Five Lessons From Five Years

By mehera o'brien on August 16, 2010

Last Friday evening, as the DJ began to play and the liquor poured freely on the roof terrace, I composed a farewell letter to my dear colleagues at AKQA New York. For those of you that don't know me personally, or haven't heard the news yet, I left the company after nearly five years of amazing people, projects, stories, stress, zaniness and general mayhem. It's bittersweet. I'm terribly excited for the future, but I'm terribly sad and already having withdrawal from all the cool folks.

In my letter, I offered five lessons. One for each year of service. I thought I'd share a (public-facing) version:

Lesson One: Take a leap of faith every once in awhile
I moved to Holland on a whim and talked my way into a job in creative, and in digital. I didn't speak Dutch and I wasn't sure when I left the States if I'd ever get a visa. But it worked out great. Then I moved to New York 5 years ago because Lars Bastholm (former AKQA Co-Chief Creative Officer) charmed me into it. I didn't ask critical questions about budgets, client pipeline and all the other stuff that would have scared me out of saying yes. I just did it. Maybe not the smartest idea, but it also worked out great. So, every once in awhile, just take a leap of faith.

Lesson Two: Own thy craft
Make smart things. Make pretty things. Make things that aren't one of these, but both. Remember to think with your head, not your mouse. When I get stuck, I find going back to analogue basics (pen+paper) serves up brilliant digital ideas.

Lesson Three: Trust your gut
I always wanted a film project. Not a green-screen film project, but a film project. Then I got one and freaked out. My Account Director (and dear friend) wouldn't let me pass the project to someone else. My Producer, who had a lot of film experience, didn't agree with me on key issues. Like the Cinematographer. And the Editor. I felt conflicted, but chose in the end to listen to my gut and trust my creative instinct. The work turned out beautifully (it turned out to be absolutely the right cinematographer and editor, both of whom are now friends of mine), and was personally very rewarding. Remember to always listen to the ideas of others, but also remember to have an opinion of your own. Be able to articulate it. Your managers and peers will respect you for it, even if you don't win the debate.

Lesson Four: Sometimes being right doesn't matter (and sometimes being wrong is actually more interesting)
Just take my word for it on this one.

Lesson Five: A corkscrew makes a great leather hole punch
Huh? I had a leather sandal on the other week and the strap was too loose. To tighten it, I needed to punch a new hole. The guy that sits next to me heard me lamenting and followed me to the kitchen to help. As I picked up a knife to do surgery on my shoe, he offered me a novel, alternative tool – a corkscrew. We easily fixed the shoe. This is an obtuse way of saying – collaboration is the key to this game. Partner with people who think of things you don't. Who make you stronger. Who make you better.

And enjoy it.


Making Better Use of Cars

By Catherine Nygaard on August 13, 2010


It's not directly making the world a greener place, but at least they're hooking us up with some wi-fi. Audi plans to turn their cars into mobile wifi hotspots. (via the lovely, Matt Jones, from Berg).


The rise of the user experience design sector

By Cecilia Brenner on August 12, 2010

Last week, the Guardian Careers hosted a live Q&A on the topic "The rise of the user experience design sector". Whether you are an experienced user experience designer or someone just setting out it might be an interesting read.


Introducing Amee

By mehera o'brien on August 09, 2010

I mentioned Amee when I posted about the last SheSays New York event, hosted at Wieden + Kennedy recently. I'd briefly met Amee at the CaT conference and was excited to hear her speak. So excited, in fact, that when she casually joked that people told her she should write a blog about her experiences on sabbatical at Big Spaceship, Google and (coming soon) North Kingdom, I piped up that she could write for ours. 

I followed up with a formal invitation and Catherine and I are thrilled to say Amee would love to write. She's on holiday at the moment. And I'm writing from the Emirates business lounge at JFK en route to Dubai. But, coming this fall, Amee!!  


Create the Future, Follow the User

By Catherine Nygaard on August 05, 2010

Following the user isn't necessarily new to us, but Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net-a-porter, has an entrepreneurial spirit that's infectious.

BoF Fashion Pioneers | Natalie Massenet in conversation with Imran Amed from The Business of Fashion on Vimeo.


SheSays at WK

By mehera o'brien on July 27, 2010

Categories: Events

Shesaysjuly2010Another SheSays coming up this week. I'm looking forward to hearing Amee Shah speak. Someone told me I should meet her as we'd have a lot in common, and then I randomly met her at the CaT Conference. She's a CD at BBH who took a sabbatical so she could spend 3 months each at different companies learning what they do and gaining a new perspective on the business. She is a super senior woman who basically showed up as an intern, willing to work on anything they asked for the chance to just absorb the work culture for awhile. Pretty brave, and pretty exciting. I'm hoping she'll be talking about her adventures this week so I can blog about it more.

Free to attend, but requires advance sign up. If you're a lady in the business and you're free this Thursday, stop by. Wieden+Kennedy on Varick St.


Flipboard for iPad

By mehera o'brien on July 21, 2010

Flipboard I like.

UX Myths Website

By mehera o'brien on July 19, 2010

Jung, a designer in my team, sent this around the office: Some of them are quite good. 

