I am strolling through Goethe’s garden (as depicted) as I’m in Weimar, a small German city known for, well, Goethe’s œuvre and the Bauhaus university. It’s mid-September; summer is still in full blossom and makes us all feel like we could get used to this; this does not need to stop, ever. But it will, we all know it, the seasons won’t fool us. But we like the idea of being fooled, even for a couple more weeks.
One and a half months later—October’s in its final hours as I type this—I peel myself out of bed and turn on the radiator; I have my gloves and thermal underwear in place and switched from iced coffees to hot tea. But outside, I still cycle through golden, leave-paved streets on Urbanstraße, which is delightful and makes the thought of the upcoming months more bearable.
I am happy to welcome you to another episode of this little gathering. Quite a few things happened during this summer; however, I wasn’t part of most of them. I was busy writing my Master’s thesis. While passing a couple of miserable moments (”Fuck this; nobody cares about my degree, let’s simply not finish it”, as well as “With this thesis I will go down as the first design student who failed and disappointed his supervisors in an abysmal manner”), I finished the book, I had it printed, I presented it in front of a room of intimidated undergraduates, and I passed. I was actually happy with the result. Lesson learned: Accepting that your own work is enough as it is, and trusting the people who tell you along the way that you are doing fine, could prevent a lot. Of. Stress.
During the thesis research as well as the writing as well as the miserable phases, I had two mantras pinned to my wall, hoping to find peace with both of them. One said “You are not special, work harder!”, the other one said “You are valid”. To cut a long, philosophical exploration short: I still haven’t found peace with neither of them. I don’t think I am special, but working harder isn’t always an option (sometimes, yes, but I carry a slight disbelief in the hard-work-can-get-you-anywhere-philosophy). Being valid, however, is a though one: Am I? Is that all enough? Is a book and it’s presentation in front of intimidated undergraduates and a good grade and a finished degree enough? I know that I myself am the person who can decide what’s enough, but how on earth am I supposed to know?!
[A lot of italics, this time. I am sorry. Maybe I should make this newsletter a podcast. (No.)]
The thesis was the main reason I didn’t get to jump into Berlin’s lakes during this summer’s heatwave. Very possibly, after nine years in Berlin, it was the first time I envied my friends and actually wished to refresh my media-theory-twined brain with a jump into cold water. But it’s okay. Maybe next year, or maybe never; maybe I really am not the person for lakes (that’s at least what I learned about myself every time someone convinced me to join them for a trip to Berlin’s outskirts).
I am trying to re-structure this monthly (or rather quarterly?) piece of writing little bit. You’ve already made it through the biggest part; the self-absorbed ramblings and updates on life and existence. What follows is a shorter part, where technology, design, culture and feelings are taking turns.
To keep it brief this time, I’d like to hand out two recommendations to add to your digital digest:
1) Spencer Tweedy restructured his newsletter as well and now sends out very brief and snackable observations. Subscribe here or delve through his online collection of words.
2) Perfect for quick lunch or dinner breaks home alone: The New Yorker’s Cartoon Lounge YouTube series. Everything is fun and witty and entertaining about it: The animated intro, the cartoons themselves, but especially the charming hosts Emma Allen and Colin Stokes. Watch the playlist here.
I hope you all had a great summer, got one or two chances to jump into a lake (or any other refreshing surrounding), and are in peace with how much you need to be to be content with yourself. If you have any tips or other, more rewarding mantras, please let me know.
I am at a conference about the internet and mental health. It’s a one-day event and I only bought a ticket because I wanted to hear Katrin Passig and Felix Stalder share their ideas on how the digital transformation influences our brain, our behavior, and how our society handles the “New”.
As the speakers discuss the meaning of digital endorsements and interaction (such as “likes”, “favs”, comments, etc), an older man in the row in front of me leans in to his neighbor: “I’ve never liked anything in my entire life”.
That sentence stuck with me more than any of the talks or discussions. As an active participant in social media, of course I cannot imagine that someone never “liked” anything. What’s not to like! But out of context, the sentence is deeply saddening. Imagine this elderly person, sitting in a darkened conference room on a sunny day, leaning in to his seat mate, with a cold coffee in his hands, confessing: “I’ve never liked anything in my entire life”. I’m glad that the internet preserved me from this nightmare.
I have liked and still do like quite a bunch of things in my life. Recently, these albums and playlists, for example:
1) Baio – The Names (Spotify link). Chris Baio, known as the bassist from Vampire Weekend, makes cheerful indie pop music, and I especially like his album covers and this remix album (Spotify link).
2) Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar (Spotify link). I know, I’m late to the party, but after their track Shame has been my workout soundtrack for MONTHS, I was looking forward to a new album—and it’s great!
It’s intense how Berlin transforms from Europes ugliest/greyest/saddest/dirtiest city into the most wonderful place on earth during spring: I cycle through the streets and have exactly the same thought as every year around that time: There possibly is no better city for me to exist in than here. I hope you enjoy spring as much as I do! Have a good one, and talk to you soon.
I don’t want to write too many words on this, because I am about to ask you to read this blog post by Frank Chimero. Read it entirely, read it thoroughly. He composed a list of all the things he learned about productivity, and actually, about general happiness as a workaholic. It can pick you up. For example, he suggests:
Dump your brain on to a sheet of paper—every single thing you could hope to do in the next 3 to 4 months. Then, look at your task list. Have the author sign each one. Did you write it, or was it fear, that nasty tyrant in your head? Cross off anything written out of fear. Listen: some drudgery is unavoidable, but you’re living your one and only life. You get to drive; no bullies at the wheel.
… And after a while, Frank comes back to that sheet of paper:
(…) Many of the things you thought you needed to do in the next few months were left undone without noticeable consequences. Perhaps now you can now cut their weight. “Goodbye, heavy friends. Maybe someone else will give you the attention you need.”
As we’re jumping into the moving van, Felix asks me to hold a bag of medical supplies he brought from the hospital. Tubes, syringes, needles, disinfectant spray, all packaged separately in thin plastic bags. What’s that for, I ask. Felix’ friend—a doctor, too—was going to start his first job next week, and Felix promised to help him practice injections and blood sampling.
The way he handed me the bag with supplies was very casual, but I felt weird and—all of a sudden—very useless. When I help my friends and colleagues with work stuff, it’s usually about color choices, or whether the copywriting of an input field is clear enough. It doesn’t have any relevance at all. Whereas Felix, he f-ing helps friends take blood cells out of a body to put them into a laboratory to check them for diseases, and to actually cure them.
The whole tale that “Design can change the world!” has already been demystified a while ago. Another poster won’t save the world, nor will another app, or another chair, or typeface. Design does have the ability to make things better, but looking at our world full of over-designed products and services, it hardly ever is executed in a way that it does so. Design is often used to make bad things look better, and through that, it multiplies its negative impact. To be honest, that sometimes make we want to quit design altogether.
On the other hand, I am very lucky to work with people who are striving to use design for the better. Maybe that’s also because I waved goodbye to the startup world quite some time ago, and I try to work only with people and companies who I find relevant and/or pleasant as human beings (not only as colleagues). No bad vibes are worth the money, especially when you decided to make your passion your job.
2 — Pictures: I created a meme-inspired “starterpack” about my personality. Check it out here and make your own—I’d be curious!
3 — Life Hack: I unfollowed everyone who calls theirself “influencer” on social media and posts tons of ads. It just makes the web a shitty place. Please stop it.
4 — Lesson learned: Negative people are not worth your energy. It’s okay to stay away from them.
So, I helped Felix move last month. I also helped two friends paint their walls, and I re-arranged my furniture (it looks shit, so I’ll have to move it back again tomorrow). I will continue to design stuff, even if it’s worthless compared to the benefit a doctor brings into the world. I simply can’t do anything else; so I might just use it well. Have a great start into spring (Yes! We made it through the winter! Isn’t that something!).
On the other side of the train wagon, a man is sitting alone in a four-seat arrangement, his computer on his lap. He smiles while he types furiously; he seems completely sunken into his task. I imagine him writing a draft for his novel, or a sweet message to a loved one, but maybe also he is just calculating his tax payments, and had a successful year?
While the train rattles through Berlin Grunewald, I see the day turn into night: The blue hour passed by and let the darkness come through. I don’t like darkness, but sitting in a cozy train after a long day, being carried through it safely, feels okay.
Looking back on 2017, my year hasn’t been that great. Lots of uncertainties and bad feelings. The most dominant one was probably fear—fear of all kinds of things. I managed to get rid of some of those fears (I am not scared of terrorism that much anymore, or of the movies “Panic Room” and “Seven”, as I watched them and they were not as horrible as I imagined when I was a child). But new fears developed, without control, and it takes time and hard work to get through them. I’m still on it.
However: As you are probably reading this in 2018 already, I don’t want to write about the past. There are a lot of learnings from 2017 that will carry me through the upcoming year. The most important one is this: Emotions are not rational. Explaining a fear or a feeling doesn’t always work, and it’s still okay to feel it. The only way to cope with it is to be okay with it.
