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Daily Design Challenge: Who’s In?

Hi there! My name is Jen Rizzo, and I’m hoping I get to meet a lot of new faces today. I’m a freelance designer in San Francisco. You’d probably call me a motion graphics designer, but I’ve spent a few years working in architecture, my formal education is mostly based in UX/UI design, and I’ve had the pleasure to work as a visual designer on everything from logo design to mobile layouts. I’m sort of a jack-of-all-trades design nerd.

As a freelancer, though, I don’t always get a ton of chances to do high-level creative work. Motion Graphics freelancers, at least in San Francisco and at my experience level, tend to be very involved production artists. I don’t get in on a lot of storyboarding; being called in at the last minute to churn out some late nights is really my forte. I miss all the thinking, all the concepting. I miss that super beginner stage where you get to look at the entire idea of something and come up with how to make it better – different from “how do we execute the ideas in this set of storyboards”.

I searched around and eventually turned to Twitter a few weeks back, asking the question “Does anything exist that’s like a daily design challenge?” A website, blog, what-have-you, that posts a new idea every morning and asks people to think about it for ten minutes. Something creative, a question that gets your ideas flowing. Ten minutes. My work day doesn’t kick off until entirely too late, most days, because I just can’t force myself into work mode. If someone asked me a really fun question every morning at 9 a.m., I can almost promise that after ten minutes of figuring out how to answer it, I’d be ready to start my day.

Here’s where I really need the internet to come in. I’m not a well-known designer; I’m a just-made-it-to-senior-level freelancer in San Francisco who doesn’t have a popular design-based Twitter account or a blog or a portfolio that’s getting three thousand hits per day. And I don’t really KNOW any of those people, either. As a result, I’m going to need you to spread the word. Because I’d love to get this concept off the ground, and I’ve got the time to do it, and I’m happy to host the website – but if I was the type of person who could come up with a great idea off the top of my head every single day and inspire the world with it, I promise you, I’d be in a very different place. I need your help.

You can leave a comment here, or you can email me at my personal email address. If this concept actually takes off, I’m sure I’ll set up something better than just my personal email, but for the time being I’d love to have my inbox flooded with your ideas.

I realize the concept of giving away free ideas is scary, but how much better would the world be if we did? I’m not asking you to give me fully-actualized thoughts, more like social questions and very, very general things to think about. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Many major cities in the world either employ or are considering congestion pricing in response to the number of automobiles that crowd city streets that were never designed to be so heavily trafficked. Is there a better way to balance out transportation and incentivize commuters to re-evaluate their transportation?
  • A majority of Americans now use smartphones to be able to communicate in multiple ways (voice, text, data services) from their pocket. Much of the world still relies on much simpler devices. What are the key features you use on your phone that could be accomplished on a “dumbphone”, and how can we give access to those services to a simpler device?

Ideas could be as simple as linking to an article that someone’s written and asking a question about them, or inviting everyone to play cheeseorfont, or pointing out a very specific UI problem that could be thought through in a different way (but let’s try to avoid insulting the hard-working designers that made those decisions in the first place) – anything that might get brains rolling, I’m all ears.

But I also want to discuss what YOU might find inspirational. I also don’t want this to only apply to designers, because there are hundreds of careers out there where people need to be creative and think on their feet, and I don’t want to eliminate programmers, writers, chefs or anyone else. We could all use a little inspiration and thinking and it would be my honor to facilitate such things.

So, let’s see what we can come up with. Please spread the word! I’ll be keeping a list of everyone’s ideas and will launch the official collection shortly. I’d like to make sure I’ve at least got a backlog of a couple of weeks of content before I throw this thing out there. You can email me, comment to this post, contact me @jrizzo on Twitter, or whatever else suits your fancy. I am so, so excited to hear all your questions.

RIP, Steve.

Photo credit to sabine.

I was sitting at Monk’s Kettle last night, having a beer by myself while I waited for a friend to meet me for dinner across the street. I was ignoring my magazine in favor of my smartphone when I loaded up Twitter to see what the world was up to. The magazine is finite; the little 4″ computer in my pocket gives me new information faster than I can consume it. And that’s how I found out that Steve Jobs died.

I always wondered what that day would be like. Celebrity deaths have never really torn me up. I’m part of that really weird group of people that doesn’t really pay much attention to pop culture – I just can’t keep up with it. I’ve never been a huge movie person because I was somehow born lacking whatever gene enables you to remember the plot line of anything or remember who was in what movie. (Do not invite me to your trivia night.) When I think about celebrity deaths that have somehow impacted me, frankly, the list can be counted on one hand.

