to get unstuck on your next project, start with a frame

I’m at World Domination Summit in Portland this weekend. (My visit to the City of Roses is especially poignant having just finished watching the final season of Portlandia. Goodbye, Fred and Carrie!)

Chris Guillebeau (author of The $100 StartupSide Hustle, and The Art of Non-Conformity) launched WDS in 2011 to celebrate community, adventure, and service. The vibe? Warm, vulnerable, and open. I’ve been resolutely resisting all efforts to get me to cry, stand up and shake my money-maker, or otherwise emotionally engage with the event since 2013. It hasn’t always been easy. (“Honey, one day I hope you can give another baby squirrel the opportunity to break your heart.”)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about frames. A frame is a powerful, valuable constraint. If we’re stuck trying to make something new, it’s usually because we haven’t put a good frame around it first. 

This doesn’t have to be an actual, literal frame with gilded edges. My wife and I attended her friend’s art opening years ago. They were still setting up when we arrived at the gallery. In the middle of the pristine white floor sat a half-eaten hamburger on a crumpled fast-food wrapper. To this day, I’m not sure whether the burger was part of the show or just the guy’s hamburger. Either way, it made for a pretty striking image.

(If you’ve never seen Yasmina Reza’s play Art, an extended, hyper-articulate argument between friends about the merit of an all-white painting, it’s well worth a read. And if you like all-white paintings, Dia:Beacon has a ton. They’re like the world headquarters of “Is it art?”)

Last week, I quit Twitter. (I first quit in 2008, but they tricked me into returning. I won’t be fooled twice.) Partly, I did this because it made my phone a depression machine. Partly, it was because they doubled the size of a tweet, diluting the dwindling remnants of Twitter’s value to me.

Originally, a 140-character limit allowed tweeting by SMS, but this limit became a powerful and useful frame for creativity. Whoever you were, no matter the size of your ad budget, you had to make 140 characters work. No tricks, no SEO, no splashy graphics. 140 forced you to be creative and clever. Over time, as the power and flexibility of tweets grew—images, etc.—their value sank.

Frames are supposed to make things harder. This does not mean you should abandon them.

Speaking of frames, I had an idea for a new social network yesterday. Now that I’m off Facebook and Twitter, I need a new network, but only a minimal one. Really, just a series of flags:

Living [Y/N] Marital Status [M/S] Children [#] Opportunity [O/C] Location [ ]

This is the information I’m going to miss without Facebook and Twitter. I trawled through all that sewage just to get these key facts for the people in my social network:

  1. Are you still alive?
  2. Are you married, i.e. should I ask about your spouse when I email you, or would that create awkwardness?
  3. How many kids are you up to now?
  4. Are you up for a new opportunity? Employment is a tricky area to share about publicly. Realistically, no one’s going to admit on a social network that they’re looking for a new job if they’re employed full-time. So there’s no point in trying to get detailed info about the opportunities people are interested in hearing about. Instead, this flag is set either to Open or Closed. Open means you’re interested in hearing about new opportunities: full, part-time, freelance, side hustle, whatever. Closed means you’re not open for business: you’re busy, retired, don’t bother me. Simple, and unlikely to set off alarm bells with the boss.
  5. Are you nearby? Is it physically possible to meet up for coffee?

That’s it. That’s the whole social network. Maybe it pings you every week to update your settings. Or every month.

Just imagine how useful this would be. You could look at all of your hundreds or thousands of connections on a single page as a series of color-coded dots, quickly identify patterns and opportunities:

“All my tech friends just lost their jobs.”

“Wow, a lot of divorces among my West Coast peeps.”

Etc.

When someone entered your geographic area, you would automatically be notified. Invite them to lunch. That sort of thing. Josh Kaufman had the excellent idea of integrating your fitness tracker: If your heart rate goes to zero, the Living flag automatically updates. Thanks, Josh! 

We struggle with our online personas and the creative work we share online because there aren’t many good frames. Sharing feels dangerous without them. TinyLetter is an underwhelming service, sorely neglected by MailChimp, but it provides a useful frame by removing all your choices around the formatting of your newsletter. That’s what creative people like about using it. Newsletters are hard to write (emotionally, cognitively) because you have so little real control over how they end up looking to the recipients, even down to whether your images will be visible. Frames help.

This is why PDFs were created in the first place: to exert some control over what people saw when you sent them documents. For the first few months of my freelance business, I was using a Word template with a couple of fonts that most people didn’t have installed on their computers. Needless to say, my stuff looked really weird and unprofessional on their end.

One of the reasons the photography site 500px took off was because it made your resolution decision for you. It’s right in the name.

Creative people need frames to create their best work. It isn’t enough to make a video. You need to know how people will experience it: the big screen, a pristine image with perfect sound? An iPhone with subway noise drowning out the audio? It matters. Josh uses Prince to preview the typeset pages of his next book as he writes them in plain text. I use Marked for the same reason. Creative people need frames.

If you’re stuck on your next project, ask yourself: do I have a frame yet? If not, can I find one or make one?

Take the “tap essay” frame Robin Sloan used to create Fish. It had been lost to digital entropy but Sloan re-created the app with the help of a few faithful fans, updating the text for 2018. Go check it out. (h/t Guillaume Athenour) I think a tap essay makes for a terrific frame. It doesn’t require much in the way of coding knowledge to create. Would your next project work better as a tap essay, too?