A 100% unrelated photo

I thought today on the Roadshow, I would post a few handy resources for my fellow unemployed. These things are really only helpful if you are an “Insured Participant” meaning you’re currently collecting Employment Insurance or have collected it in the last three years. (Please note that these are services available in British Columbia–not sure how it works in other provinces and territories.)

1. If you’re on EI, you’re entitled to a case manager. Get one, even if you’re almost at the end of your claim. Because the case manager will tell you in more detail all of the great services that you can access.

2. Wage Subsidy programs — If you’ve been on EI in the last three years, you can apply for targeted wage subsidy. You can get more information about it at Future Works. This program will entice an employer to hire you because the subsidy program will pay up to 40% of your wages for three to four months. It’s geared for folks who might need to do some on the job learning.

3. Self Employment programs — Same deal — if you’ve been on EI in the last three years you’re eligible. This is for folks who want to start their own business. A case manager can give you all the information to get you started on this. Or you can find more information on the Service Canada site.

4. Tuition — EI will also chip in for additional skills development. They’re not going to pay for your masters degree. But they will contribute to some skills upgrading and training. Check it out here.

The Roadshow will return with its regular-scheduled programming next week!

I know Kung Fu

January 15, 2010

Roadshow stop: Kung Fu Instructor
Roadshow mentor: Sifu Ralph Haenel, Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver

The air in the narrow studio was sticky from sweat and laboured breathing. Slightly worn from an intense round of sparring, sixteen men lined up before me awaiting instruction. They ranged in ability from beginner to 2nd grade instructors, but even the newest of the beginners was more experienced than me. (Since I don’t think six months of watching Bruce Lee films with my post-college boyfriend counts as Kung Fu training.) And there was no way to fool them otherwise — I had already made a rookie mistake of greeting them with a hand gesture that implied I wanted to fight, not say hello. (My right fist pressed into my left palm with knuckles facing inward instead of outward.) The class stood patiently waiting for me to tell them what to do. I stared back at their expecting faces wishing secretly that I could instantly upload Kung Fu fighting into my neuroreceptors.

Leading the Wing Tsun class

This Roadshow stop was at Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver. The Sifu, which loosely translates to “father master”, Ralph Haenel started the school in 1994 after immigrating to Canada from former East Germany. Ralph isn’t what you would expect from a martial arts instructor. He laughs constantly, has a jovial demeanor, and his classes are fun and informal. Unlike what is often depicted in the movies, his students don’t cower before him obediently as he yells out military style drills. Instead, he offers encouragement and support. He playfully teases his students. And they tease him back — not at all the quiet deference I had imagined.

Sifu Ralph Haenel

But it’s clear, despite this level of familiarity, Ralph’s students respect him and take his teachings seriously. They know that in the midst of a demonstration, while he’s poking fun at them, or possibly making a joke about himself, he could switch gears in an instant to deliver a powerful blow (which he sometimes does.) And they understand that what he teaches them could potentially save their lives in a violent situation.

Much like Ralph isn’t your stereotypical Kung Fu instructor, Wing Tsun isn’t your typical Kung Fu. It doesn’t look like the stylized stuff you see in films. (Although Bruce Lee did train in Wing Tsun.) At first glance, it looks sloppy. But a closer examination reveals that seemingly sloppiness is actually a calculated (and potentially deadly) fluidity. And Wing Tsun is all about self-defense. It’s not a sport martial art. People don’t train for scenarios involving a referee and a rulebook. They train to protect themselves from harm.

2nd Grade Technician Sifu Brian Yam sparring with a student

After introducing me as a ‘guest instructor’, Ralph led the class through a series of sparring exercises to work on improving reflexes, speed, and strength. In his demonstrations, Ralph selected a volunteer and encouraged the student to hit him with all their force. This is also unique to Wing Tsun — in other martial arts a student is usually forbidden to hit his teacher. But in order to simulate a real life physical confrontation and trigger adrenaline, actual contact is necessary. Ralph sustained blow after blow from his students. But according to him, it doesn’t hurt.

“You just get used to it after a while,” he says. “The body can handle a lot more than we realize.”

