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Jennifer Daniel: Stop Trying to Design Everything

About this talk

Social media puts an impossibly glossy shine on design, careers, and life in general. But let’s be real about that perfectly-put together construction of ourselves we’ve curated online, says New York Times graphics editor Jennifer Daniel. In this talk, Daniel address the pressure of trying to be a great parent, while also putting in the hours required to be a great designer: “Are people afraid that we can’t do it all?” Because the truth is, “Well, we can’t do it all.”

Jennifer Daniel, Graphics Editor, The New York Times

Jennifer Daniel is a graphics editor at the New York Times. Her picture book, Space! is an exploration of science through information graphics. She is also the illustrator of The Origin of (Almost) Everything.


Full Transcript

So, I’m here to talk about the phrase that changed my life, which was, “There is one, and there’s the other.” And the person who said that was my OBGYN. [LAUGHTER] She was talking about being pregnant with twins. And she said it in such a way– [LAUGHTER] –that was so casual, like the way your grocer asks you if you want one bag or two bags. Like, obviously, I want two bags. Who only wants one bag? I was very excited. So we started talking about how that changed the pregnancy and my life and blah blah. As we’re talking, our attention slowly turns to my husband, who had legit fainted. [LAUGHTER] He had slumped over in his chair. He’s, like, pale. And all he could say was, “Twins?” And I assured him he’d be a great dad. And my doctor abandoned me and went to his side, and asked if he was OK, and assured him that he’d be a great father, and gave him a number for a therapist. [LAUGHTER]

Alan heard twins, and all he could think about was getting those stacks– bread, [? guac, ?] clams, cheddar, coinage, whatever you want to call it– that crucial stuff that you need to make that family. And, you know, like, child labor laws make it hard for them to get a full time job until they’re, like, 14 or 15 years old. So it’s on us to keep them alive until they can start making money. [LAUGHTER] And if you aren’t rich, that’s OK. Don’t sweat it. When you need to pay for food, or rent, or have a kid, that money sector of your brain expands. [LAUGHTER] Alan spent the next days hustling and mumbling to himself something about, “I need to learn how to make apps.” Well, I threw up in bodega bags pretty much everywhere we went. While he worried about how we were going to afford to live in the most expensive city in America, San Francisco, I congratulated myself on dropping so many eggs at once.

It didn’t even occur to me that I needed to learn a new marketable skill, like online gambling or robbing a bank, or learning how to make apps. I just figured we’d make it work. But, clearly, I didn’t fully appreciate that twins meant something really different. And it was going to change my life– mostly because my husband was having a panic attack for the both of us, but also I’ve just never been very good at making decisions. And for those of you who also have children, most likely you’re also bad at making decisions. Otherwise, you probably would have been like, maybe we shouldn’t have had that baby. [LAUGHTER] There’s like no good time to have a child, period. You can have one, or you cannot. It’s not like a big mystery to solve. Becoming a parent is a lot like becoming a designer. You start off thinking you’re going to be really, really good, and then you become one and you’re like, I really suck. [LAUGHTER] And contrary to what a lot of design gurus out there have you believing, it isn’t rocket science. There are no rules to design or, for that matter, raising a kid. And people trying to explain the rules to you are either just trying to make money, or are people who have no concept of what reality is, let alone what it could be, let alone how to help anyone build those realities. They’re solely operating in this realm on how they were told reality is, and they’re trying to convince anyone, or you, to join them.

Go to any parenting section of a bookstore and replace parent with design, and child with client, and if that doesn’t sound like a design conference, then I don’t know what does. So nine months flew by. Fox and Filomena were born, and the earth stopped rotating. (audience) Aww. [LAUGHTER] It’s cool. You can report me for inappropriate content to– [LAUGHTER] Friends would say it gets better. [LAUGHTER] Friends would tell me it gets better, the same way people in a crowd shout at marathon runners, you’re almost there, when they’re only at the seven mile mark. It was very hard to accept things got better when the definition of a day meant nothing. Days felt like weeks. Weeks felt like a day. For the first seven months, I walked around the house topless. [LAUGHTER] You’re like 30 feet boobs. [LAUGHTER] But, like, I didn’t walk around topless like a cool Girls Gone Wild kind of way. It was like The Matrix. [LAUGHTER] Like, I do not need clothes when my existence is purely to feed these two little machines. Also, like, my clothing was really dirty, and it smelled like BO and whizz– not just my whizz.

