Happy in the Second

“I am happiest in the second,” he said. “I can look at each frame of my animation and tell you what’s wrong, what the right order should be, and then fixate on that one perfect second for days. That’s what makes me happy.”

Fancy wine in one hand, bocce ball in the other, I was talking to an animator and peppering him with questions about his work. We talked about time and how, even though our work could not be more different, we both wanted to zoom into the smallest possible bucket of time and hold that second in place; stretch it out, examine it, build it up, break it down.

I don’t know what the right timeframe is for my writing though. It’s variable. Sometimes I want to hover above a single sentence and tune things up, cut things out, but for days or weeks on end. At least a few sentences I’ve held in place for months whilst I poke and prod at them. Other times I want to skim across whole paragraphs like a stone across a pond—writing a few pages of something in ten minutes go, go, go.

What’s the right timeframe to think about for my blog? A season? A year? A century? I hope so!

When I’m building websites, the timeframe is smaller. Most projects die off within a year of me having worked on them. That’s always a bummer but I tend to obsess about this one frame between frames—this 3 second CSS animation—all night long. Or a brief typographic moment that most folks will never see.

Either way, I’m happiest working in these small parcels of time. Perhaps not seconds like the animator, but maybe a minute? A second is too small to reveal something effective with a website or some words strung together on a page, but with a whole minute? That’s just enough time to do some wild, dazzling thing.

What timeframe do type designers think in? I’m in no place to say but from what I understand the patience required is monumental with some projects. Just a single glyph—a humble little lowercase k—could be held in place and worked on for years. A whole typeface? Maybe a decade.

And in all that time they sketch and draw and extrapolate.

I’m not saying this to mythologize type design, but rather to understand what good work often requires. This relentless discipline, this masterful control of time. And of course, all this reminds me of Paul Ford’s piece about time and seasons, interaction design, and heartbeats well spent:

If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats—if we are going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?