CU Water Cooler

Little Boxes

Jimmy MarksComment

Working in creative means you're one part escape artist, one part demolition man, and one part box enthusiast.

It's December 13, 2011. I'm sitting in my living room with my then-girlfriend as she reads a card I got her for our seven-year anniversary as a couple. As she reads the lines of this very long-winded card, I fiddle with a small box that I've been hiding from her for days now. She gets to the end of the card and looks up. There, in my hand, in the little box, is a diamond ring.

She says yes. What a relief! She slips the ring out of the little box and onto her finger.

It's April 16, 2013. We've spent a year and change now working on our wedding. We've been hand-making invites and wedding favors. We've been thinking about music and food. We have just about everything taken care of. I walk to the mailbox and there sits my 60-day housing notice. My property management company has sent me a letter telling me that my tiny one-bedroom apartment will be getting another rent increase...unless, of course, I want to move out. They're trying to call my bluff.

I check the little box next to "No, I will not renew my lease for one more year."

I discuss this a day later with my soon-to-be wife. She's apprehensive. We've got a lot going on and throwing in a move on top of all that will be a real mess. She says she can't deal with it at that point as she's too embroiled in "wedding work." I tell her I'll take care of everything.

It's May 29, 2013. After several lovely days in Italy on our amazing honeymoon, we come home to no new place to live. The pin my now-wife once put in this conversation has come out and we have to do something. She's worried. And so am I. And then, I say something that rings very true, even in spite of my fear.

"Honey, all I can ask of you is that you trust me. I do my best work when my back's to the wall."

It's June 19 and I'm fulfilling another deadline (that's two days past, mind you), to write a CU Water Cooler article. Tonight, I'll go home to our new townhouse—three levels, one giant bedroom (with closets out the wazoo), an upstairs den, two and a half baths—all for only $140 more per month than my teensy-tinsy one-bedroom apartment I outgrew over the last three years.

A townhouse, I should mention, that is now filled to the brim...with little boxes.

I spend a lot of my day thinking about "little boxes." No, not the Malvina Reynolds song that served as the theme song for the show Weeds...I mean literal and theoretical "little boxes."

There's the little box on your computer screen or in your hands (if you're a tablet fanatic like my wife). That browser window you're using is where I mentally spend roughly seven hours of an eight-hour day. I think up new ways to improve all the websites in my care. I create banners and buttons and email campaigns. I look at the code and make sure it all jives with what I want the user to see.

When I'm not obsessing over the browser box, I'm obsessing over my inbox. I get roughly 140 emails every day (on average) and I have to deal with them. Some quickly, some not-so-quickly, some never. I make up my mind at a glance and take action—reply/act, archive, deal-with-later, delete. Bing bang boom. And as I whip through all those emails, sorting each in its own box, I wonder—how many members do the same thing?

Boxes, boxes, boxes. The business world is obsessed with them. They tell you to "think outside the box." Others, like frequent CU Water Cooler Symposium sponsor and campaign-creators PTP New Media, want CU types to "destroy the box." Both good sentiments...depending on the box.

I guess if I had to take a definite stance on boxes, I'd fall right about where the red arrow lies on the scale below: 


On the left-most side of the scale, you have box-destruction. On the right-most, you have box-obedience. In the middle, you have box-understanding. You can't really adhere to your boundaries unless you know where they are. You can't knock down the walls unless you know what they're made of...or unless you're willing to rattle a few teeth in the blast.

I tend to be on the side of "box-escape." Maybe it's not the box that has to go somewhere...maybe it's me. I don't always know whether or not I can move the box. I can move me.

Let's Get Specific

If you're lost in the metaphor, let me spell it out for you: this is all about constraints. Everything has a limit. Everything. Believe it or not, you really don't have infinite anything. You are limited in your time, your mental capacity, your energy, your will...nobody's boundless. Every atom in the universe is subject to the laws of physics. Heck, even God kept the creation of said universe to a seven-day window, and He finished under-time and under-budget (using Adam's rib to make Eve instead of whipping up a whole new person out of dust? That's good materials management. Project directors, take note.)

Those personal boundaries? Let's put them in a theoretical box. We're going to make that box out of Lego—sturdy, shiny, thought-provoking, and easy to enlarge when needed.

Then, you've got your professional boundaries. There's what you can do as an individual in an organization. There's what you can do with a team. There's what you can do with a client. Let's make that box out of oak—very sturdy, and not un-changeable, but sometimes rigid and, often, quite old.

