Brian Feeney
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Museum Life

At the Brooklyn Museum, the tech offices are on the sixth and top floor (inaccessible to the public). Anytime my eyes get that computer-screen-strain, I can take a fifteen minute break and wander the galleries. It's a lovely perk.

Art is refreshing. I'm really surprised I forgot that. There really isn't anything like galleries full of paintings, sculpture, antique furniture. There's a nice calm feeling about them. Images on the web are no substitute. When there is nothing artificial between the art and your eyes the connection is physical. You can feel it. Some pieces have a magnetism which draw you in and won't let you go. So I let them hold me for awhile, waiting to see what they might say to me. If nothing else, they seem grateful I gave them my attention for a time.

The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Sometimes the lights are out and the galleries dimly lit with only security lights. Walking around with the museum like this gives the art a different kind of life. They have down time, too, just like us.

The Brooklyn Museum isn't a huge one. It's sizable, but it's footprint is surely less than a quarter that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and our collection has a much quieter profile than, say, MoMA. Still, there's a lot of pride here, and our stated mission is wonderful: the goal of our institution is to be a museum for the local community, to exist for the visitor. We downplay our curatorial work and the academic stuff. It's a lovely environment to work in.

There is also the added benefit of meeting interesting people, and being in the mix. The museum had a really great Swoon exhibition up this last Spring and Summer and I met Calendonia Curry in the cafe line as we were buying our lunch. I told her I liked her work. I should have told her that I was in possession of a couple tossed off pieces that she had given to the museum and which had found their way into the Tech office. They are preliminary sketches for what she would eventually install in the gallery, an exhibit called Submerged Motherlands. I had them framed.

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These feather/leaf screen prints will be my reminder of my time here at the museum.

The project I'm working on with the Tech team should bring people closer to all our art. It could help them to get a little more out of their time visiting with us. That's the hope, anyway. Working there, I've learned to love art again, and I hope this project might bring people closer to it, too.

August 30, 2014

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Feeeds

A lot of people lately have been talking about RSS and the return of the blog. It seems as if everyone is wary of the end of Twitter, and are preparing themselves for a world without it. Most of us have already abandoned Facebook as a social hub, leaving it delegated as a second-class contact list. If we abandon Twitter, too, where are we going to go? There aren't any other promising social networks out there, and there doesn't appear to be one coming up any time soon. This leaves us looking back to the days pre-Social Media — back to blogs.

It's painfully easy to set up a blog today. You could use Tumblr, Squarespace, Blogspot, etc., and have a blog up in less than an hour. Most of these products require little to no knowledge of how the web works. It does take some initiative. It takes even more initiative to run your own blog on your own server on your own domain. These are the sites I'm fascinated with. I love having my own website and I love that so many people I look up to have their own as well. I want to celebrate these people, raise them up, give them a higher platform. I want to connect them.

Are there any good indexes for all these popular blogs? I haven't found any. Why wouldn't there be? Is this something that should be built? I'm seriously thinking about it. There may be a very good reason why such a thing doesn't exist. People smarter than me would know why. But I'd love to build this thing.

I've been calling my idea Feeeds (for lack of a better name). I think of it as non-social network. There would be personal accounts, but they don't exist for communication. Their sole purpose would be for building communities, while any and all conversation takes place elsewhere. You would come to Feeeds to see who's writing, but go to their own sites to see what they're saying.

I want to connect people with as little interference as possible. Which means that, for people who have their own websites and enjoy owning their own content, I wouldn't encroach upon what's theirs. There would be no walled garden. I believe in a wild, varied, decentralized Internet. Feeeds would be more like an address book, a place to go to find personal blogs to read and follow.

I want to stress again that I have no intention of building anything that purports to being the next new social network. I don't want the responsibility of owning anyone's content and I don't want anyone to feel like they're giving me anything. But I do want to build something that can help surface all the personal websites and blogs out there which deserve attention and love.

