consider our desire a goal, we make a plan to achieve it. We have our checklist and our timeline. We see an end in sight.

If we consider it a dream, we believe it’s more far-fetched or possibly even out of reach. We think about it often, but we may be less likely to actually do something about it. We tell ourselves it’s just a crazy idea, something we’d do years from now, maybe not even possible. We build this narrative around a thing and soon we believe it. It’s a dream, and sometimes dreams don’t come true.

Perhaps if we defined goals vs. dreams from the start, we would be more likely to accomplish our goals — and even turn our dreams into tangible results.

About eight years ago I moved from Austria to New York. It started as a seemingly far-fetched dream. I mean, the visa process alone was so daunting, it felt safer to think about it that way. But the more I dreamed about it, I realized this could be a realistic goal I could actually achieve.

It started with just a little research. The research turned into some emails. The emails eventually lead to a job, which got me a visa sponsorship. From there, I had a whole new list of goals to work toward. Each brought me one step closer what I originally thought was a dream. (Of course, it was much more complicated than that. I wrote a lot more about it in my book, Let’s Go to NYC.)

For others, moving to New York is still a dream. Uncertain and with no immediate timeline, just floating hazily in the back of their mind. My Big List, which guides my decisions for my personal life and career, has many such dreams. When reviewing this list, I ask myself: Are these dreams really just dreams? Or should they be goals? If yes, how can I accomplish these goals? How can I break them down into smaller, achievable steps that take me one step closer to what I want to do?

In most cases, our “unrealistic goals” aren’t necessarily unrealistic. They are just goals disguised as dreams.

For more of my personal thoughts on New Year’s resolutions, read about my anti-resolutions.

July 19, 2018No Comments

It’s all been done before

It’s one of the main challenges I experience with writing. One moment I’m struck with an idea or a revelation, something I feel compelled to write about. The very next moment I think, well, maybe somebody’s already written about this.

I Google it and sure enough, dozens of headlines appear on the subject. Many people have already written about it from every possible angle. It’s already covered. Why should I bullshit about it, likely with a lot less authority than some of these people, when it’s already been done before?

Few things kill creativity faster than fear. In this case, it’s the fear of sounding trite or naive. The fear of being dull, derivative or worse — irrelevant.

It’s funny how every human has their own unique experiences, ideologies and voice, yet are unfailingly the same. The same stories have been told in countless ways. The same character archetypes have appeared in books, TV shows and movies since before those mediums existed. The same emotions or ideas have been expressed in every imaginable form spanning centuries. And so it will continue until the end of time.

Nothing is original. Yet with each interpretation or adaptation of the same idea, it is slightly different. That's what innovation is. It's how humanity moves forward. It may be something we’ve all seen and heard before, but now it’s been explored, reinvented and maybe even made better by someone else. It is new.

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” - Einstein

I’ve written about perfectionism, about the imposter syndrome, about trusting your gut and competing with yourself. None of these articles are groundbreaking. We’ve beaten those themes to a pulp as creatives over the years, but I wrote about them anyway. They are worn topics but clichés are clichés for a reason — they are universally relatable and will be as long as human beings exist.

And I’ve heard from many readers who found these articles helpful or encouraging in some way. That may be because they personally haven’t read about it before, or it was a good reminder, or they just appreciated my perspective on the subject. Whatever the reason, they were useful to someone and that’s enough.

It’s all been done before. But it hasn’t been done by me.

The same truth applies to any form of creativity. Our writing, our designs, our music, our art. New creations and radical ideas are introduced all the time, but so are familiar ones. (This subject itself, that it's all been done before, has been done before.) They just take on a new shape. That doesn’t necessarily make them any less compelling, beautiful or valuable.

In fact, most designers, writers, artists, musicians and makers learn by copying first. Do a bit of research and you'll find some of the world's greatest inventions (Edison's light bulb, Apple computers, Ford cars) were just a better iteration of something someone else already did. My .mail email concept is a great example as well. I didn't invent the concept of an email client. I used preexisting elements and tried to make them better.

Image from "Everything is a Remix."


This is not to defend plagiarism. There’s an obvious difference between approaching a common angle or existing concept from your own perspective, and blatantly ripping off someone’s work. There’s also a difference between creating something because it’s trendy and creating it because it’s important to you.

As the prolific writer Maria Popova said, “creativity is simply the sum total of your mental resources, the catalog of ideas you’ve accumulated over the years by being alive and alert and attentive to the outside world.”

To create, whether it’s completely original, an homage to another idea or a reinterpretation of an old one, is enough.

December 13, 2017No Comments

How to manage your time as a remote worker

Recently I wrote an article titled How to Not Suck at Remote Working. One of the main rules was to know who you are, as I believe remote working is just not for everyone. However, if time management is your main issue, there’s hope.

All of us could be better at managing our day, whether we work remotely or not. Here’s what I’ve learned helps the most.

1. Track your time

This feels like second nature to many of us already, especially if you’ve worked at an agency that bills by the hour. Tracking your time not only makes it easy to invoice clients, but also gives you measurable data you can look back on later. You’ll see trends about how you work and how long you’re spending on your daily tasks, so you more accurately plan each day moving forward.

Time tracking apps like Toggl not only record your time, but give you a running timer to track your task as you go. And while it can be annoying, Toggl sends you reminders to track your time every few minutes or so, so you stay on top of it. It even tracks your idle time so you can be as accurate as possible.

An undervalued Toggl feature is the Pomodoro timer, which will let you know when you’ve been working for 25 minutes and give you a 3 minute break (you can adjust the timing in your preferences). As someone who can easily get in the zone and spend hours on a task without lifting my head, I appreciate the quick Pomodoro check-in to keep me on track.

Whether you’re billing by the hour or not, track your time to make you more aware of how you’re spending your day.

2. Build in breaks

When you’re working from home, distractions are endless. There’s the TV. Laundry. The dog. Laundry for the dog. It might seem simple to multitask and get a few things done around the house while you work, but those few minutes here and there add up, and then suddenly it’s 8 p.m. and you’ve only clocked three hours of real work for the day. Use Toggl’s Pomodoro app (I swear Toggl is not sponsoring this article), or your phone’s timer, to build those breaks into your day instead of taking them arbitrarily. Give yourself 25 or 40 or even 60 minutes of pure work, then allow yourself a few minutes of rest before focusing again.

Same goes for Twitter, checking your email, shopping for new dog clothes, and your phone – especially your phone! Giving your brain occasional breaks keeps you sane and creative, so don’t feel guilty about it. Just build structure around it so you stay productive too.

"Slack is meant to streamline our communication and workflow, but just like emails, we often let instant messages control our day."

3. Snooze Slack notifications

Sounds counterintuitive since apps like Slack are meant to streamline your communication and workflow, but just like emails, we often let instant messages control our day.

Every time a notification pops up on your screen, your focus is broken. You’ll be pulled into an unrelated conversation or another task and find yourself half-finishing everything you start. Instead of letting notifications interrupt you every few minutes, set a timer and check Slack periodically. Slack gives people the option to send urgent notifications in Snooze mode, so if it’s really important, people can still reach you.

You may be tempted to go "offline" entirely to focus on a particular task or project. This can be useful, providing you planned for it and your team knows when you won't be reachable. If disconnecting helps you be more productive, build this into your schedule and share that schedule with your team ahead of time. This not only helps them respect your focused-work time, but ensures you don't impact their tasks and deadlines.

4. Use the daily status update (if you’re working with a remote team)

I wrote more about it more here, but in short: The Daily Status update keeps your team informed about what you’re doing each day, and keeps you accountable to your checklist. At the end of the day, take five minutes to send your team an email with what you did today, what you’ll do tomorrow and where you’re stuck, in bulleted lists.

This way, you’ll set up your to do list for each day the night before. Your team will know what you’re working on and you’ll feel motivated to accomplish what you said you’ll do.

5. Reward yourself

Motivate yourself by setting time goals for each task, then giving yourself a little reward if you meet them.

Maybe you promise yourself a snack if you put in 60 minutes of hard focus. Or maybe you get to check Instagram for 5 full minutes if you get your proposal turned in my 2:00 p.m.

Use positive reinforcement to stay focused and feel positive about your workday.

6. Environment is everything

While working from your bed seems fun, it’s not great for productivity (or for your spirit).

Think about what kind of environment makes you feel focused, productive and creative. I enjoy doing admin tasks like answering emails from coffee shops, but I get my “real” creative work done in my home office. Maybe you work best in a structured coworking space, or in a messy home office, or in a bare, quiet room.

Create or seek out that environment, whether that means keeping your house clean, reorganizing your home office or budgeting to rent a coworking space.

7. Stick to a routine

What many people miss after jumping from their 9-5 job to remote work (although they may not admit this to themselves) is the predictable structure a corporate job provides.

While the flexibility of remote work is one of its most appealing benefits, most humans thrive with a routine, and routine can still exist within that flexibility.

Waking up at a consistent time, getting dressed, fixing a pot of coffee, reading the headlines and running through your to do list, breaking for lunch at noon, scheduling meetings for afternoons only — these are the little practices that keep you moving like a well oiled machine.

Define your routine more clearly and then stick to it. If something comes up or you want to switch things up, no problem. Build allowances for that in your routine. For example, maybe you leave Tuesday mornings open for last minute meetings or appointments. Or maybe on Fridays you let yourself impulsively work from the park, if you're feeling like it.

Find your routine, however structured or loose, and you'll naturally manage your time better.

At the end of the day, managing time mostly comes down to removing distractions. I tend to get tons of work done on airplanes and it's only because my phone is in airplane mode, I have a defined amount of time to mentally focus, and there are only so many other things I can physically do.

While I can't feasibly work from an airplane every day, I can follow these other practices that help me manage my time as best as I can. I hope they’ll be helpful for you too.

November 8, 2017No Comments

How to not suck at remote working

I’ve been trying to work remotely (from home, in my case) since the moment I had my first job. I’m not sure why exactly, but I just wasn’t made for the 9 to 5 office life.

I dislike everything about working in an office. The daily commute, the empty conversations, the distractions and of course the meetings. But on top of it, my productivity never peaked when working in an office environment. I only showed up to clock my eight hours, then went home to do my “real” creative work. Often I didn’t even do anything at the office, just pretended to be busy before I could finally call it a day at 5 p.m. That was about 14 years ago and things have changed quite a bit since then.

Today, remote working seems to be more popular than ever. According to a recent survey from Gallup, 43% of employed Americans have worked remotely in some form over the past year. Other reports state that by 2020, 50% of the American workforce will be working remotely. Some because they want to, some because they have to.

And it makes sense. Working remotely, if done right, is a win/win situation for everyone involved. According to this study, given the choice of a 10% raise or the option to work remotely, 53% of all participants chose to work remotely instead of getting the 10% raise. Dropping the commute is by far one of the biggest factors of increased happiness for those who made the jump. Even if your commute is only 30 minutes it makes a huge difference; the influence it has on your overall mood and happiness is enormous. There are few things people hate more than their commute.

Other benefits of working remotely are a more flexible working schedule, and typically a lower cost for the company that employs you (they don’t need to provide office space, etc.). The positives are fairly clear for both parties, at least on the surface.

Yet, I’ve learned that while working remotely is appealing to many people, very few are good at it. Most people I’ve worked with remotely are distracted, unproductive and certainly not performing the way they should or even want to. The remote life is not easy and you have to learn how to do it right.

These are the rules to live by if you want to be a successful remote worker, at least from my perspective.

#1. Know who you are

Although some might say “remote working is the future,” I don’t believe this is a general truth. It simply doesn’t work for everyone.

For one, working remotely can be pretty lonely. Some need the daily watercooler conversations and a tangible feeling of belonging. This may exist to some extent within a remote team, but it’s inherently different. For example, your Slack chat may help replace the daily watercooler conversations, but it’s not the same as sitting down and sharing lunch with your coworkers.

Some people, given the chance to work from home, would not accomplish anything because they’re easily distracted or simply need the fixed schedule and structure of office life.

Ask yourself:

  • How much do I value social interaction throughout the day?
  • In what specific ways could I create a healthy social balance as a remote worker? Would that be enough?
  • How much do I value and depend on the structure of an office environment?

I’ve worked with people who were two completely different personalities when working remotely compared to working in an office on location. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you need before jumping into remote work.

"There is nothing more toxic to a remote working environment than people who make assumptions."