As I grow older, I’m getting more and more irritated with the coverage of such things. The internet gives us this platform that now, thanks largely to Facebook and Twitter and all of their predecessors, encourages us to be quasi-anonymous assholes. When Amy Winehouse, an artist whose music I deeply respected, passed away, it seemed like a race to the retweet. Within five minutes of the news breaking, there were already people vying to make the most offensive joke possible in the hopes that… what? That someone would retweet them, that someone else would see it, that you might end up featured somewhere and gain some new followers? It’s gross. It’s disrespectful. Where did our goddamned manners and good sense go?

So when I saw that Steve Jobs was stepping down as the face of Apple, all I could think about was that he was clearly dying, and what were we going to do when that happened? How long would it take for people to make shitty jokes about iPhones as if they had any license to trivialize a human life? I didn’t spend much time thinking about it; it seemed just awful. And I don’t much care to sit around thinking about people dying, anyway.

You know what I saw on Twitter yesterday? An unbelievable outpouring of sadness; a shocking amount of honesty and humility. Designers like me, designers much better and smarter than me, immediately being able to say that their work would not be possible without one man’s vision and contribution to our industry. With a little bit of “fuck cancer” sprinkled in for good measure.

Steve Jobs and I don’t know one another. I’ve never worked for Apple, and despite living in San Francisco, I don’t even have some story about a startup I worked at that was created by people who were once top-level developers or something. I have exactly zero personal connection to the man. But there is no one who has impacted my career more than he did.

I’m a designer. That means something new every day. I sit down at my Mac Pro tower with its Cinema Display and I use my Apple software on it. None of those things would have been possible without one visionary with a penchant for black turtlenecks. But it isn’t just that. Steve Jobs truly, deeply revolutionized our industry. I was in design school from 2003-2008; I’m very young. The concept of creating something iconic is so far beyond me. My version of design lies predominantly in 3D animation, particularly products and hard-line objects. Every single time a client has a project for me that involves a screen, we talk about Apple products. It’s either “Can we show this on an iPhone” or “We need to put the screens in a laptop, but something generic, not, like, a MacBook. Like a generic MacBook.” No one has ever mentioned a Blackberry or a Dell or told me something looked “too HP”. One man, the man pictured up there sitting with all of the stuff he needed to be creative, made this brand, this company, this vision that has trickled down over thirty years to permeate almost every client conversation I ever have. Christ.

You want to leave a legacy? Start leaving one. I won’t give you a Steve Jobs quote here; you can refer to Facebook or Twitter or something for that. They’re all spectacular and I wouldn’t know which one to choose anyway. But they’re all the same idea: No one ever got to be successful by sitting around and doing what they’re supposed to. No one has ever been memorable for their work as a follower. There are edge cases, but if you want something to happen to you, you had better make it happen, son. People who sit around and wait will be doing it forever.

Watch every single one of those videos that you see floating around today. Listen to the commencement speech. Listen to his version of the voiceover. Listen, listen, listen. Take a second to reflect and then get back to work. He started us on a really great path but it’s ours, now, and we’ve still got an awful lot to do. Rest in Peace, Mr. Jobs, we will never be able to thank you enough for the inspiration.

We’ll stick with “Hello, world”.

After years of combining personal and professional interests at a variety of places all over the web, here’s my real-life foray into professional blogging. I can’t make many promises, but I can at least try to keep things topical around these parts.

Over the next few days, I’ll also be migrating some older Tumblr posts over here, so there may be new content appearing in a sort of weird order. Within a week or so, things should straighten out.

Bicycle Directions via SFBC

One of my most-used tools in life is the bicycle directions on Google Maps. They’re great. I’ve had some flaws over the years – like the time I was directed to take the “Barbary Coast Trail”, which is actually three flights of steps that were neither easy to walk up with my 40 pound mixte nor the best route – but for the most part, it’s a really great tool. I don’t use it as often as I used to; if it’s in the city, I probably know the most bicycle-friendly way to get there by now. I do use it a lot to compare routes, though, like the time I was working at an office that’s almost at the exact opposite corner of the city from my apartment. There are at least five totally viable ways to get there; the cycling directions helped me choose.

The San Francisco Bike Coalition (of which I am a paid member and could not be more supportive) has always had a bike direction tool, but the 2.0 version of it was recently released. I’m all in favor of competition, and I’m so glad the SFBC is working to make cycling easier for us in this city in all sorts of different ways, but there are some glaring flaws.

