February 10, 2020

The uncanny resemblance in editorial and product illustrations

Thanks to the ubiquity of tech products, we’re all familiar with the flat colorful illustration style that accompanies them and now, many other situations that call for illustrations. How did this style get popular and how did it spill over into editorial drawings too?

What the style is

In his blog Subtraction, graphic designer and former Design Director for the New York Times Khoi Vinh calls the style “safety minimalism” and tracks this trend on a Pinterest board aptly titled “monoculture illustrations.” This style is defined by its particular approach to:

  • Colors: range from primary to bright pastels
  • Figures: clean drawing, and frequently rendered with vectors
  • Details: highly abstracted
  • Shading: geometric if used at all
  • Composition: minimal with occasional limited elements in the background

Khoi summarizes the style as having a sense of infantile simplicity despite the fact it’s used to “depict grown adults doing ostensibly grown-up things.”

How we got here

It’s not necessarily clear when or how this trend started, but Jared Long of The Startup for one, thinks it could go back to a renewed interest in screen printing along with a departure from vector-based 3D skeuomorphic (meaning to look more photorealistic) designs back in the early 2010s. At this period, the move towards a flatter aesthetic was to stand out, as most things do before they become popular.

Since then, however, the style has become widespread and has a particularly strong association with tech products, particularly due to efficiency. This makes sense given that doing illustrations this way ticks off the following:

  • Approachable: the “safeness” of safety minimalism means the illustrations are easy to understand and approachable, which is important for tech products that are more complex. It’s also worth mentioning that simple graphics are much easier to animate as well, which also play into the accessibility factor.
  • Adaptable: the simplicity of the style means it could be executed in-house, where designers could theoretically learn to imitate the aesthetic if not adapt it from readily available stock assets. Designing it digitally also removes the unpredictability of analog mediums, allowing for precision and creative control.
  • Economical: saving on the time of researching and hiring an illustrator with a particular style as well as the cost of producing large amounts of the illustrations needed.

Vinh suggests that the illustrations could, in fact, be handled by the same designers that also designed the app they were promoting versus a professional illustrator. All that’s required is the same tools available to every designer: a vector drawing and an image editing app. “Everything in these illustrations is very carefully controlled and moderated, with nothing left to chance,” Vinh says. “That, whether intentional or not, says a lot about these products.”

The jump to publications

In a Quartz article by Anne Quito, she echoes the aforementioned factors that have made the “flatter, sharper, and arguably more generic” illustrations ubiquitous, but also adds others that explain how the style also increasingly appears in publications:

  • Versatility: simpler graphics not only scale better on all types of displays, they tend to load faster as well.
  • Deadlines: digital illustrations are (assuming they’re layered and organized) easier to make modifications to, allowing illustrators to address client requests faster.
  • Taste: flat illustrations have always appeared in publications. Qito cites the influence of graphic designer Ikko Tanaka’s clean shapes in the 1980s, considered “a pleasing counterpoint to the scrapbook punk aesthetic of the decade.”
  • Social Media: in the article, illustrator Xiao Hua Yang points out illustrations that are well received on social media will inevitably spark curiosity into how they were made.

However, Qito concludes that it is in the end, all about economics, citing a 2018 global survey of over 1,400 illustrators by Ben O’Brien where 70% of them believed they couldn’t survive on drawing alone. Further, she found that New York magazine, when adjusted for inflation, paid 30% more in the ’70s for smaller spot illustrations than what they offer today.

The Takeaway

Despite the fact we see this flattened visual style everywhere, this is by no means an indictment of the style itself and especially not the people who produce it, whether it’s their personal style or they create in it out of necessity. After all, if it ensures a regular stream of income, why not?

Unfortunately, what we see as current trends are often the four-way collision of economics, audience and client tastes, increasingly sophisticated digital tools and the needs of creatives. There’s no shortage of homogeneity around us whether it’s Instagram, cafes, or just general bits of design.

We recognize illustrators and other artists creating with the stroke of a pen, brush, stylus or mouse have the unique power to create very appealing and specific visual images by themselves and often without having to leave their workspace. Through their work, they have the ability to bring us deeper into text stories that would otherwise be passed up by today’s shorter attention spans that are compounded by declining literacy.

For that reason, despite our emphasis on photos, we’ve made efforts to employ and fairly compensate illustrators to create work in a style that values their abilities as much as their time. This has ultimately helped us to tell better stories that might otherwise not have been possible with any other medium. As such, we’ll close by inviting you to check out some of our stories that have been visually brought to life by Charis Poon, Jeremy Leung, Joan Wong, Naomi Otsu and Jonathan Jay Lee.