# 2. Over-communicate

This is by far the most important practice of a successful remote worker. You have to over-communicate, almost to an extent where it feels like you’re talking to yourself out loud.

The challenge with working remotely is that you don’t really know what other people on your team are doing. You can’t just walk over and check in with them at their desk or exchange a few words over lunch. To sync up remotely means you have to schedule a call or bother them via chat, and you can’t just have meetings all day to make sure you’re caught up with everyone.

My biggest frustration when working with people remotely is when those people do not communicate — folks who don’t ask any questions, who don’t tell share they’re doing or what they have accomplished. It’s easy to fly under the radar and disappear when working offsite; you have to actively fight against it.

The most damaging are those who make assumptions — assuming that someone will do something about X or will get in touch about Y. There is nothing more toxic to a remote working environment than people who make assumptions:

“Oh, I didn’t reply to that email because I assumed you would do it.”

“I assumed you would get in touch with me if you needed something.”

“I thought you already did that.”

“I thought this wasn’t as important, so I didn’t do it.”

Remove assumptions. Over-communicate and be proactive about it. Reach out immediately and try to inform people about what you’re doing as often and as efficiently as possible. That doesn’t mean you need to schedule dozens of meetings, but a simple message in your group chat such as, “Hey team, today I’m going to work on X. Just FYI,” puts everyone on the same page and gives people the opportunity to jump in if needed.

Over-communicate everything: What you are working on, when you think it will be done, if you’re running behind and how much you’re running behind. Even if people don’t respond to your updates, you need to be consistent about it. Just because someone didn’t acknowledge your update doesn’t mean it’s worthless — quite the opposite. It means they feel informed and satisfied about your current status.

I love working with people who speak their mind as openly as possible, people who proactively reach out about everything and don’t shy away from bothering someone if they think it’s important. The worst thing that can happen when working remotely is that you work on something for an entire week, only to find out that everything you did wasn’t at all what your team was expecting you to do. Over-communication helps set expectations. And as a bonus, it helps you manage your time better, since keeping your team informed requires you to stay on top of your to-do list.

# 3. Use The Daily Status Update

Yes, the third rule also relates to communication. It’s that important.

I try to have relatively few meetings when working remotely. I don’t like calls and I think they’re time wasters for the most part. I do schedule calls with my team every other week because they boost morale, and a little bit of chatting certainly helps you build relationships with your team (some people need this more than others, and I’ll admit I’m low maintenance when it comes to social interaction). But most days, I like to be efficient and productive. After all, that’s the reason I decided to work remotely.

But there is one practice that has been incredibly effective for me: The Daily Status Update. It’s a simple email sent at whatever time you end your day. This status update follows a few rules which are as follows:

You’re not allowed to spend more than five minutes writing this update. It should be efficient, and spending more than five minutes writing a status update would defeat the purpose. By imposing this time limit, you will focus on the most important details and your status update won’t be a nightmare for others to read.

My remote team uses a set format and template for this status update, which looks like this:

What I’ve worked on today

  • Something I did
  • Something else I did
  • Another thing I did

What I will work on tomorrow

  • Something I want to do tomorrow
  • Another thing I want to do

Where I’m stuck

  • Need help with XYZ

Every day you take this template, add your bullet points and send it to your team. Since you’ll only be spending five minutes max, it’s an easy addition to your daily routine.

These three headlines work wonders for you and your team’s productivity without having any meetings whatsoever, especially when working across time zones.

By sharing what you worked on today I know what you’ve accomplished without having to ask. Seeing your “tomorrow” list lets me know that you have enough on your plate to be busy tomorrow, plus I can plan my own work around your tasks. Worst case, I can jump in and say, “Hey, I saw you want to work on this tomorrow, but can you work on this other thing instead?”

The third list in your Daily Status Update email is the most important: The list of what you’re stuck on or where you need help. If I, as your manager or colleague, see the same task under “What I will work on tomorrow” and “Where I’m stuck,” I know to jump in and help you with whatever you need so you’re not roadblocked for tomorrow. This is one reason why your status update needs to be sent every single day. If I continue to see a team member putting the same task under “Where I’m Stuck,” I know something is wrong.

P.S. I always encourage people to link their status updates to the work they’re referencing. Dropbox links, images, to-dos in Basecamp — link to it so I can easily get more context if I need it. This will save time for both of us.

Knowing who you are, over-communicating and having a structure for how you communicate are in my experience the three main ways to become a successful remote worker. If you do these things right, everything else will follow.

Do you have your own routines or tips for remote working? Send me a tweet @vanschneider and let me know what they are. And if you’re interested in more freelance and remote working advice, check out this series.

April 27, 2017No Comments

Embrace the chaos, or don’t

Last weekend I bought a desk. It was a Craigslist find, only $20, an adjustable drafting table meant for architects or illustrators. I was delighted. I brought the table home, cleared a space for it against a window, set my lamp and plants on top. I cleaned, rearranged and admired it for a good 10 minutes before sitting down to work. I was ready to do something big.

I keep seeing headlines about the ideal creative environment. “An Empty Desk Means an Empty Mind!” say some. “Chaos Leads to Creativity!” shout others. These articles quote Albert Einstein and cite a study in which people came up with more, and better, creative ideas within a messy environment. The original theory here was "that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions," whereas an orderly environment would inspire “moral righteousness” (New York Times).

I admire the intent. These articles challenge the Instagram-worthy workspaces often celebrated in a minimalist-trending culture. They make us wonder if we might actually be geniuses, judging by our own cluttered desktops and shoe-strewn home offices. But in this “embrace the chaos” conversation, the real point is missed: That the same creative process does not work for everyone. The same thing may not even work for the same person on a different day.

Francis Bacon photographed in his studio by Perry Ogden

I can think of few times when a messy environment made me feel more creative. Mostly, it distracted me. I’ll admit I’ve wasted time organizing folders, wiping coffee stains and cleaning keyboards to avoid doing real work. Nonetheless, I am more inspired and productive in a tidy space. My mind is cluttered enough already, so an organized environment gives me some small sense of control. Of course my reasoning is anecdotal and not scientific. I am no Albert Einstein, but I’d posit that many rich, creative minds like neat spaces too. Or maybe they do one day but thrive creatively in chaos the next.

Ernest Hemingway wrote while standing. Francis Bacon wouldn't let his cleaning lady touch his studio. Andy Warhol collected junk and filled his house with it, then pushed everything on his desk into a box when he was ready to work. James Joyce wrote in bed on his stomach in a white coat, with a blue pencil. While it’s clear that routine is important to many artists and writers, the specifics of that routine are not. It’s just whatever works.

My little drafting table is perfect for me right now. I have my glasses right here, a pen over there, an unopened piece of mail next to a plant next to another plant. I clear the cups and cereal bowls every night before bed. It’s pretty tidy, overall. I also work well in a coffee shop with headphones on, or in my bed on certain days. But my desk, man, my desk. It may be the novelty of something new, but I have this good feeling about it. And sometimes a good feeling is all it takes.

April 23, 2017No Comments

When to share your work

The moment before sharing your work is equal parts fear and excitement. It’s all kinds of feelings spanning all of two seconds: A rush of adrenaline followed immediately by dread, then either relief or regret. Once you hit that send button, there is no going back.

Choosing the right time to ship your work can mean the difference between your project’s success or failure. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know when that time is. Too soon and it’s not ready. What if you forgot something? What if nobody gets it? What if someone already thought of it, or you didn’t think through it enough? Too late and the time has passed. The audience has moved on, you’ve talked yourself out of it, the project is dead. Either way you will be vulnerable. You’re sharing a thing you spun from the fibers of your very being. You’re taking the sum of your thoughts and effort and putting it in front of people who make no promises to be nice. That’s scary shit.

While every project is different and the decision is deeply personal, there are a few ways to determine when to put your work into the world. It’s a matter of asking yourself a few questions:

1. Does this project or idea, as it stands, meet its minimum requirements?

Go back to your list of goals, or make a list now if you hadn’t at the start. This could be as detailed as a specific design feature, or as broad as an emotion you want to express. Check off the items one by one. Which missing pieces are essential to a functional piece or product? Which can wait until later? The idea is to meet the minimum expectations for your work to be loved by your audience. If you’ve checked off more than ¾ of your must-haves, then you’re probably in a good enough place to get others’ opinions on the project.

In the end we have to understand that a project is never really done. It’s just a matter of hitting the minimum requirement, and then taking it from there.

2. If I had more time, what would I add to this or do differently?

Asking this question allows you to step back from the pressure and your impatience to assess the project. If the thoughts that come to mind would actually add value, or even just make the project meet its minimum requirements, consider how long it’d take to make them happen. Of course it will never be perfect and you’ll never have all the time you need, but if spending a few extra days would make it better, find a way to buy yourself more time. Your audience or even a client can usually wait, even if they grumble about it.

I usually have three lists. One is called “Launch Required,” the second is called “Post Launch” and the third “Backlog.” Now all I do is just move things from one list to another.

The “Launch required” list contains all items that have to be done for launch. It’s things that I feel are essential to the product. The “Post Launch” list is equally important, but here I put items that I can pause on for now. The ”Backlog” list contains everything else – random ideas, future features, things I want to change eventually. Depending on the scale of the project, I usually move things from the “Post Launch” list to my “Required” list only if they make the product significantly better at the launch. Otherwise, I hold off on them.

Of course, the perfectionist would love to see everything on the “Launch Required” list, but in reality that just doesn’t work. The better you are at moving these tasks from one list to another, the closer you are to a perfect launch.

3. Should I show it to my “test” audience first?

Often, it’s helpful to float your idea or work by someone you trust before officially putting it out there. Think of this person as a test audience. It could be your co-worker, a friend or your partner. It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone who is knowledgeable in your field – it might even be better if they aren’t. Especially with design, any human’s reaction is meaningful. Their basic response to the material is typically what your audience’s response will be (people are more alike than we’d like to admit). An honest friend can save you from a glaring mistake you might have overlooked before higher ups or the cruel, cruel Internet sees it. And often their reaction will make you feel more confident about the “real” sharing part.

Keep in mind: While this is your low-pressure “test” audience, you should still answer question #1 before showing your work to this person. If your project or idea is still half-formed, it’s in a fragile state. Anyone’s opinion, even your trusted friend, could be unproductive in such an early stage. In some cases, especially in the early stages of your idea, you have to ignore everybody and just do it.

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” - Reid Hoffman

4. Am I overthinking it?

Of course you’re overthinking it. That’s usually the problem. If you’re just sitting there spinning your wheels, tweaking every little detail and becoming more and more anxious, it’s time to say “fuck it” and just ship it. (You could also read this article I wrote about perfectionism ruining my productivity. It might help.)

5. What’s my gut telling me?

Trust your gut. I live by this rule, and it applies here as well. More often than not, you will know when it’s the right time to share your work. It’s a certain confidence, a joy bubbling up, an urgency. If your instincts tell you that now is the right time to hit send, you’re probably right. If something feels off or wrong, go through the other four questions.

Overall, I am on the side of shipping early. Just look at my weekly emails, which are rarely perfect when I send them out to more than 30.000 people (you might consider yourselves my “test” audience. I trust you to be gentle <3). If you wait for your work to be perfect, you will over-think it to death and never share anything. Of course we want to share quality work we are proud of, so I hope these tips give you a way to quickly check yourself, put your work out there, then improve it later.

Keep creating & keep shipping,

March 3, 2017No Comments

The anxiety of alone time

As a writer, remote worker and introvert-in-denial, I spend quite a bit of time alone. Most often I relish this time to myself. If I'm not working, I'm reading, riding my bike, cooking. I am rarely bored when left to my own devices.

Recently, however, while talking with a friend, I realized that most of my alone time is spent anxiously. I am a busy person, which is not to say that I am busy; restless may be a better word. Exceedingly lazy, but rarely relaxed. I feel as though I should be doing something, working on something, experiencing something every moment of every day. I am constantly fearful that I am wasting time. When presented with the possibilities of free time, I feel the pressure of it. A need to fill that time wisely.

“If you won’t let yourself relax in this and live in it, then yes, you are wasting time,” my friend said on the phone. I’d told her I had dedicated the day to doing nothing and seeing no one, but that I felt guilty about it. There was work to be done. Errands. This conversation wasn’t directly related to being alone – solitary time is not synonymous with laziness – but her logic spoke to a broader feeling, that hum of anxiety that wouldn’t allow me to settle in with my decision. The fear that I was spending my time the wrong way.

