Look elsewhere

Entrance to the theater at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Spring Green, WI.

Don’t stare at your industry. Look in the opposite direction.

Have you noticed that Instagram has been looking more and more like Snapchat lately (of course you have)? When companies compete, they tend to borrow from each other. It’s one big, paranoid loop.

In software, people often turn to Apple for design inspiration. It makes sense — the company is wildly successful, it defines trends, and it pushes envelopes. But copying Apple doesn’t make you a trendsetter or a rule breaker. It makes you a follower. When everyone mimics Apple, everything tends to look the same. Apple’s clean and simple aesthetic is Apple’s — it’s not yours.

So here’s my advice: Look outward. Turn away from your industry and venture beyond the business world for inspiration. If you’re about to make software, instead of checking out the Top 10 apps in the App Store, try looking through a book on architecture.

Better yet, find a building that moves you and walk through it. Spend time understanding it. How do people flow from one part of the building to another? Is there signage? How do you know where you are in the building? How do you feel when you look at it from across the street? How does that feeling change when you walk inside? How do you feel when you leave?

All those experiences and observations relate to designing software. It’s about thinking through an experience, not drawing exact parallels. For example, bronze elevator doors tell you there’s a heft and heaviness and seriousness to the building. They make you feel secure. Contrast that with flimsy elevator doors that shake when they close, which gives you a sense of unease. How does your software make someone feel?

When I’m designing software, I try to draw from a variety of influences, including:

Nature

Want to find colors and patterns and shapes that go well together? Stop looking at catalogs of print designs or stock photos — look at trees and flowers and insects and animals. Their designs have been perfected over millions of years. They have beauty and utility figured out by now.

Watches

At their most basic, they all do the same thing — tell time with just three components: a minute hand, an hour hand, and markers on the dial. It turns out there are thousands of variations to accomplish this simple task, so don’t tell me there are only a few ways to display photos in your app.

Cars

I love looking at well-designed dashboards, instrument clusters, door handles, switches, and buttons. There’s so much to learn about what feels right and what falls flat. Sounds are telling as well — the engine, the snick of a manual shift, the click of the turn signal, the confident thud of a door that closes snug and tight. Those are all design features.

Chairs

A chair is such a basic device, but it can take thousands of forms. What does it feel like to sit in a chair that is nailed together, versus one that is glued or joined? What does a cotton-webbing seat feel like compared with wicker? Arms at different heights — or no arms at all?

The details may be different in software, but the feelings are the same. Other companies may prefer a serious museum look, and there are plenty of products that resemble museum pieces. But if you want something that’s comfortable and welcoming, Basecamp’s going to be more your speed. It has a “come on in and get cozy,” living room feel, not a cold, modern, “don’t touch it or you’ll mess stuff up” vibe.

So figure out what objects and places inspire you and immerse yourself in them. Pay attention to those details. Then, instead of imitating competitors, you just might find your voice.


This article also appeared in the June 2017 issue of Inc. Magazine.

Your struggles can inspire others

Think back to the the last time you struggled mightily with a programming problem. Did you share it with the world?

If you didn’t, that’s totally OK — most of us don’t! Why would we? Nobody enjoys admitting defeat, much less wanting to make a big deal out of it.


But kudos to you if you did share your struggles, because I bet you made a pretty big positive impact on someone. It very well may have inspired them.

I’m speaking from experience. Someone I respect recently did exactly this for me out of the blue. We were chatting a bit when they mentioned how they were struggling with some parts of Kotlin, just as I was.

What an astonishing revelation! I was surprised (and impressed) by this honesty. How could it be that this person, a great programmer whom I admire and has done amazing work, be struggling just like me?!

It’s strange — logically I know that of course everyone struggles and has rough patches. But in an era of highly polished tweets, blog posts, and conference talks, it’d be forgivable to think that programmers out there never struggle with their work.

But of course they do. Which is why when someone you respect shares their real-world struggles with you, it reinforces and crystalizes an important point: there’s no magic to anything we do.

These vulnerable moments are a reminder that all of us are just programmers trying to do our best. That we all succeed basically the same way — by working hard, struggling, learning, and keeping at it with determination.

