Check It Twice: The B&A Staff Reveals the Way They Make Lists

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”… putting something on a list legitimizes it and increases the likelihood that it might actually happen, whether you’re talking about getting a new job, having another baby, or buying Cheerios.”

Holiday lists, to-do lists, grocery lists. With the end of the year come the holidays, and holidays are usually a time for … that’s right … making lists. Take a look into the process (and obsessions) of list-making from our staff. Have a sparkling holiday season and may all your lists come true.

From the staff:
Holiday cookie list
Holiday music list
Palm lists
Online lists
Mantra box list
Buy-Me and open checkbox lists
Refrigerator lists

Holiday cookie list
Every Christmas, from as far back as I can remember, we’ve made Christmas Cookies for Santa (and us!).

If one kind is left out—even if most folks don’t really like them—there is an uproar. Tradition is important in our house, and more than ever now that my daughter Amelie has joined the world. This is one list I have to check twice!

  • Frosted sugar cookies
  • Almond pretzels
  • Pinwheel or bar shortbread cookies
  • Cream cheese spritz (colored animals and shapes)
  • Chocolate (kisses) filled bon bons
  • Meltaways (which resemble Mexican wedding cookies)
  • Bourbon balls

These last two are my favorites, and the recipes for them are here, written in my mother’s hand.


-Christina Wodtke

Holiday music list
I am a teeny bit obsessed with using iTunes to make playlists. I cannot describe how much I love music mixes. Putting together a bunch of songs in an unexpected way to set a mood or match a particular occasion just makes me all giddy. This pursuit used to take hours (when I was finding songs on record albums and taping them). Now it’s merely a matter of going through my library and dragging songs to a playlist. Such joy.


For your listening pleasure, I’ve made a new playlist in honor of the holiday season. It’s not really full of holiday songs, although there are a few–it’s more about the feelings, good and bad, that this time of year evokes.

  1. Merry Christmas, Baby / Otis Redding

    Otis just has soul. He’s one of my all time faves, so I thought I’d use his best holiday songs to bookend this list.

  2. Money (That’s What I Want) / Barrett Strong

    To get everyone presents.

  3. In My Life / The Beatles

    During the holidays I typically start thinking about the big stuff.

  4. Turn Turn Turn / The Byrds

    We sang this at my sixth grade holiday concert.

  5. It’s Getting Better / Cass Elliot

    I have to believe it too.

  6. Baby It’s Cold Outside – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan

    It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s romantic.

  7. December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night) / The Four Seasons

    What a very special time for me.

  8. Blue Christmas / Elvis Presley

    Some of you may know I have a teeny teeny thing about The King. This tune is Elvis incarnate.

  9. Day By Day / Godspell

    More spiritual than religious. Besides, it’s groovy.

  10. He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother / The Hollies

    I’m just getting all mushy now.

  11. Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night / Jimi Hendrix

    I’ve come back to my senses. Jimi tears into some holiday faves.

  12. Where Have All the Flowers Gone / The Kingston Trio

    I can’t help thinking about our soldiers overseas now.

  13. The Morning After / Maureen McGovern

    She sang this on New Years Eve just before the ship turned over and that guy crashed into the skylight.

  14. He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands / Nina Simone

    Yes He does.

  15. Put Your Hand In The Hand / Ocean

    Another groovy ‘70s happy peace and love song.

  16. Joy To The World / Three Dog Night

    I couldn’t avoid putting this one in. Kind of had to.

  17. What a Wonderful World / Tony Bennett & K.D. Lang

    At least I try to think it.

  18. Get Together / The Youngbloods

    Try to love one another now.

  19. White Christmas / Otis Redding

    I’m dreaming of it too.

Get Dorelle’s Holiday Mix at iTunes, and at Y! Music.

-Dorelle Rabinowitz

Palm lists
The best thing about holidays is traveling, and whenever you travel, it’s critical to bring the right gear along with you. So this is a time when lists come in handy, to help you make sure the right luggage is there.

I have a small application in my Palm Pilot that lets me make all sorts of checklists. I use Checklist by Handmark, which allows me to make several lists, sort the items, and even beam lists to my wife. Once you check an item, it can disappear, shortening a list until it’s done without the need to scroll down.