“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” - Rollo May

It seems as though many creatives know this feeling. The cause/effect is unclear: Are we restless because we are creative? Creative because we are restless? Does it even matter? It’s true that this anxiety has at times pushed me to create. And yet, I wonder how much more creative I would be if this undercurrent of worry were not there.

Depression or angst is often thought to spur creativity. It’s a conversation as old as time, perpetuated by tortured artists whose work we hold in high esteem. Anxiety is not depression, but the symptoms overlap: Discontent. Irritability. Lack of concentration. Guilt. While I have turned to writing in this emotional state, I don’t know that I’ve produced my best work in it. I don’t know that those revered artists did either.

Others may not feel the same way I do when left alone with their thoughts and an open stretch of unclaimed time. Maybe they allow themselves to enjoy it. Maybe they don’t overthink it. Maybe they embrace it. Perhaps, instead of seeking a distraction from their head or from the threatening silence of solitude, they lean in and look around a bit. Maybe they find something there.

In any case, time spent fretting is not time spent well. I’d rather waste my time joyfully than worry I’m wasting my time.

February 16, 2017No Comments

Waste your ideas

It happens most often when I’m doing work for a client. An idea comes into my head, or I see the opportunity to use an idea I’ve previously had, and I hold back.

I file the idea away thinking now is not the time. That I should save it for a personal project, or a different client, or a rainy day when I need it more than I do now. I imagine I’ll know when it’s the right moment and at that time, the curtain will lift and confetti will fly and there will be MY IDEA, perfectly ripened and ready for its big debut. Cue applause.

I’ve learned the hard way that this is not how it works. If I save my best ideas for later, what does that leave me with now? It leaves me with stifled work and a result I’m not proud of. It leaves me bloated with ideas that will eventually rot within the cage I’ve created for them (gross imagery, I know).

It’s like I think so little of myself that I believe I’ll never have a good idea again in my life. I fear this might be all I’ve got and that eventually I’ll be tapped out. But the creative life – or really, life in general – is not one of holding back. It’s one of giving freely. It’s one of opening up and letting it all flow through you.

Annie Dillard puts it perfectly in her book, "The Writing Life":

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

She’s talking about writing, but this truth applies to all creative fields. There is no wrong time. Every project, even the small ones, is an opportunity. One side project can change your life so if we are holding back, we are selling ourselves short.

Human beings are constantly evolving and sources of inspiration are all around us – in the people we meet, the books we read, the art we see, the trips we we take. That’s why it’s important to experience everything we can. The things we take in will influence what we put out into the world. So take it all in.

Waste your ideas. If they’re not ready and they die horrible deaths outside of your head in the real world, so be it. Something new will come to you.

January 23, 2017No Comments

10 Things & Learned from “The Tools of Titans”

Over the past two weeks I started and finished reading Tim Ferris' new book "The Tools of Titans"**

Reading is an understatement, it felt more like rushing through it. I was addicted and couldn't put it down. Essentially the book reads like 20 short books and it's easy to skip back and forth. The book is a collection of wisdom shared not only by Tim Ferris, but also by his podcast guests. I got the book on my Kindle and even considered getting the hard copy in addition because it was so good. In this article I like to share some of my favorite take aways from the book with the hope it might motivated you to read it too.

1. The difference between a dream and a goal

There is this part in the book:

"The coach said, ‘Okay. Is that a dream or a goal? Because there’s a difference."

Essentially it's about the difference of a dream and a goal. A dream is a romantic idea of something we like to have, a fantasy. A goal is something we actively try to achieve, there is a plan behind. It's a good reminder to take the things we have in our heads and define them the right way. Are the dreams we have really just dreams? Or should they be goals? If yes, how can I accomplish these goals?

It reminded me a bit of my "The Big List" concept. Working towards the things you want, but keeping it open and flexible so it doesn't limit you.

2. The questions we ask define our well being

“The quality of your life is the quality of your questions.” Questions determine your focus. Most people—and I’m certainly guilty of this at times—spend their lives focusing on negativity (e.g., “How could he say that to me?!”) and therefore the wrong priorities."

This quote by Tony Robbins reminded me of some of my "Anti-Resolutions" I wrote down earlier this year. I can personally confirm that I feel so much better myself when focusing on the right questions rather than feeling offended by the random words of others. It's easy to focus on the negative, but we're not doing ourselves a favor with it. Feeling upset often feels like a complete waste of time to me.

3. The value of selective ignorance

"After Working at a Newspaper “You’re basically told, ‘Find the thing that’s going to scare people the most and write about it.’... It’s like every day is Halloween at the newspaper. I avoid newspapers.”

An interesting quote by James Altucher. I've stopped reading the news about a year ago, it's an on and off relationship. But every time I get soaked into the news I feel like shit again, and rarely anything productive comes out of it. I like to avoid newspapers and news sites myself. I'm not ignoring what's happening in the world, but you might be surprised how good you feel if you don't read the news for one month.

4. On Anxious people

“When people seem like they are mean, they’re almost never mean. They’re anxious.”

I loved this statement and I can easily see how that applies to even myself. It's an interesting perspective when you deal with people who are mean to you, simply ask the question: "What are they afraid of?" - And when you are the mean person, ask yourself, what are you afraid of?

The answer often is simpler than we might think.

5. You always have three options

“In any situation in life, you only have three options. You can change it, you can accept it, or you can leave it."

Making the right or wrong decision here is what matters. It can save you tons of money, or even years of headache. Change it, accept it, or leave it.

6. What matters

"It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do."

There will always be people who don't get it. Don't chase them, but focus on the people who get it, who understand you. It's a classic mistake that we're always too focused on the negative part, the people who don't get it.

You could write a book and have 100 people love it, but 3 people hate it. If you measure your success by the people who hate it and don't get it, you're not doing anyone a favor. Focus on the 97 people who get it and write the next book for them. And even if it's the other way around, focus on those who get it.

7. On overthinking & suffering

Two quotes I liked a lot here:

“I am an old man and I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” —Mark Twain

“He who suffers before it is necessary suffers more than is necessary.” —Seneca

Especially the second one really resonated with me. I'm a good example for overthinking and suffering inside well before anything has even happened.

8. On dealing with online trolls

These two little questions from Kevin Rose really put things into perspective for me. Essentially, when dealing with trolls or haters online, ask yourself the following two questions:

“Do people you respect or care about leave hateful comments on the Internet?”

“Do you really want to engage with people who have infinite time on their hands?”

In most cases the answer is simple, it's a big NO. I hope the same applies to you.

9. Ask the dumb questions

Great general life advice: Ask the dumb questions everyone else is too afraid to ask. In a lot of cases great things will happen.

I'm myself someone who loves to ask dumb questions and I can tell you I've gotten into trouble a lot because of it. But the thing I learned so far is that if you ask dumb questions and people make fun of you or feel offended, it's usually only people who have nothing value able to contribute. The smarter the people around you, the more likely they will appreciate the dumb questions you ask. It's a risky game, but one I like to play.

10. Be so good they can't ignore you

I was so happy to find similar pieces about this in the book as well. This has been one of my guiding principles since I started out as a designer. I'm not sure where I read it first online, but I remember I had it set as a desktop wallpaper around the year 2003.

It sounds a little like cheesy advice, but it's true. If you're so good that they can't ignore you, you are doing something right. And it doesn't matter if people like or hate you, if they can't ignore you, you're on the right track.
And these 10 take aways are not even close to what you find in Tim Ferris' book. If you like that kind of stuff, go and order it for your Kindle or get a hard copy **

And of course, if you haven't seen my other reading recommendations yet, you might enjoy a couple books there as well.

Have a fantastic week,


**In the spirit of full disclosure, this article contains one or more affiliate links, which means that I may get a small commissions if you decide to purchase anything from Amazon. Of course, I only recommend products & services that I use and love myself, so I know you’ll be in good hands.

December 30, 2016No Comments

My 23 Favorite Books on Creativity, Productivity & Life

I read a lot. I didn't used to, but over the last couple years I made an effort to change myself and I'm happy to report that I've succeeded. One of the best decisions I made was ordering a Kindle from Amazon and reading my books on there instead of purchasing physical books.

I can tell you, the amount of books you read with a Kindle is twice if not even three times as much. I also follow certain strategies when reading a book to make sure I don't get stuck and get the most out of every book I read. (read more  here)

The majority of books I read are non-fiction, and most of them aren't really related to design. But I always believe that books about psychology and other topics bring me closer to design than "design" books ever can.

So below are some of my favorite picks. Most of these books I read twice or even more often. They're currently my favorite all-time reads. I hope you find one or two and add them to your reading list in 2017.

PS: The majority of the book covers you see below are just little artworks I did myself some time ago. They're not the original covers of these books.

Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar. And I particularly appreciated the mix of candid management lessons combined with insights into the inner workings of Pixar and it's founding story.

→ Get Creativity Inc on Amazon

The business lessons and leadership lessons might not be completely new to you, but Ben's writing style is entertaining. It's also a great reminder that even people such as Ben go through phases of extreme self-doubt.

→ Get The Hard Thing About Hard Things on Amazon

This book written by Dale Carnegie is a classic. The title is cheesy but I read it already 3 times. It's a book everyone should read at least once. Ignore the title, or the fact that it's marketed as a self-help book, just get it and read it. (if you haven't already)

→ Get How to win friends and influence people on Amazon

Another classic, but what I love about it is how simple and blunt it's written. The Alchemist seems to be loved by many people as everyone is able to interpret it in their own way. The story of the alchemist is simple but thought provoking. This book is about.

→ Get The Alchemist on Amazon

Marcus Aurelius is essentially everything you need to know about stoicism by one of the worlds greatest leaders & thinkers. If you're new to stoicism make sure to read the book to the left first. Meditations can seem a bit tedious if you're either unfamiliar with stoicism or not into it at all.

→ Get Meditations on Amazon

This book is a fairly short and simple introduction to stoicism. I personally love the concept of stoicism and found my basics in this book. For more advanced reading continue to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

→ Get The Obstacle is the Way on Amazon

Achieving more by doing less is something I’m personally always interested in. In this book the author Greg McKeown guides you through examples on how to apply a more selective criteria for what is essential to us. This is a must read & a sure re-read.

→ Get Essentialism on Amazon

A book written about why and how we make decisions based on our culture, religion or our general environment. As a designer myself it's critical to understand why and what influences other people to make decisions so we can design around it. A book packed with research & insights.

→ The Art Of Choosing on Amazon

You don't have to be a girl to read this book. #GIRLBOSS is a powerful book written by NastyGal's founder & CEO Sophia Amoruso. I'm personally very inspired by Sophia's story and how she turned NastyGal from selling vintage clothes on eBay into a striving $100 million+ fashion brand.

→ The Girl Boss on Amazon

I’m a fan of biographies and Mastery is a collection of a dozen ones ranging from Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein to Leonard da Vinci. Robert Greene takes apart some of these success stories and tries to make sense of the myth behind becoming a true master.

→ Get MASTERY on Amazon

Not much to say about this other than read it! It’s a little more on the heavy side but the complexity of the character Malcolm X is just fascinating. His personal path & transformation from being a criminal into one of the most important political activists was absolutely inspiring to me.

→ Get Malcolm X on Amazon

I was on the plane from NYC to Salt Lake City. I started reading the book the moment we took off and didn’t put it down until I got forced to leave the plane. I finished it the same day. Hatching Twitter is an entertaining & dramatic story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal.

→ Get Hatching Twitter on Amazon

This is one of the most important books which had such a high impact on my life. Everything we do is driven by habits - We're creatures of habits and mastering them is the true secret to happiness. This book explores how habits work and affect our lives.

→ Get The Power of Habit on Amazon

By the age of four, 90% of kids understand the concept and benefits of lying. On an average we lie about 10 times a day, men usually more than women. Most of these lies are called “white lies” — What happens when those lines start to blur?

→ Get Lying on Amazon

With Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asks what makes successful people so special? Is it hard work, or Privilege? Is there a pattern to success? Certainly there is. One of my favorite books and already on my "re-read" list.

→ Get Outliers on Amazon

It's a timeless classic that I often ignored because of its cheesy title. The book was written in 1902 but its lessons about finances and how to acquire personal wealth still apply to today. It's the best advice about money I've ever read.

