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Maria Popova on Changing Publishing Models

“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be. … I always thought there was enough of everything to go around—that there are enough ideas in the universe and enough nourishment.” Milton Glaser

An insightful 20 minute talk this from Maria Popova of Brainpickings on changing models for publishing. Felix Salmon recently (and somewhat churlishly I thought) questioned whether Maria's use of affiliate links conflicted with her intention to keep Brainpickings ad free, and her practice of using a tip jar to help fund the site. For what it's worth, I see no problem at all with what Maria is doing, and think she is an amazing example of a new breed of professional blogger/curator who are adding enormous value to the web.

In her talk, Maria explores the continually tricky balance between editorial and commercial priorities, and the opportunity for content creators and journalists to build a following that creates commercial and creative potential beyond that which is aligned to the company they happen to be working for. Adam recently made a challenging point about how Google's Author Rank threatened to atomise publishing brands into individual journalists. So the shifting balance that media organisations are having to negotiate is not only between editorial and commercial concerns, but that between the individual and the corporation. Fascinating times.

Kowloon Walled City, Podcasts and Sabbaticals

Kowloon Walled City

After a hiatus I've suddenly (and somewhat randomly) started listening to podcasts again. The end of this intermission was marked with this episode from Roman Mars' 99% Invisible series on the subject of the Kowloon Walled City, a 6.5 acre enclave in Hong Kong that became home for 300 interconnected high rise buildings that grew organically over time without input from a single architect, and untroubled by local planning or health and safety regulations, on the site of an old Chinese military fort. At its peak in the early 1990s, the city was home to 33,000 people, which made it the most densely populated place on earth (equivalent to 3.2million people per square mile).

Roman interviews photographer Greg Girard who spent five years in the city before it was demolished in the early 90s and took an amazing series of images (including the one above) to document it. I lived and worked in Hong Kong for a short time in 1994 with my now wife. It must have been just after the city came down, so I missed seeing it in person but we did live for a few months in the infamous Chungking Mansions, which might have been approaching an approximation of what living in the walled city could have been like, so it was fascinating.

Since then, I've listened to a few of Debbie Millman's excellent Design Matters podcasts including this interview with Stefan Sagmeister (famed graphic designer and author of the wonderful Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far).

Amongst other things Sagmeister talks about the sabbaticals that he has taken - in his case quite lengthy time away from his successful practice:

"I learned in the first sabbatical that it's maybe the best strategy that I ever came up with - to make sure that what I do remains a calling and doesn't deteriorate into a job or a career."

Debbie Millman introduces the interview with her own story of the guilt and worry she felt in taking a longer than usual hiatus from work whilst in the midst of applying for a new job:

"All I can remember about that trip now was the amazing food, the wailing wall, and how thoroughly stressed out I was for nearly the entire time I was there. Perhaps I needed to worry. Perhaps I felt guilty not working. Perhaps this behaviour was simply how I reconciled my shame. But looking back on it now my fear of being infinitely unemployed was palpable. I never once considered that I was worthy of getting a new job. I only realised now that in the grand scheme of things the time between gainful employment was very brief. Had I given myself the freedom of discovery of a foreign culture. Had I even the slightest confidence in my abilities, I might have come back capable of bigger, better opportunities."

The irony is of-course, that when she got the new job, she quickly found that it wasn't everything she'd expected and it was only after leaving that she discovered her real calling. Sagmeister's sabbaticals were upto a year long, albeit with a long gap between them. That might not be realistic for all of us, but it's that thought about giving yourself permission to take time out, however brief, which is the important one. 

The Kowloon enclave seems like metaphor. It's very easy to allow irrational concerns to pile on top of one another until we have our own densely populated, walled city of doubt. Sagmeister talks about how much of the work that he has completed in the years since his first sabbatical has been anchored in experiences or inspiration from that sabbatical year. We're very good at being hard on ourselves. Sometimes we need to remember to give ourselves the freedom to the build space into our lives.

70, 20, 10


I've been talking about 70, 20, 10 models for a good time, and it seems that it's applicable in a wide number of different contexts. Generally, it relates to the idea that the majority of time, focus, attention or resources should be focused on established practices or core methods, but room should be left for both extending those core approaches and taking them in new directions, but also for completely new ideas and input.

So in learning and development, the idea is that powerful learning comes from a combination of on-the-job experience and problem solving (70%), feedback and examples (20%), and training courses and material (10%). Eric Schmidt famously described how Google stimulates innovation by expecting employees to dedicate 70% of their time to core business tasks, 20% to related projects and 10% to unrelated activities.

It's also (as Coca Cola have demonstrated) a useful way to begin thinking about more agile budgeting and content strategies with 70% focused on low risk, bread and butter activity, 20% innovating off what works, and 10% being high risk ideas that could be tomorrow's 20% and 70%. And I think you can take that concept and apply it to create a useful model for content planning.  

I've been wondering why this idea seems to be cropping up more and more, and is relevant for so many different aspects of what we do, I think it's because the structure of the model is so apt for the times we live in:

70%... because video didn't kill the radio star, and the start of something new rarely means that previous approaches are completely redundant, replaced or dead.

20%... since, with the availability of expeditious feedback, test and learn processes and the ability to more quickly and easily optimise and amplify should now be common prcoesses

10%... because the rapidity of market change means that every organisation has to build in space for continuous and embedded experimentation if they are not to be outcompeted

I think we often get stuck, and find it difficult to think outside of the confines of established practices, or to change habits that become ingrained. So this is a useful way of developing a framework that is more befitting of the environment in which we all find ourselves, whilst not abandoning tried, tested and perfectly appropriate knowledge, understanding and techniques.

Rapid Prototyping Google Glass

It's tempting to think that the prototyping for a project such as Google Glass would have been a complex, lengthy process lasting months if not years but this short, charming talk from Tom Chi (experience designer in the Google X team) gives a fascinating insight into how their process of creation was greatly accelerated through rapid prototyping. The first prototype was built in an hour using coat hangers, a tiny projector and a piece of plexiglass. Subsequent prototypes took even less time and used materials as diverse as paper, clay, modelling wire, chopsticks and hairbands. From these models they were able to glean useful insights into the social awkwardness of gesture controls which led to them dropping fetaures which had been thought integral. As Chi says, “Doing is the best kind of thinking”. Fascinating.

HT Tom Uglow