Rules for making

Posted in Art & Design, Inspiration, Things to Ponder on February 1, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Today marks the beginning of Thing-A-Day month, and I have several hours of guitar lessons to teach after I get home from work, so I don’t think I’ll have time to draw or record a song before midnight. Instead, I spent part of my lunch hour compiling a number of rules I’ve come across over the years that help me stay sane and productive as an artist.

It isn’t done until you’re proud of it.

My friend Joe McDalno wrote this in a blog entry a couple of years ago, and it’s resonated with me ever since:

The world has a ton of artists, of art, of games, of bands, of professionals. The amount of stuff we produce and participate in is astounding. And, as a result, the world has no need of things which are good enough. And I reproach myself for going to press with something that I told myself was “good enough.” If it isn’t something that you’re unwaveringly proud of, there’s zero need for it.

What doesn’t enhance detracts.

I believe Henri Matisse said “whatever doesn’t enhance a picture detracts from it.” I’m sure I’m paraphrasing, but I couldn’t find the original quote after casual searching.

Make art you want to experience.

Don’t worry about being original, or if your work is derivative. All that matters is that you like it, that you’d be impressed by it if you heard it on the radio or saw it hanging in a gallery.

Create much, reveal little.

For every work of art I release for public consumption, there are dozens that no one but me will ever know exists. Even so, I should be a little more careful about what I release. Your audience will think you are as good as the worst piece you show them, so choose carefully. Maybe spend a little time removed from the work before you make the decision to let it out.

Find inspiration in the classics.

There’s a reason the classics are the classics. Helvetica is over 60 years old, Futura is over 80. Kerouac’s On the Road and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer are still subverting young men and women after half a century, and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue will still blow your mind.

Don’t be boring.

You can be cool, elegant, sexy, flamboyant, dramatic. But boring will bore your audience.

Challenge your skills and polish your craft with each piece.

When you are writing an arrangement for the guitar, try to write something you can’t play without a little practicing. If you’re drawing something, and you always have trouble with hands or foreshortening, consider making those elements an important part of the composition.

Style results naturally from skill & taste.

Don’t worry about developing a personal style. You can’t help it. After awhile, if you ever get good enough, you’ll begin to see your style as a product of your limitations rather than your skill.

If you’re the best whatever, you’re in the wrong wherever.

You will learn little, and find little inspiration if you’re the best in your circle of friends. You need to be a bit uncomfortable to grow, and surrounding yourself by people who are better than you are at something you think you’re really good at is a great way to make yourself uncomfortable.

The only way to master anything is by doing it over and over again.

I don’t believe in natural, God-given talent. I’ve spent years teaching myself to draw and design, and have labored over countless mistakes. I’ve logged about 33,000 hours playing the guitar, over 20k more than the Gladwellian Virtuoso Threshold.

Speaking of Malcolm Gladwell:

Talent is the desire to practice.

Your art is what you do, not who you are.

I’ve had a lot of problems resulting from defining myself as an artist. There’s lots of ego inflation and deflation going on, and I think that might partially explain some of the weird mental states many artists find themselves in. You have to try to remember that being a great artist won’t make you a better person, it won’t make people like you more, and it won’t make you feel better about yourself. If anything, you’ll be so absorbed in your work that you’ll neglect those who love you, people will think you’re aloof and elitist, and you’ll constantly torture yourself over tiny details of theory and technique that most people, even most of those who participate in your particular discipline, don’t know exist.

I know it’s hard, but try to separate your self-esteem from your work. Don’t forget that the most important things in the world are relationships with the people you love. They’ll be the ones who pick you up out of the gutter of deep existential depression when you can’t seem to draw that nose quite right.

Make something every day.

Which is why you are here.

The day is the atomic unit of your life. If you make something every day, you’ll have lived a lifetime of making things. And, to me, that is a life worth living.

GTD and Reminders

Posted in GTD, Productivity on October 13, 2011 at 11:45 am

It’s pretty sad (and telling) that the iOS5 feature I was most excited about is Reminders. Like millions of others, I installed iOS 5 last night. Like a handful of others (hopefully it isn’t just me), I’ve spent my morning combining my weekly review with transferring my GTD system into Reminders.

