Crossing The Desert With Zerus & Ona And The Oases Along The Journey

Last month I visited Springest, where I used to work as a software developer some years ago. One of my ex-colleagues, who has been following the project of Zerus & Ona since the start —more than two years ago now— asked me to share with the team some of my biggest learnings during this time.

When you hear entrepreneurs and artists talking about their beginnings, many of them refer to it as a very solitary moment in their lives, where you end up spending a big amount of time alone, playing around with your idea. My experience was very similar and that’s why the name of my talk “Crossing the Desert with Zerus & Ona”.

In this talk I’ll walk you through my own journey, highlighting my own challenges and the oases I found that helped me to overcome them. You can watch it here and check out the slides here.

I hope that you find any of it useful and, if you are interested in the project, you can read more about it at www.zerusandona.com.

TALK NOTES:

Oasis #1 – Journaling

The Artist’s Way

Oasis #2 – Playing

#THE100DAYPROJECT

Oasis #3 – Nurturing

Affinity Designer for iPad

Society of Visual Storytelling

Oasis #4 – GivING Meaning

16 Personalities

Oasis #5 – Planning

The Optimized Woman

A Story About “Windows”​ And The Importance Of Diversity In The Tech Industry

It’s been some time now since I finished reading The Shallows, what the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr and I keep thinking about the following passage:

David Levy, in Scrolling Forward, describes a meeting he attended at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center in the mid-1970s, a time when the high-tech lab’s engineers and programmers were deciding many of the features we now take for granted in our personal computers.

A group of prominent computer scientists had been invited to PARC to see a demonstration of a new operation system that made “multitasking” easy. […] the new system divided a screen into many “windows”, each of which could run a different program or display a different document. To illustrate the flexibility of the system, the Xerox presenter clicked from a window in which he had been composing software code to another window that displayed newly arrived e-mail message. He quickly read and replied to the message, then hopped back to the programming window and continued coding.

Some in the audience applauded the new system. They saw that it would enable people to use their computers much more efficiently. Others recoiled from it. “Why in the world would you want to be interrupted -and distracted- by e-mail while programming?” one of the attending scientists angrily demanded.

I keep thinking about that scientist.

Almost forty years later, we can see how the windows interface has been chosen as the most preferred way to do things. There are windows within windows within windows everywhere, especially when navigating the Internet.

Along the book, Nicholas Carr explains how he began to notice that the Internet was having a much stronger and broader influence over him than his old stand-alone PC ever had:

“The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. […] Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected. […] I missed my old brain.”

I can very much relate to this, even when I don’t consider myself to spend much time online or multitasking when working with my computer. But, I do have a child and I keep thinking about how the way we interact with computers will be making an influence on him, especially when his brain is still developing.

The life of the Internet is facing interesting years. Meetings, such as the one referred above, are happening everywhere all the time. Meetings where decisions are being made on topics that will immensely influence not only the way we work, but also the way we live our lives, such as the idea of “windows”.

And I keep thinking about that scientist.

And also about a parallel world where scientists attending that meeting said “no” to “windows”. A world where our relationship with computers is being designed to support our concentration, instead of multiple threads of information. Would my old brain be back?

I dream with a better, more human digital world for our children.

And I believe that projects like Zerus & Ona might help us get there. During my visit at Springest, I got asked to share the ideas behind my vision and you can watch the talk here (min 29:08).


Got friends with kids and you think they’ll also enjoy the adventures of Zerus & Ona? Share this article and tell them about their first book. Let’s reach as many kids as we can 🙌

Today’s world needs many different types of people to start thinking about technology and to care about it. 

The 9 Milestones Of A Pictures Book And The Optimum Times To Complete Them

“Completing a book is like a marathon, it can’t be done in 2 days. Could you give us some numbers on how long did it take you?“, Klaus asked at the book launch party during the Q&A. 

Q&A round during the book launch of “Zerus gets a Virus”

The audience didn’t see my answer coming and found it surprising.

So, I’d like to elaborate on it, listing the milestones I reached while “running this marathon” and how I found the optimum times to complete each of them.


List Of Milestones

#1. RESEARCH (Dynamic)

Once I decide what the book is going to be about, I start by doing some research on it. I read books on the topic or browse the Internet. It’s a very structured, rational task. My focus is on collecting data. And I take notes and make diagrams on my notebook.