And Ralph has handled a lot more than most. As a young man in East Germany, Ralph’s interest in martial arts raised suspicion among the Stasi, East Germany’s Secret Service. Unbeknown to him, he had been under surveillance for years. In the summer of 1988, because of his involvement with Wing Tsun and his interaction with martial arts organizations in the West, he was thrown into jail as a political prisoner.

“As a political prisoner, I was among doctors, lawyers, pastors, artists, a wide range of people who had collided with the cold inhuman communist dictatorship. We were placed in one of the secret service controlled prisons and purposely put into a population of criminals, who where each time rewarded when retaliating against a ‘political’.”

Sifu Ralph doing a demonstration for the class

But Ralph’s imprisonment only spurned a dedication to the very thing that caused his incarceration in the first place. When the Wall finally fell, and Ralph was freed, he moved to West Germany to train as a certified Wing Tsun instructor—and he’s been doing it ever since. This past December he celebrated his 25th Wing Tsun anniversary.

My Kung Fu fists of fury

During the exercises, Ralph encouraged me to wander the room and join in. I would pair up with a student or a trainer and awkwardly fumble through the drill. I couldn’t help but involuntarily squeal and apologize every time I actually hit my partner.

As the end of class approached, Ralph gathered the students around and handed the class over to me. I was floored. Even after three hours, I didn’t know a single thing about Kung Fu — or at least I didn’t think I did. As the ‘guest instructor’, it was the scenario that I had hoped most to avoid. But it was as if Ralph sensed my dread to be in the spotlight and decided I needed to overcome my fear.

Sparring with Brian

I looked to Ralph for help. He smiled back at me encouragingly. It was clear to me that Ralph’s not just in the business to teach his students how to deliver a punch or dodge a blow. Instead the core of what he teaches his students is to believe in themselves—to have the confidence to deal with whatever life throws you—be it a violent attack or an unwanted turn in the spotlight.

I looked at the faces of the men and boys lined up in front of me. I knew there wasn’t going to be an instant upload of Kung Fu techniques to my brain. So I picked a punching drill I had seen Ralph do earlier and decided to just wing it.

Sifu Ralph Haenel, the Wing Tsun Trainer Team and me

Click here to learn more about Wing Tsun Kung Fu Vancouver. To try out a class for yourself, check out the Wing Tsun open house on February 1st and February 3rd.

Some kickass Wing Tsun action by Sifu Steve McMinn 1TG.

Boozy Poolside Lunches

December 15, 2009

Brightlight Pictures is located at the Bridge Studio

Roadshow stop: Film Executive
Roadshow mentor: Liz Levine, Brightlight Pictures Inc.

It’s pretty obvious from some of my previous posts that I watch too many movies. Or, more accurately, I’m prone to conjure unrealistic fantasies about particular professions based on their on-screen depictions. (See News Reporter or Stockbroker.) I know I’m doing it. And I know it’s wrong. But I can’t help it. Movies often create such a romanticized or ridiculous version of reality that it’s sometimes just hard to resist.

It is because of my willingness to succumb to these film fantasies, that I approached the Roadshow’s next stop with some apprehension. I was going to be a film executive. I wondered if seeing the behind-the-scenes action of this position, which in itself is a behind-the-scenes kind of role, was going to dispel or perpetuate my unrealistic notion of this job. Was I going to wine and dine actors and attend fabulous Hollywood parties? Would I get to zip around the studio lot in a golf cart? Might I discover the next big hit? Would I sacrifice a budding young director’s artistic vision for the sake of making a box office blockbuster? Or was this all just purely the media portrayal that I had bought into?

Just like in the movies--the studio's gated security entrance

I was going to find out while spending a day at Brightlight Pictures, which is located at the Bridge Studio. Before I even stepped foot in the Brightlight office, my film fantasies were reinforced. I pulled up on my scooter to a gated security booth, (just like you see in the movies) and gave the security guard my name. She looked it up on a clipboard, and after verifying my identity, directed me to a parking spot–which had apparently been reserved for my scooter. (I suppose in my film fantasy of this, I would be in a more luxurious vehicle, like a Volkswagon Golf or something.)

