What is Home?

When I returned to Austin for the first time after I graduated college and completed a summer internship in DC, I had a job lined up and was about to start my “real life.” As I was looking for an apartment, I was staying at a friend’s place for a few days. I didn’t expect that I would feel so tired simply because I had no place to crash and truly unwind at day’s end. Because I was a guest in their apartment, I was unable to truly let my guard down completely—to be the me I am when no one else is around, and when there’s no risk of anyone else coming around. I still remember that time because that is one of the few times in life when I have understood what “home” meant.

I think about that time a lot now because we are currently researching homelessness at AC4D. Last Sunday, my partner Kat and I spent most of the day out and about. First we went to the Church Under the Bridge (at 7th and 35) to talk to some people. It was cold. We talked to some cool people. We both agreed that we would have never have dubbed them “homeless” had we not met them under the bridge, waiting in line for free food and coffee. The phrase “people who are experiencing homelessness” may sound PC, but it’s how I would describe most of the ARCH “clients” I’ve met over the past couple of weeks.

Church Under the Bridge
had a great conversation with this man, who is currently staying at ARCH
also spoke with a woman who was reading her bible at ARCH

After a quick debrief over lunch at El Sol y La Luna, we spent an hour or two at ARCH talking to a wider range of people and conducting participatory interviews. Kat worked the computer lab for an hour. Even with the break, we were both exhausted afterward.

And here’s the thing—we were able to go away, drive home, and crash back at Kat’s place. Use a nicely tiled restroom, sit down on a couch, make tea, check the internet, and decompress.

This was the first time during our research that the juxtaposition of homelessness and home really hit me. I felt grateful for a non-public restroom, and realized how exhausting it is to have no “home.” It’s not even a physical place; it’s just that feeling of being able to let your guard down without judgment or hassle. I didn’t even go back to my own place until late that night, but I was able to spend the evening at Chap’s wonderful home.

It was insightful after a day talking to people who were trying to find “home” again, and it was insightful after realizing that I’ve been neglecting creating my own “home” here in Austin this semester. With Mike two time zones away, and with school and work monopolizing my waking hours, I haven’t had much time to find a new home in Austin.

So “home” for me is:

  • good food with good people
  • friends, old and new
  • good stories and good conversation
  • laughter
  • hanging out, no regard to time
  • warmth (a firepit helps)
  • Mikee
friends & fire

The thing is I almost didn’t go because of my overwhelming to-do list hanging over my head. But I needed this night off, and because of the timing I am also not taking these good people and these good circumstances for granted. And it recharged my creative juices, so that I was able to do my work quicker and better the next morning than if I had tried to plow through it the night before after a long day of research.

Needless to say, I am feeling extremely grateful all around for the people and the experiences in my life these days.

More photos from the evening here.

Importance of Downtime

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory.

In that vein, recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.

Researchers say these studies have particular implications for young people, whose brains have more trouble focusing and setting priorities.

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

“The headline is: bring back boredom,” added Dr. Rich, who last month gave a speech to the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled, “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”

[Via New York Times Article, “Growing up digital, wired for distraction”]

Also, the cultural significance of downtime:

Something happens when you go to the country. As you leave the city limits, the sounds and people recede into the distance. Coming into view are trees and lakes and rivers and sky. There is a comfort in knowing less about what is going on in the world. The less you know about what is happening elsewhere in the world, the slower time passes.

“Down time” is still time, and time that can pass quickly. But it is most fundamentally local time. What happens in Delhi or Denver is irrelevant. All that matters is what happens right here and right now.

In the city…You measure time, but you do not know time.

You fill up your mind with news of events from far away, from places you may never see. You know more about the world, but less about what is in front of you.

 

AngryPaulRand outs himself

@AngryPaulRand is Mitch Goldstein, an MFA student who was started the account to call himself and the design world out on some of their presumptions.

