Category Archives: living

Choosing to Live Deliberately

Recently, I’ve been given the opportunity to “live deliberately”. My friend Matt wrote a great post about his choice to relocate his business to Charleston and how he has found a tech community choosing to “live deliberately”. This idea has been on my mind and it’s finally time to do something about it.

Realizing & focusing on what motivates me: Good people and good projects are why I get up early in the morning.

This month marks my 4th year with SPARC. Helping grow a company and building a design team has been tremendous rewarding. Theres always a struggle between being both a leader and a designer, not one I’m always comfortable with. This experience has returned  tremendously to me, both personally and professionally. Sometimes you need to realize when the experience has stopped returning.

Several months ago, my amazingly thoughtful wife and I made a deliberate choice to move and raise our son at the beach. The new house is amazing and gives me a sense of quiet satisfaction every day. I also turn 40 tomorrow – some mindless mid-point in my life that means I’m in a different marketing demographic.

More and more, I’m taking pause to think about the what and the why. Taking time to go surf, live healthy(er), enjoy our new home and a sense of change. Versus feeling like I’m treading water and out of balance.

And focus. Focus on what type of work I should be doing versus what’s put in front of me. There have become far too few good projects and far too much busy work in-between. Work is always strenuous and not always “fun” – that’s it’s nature and accepted. But good people and good projects are why I get up early in the morning. There’s a way to be both a leader, and a doer, and make an impact in peoples lives.

Life’s short, and there are a lot of distractions. I’m taking the remainder of this year to find those good people, those good projects, and focus on living deliberately.

Always be creating value – Or my evolving role as design director in a start-up.

I have the best, and scariest, job in the world. When I’m doing my job right, everyone else is busy and I have nothing to do. And this isn’t to say there’s nothing to be done, I just haven’t discovered the next design project yet. My job is to insure everyone else is productive & happy, before I worry about myself. My job is to put my self out of a job. And then repeat that process over and over again.

As we approach the holiday season, there’s a lot of change in our office. Like physically: we’re moving furniture to accommodate another 60 friends. And we’re in the process of doing our annual reviews, which leads to a lot of introspection about your year. I could tell you 20 things my team has done successfully this year, but very few I’ve done. My conversation sounds a little like:

“We identified a design opportunity. I gathered the necessary requirements, set the creative direction for the project and delegated to Matt. I backed off & he went full bore and created some amazing logos … “

Did I create anything? Not really, I simply facilitated a member of the team doing amazing work. How much value did I add if I didn’t actually “produce” much of anything?

So my definition of “value” has been changing these past 3 years – from a one-man-band designer to leading a design team. It’s scary stuff as some days, I’m the first one I’d fire. But seriously, as a designer who’s done work-for-hire contractor positions before, you know you must always be creating value. Once you’ve finished the projects you were hired for, you’d find yourself sitting there waiting to be let go… “No more work, we’ll re-hire you in a few months when we need something.” It’s can be really scary shit to not have something tangible in front of you to constantly justify your perceived value. “I’m working on such and such project…”

And defining yourself too narrowly by your craft or what you produce falls into that trap as well.

The shift from execution to strategy leaves you wondering how much value you are creating?

And really, what is “strategy”? Strategy is simply any technique that leads to tangible results. Advertising agencies are based on their ability to convince clients on the value of their intangible strategy. There’s probably a distracting rant built into this line of thinking, but it’s exactly where I find myself. Packaging “intangibles” to generate tangible design results is now part of the value I create.

So what’s my next “project” look like? Last week was an office space redesign. Now that it’s underway, I’ve moved on looking for the next challenge.  Somewhat like captaining open water between the islands that are one project to the next. You can see it on the horizon, but not always sure how you’ll get there and what you’ll find when you do.

Insourcing & leading a creative team

We’ve had a brief pause lately to focus back on our team & what our strategy for growth is. The “design team” at SPARC has been in existence over 3 years now, with me learning to lead while building the team from the ground up. It’s been the most rewarding experience of my professional career to be able to foster such a unique group of creatives and facilitate achieving results.

As we’ve grown, there has always been a question of scale – how big do we let the team get? We’ve gone from three to as many as 14. During this process of growth we’ve been very careful who we hire and that the timing with business is correct. We’ve always had the intent of keeping the team as small & agile as possible, but still large enough accommodate the different types of work that comes in. We handle everything from User-Experience for enterprise software, to front-end development within a scrum team, to branding for our commercial clients. The designers we bring onto the team have to have the range to accommodate many different disciplines associated with “design”.

This latest pause has given me time to research a little more about the term “insourcing” and what it means to lead an in-house design group. While our team is more oriented towards software development & UX than in-house “creative services”, I found a lot of good gems in this article by the Chief Creative of Capstrat.

