a long goodbye

This website has been silent and static for about three months, and that’s intentional. I’m still here; follow me on twitter or pinterest if you don’t believe me.

But I won’t be here much longer.

positdesign.com will slowly vanish over the next three months, at which point I’ll be opening doors over at codewordart.com

I hope I’ll see you there!

storytelling, now and in the long ago

When I was a young artist and writer, I used to make “video games” to occupy my brother and sister on long car trips.

Inspired by Sierra and other PC games that I was playing in the late 1980s and early 1990s—Final Fantasy, King’s Quest, Space Quest, Colonel’s Bequest—I would draw rooms and scenes on dozens of folded pieces of paper. Stephie and Danny would then get to view them, one scene at a time, and say that they wanted to open a drawer, or talk to a character. I would consult another piece of paper, which contained my character scripts and treasure/artifact locations. If I was in an especially creative mood, I would have created paper-doll like character “puppets” that could move through the environments, or I would cut slits in the paper so I could then lift a flap, opening doors or treasure chests pop-up-book-style.

Basically, it was a mashup of D&D and comics and Choose Your Own Adventure novels: 3D, physical, interactive, highly narrative adventures.

There was a time in the mid/late 1990s, when I was first getting into HTML, when the idea of “the hypertext novel” was on the ascent. A college buddy of mine was writing one, and it reminded me of nothing more than the text-only monster-and-maze games I’d played ten years earlier.

I majored in Creative Writing in college (because my mom argued that Studio Art was impractical, and visual art has always been a storytelling tool for me), and wrote my senior thesis in two parts: a long academic paper on contemporary reinvisionings of myth, fairy tales, and biblical stories; and a poetry cycle in which I created my own updates of those cultural narratives.

Then, my mind was blown by House of Leaves.

When the time came to start my master’s degree thesis project in CompSci, I knew I wanted to build something both narrative and visual. Looking for something to spark an idea, I dug into a favorite essay: Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Benjamin lived in the first part of the 20th century. His ideas were undergoing a huge resurgence in academic circles in the tail end of the last decade. His theories about the impact of mass-media on narrative and visual art during the rise of photography, film, radio, sound recording and amplification are uncannily relevant to our own broadcast media. He also wrote about storytelling and history, championing the concept of non-linear narrative.

I decided to make him the subject of my thesis: I would use his writings on cultural criticism, technology, and narrative to tell the story of the last three days of his life.

The outcome was http://portbou1940.com. It convinced Harvard to give me a postgraduate degree in Digital Media Art and Instructional Design. I wrote the content, drew all of the original art by hand, and coded all of the interactions and animations in HTML5 and CSS3. When I began to formulate the structure, there was NO browser support for CSS3 transitions, but I was determined to use no Flash. It was a crash-course in graceful degradation for a while, but by the time I launched Chrome fully supported the code, and Firefox and Safari were about half there. I was testing in five browsers to ensure that even IE users could consume the whole narrative, even if they missed out on the “surprise and delight” of interactivity.

About three-quarters of the way through the build process, the Bay Area company Madefire came across my radar. And suddenly, the type of visual narrative creation I’d been obsessed with since I was a kid was in sight. I realized that the kind and caliber of work I’d been doing on my thesis wasn’t just a side project or a hobby, but could be a real job. If I just got out of Boston.

I moved to San Francisco because I want to tell stories through art, and to make art that tells stories.

day 50

Hello from gorgeous San Francisco!

There’s not a day goes by where I don’t say, out loud, “I love this city!” several times a day.

A big part of my job hunt has been getting out of the house. Over coffee with one of the head UX ladies at ModCloth, she confided: “don’t spend all your time inside with a computer on job boards and resumes. You need to get out and explore this city NOW, because once you have a job, you won’t have time for anything else.” And that’s actually been my strategy.

How did I end up having coffee with a top ModCloth engineer? I went to a Women Who Code javascript study group. One of the organizers invited us to a “Lightning Talks” event she was participating in, and two of the other speakers were ModCloth employees. I connected with them while the event was breaking up, and they told me which of their co-workers to get in touch with. As soon as I got home, I contacted her, and she responded almost immediately. I had an informal informational interview set up before I went to bed that night.

