Stephen Gates started his design education when he was two years old, setting type with his dad on a 700-pound cast iron letterpress in the basement. At the age of 12, he was introduced to the agency world, then moved in-house a time or two before arriving at his present gig as the Head Design Evangelist at InVision.
An international keynote speaker and host of The Crazy One podcast, Stephen points to the attacks on the World Trade Center as a defining point in his career. At the time he was working on creative for American Airlines.
On September 12th, Stephen’s world view had shifted. Design was no longer about making things look better. It was a way to heal a company. Today, Stephen sees many organizations struggling to find good form in dysfunction. As Stephen says, “Teams aren't struggling with the ability to do better-looking work. They're struggling with everything that surrounds that work.”
Tune in to hear Stephen’s thoughts on unspoken truths, design commoditization and the trouble with comparing our insides to others’ outsides.
Catch Stephen’s keynote “The Crazy Ones: How to Make Design Core to Every Business” at Design Leadership Days this September.
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Carl Smith: Hey, everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. I've had a lot of guests on this show. I've been lucky to interview a lot of people. Some of them... Daniel Pink. That was kind of crazy, and Simon Sineck. But, the person that I got on the show today, I don't understand. I just, I see all the things that he's doing and I can't figure it out. He's the Head Design Evangelist at InVision. He has a top podcast on iTunes called The Crazy One. He's had his work featured everywhere, including Apple TV spots and inside the Apple stores. He has more awards that I didn't even know exist. And somehow, he seems to be on stage somewhere every other day. It's Stephen Gates. How are you, Stephen?
Stephen Gates: I'm good. No, I like this audition for you to be my hype man. I like the way this is going so far. I think so far, it's looking good. You're going to get the job.
Carl Smith: I'm the Head Design Evangelist at Stephen Gates.
Stephen Gates: Okay. We'll work on the titling, but I like where this is going.
Carl Smith: Well, you're the crazy one, so you get to do that. But seriously, my first question is just where do you get the energy, man?
Stephen Gates: You don't sleep much. I think, you know what, you get really, really good at working on things in pieces. Because I think you've got the day job, you've got the podcast, you've got the talks. I think it's interesting, and it can become a little bit addictive. When you have all this different stuff going on, it just sort of lets each one feed the other that the day job going around and working with a lot of the world's best companies, seeing what they're doing, helping them out. That informs the podcast. The podcast informs that work. The speaking is a result of all of that.
Stephen Gates: So, yeah, I think it's sort of this sort of interesting, interconnected thing, but the other part of it, for me, has always been the energy comes from... it's just so core to my process because what pushes me forward is giving away what I've learned because that way, you can't sit around and say, "Hey, let's talk about what we talked about last month."
Carl Smith: To take it way back, your dad was a creative director, and your mom was an artist. You grew up in that environment. What's that like?
Stephen Gates: So, I did. So, I grew up in Pittsburgh, really during sort of the fall of the steel mills. My dad was a creative director, worked for kind of a small to middle sized agency in Pittsburgh. My mom made soft sculpture toys for kids, like puppets and clowns and stuff like that. So, incredibly, incredibly creative childhood. But yeah, no. I started my design education when I was two years old. My dad had this 700 pound cast iron letter press that sat in our basement, and he and I used to go down and what we would do is we would sort of write my own storybooks, and then I would sit there and letter set them. He'd do linoleum cut, and we would print them. So, pretty much I was a hipster by the time I was two because I had been self publishing my books, was incredibly confused why other kids bought theirs, and it just sort of went from there.
Stephen Gates: I started working at his agency whenever I was 12 when I was a paid junior designer. It was the greatest, most creative childhood ever that gave me such an insane head start on my career.
Carl Smith: That letter press is just one of the coolest things I've ever heard.
Stephen Gates: It is, but I sort of have to laugh. I think today, they would have called CPS on him because it was little kids handling lead. A lot of things that probably wouldn't... it's child labor. It was that amazing thing. If you wanted it, if you wanted your story, you made it up. If you wanted to have a book of it, you designed it, you printed. So, I mean, that's really my earliest memories. It's funny. The smell of printer's ink is so incredibly nostalgic for me.
Carl Smith: Okay, so, you have that as your childhood. You grow up with your dad as a creative director. You go and work at the agency, then you get through high school. What do you do?
