Bookshelves #6

Well here we are at shelf section number six. We’re almost a third of the way through the series, and here we move very firmly into the blues. More Barth skating along the top there, though I forget why it’s misshelved, as it’s been a few years since I read this one. It’s fine — mercifully short for Barth, and entertaining enough. I keep it because I keep Barth, figuring that one day I’ll learn how to learn something from him. Beneath that a book on literary theory that I believe I got as a freebie at the MLA conference a few years ago. I haven’t really read much theory and certainly not much in nearly two decades, so I like to think I’ll crack this one sometime to broaden my mind, though really I’m finding that I become a less careful and thoughtful reader over time, so maybe I won’t.

Steinbeck’s East of Eden was for a while my top few favorite books. I read it along with a bunch of other Steinbeck oh maybe 12 or 14 years ago but haven’t revisited his work in a while. I’m sure I will. The Song of Hartgrove Hall surprised me. I picked it up last year during my year of browsing shelves more or less at random and looking for paperbacks by people who were not straight white men. Honestly, once I dug into it, I thought it’d be a sleepy, dreary, fusty old death-of-the-landed-gentry’s-legacy sort of thing, and I suppose it basically was, especially for the first hundred pages or so, but there was also a lot of really beautiful writing in the book and I wound up liking it a lot more than I expected (enough that I kept it, at least).

I read All the Light We Cannot See in 2015 as a selection from the Tournament of Books, which I led kind of a thing for among some of my coworkers. I loved it. His pacing is a little too fast, but gosh did he write a nice book, and I can easily see myself going back to this one some day.

I’ve already documented the appeal Lethem’s work holds for me (am currently reading a short story collection of his that I’m liking quite a lot). Chronic City isn’t my favorite of his books by a long shot, but it’s good enough, and it makes a reference to Infinite Jest in the form of a fat brick of an imaginary book called Obstinate Dust, and that amuses me.

The book about Cape Fear is one my dad gave me a while back that I believe must have belonged to my grandmother. I forget the precise significance of the book, but the Cape Fear river (yes, that one) runs through Wilmington, NC, where my parents grew up, and so this is a book out of my past. I believe there may be an anecdote in the book about my grandfather or some other member of my dad’s family being something of a reknowned dancer in the area, but I’m not positive. This isn’t the sort of book I usually go in for, but I like to think I’ll read it one day, when trying to figure out a bit more about where I come from.

I think I’m not cut out for Beckett. I tried this trio of short novels a few years ago and found it nearly impossible to wade through and gave up. I had the same reaction to Ulysses on my first few tries, and the same with Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’ve now read with increasing pleasure a few times. I’ll try this one again in a decade or so and see if I’m fit for it then.

An anonymous coworker sent me The Art of Fielding probably just about 5 years ago, knowing that I had a thing for Moby-Dick, which, paired with baseball, is featured prominently in this book. It’s not the absolute best book I ever read, but I enjoyed it quite a lot, and I have a soft spot for anonymous gifted books, I suppose. It also serves as a reminder to keep Harbach on my radar.

Handy Dad was a Father’s Day gift years ago, and because I’m not handy and I’m a little lazy when it comes to actually getting up and doing things, I’ve done very few of the things in it with my kids. I mean, making a soap box car or erecting a tree house sounds really nifty, but it also sounds like work. I have mustered the gumption to make a number of paper airplanes using a pattern in the book, and I can report that they are pretty much the best designed paper airplanes I’ve ever seen. (I’m both un-handy and lazy about activities, but to my credit, I’ve sat down and read books at length to my kids nearly every day of their lives and often enough for a couple of hours in a single day, so I am at most a partial deadbeat.)

Wallace comes up yet again in Elegant Complexity, a really great reader’s guide to Infinite Jest. It does a nice job giving both chronology and discussion of themes within the book, and even though I had read and discussed the novel a few times before getting this book, I found it illuminating and will certainly go back to it when I reread and reread IJ in the future.

Finally, another guide in the Harmon and Holman handbook to literature. This book catalogues literary terms, periods, schools of thought, and so on. It was a required text book when I took a college class on Modern poetry by one William ahem Harmon. As in Harmon whose name is on the spine of the book. It was a good class but a weird one, in which he talked at us about poetry but also made us learn terms from the book that honestly probably weren’t that important to learn (though I do like that I can still tell you about asyndeton and hypotaxia). Harmon was the weirdest professor I ever had, and I loved his class. I wrote a paper once on Hopkins and Yeats and bird poems whose title was a strange sort of pseudo-mathematical equation, and he took it in stride. He once held forth about a competition to find the longest one-syllable word in English, with his (maybe?) winning entry of “broughammed,” and I don’t think he ever replied to the email I sent him in which I proposed a longer (if dubious and basically fabricated, in an “if you take X to mean Y and grant that Z, then this is a legitimate word” way) word, subject to lots of interpretation and perhaps a conveniently fanciful pronunciation — “schoenanthed” (I mean, if we can imagine that the broughammed-tying word “squirrelled” is one syllable, I’ll take “schoenanthed” as a given too). All of which is to say that he was my type of weird. Later, I learned that my mother in college had the Thrall, Hibbard and Holman Handbook to Literature, which if you’re reading carefully you’ll note shares an editor with Harmon’s book. So as with The Inlking way back on shelf #2, there’s sort of a neat if random and actually not remotely significant link between my mother’s college experience and mine. We’ll see her older edition of the handbook if we get as far as shelf #13. I still use Harmon’s edition as a reference every once in a while. Where else am I ever likely to learn that “ficelle” is the name of a string used to control a marionette and that Henry James used the term to mean “confidante” — a means (in the handbook’s words and not the words of this blog’s humble author) “by which a self-effacing author conveys necessary information.”

