Coloring Outside the Lines

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Once upon a time, we were curious and everything we encountered was new. We were excited about discovering new things and the world offered unlimited possibilities.

Then we went to school and were taught to color inside the lines, that everything had its place and the world was ordered. But, outside of school, there was still the chaos of life to revel in, the unexplored woods at the end of the street where nothing was ordered and we could be cowboys or astronauts or presidents. We learned to balance the structure of school with the infinite possibilities of playtime.

Now we are grown and the ordered world of work weighs us down. The deadlines line up one after the other, and everything is and must be in its place. We create order and structure so others can find their way in the chaos. And we wonder if we are really, truly, happy.

A bit melodramatic, I admit, but I’m sure this resonates with some. I bring this up because, I, like many folks out there, have become weighed down with the stresses of work, with the narrowness of the discussions about what we are doing, and what sometimes looks like limited options for solutions.

Recently, at the IA Summit, Christina Wodtke issued a reminder to everyone to remember the things that make us who we are. To be curious and to experience everything life has to offer. She reminded us that we can learn from poetry, from cooking, from travel—from our own curiosity about things outside of what we do for a living. This really resonated with me.

I recently made a commitment to myself to spend more time with friends and to rediscover what I need to stay creative. I spent five days in Death Valley taking photographs—away from computers, away from phones. Just me, a few other folks in a class and my camera, experiencing the landscape, becoming part of the landscape. These few days brought me back refreshed and rejuvenated. They reminded me that I need to immerse myself in non-work creative endeavors and to satisfy my curiosity about the world in order to be a whole person. I garden for the same reason; it teaches me I can’t control everything and that serendipity is a good thing.

Understanding what else makes you tick and makes you happy and then spending time doing those things will make you a better designer and craftsperson. Experiencing new things outside of work will open your mind to alternative solutions and ways of thinking while you’re at work. Being curious, reading anything and everything, traveling to other places and meeting new people will give you insight in your work that you may not have had otherwise.

Learning how to balance the things that make us who we are with the work that pays for everything is as important a skill as figuring out the shortcuts in Visio. I often repeat this same mantra to my coworkers and staff to show them that I care about the whole person, the fully creative person. Many of us have forgotten how to work to live and instead live for work.

So, go—play in the woods, color outside the lines. If you let the passion you have for your work seep back into the rest of your life, the rewards will come full circle.

Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL (America Online). She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She is editor in chief of Boxes and Arrows.


  1. well said, erin. i’ve been pretty open about my dissatisfaction lately doing IA work, but had the lucky fortune these past few days to move to a nicer neighborhood near a botanic garden and a lovely park. i’ve also been without dsl for 2 weeks! i think this has helped me to focus less on work for a while. i think it’s important when doing both left and right brain work to give myself some distance and time away from work to breathe and not think about what i’m working on. solutions to problems come more easily that way.

  2. I second Michael’s comment…definitely eloquent way to state how some of us are feeling right now.

    I’ve been immersing myself in my garden and home upgrades have been so satisfying. I also forgot that I had a jacuzzi tub and was able to relax for an hour after work. And then today kickboxing, a great way to loose weight, learn self-defense, and feel good taking my aggression out on a bag. Sometimes we need to just take that big breathe and release…breathing exercises really help drain the tensions too. I’m wondering if I have time to do live studio work again.

  3. Nice sentiments. The whole work hard, play hard thing is sounding so last century now.

    I’ve emailed this article to the boss in an attempt to reduce target utilisation below 150% and am laying out the summer wardrobe.

    However all the clothes seem to have shrunk. How did that happen?

  4. its easy to forget how structured and contained our lives can become via work [well at least for me]. i’ve been doing IA and project management work for quite a while now. last year i went part time and this year i commenced a part time introductory visual arts course. i’m re-discovering the bliss of analogue media > oils, inks, papers, charcols, dust, mess, accidents, smell…’s changing the way i approach my paid work and i kind of love it, which is something i could never quite say about paid work.

    thanks for the prompt erin

  5. Erin, wonderful thoughts. Enjoying life and being an active player allows us to be a participant in life. Sitting back and doing nothing,but watching-will make you old. Be apart of the game of life allows creatives to be active in creating life and sharing it with the world. Go do something that you can’t – you will realize that trying something new will help you in your everyday life. We try things new all the time, but pay no attention to them. Stop- look around and be apart of life. It will help you in your creative work and fulfill you in life. Be active!
    Thanks Erin for saying what we should be doing anyway.

  6. Wonderful sentiments, I;ve just done this myself. I’ve discovered that the friends I thought I wanted to spend more time with were not actually good friends at all – I needed the time to find this out and found it quite hurtful. However, I’ve made new friends, and am enjoying spending time with them and starting new friendships. Sometimes you have to rid out the deadwood from your life.

