Broken Language

January 12, 2018 – by Kristin

We are, the majority of us—by trade or even by preordained path—communicators. We think, we feel, we share and exchange. Here’s what I've got. Your turn.

Me, I’m most comfortable speaking and writing. Studied my own language twice over, just in case the first time didn’t stick. I am intimate with English. My vocabulary’s not bad. I’m in close, constant contact with my insides and I share them, freely, unabashedly. This is what I have to offer.

Dawn took us to San Miguel de Allende at the end of 2017. A surprise! (The destination, not the trip. We knew all year we were going somewhere, but where? We weren’t to know until we got to O'Hare, bags and spouses in tow.) We suspected Mexico. There were hints. An oddly specific mention of prickly pear cactus. A known need for passports. We’re puzzle-lovers. We can follow a scent. But we had no clue we’d be visiting Guanajuato. My grandmother’s home state.


I panicked. A touch. Probably no one else expects me to speak Spanish, but I do. On this count, I’ve been letting myself down my whole life. 34 years is plenty of time to pick up a language. But there’s shame in not just knowing it, in my bones, the way I know lilting is onomatopoeia, or how a period can be a shrug. And so language failed me. I could see another version of myself in every encounter—I spoke gracefully, asked good questions, knew my way around syntax. As it was, I could manage entry-level pleasantries and little else beyond basic subject-verb constructions. If you’ve spent your adult life defining your self-worth by your ability to say things well—even with the occasional flourish!—this was not ideal.

Self-indulgence aside, it was a learning experience. If you can’t depend on your words, what then? If you don’t have the right pen, what then? What do we turn to when our strength isn’t there for us?

Each other.

Maybe someone steps up, to our collective surprise and delight. (P.S. Welcome Ariel. He’s a brand + UX strategist that I guess speaks fluent Spanish. Maybe there’s something to well-timed reveals. Give people what they need when they need it, and not a moment too soon.)

Maybe we find other means of communication. High quality eye contact, strong facial expressions, gestures, props. We want that large, fun balloon and every one of those sparklers, please. ¿Cuánto por todo? Even broken language works, if we want it enough. The trick is to stay humble. Stay patient. Believe that we all have the same goal—to understand each other.

It’s important, too, to remember it’s never too late to learn nearly anything. I’d like to tell my grandmother about the trip. She’d like knowing her granddaughter has a really good job. I’d like to speak to her in her language, to fail, just a little, and know she’ll understand.

Beautiful photos by Tom Tian

Professional Personal Development

December 13, 2016 – by Tom Tian

About midway through our intake questionnaire, we ask prospective clients to describe what animal best represents their organization’s personality. It’s a question that invites and reliably elicits entertainingly unexpected, thoughtful responses. Still, it’s a special day when someone describes themselves as a war-paint-wearing, battle-scarred “female centaur holding a spear.”

Go on, I’m listening.

The unapologetically badass centaur in question is Girls Garage (formerly Camp H), a unique camp and after-school program for girls ages 9–13 based in Berkeley that seeks to cultivate confidence and agency through a design- and building-centric curriculum. They’d recently acquired a new space and name, and—with unalloyed enthusiasm and drive behind them—were ready to grow into it all without losing sight of their original mission.

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Our case study on Girls Garage covers much of the collective process that led to their eventual identity, which I won’t retread here. I would instead like to discuss the messy work of the heart and mind that swirls invisibly beneath the deceptive grace of finished work, and of the deeper things you learn about yourself and how to go about doing what you do. The ensuing account is necessarily limited, both temporally and in scale, to my contributions to the enterprise. To borrow a common caveat: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author.

I wish I could say that reading our questionnaire filled me with nothing but the selfsame unadulterated enthusiasm that suffuses Girls Garage’s work. There was no shortage of excitement on my part, to be sure—how could anyone not perk up at such a signally spectacular answer?—but a not insignificant germ of apprehension seeped in almost as quickly: Shit, what do I know about designing for a girls’ building and design camp?

This doubt I knew was a function of a broader anxiety, that of feeling like a pretender whose disingenuity is perennially on the verge of being found out. Imposter syndrome is, I later found out, surprisingly common, though having not come to design by way of formal channels certainly didn’t help. That said, prizing action over deliberation has its occasional advantages, and in the end I didn’t answer the question so much as ignore it. Really, though, I’d opted to “fake” it until I “made” it.

At any rate, what was much more concretely helpful was a lengthy call with the incorrigibly upbeat Emily Pilloton and Christina Jenkins, Girls Garage’s founder and program director, respectively. Listening to them describe their mission reaffirmed and redoubled my initial excitement, adding passion to mere interest.

