Mar 31, 2014

Honest vs Obnoxious: Removing the Gray Area

Here's something I can't figure out.

Why do people think of it as a compliment to describe someone as "in your face?"  Or to say that someone's honest and doesn't care who they piss off.  In my opinion, if you're pissing people off, you're not just being honest, you're being abrasive, and it's highly likely that your opinion wasn't called for in the first place.

I understand that we live in a society where the little white lie runs rampant and everyone is so polite that soliciting an honest opinion can be challenging.  "Don't worry, you look great!"  "What he did was totally uncalled for and you did nothing wrong."  "Your art/story/whatever is amazing and I can't think of anything that's wrong with it or needs changes!"

However, I can't seem to wrap my head around the idea that because of the prevalence of this polite side of the spectrum, people would enjoy the opposite side...  Just because you want some honest feedback doesn't mean you want to hear someone saying, "That sucks.  It's really terrible."  There is a difference between "honest" and just being a dick.  For example, you could say, "I like x, but y could use a little work and maybe z would flow better if you tried [something]."  Then, not only is it nicer, but the recipient might actually be able to use it to improve!

It kind of blows my mind that people have no clue how to give good feedback.  At one point I would have just assumed that people would think before they speak AND they would only say something that they wouldn't mind hearing from someone else.  I guess I gave the human race too much credit.

And it's not just about being nice!  Even if you're not interested in being a decent human being (again, perhaps I err by assuming this is something most people want), you're more likely to have cooperative coworkers and a better final product if you provide feedback in a way that they're able to utilize and that won't make them resent you and be purposely difficult.

I learned about constructive criticism my first semester of graphic design classes.  And it was rough.  We had no idea how to give OR receive feedback.  At the time, I thought our teachers were really mean.  Looking back, they introduced us to the world of critiques in the gentlest way.  I seriously doubt they ever once pointed out a negative without a suggestion for improvement.

My first "real" graphic design job showed me just how kind they had been.  Our teachers would say things like, "The composition is a little heavy on one side" or "The elements could be arranged to give better emphasis to the tagline."  My new coworkers would say, "This is bad," "This is just awful," and "There's nothing I like about this."  Even the ones who liked me!  It wasn't personal and the project wasn't even always bad, it just wasn't what they were looking for.  But they were completely unable to distinguish the differences between the golden, glowing vision in their head and what I had interpreted from our communication about our project.  They just knew it wasn't what they imagined and therefore it was "the worst thing ever."

Thank the gods (or the supernatural, or the powers that be - whatever you believe in) for in-class critiques, because without the thicker skin I developed, that first job would have been brutal.  As it was, I was able to ignore the sting of those little slaps to the face, and ask, "What don't you like about it?  What are you going for?  What should we try instead?"

While a tiny smug part of me feels like I was born with more tact that most of my old coworkers will ever develop, I have actively worked on improving it.  I've gone through "How to Make Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie - which was an excellent read, "How to Click with People: The Secret to Better Relationships in Business and in Life" - which was a bit outdated (I've already figured out that you shouldn't use all caps in IM or SMS, but thanks anyway :), and more recently "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus" - which is occasionally annoying and self congratulatory but has some really important concepts that I'm working on utilizing with The Significant.  I've really enjoyed it, because I like anything self-improvement related, but I really do think everyone could benefit from improving their interpersonal skills.  In fact, if there was only one thing that you were going to improve about your personality in your entire life, I would say that's the one.

So I'm just gonna say it.  I don't value "in-your-face" and I actively dislike "I've just gotta be me even if it offends other people."  It's not "for their own good" and it's not going to "snap them out of it."  It's obnoxious and selfish.  Is honesty important?  Sure.

But it's really not that hard to be diplomatic and honest and I think the world would benefit from a little bit more of both.

Mar 26, 2014

You Say "Nerd" Like it's a Bad Thing...

Seriously, Who Does This?

