Building in the open
7 min read

Building in the open

Learning as I go
Building in the open

Earlier last year I started to explore what my next career move would be, knowing the contract in my current job was finishing up at the end of the year. I was interested in going freelance so I started to brainstorm on how my work life could shape up.

I fell on something safe, and a tad uninspiring. A lot of my work in the field since I started was expanding the online presence of organizations, so I decided to sell myself as a digital marketing expert for non-profit organizations.

So, as one does, I immediately built a website and made a logo for what I called 'Digital for Social Good'. Priorities...

Except, that wasn't entirely where my heart was. My heart was in the more expressive side of the work, producing stories, videos and photos. I felt my idea was playing it too safe.

So I stopped and instead began searching for inspiration. I read various articles on anything from marketing to art and creativity. I also sought out communities on Twitter, one such being Visualize Value by Jack Butcher.

In one video Butcher described ‘the obvious problem': the situation where we look at what we have in common with people and try to 'sell' that thinking it's what they want, rather than looking at our own unique skills and interests which we can share and teach.

We look for overlap where we should be looking for uniqueness.

This rang true with me. I was initially looking at what I thought people wanted, what they were used to. But instead I should focus on my unique experience, knowledge and insights. At the very least the process will be enjoyable and personally fulfilling (even if no one else enjoys it!).

That's when I came up with the idea for 'Word. Image. Design.'

I enjoy writing, photography, film and design, but I always wanted to work in a way that I felt helped the world. That's why I started working for non-profits all those years ago. I also recognised that I enjoyed linking these two areas together, so why not just really focus on that and see where it goes?

It sounds fluffy to many people, but I'm convinced that the work of communication professionals is tremendously important. People are complicated. Logic and facts are only half of the equation when it comes to understanding and changing the world.

People want to experience something when they communicate and engage and that's when we have to bring in the more intangible, sensory part of lived experience. This is what I often seek in my work.

And so my new plan began to form.

I began writing up an outline for what this might be, using one of's excellent guides for homepage building (still a work in progress Julian...).

This helped give me a clearer focus on what it was I wanted to talk about and focus on. Ironically, it also reminded me what I shouldn't do. I shouldn't try to force it, I need to just be very specific and focused on what story I'm trying to tell.

During this time, I also discovered David Perell who frames how healthy writing is for us as individuals, and that writing can be a goal in and of itself.

It made me recall back to when I was writing my thesis in university about coverage of the conflict in the DR Congo, and as part of that I started writing a blog. I remember how good it felt to see this rather niche blog grow a small audience of complete strangers with regular commenters and insightful discussions.

So during this inception phase my plan switched again: rather than selling a service, for now I would just write. This took away many excuses to procrastinate unfortunately, but again this felt 'right' for me.


As I said, when I had the idea for the my future career, I did the sensible thing: I didn't plan much, I bought a website domain and designed a logo instead (don't do that).

I initially went with Wordpress because it was what I was used to. But, it didn't quite fit this new path.

My new idea demanded something lighter, more adaptable, and less buggy. Substack was one option but I wanted to own my own site. For that, seemed like a good option. The learning curve can be a bit steeper than Wordpress, but I think it's worth it.

For 'Word. Image. Design.', I focused on a very simple logo to save time, and then went about making visualizations of the ideas I wrote about.

I tried numerous iterations, trying to limit my palette and focus on simple lines to visualize my ideas.

But nothing quite clicked.

Time went by as I procrastinated when one day I randomly Googled 'movie posters minimalist design'. I’ve always liked movie posters, especially the minimalist versions, and thought perhaps they could inspire me. It turns out there are colour palettes for entire movies!

I started  creating some illustrations that I felt reflected the content of my writing. As for the colour palettes, I simply Googled some of my favourite films and the palettes.

I wanted to limit my options to save myself thousands of decisions in the future, so I’m experimenting with designs using the following strict rules:

  1. Stick to two or three basic shapes per image (sometimes icons)
  2. Stick to two or three colours per image
  3. Use film colour palettes
  4. Feel free to break the rules

Once I fell on a style that I felt more comfortable with and fun to use, I’ve found it easy to quickly generate abstract designs that I feel tell a small story about what I’m writing about.

Idea generation

I have a terrible memory, and a pretty lousy work ethic so I needed to find a system that would help me actually do something and see it through.

Butcher's success last year, making over $1,000,000 from his courses and other related sales in 2020 alone, owes itself in big part to his relentless work ethic, as well as his exceptional talent at packaging big ideas into tiny pieces of beautiful graphic design.

This made me reflect on not only how I learn, but the process of pulling in ideas and getting them on screen.

I chanced upon Ness Labs, a website packed with productivity and creativity ideas, which lead me into learning about learning. I began to realize how unsystematic I had been.

With all that I read, watch or listen to, I had been simply leaving it to chance that nuggets of information would stick in my brain.

I also have a friend who appears to read a library-worth of books in a week and takes reams of notes. A lot more information appeared to stick in his brain and I imagine his mindful note taking process might have helped (yes, you Mat).

I learned that the simple act of note-taking is a powerful way to not only hold on to other people's ideas, but to help you draw connections and retain those new perspectives.

So, my next step was to look for a good way to take notes and I came across Roam Research.

This incredible software gives you the ability to pull in notes from almost anywhere, and then create your own personal Wikipedia. You can interconnect notes, and even single words, to create what is described as a 'Second Brain'.

It's not for everyone but it certainly clicked with me, and I used Nat Eliason's excellent course 'Effortless Output in Roam' to give me a grounding in it. (I'm still learning).

Preparing article notes. Roam offers a powerful way search through notes from Kindle, highlighted articles, Podcast notes and more. 

So now I had a place to link up all my ideas: Kindle notes, podcasts, articles, and random ideas while sitting on a motorbike in Bangkok. It could all be fed into Roam and linked together to make a web of ideas and inspiration. This also greatly increased my reading and podcast listening habits.

Roam also helped with planning my days, through its Daily Notes feature. Suddenly, I was easily mapping out my days and mindfully collecting information from across the web.

When I started reading, I began noting down ideas, and making myself write.

And then I was away.

I must say this is all quite difficult for me, putting my face and name on things and putting it out there. I’m used to hiding behind an organization name. Writing this now I still haven't fully taken the plunge yet. But I am keen to because I sense it will make me grow.

I plan to keep sharing insight as I continue to build my complete vision, and I hope it’ll be of use and interest to at least one person out there. That’s enough for me.

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