The Second Trip-Up

Designers from my generation and before didn’t come directly to design. We started somewhere else (music, drawing, architecture) and tripped over the field in pursuit of something else. This story is common enough, but if a new designer is investigating how older designers wind up where they are, the trail goes cold after the initial trip-up. If you achieve success, these years are eclipsed and forgotten. Still, a young one must wonder what other happenstance discoveries come further along.

Our industry (culture?) does a terrible job of describing those middle parts. I see two reasons. First, during that time, you still make the mistakes of inexperience, but lose the excuse of youth, so best to conceal those years. Second, you spend the rest of your career testing and building upon the insights of your late-early career. These insights are the second trip-up.


A young designer is beaten over the head with typefaces, grids, and rules—and rightfully so—but typography can act as a smoke screen. There is so much to learn about the letters that it’s easy to forget about the words. Once a designer has the typographic skills in their pocket, anyone with their head on straight realizes ugly words in beautiful typefaces are still pretty dumb. I tripped over this observation while struggling to make good designs and clear illustrations for idiotic articles and muddled ideas. I then fell into something I’m still attempting to understand: words are the most explicit example of clear thinking. This is the second most important realization I’ve had in my career, surpassed only by the time I was told design was a professional field.

I was a late-bloomer—I didn’t read or write much until I was 24. An inquisitiveness about the work led me here. Thanks to design, I have Montaigne and Márquez, Lydia Davis, Joan Didion, and E.B. White. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say that design can lead you to words, so I’m putting the fact here to register it as a possibility for others.

The common story says a career narrows as it continues. It simply isn’t so. A delta can spring up anywhere.

New Computer

Buying a PC, 2002

Open box, turn on computer, run updates, download third-party software to replace pre-installed software, then devise ways to disable or hide proprietary software you can’t uninstall.

Buying an iPhone or Mac, 2014

Open box, turn on computer, run updates, download third-party software to replace pre-installed software, then devise ways to disable or hide proprietary software you can’t uninstall.

Jettison the Rest

A few weeks ago, I reread Joan Didion’s essay on self-respect. It smacked me on the back of the head at the right time: I was wringing my hands over work and life, then, as a fully-realized modern person, I began to worry about my worrying.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called “alienation from self.” In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.

Self-respect yields honesty, honesty allows directness, directness produces integrity, and integrity suggests grace. I’ve always longed for grace in my day to day—to elegantly jump from obligation to obligation and juggle it all with assurance and skill. Until the last paragraph, I was left without good example, since most grace is surface, and under the skin lives a barely concealed chaos.

I am like most everyone I know—I have too many obligations. Last month, I would have identified this as the perfect opportunity to practice gracefully. This month’s man feels otherwise. Continually attempting to manage too much isn’t the mark of grace, it’s the sign of a dumbass. It’s best to identify and do what you’re required and able, then jettison the rest.

I made a small note: remember your reasons, so your noes mean no and your yeses mean yes. If yes, understand the cost, accept it, and go forth. This is the antidote to the whiplash of modern life, to automatic and unchecked desire, to the anxiety created by spinelessness. A person must know what’s enough, and stand beside the choice.

The Woozy Walk

I was thinking about the city last night. It’s hard to remember the things outside of New York while you’re here—the city is your mental field of vision, plus a little bit. It might as well be everything since you can’t see the edges. So many things are so needlessly difficult in the city, and that extra friction builds in me to an axiety I’ve named “the haze.” Cow-eyed people on the train have the haze. Sometimes you need to shake it off, to pluck your mind out of the city to retain some sanity. Here is what I do:

  • Find a song. Something you can listen to forever. Possibly this. Maybe that. Whatever song, it’s best if it could be classified as “woozy.”
  • Grab your headphones, and put on the song. Repeat this one song. No other songs are allowed for a while. That song is a house, and you’re going to live in it.
  • Go outside. Choose a direction.
  • Walk. Thirty minutes minimum. An hour is best.
  • Find your way home. Then, two Advil with water.
  • Ten deep breaths. It will feel like the most indulgent thing you’ve done all day.
  • Twenty minute nap. Use one of those sleep cycle apps so you don’t wake up feeling worse.
  • Shower. In the shower, think about something methodical and relaxing. You are dicing celery. You are stacking cinder blocks and unstacking them.
  • Then you put on the song again, one more time. A coda, or whatever.

The woozy walk takes about an hour and a half to two hours. If you cut out the nap (suggested, but not necessary), you can do all this on your lunch break. If you don’t feel better, sorry.

When you move to New York, people offer good, but base advice (don’t get on the empty train car!). Really, we all need to be reminded that New York is too much—it’s part of the appeal—but you’ll have to invent ways to cope, so your brain doesn’t become a tea bag that’s steeped too long.

Every Step Is Moving Me Up

Yesterday, while driving home from upstate, we listened to classic rock radio. I looked out the window, and imagined what it’d be like to hear an Arthur Russell song come on the radio, and how the world would be different if he had a hit. The dream puttered out from there. Which Russell? There were so many.

The disco producer.

The avant garde composer.

The earnest country singer.

The esoteric pop savant.

All these personas were facets of Russell and his approach. The farm boy from Iowa moved to the East Village in the 70s and tried to make music as pop as ABBA and experimental as the downtown music scene. The pursuit was to make divergenent elements converge—Allen Ginsberg even said Russell wanted to write “Buddhist bubblegum music.” Russell was creating a mold for future contemporary musicians: see through the walls that separate different styles of music and try to blend the sounds others think incompatible, even if that means mixing the deep and inane, or better yet, finding the depth in common things.

All this artsy-fartsyness sounds like an opportunity to get pretentious, but Russell’s earnest lyrics disarm any kind of posturing. From joy to isolation to romance, Russell always struck me as an artist more willing than most to take all the aspects of himself seriously and without shame—even the frivolous parts, even the cliché parts. There’s a magnetic realness to it. I defy anyone to not genuinely enjoy Wild Combination and its plain-spoken appreciation of being with someone you love:

So, what song would have been on the radio? Wild Combination is a strong choice, but my underdog vote goes to The Letter and it’s endearing, plodding pace:

But if I had to choose a personal favorite, it’d be This Is How We Walk on the Moon.

Everything with Russell was too early. In 1992, he died of AIDS. He was forty. We won’t get more music, but the existing songs are deep, even in their unfinished state. (Many of the available releases are compilations of his demo tapes). Those rough edges invite interpretation, so later this month, Red Hot (who did the Dark Is The Night compilation) is releasing an album of Russell covers to benefit AIDS research. Here’s José Gonzalez’s great version of This Is How We Walk On The Moon:

I urge you to check it out. Maybe you’ll find as much pleasure and peace in these songs as I have.

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