Facing the Page

Think Kit asks: What have you learned by facing the page?

1. If I stop writing, even for a short time, those muscles start to atrophy. Getting back into it after a hiatus is much harder than pushing through some bad writing.

2. Writing every day is do-able. It’s the daily publishing that is the harder part. I am ready for a write more, publish less phase.

3. There are a lot of reasons why I write. To make sense of the world. To reflect and remember. And, oh… because I must. Not in a “I will fall into despair!” sort of way… Read more

4. I should illustrate more of my blog posts. Like the cakes I made for the post I wrote for SmallBox today (linked above).
Cake illustration by Sara McGuyer

5. I need spell check as much as ever. Darn.

6. I am now really hungry for cake.

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Write On. Why do you write? What have you learned by facing the page? Did anything surprise you about your reflections this past month?”

Kitchen Suite

I love to cook and bake. Sometimes just simple fare will do, while other times I like sinking the better part of a day into preparing thoughtful, multi-course meals.

Today’s cooking adventure: sweet potato soup with crispy lentils, a recipe from the Sprouted Kitchen Bowl + Spoon.


There’s just one problem. The more elaborate the meal, the extras to chop or roast, the more I can work myself into a frenzy. I turn the burner up too high and the shallots burn. Or, I start the rice too late for it to be ready with everything else. Or, my least favorite – I completely space on prepping the salad until I’m in the final throes of searing fish or finishing a sauce.

Then for the rest of the meal prep I curse my kitchen, the recipe I’m using, the dishes yet to be done, and I can’t be bothered to properly set the table.

Recently I discovered a fool proof way to enjoy my time in the kitchen. I just have to listen to classical music, and all is right. My kitchen becomes this zen space where everything falls into place. It seems so simple, it makes me wonder, how did this only reveal itself to me now? It’s not that I won’t make some of the same mistakes. It’s how I respond that is different.

Give me concertos and soft strings, and you’ll find me in the moment with my cutting board and knife. Play Suite for Solo Cello No. 4 in E-flat Major and I might even make pasta from scratch.

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Hear, hear. Do you hear what I hear? Tell us about a sound. What do you hear in your house or at work?”

The Making of #heartmyhood

Once per year for the past six years, SmallBox has built and donated a brand new website to a nonprofit who otherwise wouldn’t have the budget to up their digital presence for 24 Hour Web Project. In recent years, we’ve upped the game by adding things like email templates, editorial calendars, photography or videos.

This year we wanted to help our recipient Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center with name recognition. While they do incredible things for Indy, like their Public Allies program and hosting Courageous Conversations, they fly a bit under the radar.

We came up with an awareness and engagement campaign to spread neighborhood love in Indy. We decided to rally conversation around a hashtag, so we named the initiative #heartmyhood. We planned to put the call out for stories and images showing why people love where they live.

While we knew each image and story would be unique, we wanted to create some connection between them. I was tasked with creating a mark. Time was short, so I used a sprint technique to sketch out as many ideas as I could dream up (and fit on one page, which as it turns out was 43 different sketches).


I took the concept sheet around to my project partners, Dan, Lydia and Kasey to see which idea resonated most with them. I dotted the ones that rose to the top, then fired up Illustrator.

The first three concepts were pretty similar:


I thought #3 would be the winner, but I wanted to try something totally different,just to have a more stark counterpoint, so I made concept #4:
When I took the concept back to the team, #3 was indeed the unanimous winner. To account for different situations, I created a few color variations.

heartmyhood-useAnd here is the mark added to the very first image submitted to the campaign:

The first photo submission we received was the lovely gate at Garfield Park by Jules Bush.

People sent in submissions from all over the city – Irvington, Herron-Morton, Garfield Park, the West Side and so many more. You can see more of the neighborhood love we got during 24 Hour Web Project here. I even added my own story, claiming the Monon as my ‘hood.

INRC has taken this idea and run with it. For their annual meeting, they made stamps out of the mark, and did some analog story collecting.

They are still collecting stories via their website if you want to submit your own!

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Prompt: “Show & Tell. Time to show off your handiwork: what did you make this year? Share something personal, like a song or art. What inspired you? Was the finished work what you initially imagined? Or a work project – what was the process? The end result? Share your vision…and your work!”

