The map in your head

I’ve written four articles now about content ecosystem mapping. I’ve coached clients through producing them, I’ve led workshops on them, and I’ve given many talks about them (and their big brother, concept models).

A point I stress over and over, but is hard to make stick, is that the activity of making the map is more important than the map itself. This article brought it to mind again for me recently:

In Inuit tradition, the act of making a map was frequently much more important than the finished map itself. The real map always exists in one’s head.

Being able to make a map means that you understand something well enough to map it. Much like writing, mapmaking reveals where you don’t understand things quite as well as you thought you did. I encourage organizations to map their content ecosystems because, very often, there are many different maps in many different heads.

Mapmaking is effortful, and requires a different set of skills than organizing information into lists and spreadsheets. So I run into many people who are dismissive, even rudely so, saying things like “I just don’t get how you would use this thing.”

“How to use the thing” is something I cover in detail, and is also something that the mapmaker needs to decide for themselves. But it’s also just kind of the wrong question. The point of a content audit is to understand your content better, not to make a giant spreadsheet. The point of content ecosystem mapping (and organizational modeling in general) is to better understand your current state, and to better align on the truth of that shared reality with others.

The Inuits of Greenland primarily used their maps as storytelling devices:

[They] used carvings in a certain way—to accompany stories and illustrate important information about people, places, and things. A wooden relief map would have functioned as a storytelling device, like a drawing in the sand or snow, that could be discarded after the story was told.

I love that so much. Imagine carving a whole damned map just to tell a story and then saying, “well anyway, enough about that” and throwing it on the fire. You can always make another; after all, the real map is in your head.

Scout rush

Screenshot of Ape Out gameplay.

I find that I have less interest in (and time for) video games as I get older, which is too bad in a way as they are a great source of inspiration for design patterns and UX writing.

Lately, I’ve been playing lots of Ape Out on Nintendo Switch. You control a great ape escaping from simple mazes while trying not to get shot. The only controls are move, grab, and shove. It’s hard, but in a fun way. It reminds me of playing the Scout role in Team Fortress 2. You’re fragile, but powerful, and the only way to survive is to just go for it. To ape out, if you will. (I see what they did there.)

Everyone is talking about the procedurally-generated music score, which is very cool, but I think my favorite thing is just the overall minimal approach to the design. For instance:

  • It keeps track of your time, and how many times you die (you’ll die a lot), but those numbers aren’t persistently visible on the interface while you’re playing.
  • Level names are are integrated into the scene itself.
  • New enemies and obstacles are introduced organically — no tutorials.
  • There’s nothing to configure or mess with. It’s the first console game I’ve played in a while where I didn’t feel like I had to go into the settings and change something.

In a way it reminds me of a well-designed presentation. There’s just one bold simple thing to focus on at any given time, with occasional moments to rest and reflect with a bit more detail and data on the screen. The simple (and creative) color palettes contribute to this feeling as well.

My design takeaways: you don’t have to show everything you know, and sometimes it’s more satisfying to let a user try something and fail on their way toward learning it rather than trying to explain it to them first.

Fits and starts

My habits go in fits and starts. Discipline is hard for me. But I stick with more than I don’t, eventually, and I’ve learned to be easier on myself when things slip. I used to get frustrated about my bullet journaling habit, for instance. For a week, two, three, I’d use the shit out of that thing, and then suddenly, for no particular reason, a week would go by where I didn’t even carry it with me. And then I’d have a mini-existential crisis about it. No good.

Like anything I intend to do regularly — exercising, writing in my journal, day planning, practicing piano, eating vegetables, whatever — I think I’d be a happier, healthier, and more productive person if I did them every single day. And I probably would. But I know I’m a happier person if I don’t beat myself up about not living up to that standard.

Moving forward by degrees is still moving forward.

Greetings from Minneapolis

I can see this postcard-style mural from my office window. When the weather is nice, it makes for good people-watching: groups of friends trying to time a jump with the countdown timer on their camera phone propped up against a soda bottle; traveling teen athletes posing with a trophy they just won.

Some days, like today, it seems downright sarcastic. Which, to be honest, kinda matches my mood. So, hey, hi, hello. Greetings from Minneapolis. It’s lovely here.

