A reader asked me to write about where the creative and the analytical intersect in business, and while I’m sure I’ve written around this topic before, I thought maybe I should try writing directly at it. Maybe by doing so I’ll hit on some things I haven’t covered or even thought about before. Maybe by doing so, I’ll express ideas in more concrete ways than I have before.

We do get better as we write more, after all.

Problem Solving is Creative.

What is creativity?
Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. Human Motivation, 3rd ed., by Robert E. Franken
This is just one definition of a concept that often defies such encapsulation. Creativity is often thought of as the domain of artists and writers, and while the creative ability is essential in these fields, it’s about so much more than art, music, and literature. Creativity is about experiencing the world in novel ways, looking at things differently, and using that experience to find and develop solutions to problems. This may seem sterile, but if your creative act doesn’t solve some kind of problem, it will never make it in the public domain. Even art, despite the rarified position we give it in culture, is a tool used to solve problems. In fact, one of the common ways to measure creative thought is the “unusual uses” test. This is a test in which a subject gives as many different uses as they can for a common object (a brick, for example). The more different uses, the more creative thought is employed. This test measures creativity, and requires the subject to come up with practical uses for an everyday object; in short, ways that object can be used to solve problems.

Business is About Solving Problems.

What excited me the most in my study of business was coming to understand the whys behind business. Before I get started, this is a sort of a starry-eyed description and is in no way intended to imply that all business is good or beneficial. There are obviously bad, exploitative businesses out there. Business at its heart is about solving problems.

No, no, you say. Business is about increasing shareholder wealth!

Okay, well the truth is more complicated than that, especially these days, but even within this Friedmanist view, the way to build shareholder wealth is to solve problems. Specifically, to come up with solutions to problems that people will pay you for. Successful business (okay not all of them, some of them are terrible) do this well. Solving problems, as addressed above, is not a purely analytical process. Problem solving skills are taught in an analytical way, though, so this is how we come to understand them. But the truth is, effective problem solving involves both skill sets: the creative and the analytical.

Not Every Job in Business is Creative, But Some Are.

This is why business often requires multiple minds. Not because analytical thinking and creative thinking are opposites (they aren’t), but because we’re taught about these skills in very different ways, and so we tend to specialize. So we end up with people who specialize in the creative, and spit out idea after idea regardless of their practicality. This is incredible, the ability to just generate solutions. It’s also one of the ways we now measure creativity in experiments and studies, actually. But people who specialize in the creative often lack the structure (again, not due to inability, but due to how these skills are coded in the culture) to organize and execute these ideas. So we also need structure specialists, and that’s where we have those who have specialized in the analytical. They can take those ideas, structure them, rank them, test them, and find the ones that are the best for any given situation. Then they can measure them and present the results in digestible and organized formats for the creativity specialists to iterate on. Because these skills are culturally coded as opposites, we have structured most businesses to have different roles for the creative and the analytical, although we do see this separation breaking down in modern, effective business workplaces.

Creativity is a Business Asset.

The ability to take a problem and come up with multiple solutions is a tremendous business asset. Sadly, most workplaces are built not to encourage creativity, but to discourage, even punish it, because creativity carries risk, and successful businesses have a lot to loose. We waste a lot of creative assets in this way,

because of how we handle failure

. Again, modern workplaces are getting better at encouraging their workers to practice creativity, but American business has a long way to go before they’re taking full advantage of this resource, in my humble opinion. There are still companies and roles in which creative workers are considered to be an unfortunate nuisance, a regrettable yet necessary part of the value chain. But business has its fashions, and if “creativity” was the buzzword of the previous decade, “business analytics” is the buzzword of the current one. Business today is looking for data, reams of it, and the charts and graphs that go along with it. Whole business realms are now data driven in a way that simply wasn’t possible ten years ago, and this is the root of a lot of innovation. Not just in terms of supply chain efficiency and service effectiveness, but also in terms of sustainability. But don’t let the data analytics buzz fool you; the people who are making new ideas out of that data are the same people that have always helped bring signals out of noise. Creative workers.

Creative is not the Opposite of Analytical.

