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Studying my two modes of intellectual growth

[[Disclaimer: After reading this over, this post seems oddly psychological. I’m just going to blame that on having a lot of time and reason for intense self-reflection in the past few months. I find this stuff to be interesting, but you probably don’t. I don’t really care what you think, Imaginary Blog Reader, because you probably don’t exist.]]

Recently I decided that I need to start genuinely learning again. In the six months since graduation, I’ve learned quite a bit, but the majority of that is technical growth, such as improving my graphic design, sketching and post-production rendering skills. I haven’t spent any time with a new subject in a while, and I miss that feeling of discovery that was so common in school. The further I get away from the educational world and am left to my own devices, the more that I realize I have two very separate modes of learning that I’m continually switching between: let’s call them my reactive and generative modes of growth. 

When I go into a period of reactive growth and learning, it’s usually because I’ve come to the conclusion that some part of my skillset or knowledge base is in strong need of improvement. Often I’ll see a well-designed [anything] and end up comparing it to my own work/skill, and this moment of comparative critique will drive me to focusing on whatever aspect I feel is lacking. This is actually how I’ve grown as a graphic designer over the past year, as my presentation boards were pretty lackluster until I decided to learn the skills necessary to change that (thank god I did, because it’s quickly become one of my favorite pastimes). This is also what drove me to completely rebuild my portfolio/website/resume: I felt that they could be exponentially better, and I learned how to bring them closer to their full potential.

Generative growth, on the other hand, is more about overarching topics than technical skills. These are times when I become intensely curious about something I know very little about and just want to learn. It’s slightly reactionary, sure, but it’s more about growing into a well-rounded education than sharpening specific portions. Over the summer I was learning about status anxiety and psychological well-being, and I recently began an online lecture course over basic economics.

These different tendencies seem to be driven by separate portions of my personality: I think the reactive portion revolves around the somewhat-competitive tendencies of my designer brain, along with a bit of my fear of failure, while the generative growth seems to be driven by my insatiable curiosity and desire to grow in my understanding of the world (still perplexing…).

What I find strange about this is that the two modes of learning never seem to coexist; I’ll go through season-long periods where I prosper in one and feel uninterested in anything that falls within the other, and then without warning it will flip polarity. Maybe it’s a good thing though, as each is usually enough to consume my attention on its own, I probably couldn’t handle both of them at once.

I guess I’m writing this out as a way to work out just what makes me tick. I’ve changed and grown so much in the past couple of years that I’m still figuring it all out. 

Now if only I had a mode where I felt this level of passion towards exercise routines, that’d be the life.

The Great (Big?) Mac Experiment

After spending the last month and a half in a constant state of productivity, working and reworking my website, resume, business card, projects, portfolio, etc; then going straight into a full-blown job hunt with no break for rest in-between, I decided to take the last couple of days off. Taking an actual break felt strange after too long, so I quickly found a new project to pique my interest: 

To turn my Windows 7 laptop into a dual-booting hybrid, combining Windows and Mac OS X into one package. And after a long, stressful day comprised of backtracking, headaches and some therapeutic alcohol use, it’s complete. Operation Apple Pie is a success: the laptop now boots in either Windows 7 or Snow Leopard.

I’m glad it’s done, and proud that it worked, but after spending the latter half of my day in this new OS territory, I find myself asking: what’s the big deal with Mac?

My first impression: …why is everything so…grey? It feels…not even cold, so much as just industrial and somewhat bland. Lifeless even, like a reminder of what operating systems were like a decade ago. After googling it, I feel like I must be the only one to wonder such a thing. Already I miss Windows’ style and brightness. But I soldier on anyway, who knows, maybe it’ll grow on me.

A few hours in and I still can’t figure it out. Where’s this charm, this mystique that the Apple devoted seem to breathe for? As a designer, I don’t find any sense of charm or vibrance from what I’m seeing or experiencing; it’s got no soul. I find the interfaces frustrating, and the processes even more so. Why on earth would dragging an icon into the apps folder = installation process? Everywhere I look, the options have been dumbed down, control taken away from the user in favor of ‘simplicity’, but overwhelmingly so. I once heard someone compare it to a Fisher-Price toy toolset; it certainly resembles the pieces you need, but at a steep cost to functionality and usability. 

