My Top 5 New Books of 2018

Of the books published in 2018 I read, these I found most interesting.


Factfulness: 10 Reasons we're wrong about the the world — and Why Things are Better than you Think.

An amazing primer on evidence based decision making. Rosling was a WHO doctor who spent his life serving the poorest of the poor. He used the power of data and the scientific method to challenge his own cognitive biases and maximize impact of development spending. He shares those insights with readers. The information visualization in this book and in his TED talks is superb. I also appreciate that he includes ethnographic anthropological information to bring to life the conceptual categories of poverty he describes. So for someone living on under $2 a day there are photos of how that person cooks, eats, sleeps, finds water, and uses transport. Those are placed on a grid for visual comparison with the lifestyles of those in higher income tiers. It's such an important book for anyone who cares about global poverty. I was surprised at how wrong my view of the world was as revealed by his simple multiple choice test.

“One of the most important books I’ve ever read―an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” – Bill Gates

“Hans Rosling tells the story of ‘the secret silent miracle of human progress’ as only he can. But Factfulness does much more than that. It also explains why progress is so often secret and silent and teaches readers how to see it clearly.” ―Melinda Gates

"Factfulness by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases." —Former U.S. President Barack Obama.


Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it.

A former FBI hostage negotiator's tried-tested tools. He first trained as a suicide crisis help line operator before being in charge of international hostage negotiation. He'd get people out of places like Haiti, out of the hands of terrorists who had killed hostages before and so on. Listening, telling the truth and crafting messages with diplomatic finesse are explained with context I had not considered. Many things may seem obvious but it takes a certain kind of humility to implement them. ie, 'You're going to think I'm a terrible person, but how am I supposed to do that?'

Interview with the author (Youtube: 1 hour 17 minutes)

Reflections of a Hollywood power broker.

Reflections of a Hollywood power broker.

Who is Michael Ovitz?

Michael was a co-founder of Creative Artist's Agency (CAA) and the most feared person in Hollywood. Seventy five percent of the acting, directing and writing talent was under his management. CAA packaged creative projects together and sold them to studios, managed celebrities careers and stayed in the background focusing on providing business value. I took copious notes. Their privacy was such that at one point they hired a PR firm to keep them out of the press.

How Ovitz built his agency from nothing both tactically and strategically is interesting as is how he expanded it to include the buying and selling of studios themselves. But his reflections on what he now would do differently read as most wise.

After CAA he became a Disney executive (which did not work out) and later worked with Andresson Horowitz advising leaders of their startup. I'd read about his term at Disney years ago in the New Yorker. Turns out Ovitz also is a martial arts expert, master of Japanese cultural etiquette and a fan of Sun Tzu. Some other things that stood out in the book: His lawyerly reference to Mr. Weinstein, his art collecting which includes minimal art and his stories of friendship with Bill Murray, Spielberg and Scorsese.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

The clinical psychologist and public intellectual shares his top twelve rules from his longer list of 42 "most valuable things everyone should know". Some rules may seem obvious or strange at first glance but the rationales, anecdotes and bibliography often shed new light on topics like consciousness, myth and meaning. Peterson's weaving of science with philosophy and literature have spurred many of his fans to 'sort themselves out' and rediscover biblical texts and classic works by Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Neitzsche, Jung, and Tolstoy.

His critics tend to believe in social deconstructivism which Pinker's "The Blank Slate" resolved long ago. Others appear to be narrow minded socialists for whom even a moderate classical liberal represents some kind of threat that must be treated with contempt. It's often critics with no science background, no basic understanding of his field or an almost non existent publishing record who are first to share their judgement that because they disagree with him on some point, he must be a pseudo scientist.

While there may be legitimate grounds for disagreement with him on some points (as Haidt, Pinker, Harris and others have discussed with him) those conversations are often lost on many who are swayed by conspiracy theories and smears. There's a sense some have that information which does not confirm one's existing biases must be false—no matter how carefully presented it may be.

Can't Hurt Me: Master your mind and Defy the Odds

Goggins is a legend. His interview on Joe Rogan is equal parts harrowing and inspiring. I started reading his book as soon as I saw it available. His life experiences are so sad and yet he is relentless in the pursuit of his goals. From suffering under an abusive father as a child, to hating himself and overcoming his own bad habits, limitations and past to become a highly decorated warrior. To then transforming his body to perform unreal athletic feats. In ultra marathon relay race contests where teams of 5 compete, he does the entire thing himself. There are of course huge personal costs to achieving this kind of performance and those are as heartbreaking as the achievements are impressive. Goggins amazing attitude and fearlessness encourage my hope and perseverance in pursuit of more refined character and virtue.

