Two problems with one project

Recently, a York University student requested to not work with women on a group school project. This request was based on the students’ strict religious beliefs. I take two issues from this exercise in delicate manoeuvring – both on the part of the student and the administration of York.

I’ll get this out of the way – I don’t care if you want to work only with guys, women, characters from Avatar, etc. I think that is what freedom allows you to do. And if that is truly the case here, the student should not have picked a post-secondary institution that is close to 70% women in population. He most likely should have gone to an all-male school, in an all-male country – that of course being The Vatican. Although I get the feeling the student would have had other issues. Just guessing.

A lot of people have and will write on this topic – whether it be religious expression or a misogyny adventure.

My other issue – and one that is becoming a big issue – is of course Group Projects.

Can we, now, start the process of eliminating 90% of all group projects in schools. Please.

Firstly, I’ll ask as a parent. Watching your kids struggle with groups projects is painful. Knowing that not everyone contributes equally, knowing that a group of four or five will have the lions share of the work done by two. Trying as you can as a parent to quell stress and calm fears. Hoping that there will be some sort of benefit to this exercise – but there isn’t.

Secondly, I’ll ask as a professional in an industry that hires individuals. Schools, stop allowing teachers to assign group projects. I understand that it’s far easier to mark six assignments than 30. I get it. But as a person that sees the portfolio of potential employees I am encountering far too many group projects. In some portfolios it’s been over 50% of the work been presented. How can I evaluate the potential skill and ideation of someone if their work is clustered in with masses?

Lastly, as a former college instructor, I hated the thought of giving out a group assignment. And therefore I didn’t. Here’s why from a teaching standpoint group projects suck. All of those students will leave and go searching for employment (or maybe graduate school) as individuals. At no point will that part of the journey be in groups. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the thought of a group project. Getting people to understand how to interact in a group dynamic, to get along – not kill someone. Yep, I see it. Cause more often than not you’ll be working in an office – not alone – with other carbon-based lifeforms.

But, in the real-world, you tend to work with people that have different skill-sets. Designers work with writers, account people work with media buyers. Teams are people that play different positions – if you had a hockey team of all goalies – well, you can imagine how that would not work out at all.

If colleges and universities truly want to expand the experience of group projects and make it remotely applicable – then the groups need be made up of students from different disciplines. But that would require a group effort from the administration – which seems to be the stumbling block. Ironic.


Upgrading your skills (all of them)

The paradigm shift that has happened while I’ve been in the workforce has been amazing: from having no fax machines all the way to being able to order a pizza – online – from my phone.

This shift has seen tremendous advances in technology. Just think of the features that are now considered standard on any phone – call waiting, call display, speed dial, contact list, etc. We’ve had advancements and additions to the channels of advertising as well. Thirty years ago it was radio, television, print or out-of-home (and that really meant billboards). To kind of understand how different the world was back then regarding advertising check out a ‘classic’ hockey game from the ’80s. Not a single extra piece of advertising to be found. Not on the scoreboard, not on the boards, not behind the bench, not on the risers on the stadium stairs, not a sponsored event between periods – nowhere!

The delivery technology has changed and morphed as well in those three decades. Remember the first time you saw a 15-second spot? How about the time you saw that mini-billboard above the urinal (that one might be just for the guys). Today we’re at a point where not only can ads be targeted to me – but to me as a guy, married, kids, location, interests. Depending on the technology, you can get as granular as you want. Or, you can still throw a big net on the traditional buys – TV, Radio, Newspaper. It’s up to you, your client and the message you want to deliver.

Your Skills

Over that time period we have had to upgrade our skills or acquire new ones: using a fax machine, a computer, cell phones, MS Word and Excel, Adobe Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator – you get the idea. There are always technical skills that we can work on. And if we can’t master them, we can hire technically savvy individuals. For instance, I have no desire to be able to code HTML5, CSS, Javascript. Ever. Are those technologies important to the job I do – you bet. No different than operating an offset press. It’s very important that I understand what the tools can achieve, it’s not as important for me to have the hands-on skills.

Your (other) Skills

The skills that are important for me to have – is the ability to think in terms of the available technologies and channels for marketing and advertising. These are the skills that are tougher to upgrade. They require a leap of faith – of accepting that there are new ways of doing things. And that today’s audiences are not the same as they were – nor should they be! At one point a lot of people got up and changed the channel on their TV – manually. Now you can watch a channel, surf the web, PIP a second show, set the PVR for a show past your bedtime. The people that own this technology are adapting to how it’s used and it’s benefits – we as marketing and advertising people need to make the same adjustments to our skills in terms of how we get messages to them.

