Brutalist Bookends

Scott Kubie is a designer who writes. This is his blog.

“So often the long paragraphs I write in life are responses to Facebook posts, or reply letters to someone, or … I can put together a three-paragraph letter that burns the hair off of your eyebrows about almost any topic.”

– John Roderick on the Road Work podcast

I like this thought technology: Where do the long paragraphs come from in your life?

A long paragraph isn’t a good or bad thing, but it is instructive. It points to a passion, a pain point. A bugaboo or a peeve. If one pops up while in a piece I’m writing, it’s often a sign I need to expand — more structure, maybe another section. If one pops up while I’m using social media, it’s often a sign I need to shut my computer and go take a walk.

Spent all week working on something and I just trashed it. Wasn’t coming together. Hate to do it because you never know if you were almost there. Sometimes you’re hating it and hating it, and you keep sailing on, and then blam-oh! There she is! I see land, boys!

But maybe you stopped just before the iceberg. This one felt like an iceberg. The idea seemed reasonable enough, a good thing to write, that would get some shares, generate engagement. I’m not above writing for engagement, but I don’t want to hate myself while I’m doing it. This one just wasn’t feeling like me. I think. Unless I should have kept sailing.

Good news is I’ve still got the boat, and a little more practice sailing than I had before.

A bit jarring to see one of the tools of my trade — customer journey maps — pop up in this article about the 737 Max and Boeing’s efforts to manage customer “anxiety” about their totally safe airplane that’s killed 346 men, women, and children. (So far.)

Screenshot of Boeing presentation including a (bad) customer journey map, via the New York times article.
Screenshot of Boeing presentation including a (bad) customer journey map, via the New York times article.

I’ve been trying to imagine how it will feel to have worked on this when the next one crashes, to have employed “human-centered” design techniques to gaslight people about the safety of an airplane that you, the UX designer, have fuck-all first-hand knowledge of. It seems not great! I’ve created my share of design tools and frameworks and it would make me just sick to my stomach to see something I’ve made weaponized like this against users.

Meanwhile, this nonsense:

[A] company website dedicated to updates on the Max was being designed with “improved usability” and “stickiness” to “encourage more time on site and repeat visits,” phrases commonly used in the communications business.

Repeat visits! LOL. Love to bookmark my favorite websites about airline safety and check back often for updates.

I’ve been asked a few times what writing a book was like. Sometimes people mean: “What’s it like to be someone who wrote a book?” It’s nice! Glad to have done it, glad to know I can do it, lots of new opportunities, nice to have something unambiguously mine, and so on.

It’s interesting to ponder the question as asked, though. What was it like to write a book? Act of, not fact of.

Practically speaking, writing a book was a lot of sitting in a room alone and typing. (And not responding to emails.) Boring! A simile, then: Writing a book is like painting a very long hallway.

It’s like a very long hallway – and not, say, a bedroom, or even a Bob Ross landscape – because you can’t see the scope of the effort all at once. My paint roller only reaches so far, but I’m trying to get a good even coat from beginning to end, across many weeks of effort. This was the most different aspect of the work compared to, say, an essay or newsletter.

There was a lot more prep work than I’d imagined, even after I thought I was totally prepared to start. Picking out paint colors was so fun, but now, oh God, is that more wallpaper under the wallpaper?

Once you’re actually finally ready to start, later than you’d have liked, the hours tick by. Mostly, you’re painting. When you’re not painting, you’re thinking to yourself, “That hallway isn’t going to paint itself!” And it doesn’t.

Some days you hit a rhythm and there’s a beautiful shluck, shluck, schluck sound as paint rolls on in big even swaths. Or perhaps, after a week of not painting, you spend all day trying to get the dried out lid of the goddamn paint can off. Some days you paint for hours only to realize that can was off-white, not eggshell, and, well, guess I’m doing that part over.

Sometimes you paint in the middle of the night, because painting the hallway isn’t your day job — and it’s not your social life or self-care — it’s just this other thing that you do.

Sometimes you spend all weekend painting the hallway, because you never got around to painting during the week and you promised you’d be done with the first coat by Monday, Tuesday morning at the latest.

By the end — the paint dries so slow — by the end, you’re loopy on fumes. Everything you own is covered in paint. But it’s done, damn it! Ahahahaha, the fucker is done.

Except, wait, that was just the first coat. Oh no. You missed some spots! Let’s do it again! And again! Prep, sand, paint, tidy, prep, sand, paint, tidy. Eventually, you just have to decide that it’s done, that the crimes are well enough hidden, and that it’s time to peel the tape, put the furniture back, and re-hang the family portraits.

This isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable. Painting is laborious, yes, but it can be rewarding, even hypnotic. But however pleasant the hours, the best feeling is still being done with it.

Two men who assuredly do not have business cards chatting at the Tohono O’odham Swapmeet in Tucson, AZ.
Two men who assuredly do not have business cards chatting at the Tohono O’odham Swapmeet in Tucson, AZ.

I feel like network should be more noun than verb. I get on better with people at professional events who are just being people (not collecting them).

Do I want to grow my network? Yes yes, of course. I want an upward career trajectory, and to grow the audience for the things I make. I want to meet interesting people and learn from them. But I’ve always tried to build my network without inflicting networking on other people.

I tune out as soon as the pitch starts. You can hear it coming. Who wants that? I don’t want that. I don’t want your business card. I don’t want to hear the pitch. I probably don’t even want you to have my business card.

Let’s just be people.

One of the first times I presented on ecosystem mapping, an attendee shared an image of their own map they’d been inspired to create. It was interesting, colorful, and information-rich. But also? It wasn’t what I’d call an ecosystem map. At first I worried about the quality and clarity of my presentation. But others shared back diagrams that hewed more closely to my method. So then I laughed, and decided to be delighted.

The more methodized a discipline becomes, the easier it gets to tell someone they’re “doing it wrong.”1 But who would have been wrong in this scenario, really? Order your cat a new cat tree from Amazon and they’re just as likely to play with the box. I don’t think this means we shouldn’t have cat trees or boxes. And good luck telling a cat what to do.

The attendee borrowed tips on diagramming and thinking visually and did their own thing with them. That’s great! I’m not a genius, my methods aren’t gospel, and for all I know, what they made was more useful than anything they’d have gotten out of my more rigid approach. I’m happy building trees, but sometimes the box is more fun.

  1. I get more mileage out of “Tell me about how you use Tool X” than “That’s not how Tool X is supposed to work.” This attitude doesn’t always come easy, especially with my own methods, but I’m glad when I find my way to it.
A view from the top of Wasson Peak in Tucson, Arizona. Four-hour round-trip hike with a brief picnic break at the peak.
A view from the top of Wasson Peak in Tucson, Arizona. Four-hour round-trip hike with a brief picnic break at the peak.

Been trying to use this holiday break to clear my head, listen to my heart, all that good stuff. But you can’t force it and it’s not coming. Damn the calendar. I don’t have the energy to set goals right now. Not big ones. Not new ones. Nobody asked me if I was ready for a new decade. I’m not, damn it — give a guy a minute.

Reflecting is fine. Reflecting, resolving, setting and resetting. All good. I just don’t like to do it on someone else’s schedule.

So instead I’ve resolved: steady on. Read, write, move, make. Enough of any of that and the rest tends to sort itself anyway.