Women in Digital

By mehera o'brien on July 16, 2010

On a final note on the CaT conference, I wanted to touch on something that I found a bit surprising that day. The conference had a hashtag (#CRCAT) and live tweets were being pushed to the stage, but not displayed to the audience.

(Sidenote: I made a snarky remark about being hungry that was read aloud. And I felt a little guilty about my tone, even though I was indeed hungry. Good reminder to be polite when broadcasting a message. Sometimes, when you're talking in your own head and using digital media, someone's actually reading.)

I guess a number of tweets collected that day started to comment on the lack of women speakers at the conference. I had no idea and, as someone who usually gets on my soapbox about such things, hadn't even really thought about it. Well, it got bad enough that the conference organizer, Teressa Iezzi, felt a need to defend herself. And she seemed pretty upset. She said that she is a woman. And of course she considered the gender split when inviting speakers. One speaker was actually standing in for his female CEO, who couldn't make it last minute. She said that she had invited a number of women to speak and that they actually TURNED HER DOWN.

Then Teressa made one of the best points I've heard anyone make about the gender issue. If women are quick to complain about the lack of women leading the industry, then they need to step up and be leaders in the industry. Now, I understand to be a leader in the industry there needs to come some sort of combination of opportunity, support, mentorship and luck. I get that in a very deep way and learned some tough gender lessons the hard way in my own career. But her point was well made. When she asked women to speak, they said no. When she asked men to speak, they said yes.

And I've noticed it on projects in the office. When a killer project comes in the door, the boys are quick to call dibs. The girls are prone – I'm being a generalist here – to think: well, if my boss thinks I'm an appropriate fit for that project, in skill, personality or seniority, I'll be asked to work on it. And when given the opportunity, they are more prone to second-guessing themselves. There was a gender panel discussion a few days after CaT that I was scheduled to attend at the new Trump Hotel on Varick. But I had a client meeting in New Jersey and couldn't make it.

But a short time later, I was personally faced with Teressa's accusation. I got an email from the Art Director's Club inviting me to an interview on behalf of AKQA. My Chief Creative Officer, Rei, wanted someone in New York to handle it and he very generously entrusted me with this responsibility. The scary part wasn't the interview, as I've done a few in the past, but the fact that it was going to be filmed. And aired at an industry event in San Francisco in mid-July. I'm used to writing a pull quote for a printed article. One that I edit a few times before sending. Or being the interviewer in a film scenario. Not the subject being filmed. I talk a lot as it is. It can be charming when I'm giving a presentation at a SheSays event. But when I get nervous, I prattle on too much. And too quickly. And I learned from an editing assignment last year, talking slowly is the key to not appearing like an idiot in the final cut (thanks for that one, Galen).

The thought of embarrassing myself is something I can live with (it happens frequently enough). But the thought of embarrassing the man whose initials are on the door, or my CEO Tom, or Rei, was a bit overwhelming for me. My gut reaction was to decline. And I knew if I said no, any number of guys in my office would be more than willing to take the slot. Then I thought about what Teressa said. And I thought: THIS is what she was talking about. This moment right here. And ohmygod, she's totally right. 

So I said yes.

I did the interview. I was thrown when the interviewer said, "Well, I looked you up on Facebook and you've won quite an impressive number of awards..." I thought to myself: Facebook? I don't have my resume there. And I wouldn't say it's an impressive list....hmm, I wonder if she checked out my scuba diving photos... Then I realized she meant 'AKQA' when she said 'you' and I felt like an amateur. And I was grateful I had kept my mouth shut and waited for her to finish the question she eventually posed. It was all terribly amusing. I haven't seen the result yet, but colleagues in SF will see what I had to say. I hope I make them proud. As a colleague, and for representing on the girl front.


Interactive Projection Screens? Yes!

By mehera o'brien on July 15, 2010

Categories: Conferences

My other favorite from the CaT conference last month was Theo Watson. And ironically, Theo was one of several speakers in the opening panel discussion. He spoke for about 10 minutes and rushed through his work so we could get a flavor for what he did. Yet, I could have listened to him talk pretty much all day. For me, this was one of the most innovative speakers at the conference. I'd kill for a single project like his!

Boston-based (with a studio in Amsterdam as well), Theo and his wife/creative partner work on interactive projection software projects.

He talked about a project called the Eyewriter, in which a famous, LA-based graffiti artist who is bed-ridden creates digital graffiti with his eyes via custom-designed software. His designs are then projected on buildings. He's even selling his work, which funds his medical care. 

Theo also did a project called Funky Forest, which is on display at a kids cafe/play center in New York. Standing in front of the screen, children strike a pose to create a digital tree illustration. Then their tree grows and blooms and the children are called upon to nourish their tree, feeding it water and understanding what it takes for nature to survive.

And then they did this awesome project in Rotterdam (where I lived for a few years) called Laser Tag. Which allows users to write a message that is displayed on a building. I can't even do it justice in my write up.

Compelling technology, gorgeous visual design and a certain do-gooder underpinning drive Theo's work. My colleague Kaare and I spoke to him for awhile, asking him if he'd stop by the office to talk to our crew, and on top of being brilliant, he's modest, sweet and even a bit shy.

Check out his work here:



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