Writing doesn’t come easy — and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Canadian designer Paul Jarvis is one designer who has found a way with words, writing for the likes of Fast Company, Huffington Post and Adobe’s 99u, whilst running a successful web-design studio for entrepreneurial clients including Alexandra Franzen and David Ursillo. With a friendly but bullshit-free style, refreshingly peppered with swear words (like the rest of this article), Paul’s writing is pragmatic without ever being preachy — something that isn’t an easy combination to pull off. When I dialled into Skype at what I thought was the scheduled time for our interview, it turned out that I’d gotten my daylight savings time mixed up, which resulted in an unexpected confession from Paul:
“I have two rats sleeping on my leg and I don’t want to move them…”
And so with his pets (who often take a starring role on his Instagram feed) snoozing away, we started our conversation by talking about Paul’s early forays on the web. before moving onto how he set up his design studio, and eventually got into writing.
How did you get started in the design industry? Was it something you did at school?
No, I was at university for computer science, around the time when the internet began to get a little more mainstream, early-to-mid nineties. I just started to make websites for the fun of it, I was learning to program at university, and the web was just a new program. One website that I made, Pseudodictionary, got really popular and it was in Fast Company and Wired, places like that. It was getting half a million views a month, so it got pretty big, pretty quickly! That got the attention of an agency in Toronto where I lived at the time, who figured “Hey this new internet thing is something we could sell to our clients… we need somebody to build websites… maybe he can do it”. So I dropped out of university… and they brought me in as a webdesigner… I don’t know if that term even existed back then. Eventually I became the creative director of their agency, mostly doing web stuff. And I really taught myself whilst I was working there, continuing to grow my knowledge of design and the web and how they worked. But I didn’t like it much, so I quit after about two years. I’d decided “Hey I guess I should write a resume” but didn’t know how, so I went to the library… which is what you did back then when you needed information… kind of funny… [laughing] So I went to get this book, and when I got home I started to get calls from the clients of that agency saying “Hey Paul, we know that you’re the one who really led the show and did the work, so whatever company you go next is where we’ll take our business”. And after about the third or fourth call, I figured I could start my own company and keep all the clients and money for myself. So that was how I got started in design. At the time, working for yourself wasn’t something normal people did. It was still really fringe… and it was always “I guess you’re building an agency”… but that was never my goal. I didn’t want to grow the company, and I still don’t.
Getting started with writing
I was the little loner kid in my room when I was a child, playing with lego and writing stories. So I’ve always been writing, but it’s only in the last four or five years that I’ve seen a correlation between writing and the work that I do. I was journaling before it was called blogging, but all of that for the last 20 years had nothing to do with work. But now I’ve realised that if I write I can reach more people with the ideas that I have, if I put them into writing. I can probably only work with 15 or 20 clients a year at most… usually less than that because I don’t like to work very much. So I figured if I wrote I could reach a much bigger audience. Initially it was writing mostly about webdesign. Clients tend to have these notions which are wrong [laughing] that I wanted to correct… that’s how I got the Be Awesome at Online Business book.
Most of my writing is trying to course-correct people’s notions of how their website should be, based on what I’ve seen work for my clients.
And I’m lucky that quite a lot of my clients are quite successful, and they do even better than I do on the web with their communities and the products that they release. So I feel like the knowledge that I’ve gained from that, I could really put to use for a wider audience. Now I write less about webdesign and more about working for yourself and entrepreneurship.
I hear from so many designers that they want to start a blog but haven’t quite made that first step yet, or maybe they’ve redesigned this blog ten times already but not actually written anything. What advice would you give to someone like that… who’s thinking about writing but hasn’t started?
The same advice that I’d give to most clients — stop worrying about things that don’t matter. As web designers we feel that webdesign is the most important thing. But especially if it’s a blog, the design is secondary. Few web designers really like the way their site looks! Or it’s very rare… yeah… I’m redesigning my site for the gazillionth time right now, but it’s not really that important. The thing that I found works well for me as a designer… if I open Word or Pages or something like that, it takes me twenty minutes to start to write, I’ve got to pick the font, the colour, get the kerning and the line-spacing right…
“The main thing is to just write. And put aside that the site needs to look perfect or work perfectly. None of that matters that much!
