How to be creative — Tip #2: Surround yourself with good design

‘I believe in intuition and inspiration; at times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.’

— Albert Einstein

I have been so busy with my latest project that I’ve neglected writing about my experience along the way.

It’s been amazing.  I love every minute of it.  But I’m still in the early stages and knee-deep in planning, so sometimes it’s hard to stay creative.  Some days I find myself writing extensive reports, planning testing and creating power point presentations — so how do you find a spark of inspiration?

Here’s my second tip on how to stay creative: surround yourself with good design.

I’m fortunate to have ample opportunities to step away from my desk and do just that.  Lately it’s been in the form of video shoots (we’re developing new content for the website).  But this coming week, I’m going to take my lunch break to head over to the Austin Museum of Art to find inspiration.  There’s an exhibit called Good Design: Stories by Herman Miller,” and I want to surround myself with beautiful design as I gather materials for my moodboards.

I’ve also been fascinated with architecture around town lately.  Austin has some beautiful examples of modern design, which really appeals to me.  But I also love the art deco and Spanish influence I’ve seen in other building design.  I’ve been carrying a camera and notebook with me everywhere, in case I want to record what I see and where I see it.

What do you do to surround yourself with beautiful design?  Where do you go?

How to be creative — Tip #1

Luke runs toward the shallow waves of the Gulf of Mexico

Don’t grow up too quickly, lest you forget how much you love the beach. — Michelle Held

I don’t know about you, but I find it all too easy to fall into what I call the “routine rut.”  Routines are great, especially when you have kids, because it keeps you on track and there are (hopefully) fewer meltdowns.  But routines can also lead to boredom.  For me, a creative, that can lead to all sorts of problems — everything from anxiety to lack of inspiration.

It’s just tough to feel creative when you’re slogging through each day, just putting one foot down in front of the next.

How do you get back that creative spark?

Cindy’s Tip #1: Get outta town

For the first time in years, the family and I took a road trip.  Since Luke was born, the farthest we’ve ventured from Austin has been San Antonio.  It was time to get away.  So we packed up the kids and headed out.  Along the way, we stopped at the beach for a few hours.  It was the first time either of my kids had been to the beach, and that’s why we initially decided to stop, but it turned out to be just as important for me as for them.

Hanging at the beach relaxed me.  It reminded me how much fun it is to be splashed by a wave, feel sand between my toes, have tiny fish brush and nibble at my legs.  Time sped up and slowed down all at the same time.

By the time we drove away, I was already refreshed.  And I was excited about returning to work, because I had had time to reflect on my projects in my downtime and I had new ideas I wanted to try.

A change of scenery can do the opposite of what you might expect.  It can inspire you and spark creative ideas.  In essence — it can help you be more productive.  And it’s not just good for you — it’s good for everyone around you.  I had time to reconnect with my kids and husband during our trip.  That’s something that’s tough to do when you’re putting in long hours during the week and rushing around on the weekends trying to run errands.

Yep, a road trip (and specifically the beach) was definitely good for my creativity.  How about you?  What do you do to find inspiration?  Have you traveled anywhere that has changed your mood?


The curse of South Mopac

I wonder how many kids still hear the old superstitions.  You know — “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” or “Step on a line, you have to pay a fine.” I was never one for paying too close attention to superstitions (I love black cats), but I remember walking home from the bus stop many days and carefully avoiding any lines or cracks in the sidewalk.

I’ve read about lawyers who hold tight to superstitions during a trial, out of worry that any change in the routine could jinx the case.

In my house, we hold reason and science above all else.  But there is one thing that gives us pause.

Mopac and the curse of the crying baby.

Nearly every time we drive Mopac — north or south — between LaCrosse (Wildflower Center) and 2222, my daughter cries.  Hard.

We have often ventured south to visit friends off Slaughter Lane, and many times on the way home, Mads has wailed — loudly.  Luke and I do our best to soothe her by singing our favorite tunes.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

It’s become something of a joke now.  “Uh-oh.  We have to go south.  Will Mads cry?”

Until she actually starts crying.  Because it’s not fun being in an enclosed space with an unhappy baby.

Kermit the Fros plays his banjog and sings The Rainbow ConnectionWhat do we sing?  I’m pretty proud of my repertoire, which has grown by leaps and bounds since Luke was a wee babe.  My go-to hits are “The Rainbow Connection” and “Moving Right Along” from the Muppet Movie.  I also know quite a few Laurie Berkner tunes and “Bushel and  a Peck.”

