July 30, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Margot Harrington’s Sunday Sauce Brands Workshop for Start-Ups and Non-Profits

What are you working on—on the side?

My newest side project is so new that it’s not even been announced yet! It’s a workshop I’m doing with a fellow independent designer, Veronica Corzo-Duchardt of Winterbureau. We’re really good buds and have worked together on a side gigs before, so we’re teaming up again! This workshop is called Sunday Sauce Brands, and we’re focusing on other micro-businesses, start-ups, and folks with their own side-hustle, but who don’t have the bandwidth right now to do a full exploration.

The best part about the workshop is that it’s scalable! Eventually, we want to take this workshop to young start-ups and non-profits, and work through the content with them onsite. Perhaps, we’ll even take it on the road to other cities!

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

Nights and weekends, the inclusion of “Sunday” in the project’s name is not coincidence. It is when I find myself most frequently working on side stuff. The name comes from the Italian concept of a family’s pasta sauce, usually made on Sundays. The ingredients might be similar to other families, but after simmering all day, each develops their own unique flavor. It can take a while, but it’ll get there. We’ve been working on this side project on and off since the beginning of 2014.

Why have side projects?

For me, it’s the best way of exploring different directions to take my work and find new ways of hustling for income. Just nice to do something different, or try something new. And working with a partner like Veronica is good, because we both learn more about our own businesses through each other, with the added social benefit of working with a friend.

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Diptych courtesy of Margot Harrington.

This debut series is provided in affiliation with 50,000feet.

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July 21, 2014

Facing the challenging medium of clay: Justin Hart, the Problem-Solving Ceramist

By participating in the tradition of ceramics, Justin Hart persists, as he put it, to “create functional objects of beauty.” Here, he generously talks about his zeal and experience in meeting the demands of making ceramic art that satisfies a rigorous process of design and execution:

On being a ceramic artist

You made the transition from a project manager 
to a ceramic artist. Can you please elaborate on this journey?
I’ve been working in ceramics for most of my life and have been more engaged in the practice at various times than at others. I had left a position with Redmoon Theater, overseeing their build-shop and intern team as a project manager. In this role, I managed custom art jobs and a line of environmentally friendly children’s furniture, and was generally a jack-of-all-trades, doing everything from product development to fabrication to drawings and design work. From there, I became a science teacher working in some of the most challenged neighborhoods in Chicago.

You can see the trajectory: one challenging high-input job after another, with the potential for burnout at every turn. While teaching, I began establishing a new ceramics practice, which I had put on hold since grad school to explore other career options. I started, at first, doing a bit of consulting, everything from clay and glaze chemistry to production solutions for ceramics. I also provided some other services such as mold production and small-scale product runs. At the end of the day, the work was interesting but lacked a tactility and evidence of the handmade. I shifted and began making my own thoroughly handmade objects of beauty and service.

You call yourself a “Problem-Solving Ceramist.” 
Cool job title. What does this mean?
During undergrad, I was pursuing two degree paths. I was very much interested in science, specifically environmental science. I worked toward a degree in this field, as well as in art. With art, I always knew I was going to focus on ceramics. At this point, I had already been working in clay for a few years, so I focused on this and art history. Because during this part of my journey, I had a lot of people, especially from family, asking me what I was going to do with myself. What I’m pretty sure they meant had nothing to do with “what I was doing with myself” and had everything with how was I going to earn a living, and they thought I was unfocused in my studies—they could not see the relation between the arts and sciences. To me, these areas were a part of the same practice: asking questions, solving problems, and telling people what you found out—which translated into my always present long-term goal of what I wanted to be doing with myself: solving problems and making things. Those are the only two things that I have ever wanted to do.

I not only make ceramic work, but I also help other people solve just about any kind of ceramic problem, and if I don’t have the answer, I can always figure out a way to find one. Folks also come to me with other sorts of problems, with my work experience I have a broad-ranging fabrication knowledge that allows me to take on non-ceramic projects and provides new insight into how to solve ceramic problems. I call myself a problem-solving ceramist, because solving problems is so ingrained in my practice, and I work in so many different areas that simply labeling myself a clay artist or ceramist is too narrow.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start 
and establish yourself as a ceramic artist? 
And why were these activities/steps important?
I wouldn’t say that the ceramics community-at-large considers me established in their ranks. Too much of the work I have done exists in different areas that I have been unfocused—intentionally, on a ceramics career. I would say I am more established in the design and fabrication world as much, if not more, than ceramics, especially in the Chicago area. I think an appropriate anecdote here is that I ran into someone at a charity event where I was selling my work. It was someone I had known for the better part of ten years. He was surprised to see me selling ceramic work. He had always thought of me as a woodworker or shop fabricator and had never been exposed to the clay side of me. In fact, he never knew I was an artist.

Regarding the steps I have taken toward my ceramics career: First, get educated. Ceramics is art, geology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and design all rolled into one practice. Second, get a studio and really work in it. Ceramics is capital heavy and expensive. Kilns alone are the cost of a car, and materials are the cost of a new car. It is hard, but band together and find other like-minded people—that’s why I have become part of the Midwest Clay Guild. By working in a co-op ceramics situation, we can afford really nice equipment and a fully stocked materials lab. Show your work. People have got to see what you make. Send off your images and get your rejections, but you’ll also get your acceptances. Most importantly, network. Always be on top of generating new connections online, and in person, because you are only fertilizing your own little garden of potential.

Who and/or what are your influences 
related to art, design, craft?
Early in my career, I gravitated towards ceramic artists like Ron Nagle, who still hovers in the back of my mind. I would just sit and look at images of his work for hours and think about their juiciness. I learned a great deal about light and layering from Ken Price, another ceramic artist. I look toward Anish Kapoor and Juan Munoz for what I think of as consumer experiences.

For user experience, this will sound crazy, but I look toward the makers of Festool equipment. In the hardware industry, you will find no other brand that is as thoughtfully designed. Their equipment is on par with Apple for design, but also because what they make functions best inside their ecosystem of products. and inside of that ecosystem is a world of innovation when it comes to woodworking.

