reality is weirder than you think

Tag: design

The stupidest idea I’ve ever had: cross-stitch data visualizations

Ever had a stupid good idea? So obvious it’s dumb, but nobody’s done it? (Much.)

I had one of those ideas yesterday, out grocery shopping.

It was so dumb I laughed out loud.

Wanna know what it is?


Given that I’ve been into cross-stitching lately, and I work a lot with data and data visualizations, I realized…

Why not combine the two?

I mean, cross-stitching is almost entirely counting and graphing–so why not stitch a bar graph or a bell curve instead of a gamboling kitten?

Sure it’s not usable data, but it’s fun. It can be beautiful. And it sure as heck can be meaningful.

I know someone who has a framed “Napoleon’s March Into Russia” on the wall of her office.

So I decided to go for it.

And what better subject to start with than the sneaker data wave of 2017?

I’m talking about Bitcoin.

Data courtesy of CoinDesk. Technically the last month of 2016 is in there too–let’s pretend it was for dramatic effect.

I think it turned out pretty well, considering I did about 0 minutes of planning. Super fun.

Expect more like this in the future.



If you’re interested in hanging a framed version of this on your own wall, let me know in the comments or contact me directly.


Needlepoint is meditation AND instant gratification

I’ve gotten back into needlepoint lately. Counted cross-stitch, to be precise.

It’s great on multiple levels.


Even using a pre-planned design, working on a needlepoint project involves creating something that has never existed in the universe before. There is something primally satisfying about the act of creation.

This time around, I’m developing the design myself. I have an idea, and I’m planning out sections as I go. I picked the colors that I wanted (shades of coral and moss green, my favorites, with a tiny glimmer of yellow). Some of the specific patterns and fonts I’m stealing from other sources, but the overall plan is mine. I’m greatly enjoying the anticipation of seeing the execution of a design I’ve conceived.


Needlepoint projects are a mini-lesson in logistics. Do I start from the right or from the left? Do I do one stitch at a time, or go through the row one way and then back the other way? Letters first, or decorations? So many questions to answer.

I’m not a needlepoint expert, so I can’t give you answers to those questions.

But I can tell you that working on a project like this is a tiny way to stretch your brain in the arena of planning and execution. You know where you want the project to end up, and then you have to make all of the medium- and ground-level decisions to get to that end point.

Most needlepoint projects can’t be done in one sitting, so it’s also an object-lesson on working on a project bit by bit until it’s finished.

You can take this knowledge and extrapolate it to other areas of life.

Instant Gratification

While it sounds like the complete opposite of the long-term benefits, the thing that I like the most about needlepoint is the instant gratification. Every stitch that you finish is there, stitched into the fabric, for you to admire. That stitch, and all the stitches surrounding it, have changed the texture of the fabric forever. You can feel the difference if you run your finger across the stitches.

And that happens every single time you work on the project.

With other types of long-term projects, you don’t always get the satisfaction of a job well done until the very end. Cooking can be like that, and definitely event planning is like that. But with needlepoint, there are pretty things to look at (even if it’s just the colors!) at every step on the way.


I like the idea of meditation, but I’m not huge on the traditional practice of it. Experience has shown me that it’s valuable to stop thinking (in words) for a period of time, but I feel that it’s more important to shift the mode of thinking than it is to stop thinking altogether.

When I take a ballet class, I can’t focus on anything else. When I play music or focus on a drawing, my thinking shifts into those ways of thinking and all my verbal worries evaporate.

Same thing with needlepoint.

When you’re focused on creation, you’re not focused on yourself or what’s wrong with the world. Better for all involved.

In Conclusion

Consider trying out needlepoint. It’s fun, satisfying, and therapeutic.

That fine line between beautiful and useful

You’d never know there was an upside to a housefire.

That upside, for me, is salvage furniture that’s wasn’t damaged, but is written off my insurance. Apparently they sell it–for cheap–which makes it an idea place to find affordable, quality furniture.

I’m now the owner of a Restoration Hardware couch, which I bought for $200. Yes, please.

One of the pieces that I looked at was a beautiful coffee table, brass with a wood burl veneer on top. It was exquisite. New, it cost $3000. Fire salvage, $250.

An absolute steal.