Links of late | March 13, 2019

Slide of illegal LEGO builds from an internal presentation.
Slide of illegal LEGO builds from an internal presentation.
  • Loved this take on why “be yourself” is terrible advice. One good reason: “a holistic self does not exist”. Yup.
  • It’s not in stock yet (or quickly went out of stock?) but I desperately want this rainbow guitar. I don’t need another guitar. I probably won’t even play out with it because it’s a heavy-ass Les Paul. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about it. The cowards at Epiphone called the finish “prizm” (yes, with a Z) but Sweetwater bravely describes it as rainbow.
  • Boing Boing links to a fascinating PDF of a presentation on legal vs. illegal LEGO builds. A lot of the rules are about how much force would be required to separate elements in that scenario, and whether or not an imagined seven-year-old child would be strong enough to do so.
  • “The most underrated Tik Tok category is when couples who are divorcing or whatever make sentimental vids about it” – I don’t actually know what Tik Tok is and I don’t think I want to now, but I have laughed at this thread way too much.
  • My preorder came in for the new Coathangers album and I’ve been listening on repeat. F the NRA and Stasher are my favorites so far.

Seeking momentum

A friend who’s working on a new book (hi Corey!) asked if he could pick my brain about book marketing, seeing as I’d recently released one. Most of the advice I was able to share was just stuff I’d learned from others. Abby Covert sent me a very nice and helpful email of tips when I asked. My friend Brian, a great designer, let me pick his brain a while back about how to communicate better with designers and the AIGA crowd. And ABA connected me with Leslie Zaikis, who sent all kinds of lovely checklists and ideas to help launch and promote the book. There were more. And I suspect someone will be picking Corey’s brain a year from now with similar questions for him.

I hope I was helpful. But the truth, as I shared with Corey, is that I feel like I limped over the finish line on Writing for Designers. It was tough because writing is hard, and because it was my first book, and especially because the process of writing the book overlapped with some really difficult stuff in my personal life. I didn’t have much energy to do nearly as many of the promotional things I would have liked to do before, during, and after the launch back in October. Which isn’t to say I didn’t do anything; I organized a launch party, I sent SO MANY emails, I did a webinar for one meetup group and visited another in person, and lots of other little things here and there. But I felt like I’d left a lot still sitting on the table.

So I’m trying to get back to it. A few opportunities have sailed, sure, but October wasn’t that long ago. The book isn’t even six months old. And it just came out in print a little while ago. I’m in a steadier place now, and I’m trying to use this place to build momentum. I know from experience that you can’t force it. A little bit each day, then a little bit more.

So I’ve been trying to write and tweet more, about writing and design, but also just in general. I’m trying to be zen about having done the best I could at the time, even if it was less good than I wanted, and continuing to do the best I can going forward. I think that’s the real best advice I have to offer: do what you can today.

Why not?

One of several moments when I should have turned around on a long dumb dangerous drive.

I wrote this a month ago, but felt like I couldn’t quite finish the thought, so it just sat on my desktop, a taunting little text file called “why not”. So I’m just going to take my own advice and post what I’ve got. Why not?


It’s been a month since Mom died. I have made it, very much by design, a busy month.

I’m grieving, of course, but I decided I wasn’t going to let grief steal another year of my life. A friend asked me last night what it feels like when it hits. I said it feels like I’m a cartoon character who’s had an anvil dropped on my head. Just absolutely, suddenly, crushingly stunned. I’ve had to put my hands out to steady myself on walls when walking, struck by some fleeting thought, some innocent memory. So I’m grieving. But I just could not, was not going to do it balled up on my couch, alone. I grieved the loss of an old life during my divorce, grieved when mom first got her cancer diagnosis, grieved the death of a beloved teacher, the death of a best friend, the loss of friendships, of partnerships, of a cherished relationship … I’m tired from it. I don’t want to feel like the shape of my life is outlined by loss. So I knew I had to make new things, keep going, trying, fighting. And I’m doing lots of new things, things that seemed scary before. Why not?

I drove Dad’s truck back, a 2,000 mile road trip through bad weather to clear my head, because I wanted to. Why not?

I’ve shot seven rolls of film, which is seven more than I’ve ever shot in my life. And I’ve been sharing them, and bought a new old film camera, and already got some prints made and am scheming on hanging a show somewhere. I’ve always wanted to have an art show somewhere. Why not?

I wrote a new song, and memorized it, and took it out and performed it at an open mic night, which is a thing I have never done before even though it’s been a goal of mine for years. Why not?

I got a new therapist. I’d been meaning to for a year, made some half-hearted inquiries, never followed through. This time I got it done in an hour, made the appointment, went, set some goals. Why not?

I was feeling sad that I’m not better friends with someone I used to date, so I invited them to lunch on a whim and told them exactly that. Why not?

One of the last gifts Mom gave me was courage. It’s almost impossible to imagine something that will be harder than that night a month ago, watching her fade away and die and forget who she was, who we were. Which isn’t to say I’m immune to nerves, nor even especially confident – I literally shook with nerves the entire time at the open mic. But it feels like I’ve been through the worst, and lived. And, while I don’t believe this in a literal sense, I do feel Mom’s presence in my life still, encouraging me and rooting for me. I miss you like crazy, Mom. I love you bunches. Gonna keep giving ’em hell. Why not?