I didn't really grow up in the culture where the nerds were the geeky kids without social skills.  When someone in my middle school jungle of insecurity wanted to put me down, "nerd" was never the insult of choice.  If anything, I think the reverse is becoming true.  Suddenly a wide variety of people are proclaiming themselves to be nerds for anything from actually picking up a book to watching the entire Lord of the Rings series.

What's really interesting is the reactions of those who have had the label placed on them before it was an acceptable quirk, or who felt ostracized for liking these same things that are now gaining popularity.  It's like all their repressed frustrations over the years have boiled over, and they now feel the need to scoff at the newer crowd jumping on the band wagon and lord their superior nerdiness over them.  "[Game of Thrones, Star Wars, fantasy whatever] is/was actually quite mainstream.  Liking it doesn't make you a nerd."

So What Does?

This is kind of a loaded question.  I started coming up with all kinds of quippy answers and looked up the definitions in and Urban Dictionary, but I don't even want to get into it.  It's silly, because it's a term based entirely on cultural perception, and it changes fairly quickly.  At this point, it's really just slang and it means whatever you want it to mean, so why are we even quibbling about it?

Of Course There Are A Few Exceptions

I have heard the term "nerd" used in a negative way only a couple times.  Or, not necessarily negative, but in a self-excluding way.  And I judge the heck out of those people.  Both because they're already judging me, and because they are so intent on separating themselves from any outside, "uncool" influences, that they haven't even noticed that Game of Thrones, and being a nerd, are kind of a thing right now. Just ask Ben Wyatt (from Parks and Recs, if you didn't know), "You know, 'nerd culture' is mainstream now. So, when you use the word 'nerd' derogatorily, it means you're the one that's out of the zeitgeist."

And this is fantastic!  Suddenly I can compare notes with people who have actually watched a fantasy dystopian movie (Thank you, Hunger Games).  People are even reading!  Which means book/movie comparisons can be done without feeling like you're boring everyone.

So for all the proclaimers and deniers out there, why don't we all just shut up about who really is or is not a nerd and argue about whether The Hobbit was better as a book or a movie instead.

Mar 24, 2014

Sports - How to Pick the Winning Team

Just kidding guys.  I don't know anything about sports!  My family does a Fantasy Football league every year and this year was the first that I participated.  Since I had inherited the team from Sister 2, and had to get up to speed very quickly, I just picked up the highest predicted scoring players that were available for each game.  Needless to say, this strategy did not take me far - I was second to last for wins, and most of my spur-of-the-moment team switches were disappointing.

I did make a team icon, though!

AA for Avalon Autopicks.  "Avalon" because my home state of Delaware was already taken for someone else's team name, and because I love King Arthur, and because it sounds nice with Autopicks.  "Autopicks" because, well, they were all autopicks (not my fault!  Sister2 did it before passing the team off to me).  And for the graphic, a sword through a computer, which is both a reference to the whole Sword in the Stone thing and a commentary on the probable technical ineptitude of one who possesses an auto-picked team.  Very clever, I know.

Anyway, old defeats aside, the new sports thing that I'm going to be awesome at is the NCAA Tournament Bracket that we're doing at work.  This was both easier and harder.  Easier - because you just have to fill out the sheet once and then see what happens.  Harder - because there's not an easy interface that puts all the information in front of you like there was for the fantasy league on  So I did a teeny bit of research (I used this guy's assessment over at Sports Illustrated) and found out what the top 8 favorites were.  After filling in the sheet up to the point where those 8 were battling each other, I either picked by higher seed number or if the disparity was less than 4, I picked the lower one (have no figured out why it's called a seed, will update if/when I do and/or it's interesting enough to be worth mentioning).  For the 8 favorites, I picked by Mascot.

