Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Designing for designers is like cooking for chefs

I like reading books written by chefs and food critics. One common theme is that they bemoan what happens to their social lives — nobody wants to cook for a famous chef or critic, so the dinner party invitations dry up. Who’s going to cook a meatloaf for Ruth Reichl?

On the other hand, chefs and food critics have sophisticated palates, so a chef cooking for other chefs can take risks they couldn’t when cooking for a general audience. That’s the tradeoff — more risk of criticism, but more possibility for appreciation.

So it is with designing for designers:

Pro: You can get away with things when designing for designers that you couldn’t otherwise. You can assume that your audience has nice Retina displays and powerful GPUs that can handle all the hairline typography and parallax scrolling you can throw at them. You know they’re using a standards-compliant browser — no IE7 here — and it’s likely they’re on a Mac or an iPhone.

You can assume your audience knows what common icons mean without including explainer text — not a safe assumption for a general audience — and that they’ll understand UI shortcuts like the hamburger icon and share button.

You can afford to experiment, since your audience is more likely to be intrigued than turned off by strange layouts and weird effects. Assuming we’re talking about a website, they’ll probably stick around long enough to try to figure out how you implemented anything too far outside the mainstream.

Con: Your audience will notice every out-of-place pixel, every less-than-ideal interaction, and every decision you punted on. Designers can’t turn it off – it just happens. Your audience will notice the minutia about your type choices, color choices, layout choices. Things that would pass with a general audience won’t slide with designers.

(On the other hand, designers will sympathize with other designers, so while they’re more likely to notice errors they’re less likely to be abrasive about… oh, who am I kidding. Designers love to nitpick each others’ work.)

New ≠ Better

Here’s a video of a grass mowing competition in which a scythe beats a modern, powered lawnmower:

Our society fetishizes newness. We want new technology, new entertainment, new thinking, new solutions. Sometimes, our desire for newness prevents us from seeing the value in what already exists.

Modern industrial farms have no place for horses, even though horses can handle some types of terrain better than our most advanced industrial farming machinery. There’s land that modern farms let return to wilderness, even though it could be productive and fruitful if we used technology that was commonplace two generations ago.

Of course there are always tradeoffs. A scythe may be faster than a lawnmower, but it uses more human energy — it’s harder for someone who’s out-of-shape to use it, and it’s harder to use over long distances. If an industrial farm started supplementing their machinery with horses, they’d damage their economies of scale. (There’s a case to be made that a farm that can’t be managed by a team of horses is too large, but I’ll leave that to Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan to argue.)

I’m not a Luddite — I don’t think that new things are necessarily worse than old things. I just don’t think they’re necessarily better.

It’s really hard to break out of the new-is-better pattern of thinking; it’s so pervasive that we’re immersed in it. It’s like asking a fish to describe what it means to be wet.

Tech is for Everyone

Anyone with an internet connection and enough motivation can learn how to design and program the next big thing, no degree required. Tech is no longer just for engineers and programmers. It’s for the retiree looking for a second career, and the 12-year-old who decides she wants to make her own video game. It’s for the college student who wants to boost his resumé, and the immigrant looking to get plugged in to their new community. Tech is for everyone.

This is the first entry in a newspaper column I’ll be curating in conjunction with the Poughkeepsie Journal and the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup. The monthly column will be written by members of the Hudson Valley tech community, and will cover design, technology, and their effects on the local economy and culture.

Stay tuned.

Marginal Changes That Have Improved my Quality of Life

Here are some marginal changes that have had outsized effects on my quality of life. Maybe some of them will work for you.

  • Light candles. I keep a few different candles around, and look forward to lighting one each morning. It’s amazing the effect that a pleasant scent can have on my mood.
  • Steep some tea. There’s something calming about the process of making tea, and I like the rhythm it gives my day as I finish one cup and start to make another.
  • Learn to love cooking. It’s healthier and more cost-effective than going out or ordering takeout, and the act of cooking is food for the soul. The ritual provides an excellent rhythm for the day, and I always look forward to making dinner in the evening.
  • Drink more water. If I don’t drink enough during the day, I get thirsty overnight. If I wake up thirsty, I feel more sluggish and am less likely to get out of bed right away. If I don’t get out of bed right away, I feel rushed in the morning and off-kilter for the rest of the day. It’s a deadly cycle, and it can all be fixed by drinking more water.
  • Wash the dishes as they happen. I don’t drink enough water if I can’t fill up my Brita filter, and that’s dependent on me having enough room for it in the sink. Also, everything just looks neater (and feels calmer) when I wash the dishes as I use them, rather than batch them and turn dish-washing into a 45-minute marathon.
  • Remove feeds from my phone. I removed email, social media, news from my phone (with the exception of Slack, which I keep on a close notification-leash). Now I’m less distracted by notifications and less inclined to habitually check my phone for new information, and I feel calmer in general.
  • Avoid screens anywhere near bed. I’ve talked about this before. If my phone is near my bed, I’ll check it before I go to sleep, and staring into a blinding beam of pure information is not good for the circadian rhythm. I’ll also check it first thing in the morning, which will put me in a reactive mode for the whole day. Better to keep it plugged in across the room, where it’s reachable in an emergency by far enough away that I can only use it deliberately.
  • Choose hours to be offline. I go screens-off for a while before bed so I can read and settle down without distraction, and I avoid the internet before 8am so I can go through my morning routine wihtout the world intruding.
  • Sit quietly for a few minutes each morning. Just sit there, eyes closed, breathing deeply for a few minutes. This does wonders for increasing my calm, and gives me the sense that I control the events of the day, rather than letting the events of the day control me.