We need to embrace the changes, we need to understand the mindset of the marketplace and deliver messaging and content that resonates. Without that insight, we might as well be sending out smoke signals – or using carrier pigeons.

What skills do you think matter?

Design ism’s and future

When I was teaching design my favourite class to be in front of was Design History. I loved explaining (and learning as well) what got artists to any of the eras of design. Because it was never a simple line from one art movement to another. Sometimes art was a reaction to art (like Dada was against Art Nouveau). Sometimes it was a reaction to technology, other movements were about bringing design and art together, giving it one happy home – like Bauhaus.

Some design eras were connected to countries (or geographic areas); Futurism (Italy), De Stijl (Netherlands) and Constructivism (Russia) to name a few. But like any art movement they are not contained to the people or places where they originate. They influence other movements, they influence other artists, they influence other industries.

Sometimes you can’t readily see the connection, others are much more obvious – the bold division of space by Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian showed graphic designers how a page of text could be viewed and broken down. So, when looking at the work of Jan Tschichold or Piet Zwart you can see a link – how one lead to the other.

There are plenty of examples like this throughout history (not just design or art). Understanding what are the elements that brings a current trend or movement to life can help to better see future connections. Whatever facet of life you find yourself in – take some time to understand its history – you’ll be surprised how much the past can help with the future. If you’re interested in Graphic Design – I have one source to start with Megg’s History of Graphic Design, by Philip Meggs.

What’s your favourite historic connection?

Where did imagination go?

First, I want to define for you what Imagination is for me: a gap! It’s the gap between what exists and what doesn’t exist.

Imagination helped get people to the moon, it helped create movable type, it filled the gap between promise and product, between ah ha and cha-ching. It’s still around, that imagination thing, it’s just a touch harder to find.

Culprit: Lego

Sure, there are other thieves out there – but this is the big one. Remember when Lego was just multi-coloured, multi-shaped bricks. There was the occasional motor, roof, door or wheels, but for the most part bricks. Lots of bricks. Blue, red, yellow, fours, sixes, flat ones that always hurt to pry apart with your fingernails. And those bricks could be whatever you wanted them to be – they were the gap between an idea and finished. Spaceships, cars, offices, etc. – it didn’t matter what we made. We made it first in our heads.

Today you can still get a tub of Lego – but when you can barely find the link, it means very few ‘kids’ are getting just the bricks. They are instead getting Harry Potter, Star Wars, Disney’s Cars – and many other branded versions of Lego. Even the non-branded packages are specific build projects. For instance this product has very unique parts – allowing you to configure the pictured items. And, that’s what most kids seem to want, a step-by-step guide to being creative. Or, maybe it’s the parents. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not saying all kids are like this, although it seems that we want ready made creative.

Now, full disclosure – Lego has now an Architecture series. And I would love to have most of the buildings, most notably the Robie House by (perhaps the great architect in history) Frank Lloyd Wright. But, as much as I would love to have that Lego version of a classic – I’d almost rather build it from existing bricks.

I think as long as we are short cutting the creative process by offering pre-packaged solutions we are stunting the growth of imagination in kids, and thus future adults.

What’s your take on imagination and youth?

Digital Amish

I think I figured out my Dad – well, to be honest maybe his generation when it comes to technology. Maybe, and this might – if it already hasn’t – come to describe my generation, and the generations yet to come as well.

Here it is

Technology, and the concept(s) it spawns becomes the barrier. They become, for generations, the moat that holds us back from new realms.

Take e-mail as an example. When I started in the business world as a junior Graphic Designer in 1985 – crap I’m getting old – my office did not even have a fax machine – let alone computers, e-mail, etc. We did mock-ups with Letraset, Pantone paper, Markers – we sent text (paper – from a writer) to a typesetting house who returned the galleys in the same manner – via a courier. When e-mail was first introduce to an office I was working at it was as an office feature – e-mails were sent and controlled by one computer. And that was in 1998. So – for me and countless others e-mail can sometimes feel like an extra – there are days sometimes that I forget to open Mail – and around 10 I think – hmmmm, no e-mails. Oh yeah – I really should open that application. For people entering the workforce that have had e-mail their whole life – or most of it – it’s just another tool in business. I’m still amazed when people my age – or older – are fascinated by simple features in e-mail. Like showing someone the BCC feature, or how to make a mailing group.

