The Fault with Default

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw


Economist Michael Housman was leading a project to figure out why some customer service agents stayed in their jobs longer than others. Armed with data from over 3,000 employees who handled calls for banks, airlines and cellphone companies, he suspected that their employment histories would contain telltale signs about their commitment. He thought that people with a history of job-hopping would quit sooner. It turned out, they didn’t. Employees who had held five jobs in the past five years weren’t any more likely to leave their positions than those who had stayed in the same job for five years.

Hunting for other clues, he noticed his team had captured information about which Internet browser employees had used when they logged in to apply for their jobs. On a whim, he tested whether that choice might be related to quitting. He didn’t expect to find any correlation, assuming that browser preference was purely a matter of taste. But when he looked at the results, he was stunned. Employees who used Firefox or Chrome to browse the Web remained in their jobs 15% longer than those who used Internet Explorer or Safari.

Thinking it was a coincidence, Housman ran the same analysis for absences from work. The pattern was the same. Firefox and Chrome users were 19% less likely to miss work than Internet Explorer and Safari users.

Then he looked at performance. His team had assembled nearly three million data points on sales, customer satisfaction and average call length. The Firefox and Chrome users had significantly higher sales, and their call times were shorter. Their customers were happier, too. After 90 days on the job, the Firefox and Chrome users had customer satisfaction levels that Internet Explorer and Safari users reached only after 120 days at work.

So, why are the Firefox and Chrome users more committed and better performers?

The obvious answer was that they’re more tech savvy. The employees had all taken a computer proficiency test, which assessed their knowledge of keyboard shortcuts, software programs and hardware, as well as a timed test of their typing speed. But the Firefox and Chrome group didn’t prove to have significantly more computer expertise, and they weren’t faster or more accurate typists. Even after accounting for those scores, the browser effect persisted. Technical knowledge and skill weren’t the source of their advantage.

What made the difference was how they obtained the browser. If you own a PC, Internet Explorer is built into Windows. If you’re a Mac user, your computer came pre-installed with Safari. Almost two-thirds of the customer service agents used the default browser, never questioning whether a better one was available.

To get Firefox or Chrome, you have to demonstrate some resourcefulness and download a different browser. Instead of accepting the default, you take a bit of initiative to seek out an option that might be better. And that act of initiative, however tiny, is a window into what you do at work.

The customer service agents who accepted the defaults of Internet Explorer and Safari approached their job the same way. They stayed on script in sales calls and followed standard operating procedures for handling customer complaints. They saw their job descriptions as fixed, so when they were unhappy with their work, they started missing days and eventually quit.

The employees who took the initiative to change their browsers to Firefox or Chrome approached their jobs differently. They looked for novel ways of selling to customers and addressing their concerns. When they encountered a situation they didn’t like, they fixed it. Having taken the initiative to improve their circumstances, they had little reason to leave. They created the jobs they wanted. However, they were the exception, not the rule.

We live in an Internet Explorer world. Just as almost two-thirds of the customer service reps used the default browser on their computers, many of us accept the defaults in our own lives. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. The starting point is curiosity — pondering why the default exists in the first place. (See Curiositá)

Adapted from Originals by Adam Grant

You’ve Been Zapfed

“What Michelangelo was to sculpture and Beethoven was to music, that’s what Hermann Zapf is to type design and calligraphy.” – Jerry Kelly


Almost a year ago, on June 9, 2015, quietly, unbeknownst to most of the world, a man who has touched the lives of millions around the world died in Darmstadt, Germany. You’ve seen his work in books, magazines and newspapers. His creative output has found its way onto signs, billboards, monuments and computer screens for more than half a century. His name is Hermann Zapf, he was 93 years old and is considered the foremost type designer in the world.

Zapf created approximately 200 typefaces in numerous alphabets, including Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic and Cherokee, spanning the eras of metal typesetting, phototypesetting and digital typesetting. His typefaces are among the most utilized in the world. They include Palatino (bundled with Microsoft Word), Optima (used on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) and Zapfino (shipped with every Macintosh computer). And, of course, his self-named Dingbats.

I met Mr. Zapf (figuratively), in 1972, as a first-year graphic design student at the University of Texas at Arlington. This was long before the proliferation of digitally-designed fonts, so his handcrafted typefaces were among the gold standard … and still are. For years, Palatino was my “go-to” typeface for brochures and ads. Just recently, I “re-used” Optima. It was like slipping into a familiar, comfortable pair of shoes. Like Michelangelo and Beethoven, Zapf’s work is timeless and will continue to be enjoyed and employed by generations to come.

Logo Ooops (Revisited)

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” – Scott Adams

Pepsi Logos

Last week, I spotlighted three logo revamps that misfired and caused their companies to revert to their previous logos. Another logo redesign that stirred considerable controversy was the Pepsi logo introduced in 2008, eliminating a widely recognizable mark that had stood for 35 years. Many considered the new logo a mistake. Few have called it art.

