Episode 015


Eric Karjaluoto – Designer & Author

How do we slow down and focus on what really matters?

Eric Karjaluoto a Vancouver BC based designer. He’s one of the two guys behind SmashLAB, a small design studio which he co-founded 19 years ago. Clients include Arc’teryx, Saltspring Soapworks, The Nature Conservancy, The Vancouver Aquarium, and a bunch more. He’s written two books, The Design Method and Speak Human. And together with his business partner, Eric Shelkie, he’s built a handful of useful side projects, including Officehours, Campnab, and Emetti, to name a few.

I was sent a link to one of Eric’s blog articles, How to Keep Sane, In Faketopia. After reading it, I sent Eric an email and asked him to tell me more about the ideas from his article.

In our conversation we talk about the fakery in social media, the idea that feeding the ‘social media beast’ doesn’t do anything to help our us reach our career goals, and how being real about what’s most important can help us get more out of life and work alike. In short, we’re talking about how to tidy up our list of priorities.

Show Notes and Links


Evan MacDonald: Could I ask you to read this "TL;DR" intro sentence for us?

Eric Karjaluoto: Yeah, absolutely. "Pretending to be successful is the new status quo to break free of this damaging illusion, stop paying attention—and instead concentrate on offering value to a few."

Evan: I like Twitter. There, I said it. I like Twitter. And honestly, it's kind of a guilty pleasure. I think that's a common feeling. Social media, I think for a lot of us is this easy place for our brains to go when we're tired of thinking. And I have this tendency to feel justified in turning to it. Especially since going freelance, and since moving out of the country, Twitter is where I ... mingle? I think that may be too-generous-a-word for it. It's a place where I interact with other creatives and other designers. And so sometimes times I feel like I'm being productive when I'm on Twitter.

And of course, the challenge with this is not only that, it isn't true, it's not productive. But that when I share a thought, or an idea or something that I'm working on, and I don't get a reaction, likes or retweets or growth in my followers, I have this little twinge, this little pain; this feeling that what I shared, that what I made was not a value. I think we're all smarter than this, though. I mean, I hope so. I'd like to think that I know this isn't the case. But it's kind of the way that things like Instagram, and Facebook, and Twitter were designed. They're designed to pull this reaction out of us.

About a month ago I was in the middle of this really hectic week. I was preparing an episode of the podcast, and working on a handful of design projects. And I'd just landed this big project for a new client. And I just didn't have time to worry about social media or social media metrics, or even just scrolling through and reading tweets and social media. But somehow these kinds of things, they have a tendency to just simmer, and to kind of call at us. And it was in the middle of this hectic week that I got an email from a guy named Chris Butler.

I had just recently met Chris, and he's a fellow designer-turned-podcaster. His podcast is called Design Tomorrow. It's really, really great. It's unlike any design podcast or really any other podcast, at least any that I've ever listened to. It's worth a listen, check it out. I'll put the link in the show notes.

Anyway, so Chris emailed me this article by a guy named Eric Karjaluoto. And it's called 'How to keep Yourself Sane, in Faketopia.' Now, lucky for me, with my busy day, Eric had included a TL;DR. At the front end of his article, "too long; didn't read." And that's what we heard him read at the very beginning of the episode right at the top of the show. But I want to read it again, just to kind of underscore it.

"Pretending to be successful is the new status quo. To break free of this damaging illusion, stop paying attention—and instead concentrate on offering value to a few."

Now, like I said, I was really busy, I didn't have time to read the whole thing. But that sentence really stuck with me. That whole day, "concentrate on offering value to a few" kept playing over and over in my mind.

By the next morning, I had passed a handful of these deadlines, I had turned in the work. And I had a little bit of time. So I read the article. And immediately I emailed the author, and I set up this interview. The one you're about to hear.

My name is Evan MacDonald and you're listening to One Thing Real Quick. It's a podcast about design and the creative process; in search of stories and ideas from people who use creativity in practical ways every day. Each episode is built around a single question. This week, my question is for designer and 'really compelling blog article writer' Eric Karjaluoto. My question is, "How do we slow down and focus on what really matters?" Here's our conversation.

Evan: Tell us a little bit about the article, about where it comes from, why you wrote it.

Eric: Well, I think I share the the feeling that you had and the feelings that you have around kind of a influencer economy, or a like economy, what have you. These are things I really struggle with.

I like writing for the sake of writing, I enjoy thinking through something and putting it down. And the truth of the matter is that if that post gets shared a lot, it's a positive response. Right?

I guess it's sort of like, if you went up on a stage and sang a song, and there was absolute silence at the end, you'd wonder what went wrong. The challenge with this is that what gets reactions online is not actually a measure of quality or whether it should be done or not. But it's the most visible one, so it's the one we tend to pursue. And I think it's natural to want to have this kind of response from an audience or something validating. But when we're only pursuing that validation, we start reaching towards phony ways of building that up. And it's not particularly satisfying.

