Where ends meet

design studio

I quit my design job of three and a half years recently, a possibly rash move embarked upon in an idealistic tidal wave of enthusiasm. My reasoning? I wish to spend more time on the projects closer to my heart, less time on those closer to my wallet. More practically speaking, I would like to be able to work when and where I please, and have the freedom to travel more often and for longer periods at a time. Perhaps I am having my cake and eating it too, but second helping of dessert aside, I am secretly enjoying the notion that I may have been rather daring in doing this.

Lest I appear to be more heroic than I probably am, or at least not completely honest, I should declare to the reader that with seven years' experience, and in an industry where skilled people are in short supply and high demand, it was probably never going to be a struggle to find work. And thus it has been so far, touch sandalwood, a total of less than 5 days without work in the last couple of months, and trips to Japan and New York in between.

Last week, after a well enjoyed several days without paid work, or wage slavery as they called it in the "quaint" nineteenth century, I started a short-term contract with a prestigious Auckland design company, filling in as an extra web developer.

The first morning hardly began auspiciously. After accepting a coffee expertly made on location by an actual Italian espresso machine (kudos to the design company), I proceeded to spill it on my way down the stairs to the design studio, as well as across the reception floor in between. I cringed at imagined whispers as I took my seat: "The new guy spilt coffee all over the front of house. I certainly hope he's more proficient with his mouse..."

Things proceeded from ignominious to worse once seated at my computer. A towering square edged obelisk of severely abrupt wrong-angles, it sat before me as a creativity vapourising black box of even blacker import, a machine from silicon's dark side with a fiendishly constructed form of torture—Microsoft Windows XP—on the in-side. I had met my moment of truth, my bridge too far, and perhaps a touch less rhetorically, the decider of my future destiny as either freelance web developer or humble home-office dabbler.

A slightly dramatic portrait after all of fifteen minutes on site? Let me first explain a little more of my working background. In seven years of pushing pixels around a screen for a living, I have without exception always used an Apple Mac. Drawn initially to computers more by unconscious affinity than professional training, I choose a Mac deliberately for it's creative aesthetic, and bear with me here if it sounds a little wacky—sense of heart. For it seems to me correct to ascribe the qualities of the heart to a machine when, as with the original Macintosh in 1984, it is made with deliberate care, imagination and authentic passion; by artists for other artists and with their needs first in mind; and with the signatures of all involved signed on the inside of the case— in their minds just like Rembrandt or Da Vinci. And made by a company whose founder and CEO wilfully forced his Zen aesthetic and actual practise of such into every element of its' creation.

In direct antithesis to my hyper-allergy to all things square-framed and glass-enclosing (i.e. windows), my affection for fruit of the pomaceous variety is such that on my curriculum vitae a small luminescent white apple appetisingly follows my name like a rather tasty dessert. "Mac Operator" is my title here in the Antipodean part of the world; I would be an "Art Worker" in the UK, and either "Mac Operator" or "Digital Artist" in the USA. Somewhere along the way I have also picked up web-design, being more than fortunate in securing employment a few years back in a company where my embryonic hypertext markup language skills were more advanced than those already in existence. Or more accurately, completely not in existence.

Which brings us back to the present, several years and quite a few more websites later, this self-taught amateur has walked through the shiny glass and metal front doors of a market-leading web design company to work with people who actually know what they are doing, and who may to his secret fear quickly perceive what he is not. For a start not familiar with a PC, the de-facto platform in the development of websites.

There is a tradition in design studios that the worst computer goes to the contractor. It will be a machine barely above that of the secretary's, who usually never gets beyond a top speed of typing, email and the occasional spreadsheet; but bet your pantone swatch book below that of the boss, who, when he occasionally makes an appearance in his BMW 7 Series, has the status to ensure processor power directly disproportionate to computing skill. You are in fact lucky if the contractor machine even works at all! Design studios are run to a system of rigourously accountable time that must be wherever possible charged back to the client, and between tight deadlines and often not so tight definitions as to the length of the working day (i.e. long), unchargeable concerns like fixing a computer that isn't always used are listed on the timesheet form under the code "DNF".

Which is precisely what happened here on my first day. Still filed under "did not finish" was the task of setting up my computer, as nobody had communicated to the only technician capable the arrival of a new prisoner (myself) requiring its hard labour. Like common-sense in most walks of life, communication is also surprisingly rare—even in the highly paid and deceivingly glamourous communications industry.

However the need for a major system reinstall was not initially apparent when I sat before the "desktop of doom". Prior even to switching on I took a 5 minute brief from the project manager, a brief quite literally in name as well as effect, for it contained almost no particulars and even fewer technical details. Something like: "Update this with this, replace that with this, login into this with that... and when you're finished come and see me for another job."

I put the sure knowledge that I was dealing with a junior project manager of negligible experience aside, and, as is so often the way, began to determine the shape of the job and its best solution myself. But fifteen minutes into my task, and then one hour and then two, it became more and more apparent that something was seriously wrong with the operating system, apparent to even the PC illiterati that is myself. If you're interested in the technical details: I could connect to the shared network server, the source for all "Work In Progress"—jobs to which I had been assigned—but try as first I and then my co-workers might, I couldn't connect to the internet or email, a rather crucial handicap in an industry as wired as web design.

"Well can't you work offline while someone fixes the problem?", my new favourite project manager enquired, a self-secure know-it-all whose method was to neglect to tell-it-all, denying vital pieces of information until after their knowledge became a necessity.

"I've been logged out of the system by IT as they attempt to restore my permissions. Should be back up soon" I replied in a voice deliberately calm, but in truth aimed directly between the eyes like a knock-out blow, my temper starting to fray.

Welcome to office politics, a game I normally do my studious best to avoid. In the usually petty power games of the modern open plan workspace, computer operators always have one trump card up their sleeves—technical knowledge. Much to my mischievous glee, the timely deployment of incomprehensible facts and jargon can be used over and over again to considerable advantage.

Also remember that while all of this occurs there is a time clock running—the time clock of my hourly rate, and the time clock of the rate not being charged to client due to technical problems. A situation which graduated my nerves from apprehensive to stressed, with an extended sabbatical in caffeinated.

Internet Explorer refused to work next—although some would argue it never has—making offline web development impossible as well. Another call to IT and I was locked out of my system again.

Minutes and then hours passed, and the slightly disturbing in a manner I can't explain Windows XP desktop landscape remained blank and unresponsive. Which is a technical state rather than an artistic description. Dodging phone calls from the project manager and their senior as well, I set about impressing my newly found comrades in digital arms with my café barista training from a former life, making yet more cups of coffee while a full-blown technical meltdown was in operation.

Have I described the 2nd floor kitchen espresso machine yet? As good a time as any, being the only working machine I could operate. Freshly roasted coffee beans filled to the brim a grinder of adjustable fineness, within reach of a single head espresso machine possessing a steam nozzle for frothing milk in a stainless steel pitcher. Still early on in the first morning of the working week, it was time for yet another visit...

In the end I spent over five hours of the day achieving very little except another opportunity to cultivate my poise and calm—side-benefits of meditation whose worth can never be overrated. Sent home after achieving nothing except the discovery of a system full to the brim with spyware, it was very valuable practise of a most valuable Practise, for as I learn almost every day, if there's one thing that life is sure to deliver, it is that which we least expect of it.

Like the fact that believe it or not the week actually went a little better than the manner of it's beginning. Eventually...

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