Pepsi Logos - Funny

Created by Peter Arnell, it still used a red, white and blue circle, but the wavy white band across the middle was transformed into a lopsided “smile.” In fact, Arnell created two other variations: a grin for Diet Pepsi and a laugh for Pepsi Max. Pepsico had enough sense to nix the grin and laugh but not enough to squash the smile. As a result, a multitude of designers have had fun turning the “smile” into a reason to chuckle.

Was This the Straw?

“You kiddin’? They could whip up some bad Photoshop poster in an afternoon. They do it all the time, two big heads.” — David Drayton, from the movie The Mist

The Mist

On January 14, 2014, I mused about The Death of Drawing in my life. I related a specific incident that led to its untimely demise. In the post I shared the story of Drew Struzan, the famous movie poster artist who faced a similar setback. Drew has illustrated more than 150 movie posters, including all the films in the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Rambo and Star Wars film series.

I recently stumbled across Drew’s name while searching the Internet. It was in regard to the 2007 horror movie The Mist. The film was written and directed by Frank Darabont and based on a 1980 novella by Stephen King, part of his Skeleton Crew collection. Frank Darabont had previously adapted King’s works The Shawshank Redemption (1994 film based on the 1982 novella) and The Green Mile (1999 film based on the 1996 novel).

In the novella, the main character is David Drayton, a moderately successful commercial artist who narrates the story. In the film adaption, Darabont turns David into a successful painter and movie poster artist (a la Drew Struzan).

In the opening scene, David is working on a painting in his studio. The painting is based on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and was actually created by Drew Struzan himself. Darabont also included reproductions of Struzan’s posters and illustrations for The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. In an odd turn of events, Struzan would go on to produce a poster for The Mist but the image was not used in the film’s marketing campaign. A similar fate had been suffered by his posters for Hook, Hellboy and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

As I stated in my earlier post, the growing use of Photoshop and the meddling of an ever-growing number of people in the creative process prompted Drew to retire in September 2008. Since then he has focused primarily on personal work, along with an occasional commercial project.

The Mist was released in November 2007, the year prior to his retirement. I wonder if this movie poster was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

To put a somewhat happy ending on the story, Drew’s rejected poster art (above) was used by Signet Books on the standalone paperback released in conjunction with the film.

There’s Always a First

“Every artist was first an amateur.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

UBC Logo

While digging through some old files, I came across the first logo I ever designed. The year was 1971. The Beatles were still advising us to “Let It Be,” while The Brady Bunch was showing us “how to be.” I was a senior at Arlington High School in Arlington, Texas, when I designed this logo for University Baptist Church. The ICHTHUS was a popular Christian symbol at the time (thanks to the Jesus People), so I combined it with a cross and the church’s initials. Our minister of youth, Davy Henderson, liked it so much he had it made into car window decals we sold to raise money for a mission trip to Michigan. It would eventually find its way onto business cards, stationery, signage, T-shirts and more.

Little did I know when I showed Davy that crude drawing, executed on a piece of typing paper with a cheap ballpoint pen, I would be setting the course for my life’s work. Such are humble beginnings … and the path of the true amateur. defines an amateur as “a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons.” That was me. And if you dig a little deeper — back to the word’s origin — you discover it’s French, from the Latin amator (lover). That was me, too.

It’s been almost 46 years since I created that first logo, and I still find immense pleasure in what I’m doing. And if I had to, I’d still do it for nothing. Now, that’s love.

Mind at (Re)Play

“If you’re not buying recycled products, you’re not really recycling.” – Ed Begley, Jr.

Warning - Mind at Play

Back in March 2012, I posted a two-part Musing about the creative process called The Play Instinct. To illustrate the posts, I used a couple of graphics I’d created for a similar article printed two decades earlier in a self-promotional newsletter/portfolio called ByDesign. Artistically, I was recycling.

Last month, I received the following email via the contact form on this website:

“My name’s Trevor Strong. I’m just starting to completely redo my terrible website and I’d settled on a new tagline: Warning: Mind at Play. I do a variety of things: I’m in a music/comedy group called the Arrogant Worms — I write books, I give creativity classes and workshops at schools and companies, I research humo(u)r and creativity — and I thought that was a line that would tie everything together. The next step would then be to try to get some sort of logo, and it occurred to me, this being the era of the internet, that it probably already existed. So I Googled and up came your stuff. Anyway, I’m just checking to see if you’d be willing to let me use them (for a fee, of course) and, if you’re up for that, if you could add the word “warning” on it. (I like the brain on the skateboard best.) Thanks!”

