Why I Design

Why I Design

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed how it’s changed its focus from the personal to the productive. In the beginning, when I first started blogging out of a kind of quiet desperation to once and for all figure myself out, the entries were short clippings of my thoughts on whatever happened to catch my eye and interest. As time went on, and I discovered that long-lost friends were starting to stumble upon the webby shores of my site, I grew a little bolder and started writing in more depth about topics that were interesting to me. Blogging for that small audience was the outlet I needed.

At the beginning of 2005, I was starting to just come out of a two-year period of negativity, and was comfortable enough about writing online to make a few rambling journeys into personal introspection. These felt quite daring because they were so out of character with the other posts, which tended to be more detailed, hard-edged and technical. I remember posting about feeling negative, and a couple of my friends actually emailed me to make sure I wasn’t about to lose it. While I find those posts to be somewhat embarrassing in retrospect, they are also as honest as I could make them, so I leave them up as signposts of my online journey. And it was through this journey that I really started getting to the bottom of what was important to me so I could create solutions to my problems. This is what lead to the original Printable CEO article, with its bizarre merging of psychology via video game design philosophy. I think one reason people like it, other than its sheer geekiness, is that it was designed to help you care about yourself. Fundamentally, I think of it as a design that is all about caring, inspiring, and empowering individuals.

Lately I’ve been avoiding writing the long introspective posts, because I’ve been aware of the growing contingent of productivity enthusiasts who have come here through sites like LifeHacker and Web Worker Daily. These are very popular, tip-focused sites that link to the various forms I’ve created to address the different inefficiencies I’ve faced in my freelancing career. Every time one of these sites links to an article here, I see a bump in RSS subscriptions. A few days later, I see a corresponding dip as people realize that I tend to write about other stuff like sandwiches and they unsubscribe. This used to bum me out, but I would tell myself that my writing is not for everyone. It’s hard to describe exactly what keeps people here, actually, but I figure the people who stay are the ones I want to talk to in the first place. It’s been tougher recently to stick to that line because I’m starting to realize that there is a lot I could do to drive traffic and build a real “web property”. I’m starting my 4th year of blogging, and over those years I’ve learned quite a bit about how to write content and how to maintain a website. I’ve seen other websites that have started at around the same time I have flourish and explode into full-fledged enterprises, far beyond what I’ve done here. It was for this reason that I switched from WordPress to Expression Engine, because Expression Engine offers me the ability to start expanding my site facilities without a whole of painful integration work. It will allow me to start compartmentalizing my writing into focused, ad-friendly packets of content. It’s a good media strategy.

You might be surprised to know that I don’t spend every day reading RSS feeds to suck down the latest productivity and design news. I know that stuff is out there, but I get most of what I know through other people mentioning what’s hot in passing. The sites that I do visit are ones that share the stories of someone’s life. If there are any tips, they’re offered in context to what someone has done and how it affected them. This is what I am drawn to, and recognizing that changes the way I deploy my shiny technical skills. I design because I like stories. And the kind of stories I like best are ones where someone has a dream, meets an obstacle that seems unsurmountable, then finds that greatness in themselves somehow to get past it.

I recently reread Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life?, which is his book about ordinary people who have asked this question and what they did about it. I originally read the book sometime in 2003, before I knew what a blog was and before I knew what was important to me. All I knew was that I wasn’t particularly happy or inspired or motivated, though I wanted to feel that way. I wanted a calling, and the book reassured me that I wasn’t alone or crazy in desiring this. Then I forgot about the book and went on with my life. 2004 kind of sucked, but 2005 offered possibility. 2006 was pretty good, and 2007 was better still because I’ve met people who have made a difference in my life, and have given me fresh perspective. What I lacked, though, was a sense of being part of a greater movement. What Should I Do With My Life? (a book about individual calling), along with Why Do I Love These People (a related book about family bonds) has reconnected me with the notion that it’s really the people making their lives work that inspire me every day. And so, if what I can do with my life can help them make their stories better and make a good life…that’s precisely what I want to do. I just need to make it pay.