→ Get The Richest Man In Babylon on Amazon

Another book by Ryan Holiday. But let me quote this piece from Amazon:

In an era that glorifies social media, reality TV, and other forms of shameless self-promotion, the battle against ego must be fought on many fronts. Armed with the lessons in this book, as Holiday writes, “you will be less invested in the story you tell about your own specialness, and as a result, you will be liberated to accomplish the world-changing work you’ve set out to achieve.”

→ Get Ego is the Enemy on Amazon

Not the first book by Malcolm Gladwell on this list. And to be honest, I've read pretty much all of his book and generally identify with his style of writing.

"The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. This widely acclaimed bestseller, in which Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas."

→ Get The Tipping Point on Amazon

Schopenhauer once said that we as humans will be left between either one of the two extremes of distress or boredom. We're either fighting to be alive, getting to a point where we don't need to worry about food and shelter, or we're cursed with boredom which ultimately leads us to depression. I found this book randomly by doing some research on "Boredom" and enjoyed reading about where boredom originated and how boredom can be both, a blessing and a curse.

→ Get A Philosophy of Boredom on Amazon


Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Besides the fact that I grew up very close to where Arnold is from, I've always been a fan of him. Total Recall is just a summary of what he has achieved in such a short life time so far, but I'm hugely motivated by what he has accomplished. I think very few people give Arnold the credits he actually deserves.

The most stunning thing is that he did something very few has ever done, working his ass off to reach the top of three different industries. Starting out to be the worlds most famous body builder, becoming Hollywoods highest paid actors in both action and comedy, and then moving on to becoming Governor of California. Arnold is one of the most inspiring human beings for me personally.

→ Get Total Recall on Amazon

One of the best books I've ever read on human behavior and decision making. I don't even know how to sum up what can be found in this book. I think it's just a must read, especially when working as a designer and maker.

Here is what Amazon has to say about it:

In the international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation―each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.

→ Get Thinking Fast And Slow on Amazon

You know this feeling when you're working on something, you listen to some good music and you're just jamming along designing or coding while forgetting everything around? And then you look at your watch and it's 6 hours later but you feel fantastic? This feeling is called "FLOW" or you could also refer to it as the "optimal experience". It's the feeling you get when you're riding the perfect wave, do a line of skateboard tricks or just having a run while playing poker.

Flow is amazing. It's addictive as hell and we all want it. This book will tell you all about it.

→ Get FLOW on Amazon

Man's Search for Meaning is probably my all time favorite book right now. It's not an easy book to read but it helped me during one of my most difficult times when I struggled with panic attacks and anxiety. It not only gives you perspective, but it helps you understand and deal with the biggest question in your life: "What is my purpose? What does this all mean?"

To keep it short: The author of the book, Victor Frank, was held & survived four different Nazi camps, including Auschwitz. This book is basically a summary on his own experiences as a practicing Psychiatrist. Victor argues that we can't avoid suffering but we can choose to cope with it, find meaning in it and move forward with our own purpose. 

Once again, it's a very difficult book to read but I'd argue it changed my life.

→ Get Man's Search for Meaning on Amazon


I hope you found some books that you're interested in. Please make sure to sign up to my weekly email list if you're interested in more reading recommendations in the future.

I'll make sure to post more of these articles as well.

Stay awesome & Happy Reading

**In the spirit of full disclosure, this article contains one or more affiliate links, which means that I may get a small commissions if you decide to purchase any of these books from Amazon. Of course, I only recommend products & services that I use and love myself, so I know you’ll be in good hands.

December 17, 2016No Comments

Perfectionism ruined my productivity

The one thing that makes designers great is the same thing that makes them the worst people to work with: perfectionism. It’s part of what drives us to design in the first place. We’re not satisfied with what’s out there now, so we decide to make it ourselves.

We’ve been taught perfectionism makes us better. It means we value quality work. It means we pay attention to the details. It means we hold ourselves to a higher standard. But perfectionism might also kill creativity and productivity.

A perfectionist holds him or herself to unrealistic expectations (because who is actually perfect?) so they are never satisfied with their work. They never ship, because they never feel like their work is finished. But that statement in itself is already questionable, because nowadays nothing is ever finished anyways. And then the law of diminishing returns comes into effect – you overthink so much, the work actually suffers instead of improving.

Perfectionist designers are sad designers. I used to be a sad designer, and I used to be a perfectionist. I think I’m still a perfectionist deep down, but what I learned over the years is how to control it and shut it down when needed.

Learn how to prioritize

Perfectionism is one thing but if you never ship anything your perfectionism is wasted on something that may never see the light of day. Prioritizing means judging where you can make tradeoffs so you're able to ship and finish something. When we're thinking about an app or a website, focusing on the right things is what makes the difference. People are still going to use your website if it solves a particular problem for them, even if you didn't do these fancy animations that you wanted to do for so long.

Define your priorities and stick to them. Put the lesser priorities in their place and let yourself come back to them later.


Be stupid

We cannot be creative or productive when we are constantly questioning ourselves. In fact, this kind of thinking can stop us before we even begin a project.

A few perfectionist questions you probably recognize:

  • How can I monetize it?
  • How can I scale it?
  • Is it an original?
  • Will people like it?
  • Am I even good at this?

Ignore the questions and just do it. Stick to the basics, ignore the nagging self-doubt and just get to work. Fearing failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you think you will fail, you probably will.

Think like a child. A child doesn’t question their ideas or wonder what people think of them. They just do what they want to do. Sometimes there are consequences, but I’d rather face the consequence of failing than never try. In 20 years I will regret the things I didn’t do way more than the things I did.

By keeping our projects stupid, we keep them simple. We remove the pressure and allow ourselves the freedom to do what we want to do.

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
— David Foster Wallace

Embrace the flow

Repeat after me: I do not have to finish a project before I move on to the next one.

To approach work linearly is to doom yourself to failure. When we tell ourselves we can’t move on to the next thing until we’re finished with the first, we put unneeded pressure on ourselves. We feel we need to tie up our design, writing, or even a book we are reading, with a nice bow before we move on.

And so we linger on it, overthink it until we despair, set it aside, forget about it. Then we feel more anxiety because we haven’t accomplished anything in weeks. But starting again feels too daunting.

Instead of tackling your projects linearly, jump between work. If you’re in the middle of one project and another idea strikes you, jump to that idea. You can come back to the first one later. Work on multiple things  one at a time and you’ll find yourself in a beautiful rush of productivity. Let the feeling of flow happen, and once you have it, don't let it go.

And when you do let it happen, when you don’t overthink it and you give yourself room to see where an idea leads you, when you embrace the free flow, something magical occurs.

“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
— Neil Gaiman

Just get something down – anything.

A perfectionist spends too much time bitching before finally getting to work. They need to have the right tools, the perfect environment, the right timing. They dread actually getting started because they know what’s to come: painful over-analyzation and dissatisfaction.

Instead of procrastinating by convincing yourself you need to do eighteen hours of research before beginning, just begin. Sit down and don’t stand up again until the blank space is filled.

Writer Anne Lamott calls it the Shitty First Draft. In her book, Bird by Bird, she suggests sitting down and allowing your thoughts to flow on paper or your screen. Don’t be worried about how terrible it is or if someone’s going to see. It’s only your first draft, anyway.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” Anne Lamott

Create fake deadlines 

Sounds silly, but the perfectionist in you will love this shit. Often, perfectionists tell themselves they don’t work well under pressure. Typically, that’s just because they don’t want to let someone else down.

With a self-imposed deadline, you’ll still have that structure, but without the pressure of someone else breathing down your neck. The only person to answer to is you.

I often have to create fake deadlines for myself to finish something. Then I hit send – even if it's not perfect. The reality is, you’ll never feel like it’s perfect. The satisfaction of hitting the send button, however, is a pretty glorious feeling.

Learn when to say, “It’s good enough.”

I like to launch early but of course I still want to make sure the experience is great. The good news is, you can always cut down on scope and features while still maintaining what some call the Minimum Loveable Product.

This is not to be confused with Minimum Viable Product, which is a product that requires the least amount of effort and functionality to work. An MVP is not necessarily a good product. It’s a passable product.

A Minimum Loveable Product is a product that requires the least effort to be loved by your consumers. I know this sounds a bit stupid, but it’s a different way of looking at your product.

This strategy appeases the perfectionist in us, because we are not ignoring issues or settling for less. We are considering the details, the quality and the end user. We are acknowledging our desire to do good work.

Saying “it’s good enough” doesn’t mean we are lowering our standards. We can still create a product that people love. And we can usually even go back and make changes later, especially in today’s digital word. “Good enough” simply means we are taking ownership for our projects instead of letting them own us.

"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good." John Steinbeck

The perfectionist in you is resisting this advice.

Perfectionism almost feels like a moral conviction you cannot betray. This is especially true in the design community, which will find every opportunity to slap you for not making things pixel perfect.

But as soon as you release yourself from perfectionism, I promise you will find yourself more creative, more productive and happier.  

And trust me, that doesn't mean perfectionism is completely bad. But if it's the reason for you to know finish or start anything, the tips above might help you.

December 5, 2016No Comments

Do you need an agent?

If you're a designer, illustrator or other creative, this article might help you answer this question.

When we imagine leaving our nine-to-five job and going freelance, we picture a world opened up to us: Fewer stuffy clients and strict deadlines, more work we actually want to be doing, and a lot more sleeping in. When I left my full-time job I learned that yes, sometimes it’s just like that. More often, though, I spend my day answering a shit ton of emails, starting the actual work at around at 2 a.m, and rarely sleeping in as long as I’d like to.

But this is not an article about whether or not to go freelance. It’s about what the hell you should do once you already have, and the emails are pouring in, and the deadlines are still looming, and the clients are annoying, and it’s hard to find the right jobs, and you keep telling everyone and yourself that you’ve got this, but you’re not sure you do and  – deep breaths, deep breaths – do you maybe need an agent?

I’ve discussed this question with a lot of people I respect.

Malika Favre and Simone Giertz are two of them. Malika is an amazing artist whose work ends up places like the cover of The New Yorker. Simone makes shitty robots and hundreds of thousands of people watch her YouTube videos about them. Two very different creatives with different styles, but both of these women work for themselves – and they do it well. So on recent episodes of the NTMY Show podcast, I asked for their opinion on the matter.

Because let’s face it: Having an agent represent you changes things for you. An agent requires commitment. They take a cut of your money. They seem a little slimy and uncool, generally. But Malika and Simone may have changed my mind about everything.


The wonderful work of Malika Favre for the New Yorker

One plus to having an agent: They negotiate your fees higher.

This is their job. They’re going to work hard to make you more money because their own paycheck depends on it. So when the project does come through and your agent takes a cut, you can let that money go more freely. You wouldn’t necessarily have it otherwise.

Having an agent allows you do what you’re good at: Being a creator, making shit!

You got into this because you love creating, not because you love sending emails and networking. Removing yourself from the outward-facing stuff allows you to focus more on getting the actual work done.

“It’s playing to your strengths,” Simone explains. “If there are other people who can do it better than you can, let other people do it and make sure that you only do the things that you need to you and that you want to do.”

Plus, it allows you to keep your relationship with your client healthy. An agent makes the tough negotiations so you can start your project without the emotional tension that comes from talking about money.

Having an agent means less stress.

“I’ve just built this fortress of people around myself,” Simone says of her manager and publicist, who essentially serve as her agents.

For a long time, Simone waved off help and said she could it all on her own. Then she broke.

“I got to a point where I started crying every time I opened my inbox because the workload was just so high.”

It was a panic attack that finally drove her to dig through her inbox and email an agent who had reached out in the past. She said that letting go was one of the best decisions she’s made.

“To me, it’s helped a lot,” Simone says. “And I enjoy work, and life in general, way more than I’ve ever done in my whole life. We’re just trained to be hard workers, and as much as that is a great thing, it can also hinder us a lot.”

(Yes, Simone has an agent so she can do more stuff like this. Do I envy her? Absolutely!)

It helps to have someone on your side.

Malika believes the first few years of your career, especially as an artist, can make or break you. If you don’t choose the right clients, or the right projects, or you choose too many of the same projects and do too much of the same stuff, you can end your career before it even begins.

So it’s kind of nice to have someone there to look out for you. Someone whose job is helping you do your job. Someone to help you shape your future, and form a game plan for how to get there.

“It’s also about not going with the cool agent or the big agent; it’s about finding someone that works for you and your personality,” Malika explains.

This person is going to be working closely with you and representing you to other people. Find someone you actually like and respect.