Can you give a tour of how an idea, for a ceramic piece, 
gets real? For example, please pick one of your 
favorite ceramic pieces. What were the steps and tools 
used to materialize it?
Like a lot of designers and makers, ideas for new pieces begin on paper in the sketchbook. I draw a lot, sometimes I’ll fill whole pages with the same idea with slight variations looking for specific proportions. From the sketches, I move to a more formalized technical drawing with dimensions and detailing. This is a step most potters would not even consider—they would hop on the wheel or hand-build what it is they are looking for. Since I am combining the mold-formed and hand-built in my work, I know there is a big investment in time to produce the molded parts—I need to know exactly how everything is going to come together. I could choose to use a computer to generate the drawings and then have the model, for the molded components, milled or printed. I have done this in the past, but for current work, I am sticking to handmade models. From the technical drawings, I will then construct a paper model to get a better sense of size, proportion, and feel. This step also helps produce the production templates I use in cutting the handmade components. Next, I develop the handmade components of the piece and turn the necessary models on the wheel—think of a horizontal lathe. From here, I cast the molds for the piece and begin prototyping.

The most recent example of this is for a new bud-vase shape (below). I was getting requests for the item, so I thought about what molds and parts are already in my vocabulary that could be adapted to the vase. Then I began pushing ink to generate many iterations on form as I could, and began settling on a general shape. I have always had a deep love of science fiction and space, which always manifests in unusual ways in my work. For example, I have always been interested in the development history behind the German V-2 rocket, for the technology in the drive system is a precursor to modern boosters we use in space travel today. This interest led to part of the development of the foot I use in my cups and vases, as they look like older booster rockets, not exactly mind you, but reminiscent. Back to the bud vase, I had settled on a shape and had already done the technical drawings, then made a template for cutting the frustum that would make the body of the vase, and prototyped the shapes. I showed people the new form to generate some feedback, which was somewhat surprising in that they were talking about Apollo capsules. They were right. This was a case of working on instinct—for this shape, I was not consciously making a capsule form.

This form is so new I haven’t glazed and fired any of them yet, but once I have the form settled and bisque-fired, I develop what I call the “glazing protocol.” I find that the method of glazing for each form is different, and because I am working in a production world with this work, it needs to be fast to keep it affordable. Some forms involve masking and having glaze sprayed on them, others employ pouring for their interiors or dipping for their exteriors. Typically, there is a combination of all of these to achieve the end result. I have also developed a method of masking that involves spraying wax resist (coating) as though it were a glaze to make later stages of the glazing process faster and easier. I don’t want to get too technical here—once the form has been fired in a high-fire reduction atmosphere I can work on surface design.

All of my patterning and coloring comes from a multi-fire process, meaning, using glazes that fire at different temperatures to achieve specific effects. By multi-firing, I am able to achieve different kinds of layering that would be difficult to do in a once-fired piece, because all the glazes would want to blur or melt together. My line work is usually the first layer to go down, I use a slip-trailing bottle that I can attach metal nibs to, that acts like a rapidograph pen, but with glaze, instead of ink. I fire the piece, then apply more layers of color. One of my pieces can get fired up to five times depending on the surface treatment.

How did you find your tools to make ceramic art?
I started, as any ceramics-practicing person, with the handful of basic clay tools that you buy as a set, and over time, you begin to realize their limitations, so you start altering them and making new tools to do very specific things. I would really say the catalyst for my tool-making was from a class I was in with Tim Mather who showed us the tools he had made over his long career to meet his specific needs. I thought that I could do the same. I made a bunch of new fettling knives in my father’s barn. The results were clunky in finish but great in function. From then on, it was a continued exploration of new hand tools for ceramics and for non-ceramic purposes.

Ceramics history has always had a strong presence do-it-yourself tool and equipment making. Most of the commercial ceramics equipment companies out there were started by ceramists solving their problems with a good idea and selling the result to other ceramists. Michael Sherrill is a great example of a tool maker and innovator in ceramics. His company, Mudtools, expanded the notion of what a ceramics toolkit can be, simply by breaking away form the traditional materials of metal and wood, and looking at polymers. A lot of his tools are not new but better designed, and his products show real innovation. I buy some of Sherrill’s tools, especially his ribs, but I make all of my own knives, paddles, trimming tools and wire tools, myself.

If you dig into the provenance of a lot of the ceramics tools and equipment out there, you’ll see a real DIY culture, unlike most artistic fields. I worked in clay, and let my experience drive the need for tools.

Many independent makers, particularly with regards 
to ceramics, exhibited at the Chicago Mini Market, 
Renegade Craft Fair 2014. This is only one showcase. 
How do you cope with the competition in 
handmade-ceramic products?
Either for better or for worse, I make what I make—an artist’s approach to the business of the handmade and not completely a sensible businessperson approach. As a result, I don’t look at other work as competition but as potential inspiration.

To speak more to the Renegade Craft Fair experience, all of the ceramics available at that event were drastically different and really made for different demographics. Circa Ceramics in Chicago makes great work, but it is way more functional and production oriented than anything I make. Their work is made to be used everyday, having rounded lips and robust handles with some of the best graphics I have ever seen on a mug. Toast Ceramics, from Madison, represents a similar vein, beautiful work and more oriented to the every-person user with a much more diverse product line than either myself or Circa. So you have Circa which employs jigs and presses to produce their work, and then Toast, which employs the potter wheel, and then comes my work which nestles in between nearly all handmade and very delicate.

The cups and items of service I produce require a bit more care, they have sharp beveled lips, delicate handles and are thin. These are not necessarily objects of everyday but are more objects of ritual and desire that can be used everyday. I also feel that the visual hand decoration of my work sets it apart from most others as it is an abstract product from within, not wholly graphical in a common-sensical way. I guess you could say I cope with competition by doing what the competition isn’t doing.

How would you describe your artistic style?
The things I make in really any medium constantly dance a line between being loose and very tight. I am always looking for this tension, I think of it as controlled looseness or harnessed disorder. For many years, I trained in Capoeria Angola, a form of Brazilian martial-art dance that very much embodies this notion. In fact, there is a line from a capoeria song that goes “Nem tudo que reluze e ouro, nem tudo que balanca cai” or translated “all that glitters is not gold, not all that shakes falls.” The notion being that don’t think that because an object is shiny and yellow, it is gold, and that because something appears shaky doesn’t mean that it is weak and ready to fall. In the capoeria roda this is a warning, but in my work, I let it come forth as a looseness of form and line that communicates intentionality.

