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Today I attended a talk and interview with Creative and Art Director Kashiwa Sato. The event was hosted by the Japan Society.

Among his vast collection of work, Kashiwa is best known for his creation of the iconic UNIQLO logo, and branding work for Seven-Eleven.

In his talk he covered numerous projects and his approach and perspective on design. Here are some highlights.

His mission is to use the power of design to visualize new perspectives.

A brand should be: simple, clear and memorable.

Japanese culture drives his design, logo, and brand work. He uses Kanji (characters used in modern Japanese writing) as a basis for creating a logo that captures the essence of a brand.  An example of this was the logo he designed for Beauty Experience.

He uses traditional methods to innovate. Japanese culture and traditions are his primary sources of inspiration.

The icon. It can be driven by the logo, product, space, architecture, or city. And most recently, he discovered a 6th category, the method.  With his work on the Arita Project, his method of using a traditional Japanese brush in a new way (splash paint) became the basis for the icon.

Design by accident and logic.

When hired by a new client, Kashiwa will go on site to conduct research and ask questions. Before commencing work on Fuji Kindergarten, he spent 6 months visiting and learning about Kindergartens in Japan. His approach to Fuji was to capture the essence of Kindergarten. If you visit a traditional Kindergarten you'll recognize that it's a Kindergarten because of the objects inside. Take away those objects and you have a building. Kashiwa wanted to create an icon so that even if you took away the objects, you would still know it's a Kindergarten.

An attendee asked a great question: we are emotional creatures, as a designer how do you stay grounded? Kashiwa had a wonderful response:

I organize.

I organize everything. My home, my desk, the files on my computer, the mess my kids made. It makes me feel better. I even wrote a book about organizing ("Ultra-organized art").

And finally, when asked for parting advice:

As a creator, you're a communicator. Think about who you're communicating with. Don't obsess about what you want to do, but what you're communicating.

Advice is everywhere. Inspiring advice. Life-changing advice. Bad advice. It flows to the top of our Facebook feeds. It's in our email inboxes. It's the must watch  inspiring TED talk or YouTube graduation speech.

The challenge of access to information no longer exists. Everyone can now view that TED talk. Everyone can now hear that interview.

But a new challenge is introduced. What to do with all the information? You invest time to consume the information, and yet forget the message  a week later.

Recently I've  come across two inspiring conversations. A graduation speech by Parker Palmer and a Q&A with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both conversations have lessons that if implemented could have a profound impact on my daily life. Some takeaways from the Arnold Q&A:

  • Looking back on one thing he would have done more of back in late 20s: OK to be goal-oriented for personal achievements. But volunteer, give back to those less fortunate.
  • You can't be good at everything. Have to sacrifice certain things in order to achieve your biggest goals.
  • Life is about taking risks. Just go for it. Don't let thinking about failure deter you. Risk taking shouldn't be viewed as an oddity. It's just part of life.

The level of impact of such advice is determined by timing and your system for implementing it. The timing is linked your mental state. Does the message resonate strongly because of your current state? Would it have the same impact if you heard the same message at a different time?

The other aspect is the system you put in place to follow though. I know that if I don't write down these lessons, I'll forget them. And  even though I have the intention of trying to implement them, I'll come across more advice in the near future and I'll forget about these lessons. I have a system for collecting new information, but not a system for following through on existing information.

One approach is to take down the information, and review it everyday. Keep it top-of-mind. Then commit one or two weeks of practicing the lessons in my daily routine.

There is no lack great advice that we can all access. Getting the information is easy. But putting in systems to implement that information and to take action on it. That's the hard part.

How do you listen to music? Do you focus on the beat? The vocals? The lyrics? Or is it just background noise?

Several years ago my music teacher introduced me to an exercise that changed the way I hear music. The exercise is simple, but it's benefits are vast.

As I've reflected on it I've realized it's a practical and fun way to develop certain non-cognitive skills (aka emotional intelligence). Emotional intelligence is a "hot" topic at the moment (see Unselfie book, VR and Empathy, Emotional Intelligence skills) as we are starting to recognize and quantify it's vital importance in life success. And yet emotional intelligence topics are alarmingly absent from a traditional school curriculum, and if you're an adult, you're on your own to figure it out.

The challenge with non-cognitive skills is there isn't a formula for teaching them. How do you teach someone creativity? Taste? Focus? I've found that certain exercises can be used to hone non-cognitive skills. This music listening exercise is one of them.

