Putting Out Fires & Other Sundry Items

By mehera o'brien on December 16, 2010

Categories: Academics

You know it's bad when it takes you about 15 minutes to successfully log into your blog's editing interface. Did I mention I managed to lock myself out of the F+S Gmail account awhile back as well? Of course not, because I've been decidedly absent. Shame on me. The last few months are a total blur. So much would happen in one week that I'd lose track, thinking something happened weeks before when it had only been the previous Tuesday.

But it's been awe inspiring.

Let's see, by way of measurement, in the last 10 weeks we hosted 50 students at the new DUMBO Studio (ok, 49 because Josh was technically at his internship at CP+B in Boulder). There were another 31 in New York City working at various agencies. We had 18 teachers in the Studio (+myself) in the end, and another six in the City. From traditional ad firms and digital agencies to boutique, hi-tech production shops and a handful of talented freelancers. We were joined by 13 Monday evening guest speakers and 5 lunch guests for chats about the industry (and in many cases life at large). We had one coffee hour, a successful Portfolio Review for our recent grads (congrats to those who now have health insurance!!) and hosted IxDA New York's "Body Storming" workshops on a very windy Autumn day. We entered Young Guns and heard Jeff Goodby interview Dan Wieden + Dave Kennedy at Art Directors Club. We created original photo collage artwork for a special show at the Kalahari Gallery in Brooklyn and managed, thanks to an internship partnership with Splashlight Studios (arranged with the help of friends at Ann Taylor), to meet Steven Meisel. OK, ok. I didn't get to meet to Mr. Meisel. But my student Leo did. He told me about it with such passion that I momentarily basked in the knowledge that I'd helped make that happen. (I told him when he's a famous photographer, I'll find a way for him to return the favor.) We also had a few parties. If you ever want to see a tab  v_a_n_i_s_h, meet my little chickens. 

We had a few growing pains too. For example, the old gas heater…… um……. well, no one got hurt is the point. And more importantly, the electric heater is finally working. In addition to fire there was also the water, but a mini-tornado is not typical for New York. It's just not. The 4 am security system false alarms feel like years ago now. The cabinet that arrived damaged, had to be shipped back, and then delivered again has been doing its job for weeks without problem, while the vending machines only ate someone's money once. The foosball table no longer precariously teeters atop dodgy legs. Ping pong has not only arrived and thrived, but a proper tourney took place the day after classes ended. A Swede named Per took the title. 

So what does this have to do with being a designer of user experiences? Everything, really. Because what we managed to accomplish this past quarter affects lives in a deep way. From internship and post-graduate job offers to renewed confidence, business etiquette and work ethic. Give me a few more quarters to work out some kinks, but we basically have a healthy, happy talent pipeline folks. That was the goal, wasn't it? 

This is what I've learned in the past 10 weeks. When you design an organization, it takes care and brute force. It takes a serious number of hours, lots of patience (not my natural talent) and the ability to separate the 'big deal' stuff from the 'not so big deal' stuff, which can be hard to differentiate when burnout sets in. Designing an organization also necessitates a big dose of humility, a broad sense of humor, and a certain perverse pleasure from having your ass kicked on a normal basis. I must say, having done it, that I highly recommend it. 

Thanks to everyone who shouldered the adventure of Miami Ad School New York with me this past Fall Quarter:

The chicklets, of course. Most especially my three student workers. 

Studio Teachers Marcqui Akins (Photographer), Christian Behrendt (R/GA), Leif Abraham (R/GA), Hong Ko (R/GA), Leo Vladimirsky (Ogilvy), Billy Custer (Kaplan Thaler Group and most recently Carrot Creative), Abel Lenz (HUGE), Damian Claassens (AKQA and most recently Publicis Modem), Darrell Whitelaw (MIR), Dominic Espinosa (Vectorform), Roy Torres (Y&R and most recently Droga5 Sydney), Ben Levy (Strawberry Frog), Mihnea Gheorghiu (Y&R), Amee Shah (Freelance Wonder Woman), Kurt Jaskowiak (R/GA), Ken Pao (Photographer), Keith Zang (Kaplan Thaler Group) and Marci Ikeler (Publicis). Also, thanks to Steve, Paul, Ren & Ale for filling in those last few weeks. 