February 3, 2020

Do culture and nature evolve in the same way?

A recent study argues that culture actually evolves very slowly — at almost the same rate as nature. But does cultural evolution work so neatly in our current culture?

The Study

In a recently published study titled The pace of modern culture, a group of British researchers used metrics designed by evolutionary biologists to compare the rates of change in a species of bird, two kinds of moth and a snail to:

  • Popular songs: They reviewed Billboard Hot 100 songs from 1960-2010.
  • Cars: They tracked changes in the traits of cars sold in the States between 1950-2010.
  • Literature: They also looked at American, Irish and English novels published between 1840-1890
  • Clinical articles: articles from the British Medical Journal published between 1960-2008.

Their conclusion? The two evolve at about the same rate, which means according to Armand Leroi, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London and one of the researchers on the study: “We are surprisingly conservative about our choices, and what we like changes very slowly.”

He also likens cultural artifacts to organisms in that they evolve and survive according to whether conditions are hospitable to change or not: “When we make something new, be it a scientific paper or an artwork, we take that thing and throw it into the world and it either lives or dies,” Leroi says. “Its success depends on whether people want it or not, just like natural selection.”

Despite the results, however, Leroi is not concerned about the speed of evolution so much as demonstrating the potential to use tools from one field (in this case, evolutionary biology) to study and track changes in another such as culture.

The other side

Arizona State University human and cultural evolution professor, Charles Perreault holds a different view. He concluded in 2012 that human culture actually moves 50 percent faster than biological evolution. This applies even when controlling for the phenotypic plasticity (the ability of an organism to change in response to its environment) of species with shorter lifespans. Basically, these sorts of species can “iterate” faster and more often over these shorter intervals, but Perreault argues that our cultures still evolve faster in our longer generation times (measured in spans of 20 years).

In his abstract, he also contrasts the biological “vertical” sharing of genetic information (through reproduction) with the transmission of information in culture:

“While cultural information can be transmitted from parents to offspring, it is also transmitted obliquely, between non-parents from a previous generation, and horizontally, between contemporaries. This transmission mode gives cultural evolution the potential to spread rapidly in a population, much like an epidemic disease.”

The Takeaway

Looking at how culture evolves through this lens certainly draws some interesting parallels that support both arguments: for one, the culture of a given society can be slow to adopt change even if it’s constantly exposed to different stimuli and yet it also has the potential to disproportionately influence another or more societies.

We’ve seen the rise of “strong” and “viral” culture exerting undue influence throughout the world, which would lend some troubling evidence to cultural evolution’s problematic origins that followed shortly after the emergence of Darwinism. Is it really a matter of the loudest, most popular (and most funded) culture that survives?

One thing we’ve discussed at length is the idea and impact of media fragmentation. It’s harder than ever to get people on the same wavelength because there’s literally an infinite number of wavelengths for you to tune into. This makes the consolidated sharing of ideas much more difficult than ever.

While history has shown many unfortunate tendencies of this, the power of technology has the power to both perpetuate this trend and amplify smaller, lesser known cultural products and ideas to exert disproportionate influence (to “reproduce”) elsewhere. If these dynamics could be reduced to a science, should we be trying to hack the formula to get the results we want, or should we willfully “devolve” and let cultural nature run its course?


January 20, 2020

With all of our tech, why are we still so short on time?

In the technologically advanced first world, we somehow still haven’t reached this expected utopia when it applies to our mix of work and leisure. With all the time-saving resources at our fingertips, why do we still feel starved for time?

Three theories on time starvation

Writing for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson offers three theories of why Americans are finding themselves short on time. Unsurprisingly, they all relate to work and society has been here repeatedly throughout history:

  • Better technology = higher expectations: Inventions like automated washers and refrigerators meant better standards for cleanliness and food preservation, but meant more time re-invested in buying more clothes (larger loads) and more trips to the supermarket for fresh produce.
  • Class and status maintenance: our fear of downward social mobility through a loss of status, class and future income means we are constantly working to ensure we and, if we have or decide to have children, that they don’t face the same.
  • The powers that be, set the standards: the government sets policy, policy sets the workweek, bosses set the workload. All of these are carried out independently of technological improvement or stagnation.