This is something that took me a long time to learn, and I still think it’s something I haven’t fully internalized yet. While there is a degree of chaos and risk involved in creative work, the structure of the analytical and the mess of the creative are not opposites. You do not sit on a spectrum between analytical and creative. You in all likelihood have both skills, and have developed one in preference to the other due to how you were socialized as a child. This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life. I was recognized early as a creative kid, an artsy kid. My parents encouraged me to develop that skill, and made allowances for my deficits in the maths and sciences. The message I received was clear; I was not supposed to be good at those things, because I was already good at this thing. And I labored under that belief for most of my life. It wasn’t until I got to college (the second time) and pursued a business education that I came to realize that I did have analytical ability. It is not as developed as my creative skill, not because I lacked natural aptitude, but because I had not developed those skills. I had never been told I had those skills, or that I had the option to develop them. During my second stint at college, I had the opportunity to undo some of that. I had opportunities to develop analytical skill. I was still behind where I thought I should be, because I had not been practicing these skills for the last twenty years. But I could get better. And I did. And the secret is, gaining more analytical skill did not make me less creative. Because these two things are not opposites.

Business is Creative.

One of the things that stunned me most on entering the study of business was how very bright and interesting and creative my instructors were. Granted, I entered a focus (marketing) that tends to collect more creatively skilled people, but still. The use of creative skills in this field had to be structured by research, by process, by data. Even classes outside of my concentration that required analytical frameworks only bolstered the usefulness of my creative skills. I went from planning to be an art major to being a business major, and I never felt a single qualm about it. No sense of self-betrayal, and after I was embedded in the program, no sense that I was a poor fit for the field. And that’s because business is creative, and creativity is business.

My creative side led me to marketing; I figured it would be the best way to use my talents in business. I was intimidated when I saw how much technical work was involved in the marketing field. I don’t consider myself a particularly technical person, and I worried at this lack when confronting things like stats and marketing research. Not only did I not have the aptitude, but I lacked interest in the qualitative data, finding it dry and absent what drew me in; culture, personality, connection.

Where Technical Meets Creative.

When I started handling some more technical marketing tasks in freelance work while in grad school, I found that there’s something there that fuels me still.

Granted, I wasn’t performing statistical analysis or digging through reams of quantitative data, but I was looking at faceless, nameless user data, and I found a great deal of satisfaction finding patterns and identifying problems and brainstorming solutions. This, as recent research has shown, is the root of the creative mind; solving problems. But in popular thought, creativity and analytical thought are often regarded as opposites, and this is what I had been told about myself for my entire life. When my SAT score came back less than perfect (at a still-respectable at the time 1360), my parents excused it by dismissing me as a “creative type.”

I believed my entire life that because I could draw and paint and write, that I wasn’t suited for technical applications.

This isn’t entirely incorrect. I’m not skilled at math, it was my lowest score in both the SAT and the GRE. The only way I got As in my math classes, from calculus to stats, was through tremendous effort and strategic coaching by my brother. I stayed up sometimes until four in the morning, my mind long since exhausted, weeping and doggedly pursuing my homework. The courses that frightened me the most were the ones I put the most desperate effort into, and that was the only reason I ever got reasonable grades out of them. It was a trial by fire, over and over and over again. I had to re-learn basic algebra in order to do any of it.

These experiences, born of being slotted back into my old path through mathematics twenty years after I originally left school instead of taking a placement test, cemented this idea that I would persistently struggle and fail with the analytical.

The Technical Experience.

But I found myself being tricked into doing the technical work. It wasn’t math, I’ll grant you that. It wasn’t processing reams of data. But it was technical nonetheless. Maybe that was what allowed me to believe I could do it; the fact that the data I was working with was qualitative. But the analysis was there, despite the lack of numbers, and I got to this surprising place where I not only felt capable of what I was doing, but loved it.

I was examining user behavior for a client website (the name of the client and the website are omitted, of course), and I was presented with a bunch of anonymized, qualitative data and when I first gulped down my trepidation and dove in, I found that I could imagine the customer journey from prospect to lead to customer, I could imagine various funnels and desired conversion points along that journey. And once I was examining the data, I could imagine each user’s goals and desires while navigating the website and search for ways to meet those goals and desires, points at which I thought I could reduce friction and increase conversion. I could finally use all the theory I’d learned, and it felt really good.

With the data stripped of identity, I could take the wide view and not get caught up in any one user’s story or journey. I came to view the website itself as a story, with a host of characters finding their goal, or getting lost along the way, and I could find ways to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. It was liberating in a way.

What I Learned.

I don’t know whether or not this experience will be a gateway that leads me to both a love of and competence with quantitative data, but if it does, I’m more open to it now. And that’s a really good thing, because exercises like this are going to be routine in a marketing career. Even content writers need to know what to write, and you need data to determine that. Whether you gather and analyze the data yourself or it’s handed to you by another department, you still need to interpret and use it.

Honestly? It was exhilarating to do the work. To see how my passion intersects with it. To find the meeting point of my passion and my fear and navigate it. It was a point of growth, both professionally and personally.