One: The SFBC tool has one big thing going for it: it gives you how many calories you’re burning. The problem? That doesn’t actually make any sense. Calorie estimates – particularly ones that take no data into account other than distance – are simply a bad idea. A 150 pound fit female will not burn the same calories as a 250 pound obese female, or a 200 pound male with a high body fat percentage, or a 200 pound male with a low body fat percentage. The differences can be completely staggering.

For example, as per WebMD, which is also a flawed tool since it’s only taking your weight into account, if you’re cycling at an average of 12-14 mph (which is standard enough in the city) for 38 minutes (which is the SFBC number I’ll be referencing in point 2), a 120 pound person would burn 276 calories, compared to the 461 someone would burn if they were 200 pounds. SFBC estimates 282.9; I’d be interested to know who their “average” person is in this instance.

Two: The times are completely, totally inaccurate. I live at 26th & Guerrero. I’m currently training for the MS150; my quick training ride is an 18 mile loop that goes from my place up Valencia, up 17th to Sanchez, through the wiggle, through the Panhandle, through GGP and down the Great Highway to the zoo, where I turn around and book it back. I figured it would be a pretty good route to use to test the tools against each other, since I’ve got a ton of data on it and ride it enough times per week that I might be cocky enough to use the word “expert”.

I ride this route regularly. I am a competent enough cyclist. I’m not a racer, but I am training to be a stronger distance cyclist for a long ride in a couple of months. I’ve been riding for years, ride a very good bicycle, and am slightly faster on average than most cyclists in the city. (This statement is based only on the number of other cyclists I pass every day when I’m riding at a speed that’s comfortable than me. It is in no way scientific and certainly still doesn’t mean that I am “fast”. At all.)

My fastest recent time on this route was 1:16:34, just over 76 minutes. My average speed was 14.1, my max speed was 25.9. These numbers come from my bicycle computer, which is only logging active time, not time from point A to point B (and in the case of my loop, back to point A again). And while this is not the place to debate such things – you’ve got thousands of better places on the internet to do that – that’s involving an awful lot of stop sign running and some highly questionable speed in certain areas. I had to ride as hard as my not-entirely-in-shape body possibly could in order to achieve that time. And yet, the SFBC tool says it takes 38 minutes to ride that route. They don’t mention if that takes into account time for stopping at lights, dealing with traffic, etc., but I’m going to go ahead and wager a guess that 38 minutes is a pipe dream for the sort of riders that would be using the SFBC tool. That’s over a 14 mph average WITHOUT stopping. That is substantial. Google Maps lists 52 minutes, as seen in the comparing screenshots below. (Click to expand.)

I have to say, things like “how long will it take me to get there” are significantly more important to me than a bad calorie estimation or how many carbon emissions I’ve offset – a point on which I don’t really have the authority to speak, but I have to imagine that’s a slightly difficult one to discuss too. SUV versus Smart Car? Is there consideration given to the amount of food I’m going to have to eat to fuel myself and where it might have come from, or the carbon used to produce my bicycle? I can speculate all day.

3. It requires a very, very, very specific format for your addresses. When I type in 3649 26th St., an address that is well within the city limits and in fact could only mean one thing, it returns “Your route could not be found. Please check your address location and try again. Address should be in the format: Street Address or Intersection, City.” And forgive me, but this is a San Francisco-specific tool created by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. I assumed you would know what city I was referring to. It’s probably on me for being a creature of habit, but I screw this up every single time. I’ve been using Google Maps for years, which manages to figure out what I mean, so I’m used to not having to format in a weirdly specific way. Perhaps the Google model has spoiled us with the “did you mean…” correction mentality, but it’s frustrating for a web tool in 2011 to just reject my information and not offer alternative solutions.

Cycling directions in a city like San Francisco are so, so important, particularly to the sort of new riders that the SFBC should be targeting. It’s a hilly city with some good bicycle infrastructure, but you might not know the optimal way to go if you’re new to cycling or new to the city. My route to the Great Highway takes at least twenty turns. I have them memorized now, but I can imagine it might be difficult to get out there in a non-hilly, cycling-friendly way if you don’t have those little shortcuts committed to memory.

The shortest vs. flattest route is an interesting option, but Google Maps just gives me three different options, has a terrain map, and lets me figure it out. I’m not sure which one is the better system – I’ve used Google for so long that those things aren’t taxing to me. They also aren’t disruptive to the process – if a route can be 2.6 miles, 3.4 miles or 4.0 miles, I know which one is the shortest. I didn’t need it to tell me. And by turning on the terrain map, I can determine what the least hilly way to go is, though theoretically bicycling directions aren’t going to have too much variation as far as hills are concerned.

