The Partnership Podcast is all about falling in design together: creativity, business, and makin’ it happen. Our third episode is chock-full of creative wisdom from artist, author, and innovator Mark J. Ferrari.

Welcome to the Partnership Podcast! My name is Keir DuBois, designer and co-founder of Tight Ship Design. My partner and co-founder in Tight Ship is designer Julia Sevin. Together we create branding and design for events and conferences.

As event brand designers we’re curious about the unique challenges of professional creativity. We like learning how other partnerships of our size approach unusual creative projects.

Our latest episode is chock-full of lifelong wisdom from artist, author, and innovator Mark Ferrari. Listen in here, as Julia starts us off:

Julia: Mark Ferrari has a very big bio of credits, and we can’t really cover all of them. He has created pixel and traditional arts for clients like LucasFilm and LucasArts, ILM, Chaosium and Tor, and has illustrated lots of covers and character designs for fantasy franchises, has written an acclaimed novel, and—in the way that’s most fascinating to me—has become more popular, and a topic of coverage in recent years, for the revolutionary work that he did in color cycling pixel art in the course of his work as a game background designer.

But more importantly to my own personal life, I grew up around Mark as a family friend, and as someone who wanted to become an illustrator, he was incredibly inspirational to me. So our first question, Mark, would be: can you tell us about your career and art and describe what you do?

Mark: I had a knack for drawing things from an early age, but in college art became intolerably unpleasant for me. I could not have told you why then, but I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I finally just ground to a halt halfway through a commissioned painting, and for seven years I did not do any art at all. And I went back to the camp that I had been working at full time for a couple of years by then in Southern California and came up with a list of five things I thought I might be good at. One of them was theater, one of them was psychology, one of them was writing…I don’t remember what the fourth one was, but the fifth and the last item on that list was art.

Somehow it ended up on the list, but I put it last because I was quite sure that I wouldn’t want to do it. But I was living in a very small staff house with six other guys, and I quickly realized that theater, psychology, most of these things I really couldn’t do much about pursuing while I was still here in this little house working in a camp. There were only two of the things on that list that I could do something about. One of them was writing and one of them was art, and I decided to do art first because I was sure that I would hate it and I could eliminate it right away and move on to writing. So I decided to just get it out of the way and off the list. So I ended up buying a box of barrel Prismacolor pencils and a tablet of vellum-finished Bristol Board.

I’m not sure why I chose those. Maybe I thought that these media would be compact and clean and not smell and you know, be more manageable in a confined shared space like that. Or maybe the fact that I’ve always been something of a worrier and a detail freak. Maybe the pencils appealed to me because I would be drawing with tiny little points that I could control every detail. Maybe paint had too much of a mind of its own and it was too likely to be sloppy and out of control. I have no idea, but whatever it was, I started with colored pencil and I went home and I started finding little objects, a seashell or uh, an iris or something like this and drawing it on this little tablet in my room when I wasn’t at work. And then I began drawing sort of very abstracted, very colorful landscapes, and within two weeks I was so absorbed in this that it was really hard to go to work. I was late all the time, I started skipping meals.

Pretty soon I was doing larger, more complex pieces, seascapes and things, and some of my coworkers were looking at this going, “hey, that’s—would you sell that to me?” And the bottom line is I was enjoying this so much that I’ve just decided to quit my job at the summer camp. I went to live with a friend at his beach house down near Del Mar and start working on a portfolio while I applied to California College of Arts and crafts in Oakland to “become an artist”—whatever that meant. And I said, “Okay, this is adventurous. This is unlikely. This is risky and somewhat shameful. This is what I need to learn to do.” I drew some lovely little things at that beach house, and then I went to school and I wrote in my statement of purpose: “I am here to find a direction for myself as an artist. The only thing I know for sure at this time is that I do not want to be an illustrator.” I went there and I worked on fine art landscape, mostly.

I have a knack for doing things with pencils or pixels or anything else that nobody who knows anything about pencils or pixels would ever have tried to do, because they would have known better, and I started doing things with pencils that were not what anybody else was doing with pencils. Remember, anything realistic or figurative has been the enemy since the impressionist movement killed the French Salon. So there I was, another of the gorgon’s head of French Salon monsters that needed to be beheaded quickly. And my second semester at art school, I ended up with really late registration and everything I had hoped to take was closed. The only class that didn’t sound boring as hell was something called “Survey of Illustration,” and I only took it because it was the least boring option still open to me.

