Rachel Binx

crafter of custom products

Featured photos courtesy of Rachel Binx.

Rachel Binx is amongst one of the most talented people I know. She’s the face and creator behind ManyMaps, Meshu, Cliffs&Coasts, Monochōme, and Gifpop—companies and projects all surrounding themes of her love for travel, data, and custom built products. Rachel perfectly exemplifies what it means to be creative—always exploring unique ways to nudge towards an end goal, and, if necessary, paving your own path in order to do so. Read on as we chat about her thoughts on work/life balance, her approach to handling overwhelming workloads, and her creative endeavors.

You have such a diverse background and list of experiences that I’m looking forward to discuss. So, I guess firstly, what can you share about your background, your journey as a maker, and what project(s) you’re currently focused on? I’ve got a long history as a crafter, starting in early childhood. I used to make jewelry and nicknacks to sell at holiday craft fairs, and later I moved to greeting cards, decor, and more advanced jewelry work. The hustle was alive and well in my childhood, haha!

I started to get into one-off manufacturing when laser-cutting and 3D-printing were still fairly cutting-edge. I liked the idea of making objects that were meaningful for each customer, vs. making a bunch of inventory before and hoping to find a market to sell it to. That idea, combined with my skills as a web developer, resulted in this suite of customizable products.

Right now my focus is more a personal development than a new project; I am trying to learn how to do hand-lettering! I think the best way to make projects is to pursue a variety of interests, fiddle around with them, and allow the larger “project” ideas to develop organically.

“I liked the idea of making objects that were meaningful for each customer, vs. making a bunch of inventory before and hoping to find a market to sell it to.

Cliffs&Coasts: custom jewelry created from the elevation of mountains or the contour of shorelines. Shown: the eastern coast of the U.S.

Cliffs&Coasts: custom jewelry created from the elevation of mountains or the contour of shorelines. Shown: the southern coast of Japan.

What raised your interest in hand-lettering? Has the learning process been difficult? I’ve always had a deep admiration for hand-letterers, I just think it looks so dang cool! I like to create visual art pieces, but my experiments so far are all digital. I’m not skilled at drawing, and I wish I was — hand-lettering seemed like a good way to break into creating work with my hands. The forms are very specific (the alphabet), but still allow an artistic interpretation on how to render them. Letters seemed way more approachable than learning how to draw objects or people!

I’m totally stealing this question from your blog—MCOB—but I thought it’d be interesting to hear your personal thoughts. What is the most surprising thing you’ve found from making physical products? The longer I work on these projects, the more I learn about supply chains. I love learning about the different manufacturing techniques and assembly processes. I think it’s an extension of that childhood wonder that everything in your life is made by someone. What’s been surprising to me, though, is finding out how accessible it is to create or customize everyday objects. The last couple of years have been very exciting in this space, as the internet has connected manufacturers to customers, with a well-documented order API being the gold-standard. I’ve had a variety of manufacturer relationships throughout the different projects, but in the end I think it’s just so exciting to be apart of making an idea in to a physical object.

I’d love to learn more about your fascination with traveling. After all, it does seem to be the theme of everything you’re working on. What role does travel play in your life, and what’s your favorite part about it? Haha, good question! I grew up in Albuquerque, and I had this life goal from very early on that I was going to become a cultured, cosmopolitan person. I wanted to see the world and experience different cultures, and especially given the contemporary Bush-era politics, I wanted to escape the stigma of being an ignorant American. Travel became my big goal, I tried to save as much money as possible to funnel into plane tickets.

I tried to travel as much as I could, and I also started keeping a CSV of every flight I had taken for the past several years. Data visualization was my bread and butter at this point — so obviously I had to start playing around with a way to visualize it!

It’s fun to look at a journey you’ve taken and have this memory-rush of all the experiences you had on that trip, and thinking about what it meant to you. So that’s basically how Meshu was started, and then the subsequent projects all were a continuation on this theme.

Meshu turns your places into beautiful objects.

Where’s your favorite travel destination thus far? Also, now that you’ve gotten to experience some of those different cultures, what’s your most valuable takeaway from that exposure? My favorite has got to be Tokyo. It’s such a dense place with so much culture packed in. I love Shinjuku in particular, wandering around the tiny streets and discovering tiny restaurants and bars.