My longest list is for doing groceries, but I rarely use it–paper and memory are handier for daily stuff. But the lists I force myself to use are my packing lists. I have one for weekend escapes, holiday vacations, and another for camping trips.

Of course, they all include my camera gear, the difference is made by the food and cooking supplies, travel documentation, and kinds of clothes needed for the situation. Using these lists, it is safer to drive away without the feeling that you have to find out what you left home before it’s too late to turn around.

My camping list is:

  • Tent
  • Hooks for tent
  • Sleeping bags
  • Air Mattress
  • Flashlight
  • Pans
  • Stove
  • Fuel for stove
  • Knife and big spoon
  • Swiss army knife
  • Utensils
  • Matches
  • Cups/mugs
  • Dishes
  • Tea
  • Toilet paper
  • Cooking oil
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Pepper
  • Boniculars
  • Outdoor soap (the one that doesn’t need water)
  • Camera
  • Film
  • Sunblock
  • Chapstick
  • First-aid kit
  • Candles

-Javier Velasco

Online lists
Ta-da Lists, a free service from the good folks at 37 Signals, are a great way to create and manage lists online. (Really–it’s free). After a painless registration, you can create as many lists with as many items as you need. Just check an item and it moves to the bottom of the list, signaling it’s completed. Editing lists is effortless, but reordering items is a little clunky. You can also share lists with others, email them to yourself, and even set up an RSS feed.


I tend to use online lists for longer-term inventories of things like gift ideas, repairs around the house, and music I want to buy. Think of a great gift for someone six months before his or her birthday? Jot it down online. Or, if I read a review of a CD I eventually want to investigate, I’ll add it to my “Music” list. This way you can snowball ideas, thoughts, and catalogs of things over time.


The portability of Ta-da Lists is key. Anytime you’re online you can access your stuff. OK, it’s no Memex, but it can help you recall things. If you travel a lot or move between computers, it’s quite handy to have a single record. You get a simple URL in the format “”–very easy to remember.

Daily to-do lists are better on paper, close at hand, in my opinion. So it’s a combination of old-fashion, handwritten to-do lists and online list management that helps me keep track of things.

-Jim Kalbach

Mantra box list
2005 was a challenging year for me; big changes in my life have forced me to reexamine some of my values and objectives. As part of this process, I’ve been trying to become better attuned to my inner voice—to approach important decisions in a more intuitive manner. One tool I’ve used during this time is what I call my “mantra box:” a list of phrases and words that I’ve come across in my reading, or in interactions with others, that resonate deeply with me.

Here is how it works: I keep a stack of 3” x 5” index cards and a Sharpie marker with me most of the time. When I come across a phrase that “calls” to me, I immediately write it on a single card in large block letters. It goes into my mantra box—one of those cheap card boxes you can find at drugstores.

I try to keep my “judging mind” out of the collection process; some phrases are trivial, obvious, or tacky. Others are quotes from personal heroes. Still others are somewhat mysterious at first; the full reason for their attractiveness is only revealed to me at a later time, when I’m in a more contemplative mood. All of them go into the box—the sole criteria for admission is having struck a deep chord in me.

Sometimes—when I’m feeling introspective—I review the contents of the box. If a particular mantra feels relevant to my current situation, I copy it to my day planner where I can refer to it frequently, and bring it into my daily life. (I don’t throw out mantras: it may turn out that even the stupid ones have a reason for being there.)

Here are, in no particular order, some of the phrases and words that have spoken to me—and merited a place in my mantra box—in 2005:

  • Simplify
  • He who owns little is little owned
  • Smaller, smaller
  • Do only what you love, love everything that you do
  • Collaborate
  • Underpromise, overdeliver
  • Embrace constraints
  • Less
  • Business is personal—not an abstraction
  • Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
  • Context
  • Honor your mistake as a hidden intention
  • Disrupt business as usual
  • Convert talent into code
  • Anchor
  • Yes or no?
  • Eat like a bird, shit like an elephant
  • Axis thinking
  • Tenacity
  • Style—happiness—emotional appeal
  • Disorganize (for renewal and innovation)
  • Storytelling
  • As simple as possible, but not simpler
  • Nobody knows what they really want before they get it

-Jorge Arango

Buy me and open checkbox lists
Every day, I use at least two lists:

1. The Buy-Me method
While I pretend not to be cautious about music, I do tend to try a track or two before I buy an album. About once a month, I view the handy “Buy Me” smart playlist I created in iTunes. In it, neatly sorted by Play Count, are the tracks I’ve been listening to most often. No need to think about value of the purchase or an album’s potential for pleasuring. Chances are, if I’ve listened to a track at least once every three days for three weeks (roughly), I should buy the album. The Buy-Me recommendations are often a surprise to me, which is kind of a fun by-product of the system (no pun intended).