I classify non-cognitive skills into two categories: practical and influential. You develop the practical skills by doing the exercise. For example through this music exercise, you'll develop skills like listening and focus. Influential skills are indirectly influenced by this exercise. You don't practice these skills, but doing the exercise influences their development.

Take creativity as an example. Creativity isn't something you train. It's a result of your experiences and influences. Doing an exercise that allows you to recognize and appreciate someone else's creativity influences your own creativity "muscle". By experiencing an influential skill you see what's possible. Your mindset is altered and your collective experience allows you to build on it and apply it in your work.

This listening exercise will impact different influential skills for different people. For me, this exercise influences my appreciation for nuance, taste, and creativity. And the cool thing is I've been able to apply these skills to many other facets of my life.

The exercise

So what is the magic exercise? The idea is simple. Pick any song, grab some headphones and play the song. While the song is playing focus on one instrument. For example if you're listening to a Beatles song, start by focusing and listening to only the drums for the entire song. Hear nothing else, just the drums. Then replay the song and listen to only the guitar. Then the bass guitar, and then the vocals.

The idea is every time you listen to the song, you focus on a single instrument. Analyze the tone. The part being played. For the repeating section of a song (verse 1 versus verse 2, chorus 1 versus chorus 2) does the musician play the part exactly the same? Or do they embellish it? You may find musicians will add slight embellishments throughout the song to keep things interesting.

As you're doing this you may find it to be meditative. You'll need to focus in on specific parts and block out external noise. Focus on the instrument. If you generally focus on vocals and lyrics when listening to music, this will be a very rewarding exercise.

Here is an example of things I notice when listening to a song in this manner. I've found well-produced pop songs tend to work really well for this exercise as they are engineered to perfection. One of my favorites is Savage Garden's "To The Moon And Back". Here are some things that jumped out to me while focusing in on the different instruments.

On the 3 pre-choruses, notice how the vocal harmony only occurs in the 3rd one (3:27). It was not part of the first (1:08) or second (2:18). Why did the producer decide only to do a harmony on the 3rd one? One idea is that the first and third pre-choruses share the same lyrics. But the harmony in the 3rd one keeps it different from the first. So now each pre-chorus is unique. You'll find the great musicians are all about adding slight variety to keep things interesting.

The lead vocal remains at dead center of the mix throughout the song. This is nicely juxtaposed by the second vocal just before the chorus. Notice how the second vocal is audible in both the Left and Right channels and sounds much wider. It's mixed to give a nice contrast and lead you the listener into the chorus.

Check out the keyboard lead that kicks of at 0:14. Engrain that sci-fi melody in your mind. Now jump to 2:18. Can you hear that same melody being played in the background? It's slightly buried behind the vocals, drums, and guitars, but it's there. It was introduced at the beginning of the song and is layered throughout the pre-choruses to maintain the song's cohesiveness.

The bass guitar is the ideal instrument to focus in on in this song. It's not very prominent, and you have to really focus to hone in on it and block everything else. I bet you may have not even noticed it before, but it does a lot for the song! The bass is most prominent when it's first introduced at 0:31. Notice the cool syncopated rhythm it's playing. The bass goes silent at 0:42. It's back at 1:00 but it doesn't do much, just plays whole notes. But it's there to build the listener to the chorus, and once the chorus hits, the bass starts grooving! Check it out at 1:22.

The guitars have a ton going on. The primary thing to notice is you have the lead guitar in the Left channel, and the rhythm guitar in the Right channel. You can hear this at 2:07 and 2:17. Notice how in the Right channel you have a pulsating "clean" guitar rhythm (very U2-esque), while in the Left channel you hear the electric lead guitar play a few lone notes. It's never too much, just a little a bit to keep things interesting. Why did the producer decide to "sprinkle" those little guitar leads in those sections? Nuance, taste, flavor.

Those are some examples of things that jumped out at me. There is much more to discover in this song, and in your favorite songs. I hope you'll find this exercise interesting and helpful.

Happy listening!

Earlier this year a friend introduced me to Groupmuse. It's "an online social network that connects young classical musicians to local audiences through concert house parties".

After you register for a free account, you can RSVP to attend a Groupmuse. If the host accepts your RSVP Groupmuse will charge you $3 (think of it as a reasonable convenience fee). Then once at the event, you will be encouraged to donate $10. 100% of your donation will go to the musician(s). The host does not make any money from hosting a Groupmuse.

The event format is straightforward. Arrive at the hosts home, socialize with the other attendees (typically 15-30), and then enjoy 60-80 minutes of music (broken up by an intermission). I've found the hosts to be hospitable, the musicians superb, and the other attendees friendly and diverse (it's not just a room full of musicians).

