The Glass Is Always Empty by David Sherwin

Last Saturday, I was talking with Keith, the export representative for a sake brewery in Nagoya. His day-to-day life sounded like a dream job for anyone who enjoys chatting with people and world travel. He's constantly flying from city to city, often internationally through Europe and Canada, presenting and pouring the range of high-end sakes that his brewery crafts every winter.

While he explained the flavor nuances between a junmai sake and a non-junmai sake — where the rice utilized in making the sake had its husk and 50% of its kernel polished off in the pre-fermentation process — I asked him how his job performance is measured. Does he have a sales quota? Or is there some kind of softer metric for his success for his company?

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Becoming a Design Leader by David Sherwin

What does it mean to lead a design team? Design leaders guide organizations in planning and fulfilling desired outcomes for their clients—and they grow their designers in the process. The real definition of design leadership, however, is quite blunt: 

Design leaders make awesome shit happen.

Design leaders at a design business may not be the ones in charge of the day-to-day client management, project management, accounting, bookkeeping and other activities that require deep focus on operational management, but they will always touch those facets of the business, ensuring they support the quality of the creative product. 

Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog, put it best: “When we have a ‘concept’ and people smile, we take the next step. When there are questions, we go back and try harder.”

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Thinking About Problems as Spaces by David Sherwin

This is a companion article to my presentation "Designing the Design Problem."

When I first started working at frog, the people around me kept referring to the problems we were tackling as "problem spaces." When pressed, no one could give me an answer as to why, so I went out and tried to find one for myself. And I think the beginnings of an answer just might be—at least metaphorically—in the splendor of the night sky, full of glistening stars.

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Designing What Remains by David Sherwin

The streets blurred gray in the early morning rain. My cab driver, unusually chatty for five in the morning, tells me that he works four days a week at his dispatch in SODO, tending the lost and found. He rattles off what bounty you might find in their basement office: mobile phones, articles of clothing, wallets, keys, umbrellas. If items linger too long on the shelves, they're donated to charity. The mobile phones, after waiting for a few months, are shipped overseas for use by U.S. soldiers.

Recently, a new type of item was left on his desk by a spooked driver: A box of ashes.

"It was hard to believe that someone would just get out of a cab and forget their grandmother," he said. There weren't any identifying marks on the box, so they couldn't chase down whom was responsible for the cremains. "I put the ashes on the shelf and hoped that the family would come and pick them up."

Later that week, another surprise was waiting for him when he arrived at work: Another box of ashes.

"Another driver found it in the back seat and knew which fare had left it," he said, accelerating into the HOV lane. "He tried to get back in touch with her, but she wouldn't answer her phone. So we just put the new box up on the shelf by the other one."

I was aghast at the notion of two people abandoning the remains of loved (or not so loved) ones—but that feeling was also tinged with shame.

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Dropping the Anchors by David Sherwin

The first time I flew on an airplane was the first time I realized that people die.

We were a third of the way towards a fuzzy destination — it might have been Denver, or Atlanta, or one of those hub cities that you travel through in order to actually reach your final destination. As I sat and ate my apple sauce from the airplane-provided kid's meal, I asked myself with my three-year-old brain, "What would happen if the plane crashed?" Wailing and gnashed teeth ensued from that moment onwards.

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Drunk Usability Testing by David Sherwin

I held the drunk man's hand like a dance partner at a debutante ball, sashaying our way towards the front door of the Collins Pub.

We had both been at the Seattle Matsuri, a two-hour "all you can taste" exhibition of sakes that would be hitting the American market soon. At the event, most of us directed the delicious sakes from each brewer's bottle from our mouths into the handily-provided metal spittoons, thereby avoiding imbibing dozens of ounces of these potent wines and the fallout possible therein. 

Then there were fellows like this man—whom we shall call Jeff, to protect his identity—who chose to swallow from each glass a bit too liberally. Upon running into him on the street after the event, he seemed quite lucid. But as our party sat down at the pub, desperate for a late dinner of burgers, fish, and chips to counter the onslaught of wine, you could see the power light draining right out of his eyes, his speech slurring from complete sentences to fragments. When he announced that he needed to get outside to wake up a bit, his attempt to stand up caused him to flip another table and fall to the ground in a mixture of both bewilderment and humiliation.