The back-and-forths and initial sketching of ideas that followed were not without their own internal challenges, chief among them the creation of custom type, which I’d not done before but knew would help Girls Garage distinguish itself.

Type design was—and I would say still is—a glaring hole in my skillset, one whose absence felt all the more conspicuous at a studio known for its work with it. The discipline’s relative arcaneness and uninhibited disdain for subpar work certainly made the task appear more daunting, though perhaps less so than the fact that I had never fully grasped and appreciated the made-ness of all letterforms. That is, the “ordinary” text that surrounds us, of the sort we absentmindedly write, encounter, and use daily, appear altogether ontologically different from their more spectacular and self-evidently made peers. Their very ubiquity imparts the appearance of naturalness, and therewith the untouchable mystery of irreducible things that just are.

And yet they, too, are ultimately artifices; made of shapes, malleable within the permissive bounds of custom, and subject to universal principles of visual design. Those who regularly alter them to address practical problems—and distinguishing a girls’ design and building camp surely falls into that category—are unburdened by any abstract considerations of the nature of type. It follows that the aforementioned tension doesn’t have to be answered because it’s demonstrably unnecessary. Perhaps there’s really no question to answer in the first place.

Besides, the practical problems have deadlines attached, and seemingly lofty challenges of representation dissolve in surprisingly straightforward resolutions. You and the client work out what they’d like to say, and you help them say it by drawing from a well of personal and accumulated knowledge and reconfiguring what you find in unexpected ways. It helps immensely to be able to chat about it with someone vastly more experienced and skilled along the way [points to Will].

So for Girls Garage, it went something like this:

Start from Wim Crouwel’s work because those corner joints and tight construction reflected the structure and made-ness they wanted to communicate, and the underlying grid still allows you to add some funky crossbars to give things a bit more character. But that turned out to look too digital, so you revisit things and look to stenciled type for its industrial connotations. Maybe those corners can make a comeback in some way that still makes sense, and after a couple of tries they do.

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None of those more remote problems appear once pencil hits paper, and you emerge better prepared for the next challenge.

Appropriately enough, acquiring confidence through doing is essential to Girls Garage’s M.O., and I got a chance to see it at work when I flew out to Berkley for our portrait shoot (for which we owe many thanks to the wonderful Gizelle Hernandez). Seeing the fearless builder girls learn to construct bookcases—happily and intently as the young do, with the occasional reminder that safety glasses must be worn around the miter saw—was a powerful reminder of the necessity of suspending doubt in order to learn, whether the medium is wood or metal or type. It’s not about “faking” it until “making” it, but fearing less, building more.

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The 3-Step Recipe For Making Cool Things: What I Learned as Firebelly's Intern

August 17, 2016 – by Bryant Rebecca Smith

Step 1. Make Thing Babies

Why do animals have sex? It turns out that combining two different things is the best strategy for making new, cooler things. Nature figured this out on Earth about 1.2 billion years ago. Firebelly has been around for about 18 years.

Nobody at Firebelly has just one thing. In my corner of the office alone there is Nate Beaty–a coder/cartoonist/animator/cat mom/breakdancer/BMXer–and Matt Soria–a coder/photographer/illustrator/skater/backpacking explorer/rock climber. Because of all of their many things, they each do their job in a way that no-one else would. Or could.

In fact, EVERYONE I've met here is a multi-thinger. Far from by accident, it's encouraged. And when two things meet and fall in love in someone's mind, the result is a new baby thing that could come about in no other way.

From what I've observed, Firebelly's office is an orgy of things in a maelstrom, spinning about and spitting out incredible babies.

Step 2. Take a Far-Out Joke Seriously

Dawn will occasionally give me instructions that sound like they are jokes:

"Wouldn't it be cool if you built a big sign that lit up and alerted the whole office that someone was in the bathroom? Then noone has to get up and look down the hallway!" she kids.

I joked right back "Ha! What if it integrated with Slack and gave play by plays?"

"Ha! Well. I'm sure you'll figure it out. Get on it."

I often hear far out wouldn't-it-be-cool-if statements like this. I, as the intern, usually confuse them for jokes. I guess in many places they would be just that. But Firebelly takes them seriously.

It's never: "Ha! Good one! ...Alright. Back to work."
Rather: "Ha! Good one! ...So how would that work exactly?"

It's not that every far-out joke becomes a mind-blowing idea. Most don't. But almost every mind-blowing idea starts out as a far-out joke.

Step 3. Leap Before You Look

So, your things had sex and out came a far-out joke that might be a good idea.

BUT. It's too hard. It's outside your expertise. You don't know where to start.