My biggest takeaway from seeing different cultures is realizing the effect of cultural values on individual personalities. I think Americans tend to be more aggressive and entitled than other cultures; I have tried to recognize and excise those traits in myself. Travel has made me a more open-minded person and better at adapting to different situations.

ManyMaps: Pick a location, express your style, and save it as a high-resolution map print. Available as poster or canvas.

I think I came across something called “Hourly Binx” at one point. I believe it was a Twitter account you created to track data? Sounds really unique! Can you share a bit more? Oh, haha, I can’t believe you found that! Yes, that came out of the classic beginner’s datavis dilemma — knowing that you want to visualize data but not having any data to start with! I figured the easiest thing to do would be to make my own dataset, based on tracking myself. It was kind of an insane setup… I set up a Google calendar with alarms that went off every hour, and then synced that to my blackberry (remember those?) so I would get a notification. From there, I would tweet out a record of how I was feeling, on a scale of 1-7, both my happiness and energy levels. I also tracked when I woke up, went to bed, ate food, and drank caffeine or alcohol. I had a whole notation on the tweets to record these events. At the end of 50 days of tracking this (yes, really,) I used some basic python to pull down the tweets and parse them. From there, I could graph my average happiness/energy ratings per hour and assess my sleep/eating/drinking schedule. It required a lot of diligence, but hey, I was in college and I didn’t have anything better to do with my time!

To those wondering if I made any profound realizations from my data… not really, haha! I made some basic graphs to practice my visualization skills, but otherwise, the data basically confirmed common sense.

Having launched so many different creative projects, how have you found it best to juggle everything you’ve got going on? Do you often face difficulties handling it all? It’s usually not that bad! The companies aren’t terribly high-volume, so I usually only put in 1-2 hours a week to handle all of them. That ramps up considerably during the holiday season, but I can usually bring in other people to help with the workload.

The dependence on the holiday shopping season is a double-edged sword, but one of the upsides is that I basically have the first half of each year ‘off.’ So I’ll spend that time poking around on smaller creative explorations, or just luxuriating in doing nothing. Usually by the 3rd quarter, I’ve got an idea kicking around that I start working on, and then Q4 is a mad dash. I tried to reach out and hire more people to help me with various parts of putting these together (visual design, photography, copywriting), which was a great help! My mantra is that if there’s enough work on a particular part to be stressing me out, then I should just hire someone who specializes in that subject. Plus, it’s fun to pay your friends. 

My mantra is that if there’s enough work on a particular part to be stressing me out, then I should just hire someone who specializes in that subject.

You’re really breaking the whole ‘entrepreneurs have to work 70 hours a week’ myth. Is it important for you to have those times to luxuriate in doing nothing? Well, I do think it’s important to break up one’s work schedule (on the scale of several months or a whole year), but I wouldn’t call it a vacation or doing nothing. One of the things that frustrated me about the tech world was the expectation to have your life revolve around work—to either be working, or learning new work techniques, or going to meetups, or participating in hackathons. My goal is to take a more holistic approach and value the other parts of my life as much as the tech work; to approach cooking, cleaning, socializing, or visiting art museums with the same determination and focus as writing code. It’s made me a much happier person! I think my work benefits in turn, when I am taking care of myself as a whole person I find the project work more energizing and joyful (can you tell I live in LA?)

“One of the things that frustrated me about the tech world was the expectation to have your life revolve around work … My goal is to take a more holistic approach and value the other parts of my life as much as the tech work.

Let’s talk about creating bold work. After all, you did once curate a gif art show. What’s your piece of advice for executing unexplored ideas? I know this sounds a bit trite, but my real advice here is “just start.” I’ve seen so many people have a fun idea that they want to work on, but they get hung up on a theoretical hurdle, or by being worried that they can’t pull it off perfectly in one go. It’s much better to treat these projects as an iterative process, and your first proof of concept is probably going to look terrible and be difficult to use, but you aren’t going to figure that out until you start building it. There’s always some small way that you can start working towards your end goal, and eventually all of those small pushes snowball into a working project!

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