Brent Simmons names RSS as one of the pillars of the web that'll never go away, and I believe that. I also believe we've not fully tapped the power of RSS. There are billions of feeds out, many thousands of which are good blogs languishing in dark unlit corners. I want to take everyone's personal and beloved RSS feeds and show them the love they deserve.

Currently, the best avenue for exposing yourself to the greater world is Twitter. But Twitter is a poor Rolodex for personal websites. It's a terrible index. Even so, Twitter is where I go to find new people in my industry and to find out more about them. But might there be a better way? What if there *was* an actual index online for people with personal websites? There are so many great people out there maintaining their own websites. It's difficult to keep track of them all. And I'd like to.

This isn't about marketing, either. The point of this wouldn't be for promoting oneself. It's merely a way to say, "I'm here." We can't rely on Google to be the hub — its net is far too wide. Relying on nothing leaves the job to word of mouth.

So, again, why doesn't this exist? I suppose, most obviously, it requires buy-in. It needs to be voluntary. People would only engage with this if they chose to do so. Being voluntary, a certain threshold of users would be necessary before it became truly useful. This is so very hard to do, and failing at this has been the downfall of so many web services.

I have other ideas for this. It's a project that I can see growing and becoming something real. I'd love to build it. Anyone care to help? Any and all thoughts about this are welcome.

August 29, 2014

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The Shock of the New is Old

We know that the internet is drastically changing modern life, and its influence grows stronger by the minute. It makes some people anxious, scares others, but also excites a few. Regardless of how you might feel about it, there’s something to learn from diving into the history books. This kind of change isn’t new. It’s happened many times before.

In the first essay of his book, The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes compares his contemporary 1980 to the 1880–1930 era when industrialism and the age of mechanics massively altered how people saw their world. He asks, what changed? What did they have in Modernism’s infancy that we lost?

Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore and above all the sense that art in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.

When time moves too fast, it becomes very difficult to define. I think we’re living in a very similar period. There is plenty of excitement and innovation and opportunity, but we’re also very unsure of what’s on the other side. We have no idea how this will all flatten out. We don’t know what to call it. As a first attempt at metaphor, we referred to the internet as “The information superhighway”. A good try, but have we done better since then? I’m not sure. The internet is definitely nota highway, though it might have seemed that way for a moment in time. As we learn what the internet affords us, we find it’s much more than just information, it’s also friendships and communications and personal conveniences. Could you possibly wrap all that up into a single metaphor?

Maybe we’ll find the right phrases in another couple of decades. Using hindsight, Hughes was able find some pretty relevant metaphors for the art of the mid-Industrial Revolution period:

The master image of painting was no longer landscape but the metropolis. In the country, things grow, but the essence of manufacture of the city is process, and this could only be expressed by metaphors of linkage, relativity, interconnectedness. These metaphors were not ready to hand. Science and technology had outstripped them, and the rate of change was so fast that it left art stranded, at least for a time, in it’s pastoral conventions.

So much parallel here. So much. “Linkage, relativity, interconnectedness.” “The metropolis.” “Process.” These metaphors feel right, don’t they? Not just for that time, but also for this time. After a few decades lingering around in the suburbs, we’re moving back to cities and placing priorities on social needs. It’s history on repeat.

I like knowing that history repeats itself, that we can always go back into books and find parallels to whatever new is happening today. Because nothing is truly new — everything has a precedent — and we can learn from them if we pay attention .

November 01, 2013

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Are You Creatively Satisfied?

Every interview from The Great Discontent includes the question, "Are you creatively satisfied?". It's an amazing question precisely because of the same reasons it's a terrible question. It defies a real answer, but yet usually everyone comes to the same conclusion: "No. I mean, yes. I mean, maybe. Actually, it depends. Sometimes." The interesting thing isn't so much the final answer given, but in watching how the respondents wriggle in getting there.

