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Things I learned from the GenArtHackParty

I spent Friday evening and all of Saturday at the Generative Art Hack Party that Xavier Snelgrove organized. It was a good excuse to learn paper.js and d3js.

Here’s what I made:

  • Bouncing spline: Reminds me of that old screensaver, with a little bit of randomness thrown in.
  • Flowers: Playing around with opacity
  • Faces: Simple shapes for awesomeness
  • Kapow: I read too many comic books.
  • Pasketti: Because drawing curves like this made me think about spaghetti, but not quite.

I thought Partycles was cool. infinitedaisyworld was nicely done, too. =) Check out the rest of the submissions.

In addition to learning more about HTML5 canvas drawing with Javascript, I learned that:

If I start thinking of things as “art”, I can get stuck waiting for an interesting idea, especially if I’m in that mid-afternoon slump. If I don’t worry about coming up with a vision first and instead read the documentation or play around with functions, I can let curiosity take me to interesting places.

A room full of 20-30 geeks coding away isn’t distracting, although I still haven’t figured out how to interrupt people and ask about stuff.

Add another ~20 people and switch into party mode, and I begin to shut down socially. I don’t particularly feel like engaging in conversation, and I don’t feel like I’m completely there in conversations. It might be a decibel thing, it might be a listening thing. I wish I’d thought of sneaking downstairs for quieter conversations instead.

Xavier Snelgrove, Jen Dodd, and TinEye know how to have a great event with awesome healthy food.

After lots of social interaction, I tend to get wiped out. I slept for twelve hours the following day.

An evening and a full Saturday feels like it was enough to disrupt our home routines, which is not good news in terms of my participation in hackathons. I think I need to be more social in order to make the most of hackathons, anyway.

So, how do I want to follow up on this?

I’d like to add that d3js calendar visualization to QuantifiedAwesome.com. I think it would be interesting to see heatmaps of activities.

HackLab will probably be a good way to practise being around other people when I’m coding, and the open houses on Tuesday would be good desensitization for mingling.

I’d love to learn more about Quantified Self and visualization.

Sometimes, if I start thinking of things as “possibilities,” I get stuck waiting for an interesting idea. What if I set aside one morning each week to do this kind of planning / brainstorming / looking ahead, knowing that the rest of the week can be focused on actually trying things out and making things happen, even if they’re not Super Brilliant things? If I brainstorm a list of things I can explore, then I can keep moving forward even if the creative part of my brain wants to procrastinate. I trust that if I keep exploring, curiosity will lead me to interesting places.

Good experience. Would do it again, especially if I can figure out how to hack the social parts.

Reflections on sketchnoting TEDxOCADU

I sketchnoted TEDxOCADU live, and my new workflow is working out well. I’ve been moving more of my sketchnotes over to experivis.com – do folks still want to see them here? Might be handy. Anyway, I like reflecting on what worked well and what I can do even better, so this blog is still the best place for that.

For TEDxOCADU, here were my experiments:

Set up all the layers and saved them as placeholder PNGs beforehand so that I didn’t have to type in filenames or look up speaker names.

  • Sketched during the dress rehearsal, and reused many of my images during the actual conference: great for knowing where people are going, although I still stuck with fairly regular layout.
  • Used Dropbox to get the Twitter links, copied the URLs, and set up my list of hashtagged and linked tweets using ClipMate: great for tweeting things on the fly with just my laptop
  • Set up a gallery page for updating throughout the day
  • Set up a bit.ly link to track clicks for my gallery page
  • Double-checked WiFi access: so much better than tethering through my phone
  • Followed up with social media / web person in case they needed help getting the images up on the official site
  • Eventually remembered to set up Google Analytics on experivis.com – added this to the checklist of things to do when spinning up a website…

Here are some things I can tweak next:

  • Add more images to my ClipMate library
  • Have a smoother delegation workflow so that I can get my sketchnotes typed in
  • Figure out how to integrate text into the gallery view; maybe project-sketchnote relationship?
  • More graphics! More! More!
  • Don’t forget to have Archivist or some other Twitter archiver running in the background
  • Consider Tweetreach or some other Twitter analytics report?
  • Set up tracking links for each image, too, or always send people to the gallery page

An embarrassing failure is the result of a series of unfortunate decisions, and that’s a good thing

Failures can be caused by all sorts of factors, but an embarrassing failure exposes the unfortunate decisions along the way. This is a wonderful thing. While it’s easy to shrug off other kinds of failures as bad luck or bad timing, embarrassment is a clue that there are many things you can improve. It is that ever so human emotion when you know you haven’t been your best – and it points to what better looks like.

