September 18, 2012

“Start small but stay dedicated”: Interview with Vigorous Drawer and Writer Beck Tench on Creative Flow and Tools

What quickly drew (literally) me to discovering Beck Tench was her website, which reads like a journal, filled with drawings and writings about a range of topics, from visual thinking to data visualization. She describes herself as a simplifier, illustrator, storyteller and technologist. Here Beck shares her perspective and practical advice on experience design, the art of presenting, and more:

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself? Where are
you from? Are you a native of Durham, North Carolina?
I am a native of Charlotte, NC. I grew up on the west side of the city. My father was a firefighter, my mom, a banker. I am an only child, but come from a large extended family (45 cousins on one side, 11 on the other). Every Sunday, I visited one set of grandparents for a big southern meal with aunts, uncles and cousins. Every summer, a trip to the mountains with my mom to camp, and to the beach with my dad and step-mom to swim and play skee-ball. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in Journalism and minoring in Creative Writing, and afterwards fell in love with Durham, NC, my home for the past decade.

A view of downtown from the roof of Beck’s home.

Your present job is Director for Innovation and 
Digital Engagement at the Museum of Life and Science
What does “Innovation and Digital Engagement” mean? 
What do you do?
I am a designer and a technologist, and the phrase “innovation and digital engagement” is a fairly spot-on description of what I do. I create novel experiences for museum visitors and potential visitors that include technology in some critical way. Sometimes this work is purely online, sometimes it’s in conjunction with a physical exhibit, sometimes an educational program. Basically, I use technology to create meaningful ways for people to spend their time around things that my museum cares about, specifically science as a way of knowing about the world.

A good example of how this all comes together are “experimonths.” Experimonths are daily challenges that people commit to completing over the course of a month. People use technology to record their completion of the challenge, and often to generate data for scientists and researchers. For example, in “Experimonth: Mood,” we texted participants five times a day, everyday for a month and asked them one question, “Rate your mood 1 (low) to 10 (high),” and visualized their mood alongside the community on a website. This taught folks about their mood trends and also generated over 18,000 data points for the scientist, who helped us design it to study for her research.

Beck’s philosophy for nurturing creativity and change

I dig your website and how it’s organized: Drawings, Writings.
How did you get involved with drawing and writing? 
And why do you draw and write?
I draw and write to be understood.

It is a life-long habit and I’m not exactly sure where it originated, but the volume of writing and drawing that I do is evidence of the time and focus I have for it. I draw and write because I can’t not.

I feel that you’re a sketchnoter, that you’re a member 
of the Sketchnote Army. Is this accurate? If wrong, why?
I’m not a member of Sketchnote Army and hadn’t heard of it until I looked it up for this question.

One of Beck’s personal project, sketching 95 scenes from the movie,
“The Big Lebowski,” on a bowling pin.

Your sketching set-up is cool. Has it changed since then?
For one thing, do you draw and write on a digital device, 
like a tablet?
I do not draw or write using digital devices, generally, although sometimes I write on the computer when I’m traveling because it’s more convenient than bringing my stationary with me.

Depending on where I am in my ideation, I’ll either sketch on large services (whiteboards, big paper) or small (half-page notebooks). I use Microns still, though I do have a fancy set of Copics. I find the Copics are best to use if I’m using really nice paper. I still number my pages and recommend soft pencils for easy erasing.

I also use non-photo blue lead when I draw. I’ll sketch in blue lead, finalize in ink, snap a photo in JotNot, save to Dropbox and edit if necessary in Photoshop. I’ve done this so many times that the process is super-efficient.

Stack of Beck’s “Morning Pages,”part of the “The Artist’s Way Tools”
by author Julia Cameron

For writing my morning pages, I use lined Clairefontaine stationary paper and a fairly fancy Lamy rollerball. I seal them each time I write in an envelope and date it. When I write on the computer, I mostly use the journaling app Day One. For public projects, most of my digital writing occurs in Notational Velocity, using WriteRoom via QuickCursor.

You’ve done a lot of presentations? Wish I attended the one 
you did for Design4Mobile 2010. Have you live-sketched 
your presentations? Because I could easily see you doing this.
I have done a lot of presentations, though the Design4Mobile notes were just my notes as an audience member. Presenting is an important way to get my thoughts to a wider audience, but it is a means to an end. While it is important to my career, it is an activity that consumes more energy than it gives and in that way, takes a lot out of me.