Dior and I: Observations

The film shows Raf Simons joining Christian Dior as creative director and building up to his first women's couture show. He'd come from men's ready-to-wear at Jill Sander.

Like many I have my BS detector on when it comes to fashion. Zoolander and Brüno hilight the hubris and hype we so often sense. We read about rich fashion mavens' factories burning down, killing workers who'd been there in slave-like conditions. Fashion's reality can be far from the beauty they claim to honor. Dior fired their flambouyant creative director Galliano for making drunken anti-semetic slurs.

Raf wears reserved clothes. Shows restraint. I found him almost shockingly humble and quiet—much like many of the best designers I've had the pleasure of working with. Raf doesn't sketch but assembles immpeccably researched mood boards. His team sketches and Raf has insightful, decisive comments. Raf learned Dior's history inside out, pouring over the founder's collections, sketches and swatches. (That's primary ethnographic research folks!) He visits art museums, reads critical texts on contemporary art and has built great taste. The guy has genuine chops.

Raf found this painting by Sterling Ruby interesting. Back in the office he looked at all of Ruby's work and read several reviews. Later we see Raf's team using large-format prints on paper, holding them up against models to give him an impression of how they might sit. As a finished dress is revealed Raf keeps saying (without irony) "Sublime." 

Raf found this painting by Sterling Ruby interesting. Back in the office he looked at all of Ruby's work and read several reviews. Later we see Raf's team using large-format prints on paper, holding them up against models to give him an impression of how they might sit. As a finished dress is revealed Raf keeps saying (without irony) "Sublime." 

What I was most attracted to was the seemingly mundane details of how Raf manages his creative process. Physical mood boards are built. Physical sketches passed around and discussed.

   It's a beautiful drawing. Notice also that it's on their letterhead and stamped with what may be some kind of tracking information. I see what appears to be someone's sign off as well, much like a printer's proof. 


It's a beautiful drawing. Notice also that it's on their letterhead and stamped with what may be some kind of tracking information. I see what appears to be someone's sign off as well, much like a printer's proof. 

Though these approaches can be copied, Raf's amazing outcomes are there because of many other factors. His skilled atelier, proven track record, intellectual rigor, support network and so on. These things inform his intuition. The culture of the organization is perhaps the hardest thing of all to replicate. Many places inhibit their own success. (Witness the Uber redesign. The CEO hired great designers, then proceeds to micromanage them, designing everything himself. When lawyers say "the person who represents themself in court has a fool for a client," they're correct. The same is true in design.)

Does the X mean it's good or rejected? I'm not a fan of this yellow tie dye by the way. The other dress is starting to go somewhere though. 

Does the X mean it's good or rejected? I'm not a fan of this yellow tie dye by the way. The other dress is starting to go somewhere though. 

(Warning: Raf's results are not going to be replicated by unqualified people superficially copying the easiest method they see. Some clients for example might type a word into google image search, print out whatever comes up, stick it on a board and assume that represents some kind of creative process. It doesn't. There is no informed intuition in that.)

It's a pleasure to find affirmation for this kind of creative process from someone at the top of their game in another field. I've enjoyed using moodboards to help guide clients. Conversation and contemplation are key parts of any healthy relationship. It's affirming to know that Raf and I align on that.

Questions from a Student

From time to time I get questions from art and design students for their assignments. Benya Wutthipongchaikij—a Communication Design student at KMUTT in Bangkok, Thailand asks:

When did you make up your mind to work as an illustrator?

I always liked making artwork.

Most of my life I didn’t know what illustration was as a career. What made artwork interesting or boring? I couldn't have explained it. Even though I'd feel it. I loved books, comics, movies, cartoons. "Maybe I could have some part in helping make those." I thought. We went to a Disney animation studio, I'd read James Cameron screenplays.

So I my plan was to do classical animation followed by computer animation at Sheridan College. They've had many Oscar winning artists graduates. While I was in the foundation year at Sheridan, I saw the work the students in Illustration were doing. I began to prefer it over animation so took illustration instead. The thing that made it more appealing was that people were free to develop their own personal vision.

What happened then?