I slowly feel that I’m beginning to understand: This is an OS for people who don’t know anything about computers (and, for that matter, probably don’t know what an OS is). They want something that feels individualized out of the box. They don’t want to adjust settings and preferences, to put in any effort to actually make it their own, they just want that illusion. But in giving in to that illusion of individuality, their computer is very far from unique and personal. They become just one of many. But maybe that’s comforting to them, feeling like an individual without the risk of messing it up, having someone else make their choices for them. The way I’m putting it may sound rather dramatic, but I have come to find this entire system’s design to be an incredibly shallow and superficial thing, and it’s quite a disappointment. As far as I can tell, a Mac that’s fresh out of the box will look and perform almost identically to any other, no matter the owner. I think that’s a sad thing.

On the other hand, it’s making me appreciate the little details and overarching freedom of Windows 7 more and more. Maybe it’s just me, but the feeling of a new install, the blank slate that you get to personalize and tweak in a thousand different ways, I love that feeling, and I enjoy making my laptop uniquely my own through the ways I interact with it. Even beyond that, the little touches are so brilliant: dragging windows to the screen’s edges to resize is delightfully effortless, and it sure beats anything the Mac can do. Couple that with the fact that the software that makes a Mac ‘unique’ have, for the most part, their own equal Windows counterparts that are only missing hip marketing names. This is probably because none of them are really a big deal - screenshots, photo viewer, video chat, etc. Even the iconic Apple menubar can be easily recreated with free software, and endlessly customized from there.

The irony in all of this is that, prior to this little experiment, I was seriously considering that my next laptop purchase could be a Mac. I am a designer, after all, and they can’t all be wrong, can they? But I think that, beneath it all, there’s some strange combination of marketing mysticism and somewhat-clever ideas that have made this system all the rage. To begin with, the standard Apple laptop is a gorgeous piece of industrial design, that certainly helps. But think about this: there’s not really any way to test drive a Mac system. It’s very difficult to install to a PC, and the OS only works with a handful of hardware configurations (I got lucky, if you’d call it that). Becoming a Mac user is a huge commitment, financially and logistically, a leap of faith, and surely not one that’s entirely painless for everyone. This is purely conjecture, but maybe that’s why some of them become so defensive. Perhaps they feel the need to justify the decision to themselves and others, creating a false sense of elitism in the process. (Sorry if that sounds somewhat critical, but that’s not how I mean it, I just don’t know how else to put it).

No matter how it works, though, I can now definitively say that I won’t be joining them. I will not be an Apple aficionado anytime in the near future, for the personal freedom, choice and expression in my computer’s operations simply mean too much to me to give up.

finding the balance between old and new

Having spent the last three weeks making some major changes to my portfolio work and completely rebuilding my website (www.tillmandesign.com, tell your friends), I was forced to make decisions about what pieces were worth spending the time to update and improve, and alternately which weren’t. It got me thinking about the balance between spending my time polishing my old work and creating new designs.

I could easily obsess over every image in my portfolio, but does it really matter if a floor plan from two years ago is brought up to date? That’s not an accurate representation of where my skills were at that point, and the more I think about it, all of that time would be much better spent working on new designs and new projects. That makes the most sense to me. I hope the professional world would agree with that.

However, I feel it was a time well-spent. It felt healthy to look critically at old projects that I hadn’t really thought about in a year or two, to look at just how much my design philosophy has changed and how far my skills have come. I noticed quite a few mistakes and some flawed logic, but I’ll leave that category labeled as ‘young, naive creative spirit’. And while I was originally planning on spending some time redoing drawings from those old projects, now I have decided to leave them as-is. It’s time to move on and build something new again.

It was also interesting to find that, after having spent about a month this summer not thinking about my resume or portfolio, coming back to it with a fresh perspective gave me the freedom and inspiration to redesign them from the ground up. I didn’t feel the same feelings of ‘well, it works well enough’. I noticed more flaws than ever before, it just wasn’t good enough anymore, and it had to change.

While we’re on the topic of ‘obsessing over every detail of old work’, as I had mentioned above, the new website is complete (with the exception of some minor tweaks), so if anyone actually reads these blog entries, please check it out!

Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated

Having spent the last couple of weeks in a constant state of creation and production, all in a coordinated effort to jump-start my ongoing search for architectural work, I’ve gotta say, it feels damn good to be back in the game. It’s an incredible feeling, like regaining control of my life.

I spent the summer searching for work, whether it was architecture or not, with very little luck, but rarely did I look twice at the portfolio that I had. I knew I had the skills, that I was a good designer, maybe even great. I just attributed it to the astoundingly-bad economy in the midwest, something out of my control that would hopefully return to normal before too long. I became wrapped up in exploring topics and hobbies that I had wanted so badly to try during college but never had the time. I discovered a fascination with the study of psychology and the emotional well-being of everyday people. I developed my sketching skills further, and even became comfortable just sketching for the sheer pleasure of it, something which had inexplicably been lost for most of my time in college. I did a lot of graphic design work, learning more from that than I ever would in a class. Most of all, I just learned an incredible amount, and while I may not have done much as a designer, I feel like a much more well-rounded and happy person because of it.