I even try to forget that I’m writing a book! 

Then, I move away for some days, letting this new information find its place in the back of my mind. I don’t want the research and technical details to become the main driver of the story but they still need to be there.

#2. KICKSTART (Creative)

After a short break, I jump into my journal and I do morning pages for a couple of daysThe story is born in them. I write, and write, and write, until there’s a moment in which I can’t really see what’s coming.

And suddenly, my subconscious is driving!

Unexpected things start to happen, coming in many different forms: words, images, bubble thoughts… By the end of this milestone, I’m not looking for a script, nor a storyboard. Instead, I’m looking for the feeling of the story. I call it the “kickstart”.

Sketches in journal during morning pages (“kickstart”)

#3. STORYBOARD (Creative)

Next, I work on the storyboard. It needs to comes before the script, since I like to see that the story supports itself without words. I still haven’t used the iPad; this work is done with pen and paper.

Storyboard done with pen and paper

#4. ROUGH SKETCHES (Creative, Dynamic)

Then, I take the storyboard into the iPad.

The digital work starts. 

I go through a first round of sketches for the whole book, already using the files that will go to the press. I focus on the structure of the page, the position of the characters and the text.

Rough sketches using thick pencil brush 64px

It’s time for a first print out, the rough sketches mini-book.

Experiencing the story as a book is important. And so, I print a couple of them to share with some readers and ask them for feedback. I’m especially interested in whether they can follow the story without words and if they come up with extra details to make it more juicy.

#5. COLOR STUDIES (Creative, Reflective)

While I wait for readers’ feedback, I start doing color studies.

Rough sketches are a great way to study the lighting along the book, which scenes are brighter or darker. By studying the color, I now can select the tones and values, using a color palette that I already defined for Zerus & Ona.

Color studies using customised acrylic brushes

It’s time for a second print out, the color studies mini-book.

Rough sketches mini-book (left) and color studies mini-book (right)

#6. WRITING THE SCRIPT (Creative, Dynamic)

I already reached the milestones that make writing the script a more directed task. It’s based on that first feeling of the story, the storyboard and the two mini-books.

Writing the script starts on my journal, using again morning pages. Later on, at some point along this milestone, I move my notes into the iPad and start typing the story.

 Writing the script in Scrivener for iPad

#7. EDITING THE SCRIPT (Expressive)

I share the script, storyboard and sketches with my editor, Esther Chilton. We do some work on it together, before she does a couple of rounds on the text by herself and comes up with ideas. I still haven’t put much effort on the final illustrations, so it’s easy to integrate anything that she suggests. 

#8. FINE SKETCHES (Dynamic)

While the editor is working on the text, I move into the last round of sketches.

This milestone requires more structure and logical thinking than any of the previous ones. I also check on the research that I did in the beginning of the process to include more layers of details into the story, either in the illustrations or as part of the parent guide at the end of the book.

Fine sketches, including extra details from initial research, reader’s feedback and editor, using a pencil brush 32px

#9. FINAL ART (Reflective, Dynamic, Expressive, Creative)

Once the previous milestones are reached, painting and drawing the final illustrations becomes a very enjoyable and relaxing experience.

I like to block time in my agenda to be able to complete this milestone non-stop from start to finish, immersing myself in the story during this last phase.

Final illustrations ready for the press using customised acrylic brushes for the painting and a fine pencil brush (16px) for the line work

Optimum Time To Complete Each Milestone

Now, here’s the part that the audience didn’t see coming.

I can’t tell the numbers of days, or weeks, that it took me to complete this book”, I told Klaus, “because I don’t work in a linear way. Instead, I plan and reach milestones in a cyclical way, following my menstrual cycle.”

Along the process of writing this book, I came across the work of Miranda Gray and her book The Optimized Woman. I read that my cycle moves around four different phases, each of them being an Optimum Time for particular abilities and actions.

“If we view ourselves as a consistent being, […] what meets our needs one week should equally meet them the following week. However, when we come to terms with our cyclic nature we suddenly realize that this expectation doesn’t work for us. […] just as we have different abilities and ways of perceiving in each of the phases we also have different needs to express and to meet.”

Miranda Gray
The cycle phases and Optimum Times (top), the active/passive cycle (bottom left), the conscious/subconscious cycle (bottom right) from The Optimized Woman by Miranda Gray.

