Precisely Good Enough

November 27, 2019 – by Tom Tian

One of the small, heady pleasures of design is making things line up just so. "Pixel-perfect" icons; harmonized type hierarchies; grids to die for; that final brushstroke that pushes something over the ineffable, razor-thin border that separates "complete" from "incomplete."

I think those delights speak to the primal appeal of being in control. We value minding the details because it means we've scrutinized and accounted for every little thing. Computers have undoubtedly fed this obsession — after all, there's nothing quite like precision verified to the umpteenth decimal place.

But frustration is seldom far behind. With more precise tools come the possibility of knowing how precisely off the mark we can be.

Don't look too close. Or do.

Which brings me to the wood shop. Last winter I decided to make my partner a seed box — she's an avid gardener and I wanted to try my hand at something new. After some preliminary hand sketches I booted up Illustrator and translated those rough pencils into precisely tuned schematics.

The studio's then-limited selection of tools didn't deter me. If we could build Typeforce window installations with what we had then surely I could build a box.

But I was a novice with more gusto than good sense. My naivety soon translated into mismatched box lids, unsightly gaps, unevenly spaced grooves, and the mental anguish of a million other little annoyances.

Acquiring the right tools helped, even if it initially just meant that I could make the same number of mistakes in half the time. While I grew more comfortable, efficient, and accurate, the level of finish I achieved remained agonizingly far from what I'd envisioned. With Christmas looming, I threw up my hands and settled for something amateurish at best.

Torturous misalignment.

Crestfallen, I sought counsel from my partner's uncle, an architect and seasoned woodworker with a veritable hardware store in his garage. His advice? Be realistic.

He didn't necessarily mean that I should set my sights lower — though that's sometimes a must. Rather, it was a reminder to not confuse the picture in my mind for the thing in my hand.

It hadn't occurred to me until then that that was exactly what I was doing. The articles and tutorials I consulted told me how to masterfully craft something in minute detail, and in doing so presented the act of making as a one-to-one translation of idea to object. Like a novice chef sticking to a recipe out of fear, the blueprints and instructions in my mind left me no room to adjust and, by extension, to truly experiment and learn.

Recognizing this snapped me out of the antagonistic, anxiety-provoking struggle of imposing my internal expectations upon an uncooperative, messy external world. I still believe that to make is to master, but I now appreciate that mastery not as the product of mostly rote practice or will, but as an accumulated wisdom born of observing, recognizing, understanding and respecting one's tools and medium.

A prototype Typeforce X box joint and pin.

I learned this lesson too late for the seed box, but I'm glad that I did so in time for Typeforce X. Sure, we still started from sketches and schematics, but the design really came together in the workshop as we prototyped and discussed the results. In the end, no two Xs were exactly alike because we improved with each one we made, and while I don't think we ever got our tolerances down to hairlines or our corners close to orthogonal, you know what?

It was precisely good enough.

P.S. I made a second seed box a couple of months later. It took one try, some wood filler and way more sanding than you'd believe.

Onward and Upward: Progress on the 2019 Grant for Good

August 27, 2019 – by Nermin

Every year, we give away comprehensive branding and design services to one kick-ass nonprofit...for the full year. Neat right? It’s called the Grant for Good and we love it. 

This year’s grantee is a full-on baddie, if I may say so myself. Onward is a national nonprofit that builds individual and organizational capacity for dismantling systems of oppression through innovative learning experiences and racial equity consulting. Like I said, rad.

The What, Why, and How

Since March, we have been pouring our hearts into a brand strategy and visual identity for Onward, with a fresh new website and a handful of print materials on the way. The goal? Translate Onward’s mission—building an equitable world through compassion, creativity and productive conflict—into a solid, ownable design system.


Complex problems require bold solutions...or a mash-up of them. After exhaustive visual exploration, we developed two distinct concepts for the Onward identity: 1) Forward and Onward, and 2) Dismantling Systems. The former was inspired by the plainspoken urgency of Civil Rights era posters. The latter emerged from a simple hand-drawn sketch: an explicit rejection of racism.