If you do decide to get an agent, there’s a secret to doing it right: The non-exclusive deal.

With a non-exclusive deal, you are free to search for projects on your own. If a client reaches out directly to you, you don’t have to give a cut to your agent. Then you can treat the stuff your agent brings in as a bonus. If they find you a job, great. More work, more money. If they don’t find you a job, no big deal. You’ve got your own thing going. It’s a give and take. A relationship.

But this doesn't mean you need an agent.

Truth is, social media has replaced the need for agents in a lot of ways. It used to be that agents had all the connections – they knew the people who were looking for an artist or designer, and they made the introductions. They helped you get your foot in the door. But now those people can just look at your Instagram and see the work you’re putting out into the world.

Use social media to your advantage. Post your work there, spend time investing in relationships there, and do it consistently. Share finished products, your process, your workspace, inspiration, even pictures of yourself. Carve your space out on social media, because that’s where people are looking.

If that sounds like too much work, then maybe you do need an agent. At the end of the day, it depends on your personality and the kind of stuff you want spend your time on. It also, of course, depends on the kind of work you do.

But if you’ve already been thinking about working with an agent, try a non-exclusive deal. That's kind of like a friend with benefits.

Do you have experience or advice about getting an agent?
Send me a Tweet and tell me about it.

Thank you for reading,

November 26, 2016No Comments

How to email a busy person & get a reply

While I don’t like to consider myself a busy person, I do receive an average of  150 emails a day. And I often have trouble catching up with everyone and getting my work done too.

I pride myself on answering every email I receive as long as it’s not a mass email, but most people don't work this way. They have other things to do and more pressing emails to answer. If you want to email a busy person and get a response, you'd better write a good email. And after sending and receiving thousands of emails over the years, I've learned what works and what doesn't.

№1. Do use the elevator pitch

Whatever you’re writing about, begin your email with a short summary explaining what this email is about. Don’t do the “How are you, I’m fine whatever” bullshit small talk. I know it’s hard because we don’t want to sound rude, but it’s more rude to steal someone's time with just throwing words around. Write a clear action-oriented intro; if you need to add details they should be optional to read.


Try to not talk too much about yourself . Just add a link to your bio online if you want to provide some extra credibility, which does help a lot.

№2. Do say what you want

Write what you want upfront, then go into details if needed. If you're writing a friend this rule might not apply, and you might feel more polite leading with some irrelevant small talk — that’s great, but it doesn’t work here.

Be friendly and polite but get to the point and say exactly what you want from your reader. If you don’t actually want anything, just put FYI in the subject line but don’t expect a reply.

№3. Don’t try to score on the first date

There are a few goals you might want to achieve when sending an email. You’re either trying to establish a connection or get something specific. While I strongly encourage getting to the point and saying what you want upfront, it’s important to know that there’s a fine balance and always two sides of the coin.


Trying to score on the first date is dangerous — it can ruin the whole relationship immediately. If you want something, first tell me WHAT and then tell me WHY this is beneficial for both of us. This of course depends on your specific situation and relationship with the reader, but trying too hard on the first date is not the same as saying what you want up front. Busy people are usually willing to help without getting anything in return, but they do expect to know WHY they should make the effort.

№4. Do format your email

Don’t send a wall of text. Use breaks and format your email properly so it’s easy to digest. Most emails that don’t get a reply are horribly formatted and a pain to read. Chances are high you won’t get a reply to an email that is not formatted at all.


№5. Do use numbers

Every time I reply to emails I take them apart and give key sections numbers, as I do in this article. It takes me a lot of time but helps the recipient digest and get back to me in the same fashion, which then saves me time in return. With each number I give clear action steps. If you send me numbers back, I can easily reply to 1,2,3 and boom – done!


This is one of the most important tricks to get email done for me. Don’t make me format YOUR emails, just so I can reply to them. The easier you can make it for me, the higher the chances I'll reply with exactly what you need.

I don’t think email sucks, but the way we write them does. 

№6. Don't ask if I got it. Send it again.

If you haven’t received a reply in more than a week, copy the same email and send it again. Don’t add more things to it or ask me if I got the email, or why I didn’t reply. Just send the same email again. Every time someone does this I’m very thankful because it either serves as reminder or points me to a message I may have overlooked.


It’s not rude to send exactly the same email again (you might even optimize the intro or subject line) , but it is rude to reply to your own email asking your recipient why they haven’t replied.  It's not only passive aggressive, but it requires more of their time as they dig through your email history for context. Save time and send the same email again.

№7. Don’t send NDAs

Do not send mysterious emails with NDAs attached about this new awesome cutting edge thing you’re working on but can’t talk about. There is just nothing actionable anyone can do here. Remember, busy people are not sitting bored at home waiting for random paperwork to sign. If it’s a really important project, there are other ways to get the message through.


№8. Don't ask if you can ask questions

Don't email someone asking if you can “pick their brain” and ask them even more questions. How do expect them to respond? Send questions right away if you want answers (and use numbers, see Nr. 5).


If you plan to ask 10 questions but know they might be overwhelmed, send five right away and the other five after they reply. It’s important to get to the point, but at the same time not overwhelm the person on the other end.

№9. Don't write bullshit office jargon

If you write something like “holistic high level overview of potential synergies using cutting edge technologies” my brain is already dead before I can hit the reply button.

№10. Do use a GIF & be funny

You can’t believe how much a funny GIF helps. Make your reader smile. Time we enjoy wasting is not wasted.


One of my favorites.


These are my learnings and how I try to write my own emails, especially to someone I know is busy (and isn't that everyone?). Put a little effort into your email and you'll encourage your reader to do the same. The known problems we face with emails are because of the way they’re written, not because of the technology.

Want to share your email secrets with me? Please do @vanschneider. Or, you know, email me.


November 21, 2016No Comments

Is the Ringelmann effect holding you back?

In 1913, a guy named Max Ringelmann noticed something strange about humans. Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, took a rope and asked individual people to pull on it.

Then he asked those same people to pull on the rope with a group. He observed that when people pulled with a group, they put in less effort than when pulling on their own.

They call it the Ringelmann Effect, or Social Loafing. It describes the tendency for individual productivity to decrease as group size increases. And it doesn’t just happen in tug-of-war games. It’s present in companies like Google and Facebook more than a century after Ringelmann’s discovery. Chances are, it’s happening in your workplace too.

Bigger groups mean less personal responsibility

We’re typically taught that larger groups accomplish more. We’re assigned to group projects in school, we play sports with a team, we create task forces to accomplish big goals at work. It seems reasonable to think that more people would get more work done. And generally, I’d say this holds true in most cases.

But sometimes, the Ringelmann Effect proves otherwise.

You’ve experienced it in brainstorm meetings, when you’re wrapping up the meeting and think, “Oh, Tim was here this whole time? He never said a word.” That’s because enough people were talking to make Tim feel like he could sit back unnoticed. He didn’t feel pressure to contribute because nobody realized he wasn’t contributing.

The bigger the group, the harder it is to evaluate individual performance. And when nobody’s noticing what you are or aren’t doing, the easier it is to keep doing nothing. The work will get done, yes, because someone has to do it. But it doesn’t have to be you.

Nobody is immune

The term “rest and vest” is  thrown around among employees at big companies. Often in these companies, an employee will gain stocks after four years spent at a company – 25% every year. The process is called vesting. So what do you do while you wait for your stocks to be worth something? Well, you could either work your ass off or you rest and vest, meaning chill out and only do the minimal amount of work needed. The bigger the company, the easier it is to fly under the radar.


The Ringelmann Effect is one of the main reasons Stefan Sagmeister of Sagmeister & Walsh decided to keep his design studio small. (I’ve written on this topic last week)

“…there are situations where I know that if I don’t do it, nobody will, so I’m forced into coming up with something,” says Sagmeister. “While if I know that if two or three other teams are working on it, I’m like, ‘Well if something comes to mind, excellent. But if not, I’ll hope that someone else [comes up with something.]’”

Even freelancers can experience the effect. When you’re working on your own projects, there’s no option but to do the work, because it won’t get done otherwise. When you collaborate with others on a project, though, the pressure comes off. If the project sinks, it’s not necessarily your fault. Less ownership can lead to less motivation.

The Ringelmann Effect appears beyond the workplace. It’s why you feel like you can clap more softly in a crowd. It’s why people don’t vote, because they think it won’t make a difference. It’s why dozens of people watched Kitty Genovese get murdered in New York in 1964 – everyone thought someone else was doing something about it. (This example technically illustrates the Bystander Effect, but it relates.)

The Ringelmann Effect is present everywhere.

You may not know you’re experiencing it

OK, we’ll give poor Tim some credit. He probably didn’t realize he was slacking in that brainstorm. It's unlikely he walked into it thinking, “Now how can I get away with doing nothing?” Yet he still did nothing. The team landed on an idea, they figured out their next steps, they executed. They barely noticed Tim was missing.

The truth is, you might not know you’re experiencing the Ringelmann Effect either.

While some people are just plain lazy, most don’t necessarily slack off on purpose. You show up, don’t you? You check a few things off your list, you respond to a few emails, you manage to fill your timesheet. But unless your boss or team is expecting something from you specifically, how much work are you actually getting done? What are you accomplishing?

A subtle effect with significant damage

The impact of The Ringelmann Effect may seem small in one meeting, but it’s toxic to a company’s productivity. When people within a team are slacking, the group dynamic shifts. Projects are less efficient, responsibilities are unbalanced, other employees are overworked and unhappy.

The entire business suffers, and so does each person involved.

The upside for our friend, Tim: He gets away with doing less work. He’s paid just for showing up. He can skate by with the smallest required effort.

The downside for Tim: He’s not going to be the first person who comes to mind when the next project comes along. He’s not going to be recognized or rewarded for his work on this project. He’s not growing in his career, learning new skills, showing what he’s worth. And he’s certainly not finding satisfaction in the minimal work he is doing.

And for that, we feel sorry for Tim. He’s missing out.

If you’re experiencing the Ringelmann Effect in your workplace, whether you’re contributing to it or on the receiving end of it, you’re missing out too.


But what’s the ideal group size?

There are times when having different perspectives and a diverse range of skills on a project is valuable. And sometimes the work is simply too much for one person. So the question is, what’s the ideal group size? At what point does productivity start decreasing in a group?

Many people, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, use the “Two Pizza Rule” – if you can’t feed a group with two pizzas, your group is too big.

The Scrum Guide, which outlines the group-focused Scrum approach to development, says optimal performance happens in groups of 3-9.

Ringelmann, though, noticed the most significant decrease in effort as soon as one person worked with even one or two more people.

The fact is, putting a person in a group of any size is going to make them less productive. But dismissing group work entirely is unrealistic. So what’s the solution?

There’s a simple cure

There’s lots of advice out there for business owners or managers to prevent the Ringelmann Effect in their company. One suggestion is to counteract it with yet another social tendency, Social Facilitation. It’s when someone performs differently while other people are watching, because they care what others think of them. So if you make each person’s contribution known along the way, you motivate them to work harder.

Other recommendations: Make individuals feel indispensable (like the success of the project depends on them), set specific goals for each person that can be measured along the way, or create competition between team members.

That’s all great, but how do we personally counteract the Ringelmann Effect? How do we avoid it in the first place?

It’s actually easy (no social science required).

Simply ask yourself:
“How can I be useful?”

When you ask yourself how you can be useful, you immediately become more aware of the needs around you. You see where the holes are, you find a way to fill them. The question jumpstarts your brain and shift your thoughts from, “Well, surely someone will find a solution,” to “How can I help fix this?”

Sometimes, the answer to that question doesn’t fall within your job description or field of expertise. In some cases, you may be more effective by making a fresh pot of coffee for the team rather than spitballing ideas. So make the coffee.  

Other times, you may convince yourself you’d be more useful by letting other people lead the conversation. If that’s the case, then take notes. Interject your ideas once you’ve had some time to mull it over outside the group. Then send your notes out to the team and determine how you fit into next steps.

When you choose to be useful, you are counteracting The Ringelmann Effect. And affecting your environment is so much more satisfying than dealing with the effects of it.

It may be easy to sit back and let others do the work, but an easy life is not a happy life. A useful life, though, is an entirely different story.

Have a wonderful week,

November 17, 2016No Comments

Dream big, but stay small

How Sagmeister became one of the greatest design studios by staying small.

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November 2, 2016No Comments

11 Most Used Tools & Apps Essential to my Work

The best apps for your Mac.