Lastly, you've got your one major boundary—time. We all have only so much time on this earth. Nobody's promised any given amount. Every bit you get is a lucky break. This box is really more of a big, cubic balloon with a slow-leak in it—hard to see sometimes, and tough to appreciate when your focus is elsewhere. The important thing? That box is always getting smaller.

Now, you have all of your boxes. How do they stack? One on top of the other? One inside of the other? Bear in mind, those boxes are inside the time box. How do you prioritize?

For the past few years, I've been struggling with this. You can't swing a dead cat on the Internet without hitting another article about "Work-Life Balance", but I did like this Harvard Business Review article about how "balance" doesn't mean as much as "effectiveness."

Researchers Jeffrey Greenhaus and Gary Powell expand on this concept and recommend that work and personal life should be allies and that participation in multiple roles, such as parent, partner, friend, employee, can actually enhance physical and psychological well-being—especially when all of the roles are high quality and managed together.

I like the idea that the "boxes" really aren't in competition—strength in one box can mean strength in another. Look at the lessons learned from fellow Water Cooler editor Shari Storm and her book Motherhood is the New MBA. Shari drew on her experiences as a mom to improve her work skills and vice versa.

Part of striking that balance and maximizing that effectiveness? Knowing when to say when. Sometimes, a project at work needs an extra hour, or two, to be perfect. But you can't drag that out so long as to neglect what you have to do at home. The same is true of home—you can't spend your morning re-organizing your dresser and miss all your meetings. Trying to perfect the contents of both the "home" and "work" boxes will make a mess of both. Focusing too much on one and not the other will overflow one and collapse the other. And just when you think you've got one figured and the other forgotten, you notice that big, rubber box called "time" is getting a wee bit smaller.

And somewhere in a corner of that very large box, as I stand with one foot in "work" and the other in "home," a smaller, much more frightening box marked "kids" doesn't have anything in it.


Deeper into the Work Box

Ed Smylie might not be a household name, but you likely remember his work. If you've ever seen the movie Apollo 13, you'll likely remember the scene where a group of engineers worked frantically to come up with a way to filter the Carbon Dioxide and make the shuttle and the module's life support systems work together. They use everything at their disposal—a sock, some duct tape, a plastic bag—and they come up with the solution that kept the astronauts from smothering to death. Ed Smylie's the team leader that made that happen. I dub him "The Patron Saint of Box-Working"; he got the job done, in a short time frame, with the materials provided, OUTER SPACE.

Sort of makes you feel bad about wanting a new computer every six months, doesn't it?

Let's set "home" aside for a few minutes. You're reading this at work, you're theorhetically working right now...let's focus on this box and the dozens (hundreds?) of little boxes inside of it.

For starters, there's the box called "Regulations." This box is like one of those surreal M.C. Escher drawings, just layers and layers and layers going down into infinity. There will always be another regulation to contend with, another new legal precedent you'll have to interpret and understand and apply. How do you "think outside the box" when actually stepping outside the box might cost your credit union thousands or get you fired?

Here's where it pays to be an appreciator of the box. Instead of looking for ways around the reg, the wise find ways to work within its confines. In web design and technology, the limits often bring out more creative solutions and new approaches to problems—the edges of the box aren't walls, but a frame that holds a brilliant picture.

Then, there's the box called "Technology." When I was doing Flash animations many years ago (when it still felt like Flash mattered), my mentor at the time talked about the idea of making images and sites scalable, all the way down to the size of a postage stamp.

"Why?" I asked. "When would anyone ever need to use a website on something smaller than a computer screen?"

Later that year, the iPhone 1 was announced. Somehow, my mentor had seen the future, not just of computing, but of web design.

Ethan Marcotte, one of the first and most prominent voices in responsive web design, wrote an article about the concept in 2010.

This is our way forward. Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience. We can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them.

Marcotte saw fit to work the same experience into multiple views rather than several approaches that all work in different ways. Credit unions haven't taken up the charge to make the web experience the same across multiple devices and browser types. Heck, I've seen a few credit union websites that haven't been updated since...ever. Can't imagine their members are getting the most out of that experience.

And to the enterprising few that step into the world of mobile banking apps, may I first say "Bravo." You've seen the future, too, and you know that people value mobile convenience. Now, make it so that I can check my balance on the app without having to enter my login. Require that login for transactions, but not for simple glances at my balance. That's mostly what I log in for anyway.

Many Silicon Valley firms use a "mobile first" approach, according to this HBR article:

...a common philosophy these days is "mobile first": create the mobile app or mobile version of the web site before you do the "full" version. Partly this is driven by the fact that many of these start-ups' customers will be accessing the new service primarily through a mobile device, and may never look at the web site on a desktop browser. But a side benefit is that a phone's small screen forces discipline about what's really critical to communicate to the customer, and which functionality customers will really need.

