Free Agency Turned 10

Ah, Free Agency’s 10-year anniversary office-warming.

What night with FAC is not complete without me saying at least seven idiotic things?

Here’s one:

Me: Congratulations, guys. You are awesome. Man. How long has Free Agency been around?
Don: (long pause) Ten years.

(pan right, to a sign at reception right behind me, where it says “THANK YOU FOR THE LAST 10 YEARS”)
(cut to, weeks prior, where I was opening my email and a giant e-vite pops up, “JOIN US IN CELEBRATING 10 YEARS”)
(cut to, a small collection of books that say, “WE WOULD NOT HAVE LASTED 10 YEARS WITHOUT YOUR SUPPORT”)
(cut to, a plane hovering past, with skywriting, “HAPPY 10TH ANNIVERSARY, FREE AGENCY!”)

Free Agency has been such a huge part of my life here in Vancouver. There have been so many memories and stories, and their beautiful office space was alive and abuzz with these that evening.

I’ve said it before, but I really do love FAC. Part-big-brothers, part-mom-and-dad, Don and Tak have always taken care of me. The night was a reflection of how far they’ve come in the past decade, and as I’m super self-centered, I found myself looking at how I fit into all of it.

I can’t look back on my years here in Vancouver without thinking about Don and Tak. I don’t know if anyone else feels the same way about them, but I tend to cling to people I admire. It’s important to recognize that point where you have no fucking clue what to do. It’s more important to seek out the individuals who will point you to the right direction. And I’m not the only one they’ve done this for.

Essentially, Don and Tak were the ones who got the memo early on, and they were kind enough to relay the message to me. They were in line when they were passing the brains out, and they generously passed some of that shit over to my direction.

Okay I’ll stop.

I feel like one of their young veterans, talking about “the old Water Street office” and meaning “the big one, when Don used to live there.”

There was a time in FAC where everyone who worked for them was gorgeous, and the office basically felt like a modelling agency. I swear to God. It was beautiful women designing Home and Garden Show collateral, and me in the corner, 20 years old and desperately trying to figure out how to turn on a computer without looking like an idiot.

I also did not look like a model. I looked like a half-baked turd sitting in the sun, just waiting to be stepped on. Nowadays I just look like a teenager. Or worse, my mom.

For the past few years I’ve known them, Free Agency has really cultured a way of gathering great students under their wings and training them really well.

What I also found that evening is that this training ground has started a weird but awesome sub-culture.

There were complete strangers talking about the same things and I found myself building a common understanding with them. When I mentioned specific clients, a couple of eyes twinkled and a few smiles crept in. Not because of anything remotely negative, but anyone who has worked on a couple of their larger projects knows exactly how much collateral and how much production goes on during the summer months. And of course we all shared and exchanged stories about the hilarity that ensued for each of us.

When I mentioned Tak and K-OS (the rapper), a few heads turned around to laugh. Because they also knew what that meant.

I think being the reason for these connections is an amazing thing. They’ve told me before about how they started in Don’s basement kitchen, and I’ve seen first-hand how hard these guys work. The fact that they are able to pass on that kind of experience and develop that work ethic among their students, my colleagues and peers, that takes some pretty serious commitment to what you want to do.

They haven’t just been doing it for themselves this whole time. Haha and whether or not they have planned that deliberately, I know I learned shit tons of lessons from Free Agency, and I don’t feel obligated to reciprocate anything. I genuinely want to extend the same courtesy, respect and faith to my other homies in the design biz. Whether you’re a student or a colleague, we’re all in the same community. And being able to grow that community is a fantastic privilege, bros. We can’t waste that or take it for granted.

These guys are serious about giving back. Not just because they love doing it in a Mother Teresa kind of capacity. They understand the idea of investing in people and seeing those returns later on. It’s a smart, kind and exciting way of doing business—a way that I first learned from them.

I’m grateful and sincerely happy for Free Agency, and I can only hope that there will be another time where we see Don put on Tak’s tiny track pants for another office laugh. Or order 20 cheeseburgers from McDonald’s so we can all eat family-style in the middle of a big table, drinking beers.

Congratulations on your 10-year-old baby, guys. Soon it will go into it’s teenage years and start mouthing off. I hope you’re ready when it turns 20.

Between Designing and Coding

I had a lovely evening with Jane Koo yesterday. We had gone out for some dinner at Phnom Penh (a place that I will be eternally Googling to make sure I’ve spelled correctly). We got to talking about our careers and where we’ve gotten to in the past few years.

I like talking to Jane because we have very much in common in terms of how we arrived here in Canada. We both lived our high school years here in BC, and fell into Emily Carr straight after graduation. Neither of us have immediate family in Vancouver, save for an aunt or a cousin or two. There is an independent spirit that we both share, and I only notice this whenever we talk about things like visas, permanent residence and immigration as if it were just a normal part of a Monday evening.

Anyway, we got to talking about work, and the differences between having specific skills and having a hybridity of more than one. It was interesting to think of it, as I started to try and gauge where I see myself within this spectrum.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have known a few special people who just live and breathe design, with beautiful work just naturally blossoming from wherever they store sunshine and rainbows. It’s a bit flowery to think of it that way, but sometimes it really does feel like that. But while they produce amazing work visually and conceptually, it becomes quite another question when it comes to how their design will work and behave in an application setting.

Then there are also others who are, for the most part, developers who are amazing at code and giving life to flat mock-ups. Inversely, whether or not they are inclined to design any work or are any good at it is where the trade-off happens.

Designers who don’t code, and Coders who don’t design.

It could make for a prickly sort of topic, especially if we start to incorporate personal opinions of what makes good design. But I’m not hoping to get into that. I guess the thing I’d like to think about more is the individual’s personal level of comfort with and confidence in their ability towards one or the other.