I’m glad the SFBC is thinking about things like this, but honestly, they’re trying to reinvent the wheel with little success. Routes aren’t able to be modified (as in clicking on the route to drag it to a new area, which Google lists as traveling “via (insert thing here)”, an excellent feature), the estimations of time/calories/carbon are pretty useless and largely inaccurate, and if you don’t format both of your addresses properly, the tool simply does not work. I’ve got my criticisms of the Google cycling directions too, but I’m not convinced the SFBC spent its money correctly here. The completely infuriating thing is that it USES Google Maps, but somehow manages to accomplish everything in a significantly worse way. I’d love to see some features that justify all of this development. Hopefully 3.0 will be more successful.

Anthropologie: Coming soon

Somehow, I have ended up on countless email lists. I wake up to at least thirty of them every morning and just delete them instead of taking the extra 15 seconds to unsubscribe. I click on very, very few of them, but I always look at Anthropologie.

It’s interesting, because I think the only thing I own from there is an apron. (A really, really great apron.) Our aesthetics aren’t quite in line. There’s something overtly feminine about most of their products that I’m visually drawn to but would feel inappropriate wearing/having in my home. They’re a great source of inspiration for me, though. They have a great identity that’s synonymous with the products they’re presenting. They let their merchandise do the talking.

This morning, when I had an email in my inbox with the subject line “What if Anthropologie did weddings?”, I clicked it first, before I clicked on any of my real email. Note: I am not planning a wedding, I don’t have any close girlfriends who are planning weddings, and I have very little reason to care about emails that are going to be filled with pictures of wedding dresses. I trusted Anthropologie’s take on the subject wouldn’t let me down.

The website you’re led to is a rotating cast of photographs with a simple email sign-up link at the bottom. The photos are detail-oriented: we’re not focusing on zoomed-out photos of a bride and groom and their twelve attendants, we’re focusing on hands. On buttons. On texture. It’s sort of amazing that Anthropologie hasn’t hit this market earlier, because the overlap is so obvious. Their products are lush and beautiful from a far-away view, but streamlined enough that you can imagine the process being “take everything unnecessary away, then add back what you really love”. They’ve really captured what I think is the essence of the modern bride: less sequins, less sparkle, more clean lines, more small gestures of romanticism. The DIY era that today’s brides are maturing in is more focused on individualism and finding your own style, then expressing that in tiny ways that don’t overwhelm.

I’m really looking forward to the full product launch. They’re focusing on a very specific market here, but it’s one that I don’t think any other boutique companies are really hitting in an effective way. Congrats, Anthropologie – these images are beautiful.

My work setup: Week 1

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working from home once again. My split with my previous company was an amicable one and I hope to work with them again in the future, but a really great opportunity came up for me and I had to take it. It’s much more in line with my career interests and experience and is with a really cool client.

Equipment-wise, it was time to update my home studio. My freelance work for 2009 was about 60% in-office and about 40% from home, but 2010 was about 95-5. I spent most of my time on-site for one client, which was stable and dependable, but sort of took me away from the type of freelancer I’d like to be. It also meant that my outdated 2009 equipment was completely unprepared for 2011.

Just so we’re clear on how outdated, I was running a PowerPC G5 Quad-Core 2.5GHz machine with 1.25TB of storage and 5.5GB of RAM. While those seem like fairly appropriate specs for a computer, even though it’s over 5 years old now, it’s not powerful enough for the 3D work that I do, and the PowerPC platform is no longer supported by a growing number of software makers. The newest version of the Creative Suite that I can run on it is CS3, which makes me feel very silly when a client sends me CS4 or CS5 files that I can’t open. I didn’t mind asking people to downgrade for a bit, but now it’s getting pretty embarrassing. The only from-home project I worked on in 2010 was completed mostly on a slightly newer laptop and just used the G5 to render and for storage.

This is all going to be terribly nerdy, and was inspired by Frank Chimero’s post yesterday of the same nature. If you’re not a computer geek or interested in people’s work setups, I would probably skip over the rest of this. This will preserve it for me and hopefully provide insight into anyone else setting up a home studio.

The Hardware

I recently purchased a 12-core 2.66GHz Mac Pro tower. It’s got 2TB of storage (broken into two 1TB drives) and 8GB of RAM. It was a difficult decision to make. I was about to max out an iMac, which would have saved me a considerable amount of money and still functioned quite well as a workstation. However, it wouldn’t have been powerful enough to render the massive files I knew I was about to work with. I contacted a couple of companies that host render farms and priced a few things out, and found out that we’d be looking at $1000+ to get this file rendered. If I rolled that into the cost of the computer, I’d come out with a much better computer that would last me longer, and I’d be able to render at home without dealing with an external service. It pretty much sealed the deal.

