Carroll Shelby, 1923-2012

“I never thought about dying…

The day you were born, it was already written down the day you’re gonna check out. Now, I’m not gonna throw myself under a truck, but I’m not gonna worry about when I die. I’m ready to move on when that day comes.” 


Long before the prefix ‘i’ on a computer or digital gadget had come to conote a certain prestige — a whole different plane of excellence — having the word ‘Shelby’ before the name of an automobile meant you were dealing with the absolute best. The Texan tinkerer is a striking figure in industrial design and automotive engineering.

Carroll Shelby was born with a bum ticker. A leaky valve in his heart kept him in bed through the age of fourteen. He was determined to catch up — and then some. He joined the Army Air Corps in World War II and developed a lifelong love of going fast. He drove Formula One cars throughout the fifties, competing in eight World Championship races. Driving in his trademark bib overalls, he set multiple land speed records and was named Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year in both ’56 and ’57. When his heart condition forced him to give up driving, he began constructing his own supercars to compete with the likes of Ferrari and Porsche. In a sport dominated by Italian cars, Shelby gave American steel the pole position. Beginning with a British classic — the AC Cobra — the eponymous builder produced a string of hits including Ford Daytonas and GTs. His rendition of the GT40 won the grueling 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans. Later in his career, he found mass-appeal when he helped create the Dodge Viper.

A cowboy-hat-wearing, no-nonsense visionary, Carroll Shelby is an American legend whose legacy speaks for itself. In a deep, throaty, flame-spewing snarl. RIP.

Dear Designers

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.

This year marks a decade that I’ve been learning from you. Finding my heroes among you. Aspiring to impress you. Ten years ago, I decided I’d try to make a living solving problems using design methodology and I’ve never regretted it.

Last week, I found myself sitting in an immaculate theater in Manhattan listening to a few of those heroes wax poetic about making ideas happen at the 99% Conference. I’ve come home conflicted. My head is full of professional tips and inspiring quotes, but I think we need to have a talk.

Fabulous is fun and all, but our reciprocal flattery is getting us nowhere.

We go on and on about the necessity of diversity, but I gotta tell you: we are not a very diverse bunch. We’ve diluted ourselves into believing that diversity actualizes as nothing more than neutral hiring practices related to things like gender, age, skin color and proclivities in the bedroom. Très shallow! We read the same things. We eat the same things. We buy the same things. We speak the same way. We dress the same way. We vote the same way. And I know all of this because we also talk about ourselves incessantly.

That’s the opposite of diversity.

The majority of designers I know live enviable lives. They’ve designed it that way. The only trouble is that many of them have done too good a job of surrounding themselves with nodding heads. Find a handful of people who hold convictions opposite yours, and instead of responding with mockery or disdain — or worse, apathy — try moving toward them. You may convert them. They may convert you. But either way, you’ll be a better designer.

Admittedly a challenge in her oversized Disney hoodie, but can you fall in love with Jennifer?

The average American is a 37 year-old white woman who lives in New Jersey. Her name is Jennifer. She’s married and has two kids. She works full time and makes about $25,000 a year. She’s a little chubby. She loves her dog and watches a lot of television. She considers herself religious and prays regularly. She does most of her shopping at Walmart and recently purchased the new Nickelback CD for her husband.

These are people you unfriend on Facebook, if you’re even on Facebook. And that’s just the start. Admit it: you sort of hate these people. I’ll need your help with this part, but I’d like us to hold each other accountable to truly understanding and empathizing with the people that we work for. That’s the client. It’s the end user. It’s the target market, and it thinks you’re judging it. And it’s right.

We love to celebrate the wrong things.

Design claims to be about lofty goals like openness, clarity and progress. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but lately we seem more interested in things like exclusivity, celebrity, excess and vulgarity. In our relentless drive to remain relevant, we’ve become very crass.

We’ve taken the charge to be critical as an excuse to be cynical. We eschew wisdom in favor of irony. And, perhaps most damning, we choose fashion over formation. That is to say, we want to take credit for building culture even as we (merrily) chip away at it’s very foundation.

We seem content to build beautiful cogs for hideous machines.

For a group that spends so much time thinking about ourselves, there are some glaring contradictions behind our chic exteriors. We spend our lives making things. Wonderful things. So they will be consumed. Most of us are in pretty deep denial about that last part. The stuff you’re making — whatever that stuff is — is for human consumption. And most of them won’t realize how well kerned the headline is. They’ll have no sense of your obscure cultural reference. Color palette lifted from a little-known Van Gogh? Haven’t the foggiest. But still, because you’re good at your job, they will consume. And while they consume what you’ve made it will shape them. They’ll spend their money and — more valuably — their time. They’ll spend their lives trying to become what you tell them they should be. That’s a pretty huge responsibility. Is what you’re making helping humans flourish?

Never before has there existed such a huge class of well-educated people with such endless resources and a persistent state of global connection. You have access, capital and vision. Just don’t let it go to your head.  It’s not about you.

The world is not yet finished and we have such tremendous opportunities. Opportunities to right wrongs and communicate things that are capital-T-True. Seems to me, this usually happens in ways that are not all that flashy. This kind of design doesn’t win a lot of awards. It is not self seeking. It looks like quiet disciplines and a deference to the people we serve. Seek correction through criticism. Find insight in input from people who are nothing like you. If you’re feeling depressed or cynical, humble yourself to the client. To the team. To the work.

