Work

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.

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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.

Typeforce X Process Vol. 3: The Final Countdown

February 20, 2019 – by Tom

This past week was the home stretch for building out the TFX window installation. With all the wood forms assembled, we burnt through a ton of solder to wire up all the LED strips for lighting. While tedious, the lighting came together without a hitch. 


Everything was smooth sailing until we got to installation. Originally we planned on building pedestals for each of the 20 forms. What were we thinking? That would just take too long. Then we considered building a few long benches, tiered into steps like bleacher seats. That idea too got scrapped—they’d block the view, hold too much visual weight, and failed to reflect the light to our liking.

We finally landed on (forgive the phrase) building a wall. Eight by eighteen feet and painted black, it’d allow us to hang all 20 forms on the same plane. The design required the ability to build it at Firebelly HQ, dismantle for transport and reassemble seamlessly in the gallery window.

Of course, we still wanted to challenge ourselves with how the wall's construction. Not satisfied with a simple butt joint to piece together the plywood, we cut lap joints with the table router. This method blocks light from shining through the seam between the pieces. A few coats of black paint pulls it all together.

Everything's done and ready for opening night, February 22. See you then!

Typeforce X Process Vol. 2: Electric Boogaloo

February 13, 2019 – by Will

This past week we've been in assembly line mode. Our piece for this year's Typeforce involves a wood form repeated many times, but due to its complexity, this means lots and lots of cuts.

After making a single prototype to prove the idea, we spent a bunch of time getting the set-up right: making jigs, building tools and buying way more clamps than we expected. Only after everything was dialed-in did we start production.

We had a huge amount of material to cut—so much we often couldn’t get finished in one work session. In addition to ensuring accuracy, having a strong set-up meant that we could easily hand off tasks, one person jumping in where another left off.

We wanted to avoid using nails or waiting for glue to dry, so we used finger joints locked together with a dowel. Everything went smoothly until we hit the lap joint at the middle of the unit. At first we made the cut with a handheld router, but this wasn’t accurate enough. We solved this by building a jig for the CNC router, which gave us spot-on results every time.

After a bunch of nights and part of the weekend, we’re finally done constructing all the forms. We’re feeling good that things are on-schedule so we can avoid emergencies in the final hour. Next step: fire up the soldering irons for the lighting elements.

Typeforce X Process Vol. 1: A Gorilla Walks Into a Bar...

February 4, 2019 – by Will

A creative idea (whether writing a gorilla joke or a creating a design) often starts with a premise and then thrives within constraints. That gorilla in the bar—what if she’s carrying a dozen eggs? Now we have to incorporate the eggs into the joke. Maybe she’s really into pisco sours, who knows, it’s a constraint that also gives us direction.

Client work is like that gorilla in a bar: it comes with its own premise and constraints. But when we design something for the annual Typeforce show it’s a very different animal. It’s a blank Illustrator artboard staring back at us. We can do anything, we have no constraints, which can really send us designers into a panic. So what do we do? We make up our own constraints.

This is the tenth anniversary of Typeforce. We’re always looking to outdo our previous work, but given this milestone, we’re looking to go all-out. This piece has to somehow represent both this show, and the accumulation of all the past shows. A decade in, we also want this Typeforce to be future-oriented: what ideas are still to come?

Clearly this thing has to be big. One lesson we’ve learned is that when scaling up, precision is key, otherwise at some point you might realize stuff won’t fit together. Add a material with unknown properties and you can end up with more problems, like the plaster that wouldn’t dry for Typeforce 8. This year, we’re developing a scalable system that we can reproduce consistently.

Typeforce 8 Making
Typeforce 8 was right down to the wire, waiting for the plaster to dry

Here’s another goal: produce a well-made artifact. We admit to solving last-minute problems with gaffer tape in years past. However, we saved the best of those same pieces and they now grace the walls of our office. So this year we want to make something beautiful but also solid—an heirloom piece. Luckily, we have some sweet new tools in our shop to assist us.

Introducing: the Shapeoko XXL CNC router. This handsome devil is many things, but we’re attracted to its power and accuracy. We've already tested its capabilities with some personal projects and we’re excited push it further. You know that saying, when you have a hammer all your problems look like nails? Well when you have a new CNC router, all material decisions look like WOOD.


We’re not sure exactly what we’re building yet (client work always comes first). But we’re confident now that we’ve committed to a few choices it’ll all work out by February 22. We’ll keep you posted on any progress here.