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APR 2019

Pen & Mug

SXSW: a list of lists

A rapid recap of my notes from SXSW 2019, because "you can either use your audience or serve them."

Skip the backstory, dude.

I wear another hat that you may not know about.

If you’re reading these words in an email or on the interwebs, you already know about Pen & Mug (for which I wear SEVERAL hats, now that we’re counting them). By day, I also work for HCA Healthcare as a graphic designer on the ~30-person corporate creative team.

I know a number of badass graphic designers who have a successful freelance brand or passion project AND an awesome day job, and they’ve inspired me that it’s possible – perhaps even the better way to operate. My day job provides a ton of benefits, including benefits (those are nice), some extra financial stability, and my favorite: an opportunity to regularly work with, learn from, and build relationships with an amazing team of seriously talented veteran designers and other creative marketing professionals. And ON TOP OF ALL THAT, my team values personal and professional growth, and sent four teammates and I to Austin, TX last month to attend the South by Southwest interactive festival.

I’ve compiled a list of lists here with quick notes and highlights from the conference. Why? Well, let me answer that with a list as well:

  • Everyone has an audience, however large of small. “You can either use your audience or serve them" (Chase Reeves) and serving seems to me like the better way to go.
  • I believe that if I openly share everything that I’ve learned, I can still be competitive in the industry. Giving away what I’ve learned keeps forcing me forward. The path to growth is not hoarding information – it’s sharing, learning, collaborating, and learning some more.
  • Most people don’t have the opportunity or availability to attend festivals like SXSW, (though the crowds had me questioning that at times), and I’ve learned a TON from similar recaps of events that I've missed. I’m hoping to pay it forward, and pay it back.
  • AND, honestly, I’m stoked about this stuff and am selfishly excited to share and archive it!

So on we go, to the next list in this list of lists.

Building a design team powerhouse

  • Start projects by giving the team a problem to solve, not a solution to be vetted.
  • Think long term, don’t just see the project in front of you. (Jony Ive supposedly has a different desk for each of the next 5 upcoming iPhone models.)
  • Be smart and intentional about the words and symbols you use. A "lightbulb" moment of inspiration in design is often bullshit – it's a process, and you should show that.
  • Don’t accept or normalize mediocrity by saying things like "Welcomg to [company name]" when difficulty arises.
  • For in-house teams, clearly define team’s value within the organization.
  • Maintain a balance of process and culture – set simple behavior goals and hold each other to them.

5 imposter syndromes

What is the little voice of doubt in your head telling you?

  • Perfectionist – Set excessively high goals for themselves and then feel self doubt, fear failing to reach them. Often have difficulty delegating, but then feel frustrated and disappointed in the results.
  • Superwoman or man – Goes over the top with effort so they can to prove they’re good enough. Feel they’re phonies working alongside real talent and fear being exposed, so they stay late even when the day’s work is done.
  • Genius – Feel their success is based on their abilities rather than their efforts, and fear working hard on a task because that looks like they’re bad at it. Resistant to mentors – they can handle it on their own.
  • Individualist – Won’t ask for assistance for fear of being perceived as weak, or an imposter.
  • Expert – Fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable. Feel they somehow tricked their employer or clients into hiring them.

I dabble a bit in the Perfectionist, the Superman, and the Expert myself. Try to identify and own your own imposters; learn to manage them, shut them out, and grow from them.

Variable typefaces

Printers have advanced from using movable type, to typewriters, to digital typesetting, and now to VARIABLE FONTS – a single font file that behaves like multiple fonts, or a full font family.

Now, instead of downloading the thin, light, regular, medium, bold, and extra bold versions of a font, (not to mention condensed versions, italics, etc.), you can use ONE font file to create ALL these versions, and everything in between. Variable typefaces are made up of live points, and type designers can determine an “axis” , or multiple, that certain points move along. This allows designers to adjust attributes like font thickness and height as easily as changing the font size, all without any distortion to the characters. Axes for these fonts are virtually limitless, and can also include attributes like a font's slant, roundness or “yeast”, gravity, and even decorative elements! Some axes can change a font so much that one font file can essentially become two different decorative fonts (and everything in between!)

You can link a single font file to your site and use CSS to adjust the attributes to create bold or more detailed headers, medium-weight subheaders, and clean body copy all from the same font. This creates some nice cohesiveness, and reduces bandwidth on your website (especially text-heavy sites). Developers can also set break-points on certain attributes to make typography responsive to screen size or device type.

Designers have a new level of control when manipulating and fine-tuning LIVE typography. Gone are the days of using Type > Create Outlines to create a font weight in between two available styles. (Of course, you’ll still have to outline type to get REALLY custom with it or alter anything the type designer hasn't created an axis for.)

Instead of creating multiple (sometimes VERY many) different instances of your font, you can create an axis for each changing attribute, and set the boundaries of that design space. Font users can then adjust those attributes to their liking anywhere in the determined design space, all with one font file. Cutting edge stuff.

I realize that those were paragraphs and you were promised lists, so here are a few places where you can play with and learn more about Beta versions of variable typefaces:

Psychedelics in medicine & culture

  • Modern research around psychedelics and “psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy” has shown a lot of promise as a treatment for a wide array of mental health issues.
  • In treating conditions like PTSD or depression, author Michael Pollen described the effects of a psychedelic experience as a “reverse trauma.” In the same way that a trauma can quickly and dramatically derail a person’s life, psychedelic experiences are able to quickly and dramatically reroute one’s course.
  • Psychedelics break down a person’s “ego”, and are typically taken just once in psychotherapy – the treatment is in opening a person’s mind up to a new knowledge/perspective, rather than a chemical effect (like most drugs) that needs to be maintained with an ongoing dosage.
  • If we define “spiritual” as a person’s care for and connectedness to the world around them, the opposite of “spiritual” is “EGOTISTICAL,” not “material”. Breaking down the walls and patterns built up by one’s ego can reconnect them to the world and people around them.
  • Ready for a REALLY BOLD CLAIM? It was suggested that psychedelics may prove to be to the mind what the telescope is to astronomy, or the microscope to biology. The study of psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy in legitimate labs around the nation has shown promising potential to unlock an entirely new way of researching and understanding the human mind.

Design thinking for change management

  • Change THINKING, not just behavior, to make lasting change.
  • Creating change is like falling in love – sum of lots of little things, not a light switch or "Hollywood moment".
  • LISTEN. You can’t be an expert in a silo.
  • Action speaks louder than plans. The change you want to make may not be authorized at first, but experiment/get started however you can and use action and initial small successes as the pitch.
  • Simplify things (i.e. contracts) for the human element. Change happens smoother when people enjoy the new systems.
  • Re-consider structure every 1-2 years.
  • Make others feel involved. Don’t try to “own” an idea, share it and let people contribute and feel included.


Whew. That was a long one. But come on, I spent 5 DAYS at this conference and distilled it all down to 5 quick lists. Not too shabby.

Still, next month will be shorter. Promise.

See you then!

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