I ask myself a version of this everyday, more or less indirectly: "Am I doing what I want to be doing?" If the answer is no, then I sit and write out my thoughts until I find out what the reasons might be. The next step is to make moves to correct my path. Right now, I feel like I'm working too much. I have a full time job and I'm working on a couple websites on the side. My time is a little more constrained than I'd like it to be. What I want to do next is to play around with photoshop again, make some collages and pretty images, maybe a poster or two. Thinking this through, whatever the answer, helps me become more optimistic and renews my interest in the world around me.

Creative satisfaction, for me, is determined on a timeline. It's not about being perfectly happy with my work right at this moment, but over a period of time stretching between a few months in the past and a few months into the future. It's hard to feel satisfied if you don't like the work you've recently done, or if you aren't excited about what's coming up, and it's not very helpful to worry about liking the work today. Today is for working and getting things done.

Satisfaction is a general feeling. It comes and it goes. And it touches down just as lightly as it blows away. Because of this, I do what I can to invite it into my life, but I don't struggle to make it happen. The goal, i think, is a matter of zen practice, being satisfied with being unsatisfied. The goal is too keep asking yourself the question.

A few of my favorite responses from TGD:

Frank Chimero:

I think this question is bullshit, man. I know that this is sort of the namesake of the site, but the reason I think it’s bullshit is because the way you frame a creative practice should not be in terms of whether you’re content or not. I think everyone has a window of approval for their work; sometimes that’s years and sometimes it’s months, days, or hours. Your approval of your work metabolizes no matter what, and it doesn’t matter how good you are. That’s why I hit you up on Twitter recently to say “What if we’re thinking about this all wrong? What if contentedness about your creative work is more like eating?” . . . It doesn’t matter how good the meal is. A few hours later, you’re going to be hungry again. Maybe the reason you’re dissatisfied is not because the burger you just ate was bad, but because you’ve already eaten it—your body processes it. Doing the work makes you better, so of course you’ll be dissatisfied with what you’ve already done. You’re better!

Jeff Veen:

I hope I never am—why would I continue to create if I was? But at the moment, I can’t think of anything to change. Right now, I get to work with some of the most talented people I’ve ever met in a culture that is tight and supportive—and only vaguely political—with what appears to be, after spending so many years in a startup, almost unlimited resources to achieve what we have set out to do. I put all those things together and it leads to a lot of satisfaction, though I don’t think you should ever be creatively satisfied. The only time I want to feel that way is when I’m recharging in anticipation of doing more stuff.

Aaron Draplin:

Fuck yeah, I love what I do. I worked all weekend on a logo, like a dumb-ass. I got to go in and present it today and I couldn’t get in there fast enough. You sketch and sketch and sketch and come up with something. I am proud of what I came up with and I hope they pick it. If they don’t, what are you gonna do? You fight to make something better that they’ll love the next time you present. . . . Yeah, I’m too satisfied. You know how you eat too much and you’re too full, like at Thanksgiving? I feel that some days. I’ll leave work and go home so full and exhausted. I’m so proud of that shit.

October 15, 2013

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Free Time

I used to read almost 50 books a year. Now I get through maybe a few a year. In the last two years, how I spend my time has completely changed, my priorities rearranged. This is what happens when you make a dedicated effort towards a new ambition. Life takes off in new directions. The time you used to have for fun, random stuff shrinks away.

I have no regrets, because I love what I’m doing now. These days, I have a Career, but my entire life I had always been a dabbler. I’d be obsessed with piano for a month, then literature, then drawing, then philosophy, then soccer, then guitar, then piano again, then studying art, then something else, and then drawing again, and on and on. I love all the things. It was so hard for me to dedicate myself to just one subject for more than a month or so. I always had my paws in so many jars. My free time was quite literally free, unbounded by any promises.

