Design strategy, product management, education & writing
Look, I Made a Thing: Confidence in Making
I run a school, and one of my favorite things to hear is "I made a thing." It's become sort of a tick, used as an idiom for anything from a declaration of achievement to the flat statement of frustration. "So I made a thing, and it sucked, and I'll be at the bar." It's also a sometimes helpful, sometimes obnoxious directive I offer to pretty much any question. I don't understand the assignment. Go make a thing. My group isn't working. Go make a thing. I'm hungry. Go make a thing.
It's also the beginning of a critique, the beginning of an iteration. Look, you made a thing. Let's talk about how you can make it better. It's the beginning of a conversation around improvement, around potential.
And at its most early stages, when students say it tentatively, quietly, and without confidence, it's the beginning of a giant space of reflection. At these stages, students say it under their breath, or they don't say it aloud at all. In their heads, it's "I made a thing, and it's absolutely terrible. It's the worst thing. It's worse than anyone else's. And I'm the worst thing. I'm worse than anyone else." The thing is a placeholder for all sorts of other things. Aspirations. Self-deprecation. Anger. And shame, lots of shame.
When I was 8, I took a class in wheel-thrown ceramics. My teacher was a man named Alec. On the first day of class he sat down, made a beautiful two-foot vase, and then took a wire and cut it in half, lengthwise, from the top to the bottom. He said it was to show us how thick it was. Later, I realized it was to show an impermanence to things, to help separate a verb and a noun. At that particular moment, we didn't really get the larger lesson. The whole class was thinking "I couldn't throw that in a million years and you just fucked it up on purpose."
And so I made one million ashtrays, perfect for a non-smoking family, and brought home melty lumps of things that we could call "pots", and my very patient mom put them literally on the mantle, and I was very proud of them.
Mom enrolled me in another class, "intermediate ceramics." And then another class and another, and I was terrible at throwing pots until one day, I wasn't. It clicked, and I no longer asked Alec "Is this centered?" When I was 12 or 13, he told me he hated hearing "Is it centered?" more than any other words ever uttered by anyone, and it was like asking someone else to check and see if he had done a good job cleaning his own ass.
I learned to throw pots, to attach handles, to mix glazes, to fire a kiln, to clean—there was a lot of cleaning—and to kill my darlings. I stopped bringing home melted ashtrays: I learned to throw a two foot tall pot and cut it in half lengthwise to see how thick it was. I didn't know it when I was 16 years old, but I was just starting to take satisfaction in the verb, not the noun. What I did know even at 16 was that I was proud. It wasn't something to do because mom said so; it wasn't something to do because it felt great.
Fast forward a few years, and I'm sitting in the drawing studio at Carnegie Mellon, as far back in the room as I can get. It's our first critique in our first semester, and we were assigned a hand-drawn self-portrait. The portraits are on the wall. Mine is absolutely awful, far and away the worst thing on display. It's out of proportion, has poor line weight—it even has poor paper stock. The only thing it has going for it is that my marks are so soft, so tentative, that maybe someone would think I was doing something clever and post-modern, like a blank canvas to indicate my future self's rich potential. My face was burning bright red, and I was trying to make myself as small as possible.
Keep going a few more years, and I was about to graduate with an undergraduate degree in design. When it became time to apply for jobs, I interviewed with a company called frog design. The company had quite a reputation. They had designed the original form language for the Apple Macintosh, and were riding a legacy of high-profile industrial design work. They were one of those companies that everyone in school wanted to work for, but no one could really explain why. And so I interviewed with them along with everybody else, getting a timeslot during our week-long on-campus recruiting event.
I prepared my portfolio, little 8.5x11 books bound with spiral binding from Kinkos. They were truly terrible, ugly representations of my work, and to be honest, the work itself was pretty ugly too. I've subsequently been in the same hiring position but on the other side of the table, and it's incredible to see the poor quality of student work and to try to glimpse potential in the mess. You sort of have to squint at the work, listen to the student, and make a big old leap of faith.
The interviewer from frog did not make a leap of faith.
I presented my work, work that I had learned to be almost desperately proud of, and then I sat back waiting for the accolades. And I very clearly remember the look on the interviewer's face as he looked me in the eye, looked at the work, looked back at me, and said "This isn't very good at all."