As for live-sketching: I haven’t done that and don’t really care to for the same reasons as above, though many people have suggested that I do.

A sketch of what learning is to Beck and her museum.

What’s are must-don’ts in making a presentation?
Don’t tell a joke until you’ve earned the audience’s respect.

Don’t frame your talk as “what to do,” but rather “how you, yourself do something.”

Don’t start creating a presentation by creating visuals or bullet points, start by writing out the story you want to tell.

What is your statement about being a practitioner of a number 
of creative disciplines, like graphic design, visual thinking, 
data visualization, human computer interaction? And what
should be kept in mind in pursuing another creative discipline?
I balance what I find really fun to do with what the world needs so I can get paid to do fun, meaningful things. As my friend Rafe Colburn says, “do what you can’t not do.” Each of the disciplines I represent would be a part of my life whether or not they were my career. I intrinsically enjoy them.

Blue sketches before finalizing an information visualization of Tench’s family tree, gifted to her dad for Christmas.

How does time factor into your work?
As physicist Brian Greene says, “Time is that which allows us to see that something has changed.” Time is change, change is learning, learning is my work. My life is pretty centered around public and private creative pursuits. I do not divide which ones are considered “work” so much as they all help me to learn and change.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying 
and how did you deal with it?
A particularly challenging time for me came in 2008, when I’d left a good job for what I assumed would be a better job. I was wrong about the new job being better, in fact it was a poor match for my strengths. I dealt with it by being very honest—honest with my new boss, honest with the people in my network who helped me find a better fit, and honest with myself. We have the power to leave if we’re not in a good situation. Everyone needs to realize that about themselves. Also, taking care of yourself often involves asking the right people for help. We are all connected and responsible for each other. Acknowledging that is powerful.

How do you get things done?
I work best when I have a system that captures things so that they do not float around in my mind and distract me. I like variety, so the tool that supports this system changes every few months. Sometimes it’s OmniFocus, sometimes it’s TeuxDeux, sometimes it’s paper, sometimes it’s all three(!).

I also rely on the Pomodoro Technique to create momentum in my work day and help me tackle tasks that are difficult to complete in days or even months, but are easy to work on for 25 minutes at a time. I think an analog timer that ticks is important. The ticking becomes a soundtrack to productivity.

Is this your personal workspace? Love that improvised lamp, 
desk and drafting table. Can you please tell about a couple 
of the pieces of furniture and where you located each?
The desk was one of my first purchases after graduating college. It’s large, heavy, and uncluttered, allowing me to work on several kinds of projects as the need or mood strikes.

The drafting table was a Craigslist find around five years ago. I use it when I’m drawing very tiny things and need a magnifying glass or when I’m drawing something very intentional. It’s not an exploratory work surface for me, it’s an “execute on the final idea” sort of space.

I built the cedar cubby station, which stores my paper (both fresh and filled up). The chair by the drafting table is my great grandfather’s. It’s over 100 years old and is one of my most valuable possessions.

I also have a fabric-cutting table that I can roll into the middle of the room as needed, when I need a large work surface to spread out my sketches and notes.

How do you stay creative?
I suppose I sustain the energy I need to stay creative by using rituals and prioritizing my time when it comes to creative pursuits. A great book to read regarding rituals is Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit.”

I also do not narrow my creativity to “work” or “play,” but rather identify in all areas of my life as a creative person. This allows me to dedicate any portion of time I have towards creative pursuits, regardless of the time of day or day of week.

What is your advice to people who aspire to be 
a creative practitioner?
Do it. Start small but stay dedicated. One of the most powerful ways to amass any skill or body of work is to do one thing at a time over lots of time.

Pay attention to what gives you energy vs. takes energy out of you. Find heroes and pretend to be them when you create and when you talk about what you create. Fake it ’til you make it.

Buttons that adorn Beck’s bag describe her precisely.

What makes Durham, North Carolina, special?
The number one reason Durham is special is because the people who live here love it. There is a buzzing pride and ownership amongst its citizens, an appreciation for the grit, for the history and for the possibilities, a dedication to not lose those things as it grows.

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Portrait and pictures courtesy of Beck Tench.

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