Earlier this week, I attended a FashionTechSF event, where founders of nearly two dozen startups were demoing their products. I left with three or four solid leads to follow up with regarding what I can do for them. Since only a ridiculously tiny fraction of jobs are ever advertised—something like 5%—I’m trying to find young startups that need a strong generalist designer like me, and let them know how much they need a strong generalist designer like me.

In addition to job-hunting full time, I’m using my unemployment to MAKE ALL THE THINGS. So, I have several creative and personal side projects going.

First, I’m redesigning positdesign.com from the ground up: I’ve customized so many wordpress builds and templates that I’m next building my very own wordpress template from scratch for this site. It’s been on my to-do list for years and years: since before I switched to the current template. I’ve been stashing links to “make your own theme from scratch” articles on delicious since May 2009. I’m at the point now where I can’t afford NOT to do it, and I’m really excited about the progress I’m making. Some very neat things will be happening in this space in the next week or two.

I’m also creating my own comics: finally! I spent about a year batting around a dystopian cyberpunk concept, but I kept going sideways with it. That is to say: at first I thought it was a graphic novel, then a traditional novel, then a cycle of animated shorts, then a web interactive or transmedia project, and finally an interactive comic that lives in its own app. And in most of those cases, I need collaborators. It was simply too ambitious.

Last week, I was struck by my new comic. It is something that, without being aware of it, I have been working on for at least nine years. It’s fictionalized history rather than historical fiction, and an accumulation of so many things I love and have taken graduate-level coursework in. These are characters I love to draw, and simply love. They are based on real people, so I’ve loved them for years and years. The idea is small, perfect, and eminently makable. I have three strips storyboarded, one with pencils complete and ready to ink. Between now and actually launching the strip, I’m practicing by creating little one-off comics, and posting them to a new part of my portfolio dedicated to them.

The other thing about San Francisco is that this city is my tribe. I’ve been thinking a LOT about the concept of tribes in the past five months. One of the newest members of my tribe is a bartender at my favorite neighborhood restaurant. Like Cristo, he’s a fine artist and comics creator who works in the service industry in service to Making All The Things.The three of us: Cristo, me, and bartender buddy have been discussing the creation of a supergroup of sorts for a few weeks now. A couple nights ago we were all shooting ideas back and forth, and one phrase was so perfect that I flew to my favorite domain registrar via my iPhone (http://namecheap.com—never, ever go daddy; it’s a scam to jerk around web n00bs!), and the name was—shockingly—available. So now I am the proud owner of cartoonmafia.com!

The next night, which was last night, I doodled a quick pen sketch of a logo. Today I drafted it up in Illustrator with a couple variants. Then, in a fit of Making All The Things, I coded a pixel-perfect CSS version of that logo, and tossed up a placeholder page: http://cartoonmafia.com: A San Francisco Comics Artist Collective.

Next Monday I’ll be attending my first gamebridge night at Noisebridge, a hackerspace in the Mission. I will come out of that, theoretically, with a functional original video game of my own creation.

Next Tuesday, I have another informal informational interview with a startup founder (my second).

And next Thursday—because I am, apparently, a student-for-life—is the first meeting of an eight-week Information Design class I’ve registered for at San Francisco State University. Of course, this being SF, there are a million other things happening at the EXACT SAME TIME as this first class, including Madefire’s monthly open studio Story Night (Madefire! sigh), a UX lecture at General Assembly, a Crafting Narratives talk also at General Assembly, and the first meeting of the Hamilton College Alumni Venture Network—what’s a lady to choose?


Not bad at all approaching month two of this adventure.

this city is my city

After complimenting me on my hat, one of my favorite bartenders at Mr. Smith’s—right around the corner from our apartment—commented “Goorin Brothers, right? Their main offices are just around the corner from here; the staff come in a lot.” My jaw dropped. One of my favorite companies? Right in my neighborhood? I immediately googled for goorin bros careers on my smartphone, and sure enough they are hiring for two positions I’d be perfect for: an ecommerce marketing manager and a ui/ux designer. I love Goorin, and I love their employees: every time I’m in a shop I come out in a fantastic mood—and often with a new hat or cap. The sales staff is one of the most passionate, knowledgeable, and dedicated in retail.