Capoeria is also a practice that involves harnessing energy of others and transforming it, making something out of nothing. I choose to work in clay because of this something from nothing nature it has. From this mud, you can make nearly anything. In this vein, the decoration on my work is a scrabbling around on a blank canvas working with a few faint pencil lines or using visual projection to suss out the pattern, shape an idea from nothing. The way I work might be navigation, and the result is a “wandering” line of form and surface treatment.

How do you practice making ceramics in order 
to feel competent and confident at realizing this skill?
I have been working in ceramics most of my life—now it is a matter of figuring out the specific process for new works. In the past, though, I would spend hours in the studio just throwing on the wheel, hand-building, producing molds, and tuning my skills. I worked nearly everyday during my undergraduate studies, weekends would be long days, 12 or more hours, just throwing, building, making, glazing and firing. I wanted experience to be self-reliant in clay, and to be able to make whatever I wanted. I also took advantage of the fact that my university had a highly developed graduate program with many different artists firing in many different kinds of kilns. I slipped work into every kind of firing, from soda to wood-fired anagama to regular gas reduction. I learned by getting involved with what other more experienced people were doing, and learned from them.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going as a ceramic artist?
I keep working as a ceramic artist, because I have not, nor will I ever exhaust the possibilities of what clay can do. I am a maker and will always be solving problems, and making things that I want to do.

Ceramics is a deep well. It has over 10,000 years of history behind it. New work emerges from the field, and it never seems tired. My work is ever-shifting and evolving, because I am always asking questions, and clay can keep up with me in that regards. An analogy here is marriage: in your wife or husband you want a partner than can, for the long haul, keep up with questions you are always asking—ceramics is kind of like the perfect partner. I feel my wife is now central to my practice, in that she is a strong source of support and inspiration.

How do you get the word out about what you do?
How do you attract people to your work? 
What approaches were effective?
I always struggle with this component of my practice/business. I am a maker, and that’s what I want to be always doing, so marketing is challenging for me. Getting the work in front of people is number one, apply to shows, sell your work at events such as Renegade Craft Fair, work collaboratively in cross-field projects, develop a local community of patrons, colleagues, and so forth. I do these everyday, but my social media presence is the number one thing that gets people on my doorstep.

On creativity and working

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
I don’t have many disagreements in my studio practice, I work alone for the most part, and I sell my own designs, therefore, not much room for tension. I have done several custom orders and production runs in the past for different clients, and I am very proactive about solving optional problems before they occur. When I estimate a project, I generate a line-by-line contract that describes exactly the work I will be doing, and if needed, I produce approval drawings for the client to sign off on. I also generate approval samples, such as shrinkage tiles made from the clay body I am using and the glazes I am using for the project. I am also clear on the timeline for deliverables and rally my materials vendors early on to ensure we have everything we need to complete a project on time. Lastly, and most importantly, I constantly communicate with my clients. You cannot always foresee the problems that can arise when you are completing a custom, and, mind you, unique project. You need to keep them up-to-date with these issues and provide them multiple acceptable solutions to the problem in order that they feel positive about the change in direction you are asking them to take. This takes us back to being a problem-solving ceramist.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying,
and how did you deal with it?
When I set out on a new project, I am always trying to do either two things: make something I have never seen before or do something in a way I have never seen before. These goals let me get some skin into the game, and that’s important, because so much of the things I produce are little games or challenges I create. Some of these challenges are abstract or idea-based and some are technical. In my current line of functional items, I was looking to make something thoroughly handmade, but still maintaining a sense of intention and some tightness. I set out to combine simple hand-formed slab structures with press-molded parts. Sounds straightforward from a ceramics perspective, but what I found were thousands of tiny little details that needed to be addressed. For example, when I first began making the new tea cups, my loss rate from the high firing, due to extreme warping, was over twenty-five percent. It took multiple solutions to solve the problem, starting with breaking the particle alignment of the clay slabs, to carefully timing when to form the cylinder, to properly end connection of the slab, so as to not torque the cylinder, to developing a better attaching slip, to…on and on. It is this warping I am dealing with that has been the most trying problem with this new line, it haunts every new form, from the teacup to the teapot, because they all require different responses to the same problem.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
I work in a cooperative space (above). Ceramics is a capital-heavy practice both in materials and equipment. By working alongside other serious ceramic makers, we can afford more opportunities to the group. For example, we have a glorious new down-draft gas kiln that can fire a lot of work, saves us money, allows us to fire big stuff, and also allows us to do reduction firing. This is a very expensive piece of equipment that alone I cannot afford at the moment.

My other workspace is at home, and I simply do not have the facilities for that kind of equipment, and I live in a very urban place where there are just some things you can get away with and others you can’t. The influence of the cooperative space is apparent in the work, through the variety of glazes I use and the multi-fire techniques I employ in my glazing. It would be challenging to develop such a broad range of glazes in an under-equipped home studio with one means of firing.

What tools do you use and recommend to work: 
for collaborating, getting things done, and running 
your practice?
I was thinking just this morning over coffee about the digital transition in art making—specifically how thankful I am that I do not have to produce slides of my work anymore and how much easier it has become to document and share my work. I use a whole host of digital tools to get things done, Sketchup is a go-to for technical drawings and models, Adobe for my graphics needs. I think what is most important today as an individual artist is not these types of tools but your social-media toolbox. It seems as though more and more opportunities are coming my way not from direct connection, but through my online presence, and the ecosystem around me and my work that it creates.

I am from the generation that straddles the analog and the digital, where phone conversations and in-person visits were how you got things done. It has taken real work to generate an online presence on my part, and I am constantly learning new things in that regards. I am continually surprised how a curated Pinterest board I set up leads people to my website, which results in an email and so forth. It seems the buzz around the buzz is more important these days, because it drives people to your work and translates into new opportunities and sales.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
When you work by yourself in ceramics, your instincts are all you have, and they are your most immediate metric. There’s been a lot of research into this phenomenon called “Flow”, a state of operation where the person doing a specific activity becomes wholly immersed in the practice and becomes hyper-focused and energized. I think of this as the artist’s “kinesthetic” reaction, just as an athlete reacts physically in the game without thinking.