Onward inspiration
From inspiration to concept

Direction 1: The custom-drawn wordmark elicits forward movement through the subtle shift in the counters of the O and D. Letterforms are trimmed at the edges, creating a sense of solidity and togetherness to the wordmark.

Direction 2: The forward-slanted wordmark suggests rhythm and action through the dramatic movement happening between the N and W. An expressive gesture, the two letters link up at the top creating a chain reaction that is inherent in Onward’s work.

Both concepts were simple, yet sophisticated and flexible enough to frame many stories in a unified brand voice. In the first direction, the angled tape-like device (derived from the slanted counters) provides a sense of purposeful agitation, while calling attention to and centering subjects. In the second, color blocking and layering stands out as a modular system inviting the viewer to "peel apart layers" and uncover underrepresented stories and experiences.

Layout mockups

While the Onward team gravitated towards the first direction, they enjoyed much about both systems. The former suggested a “domino effect” that resonated with Onward’s desire to affect change while eliciting a sense of permanence and strength. The bold layering and colorways of the second system offered a more lively, even playful approach to engaging folks in the work ahead.

By merging two visual styles, we brought forth a third direction that captures the best of both—a testament to the outstanding collaborative effort between client and creative team.

Onward third direction
Developed direction

Mocking It Up

With a bold palette, versatile brand device, and strong messaging in place, the real fun began. We designed swag, prints, and even… (wait for it)... a fierce onesie for the world’s raddest baby! *tiny fist bump.*

onward tote and stickers
Tote + stickers
urban posters
onward onesie
onward leave behinds
leave behinds

Hussle & Heal

With a few months left together, we can say our work with Onward has been an extraordinary exercise in not only creative collaboration but humility, compassion and unending gratitude. Our first design presentation was scheduled for April 11—the date of Nipsey Hussle’s celebration of life, in the wake of his tragic death.

Nothing could have prepared us for our partner’s raw expression of vulnerability and resolve on that day. Like the man himself, they have spent their lives building movements, seeking justice and fighting fearlessly for change. We offered to reschedule the presentation and were assured no, no. To see a glimpse of the possible future might just be a balm for a broken heart.

Nipsey Hussle
Photo Credit: Jorge Peniche

The Latin definition of attention is to “stretch toward.” When you empathize with someone, you're stretching outside of yourself and stretching into that person's world.** That meeting helped me access new stores of empathy. While we had been perfecting pixels, the Onward team had been in mourning. They needed us to show up whole-heartedly that day. And we did. And we will. Every. Single. Day.

Design may not save the world. But small acts can change our perspectives and open our hearts and minds. As Onward’s intrepid founder, Thaly, once astutely said, like a domino effect…

Onward and upward.

*Chris Adkins, Associate Teaching Professor in the Management & Organization Department at the D.School

Talking Lingo

July 1, 2019 – by Dean

So I’ve always found myself a little obsessed with language — learning, making, playing with it. As a mere 4th grader, I filled the pages of my notebooks with systems of scribbles spanning letters A through Z, my own personal ciphers and meaning-making. I always found it fascinating to create a world and culture of my own through letters and symbols. Today, I’ve found a new way to create languages of my own through type and iconography. One small change to the design of a letter affects the flavor of a paragraph or the meaning of a word; designers can harness that modularity to build our grids and pages. Modularity is central to what I perceive as design, but it can also extend into how we understand language itself.

Meaning is Modular

In school, I loved learning about semiotics (a fancy word for the study of signs and symbols). As it turns out, humans are meaning-making machines, and the meaning of visual symbols evolve naturally over the course of how we use them. Ferdinand De Saussure, the father of semiotics, also widely regarded as the father of linguistics, studied not only visual language, but the formation of verbal language, beginning a century of analysis on the way we speak. 

Can our speech be designed the way our visual languages are? As visual communicators, our job is to create meaning out of modular shape systems — but what of verbal language?

