Week 12: Embracing Unproductivity, Hobbies v. Hustles, Back to Teaching

It feels stupid to even say it, but I have finally come around to accepting that on some days I will not be “productive.” I have our 35-year old house to thank for this reorientation. This house is older than I am, and I can only hope that I am not as run-down as this house in a few years when I turn 35. One fine morning last summer, part of a ledge collapsed. Two weeks ago, we were without power for half of Sunday because the electrical wiring has some unforeseen trouble. We are fortunate enough to have a garden, but it comes with occasional battles with pests. I spent the first year or so of living in this house feeling very frustrated. But after one such mini-disaster, I accepted that this is so. There are days that the house will unexpectedly need our attention, and on others, someone in the family or a friend need will our urgent help. I will fall sick sometimes, and there are days when my brain will simply not co-operate. No amount of urging will make it concentrate on the task at hand. All of this is ok. Instead of being angry, frustrated or disappointed, if I can, I accept that it is not a good day for work. Of course, I make up for the day, but it is not, by any means, a lost day to me. “Productivity” is not the end of the world.

In February, my type walks were featured in an article in The Hindu about creative practitioners and entrepreneurs. After sharing the piece on Instagram and Twitter, I re-read it and realized that I didn’t quite manage to get something important across. I love type walks, and run a few every year, but they are side-projects. I do them besides all the paid work that sustains my life, and it is only because of this paid work that I can afford to do them. The fees I charge cover the costs of the materials I give away, but not much more. They are a labour of love, and I enjoy sharing something I am passionate about with others, but calling them an entrepreneurial venture is taking it too far. The realization, unsurprisingly, came a few days after reading an article at Man Repeller about the obligation that so many of us feel to turn our hobbies into money-making projects, and at the very least, share them on social media.

I went back to a bit of teaching recently – nothing too involved, just a half-day workshop. And it was a good reminder of both how much I enjoy it, and of the amount of preparatory work it takes. Between 2014–2017, I ran different versions of the same introductory type design course at three design schools. And while that was great, it was fun to come up with a new workshop this time around. The workshop was for a group of young fashion design students (year 1 and 2), and the goal was not to introduce them to the rigours of type design or lettering, but to bring to them an appreciation of letterforms and their potential as patterns. I think we all ended up having a fun morning, and as always, I had a good time introducing a new set of people to the pleasure of working with letters. If you are interested in seeing what we did during the workshop, I have some photographs and a short description here.

Week 8: Travel disruptions, Seeking the Work I Want To Do

I am back with abridged notes after missing yet another week because I was traveling. Even though I love travel (much more so for pleasure, than for work), it also feels like a disruption. If it is me traveling, I miss home, and the food, sleep and general sense of routine that come with it. If it is my partner traveling, while I enjoy the quiet time, I miss the magical completion of chores that he does and my daily human contact. And if either of us is traveling for work on a weekend, it is heretical in my books.

I am constantly in awe of friends who have to travel for work often and have taken that into their stride. I want to say that I am jealous of how well they cope with travel, but I have been trying hard to remember that the grass always seems greener on the other side. Last year, I asked a friend about it, and she said that she simply doesn’t think of travel as a disruption because that is what her life is, and she finds thinking of it like that counter-productive. At the time, I found her answer insufficient. But the more I have thought about it since, I think what was insufficient was my own follow-up – I never asked her how she got there, or if she has always felt like this.

2019 has already been full of travel, and I expect the rest of the year to be the same. I have been whiny as hell every time a trip has been forthcoming, but I haven’t found being alone at home half as bad as I was expecting. I am also very excited about a conference that I hope to attend soon. So maybe this year will be the one when I figure out this travel thing?

Two weeks ago, I won an award for the book cover I designed for Zubaan Books’ “Centrepiece: New Writing and Art from Northeast India.” I really enjoy designing book covers, even though I have worked on less than a dozen in all my time working as a designer. Why don’t I design more book covers? This is a question I have asked myself a few times over the years, and this award has given me just enough validation to ask it more often that I would like. Time to do something about it! Here’s my short to-do list –

  1. Add book and book cover design work to my website. This is a no-brainer and was always supposed to happen, but working on this website somehow always takes the backseat.

