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An Artist in the Modern World

‘I didn’t think it was possible to be an artist in the modern world. I just never figured you could do that. Forget being the best, that’s the fruit of the action. You do the work, they say, for the doing not the fruit. You can never really know how it’s going to turn out in the world. All you can know is you enjoy doing it. Then you’re having a great time in the doing and that’s what it’s all about. If you don’t enjoy the doing then do something else.’ – David Lynch

Unquestioned Defaults

I was shopping for groceries online earlier today and I found myself double guessing my usual choices.

It was the first time I’d seen what other people had to say about the staples of my diet. It was the first time I let star ratings affect what I bought to eat.

The whole episode got me thinking about the unquestioned defaults of web design.

I mean, is it really necessary for groceries to have ratings?

We don’t seek out opinions on the produce we select in store. We use our senses and our best judgment to choose our food.

But ratings are easy to include; they’re a default. And so they were added to the site at its inception.

These ratings may have made the ‘user experience’ better, but they’ve made the ‘grocery shopper experience’ worse. And there’s lots of examples of this.

Nearly every modern site has comments, followers, likes, live chat, an inscrutable privacy policy, a newsletter, an associated Twitter account, an associated Facebook account, marketing cookies, functional cookies, third-party cookies. The list goes on and on.

These defaults have made the internet a thriving monoculture. Good for users, bad for everyone else.

But if you’re running a business you don’t want users. Users don’t spend any money, users don’t believe in your brand, users aren’t why you exist.

When we build websites for people we care about, we need to be more intentional about the ‘features’ we include. There’s a good chance those unquestioned defaults will get in the way of serving the people we seek to help.

Stand Out

I went for a job interview that included rigorous psychometric testing.

They rejected me as soon as the test was over.

The test revealed that I was too independent, too sceptical of authority, too likely to break the rules (or to try and rewrite them).

I thought that every organisation would want someone like me, but I was wrong.

This wasn’t a rejection of my skills or experience, it was a rejection of who I was as a person. Ouch.

When something like this happens to you it’s natural to focus on remedies, to ask yourself how you can be picked next time.

But that’s how you water down your ‘brand’ – by focussing on the employer or customer in front of you. It’s literally shortsighted.

So remember, it’s okay to be rejected for who you are.

It may hurt, but it proves that you stand out enough to matter.

Think About the Little Things

Moving home brings lots of changes.

You get to decide if you should keep all of your possessions, if you should organise your books a different way, if you should change your sleeping arrangements and patterns, if you should shop in a different store.

In summary, moving home can be a catalyst for major changes to the minor things in your life.

But these minor things are the activities we repeat most often. They form us just as much as sweeping, ambitious, large-scale changes. (They have the same area under the curve.)

Careers and relationships are important but we usually give far less thought to the tiny decisions and small habits that weave the fabric of our lives.

It’s only when we do something dramatic, like move house, that we get to make these decisions afresh.

Maybe we should all set aside time to think about the little things more frequently than that.


We’re moving home right now and there’s a small chance we’re going to get into it with the landlord over some minor problems with our old property.

It’s disappointing because we’ve been good tenants. We’ve kept the house clean and tidy and paid the rent on time every month.

But the contract gives our landlord the ability to pursue repayment for minor damages and changes.

He may well choose to exercise his legal right, but at what cost?

We’ve paid him over £30,000 to rent his house and he may pursue us, with the full force of the law, for an extra percent or two on top of that.

If he does so, our memories of the place will be soured and his memories of us as tenants will be soured, too.

This is classic over-optimisation.

Squeezing the last drops out of the lemon is something I try to avoid with clients, with subcontractors, and with landlords.

Because sweating the small stuff is a sure fire way to cloud and sour your days.

Overly restrictive contracts are designed to keep people ‘safe’ but they create an environment primed for over-optimisation.

When you‘re deciding to enter into an agreement, you should ask yourself ‘Will this person sweat the small stuff?’

The mental load of separating from such a person may not be worth engaging with them at all.

A Pricing Dichotomy

If you’re a freelancer or a consultant, you’ll be used to charging for your time.

Clients call you with a project and you estimate how many hours, days or weeks it will take – that’s the price.

But there’s an interesting dichotomy that’s appeared in the past few years.

More and more businesses are selling their products via a subscription model, but they’re still buying development, design, copywriting and marketing in the usual time-based ways.

This dramatically lowers the ceiling on how much freelancers and consultants can charge.

A £20,000 redesign, for example, is an awful lot of £50 per month subscription fees.

Under the subscription model, projects like these are hard to justify. And it’s because the pricing systems are unbalanced.

The client is selling a product, but they’re buying a service.

Fortunately, the remedy is simple.

If you’re a freelancer or a consultant, prepare two bids for your next project: one that is a total upfront cost and one that includes a monthly share of subscription revenue.

The second option won’t get chosen every time, but it will show clients that you understand their business model. And it may just end up being worth a great deal more to you than an expensive upfront fee.

Happy pricing!

Free Work That Pays

It can be overwhelming trying to change careers or break into a new field.

The biggest problem most people face is the familiar Catch 22. They’ll ask ‘How can I do something I’ve never done before?’ ‘Who will pay inexperienced, little old me?’

These questions can put an end to a career change before it’s really begun.

Some people will suggest working for free, but that has its problems. The people who want free work are probably the worst kinds of clients. They’ll put you off your new career quicker than having no clients at all.

And it’s because ‘Work for free’ is only half of the advice.

The secret is to think about the people you admire, the people who have helped you, the people you are dying to give back to.

Don’t reach out to them and offer to help, just do the work and send it to them.

You get the practice and, every once in a while, you get to put a company you care about in your portfolio.

That’s free work that pays.

More Efficient or Better?

I went to a fast food restaurant today to grab lunch. They have a system that works like this:

First an employee at the counter takes your order and gives you a receipt with your order number on it.

Then the order appears behind them on a repurposed computer monitor.

Other employees busy themselves preparing the order and then they pass your food to the person who dispenses drinks.

It’s this last person’s job to make the drinks and yell out your order number.

In the abstract, this little system is reminiscent of Ford’s innovations. The concerns are separated, ready to prompt huge gains in efficiency.

In practice, however, it can go horribly wrong.

Today, I was stood in a growing crowd of ‘served’ customers who were waiting for their food. The order taker was moving as fast as she could, doing her job the best way she knew how, but it was causing carnage down the line.

Some customers had been waiting fifteen minutes for their food. Others, who were prevented by a language barrier from understanding the rushed yells of numbers, kept coming forward to claim food that wasn’t theirs.

The customers got annoyed, the staff got annoyed, the manager got annoyed. Some people left the queue once they saw how long it would take to get their food.

Nobody was happy with the system. And yet, it is, on paper, more efficient.

Lots of people confuse efficiency for better. But they can be poles apart.

Even in a perfect world, where every customer speaks the language of the employees, where the employees are able to tolerate stress, where the system works exactly as designed, it still wouldn’t be better.

Better makes people smile. Faster, bigger, cheaper, these things are bad facsimiles for genuine enjoyment and engagement.

Aim to be better, not more efficient.

Write Three Times a Day

Write first thing in the morning to get everything out. One page or five, write until your mind is quiet, write until you see a way through. Write just for you.

Write in the afternoon to share an idea. Use your morning’s tranquil mind to galvanise a thought and sharpen it. Create change and bring fresh perspectives. Write for the world.

Write in the evening to remember the day. Record the insignificant details and the silly things that moved you. Describe your spouse, your parents and your children, transcribe their words. Write for the future.