Why not just put on soothing music for babies?  Well, it’s doesn’t really work for Mads.  She quiets down much more quickly when a real person sings to her.  And since I don’t mind singing in public or being goofy, it works for me.

I wonder what people think when they hear me singing  a Kermit the Frog song? It can’t be any worse than the curse of South Mopac.

Identity crisis: Me and my blog

“Blogging is hard.”

I went to a presentation at the Statesman for work this past week.  It was all about multimedia and mobile and online — geared for businesses in health care.  Since I now work for a health clinic, I was invited and decided to check it out.

A sales guy for the Statesman threw a lot of numbers at us about how people use the internet and what they’re searching for.  It was interesting.

There was also a discussion about social media.  The social media editor for the Statesman got up to talk about how the newspaper takes advantage of Twitter and Facebook to cultivate readers and develop a community.  Someone asked about blogging and whether businesses should have blogs.  The response: Blogging is hard.

It’s true.  Blogging IS hard.  Especially when you don’t have a clear focus.  Just look at this blog.  It’s been 2 months since I’ve written in it.  I just don’t know what to say, what to share.

Do people really want to know about the nitty gritty details of my life?  Do they really care about my business?  Will I come off as a naive idiot?  Will they laugh at my ignorance?

I really do worry about these things.  I worry about my online persona.  How real do I want to be?

Tirades used to be a lot more personal.  Then it kind of became a pseudo work blog.  And I spent more time on my other blogs.  Tirades has been withering.

We’re in the middle of an identity crisis, me and my blog.

I guess it was inevitable, since I’m going through such a crazy transition right now.  Motherhood.  Career changes.

And I worry about how much I can talk about my life without turning off potential clients or current employers.

Here’s what I need to remember, though.  This blog can be whatever I need it to be.  You know what?.. I could give a flying crap whether anyone reads my blog.  I started it 7 or 8 years ago as my first online voice.  We’re still marching along.  I’m changing.  No… evolving.

And so dear reader, if you even exist, I’m going to stop worrying about trying to present myself in the most positive light.  This blog is no fun as a strictly business blog.  My career is a huge part of my life, no doubt, but Tirades is not going to give you advice on how to design web pages.  Tirades is not going to try to sell you on my skills.

No, Tirades is going to be about stories.  I’m going back to my roots.  I used to write stories.  I spent hours writing stories when I was a kid.  I love to write.  Sometimes my stories will be about my work.  But I bet most of the time they’ll be about those funny instances that stand out.  Like the time I was driving when Andy told a joke and I nearly ran off the road.  Or when I wandered around the Statesman parking lot searching for my car while talking loudly on my phone about the fact that I couldn’t find my car.

I will blog every other day.  I will share my stories, whether through words or pictures.

Yeah.  Life.  I just want to be real.

Oh the drama: “As You Like It” at Texas State

One of the ironies of my life is that I am not much of a theater-goer and one of my dearest friends in the world is a professor of dramatic studies and writes and directs theater productions.

But when she asked if someone would like to see William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, presented by the Texas State University Department of Theater and Dance, I offered to go because a) she’s my friend, b) I like Shakespeare and c) I need to get out more and find culture.

Really, I do.

We went to a Sunday performance, and Jenny set me up for it by telling me that the Texas State productions have been really good this season.

Because I am absolutely terrible at trying to encapsulate the main points of any Shakespeare play, if you want to know more about what As You Like It is about, read this.

This production, directed by Chuck Ney, had some unexpected elements for me.  It was set in contemporary times, so the costumes weren’t your typical Shakespearean garb, but the players actually said what Shakespeare wrote.  So it wasn’t trying to be campy by modernizing the play completely, yet the setting and costumes helped me connect with the characters because I feel like I understood them better.

Also, one of the players also composed music that was played by the characters and served as a transitional element.  The director said music was common in Shakespeare’s plays (which I didn’t know), and As You Like It is among the works that uses it the most.  Many directors cut it, but they didn’t in this one.  In fact, it was modern and upbeat, and it blended beautifully into the production.

Admittedly, I spent the first 30 minutes trying desperately to listen and figure out what was going on.  I was trying to figure out who everyone was and what they were saying, but eventually I got in the groove and it was easier to understand.