Reserved just for my scooter

Brightlight is a Vancouver-based production company that makes independent movies and TV series. They’re probably best known for shows like The Guard and movies such as White Noise, 88 minutes, and The Wicker Man. My mentor for the day was Liz Levine, the Executive Director of Development. Liz has been in the business for more than a decade, and started with Brightlight eight months ago. Her job at Brightlight is to find new concepts and scripts, assess them, and push them forward to production. For some projects she sees them from concept to completed and released product.

Liz’s office was filled with stacks of scripts–all potential projects awaiting their fate. The bound pages representing the heart and soul, and talent, of the author. The number of scripts Liz receives is overwhelming. They are sent in by agents and from people connected to individuals at Brightlight. There’s no way she can read them all on her own, so she’s helped out by a team of creative executives. They write “coverage”, which includes an overview of the story, the reader’s opinion of the script, and a recommendation to Liz on whether or not the project has any potential at Brightlight.

Executive Director of Development Liz Levine

After setting up my laptop on Liz’s leather sofa (which she assured me was not a casting couch), I was given my first script and asked to write the coverage. I had never read scripts before but I know from personal experience that writing dialogue is tough. In fact, I would say it’s one of the hardest things to write well. People tend to write exactly as they speak, and that doesn’t always translate. In a script, so much of the story has to be conveyed in conversation–the plot, the character development, the tension, the themes. This is not an easy feat.

My first script was a TV show–a fast-paced political intrigue drama. And it was pretty good. As I flipped through the pages, I could hear the dialogue, see the characters, and was pulled into the plot. I wanted to know what happened next. So I wrote a coverage that said as much.

My next script was the complete opposite. It was a poor attempt at a TV comedy. I found this genre harder to evaluate, since so much depends on the timing and delivery of the actor. But even the most talented of comedians would have trouble making the lines of this script entertaining, or anything more than shockingly offensive. I wrote a scathing coverage that indicated as much. But as I jotted down words like infantile, cliche, unoriginal, I couldn’t help but think about the editor who passed on Harry Potter. And how quick he was to dismiss the manuscript. It made me second-guess my decision to so easily write off the script as crap. Just because it didn’t appeal to me, didn’t necessarily mean it was a flop. I wondered, was I fulfilling one of my preconceived stereotypes? Was I the ruthless film executive who couldn’t see the artistic vision in front of me?

Just one of the many stacks of scripts in Liz's office

Just one of the many stacks of scripts in Liz's office

I expressed this to Liz, in between her countless phone calls, and she explained that’s why scripts are all read and vetted by at least two people. But even then, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what’s going to be a hit and what’s going to be a bust. Because it’s not just about the script–there is so much more involved in making something a success–the timing, the actors, the director, the producers, the current market, the intended audience. But according to Liz, one thing can be guaranteed:

“If you start with shit, you end up with shit.”

That’s why she advises people to “read, read, read–the more you see the easier it is to identify quality when you see it.”

I decided to trust my gut and give my honest opinion on script #2–that it was “shit”. And hope that I wasn’t passing on the next Arrested Development. (I found out afterward that the second reader also found the script to be an insult to the written word.)

The Bridge Studio's alternative to a fleet of golf carts--a fleet of cruisers

For the rest of the day, I sat in on Liz’s countless meetings. There are so many pieces to putting together a film or TV series–schedules, budgets, talent, marketing–just one film is a huge operation. And Liz and her colleagues work on multiple projects at once. In one breath Liz was trying to fix historical inaccuracies in a dramatic period piece’s script, in the next she was figuring out how to cut millions from an over-budget production plan. And while it wasn’t exactly the Hollywood glamour that I had conjured in my mind (there were no boozy poolside lunches with the talent), it was still exciting. (I especially liked that Liz and all her co-workers referred to actors on a first name basis–dropping names like “Dustin”, “Jamie-Lee” and “Robin”.) The day’s activity didn’t pander to my fantastical notions, nor did it really do anything to dispel them. It just made them a bit more realistic. A film executive has a fast-paced, enthralling job–but it’s not all parties and premieres. They actually have to work, and work hard, in order to get their schmoozing, cutthroat movie and TV counterparts up on the screen.