After poking around on the Internet and Googling “Trevor Strong” and “The Arrogant Worms,” I discovered the guy is legit. He’s from Kingston, Ontario. He’s in a well-known musical comedy group. And he’s also very funny.

I emailed him back, made arrangements and, within days, sent him the requested logos (for a fee, of course). Since the newsletters have long ago been ingested by various landfills, and the digital art is buried near the bottom of this blog, it felt good to put the illustrations back to work.

Thanks, Trevor, for recycling.

To learn more about Trevor and the Arrogant Worms follow these links:

Warning: Mind at Play

The Arrogant Worms

Still Hanging Around

“Happiness is a warm logo.” – Rick Boyd (with apologies to Charles Shultz)

On February 27, 2012, I posted five logos I’d designed many years ago that were still in use. I stated that I was glad to see them still around. Since then, two of the logos have bit the dust (I recently updated the post), but I recently rediscovered two other logos that were designed in 1998 and are still doing their job. It makes this graphic designer’s heart happy.

Meadowood Logo

Meadowood Baptist Church

PMHomes Logo

Paul Methvin Homes

Show Your Work!

“For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed.” – Honore de Balzac

Austin Kleon has just written another charming, little, square (6” x 6”) book on creativity in the fashion of his bestseller, Steal Like An Artist. (I wrote about it in July 2012.) His latest effort is called Show Your Work!. To use a baseball analogy, for me, Steal Like An Artist is a homerun while Show Your Work! gets tagged out on the way to second base. It felt like a bunch of blogs (which he admits to near the end of the book) cobbled together under ten headings (the magic number from his last book). And while it didn’t inspire me or reveal much I didn’t already know, the Amazon reviews indicate there are multitudes who found the book insightful. Perhaps you will too, so check it out. Below are a few takeaways from his chapter titled “Stick Around.”

Show Your Work

Every career is full of ups and downs, and just like with stories, when you’re in the middle of living out your life and career, you don’t know whether you’re up or down or what’s about to happen next. That’s why the people who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough.

“Work is never finished, only abandoned.” – Paul Valéry

Therefore, never give up! Every day, just go about your work. You can’t count on success; you can only leave open the possibility for it, and be ready to jump on and take the ride when it comes for you.

“We work because it’s a chain reaction, each subject leads to the next.” – Charles Eames

To avoid stalling out, it’s important to never lose momentum in your work. It may help to end each day with some aspect of your current project unfinished. Ernest Hemingway would stop in the middle of a sentence so he would have a starting point the following morning. And instead of taking a break between projects, use the end of one project as a springboard into the next one. Ask yourself what you might have missed or what you could have done better … then jump right into the next project.

Adapted from Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

Feeling Blue?

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” — Wassily Kandinsky

Feeling Blue

Believe it or not, there’s not a bit of blue paint in this painting — nor green or any other “cool” color. It’s painted with a palette of only “warm” colors (yellows, oranges and reds), along with black and white.

Known as the Renaissance palette, this collection of paint colors was used widely in the 1600s by Renaissance painters, most notably Rembrandt. Rembrandt’s primary palette included yellow ocher, burnt sienna, burnt umber, white, black and a brownish or orangey red such as cadmium red deep. It’s important to note that this palette wasn’t entirely a matter of choice. At the time, pigments for colors at the blue and green end of the spectrum were very expensive, as they could only be made by grinding up gemstones like lapis lazuli (blue) or malachite (green). Also, other less expensive cool pigments had a tendency to fade when exposed to light.

Rembrandt Young ManRembrandt and others solved the problem of costly and problematic pigments by using a trick of the eyes. He found that if he mixed black and white, he could make a gray that tended to look blue in the presence of warm colors. Likewise, black and yellow ochre could be mixed to make a warm gray that looked greenish. The same trick is at work in the above painting, Virginia Gentleman, by contemporary artist Diane Tesler.

This optical illusion is called the Retinex Theory, devised in 1971 by Edwin Land, co-founder of Polaroid. It’s also called the Land Effect. Land demonstrated that only two colors are needed for your brain to see an image as “full color.” He discovered that the brain relies heavily on context when deciding an object’s color. That’s why a bright red mailbox appears red by daylight, by moonlight and even under sodium street lights. And why the same shade of gray can appear yellow in one context, green in another and blue in yet another.

Creative Schizophrenia

“Like the color white that includes all the hues of the spectrum, [creative people] tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Rainbow Man

I’ve written often on the subject of creativity. As someone who’s been paid “to be creative” for almost 40 years, the topic continues to fascinate me. I’m currently reading a scholarly tome on creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Even the book’s title sounds scholarly: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Csikszentmihalyi’s claim to fame is the development of the theory of “flow,” a state of acute concentration and intrinsic motivation where a person is fully immersed in what he is doing and, thereby, experiencing ultimate happiness. Flow is characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment and skill, during which temporal concerns such as time, food, discomfort and ego are ignored.