Thompson also explains that underlining a similar discussion on the lack of time is the ongoing push and pull between Self-Helpers and Socialists (or put another way, individualists and collectivists). The former believes everyone has the ability to “solve their problems and can reduce their anxiety through new habits and values” while the latter holds that “all modern anxieties arise from structural inequalities that require structural solutions.”

Contentment needs to follow

For those who already enjoy a degree of financial stability but still find themselves feeling starved for time, there is at least one answer: contentment. We have to ask ourselves if we’re okay with what we have or if we’re okay to “do a little worse than the Joneses” if it means having more free time and the freedom to actually enjoy it.

Technology has both the power to make our lives easier but also to put us ahead in the race; how we use this power is up to us. For instance, if you found both habits and technologies that accomplish your main work in half of the time, what would you do with the remaining half saved? If you feel compelled to fill that half with a new task and then used the same means to halve that time, you’re left with some extra time yet again, albeit significantly less to allocate to leisure.

And what about our status? Are we comfortable with the social cost of no longer investing time and money in the same activities as our peers or worse, suggesting new ways of doing things together that might be seen as boring or dumb? If you feel your personal relationships wouldn’t survive downgrading the elaborate network of time-consuming image maintenance, this might also be able to explain those feelings of time starvation.

The Takeaway

Regardless of what causes the anxious sense of being without enough time, it’s important to realize that society has been here before through history with each major shift in culture or technology. To be fair, there will always be people who want more and will happily do more to get that.

But for those where the ‘want’ isn’t coming from a deep-seated conviction and more from of a more pervasive case of FOMO, it becomes what’s been called time famine. Without honestly addressing our own personal intents and actually pushing back against culture with our decisions, that famine risks starving us before we realize we’ve already had our fill.

January 13, 2020

Small audio big change — the impact of headphones and small speakers on our music

With listening experiences now emphasizing the small and the intimate, how does that factor in how music is produced now? We take a glimpse at how the prevalence of headphones and small speakers have changed music.

The Small Speaker Effect

Nowadays, we bring music with us everywhere we go and it’s not hard to find at least one friend at a gathering who brought a portable Bluetooth speaker. The ubiquity of not just these personal speakers but also the even smaller ones we find in laptops, tablets and smartphones means music production is catering to lower common denominators.

In a Quartz article by Dan Kopf, he notes some of the key technical impacts:

  • Drivers: Drivers are the key component of sound devices that emit audio. Quality varies, but it’s safe to not everyone is an audiophile and therefore uses cheaper headphones with lower quality drivers. Further, integrated speakers in a laptop aren’t usually that great simply because there’s no impetus to improve on them.
  • Highs/Lows: Because of the limitations of lower-quality speakers, they can’t accurately reproduce the treble and bass (high and low frequencies) that were mastered in the studio. The result is unpleasant and harsh sounds.
  • Reduced Dynamic Range: This means songs are mixed with less dynamic range, and that music production involves testing with smaller speakers such as on smartphones to see if the sound is still perceived as loud or present.

The Podcast Effect

The rise of the podcast as well as listening for therapeutic effect has emphasized privacy and a sense of intimacy around our listening habits, which of course, means a greater role for headphone and earbuds. In an article for The New Yorker by Amanda Petrusich, she points out some of the effects on music production, which again, cater to the needs of the listener:

  • Performance: he notes Selena Gomez and Billie Elish’s tendency to sing closer to the mic almost as if whispering (not unlike ASMR, cut less potentially creepy).
  • Lyrics: the cultural emphasis on the personal narrative means songs might be trying to make “one-on-one” connections between artist and listener. Petrusich notes the highly personal, introspective and confessionary lyrics of Drake and Kanye and wonders if headphone-centric listening encourages certain music genres.
  • Privacy: In a similar vein, she references former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (who wrote How Music Works) on how certain music genres encourage headphone usage because well, no one necessarily wants to blast their overly emo, offensive or sensual music tastes for everyone to hear (and judge).

The Takeaway

Unsurprisingly, music as a medium is going through shifts directly impacted by the way we experience the world more privately, through smaller personal devices including smartphones. This isn’t too unlike the decision to stay at home and watch certain genres of movies while we’re only willing to go to movie theaters for big epics.

But aside from just being a matter of personal preferences (to which the music needs to adapt, as it always has), there are, of course, negatives that include the real physical dangers of constantly tuning out the rest of the world as well as early hearing loss for both listeners and the people mastering for headphones.

Yet, on the other hand, headphones could simply be a necessary adaptation in an increasingly noisy and distracted world and as mentioned before, can invite us to look inward (which isn’t always a bad thing).