I guess it's kind of like the junk food of information, where we're eating and eating and eating, but it's not nourishing, and we all feel... I don't think we're getting what we want out of this experience. And I think that's on mass. We all find this pretty taxing, and it's a lot of work to try to keep up with something that most of us don't really want to keep up with anyways.

Evan: Let me tell you a little bit about Eric Karjaluoto. He's a Vancouver BC based designer. He's one of the two guys behind SmashLab, a design studio which he co-founded 19 years ago. His clients include Arc’teryx, Saltspring Soapworks, The Nature Conservancy, The Vancouver Aquarium, and a bunch more. Eric has a blog, which you already know about. He's written two books, The Design Method and Speak Human. And together with his business partner, Eric Shelkie, he's built a handful of really useful side projects! I'll put links to all this stuff in the show notes. Let's get back to the interview.

Eric: I can't tell you how many people I've spoken with, how many designers I've spoken with who believe they need to either write influential blog articles, or have an amazing Instagram feed, or have a ton of followers in order to get work. Their goal is to get work. And they're doing all these things to kind of applaud themselves and make themselves seem really interesting. But in actuality, most of our clients don't pay any attention to the design world, at all. They don't care, they just need a better package what they're doing. So if you want to sell things, you know, if you want work to keep yourself practicing your craft, go talk to a prospective client about the problems they're having, and explain to them how you might be able to work together to solve that. And I think there are a lot more successful designers out there with zero Instagram followers, then there are successful designers with enormous followings because they're concentrating on two completely different things.

Evan: Yeah, it's almost like boosting your social media metrics is like "fake" work. You feel like you're being productive if you do it Instagram post every day, and your followers are climbing, or your Twitter is growing. But in the end, is that really leading you to the financial freedoms or to the security in your work? And what you're saying is "no."

Eric: Now, I'm not saying that there can't be exceptions to this, I think some people have been very successful as a result of self promotion of this nature. But for the vast bulk of us, it is not a direct way to achieve our goals. And it results in us feeding a machine that lives because we continue to, kind of, push our energy into. But a big part of this is that we can't be honest, like for us to go online and say, Wow, it's been a really tough year, I haven't been able to sell much work, I'm really struggling with this. Our fear is so great that that's going to scare away prospective clients that if we're having a terrible time, we have a tendency to make it sound like everything is great. So we have a lot of people lying about their experience.

And again, I've met so many people who I consider so successful, and they're doing everything well. And when we actually sit down one on one, the discussion is, "yeah, that's kind of the front facing thing, but in reality, we have a month's worth of cash flow left." Or, "Yeah, I know my startup supposed to be doing well. But in actuality, I'm suffering from severe depression, and I don't know what to do next."

There's this happy face we put on publicly. And then there's the reality. And those two can often be really far apart.

Evan: Eric shared an example of this with me, it's a story from his first year of design school, which, of course, is the greatest training ground for fake it till you make it. So he's in a class with other first year art students, and one of the fellow students had just given a talk, a presentation to the class. And Eric noticed that everyone in the room was sort of nodding in agreement. And then one student, film student, raised her hand and said, "I don't know what any of that means." And she asked the student that had just presented to explain it again, in simpler and more understandable terms. In plain English.

Eric: And it gave everyone else in the class the opportunity to also go "Yeah, I don't get what the hell you're talking about either.

And once that happens, once one person is willing to say, 'I don't get it,' you realize that most people around the table are nodding to not look stupid. And there's an enormous amount of power in that, in being the one who's willing to say, 'this does not make sense to me, can you please clarify?' Or to be in that spot where you're, you're willing to say to a client, 'Yeah, I don't know. That's not my area of expertise. I can think about I can work on it. But I don't know how this is going to work out."

And the moment you do that, you typically at least in my experience, you typically find that you are not alone in that that, it's just that most people are too fearful to say that they don't know.

Evan: Well, I think that candid response that being able to say 'I don't know,' also builds a sense of trust in your client, because they know that when you say you do know, that you do; that you're not just making it up.

So I want to ask you a question about those of us that are focusing our energy and our effort on bringing all this attention to ourselves. But which, really, it doesn't bring us closer to the things that are most important to us. And you talk about this a little bit, where you talk about 'creating value for a few.' Can you talk a little bit about that?

Eric: Yeah, so. I am certainly not innocent of trying to build a reputation that would lead to more work and more opportunity to promote our products and that sort of thing. But at a certain point, I pulled back from all of that, and just didn't do any of it. And what I found that was really interesting was, the more I focused on, not many clients, but maybe two or three, a lot of problems kind of solved themselves.