I worked hard for 4 years at Sheridan and another year doing a Master's Degree later. Understanding the craft within it’s larger business context took awhile after graduating. It's a way of helping people bring their stories to life. Even though that seems kind of mystical somehow, it’s actually empowering for people. People who make good quality things are rarely able to tell their story well in pictures.

There’s a misconception that great products and companies don’t have to sell. The idea is that great stuff sells on it's own. Sure it helps, but it's not entirely true. People can think "if you have to try to sell something, you’re dishonest." But that's not true. How will anyone really know about what you do if they don't hear about it from somewhere? It’s the responsibility of a good company to make sure everything they do is great.

Part of that means telling the truth. Artwork can be a tool to help. I see a lot of artists are confused about this kind of thing and so end up focusing on personal work. (Video game concepts or whatever they understand.) But corporations are just legal structures made of people. The best ones want to have honest connections with others.

Please summarize your design concept. What has contributed to your current style?

In school, I was encouraged to experiment and explore. We had great teachers who pushed us too. We learned what the difference is between an interesting, strong concept and the mundane. Striving for quality, detail, simplicity and beauty are my main ingredients. I believe they get attention and boost effectiveness.

Where do you usually find the inspirations for your works? In other words, what do you usually do in the stage of design?

Usually within the content itself, the client’s story, their audience’s aspirations or my own imagination. Of course I keep an eye on trends, but their influence is small. Sketching by hand on paper I find to be the best way to unearth ideas. It’s like there is a cool dinosaur skeleton buried and I just have to mine it out.

Describe the relationship between artistic value and commercial value of illustration?

That's a great question. It probably depends on context. Let’s say someone only wants to draw a specific kind of dog, but in a horrifying way. It’s difficult to find a market for that. (Horror movies? Heavy metal bands?) Let’s say someone else draws happy dogs beautifully. They could approach the dog food brands and their ad agencies and find work. They might have a solid commercial career doing only that. They’d probably be considered as a technician more than an artist, but that’s ok.

Some artists have interesting stories and characters inside them—they are real authors. It would be a tragedy if that kind of artist became a technician. Imagine if JK Rowling only wrote dog food packaging copy. Or if Quentin Blake only drew airbrushed fruit for juice ads. The world would be a poorer place. Rowling faced tons of rejection for Potter but persisted and did get a publisher. She has a deep understanding of myth too—so she had a solid foundation. It wasn’t just a narcissistic self assessment of her talents.

The commercial value of artwork is not always self evident. Designers often need to see something directly relevant to their needs. Some have a harder time imagining what could be. They look at portfolios like they’re a kind of style catalogue. Designers also for their own work often “mock it up” or show the work in as real a context as they can. A physical brochure is more impressive and “real” than a screen grab from a pdf.

There’s a book by Margaret Atwood on this topic called “Negotiating with the Dead.” it’s a series of lectures she gave on this topic at Cambridge. Though it’s literature, the principles are the same. Chekov, a brilliant playwright was motivated to work primarily to feed his family. Yet that humble motivation does not make his art less important. Atwood does a great job of killing a lot of the self imposed worry and stigma artists can place on themselves.

Have you found any conflict between drawing for your own fun and doing a commissioning work? How do you think the commercial operation has promoted this artistic creation?

They both have different purposes. I’m free do do my own thing whenever I want. But I prefer helping people solve a real problem. Sometimes I’ve used my private work as a kind of therapy. I made images for myself. I knew they were meaningful, even though it took a long time to understand what they meant. They helped me process a kind of chaos I’d encountered in my life.

The commercial challenges keep me sharp. At one point I bid on about 6 projects in a row and lost every one. I had to carefully reassess what perceptions I was creating for clients to not value my work. I adjusted some things. Exploring marketing in even greater depth. If everything feels easy always, you don’t grow.

Yet I also came to realize that I was expecting too high a closing ratio for myself. Even the firms I look up to might only "win" or take on one of ten incoming projects. So if I'd gotten one out of seven, that was not bad actually.

Nowadays, how can an illustrator be successful both in the artistic sense and the commercial sense? Do you have any experiences to share?

Just do the best you can. Work hard. Tell the truth. Know when to quit, be open to other stuff. Maybe I’ll go to silicon valley and end up working with VC backed startups for a season in my life.

The question could be asked also about work/life balance, family and so on. Be balanced. Be healthy in your attitudes and spirit. Rest. Recharge. Take time to “sharpen the saw,” so it doesn’t get dull.

As an illustrator, how do you interpret the role you are playing?

Helping guide someone over a creative chasm.