Unless you’re an audiophile, you might not care if the sound of music dramatically shifts as long as it sounds fine and gives you what you need. But just like the risk of going through life wearing rose-colored glasses, there is something to be said about spending too much of your day with a drastically altered soundscape in your ears.

December 12, 2019

When less is not more: How typefaces are swinging away from peak minimalist

It seems we’ve hit a point where “less is actually less,” at least with regards to typography in brands. We take a look at the re-emergence of more embellished typefaces in a market that’s likely had enough of peak minimalism.

How we got here

Eliza Brooke for Vox points out the association between minimalist design (and typefaces) with the expediency offered by lifestyle start-ups: “Rather than being descriptive of the product itself, startup minimalism indicates how that product will be purchased and delivered to the shopper: digitally, easily, inexpensively, and with a smile,” she says. “It promises no bullshit and no imposition on your busy schedule.”

It could be said that this level of approachability, which Rachel Hawley describes as “creepy cheerfulness” wasn’t just the doing of new, then-exciting start-ups but a series of factors that followed bigger shifts in technology and culture:

  • The Biggest Players Move: Visual rebrands of big companies such as Google and Facebook in the mid-2010s generated ripples that led newcomers and competitors alike to follow suit.
  • Mobile-first: Simpler fonts are often associated with designing for mobile experiences.
  • Load Times: Likewise, simpler elements mean less information to load and therefore, faster load times on devices.
  • Effort: No one’s saying that sans serif fonts are always easier to develop, but the absence of serifs, representing an entirely new set of design decisions, certainly streamlines the process a little more — especially when your competitors and the rest of the industry are doing the same.
  • Effort: It’s not just the companies that are demanding simplicity in visual language. Howard Belk explained the association customers have, in between simple messaging and the honesty of the company they’re interacting with. For this reason, branding that’s visually easy to process gives assurances to customers having difficulty making sense of a complex world.

What is Didone?

Didones are a category of typeface that emerged in the late 18th century but was not coined until the ‘50s. The name combines the surnames of famous typefounders Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni. This category is characterized by:

  • Serifs: Serif typefaces have embellishments at the end of the strokes in their letters (as opposed to sans-serif typefaces like the ones used on this website). Didones have long narrow serifs.
  • Contrast: Didone has a strong contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  • Vertical weight axis: Vertical strokes tend to be thicker.
  • Modern: They were and are considered more “modern” due to their simplified and relatively unadorned appearance, especially in contrast to the Old Styles that were more defined by the hand lettering styles of scribes.

Despite its long history, Didone’s are still in use, including the eponymous typefaces Didot and Bodoni. Modern typefaces like Didones represent a more complete departure from the typefaces that resembled the handwritten tradition such as Old Style (also called humanist).

The pendulum swings back

Hawley chalks the return of Didones to several factors that accompany the transition away from Peak Minimalism:

  • Luxury: the re-introduction of embellishments with Didones adds a sense of luxury and sophistication to the brand that’s being promoted with the typeface.
  • Startups and Youth: Hawley notes the emergence of Didones for new companies and start-ups marketed toward millennials such as wine club Winc.
  • Gender: Similarly, Didones have been appearing in the logos of brands marketed towards women including clothing retailer Modcloth and Flesh, a shade-inclusive makeup brand.

As the shift in the opposite direction continues, we think it’s likely more brands will return to reflecting their brand, what they’re selling and the audiences they’re targeting in their choice of typefaces (being more specific).

The Takeaway

While this analysis only looks at Didones, only one category of typeface, we’ve noticed other brands seek to visually design themselves with typefaces that buck the stripped-down minimalist trend we saw at the beginning of the decade until now.

This could mean keeping the same minimalist typeface albeit with bolder, louder fonts, drawing from the past with typeface families that are time-tested or doing something completely different with custom typefaces or hand-drawn branding.

Unsurprisingly, when a given “look” or style becomes so popular that the market becomes saturated to the point it becomes the new normal, it becomes that much more important for a brand to stand out and for a more refreshing human touch to come back to the visual language. As Hawley puts it:

“Within the broader minimalist framework, however, ornate flourishes such as that of the Didones sate their viewers’ need for a reprieve from the visual austerity of the past decade, and the political austerity for which it has served as the default style. Sitting on the train, I found myself captivated by an advertisement for mattresses I can’t afford, of all things, simply because its typography injected a moment of beauty into a day spent being bombarded by advertisements that, with rare exceptions, look more or less the same.”