My point

I think that every generation has to come to terms with new and updated versions of technology. But, because they aren’t part of our everyday landscape we see then as extras.

SMS, Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, Google+, Insert new social media here, YouTube, etc.

For people like my dad – these are, depending on how he feels, dumb, useless, simple, waste-of-time – you get the picture. But for my kids, these are all just channels of communication – no different than what the phone was to my generation.

So I think that what technology creates are Digital Amish – groups of people (generationally-based) that pretty much say this is where technology stops for me. It’s happening now – it’s going to keep on happening. As long as people have the ability to utter – you know in my day…

So, what’s your moat?

Paper(less) society

The internet is a wild and fascinating place – constantly changing, always evolving. Which makes for some awkward concepts to grasp – especially based on age and background.


The great thing about paper is that it’s tactile, it can be used to print, cut, shape, fold, etc. It can be destroyed and it can be wondrous (think Gutenburg’s Bible). And as much as it’s all those things, it’s also mortal – it can exist in one place at one time. Sure, Stephen King sells millions of books, the same book, but each copy can only exist in one place. You can have two beside each other – but they cannot occupy the exact same space and time. Ever. Regardless of what any of the X-Men claim.


The internet has somewhat changed some of that thinking. With the advent of the ‘net – the explosion of the amazing behind-the-scenes hero Database has never been more dramatic. Databases are the way that data is stored – and more importantly how data is accessed. Basically, a good database allows for excellent storage and retrieval of information. Understanding that one piece of information can te related to other pieces of information through a common conncetion. For example – Adobe Photoshop Elements, Or iPhoto, allow the user to create a myriad ways to organize and label the digital assets (a.k.a. photographs). Some are built into modern image files (date, time, photo data – ƒ-stop, aperture, etc.) and others are user-applied (people, content, location, event, etc.). Once an image (or file) has those labels, it becomes digitally the opposite of paper. Sure that file can exist in only one location – but how that file is labeled and referenced mean that it can virtually reside anywhere.

It’s a hard concept to understand and grasp. especially for people that grew up in a paper society. My dad has over 10,000 slides (actual slides, mostly kodakrome), not slides like a PowerPoint deck. Those tiny, brilliantly colourful pieces of photographic history. You know the slide.

Over 10,000 – that’s a lot. And they each reside in their own space and time. My Dad has them organized by yellow boxes – based on the roll shot. Which also means that they’re organized by date. And that’s the end of the organization. Granted my Dad loves FireTrucks, so 91% of the images are of FireTrucks – so I guess there’s another level of organization. But beyond that – nothing. And really – short of scanning every one and adding them to Elements – it’s the way they’ll be organized for long time. But, he hasn’t stopped taking pictures of FireTruck. He is, however, using digital cameras, and storing those photos on his computer.

Paper collides with less

Unfortunately – he tends to store them as if they’re slides. He has created folders, within folders, trying to catalogue his digital collection. The problem of course is that having them in these folders means that you can only have the one label (whatever the name of the folder they sit in is called). Or he could have multiple folders with different attributes (like city, FireTruck class, FireTruck colour, etc.) but he would have to keep multiple copies of each photo. And, then hope that he remembers to copy the photo to each of the locations that he wants noted – let alone if he made a change or edit – having to remember each folder that the photo ‘file’ occupied.

This is not specially about my Dad – but more about a mindset. Trying to get a generation (or three) to think about data in a new way – in a way that shows connections, makes connections and future proofs for unknown connections.

Candle or Pie

I’m about 77% of the way through Tim Sanders’ Today We are Rich (why % – well, just borrowed my daughters’ Kindle (future post) and that’s how they do the count progress through the book).

Tim brought up a very interesting analogy comparison – candle and pie – related to information distribution. It’s similar to my philosophy – although I never really thought about terms – and Tim’s are a pretty good way to describe the differing approaches.


Think about having a pie – and wanting to distribute that to as many people as possible (but you still want to have some as well. You might start to cut up some pieces, hand them out and bit-by-bit – you start running out of pie. You still want to hold on to your piece. Eventually – the pieces that you offer up with be small – bit sized morsels.


Now think about a candle. Eventually a candle will be finished burning a bright light, that’s just the way it is. But until that point-in-time – that candle may light as many other candles as possible – without ever diminishing it’s own flame.

So, when it comes to knowledge and information distillation – are you the pie or the candle.