Outtakes from an Innovation Triad

For the past couple of months, I’ve been learning a new framework for problem solving. Jeremy Houchens, Jenny Banner and I formed an “innovation triad,” or so we’ve been dubbed by Culture Sync, the group that is facilitating our process. Here’s what I knew when we got started: we’d be learning from the minds behind Tribal Leadership, Dierdre from Culture Sync would be showing us the ropes, and we’d be working as a team to solve a problem.

While I’m learning a lot, this post isn’t about the methods (though perhaps once we wrap, I’ll write more about that), but rather some of the fringe lessons I’ve learned while participating in this process.

1) If you haven’t worked with people outside your normal sphere, go forth and do it!

I’ve worked at SmallBox for four years. Until about a month and a half ago, we hadn’t hired anyone for a year and a half. That’s a long time to go without introducing new collaborators into the work world. I’ve been really energized by learning from Jeremy and Jenny, their processes and approach.

2) Your perspective is unique. Guess what? The same is true for everyone else.

Part of our work has been interviewing people in our community. We record the interviews, then listen back to what we heard. One of the methods has us breaking down what we heard and pulling out words and ideas from their responses. It’s been fascinating to see what different things we “hear” from the same recording.

It was a good reminder to me how we all perceive and experience the things before us in our own unique way. And really, how cool is that? No one else sees the world like you do.

3) There’s liberation in silliness. It doesn’t have to be all serious, all the time.


Jeremy had been doing a little extra credit for the group, including trying like hell to find a fitting name for our triad. Early in our sessions, we took an inventory of skills, and one for Jeremy was humor. When it came to the name, he was definitely leaning on that skill.

For his naming process, he went back to some of the shared experiences we had. There was a walking meeting when we discovered a trail overgrown with mushrooms. In another session, we tried to tap into our collective outrage to frame up our problem, and we discovered are three of the least angry people on the planet.

The names he came up with pulled from those stories, things like Angry Mushrooms and later, the name that began to stick, the Mushroom Taco triad. I didn’t necessarily think the rest of the group gave a lot of validation to the name ideas at first. Angry Mushrooms and the like just seemed too silly to be the name for an official thing.

At some point I was won over by Jeremy’s investment in the naming process, and I made the mushroom taco image as a way to provide the validation I don’t think I’d given previously. It’s a good thing to be forced to reckon with my seriousness bias.

If anyone is curious about the triad or our process, I’m happy to talk more. Just drop me a note.


Make List

In light of my mantra, Enough, black hole. Make! I decided I’d prep a short list of creative projects for 2014. My goal: at least one project per month, with smaller, daily creativity in between.

Potential projects:

  1. Make a video project that uses hand drawn elements. I’ve never done stop motion. This will be a huge stretch. Maybe disastrous. But I want to try!
  2. Write a song with Louie.
  3. Make something ceramic, which basically means signing up for a workshop or class at Indianapolis Art Center. I used to love making ceramics, but haven’t done it in years.
  4. Knit a collaborative yarn bomb. I made this one with friends in 2010. We’ve been planning to do another, but have had a hard time coming up with an idea that tops Burt. In 2014, it’s happening.
  5. Paint a watercolor.
  6. Attempt a sewing project. I am terrible at sewing. And my funky vintage sewing machine is broken, and I was told the part needed to fix it is unavailable. Maybe a class at Crimson Tate?
  7. Make some note cards (& write letters, of course).
  8. Paint a series of wee acrylic paintings. Louie got me a bunch of mini canvases a couple of years ago. I made mostly bad paintings on 2 of them, the rest have been collecting dust in my art supply closet.
  9. Write a short story.
  10. Make a scarf for Louie. The last scarf I made for him worked with his old coat, but he got a new one this winter that’s begging for a more classic style scarf. Maybe cables? They’re one of my favorite things to knit.
  11. Build a mobile.
  12. Make some word art, with hand drawn typography.

I reserve the right to change my mind about what I do, but not to skip a month. I may not share everything I do, but if you don’t hear any stories of making stuff, then I’ve probably faltered. Hold me accountable, internet!

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Today’s prompt: “Plan, outline, or mind-map a project you want to tackle in 2014.”


Before I met him, I’d heard a lot of stories about Jeremy from Jeb – he’d moved around, taken a big leap of faith that didn’t exactly work out. A vinyl collector, a VW bus rehabber. He was really into “Tribal Leadership,” and by the way, I just had to read this book.