His book, Creativity, is based on videotaped interviews conducted with 91 exceptional (his word, not mine) individuals between 1990 and 1995. This number was culled from an initial list of 275 prominent people in the fields of science, the arts, business and government. What’s interesting is that more than half of the scientists asked to participate in the research agreed to do so, while less than one-third of the artists, writers and musicians accepted the invitation. It appears they were too busy. I can relate.

One of Csikszentmihalyi’s many observations about creative people is that they possess “complex personalities” which “show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an individual, each of them is a multitude.”

Nineteen out of the twenty people in me strongly agree with that statement. This may explain why the creative process for me has always been a journey from the complex to the simple; from clutter to clarity — an ongoing, internal argument with the many sides of myself. In other words, a form of controlled schizophrenia.

Through his interviews, Csikszentmihalyi discovered ten contradictory traits that are frequently present in creative people:

1 Most creative people have a great deal of physical energy, BUT are often quiet and at rest. They can work long hours at great concentration.

2 Most creative people tend to be smart AND naive at the same time. They are able to easily shift between two opposite ways of thinking: convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking “involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer.” Divergent thinking “involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas.”

3 Most creative people combine both playfulness AND productivity, which can sometimes mean both irresponsibility and responsibility. “Despite the carefree air that many creative people affect, most of them work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not.”

4 Most creative people alternate fluently between imagination and fantasy AND a rooted sense of reality. In both art and science, movement forward involves a leap of imagination, a leap into a world that is different from our present. Interestingly, this visionary imagination works in conjunction with a hyper-awareness of reality. Attention to real details allows a creative person to imagine ways to improve them.

5 Most creative people tend to be both introverted AND extroverted. Many people tend toward one extreme or the other, but highly creative people are a balance of both simultaneously.

6 Most creative people are genuinely humble AND display a strong sense of pride at the same time.

7 Most creative people are comfortable with their culturally-based gender roles BUT to some extent escape rigid gender role stereotyping. “It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.”

8 Most creative people are both traditional AND rebellious. “Being only traditional leaves the domain [of culture] unchanged; constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as an improvement. So it’s difficult to see how a person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.”

9 Most creative people are very passionate about their work, BUT remain extremely objective about it as well. They are able to admit when something they have made is not very good.

10 Most creative people’s openness and sensitivity exposes them to a large amount of suffering and pain, BUT they experience joy and life in the midst of that suffering. “Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait, poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at universities, and physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.”

Adapted from Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Think Like a Traveler

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” — Henry Miller

Think Like Traveler

We’ve all heard that “travel broadens the mind,” but beneath this cliché is a deep truth; a truth that became even more apparent during my recent journey across Europe. When you travel, things stand out because they’re different. You notice every detail, from street signs to mailboxes to how you shop for groceries. You learn a lot when you travel not because you’re any smarter on foreign soil, but because you pay closer attention. On a trip, you play your own role as Sherlock Holmes, intensely observing the environment around you. You’re continuously trying to figure out a strange and new world. Back home, you go through day-to-day life on cruise control, oblivious to huge swaths of your surroundings.

When we meet creative people with lots of ideas constantly bubbling to the surface, we often come away feeling they’re operating on a different wavelength. And they are, most of the time. They have all their receptors on — and frequently turned up to 101. But the fact is we’re all capable of operating in this mode. To do so, it helps to engage a “beginner’s mind.”

Children provide a perfect illustration. For them, everything is novel so they ask lots of questions and look at the world wide-eyed, soaking it all in. Everywhere they turn, they tend to think, “Isn’t that interesting?” rather than “I already know about that.”

Rediscovering the familiar is a powerful example of how looking at something closely can effect what you see. Try applying a beginner’s mind to something you do or see every day: commuting to work, organizing your workspace, eating lunch, watching TV or putting the kids to bed. Look for new insights from familiar things. Think of it as a treasure hunt.

By adopting the eyes of a traveler and a beginner’s mindset, you’ll notice details you might otherwise have overlooked. You’ll put aside assumptions and become fully immersed in the world around you. In this receptive mode, you’re ready to start actively seeking inspiration. And when it comes to inspiration, quantity matters. The more stimuli that crosses your field of view, the more fresh ideas you’ll generate.

So ask yourself: What can I do to increase the flow of new ideas? When was the last time I took a class or attended a seminar? Read some unusual magazines or blogs? Listened to a new genre of music? Traveled a different route to work? Watched a foreign movie? Played a new game? Introduced myself to a complete stranger?

To keep your thinking fresh, constantly seek out new sources of information and inspiration. This cross-pollination of varied stimuli is a sure-fire method for generating creative solutions.

Adapted from Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley