A Year of ACTUAL Productivity 🧠
Three things I made this year, and what I learned while making them.
As we close out the year and enter the new year, I’m trying very hard not to repeat a cycle I’ve been in over the years. That’s the cycle of mourning for everything I didn’t do this year, while excitedly over-committing myself to a new start for next year. It’s a hard thing to avoid - the new year feels like a shot at redemption in a way, and how can we resist the chance to let go of everything that has been holding us back this year and embrace a new, better identity?
But it’s a trap! I know it is. Year after year, I convince myself the new year means something. I think it’s worth shedding that at times, while also embracing it as a chance to reflect. I constantly plan and dream and imagine the things I could do, but I rarely spend the time to reflect on what I have actually done.
Shigesato Itoi is a writer, businessman and occasional director of generation-defining video games, who heads up the magazine/stationery/lifestyle company Hobonichi in Japan. I first learned about Hobonichi through my stationery interests, and spent many years trying to organize every day of my life in one of their daily planners. I didn’t know, though, that the guy who made Earthbound ran the company, and that he wrote a daily column on their site for years. His writing is pretty incredible, deep and insightful (when you can find any that has been competently translated into English). One of his nuggets of wisdom accompanied the launch of a line of planners, of all things, and it has stuck with me for a long time. It’s one of the things that has motivated me to write here, actually, and it’s where I want to kick off this reflection of what I’ve made this year.
We’ve always had the word “Productivity.” It originally meant “the power to produce something,” but now it just means “don’t mess around,” or “whatever, just do your best to get more done.” Without that original nuance it’s lost any positive connotation.
Everything is about moving things from the right side to the left, and from the left side to the right, and making sure that process runs as smoothly as possible. Everything’s been polished and developed to a remarkable degree, and yet I can’t help but feel it as a decline. It’s because we’ve stopped creating things. We’re focused so hard on managing and controlling what’s here that society has come to look a bit creaky to me. So let’s start making things again.
So with that, join me as I look back at some of the things I actually produced this year, and I’ll share what I learned from that process.
A Round Box Made of Wood
Over the last month or so, I took a woodworking class at Hamilton Craft Studios. It was a really incredible experience, made a bit more special and unique because I ended up being the only student in the class! Rather than canceling the class, it became a very cool one-on-one experience that took on a much more experimental approach than I imagine you could have with multiple students in a wood shop full of giant saws and power tools.
The course was meant to be on building a simple jewellery box, but instead we made a round box on a lathe - not something I was expecting and definitely an intimidating idea at first. But it was a really incredible experience, and I learned way too much to summarize here.
My main takeaway from the class was that those of us who spend a lot of time making art on computers are definitely missing something about how making things can engage all of your senses.
While working on this box, I was constantly overwhelmed by the smells and sensations that come with the work - holding a wire on the workpiece while it spins on the lathe to scorch a dark line into a groove, and smelling the wood smoke as it blackens, or how the wax polish loses its harsh, flammable smell as it heats up under friction, becoming rich and sweet smelling.
I spend a lot of time working on the details of design work, but it never comes down to how something feels as it runs over the tips of my fingers - how you can feel but not see the rough grain of the wood slowly become smoother and smoother.
And then there’s weight and force. The energy of a piece of wood spinning thousands of times a minute on the lathe, and how delicate it seems when you take it off. It made me realize just how much I favour sight in the work I make. That’s something I want to continue to explore.
Lots of Logos
My day job is working at Muse Marketing as the guy designing everything (my title is currently “Art Director” but I think “guy designing everything” is a more descriptive title). I joke that I never wanted to be a “graphic designer” but through this work it has become a core part of how I see myself as an artist. This year, at that job, I designed a lot of logos and brands for our clients (some of those seen above). Some were for full brand identities, and others for campaigns or sub-brands. This year, I think I did my best work designing this kind of thing and I learned a big lesson that helped facilitate that work.
I have come to believe that creative professionals who do work for clients need to include their clients in the process - if you want them to identify with the work, at least. It’s something I touched on in my most popular post this year. What I was trying to express in that piece was that the work we do is not just about the outcome - the things we make - but that it’s about revealing and empowering our client’s own creativity.
…we don’t get paid for our art — we get paid to be human shields for other people’s self-expression. We take the blows of embarrassment while our clients try to figure out what it is that they want to say. We shield our clients from their own truths and their own beliefs. We create a safe space for them to have a dumb idea, because they can always blame it on us.
So how did I turn that idea into the best logos and brands I’ve ever designed this year? I made our clients work on their own brands with me. I didn’t make them draw or even brainstorm, but I forced them to engage with the work and challenged them to honour what they want to say. I showed them sketches and rough work and concepts before anything was done, and I made them critique the work in a way that honoured what they believe and value.
In the end, these jobs turned out way better and were much more fulfilling for everyone, and I flat out refuse to work on something like this any other way. The client’s came to identify with the work so strongly that they saw their own ideas and voice in the things I made for them, which feels so much better than them just “liking” or “approving” something I did on my own.
Working with Your Hands
My favourite post on Robot Fan Club this year was Working with Your Hands. Not because of its content, necessarily, but because of the process. I’m finding the hardest part about writing and posting here regularly to be figuring out what I want to say and how to get it out. This piece was a meditation on my own aging and mortality, and how it impacts the work I do and the art I make. But I couldn’t figure out how to write it.
Eventually, I realized that a story about how writing and drawing hurts my hands should probably be written and drawn by hand. Suddenly the whole thing just came out of me. It felt great, and I am very proud of the finished product.
The main lesson here is that the best way to make a thing is in whatever way will get you to make the thing. If a process of procedure starts to get in the way (even if it’s the “right” way to do it, or the “efficient” way, or even the way you think you like to work) then finding another way to just get it out of your head is ultimately the best solution. I have committed so many ideas to particular mediums or processes before I’ve even started and those ideas become things that I don’t ever actually realize in the end. This piece taught me to ask myself how my idea would like to be expressed, instead of how I want to express it.
One last lesson…
Finally, something I’ve learned over and over through making things this year is that the hardest part is saying something is “good enough” and calling it “done.” I’ll let every little detail or new idea stand in the way of finishing something and sharing it with the world, which leaves me all gummed up with unfinished ideas and stray thoughts.
For that reason, I’m sending you this as my first, unedited draft - because I’m afraid that if I go to re-write something or add a little detail, I’ll never hit send in the end. Forgive any long-windedness and spare me from pointing out any typos.
Have a wonderful day, a happy new year, and remember that the power of real productivity is found in actually making things - so make something!
Lots of love,