  2. Take some action on the self-initiated project about book covers I have been mulling over for a year and a half. Yes it will be work and yes I probably have too much to do as it is. But I need to find a way to make it happen.

  3. Catch up with people I know who do work in book cover design, and better understand how they get business and how they approach the work.

  4. Maybe cold-email a few people? I don’t imagine this works and I am so terrible at this, but no harm in trying, right?

Week 6: Gendered chores, Learning to draw, Preparing for conversations with journalists

I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided I would write and post Week Notes on a Monday. The end of year festivities likely clouded my judgment. So here I am, back after a two week break, and on a Saturday. Last night, Twitter brought up this blog post written by computer scientist Jean Yang. This exercise of roughly mapping out where my times goes is something I tried back in 2010. I was working at one of my first jobs, juggling a couple of freelance opportunities, and feeling as if I didn’t have enough hours in the day. Little did I know that managing time would only get trickier.

If I am being completely honest, on most days it is not work, but other aspects of life that take up more time than I ever imagined. Staying on top of bills and taxes (despite my best efforts, I still don’t understand the workings of GST, but then who does?); meal planning and cooking; taking on more responsibilities for our families; doing the laundry, trying to be a good, or at least ok, friend; on and on, I could go. Despite the fact that we try to run our (two-person) household with gender equality, and attempt to dismantle the gendered expectations our families might have of us, I end up feeling like I am getting a raw deal more often than I would like.

Seeing Yang’s blog post, at a time when I am discussing these issues a lot with those closest to me, has made me wonder if I should start documenting the time I spend doing these tasks. It would help me see my life in an honest way, and have more meaningful conversations with my two best male allies – my partner and brother.

For over a decade, I have told anyone who has said to me that they cannot draw, that everyone can. I strongly believe that, and encourage everyone who wants to draw to do just that. And yet, I shy away from my own desire to get better at it, and even pick up the skills and mindset to (maybe one day, professionally) illustrate. Last year, I started making a drawing every day, but stopped in only two weeks. After seeing Tiffany’s drawings on Instagram, I am trying again – a quiet New Year’s resolution, if you’d like. Let’s see how I fare.

In my second week notes, I wrote about my anxiety when I have to speak with journalists, and I realized this morning while preparing for one of those engagements, that I shared nothing about how I go about preparing. I have started putting together short documents, one each for every project that I tend to get asked about, where I jot down –

  1. what got me involved in the project;

  2. when I got involved, and how long did the project run;

  3. if the project if self-initiated, what are my motivations;

  4. who were/are my collaborators, and how did they contribute to the project;

  5. a description of the project;

  6. what I feel were my biggest challenges, and how I tried to overcome them;

  7. what are the resources I referred to;

  8. how I failed and succeeded, and what I would do differently or more;

  9. who are my peers working on similar projects and what successes have they had (since 2017, I have made effort to highlight the work of my women peers whenever I get the opportunity);

The documents – not very different from the Reflection on Practice essays we wrote at the end of the MATD programme – are still not ready, but already they are a big help. They are not well-written, and that is not the point. Often I will copy-paste from texts I have written elsewhere.

Plus in the spirit of saving time, I have begun doing what I should long ago, prepare images for projects that I can share at a moment’s notice. All the agonizing and hard work needs to be done in advance.

Week 3: Sleep & work schedules, embracing public speaking, insecurity & rejection

Funny how it would happen in the winters, but after a year of fitful starts I have found a good sleep and work rhythm. Without fail and an alarm, I am up everyday by 6:30–7:00 am, even though the sun is just about rising and temperatures are at their coldest. I can get to my work desk well before 8:00 am, and there is no better feeling than being done with the day’s work by late afternoon or early evening and then turning in early. This daily work schedule would be perfect, but because I work remotely with two teams with members across the globe, I have three meetings a fortnight that happen late in the day. So there is no way to have an early start to work and also an early finish everyday. On those three days, my waking hours gets sandwiched by work and I end up feeling that I do nothing else but that. I have been trying to find a workaround — a way to get work completely out my head for a few hours in the middle and do other things – read, cook dinner, do some embroidery, whatever – and then get back to work again. Unfortunately, I am not quite there yet.