Earlier you asked about practice, the physical practice of making in clay frees you to get into flow. I find that when I am making and in a state of flow, I am making a million tiny decisions and not looking back, this is relying on my instincts.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to 
make ceramics”, what’s your response?
I would hand them some clay. Ceramics is very democratic in that anyone can do it no matter their age, size shape, physical, or mental limitations. The same thing about its “nothingness” that attracts me also makes it accessible. Now if that person is looking to make ceramics a profession, I would say, “go get some knowledge.” As democratic as ceramics can be, it also has a very stodgy, arcane side that is very technical. A ceramic artist has the option of working on what I think of as a spectrum: on one end is loose and highly idea-oriented, and on the other end is the very technical. Knowledge lets you choose where you fall on that spectrum, not only more clearly, but more intentionally.

How does the city of Evanston, Illinois, contribute 
to your work? And what makes it special for 
Evanston is a great community for small creative startups. The biggest thing Evanston has going for it is its neighborly proximity to Chicago. You get the access to everything the city has: the market, opportunities, vendors, and artistic community, without much of the things that makes Chicago not so much fun, like traffic and higher rents on light industrial spaces. I find that living and having my studio in Evanston makes me more productive than living in the city simply because it is easier and faster to get things done in business and in life. Evanston also has a strong community nature about it—there is generally a lot of support from locals toward artistic businesses, they have particularly strong feelings toward locally made goods.

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All photographs courtesy of Justin Hart.

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Font of quotations is Helvetica Compressed.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

Donate to appreciate
I’m a part of CentUp’s community of Publishers (find out why). If you liked this lovingly-made Interview of my growing series, show your appreciation by clicking on the CentUp button below. You’ll have the opportunity to support my work, directly related to my long-term and intense labor of love—Design Feast, which includes this blog—and at the same time, support one of the great charities that CentUp works with. Your caring positively motivates me. Thank you for your consideration!

If you’re a first-time user of CentUp, you’ll be prompted to sign up.
For every new user, CentUp will give 100 cents to try their tool.

July 20, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Ben Derico’s Documentaries

What are you working on—on the side?

One of my side projects is Bikes 4 Books, a fundraising model I developed in 2012, in looking for a way to fund a documentary trip to Uganda. Bikes 4 Books partners with education-based non-profits to host long-distance bike rides where riders collect pledges for the participating organizations. By way of Bikes 4 Books’ model, participants, who join at no cost to themselves, ride to raise both money and awareness for their organization by fundraising through their personal networks. Then they pedal hard to earn the cash and donate it to our partners. For the past three years, we worked with Pangea Educational Development (or casually PED), a group based in Chicago dedicated to empowering communities throughout Uganda by realizing sustainable development projects centered around schools. We’ve raised over $20,000, hosted over 50 riders, and covered over 1,000 miles across two continents.

It’s been amazing to watch the project develop over the years and see so many of my friends and family join in. This year, we rode from Detroit to Chicago over Labor Day weekend with a group of twenty-five riders ranging in ages from 22 to 55. For a lot of people, it was the first time they had ever been on their bikes for more than a few hours, let alone an entire day. We were pleased to have everyone on the team make the trip and complete their first-century rides (100 miles in one ride).

Another amazing thing of Bikes 4 Books has been the outpouring of creative energy. The majority of my friends, who have participated, are photographers, musicians, writers, art directors, or simply artistic, creative people. We had people create one-of-a-kind prints to give away to their donors, a song written for the project, and thousands of photos taken, many of which shared via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

We are currently working on a mini-documentary about this year’s ride that we hope to be sharing with the “world” soon. If people are interested in riding in future rides, donating, or simply learning more, check us out at bikes4books.com

Another side project I’m currently working on is called CreativeMornings “Close Ups.” As the resident videographer for the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings, a once-monthly morning lecture series dedicated to discussing creative topics worldwide, I’m lucky to get to hear a lot of interesting artists, creatives, and generally amazing people, speak about what makes them tick. I think it’s an amazing way to help contextualize yourself and your work as a creative, or as any professional really, to hear someone, who is a bit further down the road, talk about past experiences, processes, and opinions on how to make good work.

After filming and editing the talks for almost a year, it began to become clear to me that while I was watching the videos later, I always felt a little more disconnected with the content and the speaker from my hearing the talk live. Maybe it’s the presence of being in the same room and getting the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, or maybe it’s just me, but I wanted to find some way to get a closer look at each speaker, so that viewers and aspiring makers could get a better idea of where the speaker works, what her/his process is like, and how she/he operates. There is only so much the speaker can divulge in twenty minutes, and only so many questions they can answer. With that, “Close Ups” was born. Since January of this year, I’ve worked on creating several mini-documentaries/profiles to turn the microscope on our subjects and see exactly how they do everything. Currently, I’ve released three full videos with CreativeMorning/Chicago speakers: INDO Projects, Eric Siegel of Treehopper Toys, and Matthew Hoffman of You Are Beautiful. I’m excited to announce that we have another three slated to come out this summer.

This project has been incredibly exciting to work on for me, for a few reasons: Mainly, as a documentarian at heart, getting to have access to how these creative people—whom I respect and admire—approach their work and get it done, is exactly the type of material I strive to document. With these videos, I’ve been given the privilege to meet and befriend incredibly talented people who, only a month or two before, had no idea about who I was. I’m hoping to expand the series during the coming months to include artists from all over Chicago and maybe, eventually, all over the country

Besides these two side projects, I’m currently editing a documentary I recently shot in Morocco about traditional Moroccan rug making, creating a few music videos, and looking for more projects to take up my nights and weekends.

How do you manage to work 
on your side project(s)?

I currently work full-time on commercial projects. Thanks to a flexible work schedule plus the willingness of partners, collaborators, and roommates, I tend to spend most evenings and weekends cranking out new edits, filming early morning shoots, and finishing last-minute final film exports. For me, having the flexibility to work on what I want, when I want, is a huge incentive to keep my side projects going, especially during the winter months when you really have no other option than sitting inside.

