Branding Emotionally

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As I began to talk with Ryan about pursuing a new design for SilverPen Publishing, I lamented the fact that I have never really been satisfied with my website. This has resulted in changing its appearance and sometimes overall organization once or twice a year since I first set it up in 2004. I never quite knew what I wanted, and I’m not capable of designing it anyways, so I just found some pre-fabricated theme, slapped it on, and convinced myself that it’s good enough to use.

Of course, it never was good enough, and because my site’s design has never been how I truly wanted it to be, I have never been satisfied for long. This results in my changing the design after a few short months and, as Ryan pointed out, that prevents my readers from ever establishing a true connection with my site.

This connection, or at least what creates this connection, is referred to as “branding,” and the consideration of the subject is relatively new to me. As a writer, I continually hope that people will read what I write and continue visiting because they liked what they read. That might be the case eventually, but it takes a lot of work to get there.

Everyone knows you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we also know that when we’re strolling down an aisle at Barnes & Noble, it’s the covers and the titles that catch our eyes more than anything. Unless we went in looking for a specific author, and even if we did, we’re often going to browse around and pick something up that is pretty and visually interesting.

The same goes for a website. Something that is visually appealing, well designed, and easy to use is going to attract repeat visitors far more than a plain black and white page. This is even more important when the primary content is text-based; webcomic artists can have a spartan page because their primary content is visually appealing, but writers have no recourse to ocular stimulation beyond the design of their site or the inclusion of a photograph with their article.

Branding is more than having a good design, though. Continuity is important to maintain that connection with your readers. If your site changes on a regular basis, repeat visitors may think they’ve stumbled upon a different site entirely, not realizing that you’re just spastic and can’t settle on something. Especially if they don’t visit often, or are returning months later to find a particular article, maintaining a consistent site design can make all the difference between frustrating and exciting them.

By way of example, I have trouble remembering exactly where something is when I’m reading, so when I return to look for a particular quote or page, my search is a contextual one. I try to locate what I’m looking for based on its relation to other things. This might include how far down a page I recall the quote being, or the series of steps I took to reach a particular article. But if everything looks different visually or has been moved around, there’s a decent chance I’ll never find it. And if I can’t find something the first time, I’ll likely never go back and look again.

As readers become more familiar with a look, they begin to recognize it as indicative of a site. It becomes comfortable and evocative, and the easy recognition of particular elements will allow you to communicate more clearly with your readers. Using the same logo on your site and business cards will help people relate the two and, in turn, relate them to you as a person. Connections are formed in the mind that will help people remember your work more clearly and with greater longevity.

The key is to find a design you really like, that really suits you, and with which you are really comfortable. All three of those are crucial because the second step is to hold onto it. You’ve got to remain steady for a while if you’re going to establish any sort of emotional connection with your readers. Otherwise, the next time they return and you’ve changed everything up on them yet again, there’s a decent chance they’ll surf away, never to return.

It’s The Thought That Counts

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

I was recently having a conversation with a young photographer I know about his aspirations for having a fancy new website designed. He was looking at spending a decent amount of cash to have something really slick put together for his photo gallery, and though the company was going to charge him a reasonable rate for that level of design work and manageability (meaning that it would be easily updated by the photographer himself), I wasn’t sure spending that much money on a website was a good idea at this point in his career. Though a fancy website is nice and will help accent, present, and convey your material, it is secondary to the material itself.

This might seem a bit contradictory to my earlier post which detailed how a poor design will stymie communication, so allow me to elaborate.

I read an article several years ago that looked with great curiousity at a number of online businesses that seemed to be succeeding despite their best efforts. These businesses had ugly, poorly formatted websites with outdated modes of communication and little information about their business or product. Designed in a style I usually refer to as “Angelfire-esque” or “Geocities ghetto,” the independent owners had put together something on the web that looked similar to what a cat might produce after eating too fast. They had a product, but they had no idea how to market it on the web.

And yet, they were succeeding. They were doing business online and turning a decent profit, to the confusion of everyone else who felt that a great design was needed to make your voice heard.