Agency Teachers Stefan Haverkamp x2 (MRM), Nathan Archambault (AKQA), Tara Lawall (Y&R), Jeremy Straight (Concept Farm), Derekh Froude (DraftFCB) and Domenico Vitale (People, Ideas & Culture).

Guest Speakers Paul Collins (AKQA), the MIR Dudes (Darrell, Adam & Daniel), Ana Andjelic (HUGE) & Diana Hong (Createthe Group), Jordan Berkowitz (Ogilvy by way of Undercurrent), Ben Fisher (developer of seriously cool start up companies), Rachel Diesel (AKQA), Tim Nolan & David Schwarz (Hush Studios) and Jessica Baler-Greene & Ariston Anderson (HUGE). 

Lunch + Learners Lars Bastholm (Ogilvy), Natalia Cade (CP+B), Rebecca Renner (AKQA), Alessandra Lariu (McCann & Co-Founder of SheSays) and Jerome Austria (W+K). 

And to a hundred other people at Art Directors Club, Digital DUMBO, One Club, IxDA, Miami Ad School global staff, creative services managers, recruiters, corporate assistants, bartenders in Lower East Side and friends & family: thank you for supporting my vision. Happy holidays. I'll be asleep. :) 


Thank you, Cindy

By mehera o'brien on October 20, 2010

Categories: Interaction / Visual Design

Craft vs. concept. You need both. But so many companies rely on ideas (v important, of course) without making anything. So I appreciate this short snippet from Cindy Gallop.  


Building Culture

By mehera o'brien on October 18, 2010

Categories: Academics

I can't believe a month has already passed. I don't know exactly how that happened. Since I last wrote, it's been a whirlwind of administrative activity (boring and frustrating, but a necessary evil when in start-up mode) and educational activity (thrilling). 

The security alarm proceeded to go off every night between 1:30 and 4:45 am, with me on the receiving end of the dispatcher's phone call. There were two mini-tornados in Brooklyn and, apparently, we have a drainage issue. We only had one VGA cable (now we have four) and apparently for anyone's laptop to show up on the monitor in the main studio, their settings need to be 1024x768 (stretched!!) with a mirrored display. At least the vending machine guy has, so far, been a doll.

But to keep it in perspective, this is _really_ unimportant stuff. And Jordan, my sidekick at the school, and I manage to find many of the little dramas quite funny in the end. 

So the last month has also brought tremendous excitement. I hired 17 teachers for the DUMBO Studio. I have 50 students from all over the world and from nearly all the Miami Ad School global campuses. I even have one Graphic Design student and two Photography students to complement the majority of Art & Copy kids. I have another 31 in the city on Greenhouse and Internship, with another 6 or so teachers at these agencies. We've had two awesome guest lectures, a private tour of a top tier photo studio, a lunch + learn and a good old fashioned booze fest. This past weekend, we hosted two workshops for a NYC-based industry organization. 

The most amazing part of the experience has been to see the studio come to life. We're literally designing an organization. I feel it living and breathing every day. I monitor it, hoping the cold weather that's just set in doesn't make it sick before it gathers strength. It's like watching a plant grow, and without an innate green thumb, I stand by holding my breath excitedly waiting to see if it'll work. 

During orientation I set cultural guidelines. I told the students what I hoped for the place. It included freedom to complain, but only with constructive feedback. It included an open door policy. A spirit of entrepreneurship. A desire to create a cultural tribe. The students have started to come and tell me what they think, and what they need. They make thoughtful suggestions, think of things from a different perspective. They challenge me, without being mean. One or two have inadvertently provoked my strict side. Another one appreciates that I'm a smart ass, like him. 

I'm realizing that some of the operational stuff is just not my strength. I'm not bad at it per say, but it's not my sweet spot. But cultivating culture. That, so far, is working. And to watch it come to life a little bit every day – in the classroom, in the work, in the people themselves – makes me smile broadly. 


What motivates us?

By Cecilia Brenner on September 24, 2010


The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us by Dan Pink from Clear Thinking on Vimeo.


SheSays NY at Cuban Council

By Toke Nygaard on September 23, 2010

Categories: Academics, Conferences, Events, Web/Tech

We are happy to host the next SheSays event in New York at our Cubana Council NYC offices. The speaker will be Taren Sterry - writer, performer and improv teacher - http://www.tarensterry.com plus 3 "super women" will be hanging around as well.

September 30, 2010, 6:30 pm to 9:00 pm

Please check out SheSays for more info.