Finding a balance between full-time work, side-projects, and spending time for friends, is tough, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like being busy, and I like watching my portfolio grow—hopefully, everyone else does too.

Why have side projects?

I define myself by my side projects. I’ve always identified with being someone without a specific place to be. I’ve always dipped my pen in lots of different inks, and I think that’s why I love working on lots of side projects at once—this is so appealing to me. Being able to take on a side project here or there that allows me to engage with or learn about a new person, place, or thing, is really special, and it’s something that I think the film medium allows me to do. Whether it’s a photo essay for a blog about travel or an interview series about designers and their practices, everything I do on the side is to indulge that sense of curiosity and wonder I’ve always had. I hope that, in the years to come, my wanderlust and desire to learn only increase—and maybe, my side projects become my full-time projects.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Ben Derico.

This debut series is provided in affiliation with 50,000feet.

Donate to appreciate
I’m a part of CentUp’s community of Publishers (find out why). If you liked this lovingly-made post for a new addition to Design Feast’s Series, show your appreciation by clicking on the CentUp button below. You’ll have the opportunity to support my work, directly related to my long-term and intense labor of love—Design Feast, which includes this blog—and at the same time, support one of the great charities that CentUp works with. Your caring positively motivates me. Thank you for your consideration!

If you’re a first-time user of CentUp, you’ll be prompted to sign up.
For every new user, CentUp will give 100 cents to try their tool.

July 10, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Jena Buckwell’s Volunteer Staunton and Studio Jewelry

What are you working on—on the side?

Currently, my main focus, in terms of side projects, is on Volunteer Staunton, which is a non-profit, web-based catalog of volunteer opportunities in my city. The site is currently in the development phase, and I have a Kickstarter running to raise hosting funds. I chose to make this project happen because I really love small-scale, big-impact volunteer work. I currently volunteer with a sustainable meat farm, an educational vegetable garden at Virginia School of the Deaf and Blind, as well as various other, mostly local, foods-related projects around town. I am looking to create an online resource and community to help others find opportunities that really make a difference in their lives, while they help others.

I work as a freelance designer/art director, and while I have had excellent clients that trust me, it still isn’t as thrilling as doing a project that I can make entirely my own, that I also feel passionate about, on a content level. In the future, I plan to expand the site to serve as a catalog, but also as a community resource that includes blog features about local volunteers, opportunities, and relationships created through volunteer work.

In the long-term, I also have a side business called Studio. As of right now, I have a few bracelets for sale through Studio on Etsy. While Studio is a means of additional income, my main focus for it is simply a creative outlet. As with any personal project, it’s great to just create something that I really like for the sake of creating it. I created Studio as a platform for those projects that don’t traditionally fall into the realm of what a graphic designer does. In the future, it may branch out into many other things—it largely depends on what I’m in the mood to make. I constantly remind myself that while I certainly have not tapped the full potential of Studio (and probably never will), I created it as something to enjoy and maintain in the long-term, so I don’t put much pressure on myself to be constantly improving and working on it.

How do you manage to work 
on your side project(s)?

Working from home allows me a lot of flexibility on what I work on and when. I also make it a point to not overload myself with client work, no matter what I have going on in the rest of my life. I really focus on keeping “enough” in view—I don’t work endless hours just to make more money when I don’t really need more money. I prefer to have time to myself to reflect, go hiking, spend time with my husband and read all the books I want to read, so I strive to live an inexpensive life, allowing myself the freedom to do what I want, when I want. This goal of taking my life back and getting out of the “rat race” was a major reason for my escape from NYC a few months ago. Living in a small, semi-southern, quiet town, surrounded by absolutely beautiful mountain ranges, makes it all too easy to choose to fulfill my personal needs. By doing so, I feel more passionately about design than I ever did working in a Manhattan cubicle, no matter how impressive the skyline was.

Why have side projects?

Side projects, whether directly related to your design field or not, are really excellent creative vacations. You can explore, try things at your own pace, learn new things and enjoy the process of having complete control over how something comes together. Side projects keep you sharp and help keep you at ease in your profession. I’ve tried a variety of more hands-on projects, from printmaking to embroidery, that have really helped me to become a better designer on screen. For me, side projects are an inexpensive form of therapy.

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Diptych courtesy of Jena Buckwell.

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Read the Designer’s Quest(ionnaire) answered by Jena Buckwell.

This debut series is provided in affiliation with 50,000feet.

Donate to appreciate
I’m a part of CentUp’s community of Publishers (find out why). If you liked this lovingly-made post for a new addition to Design Feast’s Series, show your appreciation by clicking on the CentUp button below. You’ll have the opportunity to support my work, directly related to my long-term and intense labor of love—Design Feast, which includes this blog—and at the same time, support one of the great charities that CentUp works with. Your caring positively motivates me. Thank you for your consideration!

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July 7, 2014

Designing Bags and Driving a Biking Culture: Maria Boustead, Founder of Po Campo

Maria Boustead is the founder of Po Campo, in Chicago, that specializes in making bags that achieve both style and utility. Her products focus on the urban dweller, but are especially oriented for the bicycle-riding enthusiast. Here, she shares her takes on the challenging and satisfying experience of realizing an idea for a product, and using this as a springboard to launch a business:

On being a product designer 
and product-based company founder

I appreciate how you arrived at the idea of your vision of a bag. It’s an epiphany: you did not find a bag that fit your needs; so you went ahead and made a bag that did. This is exactly similar to (also) Chicago-based Basecamp (formerly 37signals) not finding a web-based project management tool that fit their needs, and, therefore, making their own. All done without asking permission. Just picking yourself. Was arriving at your idea for a bag, that satisfies both utility and visual appeal, a steady process? Or was it spontaneous? How did you capture your idea and visualize it?
Before Po Campo, I would put my handbag in a canvas tote to protect it, and then strap that to the top of my bike’s rear rack with a bungee cord. I thought “there must be a better way to do this” and was shocked that no company was making a bag that could go from on-the-bike to on-the-shoulder. All of a sudden, my desire for a multifunctional bag went from something I wanted for myself to a business opportunity, and that’s when I started thinking about what I wanted the bag to do, and who I was designing it for.

