Archive for category: Notes

Dear Designers

Dear Designers

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.



This year marks a decade that I’ve been learning from you. Finding my heroes among you. Aspiring to impress you. Ten years ago, I decided I’d try to make a living solving problems using design methodology and I’ve never regretted it.

Last week, I found myself sitting in an immaculate theater in Manhattan listening to a few of those heroes wax poetic about making ideas happen at the 99% Conference. I’ve come home conflicted. My head is full of professional tips and inspiring quotes, but I think we need to have a talk.

Fabulous is fun and all, but our reciprocal flattery is getting us nowhere.

We go on and on about the necessity of diversity, but I gotta tell you: we are not a very diverse bunch. We’ve diluted ourselves into believing that diversity actualizes as nothing more than neutral hiring practices related to things like gender, age, skin color and proclivities in the bedroom. Très shallow! We read the same things. We eat the same things. We buy the same things. We speak the same way. We dress the same way. We vote the same way. And I know all of this because we also talk about ourselves incessantly.

That’s the opposite of diversity.

The majority of designers I know live enviable lives. They’ve designed it that way. The only trouble is that many of them have done too good a job of surrounding themselves with nodding heads. Find a handful of people who hold convictions opposite yours, and instead of responding with mockery or disdain — or worse, apathy — try moving toward them. You may convert them. They may convert you. But either way, you’ll be a better designer.

Admittedly a challenge in her oversized Disney hoodie, but can you fall in love with Jennifer?

The average American is a 37 year-old white woman who lives in New Jersey. Her name is Jennifer. She’s married and has two kids. She works full time and makes about $25,000 a year. She’s a little chubby. She loves her dog and watches a lot of television. She considers herself religious and prays regularly. She does most of her shopping at Walmart and recently purchased the new Nickelback CD for her husband.

These are people you unfriend on Facebook, if you’re even on Facebook. And that’s just the start. Admit it: you sort of hate these people. I’ll need your help with this part, but I’d like us to hold each other accountable to truly understanding and empathizing with the people that we work for. That’s the client. It’s the end user. It’s the target market, and it thinks you’re judging it. And it’s right.

We love to celebrate the wrong things.

Design claims to be about lofty goals like openness, clarity and progress. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but lately we seem more interested in things like exclusivity, celebrity, excess and vulgarity. In our relentless drive to remain relevant, we’ve become very crass.

We’ve taken the charge to be critical as an excuse to be cynical. We eschew wisdom in favor of irony. And, perhaps most damning, we choose fashion over formation. That is to say, we want to take credit for building culture even as we (merrily) chip away at it’s very foundation.

We seem content to build beautiful cogs for hideous machines.

For a group that spends so much time thinking about ourselves, there are some glaring contradictions behind our chic exteriors. We spend our lives making things. Wonderful things. So they will be consumed. Most of us are in pretty deep denial about that last part. The stuff you’re making — whatever that stuff is — is for human consumption. And most of them won’t realize how well kerned the headline is. They’ll have no sense of your obscure cultural reference. Color palette lifted from a little-known Van Gogh? Haven’t the foggiest. But still, because you’re good at your job, they will consume. And while they consume what you’ve made it will shape them. They’ll spend their money and — more valuably — their time. They’ll spend their lives trying to become what you tell them they should be. That’s a pretty huge responsibility. Is what you’re making helping humans flourish?

Never before has there existed such a huge class of well-educated people with such endless resources and a persistent state of global connection. You have access, capital and vision. Just don’t let it go to your head.  It’s not about you.

The world is not yet finished and we have such tremendous opportunities. Opportunities to right wrongs and communicate things that are capital-T-True. Seems to me, this usually happens in ways that are not all that flashy. This kind of design doesn’t win a lot of awards. It is not self seeking. It looks like quiet disciplines and a deference to the people we serve. Seek correction through criticism. Find insight in input from people who are nothing like you. If you’re feeling depressed or cynical, humble yourself to the client. To the team. To the work.

If you’re not interested in doing that, I respectfully ask that you find a different profession and stop besmirching a title that I love: Designer.

May 10, 2012
Building for Tomorrow

Building for Tomorrow

I have long thought that a mark of true craft was the ability of an object to endure — and perhaps even flourish — with the passage of time. Baseball gloves, fine furniture and violins become more distinct and reveal the hidden genius of their construction as they age. Your experience with them is richer for their having been used before. It’s troubling to think that those of us who build objects for the web don’t share in this tradition.