I eventually ended up finding temporary work at a call center, but a month of that was more than enough. It felt like wasted time, like some deep part of me had decided that if I wasn’t developing or improving in some way, it wasn’t worth it at all. I was feeling a building tension to find work worth doing; design or bust. I quit my job on a Tuesday morning, went home and cooked breakfast, then immediately wrote out a plan of action. None of my existing work would be without critique, and almost everything would eventually be rebuilt in an effort to find that mythical design job.

That was two weeks ago. I’ve been spending long hours reworking old renders into compelling new images, rebuilding my website from the ground up, and rebranding everything with a fresh new style, and all of this has returned an old spark that I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s an addictive feeling, really, it feels amazing.

I’m putting everything into this effort, the chips are all in and I’ve never felt more ready for the challenge. Game on.

The winds of change are blowing, plans coming into motion, cogs turning within the machine…however you want to say it, I’m preparing for a big change, and I haven’t felt this energized in a long time. It feels good to be back.

the modern ruins

A couple weeks ago, as I was traversing rural Kansas, I passed one of the countless unremarkable highway towns of old that occupy the Midwest. I always find it intriguing at just how similar they all are to each other: the same small businesses, all built within the same era, and an odd mixture of well cared-for municipal buildings and crumbling barns. What made this town special and got me thinking was the fact that, if not for a negative home inspection, my family would have moved to this one some years ago.

I became intensely curious as I drove through Overbrook. Noting with a mix of incredulity and sympathy a prominent mural that begged the viewer, ‘Don’t Overlook Overbrook!’, it made me wonder about the city that would commission such a message. Is it with a sense of misguided commitment that they stubbornly proclaim the virtues of their shrinking town? Do they feel the same sense of tragedy that I feel when I read those words, seemingly written with an unintended tone of defeat?

The message, along with the state of the towns that I drove through that night, made me ponder the eventual fate of Overbrook and its siblings. It seems to be a common prediction that something like two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban centers in the coming decades. Will these towns be abandoned, becoming a network of our modern civilization’s ruins?

It’s an interesting thought, as our society’s constant rate of building doesn’t really allow for ruins in the usual sense. Would they remain vacant and unusable, or could they potentially be repurposed? These towns could become hubs for agricultural workers and services, or for sustainable energy purposes. The possibilities certainly exist. 

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see what becomes of Overbrook.

Lately I’ve been feeling a strange dissociation from this town. It began even before graduation and has only continued to build ever since. Death Cab’s new song perfectly captures the mood. I need to get out of here, to find a place that cares about good design as much as I do.

I’m in the market for a new home. 

The list of cities currently under consideration seems somewhat scattered: 

-Austin, but only because Texas has mystically avoided the job crunch.

-Portland, although I hear it’s still somewhat difficult to find work there.

-Toronto, apparently a great city for design, but how to become Canadian…

-Chicago, but I hear it’s especially hard to find a job there. Understandably so.

Just another topic to think on in the coming months. Some exciting possibilities!

the beauty of a simple renovation

[via design*sponge]

tighter belts

Having just spent the last two hours sorting through student loan websites in preparation of my impending financial burden, I was alternately thinking on how I’ve been trying to revamp my healthy diet. I began to notice some interesting similarities in the ways I’ve been tightening the belt on both my waist and my wallet:

-Decide on what you can do without and stick to it. Whether this is cable TV or Oreos, reassess everything and be critical of each item.

-DIY. If you can learn how to make/fix something yourself, do it. The internet can teach you anything. The same goes for cooking, and it’s an impressive skill to have.

-Keep it simple. This is especially important. Cutting down my grocery list to an essential set of flexible-yet-inexpensive ingredients has been great for both my finances and my diet. I am well on the way to perfecting pan-fried ramen and an incredible ham/egg/cheese sandwich that, dirt cheap as they are, are so delicious I don’t mind eating them multiple times a week.  

More on this ‘comparative theory’ as it develops.

Huh…

…turns out I’m graduating this weekend. The realization took quite a while, but I suppose I should be thankful it hit prior to Saturday. Who knows, maybe once that day comes around I’ll actually have time to use this blog properly.

See you on the other side.