If you’re not interested in doing that, I respectfully ask that you find a different profession and stop besmirching a title that I love: Designer.

Green Triangle

After a long winter of gazing wistfully at Cabin Porn and dreaming of the country life, the girls, pups and I have moved into a rustic A-Frame just in time for the first buds. Built in ’77 and nestled in a stand of cedars and shortleaf pine, we plan on spending as much time outdoors as in.

We’ve got the woodstove blazing so if you’re in the neighborhood, please come by and say hello.


Building for Tomorrow

I have long thought that a mark of true craft was the ability of an object to endure — and perhaps even flourish — with the passage of time. Baseball gloves, fine furniture and violins become more distinct and reveal the hidden genius of their construction as they age. Your experience with them is richer for their having been used before. It’s troubling to think that those of us who build objects for the web don’t share in this tradition.

This seems like it might be a step in the right direction: Future Friendly.

Pixel as Mother Tongue

The era of transitioning human beings to the screen is over. Now is the time for designers and storytellers to fully embrace the ascendant platforms and invent a vernacular beyond the derivative language of engineers and marketers.

An Elegant Irony

The crazy thing about street cred is that as soon as you go to cash it in, you’re stripped of it by the very people who gave it to you. It’s like some sort of scummy casino.

It seems that Banksy is the latest to add his name to the list of well-known street artists that have been harshly criticized for “selling out” by the skateboarding masses. Apparently, while Banksy was busy writing the preface for his coffee table book and story-boarding the recent opener for The Simpsons, the real artists were hanging a gallery show ankle deep in New York City’s collective fecal matter. Tough crowd.

Just goes to show that credibility is hard to earn and all too easy to lose. At the same time, it does provide a sort of cultural system of checks and balances. Brands that manage to earn the wary trust of a counter-cultural crowd — especially one who’s ideology is inherently anti-consumerism — must tread particularly lightly. The oft-cited Patagonia comes to mind as a company that seems to walk the talk. They stand by their guns, even when they’re shooting holes in their own business model. The eco-clothiers have made a habit of cultivating deep loyalties with their core consumer base through efforts like 1% For The Planet and The Footprint Chronicles, through which they candidly admit that they’re part of the problem. That’s some serious street trail cred: Humility before glory.

Organizations that sign up for this voyage into truly authentic branding have got to take the long view. It would be so much quicker to work a gimmick or endorsement and go huge overnight, but as soon as their cover is blown, so is their credibility. Forever. The Milli Vanilli of marketing, so to speak. Menswear mogul Giorgio Armani said,

“I’ve tried to find a new elegance. It’s not easy, because people want to be shocked. They want explosive fashion. But explosions don’t last, they disappear immediately and leave nothing but ashes.”

The same is true in advertising. Companies should strive to be surprising in their openness and exceptional in their consistency. The road to sustained credibility is to respect your customer, accept slower growth and constantly check your product (and your promotion) against what you claim to stand for.

On the other hand, you’ve got to be willing to ignore the inevitable haters. Viva Banksy.

Rating vs. Curating

Today the popular iPad app Flipboard which bills itself as “the world’s first social magazine” released a major update which introduces “the beauty of print, the power of the web.” Heady stuff, to be sure, but as usual— I’m hung up on the m-word. More and more, magazine is being reduced to nothing more than a form factor. It’s pretty fonts and consistent layouts. It’s an empty vessel for — whatever. Don’t get me wrong: I use Flipboard. I love Flipboard. It’s a beautiful aggregator of personally relevant content. It’s brilliant at generating a cohesive package from a variety of channels in ways that are intuitive and enjoyable to consume.

Flipboard is many wonderful things. It is not a magazine.

And the reason, of course, is curation. I know, I know. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger buzzword and it’s easy to disparage the term itself because of its overuse, but the fact remains that it’s the best way to describe what many of the best publishers are doing on the web and on the tablet.

My problem with Flipboard calling itself a magazine stems from the utter lack of curation. Or worse, the notion that curation can be crowd sourced.

Magazine is your friend the gourmet chef. She invites you to a dinner party and your mouth immediately begins to water because you already know the meal will be an immersive, multi-sensory experience. Course after course of surprising, yet ingenious combinations of textures and flavors. Intentionally paired with the perfect wine to complement and draw out the subtleties you would have otherwise missed. A coherent expression flowing from a perceivable point-of-view. It’s edited. Your friend wants feedback to what she’s serving up so her next meal can be even more impressive. She wants you to come back for more.

By comparison, Flipboard is potluck.

The iPad has breathed new life into this whole discussion and opened up a new frontier to publishers — as I’ve mentioned. Some of the brightest folks in the business are thinking and writing about it. Even guys like Khoi Vinh have chimed in. Writing about the web more broadly, Rand Fishkin penned an excellent post on the need for what he calls “benevolent editors” beyond just the algorithm and the crowd. It’s tempting to think of ourselves as little editors making little magazines — wielding our “Like” buttons and retweets. But the truth is that when done well with pacing and insight, a magazine is much more than just a collection of things that have been deemed worthwhile. It takes us on a journey we didn’t even know we wanted to go on. Whether or not our friends care to tag along. There’s Texas and then there’s Texas. The difference?