Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Kids these days

Kids these days
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This is my hundredth blog post. I’m sort of surprised that I’ve managed to write this many. I’m even more surprised that people like you read them and take the time to post such thorough and intelligent responses. I don’t think ideasonideas can be called a “new” blog any longer and this leaves me thinking.

Most nights, I put my son Oscar to bed. We read books, talk about our favorite animals, and I share music with him through YouTube videos on my iPhone. Some days it’s Ed and Steve in the bathroom, and on others we listen to Motorhead, but often we take-in “Wild Horseys”, as he calls it. Oz is a gorgeous boy—bright and full of curiosity. As such, most evenings are accompanied by many questions; few of which can I properly answer. What sticks with me after these talks is how everything is new to Oscar, and how large a gap there is between what he thinks I must know and what I actually do.

Fear of the young

Over the past couple of weeks, age – youth in particular – seems to have been a recurring theme amongst some of my peers. Perhaps this is something I’m attuned to for reasons I haven’t been able to identify yet. Maybe it’s a symptom of no longer being new to my vocation, but not yet (by any means) being a veteran. It could be that I’m just trying to figure out exactly where I fit; nevertheless, ideas surrounding youth have been floating about and they’re ones that seem strange to me.

I know folks who are convinced that the young only create drivel and that a great cultural wasteland is upon us. On the other hand, some of my peers seem stymied by the possibility that they are no longer relevant and are quickly being superseded by more skilled and technologically apt young designers. Both of these seem like somewhat rash over-generalizations to me; nevertheless, I keep wondering what leads so many to think this way, and what the “real deal” might be.

Dave – a designer down the street – has been in the design business since I was two. He’s a character and always brings interesting discussions to the table. We crossed paths recently, and although we only touched upon the topic briefly, he referenced what he believes to be a drought of good new music. He and I have talked about this before. While I feel that as much good music as ever (but it’s not found on the radio), he’s convinced that something is missing.

Similarly, he looks at the ads aimed at youth culture and feels like it’s all been “done before”. I don’t entirely disagree with this observation; however, I wonder if that’s perhaps not the point. I argue that almost every generation covers largely the same ground, but with its own subtle variations.

Skill comes with practice

While Dave seems to allude to something being lost, some of our other friends think they’re quickly becoming “last year’s model”. Last week @shelkie and I had lunch with another friend, who lamented how out-of-touch he feels when reviewing portfolios of young designers. He can’t believe the technical mastery that some newly minted designers have managed to achieve; in fact, it seems to makes him question whether he has a place in all of this. (He is, after all, in his thirties.)

I quickly protested his feelings of uncertainty. After many years of reviewing portfolios, I’ve learned that it’s not altogether hard for someone to parrot a style effectively. Depth in this field, however, is reliant on solving a multitude of diverse problems and amassing a broad range of experiences. Although it’s seemingly easy to do, a mid-career designer shouldn’t undermine their collected knowledge and expertise when faced by a new “look”. Styles come and go; mastery of one indicates some basic skill, but often little more.

Frankly, you’re an idiot if you believe that creative fortitude is the domain of the young, only to be weakened by age. While one may lose the ability to run as quickly or jump as high as years pass, creative dexterity should only improve and gain depth if practiced. Some might say that the enthusiasm held by young designers diminishes with time but I argue that such loss of vigor is only symptomatic of a less interesting mind. (I suspect Paul Rand was as vital and curious in 1992, as any new talent fresh out of college.)

A culture infatuated with youth

The thing is though, our culture isn’t as excited by age as we should be. Ours loves the new, as is evidenced in entertainment. It doesn’t matter that the Rolling Stones write songs as good (or perhaps better) than ever. Our lens is focused on new bands. Similarly, the seeming vacuum of middle-aged actresses working in Hollywood is disheartening. Somehow great actresses seem out of work by fifty, replaced by the likes of Jessica Simpson and Lindsay Lohan. (Ugh.)

Of course, there’s some sense to all of this. First of all, the young come with some novelty, as we haven’t necessarily heard their stories before—no matter how short these stories may be. Additionally, new people (and things) photograph better. The sad truth is that ours is a consumer culture predicated on forced obsolescence. From a capitalist vantage point, there’s little room for the old. In order to keep the machine running, we need new models that keep people swiping credit cards and punching PIN numbers; similarly, we need to feature new stars in order to sell magazines, movie tickets and merchandise. This leaves us with less appreciation for products with a weathered patina and unique personality, or, for that matter, storytellers who’ve actually “sampled a few flavors”.