Sitting outside with Jeff for a little fresh air, we chatted haltingly about where he lived and what he did for a living, all the while demurring the advances of the usual Pioneer Square drug dealers offering cut-rate deals on stimulants and muscle relaxants. (Seriously, does this guy look like he needs a muscle relaxant?) But our real adventure began when he said the following: "Let's call my wife. She can pick me up."

First, we had to find the phone.

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Form and Interconnection by David Sherwin

Have you ever watched a visually impaired person eat a cheeseburger?

Before I skipped town for the holidays, my wife and I tried out a new sandwich shop down in the Ballard Blocks. After ordering and sipping at our iced teas, I noticed that the man next to me, distractedly chatting away with his family, had a folded white cane by his side. The waitress set down his gourmet burger, including sweet potato fries with aioli on the side. Out of the corner of my eye, I couldn't help but watch as he ate

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Appetite for Destruction by David Sherwin

Hell is not other people. Hell is being surrounded by free candy. Much as a child is forced to smoke a carton of cigarettes when caught out on the back porch with a Marlboro Light, my avoidance of sweets came about through overkill — that is, working in a candy store.

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Timeboxing for Creative Professionals by David Sherwin

Being creative is a mind game.

No matter how much time you have for ideation, you can always come up with a good idea. It just takes extra time and energy to identify which of those ideas is the best one to pursue, then iterate on it to achieve some polish. This can be accomplished through the use of timeboxing. This is a technique that is regularly used in agile software development, but is also quite adaptable and useful for any creative professional to improve their speed to an idea.

Timeboxing is also excellent for defeating procrastinators. Most designers—myself included—ruminate subconsciously on a possible solution for days on end. I've met design professionals that partake in wildly different rituals in order to generate compelling visual ideas—ranging anywhere from always using their lucky pencil to opening up Adobe Illustrator after having exactly 1.5 cups of coffee with sugar and a dash of cream. Upon asking these folks how they arrived at this ideal method for creative inspiration, the consistent response I received was, "It has worked for me more than any other method." Then, when really stuck on a thorny problem, they would sleep on it, go for a walk, or otherwise let their subconscious ruminate on a possible solution for days on end.

This is a luxury of time that isn't feasible if you're working regularly to tight deadlines. And besides, most designers have trouble meeting their deadlines no matter how far off they twinkle in the distance. 

So, what is timeboxing? And how can you use it on your next project?

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An Unfinished Portrait by David Sherwin

A pay telephone ringing in the midst of a crowded subway terminal. A woman in hospital scrubs, dark bags under her eyes like smudged blue paint. Young girl looking away from a red plastic BlackBerry into the blur of lights whipping past the window. Smell of nectarines, humid air, irises and gerbera daisies poking from a Trader Joe's paper bag.

This is history, and we are living it in perfume and thoughts of recent wreckage. Arthritic hands fidgeting with a laminated ID attached to a lanyard embossed with the GTE logo. Never-ending scrape and racket of train-track wheels against steel. Recorded red-black ringtone automated to sync with the closing doors. Balled-up newspapers dated Thursday and stuffed into the gaps between mustard-yellow vinyl seats.

Clammy cold handrail. This carpet has been inspected by 30. Baby is crying. Mother is crying too.

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The Art of the Luminous Detail by David Sherwin

I listen to the nest of baby starlings outside my front window. In the midst of their morning song, I have picked out their attempts to recreate the sounds of car alarms, police sirens, foghorns from boats on Lake Union, cars accelerating, the cry of a toddler, doors shutting, and the calls of robins, crows, flickers, and a wide range of other birds that throng the trees and marshes near our home.

The song of the starling seems like a random melange of clicks, whistles, warbles, and otherwise incongruous chatter. But the starling does speak in a pattern—one that is barely perceptible to the human ear, but possible to decode.