For example, last Thursday, I’d scheduled a 3pm call to talk about sketchnotes. I had noticed some power problems with my phone and had drained my battery several days in a row. I usually managed to squeak by with my backup battery, but I had misplaced it on Wednesday night, so I didn’t get to charge it. I tucked a USB cable into my backpack so that I could charge my phone off my computer – or at least I thought I did, as I couldn’t find that when I searched my bag right after settling in. I switched to low-power mode and that seemed to slow things down, so I figured that 70% charge would probably be enough to get me to the afternoon. After a meeting, I checked on my phone… and found it practically dead. I bought an overpriced USB cable from a nearby electronics store and plugged it into the computer. The cellphone was discharging faster than it could charge, though, even though I wasn’t using it. And then it was time for the call.

After a few attempts, I had to admit defeat and reschedule. Fortunately, the person I was going to talk to was very understanding, and we managed to sort things out over Twitter. Even with that resolution and my subsequent return to regular work, I was stressed. I could still feel that rush of adrenalin after trying to scramble some kind of a solution. Although I knew I could still do well, I also knew that stress messed with my brain and made me more likely to overlook other important things.

I also knew that this lingering stress was unnecessary. We’d rescheduled. The worst-case scenario would probably have been being perceived as a flaky unprofessional person, but that was temporary, bounded, and not part of who I was. I could do something to make it better. (Locus of control – useful thing to know about!)

So I made a list of many things I could have done to make it better, and that helped me clear my mind a little. I got back to work, focusing on some analytics that I knew would give me the pleasure of a few small wins. I was tired enough to leave my scarf behind and then to not be sure about whether I locked my cabinet (needing two extra trips up the elevator to retrieve one and confirm the other) – but at least I remembered before going on the subway. Glass half full.

I still went to fitness class, where W- met me with a bag of clothes and my shoes. It was a struggle to get through that class as well – oh no, more moments of suckiness! – but I got through it anyway. It’s important to learn how to do things even though you don’t feel like it.

Anyway, back to the good things about embarrassing failures: there are lots of things that I can fix, and I can prioritize them based on effort and benefit. Phone-wise, I found out how to use Titanium Backup to uninstall a large number of applications at once. My battery life has improved. I’ve ordered an extended battery, which should allow my backup battery to be a backup again. Routine-wise, I’ve created checklists in Evernote. Checklists are wonderful. Life-wise, I think it’s time to make myself a little more space – sometimes these are symptoms of trying to pack in a little too much.

20130118 phone

This is good. I’m learning to not beat myself up, and to celebrate the ways I can improve things and move forward.

Another step forward, perhaps, would be to be able to do this before embarrassing failure highlights the need – like the way defensive drivers (and cyclists, and walkers…) constantly scan for opportunities to go wrong and plan what to do. To balance that building of a strong safety net (several safety nets, in fact) with the ability to let go and fly – that will be a wonderful thing to learn.

Understanding how I’m changing as a speaker

As I was reading the transcript of my recent presentation on social media for hardware dealers and home improvement stores, I noticed a few things I don’t think I used to do before – or at least, not with this frequency. One of the great things about blogging and sharing my presentations through the years is that I can hop in a time machine, remember much of what it was like back then, and see these little changes.