The Man in the Arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Theodore Roosevelt

The biggest productivity hack is to care about what you're working on.

I posted this on Twitter the other day:

It’s true, isn’t it? All the to-do lists and schedule optimizations in the world can’t fix a lack of enthusiasm about what you’re working on. And a little bit of enthusiasm has a habit of cutting through all the busyness – you may not have time for the tasks you dread, but if there’s something you’re really looking forward to working on, it’s amazing how quickly you can find space in your schedule.

Whether it’s your day job, a side project, or just an activity you enjoy – I hope you have something that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning and get to work. If not, don’t be afraid to find it or make it.

Whoops, I just realized that I lapsed into “rah-rah, do what your love” territory. It’s all well and good to say “find a job you love,” but that’s a luxury that not everyone has. There are plenty of people who are trapped by student debt or a tight job market, or who just aren’t sure what kind of work they’ll find satisfying.

As Austin Kleon says, keep your day job.

If you don’t have a job that you deeply care about, I strongly encourage you to find (or start) a side project that gets you out of bed in the morning. Here’s an off-the-cuff list of some possibilities that are free and available to anyone:

  • Start a blog. My favorite thing about the Internet Age is that anyone can publish their thoughts. (That’s probably my least favorite thing, too, but that’s another story.) You have thoughts. Why not start a blog through Wordpress or Medium?
  • Take up cooking. I have found more satisfaction in cooking — real, authentic, not-with-a-microwave cooking — than I would’ve thought possible. There are few things as magical as buying some ingredients, applying heat, and seeing them transform into something completely different. I recommend looking at New York Times Cooking for a well-curated list of recipes for a variety of skill levels.
  • Learn to code. Coding is easier than you think, and it comes with an awesome sense of empowerment – if you can code, you can take your ideas and make them real. Codecademy will teach you for free.
  • Make something. Seriously, anything. Could be digital, could be tangible. Just make something of your own, and share it with the world! Oh, and that little voice in your head saying it won’t be good enough or nobody will be interested? That’s self-doubt. Everyone has it. Just ignore it – it’s not real.

In a world that revels in cynicism, caring is a superpower. Find that thing you care about and embrace it. If you’re not sure what it is, don’t be paralyzed by indecision – keep trying different things until you know.

Rebuilding My Brain in 2017

I feel like my brain is getting slower.

Some context: when I was a kid, I used to feel like I was smart. Like, really smart. I taught myself to program, I was addicted to learning, and I read voraciously — up to 100 pages an hour at my peak. When I found an activity that interested me I’d sink into it obsessively.

But lately, I haven’t felt this way. I’ve felt less creative, less imaginative. It feels like my memory isn’t working properly. I don’t have anything close to the attention span that I once had. This isn’t supposed to happen when you’re 27.

I think I can chalk this up to lifestyle issues The brain is a muscle, and like all muscles, it grows or atrophies based on what you do with it. I’ve become convinced that a steady diet of Twitter and Netflix diminishes your ability to think deeply and creatively.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr describes this phenomenon as such: Different media encourage different types of thinking. The internet makes the brain into a jet ski – we skim vast swaths of information quickly, but shallowly. Books make the brain into a scuba diver – we cover less information, but do so more deeply.

The brain is optimized for quick, shallow scans of information. It’s how we survived on the savanna millions of years ago, when “living well” meant identifying threats and opportunities as quickly as they emerged. Left to our own devices, we’ll always go back to the quick-and-shallow media – Facebook, Twitter, CNN, Buzzfeed.

But I don’t want to think shallowly. It’s easier, but it also makes me feel out-of-control. An hour watching Netflix leaves me feeling unsatisfied — at the end, all I want to do is watch more Netflix. An hour of reading leaves me feeling the opposite — energized and satiated, ready to take on the world. Shallow media feels like binge eating fast food; deep media feels like savoring a good, slow meal.

All this is prologue. In 2017, I want to reclaim my attention, for three reasons:

  1. I’m going to be married soon, and I believe that part of being the best husband I can be is to be as present as possible.
  2. The world feels a little sideways right now, and I’d rather be walking around awake than in a binge-media stupor. The 140-character news cycle of Twitter is unhealthy; to be truly informed takes a mind accustomed to deeper thinking.
  3. I just feel better when I’m in control of my brain.

Here are some changes I’ve made this year in the pursuit of a deeper, richer thought life. They’ve been working so far, but it’s been 30 days or less, so consider this a continuing experiment:

  • No more Netflix. I canceled my Netflix account. Now, if I want to watch something, I’ve found a few iTunes U courses that interest me. The courses are far more engaging than watching the same old sitcoms on Netflix, and it turns out that there’s less of an urge to binge watch a Yale professor than the escapades of Ted, Marshall, and Barney.
  • Keep my phone plugged in far away from my bed, so I have to get up and walk to reach it. If my phone is reachable from my bed, I will find myself staring into a beam of light before I go to bed every night, which is terrible for your circadian rhythm, and makes for an unrestful night of sleep.
  • Don’t check social media or the news in the morning. How I start the day sets the tone for the next 16 hours. If I start the day with negativity, alarmism, and short bursts of information, that’ll be my mood for the rest of the day.
  • Removed Twitter from my phone. I’ve already gone years without a Facebook account, and this was the logical next step. Twitter is now inaccessible from my phone, tablet, and (thanks to the macOS app Focus) computer from the time I wake up until 5pm.
  • Read a lot. I’m 4 books in for 2017, and my goal is to hit 50.