Smart playlists do the list making for me

2. Open checkbox method
Although I’ve tried all kinds, paper-based to-do list works best for me. Even though it’s analog, a consistent visual vocabulary helps me get things done. Here’s how it works:

When I need to get something done, I create a new list item. Each list item gets an open checkbox and a name. Other variables might include:

* Checkbox and asterisk: Indicates open task that is urgent
* Checkbox and “f/u:” Indicates an open task that needs additional follow-up before I can complete it.
* Checkbox and circled letter: Indicates that an open task needs to be performed in a specific location. Adding the location makes the list easy to scan to chunk potential errands. (“T” below indicates that the three tasks must all be performed at Target, for example.)


When a task is complete, I put a check in the checkbox, allowing the satisfaction of crossing something out without rendering the item illegible. Oftentimes, I must refer back to completed items, so I prefer to have them available. Sometimes, a task is still unchecked after a significant period of time or several pages in the notebook. In these cases, a strikethrough is necessary, and the unchecked item gets moved to a new page. When an entire list is complete, I put a strike through the entire page.

-Liz Danzico

Refrigerator lists
I write lists for lots of things, though I wouldn’t call myself obsessive. I like the legitimacy of putting something on a list. It means a commitment of some sort—something to be bought, a task to be completed, a thoughtful intention to do something.

I have the daily-weekly-monthly lists for work, but for the rest of my life, I mainly make lists for must-dos such as groceries, Christmas gifts, and errands. There is no formality to my lists. They are as basic as can be—words on paper. Often they’re written on small scraps or Post-Its with whatever I can get my hands on, pen if I’m lucky, pencil crayon if I’m not.

The grocery list is my most formalized list. It lives under a magnet on the side of the fridge. It’s simple, accessible. Everyone in my house knows what it is, and why it’s there. And to my great annoyance, I’m the only one who uses it. That means that even after a $300 grocery bender, I can still come home to someone asking why I didn’t buy Cheerios. “Because you didn’t put it on the list!!” Big sigh.


My favorite lists are ones I do most infrequently—life goals and ambitions. The list of big dreams. I’ve done these off and on for years, and they follow a fairly strict format. Things can’t be as simple as “win the lottery.” Items on this list have a certain amount of thought behind them that address the particulars of how to make something happen. My practice has been to spend time creating these lists, and then promptly forget about them. I now tend to save them on my computer, which means I could look at them occasionally, but I never do. Since I’m rather disorganized elsewhere in my life, these lists are usually lost, then turn up accidentally while I’m going through old notebooks or papers and files. The best thing about these occasional findings is remembering what I dreamt about long ago, and what I can check off.

Much to my surprise, I seem to have had a plan for how I wanted things to be. I have the two kids, a house by the ravine, work I can do from home, a Master’s degree—all things that have appeared on my life’s grocery lists over the years. I think it comes back to the notion that putting something on a list legitimizes it and increases the likelihood that it might actually happen, whether you’re talking about getting a new job, having another baby, or buying Cheerios.

-Pat Barford

Under the Boxes-and-Arrows hood

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Boxes and Arrows started as a lunchtime conversation, a whim shared by two colleagues pondering the emerging disciplines the web bubble had produced. Before long, it grew up into a respectable magazine (although we still won’t admit that in public) with professionals around the world contributing content that matters to them. We’ve already made a difference.

As an editorial team, we thank you. We think about you all the time, in fact, and enjoy working with you. But now there are so many of you. And you have such brilliant ideas. That’s why we’ve decided to give the magazine to you, in part.

Starting today, you’ll begin to see some changes. While the editorial team will still maintain the tone and consistency of B&A, you’re now officially invited to be part of the process.

