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ROHDESIGN is the website of designer Mike Rohde, who writes on design, sketching, drawing, sketchnotes, technology, travel, cycling, books & coffee.
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Thursday
Apr102003

Microserfs

MicroserfsOne of my all-time favorite books is Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland. The book is about a group of Microsoft programmers (called Microserfs) and their struggles at work and their attempts to find a meaningful life. While it's a fictional account, I get the feeling that Coupland did some serious research and probably conducted interviews with current and former Microsoft employees to help paint an accurate picture of Microsoft culture.

I was most intrigued by Coupland's character development, his detailed descriptions of life inside Microsoft and his dry sense of humor. As a single guy at the time, I could (to a degree) relate to many of the characters lifestyles. I certainly knew what it felt like to pull an all-nighter for a hot deadline and was also very interested in all things tech.

Funnily enough, I originally read Microserfs when it first appeared in the January 1994 issue 2.01 of Wired magazine, long before release of the book. At the time I thought it was just a short story published by Wired, and maybe it was. I don't know for certain if Microserfs was published to promote the book, or whether the short story was so popular that it became a book.

I still recall the evening I first read Microserfs. I'd just come home from work, and was excited about receiving the latest issue of Wired magazine. I immediately found a comfy chair and skimmed the issue (a ritual I still continue to this day). When I came across the Microserfs article, I stopped to read it and was immediately drawn into the story.

Two hours later, I finished the article, thoroughly enjoying the read and wanting more. Little did I know I'd only read a small portion of what was to become an entire book entitled Microserfs.

Four years later, I was at Barnes & Noble and found a book called Microserfs in the discount bin. I checked the book out and sure enough -- it was the same story I'd read in that Wired Magazine with much more to read! I bought the book and devoured it over the next two weeks, enjoying every twist of the plot and nuance of the characters I'd known from years earlier.

So, if you're at all interested in a great story centered around technology, interesting characters and the quirky atmosphere of Microsoft, I can highly recommend Microserfs.

Wednesday
Apr092003

Lifetime Guarantee Equals Great Customer Service

Craftsman ForeverOne of my favorite stories I like to tell when i want to demonstrate good customer service, is about a good German friend of mine who stayed and worked in the US for half a year. He was in the States several years ago on a practical term, where he worked for a local engineering company as part of his technical college education. He was a mechanical engineering student, so as you can imagine, he was very keen on buying some good quality American-made hand tools (wrenches, screwdrivers, etc.).

I suggested he pay a visit to the local Sears department store, to buy some well-made Craftsman hand tools, which happen to have a no-questions asked, lifetime replacement guarantee. My friend asked me exactly what this "lifetime guarantee" included and what it was about, so I told him. I went something like this:

Friend: So, what exactly does this "Lifetime Guarantee" cover Mike?

Me: Everything. If you bend a hand tool, or break a hand tool, Sears will replace it, no questions asked and for no fee. Even hand tools you've bought years before are covered -- all the way back to the very first Craftsman tools from the late 20s.

Friend: You're kidding right? You mean if I break the tool, even an old tool, Sears will replace it with not a single question and no fee? Must I bring a receipt as a proof of purchase?

Me: Yes, exactly. It's a no questions asked lifetime guarantee. I and my dad have both brought back bent and broken tools several times and they have always taken them back, no questions asked and provided new tools in exchange. No receipt is needed since they're clearly stamped as Craftsman tools.

Friend: So, let me get this straight... a tool that I break or bend will be replaced by Sears with a new one with no questions whatsoever? Are you really serious Mike?

Me: Yes, completely serious. Sears has excellent tools and stands behind them to the point that if one bends or breaks, they will replace it. They figure this kind of confidence and backup of their hand tools will give them a great reputation with their customers. It's also a way of providing great customer service which in turn drives more sales of their tools.

Friend: Wow! You would never find any such provision in Germany. I can't wait to buy some Craftsman tools!

In the end my friend bought a pretty big collection of Craftsman tools from Sears which he brought back to Germany at the end of his practical term in the US. He was very impressed with their quality. But he frequently mentioned how pleased he was with their lifetime guarantee and as far as I know, has never needed to return any tools for exchange. :-)

My point in mentioning this story is simply to show what great customer service should look like. Sears believes so firmly in the quality of their product they're willing to back it up with an incredible guarantee. I praise companies like Sears who offer these kinds of guarantees to their customers and I encourage more companies to adopt similar approaches.

Tuesday
Apr082003

On Keeping Technology in Perspective

Lately I've been contemplating how to best integrate technology into my life so that it balances well against non-technical things. I've come to the conclusion that while high-tech often has great value, it is also important to deliberately choose low-tech solutions and spend time in no-tech activities.

For instance, the past few months I've noticed my desire to work on my Mac during weekends has diminished greatly. Not very long ago, I could be found on my computer on weekends, checking email, surfing the web and so on. Now I feel much happier leaving my hi-tech devices idle on the weekend. Instead I visit the library, read a good book, sketch, run errands, and spend quality no-tech time with my wife, son, family and friends.