The Bridge Studio's sole golf cart

Your Choice

December 1, 2009

I’ve been on the Roadshow for just over two months and I’ve done a total of 14 different jobs. While I haven’t yet surmised where I want my career path to go next, I have gleaned an inside look at many interesting professions. So far, most of the Roadshow stops have been through referrals or people contacting me. Now I’ve decided to put my fate in the hands of my readers. Yup, that’s right: you. I want you to pick where I go next. Because I believe you will come up with jobs that I never would. (Think of it as a chance to act out your secret desire to be a high school guidance counselor.) So if you have suggestions on what type of work I should do, or a particular organization or company that you think I should work for, send me an email or leave a comment.

I’ll take the most frequently suggested and best ideas, put it to a reader’s vote, and then try to arrange a Roadshow stop doing that job. Please send me your ideas by Dec. 16th.

Just in case you haven’t, be sure to visit the Roadshow Rules before making your suggestion. And in particular, pay attention to Rule #1. And as a recap, I’ve so far done the following:

Jewelry Designer (upcoming post)
Carbon Project Developer (upcoming post)
Film Executive (upcoming post)
Dog Walker
Personal Trainer
Software Developer
Acquisitions Editor
Film Swing
Sous Chef for an Underground Supper Club
Stockbroker
Transportation Planner
Business Reporter
Graphic Designer
Line Cook

Looking forward to your suggestions! Send them here by Dec. 16th.

The Computer-Inclined

November 18, 2009

Roadshow stop: Nitobi Software

A rudimentary (and homemade) pictorial depiction of my day at Nitobi Software.

The lights were low and the place was filled with the constant accumulative hum of high powered computers. In the entrance way sat a Foosball table, the little plastic men, abandoned from a recent game, pointed all askew. A half assembled soap box derby car was propped up haphazardly in a corner. In the board room were stacks of empty pizza boxes. Desks were littered with jars of salsa and half-drank bottles of Dr. Pepper.

No, I wasn’t in my college boyfriend’s shared apartment. The furniture was too nice and the place too tidy to be mistaken for that. This was my Roadshow stop at Nitobi Software, a software development firm that builds web and mobile applications. Although one of the shortest commutes for me on the Roadshow (they’re located in Gastown), this, so far, was the furthest leap for me professionally. (As may be gleaned from my homemade drawings.) I don’t know the slightest thing about building software. I don’t speak the languages–PHP, Javascript, HTML, to name a few–or understand the jargon–complete UI, open source, wire frames. And, pre-Roadshow, I worked in fundraising and publishing–both predominantly female industries. (What’s the opposite of a sausage party?) So Nitobi’s all male staff of 14 was also a new one for me.

My mentor for the day was Brian LeRoux, a software developer who’s been with Nitobi for four years. (Before that he was ‘playing video games and pumping gas’.) According to him, his responsibilities include coding and client management. As well, he said with a laugh ‘evangelism and general B.S.ing.’ (No, that’s not developer jargon–he meant the universal language of bullshitting). Brian explained to me that software development was more like gardening than manufacturing–it wasn’t just building, but creating something that needed to be tended and maintained because of its ever-evolving nature.

After chastising me for not bringing my laptop (“Who comes to work at a software development company and doesn’t bring their laptop?” he asked) and mocking me for the analog notebook I did bring (spiral bound with ruled sheets), he told me to go check in with the ‘guys’ to see what kind of work they were doing.

I started with the front room, which housed about five developers. Some of the developers eyed me warily, curious as to what the heck I wanted. Others avoided eye contact. Some slipped on their headphones. (I wondered if they were suspicious of my lack of a Y chromosome or if they were just busy.) But these avoidance tactics weren’t going to stop me. I grabbed an ergonomically correct desk chair and rolled up to the first work station. From here, I hopped from desk to desk getting tours from each developer on what they were working on and what kind of projects they had worked on in the past.

I learned all about PhoneGap, which is an open-source tool that lets anyone (well, anyone who knows how) develop mobile apps with javascript. I was given a quick run through of a virtual social forum on Canada’s Arctic created for the Vancouver Aquarium. And a mobile petition application created for tcktcktck.org. I was shown an application that can give virtual tours of museums and art galleries, all on a smart phone. It was all amazing stuff.