My first day in this class the instructor showed us a slide show of all kinds of illustrations and illustrative style. And at the age of 30 was the first time it had ever consciously occurred to me that all the pictures in all the books I’d ever been reading were drawn or painted by someone and that they were illustrators. This had never occurred to me. When I said “the only thing I didn’t want to be was an illustrator,” it was because I imagined that illustrators were people who did assembly diagrams for bicycles or blenders, or little black and white bullet things for the want ads. Here was a field where I could draw whatever I wanted, in whatever style I damn well wanted, and somebody would need it. And from that moment on, I didn’t care about being a fine artist anymore—I was an illustrator.

Unfortunately, I had to quit school the next semester because I was $14,000 in debt after two semesters, and felt I had learned all about art I could afford to. I already had a bachelor’s degree in English when I was college-age. Now that I knew what I wanted to do and why it needed to be in college, I couldn’t afford it, so I left the school. I once again lived in the backs of other people’s houses and cranked out more portfolio and then got my first job working for Chaosium doing that book that you referred to earlier, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands. That was my first job. While I was working on that job, somebody told me about science fiction fantasy conventions. I had been an avid fantasy reader for a very long time already, but I had no idea that there were science fiction fantasy conventions or that they had art shows, but somebody said, “your stuff would be perfect, you should take it.”

So I applied for an art show and went. I also had no idea in those days that these conventions, were where all of the nation’s most renowned science fiction/fantasy illustrators, editors, art directors and publishers and agents did all their serious business. I ended up in a big hotel in San Jose with a giant room full of peg board display spaces, putting up my little colored pencil drawings in the back, while the rest of the room was filled with really famous illustrators putting up huge unbelievable oil paintings. The artist guest of honor at that convention was an east coast illustrator doing lots of book work in New York named Tom Kidd, and some woman I didn’t know then came up while I was putting up my work and she watched me with this puzzled expression as I hung a lot of colored pencil drawings on the wall.

She said “Are those reproductions?” I said, “No, those are the originals.” “Original whats? What medium is that?” “Colored Pencil.” “No!” “Yeah, Berol Prismacolor pencil.”

I thought, “Oh shit, I’m not a serious artist. Everybody working in oils and I’m working colored pencils. She’s about to get me kicked out for working in this medium.”

So she literally kind of ran away and I thought, “Aw crap.” You know I, I was really embarrassed at this point to be here. And a moment later the artist guest of honor came up and introduced himself, and said “Pat here says you’re working in colored pencil. Can I look?” He started talking to me. He was impressed. Nobody could believe I was doing this with colored pencils and they all wanted to know how. So I ended up giving a talk about my technique to twelve famous illustrators, and at the end of the weekend I won Best Fantasy Drawing and Best Of Show In The Professional Category for “The Dream,” that colored pencil drawing of the little boy in the red chair falling asleep over his story book is the story begins to materialize around him. That was a game changer for me.

The next thing that happened after I won that prize was that Tom Kidd introduced me to the art director for Lucasfilm Games, who was out that day from Skywalker Ranch to see the show, and he asked me if I would come work for them. I went out to do a test on this little tool called D-Paint and got hired. Because of Tom Kidd, I was hired to do a book cover for Tor in New York, and within two months of leaving my hidey-hole and getting a job, I was working for some of the biggest clients in the country. I had not had time to learn a lot of really important skills; I had not had enough time to develop my own style and my own skill set to the point where I could confidently sit down and draw whatever needed to be drawn.

There were a lot of giant gaps in my skill set, and when LucasFilm and Tor and all these people rode in and said, “Hey, the train is not slowing down as it comes through the station, but if you can grab hold, come on board,” I grabbed hold, and I spent the next four or five years just hanging on to the outside of the train. And that double-edged blessing of having been discovered and recognized so quickly so soon has affected mostly negatively the rest of my career. So that’s how I started.