This seems like it might be a step in the right direction: Future Friendly.

September 26, 2011
Pixel as Mother Tongue

Pixel as Mother Tongue

The era of transitioning human beings to the screen is over. Now is the time for designers and storytellers to fully embrace the ascendant platforms and invent a vernacular beyond the derivative language of engineers and marketers.

March 13, 2011
An Elegant Irony

An Elegant Irony

The crazy thing about street cred is that as soon as you go to cash it in, you’re stripped of it by the very people who gave it to you. It’s like some sort of scummy casino.

It seems that Banksy is the latest to add his name to the list of well-known street artists that have been harshly criticized for “selling out” by the skateboarding masses. Apparently, while Banksy was busy writing the preface for his coffee table book and story-boarding the recent opener for The Simpsons, the real artists were hanging a gallery show ankle deep in New York City’s collective fecal matter. Tough crowd.

Just goes to show that credibility is hard to earn and all too easy to lose. At the same time, it does provide a sort of cultural system of checks and balances. Brands that manage to earn the wary trust of a counter-cultural crowd — especially one who’s ideology is inherently anti-consumerism — must tread particularly lightly. The oft-cited Patagonia comes to mind as a company that seems to walk the talk. They stand by their guns, even when they’re shooting holes in their own business model. The eco-clothiers have made a habit of cultivating deep loyalties with their core consumer base through efforts like 1% For The Planet and The Footprint Chronicles, through which they candidly admit that they’re part of the problem. That’s some serious street trail cred: Humility before glory.

Organizations that sign up for this voyage into truly authentic branding have got to take the long view. It would be so much quicker to work a gimmick or endorsement and go huge overnight, but as soon as their cover is blown, so is their credibility. Forever. The Milli Vanilli of marketing, so to speak. Menswear mogul Giorgio Armani said,

“I’ve tried to find a new elegance. It’s not easy, because people want to be shocked. They want explosive fashion. But explosions don’t last, they disappear immediately and leave nothing but ashes.”

The same is true in advertising. Companies should strive to be surprising in their openness and exceptional in their consistency. The road to sustained credibility is to respect your customer, accept slower growth and constantly check your product (and your promotion) against what you claim to stand for.

On the other hand, you’ve got to be willing to ignore the inevitable haters. Viva Banksy.

December 16, 2010
Rating vs. Curating

Rating vs. Curating

Today the popular iPad app Flipboard which bills itself as “the world’s first social magazine” released a major update which introduces “the beauty of print, the power of the web.” Heady stuff, to be sure, but as usual— I’m hung up on the m-word. More and more, magazine is being reduced to nothing more than a form factor. It’s pretty fonts and consistent layouts. It’s an empty vessel for — whatever. Don’t get me wrong: I use Flipboard. I love Flipboard. It’s a beautiful aggregator of personally relevant content. It’s brilliant at generating a cohesive package from a variety of channels in ways that are intuitive and enjoyable to consume.

Flipboard is many wonderful things. It is not a magazine.

And the reason, of course, is curation. I know, I know. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger buzzword and it’s easy to disparage the term itself because of its overuse, but the fact remains that it’s the best way to describe what many of the best publishers are doing on the web and on the tablet.

My problem with Flipboard calling itself a magazine stems from the utter lack of curation. Or worse, the notion that curation can be crowd sourced.

Magazine is your friend the gourmet chef. She invites you to a dinner party and your mouth immediately begins to water because you already know the meal will be an immersive, multi-sensory experience. Course after course of surprising, yet ingenious combinations of textures and flavors. Intentionally paired with the perfect wine to complement and draw out the subtleties you would have otherwise missed. A coherent expression flowing from a perceivable point-of-view. It’s edited. Your friend wants feedback to what she’s serving up so her next meal can be even more impressive. She wants you to come back for more.

By comparison, Flipboard is potluck.