And the main lesson here is not to let fear dissuade you from trying. To not assume you’ll dislike something before you’ve done it. To try, even where you believe you might fail. Failure is a point of growth as well, and a life (and career) endured without risk isn’t worth pursuing at all.

This experience allowed me to fall in love with marketing all over again, and I’m a better person (and marketer) for it.

I set a goal over summer break to read something related to either marketing or management every day. The purpose was twofold: first, to keep my head in topics related to my MBA curriculum, and second, to give myself the feeling of having spent some time every day working at something valuable. I missed a day here and there, but all in all I consider it a huge success. I learned a lot, and felt more motivated during this time than in any other time in recent memory. Here are some of the lessons.

Pick Your Topics First.

Before you do something, you need to make a plan. Know what you’re doing, be smart about it.

I decided before reading a single thing that I would focus on materials related to marketing and management. Marketing because that’s my field of choice, and management because management skills are always relevant, in any business discipline, even in personal relationships.

Begin to build sources for this material. I used a Twitter aggregator to pull tweets from some marketing and management accounts (found by simply googling “best marketing twitter accounts” or adding accounts for websites that I already read regularly, like Entrepreneur or Inc). Make sure your sources are pretty reliable and providers of good relevant content. I had to remove a few accounts due to their spamming of boring listicles. I also used my LinkedIn feed to pick up articles to read.

The goal was to amass more articles than I could read so I could have my pick. I chose two articles per day to read. I tried to go for depth of content over breadth, and tried to make sure I read articles covering different topics each day.

I also included related topics. An article on leadership may not be about management, but it’s related and useful. I also included social media and content development as related subjects on my marketing feed. This allowed me to draw connections between these subjects, such as thinking about how leadership or interpersonal theory can be applied to management situations.

Pick Up A Pen.

I read with a pen in my hand and my journal in front of me. I took rapid logging style notes, taking down facts and figures, drawing quick connections to real world situations, pulling out relevant lessons (or “learnables,” as some in the business space might say).

For me, this was vital to the success of the experiment. It required me to remain engaged with the material to the end, it forced me to decide what would be memorialized in my journal from this piece, and required an honest evaluation of the material.

You might think this is cumbersome, that it would take too long, or even that it would distract you from reading, but I would urge you to at least try it. It’s worth taking the extra time. We’re awash in content these days and spend a lot of time reading through it with half our attention, and absorbing it passively without active engagement and evaluation of the material. Going “back to school,” as it were, and taking notes, is a way to re-engage the parts of your brain that are responsible for learning. And we must learn every day to remain relevant and agile.

Read With an Open Yet Critical Mind.

This may seem contradictory at first, but it’s vital.

I tried to come up with a statement starting with “but” or “also” for the main points of each article. I didn’t necessarily write these statements down, but just coming up with them ensured that I was engaging with the material.

Read things you don’t agree with and pretend that you do. Read things you agree with and pretend that you don’t. You’re not required to change your mind on a subject (I usually didn’t) but it allows you to think critically and pick up things you might be missing because of pre-existing biases.

Take Note of What Inspires You.

By “take note,” I mean actual physical notes. This can be useful from a practical standpoint if you have a social media or blogging schedule that you need to fill up (like I do), but it’s also useful from a professional/personal development point of view. Writing something down helps with retention, because you’re engaging different parts of your brain than you do when you’re only reading. Having the physical notes of what inspires you is handy to have around, whether it’s in a journal (like mine) or in a list format.

What inspires you may not be what you agree with. Sometimes it will be, but sometimes you’ll read something that you disagree with strongly enough that it will inspire you to do something different. This is also an important lesson.

It will help you pinpoint what you find motivating, what defines meaning for you in life and in your work. It can help you build a plan for future career moves, and identify interests that you have that you might not have known about previously.

Keep those notes. Revisit them. Scratch out what’s no longer applicable. Add to it. Modify it.

Limit How Much You Read in a Session.

The more you read, the less you’re able to engage with the material. The law of diminishing returns applies. Anyone who’s had to read from college text books knows this; at some point your mind starts to go numb, and you keep scanning your eyes across the page just to get through what you’ve been assigned.

Stopping after you’ve reached your limit gives you an opportunity to digest what you’ve read, store away what you’ve learned. I especially like to take a short nap after a reading session for this reason.

You can set a limit of time (thirty minutes, for example), or do what I did and read a set amount of material. For me it was specifically two articles, but had I been reading a book it would have been a set amount of pages or chapters. I chose articles because the information in the business field changes before a book on the subject can even be published, and because they’re short and easily digestible, but books are totally a good resource and many books in many fields end up being evergreen.