I’m not exactly sure why I wrote this, though I suspect it’s partly a reaction to my NOT having written a rambling personal post in quite some time, and it’s probably also part of my processing of my Po Bronson weekend. I think maybe this is an affirmation of faith, and maybe it’s also a beacon. As an experiment I’ve tried linking this post to the forum that I just installed this weekend for the C# Study Group. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s the small offerings to connect that lead to surprising opportunities. You just need to keep making the offer, and not have expectations on what comes back. It’s both scary and exciting. It doesn’t always work out or last, but heck let’s see if anything happens. You can register here.


  1. Scott 15 years ago

    I know the reason I stay here is *because* of your stories. Other productivity sites simply give you the forms or the methodology and leave it at that. Knowing where the form originated from, the reasons for the design, even side stories about fortune tellers, makes for interesting content.

    I’m one of those geeks who loves watching “The Making of…” shows where they strip away all of the Hollywood frippery and show you how a particular scene was constructed and executed. Unlike revealing a magician’s trick (which often cheapens the effect when you see it again), seeing these shows only improves my enjoyment of seeing the scene again. I like knowing the Millenium Falcon was based on a hamburger with an olive next to it. Goofy trivia, sure, but it’s really nice to see how something incredibly cool can come from mundane beginnings.

  2. Barry W. Morris 15 years ago

    I, too, read Po Bronson’s book a few years ago when I was a corporate drone longing to be free of my office.  It spoke to me about importance of listening to what my heart knew to be true and the courage to follow its lead.

    It’s obvious to me that you’ve listened to yours and the resulting blog and productivity tools are evidence of your willingness to follow.

    Regardless of the focus of your posts, I learn from them. Keep teaching, Bro.


  3. KatFrench 15 years ago

    I for one am really glad you posted this.  I like stories, too.  And I think that productivity, divorced from the context of a personal narrative, becomes a little… scary.  Cold. It becomes the thing that makes creative folks shy away from organization in the first place, I think. 

    Like you, I have my moments when I’m embarrassed by some of the rambling internal musings on my own blog.  When I think “If I’d just start writing like [insert name of wildly popular problogger here], I’d be giving people what they want and making scads of cash.”

    But I think you have a responsibility to tell the tale you’re given, and trust that it’s meaningful.

  4. AMP 15 years ago

    Same goes for me—the stories are the reason I’m subscribed.  If PCEO were merely a useful tool for me, I’d just have it bookmarked.  But your daily observations and experiments on productivity (and sandwiches) are things I find really applicable, helpful, and entertaining right now.  I’m in my early career years, and have been spending a lot of time tweaking my routines and habits as I discover what works and what doesn’t.

    The posts you regard as mildly embarrassing are oddly some of the most inspiring.  It’s nice to actually read about another person confronting ghosts of isolation and slothfulness… many of the productivity gurus come across so scary-perfect as to be discouraging, completely skirting the issue of what to do when you’re feeling ineffective.  And so abstract!  I’d much rather get my productivity ideas from a clever fellow human than a Productivity God.

    Finally, there’s a lot of fun in the unexpected—your desktop grilling article, for instance, sticks in my mind.

  5. J Lane 15 years ago

    I just find your posts interesting.

    It’s hard to run a personal blog and keep it on one topic.  I think that unless you’re writing “a productivity blog” with the main goal of making money from advertising, you’ve got every write to post stories about whatever you want.

    I love your forms, but my favorite story last year was about the Sumo Omni.  I had to order a couple, and they rock.

  6. Penny 15 years ago

    Yes, I come for the quirky templates and forms, but stick around for the stories.

    I’ve noticed that when blogs I like aim at being big, they loose whatever it was that appealed to me.  I could give examples, but doing that is a bit negative.  But its their website, they should do what they want.  Do what you want: whether it is to keep your current ‘voice’ or to aim big.

    Also I was reading another blog recently, which made the point that poeple who find websites via LifeHacker etc are never going to stay around anyway.  They are the type who are always flocking to the latest Big Thing.

  7. Katrina Messenger 15 years ago

    I too love reading your stories.  People often tell me that reading my blog rants and ramblings inspires them too.

    But your blog for me is an example of a person willing to show what is happening behind the scenes in the creative process—and that is a rare gift.

    As long as you keep offering peeks behind the curtain, I will continue to visit your Oz. 

    many thanks …

  8. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Thanks everyone for your encouragement! I very much appreciate it. What comes to mind is that I’d like to continue writing with an individual focus, like I am talking to friends in the room. And thus I receive in kind :-)