Also: It’s so soothing to make things that make you happy. I struggled a lot with a seminar paper I had to write for university, but I really wanted to succeed. So I made a project out of it; I wanted it to feel like a creative project rather than a task I was forced to do. So I made a website for the paper; made something out of it that’s sharable and that fits my style—as a designer, but also as a person. It reflects me and the stuff I am thinking about, that it feels good to have that represented by some sort of artifact. If you want to know what that is: Read the paper I wrote about Invisible Computers here.
Some other things that might sound really lame but made me surprisingly happy: Living in a tidy apartment. Taking care of houseplants, watching them grow. Looking outside the window, listening to the neighbors singing. Give some money to people who ask kindly on the train. Invite people for coffee instead of going out somewhere.
For the upcoming year, I want to spend less time with people I am not really interested in. I want to say No to things I don’t like. I want more moments that allow me to smile about something I write, draw, make, say, see—the guy on the train, with his laptop, during that blue hour, was a good inspiration.
Have a great start into the new year. As last year: Make it count—but this time: don’t stress. We all should stress much less.
My first mobile phone was a Philips Savy Vogue. It had a one-line display and its most special feature was the horoscope program that would calculate your daily scores regarding love, friendship, energy and so on.
I think that mobile phones, even before Apple’s product designs from the early 2000s, got me into design. I was such a nerd I would rebuilt iconic phones with FIMO modeling clay; studying folding mechanisms in flip phones and exploring keyboard layouts. It’s a really odd thing to do as an 10-year-old child, and my parents must have thought that I was crazy.
Here are the six phones I found most fascinating as a kid:
Sony Ericsson T610
Released in 2003, the T610 impressed me because of its simplicity. While all other phones from that decade either looked like toys or like fax machines, the T610 was elegant, with a glossy black top and polished aluminium bottom. The joystick was horrible, obviously. It does have some form factor familiarities the first iPhone, released in 2007.
When it comes to ugliness, this is my absolute favorite! I never owned one of these, but their design was mesmerizing, even from afar. Who would want to use a circular keyboard?! In general, Nokia was the king of odd phone designs in the 00s—here is a neat collection of them.
Sony Ericsson Z200
I was always fascinated by flip phones, as their product design included another layer of privacy, sound design (that noise when furiously closing the device after an emotionally stirring phone call!) and general mysticism. Back then, everything was allowed—so why not combine an analog watch into a smooth clamshell design, and add a little handle on top?! So classy.
My class-mate had one of those, and they were the oddest piece of technology. Almost as if someone designed a device that wanted to prevent you from calling someone, you had to hold it sideways to your ear to hear anything. With its ridiculous price, it wasn’t able to compete with mobile game consoles back then. But with the horizontal keyboard, it paved the way for mobile computing that later became popular with the Hiptop/Sidekick.
Sony Ericsson T300
One of the phones I admired and actually could afford. It wasn’t a technical revolution; it even didn’t have an integrated camera but only a clip-on device (so awkward!). But I loved the design; the glossy, flat front layer and the soft, matte off-white back. There were no annoying edges, bumps, notches. It felt as if it was made from one piece.
The N90 looked like a camcorder, but more fragile and less powerful. YouTube was only founded two months before the phone was released (February 2005), so there was not really a place to share all those videos. It’s funny how the camera only had two megapixels, but they still decided for a full-fledged camcorder design.
From all the regular cell phones I owned, I can hardly remember any interfaces (except the one from the Nokia 3310). UI design was nothing spectacular back then—the hardware was the most exciting part. That changed completely: Smartphones are, by now, only a slim layer of glas or plastic, and the UI defines the experience. I wouldn’t mind today’s devices to become a bit more visible again—if it isn’t possible to make them fully invisible.
Within the past semester, we had a seminar at University about the establishment of the personal computer (briefly mentioned in one of my newsletters). From a historical and media-theoretical point of view, we read and discussed essays and papers from engineers, philosophers and researchers from the 1960s to the late 1990s.
I loved the seminar, because I finally found the time to read stuff by really important people who paved to way to modern-day computer interaction—people like Ada Lovelace, Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, and (my favorite!) Howard Rheingold. His very well-written book “Tools for Thought” is available online, and guides perfectly through the history of computers as tools.
During our semester break, I wrote an essay about one thing I found particularly interesting: The computer’s form and shape—and how it was always designed to disappear. With current technology trends like voice input and wearable tech, its starting to actually do so. You can read the text ( a slightly simplified version) in English or German. I’d love your feedback, too!