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July 18, 2016No Comments

Why I Write

I've gotten this question more and more recently. "Tobias, why do you write? Aren't you a Designer?"

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July 5, 2016No Comments

Creativity Is like breathing

I elegantly stole the subject line of this email from one of my favorite websites: The Oatmeal. 

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June 14, 2016No Comments

Best Must-have Apps to Edit Your Instagram Pictures

After so many people asked me this question, I wanted to take some time and walk you through my process of editing pictures for Instagram.

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May 23, 2016No Comments

One video, article or side project can change your life

One piece of content, one little thing you create or publish, can change everything you do in the future.

  • One article you write and publish can change your life.
  • One video you upload and share can change your career.
  • One little side project you create and publish can change the course of everything you will do in the future.

But the problem is, we don't do these things. We usually sit here overthinking, planning, strategizing and coming up with excuses why we can't do it. I do this all the time myself. I come up with ideas for little articles, I write them, and then I delete them again thinking no one cares anyway.

Let me give you an example:

In 2015, I sat down and wrote an article with the title "No alcohol, no coffee for 27 months". I finished the article within one sitting. It took me less than 15 minutes to finish, nothing special. I just wrote it for myself to reflect on my personal experience. I hit the publish button and moved on, because who cares anyway?

Apparently, a lot of people did. It was by far one of the most-read articles I've ever written with millions of views. It got syndicated to pretty much every big online magazine and translated into more than 10 languages across the world. It still gets thousands of views each week, five years later.

In retrospect, I can see why people liked this article. But the moment I published it, there was nothing special about it. I've never written an article in less than 15 minutes, and couldn't have cared less about its potential to receive an audience. But for some reason, it was that article that got my writing and experience around the world.

I learned it once again: Don't think about it too much. Just fucking do it.

Casey Neistat might be familiar to some of you by now. He is a well known YouTuber and vlogger. But years before his crazy vlogging career started, he uploaded a 3 minute video called "Crazy German Water Park"

Within the following months, this video got more than 18 million views on YouTube alone, making it his second-most watched video of all time (at least at that time). There is nothing in particular special about this video, it's a good video, but one of his best? I doubt it. I assume even Casey can't tell you why this video exploded, or why in specifically this video compared to any of his others (which are all excellent).

While this video probably didn't change Casey's life, it's still one of his most-watched and shared videos. Which means, it's the video that reaches far beyond his subscriber base, giving all his other videos exposure. It's the video that reached more people than any of his other videos (at least that's true at the time I am writing this).

We can analyze it and maybe find something in retrospect, but I'm pretty sure even Casey Neistat wasn't prepared to see this video explode. Sometimes we can feel it, we can feel when the stars align and something is going to be successful. But sometimes it happens for the strangest reasons. All we have to do is hit publish on a video called "Crazy German Water Park."

“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.”
― Pablo Picasso

Years ago, Mikael Cho, one of the co-founders of Crew was almost being forced to shut down his company. He had three months worth of cash left and needed to get his shit together.

At the time, he was working on a new website for Crew. While searching for some good stock photos to use for their website, the team noticed that they just couldn't find anything worth using. So they ended up hiring a photographer instead to shoot some quick pictures in a coffee shop. Since they only needed one picture and had a couple extras left, they decided to simply share them online for free to download.

Three hours and one quick Tumblr theme later, they put up a website called Unsplash with download links to these extra photographs. Then the team moved on with their day. I mean, they had a business to save.

Long story short: Unsplash blew up on the Internet. It received millions of visits and downloads within the first year. More people wanted to share their extra photographs, and they eventually did it through Unsplash. And on top of it, Unsplash served as the number one referral to Crew, helping Crew to survive and ultimately gain the exposure they needed. Now, it's one of the most-viewed websites worldwide.

All this happened just because the Crew team decided to share their extra photographs on a quick and dirty Tumblr page. I'm pretty sure no one at the Crew team knew at the time that this little side project will ultimately save their company and ultimately create a completely new company, which is what Unsplash is today.

In the end, it's about just doing it. It's about hitting the publish button. It's about not thinking about perfection, it's about zero expectation.

It's about walking the walk, doing the thing. Making something and showing it to the world. One day only one person will appreciate it (and that's okay) and the other day it might be thousands. It is worth it, either way.

I can probably come up with many more stories like these, and just reflecting on this myself today makes me motivated to do even more in the future. Keep going, keep running and have fun.

Often the things I create with zero expectations turn out to be something that impacted my work or career the most.

May 9, 2016No Comments

Work/Life Balance Is Bullsh*t

There is no question being asked more often than how people manage their work/life balance.

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May 3, 2016No Comments

It’s Been One Year!

Today is a special day, this is Edition Nr.52. It's special because it means that I sent out a weekly email every Sunday, since exactly one year.

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April 25, 2016No Comments

Be useful

Two simple words that are so easy to forget. Every day when I wake up I try to remind myself of just that: Be useful.

It serves almost as some sort of mission or vision to guide me through the day. Every time I feel a little lost or don't remember what I set out to do, I go back to the basics. I just try to be useful.

Being useful is so simple. It not only helps other people but also myself. Being useful makes me happy, because whatever "usefulness" translates to in my current circumstance, it's never wasted time.

Sometimes I have a bad day. Sometimes it's hard to stay positive and I get lost in the world of negativity and criticism. Especially online, it's easy to be negative. Exactly then I usually try to remind myself to be useful, because being a negative asshole adds little value to anyone.

There are many ways you can be useful to other people and it's often more simple than you think. Here's where to start:

Share knowledge

You are never too young to teach. Share knowledge with people who might know less. There is always someone who might appreciate your tips & tricks on whatever topic it might be.

On top of it, sharing knowledge is rewarding. You're not only helping others but also yourself. Sharing knowledge helps you to form and communicate your thoughts more clearly.

Solve a small problem

You can help people by solving a problem they are having. It doesn't have to be a massive problem. It can be something small.

Sometimes when I work with other people I try to figure out what small problems they might have. And if I spot one where I feel like my expertise can help solve it in less than 15-30 minutes of my time, I will try to solve it.

I know this can be hard, because once you give someone the small finger to help, some might bite off your hand. But most of the time, it's worth it.

“I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and that all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful.” ― Oscar Wilde

It's not your job? Do it anyway!

I've grown up as a jack of all trades. There are few times when I would say this is not part of my job description. Whatever needs to be fixed, I fix it. If I can fix a hardware problem, I just do it. If I can help set up an online payment flow, I will do it. If I can help designing an app, I will do this too.

I always love to work with people who know how to handle any situation that comes at them. And I'm not saying you should get lost in tiny tasks, but you should never be afraid doing things that are not part of your "official job description." It always annoys me when I work with people who clearly found a problem, but haven't even tried to solve it because it's "not their job."

I think being useful is a highly underestimated value that we rarely talk about. I love working with useful people because they ask the right questions rather than just trying to find the answers.

Useful people add value where there was no value before.

Useful people are interested in being useful and helping you the best way possible. Getting the job done or doing a task that you were assigned is one thing, but being useful is a completely different way of living and working.

Even if my to-do list is completely packed tomorrow, I try to focus on the tasks where I can be most useful to others. It makes me happy and allows me to sleep well at night.

And to be a little useful to you today, I'd like to share some book recommendations:

1. The Blue Zones Solution**

There is something called the "Blue Zones," and people who live in these blue zones seem to be the world's healthiest and long-living people on earth. The author tries to explore the secret behind these blue zones and how we can replicate their effect in other places around the world. It's an interesting concept & I enjoyed reading it.

2. Total Recall**

I mentioned this one already in my list of favorite books. It's the unbelievable story & autobiography of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold has always been inspiring to me for what he's achieved in such a short life so far. Being on top of three different industries is what really stands out to me. He went from being an athlete (bodybuilding) to one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood before becoming Governor of California.

3. Delivering Happiness**

This book is by Tony Hsieh, one of the founders of Zappos. The founding story of Zappos is a little less exciting as Tony came from a background of wealth, but I still appreciated this book for the way Tony & Zappos build a company completely focused on customer experience.

I'd say it's the Nr.1 book I would recommend to everyone building a company. And if you are looking for more reading recommendations, I have a whole page dedicated to just that!

And with that, I wish you a fantastic week. Be Useful.

Yours truly,

**In the spirit of full disclosure, this article contains one or more affiliate links, which means that I may get a small commissions if you decide to purchase any of these books from Amazon. Of course, I only recommend products & services that I use and love myself, so I know you’ll be in good hands.

April 19, 2016No Comments

The Broken Window Theory In Product Design

I first got introduced to the Broken Window Theory by a co-worker at Spotify a few years ago.

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April 12, 2016No Comments

Why I Try to Avoid a Daily Schedule

Let me tell you why.

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April 4, 2016No Comments

Victims of the sunk cost fallacy

As I sat down today deciding what to write, I kept refining a specific article I wanted to share with you. It took me most of my evening but I just couldn't get excited about the piece. It just wasn't good.

Still, I kept refining the article because I had already invested so much time in it. I was also emotionally invested in that topic for the last couple days, so I felt like I need to write about it for some reason.

But besides the time and emotional investment, the article wasn't going anywhere. It just sucked.

Without even noticing it, I had fallen for the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

In economics, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been paid and can't be recovered. Which means any future decisions should not be affected by the sunk cost, because it's already gone anyway.

Or let me give you another example:

Let's say you've been waiting at the bus stop for 30 minutes now, but the bus hasn't arrived.

You tell yourself to wait another 30 minutes, just to make sure. After another 30 minutes, you've waited a total of 60 minutes. Now you tell yourself you can easily wait another 15 minutes, because you've already invested 60 minutes of your time and the bus should probably arrive any second.

It's a never-ending story.

The truth is, our decisions are manipulated by our investments. These investments can be time, financial or emotional. The more we invest, the harder it will be to abandon something.

We mistakenly think that the bus must arrive at any second, because we've already waited for more than 60 minutes. But that's flawed logic. The likelihood of the bus arriving does not change based on our prior investment of time waiting for the bus. The 60m minutes waiting time we invested is a sunk cost and does not increase the chance of the bus arriving anytime sooner.

The sunk cost fallacy makes us eat more food than we're actually hungry for. We paid for it so it would be a waste to not eat it, right? Dealing with the fact that we spent money on food that we throw away seems like even more of a loss than eating until we get sick.

The sunk cost fallacy completely blurs our rational decision making.

I remember working on a project called .Mail app several years ago. It was a new idea for an email client.  I worked on it for about 2-3 years before I officially shut it down.

If I'm honest with you, the only reason I kept working on it for more than a year was because of the emotional investment I had in it. I had also spent countless hours of my time, and others' time, trying to make it come alive. I was driven by pride and the fear of publicly giving up. I fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy.

If the only reason you're still working on something is because of pride and "because I invested so much time in it" you're most likely also a victim of the sunk cost fallacy. This can be a side project or a full-time job you've been working at for too long. You've already stuck it out for two years. You can do another year, right? At least that's what you tell yourself.

Essentially it means defending an investment you've made by investing even more. Although you have no specific reasoning for it other than your prior investment. It's a circle.

“Seize the day, then let it go.”
― Marty Rubin

The sunk cost fallacy is often used as a powerful tool that we designers use to make our products more "sticky."

Games such as World Of Warcraft or Farmville are prime examples of the sunk cost fallacy. For many people there is little joy in playing these games anymore, but they still do because they've already invested so much time in it. Simply abandoning these games would make no sense to them, because it would seem as a loss. But then again, the loss has already happened regardless.

The sunk cost fallacy is around us every day. We're emotional creatures and this is why we keep falling for it every single time.

Being aware that the sunk cost fallacy exists is the first step to getting better at it. I try to ask myself this question every day: Why am I'm still working on this? Is it because I think it's great, or is it simply because of the sunk cost fallacy?

April 4, 2016No Comments

If you don’t do it, someone else will

I learned this early on a long time ago as a little kid. My mother always had weird ways to raise us kids, and one was in particular outstanding and made a big impression on me.

My room was always a mess, I almost never cleaned up. My mother told me to clean up many times, but I rarely did it.

After another month without cleaning up my room, I came home from a "long" day at school. I opened the door to my room, and holy shit. Everything was cleaned up, it was magical. At first, I was relieved – less work for me!