December 2, 2019

Scratching the Surface of Growing Fan-aticism

It’s easy to write off fandom as a passionate if slightly silly appreciation for a person, group or subject matter. But left to grow in the unchecked recesses of the Internet, toxic fandom has the potential for destructive real-world consequences that mirror political or religious extremism.

“Regular” Fandom

Fandom and fan culture in principle are relatively benign and enjoyable things. At all layers of investment, they provide everything you could ask for in a community centered around a traditional culture:

  • Common interests: no explanation needed.
  • Sense of belonging: a sense of camaraderie and acceptance from like-minded peers.
  • History: the continuity from a pool of shared knowledge.
  • Fashion: a costume, uniform or outfit that indicates and celebrates membership.
  • Language: a visual, textual or spoken set of symbols, words and mannerisms.
  • Artwork: any manner of artistic output that’s inspired and influenced by the subject of interest.
  • Products: themed merchandise from tees and caps to duct tape.
  • Events: gatherings both formal and informal that incorporate all of the above. These can mark certain times, honor more long-held traditions or be inspired by similar events in other regions.

Each of these factors gives a would-be fan any number of things to latch onto and explore upon “entering” the culture. There’s something for everyone in the sense that some fans will choose to geek out over the technical minutiae like sports stats, the creators’ life, production notes and such, while others are drawn to the greater energy that defines the group.

Fan Activism

If we start to move away from the idea of fans and fandom as a means of uniting around and celebrating something, fan activism is one more step towards bringing the “magic” of that culture into the real world and one aspect of fandom rooted in actively driving change with respects to:

  • The Subject Itself: examples would be petitioning to say, bring Family Matters to Netflix, stop Ben Affleck from becoming Batman, or change plots in a given story.
  • The Industry: fans of a given industry might seek to drive change in how the industry that surrounds their favorite things functions such as equal pay for female athletes.
  • Society: For one, the Harry Potter Alliance uses “elements of our favorite fictional universes as metaphors for making sense of complex, contemporary issues,” and encourages fans to contribute their talents and skills toward changing society and the world.

The last case is notable because it repurposes the passion, talent and connections formed from the original fandom and applies it to a different context. In a similar vein, the 501st Legion is a costumed group of Stormtroopers (villains from the Star Wars franchise) that also does charity and volunteer work.


Whether you call it toxic fandom or fan-aticism (our coining), this aspect of fandom is where strong views boil over into the real world and pair the same desire to directly effect change of activism with the threatening, destructive, physical and potentially illegal behaviors of extremism.

“Fandom is a pure and precious thing, and no one should feel conflicted about being invested in a pop-culture figure or property,” explains a Wired article on toxic fandom across different fields. “If you express that investment by being a worse person, though—treating appreciation like warfare, demanding dogmatic purity tests, attacking people, or seeing yourself as some kind of a crusader—than it’s probably time to take some time and re-assess things.”

While toxic fandom grabs the most attention with singular events that expose that aspect of the culture in all its ugliness, they all appear in a larger context of other moving cultural and political parts.

  • Sports: Soccer hooligans can either be a toxic presence at a game regardless or be steered towards political ends.
  • Music: From Beliebers and One Directioners to the man who tracked down a Jpop star from IG photos, toxic fandom has the potential to harm regular people, fans, and creators alike.
  • Fiction: Sci-fi is particularly visible culprit with “old guard” Star Trek and Star Wars fans being hostile to new diverse fans and developments.
  • Gaming: GamersGate similarly underscored misogyny and backlash against diversity from fans against those the industry (we won’t get started on the bile found among gamers).
  • People: Even outside the entertainment world, there are legions of fans of famous people that will defend their name such as with entrepreneur Elon Musk.

This list of fields and examples within each are certainly not exhaustive, but in all cases, we can see that in all cases, situations frequently are boiled down to tribalistic “us vs. them” dynamics.

Where we’re going with this

We see that fandom can offer an uplifting common ground for people to unite, share and create around (and even do good), yet it also has the potential to turn sour, producing the same zealot-like devotion we’d see in extreme political, religious and criminal groups like gangs.

While we’re sure most readers are huge, even massive fans of certain things (even if you wouldn’t want to admit it), we know there will always be people who take things too far and worse, they’ll take it offline into the real world. This matters because as industries like professional sports, gaming and tech fields continue to make strides in certain directions, by and large that are more inclusive, large moves like that will cause friction with disgruntled so-called “true fans”.