Since becoming overwhelmed by the amount of tweaking and fiddling that I was doing in OmniFocus, I’ve been on a quest to find, or hack, the perfect minimalist GTD system. For the last several months, my trusted system has been based in Simplenote, used in conjunction with ResophNotes (like Notational Velocity, but for PC) and iPhone list-making apps that integrate with SimpleNote, such as Listary and NoteTask. This ubiquitious-capture-capable, cloud-synced, text-based system has worked pretty well for me, but it isn’t particularly inspiring. I’m hopeful that Reminders will be the silver bullet that kills my compulsion to experiment with task management software and actually get things done.

What I Require in My Trusted System

I’m a notebook and pen geek, but I don’t use a paper system for my GTD because I’m screwed if I lose or forget my notebook. For me to really enjoy the GTD’s benefit of stress-attenuation, I need to know that I can access my lists anywhere at any time. There are tons of beautifully designed (visually) task-management apps for iPhone that don’t sync with anything, not even a proprietary web service. This is the ultimate deal breaker for me.



If you have an iOS 5 device, you already have the app. You don’t have to shell out $40 for an app with a ton of features you’ll never use.

Visually Appealing

Reminders isn’t the most attractive (to my aesthetic sensibilities) list manager out there, but it’s not at all ugly. As a graphic designer and artist, I simply can’t use an ugly application, even if it’s extremely functional.

Idiot-proof Syncing

If you have an iCloud account, your lists sync automatically. You don’t have to worry about manual backup. Since I use Outlook at work (calendar and email only, not for GTD), my empty Outlook task list was available the first time I opened the app. You can select which task lists are visable in iPhone settings.


There is no tweaking do be done here. There are no subtasks. No folders. No assigning tasks to projects. These are the things made me waste so much time in OmniFocus, so I consider their absence features rather than omissions.

I’d like to point out that Getting Things Done was designed for whatever tools are available (including paper) and canon GTD, as written, doesn’t require subtasks and pre-planning every action for a project, but relies on what David Allen calls the Natural Planning Model.

Ubiquitous Access

I can view, add, and remove items from my iPad, iPhone, and web browser. If my two-year-old drops my iPhone in the toilet, I can wipe away my tears and still access my list.

Moving items across lists

It’s easy enough to move items from one list to another. There’s one too many taps involved, but it’s something I can live with.

Listary does this with SimpleNote lists.

Rearranging Things

It’s very easy to rearrange the order of items in a list, or the lists themselves.

EDIT: Unfortunately, you can’t rearrange the order of items in a list. This is kind of a silly omission, because all you’d have to do is tap and hold to enable reordering.

Due Dates & Repeating Tasks

Yep. It does this.

This is the thing Reminders can do that my SimpleNote/Listary system can’t.



As I mentioned earlier, there are no subtasks, no folders, and no assigning tasks to projects. Some people really need these things, or think they need them. If you do, I strongly suggest OmniFocus.

Too Much Leather

I don’t really need my list manager to look like a real leather organizer. I’d prefer access to the real estate to be able to see more items on my list. This is really only an issue on the iPhone.

Web App Interface is Clunky

The iCloud calendar is so slow as to be nearly unusable on both my work machine and my laptop.

Difficult to Manage Lots of Lists

I gave up on importing all of my lists from SimpleNote because it’s difficult to add new lists on the iPad once you fill up the initial window. I’m thinking of keeping my non-actionable lists in Pages.

3GS Omission

Location-based reminders aren’t enabled for 3GS iPhones.


For the moment, I’m using a 3GS, but I’ve been told that Siri integrates into Reminders. Depending on how well this works, this could be the feature that David Allen has been waiting for all these years.

What I’d Change

  • Get rid of the leather “chrome” around the app.
  • Make it easier to move items across lists
  • Make it easier to add new lists

Creative Nutrition

Posted in Art & Design, Inspiration, Productivity on June 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Athletes don’t eat the same way regular people eat. The food they consume is carefully considered for the effect it will have on their performance. An athlete’s body is his medium, and if he wants to compete at their maximum potential, he has to treat his body like it is as important as it is.

The artist doesn’t consume media the same way regular people consume media. The artist knows that the quality of work he produces is directly proportional to the quality of media he consumes, so he chooses carefully the things that enter his brain to fuel his imagination. The writer who only reads inside his genre and the songwriter who only listens to the music on the radio won’t be able to produce important, vital art.

The gradual, unintentional sacrifice that I’ve made as an artist is that I no longer seek entertainment. When I watch movies, read novels, or listen to music it is with the singular purpose of fueling my imagination. There are few best sellers in my reading queue. If I, as an artist, am to compete at my maximum potential, I must fill my imagination with images, mythology, and philosophy that will ferment in my subconscious, then randomize and recombine as inspiration.
I must treat my imagination like it is as important as it is.