Designers are missing some things that we should be thinking about, and AngryPaulRand was ready to point them out. Not individually, but as a whole, there is a lack of pride in what we do. I do not mean arrogance—there is way, way too much arrogance in design—but I mean pride. We devalue ourselves. We allow ourselves to be manipulated by clients. We do not present ourselves as the experts in our field. We have a hard time explaining, even to ourselves, what we do. I see so much design that ignores craft—just because we work digitally, does not mean we can ignore the craft of making, the integrity of the work itself, the manifestation of our ideas. Most of us take ourselves far too seriously. The best design I have seen is fun, not necessarily the deliverable itself, but the process. A designer should enjoy what they do. Not every single second, but at least most of it. Even if it is hard, it should be “the pleasant struggle” as Rob Carter likes to say. It is a wonderful thing to be creative for a living, to get to think and make every day.

I am not suggesting that being a designer should be all play and no work, but I do think we need to seriously consider what it is we are practicing—you should not be miserable in what you do for a living, especially as someone who is paid to be creative and poetic. There are many kinds of design to be had, and many kinds of designers to do it. As designers we need to reflect on what it is we are doing. What concerns me are designers who do not have a stance on design: designers who are not authentic in what they are doing, who they are, how they work, and what they work on. Design should not be about regurgitating trends, having a cool studio, or being an AIGA member. Design should be about how the designer relates to the world around them, and how they translate that into interesting stuff.

He shut down the account because it was all becoming too negative. Full post here.

Bravo to the idea of pride, play, and positivity in our work as designers.

[via @ucllc]

All work and no play make for an unhealthy way

Regarding the issue of long hours for little pay, I’m more conflicted. I can’t argue that countless hours of unpaid overtime directly contributed to my own modest professional success. At the same time, I think the prevailing thinking that life for twenty-something designers should be spent at the office first and foremost is bad advice. It might make good business sense for an employer, but it’s bad life advice.

Looking back on all of those overtime nights and weekends from my first decade as a designer, I would say that at least a third of that time was unnecessary. For me there was a romantic allure to the idea of toiling away on the work that you so desperately want a chance to prove yourself worthy of. I wanted to be at the office more than I truly needed to be there. This romantic ideal can be consuming; when you’re trying to make a name for yourself, it can dominate a disproportionate amount of your worldview. In my twenties, I clearly overdid it by creating the expectation among my peers and superiors — and within myself — that I would stay at the office as long as it took to create the impression of enormous sacrifice for my ‘art.’

Thanks to Khoi Vinh for this post about the skewed expectations of new designers!

Or maybe the expectations of designers in general. In trying to compose a reflection of my first quarter at AC4D, I get tied up in my qualms about a 60-hour workweek. I have no regrets coming to AC4D; it is actually exactly what I need to be doing at this point in my life. I have learned a ton, I feel more confident in my own skin than I have for a long time, and the people are amazing—they are inspiring, they are driven, they are full of heart, and they are and pushing me to grow and challenge myself. And we are working toward design that serves a public good and that will have positive social impacts. I have  little patience for anything less.

In my head and my heart, all of those factors about AC4D are a given at this point, so I don’t espouse them in my day-to-day blogging or my week-to-week progress videos. What comes out instead are the uneasy undertones of “I’m tired.”

Here are the assumptions that go little-questioned: you will go to school full time and work at the same time. It will be hard but you will do it anyway. You’ll figure out how to make it work. You may even like it.

We AC4D students practically have no life outside of school and work. We had a whole weekend off between quarters, and I ended up buying a last-minute plane ticket to see my boyfriend in LA—partly because I didn’t know what to do with myself in Austin because I have neglected my friends and life here since I’ve been back in August.

This penchant to overwork comes from many places. Americans tend to overwork and not take vacation days; working in corporate America, you feel guilty for taking days off (even if you’re sick, even if you’ve had a death in the family, even if you need a mental/emotional break from everything). As children of immigrants, the notion is that you work hard to succeed; work is equated with success and non-work is equated with slacking off. There is a (weird) pride among creatives and designers that they have to work long hours because they believe in the thing they’re making/doing. It’s the romanticism of living your art and being a starving artist—and in some cases, it can mean you’re starving yourself of life. Plus, this is exacerbated by the fact that designers tend to bend over backwards to meet client deadlines—whether they’re reasonable or not. And then you throw in the whole “working toward a social good” notion, and of course you have to be self-sacrificial and work extra hours to help those who are “less fortunate than yourself.” They don’t have the luxury of taking a day off, so why should you?