I didn't have to worry about cash flow, because I was getting jobs done. Iwas able to bill. I didn't have to worry about clients being unhappy because we had a direct dialogue every day. So I was getting to know their problems much better and being able to step in and lend a hand where I could.

And now, I was kind of busy doing client work for only a few clients, and the cash flow was covered. And I didn't have to panic about going and getting more attention. Because what would I have done with it? If I had, if I had 10 new clients want to sign up, I couldn't have helped them. There just are only so many hours in a day. And so it was interesting seeing that in that year that I really didn't touch any of that social media stuff, my work prospects didn't change, they didn't change for the worse, they stabilized. And additionally, I didn't find myself in this scramble to create content, to write blog posts, to write books, all of these things that I felt like I kind of needed to do before.

And when you're not jumping all over the place trying to figure out what the next thing you need to do is, you actually can enter that kind of flow state of, 'I'm going to work on one thing for the entire day. And I'm just going to get to the end and be able to actually measure what I did.'

Evan: What can we do as designers to slow down a bit? To turn this idea around, and not be so focused on our status, but really just focus on delivering value to a few people. Whether that's our team, or our boss, or our client, or our family, or whoever that group is. How do we how do we do that better? How do we focus more on what's most important rather than focusing on on our perceived status?

Eric: You just said it. You you focus on them. You don't focus on yourself. Honestly, many people get themselves to a spot in life where they have a title or responsibilities that they always dreamt of. And then they realized that it is nothing like what it was supposed to be. And they wish they could go back to how it was at some other point.

Don't make it about yourself. Make it about the other people. So when you're working with a client, don't think about your portfolio, don't even have a portfolio on your website, you don't even need a portfolio on your website. Focus entirely on what you can do for that client to move them forward. And if you can do that, if you can help them build their business, or reach their audience or any of these things, they won't want to let you go, they will always want you to help them do more of what you've helped them do.

It's so obvious, but these obvious things often elude us, and we think it should be more complicated than it is. But it doesn't need to be if you want one have a great relationship with the kids, spend more time with your kids. Right? Just going back to that, your initial question was "How do we slow this down?" And the answer is very simple: we make it not about ourselves, we make it about other people. So with our clients, we focus on how we can best serve them so that we help them achieve their goals. If we do that, they're always going to want to come back to us to get more of that. That's what they really need is someone who's looking out for them.

In our relationships with friends, and so on, we can't mass produce engagement, right? Like, it's that person who hits 'happy birthday' on LinkedIn to everybody they know. I have people who have sent me that same message four years in a row. They don't care at all about me, they think this is a way to build their brand.

Evan: I like that you've kind of taken us to this place: simplify your relationships, simplify your work aspirations to have enough clients that you can pay your bills, and not drive yourself bananas. But really, that's what we're after. To have some level of satisfaction in our work in our relationships. And so to look outwards, to focus on the other people, instead of focusing on yourself, and to do good work for the people around you, is really key.

There was a guy that I had, I don't know what happened with this person. But I think I had followed him when I used to use Snapchat a lot. And he had this saying that he said all the time, which is "you are famous to a few people." And I love that because, it's like, to the people that you know, to the people that are in your life, you're famous! And they see you and they're happy to see you and, you have a relationship with those people. And that should be enough.

Eric: I think that's the best we get. That is the mountaintop. Can we be incredibly significant to a few people for a period of time? Because it will not last, it cannot last forever, and to enjoy that now. Because I'd hate to reach my twilight years and think that I had missed the people who mattered by pursuing volumes of people who simply do not... not saying they don't matter as individuals, but on mass, they don't matter. If you leave Twitter tomorrow, and you have 100,000 followers, I guarantee in a month, they will have found someone else to follow and they will have forgotten about you. You cannot please the masses, but you can have deep, moving relationships with those around you. And I think that's what we need to focus on.

Evan: And really, the tragedy would be that if you leave the 100,00 people, and they'll never notice that you've left. But if there are only 10 people in your life, and you depart, and no one notices that you're gone, then you've really messed up.

Eric: Absolutely. And isn't that funny how this desire to get what's over there leads us to not pay attention to what we have right here? When we were trying to grow our studio, there was always this desperate need to get more work, because we were burning a certain amount of cash every month. And so you always need to be thinking about the next job. If I could go back and do that, again, I would keep our staff way, way smaller. And I would really focus on the clients who are in, to do the very best job we could, because if you can do that, they will continue to buy things from you because there's always more to buy.

But what often happens when you're focusing on that next sale, is you actually end up inadvertently ignoring the people who've already bought from you. And we do this in our lives all the time, where we're so desperate to get another group of people to like us that we don't pay attention to the people who are... How many times have you—you may say never...

Evan: Go for it, go for it.