I was hooked.

After some weeks reading all I could find, I was still geeking out on the menstrual cycle and how to apply it to my work with Zerus & Ona. You might have noticed the words Reflective, Dynamic, Expressive and Creative next to each milestone listed above. Those are the phases or the Optimum Times around my cycle in which to focus on them.

Working with my cycle not only as a productivity tool, but also as a means to happiness and fulfilment around my work, turned out to be the most important learning.

And so, I told Klaus, “I can’t tell the number of weeks, or months, that it took me. But, I can tell the number of cycles. It took me 5 cycles to complete this book.

The «Secret» Driving Force Behind Zerus & Ona

Burnout. I’ve been there. And it’s not fun.

It was actually one of the reasons that made me quit my career as an architect. Back in 2012 we were working on a competition for a school at the office. And it was happening again: we were running late. But this time, it was the worst time ever and I ended up hitting the deadline after working 48 hours straight. 

I came back home that morning and I told my then boyfriend (now husband), “I’m done with this”There was something inside of me that still needed to believe that we, Humans, can do (artistic) work without burning ourselves out in the process. It was time for me to move on. 

For many years, I barely made any art (except from coding!) until Zerus & Ona. 

And, this time, things needed to be different. 

During the first months, there wasn’t a big need for planning or structure. It all started as a rain of chaotic random ideas building a mountain of mess (now saved in a gigantic folder inside my cupboard!). But, as the project evolved, I needed to find a way to set goals and meet milestones. 

So, I went back to what I knew from “pre-baby” days. I put in place every productivity system that I liked in the past: bullet journaling, pomodoros, GTD… you name it. But, I soon realized that these tools were not working. Why? Because, from time to time, I felt glimpses of a burnout. Not fun.

But, how?! This was not architecture and I didn’t have a boss to set my agenda. This was my own project! So then… why was I feeling drained, exhausted and losing the excitement?

It was then when a friend of mine (thank you, Elena!) mentioned the idea of working with my cycle. 

After some weeks reading all I could find, I was still geeking out on the menstrual cycle. 

I learned that we, women, don’t work in a linear way, but that we are cyclical. That our energies change along our cycle. And that there are optimum times for Rest, Execution, Nurturing and Creation. Wow!

So, I began to apply the same four energies to Z&O.

I stopped thinking in terms of weeks or calendar months. And I started to work in cycles. This really meant to do things differently! 

I’ve now been working with my cycle and tracking it for 8 months and the results are mind-blowing. It’s revolutionizing completely the way I look at my work and my life. 

The recent release of Zerus gets a Virus proves that this new approach actually works. It’s out, shipped, DONE. The store opened two weeks ago and the book has already reached 9 countries. Which is a big success!! 

And, wanna hear the best news? After these two years of work, I don’t feel drained or exhausted. I’m still excited about the project and I’m looking forward to the future. 

THIS is what makes Z&O even a greater success!

Now, chances are high that you, Human reading this, are a man. And that’s why, for a while, I asked myself, “What if I talk about the menstrual cycle as one of the main forces driving Zerus & Ona? Would men also be into this?” Well, chances are also high that you’re living or working with a woman. Or you’re raising one! Maybe you know how a burnout feels and this time you also want to do things differently.

Either way, yes. You, man, are into this.

And it’s time that we, Humans, start talking about it.

Zerus gets a Virus - Pre-order
“Zerus gets a Virus” is the first title in the collection of Zerus & Ona and is (finally!) out.

How I Make Time For Zerus And Ona As A Mom

We never know when the day starts. It all depends on how the night was. However once it does, I finally found a rhythm that we can follow, that allows me to spend lots of time with little boy and at the same time gives me space to work on Zerus & Ona. 

It took me a while to get here, so writing a story about it might help other moms.


Morning

→ Shower. I was always an evening shower person, during 33 years. It was a way to relax, unwind, getting ready for bed. But now, I do it in the morning, first thing of the day, while Little Boy still sleeps. It helps me to set the tone of the day, getting things done from the start. And also I need to be ready to get out of the house whenever he asks for a walk (and I never know how much time I’ll have!).

→ Breastfeeding. Little Boy is the first one to have breakfast around the house. And I just transformed this moment into what used to be my morning meditation.