Some of the developers were working on what they called their ’20 percent’. Nitobi has an 80/20 policy, meaning 20 percent of developer’s time can be spent working on individual and personal projects. According to Andre Charland, co-founder of Nitobi, product development has proven to be a good source of revenue, and he felt what better place to create these products then with his staff. PhoneGap is an example of a successful product built in-house. So eight hours of an employee’s 40 hour work week can be spent on doing his own thing–and he gets paid for it. Sounds like living the dream.

It was clear that fun was an integral part of this workplace. And not just the appearance of fun you sometimes see in big corporate offices to placate over-worked, over-stressed, and under-appreciated employees. These guys seemed to actually enjoy what they did and enjoy being in the office.

“We take work seriously, but not ourselves,” said Andre.

“Nitobi is the idealized fantasy of what software development is all about,” said Brian. “Other software companies are mostly cubical farms.”

At the end of the day, I was told I would be sitting in on a meeting with Mark Scott, President of D&M Publishing. As I made a few notes and waited for the meeting to start, I noticed a small group gathering around Andre’s computer. They were ogling a girly calendar–the Rad Boob Club Calendar, which was created by female skiers to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. It features photos of (fully dressed) female skiers doing daredevil moves off cliffs, soaring over highways, and plummeting down vertical drops. The guys appreciated it with the same enthusiasm one would expect from a swimsuit calendar.

As they admired ‘Miss December’, Brian proposed cracking a beer. Andre suggested waiting until Mark arrived. I assumed he meant waiting until after Mark had come and gone. Clearly I was new to the world of software development as beers were distributed ten minutes into the meeting. (And everyone, including Mark, took one.) With icy Pilsners in hand, the developers, designers, and Mark went through some of the finishing details of Book Riff, a new publishing website that will allow users to pick and choose from published books, add their own content, and have a book printed, bound, and shipped within 24 hours.

Admittedly, going into a day of software development, I figured I would be immersed in a world of computer geek stereotypes. But I was dead wrong. This office wasn’t filled with socially awkward, ill-dressed, girl-fearing men. What I discovered was quite the contrary–smart, creative, self-assured professionals who love their jobs, make super neat stuff, and work in an almost utopic office environment. Okay, maybe I have a residual soft spot for the computer-inclined because of my college boyfriend, or maybe it was the fact that they gave me free beer, but after a day of hanging out with software developers, I think they are, and what they do, is cool as hell.

Follow-up Thank You Email
Helen:
Thanks for letting me come in and follow you around. It was fun. And will definitely provide me with some good stuff for a post. It will probably take me a week or so to get a story fleshed out.
Thanks again. It was a real pleasure meeting you. Oh, and thanks for the pils.

Nitobi:
eh no worries — glad it worked out for you / let me know if you need any more details. feel free to stop by and drink our beer any time!

Helen:
You may want to reconsider your unconditional offer of free beer to someone who has no gainful employment. You may live to regret it! Will let you know if I have questions/need details. I’m sure I will.

Nitobi:
nah, anytime — fairly certain no guys here are going to complain. shit, bring some friends. =)

My mentor: Jason Potter
My mentor’s details: Transportation Planner, Bunt and Associates

A few years ago, I wrote a souvenir coffee table book on Los Angeles. In the course of my research, I was amazed by the amount of traffic factoids that I came across. I suppose it’s no surprise that L.A. and traffic are synonymous. But the tidbit that I found most interesting was the story of A.W. Ross. In the 1920s, Ross developed the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that is now known as Miracle Mile. What was so special about this little stretch of road? What made it miraculous? For the first time, the area was developed to accommodate and attract automobiles, not pedestrians. The sidewalks were narrowed. The streets widened. Left turn lanes were created. So were timed traffic lights. Even the businesses lining the streets were redesigned to attract cars. Stores were required to provide parking spaces. Storefronts and signs were refashioned to be seen through windshields and at driving speeds instead of walking speeds. This stretch of road, which had previously been a dirt track, became the model for the linear downtown that now exists throughout most of North America. The European template that focused on wide-open, pedestrian only squares and boulevards never had a chance. It became all about the car.