I am currently only using one small monitor instead of running a dual monitor setup. My home work area, as you can see, is terribly small and not all that easy to expand. We’ve recently completely redone this room and I’m really liking the aesthetics of only having one monitor. It was difficult to work with at first, but I’ve set up my palettes and everything in a pretty minimal way that’s starting to work out okay. I’m most likely going to end up either moving to a larger single monitor or caving in and getting a second one, but for now, I’m trying to go as minimal as possible. (I love the 27″ Apple monitors, but at $1K plus that nasty 9.5% California sales tax, that’s just not in the budget for now.)

The Software

My software needs are pretty minimal. I use the Adobe Creative Suite, which really means I use After Effects for all animation and compositing, and Illustrator and Photoshop for their respective vector and raster capabilities. I’ve been using them for a decade now and have no reason to look elsewhere.

For 3D animation, specifically the architectural work that I do, I prefer Cinema 4D. I’ve used it for around eight years now. It has grown into a really incredible general tool that’s appropriate for all of the work I do, from architecture to motion graphics to product visualization. I love its internal render engine and haven’t ever been compelled to use anything else. I’ve used 3D Studio Max professionally and I tinkered with Maya years ago, but I’ve been using and teaching Cinema for so long that there’s no reason for me to look elsewhere. Your mileage may vary, but I feel like the learning curve is so shallow on this one that you really get to spend a considerable amount of time finessing skill rather than overcoming basic obstacles.

All of my bookkeeping and tracking is done via Google Docs and Google Calendar. I’ve given additional applications a try in the past, but they’ve always felt like a ton of work. I love keeping my documents in the cloud – they’re accessible from my phone, from my workstations when I’m on-site with a company, from the various computers I might use at home. My income and project tracking spreadsheets have evolved over the years and are still evolving, but it’s great to be able to pull up a computer anywhere and see exactly where I’m at. My accountant is pretty happy with the situation as well. When I work with other partners on projects, I can invite them to my project tracking spreadsheets and they can collaborate with me in real time. I back these up probably less frequently than I should, but I try to keep fairly updated files on my local drive at home.

I occasionally use a laptop at home, and when Harry works on a project with me he usually uses a laptop as well. Our “file system” is pretty basic – we just wirelessly connect to my desktop computer and access files over our home connection. This has worked well enough for us so far that I haven’t had a need to look into other options, but it’s sort of on my radar in case we ever start to get frustrated with it.

Other things I’m trying out

Not pictured here is the camera I’m using to take the photo, a Canon Powershot SD4000 IS. I purchased it in early December and it’s one of the greatest tools I own to do my job. I also own a DSLR that takes incredible photos for me, but it doesn’t fit in my coat pocket. I kept this in my pocket for the two weeks I was in the midwest and took more photos with it then than I have all year. When I went to a meeting on-site with my current client, I was able to just snap off some photos of their fixtures that I’d be modeling. It’s barely smaller than my cell phone and I don’t even notice it weighing down my coat. Its biggest benefit is that it opens up to F2.0, so lower-light situations aren’t a problem. At F2, it’s pretty soft, but sometimes you just need an image to remember something.

You’ll also notice the Magic Trackpad sitting on the desk. It was a total impulse buy because I think it’s pretty. I’m attempting to use it for 3D, which sounds insane to me, but I’m really excited to see how it goes. The biggest problem I have with new devices for 3D animation is that you need to be able to use your center mouse button. I love the Apple Magic Mouse that came with my computer, but it doesn’t have the three button interaction that is absolutely vital for 3D software. I was originally disappointed with the Magic Trackpad because I couldn’t figure out how to customize it to my liking.

Enter Better Touch Tool. I have customized exactly one thing about it: tapping with three fingers is the same as clicking my middle mouse button. I can switch back and forth between 3D cameras with my trackpad, finally. I’m not entirely convinced yet that I can really use it for all my 3D needs, but I’m definitely not convinced that I can’t. The ability to customize any gesture I want is really, really cool. And it’s a free download, though I suggest you make a donation if you’re as blown away by it as I am.

The trackpad is great. I can’t say enough about it. I was laying in bed watching ESPN3 yesterday so I could catch a basketball game, and kept the trackpad laying in bed with me. It’s my own little remote. It’s totally gadgety, but I’m so happy I have one. And near as I can tell the battery life is great – I’ve been using it for a week and it’s still at 100%.