The Real Difference Between Fonts and Typefaces

Posted in Art & Design on May 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm

This article has been popping up on Twitter over the past week, purporting to explain the difference between a “font,” which most people erroneously use when they mean to say “typeface,” and “typeface,” which they don’t really use at all. It does a horrible job of explaining it, and in fact gets it wrong. This is particularly tragic since the article is posted on the AIGA website.

So I’m going to clear it up for you.

Let’s pretend you’re an old-school type designer (I’d like to say here that I know very little about the profession of type design, especially the historical techniques of creating type, so please forgive any inaccuracies and abstractions). You’ve drawn up and refined your designs, and now you’re cutting them out of tiny bits of metal. Once you finish creating your alphabet at 10 points, you put it in a wooden box and label it Old School Roman – 10 pts.

Your friend Tom asks you to print his manifesto, and you think this is a perfect opportunity to use your new letters. The only problem is that his manifesto requires that certain words and phrases be set in italics, and there are lots of headings. Since you’ve only created the Roman (normal) version, you decide that you’re going to cut an italic version as well.

When you’re finished with the italics, you put them in another wooden box labeled Old School Italic – 10 pts. It would be really stupid to put the 10 point Romans in with the 10 point italics, because it would take so long to find the letter you need in the correct style. For the headings, you decide to make a larger version of the Roman, but at 18 points. You put that in an appropriately labeled box as well.

Tom thinks you’ve done a great job, and he loves your type design. He’d like something different for the title, though, so you go to a door labeled “Alternate Gothic” and you grab the wooden box upon which is written “Alternate Gothic No. 2 – 24 pts.”

It goes like this: Alternate Gothic and Old School are two different typefaces. Old School Roman – 10 pt and Old School Italic 10 pt are different fonts. Old School Roman – 12 pt would be a different font than OSR 10 pt. Everything in its own wooden box is a separate font.

All of the Old School designs belong to the same typeface.

Got it? Any questions?

30 Steps to Mastery

Posted in Art & Design, Inspiration, Productivity on January 11, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I found this list (posted by commenter Onjibonrenat) over on Ben Casnocha’s site:

  1. Start
  2. Keep going.
  3. You think you’re starting to get the hang of it.
  4. You see someone else’s work and feel undeniable misery.
  5. Keep going.
  6. Keep going.
  7. You feel like maybe, possibly, you kinda got it now.
  8. You don’t.
  9. Keep going.
  10. You ask for someone else’s opinion–their response is standoffish, though polite.
  11. Depression.
  12. Keep going.
  13. Keep going.
  14. You ask someone else’s opinion–their response is favorable.
  15. They have no idea what they’re talking about.
  16. Keep going.
  17. You feel semi-kinda favorable and maybe even a little proud of what you can do now.
  18. Self-loathing chastisement.
  19. Depression
  20. Keep going.
  21. You ask someone else’s opinion–they respond quite favorably.
  22. They’re still wrong.
  23. Depression.
  24. Keep going though you can’t possibly imagine why.
  25. Become restless.
  26. Receive some measure of praise from a trustworthy opinion.
  27. They’re still fucking wrong (Right?)
  28. Keep going just because there’s nothing else to do.
  29. Mastery arrives, you mistake it for a gust of wind.
  30. Keep. Fucking. Going.

…and that’s about what it’s like. Every. Single. Day.


Posted in Cooking, Paleo on December 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm

An Israeli favorite, shaksouka is a cheap, easy dish of eggs poached in a tomato sauce.

Sauté an onion (diced) and 4 cloves of garlic (chopped) in a little olive oil until soft. Add 1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, and season with black pepper, kosher salt, cumin, coriander, and paprika. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Carefully crack 4 to 8 eggs into the sauce. Re-cover and poach for 5 minutes.

Scoop eggs and sauce onto plate, and serve with grilled (or toasted) crusty bread for sopping.

How to provide the ideal portrait to your graphic designer

Posted in Art & Design on December 14, 2010 at 12:59 pm

I’m constantly being emailed substandard photographs which ruin my beautiful layouts. Enough was enough, so I wrote these guidelines to email to my long-distance clients.

The Ideal Portrait

The ideal portrait is a studio portrait taken by a competent photographer and saved at high resolution without compression (such as a TIFF file). If possible, have the photographer forward the file directly to us.

TIFF is the standard image format for print. JPG files usually leave out information to save space, while usable, this is not the most desirable option. GIF files aren’t ever good for photographs, even on the web.