So I did read that book. The things that captured my attention – it offered a lens to run an organization’s language through to determine overall health. And there was this business about forming triads, getting people together in groups of three being a magic number. I understood, sort of, but it’s hard to really “get it” until you see a triad play out.

Someone decided the three of us should get together, either Jeb or Jeremy, to form a triad. It was impossible to build an expectation for this experience. I only knew that Jeremy would take us through some exercises, and we’d talk about stuff – some work-related, some more personal. I didn’t know Jeremy much at all – at that point we had met once over lunch. In hindsight, I knew Jeb less than I thought I did, as I’d come to find out.

Back in February, we met at the Speak Easy, a tech co-working space in Broad Ripple. Jeremy asked us to share three types of stories. First, a high-five moment, featuring a highlight, an achievement, a celebration. Then there was a time we got angry, or a hell no moment. Finally, the most difficult to share: a low point, when things got really bad.

I can be sort of guarded, until I’m not. I had a choice to make: I could make up some fake low point story, or just tell part of it that gave a sliver of truth, or I could be open and tell the real thing. Here I was, in mixed company – someone I barely knew, and someone I knew-but-didn’t-know.

I went with truth. And I cried in front of a stranger and my boss. I felt weak and vulnerable. But then, that passed. They each told their stories, too, and we shared a collective raw honesty that I would expect only amongst old friends.

As we shared our stories, Jeremy noted some key words he heard us repeating and shared insights along the way. Without intention or design, the things I shared had a common “challenge” theme. I never said this explicitly, but in my choice of stories and words, I had told him that challenges were really important to me, that I was wired to need a good challenge to do my best work.

It was an emotionally-charged and deep learning experience. Giving into vulnerability, losing all facade, steeled me with an unexpected fearlessness. Sharing our stories had drawn us closer, invited trust. We continued to meet, to share things we’d written, to serve as a sounding board for one another.

Being one to poke fun at trust falls, let’s-hug-it-out type sessions or anything touchy-feely, I didn’t know how I’d feel about this. But it was different. We built towards the low point. There was (thank goodness) no hugging it out or anything of that ilk. Jeremy asked the right kind of questions, had the right demeanor to create a low key atmosphere without a lot of pressure or stress. It was a small enough group.

Three is kind of a magic number.

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Today’s prompt: “Who made a difference for you this year?”


Sketch Notes

I’ve always been a doodler. If I’m talking on the phone, there’s a 50/50 chance I’m sketching something. I’ve never really liked talking on the phone, so maybe this is my way of coping with a necessary part of life and business. I often sketch my grocery lists too. I don’t save them or post them online – it’s just a small way to bring art into daily life. If I could unearth notebooks from high school or college, I’d find the margins filled with patterns and random sketches.

Over time, the things I drew while note-taking during learning opportunities changed. I began to sketch relevant things too. As the two things came together, the sketching and the note-taking, I found that doodling images about what I learned helped me remember things.

Here’s an example of notes from We Are City [SUMMIT] which took place August 22, 2013.



I had no idea that there was a movement around this habit until earlier this year, when Lydia told me about the hashtag #sketchnotes.

Sometimes I wonder if people think, “Oh, you’re doodling. You’re not paying attention.” It’s exactly the opposite for me – it actually helps me focus. It’s cool to discover a whole community of people who feel the same way. There’s even a recently published how-to book.

And now that I’m in the know, I’ll plan to write a little more neatly.

This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Today’s prompt: “What did you make this year? Whether something personal, like a song or some art, or a work project, share your process and the end result of your creation.”

Make, Love, Finish

My coworker Lydia just celebrated her fifth anniversary with SmallBox. Not only is she our champion of collaborative processes, she also is the sort of gal who has a word of the year. This year’s word: PLAY. As part of her anniversary gift, we decided to make and frame a collaborative piece of art inspired by her word.

20130210-084727.jpgEach participant was to create a 5″ x 5″ piece to be framed together – any style, any medium, so long as it was flat and related to the theme PLAY. I chose watercolor for my medium.

One of my evergreen goals is to create more. It’s a balance I struggle to find – connecting time with ideas, loving what I’m making in the moment, finishing. On the morning I painted my contribution, it all came easily. That’s not always the case for me, so I wanted to get at why.