We’ve been quite fascinated with the depths we’ve plunged thanks to the role tech and social media has influenced our world. The use cases have generally turned out pretty negative. But that’s not to say we can’t find the silver lining and utilize all this technology for something great. It’s time to align the right incentives.

November 28, 2019

On the Need to Diversify Standardized Visuals and "Re-Image" the World

Whether we realize it or not, widely copied and distributed visual elements like graphics and photos represent and shape our consciousness. With the rise of diverse emoji, there’s never been more momentum to give these “standard” visuals a much-needed update.

Sharing the Space is Important

Icons are distilled representations of reality, usually used to efficiently communicate and be easily recognized in highly visible places. Copied and distributed often enough, they repeatedly influence our consciousness, both online and off.

“Space also includes the digital world, which unlike physical space, is theoretically limitless.The digital realm is governed by an audience’s access and attention, and value is determined by the reach and visibility of competing content,” says Erika Kim, head curator for the Noun Project. “Quality representation and visibility in these spaces — especially public or highly visible space — implies legitimacy and value, which translates to influence.”

In her article on gendered depictions of different jobs and roles in icons, she lists three ways graphic designers can even the playing field:

1. Make equal depictions in terms of quantity and quality: Male and female equivalents of a given role such as astronaut, as well as even application of design principles to avoid unintended meaning (which elements are larger, in front, or placed in a position of authority or power?)

2. Appropriate depictions:  Aside from ending the blatant perpetuation of outdated stereotypes (say, anachronistic or inappropriate depictions of women in certain jobs), Kim encourages creating less commonly seen depictions that challenge rigid gender roles.

3. Meta Data: Consistency in the titles and tags between variations on a common image. For instance, a male and female icon titled as “business person” would have similar tags or synonyms such as ‘manager’, ‘leader’ and the like instead of a different set of meta data for each.

It’s a big lift, but it’s not that heavy

If the popularization of emoji is any indication, similar updates in diversity to standardized assets are quantum leaps, stepping stones or no big deal at all, depending on who you ask. After emojis became more widespread beyond Japan with Apple’s iOS 5 in 2011, the world adapted to using the icons in addition to just text and the more basic emoticon.

After Apple introduced racially diverse emoji in 2015, there were concerns over whether they would be abused or introduce new problems into a space that didn’t have them before. That said, some studies have shown they’ve been largely used as intended and have been a net positive for inclusiveness. Just like the many special characters than your computer is capable of producing (you’ve never heard of the interrobang‽), even if you don’t need to use them, someone else most certainly does.

Similarly, having images that represent the diverse people in the real world means a lot to those traditionally excluded from these spaces. For one, TONL is a stock photography company that features culturally diverse people. But more importantly, it represents both a demand for that diversity from paying customers, but also that there’s still room for change in seemingly calcified symbols representing objective truths.

The Takeaway

Whether it’s emoji or stock assets like photos, footage, icons and graphics, these elements are intended for wide distribution and can appear at multiple corners of online spaces, shaping our collective consciousness. This analysis isn’t the end-all be-all take on how to approach diversity in standardized visuals, and there are likely to be hurdles and friction on the way, but we recognize the need for that diversity and that the updating process is long overdue. The ever-shifting ways in which we communicate about a complex world is going to require more nuance, and that can only be conveyed by having greater diversity in our visual choices.

November 21, 2019

How to Avoid Climbing Up Mount Stupid
or Into The Fraudster's Cave

We look at the relationship between knowledgeability and confidence, including the pitfalls of both overestimating and underestimating ourselves. We look at the risk of climbing up Mount Stupid and climbing into The Fraudster’s Cavern.

Mount Stupid and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Often charts that feature Mount Stupid place “knowledge” or “experience” of a given topic on the horizontal X-axis and “confidence” or “self-perception of competence” on the vertical Y-axis. Mount Stupid is an anomalous region of the graph where the Y-axis is a lot higher relative to the X-axis. In short, it’s a peak where people are overconfident in their competence despite lacking significant experience or expertise. Webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal also frames the chart around the “willingness to opine on a topic” against actual knowledge of said topic.

The chart featuring Mount Stupid is often used to illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people lack the self-awareness to realize their overconfidence in their cognitive ability. It was originally described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, who also studied the effect’s prevalence in different cultures.

The Fraudster’s Cavern and Imposter Syndrome

Charts that include Mount Stupid often depict the “land” that follows as an upwards curving line that implies exponentially increasing confidence as expertise rises. But these charts don’t include another anomaly, one that accounts for a related if not opposite phenomena of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Imposter Syndrome. The term “impostor phenomenon” first appeared in 1978 in “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” an article by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes.