Here’s how:

Better ideas, better magazine.
Instead of emailing your new story idea to an editor, you post it here for comments and ratings …by everyone. This shared editorialship will help authors refine ideas and help us understand what you want and need to read.

Say that again?
Yes. You decide what gets published. (Well ok, we’ll weigh in some too.)

Ratings and transparency and reputation points. Oh my.
The B&A community has always been a smart, respectful community. We’ve been amazed at how little spam and how few trolls we attract. But we know this can’t last forever, so we’ve instituted a reputation manager. See an offensive comment? You no longer have to wait for us to get to the issue, you can help get rid of the drek. Moreover, you can star the best comments, and help the cream rise to the top!

Location, location, location.
You can see where the conversations are happening and who’s having them. Each page posts stats on conversations and people, so you can quickly find the most interesting, controversial or insightful moments on the site.

Home transparent home.
The homepage gives you the full list of site stats as well as access to your profile on B&A. You can now see what we see—what a vibrant, smart community we’ve got!

But wait! This is only the beginning. The new look and feel is still to come, now that we’ve got a new set of features. And you, our beloved community, are invited to let us know how we’re doing (as if you’d hold back!) And watch this spot—the tool we’ve build for you to enjoy B&A, we plan to make available to you to build your own community of practice.


Leaving Las Vegas

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“Now here it is: four years later. We are part of the landscape and a resource that is often referenced. Everywhere I go, folks refer to an article they read on Boxes and Arrows. We are expected to be here.”As we near the fourth anniversary of the crazy idea that Christina had, I find that it’s time to look to other priorities in my life.

When Christina first approached me four years ago, it was to be a writer for this new secret project of hers. I was honored and of course immediately said yes. Within a month of that request, she and George Olsen approached me about being co-editor, and with that I was pulled into the fold. Several people were working furiously trying to craft and shape and design a place that information architects could have a voice. This was to be a place to share and learn and not be encumbered by the baggage of academic language or obscurity. This was to be a place of practice, craft, and open arms as we sought to find our home in the greater universe of the user experience realm.

George and I worked diligently to define types of articles and features we wanted—what would be regular columns and what would be monthly features. We aspired to a lofty goal of two articles a week plus a monthly “Welcome.” On a volunteer basis with two editors, that was lofty indeed. We made lists of people whose writings – from articles, books, blogs, and list postings – that we liked, admired, or just plain suspected would be thought-provoking or controversial. We approached people to write for us.

When we launched at the 2002 IA Summit a few months later, it was with a full stable of articles, a planned calendar, and a queue full of works-in-progress. At the Summit, Christina said, “I’ll be happy if we last six months.” Little did we know. It was a few months later, when George resigned, that I took on the mantle of editor in chief.

Now here it is: four years later. We are part of the landscape and a resource that is often referenced. Everywhere I go, folks refer to an article they read on Boxes and Arrows. We are expected to be here. The last few years has seen a dot-com bust and gradual rebuilding. Folks have been out of work, freelanced, became entrepreneurs, and finally joined staffs and rebuilt organizations in-house. This cycle has also affected Boxes and Arrows. As a volunteer organization, we have seen the cycle of authors, of volunteers, and of readers rise and fall as people became employed again and became engaged in a myriad of activities. The landscape, too, has gotten more crowded as more people have found their voice to share. Yet, despite the pressures of jobs and life, we continue to have a flow of great people interested in writing. People want to share their experiences and their practice. I am continually amazed at how open and giving this community is.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of meeting some great folks and of working with very dedicated people. George Olsen, Ryan Olshavsky, Brenda Janish all gave their time and effort. Our current editorial staff—Dorelle Rabinowitz, Liz Danzico, Javier Velasco, Jim Kalbach, Jorge Arango, Elisa Miller, Pat Barford—all eager and working behind the scenes to keep the knowledge flowing. Our copywriters Lara Ferguson McNamara, Emily Wilska, and Kirsten Swearingen always ready at a moment’s notice to turn something around in 24 hours. Thanks.

It is with this reflection that I announce my resignation as editor-in-chief and the appointment of new leadership. It is time for new voices and fresh eyes.

