Slowing the eff down, or, how to survive today’s world as a culture/information junkie

It’s not much of a stretch to say that we’re living in a pretty fast-paced world today.

Between the hundreds of people we follow on Twitter and Facebook to the mountains of websites we visit to our ever-expanding inbox(es), it really feels like there’s a lot that we “need” to keep up with.

In a world where memes are created within hours of an event and then discarded and forgotten a day or two later, it can feel nearly impossible to stay on top of things. Try to tell someone a huge piece of breaking news, and chances are they’ve heard it already. It’s so five minutes ago.

Today, many of us — especially those of us who have many interests and/or spend tons of time online — are partaking in what I think of as a sampling culture. When we’re in such a rush to consume the wealth of information and/or cat pics that are in front of us on a daily basis that most of it is really going in one ear and out the other. Be honest with yourself: How much can you really retain when you’re looking at potentially hundreds of websites/articles/posts/tweets/cat pics every day?

Just kidding, I always have time for catpics.

It’s as if we’re being faced with an amazing buffet that’s passing by on a fast-moving conveyor belt. What are we to do? Try to take a crumb of everything that’s zipping by, or let most things pass by untasted and enjoying a few chosen items?

With that in mind, here are a few of my suggestions about how to slow the eff down and enjoy life a bit more.

Embrace repetition

Now, as I’ve discussed before, making permanent memories and retaining information is not the be all and end all. It’s perfectly fine to have an experience, enjoy it in the moment, and then let it go. That being said, I do like to remember some of what I’m taking in. There’s a lot of really fantastic advice, inspiring stories, and beautiful art in the world, and am I doing these things justice if I’m scarfing them down in a fruitless attempt to “keep up”? For ideas to have a real impact on your life, they need to be absorbed more slowly, and potentially multiple times.

This is especially the case when it comes to music. With the rising popularity of Internet radio services like Rdio and Spotify, we’re culturally trending towards all-access passes to huge catalogues of everything ever. With no ownership of what you’re consuming or limits on how much you can consume, you’re being encouraged to embrace sampling culture and enjoy a bit of everything. This is cool, but to really love an album, you often have to give it a few listens for it to really sink in. Sometimes you only really connect with a song or an artist upon hearing it at a very specific time, in a very specific context, which is why you end up strongly associating music with certain times in your life.

With so much going on and so much on the menu to sample, I believe in deliberately forcing some repetition of music, writing, and art that I like. Although I fight against feeling like I’m wasting my time by revisiting something I’ve already once consumed, the repetition helps to forge a deeper connection. Lesson: Go for quality over quantity.

I’ve probably listened to this very Movember-appropriate album several hundred times, and I’m okay with that.

Get offline and rediscover physical objects

Between the plummeting price of storage and the vastness of the Great Interwebs, our capacity for discovery and hoarding are endless. Meanwhile, in the physical world, we have constraints.

My iTunes library. Kiiiind of ridiculous.

This complements the first point about repetition. In the world of physical objects, we’re restricted to a finite number of resources, and we therefore have a better chance of giving things proper attention since we have less to focus on.

Using a film camera instead of a digital camera is another exercise in slowing down and being more deliberate. When you’re limited to 24 or 36 exposures per roll of film and developing film takes time and costs money, you’re bound to be more careful when taking pictures and really focus on capturing what’s important. When I take my digital SLR with me anywhere, I inevitably end up taking hundreds of photos in a day, most of which, to be honest, aren’t that great or memorable. Analogue processes and physical objects help to reduce some of the noisy waste. (That being said, there are also huge advantages to digital photography and I ♥ my Nikon D600.)

Some of my favourite photos are ones I took with film, like this one!

There’s also something to be said for ownership and the ability to hold something in your hands. Once you’ve bought a book/album/roll of film, you’re much more likely to want to fully enjoy it since you paid good money for it and are giving it space in your home and your life. For better or for worse, I think that we value virtual objects less and we feel that they’re more easily disposable and forgettable.

Be selective

The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love. Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Go ahead, hit ‘Mark all As read’ in Google Reader. Cut down the number of websites you visit. Get rid of the clothes in your wardrobe that you don’t feel good wearing. Pare down ruthlessly until you’re only devoting your time and energy to things that you love, because time is finite and noise is endless. Cutting mediocrity out of your life leaves space to let in awesome things that are worthy of your time!

How do you feel about the pace of life and information today? Do you have any good coping strategies?

Breaking into design (or other creative/technical careers): a guide for n00bs

When I think about the fact that I currently work full time as a front-end developer and that before that I worked at several jobs as a designer as well, sometimes it feels a little surreal, given my background. Four years ago, I was a fresh university graduate with a double major in History and Art History with no design or programming education or professional experience to speak of.

The aim of this post to try and give some advice that I would have appreciated hearing when I was first starting out as a total n00b. Everything I’ve written is of course through the lens of someone who works in the field of web design, but I don’t see why you couldn’t apply it to other creative or technical pursuits as well.