The iPad has breathed new life into this whole discussion and opened up a new frontier to publishers — as I’ve mentioned. Some of the brightest folks in the business are thinking and writing about it. Even guys like Khoi Vinh have chimed in. Writing about the web more broadly, Rand Fishkin penned an excellent post on the need for what he calls “benevolent editors” beyond just the algorithm and the crowd. It’s tempting to think of ourselves as little editors making little magazines — wielding our “Like” buttons and retweets. But the truth is that when done well with pacing and insight, a magazine is much more than just a collection of things that have been deemed worthwhile. It takes us on a journey we didn’t even know we wanted to go on. Whether or not our friends care to tag along. There’s Texas and then there’s Texas. The difference?


December 2, 2010
Leave It To Beaver

Leave It To Beaver

Summers in college, I worked for a carpenter framing additions, building staircases, and installing trim. I was a cutter. My colleagues would shout down measurements and my job was to grab the correct piece of lumber, measure the desired length, set the appropriate angles and chop. Two-studs-eleven-six-and-thirteen-short-on-a-forty-five coming right up. Unfortunately, seven sounds a lot like eleven and sometimes I’d make a wrong cut. Anyone who’s worked in construction will recall what I heard then. The carpenter’s cry would rattle the ladders, momentarily drowning out generators and nail guns: Measure Twice, Cut Once!

Lots of people apply this same wisdom to the building of websites and I can see why. It’s tempting to think of the web as a known quantity and a website as a fixed vessel. And the construction metaphor is helpful so far as it goes — primarily when talking to neophytes. But a website is the sort of house that needs renovation the day after it’s built and the web is far from known. With the obvious exception of preparing images in Photoshop or Fireworks, the philosophy of Measure Twice, Cut Once has little place in a serious conversation about building for the web. When you’re making a website, whether your business card says IA, UX, Designer or Developer, you are not creating a final iteration. Not even close. You are building — in the best of times — the latest evolution of a space which is engineered to scale and flex in response to the changing needs of it’s owners and users. At worst — it’s the overpriced custom cabinetry that looked great on paper, but turns out to be utterly useless in the kitchen.

Consider the lowly beaver: nature’s busiest builder. Once he finds a tree that’s roughly the right size and shape, quick as he can, it’s felled and into the river. Pretty tough to tell how a particular piece of wood will perform from the safety of dry land, so the beaver gets it into approximate position before he starts trimming and fitting. But the job’s hardly done. Whether he’s working on a dam or a lodge, the thing about rivers is that they never sit still. One week, there’s a flood and the next, a drought. And that beaver just keeps on reading the river and building to suit — shoring up the dam or adding a layer to his lodge for winter. How do you think they earned the reputation for being so busy?

The beaver could spend months at the drawing table perfecting his blueprints, but he knows the river won’t wait. With both mountain streams and site traffic, flow is hard to forecast — the best we can do is be ready to adapt and have the right tools close at hand. We must be not just willing, but eager, to build and build again to meet the changing currents.

November 8, 2010
Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

It’s been an interesting few days in the world of mark making. First, GAP Inc. unveiled a new logo on their website which swiftly became The Biggest News in The Entire World. Then, for a week or so, people bitched and moaned about it. They designed their own better logos. For free. They made fun of each other for designing better logos for free. They flocked to other mediocre mainstream retail outlets for comfort and familiarity — then, in a move historically reserved for French military units and very reminiscent of the Tropicana re-brand debacle, GAP surrendered to the horde.

That’s right. Tonight, waving white flags with blue squares on them and shouting something ludicrous about crowd-sourcing, they went back to their old logo.

This is in no way a commentary on the aesthetic value of the new logo, you can get plenty of that elsewhere from people a lot smarter than me — what concerns me is the prospect of a future where branding and design decisions are made by the mob. Crowd-sourcing is awesome. This isn’t it. This isn’t even design by committee. If the internet had been around, could someone like Paul Rand or Milton Glaser have ever existed? Someone with singular vision, willing to be booed at first — believing that history would eventually prove him right. Or would IBM still look like a meatball wearing a corset?

There will always be people who prefer the old and sometimes those people will be very noisy. Evolution is uncomfortable, but throwing eggs at everything we perceive to be a downgrade isn’t just juvenile — it’s dangerous. It undermines what’s great about the web. It’s wonderful that we have forums for discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of different brand identities and it’s fun to see what out-of-work designers woulda-coulda-shoulda done, but at the end of the day: it’s a logo.

And it would have been okay.

October 11, 2010