The reason companies in-source are pretty easy:

1. To save money. The simple, traditional in-house view: value = cost

2. To better control an organization’s image… and to save money The insource perspective: value = cost + brand + expertise + familiarity

Couple other great thoughts about the value of insourcing, many of which helped us successfully launch products such as Teamphoria in a short time:

Insourced employees create value because they:

  • Have a personal commitment to the greater purpose of the organization
  • Earn the trust and confidence of executive decision-makers
  • Understand key business drivers
  • Know the culture and can facilitate faster decision-making
  • Aid in speed to market

The last element of the article was the subject that has become my new passion of late, leadership:

The perfect internal creative leader:

  • Fosters a safe creative environment.
  • Knows when to take risks.
  • Has a sense of urgency
  • Is a spotlight-shunning consigliere.
  • Has high standards and a strong moral compass
  • Is a tireless evangelist.

In the very beginning, our team focused a ton on growing SPARC’s brand and image. Since then we’ve gotten an amazing advocate for our brand in Chad and move towards focusing on designing user-experiences for our clients. We’ve moved from an “overhead” services-focused team towards a billable asset to the company. Some level of design is included in every contract we work on. And design as a competency has top-level visibility within our organization.

To sum it up, as Adobe and Fast Company just pointed out, every designer is happiest when they know they’re fulfilling a need. Thanks for reading! 


Understanding the Financial Return of Design

I believe one of the hardest issues as a “designer” is proving that what you do has tangible value to a business. That the time and extra expense of designing a product or user-experience returns financially.

Smart companies & consumers recognize this. Simple quality over cost result: as a business you want long-term results, as a consumer you want an experience or product that works beautifully. However in a cost-conscious, business driven mindset, it’s difficult to ascertain the short-term goals of design sometimes.  Especially in the era of software start-ups & tight timelines. This recent article in HBR has got me thinking time and time again about the value of design inside of business:

From Target to Uber, business managers everywhere are starting to understand that the strategic use of design is making a difference in achieving outsized business results.

Consumers recognize and respect companies that put design and design thinking into what they produce. Marketing is skin deep – the actual user experience needs to be supported from the beginning in fundamentally “designed” way.

And that starts with having the design competency represented at the highest level of your company – along side engineering and other operations.  The article points out that of the 100 companies indexed, only Apple has Design reporting directly to the CEO. I’m fortunate at SPARC that they see & promote the value of design within our company.

So why I’ve re-read this article 3+ times now:

  1. As a designer, I appreciate that it validates my profession, and the passion with which we approach problem-solving to insure a better user experience.
  2. As an investor, I already own stock in several of the design-centric companies they focus on. In the age of “socially responsible” mutual funds, why isn’t there a “designers” mutual fund focusing on companies that put design first?

Companies that get it, that make design part of their business philosophy not only gain consumer confidence, but also higher returns. 228% higher returns according to this HBR article:

How can this type of commitment to design contribute to results? In Interbrand’s 2013 list of the World’s most valuable brands, Nike ranks 24th, two slots up from the prior year and a 13% increase in value to $17.085 billion. Next to Apple, Nike had the highest shareholder returns in our index — from 2003- 2013 Nike’s market cap increased from under $6 billion to $70 billion, or 1,095% over the last ten years.  Further, Nike was ranked the #7 most innovative company by Fast Company in 2014, and the 13th most admired company by Forbes magazine.

The bottom line is that companies that use design strategically grow faster and have higher margins than their competitors. High growth rates and margins make these companies very attractive to shareholders, increasing competition for ownership. This ultimately pushes their stock prices higher than their industry peers. The returns in our Design Value Index were 2.28 times the size of the S&P’s returns over the last 10 years. Neither hedge fund managers, nor venture capitalists, nor mutual fund managers came anywhere close to these results.

Sorry for the repost, but this is a subject that is fascinating to me. And the HBR article is the first I’ve seen that provides tangible numbers around the financial results of good design. Someday soon I hope to be posting more about what “Design Index” fund looks like, and how I can bring it from idea into a reality I can invest in.

Basecamp archeology

So we use basecamp A LOT or internal design communication, and cataloguing the random ideas that make life amazing. We use basecamp so much we’ve created around 212 projects in a little over 24 months.

A few of the better basecamp projects include titles such as:

  • Brad’s really bad Venture ideas
  • Captains log
  • Sparc Skunkworks
  • #EvenYourKidsThinkYourDumb

Had a co-worker heading out to my old stomping ground of the South Bay of Los Angeles. Decided to make him a checklist in Basecamp of bars to visit. I give you “Where should Andrew drink in LA“.