It’s really just getting down to write, and writing as often as possible”
Fuck all that shit! It’s easier just to open a program that doesn’t let you tweak anything, and write. So things like Draft or iA Writer. I can’t fuck with any of the settings; all I can do is sit there and look at text. And that’s how I write. Eventually I put it into Google Docs for my copy editor to review. But initially I write in iA Writer because there’s no settings. It’s just markdown. And I’m pleased enough with the way the words look on screen; they’ve spent some time with the typography.
We get stuck in our heads with how things look a lot of the time, and forget that the purpose of a blog is content. The sooner you can get to making that, the better.
I think a lot of times web designers get stuck on the idea… “OK I’ve got to talk about flat design vs skeuomorphism, or I’ve got to talk about industry related things. But you don’t. You could have a blog about fucking pizza! If you’re writing and putting out content; sure if it’s relatable to what you’re doing that’s probably helpful. But you can relate stuff that’s beyond just your industry. I write a lot about entrepreneurialism, and a lot of web designers are entrepreneurs, so there’s a relation. Or I write about stuff that clients find interesting — they’re the people that are giving me money anyways, so I’ve always found that that’s a better audience for me personally. They’re the ones that are going to be paying me and working with me, and they’re the ones who I’m serving as an industry. So they are the people that I want to reach and interact with, more than people who are in web design already.
A lot of the stuff that you write about relates to wider human issues — say fear, and other things that hold people back. It’s funny because this morning I was making a list of excuses in my head to cancel the call, because I was freaking out. I like the honesty of your writing…
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of… not just in the design profession but in lots of professions… you need to put on these airs of being professional, be this infallible company of one person, or use the royal ‘We’ when it’s just us sitting at our desks with rats sleeping on our lap. I’ve never really done that, I’ve found it serves me better just to be a real fucking person. [laughing].
It’s ok to be vulnerable
I have lots of fears, so that’s something I write about, because that’s something that I know, and that I deal with every day. I’m super introverted, and I have problems communicating, especially talking, and that’s why I like to write as well. But I find that the more I dive into the struggles that I deal with — and it gets into psychology and stuff, I’m a bit of an armchair psychologist — but the psychology behind it for me is: when I bring to life things that I’m struggling with, I feel that I’m alone in that.
Every time I talk about something that I feel makes me really vulnerable, I get 50 or 100 emails saying “I’m going through the exact same thing”.
So for me the intention behind talking about those things is to show that it’s universal. Because a lot of it is, like fear, or dealing with things when you’re working for yourself or when you’re in a creative profession… we all have the same fucking thoughts and fears and we go through the same shit.
Let’s talk about how you transitioned your writing into something that earns money, rather than just something you are giving away for free on your blog. You’ve released two ebooks already right?
What I’ve done with that… it’s not really been a strategy per se… it’s been me playing around with things on the side. I do all the writing whilst I’m doing design for clients, because that’s what pays 70-80% of the bills, so I still need to do that. But I have noticed a shift, where I can make enough money with writing to scale my design work back a bit. The first book that I wrote was a vegan cookbook, which was neither here nor there with what I do for work, it was just good to get my feet wet with writing in that, because I didn’t — and I still don’t really — think of myself as a writer or author. I’m just somebody that makes and writes books. The reason that I do that is because, it seems scary to do be a writer. If I call myself a writer, I need to live up to this ideal of… ”this is what a writer writes about, this is what a writer does, this is how a writer approaches things”… and I don’t give a shit! I would rather keep writing the way that I know how, and that works for me. [caption id=”” align=”alignnone” width=”1300.0”] A recipe from Paul’s Eat Awesome e-book.[/caption] So I transitioned slowly. The first book I wrote whilst I was designing, and I think it maybe cost me a couple of hundred dollars, and I traded for the stuff I did. So with the photographer I traded food. Every meal that I made for the cookbook, I gave her [laughing]. I tried to spend as little money as possible on the first book, because at that point it was a hobby so I didn’t really want to sink much money into it. But then that book started to make money and it sold thousands of copies, so with the second book I could spend more money on editing and copyediting and that sort of thing.
And you weren’t writing for web designers, you were writing for your clients?
Exactly. So that book, Be Awesome at Online Business, became more relevant to the actual business that I run, and that was for people looking to have a website designed. It really tied in directly to my industry. And that was funded by the first book. It’s more about entrepreneurship and dealing with struggles and that sort of thing, I actually took time off, three months, to write full time. But the only reason I did that was because I made enough money from the first two books. So I’m not poaching money that I make from webdesign to fund my writing. I’m using my writing to fund itself. I’ve found too that as I grow my audience, and I get a bigger mailing list and more followers on Twitter or whatever, that it’s easier to… I work more on building my audience than I do on selling my books, because then when you put something out, they’re more keen to buy it, without me having to pitch them. I’m not really big on sales, it’s not really my strong point with design books, I just suck at sales.