Here is what worked for me, and what I’d recommend to others starting out:

Starting as a hobbyist

There’s no easier way to test whether you’d like something than to just try it out on a personal project. I knew I liked to make websites because I’d been making terrible personal sites since I was 11 and thought that Geocities and animaged GIFs were awesome, and I’d continued to make cringeworthy websites through my teenage years. Of course, they were terrible by today’s standards and I’d never include any of them in a portfolio, but being a hobbyist without any professional pressure was a great way to slowly nurture a skill that I grew to enjoy and eventually become pretty good at. If you want to be a designer, experiment with some personal projects (perhaps try a logo or a business card). If you want to be a writer, start keeping a journal or start a blog. Nobody even has to know!

My first website ever, circa 1997. It featured a delightful colour scheme, gorgeous typography, and a state-of-the-art table-driven layout. It’s still an integral part of my portfolio, obviously.

Volunteering your skill for someone in need

Because I’m largely self-taught, I needed a lot of practice to hone my design and coding skills. The best way to do this without selling your soul is to volunteer your time and skills for people or groups who need them but could never afford a professional. Note! I’m not talking about responding to shady, exploitative Craigslist ads that ask you to work for free for “exposure” or because “it’ll be a great portfolio piece”. Barf. In my case, this initially meant volunteering to make websites and marketing materials for student groups while I was in school. It was a great way to practice in a fairly low-stress but real environment. I also ended up improving my web skills and gaining experience by volunteering for Stand Canada, which is entirely run by volunteers. If you’re a student you have a distinct advantage because student-run groups are always in need of talented volunteers, but if you’re not, there are plenty of worthy causes out there that could use your help. Ask around!

Educating yourself

Although there are plenty of self-taught geniuses in the world, it’s sometimes difficult and overwhelming to teach yourself everything you need to know. It’s important to have some foundational knowledge, at least in design or development. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself copying and pasting recklessly without actually knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing.

You can choose to go to university or college for your chosen profession, but if you’ve already graduated from school and don’t have the time, money, or inclination to go back for another full program, there are other options. Most colleges offer continuing education, which is less of a time commitment than being a full time student, but still offers the structure of being in a class. As for me, I enrolled in a 3-year graphic design program right after graduation, but I left after the first semester, because it turned out that 7 years of consecutive post-secondary education didn’t seem so appealing after all.

If the traditional classroom isn’t quite your thing, that’s cool, too. There are lots of great free and paid resources on just about every topic. Personally, I find that paying for something means that I’ll actually use it more. After all, I’ve spent money on it, so if I don’t use it, I’m being wasteful and I’ll feel guilty about it, and guilt is obviously a good motivator. In the past I had a subscription to, which I found quite useful, especially in learning how to use Adobe CS programs. Then there’s iTunes U, where you can take courses for free from schools all over the world, which is pretty crazy when you think about it.

And of course I have to give a shout out to Ladies Learning Code (one-day workshops) and HackerYou (longer, more in-depth courses), both of which I am/have been involved with as a mentor. If you’re in Toronto, check ’em out.

Practising on family and friends

Now, let me clarify here: if you’re not that skilled yet and someone you know and love needs a professional job done, it might be awkward and a little painful if you try and take it on as a beginner. It’s always best to be honest with yourself about your skill level. However, there are lots of ways to practise your creative skill on friends and family without immense pressure. Do you have friends in a band? Make them a gig poster! Someone you know starting a new hobby? Make them a business card! Tell everyone you know about your burgeoning skill, and they’ll keep you in mind for future projects. I also want to note that doing things for free or very cheap for people you know is probably only a good idea when you’re just starting out and really need the practice, and aren’t yet at a skill level where you’d feel comfortable charging for your work. Once you’re past that, working for free or super-cheap is generally not such a good idea, both for yourself and for your industry. (That is, unless you’re doing it as a gift — then go ahead, you kind person, you!)

Having a boyfriend in a band meant lots of practice designing posters.

Being your own client

If all else fails, there’s always one client you can count on — yourself. I used to go through countless iterations of my website and “brand identity” (though to be honest I didn’t know enough to call it that back then), and this gave me tons of good practice that I could use in, or as, my portfolio later on. Doing work for yourself is a bit of a mixed blessing — although you have the freedom to do whatever you want, often we’re our own worst critics, and it’s extremely difficult to make something for ourselves that we’ll actually be satisfied with. This in itself is a mixed blessing as well, because creative dissatisfaction is a great motivator for trying new things and improving your skills.

Working your way up by working in-house

So, you’re starting to get good, and you’re on your way to finding a first real job in your chosen field. Hurray! A great way to start growing your skills if you’re talented but not yet an expert is to work in-house at a company, as opposed to working at an agency. I’m sure there are about 1000 exceptions to what I just said, but in my experience, working as an in-house designer or developer (client-side) is far less pressure than working with many clients at once (agency-side). Working at one organization generally means that you’ll be focused on fewer projects at once, and that you’ll be working on them for a longer period of time. It can be really enlightening to stay with a project from inception all the way to post-launch, and truly experience the outcomes of your decisions and work.

I was going to continue with what didn’t work so well for me, but this got so long that I’m going to cut it off here. Let me know if you found this useful, or even if you entirely disagree!