But at 29, I was a barista in New York, playing in a band, designing things for friends sometimes, doing some writing but ignoring a half-finished novel I had sitting at home. There was nothing central to my life, except for activity. I was never able to sit still. I had so much free time that I floated from hobby to hobby with no end purpose in mind, and it started to feel empty.

Free time is a strange thing. For one, it’s a lucky benefit of first-world, modern life. We must be thankful for the hours in the day we have for doing whatever we want. We don’t deserve them. We don’t have a right to them. But we have them. How we spend those hours is important. The hours we spend at work defines who we are at present. The hours we have to do what we want defines who we will be in the future. We are so fortunate to have this, and it can be so easy to waste them.

In 2011 I made a decision: I would finally dedicate my free time to one hobby and make it a career. I began to think of myself as a designer. Not just a person who sometimes designs things, but someone who is a designer. I began spending all my time reading design and dev blogs, building my own websites, playing around in photoshop with purpose. It was exciting and new. For the first time in my life, I was sticking to one project, becoming a designer.

And then, somewhat surprisingly, it happened; I became a designer (maybe more of a developer professionally, but that’s a minor difference, right?). How I spent my free time turned into how I spent my daylight working hours. It was an amazing feeling. And, of course, I owe so much to friends and colleagues for helping my get here. I couldn’t have done it alone.

Now I’m starting to think about free time again. I still have plenty of it, but by habit those hours are still stuffed with design and dev industry blogs, and my freelance design work. I’m unable to draw a distinct line between my job and my hobbies. They’ve blended together and started to feel a bit muddy. It feels a little wrong, a little bit wreckless, like building a tall skyscraper but neglecting to give it windows. I’m growing as a person, but in one direction, up, and not looking out enough at the world around me.

There are things I miss that I need to get back: finishing novels again, and other books that have nothing to do with design; playing music; taking photos; studying philosophy and religion. These were all things that once defined me. They still do, but it's all in the past. I need to pull them back up to the present. I need to make time for new stuff again, to round out my life with more variety. It’s as important as anything.

August 18, 2013

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Content Strategy for the Non Content Strategist

I am not a content strategist. I am a freelance designer who also develops all of my own work. All aspects of each project fall on me; I have 100% of the responsibility. This means I also have to handle the content strategy. But I am not a content strategist. Or am I?

Web design has grown into a big business, and as it has grown it has splintered into a half-dozen hazily-defined fields: User Experience, User Interface, Information Architecture, Front-End / Back-End Development, and Content Strategy. (These, in addition to non-design jobs like SEO Specialists, Marketers, and Copywriters.) When designing a site for a large enterprise, it's likely there will be a budget for hiring dedicated staff for each role, a full team of people. When designing for small businesses (small-scope), the budget may only allow for one -- just a single person. That's a lot of responsibility for one person.

I've been freelancing for a year now, and if there's one thing I know I did correctly at the beginning, it was accepting this fact. Being both designer and developer meant I needed to think deeply about everything when starting a new project. If I ignored my duties as a UX designer, users might leave client's sites with bad impressions. If I didn't prepare for the IA, users might get lost and frustrated. If I didn't consider the CS, the client might not know how to use their own site, or the importance of copy clarity over flashy style.

I didn't expect this, but I've come to regard content strategy as the most important aspect of my job. It snuck up on me. Once I started considering content first, making it the priority, it shaped how I did everything else. Organization and aesthetics and typographic treatment and CMS customization, all these things suddenly seemed much much easier. Any time I felt I was against a wall with the design I would take a step back, reflect on my content strategy, and that wall would disappear. There is something about the panoramic view I get from Mount CS that clarifies all the mystery of Web design.

For all the great resources out there for content strategy, the numerous blogs and magazines, I can't recall anyone explaining how freelancers like me should approach content strategy. I think there's a distinction between what a Content Strategist does, and what a Design/Developer does when doing content strategy. The specifics of that distinction might be better defined by someone more experienced than me, but I'm sure they're there. I'm thinking there is a market for educating small-scope designers how they might properly include content strategy into their workflow. I would like to read it. Maybe I'll write it.