Eric: I've many times sat at my computer, working away to write some thing to put out there for people I don't know. And my son comes up and goes, "Hey, do you want to play Lego with me?" And I'll go, "After after this is done!" But after it's done, they're asleep. It's already bedtime. And as they're getting older, I'm seeing, those moments where they want to play with Lego with me. Most of them are over now. And I've missed the vast bulk of them. That's a poor alignment of priorities.

Evan: Yeah. You know, we talked about balance all the time. You know, that's such a frequent conversation. But the thing that I've taken away from our conversation, if I was to point out the one thing, focus on the other people. Focus on who you're doing the work for. Focus on the people in your life. And when you do that, that's when the work happens that's good, that is valuable to your clients. And that's when you grow the value of the relationships that are most important to you.

Eric: Absolutely.

Evan: Well, and with that, let's talk about all the stuff we want to plug, huh?

Eric: That's how we should end this is, "Follow me on Twitter!"

Evan: Well, I am not lost on the irony of this. I'm going to put some links, because I think that people listening are going to want to read this article. Eric, you've built some awesome stuff. And we'll put links to everything in the show notes. If people want to learn more about you. Once again, check out this article. It's How to Keep Yourself Sane, in Faketopia.

It's a good read. And I'm going to put a yearly reminder for myself to look back at the these ideas because I think they'll help me kind of keep my focus on what's most important, and kind of pull me back out of the the black hole of social influencer metrics. I mean, they are designed to be addictive. They're designed to suck us in and they work at, they're good at it! I think it's important that we have something opposing that. So thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Eric: Thanks for having me on the show. I really appreciate being a part of it. And I enjoyed the discussion. It's an easy one to get wrapped up in.

Evan: Back at the top of the episode, if you remember, I told you about my hectic week. It was that week with just, lots of busy-ness, projects going on. And I mentioned my new client. That's when the article was sent to me. And couple hours after reading Eric's article, I happen to have an appointment, I had a meeting scheduled with this new client. And in this meeting, I presented a deck of brand research with findings and conclusions and recommendations for the path forward for their brand. And my audience was only two people.

And you know what, the presentation went really well. It went great. And their reaction and the response felt really good. And it meant that I'd be working with this client for the foreseeable future, which means more security for me, and for my business, and my family. And maybe it's because Eric's article is fresh in my mind, but I recognized the feeling. It was kind of like that social media bump. Except...

You know, in this interview, Eric compared that social media experience to junk food. Well, I'd compare this experience, this presentation with my new client, to a satisfying, well balanced, healthy, fresh, organic-ingredients, expertly prepared, delicious meal. It was me adding value for a few people. For exactly two people.

I mentioned something earlier, sort of a tagline back in the interview. "We are all famous to a few people." That line of wisdom comes from a guy named Joe Wilson. He's a guy that I "knew" (I'm putting air quotes around that because I knew him from various social media interactions). I went to try and reconnect, and it seems that he has left Twitter, and Snapchat, and kind of left all of it. So it sounds like he's taken his own advice. In the show notes. I'll link to a Medium article by Joe Wilson titled, We Are All Famous to a Few People—Having Cancer on Social Media. And I think this article is actually very vulnerable, very real and worth a read. It definitely underscores, and kind of amplifies, this idea of "priorities" that we've been talking about today.

A big 'thank you' to Eric Karjaluoto for taking the time to write that article. And then of course for coming to talk with me about it. I hope you get a chance to go read that article. You can find a link in the show notes. I'll link to his website, and his Twitter and all that stuff. So you can follow him, since you know that's that's what this is really all about.

Thank you for listening. One Thing Real Quick is an independent podcast created by me, Evan MacDonald, production help from John M. Craig. Music by me.

You can listen to One Thing Real Quick everywhere that podcast play. iTunes and Stitcher and Spotify and all the places. And while you're at it, go check out Design Tomorrow. I mentioned that one at the top of the show, and there's a link in the show notes. And you know, we do want you to follow the show. We really hope you enjoy it. Tell us what you think with a tweet or an email or you can call us and leave us a voicemail. Our Twitter is @OTRQpodcast. @OTRQpodcast is how you could find us on Instagram and on Facebook as well. Our email is podcast@onethingrealquick.com. Our website is onethingrealquick.com and our message line, if you want to call and tell us a story about design and creativity, you can call and leave us a message at 405-373-OTRQ.

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All right. That's it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

Evan: Eric, one last thing before we let you go, What are you reading?

Eric: I'm reading a lot of books that I managed to get about a chapter into and then forget about and pick up again a year later, and try to remember where I was a year ago.

The most notable book that I've been picking away at over longer than I really care to admit, is a book called The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. He writes in a really compelling fashion, and I think I think you should read it. I've really enjoyed it! Not enough to get through the whole thing yet. But that's more about my personality than the book. So.

Evan: Yeah! I'll check it out. I'm looking for something new to read.

Evan MacDonald