This leads us to the other great fallacy: that youth are somehow innately better suited to understand technology. Actually, there’s some truth to this, but it’s largely situational. The young do seem to adapt to texting, social networks and changing digital paradigms quickly, but this is in large part due to the time they have available. My generation was highly attuned to pop music videos, but not because we were somehow more innately disposed to short-form video than anyone else. We were just bored, and had lots of time to sit in front of the television.

Nevertheless, this notion persists—in part from those fearful that they’ll perhaps look silly in embracing new tools and ideas. A telling example is the 50 year old who says that they don’t “get” Facebook. There’s little with such a piece of software that’s out-of-grasp, or really needs to be “gotten”. Yes, there are apps, games, groups and a multitude of other things housed under that umbrella; but, for the most part it’s a digital cork-board that allows you to share photos and such—not a particularly big deal. The only thing that stands between any person and understanding a technology is their own resistance to trying something new.

Fresh eyes

Some might read this and think that I’m being dismissive of the young, but that’s not my intent. I simply feel that we have to carefully consider our prejudices regarding age – including those self-directed ones – and ask whether they’re rightly founded. Our wildly divergent views that either dismiss today’s youth as being culturally bankrupt, or that they are somehow imbued with knowledge inaccessible to the rest of us are both hazardous. In actuality, we’re all pretty much the same regardless of age… except for one notable thing.

The delight in being a parent is in getting to re-experience things for the first time. My son has never had a Slurpee. To my wife’s chagrin, I can’t wait to let him try one. Sure, it’s probably one of the least healthy things I could give him, but on a hot day, what better indulgence than a cup of sugar and ice? Whether it’s this, or his first movie, or the first time he saw lightning, I think I enjoy watching these things through his eyes more than I ever did for myself. This leads me to the one thing that the young have over the rest of us: firsts.

Oscar still has a great many firsts to look forward to: his first fall from a bike, first kiss, first night of driving around town with his buddies, first backpacking trip, and first concert. These may seem like clichés, but that’s only because these things already mean something to most of us. For Oscar (and his brother Ari) these are all experiences that he’ll taste for himself, coupled with an anticipation and fear that we sometimes forget. The first time is made somewhat remarkable as a direct correlation to the unknown.

Finding new firsts

I can download any movie I want, but there are few that really interest me. This is particularly true of comedies, which I once enjoyed greatly. As an adolescent, every comedy seemed fresh and clever; sadly, I find few today that leave me feeling as amused. Upon reflection, however, it’s clear that the comedies of the 80s really weren’t any funnier than current ones. It’s just that the jokes were new to me back then. More recent comedies seem bland and derivative not because they are any more so than those of years past; rather, I’ve heard the same jokes so many times that I can see the punchline coming.

The blame for this can’t be laid upon the movie; it’s once again a situational problem, and it’s one for each to address individually. There are still lots of “firsts” out there, but we have to dig a little deeper to reach them. Thinking that our inspirations will come from Hollywood movies, Top 40 radio, or for that matter, award annuals only limits us. It’s our laziness that keeps us going to the same buffet every day for lunch, thinking that the meals should change to entertain us. No, we need to find new pastures and embrace the possibility of the unknown.

Last week I listened to a podcast in which a trends analyst cooed at what a wonderful time it is to be young. She placed special emphasis on how this upcoming generation was somehow more interesting and special than any before it. This seemed like just the sort of thing you’d hear from a trends analyst: more mysterious possibilities to keep the marketing folks at Nike paying for overpriced “trends” data. Forgive me if I’m cynical, but I say it’s quite the opposite.

I think every generation is almost identical to the one that preceded it. Each one experiences a marginally different context that seems immediately significant, but in actuality is only temporarily so. As decades pass, we learn that high-tops, flannel shirts and SMS slang actually amount to very little. These little novelties are curious, but looking upon them to “define” a generation hardly moves beyond the brutally superficial. Universal truths, however, bind us all, even if our vision of them isn’t exactly clear. What are these truths? I think they include the need to be loved, the desire to feel connected to others, the hope that one is relevant, and an arm-full of other similar emotions that transcend any paper-thin trends.

We’re all young

The young are more like us than many of us choose to believe; they just have more firsts to come. (I think it’s fair that we envy them in this regard.) Meanwhile, it’s foolish to dismiss their contributions, or treat little sparks of talent with undue reverence. I posit that the young are just like us: scared and excited, confident and unsure, tired and invigorated, bored and curious. Perhaps the contexts are different, but thinking that we’re somehow different only limits us from possibilities. We need to lend a hand where they need it, and at the same time remain open to the new discoveries they might share with us.