Where I turned out to be really good turned out, like I said ironically, to be pixels. And again it was because I had no clue what I was doing. I knew nothing about computers. I still know nothing about programming or code. But the tools were simple in those days: it was a 2-D tool, you were drawing with big visible pixels with a mouse, and little by little as I discovered how to use straight line tools and gradient fill tools and things like this, it wasn’t that hard. We only had 16 colors, and I was used to 128 colors, which could be matched and blended and mixed to my heart’s content. So I was constantly trying to figure out how we could use these 16 awful colors in these pixel pictures to some better effect. And one of the first things I came up with this, “well of course we just do with these colors what you do with colors anywhere—you blend them!” The only way to blend a solid color pixel color with another solid color pixel color is to checkerboard dither those colors. Instead of just drawing with solid colors like everybody else was doing. I started producing dithered pictures that looked a little fuzzy and grainy, but they looked so much better.

And then Ron Gilbert and a couple of other programmers came running in—in a dither you might say—and said, “Stop, you can’t dither these colors! Dither doesn’t compress!” So they explained to me that by checkerboarding things, I had made it necessary for the program to record every single pixel on the screen as a separate piece of data. So my dither was eating up the entire disk. He said “You have to draw everything in solid colors,” so I did. My first game was Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, and I stopped using dither and started just drawing solid colors. So when that game was over, I did a beautiful drawing of rows of receding hills with live oak trees on them at twilight with the sunset and a crescent moon and some stars in the background. I did it all in dither, and then I just left the picture on my screen when I went to lunch.

Lunch was a lengthy affair at Skywalker Ranch. Not only do they have an astonishingly beautifully laid out spread of amazing food everyday for lunch, but George Lucas or Steven Spielberg were hanging out at the table, so nobody rushed through lunch in those days. I was probably gone for an hour and a half. And when I came back, Ron Gilbert was in a, I’ll say animated discussion with Steve Arnold, who was head of the whole games division. And basically Steve was asking Ron, “Why can’t we just teach it to recognize dither?” And Ron was explaining all the difficulties and Steve was going, “Yeah, but look at the results!” And the long and the short is that a couple of weeks later, we could compress dither.

So our next game was either Loom or Secret of Monkey Island—I can’t remember which one it was, but whichever it was, we use dithered EGA colors, and that game when all kinds of awards for all sorts of reasons, not just the art, but for the art as well. And everybody who looked at it thought it was a VGA game, and VGA had not happened yet in the gaming world. And Lucasfilm kept saying, “It’s not a VGA game, it’s an EGA game.” EGA was 16 colors, VGA is 256 colors per palette. So everybody thought they were looking at a 256 color drawing in those days, but Lucasfilm just kept explaining, “Nope, our resident genius over here has learned to use EGA colors in a new way!” That’s where I developed a career as The Pixel Guy.

I began finding more and more things that D-Paint did that everyone thought were just useless. The two biggest ones were color cycling and palette shifting. Color cycling is hard to explain, but basically what you’re doing is you’re not actually changing anything on screen. You’re changing things in the palette. You’re getting a contiguous ramp of colors in the palette to shift positions one position at a time and just keep doing that in a loop. You know, you’ve seen a theater marquee, right, where it looks like there are dots or dashes of light going in a circle around the marquee? Obviously nothing’s moving there. Those light bulbs are just turning off and on in sequence in such a way that it looks like those little dashes of light are moving around in a circle. Pixel pictures worked the same way. No pixels on the screen were moving, but by changing color in sequence, in order this way, it made it look as if things on the screen were moving.

The reason that was huge was because, once again, there was nothing like the resources to do full screen animations in those days. Machines couldn’t handle it—a whole waterfall, a whole lake full of water, a whole sky full of clouds or fog or whatever. But color cycling allowed you to animate the entire screen without repainting the frame even once. It was entirely doable on computers of the power of the time. So I became the guy who figured out how to do full screen animations without demanding anything extra in storage or speed of computers.

Now, D-Paint had another little bug that I figured out was actually a feature. You would have a D-Paint picture on the screen and when you wanted to load a different picture, you had a little menu with thumbnails of all the other pictures in that folder. But because of the way D-Paint was written, it could only access one palette at a time. So if you had a picture on the screen and you opened up that menu of other pictures D-Paint would abandon the palate of your picture on the screen and change everything to the palette of this thumbnail picture that you were selecting.