But would I use it? I need a coffee table. Does it fit with my couch and the other furniture that I have? Or would it be difficult to work around? Being that much more “nice” than everything else I have could be a detriment, because by comparison everything else would look shabby.

I would have had to design an entirely new life to fit in around that coffee table, one where I artfully drink coffee on Saturday mornings and have decorative objects picked up from my latest trip to Borneo clumped artfully on my fireplace mantle. (Problem: my apartment doesn’t have a fireplace.)

Yes, the coffee table was a great deal monetarily. I have my doubts on whether or not it was a great deal in terms of lifestyle and context.

It was beautiful, but not for me. Not right now at least. Sometimes you have to know when to admire and let go.

That used to be difficult for me. I would want to become that new person who lives that life in which the coffee table (or the blouse) makes sense. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve started to realize that there’s only one person that I can be (me), and if external trappings don’t help me to become more fully that person, they don’t belong in my life.

No matter how beautiful, if an object isn’t useful–both in an absolute context and relative to other objects that you already own–it’s effectively worthless. It makes me sad to think about that coffee table in this way, because the craftsmanship was so good, but it doesn’t make sense in the context of my life right now.

I could be wrong. Maybe I’ll wake up in a cold sweat tomorrow morning because I didn’t buy that gorgeous coffee table.

But I doubt it.

New (to me) design choices in the sports arena

As an old millennial,  the motion graphics that I grew up with were clunky, low-res, and…frankly, I was old enough to remember when channels started displaying the score of the game onscreen while the game was going on. As that idea evolved, graphics tended to mimic those found on network TV news–self-consciously 3D, lots of gradients and unnecessary moving parts.

In some ways, the graphics on TV sports games were the flashy sports cars of the design world.

Nowadays, I rarely watch sports-related programming on TV. Or streaming. Or in any way, really. The last time I sought any programming out for myself was when the Seahawks wore head-to-toe highlighter green during a game sometime last year. That was fun.

So it is really strange to be home with my folks and see flat, gradient-free design on ESPN2.

It makes sense that hipster graphic designers need jobs, and get jobs with sports-related entities just as much as they get job for music companies and fashion brands, but it is just weird to my eyes to see a more modern, clean, simply, flat, bold approach to design for football- and basketball-related material.

I’m happy to see some simplicity on the TV screen.

It’s also interesting to watch the “trickle down effect” in play in visual graphics. (AND THEY SAID IT WOULDN’T WORK.)

That said, it doesn’t feel like the people who watch sports are also the ones who would appreciate minimalist or clever design. Sports, to me, should be fairly like a sports car–functional, refined, a bit flashy.

Unlike a boutique fashion publication, the focus shouldn’t be on the design work (or on figuring out which school’s logo you’re looking at), but on the sports events themselves.

Good thing the gradient hasn’t totally disappeared:


The necessity of charm

A few last thoughts on The Perfectly Imperfect Home.

I’d never thought about graciousness being a component of home decorating, but now that it’s been brought up, it makes a lot of sense: “Why bother with a quaint relic of a time when people communicated principally by letters? This is why: because like lunch on the lawn or a candlelit dinner, sitting down at a proper little table is entirely gracious. It is about the necessity of charm.”

We like to be charmed. A little charm in our lives means that there’s enough extra energy and thought to be channeled into something that’s not quite practical.

Another passage that charmed me is this one describing the philosophical differences between schools of decorating:

The stern Sister Parish used to engage in a practice her employees termed “traying” in which she went around a new client’s house with a tray scooping up all the tchotchkes, figurines, bibelots, and knickknacks she deemed superfluous. Tough, but necessary. If it’s not beautiful, useful, or meaningful, you might as well lose it. And then the arranging can begin.

Decorators obsess over how to wield our decorative objets. On the frontlines of style, the tablescapers face off against the tchotchkeyites. The tablescaping aesthete believes in clustering like objects together to create a strong visual statement, while the savvyless tchotchkeyite tends to disseminate objects all around the room, diminishing their impact and creating a sense of bitsyness.

One can–almost–see in the authors description of the tablescaping aesthete a purpose for figurines and other decorative objects. I can see my own antipathy to figurines in her description of the savvyless tchotchkeyites.

This passage almost–almost–has me convinced to hunt down a motherload of knickknacks with which to decorate my tables.

After all, a tablescape without its decorative objects is nothing.