Frankly, I’m tired (ha) of feeling guilty for wanting to live a healthy and balanced life. Or for feeling like it’s my own shortcoming for not being able to live a healthy and balanced life while also working 60 hours a week. (I’ve been tracking my time on Freckle; that’s been the average.) And I don’t think a “balanced” life necessarily means you’re more stagnant or doing less with your time either. Like Khoi Vinh mentions or alludes to in his blog post, I think taking care of yourself makes you a healthier person, more pleasant to work with, and more sustainable. When we overwork ourselves, we become not only cranky, but at risk of burn out—and that doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

It takes a lot of practice and maturity and wisdom to be able to know your  limits and to be able to shape your life in a meaningful way. Another good thing about this time at AC4D is that I’m learning my own habits and limits:

  • My poor eyes can’t take too much screen time. One of the great things about teaching was that I was rarely in front of my laptop for work.
  • Creative work and critical thinking work and research work where you’re talking to people are all exhausting; if you’re going to work 60-hour weeks, they better be a mix of left brain/right brain activities and a range of tasks.
  • I need weekend time, full chunks of time off without any work (and if possible without any guilt about not working). Even if it’s only half a day, a day. These don’t have to be Saturday-Sunday, since they can’t be with our schedule, but if I work weeks without a break, my brain shuts down and decides to take a weekend on like Tuesday morning instead… Weekends are also much better—more productive in a sense because it’s easier to relax and not overthink—when they’re spent with other people.
  • I need my sleep, and I don’t do caffeine. I’ve only pulled like two all-nighters in my life, and I don’t do well with less than like 6 or 7 hours of sleep. It doesn’t jive with this — all work, no play, work some more — lifestyle.
  • I’m a compulsive blogger. I can’t stay away from writing, even if my to-do list is overflowing.
  • I am grateful that I can keep track of all the little things and make good lists. The trick is to be able to keep track of all the little life things as well (cooking dinner, going for a run, doing yoga, reading a book for fun). To get to that point where you feel as if checking those life things off are as important and valuable as making assignments or deadlines.

Gwen Bell’s blog is always a good reminder about how to live life. Here are some of her reflections and tips on living a “happy” life.

  • Take only projects you love. It’s tempting to say yes to everything, scary to say no. But you must craft your workday.
  • Work with people who delight you.
  • Plan, and then forget the plan. “To overly stress on how we won’t hit our deadline is to miss the moon rising.” (I need to practice this one!)
  • Oh yeah, Practice.
  • Cultivate mindfulness.
  • Unplug.
  • Write daily.

The funny thing is (I don’t know if it’s truly funny, but at this point it might as well be), Mike is going through the same thing in Pasadena with his 5 studio art classes, one planned all-nighter a week, and drawing schedule followed to the half-hour. What worries me about his overworking is that he has bought into the fact that this is the only way he will get good at his craft. He talks about the crazy hours the students at Art Center work with a hint of awe in his voice, and his teachers all perpetuate this idea that he needs to work really hard to get really good. There’s this pressure to get much better and much quicker in very little time. And that may all work to some extent, but the price is that you don’t get to know your city, or that if we were in the same city right now we would still never see each other, or that sleep (and health)(and life) is less important than the “work.”

Pause. Zoom out. Life is more important than work.

I’m going to keep pushing at this mentality of overworking = productive = good, even while I zoom back in, overwork, try to inject some balance, and plan for the holidays. We’ll see if any bubbles burst.

Living Infographic

“roman ondák’s project is a living infographic, a plotting of visitors’ heights whose mean will become increasingly apparent…soon there will be nothing but a dense black line circumscribing the room and only the outliers’ names will be legible.”

“in some ways, ondák’s work reflects the great challenge of the museum as a vehicle of history. individuals must and will emerge, and artists will resurrect and bring to the surface those narratives marginalized and forgotten by the nation or the institution.”

[via designboom]