Conclusion?  Michigan State is going to win.  I have them totally crushing the East, then defeating the Florida Gators, and finally, the Arizona Wildcats for the victory.  I mean, c'mon.  They're Spartans.  You saw 300, right?  The Spartans would not only kill an alligator, they'd probably use it for a weapon, or armor, or both.  I'm not sure what we're playing for, but I'm ready for my prize!

Mar 22, 2014

Health Revelations: The Scary World of Nutrition and Metabolism

The scary world of nutrition & metabolism | Business, Life & Design

A while back I wrote about my resolve to be healthy without dieting.  To have a balance between self image and a healthful lifestyle.  And I'm still working on it, and I'm enjoying it.  Because of my new-found interest in nutrition I've discovered a lot, some good (for me), some bad, and some scary.  The scariest part, I think, is how little of this I knew, how little the general public knows, and how important it is to our health!  I'll start somewhere that should be at least a little familiar...

The Food Pyramid

Outdated food pyramid (pre 2005)
Outdated Food Pyramid Prior to 2005

Remember this old thing?  I remember seeing this as a child (well before 2005).  In fact, 2005 is when this was overturned due to our growing understanding of the human body and nutrition.  But for some reason, instead of replacing this with something that makes sense, they just stopped educating us about nutrition altogether!  Evidently a replacement pyramid was made, but I'm not even going to bother to post a picture because it has these vertical stripes and it really doesn't make sense and there's a reason it never caught on.  It's not the most up to date anymore, either.  (But if you're really curious, here you go: MyPyramid.  You're welcome!)

So, with no widely accepted and easily understood guidelines for nutrition, what's an average American with only a limited amount of time and brain power for internet trawling to do?  Harvard School of Public Health to the rescue!

Harvard has a great nutrition article explaining, in fairly easy English (no Chemistry degree required!) how our understanding has changed, what it currently is (Keep in mind, as our technology improves, and we learn more, we'll continue to expand our understanding of how the body works.  For now, at least, there is no black and white, and nothing should be taken as gospel.), and even a new food pyramid reflecting the updated recommendations.  Although I would really advocate reading the "healthy fats and oils" section, if nothing else.  NOT ALL FAT IS BAD.  More on this later.

New food pyramid from Harvard School of Public Health
The New, Improved, Totally Awesome, Harvard Endorsed Food Pyramid (aka my new food bible)

Key Points (For me, someone else might get other things out of it.  You should really read the article)

Fats.  Cutting out all fats without paying attention to the differences between the types is foolish.  Certain types are good for us!

Think unsaturated plant or fish fats.  Conversely, in a lot of "low fat" products, fats have been replaced by sugars or something else to improve the taste, and those are at least as harmful, if not more so.  That's right.  Fats = good (except the processed, man-made kind).  Sugars = bad (except the natural, unprocessed kind).  Seeing a pattern?  Whatever we've messed with least is going to be the best for us.  (I'm currently in the midst of a milk crisis.  No more skim?  Should I do whole?  Should I switch to almond or soy?  I'll let you know if I ever find a solution I'm totally comfortable with)

White bread, rice, pasta.  These are bad!  Your body basically treats all these items like sugar.

If it's not whole grain, then you're not getting the full benefit from it, and the way your body uses it, you might as well just eat a brownie that you'd enjoy more (or at least I would.  Brownie = way better than pasta).  The main difference is that whole grain takes longer for your body to process, which makes you feel full for longer and prevents your blood sugar and insulin levels from spiking and then dropping.  Fortunately, whole grain items are becoming much more available now, so it's really not that hard to swap out that white rice for brown and so on.  Or quinoa.  Which Sister2 just introduced me to.  It's sort of like rice, but in tiny, round form, and it cooks faster.

Pay attention to proportions, not servings.  You should eat an amount that you're comfortable with and fills you up rather than continuing just to get your "4 servings of vegetables per day."

But you should make sure that veggies and fruits are making up half of your overall food consumption (with healthy protein and whole grains making up the other half).  Obviously you'll splurge occasionally, but if you aim to make it a lifestyle and not a short term, restrictive "diet," you're more likely to maintain it, be healthy, and maybe even lose some weight.  Which brings me to my last point.