Sketching bag designs

Did Po Campo officially launch in 2009? What were essential activities/steps taken to start and establish your company? And why were these activities/steps important?
There was a lot that happened that first year, from inception in 2008 to launching a year later in July of 2009 (5 years ago!). Probably the most critical was designing the bag and figuring out a way to manufacture it. For the design part, we had a rough idea of what we wanted and a general understanding of our limitations, the main limitation being that we couldn’t afford any custom-molded parts. We did some drawings and built a few basic prototypes ourselves, sewing part of it and stapling together the parts of the bag that were too thick for our sewing machines.

We wanted to start with a local manufacturer, so that we could collaborate closely on the design of the bag, and also be able to work with smaller minimum orders. The manufacturer we found required us to source all the materials ourselves, so that was another feat, since our first bag had over 25 components, everything from the stuff you see, like fabric and hardware, to stuff you don’t see, like internal structural fabrics, spray adhesives, etc.

It took us about six months to get our first prototypes made, which we took to the field for some user testing. After we got some feedback on the design, we made some revisions and had our final prototypes ready 1–2 months later.

We took these final prototypes literally door to door to small retailers in Chicago to get some starting orders. We had about 12 retailers to start with, a mix of bike shops and boutiques. Most just bought 4–6 bags.

Shipment of Po Campo bags

The bags were finished in July (a few weeks late from what they were promised, incredibly frustrating at the time, but now I know that is par for the course!), and we dropped them off at our retailers during a lunch break.

We took other steps to set up the business, like becoming an LLC, setting up a bank account, etc., but while these are important, they aren’t as difficult.

Can you believe that we launched without a website?! We had basically just a homepage with our contact information and a photo of a bag. I couldn’t imagine launching a product company without a website now, and it’s only 5 years later.

“Midway Weekender” bag. Photography by Kyle La Mere

Can you give a tour of how an idea, for a bag design, gets real? 
For example, what were the steps and tools used to 
materialize the “Midway Weekender”? Delighted to have seen 
this bag, in person, at the Chicago Mini Market of 
the Renegade Craft Fair 2014.
I start every bag design thinking about a problem to solve. As owner and designer of the Po Campo bags, I try to carry one with me at all times. I needed a bag larger than what we were making that I could take on small weekend trips, or to the beach. From there, I thought about what I would take on those trips and made a list of possible features to include, most of which made it into the final design, like a separate shoe compartment and a way to carry a jacket on the outside of the bag.

Prior to the Midway Weekender (above), all of our bags were very structured because they needed to hold their shape when attached to the bike. Since the Weekender did not have that constraint, I was looking forward to designing a “softer” shape. Many pages of sketches later, I had a couple ideas of what I wanted, and we made samples and refined from there.

Who and/or what keep(s) you going in sustaining Po Campo?
Po Campo is getting to a stage that if feels like it is taking a life of its own and chugging along, which is exhilarating. Of course, there are tough times when I worry that I’m not up for the challenge, but I feel like we have so much more to do, that we can’t stop now. Part of this is more bag and product designs that I have rattling around in my head, another part of it is wanting to participate in the “new urbanism” transforming our cities.

There is an increasingly strong pattern of designers making and selling products and services. What is contributing to this reality?
Two things, I think. The first is e-commerce, which makes it easy to launch products and get some sales right away without having to go through larger distribution channels from the get-go. The second is that it is becoming easier to make things with 3D printers and the like. A lot of the barriers to entry have been reduced.

“Armitage Satchel” bag. Photograph by Randy Korwin

Who and/or what are your design 
and/or business-related influences?
I count Patagonia as one of my business influences, as they’ve built a company and a culture with their values as their foundation. I realized that Po Campo isn’t just about the bags, it’s about building a company that gives us the life we want. After reading “Let My People Go Surfing” by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, I decided on having unlimited vacation days and flex time at Po Campo. It was so liberating and wonderful, and made me love my business even more.

What is the size of your team? Do you have remote team members? And what size of company do you prefer?
There are four of us here in Chicago, two full-time and two part-time. We also have a network of sales reps around the country. I’ve always worked in smaller companies and like the size of about 12 people, so that is what I am shooting for with Po Campo. Technology does make it easier to work remotely, so I don’t think that we’ll always occupy the same space.

How would you describe the work culture at Po Campo? 
And why is it important?
I consider the culture to be collaborative, respectful, supportive and easygoing. I always wanted to work in a place with flex time, that encouraged travel and “giving back,” that honored introverted tendencies, that was built on mutual respect of the different strengths of all the people involved in the business workings (i.e. no egos). I’m most proud of building a company that is now like that, and only becoming better as the team is growing and our culture is taking its own shape.

What is your vision of growth, as it relates to business?
I want to build Po Campo into a lifestyle brand, so moving beyond just bags into other products and experiences. I have a vision in my mind, but am hesitant to reveal too much, because it is still taking shape.

Ecommerce can be intimidating to approach and realize. How did you implement your eCommerce Website? What eCommerce platform did you use? Did you hire a Web developer to get this up and running?
We started selling online through Supermarket, because our own website consisted of only a couple basic pages and did not have any e-commerce capabilities. Next, we added a widget to our site to be able to handle purchases. Finally, in 2012, we completely revamped our site and added a Shopify store. We had a designer and programmer customize our Shopify store to match our website theme perfectly, but I know Shopify has some great basic templates to get you up and running without much fuss.

Many independent makers, including those specializing in making bags, exhibited at the Chicago Mini Market, Renegade Craft Fair 2014. This is only one showcase. How do you cope with the competition in bag design and production?
Po Campo bags have such a unique blend of style and function that I don’t worry about competition too much. The more established markets, like Renegade, do an excellent job of making sure that there is a good assortment of makers present, so it doesn’t feel like a bunch of people doing the same thing.

How do you get the word out about Po Campo? 
How do you attract customers? What approaches are effective?
We do a mix of things. We advertise a little online and we’re pretty active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and through our newsletters. We also do events in person to meet current and potential fans, and to tell them our story. The most important thing, in my experience, is to not take any breaks! You have to be “out there,” in some capacity, all the time. I think we’re bombarded by so many messages that it is easy to forget about a little brand, if you aren’t reminded of it on a regular basis.