The Next Best Thing

If you don’t have a studio portrait, here are some tips for taking a decent portrait on your own:

  • Leave plenty of space around the subject. The more headroom the subject has, the more options I have in composing and cropping the photograph.
  • Use natural light, preferably outside on an overcast day. On sunny days, the light is too harsh and causes the subject to squint. Overcast days provide naturally diffused light which will make your subject appear more attractive.
  • If you have a camera that will focus, make the background as out of focus as possible.
  • Use a neutral background that contrasts with the subject.
  • Watch out for objects in the background that stick out of the top of the subject’s head (such as telephone poles).
  • Be aware of glare and reflections in glasses.
  • Don’t use flash. Flash destroys the shadows which make the face appear 3-dimensional on a 2-dimensional surface (paper or screen). This is what adds those proverbial ten pounds in photographs.
  • Did I mention not to use flash?
  • An exception: the only time you should EVER use flash when taking a portrait is when you have no choice but to take the photo on a sunny day and there are lots of distracting shadows on the subject’s face.
  • Take lots of photos. Professional photographers might take a hundred photos for every one that gets used.

Resolution and File Size

The larger the file, the better it reproduces in print. The standard resolution (amount of detail) for a photo on the web is 72 ppi (pixels per inch). The standard resolution for a printed photograph (in a magazine, for example) is 300 ppi. A photograph at standard resolution will reproduce on paper at approximately 25% the size that it will on a web page.

A 4″ x 5″ photo will have the dimensions of 1200 x 1500 pixels.

Follow these guidelines and you will make a graphic designer very happy.


Lessons Learned from 6 Years of Teaching Guitar Lessons

Posted in Music, Things to Ponder on December 5, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Until last week, my major source of income was teaching guitar lessons. For the last six years, I’ve taught an average of 30 students a week. This adds up to 9000 guitar lessons, though I suspect the number may be a bit higher. Here are a few of the lessons I learned from my students.

You can become good friends with nearly anyone as long as you avoid talking about politics and religion.

When someone tells me they are tone deaf or don’t have rhythm, I don’t believe them. Anyone who can repeat a clapped pattern has good rhythm. Anyone who can match a note with their voice has a good sense of pitch.

People who have already achieved a high level of proficiency with another difficult discipline (engineering or physics, for example) tend to advance quickly on the guitar.

I don’t believe in innate talent. That isn’t to say that everyone comes to first lesson equally equipped, but that what most people call talent I recognize as a passion for music that can be traced to their early childhood.

Learning to play by ear is important. Knowing theory is important. But if I had to choose one, I’d choose playing by  ear.

People only grow if they are being challenged, but it’s important not to challenge them so much that they are overwhelmed.

The traits that I recognize in a good student are passion and curiosity. If they are passionate, curious people, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll learn to play, with or without my help. If they aren’t passionate and curious, there’s not much I can do for them.

Thou Shalt Not

Posted in Productivity, Things to Ponder on December 5, 2010 at 1:52 am

Don’t release anything that wouldn’t go into your portfolio.

Don’t stop working (practicing) until you are proud of yourself.

Don’t forget the fundamentals.

Don’t play it safe.

Don’t succumb to your insecurities. That’s the Devil sloshing around in your head. If you give up, he wins.

Don’t skip breakfast.

Don’t drink caffeine after 8 pm, unless you’re pulling an all-nighter.

Don’t leave the house without your pen(cil) and notebook.

Don’t be so damned sensitive.

Don’t be so jaded.

The Storm

Posted in Daily Life, Writing on September 26, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Two young families standing under an oak tree in a park, trying vainly to stay dry while their little blue-eyed, blond-haired sons stumble over roots and play in the red dirt. A bit of thunder, but not enough to frighten the children.The men, showing subtle signs of age, feel each other out politically, gradually discovering a bit of common ground. The women, still young and beautiful, bond over the tribulations of motherhood.

There is a break in the storm, and a father and son go skipping through the curtains of rain to the parking lot, their wet hair plastered to their heads. The father turns on the engine, the heater, and drives closer to his wife. He watches the other father swing his own son in the air. It’s like watching a movie of himself.

For lunch, a hot steak sandwich with peppers and onions. This is the only possible cure for the dread chill that is brought on by playing in the rain.

The child plays in the living room while his parents collapse on the couch, cleansing their palettes with strawberries and pomegranate juice.

He puts the boy down for a nap, and the two of them are themselves lulled to sleep by the rain.

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