Treating grammar and pronunciation as modular creates an entirely new medium. Which is what linguists have known for the last 100 years. They've categorized sounds in every language — consonants, vowels, and even clicks — into a component-based system. The chart below is one example of a series of sound categories; this one is just the consonants in the phonetic alphabet. As a set, they describe parts of speech, our verbal building blocks.

Yes the symbols here don’t quite mean much on first glance, it is verbal after all. For a listening reference, try

With this, we can better understand modern linguistic design problems. If semiotics can be a solution for design, why not linguistics? 

Design Brief: Guttural, Harsh, & Alien

Klingon, believe it or not, is an interesting design problem. Before 1984, Star Trek’s Klingonese included only several lines of harsh, guttural gibberish, quickly created by the show's writers to introduce the vast Klingon Empire. To develop a fully speakable language, the writers commissioned Marc Okrand, who used that early gibberish as a spring-board. 

To understand how he did that, let's refer back to our Phonetic Alphabet chart: moving from left to right, the right extremes are the hardest sounds for our tongue to make, and the least common in many languages. What better to use as the standard for an alien language? Okrand expanded the Klingon vocabulary by taking the rarest sounds and rules known in Western linguistics. 

What's more, the grammar he implemented was increasingly unusual. Klingon has an object-subject-verb word order, a structure used by only 1% of languages today. While in English, we'd say "She loves them," an object-verb-subject order says "They love she." Just one grammatical rule in a suite of oddities that were built into the alien language.

Success! or Goodbye! A happy farewell, no?

Design Brief: Elegant, Flowing, & Ancient

You may remember the elves of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as ancient, wise, and regal, nomadic beings that spent their existence in migration. Tolkien wanted their language to evolve over time, showing the change in dialects and culture. In linguistics, this is considered Diachronic meaning. Seen in English and Old English, phrases and pronunciation have evolved over the course of Western civilization. We've adopted words from other cultures; slang becomes standard; standards are constantly changing. 

In Lord of The Rings lore, the old Elvish language Quenya evolved as the Elves migrated, eventually creating Sindarin, the language commonly spoken in the LOTR films and book series. Tolkien devised both languages, creating a fully fleshed out vision of Elvish heritage. Its flowing and graceful cadence was based on many sounds in the old Celtic tongue (in which Tolkien was well-versed). It's striking to hear the familiarity between the two languages:

Tolkien reciting his own Quenyan poem
Sindarin in The Lord of the Rings film franchise

Design Brief: Familiar, Flexible, Fostering Unification

Languages can be designed with good intentions, not just for good storytelling. L.L. Zamenhof created Esperanto as part of an ambitious (and idealistic) goal of unifying Europe during the late 1800s. Born in 1859 to a Jewish family in Poland, Zamenhof lived in a melting pot of Russian, German, Polish, and Jewish people. Having grown up seeing those cultural tensions, he started publishing his new lexicon under the pseudonym “Doctor Esperanto.”(Forget elvish and Klingon, we’re solving real problems here!) 

Known as an A Posteriori language, Esperanto was built using other languages as a foundation, to make it familiar and easy to learn. While it may not have brought us everlasting international peace, people across the world do speak Esperanto to this day. That's what I'd call a well-made language.

William Shatner speaking Esperanto in Incubus (Yes, a William Shatner not related to Klingon!)

This is all, of course, just skimming the surface. There is so much to explore at the intersection of design and linguistics—and I encourage you to do it. Maybe the world will start investing in language design and one day, we’ll be speaking IBM-ese or Facebookian *shudder*

In closing:

Le hannon! Thanks!
— and —
Qapla'! Goodbye!

An Unlikely Parity: How Stand Up Comedy Made Me a Better Designer

May 6, 2019 – by Nermin

Early last year, I took a beginner’s stand up comedy class in order to become a better designer… It’s a stretch, I know. But stick with me.

Prior to joining the studio in 2017, I’d been a freelance designer, living the elusive dream of working for myself. Not too shabby. But I was slowly plateauing into a creative rut. My process was hidden, only to be revealed in beautifully mocked up presentations at the end of siloed design sprints (more on this later). I didn’t have to deal with the discomfort of sharing early work. Transitioning into Firebelly’s collaborative environment was a challenge at first. Sharing work-in-progress required vulnerability that, back then, I lacked the courage for. But in order to grow and thrive, I needed to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So how did I get into comedy, (I pretend) you ask?