So I’d reached the point where I was beginning to put colors for the sky in the same place in every palette, and colors for the major ground masses in the same place in every palette, and on from there. Because of that, one day I had this picture of a mountain range in a lake in, you know, sunset or the middle of the day or something. And I went to select a different picture, which had been drawn at a different time of day. And suddenly the scene on the screen that I’d been working on went to the other palette and it was still pretty much a believable scene, except now it was twilight.

And pretty soon I discovered that if you laid out the picture very carefully and planned the palate very carefully, you could take a single picture and change the entire picture to some other picture completely, just by changing palettes. I was figuring out how to do something with a bug in D-Paint that could not be done in any conventional way by computers with the storage and processing power that computers had then. At this point I was accused of witchcraft by a number of people and had to deal with that. My reputation as one of the best pixel artists in the entertainment software industry at the time was pretty much cemented.

I was able to make these discoveries and figure out how to do unintended things with that tool because that tool remained the default tool for producing 2-D art almost without changes for ten years. They gave us more colors and more pixels in the same amount of space, but what the tool did and how the tool did didn’t change much in ten years. So I had time to learn the tool and master the tool, and then I had time to start discovering things that the tool makers themselves had never thought about, and figured out how to make use of those things to do whole new things with the tool. I had the time. Later in my career we would be dealing with the situation we have today, which is tools of elaborate complexity we never dreamed of in those days are replaced every few months.

Nobody has time anymore to do anything but become adequate with a tool before they have to dump all that and start the learning curve over. Nobody on the supply side gives a shit about what artists could do with their tool. It’s like our job to keep up with them, and they are driven by novelty. It’s this horrible psychosis that pretty much makes a lot of creative achievement that was happening all around me—not just with me but all around me—at places like Lucasfilm in those days, it makes that impossible.

Julia: Because you were genuinely creative with the programs? You’re identifying areas you can really dig in on, and the overall program was simple. You didn’t have to spend a lot of time learning complex ways of creating effects. You didn’t have a lot of options, and is that what drove the innovation?

Mark: Yeah, you didn’t have a lot of options and you did need to spend a lot of time, but the point was that you had the time you needed. There is no professional or commercial opportunity at least to spend the time it takes to learn a tool, master tool, and to begin innovating with that tool to figure out what’s possible here before throwing it all out and starting again.

Keir: That jibes with a lot of what I’ve been reading—whether that’s with journalism, or music, or anything else that’s professional creativity—being commodified because of a tool or an app or some other paradigm-destroying thing.

Mark: It’s the psychotic compulsion to novelty that’s destroying things. It’s not really the technology. We have all somehow, unintentionally I think, agreed that no one is allowed to sit where they are for longer than a couple months or they’re dead. We all need to get over that. It’s not just the big industries that have gone there, although they’re helping to drive it, but it’s the audience as well.

We’ve lost any awareness of the value of stability, of continuity, of time and craft. I mean, we don’t know what those things are as a culture anymore. So it’s much too small, I think, to call this a technological problem. This is a cultural problem that has to do with this sickness about novelty that we have, that everything that isn’t new must be abandoned as if there were no need to evaluate or vet what you were abandoning and what you were keeping.

Keir: So then when you see a resurgence of interest in pixel art—that may be a revival fad or something—but when you see it resurge for whatever reason, how do you feel about that?

Mark: In the software industry at least there are two things that I’m aware of. One is I think we weren’t finished yet. By the time D-Paint disappeared, I had done everything that could be done with the paint and it was just doing more and more of the same. But I think that these retro movement suggests that we were not in fact done there. There is still work to be done there and people who find these things realize that some of that work is undone, and they are intrigued and they get engaged and they want to go on doing that work that isn’t finished. I think that’s one of the things that’s happening.

The other thing I think is happening is that when we started making computer games in the late eighties and early nineties they were about storytelling and humor and puzzle solving and imaginative exploration. It takes time to tell a good story. It takes time to think up puzzles, it takes time and effort and talent to come up with good art and good humor and good writing, and all those other things that were needed to do computer games like we were doing. So somebody figured out that if you just sort of created a simple story beginning, and the ending is “and the villain was destroyed,” and you just fill the middle with interesting environments and fast-paced fighting with things, that people were just as engaged and that was a lot faster and cheaper to make. You put a few little scenes together and then you just punch, kick, stab, and explode through the game, and that was new and it made a lot of money, and before long it had replaced the games.