What helped me the most was the players’ use of what Jenny called “the business.”  It’s the stuff that isn’t said — the looks, the gestures — and it made the play freakin’ HILARIOUS.  The actress who played Celia was particularly gifted with her looks and gestures, and there is an entire scene with a scarf that made me laugh out loud.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this play.

You still have a chance to check it out.  As You Like It is at the Mainstage Theatre Center April 13-16 at 7:30pm and April 17 at 2pm.  Tickets are $10 ($7 for students). Call the box office at 512-245-2204.


Your marketing and spelling

Spelling Errors poster: The stand out more when you're trying to be clever.If you need a good laugh and have some time to kill, you should google the words “photo spelling error.”  What you find is HILARIOUS.

I worked for years as a journalist in television and online, and I have a pretty quick eye for spelling and grammatical mistakes.  I’ve been know to mentally correct bathroom wall graffiti.  I’ve also been known to make my own very public spelling typos.  There are few things more embarrassing than posting a big story on the front page of a website that garners thousands of hits every day and then having a viewer call or email the newsroom to point out your mistake.

Yeah — it happens to the best of us.

But there are honest mistakes that are few and far between and then there is sloppiness.  Sloppiness is when it’s obvious you didn’t read what you wrote or that you have no idea the correct usage of “you’re” and “your” and “their,” “there” and “they’re.”

I’ve been on both sides of a business’ online presence.  I’ve been the producer and I’ve been the consumer, so I understand mistakes.  But many people don’t, and when businesses make mistakes in their online marketing materials, it just looks bad.

Your website and your emails to your customers are often the first impression you give a customer.  When I notice spelling errors, my feelings about the business instantly fall.  It just looks unprofessional and small-time.  Plus, if you don’t take the time to read and correct what you wrote, why would I think you would take the time to care about me, your customer?

Think about it — step away from your business — what would you think of a business that misspelled an email headline that’s meant to attract your attention?  What about poor grammar?  In this era of spellcheck — it just shouldn’t happen.

“Yeah, but, Cindy, I’m a terrible speller!”  Guess what — your customers or potential clients won’t give you a pass.  They want professional, and they’ll find a business that is.

Need more convincing or tips on how to overcome your spelling problems?  Check out the links below:

What I’m reading: Beefing up my skills

I’m very excited that I’m going to be starting a new project soon!

I can’t divulge details quite yet, but it will take the bulk of my time and I won’t be able to work from home — at least initially or all of the time.

It’s going to be an amazing challenge — unlike anything I’ve done before.  And while it’s taking me away from House on Payne during the day, business will go on!  I still plan to take on clients.  I’ll just be burning some midnight oil for a while.

As I gear up for the new project, the blogs I follow have been turning out some really interesting posts that have inspired and educated me.  I thought I’d share some of my favorites:

What recent blog posts have inspired you?

What I’m listening to: The Head and the Heart

Cindy and Andy on the balcony at the Moody TheaterI’ll admit it right now — I don’t get out much.

Kinda hard when you’ve got little kids and piles of projects in your lap.

But when I do, I try to make the most of it — by eating at the restaurants I read about on all of those foodie blogs I love and seeing live music.  Austin is such an awesome place to see live music, especially by bands you’ve never heard of before but are fantastic.  It goes without saying that South by Southwest is a prime time to check out some new bands, and Andy and I had a chance to do just that.

Moody Theater stage all lit up for IE9 launch partyWe lucked out in scoring fast-passes to the IE9 Launch Party, which was held at the Moody Theater — the new home of Austin City Limits Live at the new W in Downtown Austin.  (Fabulous venue, by the way).

Microsoft pulled out all of the stops for this party.  I wasn’t much interested in the free alcohol, but the theater itself was amazing.  The stage was all lit up with amazing graphics, and the screens were showing projected 3D.  It’s so hard to describe.

One of the opening bands was Fences, who are pretty good.  I really enjoyed them.

They must have hired a really good DJ, because even the house music in between sets was good.

At 11pm, the theater darkened and the background lit up with all of these colors as an announcer said IE9 was being launched at that moment all over the world.  It was such an event, even I (a devoted Firefox fan) wanted to download it.

But what really got my attention was the next band: The Head and the Heart.

Head and the Heart perform in the ACL Moody TheaterTalk about energy!  The harmony of rock and folk sounds caught me, and I never lost interest.