I could work in fashion. One of the most exciting things about moving to San Francisco is the ability to choose my industry. And to tell recruiters that no, I’m not interested in working for a giant financial services conglomerate. I can do work I’m passionate about for a company I’m passionate about: I could work for Open Table! Or Foodspotting! Or One King’s Lane! I could reinvent books at Inkling or Madefire! I could work for a social media company. Or a gaming company. Or I could work in the fashion industry.

On my birthday, I attended a Women Who Code “lightning talk” event: short tech talks of 3-5 minutes in length. Two of the speakers worked for Modcloth. Modcloth! My favorite online store. In the general milling around after the event, I approached one of them. And I did the most gauche thing you can do at an industry event. Given that a major, and recurring, topic of the evening had been that women need to tough up and ask outright for what they want, I felt comfortable marching right up to one of the speakers and saying, “You work at Modcloth! I love Modcloth! How do I work there?” A breadcrumb trail of names and introductions later, I scheduled a coffee chat with one of their lead UX women before I went to bed that night.

I was walking to the art supply store to pick up a sketchbook, when I saw a large, full-color photo placard in a shop window. I stopped dead. My first thought was, “I have to get my hands on that clothing.” My second thought was “I have to work there.” A quick visit to their web site convinced me that the second of these was the more important need, so I shot over a resume and cover letter the same day. Their early 20th century aesthetic matches up with my desire to wear all the men’s hats and shoes from Boardwalk Empire—and all the ladies’ garments from Mad Men.

A position at Everlane dropped into my inbox. I had signed up for their beta way back in August of last year, before their public launch and before they’d sold a single item. They are making beautifully-designed, intelligently-produced elegant clothing to sell directly to customers online: no stores, no middlemen, factory to closet. Their web presence is their brand; I would adore being part of presenting them to the world.

Then there’s American Giant, founded by a startup veteran who wondered why he couldn’t buy anything of comparable quality to his grandfather’s WWII-era Navy sweatshirt—which he still wears. He based his process on agile software development and rapid iteration, and was able to replicate that quality at a relatively midrange pricepoint, and produce garments in the USA: in South San Francisco.

There is Tomboy Tailors: bespoke and custom-tailored menswear for women. Their target audience is genderqueer—butch lesbians and transmen—but I am a straight femmey lady (and staunch ally!) who absolutely must own a perfectly-tailored tuxedo. Think Babette from Boardwalk Empire. Think Marlene.

There is Curator. I’ve been buying their perfect cotton jersey dresses off the web for years. The first time, I stressed over a three-figure pricetag for such a simple garment. But it filled a major hole in my wardrobe. And I ended up wearing it sometimes 3-4 times a week that first summer: changing into it after work, to BBQs, sitting out on the patios of my favorite bars on sunshiny days, to family parties, even as a bathing suit coverup. The cost-per-wear was less than a dollar within just a few months. I still haven’t made it to their storefront down in Noe Valley, but it is a priority. And will be a pilgrimage.

And let’s not forget Kim Taylor’s Shonova. From what I gather, they provide a service that I am extremely famous for within my circle of friends: I will be invited over to build outfits. “Come into my closet!”, my girl friends beg me. And I pair skirts with tops and belts with dresses to create outfits that they love and would never have assembled on their own, revitalizing old pieces and working in new things they just bought but couldn’t figure out how to wear.

I could work in fashion: San Francisco, at the moment, has a thriving industry of high-quality clothing manufacturing, bespoke fashion, tailoring, and style creators. I am SO EXCITED about this. This city is doing for clothing what Pollan and Bittman did for food. Beyond the of-the-moment indie businesses, the world headquarters of major players like Gap (Banana Republic, Old Navy), Levis, and American Apparel are all here. One of the first recruiter calls I got after posting my resume was regarding a company called Trumaker, which designs and sells custom-made men’s apparel. I didn’t really get it at the time: I could really work in fashion.