On creativity, design, working

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
Usually we agree on the ultimate goal, just disagree on how best to achieve it. Once you realign around the goal and the aspects of the problem that you agree on, resolving disagreements is pretty easy.

With the all of the moving parts inherent in designing things 
and making a business, how do you deal with stress?
Daily meditation is incredibly helpful with diffusing the stress. I aim for 10 minutes a day—that’s all it takes. I really can’t recommend it enough, and you get much better with practice.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying, 
and how did you deal with it?
I struggle with having to learn everything on the fly and then realizing you should’ve done it a different way after the fact. I just try to cut myself some slack and chalk it up to a learning experience.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
I have a couple different workspaces. My desk at our office is where I go to knock out emails or do spreadsheet type work. I like sketching out ideas either on my coffee table at home or at the shared desk at the office after hours. My home desk is the best for more thoughtful type of work, like working through strategy or writing. I encourage everyone to find the space that works best for what they need to do.

Studio wall


What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas 
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
We do a lot of visual brainstorming type work with Pinterest. It’s an easy way to share inspiration and comment and build together. We also leave working samples and drawings out while a product is in development, as you never know when inspiration will strike.

How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources 
of motivation/inspiration?
I get my best ideas while riding my bike. Other than that, I enjoy the arts. Art galleries, plays, music—experiencing other people’s creative output really fuels my own. Also, taking long breaks from email.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
I’m trusting my instincts more as I age, but if it’s a big decision with real financial outcomes, I generally trust the numbers more than my gut. That’s probably because I’ve been burned in the past with my insane entrepreneurial optimism. :)

What is your definition of bad design?
I suppose something that doesn’t do what it was intended to do.

If a person approached you and said, “I want to make 
my style of bags and get it out there”, what’s your response?
Do it! Just give yourself a loooooong runway because it takes a long time (and a lot of money) to get something up and going.

How does the city of Chicago contribute to your work? And what makes Chicago special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
I’m a native Chicagoan, and I think there is a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-workin’ kind of mentality here. Honest, hard work is really valued, and when people agree to help you, it’s not just empty sentiments, they really commit! The flip side of that is that people are suspicious of shortcuts and grandiose plans, which can be hard when you’re starting something new and you have ideas of how to do things differently.

Bike bag. Photograph by Jennifer Martinez

Bike-sharing bag. Photograph by Kyle La Mere

I assume you’re stoked about Chicago evolving into 
a bike-friendly city, notably with the installation of Divvy. 
What do you think about this urban development?
You’re right, I’m very stoked! The addition of the network of protected bike lanes and Divvy has literally transformed the city. So many more people are biking, and people seem more open to the idea of biking for transportation in general. I think it is a vital part of reimagining our cities for the future, and I’m thrilled to have Po Campo be a part of it in our small way.

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All photographs courtesy of Maria Boustead.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

Donate to appreciate
I’m a part of CentUp’s community of Publishers (find out why). If you liked this lovingly-made Interview of my growing series, show your appreciation by clicking on the CentUp button below. You’ll have the opportunity to support my work, directly related to my long-term and intense labor of love—Design Feast, which includes this blog—and at the same time, support one of the great charities that CentUp works with. Your caring positively motivates me. Thank you for your consideration!

If you’re a first-time user of CentUp, you’ll be prompted to sign up.
For every new user, CentUp will give 100 cents to try their tool.

July 6, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Dan Granata’s Acting and Writing

What are you working on—on the side?

I’ve been an actor and writer for most of my life—I double-majored in English and Theatre, and I can’t think of a period where I wasn’t working on at least one writing project, in rehearsals, performing in a show, or all of the above. I’ve done Shakespeare in an outdoor amphitheater, helped shape brand new plays in Chicago storefronts and theatres, played with a house team at iO (formerly ImprovOlympic), been in commercials for national brands, created short films with fellow comedy folks, and everything in between. I’ve written and performed essays featured on WBEZ, banged out copy on spec for corporate clients, filed reviews and features on theatre for Time Out Chicago and others, inflicted upon the world various incarnations of my own blog and many, many tweets.

In the past few years, I’ve branched out even further. This year, for instance, from January to April, I was just a regular actor, playing Monsieur Defarge in a stage adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities,” but since then, I’ve been acting as producer, doing marketing, strategy, and fundraising for a production headed to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Scotland, in August. And throughout, I’ve continued working with The Improvised Star Trek (IST), a troupe, who improvise a weekly podcast (and companion live show), chronicling the original adventures of the ne’er-do-well USS Sisyphus.

My role with IST is probably the hardest to explain, but maybe the most representative of the way my creative pursuits are evolving. While I occasionally sit in on the podcast (as a godlike Carl Sagan, or whatever), right now I’m most excited about working behind the scenes on technical projects that compliment or enhance the rest of what the group does. For instance, a year or so ago, I hacked together some DJ equipment and a theatrical sound-cue program to make a custom “foley system,” which I use during our live shows to provide all the beeps, door swooshes, and French horn-laden underscoring that tells the audience, “This is Star Trek.”

How do you manage to work 
on your side project(s)?

I just don’t sleep very much. That’s not a joke—but I don’t think I really have a choice, to be honest. Every creative project is, in my head, a problem to be solved. “How do I get the audience to feel the same way about this character as I do, using only the lines in this script?” “How do I get people who have never seen this show to love it like I do, in 30 seconds?” “How can I play any sound effect I want, instantly, while not having to turn away from the stage and from inside this postage-stamp tech booth?” Once I say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…,” I want to make it happen—and it seems like “but that would be a lot of work” is not an argument that has any purchase with me.

But I’m not 24 anymore, so the tactic of staying up all night is not as viable as it once was. So I suppose a more straightforward answer might be that I’m trying to choose my battles more: up until a year or so ago, I was performing in at least 3–4 shows a year, which pretty much meant my evenings were devoted to rehearsals or performances year-round. I finally made a conscious recognition that I wasn’t pursuing a career as “an actor” anymore, so the opportunity cost of all those hours was suddenly very high. Now I may do no more than one show a year, so I’m choosier about what I submit my headshot for.