I didn't get the job.
When you make a thing, you don't just have a thing. You've taken a little bit of your essence, and you've sort of injected it into the thing. This soul transfer isn't just a hippy dippy spiritual idea—it's a real phenomenon that is sort of exemplified by Michael Graves and Philipe Starck's product lines, sold at Target, developed by interns and stamped with their signatures. We judge those things, give them awards, celebrate the designer. Their identities are swirled together into an object, and so maybe the best part of waking up as actually Michael Graves in your cup.
But when you are 12 and learning to throw pots or 18 and drawing self-portraits or 22 and interviewing for your first job, you don't have a line at Target. You just have a thing that you made, and there you are, standing, exposed, showing these feelings to anyone who wanders by, and waiting to hear what they think about what they see.
In 2001, I joined a startup. The company had raised 11 million dollars, but I was naïve to ownership and to term sheets, and I didn't get rich. Neither did anyone else, because the company folded. We had a working product, we had sold it to Palm Computing (remember the palm pilot?), and were in sales cycles with Kodak. And then one day the CEO came out into the "pit" where we were all working. He said "Stop working. The board voted to shut down the company. Gather your stuff, and leave in the next few hours; try not to steal too much equipment on the way out."
After weeks of puttering around, I found a job at the Savannah College of Art and Design, teaching design. An art school is probably the only place you can get hired without either a doctorate or any teaching experience. I had literally no idea what I was doing. In three months, after moving across the country, I would be teaching four classes to real students. I didn't know anything about teaching, and at the time, I didn't really think I knew anything about design, either. The curriculum I needed to create stretched over weeks, spanned across multiple classes, was focused on content and exercise and, most importantly, students. It was one of those "too big to hold in your head at once" ideas. I couldn't move past my terror of the first sentence that was supposed to come out of my mouth.
I called Bob, a professor I had met during my interview, and told him I was in way over my head. And Bob gave me some of the best advice of my life. He told me to treat the big, unthinkable problem like a design problem. He told me to go make a thing.
When you make a thing, you rarely get it right the first time. Getting it "right" might not even be a phrase to use, because there are so many ways to think of a problem. When I worked on design problems in school or at the startup, I had learned to grab a whiteboard or a giant sheet of paper and start to write and draw and diagram. It didn't matter what I drew, because drawing led to more drawing, and more drawing always led to some sort of answer.
I only sort of half-trusted Bob's advice, but fear is a pretty amazing motivator. I grabbed brown shelf paper, unfurled it on the floor, and took a sharpie to the paper. And there was writing, and drawing, and more writing. And my fear went away, and my introspection stopped for a little while. Now it was a design problem, not a curriculum problem—it was a problem that needed taming, and I could tame a problem through making.
The result was a plan. It wasn't a very good plan. A sketch on a piece of paper didn't make me an expert in education; I still didn't really know what I was doing, and there was still a gnawing fear in the back of my head that students wouldn't respect me, that the other faculty would see through me, and that I would break these kids for life. But now, that voice was just a whisper.
The plan gave me momentum, because I had put a structure around something with no structure. The idea of teaching was nebulous and without boundaries. It could be anything, and so it was huge and unthinkable. But the minute I put a mark on a piece of paper, the problem now had shape. The shape was loose, and mostly wrong, but that shape propelled me towards a place of practice, refinement, and action.
At my school, the projects we assign get more and more ambiguous. They may start with the grading criteria spelled out, but over time, the scope of the project becomes increasingly vague. We stop answering questions with answers, and start answering them with questions. Students learn to interpret, to make leaps, and to make things up.
We sometimes assign a project to students that's focused on the topic of value. Their assignment is to get a local business to pay them $1000 to solve a problem that the business owner didn't know they had.
The assignment is multi-faceted. First, it's about problem identification: how do you see where there are experiential, process, or operational breakdowns in a business? Next, it's about problem solving. How do you take your discrete observations and shape them into a larger and more cohesive story? Finally, it's about persuasion and value. Assuming you've identified problems and solved them, how do you communicate the value of your solution to someone who hasn't asked for your help and doesn't yet realize the benefit of your solution?