How’s that lack of mobility?

Well, it sucks. Animating from my couch is awesome, but there are simply no laptops out there that will sit on my lap and run my 3D software. Also, it sucks to use 3D software with just a laptop trackpad. Sure, I could connect a mouse, but at that point I have to be on a solid surface and I might as well just use the desktop.

I would like some sort of mobile options, though. I don’t really own a laptop (the one I use at home is Harry’s and it’s three years old and heavier than I’d like). I have given consideration to buying an iPad but I just don’t think it’d be all that useful. I go to client meetings about twice a year, since I do most of my business with clients online. Upload an animation to Dropbox, send an email and I’m done. I considered buying an iPad when I went to a client meeting in Cincinnati, but ultimately they had a computer set up there so I could reference my portfolio and things on the web, so there would have been no reason for me to really have one. I’ll probably pick up an iPad 2 if they drop the price, but it’s more of a novelty for me than anything.

And my cell phone is worthless since Sprint refused to upgrade it to Android 2.Anything, so at some point I’ll have to deal with that.

What would you change?

Most of these things are a pretty big recent change in my life. As I mentioned, I completely redid the bedroom to better accommodate all of our needs. One 10×13 room has to function as a bike shop, a design studio, a bedroom, and someplace to watch television. It also holds all of our clothes and my grandmother’s sewing machine. We have completely overhauled the room – it doesn’t even look like the same place – and things are going pretty well.

This isn’t true for everyone, I’m sure, but I find that when I evolve things over time, they usually end up feeling very cobbled together. When I spend way too much money all at once, everything just works the way it’s supposed to, but I end up going way too long without making those decisions and it bites me in the end.

I need to figure out the monitor situation. I’d potentially like to get some new speakers. I really should figure out a way to keep images and videos on me at all times. This probably means I’m going to suck it up and buy an iPad.

What’s awesome?

The location of my desk is perfect. Insanely perfect. Buying a desk that was half the size of my old one was one of the best decisions I ever made. I have a window directly in front of me and a door three inches to the right of my desk. It opens to the outside, so on nice days (and for some reason we have had a lot of them recently) I can just leave the door to the back deck standing wide open. Fresh air, the noise of the city, and it brightens up the whole room. It wasn’t a plan when I first set everything up this way, but it certainly has worked out.

Stop talking.

This was a whole lot of words about some pretty nerdy stuff that no one but me should care about, but it’s nice to have written it all out. Here’s to working from home, evolving processes and creating a happy environment to sit in for ten hours every day!

Bacon Cupcakes.

Ed. note: This was written in December 2007, and was the most popular post by far on my old Vox blog. (It was also one of the top results for “bacon cupcakes” for years – my pride and joy, obviously. Vox has since shut down, but my friend Sean emailed me last night and asked if I could find the recipe for him. It turns out I never really posted the recipe and instead linked to Vanilla Garlic, but I’m reposting here because I really loved this post, and I think there are some helpful tips in there anyway.

I alluded to them earlier in the week, so as promised, here we go.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that our office was having a cupcake competition. I work in what you might describe as an obnoxiously creative office. I knew I had to go for taste, as even though I’m a designer, I’m just awful at decorating food. I cook it, and I can plate things well, but when it comes to icing, there’s just no winning for me. So, my co-workers banded together and tried to help me come up with ridiculously strange cupcake ideas. Someone suggested “meat cupcake”, someone else suggested “breakfast cupcake”, and then it came to me. I would have to put bacon in a cupcake.

Credit definitely goes to the Vanilla Garlic blog, because I never would have perfected these if I hadn’t started from their fabulous recipe. I kept the recipe relatively similar, except I used more of the pan drippings and used a full teaspoon of baking powder with regular all-purpose flour instead of the self-rising. I didn’t use their recipe for the frosting – I made a basic buttercream icing and added some maple syrup to it.

A few warnings about using maple syrup in a batter. It’s pretty easy to add too much and break a batter. I definitely cut down the amount of syrup in the batter itself – I ended up tripling that recipe so I could make enough to send to my office. That would have required 12 tablespoons of maple syrup, and I only used 8.

Syrup.