So I just walked around the house with no clothes and no dignity. And it actually reminded me a little bit of being a freelance designer. [LAUGHTER] Except you can’t walk. And you shower a lot less. And you gain a lot more weight. And you have to rub sandpaper on your nipples every hour and a half, two hours. And all your non-sleeping time has to be devoted to some sort of selfless service that is not something you want to do, like feeding endangered snakes, or digging holes and filling them up, being threatened by an invisible mountain lion that only you can see. That’s what the first few months feel like. So I did what I did when I was peak lonely and depressed as a freelance designer, like a decade ago. I did not turn to whiskey, as tempting as it was. I surrounded myself by others in a similar situation. I clearly had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know many people who had twins.

So I joined a Facebook group, even though I really didn’t want to do it. There’s nothing worse than a bunch of moms complaining about things. But I did it. I did it anyways. I got on Slack. I tweeted. I Instagrammed. I Snapchatted. I Meerkatted. And what I love about Instagram is that, the way it’s dated, it tells you how many weeks it’s been. So it’s like practically asking for newborn photos. Because it was like, yeah, my baby is 17 weeks old. And Instagram facilitates that information. So I was kind of self-conscious about it, nonetheless, because who wants to see baby photos?

That’s the one thing before I had kids, I was like, good for you, you had unprotected sex and you made this beautiful baby. Don’t care. Show me those designs you’re working on. But I started to not care about that so much, because I realized that all of that social media, and all of that expression– because I was very lonely, and very isolated– that’s what I was experiencing in that moment. And that’s what I was looking at. So that’s what I’m going to take a picture of. And so if you don’t care about my life– if you don’t care about my twin’s, you probably don’t care about my life. And that’s OK, I’m OK with that. But you don’t care about me, I don’t care about you. It’s cool. It’s mutual. [LAUGHTER] And it turns out babies are great content. People love baby photos. More than any website, or business card, or movie, or whatever I’ve made. And babies are weird and funny in a way that I just wish my work could be. My favorite way to describe it is from Laura June, who’s a writer for New York Magazine, who describes babies like, they’re chum boxes. You shouldn’t want to click, because the thumbnail you see is revolting, but you simply can’t not. So here I found myself bonding with strangers, and the only thing we have in common was that we both had unprotected sex at the same time. Not, like, at the same time, but you know. And then acquaintances who were suddenly promoted to a level of intimacy regarding body excretions usually reserved for doctors. So I called friends who had become parents years ago and apologized for not offering to babysit. And I apologized for if I ever complained for being tired in front of them. And I found podcasts about how to raise babies. But I preferred to read about how others were failing at it. Because even though I want what’s best for my child, I just felt like everyone was doing it better than I was. Everyone seems to be eating better, living better, designing better. This pursuit of idealism and designification has not stopped with Instagram food porn or the home design selfie with your cool table and your weaving above your bed. [LAUGHTER] This designification has actually bled into all things lifestyle, including even children. As if being a designer wasn’t bad enough, now I have to fight the designification of motherhood.

Design and parenting are presented as things that a person should be perfect at, and presented as though people are perfect at it when, in fact, that’s just not the case– the perfect designer, the perfect doodle, the perfect parent, the perfect house, the perfect lunch. It’s a very 1950s feeling to all of this. And just like in the 1950s, we’re all crazy alcoholics. [LAUGHTER] These designers treat design like it’s Medusa. Instead of staring it in the eye, they resist the inevitability of failure by perfectly curating their Instagrams and their Snapchat stories, or composing tweets that superficially reveal their little vulnerabilities by only speaking to the broadest audience possible. Do what you love. Hustle.

Design makes everything possible. What do these statements even mean, other than glamorizing working on nights and weekends and having no work-life balance? Groupthink is absolutely suffocating original, authentic thinking. We are responsible for what we put into the world, and merely making things and hustling is not enough. As a designer, I feel very responsible about thinking about who am I talking to? What am I trying to say? Am I lonely? I think all of us have been watching this pendulum swing away from, its easy, I’m rich, I’m successful, to I’m vulnerable, too. And it’s been fascinating to watch other designers fetishize failure. “Fail harder,” says Wieden Kennedy. Fail fast, fail early, fail often echoes from every San Fransisco Slack chat. According to my Twitter feed, there’s a story about failure on Medium, like, I don’t know, every 10 minutes. Now these two philosophies are both symptoms of narcissism. [LAUGHTER] They’re balms for low self-esteem. [LAUGHTER] Broadcasting these broad, generalized insecurities, again, or documenting the appearance of success is easy because the stakes are so low. And when shared publicly, the result is the same– folks reassuring each other that they’re doing great.