Very few bands have instantly appealed to me.  Usually it takes a few listens to get into them — but this band was different.  They’re from Seattle.  NPR did a story on them here.  And they reviewed their SXSW set here.

I was exhausted, but we stayed longer than we originally planned just to hear as much of them as possible.  The next day, I downloaded their album, and I’m loving it.  To be honest, it doesn’t have the same level of energy as what we say live, but it doesn’t detract a bit.

If you get the chance to see them, I highly recommend going.  They won’t disappoint.

SXSWi Panel: Drawing Back the Curtains on CSS Implementation

It’s been more than a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ve been posting a new one each day.

Today’s topic: Drawing back the Curtains on CSS Implementation, presented by Molly Holzschlag, from Opera, Elika Etemad (Fantasai) from the W3C working group, Sylvain Galineau, from Microsoft, Tab Atkins, from Google Chrome and David Baron, from Mozilla.

Some of the audio can be heard at the link above.

I’ve been working with CSS for the past 3 years, and I’m kind of a CSS junkie.  I have to admit, I’m slow to learning CSS3, but I have a new book and direction (more on that below).

I’m going to share some of my notes from the talk, and then tell you about the CSS Meetup I went to where I actually had a chance to talk to David Baron, Elika Etemad (Fantasai), and others about CSS.

Question to the Panel:
WC3 — How do you  prioritize?

Right now, they are looking at what the browsers are doing and taking off with that.  But there are challenges for implementation.

  • Tab — First, what would be most interesting and fun.  Also, anything that makes it easier to do layout and design
  • Sylvain — Anything that’s really stable tends to have priority.  Microsoft doesn’t like to prototype in the browser.  But nothing can replace what designers are asking for as a feature.

How does it compare to working group priorities?

  • Fantasai — Is there an editor actively working on the spec?  And is there active feedback?  You need both.  Some specs are moving faster because there’s more interest and feedback.

Do you have feedback?  Make sure the working group knows.  Don’t just write it in your blog and assume the working group will see it.

What are the most damaging mistakes in working group and development of CSS?  Where did we screw up?

  • Fantasai — Current box model
  • Tab — It’s more short-sightedness than a screw up, but floats (a text-feature) because there was nothing there for web developers to work with.  CSS started when web was just beginning, and it wasn’t set up to do that stuff (even before table-based layouts)
  • David Baron — The most damaging mistakes were where the group made things more complicated than they needed to be.  In some cases by hiding something complex — like margin collapsing.  By not defining things precisely, it leads to the spec being misinterpreted.
  • Fantasai — specs are more precise now than in the 90s — and not by example.
  • Tab — It will become less and less of a problem as they go

The specs can lead to problems for ordinary web designers because they ARE so precise.

  • Sylvain — Floats.  Why not position it like anything else?  Seems imbalanced.  Z-index is also weird and complex.  (Sylvain) thinks it’s odd for not having a substitution values.  Reusing elements would be more useful.  More process information.
  • Molly — We think of CSS as the design — presentation.  But set up properly it becomes efficient for processing information.  Part of our challenge is to figure out where it’s going to take us.

How come in 20 years there is not a reasonable way to do layout?

  • Tab — Layout languages really suck.  It’s hard to do it in a way that simple and intuitive.
  • Fantasai — It’s also really hard to implement layout.  It’s also harder to add to incrementally.  Print is using fixed everything — but on the web everything is fluid.  The CSS working group is trying to solve the problem of fluid design layouts so they are fundamentally flexible.

Let’s design a system where it’s less likely to break on another system.

In next few years — all sorts of tools available for print design layout will soon be available for the web.

The next day I went to the CSS Meetup, and David Baron and Elika were there.  There was a big group around them, but after a while I walked up and introduced myself.At my mention of my need to really delve into CSS3 and learn what the browsers have already implemented.

Elika acknowledged that CSS3 is a challenge when the specs haven’t been completed, but she suggested looking through the working group’s snapshots, which have a breakdown of what is already stable, that way I won’t be left behind, but I also won’t be spending a lot of time on stuff that could change in the future.

A quick search of the W3C site found Snapshot 2007 (revised in July 2010) and Snapshot 2010 (revised in December 2010).

I also won a book at the meetup — “CSS3: Visual QuickStart Guide” and the author, Jason Cranford Teague, actually wanted to sign my book (he was there).  So now I’m REALLY ready to delve into CSS3.

Are you?  Have you been using CSS3?  What really excites you about it?