Alternate Title: Things outside my field I’m super impressed by.
There are some businesses, organizations, and groups that just do things better. Some of these are obvious, like Apple. Their entire brand is built on the idea of ‘doing things better’.
There are other, less obvious examples. These are the groups that make me step back and say “wow, I want to create something like that. I’ve got to up my game.” It’s these groups, no Apple, that I find really interesting — they’re the ones worth learning from.
For this post I’ll be focusing on groups outside the climate and energy / social movement space (which is where I spend most of my time). I could talk at length about things we do and don’t do well — perhaps in a future write-up? We’re innovative in a whole host of ways, but there are also many things we could be doing better.
One thing we could do better? Presentation, design, and accessibility.
That’s why I’m constantly on the lookout for inspiration from unlikely places. Here are a few groups that have caught my attention recently:
Tastemade: I stumbled across Tastemade a while ago and was extremely impressed. I still am. They’ve entered a well established market and have updated it in a way that’s extremely appealing to a younger generation (without pandering). They also haven’t gone the Vice News route of upping the ‘shock’ value or the Mic style of incessant clickbait. Instead, Tastemade opts for a measured foray into beautifully produced videos.
A good example is their video about making raw and vegan lavender cheesecake that’s not gross. Solid stuff. Their intro video is also one of the best I’ve seen and immediately made me want to make something similar for my own projects after watching it.
The Great Discontent: This seemingly simple sight has had a bigger impact on me than most. And not for the most obvious reason. I’ve read and enjoyed many of their interviews, but it’s the idea and story behind the publication that I’ve found particularly compelling. The online (and now print) magazine was started by two people with day jobs and follows a simple formula: weekly long-form interviews with a wide range of creatives. That’s it.
What this simplified form allows is focus. It’s doing one thing only and it’s doing it well. That’s a rare thing these days where everybody seems to be doing everything. Their site has also consistently had an excellent minimal design that leaves little space for anything except bold portraits of their subjects and the transcript of their interview.
The idea of interviewing people in a single industry isn’t new, but the way they have executed it has made me realize even two people can create something of significant value — all while maintaining their day jobs. It has also underlined the value of telling the stories of normal people working in a particular area. We often romanticize those doing something well, assuming we can’t do the same. Understanding how they got to where they are (including the missteps) is crucial, especially in activist spaces.
This is particularly important for young activists looking to get more involved.
The Verge: In some ways this is the most out of place entry on the list, but I’ve been consistently impressed with the quality of this publication. It’s no New Yorker, but it’s one of the few sites I check every morning (along with my Facebook feed and The New York Times).
In an era where social network curation keeps you from having to go to any sites on a daily basis, it’s amazing that I’m consistently drawn back to The Verge. I guess the feeling of ‘staying in the loop’ with all things tech/internet culture speaks to my inner geek? To make things even better, The Verge often reports on important stories outside their normal fare, like the latest developments in the Keystone XL fight or net neutrality. A serious upping of game compared to gawker or engadget before it. Feels fresh as opposed to more of the same tech naval gazing.
The design and mix of depth/breadth they manage is both appealing and engaging. I’m able to drop by the site for a few minutes, get what I need, then move along to other more important tasks. They’ve hit the perfect balance of giving me what I want without forcing me into a time-sink.
Makeshift: I don’t know much about Makeshift, but I do know it’s gorgeous. It’s relatively new and run by a small number of people committed to telling stories about creativity in beautiful ways — and looking through their website makes me want to launch my own magazine. It has somehow managed to avoid the ‘out-of-touch hipster’ trap that magazines like Kinfolk sometimes fall into. I’m looking forward to seeing where this publication goes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m also inspired by Kinfolk.
Valve: It is both inspirational and slightly depressing that one of the most progressive and innovative management structures (within a large organization) that I’ve found comes from a video game company. No disrespect to Valve, they’re a great video game developer and have been hugely successful, but I wish something like this came from the nonprofit sector where traditional market-based motivations don’t (or at least don’t have to) exist. Instead, the panacea of horizontal organizing comes from a bunch of geeks making games like half-life and portal. But I’ll take what I can get.
There are likely problems with this model Valve has run into: their ability to do this is likely, in part, due to having a trusted founder who’s able to make important decisions and several existing streams of reliable income. Yet I still find myself incredible inspired reading through their worker manual and wish every non-profit had something similar.
The League of Movable Type: If you’re looking for another example of a small group of people doing something amazing, look no further. I love this initiative for many reasons — it hits almost every point: long term value, easy to maintain, clever copy, clean design, supportive of open source standards. But, most of all, it’s a project that clearly started as one of those random ideas you dream up in the shower and was turned into reality. This doesn’t happen enough. I look to the League of Movable Type when I need inspiration to just go out there and make my ideas happen. Launch quickly and maintain over a long period of time — that’s what I’m always striving for, but clearly still have a lot to learn.
Automattic: Aside from having the same first name and birthday, Matt Mullenweg also has an incredibly clear-sighted view of the world for somebody who was a multi-millionaire and tech titan at a very young age. I think part of what makes him so inspiring is that he doesn’t view himself as either of those things. And it shows in Automattic, his company. You might not have heard of Automattic, but you’ve likely heard of WordPress. Yup, they’re responsible for WordPress.
They do a lot of things well, including innovative management structures, remote working, community engagement, and massive support for open source standards. But something that has really set them apart for me is a decision Matt made in 2010 to formally protect the WordPress trademark within the confines of a nonprofit.
Combined with the already open source platform, this was (and still is) near-revolutionary. He split the most valuable part of his company from the business side of things, ensuring its core values were maintained regardless of business decisions. As somebody who has a strained relationship (at best) with capitalism and its principles, I LOVE this. It allows for the best of both worlds to co-exist and both have flourished.
Tesla + SpaceX: This one is cheating a bit — I would place them firmly in the climate and energy space. But what excites me about Tesla isn’t just their electric cars or big batteries, it’s their approach (and specifically Elon Musk’s approach) to intellectual property. Last year I was blown away when I heard they had released all of their patents. As an avid Planet Money listener (an NPR podcast) I have a deep dislike for the current patent system.
Releasing the patents may have been a shrewd business move, but it’s also an incredibly important signal that some things are too important to keep locked up and we’re all better off being more open — truly sharing our work. This was further reinforced recently when SpaceX (another Elon Musk enterprise) released all of their photography under creative commons. Even better? After about an hour, they decided to make their images full-on public domain. That’s where the lead image of this post is from. I wish everything were in the public domain.
I have concerns about for-profit space travel, but overall like this development.
Radiolab: Ah, Radiolab. It only took one listen to grab my attention — years later it still hasn’t let go. I’ve been absolutely blown away by every piece of the production: the story-telling technique, the sound design, the subject matter, the individuals involved. Along with This American Life, it helped usher in ‘the golden age’ of podcasting. And for good reason. The team behind RadioLab created something head and shoulders above many of its peers — and then gave it away for free.
I’m not any closer to starting my own podcast (maybe someday), but I still draw huge inspiration from the continually impressive execution and quality of the work Radiolab does.
I’ve got lots of other groups (particularly activism-oriented groups) I find inspirational in a wide variety of ways, but I’ll save those for a future post. For now, the 9 above should be enough to get your creative juices flowing. I know they get me wanting to create beautiful, useful things.