In the grand scheme of things, we’re all children, with fewer answers than questions. It’s just that at some point we stop asking these questions. My son repeats the query, “Why?” at such a rapid rate that it often exhausts his mother and me; or becomes a joke. I now ask him, “Why?” back, which elicits the response, “Don’t say ‘why’ daddy!” The truth is though: I need to ask that question more than I do.

That’s part of what this blog has been about: me asking “why?” and trying to answer that question as best I can. Most posts, as a result, have become an exploratory space, and one I’m privileged to have stumbled upon. I write most of these essays knowing that there are holes in my logic, but I reason that this is alright. The posts are the beginning of a discussion, and those of you who participate and share your insights bring it to life.

Thank you for that! I look forward to another hundred of these!

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  2. Wolf says:

    Congratulations on the 100. I rarely comment but do enjoy the writing a lot. Thanks.

  3. Josh says:

    I think you summed up one of the primary reason I want kids eventually. To have and or 'experience' firsts again.

    In regards to the design world, I'd like to refer to a colleague of our own, @paulisakson, Director of Strategy at Space 150 in MSP and a presentation he gave on the future of marketing. But I think it has parallels to a point I'd like to bring up.

    The future of design is participatory.

    Design & advertising firms have a hierarchy that despite all the "our office structure is flat" is still really the exception, not the rule. Inevitably, a young designer, once hired by a firm, is sent directly to the production room where they occasionally get to chime in during their first months. This is an obligatory model that just won't die. It is mired in that working for them is a privilege, not a burgeoning, positive relationship where by both the newcomer and the old guard can prosper.

    Simply, it's talking to and not with.

    Though it might be a stretch, just as we're encouraging our clients to have honest conversations with their customers, to engage and to participate. We should be asking/doing the same with young designers. This I propose should 1) alleviate fears of inadequacy on the part of the experienced 2) open up a positive and mutually beneficial relationship for the senior and the junior and 3) set an example of how future generations of practitioners should operate.

    This I by no means write to encourage throwing a youngin into the lions den immediately, but for fostering and creating the ideas that we do sell to clients, we aren't taking much of our own advice in quelling our own fears about the young running rough shot over our profession.

    I think you sum up my point best Eric with this - "We need to lend a hand where they need it, and at the same time remain open to the new discoveries they might share with us."

    Despite a recession going on, there is no reason that creative hiring, mentoring or support should be at an all time low, when you have future change leaders, energetic thinkers and masterful craftsman waiting eagerly to work with you, not against you.

  4. EMeS says:

    Interesting reflection. You kind of paint a visual of how there is a common cycle generations go through toward innovation, and how it feeds back into the loop.

  5. One of the best parts of parenting is experiencing the world afresh through the eyes of our urchins. As a fellow "Creative", having kids has been a great career move in terms of inspiration.

    Yesterday I took my 3 & 4 yr old to DQ for ice cream cones. The proprietor gave the kids helium balloons, which lasted about 90 seconds before being inadvertently released skyward, at which point my 4 yr old turned to me earnestly and asked if we could take the space shuttle (which she'd noticed on a recent newspaper front page) to go fetch them. Fresh eyes indeed. . .

  6. Tony Wanless says:

    Very thoughtful as usual, Eric.
    Some thoughts of my own:
    Children are so delightful to be around because they are the most creative beings on earth -- exhibiting constant curiosity, making thought leaps easily, and (most of the time) solving problems quickly. A Nasa study of its scientists showed about 2% to be highly creative, while a similar study of 5-year0lds showed that 95% could be considered highly creative.

    This suggests that we unlearn our creativity and sense of wonder as we become more socialized and increasingly focus on tasks that must be completed to both make a living, and to simply live.

    However, that doesn't have to happen. Creativity (and wonder) can be rekindled with simple exercises that don't involve shooting nerf balls at each other or some similarly "flaky" pursuit (although there's nothing wrong with that either).

    For example, you reference one technique that is formally called the 5 Whys, in which you continually ask why to a series of questions, a process that's aimed at drilling down to the core of an issue. That's what your child is doing.

    Another is asking what if. You correctly point out that we should all be asking why (and I suggest, what if) more often. If we did so, you would see many "older" people in their 30s and 40s be able to shake off the ennui that often comes with responsibility.