Stephen Gates: So, at that point, you sort of have that joy of teenaged angst, that kind of like, I'm going to be creative, but I'm not going to do what my parents did. To date myself more than a little bit, at that point, a lot of the world didn't really understand what digital was. They didn't really understand what was going on with that. So, I went off to Syracuse to study computer graphics because that was sort of a hybrid of the super early days of digital when design was if you wanted it centered and bold. And kind of the early days of 3D animation, special effects. So, I started to do a lot of work and kind of play around in that space.
Carl Smith: So, you go to Syracuse, you get out of Syracuse, do you start off in the services side? Do you start off at an agency?
Stephen Gates: Yeah. An agency is what I knew, so that's sort of what I went back to and really kind of started working, being a 3D animator, being a special effects kind of compositing artist. And then, this really interesting thing happened where McCann had reached out and they had this agency in Dallas. The interesting part about Dallas is a lot of companies go there because it's a really friendly tax structure. So, you end up with these amazing, really, really big clients, but they said, "Look, we want to get more into digital, but we need somebody who can sort of talk to our old-school creative directors, and we need somebody that can build this bridge."
Stephen Gates: And so, I had this really interesting skillset that, at that point, I knew Futuresplash before it turned into Macromedia Flash, which turned into Adobe Flash, which then turned into a dead-end career. But that way, I sort of was able to speak to both sides, and I think especially at that point, having lived in New York City, whenever somebody says they'll move you to Texas and they show you what means and sort of the townhouse you can get and what it costs, in my wonderful, naïve state, I asked if that was for a week because I couldn't understand how it could be that cheap. It gets to be really appealing. So, yeah, then, I set off to Dallas. It was an agency called [inaudible 00:05:41] McClain, and set off to go work there.
Carl Smith: You end up at Starwood Hotels, and that seems to be where you spent a lot of your time. Is that where you started making that move into more leadership versus creating?
Stephen Gates: Yeah, it started whenever I was with [inaudible 00:05:57] because I think, I really had one client there that changed my life, which was that I was working on American Airlines on September 12th. The ability to look at how do you take a company and help them get through an unprecedented moment in human history? How do you rebuild that brand? How do you take a company that was already on the edge of bankruptcy and keep them, and keep them employees believing? All of a sudden I realized for me, building a product and building a brand was a much more interesting and fulfilling proposition than building an ad for a brand. At that point, this was like 15 years, confused everybody I knew and said like, "I'm leaving the agency world to go to in house." They're like, "Great, you don't care about your career." Sort of like set off to that, and yeah, came into Starwood whenever they're like, "Look. We're an old school brand who's trying to revitalize ourselves. Who's trying to refigure ourselves out." They had gotten a new CEO, a new CMO who had come from Nike. And I just said, "Look, I'm going to take a chance on seeing what this can be." And yeah, I was just initially brought in to just sort of work on the websites, and was there for just short of nine years. Yeah, it was an incredible ride.
Carl Smith: I want to back up for just a second to the American Airlines part, and I want to understand... How far into your career were you when that happened?
Stephen Gates: I was in my 20s.
Carl Smith: You were in your 20s?
Stephen Gates: Yeah. No, I mean it... That was what I think shaped me for the work that I'm doing now is I think the ability, whenever I was there, to sort of be trusted for the first time, to start to get into leadership for the first time, to take a very leading role in pitching and being on the new account team, and sort of leading a lot of that work. But I think also, that was sort of the first moment when I could really clearly see... Design wasn't just to make things look better. Design wasn't just... that this was really trying to heal a country. This was trying to figure out how to heal a company. This was... these weren't just words. There was real emotional impact behind trying to deal with some real pain in that moment, and I think that just so kind of profoundly altered my world view, that it still is a massive part of where I ended up today.
Carl Smith: That makes so much sense to me. Especially... The people that I've talked with, they've all seemed to have had this moment where there was extreme pressure. Almost like coal to diamond for the world's worst analogy. But it's one of these things where there was so much pressure, and things just kind of popped into view. They could suddenly where they were supposed to go, what they were supposed to do. And it sounds like you had one of those moments.