Here are three ways I’m not the same speaker I was ten years ago:

I now start by acknowledging the “Yeah, but”s. You can see how I experimented with this pattern through the years. I started with very technical talks in 2001. I think my 2009 presentation A Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0 at School was the first time I explicitly called out the “Yeah, but”s on a slide. There, it was near the end of the presentation. In 2010’s Six Steps to Sharing, I moved the “Yeah, but”s near the beginning of the presentation, where it has stayed ever since. (Yes, it took me that long to figure out that you want to get as many people as possible on the same page as early as possible…)

I then spend a lot more time on helping people imagine what they could experience in the future, dipping briefly into what they can do right now to move towards that. It’s like a small-scale version of the pattern that Nancy Duarte describes in Resonate (Amazon affiliate link, key points) – that alternation, the thrum of going back and forth between present and future. I’ve realized that my key contribution as a speaker isn’t usually to give people technical or how-to information – they can get that through the Internet – but to help them see the possibilities and get excited about what they can do, so that they can then learn more. So, I help people imagine point B, and then sketch the many lines from A to B. I didn’t emphasize this in my early talks.

I also find myself illustrating those futures through what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like. What people might say. What their customers might say. How their customers might find and interact with them. I think this comes from all the viewpoint-switching and success-imagining I’ve been doing for both professional and personal planning. In my slides, I illustrate ideas with screenshots of what people are already doing. In my speech (I like planning for the “audio track” of my presentations!), I drop in imaginary quotes to help make the possibilities real. I didn’t notice myself doing that a lot before. I’m getting better at figuring out what something would sound like if it was successful, and it’s useful for explaining things to other people as well. (I’m trying to find the book that stressed this point – imagining the complete experience of your customer – but I’m having a hard time pinning it down. One of the E-Myth books? Hmm. I need to revisit and sketchnote more books.) I used to be a lot more abstract about this. Now I try to make things much more concrete, much more real. It’s like when people think, “I want my customers to say that to me, so maybe this is worth a try.” (Precisely!)

I know, I know, a decade to realize that I’m learning these things. I can’t wait to find out what I’ll be writing about in another ten years!

Delegation: Being clear about what you value

In Spousonomics (now retitled as It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes), I came across a brief explanation of David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. Economically speaking, it can make sense to trade with other parties even if you can do something faster yourself, because trading frees you up to focus on higher-value work as long as the transportation and transaction costs are not prohibitive.

I’m slowly learning to let go of more and more tasks in terms of delegation and outsourcing. For example, I’ve been working with someone on developing marketing materials for this business idea around sketchnoting. We want to put together a leave-behind that can help event/conference organizers learn more. The person I’m working with has a lot of experience in graphic design and illustration, although I’m probably more comfortable with the copywriting and sketchnoting aspects of it.

She set this up as a fixed-price project. I’ve worked on similar illustration projects at fixed price, and I’m always careful to specify the number of rounds of revisions included. For revisions beyond that, I work at a specified rate, although I might throw in minor revisions for free. I do this because I know people in both software development and illustration who have gotten burned in an endless revision cycle because of client expectations, but I guess many illustrators do open-ended fixed-price projects instead.

When I hire people to do work for me, I want to make sure that I’m doing right by them as well. I don’t want people to get tired of working on this never-ending project. I want to build on people’s strengths and their career interests instead of running into their gaps. I want to focus on the highest-value activities, going for about 80% awesome instead of spending all the time trying to chase down 100%.

One of the things that I’m learning to do is to be explicit about what I value and what I’m looking for. For example, we were going back and forth on the copy for this leave-behind. It can take a while to get to copy that feels right. The discussion does help me clarify what style I’m looking for (now I have a “Goldilocks style guide” with examples of what’s too formal, what’s too informal, and where I want to be), but copywriting isn’t the key value I want to get out of this arrangement. I’d rather have her focus on the parts where I hope she can really make a difference.

I suggested using filler text like “Lorem ipsum” so that we can play with the layout and the feel of the piece without getting distracted by the words. It’s important to have an idea of the rough structure of the text – short paragraphs? a bulleted list? – but we don’t have to finalize it just yet, and I don’t want her to spend hours wrestling with it if there are better things she can do.