When surveying their customers, the journalist discovered that the people ordering goods from these sites actually preferred the poor design. It communicated to the customer that the owner cared less about a fancy website and more about them, the customers; that they spent more time on their product than on marketing; and that the end-result was higher quality service and goods.

I would never go so far as to say that this is always the case. Rather, I tend to think that if you are a seller of repute and quality, all aspects of your business should be of similar quality, and that extends to your website. But I do think the story highlights something that a lot of people are beginning to forget: the Content is More Important than the Wrapper.

Yes, a good design will help sell your product better, and once you’ve got a good product, your next step should be a good marketing approach and/or website design.  If your product is no good, though, the fanciness of your website becomes irrelevant.

I have known numerous photographers, webcomic artists, and authors whose websites were little more than a page with a single picture and the most rudimentary of navigation, or maybe they just threw their work onto a Blogger account (note: I personally detest Blogger and highly recommend WordPress as an alternative), and yet they were remarkable successes. This is because their work was of high quality and appealed to people. The content was good, so the wrapper or site design didn’t matter as much.

And generally speaking, once you’ve got the audience and fans, things move of their own accord and you eventually get a nicer website. But no one starts at the top, and likewise it probably isn’t wise to invest like you’re already there when you’re not.

A beginning musician doesn’t buy a five-million dollar Stradivarius violin, just like a beginning photographer doesn’t learn how to shoot photos on a ten-thousand dollar camera and a beginning author usually has nothing but a pen and paper. We all have to start somewhere and learn what we’re doing. We move up to the higher quality tools as we learn how to use them most effectively. Eventually, we reach a point where our work demands a better toolset, and we adjust accordingly.

But just because you have a Stradivarius doesn’t mean you can play like a master, and just because you have spent a few thousand dollars on a site doesn’t mean you’ll instantly have a booming business. So start small and focus on the quality of your product. Your customers will be attracted by your work, and they’ll be more attracted if they know that your focus is on them, not on yourself or your site. Put your work and your fans first and the rest will fall into place.

Design As A Weapon

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. All rights are reserved by the original author, Ryan Burrell.

In my first post in this collaborative series, I worked to develop a broader definition of what Design is – something more than what we tend to think about.  I touched on the idea of Design being a multi-edged sword, a force that can be used for many causes.  Commonly, we think of it as a tool for branding, presentation of ideas, and aesthetic pleasantness.  But can design be used for destruction?  A weapon for good or evil – against the mind or body?

A Branding of War & Nations

German Swastika
US Air Force emblem
Hammer & Sickle

For most of recorded history, nations and tribes have had some form of designating visual symbol.  Empires have had crests, banners, and flags.  Rulers have had signets, sigils, and emblems.  The adornments of soldiers and royalty, the style of weapons, and even the architecture of a culture were all visual decisions designed (consciously or subconsciously) to set a society apart.  The idea is twofold: instill national pride, and make sure your enemies know who you are.  The crest of a warlord or the flag of a nation could strike fear into the hearts of an enemy, or herald the return of hope to a beleaguered country.

In more recent times, we’ve seen the transition from cultural art to dedicated design when it comes to the presentation of power and force.  Ancient symbols have now become sanitized and placed on our flags, with thought put in to their alignment and presentation.  Think of the Nazi swastika, a foreboding cross in a white sphere on a field of red – a brutal herald of an extremist movement.  Or the American military badge that was its contemporary, a shining white star on an expansive blue background, backed by a crimson bar.  The former stereotypical Russian hammer and sickle imparted a sense of pride in strength and power, of struggle and dominance.  To this day, all military units possess some sort of badge that serves to identify their unit affiliation, as well as a herald of sorts that proclaims their past deeds and exploits.  These icons were not casually or idly created, but were designed to install certain thoughts in the viewer’s perception.  Colors, images, shape, line, form, and placement have all been employed to create signs of status – the logos of the world’s societies and military powers.

A Weapon of the Mind

WW2 Propaganda Poster

Whatever the perceived powers of Design may be, the true strength of it remains within the realm of the human psyche.  Design’s results affect those who view them, and the viewer may be irrevocably changed because of it.  A poster cannot will you to fire a rifle, but it may impart a deep emotional response that fires your sense of nationalism – which is perhaps more dangerous.  A billboard sign can’t make you suspicious of your neighbor for treason, but it can instill a sense of the extreme importance of national security and doing your part to keep it.

