Talking Tools is an ongoing series of interviews with people whom I respect as creators, communicators and craftspeople. The goal is to dig deeper into how these people work, what their toolboxes look like and how they engage in their own processes.
Today, we’re talking with another of my blogging heroes, Shawn Blanc. His most popular writings deal with Apple stuff, but he’s also got quite a knack for finding interesting content online and sharing it with his small army of fans at shawnblanc.net. I won’t lie to you – I’d cut off my left pinky to write like this guy and I’m crazy excited that he’s taken the time to talk with me.
Let’s assume you had 2 minutes to give me a tour of your nerdy hardware before dinner was on the table… go.
Showing my office has always felt awkward for me. Perhaps because most people don’t know how to respond to the enormous monitor on my desk and the obvious lack of clutter. But that’s not even the main point. There is no way for a stranger to truly grasp just how much time I spend in my office and how important that space is is to my daily life.
And two minutes before dinner is about all it would take. My office is very simple: a desk and chair, a closet, some shelves, my computer. Neat…
How useful do you find the iPad, personally? Have you been able to move any major chunks of your workflow from your primary machine to your iPad?
Ironically, I am typing on my iPad right now. Standing at my kitchen counter in order to get out of my office chair for a bit and write from somewhere else in the house.
The iPad has definitely added value to my work and recreation. Though, in its current iteration, it could never replace my laptop. The most value the iPad has brought is that I read much more. In all the passing conversations I’ve had, answering other’s questions about how I like it, I always reply that I will most likely never buy a physical book again — having all my reading material on one device is bliss.
If the iPad were for reading and for writing only, it would still be worth it. These hallmark features make it a great companion regardless of the setting: meetings or living rooms, offices or hammocks.
Being the intrepid leader of a team of designers, developers, writers, editors and project managers must make for a busy workday. What do you rely on to keep things humming?
Busy, yes. But also exciting. To keep things humming I rely on my wits, a hot cup of coffee, and a steady diet of Seth Godin. Joking aside, I primarily lead my office by getting good systems in place and doing lots of delegation. The team I work with is absolutely fantastic, and the truth is that I work for them.
In terms of what tools I use to get my job done and keep my team productive, I spend most of my day in Mail, Things, Simplenote, and Pages. When I know I’ve got a few interrupted hours in a row then it’s likely I’ll spend a healthy dose of that time with a white board. I’m a verbal processor, and if my assistant isn’t around to listen to me talk things through in search of a solution then I use the white board instead.
Unfortunately there are days when it seems as if I get nothing significant accomplished because it’s all I can do to keep on top of email or I’ve got back-to-back-to-back meetings. For a long time I used to feel down after a day like that because I hadn’t gotten anything significant and measurable accomplished. But after a few years as a department head and manager of a team, I’ve learned that this part of my job is a small yet integral part of the story-arc that accompanies management. There is a balance between protecting my team from unnecessary meetings so they can get work done, and sending them to meetings so I can get work done.
When not in meetings I spend my time developing plans, strategies, workflows, and policies, as well as project managing. Currently I am in the middle of updating my Marketing Play Book, which contains our ministry-wide branding and style guidelines, design workflows, templates for creative briefs, marketing philosophies, product launch templates, and more. This has been a very exciting project for me because I love articulating things with words and graphics and then typesetting them into something beautiful and useful. And since I manage our relationship with the print house, I have been known to get my Decks printed on uncoated stock.
Let’s say we all woke up tomorrow and our Macs had been destroyed while we slept by some nefarious elves or something. How dependent are you on the Mac platform? How hard do you think it would be to move to another OS if you had to?
I am not dependent on the Mac platform at all. It would be sad if I had to move to another OS, but it wouldn’t unearth my livelihood the way it would if I were an Mac software developer or tech consultant. All the tasks I use OS X to accomplish could be done in any other operating system: word processing, text editing, email, project-management, and design.
With OS X out of the picture, I would most likely move to the Web as my “OS”. All the applications I use today are, for the most part, cloud-based, desktop tools. And so instead of converting to Windows or Linux tools, I would just use Web apps for all my tasks. Such as Instapaper, the WordPress dashboard, Gmail, Google calendar and reader, and Remember the Milk.
But it’s possible that I would not just migrate and pick up where I left off. But rather take the change as an opportunity to switch hobbies and do carpentry for a while instead of writing. I would set up an online store, Desk Envy, and sell huge, simple, handmade desks.
An oversized desk is the only sort worth owning. For one, they’re there for you when you need that extra space for papers and other work (when you need the space, there never seems to be enough). Secondly, when your oversized desk is clean and empty, the unused acreage is a sight to behold.
When a small desktop is clean it merely looks tidy, as it should. But when an oversized desk is clean? That’s conversation worthy.
Aperture? Lightroom? iPhoto? Something else entirely?
iPhoto, I guess. But I’m not a photography nut, and actually, most of my images are in folders on my hard drive instead of in iPhoto. Since I only ever use my iPhone to take pictures they usually just sit on the phone if they don’t end up on my Flickr account. That’s not to say I don’t like photography, I’m just rarely thinking about it throughout my day, nor do I give much time to post-processing my photos.
