A post-it note-to-self that’s been on my laptop since 2018

If you know me, if you’ve seen me speak, if you’ve read some of the other stuff I’ve written — I have a three-word philosophy. How I try to operate, and how I coach others: Humility, Curiosity, Bravery. I believe these behaviors are a path to successful work that matters and grows your career in the process. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the barriers to these behaviors — because it’s easy to dispense advice and in practice, much trickier to take it. For lots of reasons.

A quick definition check:

Humility, for me, is about embracing the fact that I…


The Universal Traveler, New Horizons Edition, Don Koberg & Jim Bagnall, 1991

It started as a snarky post I made in my college major’s alumni Facebook group. I was poking fun at a book that was required reading my Sophomore year. I pointed out some of the flaws in its layout, and its tedious book-long metaphor about traveling. But mostly — just how hard it was to read as a college student. The post drew a few notes of agreement from fellow alumni, some laughs, and comments from my friends and fellow University of Delaware Visual Communications alumni. …


The boss who taught me about psychological safety, coaching, and talent whispering, Cece Morken

The journey from individual contributor to manager, for me, was an enlightening one. In several of my previous companies, I was promoted into managerial roles with very little training — or even rationale. In many cases, the only path up in those companies was a managerial path. Promoting me as a manager was a reflection of my strength as an individual contributor and perhaps an acknowledgment of my potential. In nearly every case, I was asked to “keep doing what I was doing” — just do it while in charge of others. A player-coach model, I suppose.

I’ve learned that…


Designing a durable, delightful, sustainable product is a challenge that takes intense research, tons of failing and learning from failure, and conviction to do what’s right especially when it isn’t easy. Designing a durable, delightful sustainable design team to deliver said product takes all of that stuff — plus a ton of trust. It’s like willing another family into existence. And somehow doing it all with your hands in your pockets, figuratively.

What do I mean by hands in your pockets? Karl Leiberman, the Executive Creative Director at Weiden Kennedy put it like this:

“When you’re a creative, you’re basically…


Most designers that I’ve spoken to, who are looking for jobs, are unprepared to answer two simple questions: What’s your dream job? And what’s keeping you from getting that dream job now?

Aim for the bull’s eye, hit the target

A critical piece of career development is setting SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-oriented. As a graduating senior starts pushing their portfolio across the table (virtually, physically, whatever) to be inspected by a hiring manager or recruiter, I can understand the hesitancy to declare your dream job. I also understand the mindset that “Any job is a good job.” …


How does a designer get promoted? Get a raise? Get the exciting new assignment? Get a better job? These are questions I get — from my own team and also from designers I meet, in person and virtually, on a regular basis. These are great questions. There are no easy answers.

Your company may not have “that role” for a next level designer. And by that role, I mean the need for, or budget for, next level skills and experience. It’s important for you to understand the economics of your role — and your business. Understand the levers that drive…


My Covid-19 bunker, replete with infinite Zoom backgrounds and a Stratocaster at arms length.

Zoom. Overnight my job, my social life, my ongoing personal and professional development have been transformed to Brady-Bunch-esque, cleverly back-dropped virtual collaborations paired with a variety of beverages.

Literally. Overnight.

COVID-19 has revealed many things about my life, my family, my personal and professional relationships. My sleeping and exercise habits. My son’s ability to distill an 8 hour school day into 45 minutes of daily school work (probably not really). My wife’s impressive yet until now untapped skill at scratch baking. One thing that has given me long pause is the organizational resilience of Intuit in the face of an…


Last week I asked my broader Linkedin community if they‘d help me with an experiment: a craft exercise to help designers use their skills to frame their value on projects, and their potential to an employer. I got many gracious offers of support and more than enough volunteers to run a quick over-the-weekend experiment.

I shared a simple assignment with a small collection of volunteers. I gave them 48 hours to complete and upload their interpretation of the assignment. …


Aurélia Durand For Black History Month 2020 — Facebook Analog Research Lab Posters

Mandy Price, CEO and Co-Founder of Kanarys, lays out a pretty compelling case for getting diversity and inclusion right in the workplace: “…A recent study shows that less than 30% of people of color reported a sense of belonging in their workplace. This is a problem for both employees and companies because those same employees end up leaving, resulting in attrition costs of approximately $144,000 per employee, annually.”
Attrition costs are just the tip of the iceberg. “Diversity and inclusion is not for people who have been excluded. It’s for all of us,” according to Exelon EVP, Chief Strategy Officer…


Tom Hansen, my first Creative Director and Mentor

2019 has been a tough year for me. I lost three of my most influential leader-mentors. Like 3 well-landed punches in the ribs, their deaths knocked the wind out of me. Thrice spurring a humble reflection on my own mortality. Most importantly I mourn a world with them no longer in it — because they opened so many doors for me and my peers. It’s heartbreaking that they’re no longer here to inspire a new generation of creatives. I suppose that’s my job now. And while I can’t hope to live up to what made these guys great, I’ll try.

james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.

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