    Many other people who are older, the baby boomers, are doing exactly that and reinventing themselves. Because of that, they are looking forward to years of interest, excitement, and wonder.

  7. Thanks for that Tony--well said! In fact, that whole "if" point is something that I've addressed in my upcoming book. It's a curiously powerful word. :-)

  8. David Airey says:

    If your blog entries are anything to go by, Eric, I'm already looking forward to those celebratory drinks in New York or Maui.

  9. Rod Gillies says:

    Interesting post, really enjoyed it.

    Along with spurious assertions that this particular generation of youth is more or less creative than previous ones, I get frustrated with the "demonisation of youth" by the media (at least in the UK - I'm not sure if it's the same all over).

    I am convinced that this generation of teens is not particularly more violent or anti-social than previous ones, it's just that we now have more CCTV footage of bad things happening to feed the voracious appetite of rolling news.

    The pervasive belief that the young are somehow different from us (and different from how we were at their age) allows the middle-aged to be comfortable with the restriction of individual freedoms in a way we would have detested when we were young.

  10. kat neville says:

    Great article. I do think you're right about our culture embracing youth as "the thing", but I don't know if I necessarily agree with you about every generation being the same as the last. In my mom's generation, she believed she had two job options: become a nurse or a teacher, because her main job would be being a mom. Now, women can do anything they like, and having her man stay at home instead is an option. The field of graphic design used to be only open to those who spent years hand drawing typography etc, whereas now millions of people make an easy full-time living as a webdesigner without knowing what a glyph is. When I was growing up, we looked things up in a 5 year old encyclopedia.

    These things fundamentally change our every day lives, our goals and our behaviours. I think that's a good thing.

  11. Ian Houghton says:

    Nice entry. I'm still young (22), and while I definitely appreciate the advantages I have in many areas, I don't pretend to assume that my generation is anything particularly special just because we can't recall basic spelling and grammar on cellphones, any more than we are particularly lazy or self-entitled, as many commentators have also asserted.
    I don't think we should be looking at a huge 'gulf' between the young and the old, so much as a continuum along a spectrum, perhaps between 'in touch' and 'out of touch'. As such I definitely agree with your idea that it's possible to remain in touch as you age, and fully intend to do so myself. :)

  12. Dwight says:

    Hey Eric,

    Your posts are long, but very entertaining, interesting and thought-provoking.

    Perhaps being a dad has given you further insight and wisdom into matters like these which younger designers (like me) have yet to experience.

    While I do agree that as we grow older, we lose more of our firsts, as compared to the "young" ones, I don't think these "firsts" will ever come to an end. Reality itself wouldn't allow us to get bored with it as long as we're always open to new things. :)

    I'm just 22 years old and looking back to the start of my design career two years ago (or even just a month ago), I do believe I that as I lose a lot of firsts, I gain so much more in return that I am very thankful for. And I couldn't have done that without aging.

    Great post!

  13. An insightful post, encouraging to those of us in our mid-40s. I have moved in my career from the young designer, full of piss and vinegar, to the more mature strategist.

    I often wondered how my predecessor in this company came up with the challenges he did, both for his staff and our clients. It's that depth of experience that creates lasting value. The task, then, is teaching younger designers how to amass, and assimilate, their experiences so they too can be shared.

    I enjoy mentoring and challenging designers much more than I enjoyed actually doing design work. I enjoy thinking about the possibilities for design, and my company, much more than the process of design and implementation.

    Yet I see in my younger designers the same enthusiasm for the elegant, functional solution that I had at their age. What excites me is directing that enthusiasm, asking "what if" questions and helping both staff and clients see the possibility in the challenge they've got in front of them.

    I probably sound like an old guy, which I guess I am becoming - but design is a business of managing multiple perspectives. You can only do that if you've gained perspective, through years of experience, and know how to share it!

  14. Nicholas says:

    Congrats on 100! You've hit the nail on the head when you said "In the grand scheme of things, we’re all children, with fewer answers than questions." I'm 35 and still feel like a kid. I thought I'd have more answers by now, but it seems like there are even more questions as an adult, it's just we don't have the free time to find the answers!

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  16. Ash says:

    Hi Eric,

    As one of the young, this article really grabbed me. This brings up a lot of issues I feel recent grads such as I have been facing.

    I see the root of this schism between young and more experienced as mistrust. The young have always thought older generations are out to subjugate junior people (stick it to the man!) and the older generations do seem to regard us with, as you say, disdain or anxiety. In reality, we are hungry to learn, and I'd like to think you are hungry to teach.