→ Playtime. These days he’s all into crawling and trying to stand. All The Time. I let him practice by himself while I set up my bullet journal, have breakfast and do the first round in the kitchen. I’ve divided all my recipes into two separate steps, which I can do in two different moments. Sometimes there’s just not enough time for a full recipe. Before finding this out, I would feel anxious all the time of leaving food halfway. I also use this time to do a couple of things around the house, like laundry or cleaning. I have divided the whole household into small parts so I only need to do a bit every day. And it’s also a way for us of having free weekends!

→ Reading. I sit down with him and play together while I tell him the things that we’ll be doing along that day. We then read a book or two, depending on his energy levels! I think he got used to a book just before each of his naps and since then he falls asleep more peacefully. No scientific proof that this is actually true, though.

→ Nap. I promised myself that I’d get out of the house every single day. It’s good for my brain, for my body, as well as Little Boy’s. And I set a minimum number of kilometres that I must do per week so I can (once and for all!) recover from the postpartum! During his nap I also read and write, like I am doing now.

→ Café. I always liked to work at cafés. Something about the atmosphere gets me inspired, let it be the smell, the people or the light. Lucky me there’s a nice café in the neighbourhood that I can visit daily.

I met so many people there during these last months. People that became an important part of my life now. There’s a woman that owns her own company about top art guiding tours, a retired theatre director who used to travel a lot for work and now he drinks his coffee in front of me. The barista’s, who are becoming the best playing mates of little boy. And then there’s another mom like me, writing her PhD working in 3-hour shifts because it’s the time that she has until the next feed. With her I can share the ups and downs of mom life. And these are just some to mention a few.

I normally draw, set up the sketch of the day and do some research about it. I never know how long I’ll be having. Little Boy’s nap times vary from 30, 40, 60 to 90 minutes. Which actually makes this moment very exciting, and I had to learn how to divide my work in very, very tiny pieces so that I can stop any time.

→ Shopping. On our way home, we do the groceries. We’re busy learning all veggies, just in case he decides to become a chef!

Afternoon

→ Breastfeeding.

→ Lunch. Second round in the kitchen, getting things ready for lunch. We introduced solid foods some weeks ago, so Little Boy is still learning about colours, textures and flavours. Lots of patience required here.

→ Playtime. I think this is one of Little Boy’s favourite moments of the day. He plays the most when his belly is full, laughing and talking all the time. It’s great to see him struggle with some poses and finally get over them after some days. Every day there is a new challenge to face! While he explores every corner in our living-room, I do a bit more around the house.

→ Reading. Second book of the day before he falls asleep.

→ Nap. The second nap of the day we do it at home, where I enjoy some silence. This is also the moment when I check social media, finish some work-in-progress sketches and do some computer work, like drawing in Photoshop.

→ Breastfeeding.

→ Yoga. For some months I looked for a way to practice at home as I used to: alone, quietly, maybe with some journaling. But I discovered that the best way to do it now is actually together with Little Boy. He laughs and moves like crazy, while I move from one sun salutation to another. Also I close my eyes, become silent, focus on my breathing… and it’s very interesting to see his reaction, like he knows that this moment is different from anything else in the day. I cannot wait for the day that he decides to join me!

Most of the days, Dad comes back during our yoga session, he sits down with us and spend some time together around the mat. One of the best moments of the day!

Evening

Evenings are easier to handle because Dad is there and he takes care of him. He helps out with dinner, prepares the bath and does the last reading. But, the last breastfeeding of the day is still on me!


Frequently Asked Questions

Are you working? Oh yes, definitely! Taking care of Little Boy is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. It requires lots of new learning, organisational skills and, on top of that, the greatest soft skills!

Taking care of my baby is actually the most interesting project I’ve ever managed.

Are those the only moments that you breastfeed? Not at all. Those are just the moments when I sit down with him and relax. But he likes to drink a bit here and there during the whole day.

Do you feel lonely? Sometimes, especially during those rainy, windy, gray days.

Do you ever fall? Yes, sometimes. Mostly when I had a few bad nights in a row. Hormones take over. And afterwards I need to bring myself together again. Discovering the tools to do that as fast as possible is part of the process.

Do you see yourself following this rhythm for a long time? Not at all! Babies really change all the time. They can even feel when you are getting comfortable with the situation, so don’t get used to it because your routines will change before you know it!

I like saying that taking care of my baby is teaching me some of the best practices of continuous integration.