What are those things? Well, let’s think about what I really need help with in terms of a leave-behind. The final form factor is probably something like a half-sheet of cardstock. I want something that I can print at home if I’m in a rush, or have printed elsewhere for extra oomph. It should probably be double-sided for efficiency, but it has to accommodate the imprecise nature of printing on home-office equipment. It should look good in black-and-white, and extra-nice in colour. It should be something I can easily edit. There are a whole lot of things that need to be figured out: layout, font selection (must be a Google Web Font that I can use on my website as well), visual balance, what needs to be drawn.

So, what does mini-success for this project look like? Maybe an Adobe InDesign file (ideally, something that I can also convert to an Inkscape SVG!) with some text boxes in a selected font… I’ll probably need to do the final drawing of any illustrations, so maybe there are just boxes where the images go, too.

It’s a bit different from other things she’s worked on, then, where she designs the piece, writes the copy, and draws the illustrations. It can be odd working on something that seems like something you’ve done before, but isn’t quite the same equation. I know I’ve felt insecure about working on projects like that! If I’m clear about what I value, maybe that will help us make the most of the time we spend working on this project.

So I said:

If you’re worried that it’ll be too close to "Well, I drew these boxes on this InDesign file and tweaked them a few times until they lined up, and then you sweated over the copy and the illustration and all of those things I usually work on," I’m sure you’ll find other ways to create enough value to feel good about it. For example:

  • "I looked at X fonts and shortlisted A – E. I recommend B because ______, but C is another good fit for you because _______. Both pair well with D if you need to use a different font for emphasis."
  • "While working on this, I found some examples of marketing materials that you might like. _____ is interesting because of _____, _____ because _____, and _____ because ______."
  • "You’re trying to say too much here. People only need to know ____, _____, and _____. We can save the rest for the website."
  • "You’re not answering enough questions here. We need to bring back that point about ______."
  • "Here are some sketches of what this could look like."
  • "That sketch is unclear – doesn’t communicate ____ to me. How about these versions?"
  • "I checked this with ______ and _____ and they understood it, too."

Who knows, maybe it will include answering specific questions about Illustrator and InDesign in case there are little tweaks I can’t figure out myself! That would be useful too. =)

In particular, the key values I think I’m getting from working with you are:

  • Because you focus on graphic design, you’re probably exposed to lots more input and inspiration than I am. I’m counting on you to be able to pull out examples and ideas from your stash.
  • For similar reasons, you may be better able to differentiate between things and explain why something is a better or worse fit. Think of the way people who are versed in colour theory can explain why certain combinations work and what they can communicate, or how someone who’s interested in typography can discuss different styles
  • Because you aren’t me, you can push back if I’m giving too much or too little detail, using too much jargon, coming across with the wrong tone, or drawing something that people would find hard to understand. ("I hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t look anything like an elephant inside a snake…")
  • You’re more familiar with the Adobe suite of tools than I am. You know what things are called and where they are. So you can get the basics in place faster, and you can help me figure out how to do things (especially if I don’t know what those things are called, or which approaches are easier than others).

Part of learning how to delegate is about figuring out where the task boundaries are, so that people feel good about working on and completing various chunks. I’m open to making the copywriting a separate project, and possibly even working with someone else for that. It’s tough, but if I learn how to break things down into projects that tap people’s strengths, and we figure out what makes sense to focus on, that’ll probably work out to a good thing.

There’s so much to learn, and it takes work to learn about delegation this way. I wish I could learn faster or more effectively, but I can’t imagine learning all these things in a class or seminar. Practical experience and mindfulness, then!

Tips for growing as a sketchnoter

New to sketchnoting? Aside from reading Mike Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook (see my sketchnote of it!) and Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin, how else can you grow your skills? Here are some ideas from how I keep working on improving my sketchnoting. Hope you find them useful!

Click on the image for a larger version of the sketchnote.

20121216 Growing as a sketchnoter

Feel free to share this! You can credit it as (c) 2012 Sacha Chua under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada licence.

Check out my other sketchnotes and visual book notes. Want me to sketchnote your event? Know of any interesting tech / business talks coming up? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks to Tamara Paton for the nudge to share this. =)

Sketchnote and got tips to share? Curious and have questions to ask? Comment below!