It all started as I watched my friend and fierce fireballer, Kristin, crush and close(!) her first (ever) stand-up comedy show. Impulsively, I signed up for the same 6 week class led by the fearless Chicago-based comic, Alex Kumin. An introduction to the fundamentals of joke writing, it culminated in a 5-minute set as part of a group show in front of a real audience. Five minutes of original comedic material may not seem like a huge deal, but for the uninitiated, like myself, it was like giving birth.

I wanted to try something so scary that it would make putting myself and my work out there seem infinitely easier. To be clear, I am not phased by public speaking (classic Leo). Taking a stab at stand-up comedy in an age of countless Netflix comedy specials seemed like the right dose of discomfort. I want to say that this experience did do that. That I now am a fearless sharer of scrappy work-in-progress. CHECK. Crossed it off the list. But that would be the real joke! I did, however, learn about myself and the sometimes painstaking work of being a maker of, really, anything. I hope sharing these insights will resonate with anyone trying to balance the tricky territory between self-confidence, humility, imposter syndrome, and self-growth.

Raise your hand if you like bite-sized insight lists!

Comedy or Design, We’re Crafting a Narrative

The basic joke structure goes something like this: set the context, make a statement/ observation, ask a question, and provide an unexpected answer (the punch line). There’s a lot of tension built up in any good comedy set. The balanced interplay of tension and relief is what makes a joke/story good. It’s comparable to the implicit build-up in a design presentation; we state what we know, we ask “the question,” and offer a number of refreshingly unexpected, but authentic, solutions. As in comedy, we aim to tell a cohesive narrative (visually) from start to finish. We tug on all the right emotions. Both designer and comedian take us on a journey. They hold the audience’s hand and point things out along the way, and at the end of the tour, (if we’ve done our job) they feel changed somehow. We make things that make you pause and reflect, laugh and rejoice, and if we’re lucky, maybe even cry a little bit.

The “less cool uncle” from Full House.

 The Silo Mentality Gets You Nowhere

First, let’s get concrete (pun intended). What is a silo? 

In an organization, silos happen when a system, process, or department is isolated from the rest. Stand-up comedy is a seemingly siloed practice. After all, it’s the comic alone on stage doing the heavy lifting of making the audience laugh. But having gone through this, I’ve learned that collaboration is inherent to the comic’s process. They share and test jokes with other comics, and the people around them, early and often. Open mics are testing grounds for new material. They build on each others ideas, cut out the fluff, and most importantly: They. Keep It. Real (read: constructive criticism).

Can we talk about the endearing realness of the Mrs Maizel-Susie relationship?

Similarly, a healthy design team embraces discomfort and focuses on solving problems, together. Our clients and collaborators are equally responsible for keeping us in check. We rely on their open, honest feedback as much as they rely on us “to tell a good joke.”

Both Disciplines Enlighten and Delight

The work we do as designers is often seen as work that primarily fulfills consumer needs. Of course, a lot of it does. It is why here at Firebelly, we only work with people we respect, whose work we want to see in the wild. But design is a powerful tool to elicit critical reflection and inspire change. We choose to use our craft to shed light on the issues that matter most (social injustice, equity, and basic human rights, to name a few). To distill such complex topics, we ask a lot of tough questions. We dig deep. We define and redefine our practice in the process.

To witness stellar examples of thought-provoking reflexive comedy, one needs to look no further than Hannah Gadsby’s special Nannette—where she flips the discipline on its head by critiquing a body of work that launched her career. Or Aparna Nancherla who openly shares her daily struggles with depression and anxiety. Kumail Nanjiani shares his own experience with racism, undercutting it with smart humor. In the same vein, with much humility, I used the stage to talk about the challenges of motherhood in a “village-less” world, the ongoing war in Syria, and a glimpse at what it’s like to be a visibly practicing Muslim woman in America. To my surprise, my seemingly personal struggles resonated with others who were kind enough to share.