Looking for apartments is exhausting

…and not just because of all the logistical work.

Space is an important component to how we live our lives.

If you’ve ever doubted that, observe people navigating an empty lobby with stanchioned waiting lines. Even with no people to contend with, most will automatically conform to the designated spaces.

The people we share our space with also have an impact on how we live our lives.

For example, although my last living situation was in a house, I mostly confined myself to one room because of a volatile roommate.

The way in which our space is decorated also influences us.

Remember how motivated you’ve felt inside an awe-inspiring library.

So as I’m out looking for space in which to spend the next years of my life, be it a townhouse, an apartment, or some other arrangement, I’m also exploring different potential ways of living my life. Different identities, almost.

Extrapolating that amount of hypothetical data take a lot of mental work.

Certainly more than simply counting amenities, bedrooms, commute time, and rent before cross-referencing with the budget to make sure it fits within parameters.

(Although those things are important.)

Will this apartment encourage me to stay in, instead of going out to make friends? Will this townhouse help out with morning wakefulness due to the positioning of its bedroom windows? Am I ready for the responsibility of snow removal and yard work?

So much to consider.

And yet, apartment hunting is so much fun — specifically for this reason.

It’s time to try on all sorts of lives for size. To imagine yourself in different circumstances, different possibilities. To carve out some space for yourself that’s entirely focused on your future plans, and not hampered by the resources (or lack thereof) in your past.

So many futures, so little time.

I looked at one today and two more tomorrow…wish me luck!

A well-stocked pantry

Today we’re continuing my observations from The Perfectly Imperfect Home. This passage I like because it highlights Deborah Needleman’s quirky writing style AND it reveals the secrets of the Ina Gartens and Martha Stewarts of the world. I don’t aspire to be like either of those women materially, but I do appreciate the work ethic, organization, and sense of ease that they both exude.

When I visit a beautifully run home (usually belonging to a fancy decorator or a rich person), I am as fascinated by what’s hidden away as by what’s on display. A little snooping almost always reveals an orderly pantry with entertaining supplies lined up like patient soldiers waiting to serve. It’s not just the sheer volume of linens and vases and platters and the ready supplies of candles, tea lights, and votives that impress. Although they do. It’s how beautifully they’re organized. Here are a couple of secrets I’ve stolen: use a label maker to ID the front of each shelf with what goes where. (This is to keep the staff from mixing things up, but it works equally well when you are your staff.) And toss the broken, ripped, stained, and chipped, plus those things you never use but think you will someday. They are making it hard to find what you need, and therefore planning is that much more difficult.

If you take the time to arrange items neatly, press linens before you need them, and order supplies like candles in bulk, you will be rewarded with a wave of domestic satisfaction every time you see them.

Like the boy scout motto: be prepared.

But looking at this book has me convinced that keeping a good house (or home, even) requires putting energy into both the design and the upkeep that’s past baseline. Maybe not overachieving efforts — nothing in the book is about keeping a perfectly spotless home — but certainly enough effort that you push past the ordinary.

No effort results in an unorganized mess. Minimal work results in marginally dusty clutter. Normal work gets you a clean, tidy home. But that extra effort (“that extra half inch,” to quote Victoria Beckham) is what makes the difference from an ordinary home to, well, a perfectly imperfect one. It’s not the perfection, it’s the energy and thought and care that matter.

That’s what creates the glamour, sparkle, and satisfaction.


Glamour in the home

More on decorating. Forgive me (#SorryNotSorry), it was the best book on decor I’ve read to date.

This bit deals with glamour in our homes. While the author focuses on glamour as a style, rather than glamour as a concept, she highlights the concept that we all need a little bit of glamour in our homes. It helps us transcend the mundane.

Given how many mundane tasks a house must perform, a bit of frippery is actually a necessity. It can elevate a room into an experience. Glamour does require guts, though, because you need to express it with a bold stroke, not a tentative gesture. What creates glamour? Sparkle! Shine! Embellishment! Color! Pattern! Glamour is an essential excess, the icing on our cake.

