January 4, 2013
"Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution."

— Simply lovely. In Be Wrong as Fast as You Can, New York Times magazine editor Hugo Lindgren lays it all out on the line, in a first-person confessional with a moral for us all. Now, please excuse me but I must stop procrastinating and reading Everything On The Web and get back to it.

November 28, 2012
"There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."

Fine, I’m a writer, so obviously I’d be taken with Jeff Bezos’s management technique, described in the Fortune cover story, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: The Ultimate Disrupter. Still, there’s something terribly compelling about his habit of forcing the company’s leadership team to sit in silence and read six-page “narratives” before any discussion. As he points out in the quote above, there’s no room for sloppy thinking in a six-page memo. Not one that you want your boss and all your managers to read, at least. The whole of this story is worth a read and all.

[Story via Jessi Hempel.]

September 20, 2012
"Architecture, the most public of endeavours, is practised by people who inhabit a smugly hermetic milieu which is cultish."

…And that’s just the beginning of Jonathan Meades’ fabulously bilious rant, Architects are the last people who should shape our cities, an extract from his new book, Museum Without Walls. Here’s more:

"The entire quasi-cult is cosily conjoined by mutual dependence and by an ingrown, verruca-like jargon which derives from the more dubious end of American academe."

and…

"Architecture talks about architecture as though it is disconnected from all other endeavours, an autonomous discipline which is an end in itself. Now, it would be acceptable to discuss opera or sawmill technology or athletics or the refinement of lard in such a way. They can be justifiably isolated, for they don’t impinge on anyone outside, say, the lard community – the notoriously factional lard community. To isolate architecture is blindness, and an abjuration of responsibility."

and…

We are all familiar with the hubristic pomp that often results when actors direct themselves. Appointing architects to conceive places is like appointing foxes to advise on chicken security.”

Meades’ real beef is that architects are incapable of looking beyond the aesthetic to imagine the context of the environment around the buildings they design. He’s not entirely wrong, though the smart-thinking young architects I’ve talked to would likely argue that he’s talking a load of old codswallop (technical term.) Still, he does make his bad-tempered points with such style, you can pretty much forgive his wild generalizations (even as you quite want to send him a packet of Tums to make him feel better.)

August 22, 2012
"Twitter seems to embody the essence of subtraction. The brevity forces you to focus on what’s truly important and to harness the restrictions as a challenge. The exercise of paring down meaning and insight into its purest form, formerly the purview of headline writers and the copy desk, is an invaluable one for anyone looking to communicate in the modern world."

— Self-promotion alert. I wrote this piece for Matt May‘s upcoming book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules For Winning In The Age Of Excess Everything, which will be published by McGraw-Hill in October. It’s a love letter, of sorts, to Twitter.

August 7, 2012
"There can be, and should be, a blissful, serene enjoyment in knowing, and celebrating, that there are folks out there having the time of their life at something that you might have loved to, but are simply skipping."

— I’ve waxed lyrically about Anil Dash’s writing before, when he responded to a PopChips racist ad campaign with a blog post that was as reasoned as it was lyrical. Now here’s another piece in which he causes me to mix delight at someone’s thinking and writing with jealousy at someone’s turn of phrase. (What can I say? Sometimes I cannot rise above these things.) His piece on the Joy of Missing Out is a beautiful paean to fatherhood—and an important and timely reminder for us all to make the most of each moment.

June 14, 2012
"All pop-science these days must be translated into stories, as if readers, like children, cannot absorb the material any other way."

In The Curse of Knowledge, writer Isaac Chotiner eviscerates Imagine, the latest book by the popular writer, Jonah Lehrer. I haven’t read the book so I can’t yet evaluate the review’s analysis, but in and of itself this is a beautifully written take on a genre of literature that’s become enormously, perhaps troublingly popular in the last few decades. It’s also a good reminder of the questions we must ask — or demand others ask on our behalves — when attempting to evaluate what’s in front of us.

[Story via Christopher Butler]

May 29, 2012
"Just today, a stranger came to my door claiming he was here to unclog a bathroom drain. I let him into my house without verifying his identity, and not only did he repair the drain, he also took off his shoes so he wouldn’t track mud on my floors. When he was done, I gave him a piece of paper that asked my bank to give him some money. He accepted it without a second glance. At no point did he attempt to take my possessions, and at no point did I attempt the same of him. In fact, neither of us worried that the other would. My wife was also home, but it never occurred to me that he was a sexual rival and I should therefore kill him."

— Talk about a brilliant opening to a book. I just embarked on security technologist Bruce Schneier's latest book, Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. We all need to think clearly about trust in all its many forms, but I’m honestly most excited that the book seems to be written by, well, by someone who can actually write. Can’t wait to read more.

May 9, 2012
The Flipped Classroom: Answering Obama’s Call For Creativity In Education gives impressive examples of how thinking differently about the structure of education can have enormous effect. Turns out, changing the focus of how time is spent in class and how time is spent on homework can have enormous impact on the students. 

Dominique improved in all six of his classes, carrying a 2.88 grade point average last fall compared to his previous D/F average. For the first time, he is talking about going to college.

Meanwhile, the pilot of the experiment reported these results:

Failure rates overall decreased by 30% to 10.8%. The breakdown by subject: English went from 52% to 19%; social studies from 28% to 9%; math 44% to 13%; and science from 41% to 19%. 