More blue next time, with a lot of the usual suspects and two of my favorite little books I hang onto as objects, even if I don’t open them very often at all.

Tagged: books, bookshelves, Reading

How We Write Proposals in My Design Studio

AS THE HEAD of a newish design studio, I spend a fair amount of time writing proposals. And here’s how I like to do it. I do it like a conversation, and that’s how we start: with phone calls and emails to one or two key decision makers, followed by a research period of about two to three weeks. And when I say research, what I’m really talking about—besides the usual competitive analysis, analytics, and testing—is even more conversations, but this time with a wider net of stakeholders and customers. Some studios do this for free, and other studios only do it if the client has signed off on a huge project and paid the first big deposit. But we do this research for a fee. A small, reasonable, consulting fee. If the client then hires us to do the job, we deduct the research fee from the project cost. If they don’t, they’ve gained a lot of great information at a fair cost. (So far, they’ve never not hired us to go on and do the project.)

From intake to ideas

About two and half weeks into the research project, we have a strong idea of what matters most to the business and its customers, and we begin to have visions of solutions and innovations, large and small. We can’t help it. We’re interaction designers and it’s how our minds work. After soaking in a potential client’s world for two-plus weeks, we can’t help beginning to invent designs that solve some of their big and small problems, and that enhance what’s already great about the client and their product. This happens in our heads whether we want it to or not. At first, we are merely neutral listeners, forcing ourselves not to solve, not to imagine, but only to truly hear and understand. But within about fifteen days, we can’t help but begin imagining little modules and big sections, huge themes and tiny, innovative enhancements, which might please and help our client, their customers, or their staff. And so long as those ideas come from the product, come from what the client and their customers have told us, we feel free to begin sharing them.

The first design is written

We do that by writing a report where we share with the client what we’ve begun learning and thinking about their business. Although this report is structured like a business document, we think of it as the first part of design—the first written rough draft of articulating what the client’s business needs to do, and how design might help. Because it’s a business document, and because we’re workers, not magical pixies, we share facts and data and things stakeholders and customers have said that ring true and that harmonize with other things other stakeholders and customers have said. But all that mustering of facts and data is in the service of a shared creative awakening to the design’s possibilities.

Start ugly to stay honest

Now let me tell you how we present our findings: we present them in a Google Doc that the client can access, share, and comment on. We know that many design studios spend much energy visually tarting up even their most basic client communications. Thus, even a humble invoice comes dressed for the prom. But we don’t do that. We save aesthetics and beauty for the site design. We keep communications open and plain, like an Amish shirt. And we keep communications editable, because this is collaboration, this is conversation, this is not a dead artifact, a take-it-or-leave-it. And Google Docs is the perfect vehicle for it. Just as the traditionally formatted typewritten screenplay is the perfect, neutral vehicle for a writer to share with a director. This initial research report, this poem of business, this first, rough, written design, presented to the client via the homey simplicity of Google Docs, elicits more client/designer conversation, more emails, more Basecamp posts, more internal discussions in the studio. And then, after about a week, we present the client with our proposal. Which is clearly the product of all our conversations, and particularly of all the important agreements we reached during that research period. By the time our clients receive the proposal, they are already nodding, as if they always knew what it contained. Because, in a way, they did. Because, if we did our research right, we’ve merely externalized and articulated what they already felt but had not expressed. And even now, when we’re asking for serious money to do a serious job, we submit our proposal via Google Docs—because prettified, overly branded proposals are about the studio that produces them, whereas our work is about the client and their product. Because even the most painstakingly researched and written proposal, if it is too pretty and too studio-branded, feels like boilerplate, whereas an ugly Google Doc is clearly just work, to be modified or agreed to or argued about. This is just what we do at our studio. You can try it or not. Personally, I like this approach and I’ve never had a client complain. I’ve always felt a little dirty when presenting a pitch that was too visually polished, and I’ve never won a single gig with boilerplate. Every job has to be earned by studying and understanding and knowing how to share what you’ve understood. At least, that’s how we do it. Also published on Medium. The post How We Write Proposals in My Design Studio appeared first on Zeldman on Web & Interaction Design.