Diets Don't Work

Sister2's boyfriend sent us all a somewhat depressing TED talk about dieting.  Dieting is kind of like the lottery.  The majority of us fail at it, repeatedly, but we look at a few other's shining examples of success and think we might win next time.  The problem is that diets usually rely on shocking your system.  Our bodies don't naturally want to lose weight.  They don't know that we're overweight, they just know that a time might come when food is scarce and we'll totally need those fat reserves later.  Then, when we diet, our body says, "Ah yes, I knew this would happen.  Starvation survival mode!"  Which consists of your metabolism slowing down to decrease the loss of fat as much as possible to, theoretically, keep you alive as long as possible.  Well, while this sucks, this just means we need to persist, right?

Nope.  It's even more complicated.  Our bodies also make set points, which is the new point it (they?) thinks we should weigh.  Every time we gain weight, it makes a new, higher, set point.  Set points go up, but they really don't like going down.  So whenever you're below whatever your "set point" is (your highest past weight), your metabolism is going to slow down to compensate.  Which means you need to eat less, and exercise more.  So in order to maintain a healthy weight, someone who has been overweight in the past is going to have to eat less and exercise more than someone who has always been thin.

Little Ray of Sunshine

Not fair, right?  Totally not fair.  And totally depressing.  But what you should take out of this is not that it's hopeless (Sister3 is struggling a bit with that step), or even how super hard it's going to be to look like a supermodel (I mean, c'mon, how realistic was that, anyway?), but what your healthy goals should be.  Preventing weight gain is far easier and far more important than losing.  By practicing a healthy lifestyle, you can handle this goal readily, and negate many of the health issues with being overweight.

However, if it's still important to you to lose weight (look out, Kate Moss!), keep in mind it's just as doable as it ever was.  It didn't suddenly become harder because you read this article or watched this TED talk.  You just gained a realistic view of how hard it always was.  And people do it.  Just watch The Biggest Loser, check out one of AOL's many "Before & After" weight loss slides, or read some fitness guru's biography (Richard Simmons, anyone?).  Just remember, if you diet, and then go back to splurging, you're setting off survival/slow metabolism mode, making it easier to gain weight afterwards, and generally doing more harm than not dieting at all.

Note: I was going to embed the TED talk I referenced here, but... the link's not working and maybe that's for the best.  It really is kind of depressing, and while the ideas are important, it doesn't have to be a drag to learn them!

What are your tips for healthy living?

Mar 20, 2014

Spring Cleaning - Oh, You Meant the House...

It's been a pretty rough winter for the typically mellow state of Delaware.  Lots of snow and ice and cold, and I'd gotten to the point where the only footwear debate was between boots: waterproof or warm and fuzzy?  Now that we're finally beginning to see the ground and no longer have to walk like penguins to prevent wild pinwheeling over icy sidewalks, I'm hit with a vague reminiscence of a time when other shoes were in my life.  Ah yes, they were once chosen with care to match or coordinate my outfits.  (Outfits!  What are those?  But that's a whole other thing.)

Long story short: I wore heels today.  Wedge aviator boots, technically, not even real heels.  And I've forgotten how to walk in fancy shoes.  Balancing is fine, but it felt off, kind of lumbering, until I cut my stride in half.  Did I really used to mince around with such tiny little steps?

And sandals!  I gave them a longing glance this morning, and then remembered the brier thicket on my legs that would put Significant's facial hair to shame.  Ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration, I'll admit.  The Significant grows a very nice goatee/mustache (we call it the "douche-stache" but I actually think he looks very handsome with it), but I'd put his downy cheeks to shame!