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On Design Research and Buddhism by David Sherwin

I often think about analogues between design research and Buddhism. Not in a practical way—if there is such a thing—but more in a sense of how the process of design attempts to bring a brief moment of permanence to an idea in an ever-fluctuating world. The more meaningful an idea, the more likely it will gain root in the rich soil of our minds.

Ideas are the leavings of an insight—a deeply rooted and observed human truth. Without an insight, good ideas are mere flower petals scattered across the road and apt to float off in a stiff breeze. Beautiful to admire, but no more meaningful than wallpaper.

A strong insight binds together large and small ideas into something palpable, even beautiful—though the latter characteristic isn't required for a designed artifact to function properly. I like to think that great design, from an Eastern perspective, requires the latitude to grow and change good ideas into even greater ideas. The form of thought is never static, except when communicated through story. Design is just one form of conveying story. And stories never end.

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Design and Self-Sacrifice by David Sherwin

You're staring at your previously sharp pencil, now worn to a nub.

It's 2 AM, and after 34 hours of non-stop work, the comps are finally coming together... just as you're starting to fall to pieces. Just another few hours and you'll be able to send off the PDF. If only I could put down my head and just rest my eyes—no! The home page interface design needs just a little more refinement…

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Meditation on an Empty Page by David Sherwin

"White lies on the brim of the image of life, that is, of information, which has soared up out of great chaos. Chaos is like the world and white is like a map, or a figurative representation. Mapping the world, or generating figurative representations, is graphic design. White is the original form of life. I see the original form of my own work as the imagining of white rising to majestic stature from chaotic gray." —Kenya Hara

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Lessons in Arrangement from the To-ji Flea Market by David Sherwin

The old man crouched on his haunches, lost in thought. As a stream of people flowed past, he reached forward, quietly shifting the placement of varied and sundry antiques on a bright blue blanket: an incense holder, teapots, rice bowls, binoculars, reproductions of classic Zen art on roughly cut wood, books for copying sutras, quartz watches, lacquered boxes, flower vases, and six-inch tall carved figurines meant to represent an African-American blues band.

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The Philosopher's Wife by David Sherwin

The painting sits above two bookshelves in our living room, sandwiched between a purple potted orchid named Sven and an old Bell and Howell film projector. Every morning, sitting at the kitchen table, it catches my eye. Four years ago, it arrived in a large unmarked box from my wife's father and stepmother. They volunteer at a thrift shop in Cape Coral, Florida, and often surprise us with antique cameras, clocks, and other bric-a-brac that mesh with our penchant for hand-worn technology. After shoveling through a swath of bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts, we found a handwritten note regarding the painting: it was titled "The Philosopher's Wife."

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Social Mediation: Polishing the Mirror by David Sherwin

I watched the robin hop his way up and down the branches of the tree, efficiently gulping down the berries until he noticed my gaze. In a huff, he flew away.

Mesmerized, I forgot to take a picture of that moment with my smartphone for my Instagram account or Tumblr. Or: I could digest it into a brief tweet so my friends can imagine that moment in time, distract themselves as long as it took me to write the above sentence, and turn back to whatever matters are consuming their attention. Instead of being in the moment, I was in the moment of thinking how I could share the moment. Then, the moment ended. I was left with nothing but these words.

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Design Thievery by David Sherwin

In my very first days as a fledgling graphic designer, in love with the potent combination of Emigre and Ray Gun that my high school literary magazine editor had foisted upon me, I combed through the local bookstore for anything that could explain to me, in a nutshell, all of the skills I'd need to learn to become a graphic designer. 

I found plenty of Graphis Annuals, back issues of Communications Arts, and a number of books that recounted the history of graphic design. What I really dreamt of, in those days, was a book that could teach me everything that I'd need to know to design a logo, create a typeface from scratch, put together an annual report, art direct a photo shoot. You name it, I wanted to know how to do it well.

Much to my surprise, such a book did not exist. Twenty years later, such a book still does not exist. And that book never will.

It took me long into my career to learn the following: The only way to learn your best process for doing graphic design work is to do graphic design work.

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