Friday, November 30, 2012

9 & 3/4 Thinking: Brain Pickings via Maria Popova

This thing called creativity? It's a beautiful creature, but elusive. I chased it relentlessly for years, caught it occasionally. There's still something creative-ish about what I do, but not in that let-your-hair-down way where the bizarre and beautiful show up in the most unlikely places.

Which leads to the subject of this post. A NY Times article introduced me to Maria Popova and her fabulously creative blog, Brian Pickings. And by creative, I mean unlikely. Yes there's such a thing as run-of-the-mill, what-you'd-expect creativity. Sometimes even really, really excellent run-of-the-mill. I've used it myself to keep food on the table over the past couple decades. And it has its purpose. But it's never the gateway to a fresh way of thinking.

The article touched on the roots of Ms. Popova's ability to think unlikely:

After graduating from an American high school in Bulgaria, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where she quickly grew bored with what she calls the “industrial model” of education, involving large-scale lectures. While still a student, she was working part time at an advertising firm in 2005, when a colleague sent around an e-mail with clippings of rivals’ work to inspire the team.

Ms. Popova thought it was the wrong way to spur imagination, so she told her boss she would begin sending around her own inspirational e-mail regularly. It would contain everything from a new piece of research into biomimicry to a haiku by a Japanese poet. Without much thought, she called it Brain Pickings. “It was the opposite of how school made me feel,” she said. “It was a kind of Rube Goldberg-like machine of curiosity and discovery.”

I've been on the end of the "e-mail with clipplings of rivals' work to inspire the team." I'm sure I've sent them out myself. But I've never been on the end of a biomimicry/haiku e-mail at work--which, to my mind, would be the epitome of 9 3/4 thinking.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who knows how to wrangle huge web projects?

For the past few months, I've been working on a website overhaul for one of the world's biggest organizations. Our team is going section by section, incising out old stuff and replacing it with shiny new everything, from the overarching strategy to the gritty SEO details. It's like being the surgical team behind the Six Million Dollar Man. Except the end goal isn't to fix him, make him faster, better, whatever. It's to replace him entirely.

And damn, it's hard. Understanding our clients' services and technology is plenty tough, but communicating it simply and powerfully is devilishly difficult. But that's just one element of many, some of which can make content development seem like easy-peasy typing. UX, strategy, programming, creative, project management--we've all shed blood, sweat, and tears trying to wrangle this beast.

I'm not easy-peasy typing to complain. No, I'm looking to improve my web wrangling chops. All I've had to go on is a dated Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites and a few projects under my belt. So I went looking for expert insight on the subject.

But so far, all I've found is either ironclad processes for uninspired sites or bubblegum-and-twine tales full of quibbling and near death experiences before, miraculously, limping to victory. Just this morning, my wife sent me a great example of the latter, an Atlantic article on the tech and digital teams behind Obama's campaign.

Maybe wrangling is hard no matter what, and that's just the way it is. But if you happen to know some shortcuts, please let me know.