As I was about to mentally resign myself to the blade every other day for the rest of the time of warm, I remembered yet another detail.  Toenails!  My toenails look terrible.  I'm managing barely 10 miles a week, and still the effect is plainly visible.  How long will a pedicure withstand the act that wreaked such havoc on my feet?  How much effort are these sandals actually going to entail?  Maybe... the cold wasn't so bad after all.

Just kidding!  Warm weather is awesome and I can't wait to make use of my "real clothes" again.

Mar 15, 2014

Cats vs. Dogs: Must it be Either/Or?

The Epiphany

There's a reason most people are "cat people" or "dog people" and it has nothing to do with actually disliking the other species.  It has to do with effort.  More specifically with avoiding effort.


Different kinds of pets require different kinds of effort.  Dogs need to be taken out frequently, trained to obey basic commands, taught which furniture they're allowed to cover with doggy smell and hair, and sometimes they just need to follow you around and whine.  Cats need to be outmaneuvered in their basic desire to maul furniture in such a way that doesn't require training on the cat's part, litter box cleanup, and acceptance of their rapid mood swings from "I need your attention now!" to "leave me alone, I hate you."

Two dogs is much like having one dog, as long as you factor in some extra training time and some variation in personality.  Adding a cat to a dog family means accepting a whole new set of responsibilities.  "I already have to take my dog out for walks every day and I know how to go about training to keep the furniture looking pretty.  Do I really want to have to lose it to an un-trainable pet's sharp claws?  How about another dog instead."  And I'm sure the cat people see it similarly.  "I'm already comfortable with the cat's impact on my furniture, or have already figured out how to prevent said impact, but do I really want to have another pet that also needs daily walks and can't be left home alone for more than 8 hours?"

As for those patient individuals with both feline and canine companions, I'd have to assume that these are the people who love animals sooo much that they're willing to put in all kinds of different effort.  While impressed with the sacrifices that these people make, and able to see the charms of both species, I can't say I've overcome my laziness enough to take on the second set.  Which makes me a "dog person" by default.

Cats vs Dogs: pros and cons comparison chart | Business, Life & Design

Mar 11, 2014

March Self Actualization - Five M-F'in Miles!

Today marks a great victory.  For upon this day I have, for the first time since... maybe ever, run five miles.  I also, for the first time, experienced the mythical runner's high that so many had assured me did exist.  Truly, a magical day.

In case you're wondering what this has to do with my self-actualization projects, my sister (the middle one, we'll call her Sister2) convinced me that running a 5 mile race was something I really wanted to do.  At the time I had barely, just barely, survived the Reindeer Run - a fun little Christmas themed 5K back in December.  Except it wasn't fun.  It was intense, thanks to an unseasonal downpour that had us running in plastic rain ponchos which did little to prevent getting soaked to the skin, and squelching shoes that overpowered the tiny chiming of the jingle bells tied to our shoes.

Naturally, after this I decided that I hated running, it was the worst thing ever, and I was never going to run more than 3 miles.  So what possessed me to sign up for the Back on My Feet 5-Miler?  I don't know.  Some weird amalgam of peer pressure (after all, Sister2 AND Sister3 had signed up for 5-Milers) and personal challenge.

I knew I would have to train and, quite honestly, I was worried I wouldn't get into good enough shape (physically) in time.  So, with 2 1/2 weeks left to keep making that 5 miles easier, I'm in pretty good shape (time-wise).

Another "first" that's going down this month is the TEDx Event in Philly.  I'm a fairly regular visitor of the TED website, but I hadn't realized there was so many local chapters (technically they're separate from TED, but it's the same idea and they're held in the same spirit).  I'm excited about this, because as evocative as the videos are on the site, I have to imagine they'll be that much more inspiring in person!

Mar 5, 2014

Logo Design - Last Box Unpacked Party!

