The Lunch Notes Edition
On lunchboxes, messages, and smiles
Ryan McManus (RMM) is an enduring friend of WITI who previously wrote about the fashion of the aero wheel, the end of spare parts, and the simple elegance of SecuriCode. He is a Design Strategist at Ford, currently living in Massachusetts.
Ryan here. My kids have spent most of their school lives learning remotely, alongside me working remotely. So when, last year, my older son’s school welcomed him back to in-person, I adopted the age-old parental tradition of leaving a note in his lunchbox to remind him I was thinking of him back at home. Writing the note itself became a ritual, one sandwiched between dozens of other rituals and preparations on a busy weekday morning. Still, I would find 5 minutes before we left for the walk to school to sit at my desk, grab a Post-It™ and Sharpie™ (I work in a Human-Centered Design practice so I have these in spades), and write a short note and a little picture. The goal is simple: make it something he’d like, something that he’d look forward to, something to make him smile to himself in the cacophony of a cafeteria and know I had made it just for him.
Why is this interesting?
This is not going to be a long history on the tradition of writing lunch notes, sorry to disappoint. Instead, I wanted to describe what this ritual has become for me, and why it's my favorite part of my day. In design as well as art, there is the idea of a “sketch prompt”—a quick thematic assignment you take on to get creative juices flowing. The idea is if you commit to the practice of sketching daily, you’ll lower barriers to getting started creatively. It’s designed to overcome the inertia of starting.
In this way, my lunch notes took on, quite unintentionally, the role of my daily sketch prompt. The constraints are consistent: no more than 5 minutes (can’t be late!), has to be on a Post-It™, and can only use a few drawing tools. The theme can vary as you’ll see, but generally it took the form of a sketch character or animal with a quick note (bonus points for a Dad Pun). Early on, I would draw whatever things he was interested in at the time—Minecraft, Pusheen, SpongeBob, Catstronauts. These would be clumsy, but recognizable for him (please don’t sue for copyright infringement).
And at first, my tools were absolutely Spartan: one weight of Sharpie only. But over time, I added new tools without changing the canvas or the time constraint. This happened quite organically—I had some Copic™ sketch markers on my desk from a work sketch session, and grabbed one impulsively one morning to add a bit of shadow. I used a basic highlighter and red pen to give SpongeBob more life. As the sketches got more complex, I started using a pencil to rough them in first. More recently, I’ve expanded to using various brush pens and colored markers to make more expressive drawings.
This technique is the one I’m using now for our current series of sketches of birds. My son is a bird nerd like me, and every day I try to pick a new bird to draw for him
Creativity is a bit like exercise—it’s sometimes best to find small opportunistic ways to include it in your daily routine rather than commit to a large-scale change of lifestyle. I maybe won’t ever be a wildlife painter, but these morning sketches let me be a better designer at my day job and feel inspired at the start of a busy day, as well as showing my kids some affection through craft. I actually dread the day my son is too old to get cute lunch notes from his dad at school—luckily his younger brother is starting Kindergarten in the Fall, so my daily ritual still has a few extra years to go. (RMM)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ryan (RMM)
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