Now, we’ve all begun to move on, finally, because that was a dopamine loop you’re in—you’re in a high stress situation and you are trying to keep up with something stressfully, and when you do, there’s a big flood of relief and your brain releases a big flood of dopamine. You get this little jolt. It’s the same thing behind gambling addictions. So pretty soon, in addition to everything else, we had a whole generation of video game addicts who were really just in it for the dopamine hit. And so the other reason I think that people are into this retro movement is because they have become so bored with the gaming addiction and the punch-kick-stab repetitive monotony. They see something [in retro] that they’re not getting anywhere else.

And here’s the last big thing. I was hired at a midsize subcontracting entertainment software company in Seattle in 2005. I was nearly fifty, but they actually needed an experienced artist who understood 8-bit art the way I did because 8-bit was coming back. So when a friend who ran the division that made mobile device games for this company discovered that I still lived, he strong-armed me into his company in Seattle and hired me, and my first day there I was taken around and introduced to all these twenty- and thirty-year-old programmers and artists who are all using CAD system and everything else, and he would say, “Hi (Bob Johnson), this is our new employee, Mark Ferrari.” And then (Bob Johnson)’s mouth would fall open a little and he said “You’re not the Mark Ferrari?” “I don’t know? Who is the Mark Ferrari?” “Did you work on Monkey Island? I grew up playing that game!”

Now, I had been completely out of the software industry for ten years at that point. I had no idea that Secret of Monkey Island and Loom had become classic video games. I had no idea. The people who played those games and loved those games as kids are now in their thirties and forties running the industry. So, I think it’s business we never finished, it’s boredom with where we’ve been stuck all this time, and it’s the fact that the original fans of these games now run the world. Those are the reasons there’s a retro movement.

Keir: So do you think that’s what’s fueling something like the demand for Living Worlds to come back, or—

Mark: I don’t know if there is a demand for Living Worlds to come back yet. We’re finding that out. But there is a group of people who loves this stuff. If there is a demand, it’s just because ironically [8-bit pixel art is] different than everything they know, and [offering] more than everything that’s being offered to them these days. And you know, those landscapes are beautiful. They’re kind of fascinating in their way.

Keir: When you see something get revived and you can tell it’s from a particular era, because it was created by a certain type of technology—whether that’s, you know, 8-bit graphics or a vinyl record—you know that something has captured the reviver’s attention and inspired them to reevaluate this or maybe rediscover this, it would seem that there’s some enduring aesthetic value about it.

Mark: Probably the most enthusiastic sector of the nostalgia 8-bit movement is artists. They are the ones who are most passionate about doing pixel art. They are the ones I hear from most often. There are people who find something fresh in this limited number of colors in this limited space with limited detail and a very limited array of effects that they don’t find anywhere else. Limitations engender creativity.

Julia: That’s something Keir and I have talked about a lot as designers—we prefer to have as many constraints placed on a project as possible, because it ultimately answers a bunch of questions and makes the sandbox really manageable.

Mark: It not only makes it manageable, but it makes it possible to use everything in the sandbox far more creatively than you would if the sandbox were full of a million other things. If I tell you “Here are six popsicle sticks, five rubber bands and a gum wrapper, make the Pietà with this, you are going to use those three things in ways nobody ever thought of using them, because A) there was nothing else for you to do, and B) because you could apply all your creativity, the full range of things that could be done with these three things. The limited space is the most creative space, and that may also really appeal to artists these days—to take these limited materials as far as they can go.

Julia: There’s an overwhelming number of tools and options and techniques available if you want to create digital art now for artists. And from the audience’s side, CG has reached a point where you can accomplish absolutely anything, and therefore there is no real requirement of imaginative engagement by the audience. When I was reading some of the reviews of Living Worlds, I saw that some of the comments were people saying like, “Oh, it’s so fun to imagine, like, who’s the last person to turn out the light in that house? or how far does the forest go on?” Because you’ve created this extremely limited snapshot, the user ends up doing a lot of the work to fill it out, which is a kind of engagement that we don’t really ask of audiences very much anymore.