When he first started, a lot of people thought Ross’ plan was crazy. They thought he would fail. I wish he had. I know it’s probably naive to think that another developer wouldn’t have just sprung up in his place, but I wish that the redesign that fueled, and still fuels our car-obsessed society had never happened. I’m not anti-car. But I am pro-pedestrian. And it’s a point of contention with me that Canadian city centers don’t have more pedestrian only spaces for people to congregate. That each neighbourhood doesn’t have a small square lined with food markets, cafés, bars, and shops where old ladies in black dresses sit on park benches gossiping while barefooted kids play soccer. Okay, I clearly spent too much time in Europe this summer. But I think it’s a legitimate pipe dream.

The Pedestrian’s Champion
With this car bias in mind, when I started my day as a transportation planner, I figured it would be all about the auto. That, like Ross, transportation planners existed to facilitate the needs of drivers and their vehicles. But I was mistaken. Because it turns out that they are actually the pedestrian’s champions. When they make assessments and recommendations on urban development, they first consider the needs of the walkers, then cyclists, then public transit, and finally, the cars. At least, that’s how the planner I was shadowing, Jason Potter, sees it.

Jason works for Bunt and Associates, which is a transportation planning and consulting firm that helps developers get the green light for their projects. Here’s how it works: When a developer, business, or an organization wants to make a structural change to their facility, or build something brand new, they have to apply for a city permit. Before the city will approve the application, it needs to know, among many things, whether or not the transportation network surrounding the area can accommodate the change. Developers hire the services of firms like Bunt to provide this assessment. Then planners, like Jason, go in to carefully study the existing needs and conditions of the area and produce a report on how the development will affect the community. This report is then submitted to the city.

Counting cars
To create the report requires a lot of data collection. And that means getting outside and counting cars, pedestrians, parking spots, bus stops, cyclists, and more. For bigger projects, Jason will put together a team of counters to collect the data. The day I joined him, he was working on a smaller project, and in an effort to keep costs down for his client, he was doing the counting himself.

Of course it was pouring rain. But in Vancouver, that represents an average day. And data collection needs to be done on an average day to best represent traffic patterns. So conditions were perfect. We combed the streets block-by-block counting, and then did it again every fifteen minutes. At peak times for passenger pick up and drop off at the intended development site, we paid special attention to any increased vehicle or pedestrian traffic coming in and out of the building. And did more counting.

This was just the first step in data collection for Jason’s report. He would then work with an architect to establish things like whether or not the proposed change would affect access for trash collection or emergency vehicles. He would also discern if it was necessary to make changes to the existing infrastructure, such as converting parking spots to a designated passenger pick up and drop off area. While examining all of the data, he would first put the best interests of the pedestrian into consideration before making his recommendations.

After four hours of collecting data, we were done. We were drenched and cold, but we were also intimately familiar with the transportation flow of the area. And this chilly discomfort seemed a small price to pay to ensure we were looking out for the best interests of the walkers, the cyclists, the bus riders, and lastly, the drivers.

I do wish Jason had been around in A.W. Ross’ day. Maybe if he had, our existing city plans wouldn’t be dictated by the automobiles. Maybe cities across North America would be a pedestrian’s paradise, free from traffic congestion, exhaust, and angry drivers. But of course, this is just wishful thinking. It is reassuring to know, though, that as our cities grow and evolve, that there is a profession that puts pedestrians first, even if it is only one development at a time.

Lookin’ good

October 10, 2009

My Mentor: Kyla Day
My Mentor’s details: Freelance Designer and Developer

Looking good isn’t easy. Sure, there are a few natural beauties that can spring out of bed perfectly quaffed–every strand of hair in place, looking dewy fresh with breath smelling like hibiscus and roses. But I’m guessing most people’s blank palette is closer to mine–roll out of bed with hair that could be mistaken for a glam band from the eighties, pillow wrinkles on the cheek, a faint stream of dried drool on the chin, and breath that makes you wonder where the cat came from that defecated in your mouth some time during the night. It requires some effort to transform that into something even remotely attractive.