Once you’ve reached your limit, stop.

You can experiment with this, figure out when you start getting fatigued and have difficulty paying attention, and adjust accordingly. I suspect the ideal amount varies between people.

My Takeaways.

I don’t know if I’ll continue doing this throughout the school year, mainly because I may end up not having time between coursework and my graduate assistant workload. If I stop, it won’t be because I didn’t enjoy it. It was the single most motivating change I made during break, and it has made my life and my outlook brighter.

It kept me engaged with topics that I’m passionate about, and helped me stay on top of recent trends in my industry. And I like to think that it made me a more interesting conversationalist.

Time spent learning, whether it’s in a formal setting or an informal one, is never wasted. To retain vitality, we must always stay curious.

Read on, my friends.

I’m an MBA student with career goals. I’ve known for most of my life that I wanted to figure out a way to make a living writing, and while I usually envisioned making that money from my fiction, I’ve since discovered that I also love writing on the internet. This dovetails nicely with my course of study: business, and specifically marketing.

What is Content Marketing, Anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines content marketing thusly:

Content Marketing

noun

a type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material (such as videos, blogs, and social media posts) that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.

This is also known as “inbound marketing,” because it brings prospects “in” instead of the marketer “reaching out” with ads.

A huge amount of the content you read online, whether you realize it or not, can be considered content marketing. Some of it is explicitly so, with sponsored blog or social media posts (this is called “native marketing.” Most platforms require a sponsored tag for this sort of content).

One of the core realizations I had in my undergrad studies is that social media turns everyone into a marketer. Your friends on Facebook or Snapchat or what-have-you curate their lives in order to better support their personal brand, whether they know they are or not. We all do it. Social media would be a bleak place if we didn’t.

Content Makes the Web Better.

Okay, you might contend that corporate blog posts or commercially sponsored content make the web worse, but I would push back on that. Companies are out there creating all kinds of content, from gif spattered listicles to in-depth travelogues, and people are reading it.

But aside from that, let’s consider the alternative to corporate content: more advertisements. Companies are not going to stop advertising on the web, nor would I want them to (I’m in favor of an ad supported internet). Given the options, I would rather see companies producing well thought out blog posts, insightful articles, and hilarious tweets (tell me you don’t follow Arby’s on Twitter).

So why not allow those who have the time and the budget to create the content we admittedly crave?

People like it. We know because it works.

Creating High Quality Content Makes me Feel Good.

I suppose there’s a conversation to be had about whether or not this blog, or any of my social media channels, are high quality content, but I think they are, or I wouldn’t keep doing this. And writing it makes me feel good. Knowing that the five of you might read this blog post and learn something interesting or see things in a different way makes me feel good.

Also? I just love writing. I started my college career as a student of the visual arts, but found along the way that writing is really where my heart lies. Sure, my first love is fiction and that will probably always be true, but this makes me happy too.

Writing content on the web holds the possibility that I might help someone, even if it’s just helping someone feel less alone, or helping someone make a choice or decision of some kind. Even if I never hear from this person. This all goes back to my feelings on art, but that’s a subject for a different blog post.

It’s a Way to Reach Out to People I Would Otherwise Never Reach.

Let’s face it, my sphere of influence all told is pretty small, but it’s even more limited in analog space. I have maybe a hundred people I know who like and/or respect me, and might ask me for advice or hang out with me on a Sunday afternoon. It’s pretty well limited to Northwest Washington State, adding a geographical boundary to that sphere of influence.

But on the web, I can reach people around the world. I don’t, but I can. The kernel of possibility is there. And that makes my world feel both excitingly and terrifyingly large. That, in turn, makes the world feel less lonely and fractured.

You could say that any kind of writing on the web can cause that feeling, but I maintain that this blog is content marketing, as are my social media channels, and thus all of the tools I have for connecting with people around the world.

Content Influences Culture.

One of the incredible things the web has done, whether for good or for ill, is to give us all a much more direct hand in the shape of the culture we live in. Suddenly we’re all connected; discussions can be had, divisions explored (and exploited), consensus can be reached (or not), all of this between people whose reach was previously limited by geography. I think that’s incredible.

Not just that, this cultural influence extends beyond the web. Social media influencers become artists and models, blogs become books and books become best sellers. YouTube stars become organization gurus, and bloggers become journalists.

As much as some of us rail against the corporate influence on the web (again, I’m in favor of an ad supported internet), the web has flattened the media landscape, giving the humblest of us an opportunity to influence culture.

Do some marketers use this superpower for evil? Sure. But some make the choice to influence the culture in positive ways, and those are the moments of confluence that I live for.