  7. Erin,

    You paint a fine picture, and it’s a view of life I’ve always aimed for: a balance between having to work and wanting to, knowing when to say no and to say ‘time out’ and most importantly taking time to reflect, and just look around.

    Having just given up working full-time after nineteen years to develop something a little different it’s good to know that there are others out there thinking similar thoughts.

  8. Erin,

    As much as I agree with your article and know several friends who would also, I can’t help thinking that it’s not enough to learn to ‘switch off’ after work. Admittedly, my career is in its early stages so I have yet to have been pulled down by the predicted dream job. However, I already feel that I want my job to be more than about money and security.

    Unfortunately, I’m not a talented musician or a person that could be closely related to the word but I do desire the same level of passion for the work that I will undoubtedly undertake. Potentially I’m still stuck dreaming about being an astronaut but at whatever point we lose this ideal, do we also lose something much more important? The people whom I believe suffer from this loss are easy to spot as the jobs they hold provide little stimulation e.g. Fast Food Employee. Interesting how the title implies an element of excitement but to anyone who has pulled up to a drive-through window as the person through the window is unlikely to reflect any such quality. Are these people missing the drive to do more with themselves or does society slowly take this from us?

    The perfect summary –
    “Many of us have forgotten how to work to live and instead live for work.”
    However, is it too idealistic to hope that if people could find the job they were truly passionate about then it would not be called work but life? If this were true then would the following statement be more fitting? Too many of us have forgotten how to find and love the life that’s right for us.

    Maybe I’m ranting or maybe its because its Friday but at least you can take credit for stimulating my brain today.

  9. It is vital to have a life outside of work and to find multiple avenues for refreshment and innovation. This coming from someone who just came back from a visit from Europe and Israel. Even that is so inspiring in diving into a completely new architectural sociology. The differences in structure and language and form explode in front of you.

    IAs should have a mandatory 4 wk vacation policy and be encouraged to take two foreign trips a year at least.

    When I was doing more hiring I always looked for people who had lots of non-US experience (being in the US that is; if I was outside the US I would look for non-where I was experience). For me more than anything else, experiencing the world and all its variety is the only and best way to break down our personal roadblocks. And it is fun!!!!

  10. I almost never respond to blogs but I felt compelled to question your job happiness since you seem to dream of younger days of freedom of will and thought. Perhaps its the job and the employeer that makes you feel that way. Having left AOL for my own business I don’t feel such burdens as you describe with your work. Success comes with its price though and your position in the company is to be admired. However you also must pay the price in personal freedoms and total happiness (also look at Justin’s (nullsoft) recent upsets at AOL for an interesting parallel)

    On a side note, did you really play as a child as a cowboy, astronaut or president? Hardly sounds like a first person memory. If you are going to share, why give motivational speeches based on imaginary experiences (projected to/from men of all things). I think you may have been in the corporate for a little too long.

    Just something real to think about…

  11. Well, here’s the beauty of the Web, and of blogging. I have little or nothing to do with IA (I think I know the context in which you use the term Information Architect, but then again, who knows).

    Anyway, I’m not even sure how I tripped over this blog or entry, but here’s my comment. I just sold a software company in February – I joined the firm as a partner 5 years ago, and spent what now seems like every waking, and way too many sleeping, moments coloring inside the lines there, and catching hell when I colored over or outside the lines, even if people ultimately liked or loved the picture.

    Sure, we grew the company. Sure, it was financially rewarding when we sold it. Did I have fun? At first. But after a couple of years, an odd thing happened – it turned into hard work. REALLY hard work. Hard work not in the way-over-40-hours a week, hard work not in the dealing with some of the world’s largest companies as clients (actually, a bunch of that was fun), hard work not in the planning and jostling and changing. But hard work from the perspective of feeling limited. And burdened – my god, when did this incredibly heavy yoke come to my shoulders? And constrained by the lines – emotionally and creatively and practically.

    You know what I’m doing now? I’ve revived my passion for helping people from my first career as a Paramedic and Firefighter and I’m helping our local FireRescue service market its Rescue Helicopter program, called LifeStar. Pro Bono. Man, do you know how many lines I’m coloring over? LOTS!

    My point is this. Passion for one’s work certainly ebbs and flows, but I encourage all to embrace change, and to look for those opportunities that make the spirit truly soar.

    When I think about the “cost” of some of what I’ve done for work, and compare how I felt when doing that with how I feel while I’m helping people, its so much more severe than night and day. Maybe it will turn into some dollars – that could be nice – but the value of feeling connected and valued and that childhood feeling of wonder is priceless.

    Thanks for the post, Erin, and for a venue for these thoughts.

    Best regards,

    Chris Church

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