The term I’m dancing around here is “propaganda”, the famous posters and advertisements of the World War II era perhaps being the most exemplary.  Propaganda is little more than defined rumor, but rumors have so much more weight when a visual element is applied.

A Weapon for Weapons

The industrial design and architecture involved in creating the physical weapons of war cannot be ignored either.  In ancient times, weapons were not only functional but highly stylized.  A great warrior’s heavily embellished sword and scabbard would set him apart from other combatants, bringing fear and respect.  I’m reminded of the fantastic Arms & Armor book I read as a child which contained hundreds of examples of deadly, beautiful, and intriguingly functional weapons.  The brilliance of their designs was not simply in their stylized appearance, but in the fact that they were highly effective as well.

The design behind combat and an arsenal is part utility, part engineering, and part emotional impact.  A weapon must work, it must do its job with a minimum of extra effort and expense, and it must be intimidating.  Think of the sight of Apache helicopters hovering over a battlefield, or the iconic bulky, brooding Russian tanks of the Cold War era.  Imagine the sleek appearance of the first Messerschmitt combat jet in World War II, and the reaction of the enemy pilots in their clunky piston engine flyers trundling through the sky.  In war, the design behind combat can be just as important as the force.

A New Face for Modern Warfare

US Air Force & Army logos

In the modern day, the American armed forces perhaps more than any other military organization before or present have focused on defining themselves to the public via visual presentations and marketing.  The Army and Air Force specifically have developed logos for themselves that obviously attempt to modernize their images.  They have created slogans, and these have been given over to any number of print ads, websites, music videos, and commercials to tout becoming a part of “An army of one” or setting off “Into the blue”.  And driving home the meaning behind these ideas is a huge design force, making sure that the branding has consistency, the presentation is visually engaging, the information is shown clearly, and (above all) that everything that goes out makes the expected impact.

This is the darker side of Design – a creative force for destruction, and a huge contributing factor in the politics, propaganda, execution, and mentality of warfare.  I invite you to take a closer look at the symbolism of the nations of the world, and to research the motives behind those symbols.  Design reaches much further than the idealized notion of printed graphic tees and magazine ads we think of; the tip of the blade can be turned many ways.

“It Takes All Kinds” or “Maybe You Can’t Design”

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

Recognizing that “design” can refer to a great many things, this article will focus on web design specifically. I encourage you to mentally translate “web design” as any sort of design, because the same ideas apply, but I think it is significantly simpler and probably more helpful to write specifically rather than ambiguously.

Design takes a whole different sort of thinking. As I struggled to move a sidebar over about two hundred pixels to create a wider content area for my blog posts, I sweated and struggled to make everything line up right without breaking the entire page. After three hours of screwing with it, I gave up. Even if I did finally get everything where and how I kind of wanted it, the site as a whole simply wasn’t right. I could look at my theme and organization and know that it was lacking. The truth of the matter is that I am not only not a designer, but I just can’t do it.

My brain doesn’t work that way, so while I can write at great length on a subject, troubleshoot software incompatibilities with relative ease, and brew a great pot of coffee, I cannot push my way forward with visually artistic endeavours. I enjoy looking at art and architecture and can spend hours upon hours doing so, but I cannot draw, paint, or design my own. I look at a spartan, bland design and think it looks OK–black and white appeals to me just fine, and all the text (the important part) is there, so it’s good–but I recognize at the same time that it is lacking and subsequently fails.

When I was in elementary school, my mother enrolled me in the Phelps School for the Gifted. I had to take an IQ test prior to enrollment to discover/prove that I was in the top 2% of the intelligence quotient (fun fact: Mensa has lower standards for acceptance), after which I began taking classes at Phelps one day a week. Though the classes were altogether interesting, one of the greatest lessons regarded the myriad types of intelligence.

There was a boy in my morning class who, in a regular school, would probably have been referred to as “retarded.” He had a speech impediment, seemed sort of slow, and his social skills were rather lacking. He was a nice enough guy and I sat at his table generally, interacting with him on a regular basis, but he was also difficult to be around or talk with. Yet I knew that he, like me, was a genius. You couldn’t be at this school if you weren’t.