Stephen Gates: It was. I think that was... it was a moment of being trusted and supported, which I think as a leader and a creative, what we all want so much. It was a moment of... yeah, sort of seeing impact beyond execution. But it also was really seeing the impact that strong leadership and strong design leadership could have on a company, which is why for me, it was wanting to be more deeply entrenched in that sort of environment and in that kind of feeling, which was again why I left the agency to go in house.
Carl Smith: At that point you end up going to Starwood, and they're looking to turn things around, which it feels like they definitely did. I mean, I know what SPG is, right? It wasn't Prince's backing band.
Stephen Gates: No, no. May it rest in peace, yeah.
Carl Smith: You're there for almost nine years. At what point did you feel like, "Okay, I've kind of done what I came to do here?" What was the turning point there that made you decide it was time to move on?
Stephen Gates: Well, I think the interesting part was it was, for the second time in my career, it wasn't my decision. I think you know we had this amazing, amazing ride of whenever I got there... I took a digital team, that for all intents and purposes, was like essentially making posters for HR for the elevators in the building. And then over that nine year ark, sort of built it into this incredible, I mean it was a very small, but incredibly powerful team. We were regularly featured in... we were in eight Apple keynotes, we were one of the first design teams asked to work on Apple Watch, like months before it was announced. And we had this sort of incredible, incredible ride of continuing more and more work, and sort of reshaping industry of mobile check-in, and a lot of these sort of things. It was again, one of those sort of seminal moments where you really realize that that, even in it's best case, sometimes isn't enough.
Stephen Gates: The departure from Starwood came because I was laid off. Which is the cautionary tale I tell a lot of people. I got laid off with my work running globally in an Apple commercial after arguable what was one of the most successful app launches on that platform. And it was because our board had decided that they wanted to sell the company, which ultimate manifested in the sale to Marriott. But the CEO, who I loved so dearly, the CMO, who I loved so dearly, had both sort of been pushed out. I was this very visible remnant of the old regime. And so, no, I was... Yeah, I was having lunch actually at Infinite Loop with the team from Apple, and my boss called me up and said, "Yeah, you don't have a job anymore."
Carl Smith: But it was a good thing, ultimately, right?
Stephen Gates: Well no, I think it absolutely was. I think watching the ark of sort of what happened with those brands with the sale of the company, with SPG and a lot of those things that I built and loved so dearly, kind of shutting down and what they've turned into. I mean, I kind of joke, it's like seeing an ex-girlfriend with somebody who doesn't treat her too well. Where it's just like sometimes it's just better to let that go. But no, I think that it taught me so much, good and bad. I think I wouldn't replace it for anything. It was some of the best work I've done in my career, but no. But it is that reminder. I think this is why I preach what I preach to a lot of creatives, where it's like don't sort of get too diluted into thinking that at some point this isn't going to become a business again.
Carl Smith: And this is one of the things we've been talking about in the design leadership circles is okay, the Westward expansion is over, design is part of business, is it? It seems to be. But then is there going to be this backlash of, "Well, we tried and it didn't work." One of the interesting things, you're going to be with us at design leadership days this September in Seattle, and your talk is around how to make design core to every business.
Stephen Gates: Well, and I think it's exactly for what you said because for me, a lot of what it is and looking at this, and I think the interesting part about being with InVision, we have 100% of the world's Fortune 100 brands are our customers who give this really interesting, really broad perspective. I think a lot of it really comes down to understanding the value proposition of the team, and starting to delineate and pull apart design from creativity. Because I think creativity is what companies want. Creativity is where value is. Creativity is problem solving, it's consumer centricity, it's a lot of those sort of things that every company and everybody can access.
Stephen Gates: Design is then the visual expression of that process. And I think for too many of us, the backlash comes, the problem comes, whatever you just base the value in the executional piece of it because now you've created a almost commoditized value proposition for how your team relates to the company. And I think this has been that evolution wherein many cases as we've gone from visual design to laying much more clearly in product design, that sort of switch, like everybody still thinks about us as visual design, but now we're being asked to include more teams, think about budgets, and statistics, and strategy, and research, and all this other stuff that none of us went to art school for. That that kind of part of it about how you integrate it is where we're sort of getting stuck. And I think it was why I decided to step away from being a designer, head of designer, something to take on this role because I saw so many companies, so many teams, so many amazing talent who couldn't figure out how to break through because they just didn't have the skills or understand how to negotiate it.
Carl Smith: In your new role at InVision as Head Design Evangelist, you're working with the designers in these organizations, right?
Stephen Gates: Well, no the interesting role about InVision is, yeah, whenever you sort of have this really broad perspective, it allows you to do a lot of different things. Part of what I'll do is go in and coach, and coaching one on one with executives. It could be going in and coaching entire teams, looking at how do they get clear about their value proposition? How do establish behaviors that are going to let everybody be more creative? How do you do a lot of those sort of things? And really getting in and partnering with them. Some of it's doing public speaking, or doing keynotes, or workshops, or different things like that, of going in and doing a design summit for a company, and being able to do.
Stephen Gates: And it's like you said, then it's doing the public speaking, and going out to South Fire, or How Design, or I was just Austria. Next week I live for Berlin. It's a pretty amazing combination of saying, "Hey look. Let's go out and really partner with these people to really look at..." Because I think... That was the place, whenever I decided to take this role, I talked to Clark, who's our CEO. So yes, if anyone ever gets an email from Clark from InVision, it's a real person. It's the number one question I get. But it really was kind of saying, "Look, what we're seeing is that that..." Teams aren't struggling with the ability to do better looking work. What they're struggling with is they're dealing with everything that surrounds that work.
Stephen Gates: But for me then, it was, and I think we created this very deliberate model of going into help without having the work in the mix. So where other consultancies or companies come in and say, "Hey look. Let's help you with this." But, "Hey, we want to do the work, too." Our belief really is that the people who are there are good enough, are smart enough, and let's just work on giving them the skills, and coaching them up, and yes, sort of being their coach, their therapist, their interventionists, whatever that is, to be able to sort of help them get better and stronger.
Carl Smith: Obviously you're getting energy back in terms of people thanking you, in terms of seeing people succeed, but how do you scratch that creative itch? How do you keep yourself educated and doing all the other things? Because it doesn't feel like you would have time.
Stephen Gates: Well, but that's what I said. I think that as we go back to the beginning, I think that's where the podcasts, and the public speaking, and I think in many cases, where yes, you're going in and you're able to coach, you're able to teach. But I think in many cases, I mean look. I'm working with teams that are at Google, and Nike, and Amazon. These are not slouches whenever it comes to the work that they're doing. I think you definitely pick up things along the way. But no, I think a lot of it with the public speaking and the podcast for me is, refills the tank. Because in many cases, yes, doing all this stuff is great because you put things out. You're able to help people. But then in many cases, it is also then how do I work through my process? How do I work through communicating, leading? Doing a lot of those other things. And I think a lot of it also then staying active in creating. It could be creating a deck, or creating a podcast, or working with our marketing team.
Stephen Gates: So again, I think you never really shut it off, but I think that's been... because for me, it's been this sort of evolution in my thinking. It used to be knowledge is power. For me, now it's like sharing is power. That the more that I'm able to learn, and aggregate, and give away, then that sort of becomes the new standard, and then you're like, "Okay, great. Now, how do I build on that? Improve it? Refine it?" That's sort of steel sharpens steel sort of approach to things.
Carl Smith: I'm seeing it thinking about my role and what I do, and I think it's the exact same thing. Getting to create things for people with people, getting to see them succeed, all of those things feed the energy back.
Stephen Gates: But that's why I think... I think one, that's why we get along so well. But I think it's the thing that you get really well that I think is really rare, is that I think whenever you show up and do that honestly, you do it sincerely, you do it from a place of truth, and you aren't walking around sort of wearing that mask and being like, "Hey, everything's great, and I'm fine. And we're all good." I think whenever you're able to kind of show up with that sort of heart, it is very fulfilling because the conversations you have are sincere. The relationships you have are deep. It isn't that just sort of like superficial everybody trying to sell everybody on something, right? It's just, it's an emotionally different thing that I think if you aren't used to it, you can sort of hear that and think it feels very... I don't know what. Like BS or something like that? If you're able to show up and deliver that way, it is a very significantly different thing.
Stephen Gates: And I think that's why I've always been drawn to your events is because whenever I look at the relationships that have come out of design leadership camp, or things like that, I mean these are people that I'm talking with. It's not every week. It's real close. Because just the bonds really show up that way.
Carl Smith: Well thank you, first of all. That's something I'm working on is not deflecting, but saying thank you.
