Making a case for solitude

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Is it just me, or would everyone suffer from a mild panic attack if one of their friends were to disappear from their gChat list for several days without explanation? I recently experimented with blocking a contact from my list and was both amazed and terrified at how quickly that person ceased to exist in my reality. Another friend of mine explained that her company had allowed its employees to use instant messaging programs at work up until last year; suddenly blocked from seeing which friends/acquaintances were online at any given time, she felt isolated and anxious.

In our day and age, connectivity enabled by technology (whether via cell phones, email, instant messaging, etc.) is so widespread that to remove oneself from that network feels unusual and often uncomfortable, especially for the generation of kids who have never known communication without the Internet. In his article titled "The End of Solitude," published in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz explores the benefits of solitude and warns against its obsolescence.

He observes that, in our present age, visibility "is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility. So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude."

What benefits does solitude provide? The impetus for and concept of solitude has changed throughout history. During the Romantic period, the practice of solitude is seen as critical to achieving sincerity: "the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others." In modernist society, solitude was seen as a refuge from the city and the masses. "But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. "

But Deresiewicz distinguishes between loneliness and solitude: loneliness is the negative experience of solitude, or the state of being alone with oneself. As with all things with which we are unfamiliar, "the less are we able to deal with [solitude] the more terrifying it gets."

What we lose by losing solitude is, "first, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness." He argues that "no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude" but admits that "Solitude isn't easy, and isn't for everyone." It's can be both impolite and unpopular.

What place does solitude have in our current society? Do you agree with Deresiewicz's position on the value of solitude? To me, I see the practice of design as an apt metaphor: we need to strike a balance between collaboration and teamwork, and individual focus and intuition, to create great work. In the same way, everyone can participate more successfully and authentically in a visible world if they periodically withdraw to re-examine who they are and what they want from it.

As a final thought, and to play Devil's Advocate: Do these same philosophies and values apply to more interdependent cultures, such as in Latin America and Asia? An American friend living in China once suggested that, whereas Americans will crave the solitude of hiking in wilderness areas far away from any sign of civilization, the Chinese appear to have no such desire. Most of the remote trails he took while hiking through national parks in Western China inevitably led him to incredible vista points that turned out to be fully accessible by tour bus, where his walking meditation would be interrupted as groups of Asian tourists descended to take photos before traveling on to the next lookout. Could our estrangement from solitude as a result of connectivity shape American/Western culture to become more interdependent?
O3b Networks, O3b stands for Other 3 billion, aims to provide cheap internet access to the remote areas of the globe by 2010. Backed by Google, Liberty and HSBC, O3b is setting up a satellite network to connect the three billion people who currently don't have internet access. In most of the Western world, internet access came as the natural next step in communication technology, we already were enjoying the benefits of TV, telephone, newspapers and what not. These countries, however, will be catapulted into a global information society most of its inhabitants never knew existed.

I can only begin to imagine the impact this will have on these societies. Lack of connectivity and information access are a huge issue in these parts of the world - just think disaster relief, health care and all its related issues like birth control and aids prevention, access to education, access to (alternative) news sources, and most importantly, having the tools to communicate and to organize. Literally, I can see a world of opportunities opening up.

What's in a name?

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[Disclaimer: I used to work at MetaDesign and am still friends with many of the people who work there. I am also still friends with many of the people who left MetaDesign for Ammunition.]

Some of you have already heard my rant about this, but I've calmed down from my initial shock and would like to engage in a civilized discussion about the legality and integrity of Ammunition's decision to showcase on its new website all of the projects that Brett Wickens and Matt Rolandson led while they were Creative Director and President, respectively, at MetaDesign. I counted at least ten projects for which the client had actually hired MetaDesign, not Ammunition, but which are currently displayed in Ammunition's portfolio in addition to having already been on MetaDesign's portfolio for the last several months/years.

Now, it would be one thing if Wickens and Rolandson showcased these projects on their own personal websites; Adobe did, after all, hire Wickens and MetaDesign to design its CS1 and CS2 packaging. It did not, however, hire Ammunition, and while Ammunition attempts to give credit to MetaDesign via a small rollover link at the bottom of each project page, I still find this misleading or, at the very least, confusing.

I do not purport to have the slightest inkling about what kind of legal contracts were agreed to between the parties involved. Perhaps it is perfectly legal to cite projects in this way, especially since Ammunition founder Robert Brunner came from Pentagram, which operates more as a collective of design teams each led by a principal and each managing its own client accounts than as a single design unit. (When Brunner left to found Ammunition, he took his whole team at Pentagram--and ostensibly his clients--with him.) Perhaps this is the same situation that causes confusion over who designed the first Apple mouse in 1980. At the time it was Hovey-Kelley Design, but David Kelley later merged his company, David Kelley Design (I'm still unclear as to whether this is the same legal entity as Hovey-Kelley Design or a subsequent incarnation of it), with three other firms to create IDEO. So did IDEO create the first Apple mouse if Hovey and the other original team members do not and potentially never have worked there?

Even if it were technically legal (with the appropriate credit citations), is it fair? What is integrity when it comes to design, given that so many products are the result of teamwork and designers are so fickle when it comes to firm loyalty? Wikipedia defines integrity as "the quality of having a sense of honesty and truthfulness in regard to the motivations for one's actions." Another definition describes it as "adherence to a code of values; utter sincerity, honesty, candor; completeness." Honesty seems to be a big player here, and perhaps that is why I still feel uneasy about the way Ammunition has represented MetaDesign's work, even though I can convince myself that it could be totally legal. If Ammunition were a person, I can picture him walking around in borrowed clothing and taking all of the credit when others compliment his sense of style, while anyone who bothered to look at the tags would find someone else's initials stitched into them.

When has something like this happened in the past, and how have people reacted to it?

How does a design firm brand itself if its identity is really just a collection of different brands associated with its principals and their past alliances?

Designing a Better Brand


Adapted from HOW Magazine.

A prospective client asks you, "I've heard of you guys. Tell me about your firm."
You give the wrong answer: "We're a full service integrated design firm serving a wide variety of clients."


Describe your positioning in:
-a sentence
-a paragraph
-a page

Decide what you're not
Standing for everything = Standing for nothing
Goal: not to appeal to a larger number of clients, but fewer.

Go beyond awareness
Name awareness does not equal brand equity

Discover your brand
It's already in your company in the form of natural strengths and core competencies

-What kind of clients have you been most successful in attracting?
-What types of assignments have you completed over the years?
-In what areas do you have superior knowledge or expertise?
-What do you do particularly well, perhaps better than most firms?
-What do you most enjoy doing? What do you hate?
-What target audiences have you come to know and understand?
-What distribution channels do you know best?
-What methods, approaches or philosophies is the firm known for?

Connecting value and audience
1) What value do we provide?
2) Who do we deliver value to?
3) How do we deliver it?

Differentiating position:
"We offer [your service] for [your market] by [your method]."

(This is hard because it involves giving something up)

Criteria for strong positioning
Authentic: an honest reflection of what the firm is capable of. Plays to the firm's strengths. Can have aspirational aspects, but only if the firm has the firepower to deliver on the promises.
Exclusive: It excludes as many prospective clients as it includes.
Polarizing: Appeals to only limited number of clients. It may even inspire controversy.

Match position with practice
"What needs to change in our organization for us to bring our brand to life in everything we do?"
Answer reflected in:
-place of business

Socrates said: "The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear."

Goal of successful branding: Be everything to somebody, not something to everybody.