Is There A Dark Side? Sure.

One of my instructors in my undergrad days sat the class down for a stern talk. “Marketing,” he said, “is a tool. And that tool can be used for good or for evil.”

Are there people out there marketing hateful ideas? Absolutely, particularly now. Are there corporations socially and environmentally green washing their brands while pursuing oppressive and degrading business practices? There sure are. But there are also companies out there doing good with their marketing budgets.

The web, and content marketing, lend greater reach and power to small businesses for less money than more traditional marketing channels, and those small businesses are more likely to do good with those smaller budgets than are large corporations, with shareholders to keep happy.

And I think, all told, content marketing on the web does more good than harm. And that’s what I’m most interested in in the end; facilitating the need to do good.

You know what listicles are: those “20 Reasons Why x” and “7 Moments When y” articles that populate the web. They’re everywhere on social media. The word “listicle” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, but this shouldn’t be considered the start of the phenomenon; they’ve been used in print media for many, many decades.

I thought we had gotten beyond this, but I’m still seeing listicles everywhere, especially in the marketing space, and I’m absolutely baffled as to why. I simply can’t understand the appeal, especially on industry sites. One would think we would be reading content with some depth to it, but no. Listicles, everywhere. I sat at my laptop, tears in my eyes, and wondered what was to become of us.

Listicles are bad. You should stop clicking on them. Here’s a list of reasons why. Number 4 might surprise you!

1. They Displace Content With Depth.

You cannot get into a topic in any real depth in a paragraph or two. As a result, when you read a listicle on a topic, you’re not learning anything about it, especially since most listicles are gripe posts and hot takes. I have finished listicles, especially industry ones, with the distinct impression that I’d been robbed; I had invested my time and my attention, and gotten nothing in return.

In this sense, listicles can be compared to the Letters to the Editor section of a local newspaper: opinion pieces with virtually no information. I guess content like this can be useful, I used to steal the Letters to the Editor page out of the paper when I was a teenager, but I have grown since then, and my desire for information has evolved since I was fourteen. I want content with substance.

2. They Feel Dated.

The listicle, as mentioned above, is not new. Cosmopolitan magazine comes to mind as one of the worst offenders (9 Ways to Please Your Man, etc.), and the web, for a moment, gave the format a fresh feel as suddenly you could find listicles on basically any topic. But that honeymoon vibe has faded, particularly as they format has led to deceptive headlines and spammy ads.

The format is so tired now that I had the privilege of listening to a writer read a personal non-fiction piece that borrowed the form of a listicle. That’s right; it’s so tired it’s being lampooned by the literary crowd.

The form has been used so much, in so many situations, that you know what you’re looking at before you ever click the link. Whenever I see an obvious listicle headline, I feel tired, weighed down, discouraged. Because I already know what’s behind the link, and I know it’s nothing good

3. They Encourage Clickbait.

For those of you who don’t know, and because the word “clickbait” has been subject to both misuse and overuse, clickbait headlines are headlines that are intentionally deceptive. This can include the hyperlink text or the snippet text accompanying the link, and they’re often not outright lies; they’re usually sensationalized or misleading.

Clickbait headlines are a scourge of the internet. They garner clickthroughs for websites that thrive on them, and can also be the basis of malware attacks and/or distribution. Clickbait functions by taking advantage of a “curiosity gap;” the headline gives enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy that curiosity, leading the user to click through.

I think of myself as a pretty savvy consumer of web content, and as a result I don’t run into a lot of problems with clickbait headlines, but when I do it’s more often than not a listicle that’s involved.

Clickbait headlines are very easy to make for listicles, because it’s easy to play on the emotions of the viewer without fulfilling that promise within the article itself. So if you hate clickbait, and I know you do, stop clicking on listicles, because the two thrive together.

4. They Might Make You a Worse Writer.

If you’re a writer, you already know that you learn craft and style from reading. This is why it’s important for us to read from lots of different sources, both online and analog. It trains us in how to better communicate in text.

So it stands to reason that reading bad writing can make you a worse writer.

And listicles contain some of the laziest writing on the web. Along with the fact that they fail to reach any level of depth, they are often sloppy in both form and grammar. This is not a problem for most people, they’re written well enough to be understood, and the casual style lends itself well to communicating with most of their audience, especially since each entry on the listicle only has to be a few sentences long.

But craft is important, especially for people who are writing long-form content. And reading garbage only teaches you how to write garbage.

5. They Could be Bad for Your Brain.

Listicles are like the television of the web. Okay, no. Hulu and YouTube and Netflix are the television of the web, but listicles are similarly just brain candy. A few sentences per item, often based on the Buzzfeed model and filled with animated gifs and other visual elements, they allow your brain to coast in neutral.