Stephen Gates: No, no. We all have... Yeah, I usually say I'm not that cool. Like yeah, we all have our deflection statements, but take a bow.
Carl Smith: I'm going to pay it back a little bit. When we first met, I was just like, "Whoa. Who is that?" Right? And I was just like you show up with a presence, man. And you're definitely open, and you have a gift where you can say something openly, and honestly, and directly, not sugar coated, that normally would probably take somebody back. But instead, it pulls them in. And you were telling me, "Hey, I think on this next day for the event, these are some real conversations we could have because of where we've gotten to. But it's going to change everything that's been planned."
Carl Smith: A lot of times in my life, if somebody had said that to me, I think I would have maybe put up a little bit of a shield, and been a little bit like, "We put so much into this. Blah, blah, blah." But instead with like... You said we have an opportunity. And I think that's something you probably bring to each one of these things we've talked about today is you see the opportunity in almost everything. At least that's my perspective.
Stephen Gates: Well, but I think... I'm a big fan of thinking about what would happen if the roles were reversed, right? I think if I was in the audience and they were on stage, or whatever that is, right? Because I think that there is something about the humanity and the empathy that comes out of that. But I think... A lot of it for me though, is like I said, is to be able to see where is there the start of something, and then how do we almost trace that back to the root? Because I think in working with a lot of people and working with a lot of companies, you start to develop that ability to sort of separate the thinking from the behavior.
Stephen Gates: The behavior is the expression. The behavior is a passing statement somebody makes. But it betrays something much, much deeper. And I think, yeah, to that point in that moment, it was where we'd all sort of spent a day and a half with the masks on, right? Like everybody was happy, and everything was great, and we're all fine, and it's creating... I think a lot of it, for me, is starting to study psychology, and child development psychology, and things like that because these are our coping mechanisms that are not sustainable. And whenever you just poke them a little, and kind of say like, "Hey, you keep telling me how great everything is. Which means I think probably everything is probably a complete mess. Is that true?"
Stephen Gates: And then in that moment, kind of like all the walls crumble because I think there is a resonance that somebody cares, that they're actually listening, and that they've been there. And I think if you're able to show up with that, not trying to ride in, not trying to give them the solution, not trying to say, "Okay, here's what we're going to do." But to just show up and listen, I think those are sort of what generate that really powerful moment, and then the ability to say like, "Look, I'm going through that too," or whatever it is, because I think this is where as an industry, and kind of the core of what my talk gets to, we're destroying each other. Because of social media, because of all these others things, we keep comparing our insides to everybody else's outsides. And it's this incredibly unfair comparison. We don't show up and say, "This is what I'm really dealing with. This is what I'm really struggling with. That I don't have confidence." That for Halloween, we all show up as who we pretend to be on social media, right? Like that sort of thing where it's just... What we're doing doesn't have a right answer. Two plus two equals burnt sienna, right?
Stephen Gates: As we're being asked to do more, the ability to do some really fundamental things, to admit that every company is dysfunctional, to admit that in the quiet moments, every creative feels like they're broken, that there is something that they feel like is not right, that they lack confidence, that those are universal truths that are never spoken. But I think whenever you say them out loud, and you start to take the power away from them, and you start to base a discussion around that, in real terms, then yeah, then I think that's where you see those conversations start to really unfold because you don't have to pretend to be somebody anybody. You can actually show up as your honest self.
Carl Smith: I cannot possibly think of a better person to kickoff the first design leadership days because what you just shared, I think is what we all need to get real about while we're there in Seattle. So thank you for that.
Stephen Gates: Well, no. I think that's why I love doing this, right? Because I think... And I think, thank you, because for me there's no greater spot that I love than being that like first person in, right? To be that first talk to really... And it's like you said, I think I tend to be unafraid of sort of challenging some of those things, of settings up some of those things, of calling out some of those... Because like look, if you're in design leadership, your talent has taken you this far. The progress that has left is left to deal with the dark uncomfortable stuff that we sort of stuffed into the corners of our soul, and then that becomes really hard. And so, I think that's where... Like yeah, I am so excited about this spot to be able to kind of help kick that off and get some of this stuff talked about.
Carl Smith: Man, I wish it was tomorrow. I really do. Well Stephen, thank you so much for your time. It's obviously something you spend very wisely, so I like to think that means that we're doing a good thing here, that I've somehow convinced you or conned you.