I've noticed people at Firebelly are good at ignoring these feelings.

Ask Ross and Will how much they knew about programming Arduino computers to operate armies of synchronized servo motors before they committed to doing so for this year's Typeforce display.

From what I've watched, the secret appears to be just committing, jumping in, and knowing how to put one foot in front of the other. If you're in a position where you HAVE to figure it out, you'll figure it out. If you give the idea supremacy, the execution follows.

The process is a trial of experiments and failures, but if you continue pushing it's only a matter of time before you break through. And every time you tackle something in this way, it gets easier–and more fun.

The Repeater Orchestra

After watching and analyzing this process in action for months, I thought I would give it a try:

I build web sites, but I'm also a classically-trained trombone player. Sweet! I have two things! (Step 1.) Sometimes at my desk I think about how much I miss performing in orchestras. Ha! Wouldn't it be cool if I could somehow perform live as a one-man orchestra? Could I do it with the coding languages I'm learning? (Step 2.) Matt tells me about a meetup he runs where web developers share bits of code. I tell him I want to perform a piece with trombone and code. He excitedly agrees. Truth is: I actually have no idea how to do this. (Step 3.)

The three weeks that followed were filled with sleepless, highly-caffeinated nights.  But I emerged with a prototype!

"The Repeater Orchestra:" a web-app that repeats whatever music is played into the mic 50 separate times. Each repetition is given a randomized time delay, volume and simulated location in space. The resulting soundscape allowed me to perform Terry Riley's "In C"–a work for full orchestra–as a solo trombone.

Here is my slightly-inebriated-because-I-got-nervous-and-there-was-free-beer performance:

That was one of my favorite, stranger experiences performing trombone.  It makes me want to hold onto this recipe and keep trying to make cool things!

Try playing around with The Repeater Orchestra yourself! (It's best to use a computer with Chrome.) 

Or check out the annotated source code on Codepen.

Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection

June 21, 2016 – by Tyler

Over Memorial Day weekend, four of us Fireballers made the trek up to Two Rivers, Wisconsin to attend a workshop at  Hamilton Type Museum. Two Rivers, or T’Rivers as it's known locally, is a small lake-side town that just so happens to contain the only museum dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type. The museum is a 45,000 sq. ft. facility, maintained solely by director Jim Moran, assistant director Stephanie Carpenter, and a slew of volunteers and enthusiasts, some of whom worked at Hamilton in its heyday.  We had no expectations for what the workshop would entail, but none of us could have imagined it turning out the way it did.

Jim Moran, the museum's director, first guided us through the rich history of Hamilton. Founded in 1880, the shop found its customer base in the plethora of newspapers published throughout the midwest, each of which needed Hamilton's type to set their headlines. Hamilton eventually bought out all of his competitors and soon had a complete monopoly on the wood-type game in the Midwest.

Jim showed us how the wood type is born from raw slabs of maple. First, technicians cut the maple into workable pieces known as half-rounds, which are then sanded down to the proper height known as “type-high” (.918” for those of you following along at home). From the type-high maple, the workers would cut the half-rounds into workable pieces depending on the dimensions of the typeface they were cutting. Those pieces were then routed by a technician, who followed scalable-patterns designed by the Hamilton staff. Then, the type would be refined further by hand to take care of those pesky counter-spaces. Finally, the sorts (a typographer’s term referring to the individual characters of type) were then subject to an intense burnishing, polishing and a very thin coat of lacquer. Jim proudly stated that Hamilton still produces wood type today if the project is right.

The Shipping Department

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Half-rounds waiting patiently to be made into letters.

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Ogling all the sorts.

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Ever heard someone say “I’m all out of sorts?” That comes straight from the pressman’s workshop when they ran out of a certain character.

After a brief introduction to letterpress printing, and a healthy dose of inspiration by resident artist Jim Sherraden (master printer at Hatch Show Print in Nashville), we were let loose to print what we pleased. We were all given the same setup and materials to work with: one table-top press, a few colors of ink and 20+ full cabinets of wood-cut characters and a few lead, photographic plates. Anything beyond that was up to us — we quickly got to work. Some of us had concrete ideas for our prints, but ultimately we were all there just to play with all that beautiful type. 

A selection of prints we made.

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Gettin' funky with some italics.

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Split-fountain experiments.

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Team work makes the dream work.

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In the midst of printing our posters, Mr. Sherraden invited us beyond the yellow rope of the museum to watch the re-striking of a mid-1900s poster for Reefer Madness. Tom and Ross were chosen to pull one of the prints, which was quite the challenge considering the sheer size of the print (more than 4' x 3') and the fact that we were surrounded by printers with some 90+ years of letter-press experience. No pressure...