Pretty impressive, huh? So now here’s my question: what influence might design skills (and, for that matter, writing skills?) have on such initiatives? The slide above, grabbed from the Fast Co Exist story, is like a technical manual on how not to design, while the writing is grammatically incorrect and somewhat incomprehensible. Yet they still got the results… the incredible impact happened quite without the influence of so-called “good” design or writing. So this begs the question, if the results are there, why do so many of us get hung up on the importance of things being “correct”? This is a serious question, and one that I think gets to the heart of designer insecurity. Do all teachers need to be designers and writers too? If things can happen quite well without designers, however can they argue that they actually need to be an integral part of the system? Or do we argue that the impact would be *that much greater* if those other skills were deeply integrated? Answers on a virtual postcard, please.
[Story via Beth DiLeone]

The Flipped Classroom: Answering Obama’s Call For Creativity In Education gives impressive examples of how thinking differently about the structure of education can have enormous effect. Turns out, changing the focus of how time is spent in class and how time is spent on homework can have enormous impact on the students. 

Dominique improved in all six of his classes, carrying a 2.88 grade point average last fall compared to his previous D/F average. For the first time, he is talking about going to college.

Meanwhile, the pilot of the experiment reported these results:

Failure rates overall decreased by 30% to 10.8%. The breakdown by subject: English went from 52% to 19%; social studies from 28% to 9%; math 44% to 13%; and science from 41% to 19%. 

Pretty impressive, huh? So now here’s my question: what influence might design skills (and, for that matter, writing skills?) have on such initiatives? The slide above, grabbed from the Fast Co Exist story, is like a technical manual on how not to design, while the writing is grammatically incorrect and somewhat incomprehensible. Yet they still got the results… the incredible impact happened quite without the influence of so-called “good” design or writing. So this begs the question, if the results are there, why do so many of us get hung up on the importance of things being “correct”? This is a serious question, and one that I think gets to the heart of designer insecurity. Do all teachers need to be designers and writers too? If things can happen quite well without designers, however can they argue that they actually need to be an integral part of the system? Or do we argue that the impact would be *that much greater* if those other skills were deeply integrated? Answers on a virtual postcard, please.

[Story via Beth DiLeone]

May 2, 2012
"I think the people behind this Popchips ad are not racist. I think they just made a racist ad, because they’re so steeped in our culture’s racism that they didn’t even realize they were doing it."

I don’t say this often, and I don’t say this lightly, but stop what you’re doing and go and read Anil Dash’s screed, How To Fix Popchips’ Racist Ad Campaign. It’s not what you’d expect. Because it would be easy to sound off about the thoughtless callousness and disrespect of an ad campaign that for absolutely no apparent reason depicts Ashton Kutcher dressed up in vaguely Indian garb and coming out with patter that might have seemed out of place in British comedies from the 1970s (which did a lot to perfect the art of casual racism). Easy, but unhelpful. Instead, Dash takes a hard look at the culture in which this type of “creative” output was ever deemed appropriate, and has tough words for all concerned. Most of all, he pleas for all of them to avoid the usual measures of crisis management. Dash writes, 

Those superficial corrections don’t change the process. Back at the office, the Chief Marketing Officer knows that all the people who hate that brand followed them on Twitter for the day to see how they’d respond, so they later crow to the CEO, "We got a 12% bump in social media metrics, looks like I get my bonus!" The PR firm says "Well, aside from the tiny minority of people who complained, we actually got a ton of media mentions, so I can still use this to pitch ourselves to our next client!" The advertising firm says, "We can still talk about making an ad that got millions of views on YouTube, and having worked on a multimillion dollar campaign for a national consumer brand".

And the end result is, nothing actually changes. 

It’s absolutely true, and anyone reading it who’s had any kind of tangential experience of content creation or advertising or marketing or design or the twenty first century knows it’s so. Sometimes mea culpas that follow such gaffes are somewhat genuine, but let’s face it, we live in a society that exploits cynicism to an extraordinary degree. This piece calls for us to be more thoughtful, to think harder, to accept our personal limitations and to be prepared to have an honest discussion about the imperfect society in which we live. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful, heartfelt piece of writing that has completely made my day. Really. Go and read it. Now.

November 14, 2011
"In the creative process I think good things come from obsessions, and trying to please yourself. And really the focus-group mentality has wrecked so much."

This Guardian profile of The Horse Whisperer author, Nicholas Evans, is astonishing, not least for its account of the real-life drama that beset the writer and his family after they ate some poisonous mushrooms. It’s difficult to accept that that kind of thing happens in real life, but I found it fascinating to read Evans’ muted response to the horrifying chain of events, as well as to get an insight into his approach to his craft and work.

June 9, 2011
"The founders have already shown their brilliance by extracting half a billion dollars from an unprofitable start-up with an unproven business model. That’s not funny."

Lots of comment on Groupon and its ebullient young founder, Andrew Mason, as the company gears up for its IPO. Groupon is at a Loss to Justify Itself, by the FT’s John Gapper, takes a sober look at the firm, and his conclusion isn’t particularly heartwarming. “Something smells bad,” he writes. No accusations of outright fraud, but some thoughtful concern at the 2.5 year old company, whose filing

 is filled with unsettling details about its business model, how much money it is spending to sustain its explosive growth and its accounting methods. Its early investors are seeking another infusion of cash, having allocated most of an earlier $1.1bn in fundraising to themselves.

Then Gapper points out the real problem with Groupon. Its marketing innovations, its commitment to the power of copywriting, even its smart extension of its own service are somewhat beside the point. As he writes, the company’s real Achilles heel is rather more fundamental:

it lacks unique technology and its sales force of 3,500 could be matched by others such as LivingSocial or FourSquare.

It’s a timely and useful reminder that true innovation and lasting value and growth involves tedious matters of figuring out a sustainable business model as well as whipping up a frenzy of attention.