Don’t think I am suggesting that we all have to go for an over-the-top, glitzy Hollywood “more is more” kind of look. In fact, that is rather hard to pull off. Miles Redd, a decorator who does not fear the glam, pulls out all the stops–crystal chandelier, gilded wood, chinoiserie wallpaper, leopard fabric, etc.–but keeps a tight rein on the color palette. You can also be selective and elegant, choosing perhaps one brilliantly ornate mirror, a lavish wallpaper, or a single glittering chandelier, in an otherwise modern or refined room. You don’t need to overdo it, but you can’t be wimpy: that chandelier or that mirror or wallpaper has to assert itself loudly and clearly. Glamour is not meek.

I’ve always liked the idea of having something sparkly or shiny in a room (or on an outfit), but I never put two and two together. Of course it would be an element of glamour to wake a room up and give it that extra bit of energy.

I also love the idea of not being wimpy in your own home. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of “good enough” or “nobody else will see this,” but sometimes it’s worth investing in a piece that makes you want to rise to the occasion on everything else. For me, in an outfit, that’s a great pair of shoes. Maybe in decor, it’s a mirror, for that sense of dancing light.

Because at the end of the day, isn’t it light that makes us happy? Dark, dreary homes are never welcoming.

It’s no great coincidence that the key to making people feel sparkly is to make the room itself sparkly. Candlelight, and low light in general, is essential for creating an elegant mood. The reason we still bother with candles, antiquated as they are, is that their light is hypnotic. And flattering. And it cannot be duplicated by any form of electric light. Candles mix best with dimly lit rooms. So keep all complementary lights low so that candlelight can cast its magic spell.

Natural light is best, but when that fails, there’s hygge and candlelight.

After that is Truth, I suppose. Because if you lose the truth, you’re truly sunk.

Even in home decor.

The upside of upside-down world

Gather ’round, children, and let me tell you a story.

Many years ago, before universities passed out pacifiers and blankies at freshman orientation, I went to college. During that time, I majored in Old English Books and Visual Communication Design. English was administered through the traditional Harvard model. The VCD degree, while still 100% university accredited and therefore curriculum mapped within an inch of its life, was taught by people who actually worked in the real world. Instead of pretending we were all intellectuals and writing paper after paper, we put our work up on the wall and critiqued it.

It was in my VCD classes I learned that writings from real-world practitioners (like graphic designers) were eons more insightful than anything produced by the English Department Academics. Even when I read pieces by people with views I wildly disagreed with, like Michael Beirut, I could appreciate the insight honed by real-world experience. Reading non-academics was like climbing out of Plato’s cave.

Now, did I apply this experience and run screaming from academia? No I did not. But that is a story for another time.

Let’s talk about Paul Arden’s book WHATEVER YOU THINK, THINK THE OPPOSITE.

Full of ideas that you could write down on a blank page

This is a book written by a designer. An ad man. Someone who played long and hard in the marketplace of ideas. It’s a clever little book full of advice. (And full of visual puns.)

I grabbed it off my bookshelf for a re-read after AJA Cortes tweeted another fount of advice on how to dig yourself out of a 10 year hole today.

You know why? It’s a lot of the same timeless advice.

The premise is this: you are where you are in life because of how you think. If you’re thinking the same things as everybody else, you end up like everybody else (even if your idol is Hunter S Thompson). To be great, think for yourself, develop your own point of view, and start doing the opposite of what you think you should do.

From page 20:

It’s not because you are making the wrong decisions, it’s because you are making the right ones.

We try to make sensible decisions based on the facts in front of us.

The problem with making sensible decisions is that so is everyone else.

Fear not, Paul Arden designed a beautifully bold spread to persuade you to make bad decisions. (Or as Jordan B Peterson would say, “do it badly.”) If you start to think differently, your life will start to take a different direction.


Arden also delivers some advice on ideas:

The effort of coming to terms with things you do not understand makes them all more valuable when you do grasp them.

This is given in the context of art appreciation, but it can apply to just about anything in life, from fitness to creativity to developing business ideas. Guess what? You have to do the work. But the work is important.

So is your ego and how you present yourself.

The design of this book is just as much visual as it is written. Arden mixes the ideas, the visuals, how the visuals are presented, and all the text takes form in short, punchy sentences. Advertising sentences. Twitter sentences.

It’s practical, motivational advice that’s fun to read, makes you think, and readable in 30 minutes or less.

Highly recommend.

Oh, and university? Arden says stay far, far away. Too bad this book was published when I was already walking that dark path.

Go read Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite.

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