Social media is teeming with this garbage. But the internet can be used to address actual loneliness and struggles of life. And I do my best to look for these real communities and have a real conversation online. Everything I tweet is true. I called 911– she was just sleeping. I couldn’t even enjoy her sleeping because I was so scared. Talking about things candidly makes me feel a lot less shame. I do probably over-share a little. [LAUGHTER] And I do delete tweets. I do do that, because it’s a good practice, too. And when I feel like I’m confusing Instagram or Twitter with therapy, I call my actual therapist. Twitter is not some sort of place where you can just dump all your emotions. That is heavy. You can actually get real help. [LAUGHTER] There we go. It’s normal to worry about the lines– [LAUGHTER] It’s normal to worry about the lines between life and work, and figure it out for yourself. What works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else. I try to be honest, especially when I’m confused.

I broadcast my flaws as a way to not feel ashamed by them. And I have trouble tweeting things I’m proud of without wanting to punch myself in the face. I don’t know why. But honesty is a privilege. [LAUGHTER] This is Twitter. This is social media. But honesty is a privilege, not a right. Honesty is worthless if you are a jerk, if you are an asshole, if you are a garbage person. Because when garbage people are authentically themselves, they’re being– they’re espousing garbage. You’re being a jerk. You’re being a dick. You’re being an asshole. Unfortunately, garbage people see things through their garbage-colored glasses, and they can’t see their own garbage. But they’re amongst us. And sometimes I’m that person.

Sometimes I’m a garbage person. But, at the end of the day, what we’re looking for is acceptance– even the assholes– especially the assholes, especially the garbage people– through our imperfection and success. What I do know is that this is a lie. If you look online and you only see beautiful photos of everyone’s angelic baby room, or perfectly rendered sketches, or immaculately designed apartment, there’s something so hypnotizing about seeing all these really beautiful things online. But it will rot my brain, and it will rot my heart, if I stare at them too long. [LAUGHTER] When I started comparing myself to other designers and other mothers, I felt so terribly insecure over the most superficial things. Like, should I do a nine-month time lapse and videotape it? And if I don’t do it, someone’s going to do a better job at it. Know what? No one cares. No one cares if I do that or I don’t do that, but I’m thinking about it. [LAUGHTER] I care about– Aw. I cared too much about what my babies were wearing when I took the photos. I cared too much about the weight I lost since giving birth.

I cared if you could see the pumping equipment in the background of photographs, because breastfeeding is so much more important than formula feeding. That’s bullshit. I’d be up all night feeding the kids, wondering how other mothers could make it look so easy. But, give me a break. That person does not exist. Why don’t we acknowledge the good with the bad when we’re making things? Design communities like Dribbble or Behance could be a place where we acknowledge we are not, in fact, natural born geniuses, but instead are more inclined to post pixel perfect [? props. ?] Of course, as a parent, I can’t embrace failure as a philosophy. [LAUGHTER] Having a child is a series of tiny successes and failures, and it all depends on how you respond to them. Most people prefer not to have an audience to their failures, their true failures. But when failure happens– and it will– the most important part is to not let it destroy myself. I take responsibility for my failure, but I don’t make it personal. I failed, but I am not a failure. Failures are the hardest to explain, and yet those are the very instances when I feel like I am most desperate for a little understanding and a little empathy. [BABY CRYING] JENNIFER DANIEL (ON (video)) It’s OK. It’s OK. (jennifer daniel) I’m holding one kid, and I can’t help the other kid. JENNIFER DANIEL (ON (video)) It’s OK. There. [LAUGHTER] Nailed it. Yeah! [LAUGHTER] So I put them on display. It’s easy to forget the rules when I’m on deadline and I’m moving fast. I’m just as guilty as the next guy for getting over-excited when I read a new client proposal, or a new project, or a kid hit a new milestone. For example, I design websites, and magazines, and all kinds of junk. And most good magazine art direction isn’t about the design, really. It’s about the strength of the ideas and how they’re expressed with typography, or pictures, or color. I think design is kind of a bullshit word to articulate that process. It’s just really about the strength of the idea. And so many of us try to innovate for innovation’s sake. And it’s so important for me to free myself from the obligation to reinvent things when I just stay true to the conceit to the strength of an idea.