After years of high-tech experience, I've reached the point of getting enough of technology during the week. This might be better stated as a realistic view of technology. I work in a high tech field (web design) and several of my hobbies are high-tech (Palm handhelds and Macs), which fill my week with high-tech input. I'm now finding I really need weekends away from technology to decompress and recover.

I've also always had a bit of resistance to the idea that technology is the "great solution" to all problems. I'm no Luddite, but I do think technology may not necessarily be the right solution for every problem we encounter — often low-tech solutions are better. Maybe this resistance is because my life experience pre-dates computers being entwined into daily life.

The Benefits of Learning the Old Ways

As a young graphic design student in college, I was fortunate to have been taught the traditional, manual methods of art and design, using pencils, pens, chalk, pastels, brushes, paint and paper. During my early career as a graphic designer, I can still recall days when the power would go out at our design studios.

The computer systems running Quark Express, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator would shut down, yet I was able to grab a pad of paper and a pencil and continue working, while many other designers were lost without a computer.

Now, I don't mean to knock computer systems, but rather want to point out how valuable a traditional, low-tech design education can be. I believe too much reliance on computer hardware tends to dull a designer's creative mind, hands and eyes.

Think Deeply About Technology Dependence

What's the point I'm driving at here? I think we all need to think deeply about how much we rely on technology. High-tech solutions are great where appropriate but I also believe we should also seek to incorporate low and no-tech solutions and activities into our lives.

Activities and solutions that are not reliant on high-tech can help provide a break from the constant pressure a high tech life generates. Further, maintaining a low and no-tech aspect to our lives gives us opportunities to explore our human creativity in ways that don't require a computer or high tech device.

Turn off your computer, leave your PDA and mobile phone behind. Forget about your email. Go have a cuppa coffee or tea with good friends, read a great book for pleasure, take time to write a real letter to a friend, sketch something, take a walk on a sunny day, go for a bike ride, visit the beach, explore your own hometown. Whatever it is that you enjoy that doesn't require a high-tech device to do... do it!

Friday
Apr042003

Email Carefully!

I've always tried to make the email messages I write "safe for public consumption", because I never know where an email message might end up. I was reminded of this guideline after reading the eye-opening story Misfired Messages Roil Businesses at Wired.com. The article is a cautionary tale filled with email horror stories like this one:

In a note intended for a few friends, marketing executive Alex Clark once mocked his company's CEO and his inability to properly attach a document to an e-mail message, only to discover he had sent the missive to the chief executive himself. "Working with the IT department and the CEO's personal secretary," said Clark, "I attempted to intercept the message before it reached his inbox -- to no avail. Later that night, I received the response. The CEO made his outrage abundantly clear in the most scathing e-mail I have ever received."

For me, the article makes obvious just how easy it is to send disastrous messages if you're not very careful. Because email is almost a blend between written notes and phone conversations, I think it's often treated a bit too casually.

Combine the relaxed nature of email with its immediacy and multiple recipient capability and you've got a recipe that could potentially cook up a batch of serious trouble.

The moral of the story? Be careful what you write. Consider it "safe for public consumption", because you never know where any email message might land.

If in doubt, don't send it out!

Enjoy your weekend! :-)

Thursday
Apr032003

Palm Tipsheet 2.0

Palm TipsheetWell, it's a done deal. The Palm Tipsheet, the free monthly e-zine that I started in 1997, as a newsletter of Palm tidbits for a few family and friends, has a new owner. And you know what? I feel great, because I know that the Tipsheet is in very capable hands.

Some of you who have come to my blog via the Palm Tipsheet are probably aware of the story behind its new ownership. If you're not a Tipsheet reader, here's a recap: I made the decision to halt producing the Palm Tipsheet because it had stopped being fun for me and instead had become a grind. Further, it was absorbing too much free time, (something I have very little of with a new 4 month old son).

I announced my intentions to halt the Tipsheet in issue 39. Following that announcement, I was contacted by several parties, including Brian Beeler of bargainPDA.com, who was very interested in carrying on the Palm Tipsheet. We came to terms and in issue 40, I announced the good news -- that the Tipsheet would live on.

So, the Palm Tipsheet is officially under new ownership and leadership and I couldn't be more pleased. I have full confidence in Brian's knowledge of Palm handhelds, PDAs and his experience running a PDA-oriented website. I believe he'll do the Tipsheet proud.

I'm pleased that something I began on a whim has gained over 11,000 regular subscribers and many more readers of the HTML, AvantGo, Mobile and Palm editions. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision I'd be publishing a newsletter with worldwide reach and so many loyal, friendly and gracious readers. I'm honored to have seen the Tipsheet grow into what it is today. I guess you could say I feel like a proud parent of an e-zine. :-)

Finally, I'm glad that long time readers of the Tipsheet will still get their monthly fix. I was showered with well-wishing emails when I announced I'd be stepping down. It was great to not only hear of readers' support for my focus on being a better dad, but also to hear their kind words about the Tipsheet. Seeing the Tipsheet continue getting to its readers is really like icing on the cake!

I wish Brian the very best as he takes over. I know he will do a superb job carrying on the tradition of the Palm Tipsheet.