This was my first introduction to the concept that intelligence is not measured in a straight line denoting the retention of facts and figures. Though one person may be a genius with words, another might be a genius with colours and shapes, and another with mathematics. One is no “smarter” than the other–we are all simply different.

It is easy for me to belittle myself for being incapable of producing good visual designs, but it is silly as well. Visual design, or in this case, “web design,” is something at which I am simply no good. That doesn’t make me any less smart, I am simply intelligent in a different way.

And that being the case, the most intelligent thing I can do is to recognize this fact, move on, and find a way around it. A more spurious author might drive their way forward, ignoring their shortcomings and either 1) choose to create for themselves a poor design or 2) choose to pretend that design is irrelevant. In this sort of situation, I think it is better to refer to a master.

If you aren’t good at something, don’t let it get you down. Instead, refer to someone who is good at that task. I don’t try to repair my roof or my car myself, and I go to doctors when I’m really sick, so why should I try and design my website? I’m no good at it, and I recognize that forcing a poor design has negative consequences, so it is best to let someone whose intelligence lends itself to that pursuit take the reins.

It takes all kinds to make a world.

Chris Orcutt posted the following joke on his blog a while back, and I think it is fitting, so I’ll conclude with this:

A published novelist goes to a heart surgeon for some tests. During the exam, the doctor says, “Hey, could you give me the name of your publisher?”

“Sure, why?” says the novelist.

“Well, I have a six-month sabbatical coming up, and I’d like to write a novel and see it published.”

The novelist thinks about this for a moment before replying.

“Sure, sure,” the novelist says, “I can do that. But do me a favor, will you?”

“Name it,” the doctor says.

“Well, I have six months free myself, and I’ve always wanted to perform open-heart surgery. Could you talk to your hospital and set something up for me?”

Poor Design Stymies Communication

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

Students in Creative Writing must become intimately familiar with the workshop process in writing and revising their work. We put something together under a rather intensely short deadline, get it to the teacher who photocopies it for the class, and then our peers read, dissect, and tear apart our work so they can tell us what’s wrong and help us improve.

In my experience, this has been a fairly benign process because most people are afraid to be too critical or in-depth with their comments. If you know me at all, you know that I’m a pretty blunt, straight-forward person, so though I tempered my tone and always made sure to comment on a positive aspect of the piece in question, I didn’t see anything to be gained by coddling someone. If they aren’t told what needs to be fixed, they’ll never improve.

I write this by way of introduction because there was one remark I seemed forced to make on probably half of the poems I have workshopped over the years. Poetry is a particularly ambiguous medium, one where the writer must learn all of the rules and how to conform oneself to them so that the writer can in turn break all of those rules. Strangely enough, if you start off breaking them, your poetry will suck. But if you learn what you’re doing first, you can deviate wisely and write something beautiful. Many of my peers never bothered to read much poetry or learn, though.

The primary goal of poetry, like any writing, art, or design, is to communicate something. An idea, a phrase, something and/or anything… a poem does not exist in a vaccuum. But if it isn’t structured, worded, designed, and written correctly, it will communicate nothing. And what’s worse, if the author doesn’t fully understand what they are trying to communicate, then the piece is worthless. What’s the point of creating a communicative piece when you don’t know what you are trying to communicate?

Just the same, even if you know what you are trying to communicate, if it is not designed correctly your message will be lessened. You might have the greatest idea in the world, but without the proper medium, formatting, and structure, it will either be ignored or lessened. Your impact will be less because the design did not fit the piece.

This is something with which I have been struggling in regards to the design of my web site. There are a great many things I want to do with SilverPen Publishing, but the stock theme I have been using is rather inflexible and it is difficult to cram my ideas into its borders. Looking at the year ahead, I have a number of goals I want to accomplish and several involve publishing different pieces through my website, but its current design would hamper that. I knew that if I went ahead and threw my content into and behind this design, there was a decent chance that the message would be lost.

And yet, I cannot design something wonderful myself. I have enough artistic intelligence to recognize the inherent weakness of my site, but not the skill or vision to create something evocative, communicative, and fitting for the accomplishment of my goals.