I am confident that Boxes and Arrows is going to be in great hands and am proud to pass the baton to Liz Danzico as the new editor-in-chief. And Javier Velasco has accepted the first ever managing editor role.

I’d like to thank Christina for the opportunity that she gave me—without really knowing me at the time, and for our readers for being there and continuing to come back.

Most of all I’d like to thank all the authors that I have worked with over the years. Some of the work was hard (you know who you are) and some of it was easy, but because of all of it, I am a smarter person because of what you have shared.

Thanks for the privilege of working for you.

Erin Malone

Erin Malone is currently Director of Design, Platform group at Yahoo! Her team is currently responsible for developing tools, brand guidelines, cross-network research and a knowledge management system for Yahoo! Design Standards and Best Practices for the entire User Experience group. Before Yahoo!, she was a Product Design Director at AOL (America Online) and worked on such applications as AIM, WinAmp, AOL Radio, AOL Media Player, AOL Wallet, My AOL, various Community products and other things deemed important to the company. Prior to AOL, she was Creative Director at AltaVista, where she managed a team of Information Architects and Designers working on the AltaVista Live portal and various other web applications. Other work has included being the first and only IA/Interaction Designer at Zip2, working on the first generation Adobe web site, redesigning the San Jose Repertory Theatre web site, as well as designing GUI for several projects at Eastman Kodak company and early AOL Greenhouse partners. She has plied her trade in interactive and digital information spaces, including the web since 1993. Prior to that she worked in some crazy field called Advertising where she was indoctrinated into the world of Brand and Marketing.

Erin has a BFA in Communication Design from East Carolina University, Greenville NC and an MFA in Graphic/Information Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester NY.

As an editor she spends a lot of time reading these articles and wrangling writers. In her spare time, she cycles, takes a lot of photographs, plays guitar and keeps multiple websites including The Dr. Leslie Project a web interpretation of her Masters Thesis; a Photolog and Design Writings, in which she talks about Design, Design History, Information Architecture, Design Theory and Design Criticism.

Goodbye 2004, Hello to Another Good Year

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“I’m so very grateful to you, dear readers and writers, because day after day you make me smarter.”–Christina Wodtke”At the end of 2004, we are all looking back at the year and taking stock of where things are, how the year has passed and what we made of it. I am thankful for this past year–I changed jobs (moved to Yahoo!) and am happier than I have been over the past three years, I have expanded my photography explorations, I trained for and completed my first century cycle race and through it all Boxes and Arrows has been a constant.

Boxes and Arrows has gone through some ups and downs this year as well. Christina and I decided to ask our readers to help us redesign, and we had a lot of fun reviewing submissions from around the world. Look for a redesign in mid-2005. We have also been researching a new CMS system, looking for something that is geared towards periodical publishing with editors and multiple levels of administration and publishing. If you have ideas, we would love to hear them.

The end of this year also sees Brenda Janish retiring as editor. Brenda, who started as a copyeditor at the very beginning before we launched and evolved into a full editor soon after, helped me carry the editorial load for about a year before our other great editors joined us. Brenda is still going to be copyediting, but we will miss her editorial vision. Thanks for everything Brenda.

With Brenda’s retirement, we would like to announce the addition of Molly Wright Steenson as a new editor on our staff. Welcome Molly.

I want to take this opportunity to thank our other editors, Liz Danzico and Dorelle Rabinowitz–both of whom also changed jobs this year–as did Christina. As you can tell, it has been a bit tumultuous for the staff this year and through it all we still continue to publish. Thanks go out as well to our copyeditors who help support the editorial staff and our great technical guru, Kirk Franklin.

Most of all, I want to thank all of our authors–for your patience, for your continued interest in writing for us, even when we get busy and take forever to respond. Thanks for the great things I continue to learn and for keeping us honest.

A final thanks goes to you, the reader, without whom we would not exist. You keep us going.

Erin Malone
Editor in chief

Time for reflection, new beginnings, and giving thanks

Ah the holidays. Time for reflection, new beginnings and giving thanks. Since I recently made a fresh new career move, and in the process moved far away from most of my family and friends, I’ve been thinking lately about what’s important to me and what I’m thankful for–and Boxes and Arrows is up there on my list. Not just because of the thought-provoking, career-helping, and all-around interesting content, but also because it’s given me the chance to serve as an editor.