Mark: That’s a very important point. I think it’s really true, everything you just said. In all of my art, I’m always trying to get something really interesting here that doesn’t answer all your questions about what’s happening in this picture, because if I leave those questions unanswered people who need answers (and that’s most of us) will try to figure out what the answers are. They will start participating in the image, and that is what will make it all relevant and connect them to that image. If an image is too full—and movies these days are too full of answering all your questions a lot, especially the visuals—there is nothing to participate in. You are absolutely right.

Keir: I know that you moved on to writing at a certain point in your career. How did that change the way that you would express yourself? Does a picture really make a thousand words?

Mark: I think it’s the reverse. I was really surprised. I mean, I did become aware of a lot of things when I started writing instead of art. You are aware of why I left art to write? [Mark had endured a serious mountain biking accident in May 2000.]

Keir: Yes, and as a cyclist I’ve tried not to focus too much on that, but um, I appreciate your, you know, forging that path too.

Mark: Yeah! Good, no problem. Somebody had to do it. I set art down because the way I knew how to do art wasn’t working at the time, and I didn’t see any readily available way to do art some other way at the time. I’d always had an interest in reading and writing, I’d always liked that, and so I started writing and I discovered I actually like writing better than art. I had never been primarily interested in visual art. I had been interested in storytelling. Boy, you can tell a whole lot more story in a day as a writer then you can in a year as an artist. So rather than saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” well, maybe so, but a thousand words is worth about a hundred pictures. I have become much more conscious since then of all the ways that we tell stories in music, and in architecture, and in politics, and in religion, and in education. This is all storytelling.

Storytelling, I am convinced now, is the quintessential human activity. It is the thing we do, like bees make hives and birds build nests and humans tell stories—and they live in those stories, which is why those stories matter so much. The other thing that became really clear to me was that writing was every bit as visual an experience for me as drawing had ever been. If you read The Book of Joby, you’re going to see that it’s a very visual experience. You see a lot of the places, you see what’s going on very vividly. I have always told stories by seeing a visual image in my mind. I used words to paint that visual image, just the way I used to use colored pencils to paint that visual image. There’s not nearly the big distinction between visual art and writing that I thought there was before I had tried them both.

Keir: As someone with an English degree who ended up in visual design, that really validates everything that I’ve been doing!

Mark: Yep!

Keir: In your career, you’ve had a wealth of experience in multiple media and different levels of partnership—working for somebody or working with somebody. What, in your opinion, makes a good collaboration or a partnership?

Mark: I would actually like to start answering this question by talking about what has made for bad collaborations with me.

Keir: Sure.

Mark: Right now, I am really dealing with a lifetime of semi-conscious issues around bad collaboration.

Julia: What do you mean by semi-conscious?

Mark: I mean I’ve only really become conscious of what a deep pile of shit I’ve been in for 30 or 40 years in the last couple of months. It’s all come into focus and I see what’s wrong now. So, the digital revolution in visual imagery has engendered a massive tidal wave of toxic collaboration. In the old days, the act of creating the image was a solitary act. You consulted first, then you did the piece, you did it to finish, everybody knew it was finished, and if there were changes to that, that was an additional piece of work for which you were paid.

Now the way it works is: you’re contacted by some functionary who’s going to put you in touch with a team of people and everybody has input. Everybody keeps talking until we think we have a concept, and by then weeks have gone by. But when you start, you sit down to a computer to start working and you will show people what you’re doing every day, and we will continue debating what I should be drawing even as I’m drawing it. And because of the fact that creating a digital image these days is a product that is defined at the core by continuous change, how do you know when a picture that has been changed continuously all day, every day for weeks now is finished? This may bear no resemblance to the picture we all agreed you’d sit down to. You know, you sit down to do a week worth of work and a month and a half later, you’re done for the same price we agreed to, because this was “never finished.” And what you’ve got at the end of it all is a collage.

My best ability to cobble all the visions and all the expectations of all these different voices together into a picture that satisfied everyone—and really made no one feel good, including me. And that leads to a portfolio full of unfocused, unmemorable images that no one cares about looking at anymore the minute their commercial function has been forgotten. For me, that kind of collaboration has destroyed my portfolio, it has continuously eroded the quality of my art, I can barely find my own vision anymore, and plus, in addition to making everything take longer, it also rushes every aspect of that thing. So you’re going way faster than you’re used to, and taking way longer to get there than you used to. Everything about that kind of collaboration is broken.

