A large part of this "digital age" is, of course, communicating via email. Everyone has experienced the phenomenon where no matter how trivial or mundane an author's thought is, it finds its way into an email. And somehow these gems of wisdom end up in my inbox, where they beg for attention. Not literally, mind you, but after the email program does its duty and alerts me that I've been summoned, I'm doing all I can do to not jump from whatever else has a hold of my attention on the computer. It never works because I see the little red dot lingering over the email software icon out of the corner of my eye, so it ends up winning. I open up my email expecting a message of the highest importance, only to be disappointed. There are usually two offers; one of 15% off on my car insurance if I spend 15 minutes of my time with the company's website or the offer of a job selling that same car insurance because they saw my Creative Director resume online and thought I'd make a great agent. I've yet to see the connection.
Bear with me — there's a point here. The point is I hate email.
I recently finished working on the design and production of a 236-page book and have been cleaning up all the paperwork and archiving the digital files in the proper folders and hard discs — doing the type of housekeeping a graphic designer needs to do in this computer-aided design era. Part of the desk laundering was organizing all the emails that I received from the book's editor over the weeks of work. The way I function — and because of having killed off too many irreplaceable brain cells — I print everything off and "X" over tasks and changes I've done with a highlighter. The documents then ended up scattered all around my office. I was stunned to find that not only was I filling a 2-1/2 inch binder with email printouts to explosion level, but I was filling TWO binders. A couple of questions immediately came to mind.
What the heck ever happened to the "paperless office" we were assured of years ago, (I detect a conspiracy between Microsoft, Apple, and Hammermill), why so many emails from the same person, and what happened to the promise of permanent press clothes? I couldn't answer the former question and the latter one irks me every morning as I'm ironing my shirts. However, a brief paging through the printed emails revealed that almost all were one-sentence thoughts on revisions or questions on design. A large number of those came in short succession, within minutes of each other. As I was working on the book continuously for upwards of 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, this meant that because of the impending deadline, I had to immediately review each email that would chime its way into my art. I would suspend the layout or design I was working on at the time to see if the message was from the editor. Ninety percent of the time, it was. Therefore I was working in a constant state of interruption, which is not an efficient way to work as any productivity expert will tell you. I dislike email to begin with and my loathing of the form was now elevated to the 13th floor of Entourage Plaza.
Now I'm not that naive to think that modern business, let alone me, can get along without using email. The editor and I accomplished a lot with emails — my "detestification" notwithstanding — and email isn't going away any time soon. I've been reading many of those online postings that outline and advise the citizenry on email etiquette and for the most part, they all list the same recommendations. Mostly good ones that no one seems to pay any attention to. However three tips stand out to me. One I agree with, which is to NOT use the "Reply to all" feature because it sends one's message to those that may not find the humor in a response to a fart joke and many of the project emails I received were responses to other people that did not involve me. Two tips I did not agree with. One was to include the original message string in one's reply. That was maddening, as every answered email I received I ended up rereading in case I'd have missed something and with the back and forth responses they became overly complicated. Two, keeping one's messages short. That was precisely the problem I was experiencing. The editor would view a PDF of a layout I sent and every change or question would generate a separate short email as they came to his mind. That's where the volume of paper came from. Why couldn't he note all the revisions and send them all at once in one email? The immediacy of the medium got the better of us. He just had to let me know right then and there that the period in the second sentence of the third paragraph needs to be a comma. In all fairness, once in a while he would put all his notes into a Word document and email that to me, which would make things so much easier. And sometimes we would talk on the phone to go over changes, which was even faster because I could get instant clarification to a question or comment. Imagine that!
It turns out that many of my colleagues have the same complaints; they spend a good portion of their day in sending answering emails and it's no secret that businesses are inundated with emails daily to the detriment of actual productivity. So what's my advice? Pay attention to those articles on email etiquette and, contrary to one of their points, only send messages that are detailed enough in one email.
You can email me your comments and I'll answer them — eventually. I'll be out on my boat enjoying an iced tea. With plenty of vodka.
Steve James owned and creative directed an advertising and design studio in Buffalo, NY with the un-snappy name of SteveJamesDesign, Inc. Steve and his family now live in Indianapolis where he worked as a Creative Director and he is currently in transition, flux, metamorphosis, segue, or whatever looking for work is now called.
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