August 02, 2012

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Ubiquity

In his self-interview, Should You Buy Facebook Stock?, Jonah Peretti gives this short story of the Web:

When the world shifted from portals to search, Google was the big winner. Now the shift is from search to social, with Facebook as the big winner. The mega-trend is Portals → Search → Social. That's the big defining shift on the web and we are at the very beginning of the transition to social.

I'll hazard to claim the next mega-trend will be Ubiquity. And it will probably slide into being before we've become fully accustomed to Social. I think about what's next for the Web and I see a transition from needing a phone in your pocket to connect to being able to connect everywhere on most anything: watches (like Pebble), car-dashboards, mirrors . . . but not glasses. People want the internet in their glasses like they want flies landing on their noses. Sorry Google. Obviously, this is the future of Minority Report, and I think we're all collectively leaning into it.

One of my most pressing first-world problems is having to pull my phone out of my pocket every time I get a text, or I want to check the weather. If I had a car, I'm sure I'd want all my notifications to appear on my dash so I wouldn't need to fish for my phone wherever it might be resting. I also want everything connected to the Web to control from my devices: the coffee maker, the thermostat (ahem, Nest), lights, etc.

It seems only Apple is really in position to make this happen. But I would hope that others are working on it, and I'm sure they are. There are extra problems involved, like log-ins and security concerns. So it won't be simple. I just think it's inevitable; the Web will be everywhere.

May 17, 2012

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Logos on the Cheap

Tom and Phil of the Dolphin Plumbing Co. -- AKA Tom and Phil of London-based design firm Matt Dolphin -- spent the $42 to experience what it's like to purchase a logo from a discount design shop. The results are as you would expect: terrible. Their conclusion was this:

Maybe [the buyer of a cheap logo] doesn’t want his service to look premium. He’s a down-to-earth guy making an honest living for a fair price and he wants his logo to reflect that. Fair enough. But at no point throughout the process were we asked any questions about this. It was far too easy to let the designers get on with designing what they thought was right for a company they knew next-to-nothing about. Without this knowledge, can you really create something of any value, or are you simply choosing random fonts and adding clichéd clipart images based on the name of the company?

One of my first design jobs was as an in-house designer for a vanity publisher. I made book jackets -- at the pace of about 35 a week. That's a serious number. Because the work load was so heavy and steady, there wasn't any time to thoughtfully consider each design. It was a laughable work environment and I viewed it as a schooling experience more than a serious design job. Most of my designs were flat and extremely shallow. Of course they were. Aside from the book description and author suggestions (if there were any), I had nothing but my own intuition to guide me.

One thing I learned is that quality begets quality. And at a vanity press, the quality of 99% of the books published are astoundingly terrible. But here's the secret: the authors didn't know they were terrible. They didn't know how to distinguish between high and low quality writing. Nor were they able to see the difference between high and low quality design; which answers Matt's slightly hyperbolic question that "maybe [they] don't want [their] service to look premium." It's not a matter of wanting premium designs. They simply wanted a design because they needed a design and they couldn't do it themselves in Microsoft Word. It was never a concern of my employer to create book jackets that could compete with what was on display at Barnes & Noble. It was simply necessary to have a cover that somewhat represented the book and wasn't black text on a white background. The same goes for a plumber and his logo. For a plumber in a small town with an old van who may only make $42 in a day, all he needs is the smallest amount of distinction, not quality.

This is the reality of design. The $42-a-logo company is filling a need, and yes, they are creating something of value. They are providing cheap, lousy branding for companies that in all likelihood could barely afford even cheap, lousy branding but yet need it anyway. I understand why someone who runs a professional logo design firm would be irritated by a company that makes stupidly cheap, knock-off logos. I don't, however, sympathize with feeling threatened by them. Their service may be adjacent, but they don't overlap. If you make modern, functional logos of real quality, you will find clients to pay what you deserve. Matt and Phil of Dolphin Plumbing were not a client that would ever approach a professional design firm. If they were, they would have been the type to email for a price quote, see the response, and never be heard from again.