Stephen Gates: Oh, yeah, speaking of deflections. You didn't you didn't con me. [crosstalk 00:23:26]
Carl Smith: As soon as I said it, I was like, [crosstalk 00:23:27].
Stephen Gates: I was going to say, here again, let's be honest. You knew... You hesitated on the... It was one of those things where like your brain sent it off and your mouth said it. Your brain was like, "Ah crap. What did I do?"
Carl Smith: Where is the screen? Put the screen back.
Stephen Gates: Right. Uh-huh. [crosstalk 00:23:39] That's what I'm saying. That's that moment. But no. But I think that these are conversations that matter, right? Because I think we're having this moment whereas design leaders, we have the ability to affect business in ways I would argue we haven't seen since the Industrial Revolution. And we need more events like this to come together, to have these conversations that we just can't have that many places, and I think that's where events like this, the leadership camp, things like that, really for me, are the future of what design events need to evolve into because of the reality, that depth, and that connection, which I think is what everybody is really looking for.
Carl Smith: I don't see how we can have real events that move us forward if we're not ingrained in them. And the only way to be ingrained in something is to be honest, and open, and have a voice. So Stephen again, thank you so much for your time. Good luck with everything. It seems like everything's going great. I've been listening to the podcast. First of all, just to do a podcast by yourself without a guest, kudos to you man. That's a lot of energy to pour out.
Stephen Gates: Yeah, I'm not sure I totally thought that through whenever I started out, because I'm like, "Ah, everybody else does interviews. I'll just do my opinions." I think yeah, they're good and bads though, right? I think on the one hand, I'm still incredibly... I'm just bewildered that me spending $200 on a microphone, and especially talking to myself in my studio, and sending it out into the world has an impact, but yeah. It's a tremendous amount of fun.
Carl Smith: But it does have an impact, and I saw you put up on LinkedIn about the young woman that you met, who I think had been listening to the podcast.
Stephen Gates: Yeah. No I think... This was a side effect that I never though about or anticipated, I guess. It's the third year in a row where I've had... It was this one young woman in particular was 16-years-old, I was doing an event in Austria for like the third out of the last four years, and she got her stepsister to bring her to meet me because she listened to the podcast. I could sort of watch her off the side, kind of quietly standing there, and went over to talk to her. She shared to me and a bunch of people that were standing there that she wants to be creative, she wants to be in this sort of field, but her parents really weren't very supportive. She felt incredibly ostracized, to the point where she tried to take her own life last year. This is the third year in a row when I've had a young person tell me that.
Stephen Gates: And I think that she sort of went on to say that the podcast was that thing that got her through. And I don't say that to be self promotional, but I say it because this is a big part of why, for me, I think like we all need to get out and share out stories, and to be more honest about this stuff because I think the stakes of what we are dealing with are real. There are people who are growing up who don't have that support system, who see this sort of manicured realities and think, "I don't fit into that." And so I think, yeah, I spent as much time as I could with her over the next kind of day and a half before she had to go back home, but continue to stay in touch.
Stephen Gates: I'm so blown away by people like that who show up with that honesty, with that strength, to be able to show up and tell that story is just unbelievable. And so, yeah. I still can't quite wrap my head around the fact that me prattling on has that sort of impact, but yeah, it's why I continue to think that these sort of discussions are just so incredibly important.
Carl Smith: That's the human part of everything that we're doing.
Stephen Gates: Yeah. No, and I think that's why it's important. And I think that's sort of why I sort of doubled down on doing this was for the next person that's out there, whether I meet them or not, if you can reach out and have that sort of impact, whether you know it or not, what greater kind of calling is there?
Carl Smith: I don't think there is. Stephen, again, I'm going to wrap this this time. I'm going to do it for real this time.
Stephen Gates: Okay, bring it on.
Carl Smith: Truly appreciate everything you're doing, appreciate this conversation and the support that you've given me in the bureau. And I look forward to seeing you in Seattle this September, man.
Stephen Gates: Yeah, I can't wait. I'm definitely going to bring my A game on this one because I think it's going to be good, and it's going to be a lot of fun.
Carl Smith: And to everybody listening, thank you so much and we'll talk to you next week. All the best.
Image via Stephen Gates