But after further inspection, I noticed that something was wrong. A lot of my personal items were missing. It looked like my mother cleaned up by just throwing away the majority of my stuff. Everything was gone, from clothes to my mp3 player.

I was upset and asked my mother why she did that. Her answer: "I asked you to do it for weeks, you didn't do it, so I did. You're welcome." (With a big grin on her face.)

This was the first time I learned that if I don't do something I should do or want to do, someone else would eventually do it. And this applies to pretty much everything in life to this day:

If I don't work on my dream project, someone else will.

If I don't give my partner the respect she or he deserves, someone else will. Same applies to my friends and colleagues.

If I don't establish my own opinion, the media, religion or other people will do it for me.

The question is, will be I okay with how it's done? Will I be disappointed in myself when I see someone else living out my dream? Will I look back on my life and see missed opportunities and wasted time?

One of my favorite articles from Tim Urban, the author of WaitButWhy, is relevant here. Below is a graphic that represents a 90-Year human life in weeks. Every box stands for one week in your life, assuming your life span is 90 years.


It's kinda crazy to look at it this way. You can see each individual week in your life right there, on this single image. Every time you're alive one week, you can basically cross out one of these boxes.

Every time I think of "If I don't do it, someone will," I think of one of these little boxes being colored in by someone else.

And while staring at this image is already terrifying enough, knowing that someone else is trying to cross out these boxes for me makes me even more motivated to get right back to living my life to the fullest. The way I want.

March 7, 2016No Comments

This is for you, internet

Today I'm writing to you from Hong Kong where I've been staying for the past week. I was invited to be a judge at the Hong Kong Global Design awards. I started thinking about what brought me here, to a country hundreds of miles from my home, and it led me to the same place I usually find myself: the internet.

If there is one thing that had the biggest impact on my life, it's the internet. It gave me a career I love. It gave me friends from around the world. It gave me the opportunity to write to you right now from Hong Kong, a city I've never been to before.


Writing from my hotel room in Hong Kong in 2016

Occasionally I'll look through my Google Analytics audience stats, or review our orders, and see where everyone is from. It always feels magical to me. Seeing people from Vietnam, Germany, Russia, Italy, Ukraine, Columbia – everywhere across the globe – are reading my writing or using my product. It's why I love the internet so much.

The friends I've known the longest, I got to know through the internet. None of my friends from school have remained, but those I met on the internet have. Some good friends I've known for more than 10 years and never even met in person, even though I talk to them on a daily basis. In some cases, I don't even want to meet them in "real life." There is something special about online friendships.

People sometimes look at our generation's relationship to the internet and shake their heads, which is fair. Not everyone has to understand it, but we all know it's the future. The world is shrinking.

Of course, this is the introvert speaking in me. Other introverts will know what I'm talking about. If there is one thing we introverts have been waiting for forever, it's the internet.

The gatekeepers are gone

My personal life aside, the internet has also made a huge impact on my professional career.

The only reason I have a job today is because I bypassed the gatekeepers. When design universities declined me, I opened up my own design studio and tried to establish it online so I could get clients. One of my first international clients reached out to me on Twitter. I had about 200 followers at the time, half of them probably bots.

With the internet, we're celebrating the death of the traditional gatekeeper.

Back in the day, if you were a band, you needed a label to promote and publish your music. Today you can do everything yourself with the help of Soundcloud & YouTube.

Back in the day, if you were a book author, you needed a publisher to print and publish your book, and the chances you'd be rejected were high. Today you can self-publish through email, blogs, ebooks or even Amazon.

Back in the day, if you were a filmmaker, you needed expensive hardware, a team and often someone who would distribute your movie. Today, you can shoot a movie on your iPhone, edit it and publish it straight to YouTube or Vimeo.

The same goes for so many other industries.

Nothing is standing in your way now. On the positive side, that means you and I can do whatever we want. On the negative side, it means you have millions of people competing with you. Luckily, most people still don't take full advantage of the internet, even today. You can still be one step ahead.

Today you don't need the approval from anyone, you can do whatever you want. The only question is, for how long?

New gatekeepers are slowly emerging in the form of closed ecosystems (the App Store) or heavily controlled social networks that manage the majority of traffic (Facebook). While you will always have freedom to chose the platform, things will eventually become harder in the future.

The internet played a huge role in my life. It's our responsibility to keep it that way. Seeing countries or corporations trying to manipulate access to the internet for a certain group of people is something that saddens me. We should never let this happen.

If you're lucky to have access to the same Internet as me, use the shit out of it. Do the things you always wanted to do because now you can, and you can do so independently of your location.

So if there is a perfect time to do the thing you always wanted to do, it's today more than ever.

Yes, this is a love letter to the internet. A love letter to all of you.

March 2, 2016No Comments

Designers, limit your tools

I remember when I started out being a designer in my little apartment back in Austria. At the time I wasn’t calling myself a designer just yet, because I was mostly coding websites.

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February 29, 2016No Comments

What Excites You?

One of the phrases I heard the most in the recent years is "Follow your passion".

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February 23, 2016No Comments

Why you should change your mind

How often do you change your mind? Probably a lot when it comes to what you should order for brunch, or get for dinner tonight.

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January 4, 2016No Comments

The worst case scenario

When I sometimes chat with friends we like to talk about things we dream to do in our lives. Often these things involve us to take risks, personal risks we can’t foresee and in most cases like to avoid.

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December 8, 2015No Comments

Be Stupid

In the last few weeks I shared four of my five work principles with you. These principles are important for me as they guide me trough new side projects. They also ensure personal growth.

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December 1, 2015No Comments

The Secret Is the Beginning

We humans love to celebrate success stories. We get inspired by great companies, successful people and big achievements.

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November 17, 2015No Comments

Be Lazy, It’s worth It!

Can being lazy be a good thing?

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November 9, 2015No Comments

To Stay Productive, Stay Busy

Part of my principles series when approaching new side projects.

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October 12, 2015No Comments

Ignore Everybody

In general, I’m not a big fan of random ideas. Ideas are cheap, because everyone has them. Getting shit done is what counts in the end.

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September 7, 2015No Comments

Curiosity vs. judgment

(this article was written in September 2015 as a response to the Google re-design)

In September 2015 Google introduced us to their new digital identity. As you can imagine, the design community was furious and outraged as ever. Of course, the loudest voices filled with criticism far from being productive or constructive.

It happens every time a big company launches a rebrand. The outrage is intense, but rarely lasts longer than two or three weeks.

But every time these things happen, there is one thing I think about: No one has ever designed & implemented a digital identity on such a massive scale. There are few who understand the implications or what it takes to get it done. Even other companies that are close to Google, still not reach the diversity of products Google has to offer.

The challenges of redesigning Google are without question, unique.

I don’t even need to go into the specifics here. But chances are high that 99% of designers out there have never worked on a project like this. Still, a lot of designers think to know better. Design is a spectator sport, after all.

“Dogs bark at things they don’t understand.”

But this article isn't so much about Googles re-brand. Big projects like these are unique and offer fantastic learning opportunities for all of us. We should be curious and not judgmental. Especially if it’s something that is not in our field of expertise.

The moment the new Google identity launched I was both curious & proud. Proud because I know the struggle myself from the Spotify I worked on a few years ago. Proud because every designer, regardless in what company, is my buddy. Proud because I can only imagine the politics & technical difficulties to overcome in a company of 60.000 employees, serving billions of people.

I was curious because I felt that this is a unique situation where we can learn. Not because the Google design team is smarter than anyone else, but because they just launched something into the wild that takes huge effort and involves tons of risks. Now we can all watch it unfold & learn from it. Risk free at least for us, the spectator.

I’m curious to learn about why things look & work the way they do. Understand what the Google team struggled with, and how they plan to improve the identity in the future.

Sure, I might personally disagree with some things Google did, but my quest is to find out why, so someone can prove me wrong.

Curiosity means that we are open to the possibility that we may not know everything about a certain situation. It’s the willingness to remain open to the unknown, regardless of how smart we think we are.

Especially for complex projects or situations, I can promise you that chances are high that you or me know less than 10% about what’s actually going on.

When Google introduced the new identity, I was filled with questions because I was curious to hear more about it. This isn’t about if you like or dislike the logo. No one cares about it, we’re not on Dribbble here.

Google isn’t trying to be a life style brand, asking you to wear their logo on your leather jacket. They’re not aiming to feel luxurious, quite the opposite. Google aims to be approachable, friendly & even tries to appear smaller than they actually are. A prestigious brand is exactly what Google does not want to be.

If their current identity will help them succeed? Maybe, but neither you or I have the ability or data to decide that just yet. Even if Google is completely wrong with everything they do, so what? Who can qualify that other than the Google team?

When we stumble upon a project like this, we can take it as a unique opportunity to grow as a curious spectator. We can not only master our emotions, but we can turn all judgments into curiosity. Even if the redesign sucks, how we respond is still our choice. There is no contribution made by stating your opinion as truth — Which is essentially what judgment is.

I got reminded of this quote by Viktor E. Frankl.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What happens when we just react and complain about something? Nothing, we shut down our ability to learn something new and close our eyes. We are no smarter than before, and on top of that, we just offended someone.

As designers, we grow from new experiences and especially from those of our peers. Kindness goes a long way, but it also fosters more kindness. It takes strength & patience to be kind, I understand that.

Being an ass online is easy. Public shaming is easy while lecturing someone in front of hundreds or thousands is also easy. But showing compassion & empathy instead is where we grow as a person. Even if we might disagree, those who ask questions will always be more powerful than those who don’t.

We can also show compassion by providing valuable & constructive feedback. Sharing our voice is important, it just comes down to how we do it.

And never forget:

The best way to complain, is to make something.

Thank you for reading,

August 24, 2015No Comments

How to Read a Book

There are many things I want to write about, but one question I got asked more frequently over the past couple weeks is: “How do you read so much, or find the time reading?”.

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August 10, 2015No Comments

The inspiration lie

Probably one of the most asked questions I get is “How do you get inspired?”.

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April 12, 2015No Comments

My Top Reading Recommendations Part I

A few days ago I promised to write a couple more book recommendations, so let’s start with the first batch. Some of them are a bit older, some more recent.

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October 24, 2014No Comments

Why Side Projects Should Be Stupid

The article below is an interview interview I did with FirstRound Capital back in 2014 but remains one of my favorite interviews today. If you're interested in getting some insight in how I approach my side projects (or even main projects) this article might give you the behind the scenes you were looking for.


Tobias van Schneider lives his life like one big side project. Today, he designs and builds new products for Spotify in New York, but he couldn’t have predicted that when he dropped out of school at age 15 to work as an apprentice in a computer shop in Austria. He couldn’t have predicted that when he applied to graduate schools and design schools and was told repeatedly that he didn’t have enough training or talent to build a career.He couldn’t have predicted that even when he turned his side passion for visual and product design into a full-time job by opening up his own studio. He didn’t know what to expect. But from that point on, side projects have marked his path like breadcrumbs, leading him to where he is today.

As van Schneider was growing up, teaching himself new skills after work and on weekends, the idea of “side projects” became a foundational my thin the tech world. Products like Gmail, Craigslist, and even Post-Its can trace their roots back to work discovered and developed on the side. As a result, hackathons and other strategies have become standard practice at large companies and even startups to bottle this spirit and keep technical talent engaged.

This is great, van Schneider says, but not if it becomes a cliche. His argument: In order for side projects to truly succeed, they have to be stupid. Here’s what he means, and how it can help your company stay creative and competitive:

Let Yourself be Stupid

“The only way a side project will work is if people give themselves permission to think simple, to change their minds, to fail — basically, to not take them too seriously,” says van Schneider. “When you treat something like it’s stupid, you have fun with it, you don’t put too much structure around it. You can enjoy different types of success.”

When you think about it, most of the side projects we point to as huge successes were never intended to be anything more than experiments.Side projects include everything employees do outside the bounds of normal work hours or within bounds if they work at a company that puts time aside for employees to explore independently (think Google’s famous20% time rule). At a certain point, about 50% of Google’s new projects were born out of this time. New companies have emerged too, with first-time entrepreneurs like Artillery CTO Ian Langworth turning weekend experiments with friends into full-time jobs. At the start of any and all of these projects, no one had a grand plan for turning them into massive,profitable ventures. As van Schneider puts it, “If you think that way, you lose the magic.”

“Side projects are great because you don’t need to know anything. You get to be a beginner because no one is watching you and there are no expectations,” he says. “If you don’t have an idea, don’t stress about it, just go do something else. It’s this attitude that it doesn’t matter that allows us to be inspired and to work on only the things we truly want to work on.”

