What I learned last week (#27)

Learned last week: Inspiration from NASA, how to not suck at color, and a excerpt on compensation and work.

Quote I most wanted to share:

The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying “I don’t know”, and being kind.

Charlie Kaufman

Favorite book excerpt from last week:

The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own. People who are paid the most are often the most confused, for they know in their hearts how little meaning there is in what they do, for others and for themselves. While money provides status, status doesn’t guarantee meaning. They’re paid well because of how poorly work compensates their souls.

From The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun

For a good laugh, make sure you read the replies: The long thread that accompanies this 20 things we’ve learned from TV tweet is magic.


An endless source of inspiration (and desktop wallpapers): NASA makes their entire media library publicly accessible and copyright free. Like Lego, NASA is in the upper-echelons of cool organizations.


A great explanation on color: As someone who is really into art and design (but doesn’t have a ton of technical training), this article on How to Not Suck at Color was a really useful and interesting read.

To really know what color is, we need to understand its ingredients. Every color breaks down into three fundamental attributes: hue, saturation, and value. You might recognize these characters from your favorite design app, though sometimes they’ll be referred to as HSB.


The behind-the-scenes story of NBA team branding: The story of How the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies Revived the NBA is an interesting read and includes a tidbit about team naming contests that raised my eyebrow.

Without the hype and critical praise that accompanied the Steven Spielberg’s film, it’s unlikely Raptors would have been a unanimous selection. Instead, we might have be cheering for the Toronto Huskies against the Warriors — prior to the NBA, the Huskies represented in the city in the Basketball Association of America in the 1940s. “The pop culture context made us predisposed to following that direction,” says Mayenknecht.

That April, The Star and radio station CFRB 1010 organized a team naming contest. Several dozen potential names were nominated, a list which included the Lakelanders, the Trilliums (Ontario’s official flower), and the Canadian Eh’s, but O’Grady claims that despite the ten names that were shortlisted, the franchise already knew which direction it was headed. “They were going to be the Raptors all along, [and the naming contest] was a smoke screen to let people believe they were part of the decision making process.” Even though Bitove and others were considering the possibility of naming the team the Toronto T-Rex, O’Grady says the franchise was driven by the notion that raptors, like birds of prey, travel in packs. “If Raptors barely registered, then that may have swayed Bitove a bit — ‘Let’s do another focus group’ — but those are all about sanity checks, to make sure not making colossal mistake,” he says.

Being a beginner again and always

For my next role, I should be looking at a “lateral” move, or even better, a “higher level” role. What if I did the opposite? What if I started over?

A lot of people are asking about what I’m going to do when I get over to Scotland. Where am I going to work? Am I going to continue with Microsoft? Are there opportunities with other gaming companies? 

I don’t have anything lined up yet, I say. This is followed by some knowing nods and smiles. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding something is a common response. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t want to agree so easily. I feel comfortable with where I’m at professionally, and that’s my issue. The expectation of most is that I will go for the equivalent of a “lateral” move, or even better, get a “higher level” role for my next job. What if I did the opposite? What if I started over?

Menu sketch
Me writing out the code and design for an accordion menu I would implement on my university’s homepage using Actionscript in Flash back in 2000.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved art and design, and grew up learning about it through the lens of games. My interest in technology was born of game consoles, PC games, and remote control cars. How interfaces and images appeared and were arranged on a screen, and how input devices manipulated those images, was inextricably linked with how I created and what I wanted to create. I was also (and am still) a meticulously organized person, and I’ve always held tension between those often opposing forces: the creative who dives in not knowing where something will go on one side and the cartographer charting a detailed plan on the other.

The intersection of this making and organizing is where my career in tech began. Around the end of 1999, I started to notice how much visual creativity and storytelling were happening online, and I wanted to be a part of it. A friend of mine was making websites, so I joined him and suddenly I was building and (over) designing websites for academic departments at my university. I also set-up my own site (philnick.com), hosting it with a company called MediaTemple.net (solely because other web design artists were also using them). I was hooked by the combination of design and technology and freedom I had publishing on the web. Information taxonomy mixed with art! These were the days of figuring out how to bend table-based layouts to one’s will using single pixel spacers and CSS wizardry. The days of using FTP clients to publish a new version of WordPress and it’s MySQL back end. The days where Macromedia made Flash and the coolest sites had their menus and hero sections of homepages rendered with it. It was maddeningly hard to learn how to do it all and there was nothing else I wanted to do.

Scanned drawings for PhilNick.com
Some layout sketches for my original blog. I wanted a unique style so I hand drew the UI and then scanned them in and cut them into table layouts using Macromedia Fireworks.

I’ve previously written about this time as good hard work, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s the time in my life where I felt most creative, where I had full agency to learn, create and do. I knew there was no barrier other than time to making it happen. I was solving problems though experimentation, banging my head on the wall more often than not, and I was teaching and learning with others at the university technology department, and with like minded friends. My career at Microsoft owes itself to the momentum I gained during this time.

Early academic department website screenshots
Screenshots of some early departmental website designs I did. Bad by today’s standards but back then the web wasn’t as pretty as it is today.

I’ve never lost that love of creating and publishing work, and helping and supporting others use technology to create themselves. However, I’ve gotten further away from it as my career has progressed. Up until recently, It had been a long time since I was last making, designing and creating things with technology. My recent role (with Minecraft) has gotten me into making again, and non-coincidentally I’ve also jumped back into sharing my writing and illustrating online as a committed side-gig. It’s been amazing how it’s fueled all other aspects of my life and made me a better dad and a husband. The energy is flowing in the right direction, and I want it to stay that way.

“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”

Albert Einstein

So what do I want to do for work next? I’m not sure but I know what I don’t want to do. Instead of looking for a job that’s lateral or “higher level”, I’m looking for something that will allow me learn something new. I’d like to go back to the beginning, to actually being a beginner again and having to figure something out from scratch. I’d like to learn how to design and implement new user interfaces, bring stories to life using narrative, illustration, music and some code, or create a new way for creative collaboration and sharing. I’d like to do it both for income as well as incorporate it in projects with my kids and their education. I’d like to do it with others, in a way that’s not crazy.

I’m not sure that this will lead to in terms of my next role, salary, etc. It could certainly lead to less money. It will almost certainly lead to some raised eyebrows. I know it will lead to a lot of new learning, new connections and great experience.

Beginning again might not make sense to most, but it makes sense to me. I can only hope it’s one of many more.