There was nothing wrong in Tom and Phil's article. It was a great look at the process used by that type of budget design company. I think they missed the bigger picture, though. We designers know by both instinct and experience that good design work isn't cheap or fast. I'm sure the designers working in that cheap logo company knew it, too. The mistake is assuming there is only one type of client.

April 26, 2012

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Content Strategy and the Future

Now, I'm not a licensed content strategists -- nor have I ever held that official title -- but I think about it plenty. I also try hard to keep content strategy in mind when designing and developing. What has become clear to me is that it is a field proportionately far more important than it usually gets resources for. With each new Website I build, I'm spending more time focused on the planning stages, asking myself (and the clients) questions gathered from CS articles. The result is not just better looking Websites, but better working Websites.

Content strategy is important. And it's only going to be more so in the future. In her article, "Content Strategy: learned, unlearned, and (just a little bit) uncensored ", Kate Towsey says, "I realised that Content Strategy is not about documentation, it can’t be and shouldn’t be, but rather, it’s about altering processes and about changing how people think and therefore how they create and communicate." As technology changes and we start to own more products with Web access built into them -- glasses, watches, etc. -- we will have to think differently about the content that goes into them.

When I resumed designing Websites last year, I jumped right in to responsive design. Using media queries felt fresh and new, and it's still exciting to me. I love that with just a few adjustments to CSS, my designs can look equally as good on a phone or tablet as it does in a desktop browser, and be functional in appropriately different ways. It's going to be fun to wonder about making a full website work on a watch, too. Or a car dashboard. Or a bathroom mirror.

And the first thing I will consider when those possibilities become reality will be my content strategy. The very first thing.

April 16, 2012

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Getting Those Hyperbolic Design Talk Blues

Mattan Griffel:

Very quickly, society is becoming divided into two groups: those that understand how to code and therefore manipulate the very structure of the world around them, and those that don’t – those whose lives are being designed and directed by those that do know how to code.

The surface impression I get from statements like these is that designers/developers are often too self-important. For the last ten years, I've been reading "serious" designers like Michael Beirut and Steven Heller and other Design Observer type folk, and the assumption that so many of them make is that design has as much power as money or political status. I don't think it does. But I do understand the idea.

Yes, one of the functions of design (especially product design) is to control the behavior of the user, but it does so passively. Literally passively.

I understand what Mattan is saying. As technology becomes more and more virtual, i.e. Web based, those who can code have more control. Just like city planners have control over city dwellers, and interior decorators have control over people in their own living rooms. But it is incredibly hyperbolic to say that entire lives are "being designed and directed" by someone typing letters into text editors.

I think it comes down to the fact that we don't yet have a very clear way of talking about how design is affecting our lives in 2012. Part of the conversation around the New Aesthetic is questioning whether or not it actually is a thing (I'm not yet convinced.) because the idea is so vague. Computer generated data and art can look really strange or it might look incredibly analogue. Skueomorphism is a thing because transitioning from landline telephones and paper address books into digital versions is difficult for many people. By the time we get to 2020, we will have integrated a lot more internet-connected products into our daily lives. Slowly but surely we will adapt. It will all become normal. Or the rapid pace of change will start to feel normal.

Do I think it's important people learn to code? Designers should learn how to code. CEOs of technology start ups should know something about coding. But everyday "normal people" (as Marco would say) don't need to know any more about coding than they do about farming. They get their apps the same way they've been getting their hamburger for decades.

I could probably write an entire article on the hyperbolic, self-inflated talk of some design writing, and I might, but what I really want to say right now is: Chill. Technology is pretty awesome at the moment, but we're still living in a physical world. Let's not lose sight of that.

April 15, 2012

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