These are skills of entrepreneurship, of product and service creation, of seeing, solving, and persuading. And because the project is real, the project is vague. We don't tell students what businesses to look at. We don't tell them what to say, or what to make. We don't tell them how to ask for money, and we don't tell them how to emphasize the value in their work.
The first time I assigned this, I wasn't prepared for the emotional backlash from the students. Some thought it was unfair, because they felt it unachievable. Others thought it was too loose, too vague. But most interesting to me was that some of the students were downright angry: they were actually mad at me.
One of the students stormed out, and I saw later that he had been crying.
We talked about it.
He was a ball of anxiety. This project threw him into the deep end with nothing to hold on to, with no anchor for his fear. He didn't know how to approach the problem because it was open-ended. He had no high level process guide for what steps to take and in what order. And even if he thought of an action to take, he couldn't see how it set him on a path towards success. Presuming he was able to find a business that would let him observe it, he couldn't see a path from observation to problem identification, or a path from problem identification to solution, or a path from solution to communication. And while the measure of success for the project - $1000 - was crystal clear, he felt it impossible to achieve in the timeframe allotted. It was like fixating on the distance of a marathon prior to running it. He was far, far ahead of himself and had decided that the project wasn't hard; it was downright crazy.
As I talked with him, what became most apparent was that the nature of the problem actually assaulted his sense of self-worth. He didn't say things like "this project is impossible" or "the expectations are unrealistic." He said things like "I don't know what to do" or "There's no way I can do this." He internalized the complexity, and instead of seeing the problem as flawed, he saw himself as flawed. And this self-doubt, lack of clarity and anxiety manifested as full blown rage, directed first at himself, and then redirected at me.
When you are small, making things is fun because you are just there, making things. And at some point, self-consciousness kicks in. The things you make are judgeable, and they probably suck. And somewhere in there, you think that maybe you suck, too. And then you get a break from a teacher like Alec and your trajectory changes. You practice and practice and practice, and the things you make become better.
More likely, though, you get shot down by the guy at frog, and your trajectory changes, and you give up.
Without a thick-skinned confidence in making things, you become that student of mine who froze in the face of ambiguity. He sped through the entire problem in his head in a matter of seconds. He saw himself picking a business and failing. He saw himself trying to identify problems, and failing. He saw himself fail when he described the problems, fail when he made solutions, and fail when he asked for the money. And before he even tried, he gave up. And frankly, I don't blame him, because I almost did the same thing when I tried to become a teacher.
And so, back to that exposure: there you are, standing exposed in front of everyone, presenting the thing you made. It's going to take lots and lots and lots of things and lots and lots and lots of criticism to become comfortable with that.
If you stick with it, through the years of shitty ashtrays and embarrassing critiques and rejections, you start to learn that making things is powerful, mostly because on the way to making things, you build confidence. You can take on problems that are out of your league. You can become a teacher with no teaching experience. You can make money and provide value. You can lead a conversation, advance an idea, and drive specificity where there were only vague generalities.
It's taken me thirty years of making things to realize that the thing doesn't actually represent me. It's actually not a proxy for me at all, and it's not an obvious way for others to judge the quality of my character. It's really not about me at all. The moment I could cut that beautiful vase in half, it meant that the verb was more important than the noun. And so I've learned to embrace the power of this creative process and to value the journey, not the output.
Look, I made a thing.
I made this particular thing that you just read, and I re-read it myself a few times when I was done. I noticed how often I went out of my way to describe how bad my work was. It's almost an apology, or an attempt at cleansing: through humility, maybe now I'll come to terms with that personal conflict of pride and shame. Even this little afterword blurb is an ironic apology for this piece itself. I don't like that I'm, even now and with all of this introspection, still judging the noun and not the verb. It's not tied up with a beautiful little bow, a package of inspiration and arrival. Maybe that's the point. It's a process, and probably an endless one. Maybe instead of design, it should be called therapy. Therapy frequently goes forever. It gets better, and then worse, and then it just is the way things are.
Kolko, Jon (2015), "Look, I Made a Thing: Confidence in Making".