Storytelling for UX

By Derek Monteverdi on September 16, 2010

Categories: Books, Events

If you're frequently challenged to use persuasion to sell ideas or services to clients or colleagues then you may want to read Storytelling for User Experience by Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks.  Whitney was the guest speaker at the NYC UPA's most recent meeting on Tuesday night. 



By amee shah on September 16, 2010

Hello Big Spaceship! Nice to meet you.

I was a digital stowaway at Big Spaceship for two months, sitting in a long row next to strategists and designers. Yes, I admit it; I snuck aboard Big Spaceship at the end of February, taking a six-month sabbatical from my Creative Director job at BBH, NY. Why you may ask? I had gotten to a point in my career where there were some really interesting things happening in the digital industry and I wanted to see firsthand what made these creative, smart, innovative companies tick. I also felt like I wanted a personal change. So I took a leave of absence to become a 38 year-old intern. I figured no three-day seminar, panel, or school could teach me as much as plain old fashioned doing. I also thought I could teach along the way. I emailed Michael, and he agreed to sponsor the first leg of my professional experiment. I started that afternoon. My plan was to spend two months at Big Spaceship; then two months at Google Labs in New York, finishing off at North Kingdom in Sweden. I looked at this as a work-study program. The only difference is I’m not a sophomore in college, I’m half-way through my career. 
To my surprise, the overwhelming response to this experiment was, "Cool!" Followed immediately by, "How the hell did you pull that off?" And what did I think I was going to learn? Truthfully, I didn't know what I was going to learn, except that I wanted to roll up my sleeves at the best places, and try to get a base knowledge of what a native digital person knows and how their creative process works, from concept to execution. I'd sat in enough meetings where the ad agency and digital agency were supposed to be "collaborating" on a campaign but in truth had no real idea where the other was coming from. It seems it would behoove everyone to break down walls, swap skills and learn where the other is coming from. For me, I wanted to know if I was asking the right questions, worrying about the right things and pushing the work in the right direction. So I jumped in. 

I noticed first and foremost that creating digital ecosystems is incredibly complex, non-linear and requires a lot of disciplines, expertise and passionate people. It was very helpful for me to brainstorm with digital natives. I’m usually used to working with one other person — a copywriter. At Big Spaceship specifically, brainstorms happen amongst 8-10 people. All disciplines contribute. Strategists, Producers, Designers, Art Directors and Developers. What I learned very quickly from these brainstorms is that most of these digital answers are generated not just as creative “solutions” but are generated on anticipating what the user wants, not what a brand wants to show them. Ideas are built around users’ existing behavior with the brand. Also ideas that rose to the top were the ones that supported users long-term, so that they can start to depend on a platform. Some of this is different from when you’re creating a traditional campaign where it’s all about controlling the perfect story, the perfect gag, because you’ve got a captive audience. Agencies and people working on both the messaging and the engagement platforms sometimes have a hard time separating the two. I know I did. I realize now the same insight may not be right for both.

As thinking about the user experience becomes muscle memory for me. I have few more lessons I would like to share. I’ll break them down in different posts in the days to come.


The New Job

By mehera o'brien on September 14, 2010

Categories: Academics

A month ago I posted the five lessons I learned in five years at AKQA. And a lot of people wrote me to ask what I actually left to do. But I've been so busy settling in (and moving house!) that I haven't even had a chance to explain. 

My new position is Director of Miami Ad School's new Brooklyn campus. <Legal note> we are not open as an official school at the moment and we accept no enrollment. We only function as a quarter away program within the existing, global Miami Ad School network. </Legal note>

As an industry acquaintance summed up when I told her my news – I was clearly looking for BIG CHANGE. I'd take it a step further and admit that I was actually looking for a full reboot. A total life redesign, in fact, of which the new job is only one part. I'm just shy of a month into it, and I'm still in deep culture shock, but it's all good. Sometimes, feeling uncomfortable is exactly what you need to know you're alive. 

So this blog is supposed to be about career development and the winding paths we all take to various new challenges, which is why I share this story. But I have to admit I'm more comfortable chronicling the people I meet rather than myself. 