Imposter Syndrome is another common bias where highly competent people who are externally recognized as such incorrectly believe their success has been achieved by pure luck or by perpetually deceiving (or defrauding) others into overestimating their competence. In short, they’ve only been “faking it ‘till they make it.”

For the sake of our graph, we’ve put this anomaly near the far right side of the graph where it can potentially pop up. In keeping with topographical metaphors, we’ve called this The Fraudster’s Cavern to illustrate how those with Imposter Syndrome underestimate their competence and thus may also be a lot less willing to opine about it.

The Culture Factor

In later studies, the prevalence of both the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Imposter Syndrome (and their associated “symptoms”) was shown to differ by culture.

Depending on what our given society emphasizes, be it a high level of self-esteem or self-criticism, these values have the potential to influence individual tendencies and actions, such as whether repeated failure leads to self-directed improvement or moving onto other things.

Independent of the cultures we grew up in or are influenced by, it also goes without saying that everyone and anyone is vulnerable to barking up Mount Stupid or slipping into The Fraudster’s Cavern at some point in time — even if we don’t suffer from something that pervades our lives longterm such as the Dunning-Kruger Effect (or the opposite known as the Jonah Complex, which involves avoiding applying one’s talents).

The Takeaway

It’s not hard to see how these two tendencies can crop up in the world of creatives. Certainly, creatives are no strangers to the sense of self-doubt, but against a cultural background that often encourages or forces us to have an opinion on a variety of topics, there is always value in admitting you don’t have all the answers — yet.

We’re at the point where the speed at which we absorb information far exceeds the time we commit to mulling over, challenging and consolidating that information, must less our perspective on it. As a result, it’s not hard to see why we risk unwittingly becoming mountaineers or spelunkers. The keys to solving these? Seeking out quality feedback from honest peers and being willing to take constructive criticism well.

With every achievement, comes the belief that you need to reassess where the next goal or peak lies, should you aim to dedicate time and resources towards improvement. While we agree that life itself changes dynamically in the face of a goal, there’s often a lot of additional baggage with the relentless pursuit of goals. It’s perhaps an oversimplification of the belief that at some point, you have to come to terms with how your life looks and how your relationships play out in the face of “growth.”

November 18, 2019

How Class is Limiting Performing Artists

We look at how class plays into the lives of performing artists, specifically actors, and what does it mean for shaping culture through media. By examining the realities of a career as a performer, we talk about why it’s important for diverse viewpoints to stick around for the long game.

The Reality of Performing Artists

Interviewing and pitching clients is part and parcel with any creative career, especially if you’re independent. But for performers, there are a few factors that when combined, make the economics of staying in the profession particularly difficult (which of course, includes getting low-balled like all other creatives).

  • Training: just as being a photographer isn’t just about clicking a shutter button, being a performer isn’t as simple as doing your best impression or showing off your best dance moves.
  • Maintenance as Lifestyle: One key to getting repeat or more lucrative work is specializing in a given style or role. Depending on the demands (either of physicality or difficulty, for instance) that means adjusting an entire lifestyle towards the maintenance of their primary creative tools: their body and their mental health.
  • Pay-to-Play: Staying in the game costs money independent of maintaining the aforementioned healthy lifestyle. This applies whether you live and work in a place that has strong industry regulation that includes guilds (labor unions) or, like Hong Kong, where there’s little to no support.
  • High Rejection Rates: Rejection comes from all kinds of factors independent of how well someone auditions. Even if a performer learns to cope with it as a matter of life, the reality is each rejection means one less paycheck.
  • Constant Spec Work: Auditions are similar to design contests in that you have to rehearse and train to shape yourself to compete with others for the approval of the client (i.e. casting director). Combined with the aforementioned high-rejection rates, this results in a lot of free work that might not be used at all.
  • Job-to-job: Full-time roles are limited as well, unless you’re able to join a theatre or dance company, a media company as a host or, subject to qualifications, behind-the-scenes or administrative roles.
  • Career Limitations: Constantly keeping schedules flexible to allow for model castings, auditions and ideally, important but high-commitment “plum” roles means performers frequently work other jobs where they may have to artificially cap hours or aspirations.

Why this matters

You might not watch live theater or watch movies, but these mediums have institutional power that retains a lot of influence over the creative output of a given society and what the public sees. And since the audience is effectively the market for creatives, their culturally-shaped tastes, affect which stories get ordered to be made, how many roles are created and which performers get hired.