So when my kids started eating food, I forgot that rule and I started making them balsamic reduction fish dinners. You know, roasted beet and goat cheese salad, breaded asparagus. Very complex meals. When, really, all they wanted was Cheerios, yogurt, a peanut butter sandwich, and maybe a vegetable if they were being generous. I truly over-complicated it. I was familiar– [LAUGHTER] I was familiar with the narrative that children, quote, ruin your body, but I was less familiar with the idea that kids can ruin your career. But it’s no joke. According to the New York Times, men’s earnings increased more than 6% when they had children, while women’s decreased 4% for each child they had. And don’t get me started how work and home dynamics change, because it’s an entirely different discussion. What I want to talk about right now is just identity. Because I’m 33, and I have not achieved everything I’ve wanted to achieve in life yet. But, then again, I don’t know what I want to achieve, either. And that can leave me feeling really jittery with ambition and urgency, but with no direction.

So I haven’t quite figured out how to use makeup, or shaving my legs, or what my ideal weight is. I keep forgetting how important it is for me to shower every day, to cook, to draw. In other words, I have not mastered my life yet. But I have also not figured– I have figured out enough of it that I’m not ready to forget it. And parenthood is not like a volunteer job. It’s not done in the hours between home from work and bath time. It’s not a side project. It’s not a passion project. It’s my identity, whether I define myself by it, or not. I mean, I’m a workaholic. My work is life. So that means my kids are just as much part of my career as my J-O-B. Some say parenthood can inspire you to be a better artist and others say it’s the end of your career. Once I became a mother, my children came first, my husband came first, my work came first, and I came last. Everything about motherhood feels like a mandate toward selflessness. Sometimes the parenthood is deeply profound. I don’t believe in returning to this idea of a former self, anymore than I believe in returning to my pre-baby body weight. Design is a service industry, and that person before twins still exists. I’m that person. I never really had much self-worth before, so maybe that’s why I didn’t mourn my previous life like most people do. I had a baby really quickly after I moved to San Francisco, and I was super bored. But I don’t believe in one single self. I believe that people see their careers as linear. I think most people see it as a linear– moving from one job to the next.

But I unsubscribed from that a long time ago. It took me a long time, but once I stopped treating illustration and journalism as separate things, I was able to do so much more. Sometimes the approach is illustration and the execution is an infographic. Other times the approach is journalism, and the execution is an illustration. There is no such thing as putting on an art director hat. Those are not skills that are mutually exclusive from each other. And that’s how I feel about being a professional and being a mother. This is my desktop. [LAUGHTER] Pinterest drives me crazy. I can’t put things in even places. So since the twins were born, I published two books. One was out in February, a month after they were born, and the second one’s out in September– The Origin of Almost Everything– it’s on Amazon. Plug. Go get it. It’s good. I also work as a full time graphics editor at The New York Times. I occasionally write.

I tour the design conference circuit. And my children are still alive. And a lot of people ask me, how do I do it? I’ve never read Lean In, but I’ll tell you how I do it. I do it because I have help. I am privileged. I have an incredible woman who takes care of my children while I’m at work, five days a week. She helps me with my kids, and I pay her a large part of my salary to do that. So that I can work. So that I can make the things that may or may not go anywhere. So I can create this lecture that may or may not matter. So that I can do what I love and feel sane and feel myself. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So why has nanny become such a loaded word? In fact, the woman who actually takes care of my children does not want me to call her a nanny. She does not like the association of that word. Why are we as women so reluctant to talk about the people who help us, and so that tell us what we can and can’t do. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that people think that we can’t do it all? Well, duh. We fucking can’t do it all. What’s the big secret we’re trying to keep, and who do we think we’re fooling? And what is it doing to people who read our Medium posts, and our Instagram, and favorite our perfect little tweets, and think that all these projects are being finished while the babies sit quietly in their cribs, sleeping and politely asking for more milk. I love that Brian Eno confessed in his diary that one of the reasons he can do so much is because he married his manager.

So here I am on stage consenting to this recording, giving my own design disclosure to remind myself that my career and life is not one big mystery to solve. That there is no formula– [LAUGHTER] –or steps to make the perfect website or child. I don’t need design heartthrobs or anyone to hold my hand and walk me through deciding if I should make that new product, or if I should do that new personal project. I also don’t need Ricki Lake telling me if I need to get an epidural. So I hope that the past 20 minutes has done some good. [LAUGHTER] To someone– [LAUGHTER] It’s difficult for me to offer advice when I’m so reluctant to get it myself. I wonder if this has been helpful to anyone else but myself. I wonder if my kids will watch this video. And I wonder sometimes if they’re going to be designers. God, I hope not. And I hope they forgive me if they are. And if they’re watching this, please call your mother. Thank you.

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