The recipe isn’t too difficult. Step one is to fry up some bacon. Fry up as much as you’d like – for a triple batch, I used a pound. You’ll be chopping this up later and folding it in to the batter, so fry it to whatever crispy point you want to have in your cupcakes. As I knew people would be a little weirded out by the idea of bacon in their cupcakes, I made mine pretty crispy – the type of thing you’d get in store-bought bacon bits as opposed to a little soft like I want to eat in strips. Pour out the pan drippings and put them in the refrigerator to cool. (Don’t pour it directly from your pan into a Glad storage container, because it’ll melt the bottom and you’ll lose some of the drippings while you scream and look for another container. Trust me.)

The lifeblood of the cupcake

When the bacon drippings have cooled and solidified, you’re going to beat them with the butter until it’s light and fluffy. Add in the brown sugar and maple syrup and beat until they’re well combined, then add the egg. Then you’ll mix in your dry ingredients that you’ve pre-sifted together – flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Alternate between adding some of the dry ingredients, then milk, ending with the dry. I have made these twice, and I used more milk in the first batch. It made the end product a little more moist. Probably should have done that for the second batch. End by folding in the bacon.

Batter pre-bacon

You’ll note that I’m not giving quantities here, and that’s mostly so you can defer to the Vanilla Garlic recipe. It’s a great starter. Pay attention to the quantity of that recipe, though. It claims it makes six cupcakes, but if you use extra baking powder instead of the self rising flour, I think their version will get you closer to ten. This was an experimental recipe to start with, so most definitely experiment with it on your own if you’re interested!

Bacon cupcake in its natural habitat

 

As for the taste? Well, I liked them. I thought they were great. They’re incredibly rich, though. My less-syrupy version wasn’t terribly sweet, but they’re a lot of flavor. Also, mine rose a TON. I didn’t expect that on the first batch, so I had some incredibly awful looking cupcakes. If you put syrup in your frosting, be aware that it’s going to be very, very sweet. I think the sweet syrupy frosting in moderation is a good choice.

Unfrosted bacon cupcakes

I didn’t take the grand prize, because as I expected, they were mostly judging on look. I did, however, take one of the special prizes – most unexplained. I couldn’t be prouder.

Bacon cupcake with maple frosting.

Trains and feet

Note: This is part one of two in my “someday I will want to remember what this commute was like” series. This is a much rarer commute than my normal bicycle commute, but much more predictable and therefore easier to write about. This was a weird exercise.

I live four blocks from a BART station. Two numbered streets over and two lettered streets down. Google Maps tells me it should take 8 minutes, but it always takes me ten. I have gone over this route a million times and even counted the seconds, and I can’t figure out how I take 25% more time than Google says I should. It’s .5 miles from my door to the station; that means Google thinks I should be walking a little under 4 miles per hour. I always thought I was a fast walker, but that seems really fast.

There’s a sunny side of the street, sort of. If I cross over 26th street, I’m on the sunny side, and if I don’t cross Valencia, I’m on the sunny side. It rarely matters. If I’m walking to work instead of biking, it’s either raining or I’m planning to get drunk eight hours later. I usually walk the sunny way, because my favorite street doesn’t get any sun and the cats are still asleep in the morning.

My favorite street has a lot of cats. It’s always cold, though.

I walk past a Chinese restaurant that I don’t like. It’s the closest restaurant to my apartment, but I never eat there. It’s awful, but I’ve heard their vegetarian options are really great. I wouldn’t know, due to a hatred of soy-products-that-pretend-to-be-meat. I walk by the little corner restaurant that’s shockingly underrated, the bar with the couches and the dogs, the bar where I spend most of my time if I don’t want to leave the block, the cookie place run by the friendliest man in the world, and the bar that everyone acts scared of but I actually really like. I walk past the weird little gallery and the weird little second-hand store and the school with the high concrete walls with the cool patio. I walk by the coffee shop that doesn’t have very good lattes, across the street from the very good (even if they’re trying too hard) wine bar and the new bakery with the very good lattes. I walk by one corner store, two corner stores, three corner stores. One has a good beer selection, one has good produce. From the outside they are identical but I always go to both of them.

I pass the burger place, the cheesesteak place, the bar that plays music too loud. I pass at least four bakeries and a pizza place that I have never been into. There’s always a Hispanic man standing on that block. He likes my smile. He tells me good morning, and that makes me smile and say good morning, and as I walk away he mutters “Muy Bonita” at me. I like it a little more than I probably should.

The stairs down into the station are intimidating. I don’t know why. There are a lot of them and I get really dizzy if I look the whole way down, so instead I hold on to the railing and look at my feet and shuffle down them as quickly as I can. I had to walk with a cane for a couple of months and this was my least favorite part of the morning. There’s an escalator, but it only goes up in the mornings. I have never checked the direction of the other escalator across the street.