My Dad is an amazing public speaker. He has natural charisma, a brain bubbling with knowledge and ideas, and an infinite capacity to make interesting and meaningful connections. Give him an audience — slides and microphone are optional — and he can just hold their attention. I am not like him. This is not to say I am terrible at speaking to crowds, but I have not inherited his effortlessness.

Last Saturday, I spoke about type walks at Codesign’s Show & Tell. The setting for the event was pretty perfect – about two dozen people, lots of curiousity and bonhomie, and interesting conversations. Just the kind of design event I like to attend. I had known for two weeks that I was expected to speak for about 30-45 minutes. But apart from some soul searching I did at Ahmedabad airport a week before the talk, I couldn’t get myself to prepare. I blame the end of the year for my listlessness. I had been really looking forward to a few quiet days, but they had quickly become filled with social gatherings that are so characteristic of winters in Delhi. By Thursday, I was beating myself up for agreeing to participate in the event in the first place, especially since it was on a weekend and in Gurgaon, almost 50 km away. I delayed preparing as much I possibly could have. The wheels in my brain finally started turning on Friday evening, and after hitting the sack early, I got up bright and fresh on Saturday morning to write myself pretty detailed notes and make a deck of slides. Ultimately, the talk went well, even if I say so myself. My jokes landed, and at one point the whole room burst out in laughter in unison (mission accomplished!). A bunch of people came up to me afterwards and were generous enough to compliment me. But most important of all – I got asked some pertinent questions.

Public speaking has been on my mind a lot in the last year, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with others. After dilly-dallying about it a bit, I decided to talk rather candidly about the process of preparing for a type walk. For so long, I have seen myself in the shadow of my Dad when it comes to public speaking. In the mean time, I have completely ignored the fact that with some preparation, I can run type walks and speak at conferences, small or large, without any paralysing nervousness and with some success. It is about time I embraced that.

I received a rejection email today. And to my surprise, I immediately took it in my stride. That’s the second time this has happened this year. I seem to be getting better at embracing rejection instead of feeling miserable and inadequate. I remember having a full-blown meltdown in 2016 when a project I had started didn’t pan out. I was terribly insecure, and it was a straight line from one failure to thinking that I cannot do a single thing right. I have been trying to think about how I got here, and I am beginning to wonder if it has something to do with the freelance life. There is an uncertainty that comes with freelancing that can really undermine one’s mental peace and confidence. Perhaps I am oversimplifying, but I have been in a much better place since I started working with organizations long-term.

Week 2: Domestic Partnership, Talking to Journalists, Unfinished Projects

I took a mini-vacation with my partner this past weekend, and read Michelle Obama’s memoir in those two days. It has been weeks — maybe months — since I read a book from cover to cover, and it was nice to do that. This had little to do with the book itself. It was nice enough, but a little too feel-good for my liking. Still, there is one thought from the book that has stuck with me. The mismatch between how Obama and her husband’s (see what I did there?) understand time. When he would say “almost home” or “on my way,” it would not be “a geo-locator but that rather a state of mind.” That is the story of our home.

A domestic partnership between two ambitious people is not simple. We both like to believe that we are less ambitious than we were, say, a decade ago. And perhaps that is true. But there is still enough ambition going around to make things tricky. Sometimes I see couples who work together and feel a twinge of envy. I know this is a case of grass is greener on the other side, but it feels simpler that way – you can travel for conferences together; late nights, when they happen, are a collaboration; and you can help each other out. All the problems we face seem magically solved. Type design and public policy are not obvious, or easy, bedfellows. The simple differences in our personalities and work, which enrich our everyday lives, sometimes also feel like exasperating obstacles in eating a home-cooked meal together at the end of a day of hard work.