  • Hermosa Beach – best bet. MTV Spring Break

    •  FFFF (Fat Face Finners Fish Shack) Hermosa pier – boston bar

    •  Henessys – upstairs roof bar, view of ocean, non-annoying irish bar

    •  any other bar with hot chicks. they all have them.
  • Santa Monica Bars – on Main Street SM, not near beach

  • Manhattan beach bars – snobby white people

    •  the beach house – bottom of the main street towards the water, go to the upstairs bar. fancy pants but the view of the ocean is killer.

    •  simmzy’s – next to starbucks, great burger and beer selection, crowded

    •  Ercoles – EPIC shithole, cash only, don’t get in a fight.

    •  Get a bike – ride around. stop at every bar you pass. good luck.

    •  sharks cove – shithole. has beer
  • Playa Del Rey

    •  POW (prince of whales) – there is NO reason to go to Playa, but if you do this place is an epic shithole. think a much less clean version of Maga Rua without the irish theme.
  • Venice bars

    •  Never really went drinking in Venice, it’s a freakshow, don’t go.
  • Redondo Beach Pier

    •  Najia’s – has 500 beers with about 30 on draft. Visit before the sun sets our you’ll be part of a mexican knife fight. really.


and there is my favorite part about where I work, the culture.

Digging out of my own artistic mess!

photo 2There are few breaks in life as a parent, but i’m currently enjoying a short one as Heidi & Naish are up North in the wilds of Minnesota. Since’s Naish birth, my home office (studio?) has become a dumping ground of bills, broken electronics, unread magazines, and anything else that comes along. While it’s gathered a very nice “patina” of artistic clutter, it’s also just becoming an unworkable, disorganized craphole. So much so, that my 5AM wake-ups to “work” usually just involve trying to find space to put a cup of coffee down.

Continue reading

The career of a modern designer.

finding direction

Sitting in a kick-off meeting, little tedious, sometimes steals your energy. Simultaneously reading email, IMing, listening to the client, giving feedback. Occasionally thinking how lucky I am to be in this room, in this conversation, & what/who we’re designing the software we’re creating.

Don Draper now builds software for a living.

Clicking through the email subscriptions and discovering a conversation about why they’re doing software vs. advertising. nice. These are the small points of validation when you think your life/career works more like a series of winding rivers, and less like a decision.

There are some great gems in this article about WHY software needs design. & how people with creative backgrounds can influence in a positive (designed) way that people interact with software. Smaller software tailored to the user, not enterprise. Making it technically “work” is no longer the need, making it usable is now the hard part.

“…Charles Phillips, puts it: “using enterprise software sucks.” It’s ugly. Cumbersome. Difficult to use. And impossible to love. “When engineers started to build these incredibly complex systems in the early ’90s, their biggest concern was: how are we going to make it work?” …. Now that business technology can deliver those basic user needs, it’s time to ask: How can we make business software work beautifully?”

Great food for thought for those of us who get up in the morning sometimes not knowing what the day brings, but feel purpose & drive towards a longer goal. Making things work beautify is the same in User Experience as it was in Advertising. When it works, you know it.

Balancing what’s important

Here’s to the big changes that fundamentally make you shift your life and try to balance what’s important. With the arrival of the little man and some down time for work, it’s been hard to focus on any one thing (besides sleep), but taking the writing in my head and trying to get it somewhere has always been therapeutic. Cheesy dad stuff, but looking at this little guy really does put everything quickly into perspective. Call it “the shit that matters vs. the noise”, but it’s finally time in life to be a little introspective about the last 6 years journey to get here, and again, what really matters. I still plan to write when possible here, but having an outlet for all the cuteness is equally important.

More on the little man over on his site, the Adventures in Creative Parenting blog:


SPARC520 goes public TechCrunch (or deep thoughts on collaboration in design)

This last year at SPARC has been a pretty trans-formative experience for me. As someone who is use to designing everything, to a role now where I lead others and offer guidance towards how the design should work. It hasn’t been an easy transition – learning to delegate and learning how to improve communication to other designers. Not a new experience, but much more of it that I’d previously had. The other challenge is “what am I creating”. The emphasis on “I”; good designers have to be a little selfish and a little passionate. It’s in our nature and to ignore it is to just be submissive. So now I have 4 other designers who look for me on guidance from priorities to major UI decisions. It’s rewarding in ways that designing isn’t and the learning process is really rewarding. The struggle becomes, what am I creating? What did I do yesterday? Well, many things, but very little I can point at and say “I” did this.

So, yesterday’s article on was awesome publicity for SPARC and our product(s). It was fun to send out to Mom and tell my friends about. But it also left me introspective about the selflessness of good design and truly what my role in the collaboration means.