I've attended 3 in Brooklyn and each one was a memorable and moving experience. One Groupmuse I attended took place on a rooftop in Fort Greene. On a warm summer night it was quite a stage:


I have a vivid memory from this performance. A few seconds into their first song, the cellist's cello case tips over and falls on her. Only slightly fazed, she doesn't stop playing and the music continues. By the end of the piece it was as if nothing had happened. And by the end of the performance most of the audience had forgotten that it even happened.

Musicians have a high standard for live performances. No matter what the issue (equipment failure, stand with sheet music tips over, string breaks) you keep playing. In the face of adversity, keep playing. Because in the end no one remembers the challenge you faced, they remember the music. And if you don't make it seem like a big deal, then the audience may not even notice.

As a musician it's a standard I've held when I've performed live. And I've been trying to apply it in other facets of my life. For example at work, in those moments when things seem to be falling apart (the cello case is falling on me), I stay the course and keep playing. I don't stop the performance seeking acknowledgement for the predicament I'm in. My colleagues saw the case fall, they know it's hard. They don't need me to tell them that, they are their to hear the music.

Don't make excuses when things get hard. We know your situation is hard, because in some variant so is ours. Instead of reminding us, just keep playing.

So there you are. You've finished your product/song/art/book/creation and are ready to share it with the world. You tweet, write blog and Facebook posts, and invite people to like your creation. But the results are lackluster. The world doesn't stop to pay attention to what you built. The world keeps moving and your creation is left behind.

I had a taste of this when my band finished our album in 2012. I packaged all the songs into a ZIP file and sent the link via individual private messages to 100 Facebook friends. I added a personal note to each message to make it more personal. And yet only a handful of people downloaded the music, and even fewer listened to it. I wasn't asking them to buy the music, I was giving it to them for free. And yet only a handful took the time to listen. I didn't recognize it at the time, but I had created too many blockers between my audience and the product.

To hear the music you first had to download a ZIP file. Most people read the message on their phones, and so they couldn't take action when I had their attention. In Facebook the message was marked 'read', and so they would have to remember the next time they were at their computer to reopen my message and download the file. I had multiple people tell me they forgot about the message after first opening it. For those that did download the ZIP file, they would have to unzip it, and listen on their computer. Or they could transfer the songs to their iPod/iPhone and remember to listen to them at a later time.

I could have greatly simplified things by just sending a link to a YouTube video of the full album. One experience has a large barrier to entry, and the other has almost none.

Remember, people are busy. They are on an express train heading to their destination. Paying attention to your product is an unexpected stop. And it's hard to unexpectedly stop an express train.

If right now you messaged me your band's music in a ZIP file, I probably wouldn't listen to it (because of all the steps involved). I have an overflowing to-do list and I'm currently not accepting any new additions.

By not thinking through the steps I need to take to experience your product, you set yourself up for failure. You're putting trust in my time management, in my organization, in my level of interest, in me. And I'm not trustworthy when it comes to trying your product.

Given that, it's your responsibility to make it as easy or timely as possible for me to experience your product. Whether it's clicking a link and starting (easy, note it's not clicking a link and making an account, that's hard), or getting your link when I have 5 minutes to kill waiting in line (timely). It's your responsibility to set me up for success.

I'm paying the price of allocating my time to your product. You pay the price of making it as easy and tension free for me.

Say you just released an app that would help me discover trending podcast episodes based on my interests. With the proliferation of podcasts this is a product I would be interested to use. Your responsibility is to think through all the possible scenarios that would lead me to trying your product. It's not enough to just launch in the app store and write a blog post. Even though I have the "pain" of finding a timely podcast episode to listen to, the pain is not big enough to warrant me to search for a new product in the app store. I'm not going to hit the emergency break on my express train to go search for your app.

Assume the best case scenario that I do see your app on Product Hunt, or I do see it in the app store. Will I have time at that moment that I will be willing to allocate to try your app? Will I identify with the problem at that moment? If I don't, is that the last time I'll hear about your app? If I don't hear about it again, I wont use it.

But if the app  keeps appearing on my radar, eventually it may resonate. The thing that resonates is different across people. To one user seeing the app trending on Product Hunt may be the catalyst. For me it's typically hearing someone I respect talk about it. If they rave about it, describe how it's had a positive experience on X because of Y, I'll connect with that. I'll realize how my life can improve because I've now realized I have the problem your product can solve.

Creating your product is only one step in the long unpredictable journey for builders. But once you have it, make as much noise as you can about it, and make it as easy as possible for someone to try it.

Set us up for success.