Sounds great, but as van Schneider points out, keeping side projects stupid can be really, really hard — especially in an industry where everyone talks about funding, scale, and data-driven decision-making. If you’re not careful, you can forget why you ever wanted to work on something in the first place. Below is a list of valuable lessons both companies and individuals can learn from stupid side projects.

Take It One Step at a Time

Side projects are simple.

Immersed in the New York startup scene, van Schneider is surrounded by people working on countless side projects, and he too is constantly drawn to new ideas. The advice he gives to himself and others is to keep things as basic as possible for as long as possible.

“Think of the very, very first step you would take to realize your idea,” he says. “I think when people work on ‘stupid’ side projects, they spend more time thinking this way. You have to chunk out your time to work around your day job, so you’re constantly thinking about the minimum thing you can do to push the project forward. You think in terms of very small next steps.”

The benefit here is that you’re prevented from overthinking and killing your buzz. When you work on something because you feel like you have to, not just because you want to, there’s a tendency to overreach.

“A lot of people ask themselves questions until they’re so scared of the future they’ll never do anything new.”

These questions probably sound familiar:

  • How do I scale this thing?
  • Can I really find financing for this?
  • Do I have a decent chance of being successful?
  • “Oh my god, someone else out there is doing exactly the same thing! What now?”
  • Who has already done this better, faster, smarter than me?

“All of these doubts kick in, overcomplicate things, and kill projects that could have become something,” says van Schneider. “When you’re focused on just taking that first step, or that next right step to keep things in motion, you won’t ask yourself all these questions.”

My first piece of advice is to just fucking do it.

There’s a famous Steve Jobs interview where he talks about the moment he realized that the world was defined and built by people who were no smarter than him. It was the same moment he knew that he was free to make anything possible.

“I love that interview because that’s not how most people learned things in school,” says van Schneider. “We’re taught from the beginning that we have to sit there and learn from people who are smarter than us. Sure, there might be people who are more experienced, but they also had to learn and fail to get there, and we often don’t get to see that part. I think once you embrace this reality, so many doors open and failure doesn’t matter anymore.”

Being immune to failure is another hallmark of successful side projects. Because you’re not depending on them for your livelihood, you have the luxury of failing, of calling ‘Do over!’ when things aren’t going so well, and nothing bad will happen to you.

“If you can remove all fears and go one step at a time, you will find things that will guide you along the way,” says van Schneider. “You will learn new things, absorb new information, meet people, get feedback, see demand in different areas — new doors will open up for you.”

When he’s talked to people who have built successful side projects, he says they mostly tell him the same thing: “I was just living life and doing what I loved. When I saw something happening, I reacted, but I didn’t force it.”

Ditch Your Obsession with Growth

Side projects aren’t about rapid scale.

Van Schneider is a fan of another entrepreneur: Sophia Amoruso, founder of online fashion store Nasty Gal. Today, the company employs hundreds of people and brings in over $100 million a year — and it began as a hobby. Amoruso loved collecting vintage clothes and selling them on eBay. It was fun. A personal challenge. When she realized people were willing to pay quite a bit for some of her products, she gradually amped up her inventory and re-prioritized her life until she was running the company full-time. But none of this describes why she got started in the first place.

A lot of people talk about the importance of “doing what you love,” but what’s important is all the meaning packed into the word “love,” van Schneider says. Love is not just talk or professed passion. It’s hard work. It’s focused dedication at odd hours, trying new things, knowing every step of the way that chances of traditional success are slim. It’s being fine with staying small. “You do it because you’re enjoying yourself. When this is the case, you don’t give up when you don’t see growth; and when you don’t give up, anything can happen.”

Remember, success also comes in the form of learning new things, meeting the right people, feeling personally fulfilled, he says. You don’t know what will happen next. Perhaps your side project will lead you to your next job,your spouse, or a sustainable living that gives you the freedom to keep exploring.

There are so many startup success stories out there now that people think there must be a recipe for how to build toward a multi-million dollar exit. In fact, a lot of blog posts, books and speakers espouse formulas that they swear will work. But van Schneider disagrees. “When I look at examples like Sophia and Nasty Gal, I couldn’t write down a plan, give it to someone else and have them repeat it,” he says. “With the biggest successes, that is never the case.”

Side projects only get bigger when you want them to.

“Sometimes your project might grow so that you have more work than you can handle by yourself, especially if you still have a full-time job,” says van Schneider. “When this is the case, you have the chance to think about success looks like to you. You can bring people on to work with you only if you want to.”

As a byproduct, you also get to be more thoughtful about who you bring into your fold. When you love what you’re doing, you want to work with people who operate on the same wavelength and who believe in the project and its potential as much as you.

Trust Yourself More

Side projects make you the boss.

“When you feel real ownership for a project, you become more confident in your decisions,” says van Schneider. “You might change your plan and that’s okay. You are always right when it’s your project.”

When you adopt this attitude and start trusting in yourself and your skills, you are much more likely to succeed at what you’re doing. Promising projects die when you sidestep risk and doubt your abilities. Van Schneider — who is 100% self-trained in design — has experienced this firsthand. Despite all the rejection letters he racked up from graduate programs, he didn’t allow himself to get discouraged. He opened his own studio anyway.


“When someone tells me I can’t do something, I say, ‘Thank you, now I’m definitely going to do it.’”

“When you’re working on a side project, you have the time and the choice to invest in learning new things,” he says. “You can also be choosier about the feedback you take. When you do take it, it’s because you truly want to get better at something.”

A lot of people face negative feedback in their jobs, whether it’s judgment from managers or co-workers or the anxiety of running out of time. “If you adopt a ‘side project’ mindset, you can turn this into constructive energy,” van Schneider says. “Think about it. If you love your side project, even if someone says that it’s shit, you still love it. So take the feedback, figure out how it can make you stronger, and go with that.”

Two years after he opened his own studio, he started working with three other designers, and got hired to do a job by one of the universities that had rejected him not so long before. “There was this moment where I realized how important it was that I trusted myself all that time.”

How Companies Can Support Stupid Side Projects

The best thing a startup can do to maintain its creative edge and keep its most talented employees invested in the company is make time and space for stupid side projects, van Schneider says. While larger companies like Google and Apple can build this into people’s jobs on a regular basis,more and more startups are providing time in the form of hack weeks and hack days.

“At Spotify, we host week-long hackathons which are basically paid vacations during which people can hack on anything they want,” says van Schneider. “A lot of what gets made comes out of frustrations — things people want the product to do or things they have always wanted to make possible.”

This is a fairly classic narrative. He cites the example of Tina Roth Eisenberg, creator of design blog and studio Swiss Miss, who created the site Tattly to sell tasteful, well-crafted temporary tattoos after her young daughter came home from school with a poor facsimile on her arm. “At no point was she thinking, I’m going to scale this like crazy and get rich,” says van Schneider. As a company, you want to appeal to the people who simply want to do something cool and fill a gap.

“Companies underestimate how important it is to give employees the time and space to listen to their hearts and explore the things they are interested in,” he says. “This is something that is impossible to measure — which turns a lot of people off in this very data-driven business. But when you look at people like Sophia from Nasty Gal, you can just see how much heart is involved.”

“Humanity is trying so hard to measure everything. We have to resist this attitude.”

“At Spotify, we’ve tried really hard to establish this philosophy. With our Hackathons, we do our best to tell people to trust themselves, go crazy — we absolutely don’t care if what they produce turns into anything. We try to make this very clear.”

The corollary to this is that a company needs to have a system to take the ideas produced by Hackathons and do something productive with them.In general, Spotify chooses the top three ideas, and entrust the teams who create them with making them a reality. “There’s nothing more discouraging than saying, ‘Oh, you worked hard on that for a week? That’s nice, now go back to work.’ Even if you tell them you’re going to archive it and come back to it later, that’s something.”

Most importantly, companies need to thank hackathon participants for their effort, and for pouring their passion into these projects. Gratitude goes along way toward keeping people fulfilled and investing their full hearts in their work. You’d be surprised how many people come up with ideas at hack events and then decide to pursue them on their own when they don’t get support, van Schneider says.

Right now, Spotify is working to develop one of the projects that came out of a recent hackathon. The three people responsible for the idea were given a full year to flesh it out and implement it — they own it end-to-end.

“This is the best case scenario because you know these people are super passionate about what they are working on,” says van Schneider. “We made room in the product roadmap for these ideas. We take the risk that we might fail, but we make it clear that it’s okay if we do. It’s worth it to us as a company. We will pay three people to explore something risky for a year because this culture and attitude is so important to us. When you do this, people stay at your company and their motivation becomes contagious.”

He sees it happen all the time. Employees see that Spotify has invested in developing employee ideas and they suddenly can’t wait for the next hackathon to roll around. “When you have this kind of energy, you want to tell people that they don’t have to wait for the next hack day opportunity. Give them permission to take one or two hours out of every day where you’re paying them to innovate and pursue things they want to do. Build in ways for people to share this kind of work with their peers and their managers. Make them feel rewarded or you risk losing them.”

“If people find the time and have great ideas, they will do it anyway. They will be gone.”

Extremely talented people are the first to resist being locked into any environment. Van Schneider points to the team that created startup FiftyThree, makers of the Pencil stylus and Paper iPad app. “Many of them came out of Microsoft, tired of what they were working on, and they didn’t have the freedom to take their products to the next level. Most of their work was shelved,” he says. “You have to tell people so that they will believe you: ‘You know what, you can do this thing exactly the way you want to at our company. Give them the trust and responsibility and remove their fears. Those are the main ingredients for great projects.”

Facebook is a good counter example. They also had a talented team that wanted to try out something different. The result was Facebook Paper, a new app that experimented with new concepts but was not intended to replace the current mobile app. The company gave the team the resources to turn it into something real. “When people at Facebook see things like this happen they get inspired and motivated to pursue something new too. Their projects don’t have to be standalone products or financial successes,and the company will stand behind them. Just having creative people at your company is rewarding and high-impact.”

Creating a ‘Side Projects’ Culture

As with everything related to culture, this starts with hiring the right people.As van Schneider puts it, there are two categories of hires: 1) People who you could put in a room, get out of their way, and they will create remarkable things with little oversight; and 2) people who get stressed out when they don’t know what the next step is or what deliverables are expected of them.

“Some people completely freeze when you tell them that they can do anything,” he says. “It’s something good to ask in an interview to determine where people lie on this spectrum. It’s the difference between hiring someone who needs to be given targets to hit and someone who wants to create their own targets.” The latter category is usually more ambitious.

The key is to figure out what candidates’ primary drivers are. “What is the main reason they want to work with you? Is it the money? Is it their long-term goals and how your company fits into their career? Is their plan coming from somewhere else? Are they living someone else’s life? Their parents’ life? Their friends’ life? A lot of people are. These things are so easily buried under data and titles and equity.” A lot of this information can be mined by asking more personal questions in interviews, taking an interest in how people live their lives outside of work, and observing what kind of compensation package they would choose.

“In the end, people’s greatest side projects are themselves and their careers.”

The most successful companies in the future will be the ones that respect this. Van Schneider counts Spotify among their ranks.

Case in point: He landed his current job through connections stemming from a side project that he was deeply passionate about. He reimagined and wrote extensively about a new type of Mac email client that he named .Mail (dot Mail), completely rethinking how a mail application could handle attachments, calendar invites, and more.

“I just put these ideas out there and it got featured everywhere. FastCompany was writing about it and they called it email reinvented. It just went viral,” he says. “It’s fascinating to me, because before I published it, I showed it to so many friends who said they didn’t think it was anything special, and I just decided, you know what I’m going to do it anyway.”

Suddenly he was getting picked up by the likes of Wired and other major publications. People who ran large email clients at Google, Yahoo and Microsoft reached out to him asking if he wanted a job. He forged relationships with many of them that he still maintains today. In the end, it led him to Spotify, and the opportunity to reinvent how people interact with music on web and mobile interfaces, a challenge that compelled him.

The irony of .Mail is that so many people asked, even implored him or someone else to build the model he described in the article he published,and while he hacked on it for a while he ultimately gave it up. “I realized I was passionate about thinking about the problem, but not actually fixing it,” he says.

“I didn’t build it because it stopped being fun. It stopped being stupid.”


I hope you enjoyed this article. Thank you for reading,