Settling is rarely, if ever, an option to me. With poetry, I can do a decent job communicating my heart and message, but I am not the greatest poet and so sometimes (read often) am completely incapable of conveying my meaning. I am perhaps better at communicating through verbal communication, where I can blend diction, volume, speed and pausing, and word choice to design a complex message to reach people’s hearts. Likewise, I am decent at non-poetical writing, and between these three, I know enough to know how to learn and improve if I am not currently able to communicate the message I desire. I can get where I need to go to reach my goals.

But with a website, I cannot. My next article in this series will focus on the recognition that we can’t all do everything, and what we should do when we realize we are incapable of designing what is needed.

Designing a Path to Identity

This post, written by Steve Moore, is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. He grants rights to its usage under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

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Design begs for authenticity

Today, you hear a lot about the importance of branding, in the online world. Whether you’re selling T-shirts for your band, writing Op-Eds for a periodical, or mocking up websites for photographers, you are aware of the idea of brand control and its potential impact. Business owners need to be sure that the products they put out are consistent with their plans for objectives as a company. It is the same in education; a teacher needs to be consistent in his or her message to the class about his lessons. If the rules appear to change for no reason, then you lose credibility. You lose your audience. Such is the purpose of design, to help you communicate your brand’s message clearly. But how does good design contribute to your objective? Isn’t such a thing as ephemeral as “design” only a subjective screen covering a person’s idea? How does good design help define who you are as a professional?

These are all questions with dangerously simple answers. They are questions specific to expression, that we all think we understand. The truth is, the ideas of design and expression boil your idea, your product, or your company down to one thing: Identity.

Being the good little scholar of literary concepts that I am, I naturally connect this concept which some may see as strictly economic, like “branding,” or rooted in art, like “design,” as a question of narrative importance. Design is all about who you are; it’s all about building, maintaining, and sharing your identity. So design becomes much less murky if you know who you are (or who/what you are representing). That’s simple, right!? Dang, that’s two posts in a row an interrobang could have come in handy. Sure it’s simple. Just open your chest up and look inside. Pop the hood. Crack open the server case. Read your old book-jacket cover. Well, if only life came with instr–resisting the urge to use cliche–if only, people were so simple, so static…

If design is inherently connected to identity, then marketers had better get on the couch and start self-discovering. Building web pages, you hear a lot about optimization through the use of “meta tags” that mark your domain with keywords. Looking at the word  “meta,” (which is really more of a prefix) we find that it means  “in reference to,” “about,” or “from within.” So websites and their designers need to do a little soul searching before their designs are complete. If you don’t understand the “within” for a particular job (web designers), then you most likely won’t be able to meet the needs of your client. Business owners, on the other hand, need to understand themselves before having new design implemented.

What questions can I ask myself related to establishing identity?

What language do I speak?

This is not as simple as it sounds; language is as deep and pervasive as any aspect of our identities. Furthermore, this question goes beyond what geographical tongue you use, but makes you describe who your audience is. Who are you trying to reach? Design, by definition, should fit a pre-determined purpose. Your website should be designed to fit a group or type of person with specific objectives. Maybe you are a blogger yourself and so, in considering design, you can access your own metacognitive habits and thoughts. Considering that I have a lot of readers who are, themselves, bloggers, web designers, and writers, I do my best to casually tailor my posts to fit their lexicons. I have an education blog too; I use different language off-the-cuff there than I would here.

For example, I may very easily dip into the educational “alphabet soup,” as one of my professors called it, and confuse readers if I am not careful. I wouldn’t dare write this sentence here without explanation:

“While NCLB may be considered to drive more action-based WFSGs and PDCs, there is  only correlative data to support this claim.”

Most people in the field of education (or very active parents) would understand that I’m writing about No Child Left Behind, Whole Faculty Study Groups, and Professional Development Communities, but a web designer would be rather perplexed most likely. On the same hand, I wouldn’t want to write this sentence in an education blog post:

“While pervasive in the development world, recursive acronyms like PHP, GNU, and TIP are humorous in ways often not understood by those outside of the field.”

What is your history?