What’s your icon in the artistic arena? What is the ultimate artist ideal to you?

Courage, integrity, love, expertise, imagination.

Jesus. Ai Wei Wei. Marina Abramovic. Olafur Arnalds. Olafur Eliasson. Janet Cardiff. Frank Gehry. Pete Doctor. Winston Churchill. Alexander the Great. Lee Clow. Sarah Thornton. Dan Wieden. Wolf Olins. Madethought. Spin. Underline Studio. Gllbert Li. Howard Schultz. Elon Musk. Warren Buffett.

In what way do you think the illustration industry has changed? What do you think of the future trends in this industry?

Editorial continues to contract since it’s peak in the 1920’s. Social media works best when tied into old school physical meetups. People do more and last longer when they’re part of a healthy team than when they’re isolated. There is a huge amount of mystery in the universe which we have yet to begin learning about.

Personas vs. Jobs To Be Done

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's Jobs To Be Done theory discards user personas. It instead focuses on the underlying social, emotional and functional needs resolvey by the product. A criticism against the theory is that there may be times when personas are helpful. 

I was drowning in user personas. As an illustrator, I've worked for a range of clients. SMBs, Academics, Fortune 500s, Non-profits, indie musicians, Design leaders. If I were to build marketing tools to reach each segment using personas, how would that work? It's not like I'm selling Huggies diapers to an easily generalized group. So this helpful tool, became a hindrance, a source of confusion—even paralysis. For me, there are too many meaningfully different categories.

Ok, so Jobs To Be Done is more about the human needs that are commonly shared. By focusing on that, I began to notice patterns more clearly. "My customers want to be inspired and to inspire," gives a meaty basis to structure what I can build. Marketing as a team of one depends on intuition and luck. But it makes me my own bottleneck. The need to scout, assemble, hire and direct teams becomes a market of increased sophistication. Teams need clear communication to succeed. 

The resources and time just aren't there to do full ethnographic digs into every world customers inhabit. Even if I could and uncovered great insights, I wouldn't have the capability to make 3+ versions of everything. It would feel Schizophrenic. So, I did informal research just asking people dumb questions—themes emerge. No need for personas. 

The amazing thing I find about JTBD is that it's abstract like philosophy. But putting broad parameters around how you understand your role, your perspective changes. Marketing can also be an improvement of the product. It can extend into research and development. Not just presentation. This is so much more freeing for me than the legalism of slicing people into false mono-cultures. Does every cat lady enjoy blue cheese in the moonlight? 

Designers are Gnomes

Someone is wandering in a sunny forest and some insignificant gnome comes along. He asks for some token of  humane treatment. The hero has to be paying attention to recognize the gnome and kindly respond. When the hero does, it doesn't take a lot to make gnomes happy. 

Some people don't care about the gnomes. We can assume that gnomes possess nothing of value. No beauty to draw us to them. The gnome likely doesn't have any special knowledge or abilities. The gnome is other. The gnome is small. And probably useless. These are the assumptions many of us make every day about real people. 

You see where this is going right? In another version of the story, the gnome is a mouse. A lion catches the mouse. The mouse begs for its life. The lion allows it to go free. The mouse says, "one day, I'll do something for you in return." The lion laughs, "What could you do to help me? I'm the king of the jungle." Yet later the lion finds himself in a trap all wrapped up in a net. The mouse comes along and has no trouble chewing through the ropes. The strong lion is free because of the weak gnome. 

I've seen billion dollar companies ignore the gnomes to various extents. And it always costs them in ways that they are not calculating. Former Harvard psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson says that what stands in for most people's morality is fear and inertia. People can lie to themselves, believe those lies and pretty soon they're living in a fantasy world. Is it possible to be strategic within a dream? 

So for me, I love noticing gnomes in the corner. So many times going over and saying hello reveals interesting, beautiful people. Not every designer is a gnome for real though many are. And there are gnomes worth meeting everywhere. 

Let me close with a real world example of this fairy tale. It's from a real life genius of a gnome. There's a guy who owns a restaurant. When people apply for work come to be interviewed, he has them wait for the interviewer while he pretends to be a regular employee. He serves them tea. During the interview, he just watches their body language from a distance.  He notices if there's a discrepancy between how the 'boss' is treated compared to the 'bum.'

That's the basis he uses to hire or reject the applicant. If you use that in a design firm context, let me know how it goes! For account people particularly it seems like it might be useful. And if it's ever used on us, I hope you and I, dear reader, remember the gnomes.