To me, it makes more sense to be a bit of both, of course, but realistically speaking, 100% involvement almost always has a better outcome than 50%. If all you do is one thing, you’re bound to excel at it.

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty when I say I’d rather do code, but at the very same moment I always feel a bit of gratitude that I was able to study design. I don’t know what the numbers are at this point, but if there was a special club I’d like to be a part of, it’s the Designers Who Code Club. I mean, people with actual design backgrounds in typography and art direction and whatever else, who can sit at in front of a text editor and bang out an app or a website without breaking a sweat.

As someone who is just about two years shy of learning code properly, I’m far from a programming wizard. I’ve seen those guys work. It’s intense. I’m still doing spaghetti-code mistakes, and am pretty much at the equivalent of being in a Jolly Jumper.

At this point I’m more comfortable with design, as I’ve practiced and trained for it. Obviously there are others who are light-years ahead of me as well. But to me, there is also something draining about doing this 24/7. Or in agency numbers, 30/8. I imagine it’s like giving birth every day. And guys, my creative uterus can only take so many crying newborns busting out of it like a scene from Alien. Some are just built for that type of work. I, sadly—but not regrettably, am not.

I think one of the process I’ve come to enjoy the most is actually working with either designer or programmer to build something. I’m a fan of collaboration, and I always end up learning so much when I work with people I like/admire. Also, the output always seems stronger while the load (for the most part) is not overwhelming.

One of my favourite people to work with would probably be Tak, from FAC. I like that I come into the project with part of the design concept already built, the wide strokes already established. It then becomes a working process to refine and polish up the pieces, all the while building that trust that the project will not go to hell as long as both of us concentrate and stop eating cookies.

On the flip-side, I equally enjoy working with Ben at Mainsocial, because he has the same broad strokes already established, but from a programming point of view. (I think) he trusts my input when it comes to design, and he is constantly challenging me to be as pragmatic as I can be. Similarly, while this trust exists, I’m also glad for his opinions regarding design.

I’m not stuck doing two jobs, but neither do I get bored just doing one. I think I’m most comfortable at this spot, between the stresses of designing a project all on my own, and just pushing pixels according to what someone has given me. It feels like my input is valid, and at the same time my skills are tested and valued.

It’d be interesting to hear what other folks think, with regards to this type of relationship. Do you guys prefer doing one job and relying on another for other components? Where does that sweet spot lie for each of us?

I Did A Bookbinding Demo at Langara College

A few weeks ago, I helped Stokoe do a bookbinding demo at Langara College.

Now, it’s a pretty well-known fact that I hate public speaking, the sound of my voice, and the empty looks on people’s faces when I talk. I become overly nervous, my hands and voice start to shake, and my face always feels like it’s been set on fire. My Filipino accent actually gets thicker and inexplicably more provincial, and there is 80% chance I will drop the f-bomb.

At times I wonder if it’s just me being overzealous about what I’m talking about, kind of like how Hitler gets really worked up in his speeches. I don’t bang on a podium for effect, but I do choke at my own spit and gargle my words most of the time. I tend to switch between the personalities of a deranged lunatic and that of a swaddled baby when under any sort of stress.

Other times, I wonder if my speaking makes any impression at all. You know, besides bad first ones.

I was invited to talk about my senior thesis project once, a few months after I had graduated from Emily Carr. Don and Tak at Free Agency were teaching a class, and had asked me to prepare a quick presentation to get their students revved up about the next semester, which was expectedly going to be full of shirts stained with caffeine, yelling at strangers in the hallway and crying into paper bags.

On that day, my presentation included me insulting one of my professors, showing a photo of Jean Claude Van Damme for inspiration, and imparting a quote from a movie about young boys being molested by their high school teachers.

At one point, a student in the back had asked me a question. I had forgotten what it was about already, but I do remember my response, which was something along the lines of, “Just be total assholes to your teachers.”

I also remember Tak sort of doing a double-take on that.

Suffice it to say, Don and Tak never mentioned it again, nor did they offer me a second invitation. They said they wanted to keep it fresh by inviting new speakers and recent grads each year. I think I believe them. But I also don’t blame them.

As for the Langara bookbinding demo, I was glad that I wasn’t alone. Stokoe was more like Pat Sajak that afternoon, while I was regarded as the more inappropriate, less good-looking version of Vanna White.

The students were a great group, and quite keen on getting some books bound. They were good sports as we both fumbled through the demo, misread our handouts and almost strangled ourselves with entangled bookbinding thread. Or, to be more exact, as Stokoe did.

We walked around helped them individually with their sewing and gluing, making sure that they would come out of the demo with beautiful soft-cover journals with alternating signatures.

In the end, I think they all did great work. I’m both quite proud and a little embarrassed, to be honest. I had bitterly thought that I’d be in front of a bunch of young punks, each just as terrible as I was in university. Whew, I’m so glad that I was wrong.

I really liked that we were able to help them get started with this craft. I remember how excited I got once I realized that making a book was extremely feasible—with the right amount of patience and a wide enough knowledge of various expletives. I’m also sure that some were more enticed by bookmaking than the others, but all in all, I heard no complaints. Actually, there were zero assholes in this group, which was awesome.

Once I got home that evening, I started going through old books I’ve bound and old projects I’ve done. Sometimes I forget how much Chloe and I had done that summer. Bookmaking I think will always be a really special craft for me, ever since my good friend Grace Partridge (whom I regard as warmly as most women do Oprah Winfrey) spent a lovely afternoon teaching me how to make these beautiful things.

And I think my love for all of this overrides my absolute hatred and fear of speaking in front of people.

While I will forever be an idiot in public situations, I’ll be honest and say that there are some times where I won’t mind it.