So first of all, thanks to Boxes and Arrows for letting me come on board. I wanted the chance to give back to this community–but instead I feel like I’ve won the lottery.

I’ve been an editor now for over a year, and I’ve had the chance to work with many remarkable people–some have shared my passion for user experience design and some have shared their unique points of views, and I’ve learned from them all. Another common trait is their patience–sometimes trying to fit B&A into my overwhelming works schedule leaves many author’s articles in my to-do pile too long. Thanks to each of you.

At each industry event I’ve attended someone recognizes my name from B&A and I’ve been able to have another conversion about Information Architecture or Interaction design or Big IA vs Little IA. Thanks to those folks.

Since my world is one big six-degrees of separation game, I wouldn’t be at Yahoo! without B&A either. I’m thankful to all the Yahoos who welcomed me as if they knew me, especially to my UED team, and to those people who said nice things about me so I could come here.

I’m grateful and impressed by all the people who entered the redesign contest, coming up with ideas to improve something we all care so much about.

Remembering why I made the choice to devote my time to this “peer-written journal” and all the benefits I’ve received from that choice make me extremely thankful. Are there any other wannabe volunteers out there who’d like to get back much more then they put in?

Dorelle Rabinowitz

Authors + context = happiness

Reflecting back on my work with Boxes and Arrows in 2004, I must admit that I’m most thankful for the exchage of ideas I get to have with the authors. Exchanging ideas on big-picture IA concepts, reader needs, as well as the best way to hypenate a title: I look forward to it all with every first draft I receive.

I suppose that I’m most thankful, then, to be part of the context-making. Boxes and Arrow’s shiny and sometimes controversial outside and the messy and industrious inside–to me, this wholeness is the real context of the article. Further, helping to publish an issue of Boxes and Arrows is about creating context for our readers. We work to create meaningful combinations through the juxtaposition of articles. And I like to get involved in the working insides where the author-editor context is (Not to be overlooked is the discussion section of the site where authors, readers, editors, and other surprise guests create their own new contexts.).

So thanks to all the authors I’ve worked with in 2004. I’ve been flattered to be on the inside as part of your process: Nancy Broden, Jeff English, Alex Kirtland, Brian Krause, Marisa Gallagher, Victor Lombardi, Max Lord, Laura Quinn, Tanya Rabourn, Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo, Chris Ricci, Jason Withrow, Jonathan Woytek, Liam Friedman (not yet published), Maggie Law (not yet published), John Rhodes (not yet published), Andrea Streight (not yet published).

Liz Danzico

Have Yourself a Merry Little Fourth Quarter

Here we are again, at the end of another year. This is the time of year when Erin likes to remind me when we started our little magazine, I said I would be happy if it lasted sixth months. Well, I would have been, so you can imagine my delight that we are entering our fourth year of publishing articles for the professional designer.

Cooper chartWhen we started B&A, all the magazines I could find were either full of beginner articles on design, or academic articles, accessible only by experts. I had Inmates Are Running the Asylum open on my desk as I contemplated this phenomenon, and saw the chart where Cooper illustrates how designers design for beginners and experts, but the vast majority of users are actually intermediates. It struck me that that was true of my experience as a reader, and I set out with many of my friends to try to create a magazine we would want to read. Since then a number of other websites have begun providing more advanced discussions of design, but B&A has managed to continue to attract smart people who both write articles and then enrich them further with smart commentary. I’m amazed and delighted every other week when I see what the Boxes and Arrows community (along with its caretakers, the editors) have brought into the world.

I’m so very grateful to you, dear readers and writers, because day after day you make me smarter. When I think a realm is done and buried, you surprise me with something new–a perspective, a technique, a persuasive argument–I hadn’t thought of, and once again I feel the pleasant sensation of the cogs in my head turning. I consider my small work of sending out updates, paying for hosting, and dusting out the comment spam as a miniscule price to pay for the intelligence shown here on these pages. As publisher I feel humble, because I know all I did was open a door to all the insight that was already there.

And so I thank you all, and hope you will stay with us as we embark on our biggest adventure yet–taking B&A to the next level with a new platform, a new architecture, and a new design.

I hug you all.

Christina Wodtke
Boxes and Arrows