The thing that keeps your brain in shape is using it actively, and your brain reacts differently to actual content than it does to listicles. This is something of particular importance to me, as I’ve evolved into a middle-aged husk of my former self and had to think about ways to keep myself sharp as old age looms on the horizon.

When you engage with long form content, your brain must analyze and organize the information as you absorb it. With ranked lists, such as listicles, that analysis is already done for you. It’s like simple carbohydrates instead of complex carbohydrates. One makes you work a little harder and rewards you with nutrients, and the other just gives you a sugar rush and a bit of a headache.

I’m not here to shake my broom at you and tell you to go read a book; in fact it’s safe to say that I do the majority of my reading on screens. But for your brain’s sake, skip the listicles.

6. They’re Often Emotionally Manipulative.

Listicle headlines are often written to pull on your heartstrings. A lot of people call this “clickbait,” but these headlines aren’t necessarily deceptive. They certainly can be, but clickbait is by definition deceptive, and what we’re talking about here is just emotional manipulation.

Listicles rely on provoking not just your curiosity, but on provoking emotions such as anger, outrage, surprise, inspiration, and excitement to get you to click through, and the headline is designed specifically to appeal to those emotions. Not only that but the content of the listicle is designed to keep you reading through to the end, often tickling those same emotional triggers, and often through multiple pages (which means multiple clicks and multiple ad impressions) along the way.

And often, you don’t even get the pay off for that emotional arousal, leaving you feeling unsatisfied.

7. They Work.

Listicles are easy. They require little commitment from readers in terms of both time and effort. You get a little emotional jolt out of them. There’s one out there (probably way more than one) that will confirm some existing bias you hold and that’s satisfying too. The link text is always tempting, and using the Buzzfeed model, you’re going to see some funny gifs, and who doesn’t love funny gifs?

They gain ad impressions, they support native marketing, they make money. You are buying that content with your attention and your browser space, which are hot commodities in the online ad space, and people are making money off of it.

Buzzfeed, perhaps the monarch of listicle publishing, made three hundred million dollars in revenue in 2018. This was not all generated from listicles; Buzzfeed also produces some fun video content and quizzes and heartstring pulling slideshow content, but it’s all in the same vein of mindless entertainment.

In Conclusion.

Your apportionment of your attention changes the web. What you look at, what we all look at, encourages some types of media and discourages other types. This is a kind of power. Use it wisely. Consider what you want the web of the future to look like; do you want slideshows full of gifs and blinking, flashing ads? Do you want thoughtful, in-depth content? Do you want to see a mix of both?

Consider what you want to see and apportion your attention accordingly. Me? Listicles make me feel tired.

So this post should be taken in with the understanding that I am 41 years old. I’m part of the generation that witnessed the beginning of the web, and that remembers a time without it. I am, as they say, an Xennial. Trapped between worlds.

I was there in the BBS days. I was there for Hamster Dance. I witnessed the rampant overuse of the gif. I have seen it all, some through the green monochrome monitor of an Apple IIE.

So I’m not new here. But also, I’m not quite a digital native, either.

There are too many bad websites out there. Even some really professional corporate websites are bad. And I’m here to tell you what I, a middle-aged grad student (clearly everyone’s target market), am looking for in a website.

Don’t Fear White Space.

It’s not just okay that every inch of your website isn’t taken up by widgets and feeds, it’s a good thing.

Personally, I’m an inveterate consumer of content. I have a wicked news habit I just can’t kick and I’m subscribed to more than a hundred podcasts. The stack of books I’m reading dominates the top of my bookshelf (and my personal reading log). So I’ve got a lot rattling around in my head at any given moment.

Extras, like a feed letting me know that someone just bought one of your products popping up in the corner, distract me from your content.

Company name has been edited out because they’re a company I actually really like.

Your use of white space directs the eye to what you want consumers to see. What you want them to interact with. I get that a feed like this functions as social proof, but I think there’s a way to do it that’s less distracting.

You want the design of the site to direct me to what you want me to see, and using white space (and plenty of it) does that. It forces the eye toward your content (or your CTA, or your buy button, or what have you). That doesn’t mean that it has to be all white space; you want a sidebar with other content? Great! I love content, I want to see what else you have to offer me. If it’s intriguing I might stay a while. But keep it simple, and use negative space to direct me around your site.

White space between paragraphs is necessary too. Break up any walls of text. Reading on a screen is already difficult, don’t make it harder than it already is, or you’ll lose me.

Use Animation Sparingly.