It also made me realize that while we often share our successes and expertise with the community, it’s much rarer that we humble ourselves and reveal our weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong — it’s amazing to be surrounded with smart people that are gracious enough to share their knowledge with us. A knowledgeable community is incredibly powerful.

But it’s also incredibly powerful and inspirational to share your struggles. Doing so isn’t a sign of impostor syndrome — no, it’s a sign confidence, generosity, and honesty. I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of such honesty more than once, and it always inspires me to keep at it and have confidence in myself.

So remember, we all struggle. If you’ve hit a rough patch today, don’t fret. There’s a good chance just about everyone else has too. Hopefully they’ll tell you about it soon.✊


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Don’t be too inspired

If you want to contribute something original, it may be best to stay away from those who might inspire you too much.

I was just watching this lovely little seven-minute video on Roger W. Smith over at HODINKEE:

Roger is a watchmaker, in the most traditional sense. He apprenticed under George Daniels, one of the best there ever was. And for the first few years, he made everything himself — just him, no one else. Eventually he built up a team of 8, and that’s where he is today. Even if you aren’t into watches, I bet you’ll be into Roger W. Smith after you watch the video above.

Distancing himself

Roger’s workshop is on the Isle of Man — far away from the heart of the industry in Switzerland. In fact, he’s the only watchmaker on the Isle of Man, and one of very few in the UK.

He thinks being far away is a good thing. I love how he puts it:

“The influences just aren’t around, and I can just get on with my days work and just make what I want to make.” -Roger W. Smith

I love that notion — it’s one I’ve tried to hold dear myself. Don’t be influenced too much. Be aware of what’s great, but don’t get other people’s work too deep in your head or you’ll be doing their work, not yours.

It’s so easy to get sucked into other people’s work. Following industry news, attending every conference you can, picking brains. But I’ve often found it better to retreat into your own mind and bring something original. The more you see how other people do what they do, the harder it becomes to do things differently.

So pay attention a little, but not too much — leave more room for your own ideas than for theirs.


For more on Roger W. Smith, read the full article at HODINKEE.

It’s OK to be pragmatic (with a little help from the “crazy ones”)


Being pragmatic is engrained in me. I’m at my best being practical and boring.

Here’s the problem — experience has taught me that you’ll never do your best work through sheer pragmatism alone.

While I’m good at weighing options and making decisions, I’m not that visionary who can conceptualize grand ideas.

While planning comes very naturally to me, I find it difficult to inspire others.

And though I’m good at shipping, I often do so using following established conventions.

So while the incremental, risk-averse nature of being pragmatic can be good for many aspects day to day of work, it’s not everything.

What you’re good at and what’s good for you aren’t always the same thing.

To make long-term, deep progress in your professional growth, you need to think big sometimes.

You need to try things that don’t have predictable outcomes. You need ideas and ways of thinking that inspire innovation. You need to stretch way beyond your comfort zone.

But as a pragmatist, how can you do all this when it’s so foreign to you?


Surround yourself with the “crazy ones”

The idea of the “crazy ones” may be Apple’s, but that kind of creativity, inspiration and genius is all around you.

Look for opportunities to work with people who are the opposite of you — the dreamers, big thinkers, and contrarians.

These will be the people who will push you toward bigger and better things.

Yes, it’s going to be very hard and uncomfortable for you. You’re going to feel like you’re on a bizarro planet where everything is backwards and nobody thinks like you.

This is a good thing.

Having people challenge your baby-steps thinking with big-leaps thinking is a good thing.

Not understanding what the hell one of your colleagues is thinking (at first) is a good thing.

Having healthy discourse around big ideas is a good thing.

And shaking hands and finding compromise is a great thing.

Their thinking will seem crazy and executing their ideas will seem impossible. But in end you’ll pull it off — not in spite of you, but because of you.

You’ll be better in every way because you stretched well outside your comfort zone. And really, what’s more rewarding for a pragmatist than shipping something you didn’t think was possible? 🤘


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I was lucky enough to work with some of the crazy ones on Basecamp 3— especially Jamie Dihiansan, the designer of the Basecamp 3 Android app. Check out what happens when you get a happy mix of pragmatism and crazy!