So I try to make as much value as I can with what I do, so that people will want to buy it without me prodding them to buy it, and they’ll tell friends and other people about it without me pushing them to do so.
I’ve really worked on, in between each book, on writing as much as I can about what the books going to be about anyway. Sometimes there’s overlap. Some of the articles that I’ve written for my mailing list or for my website appear in book. But that’s just me testing to see if my points are valid, or see if people are resonating with the ideas that I bring up. And that also gives people a taste for… “this is going to be in the book, so if I like this article then I’ll probably like the book”, which is a more powerful sales tool than writing a sales page or something. In-between each book, I’m writing about that book, putting some of it out to my mailing list or website, I’m really promoting it by writing, than by promoting it, if that makes sense.
Making time to write
How organised are you in terms of scheduling content? Do you know what you’re going to write about a week in advance, or is it more freeform than that?
Yes and no… I try to put something out to my mailing list and website once a week. And I need to schedule it because my flow is that I write a piece, send it to my editor and copyeditor for review, and then they usually tell me to change some stuff in terms of sentence structure, because I’m a horrible writer… I’m good at getting ideas down but I’m horrible at the structure of it. So I work with those two women, who are smarter than I am, and we kind of refine it a bit. It usually takes about four or five days, and then it goes out to my mailing list. Sometimes stuff gets bumped, sometimes stuff is last minute, sometimes it’s scheduled a week in advance. But I tend to write more off the cuff and try to get it out. So if I wrote four pieces, I’d probably want to release them all in four different ways right away. I don’t really queue stuff up.
I write every single day, but out of those seven days of the week, there’s maybe one or two things are worth a damn.
So those one or two things I might send to my editor, one of them might not work, or if they both work out then one’s probably going into a book or to a publication, and one’s going to my mailing list. Yeah, it’s probably 10% of what I write is good enough, and then is only good enough because it’s been edited to shit! [laughing]
It’s kind of like a muscle, you need to do this workout every day…
Exactly… and if I went to the gym I’m sure I could make some better analogy, but yeah, it is. All creativity is a muscle. Even with design, the reason I can be a web designer on command, basically, is that I don’t have the luxury to sit around and wait to be inspired. It’s just a fucking job — I just got hired, this is the schedule and I just gotta sit down and work.
So I really approach writing the same way. Today I gotta write, so I’m gonna sit down and get my work down. And sometimes it sucks, but I try not to attach potential outcomes to the writing, I try to just write. If my goal was to write well I’d probably have an ulcer and be stressed out all the time…
And that philosophy of things being an experiment rather than the be all and end all, if you apply that to anything you’re trying to do, that’s a way to make things happen. It removes that pressure of perfection from things…
It’s an easier way (in general) to live your live, to not be attached to the outcomes. If you attach what you’re doing to an outcome, you almost feel entitled to it. Entitlement is never a good thing. Like “I deserve this because I’ve done this”. I don’t see that working out well for any creative in their life. You should just be doing your work and fucking hustling, and if good things happen then that’s great, but if they don’t, you’ve still done the work. If you focus more on showing up, and the doing the work aspect of it, that in itself becomes the reward. And you don’t really ever fail. If my goal is to sit down and write 500 words, even if it’s crap I’ve accomplished something, and I can check that thing off the todo list, and it release those endorphins or whatever in my brain… “Ahhhh that feels so good”.
I’ve got an idea for a guest post I want to write. But because I’ve set it up as an article for someone else, I haven’t even started writing it yet. It’s just that idea that it’s going to have a different audience that’s put a dampner on everything.
The first time I wrote an article for Fast Company it was the same. I had three weeks to do it and I put it off for two and half weeks. And I was writing articles for myself and they were all awesome, but every time I got that pit in my stomach: “Fuck this is for Fast Company, it has to be fucking awesome!” Now I try to write articles and then pitch them to people or publications. I’m finding I’m writing better articles if I write them first and then pitch them to the editor.
Originally we were going to start about the Kickstarter campaign for your book. But that never happened… [__both laughing]. __I think the reasons why are quite interesting, and relate to your thing of doing things reader-first, rather than building things to suit your own needs.