    Both generations need to combine their energies, technical knowledge and experience to really move forward. We need each other! What we do now, especially in these hard times, will determine where the field goes, just as it did in the dot com bust.

  17. Hi Eric,

    Very well put - I consider myself to be just coming out of the 'youth' bracket (26) so its interesting to see your thoughts on the matter.

    I think perhaps that the most interesting part of your article was your reference to your lunch with friends and the reviewing off portfolios. I myself look at students who are only just coming out of university, or who are even more advanced before university and have thought the same thing many times - how can you compete with that talent at such a young age? I think you have knocked it on the head though when you mentioned that as a 'older' designer or creative you have that experience to draw on. You can make anything look good but does it have the meaning and the research and the knowledge behind it that a senior (older) designer has got behind him/herself and that has been put through into the design?

  18. Just wanted to chime in and say I'm a big fan of all your posts. This is my first time commenting. I'm part of the "young" generation and if there is anything I need to practice on, it is being able to write as well as you.

    congrats on the 100

  19. Thanks Octavio!

    I haven't mentioned this to anyone before now; but, last January I nearly put an end to this blog. (Comments like yours make me happy that I didn't.)

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  21. Josh Berta says:

    Eric, yet another thought provoking post. As a designer who entered the field on the later side, I've always felt an acute sensitivity about my age. Especially so in light of the design profession's own emphasis on youth - 30 seems to be the cut off for many design competitions and exposes. I have no more experience than those young designers, but I'm instantly disqualified for not figuring out my life path sooner (I'll take those lumps, but I don't have to like it).

    I can say without a doubt that my extra life experience has helped me professionally, but it's also hard to quantify that for a boss, or potential new employer. On paper, I'm a rookie, but I know I have a temperament and maturity that (I hope) makes me a valuable asset.

    Minimally it at least gives me the confidence to hold my thoughts and actions up at the level of more senior designers - to be their peer and not their subordinate. I say confidence, but that's also probably partly motivated by a fear that I have a lot of catching up to do.

    I'm now in a position where the business of design is becoming just as interesting (and in a way, necessary) as the act of designing. Once again, I'm playing catch-up. Which is what lead me to your blog and keeps me coming back these many months. I appreciate the wisdom and the discourse.

  22. Claudio Rimann says:

    Hi Eric, congrats to your 100. post.
    It's a very long time ago that i read such a long post. So true that we all need to question more the 'why?' !

  23. Judy says:

    Hi Eric,
    really enjoyed reading your post. It makes me feel very modern and confirms that children are so amazing.

  24. Thanks Judy!

    Kids are amazing, but I think they can be even more so as a result of the people around them. :-)

    Oscar comes home having learned all kinds of new things from spending the day with you. You probably don't realize how much he gets from that, and how much we admire and appreciate your passion for helping kids grow!



  25. Steve says:

    Really thoughtful piece. Sometimes when I think of this "young vs. old" issue, I think about how Pete Townshend felt about punk in the late 70's - he thought The Who had outlived its usefulness and that the young punk bands should essentially rise up and destroy the "dinosaurs" like The Who and its contemporaries.

    I'm 39 and I don't hope for my own destruction by young designers, but when I meet younger designers and I sense hunger in them, I think it's totally understandable - they should be that way; it keeps us older designers vital and moving forward in our knowledge and skills. At least, it should.

  26. Giovanni says:

    "It’s our laziness that keeps us going to the same buffet every day for lunch, thinking that the meals should change to entertain us. No, we need to find new pastures and embrace the possibility of the unknown."


  27. Rowan Price says:

    This is one of the most important publications about Web strategy.

    That's the because the role of design, and of the the design professional, is very broadly misunderstood, and at great cost. In crude economic terms, there is a great demand for clear explanations of potential value of "design-as-results-driven-strategy". Yet there is little supply, and that's where this blog comes in; not just in what you write here, but in the excellent comment threads you curate here as well.

    As for any angst vis-a-vis younger designers... dude, you're a strategist! You're just going to get better and better at teaching people how to ask: "Does it work?"

  28. Naina says:

    Congratulations Eric. As always, a thought-provoking, well-written article. And I agree about the intelligent comments as well - you have a bunch of ardent, intelligent readers because you put them up to that task with your writing.

  29. Very interesting and thoughtful post as usual Eric. Huge congratulations on your big 100th, keep up the good writing for another 100 please :)

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