Grateful Slice

You Can’t be Brave Without Fear

In the comedy class, I would often hear that it is near impossible to not compare your set to others’. Comedians tend to develop a personal style, and if you’re a growing comic, you wonder if your own style is “as good.” That sneaky fear that your joke will not be validated by an audience can be crippling. I grappled with that same fear as a designer, until I started to openly talk about it and realize that most, if not all creatives share the same struggle, wherever they are in their careers. That, in itself, was strangely empowering. That connection was a real example of Brene Brown’s ever-so-illuminating words: “The path towards one another is vulnerability.” One of my wise teachers once told me that having imposter syndrome is in itself a characteristic of sincerity. And that fear is necessary to pluck up your courage to bring your whole self to everything you do.

“You can’t be brave without fear” — Muhammad Ali

Create Your Village

Whether you’re a comic, designer, novelist, or a beatboxing parent, none of us can do this alone. Share your work, your struggles, and your “failures.” You never know who you might inspire, and whose words might heal you. Both through working as a designer, and my brief moment in the world of stand up, I’ve found that having the courage to share my work consistently made it better. And in that process, I am creating an intentional community—a village that keeps me on my toes and keeps my toes grounded all at once.

Will I continue to do stand-up, (I pretend again) you ask?

Maybe! Okay, probably. Did I mention I was a Leo? Jokes aside, if you are a creative and mildly interested in stand up, do it. If you are wildly uninterested, still do it… What I gained from this experience far transcended the realm of comedy. It uncovered deeper connections with myself and others. It got me intimate with fear and excitement and all the feelings in between. And that opened up many inner doors for me. Maybe it’ll do the same to you.

May you have the courage to be vulnerable. The light-heartedness to tell a joke or two. And “a village” to carry you forward. Always and in all ways.

Road Work: Living and Coding in a Van

February 28, 2019 – by Matt

In the fall of 2016, I joined a friend and a group of strangers on a trip to the Red River Gorge. Located in east-central Kentucky, the Red is one of the best rock climbing spots the country. Having climbed exclusively in Chicago gyms, this trip changed my life. For one, my travelmates became some of my closest friends. In fact, I fell in love with one of them (more on her later). It was also my first exposure to climbing culture and the "dirtbag" lifestyle. I saw people living out of their vans, Subaru Outbacks and school buses, traveling around the country from crag to crag to live and breathe climbing full-time. I was inspired.

Back then #vanlife was still a new thing. I researched the hell out of it and it seemed to scratch several of my current itches. Being outside, hiking, camping, traveling, and now climbing—I would daydream about them all. After a trip I'd dive right back into planning for the next one.

January 2017 I started searching for a van and by the first week of February I found one. A 2004 Freightliner Sprinter 2500 I named Susanne (after a Weezer song), she was a beauty. I spent all my free time working on her, either on the street in front of my Noble Square apartment, or in the parking lot of Home Depot. I didn't have much experience with wood working and no experience with cars. But with a little head-start from the previous owners, and a lot of trial and error, I built an interior that I was really proud of and could definitely see a future living in it comfortably.

Early work on the inside of the van, adding Peel & Seal to the wheel wells for sound deadening and insulation.

The next step was to convince Dawn to allow me to continue to work for Firebelly. It'd been years since an employee worked remotely, so I was nervous about the conversation. I'd spent months working towards this big life change, but Firebelly had been such a major part of my life and career. I didn't want to sacrifice my dream job for my dream lifestyle. It turned out that she didn't need much convincing. I don't recall Dawn's exact words, but she essentially said, "I would never want to stop you from pursuing a dream, and we want you here at Firebelly, so we'll figure out a way to make it work."

That was huge for me. It meant I was going to be able to give this thing a try and remain employed, and I had the confidence and support of Dawn and the rest of the team at Firebelly. At the end of April I moved out of my apartment and into the van, but stayed in Chicago for the month as a trial period for remote work. Things went pretty well (except for a minor setback involving Susanne's engine that cost couple grand). On June 10th, 2017 I finally hit the road.