Some projects don't matter.  Like the ones you do for yourself.  But they're always my favorite designs!  Here's my most recent:

The Project

The Significant, Roommate, and I are throwing a party.  I didn't want to call it a "housewarming" because we haven't actually purchased a house, we just moved, and also I didn't want it to be linked in any way with some antiquated traditions I might not even know about.  "Oh, it's a housewarming, that means we're supposed to buy you gifts, right?"  F*** if I know.  But we're adults, and there are three of us splitting rent, so we really don't need to mooch off our friends and family. (Edit: there were still presents.  Evidently you can't get away from that if you mention the fact that you moved at all.  I imagine getting married will be the same way.  However, they were all very nice and appreciated gifts and I found little Thank You cards that are designed so beautifully that I kind of wish I had done it.)

I toyed with the idea of calling it a "Not a Housewarming" party, but didn't really like it.  It sounded kind of judge-y or pretentious or something.  Then my mom casually tossed out a great idea.  "Last Box Unpacked."  Because that's really what it is.  We moved, waited several months to get our bearings and make everything look nice, and then wanted to have a party.  So Last Box Unpacked Party it became, and I got to do the fun part: make a Facebook event, and design a graphic for the header/other email invitations.  (I mean, c'mon, what's the point of having a party if you can't make a logo for it.  Amiright?!)

The Process

This was somewhat simplified because I didn't have to come up with bunch of options for a client - I just had to make myself happy.  But I did start where I usually do:

1. Fonts - Oh, how I love them!  Basically, I just lay out the entire logo name (in this case the party name) in ~5 different fonts.  That was I can see how different parts of the word or individual letters look if I want to mix and match.  In this case I picked all my favorite messy fonts that I don't normally get to use for client projects: hand written, calligraphy, sketchy, you name it!
2. Colors - I usually make 2 or 3 sets of color blocks (or swatches, if you like) with 2 to 4 colors in each.  Then when I start rearranging the words and fonts, I can just pull from one of the sets.  For this project I didn't spend a lot of time on this; I started with the tan shades of the box graphic I wanted to make and added more later.

3. Graphics - I have a pretty decent set of stock icons, thanks to a month subscription from Shutterstock.  I'll usually start there, seeing what I can use directly, adapt, and what I need to create from scratch.  I'm a big fan of simplicity and minimalism - so I like to stick with silhouettes and suggestive shapes, though I have created elaborate Photoshop composites when the occasion called for it.  In this case, I already knew it needed to be a box or set of boxes and that I would need to draw it from scratch.

4. Create! - With all the elements in place, now I get to play.  Which font combinations look good?  How can I combine them with the chosen graphics?  Most importantly, what is the impression these combinations give off and does it say what it should about the company (or party)?

The best part about this one was watching the concept unfold as I worked.  I started with an open box.  Then the word "Party" was coming out of the box, as if it was the last thing to be unpacked.  Finally, I placed the words above, "Last Box Unpacked" on a paper background, like a label, with a little bit of grunge/texture, and added a "handwritten" label to the box graphic with our names and address.

The Final Product!

Mar 1, 2014

Getting Organized Starts in the Bathroom

I just bought a bunch of organizers for different parts of the house and it's fantastic!

 My favorite: a three tier bathroom organizer that swivels, with 8 compartments for "stuff" and a top level for the tall things, like hair spray. The best part? I can start my day without having to dig through a mound of toiletries to find my toothbrush and the cosmetics I want to use that day. Which brings me to my point.

Organized bathroom = better morning.

3 tier bathroom organizer: available on Amazon

Other products that are currently making my life easier:

1. Scarf & Belt Hangers

From Amazon:

2. Shoe Rack

From Walmart but probably available on Amazon:

3. Purse File

From Amazon:

4. Shower Caddy

From SimpleHuman (and anywhere else really, but I'm partial to this company - I love their website and how techie their products look!):

Just as I was starting to think I'd gone overboard with the organizers, Significant asked me for something for his side of the counter.  So now we're both tidied up and ready to go!

My now-tidy, beautiful bathroom counter

What are you favorite organization tools?  How do you make the most of small spaces?