It’s worth mentioning that the competition for limited roles has also sparked debate over race and nationality (specifically between the US and UK) at the Hollywood level. Yet, the class-wide decline of actors from certain backgrounds is an issue that can have long-term consequences.

Scottish actor James McAvoy, himself the son of a builder and psychiatric nurse, put himself through drama school working at a bakery. Although he emphasizes he has no beef with the success of actors educated at prestigious schools, he warns of what happens when only one group of people become responsible for all the artistic output:

“That’s a frightening world to live in, because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part, and that’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

The Takeaway

Regardless of the creative field involved, we think it’s important that people get onto a career path that aligns with their aptitudes and passions. The issue is even when both of those are present, not everyone has the same socio-economic opportunities to carry them out all the way, whether that means going through the formal education route that leads to a career after or learning on the job.

It’s not a simple matter of being able to afford individual items like new drawing tools or dance classes in the early stages once you’ve decided to pursue a creative career. It also means having the means to support yourself between dry spells to stay in the game for the long term once you start working.

Even as working creative professionals continue to struggle with the validation of the industry, we likewise have to be wary of the next generation of creative storytellers having opportunities to make their voices heard by being hired. We often talk of the need for diverse viewpoints in the media and the need for stories to be told by different people as well — not just in terms of what they look like, but the circumstances they came from that enrich their work in ways you just can’t imitate.

November 11, 2019

Complex gets more complex with foray into product development

Digiday’s Tim Peterson explores media company Complex’s foray into product development that includes helping companies to reach its audience. We look at how this move fits into the bigger picture of connecting media, product and paying customers.

Complex gets more complex

In 2002, Complex started as a menswear magazine founded by Marc Ecko, founder of streetwear brand Eckō Unltd, known for its silhouetted red rhino logo. Over the years, it’s grown beyond its print origins to become a multifaceted media company that’s helped to popularize street culture and fashion. As can be expected of most media companies, there’s a lot of branches to it, all which are named after and tie back into the master brand.

  • Complex Networks: The video-centric network of creators and brands that includes other publications and shows.
  • ComplexCon: The multi-day event that is normally hosted in Long Beach, but recently hosted its first edition in Chicago.
  • Complex Collective: A research product that gives companies access to a panel of individuals signed on to provide feedback on any number of things including products and media.

What is Climate?

As Peterson writes, ComplexCon saw the company launch its first NextFront event, which helped the company to pitch its content and commerce business to over a hundred companies. It was here that Complex announced both Complex Collective and Climate.

Climate is a new division of Complex that will help use its expertise with working with both advertisers and audiences to develop products for other companies — and targeted at Complex’s discerning audience. Under Climate, this type of consulting work would become more formalized, where they’d already done so on an ad-hoc basis. For example, earlier this year, they connected Anwar Carrots and PepsiCo.’s Brisk to produce a line of special-edition beverages).

Hot Sauce, anyone?

This isn’t quite the first time Complex has worked with developing successful products. First We Feast is itself an online food-culture magazine and YouTube channel owned by Complex Media. Its channel produces several video series including The Burger Show, The Curry Shop and most notably, Hot Ones.

Hot Ones has host Sean Evans grill his celebrity guests as they dine on increasingly spicier chicken wings. What seems like a simple if entertaining concept has helped Complex to produce its own line of hot sauces, including Last Dab XXX, which generated $500,000 in sales within 48-hours of its October 17 launch.

As further proof of the company’s ability to leverage its properties to create opportunities elsewhere, that series is also being adapted into a 20-episode game show hosted by WarnerMedia Entertainment-owned TV network truTV (and shot in Atlanta in case you were wondering).

The Takeaway

Complex Networks isn’t the only media company to head in this direction and joins BuzzFeed and Clique Brands (formerly Clique Media Group). The basic idea is to use all of that experience gained from engaging a given audience and creating media products for them to form a profile other brands can use to then produce physical products that speak to that same audience. Done properly, this ensures a win-win-win situation for the original brand, the brand crafting the product, and the end buyer.

In the same vein, we recognize the benefit — and for a primarily digital media company, the importance — of having tangible connections between people and a brand. It’s not always about trying to sell merch (though our upcoming web store will certainly do that). Rather, it’s sharing with our supporters and audience the same experience we’d like to physically hold in our own hands. This means working with brands we either already respect and whose products we’d eagerly integrate into our lives anyways or those we know would be a good fit for our audience.

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