I know this stuff can look really slick, right? Finally, a website that moves! Dynamic elements, pieces of text that scroll over the background, reactive menus and other navigation elements! You have ultimate freedom to make the website you want!

Stop.

Too much animation distracts me from the elements of the website that really matter to you or your business (your content, your CTA, what-have-you). It can make pages frustrating to navigate and impair website performance.

And there are people who suffer from motion sensitivity that may not be able to use your website at all with too much animation. Remember, accessibility is important on the web, too.

Use Clear Fonts.

I was looking at copywriting portfolios online today, and I stumbled across one (that I won’t link to, I’m not here to start problems) that used a script type font for headings.

Why?

Folks, I know you think the script is pretty. I know you think it’s on-brand for you, especially if you’re a writer. But it’s difficult to read, and I’m probably going to pass on it and move to a website that’s easier to read. There is a wide, wide world of online content out there, and I’m not working for yours particularly unless you give me a damn good reason.

There is no excuse for making your website harder to read.

Using script fonts sparingly, such as in a logo or a header can look really classy and great, but don’t use them in the headings or body of the website content, or if you do, make sure they’re bold and clear enough to be read easily.

Pop-Ups – It’s Complicated.

Look, I’ve read a dozen articles about how well pop-ups work. I really honestly have. I have read most of them in a state of consternation.

I’m prepared to admit that in some circumstances, and in some contexts, they work on me too. I would be either a fool or a liar if I didn’t. But they’re also one of the fastest ways to get me to leave your website.

If I’m reading an article or blog post and your pop-up comes in the middle of my enjoyment of said content, I might close it and keep reading, but I’m less likely to visit your website in the future. It’s analogous to sitting in a park reading a book and then having some guy come up to you and try to sell you something. It’s distracting and disruptive and unpleasant.

It’s important to understand that as an unemployed grad student with no money, I am of course everyone’s target market.

Seriously, though, the least disruptive pop-ups are the ones that appear after I’ve reached the bottom of the page, and honestly to me that makes the most sense in terms of a customer’s sales journey.

And for God’s sake, keep it to one pop-up, please.

Use Contrast for Readability.

Maybe it’s my age, but I often struggle with readability on websites. I don’t know if you remember, but a few years ago it was really in to have medium grey text on a white background and it was nearly unreadable. It became so prevalent that I would close a browser tab out of spite whenever I encountered it.

Believe it or not, people are still doing it.

Look, it doesn’t matter how slick and well-designed your website looks if I can’t read it.

This is an accessibility issue too, there are people who are vision impaired who simply cannot wade through paragraphs of low-contrast text. And it’s both impolite and unwise to ask them to try.

In Conclusion.

There you go, my gripe post about websites. I feel like a lot of this ties into readability and site performance, which are two things that every blogger or web designer should concern themselves with. I don’t think they’re too much to ask.

I’ve been offered an opportunity, and I’ve decided that if I can accept it, I should.

As a part of my MBA program, I have the chance to take a course on competing in a global environment at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. This is a very highly regarded school in China.

Of course, taking advantage of this opportunity isn’t free. While Western Washington University will cover accommodations and meals, I still have to pay for tuition, airfare, and visa and other expenses.

Before I break down my situation, let me tell you a little about myself:

I lost my last permanent, full time job in 2010, at the beginning of the “recovery” from the Great Recession. After that I exhausted my unemployment and my paltry “retirement” savings, leaving me completely broke. I worked part time and temporary jobs, and in fact, I haven’t had a full time permanent position since then.

Desperate, I filled out a FAFSA and found out that yes, funds were available for me to go back to school. This was a revelation to me; my parents said they were setting aside money throughout my childhood to invest and save for my college career, and yet somehow that money evaporated when I was an adult.

So I went back to school. I had no idea at that time that my passion would be in business.

I graduated with my degree in business administration in December of 2018, and made the decision at that time to pursue my MBA.

And that brings us to today. I still have no savings, and am still scraping by month to month.

But the opportunity to take a course at a prestigious foreign university is too huge to pass up if I can make it happen.

It will look great on my resume.

Having studied overseas, especially at Shanghai University, is going to look wonderful on my resume. It will open doors for me, someone who has spent ten years living in poverty, in terms of getting a good job and beginning to save for actual retirement. It will indicate my dedication to learning about my work and an ability to work well with those who are different from myself.

It will be a valuable educational experience.

I am passionate about the study of business in a way I never thought I would be. If you had told a younger me that in middle age, I would be furiously studying business and loving it, she would never have believed you. I’m fascinated with how business is part of the fabric of society and indeed of human nature. This is an opportunity to study how business impacts foreign economies, and the world economy. This will give me a more well-rounded view of my place in the world and the ways in which I can improve it.