Some dishes drying in the kitchen/dining room/living room/office.

I've been living and traveling in my van with my girlfriend Lydia (from that life-changing trip), ever since, with a couple of months here and there spent back in Chicago. So with almost two years under my belt I'd like to share a few lessons that I've taken from life on the road—lessons I hope to apply to my life even when we inevitably move out of the van and into a stationary home.

Flexibility is Golden

Susanne broke down in the middle of the Mojave Dessert and had to be towed to Barstow, California.

Living on the road means every day is filled with lots of unknowns. Where are we going to park for the night? Is it legal? Is it safe? Where will we work tomorrow? Is there reliable wifi there? Where will we park when we're working? What are we going to make for lunch? What are we going to make for dinner? Where will we take a shower? Where are we heading next? You get the point. If we allowed the amount of unknowns we face each day to stress us out, then we'd always be anxious and probably quite unhappy.

On our way to a trailhead to park for the night in Slade, Kentucky we were stopped by an enormous tree that had recently fallen across the road. Luckily Aaron, the man in the truck in front of us, lived a mile up the road and had a chainsaw.

Remaining flexible and knowing that decisions don't have to be perfect is how we've survived (and are still happy doing it). Most days we wake up not knowing where we'll sleep that night— and sometimes it takes an hour to find a good spot. Living this way has taught me a lot about patience and acceptance. We can't know all that is to come, and the best we can do is approach each unknown with an open mind and heart.

Talk to Strangers

Talking to a man at an REI in Austin lead us to hiking the South Ridge Trail at Big Bend National Park about a month later, where we ran into that same man leading a group of hikers.

Our third day on the road we worked from Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. If you've ever driven down highway 90 through Eastern Wyoming or South Dakota then you've seen the billboards advertising this legendary landmark/tourist trap. Hopefully you stopped and experienced the magic. I was working on my laptop at a picnic table in the back and an older man with a cane asked if he could sit down on the bench next to me to rest. As he sat and ate one of their famous 89 cent doughnuts we started chatting a bit and when I told him we were heading west, but didn't really know where he said that we had to stop at Sylvan Lake in The Black Hills. We didn't have any better plans, so we did, and it ended up being one of our favorite places that we visited (and have revisited it once again almost a year later). Some of our most cherished experiences have been things that we've done on the recommendation of someone we met while on the road.

Chatting with a thru-hiking named Douglas, on what was supposed to be a leisurely backpacking weekend in Glacier National Park, lead me to joining him in summiting Carter Peak, which ended up being one of the most taxing but memorable hikes I've been on.

Taking a chance on a stranger's recommendation is probably a lot easier when you're living this kind of lifestyle, because you aren't restricted to a limited amount of time like you might be if you were taking a week off of work to travel. But I think being open to the suggestions of people you meet, or even just being open to talking to people you don't know in the first place is a really great practice that in my experience has turned out to be worth it more times than not.

Being Happy Outside of Work Makes Being Happy at Work Easier

Rock climbing in Boulder Canyon, happy as a clam.

And being happy at work makes being happy outside of work easier. It works both ways. I feel that part of the reason I was able to indulge in this fantasy lifestyle to begin with was that I already felt very fulfilled at work. It allowed me to spend energy on things other than how to cope with an unsatisfying job. And now that I've prioritized the things in my life that make me feel the most fulfilled outside of work, most days I start work feeling like I'm refreshed and ready to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Lydia climbing at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, which is one of those places that makes me happier just being there.

Spending more time doing the things that make me happy has had such a positive impact on my energy and attitude towards work, relationships and just about every other aspect of my life. Living this lifestyle has allowed me to dedicate so much of my free time to the things that make me happy, and now that I've been able to see how valuable that is I want to maintain that dedication to those things, even when my lifestyle changes.


Our parking spot for the night along highway 12 near Escalante, Utah.
Susanne in Half Dome Village at Yosemite National Park, California.
Susanne among the Redwoods in Big Sur, California.