Like my path to AKQA, which happened quite by accident when a person I knew (Lars) randomly offered me a job in New York (unexpected), this path was similar. I was in the office one day when a copywriter, and a graduate of MAS, told me the co-founder of the school was in the office to meet with some of the CDs. He was surprised I hadn't been invited (I was too, and somewhat irritated I might add) and he suggested I head into the meeting anyway, which I did. That meeting led to a guest teaching invitation months later, which led to a conversation about the school getting more digitally savvy overall, which led to a discussion around a new school that would be a global innovation center. I suggested New York. Knowing Ron & Pippa's appreciation for bohemian, artistic settings and local eccentricity, I suggested Brooklyn. And Dumbo specifically. A bit over a year later, they'd rented loft space, gave me a tour, told me they'd done everything I suggested so far and I might as well just come run the whole thing. 

Crazy, right? 

I thought about it and about how many people I'd interviewed that were talented, but not ready to be hired at AKQA. About all the times the CD team and our recruiter lamented over ad school students in general lacking in craft, interactive experience and digital culture. And graphic design students lacking in storytelling, branding and _also_ interactive experience and digital culture. I thought about how the industry is growing as clients mature, and people in CCO and ECD roles break down barriers, but about how our entire industry is talent based. And that, without a ready pipeline, all those opportunities could go unfulfilled by people that don't exist to embrace them. I thought about all the cool sh*t out there that wouldn't get invented until years later as a result. I'm dramatic, but you take my point. 

I have to admit, with a condo under contract in Dumbo, I also mused how divine it would be to have a five minute, subway free, lazy stroll to work every day. And no timesheets. And fewer airports. I went so far as to imagine adopting a dog and bringing him to work (I did a test run with my family's golden retriever last week – it was very nice) and taking pilates classes in the morning (who doesn't want better abs?). Most importantly, I like Ron & Pippa. I find them fascinating. And quirky. We share similar values, but totally different styles. I feel them gently removing some of my corporate polish and gloss, replacing it with gritty, start-up creativity. They are artists. They remind me of who I wanted to be when I was a kid. And at individual lunches recently, the first thing they each asked me was, "Are you enjoying the new job? Are you happy?" 

I told them both I feel like an inmate that just got out of prison. On the one hand, thrilled with the freedom. On the other hand, terribly not used to handling so much of it. And it's not like I didn't have a lot of freedom in my old job, so you can imagine. 

Catherine (as in, co-founder of this blog) gave me the sage advice to just design into the program the subjects and people I find interesting. And the odds will be that other people find it interesting too. So I'm looking for teachers next quarter. I'm looking for guest lecturers. I'm looking for people to stop by and have lunch with me and the chicklets, as I call them. People from advertising, product design, film, architecture, fashion, law, finance, strategy. If you can think it, I can find a way to make it inspiring to the students. Just contact me if you're in. 


Help Packaging

By mehera o'brien on September 14, 2010

Categories: Events, Industrial Design / Products

Help_Packaging For years, before 'interaction designer' was a job I knew about, I wanted to be a number of different things. Museum exhibition designer, photographer, marine biologist (I know, strange one, but now I'm an avid scuba diver). And package designer. 

I remember coming across this packaging awhile back and being absolutely enamored with it. It reminded me of the many careers I fantasized about when I was younger. Then I forgot about it. 

My colleague Mariana brought this packaging into the office as inspiration for a project we were doing in the medicine category earlier this year. 

AIGA is hosting one of their ever fabulous Design Thinking events in New York tomorrow night with Richard Fine from Help Remedies. I only signed up today (been a bit snowed under with the new job) so space is probably still available. $26 for non-members. Even cheaper for members. The AKQA Experience Design team and I are having a reunion there tomorrow night, for anyone interested in saying hi. 

More information about the event

Registration for the event


Content Strategy for the Web

By Derek Monteverdi on September 10, 2010

Categories: Books, Events

Content_strategy The NYC UX Book Club just announced that they'll be discussing Kristina Halvorson's Content Strategy for the Web during their next meeting.  I took a break from reading this book when the summer began so I've got a great reason to pick it up again.

Event Info:

    Thursday, October 14th


    625 Avenue of the Americas 4th Fl

    (6th Ave between 18th and 19th)

    6:30PM - 9:30PM

If you're nowhere near NYC (or just busy that night) then you can watch a recording of Jared Spool's interview with Kristina during last month's inaugural UIE Book Club at http://5by5.tv/uiebookclub/1.

Visit the NYC UX Book Club on Facebook for more info about the event.



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