Kickstarter is great, and I back so many projects because I love the model of going directly to your audience to see if an idea is viable. It’s easy to survey people, or to ask people what they think of an idea, but until there’s a transaction it’s just a pie-in-the-sky idea. So that’s why I was going to use it for my book… but for me I found Kickstarter became.. a marketing machine.
Before I closed my project I think 3% of funding came from Kickstarter and 97% came from my audience directly. So you’ve really got to push people yourself to fund a campaign, you can’t rely on Kickstarter because it just doesn’t happen.
What I found was that in order to make a Kickstarter successful, you’ve got to promote and hustle your ass off with interviews and guest posts and writing content and tweeting about it a hundred times a day… and I just… I got bored of that after the first day. And yeah on the first day I reached 50% of my funding goal but I just felt like I hated myself [laughing] for doing it. “This is fucking stupid! I’m gonna release the book anways!”. I wanted a hardcover version of it, and the way the funding was going I had almost 80% of it, but the way it was going I didn’t have enough for the hardcover book which was the whole point of the campaign to begin with.
I don’t know if you’ve read Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch’s APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) — but the message is that to be an author now, especially an independent self-publisher, you’ve got to be an entrepreneur, and really promote the shit out of what you do, really build your own brand.
And that’s what I saw happening with me, I was being asked to speak at conferences… I was doing maybe three or four interviews a day… and that’s great and a nice ego-stroke, but I had no time to do my design work or write. So I was like “What the fuck am I doing?”, and I had to walk away from it [the Kickstarter campaign]. This is the first interview I’ve done in two or three weeks since I cancelled it. I think I’ve worked on five different logos for clients in the past couple of weeks… it’s been awesome… I love just sitting and designing! And today is an interview day, so I’ve got like five back to back, which is much better for me as an introvert, where I can just get it all done on the same day. So this interview is partly about not doing interviews, that’s what you’re saying right? That it’s too much work to be in self-promotion mode all the time?
It’s funny too… I look at what I wrote about in my new book “Everything I Know”… that book really talks about the reason that I’ve done ok in my business: because I’ve said “fuck it” to every piece of advice that anyone’s ever given me, and done things the way that I want to do, that align with the values that I personally have.
But when I was doing Kickstarter and doing all these interviews, I was going against everything I wrote about in the fucking book! It just felt like I was being an idiot… it feels like the more that I align with what I personally need in my life, and the way that I need my work to work, the better it is.
So I don’t care about my brand. I don’t care about “me”, I’m not doing any speaking gigs, and I don’t want to be doing interviews that much… I don’t mind them, but they kind of zap my energy. If I do all the interviews on the same day, then I wake up and I know “Ok, I’ve got to do interviews, this is my job for the day”. And then the other four days of the week — or three days because I only work four days a week — the other three days I can be sitting in my own little world writing and doing design. And the other thing is that I never wanted to be the spotlight of my brand. With design, it’s always been the work that takes centre stage… or if I’m writing it has always been the writing. And that’s what I was finding with the interviews, people were asking questions about what I wrote in the book, and it’s just like “I suck at explaining things, especially talking about it”. And the answer that I wanted to give for almost every single question was “Read the book!” Not because I’m a dick, but because I explained it so much better there. And that’s why I’m a writer not a speaker!
I know what you mean. The thing about writing is that it’s like thinking in public. And it forces you to crystallise your thoughts… in a way that you can’t if things are just going around inside your head…
When I sit down to write about a topic, I don’t let it lead itself, I just write to see where the cards fall.
A lot of the time, I’m better at figuring things out in words… and my wife can attest to this [laughing]… I suck at talking and communicating verbally, but it’s easier for me to figure out what I think about stuff if I write.
I watched an interview that Chris Brogan did with the writer Steven Pressfield. And Steven Pressfield doesn’t really do interviews, so he’s like “The only thing I don’t want to talk about is the book! I don’t know what to say about the book other than what’s in it, so fucking read it!”
Check out Paul Jarvis’ blog and Write & Sell Your Damn Book, a new (and free) email course that aims to “kick you square in the ass to start your book, finish writing it, & get it out there for other people to read”. I couldn’t think of a nicer person to be kicked up the ass by when it comes to writing, so I’m already signed up. Also be sure to check out my first unDesign interview with Trakke founder Alec Farmer, who gave up graphic design to start his own adventure brand.