Knowing where you have been is crucial to knowing where you are and where you want to go. So understanding the origins of your ideas is very helpful in forming a dialogue with your audience. If your readers perceive that you have an appropriate level of authority, then it will be much more likely for them to subscribe to your ideas. Being able to express where you are coming from is key to building a base upon which to prop your design (whatever it may be). Consider the classic frame of the Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell describes it:

Is your design heroic?

Is your design heroic?

Inception: the hero’s call to action (expressing the origins of your idea)

Trial by fire: the hero’s challenge (show your work and experience)

Return: the hero finds his/her way home, changed (explain how you are unique)

I have always understood the basic plan for design to be rooted in this information. Maybe it’s your updated business plan, your master’s thesis, or an autobiographical reflection; find useful ways to incorporate this information, and your design will be more authentic for it.

If you’d like to contribute an article to our conversation,  comment here, on RyanBurrell.com or at SilverPenPub.net. We’re also all active on Twitter:

Steve, Ryan, and Matthew.

Design Speaks Directly to the Soul

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As Ryan observed, design is more than making something look pretty. It is the first line of assault against your senses, charging in to make room for a deeper truth–for the greater message being communicated through the whole of a piece. Design is the underlying foundation of everything, and much like our own skeletons, it is likewise hidden and sometimes forgotten.

There are two things I understand decently well amongst all the things in the world, and so it is those two upon which I will focus in the context of this series. The first is architecture, with which I will begin because (of the two) I understand it least. The second is writing in general and poetry in specific.

Architectural design is not something with which many Americans (by which I am referring to the residents of the United States of America) are preoccupied. We might admire a fine building and snap a picture while on tour, but it isn’t something we study, stare at, and marvel. Yet architecture is one of the great fascinations of my life, and when I am in a distant city, I spend the vast majority of my time wandering the streets, eyes fixed to the walls, roofs, and doors of all the buildings I can see. I have spent hours lying on the lawn of Westminster Abbey so that I could look upon its vast facade and out across the square at its neighbours. Days beside the river Thames marveling at the wall that skirts the river, or wandering the streets and hills of San Francisco, or the wide sidewalks of Chicago. I derived a great deal of enjoyment from comparing German Switzerland to German Germany and the similarities and differences in how the walls meet the roofs, the materials used, and the arrangement of their towns. Architecture fascinates me in a way similar to the hypnotic stare of a dragon preparing to pounce on a meal.

The USA is very utilitarian in its construction, but once upon a time architecture was not just a pragmatic means of getting a building upright. Rather, it was an art designed to communicate something to the passerby. A non-Christian friend admitted to me once that she began to cry as she entered a cathedral in Europe simply due to its beauty. This is a design done right. This assails our senses, demanding entry to our heart because of its power and majesty.

And it is not unique to architecture. Though you may not admire buildings as I do, I imagine that you can sympathize with and understand what I have written above, because it is a very obvious example of the purpose, power, and presence of design. Less obvious is the placement and depth of a thumb scoop on a MacBook, the resistance and length of a switch on a coffee pot, or the arrangement of words in a poem.

I can communicate an idea to you with a straight-forward statement of fact in a simple, well organized sentence, and in so doing you will understand the words and potentially their implications. Yet such a statement will not touch your heart, nor will it influence your soul, for that is the purview of poetry. There are many who malign the ambiguity and obtuseness of poetry, wishing instead that the writers would be more direct with their intentions, but that directness is not of the greatest design.

There are times when communicating with your head is sufficient, such as at work or when figuring out where to go for lunch. But there are other times when that will not do, when I will need to build a bridge from my heart to yours if you are ever to truly understand what I mean. A simple sentence will not suffice. And it is in these instances that the power of design is made manifest in writing.

A good design not only joins our hearts and souls, but it satisfies something deep within our selves. No, the switch on a coffee pot is not a cathedral or a poem, but you will know it is right. You will flip that switch to turn the coffee pot on and think, “Ah, there we have it. This is good.” A good design is more than just functional, it is beautiful. It was created with love and an attention to detail that surpasses a mere statement and that goes beyond simple pragmatism.

Good design, like our skeletons, holds us up and drives us forward. It is a powerful charge we can only refuse by closing our eyes and ignoring the world.