Jim S. inking the plate.

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Blind registration ain't for the faint of heart.

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Note the mix of concentration and sheer terror on their faces.

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"Horrible?" Jim uttered in reference to the registration. We replied with a collective "Not at all!" As he was talking about the challenges of re-striking old plates like this, with no reference print, he uttered that we were after excellence, not perfection.

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We also learned that Matt carries the same phone as Jim Sherradan, who both prefer the old-fashioned flip over the new-fangled smart.

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...and that Fatso's makes awesome sandwiches.

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...and we're all very serious bowlers.

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Overall, we couldn't be more pleased with our experience. The workshop itself was far and beyond what any of us expected, and we all came back to Chicago with a new reverence for the craftspeople that preceded the era of graphic design. As designers and developers, we wear a lot of hats, but back when Hamilton was producing type people had specialities. Our jobs now demand that we are fluent in multiple programs and platforms, skillful in setting type, designing logos and developing websites, and the list goes on and on. I can't help but wonder if this is a good or bad thing, but I'll leave that debate for another time. One thing I can say for certain is that when I walked out of Hamilton on Sunday afternoon, I carried with me a renewed sense of pride and responsibility as a designer and maker.

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Goodnight, sweet prince.

Fleeting Moments

April 19, 2016 – by Matt

I'm sitting at my computer at work, listening to one of my favorite songs of all time: the live recording of Led Zeppelin's Since I've Been Loving You that appears on the live triple album How The West Was Won. It has been one of my favorite songs since I was in junior high. I went through a Led Zeppelin phase at the time, so I'm sure once I discovered this recording I listened to it over and over again — it has remained one of my favorite songs of all time. I think one of the reasons it remains special is because it is a song I don't hear very often. This particular recording doesn't come on the radio (nor does the studio version either), and it wasn't used in a car commercial campaign. If I ever hear this song it's almost certainly because I wanted to hear it and I put it on myself.

I recently started using Spotify, and I started a playlist called "Songs for Vibes", which is just an ever-rotating collection of the songs that I'm really digging at the moment. A couple weeks ago I put Since I've Been Loving You in the playlist, so I've heard the song at least several dozen times since. This is probably more than I've heard it in the past several years. It's still awesome, and it's still one of my favorite songs of all time, but it did just occur to me that listening to it for the thirtieth time in the past couple weeks didn't feel quite as special as it once did. I'm familiar with the experience hearing a song that you like and then getting burnt out on it by overplay on the radio/tv/internet, but this was slightly different in context. It felt strange.

This reminded me of another recent experience. This past Friday night I went to see Ben Allison play at the Green Mill. I was excited because I've been listening to his music since I was in high school, but I've never seen him play live. The show was incredible. The band was hot, the atmosphere in the Green Mill (somehow that was my first time there) was fantastic, and I lucked out on some seats right in front of the stage. To my great pleasure he played a few songs from my favorite album, the album that introduced me to his music, Cowboy Justice . It was really great to see these tunes I've been listening to for years finally played in person, with all of the variations and interpretations that happen when jazz is played on stage. Then they played a rendition of the Buffalo Springfield song Expecting to Fly . It was fantastic. I had never heard the original song, but this was something special. It was the song that stayed with me as I left the venue, and still as I lay in bed that night.

The next morning I promptly did some googling to try and find a recording of it — was it on a record somewhere? Was there a crappy phone-recorded version of it on YouTube? Nothing. Finally, I settled on listening to the original song by Buffalo Springfield, and it was also excellent. I liked it, a lot even, but it wasn't the same as that beautiful, simple arrangement that Ben and his group had performed the night before. I can still hear it in my head if I try, and I imagine I will be able to do so for a long time. This fleeting moment, the performance of this song that I might not ever witness or hear again, was singular. As much as that performance affected me, and as badly as I wanted to hear it again, maybe it's better that I don't.

Maybe there are some things that don't need to be, or maybe even shouldn't be archived. On the internet, or anywhere. There are certain moments that impact you in ways that go beyond what a record of that moment can convey. Maybe it's better they remain fleeting. This is not a new concept to me, but somehow in this new context it felt especially profound, and I'm trying to use it as an opportunity to remind myself that it's okay. That performance of Expecting to Fly will remain a special memory for a long time, but would it if it were in a playlist that I listened to every day? I doubt it.

I've removed Since I've Been Loving You from my "Songs for Vibes" playlist. I'll spend some time away from it, and return to when I really need it.

I wondered whether 
I could wave goodbye, 
Knowin' that you'd gone.

- Neil Young, lyrics from 'Expecting to Fly'