I have a funny little future-card that I just hold by the turnstile and it opens for me. I do not know how the future-card works, I just know that it takes money out of my bank account so I never have to deal with how much money it takes to get somewhere. This is the type of system where the cost is different per destination, but at least it’s always $1.75 between home and any of the downtown stations. The other transit system is slower and costs me $2; I somehow feel like this is a loophole no one but me knows. The future-card goes back in my pocket and I will inevitably check to make sure it’s there at least seven times over the next ten minutes.

People scramble for the seats when our train eventually comes, and this is very strange to me. This morning, I saw a woman ask an incredibly obese man if he would get up so she could sit next to him. The seats are two-seater little benches and people usually sit on the outside to signify that they’re getting off soon, that they don’t want anyone to sit on the outside of them because they were here first and they don’t want to climb over the new person. The obese man got up and she got in, and he sat back down nearly on top of her. She was sitting for two stations, which equates to less than three minutes. I don’t get it. People ask me constantly if I want a seat that recently opened up next to-in front of-behind me, and I never do, and they always look a little shocked.

The ride takes seven minutes.

When I get off the train at my stop, I have to use the future-card again so that it knows how much money to take away from me. Future-card only works at one turnstile; I never remember which one it is and inevitably choose incorrectly every time. There are two escalators to get out of there and I only take one of them. There is an orchestration to it, but it doesn’t make much sense. It’s just habit by this point.

I have to cross the busiest street in the city, but this far down, it doesn’t feel all that intimidating. Everyone is here: the buses, the pedestrians, the cyclists, the streetcars, the taxis, the cars. We all want that space but rarely fight for it. Not this far down.

I pass too many places to count. The only ones I care about are the ones that provide me with what I want: yuppie sandwich place, yuppie salad place, crepe truck, cheap Indian place, Starbucks. There are countless stores and restaurants down that street, but there are too many to take notice of. (Yuppie salad place is a new addition.)

My office building is big, one of those massive buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in any industrial park across the country but always catches me off guard. It’s big enough to have a giant plaza in front of it and a chain coffee shop inside of it. The sun hits the plaza all day, whether it’s the morning when I’m walking in or lunch when I’m walking out or 3:30 when I’m grabbing a latte. The irony of this building is not lost on me: when I first moved to San Francisco and didn’t have a job, I would ride my bike down to have lunch with Harry. It was always the $5 indian place on the corner, followed by laying in the grass and eating lunch together in the sun. It would take me two years until I was working in this building, but it hasn’t gotten old yet.

The sunshine catches my hair as I walk into the building in a way that I really like. I’m always a little brighter, here, right before I hit the rest of the day. This is where the predictability stops, of course – every day is different, there are new fires to put out. But my eight minute walks sandwich seven minutes on the train. It is predictable and unremarkable and lovely.

Fixation Creative: We Have No Idea What We Are Doing

I haven’t written anything about where we stand – the “we” that opens our doors soon, the “we” that is considering taking a full-time staff position somewhere else – since February. There are some good reasons for that, and they are mostly that we have not figured out what to do yet.

Right now, myself and the other future principal are working together on our first very big start-to-finish project. I keep saying that I’m looking forward to the post-mortem on it (two weeks from today, most likely), because we are doing a lot of things incorrectly, but we are rational beings that are capable of voicing those things. Even when it’s 2 a.m. and I just want to get this animatic rendered and I’m asking questions that don’t matter in ways that aren’t productive, we’re getting done what we need to get done, and we’re proud of the work we’re doing.

Is there a reason that you needed to overwrite my GODDAMNED IMAGE with an outdated file?

(Oops. We’re working really long days around here.)

Our professional lives change and shift every day, and for now, I’m done with making predictions. I have to be. One day I’m a freelancer, the next day I’m giving very serious thought to the Thing I Said I Would Never Do, which is taking a salaried job offer. The day after that, I’m at the salaried job three hours later than I wanted to be, then dragging home to work for another six hours on the Fixation project, and crawling into bed at 3 only to get four hours of sleep and wake up to declare that I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.

It is incredibly rewarding to be busy, though. I am constantly busy. I am getting more and more RFPs sent to me and I think I’m getting better and better at responding to them. I have always made a point to not overwhelm myself with work, and right now I am doing just that. I’m tired, but it feels nice. It feels productive and the breaks feel that much better as a result.

We’re learning, though, and that’s important. And this weekend, we’re drinking, because no one should try to be creative on the fifth back-to-back 18 hour day.