It’s a chance to conquer fear.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m terrified to go. The idea of traveling to a foreign country on my own, going through customs and immigration on my own, navigating a foreign city on my own, is frightening to me. But my (former) therapist always told me that it was important to confront these anxieties in ways that are safe and constructive. This would be made more safe because I am traveling with classmates and our instructor, and thus less likely to become hopelessly lost in a city where I don’t speak the language.

My class needs enough people for the trip to go forward.

If we don’t have enough people committed to go, the trip may be cancelled, or the cost of it inflated until other classmates of mine can no longer afford it. It’s not a large cohort, only twenty people, so every one of us counts. If I get to go, not only does it benefit me, but it also benefits my classmates, who are people with the potential to get into business and change things for the better.

But I don’t have the money.

I presented this problem to my friends, and they suggested that I try to crowdfund it. I started that process and raised around $300 from my nearest and dearest, and I’ve started putting away my meager freelance income as well.

I’ve decided that if I can scrape together the $1000 deposit before the November 15th deadline, I will commit to going. This doesn’t cover the airfare, the cost of the visa, nor clothing expenses, etc. The reason I have to raise tuition costs for the course is that my partial tuition waiver from my work as a research assistant for the university doesn’t cover this course.

I’m almost halfway there.

After I get the deposit covered, I’ll start worrying about airfare and visa costs, and some wardrobe pieces so that I don’t look like a begpacker while I’m there.

I know you don’t know me well, dear reader, but if you have a few dollars to spare, every little bit helps. In terms of funding, I’m not using GoFundMe, I’m simply using my PayPal link. You can donate here.

I know it’s a lot to ask for people who may not know me, but I have to try. I have to try to make this happen.

If you’re not willing or able to donate, sharing this post with people would also help.

Thank you for reading.

You might think to yourself, well, Allison is a huge proponent of digital technology as a means of democratizing the publishing industry, so she must love digital versions of text books for her classes, right?

Wrong. I still buy them, because let’s face it, they save you money and they do take up a lot less space. But I absolutely despise digital versions of college text books. Let me tell you why.

They’re Not Ebooks.

We’re not talking about mobi files or epub files, or even pdf files that you can download and put on your Kindle (or e-reader of choice). They’re locked down, so that you have to read them on a computer or tablet screen, and you can only read them while you have internet access. This means that I can’t take my textbooks camping, or read them on a car or bus ride. It also means I have to read them on a lit screen, and that’s kind of a hassle because I find lit screens really hard to read on. This is why I love my Kindle Paperwhite; I can dim the screen as needed to make reading easier on my eyes. I can get the angle of the screen right for reading, reducing the impact of ambient lighting and other sources of glare. I can carry the Kindle around with me easily, hell, I can even vacuum with it in hand.

But no. No text books on your Kindle.

I do read on my laptop. I read article length pieces, typically 2,000 words or less. Reading on a computer screen for these short lengths of time isn’t a strain. Reading three chapters of college text books, on the other hand, is a much more time and labor intensive activity.

You Don’t Get to Keep Them.

You can’t keep these text books that you paid a hundred dollars for. Typically your access to the books expires at the end of the term or shortly after, which means you can’t use them for reference later in school or indeed in your professional career. You can’t download them and store them on your computer, so in essence you’re paying a hundred dollars (or more) to rent a digital text that is difficult to read.

It is a better value to rent a physical copy of the text book from Amazon than to purchase these “e-texts” because it costs a lot less and hey, you don’t get to keep it anyway. But this is often not an option because the digital text books come with a set of homework usually required by the class you’re taking. That means…

You Don’t Actually Get a Choice.

When these books come with homework sets in an online “class,” you’re forced to buy the e-text. You’re not forced to use it, because get this, you can pay extra to get a physical text book sent to you.

I actually had one class over summer quarter that made a purchase of online course materials optional, which was great because it meant that students who could afford to make that extra purchase were graded differently than those who couldn’t. That sounds completely fair, right?

So even when you do get a choice as to whether to buy or not, it’s not a real choice.

They’re a Bad Deal All Around.

They’re not a good deal for the consumer at all, for all the reasons mentioned above and more. I’m not going to get into why they get away with stuff like this, because that’s a topic that deserves its own blog post and requires a lot more research than I’ve done for this spur-of-the-moment complaint blog. Also there are likely people out there who have written on the subject better than I can.

But I will say this: if text book publishers had to compete in a market that was open and fair, things wouldn’t work this way.

Okay, I’m going to get back to doing my homework.