Last Tuesday, there was an article about unconventional walking tours in Delhi in the Times of India, and my typography walks were included in the list it carried. In the last few years, I have started to feel a real dread when a journalist writes to me with a request to speak to me or cover my work. It wasn’t always like this. I remember feeling quite thrilled the first few times it happened. I was younger, easily excitable, and seeking more validation from the world than I do now. The excitement and delight has now been replaced with the anxiety of talking to a stranger; the effort that I have to make to feel prepared to talk about my work coherently; the anguish of clearing my schedule for this preparation and the conversation at short notice, while fervently hoping that the person I am about to speak to is punctual; and finally, the fear that the resulting story will be botched up in some way, particularly that they will fail to include the name of a collaborator. Thankfully, this story turned out ok, even though I am already unhappy about how I put forward a particular point. I recognize that a lot of this is my own neurosis, but some of it, I believe, stems from a desire for things, whether it is my work or words written about them, to be more meticulous, exacting and useful.

There are times when it feels like I spend my days under the overwhelming weight of unfinished self-initiated projects. This sense of un-productivity, especially with regard to them, is always acute at the end of the year. To make things worse this time around, a few months ago I decided that I would use my days off around Christmas and New Year to finish a self-initiated project that I had started way back in 2011.

Now that the last week of 2018 is almost upon us, I cannot help but feel a bit lethargic as well as at least a little too distracted by other similarly unfinished self-initiated projects. From the outside, it looks like I am rather good at this sort of thing. Two years ago, I resolved to read hundred books in 365 days, and did it. The year after that I drew the Devanagari letter “ka” in a different style every week. This year I launched an online archive of street lettering from India, finished the 36 Days of Type challenge, and ran four editions of two different type walks. Whenever someone asks me how I manage to do so many things apart from work, I always find myself at a bit of a loss. I might look like a success to them, but by my standards I am always behind.

In an interview I gave over the summer, I was asked the same question. My answer, if I recall correctly, was two part. One that finishing projects, especially self-initiated ones, requires a great deal of discipline, planning and sticking to schedules. Two that it is ok to realize that a project you started a while ago is no longer of interest to you – not all projects need to be finished. Both good ideas, just difficult to implement.

Week 1: walking & talking, the teaching dilemma, meticulous tasks

Inspired by Ankur, I have decided to write short notes about my work every week. I still have misgivings about doing this (publicly), but no more squandering away my time wallowing in doubt. Instead, I am jumping in headfirst.

Among the many reasons I love leading type walks (I did one this past weekend) is that it takes me out of my comfort zone. There is a physicality to it, a sense of performance, that I both enjoy and dread. I find it hard enough to navigate crowded public spaces alone, doing it with a group of people, ranging from a dozen to three, needs a lot more spatial awareness than I’m used to having. I am still not very good at very gathering people at strategic spots so I can show them things and talk in the most effective way. Paharganj, where I have been doing walks for a year, is so overwhelming and ever-changing that no amount of planning leads to what I want to do. At Nicholson Cemetery, I think I was so happy at the amount of open space and quiet we had, that I became lax about positioning myself properly within the group and projecting my voice. These type walks have been a steep learning curve, and I find myself needing to learn skills I have never paid much attention to.

This year I took a conscious break from teaching. Last year I taught different versions of the same short, basic type design course at three different design schools, and by the end of it all I was incredibly exhausted. I also needed a bit of time to introspect and think about what I had been teaching, why and how. The only teaching-related thing I have done is be a part of a jury to give feedback to first-year social design students. I was pretty nervous about it – it was my first time – and arguably I prepared more for this jury than I did for some juries when I was a student. I had hoped that being in that space would help me make my mind up about when and how I want to get back to teaching, or at least nudge me in the right direction. It didn’t. Anyway, I met Rasagy yesterday. We got talking about our experiences with teaching, and how confused we feel about it. It made me realize that I haven’t given the subject half as much thought as I should if I want to make any kind of decision soon.

I love doing a few different kinds of work at any time because I think it makes me both more happy and productive. The option of going back and forth between different scales of thinking, drawing type and writing, screen-time and anything else is what makes the work week interesting. Unfortunately, last week was an unholy mixture of meticulous kerning, typesetting and testing that left me very irritable and feeling overworked. I expect this week to be only slightly better. How can the year-end holidays not be here yet?