A big part of your blog is curating and sharing links to various things that interest you. How do go about collecting them? What tools help you do this effectively?
I love sharing links. Not only is it a way to share with others things I think are worth their time, it’s alway a way for me to give back to whomever I’m linking to by sending a little bit of traffic and attention their way.
As far as how I collect links, well I gave up a long time ago trying to spend any of my time searching for links. I just post them if and when I come across them. It seems the best things to link to are those which get discovered organically, rather than by hunting for the sole purpose of finding something link worthy. And so most links are things I’ve read in Reeder or discover via Twitter.
Every single word for my site gets published through MarsEdit (it would be great if WordPress had a better way for me to publish links via my iPhone or iPad, but I haven’t gotten it to work yet). I try to keep to an unofficial schedule of no more than three links or posts per day — one in the early AM, one around lunch, and one for just after dinner.
You’ve produced some popular longer-form pieces in your blogging career, but they seem somewhat sporadic. How does inspiration for these come about? Do ideas generally incubate for awhile or do you start writing as soon as something cool flies into your head?
Gosh, I very much wish that the frequency of my longer-form pieces wasn’t so sporadic, but since I’m not a full-time writer that’s just the way it is. Another part of it is that I don’t invest into a substantial article like that unless it is something genuinely close to my daily life. The software I’ve reviewed to date — NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, Things, Yojimbo, Mint) — all of these I still use and recommend to friends every day. I don’t just review a piece of software for the sake of reviewing it. The review comes out of a genuine appreciation of how much that tool has affected my day to day life.
Perhaps I’m not as efficient at writing these long-form articles as some other bloggers are, but for me they take about 20 – 30 hours of work. There is so much research that goes into the article just so I can get my mind fully wrapped around the history and backbone of it, and not just my own use-case scenarios. Secondly, and one of the most difficult aspects, is deciding what the *feel* of the article is going to be about. It can’t just be a list of features and screenshots, it has to convey something that transcends version numbers and release notes.
The ideas for these pieces is a combination of incubation and writing. Generally I begin taking notes and scribbles about an article as soon as the idea comes into my mind. And for a long time it looks like an ugly, unordered list of sentences and paragraphs. Most of them being their own thought or concept, while others are the same thought re-written five different ways…
Once I know the feel and tone I’m aiming for, and I have a strong grasp on all the information and things I want to say, I will open a new, blank text document and place its window next to the one with all the random writings in it. I then write the top-level outline for the article and begin pasting each bit of text into the outline under the proper headings.
Next comes the actual writing and editing process. I use a lot of what I’ve already written because most of those sentences were written when I was most clearly thinking about that thought. But I edit, edit, edit the article like crazy to get the overall flow and tone just right.
Tell me about your Mail client of choice and why it beats the pants off of mine (Mailplane).
I use Apple Mail. I keep it simple with just a few folders, Hold and Archive, and I try very hard not to live in there. It beats Mailplane because it’s free. And if you want to compare features, I think the less an email application does the better — feature-rich ones only encourage users to move in. I’d rather spend my time somewhere else.
I spend my time pretty evenly split between Firefox and Safari for various reasons dealing with add-ons. What’s your browser poison? Why?
I use Safari. It’s fast, doesn’t update every time I start it up, and works with 1Password.
What do you read? How do you read it?
I read a lot, but I’m slow and noncommittal about it. Over the years I’ve developed a habit of starting books and never finishing them. Also, I rarely read fiction. Most books I start are informative, how-to, and the like. I love topics that deal with creative leadership and communication and marketing. I also own and read a lot of Bible commentaries. Henri Nouwen, A.W. Tozer, and C.S. Lewis are three of my favorite authors. Not only are they fantastic writers, but the books they’ve written are among the few that have most impacted my heart and my life.
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of my future book purchases will be eBooks. I love to read on my iPad. I subscribe to about 75 RSS feeds that I read with Reeder; I regularly throw articles into Instapaper; I download Wired every month; and in iBooks I’m currently reading “Being Geek” by Michael Lopp and “How to Write Clearly” by Edwin Abbott.
So, you’ve finished your work for the day and it’s time to pee away an hour looking at a screen of some kind before you knart out for the night. Tell me what happens next…
If it’s not a night that I’m out of the house then this is the time when I read or write. Such is the case right now. I hate to just waste away an hour (especially as a daily habit) just vegging out for no reason. Writing is entertainment for me, although sometimes it takes on the shape of grueling and frustrating entertainment. So if I can’t get myself to focus on writing then I am likely to read or just go to bed.
There are some people who’s heads just pop off the pillow at 4:00 in the morning. I am not one of those people. But I would like to be. I go in and out of seasons where I’m able to get to bed early and get up early, but if I don’t stay disciplined at it I naturally gravitate towards staying up late to write instead of getting up early.
Though I will say that one advantage to being a night owl is that most of the online community is ‘gone for the day’ so there are less distractions taking place.
As with all of my gracious interviewees, big nerd ups to Shawn for his time and thoughtful responses. You can read Shawn’s kick-ass blog, follow him on Twitter and, maybe if you word the email just the right way, convince him to surrender his home address so you can send him those cookies you’re always bragging about. You know the ones.