So now I’ll quickly transition to what makes for good collaboration. First of all, Shannon [Shannon Page, Mark’s spouse] and I are both skilled, talented writers who know how to do what we’re doing. People have to have developed the skill and the knowhow to do their part of the collaboration, whatever it is, and they need to come to the collaboration with that. However, Shannon and I both, as it turns out, really enjoy certain parts of the process and really aren’t all that good at other parts of the process.

Shannon is great at coming up with just the most off the wall ideas. Things that would never have occurred to me in a million years to write about, stories I would not have conceived of if you’d given me all day. She also loves the part where you just spew raw material onto the paper without worrying about how it all holds together or whether this is going where you want it to go. She loves to begin a story; she’s horrible ending stories. Coming up with great ideas, beginning the story and gushing out raw materials and then she gets to the part that’s just work for her, but she’s not all that good at.

I on the other hand, I am really focused on some very big themes in my life, but because I’m focused on them, a lot of my stories are all about these themes over and over again. When it comes to the whimsical, the out of left field, I just can’t find it, so I don’t have that. I also don’t like generating all the raw material. I mean, I’m good at it. Sometimes I get quite caught up in it, but that’s the part that’s a slog for me is just getting it all written. Once it is written, I just love fixing it. I love going back through and polishing things and rearranging things and making the story out of it and ending it. In order to write a story, I need to know how that story begins and I need to know, to the detail, how that story’s going to end before I start writing. The middle is the inventive part for me, but I need to know the end as well as the beginning.

Shannon loves the beginning of the stories in the gushing of raw material. I love the editing and the polishing of stories and winding it up into the climax and the denouement and the end of it. We talk about an idea together. She begins the story, she does the first rough draft, and then she hands it to me and says, “Finish this.” We’re each doing different parts of the collaboration. You need to be collaborating in a way that allows each person to really do the thing they’re good at, they need to come equipped to do it, and you need to cultivate a willingness to be surprised. If you go into this thinking you know where it’s supposed to go, and how we’re supposed to get there, the minute your collaborator deviates, then they’re off plan and you’re irritated.

If instead you go into this going, “I have no idea where this is actually going or how this is actually gonna unfold.” Then when something goes where you didn’t expect, you go, “Huh, why are we going here?” And they start telling you and you discuss it and pretty soon you’re going there too. It’s pretty hard to collaborate with people who already know when you start, how this is supposed to go, and they’re just expecting you to kind of validate their decisions all along and fill in the gaps for you. Shannon and I happened to have that combo.

Keir: That combination sounds very familiar in a lot of ways.

Julia: We definitely have complimenting skill sets and tolerances for the different parts of running a business that are more or less fun.

Mark: That bodes well for you. The only other thing I would say in terms of advice to people about collaborating is don’t collaborate with people unless you really enjoy their work. They’re just going to want to go where they go, and you’re not going to want to go there. You’ve got to work with people who go all the time to places you’d like to go, even if it’s not your places.

There’s all of these lofty principles in the guidebook about how things are supposed to work in the world, but the truth is things work in the world the way they’re working on the ground. No matter what the guide books said, it is really important not to embrace anything in life because you know you should, if you also secretly know that you don’t want to and you can’t.

Keir: Mark, this has been a real pleasure for both of us. Thank you so much for your time and your wisdom. It’s been very illuminating and validating in a lot of ways, like we’ve said, so thank you again and Julia, thank you for setting up this conversation. This has been great for me.

Julia: Absolutely! And Mark, it’s been wonderful to get to reconnect with you and talk with you again.

Mark: It’s been really a pleasure seeing you again and talking with you.

Julia: Well, thanks again, mark, and I’ll talk to you soon!

Mark: Yeah you too, both of you!

Keir: Thank you!

That’s all for this episode of the Partnership Podcast. My name is Keir DuBois. My partner Julia Sevin and I will return with another episode soon! Until then, follow our work at or on social media at tightshipdesign. Thanks for listening!