The importance of getting started.
Just getting the watercolors (or whatever supplies) out is half the battle. I set out to paint one watercolor, but ended up with four. It’s surprising how much I need to remind myself this simple thing. Resolve to start, even without clarity of what exactly to make.

4 watercolors by sara mcguyer

About that whole getting started thing. Another simple revelation: I should be giving myself specific assignments with deadlines! It’s funny to think back on the productive days of school, when writing and making of things piled up in heaps. Parameters give a starting point, so there is less stress over concept. It’s also fun to push to be creative within a boundary.

The assignment also forced me to allow a few flops. I threw away my first attempt, and 2 others in between. I might have given up on a normal day after the first bad watercolor.

Inspiration places.
Knowing she takes playful and interesting photos, I looked to Lydia’s instagram feed for inspiration. Though I haven’t ever turned to a social site for art ideas, it worked really well. I tried painting one image of “December Mushrooms” which ended up looking a little like mustaches. In one image she wrote: “Sky. And it smells like campfire. My heart explodes.” which inspired the final watercolor. Another reminder: sometimes I take art too seriously. Find inspiration in unexpected places (yes, even the internet).

I mostly work alone in art. Working with others toward this larger goal was rewarding in a very rich way. Added to my to do list: find art partners.


Telephone Sketch

Brainstorming can be a randomly beautiful thing, with no structure, just shouting it all out: a worthy idea appears. Sometimes that is enough. Other times, putting a new lens or technique on a problem is helpful. If you need more of that, I’d recommend checking out Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming by Ellen Lupton.

Graphic Design Thinking

Many of the techniques will be familiar for creative agency types. Mind-mapping. Sprinting. Co-design. Each description is simple and concise, and as a whole, the book provides a great overview of techniques. Even if you already know them, no matter. Where the book really shines is the real world examples paired with each technique. It’s incredibly inspiring.

One example of collaboration, the Reinvent Mural really struck me. A group of designers collaborated to create a a series of images for a gallery installation. Each image leads to the next, a similar shape, but also something new.

It got me thinking of it as a sort of a visual version of the telephone game, or chinese whispers. Remember that old game? The one in which words are whispered into the next person’s ear, on down the line, and then, ta da! Out the other end comes, more often than not, an entirely different word or phrase.

It might be a silly child’s game, but it very effectively illustrates the potential for re-framing, even total warping in human communication. Each individual perception, each new touch has incredible power to shift things.

Reinvent Mural

I played around with this idea in a quick sketching session. Oh, the strange paths that can unfold out of the brain!

The first:
Parentheses >; Black-eyed peas >; Macaroni >; Old school telephone handset >; Magnet >; Lightning bolt. This ended pairing the pea and the bolt, a bit of nonsensical fun.

From Indiana >; Creepy bird mask >; Tornado >; Stairs.

Or another path:
Indiana >; Thought bubble >; Whale.

X >; Pliers >; Tooth >; Rockin’ guitar >; Rocket >; Spotted shark.


This was a solo experiment, but as fascinating as it is to marvel at the leaps one mind can make, a group application is what I’m more interested in. For this experiment, I’d set it up so that only the first participant sees the source image, and each to follow would see only the most recent sketch in the series.

The reason I’m so taken with this is this: it reminds me of how brands evolve as they’re carried. As an organization, we may design a logo, choose our words or how we want people to feel, but the moment it’s out in the world, it gets touched, shaped and shifted by others. Customers, fans, friend or foe can perceive what they will and share your brand with others through their own filter. Like it or not.

Think about this: if you were to telephone sketch your logo, where would it take you? If your customers or fans did it, where to then?

Mapping a Story

I’ve never mind-mapped to write a story before. Today, I sketched out a mind map for a side project I’m calling Extracurriculum, and was inspired to try it for a short story series idea I’ve been mulling over for a bit. While I haven’t written from it yet, I am inspired by how much more direction I have, how clear the ideas and characters are becoming before writing the first sentence. Why didn’t I give this a whirl ages ago?

I don’t want to share too much detail – I’m pretty private about creative writing until I get it to a certain point. I’m looking at a leisurely holiday break where I’ll have plenty of time to face the page.

For now, it’s movie time for the annual Griswald Family Christmas.


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Today’s prompt: “Mind map a project you want to tackle in 2013.”