Axe Cop

So awesome. And funny. The best comic ever written by a 5-year-old and drawn by his 29-year-old brother. I wanna Avocado Soldier t-shirt.

Roger Ebert’s best films of the decade

I’m a little late on linking to this. Historically, I’ve found Ebert to be far too forgiving a critic (he just loves movies too much and gives poor ones a pass), so I was surprised at how close his list is to mine (if I bothered to make one). Synecdoche, Me And You and Everyone We Know, even Juno.

Taking Directions from Slime Mold

If my colleague Kate Rutter were to have a spirit organism, it would be slime mold. Slime mold are bizarre, neither plant nor animal nor fungi, and they’ve become the poster species for self-organizing systems. Anyway, they can also design subway systems. Scroll down to listen to the piece about them.

Two blogs in one: peterme.com and peterme’s linkblog

Since the start of the year, I’ve been trying out some new stuff for peterme.com, and I’ve gotten it to a point where it’s time to share.

People reading peterme.com via RSS (Google Reader or some such) would have noticed a bunch of links in the feed. This was an attempt on my part to see if I could get back to old school linkblogging, the kind I did when I maintained this site by hand. I have now separated the link blog into a separate feed, which you can either read in normal web on the sidebar of my home page, or subscribe to its RSS feed. The feed for just the main peterme.com posts is still available here.

Or, if you want to see both in one feed stream, subscribe to this feed.

OK. Enough housekeeping.

Don’t allow yourself to be abused by employers (What I would tell interaction design students, #4 in a series)

We are entering the season of college recruiting. Across the country, design schools are inviting potential employers to meet their students. Students are burnishing their portfolios, preparing their spiels, all the while trying to maintain their overburdened academic load.

One of the things that saddens me about many designers is how little professional self-esteem they have. As long as they get to occasionally work on cool projects, they’re willing to put up with remarkable abuse. I suspect many don’t realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. So, to all the students out there looking for work, when the recruiter offers you the opening, “What questions do you have about us?”, ask questions like:

How many hours a week do you regularly expect people to work?

From what I’ve seen, most design firms, particularly name design firms, expect team members to regularly put in 60- or 70-hour weeks. They do this either because: a) they bill you out hourly, and so want you to generate as much revenue as possible or b) they’re terrible at planning projects, and overcommit within a particular timeframe. The problem is, if you’re a full-time employee, you’re not getting any extra cash for work beyond 40 hours a week. So, the company is benefiting from exploiting your time, but you are not.

What kinds of activities will I get to perform in this role?

In school, interaction design students typically engage across a range of activities, including user research, interaction design, product strategy, visual design, and prototyping. However, most employers tightly align a job title with a job description. And that job description is the box within which you can work. So if you’re an “interaction designer” or a “UX designer”, you might be just a workflow-and-wireframes jockey, because user research is done by people with the title “User Researcher”, and Flash prototyping is done by people with the title “Web developer”. Design firms do this so they can task people as if they are interchangeable cogs in a machine. It makes it a lot easier for planning, but it’s stultifying as an employee.

So find out what freedom you’ll have in your practice.

What do you expect for an employee’s utilization percentage?

(This is more for design services firms as opposed to working in-house.) Most people, if they’ve never worked for a services firm, don’t even know what a “utilization percentage” is. It’s the amount of time you spend doing billable work. Utilization percentage * billing rate = company revenue. As such, employers want that utilization rate to be very high.

I feel that a 75% rate is humane. Any expectation above 85% is out of line (particularly if they’re working you more than 40 hours a week). Some companies have 100% utilization targets. That’s crazy. Basically, it means you’re turning the crank all day. You have no time for internal business. No time to read, think, grow. No time to experiment, try new things. When you’re going beyond 85%, you’re basically sacrificing your professional growth in order to line your company’s owner’s pockets.

Will you own any intellectual property I develop during the time I work there, even if it’s created outside of work hours?

Some companies, and I know this can be hard to believe, lay claim to an employee’s entire creative output, regardless of whether it happens during work hours. Now, I’m no lawyer, and if memory serves, these claims are not defensible, but would you want to work for any company that attempted this, whether or not the attempt stuck?

What support will I get for expressing myself publicly, and engaging with a wider community?

Unless you are a senior employee, most design firms offer no support for, and some actively discourage, their staff members developing public personas and engaging with a wider community. I’ve heard countless stories from friends who have had to fight their companies in order to submit talks to conferences, or contribute articles in publications.

(If you’re talking to a design firm) Are you a public company, or owned by one?

Public companies require levels of growth and profitability that lead to policies which often run contrary to delivering high-quality design in a sane environment. If you find out the design firm you’re talking to is public, or owned by a public company, be wary, and be certain you have satisfactory answers to the previous questions.

It’s about treating you like a person, not a revenue-generating asset

The questions I’ve posed here all boils down to whether the employer will treat you as a person, a human with wants, needs, aspirations, and desire for happiness, or do they just see their staff as a means to making money? (And, let me be clear — I’m all for making money, but there’s a point beyond which it just becomes greedy.) Never except the answer “It’s just business.” There’s no reason humanity and business cannot mix.

Stop with the bullshit school projects (What I would tell interaction design students, #3 in a series)

I’ve got a little series of advice/guidance/wisdom/hubris for interaction design students

I’m very much involved with Adaptive Path’s hiring processes, and as such I see a ton of resumes, peruse a scad of portfolios, and discuss futures with hordes of students soon to be graduating from a range of undergrad and graduate programs. As a “hiring manager,” what interests me most is your work. Do you have the skills to pay the bills, and how comfortable and confident are you when talking about your approach to solving problems?

Among my biggest frustrations is having students walk me through bullshit school projects. Bullshit school projects are those which are solipsistic (solving a problem that a limited set of college students face), and/or uninteresting, and/or overly formal, and/or simply lack meaning. If I’m going to be hiring you to work with clients to help address their challenges, I need to be comfortable that you have an ability to engage in real-world problems.

I think much of the blame for these projects lays at the feet of the teachers, who have ensconced themselves in the academy in order to avoid the real world. But students have a responsibility to demonstrate what they can do in a way that someone who doesn’t know them can understand their thought process, their approach, and their talents.

Perhaps the single best way a student can ensure she is doing relevant work is to take internships at companies. I met one undergrad who has worked with IDEO, Frog, and Nokia, and the work she showed me was largely drawn from these experiences, and gave me the confidence that she could deliver real-world design.

I’m not saying students need to think corporatist. One of my favorite student projects is the redesigned BART kiosk by Ljuba Miljkovic and Ben Cohen. BART didn’t ask them to do this (in fact, it demonstrates that BART unwisely spent money on a user interface so poor it could be vastly improved by two smart college students in a semester), but for a class project they realized it offered a remarkable opportunity. It hit on a real-world pain point (as anyone who has purchased a BART ticket knows), and demonstrated a thoughtful and practical approach.

And it doesn’t need to be a project that appeals to a big audience. As part of his MFA work at CCA, Matthew Baranauskas has done a set of tangible computing projects to create new tools to help mentally challenged folks express themselves in a variety of creative ways. While the number of people who could use these tools is quite limited, by addressing a space very different from his normal context, Matthew demonstrates his skills and vision in such a way that it’s clear how he would approach professional work.

So, if you’re an interaction design student, please don’t do yet another mobile app that helps you and your friends coordinate getting beers (or yet another web app that monitors a building’s energy consumption), or some context-free formal exploration of gestural interfaces, or something that simply demonstrates that you’ve learned a set of methods. Identify an interesting problem *in the world*, and attempt to solve it.