With any project, whether it’s at my job as a front-end developer or something for myself, the problem tends to be that I want to work on them too much, and I exhaust myself (not to mention my long-suffering girlfriend). Lists have been my enemy, because I have a very unhinged notion of how much I can do in a given hour. It’s very similar to the old “eyes bigger than your stomach” analogy—so I guess I’m working on “portion control.” I try and limit myself to, say, 10 hours a week for side projects, because that’s probably the highest sustainable number I can expect from myself, and then try and hold myself to that. It’s excruciating to stop myself when I feel like I’m on the edge of a breakthrough—but way better for my long-term sanity.

Why have side projects?

Well, the more I think about it, I don’t know that I consider anything I do “a side project”—it’s hard for me to place a hard line down between where one pursuit ends and another begins, and the boundaries are only getting muddier for me. As a matter of fact, my entire web development career grew out of a side project: In 2006, I was getting involved in the Chicago theatre scene and wanted to learn more about the community, so I went down a rabbit hole of research, which ended up with me dusting off an ancient copy of MS Access and building a database, of details about local theatre companies, with skills I think I had last used in high school. When I started blogging about what I was doing, a guy, who would become one of my closest friends, contacted me and said, “Hey, you should make this into a crowd-sourcing project! I’ll teach you Ruby on Rails!” A few years later, he co-founded a creative agency and hired me to help develop web projects.

And now, of course, I’m using my relatively-newfound programming skills to support my writing, performance, and producing projects—and to imagine entirely new ones. Knowing one programming language opens the door to a whole host of other skills, which, for me, just means more possibilities. In the last year, I’ve dove into audio and video editing, animation, cinematography, and photography. I’m constantly looking for opportunities to add a new tool to my arsenal—and I’m as likely to donate my evenings to client work if there’s a knotty problem with an interesting solution in it.

And on it goes: my sound-engineering work with Improvised Star Trek led me to start piano lessons. My recent experiments with woodworking were successful enough for my sister to ask me to build the arch she got married under this summer. There’s just a lot of cool stuff out there, and it all seems to interest me, I guess.

I think I’ve always been this way: even in school, I may have disliked certain teachers, but never subjects—somehow I always found a way in, and set up shop. I’m a tinkerer and maker of things, and whether it’s a website for Sony or giving a face and voice to a Dickens-villain, I just want to be able to use as much of my brain as possible, keep expanding my toolkit, and have enough energy left over to get up tomorrow and do it all again. I’m lucky, that right now, I more or less get to do this from morning to night. I may wear a lot of different hats, but it’s the same guy, and it’s all part of the same story.

• • •

Diptych courtesy of Dan Granata.

This debut series is provided in affiliation with 50,000feet.

Donate to appreciate
I’m a part of CentUp’s community of Publishers (find out why). If you liked this lovingly-made post for a new addition to Design Feast’s Series, show your appreciation by clicking on the CentUp button below. You’ll have the opportunity to support my work, directly related to my long-term and intense labor of love—Design Feast, which includes this blog—and at the same time, support one of the great charities that CentUp works with. Your caring positively motivates me. Thank you for your consideration!

If you’re a first-time user of CentUp, you’ll be prompted to sign up.
For every new user, CentUp will give 100 cents to try their tool.

July 5, 2014

Pride, Work, and Necessity of Side Projects: Len Kendall’s adventure-game Cartegram

What are you working on—on the side?

Cartegram is a side project I dreamed up in the early summer during a session of “Product Dev Friday,” a weekly tradition that involves stepping away from the day-to-day work to create new forms of utility or entertainment. Cartegram is essentially a scavenger hunt that inspires people to explore their surroundings. It does involve using a smartphone (specifically Instagram) but most of the experience is very much an offline endeavor.

Right now, I’m in the midst of a Kickstarter to launch the first batch of games and the campaign has already surpassed its goal. Cartegram is my first physical product, and I knew from the get-go that I need a minimum amount of interesting participants in order to make the project a reality. One cannot simply print 5 or 10 copies of a physical product. Unlike a website, which can scale from zero to a million users, when producing something tangible, small quantities are simply not economically viable.

Now as interests builds, I’m excited to continue refining the game and cultivating the digital experience around it. While most of my side projects live for a very short burst of time (which is crucial because I only have a finite amount of time), I am excited about the potential long life Cartegram may have.

How do you manage to work 
on your side project(s)?

I live and die by my calendar. I block off specific time periods to work on my full-time endeavors and on my side projects. As a person who is horrible at multi-tasking, it’s very important for me to do one thing at a time. While the primary purpose of this practice is to keep me focused, it has also helped me discover more time to work on side projects. When you block off your days in half hour increments, you also start to discard activities (like watching TV) that make for very useful blocks of time.

I general use Google Calendar, Sunrise (iPhone app), and Event Noted.

Why have side projects?

Growing a business can be a tedious process, and side-projects can be a quick mental vacation from that. Not only that, but side projects can be both fun and beneficial to your primary business. Successful projects grow your network, your online presence, and your credibility.

Sometimes side projects fail, and sometimes they have a huge pay-off. The point is that having a diversified portfolio of side projects gives your business wider visibility and helps keep you continually energized. The “high” of doing something new is something that almost all creative people thrive on.

• • •

Diptych is composed of photographs by Peter Thompson.

• • •

Len Kendall’s full-time job is working as the co-founder of CentUp. Read my interview: “CentUp Founders Believe that Content and Charities Make a Perfect Union.”

This debut series is provided in affiliation with 50,000feet.

Donate to appreciate
I’m a part of CentUp’s community of Publishers (find out why). If you liked this lovingly-made post for a new addition to Design Feast’s Series, show your appreciation by clicking on the CentUp button below. You’ll have the opportunity to support my work, directly related to my long-term and intense labor of love—Design Feast, which includes this blog—and at the same time, support one of the great charities that CentUp works with. Your caring positively motivates me. Thank you for your consideration!

If you’re a first-time user of CentUp, you’ll be prompted to sign up.
For every new user, CentUp will give 100 cents to try their tool.