And this doesn’t apply to just people. Making things look good also takes a lot of work. More than most people realize. And this is particularly poignant with the everyday things we see. Websites. Newspapers. Magazines. Logos. Brands. Books. Blogs. And who is responsible for all this hard work? For keeping print and web from looking like this? Graphic designers. These often unsung heroes are responsible for preventing the assault on our senses and infusing art into our daily lives. They give so much to our visual world and we don’t even realize it: order, beauty, simplicity, vibrancy. And unlike a visual artist, who gets to dictate their own vision or inspiration, a graphic designer has to answer to someone. They have to fulfill the needs of a client or a boss or a board. And that’s tough. Because most people have no clue what they want until they see something they don’t want.

The Language of Tact
So a designer needs to gently coax out the desired direction from their client and lead them to an appropriate aesthetic. It’s harder than it sounds. And usually requires figuring out what a client needs and not necessarily what they say they want. After a lengthy discussion intended to decipher these needs, a designer then visually translates it, and hopes that she creates something that is both effective and pleases the client. Since mind reading is not an option, designers have to speak a lot of different languages, and perhaps the most important is the language of tact. Because a surprising number of people like ugly design. Or at least they think they do, until a professional gives them something better.

For this leg of the Roadshow, I got to witness a designer in action: Kyla Day. Kyla’s been a designer for ten years and a freelancer for the past year. Her clients range from political parties to musicians to doctors to marketing firms. On the day I shadowed her, she was doing a layout for a friend’s blog. And as usual, her client had no idea what she wanted.

For this particular client, Kyla didn’t get to go through her usual routine of research and questions. It was a rush job. And the client claimed to not care what it looked like, as long as it was ‘cool’. According to Kyla, this lack of direction usually doesn’t forebode well. While it sounds like free-range artistic license, it usually just means more work to try and decipher what exactly it is the person unwittingly desires.

Indecisive and Difficult
Kyla had put together three thumbnails, each representing a visual direction the blog could take. I sat in on the meeting where she pitched the looks. Normally, Kyla would organize a more formal encounter but since this was a rush job for a friend, things were more casual. But certainly not any easier. As soon as the client looked at the designs, it was clear she was going to be difficult. She was enthusiastic about them all. But unwilling to commit. She waffled. Back and forth. Twenty minutes passed. Still indecisive. She turned to Kyla for advice. “Which one do you like?” she asked. Instead of choosing for her, Kyla diplomatically and patiently pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of them all. It was clear the client was in agony. She was wrought with worry because choosing meant committing to something that would become her brand, her visual representation, her face to the online world.

After another 15 minutes of flipping back and forth Design Two was rejected.

Design Two

Design Two

Another 15 minutes: Design One was rejected.

Design One

Design One

But with conditions. The client wanted to combine parts of Design One into Design Three.

Design Three

Design Three

Revisions are more work than you would expect. It’s not a simple click of the mouse. It’s labour intensive. It takes time. Some changes, regardless of how minor they seem, might involve hours of work to achieve. But Kyla maintained her calm and professional manner at the requests. At this stage in the design, revisions are expected and encouraged. And can be done quickly. It’s when the client begins making revisions to the revisions that things get sticky.

Again, because the client was a friend, things didn’t follow the normal course of action. Kyla would usually take the client’s feedback and then rework the design on her own. But in this case, the client sat in on and directed the changes. But since she didn’t know what she wanted, her directions were vague and indecisive. She made suggestions and then second guessed herself. She wanted things changed back, and then changed again.

“I’m just not sure about the colours,” she said. “What if we change the yellow?”

“And maybe a different font?”

“Okay, no. I like the yellow.”

“I’m not sure. Which one do you like?”

“I hate the yellow. Can we change it?”

Design Four

Design Four

After an hour the original thumbnail was no longer recognizable. It was amazing to watch the transformation. Kyla created something brand new from the ambiguous suggestions. She had managed to piece together the client’s cloudy vision and give her not only exactly what she wanted, but also what she needed to look good.

Looking good isn’t easy. But with a professional’s artistic eye, even a pillow-wrinkled, drool-covered mess can emerge into something attractive and dewy-fresh.

Final Design

Final Design

To contact Kyla Day, you can email her or check out her website at www.kyladay.me.