Client Topography

Maps that give us meaning, the best font guide you've ever seen, and superthetical conversations

Hello, fellow traveler. Every week (or so!), this dispatch helps you make better creative and strategic decisions. Sometimes that means essays. Sometimes that means resources. Last time it was a brief meditation about how all games are markets. This time it’s a brief observation on the anxiety of the internet and how we organize our minds. Anyway, hello, it’s good to see you. Hope you like my new illos, I drew them using Concepts. -Steve

You are here

A lot of the work of digital work is working to figure out where, exactly, you are at any one moment in time.

Not where your body is which, like mine, is cradling a phone, tapping orisons into its rectangle of light. But where are the objects you're manipulating, and where are you when you manipulate them, and where is everybody else. Where is this awkward fumbling in the glovebox of the internet being done.

If you, like me, enjoy the free-floating anxiety of a day spent writing files and developing apps and using sheets and saving docs, of emailing and messaging and slacking those things, of holding and checking and clutching laptops and phones and pads waiting for those things to alert buzz ring chime, or being surprised distracted annoyed when they do, then it's quite possible that enjoyment is due to the fact that while you (like me) may seem to be sitting butt down in your heavily booked office in your comfortably appointed home, or nestled within your Outdoor Voices on a West Elm sectional, idly responding to a last few e-somethings from the boss, actually you, like me—each our own unique experience of nerves plugged into our brain’s self-generated electromagnetic field—we are freely floating, treading neurons, in an unstructured ocean of light-waved ideas. We are living mentally, emotionally, figuratively, whatever, within what we visualize the internet to be. 

This doesn't seem too terrible. We sit and things arrive. We sit and send things away. The Outdoor Voices sweatpants are comfortable. We're at rest and warm. Behind the laptop screen, the gale of docs and sheets moves quickly and cold.

Little people living in the TV

When I was very small I asked my mom how all the little people got into the TV. My mom explained that the little people in the TV were in fact regular people, that what we saw on TV was just smaller images of them. How did the images get inside, I asked. The images are beamed, she said, like radio waves.

This confused me further, because I also didn't understand how the tiny people got into the radios either. I wondered if, when Love Boat or Wheel of Fortune was over, whether these people got to leave the TV and return to normal size. But when I looked at the back of the TV I couldn't figure out how the little people had gotten inside, or how they had managed to leave.

This past week at work everybody on Slack played a game where we had to guess how tall other people were. This was strange because it hadn't occurred to me that these co-workers, whom I had never met IRL, had heights. As far as I was concerned they lived inside the screen.

A new project

I was hired, recently, for a gig to do content strategy. My client was an agency. The agency's client was a global brand. They were building an app. The app had articles and videos. Would I please develop a strategy for these things. The first step was to meet everybody involved.

A lot of the conversation about working remotely focuses more on "can people work effectively when removed from their office" (yes) than on "can you work effectively when removed from an office you've never seen in the first place" (yes, but more difficult by degrees).

Of course the term "office" is itself a concept that contains personalities, fiefdoms, relationships, shifting alliances, all that. What we call an office is really just a gelatinous blob of sentiment inside a rigid, box-shaped building. The boxes are helpful, though, because they reveal visually, through the control of physical space, who is important. Or who, at least, you need to pretend is important.

These days everybody is still in a box, but that box is flat. That box is zoom. I'm working from my kitchen in my pajamas but you only see my face. Can you tell how important I am.

Client topography

I'm often told I need to talk to somebody about topic X or task Y. My first question is to myself is always "hmm I wonder where they are?" Of course it's always the same answer. We're all of us always in the same place.

Other times, I'm talking to somebody about topic X or task Y and halfway through the conversation it hits me: "ah, we're talking about the same topic X, but he's talking about it 'up here'" (and I make a little hand above my forehead gesture).

And the objects we work on all day, the project plans and marketing strategies, gantt charts and go-to-market plans—they exist precisely where?

The original idea for this project exists, to the extent that ideas exist, on a slide in a deck on a laptop somewhere. The financial case for the project exists in a spreadsheet. The designs exist within Photoshop or Figma or Invision. The act of working means creating mental maps that associate these ephemera. This thing is over here, that thing is over there, I’ve gotta go up this stack to get to that file. Something like that.

Sometimes I think of all theses maps and all these concepts as boxes. My computer is the box that contains the internet box, the internet box contains the client box, the client box contains the workspace box, the workspace box contains the design box, the design box contains the Figma box.

The Figma box contains the content box.

The content box contains the brand guidelines box.

The brand guidelines box contains the voice and tone box, the voice and tone box contains the language rules box.

And down down down inside this matryoshka of boxes we go until we find the actual nouns and verbs, themselves also metaphors, themselves also boxes where we place our sentiment.

Ah yes, ok, these are our boxes. These are the words we choose.


Sources and Further Reading

Last letter’s most clicked links:

  1. Efficient Positions: frameworks for competitive strategy

  2. Kevin Kelly’s The Best Magazine Articles Ever

  3. How to Read Fewer Books


Shut up and play the links

The best font guide I’ve ever seen
”Often you have to put something together without knowing what the official fonts are. Rather than agonize for hours about what might look ok, fake it with this font-faking flowchart.” See also: Jazz Musician Lettering, an exploration of album cover typography across the decades.

China’s surreal new bookstore looks Borgesian
Mirrored ceiling, gleaming black floors, towering arches. Honestly it’s creepy af. While we’re on the topic of books tho, Erno Rubik’s (inventor of the cube) has a new book out on “the Imperfect Science of Creation”, Annie Duke’s latest, How to Decide, was just published this past week, Chuck Klosterman expanded Hypertheticals with a new set called Supertheticals (great for parties), and friend-of-the-pod Tim Hwang published Subprime Attention Crisis (about the fundamental weakness of the programmatic ad market).

The Conspiracy Chart
A widening cone of wackadoo stages of beliefs, from the “line of speculation” (UFOs, JFK’s assassination) to “leaving reality” (crop circles, loch ness) to “science denial” (5G, chemtrails, essential oils) to “the antisemitic line of no return” (QAnon, illuminati, flat earth, all that). I might take issue with the organization a bit. I think what’s really being tracked here is level of harmlessness—and while, e.g., believing in crop circles seems harmless enough, that might be because it’s an older belief, not because it’s less illogically dangerous. Regardless, good to see these ideas charted. Speaking of conspiracies, you may enjoy this brief essay tying together threads on QAnon, ARGs, and fragmented realities.

Short, calming video games for a terrible year
”If you are feeling stressed and need somewhere to escape for a little bit, this is a thread about some short, calming games that I hope will help you relax.” Includes some beautiful games I wasn’t aware of, including A Short Hike and Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to). Love the description on the latter: “A game about writing nice letters to real people. Write and receive encouraging letters in a cozy room. Trade stickers and listen to chill music. We're all in this together. Sometimes all you need are a few kind words.” Somewhat related: AOC’s twitch debut was fun to watch. Here’s a good recap from Polygon: AOC’s record-breaking Twitch stream is the future of politics


How can I help you?

This 100% organic, free-range, desktop-to-inbox newsletter is devoted to helping you make better creative decisions in marketing and beyond. Delivery at 6pm ET every Sunday, sharp as cheddar. Your host is Steve Bryant, who is for hire. If you’d like to chat just grab a 30-minute meeting. I’d love to meet you.


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