Web design has always been about constraints. When you build a website, you have to work within the parameters of the coding language. Even if the site looks perfect, it has to be tested across multiple browsers and platforms. After that, it has to be tested for compliance. And, once you're all finished, you have to go back in and make changes based on whatever stupid thing Internet Explorer won't allow you to do (and, come on, CU-people—quit using IE 7 and below. Upgrade. Please. For our sake.) The funny thing about the web? There really aren't any boundaries. You can make websites that go on forever. You can make websites that have no back buttons, no menus, no images—just endless, rolling text. You can do it all. But you can't count on the user's computer to handle it all. And really, as selfish as we can be about wanting more space and more content, we can really only handle what the user's computer—and the user's desire to learn—gives us.

Outside the computer, there's your desk, your cube, your office, your branch—more boxes. Each with their own sticking points and limitations. Here's where you get to be an escape artist...and maybe a demolition expert.

Many of the internal barriers you face come from years and years of repetition. "Oh, no one would ever go for a meeting where people couldn't bring in their cell phones." "This office is just bound to stay this color forever." "No, a network upgrade's just not in the forecast."

Sometimes, these walls crumble easily. At my office, we didn't have a "recycling program"—which is to say, we didn't have bins for recycling. I lucked into getting two large cardboard boxes, roughly the size and shape of trash cans. Our office manager and I doctored them up with a few signs we printed, one that said "cans and bottles" and one that said "paper." We put trash bags inside them and voila! We're "green!"

Our office manager didn't stop there. She sourced out a recycling bin (for free) and another large trash can that she re-labeled and repurposed. Now, we send out a bag of cans every two weeks and we do a plastics-and-paper run every three. What started as two leftover boxes and a little bit of masking tape turned into a "program."

And, for some reason, everyone in our office loves the idea. Why it took as long as it did, I haven't a clue. Just that box mentality, I guess.

Sometimes, you have to fight really, really hard to knock down a wall or wriggle out of your cage. The processes and people are so ingrained in their particular mindset that you can't make headway. Can you work around it without going through it? Can you escape, if caught? The hardest part of these efforts is having the willingness to try.

Often, the most creative solutions come when constraints are placed. Our minds aren't challenged when we think we have it figured out—they're challenged when we know there's a limit we need to exceed, or work around. From Wired (written by Jonah Lehrer, which means it was probably first said by someone else...):

The larger lesson is that the brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. And this is why constraints are so important: It's not until we encounter an unexpected hindrance—a challenge we can't easily resolve—that the chains of cognition are loosened, giving us newfound access to the weird connections simmering in the unconscious.

Proof of Life After Box

I know you want to work in an environment where you're never limited by budgets or time constraints or regulations. We all want the power to do something amazing with no limits except our imaginations. But that's just not where we live and work. We have our boxes and we have to work inside of them.

Instead, let your boxes bring out the best in you. Like the applicants for Tulane University's Dean's Scholarship. They were challenged to use a small box on the application form [PDF] as part of their scholarship application. From the application:

USE THE BOX on the next page in any way you feel appropriate and accompany this with a written commentary.

"In any way you feel appropriate?" Say what you want about the box, I think the real gift is that disclaimer. What the applicant feels is "appropriate" probably says more about them than whatever they end up putting in that box.

What if you were given a creative brief in the form of a child's drawing? What if you had to represent something made in crayon and marker as a real-life, 3D object that a child could play with and hold? Wendy Tsao of Child's Own Studio tasked herself with just such a mission. Parents could submit their children's drawings and Wendy's talented fingers would bring those drawings to life. The results are incredible and the kids really love that Wendy has turned what was once just crayon and ink into something real. That's close to magic.

Jory Raphael designs logos, websites and icons. His work is simple, yet elegant. And this year, he's tasked himself with creating a new icon every single day. You can see all the icons and download them for free (free!) on his website.

Yes, you can survive inside the boxes in your life. You can grow, you can thrive, you can learn, you can create. You just have to be willing to work with them and let them work on you. It's tempting to wish for unlimited space and unlimited time. But unlimited space just means you'll get lost and unlimited time doesn't happen for anyone. The big, balloon-esque box gets a little smaller and a little tighter. Does that make you afraid? It shouldn't.

It should make you want to create something really great. Right now.


 Jimmy Marks is the Creative Media Director with DigitalMailer. He's a guy that creates websites, web pages, email campaigns, graphics, video, audio, copywriting—anything. You name it, he's into it.