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Field Study

An Unedited view of design and thought process:

work, experimental and otherwise by Keenan Cummings

The Bold Designer

The ever eloquent Cap Watkins wrote a great post this week about The Boring Designer. I appreciate but don’t fully *identify with the Boring Designer. As a counter point, I wanted to write an ode to the bold designers among us, the designers who…


…are always trying to make it weird.

Conventions are conventions for a reason — they really do work. Our primary goal is to make something that works. But conventions don’t imply a an ultimate best answer, an single ideal solution. The bold designer is always playing at the fuzzy edges of functional. They’re seeing just how weird things can get before function breaks, because they know that there are unknown opportunities and undiscovered truths in the murk. Their response to a conventional solution isn’t “go with it”; it’s “yes, but what if”. A user’s needs, human motivations — those are the universals. The things we make to satisfy those motivations can take infinite forms. Convention is the tip of a super interesting iceberg.


…are in it for themselves.

The bold designer knows that their technical ability is a commodity. The only truly unique thing they bring to the table is a voice and point of view informed by their experience, ideas, and—most importantly—their curiosities. They know an idea cannot be optimized. There is no platonic ideal. They chase their own curiosities and try to align very real demands (that a product needs to function) with the desire to have a product inspire. They are not selfish; they are self-aware. They know their voice. And they believe it is in the user’s best interest to make that voice heard. They are competitive collaborators, but in the end they are happy to concede to a better solution, because it is in the struggle, the push and pull, that everyone brings their best work.


…are suspicious of process.

The bold designer is resistant to too much planning and process. They know what worked yesterday may not work today, and are weary of too many assumptions. They are protective of and try to remain in a state of play where curiosity trumps past experience (and sometimes even data!). They buck bureaucratic prowess in favor of raw skill. They avoid developing any skill set that isn’t directly relevant to success of their work (they will never master Power Point, they will never consistently log tasks into agile tracking software).

…do it the hard way every time.

They respect individuals but have little regard for artificial boundaries. They will take an idealized view of their work, the team, the organization — so much so that they are often left disappointed. And they will not stop pushing back on things that aren’t great. They can be uncompromising, unforgiving even, but they are hardest on themselves. They never try to make things go smoothly. Smooth is a welcomes side effect but they know that their best work always came by struggle.

*some of these ideas taken from this amazing post [LINK] http://randsinrepose.com/archives/the-wolf/

…value their voice.

They’re existential calculus is as follow: “if *I* am going to be *here* working on *this thing*, it must be influenced in a way that is unique to my approach, preferences, style, and opinions”. For the bold designer to be willing to exchange any measure of their life for the success of this thing, it must reflect them in some way. Everyone around them can execute, but the voice of that execution will be, must be unique to each designer.

The bold designer doesn’t lead with professionalism; they lead with energy and vulnerability. They assume everything beyond convention is subjective. That is the space where really interesting things happen. They don’t measure ideas by quality. For them, and idea is only as good as the conviction behind it. They have a strong voice and they try to bring that voice out of others. They ask others to meet them with enthusiasm and authenticity. They’re in for the struggle. They hold on to the idea that there is some illusive but very real greatness among all the button states, style guides, wireframes and flows.

The bold designer is a powder keg. But when harnessed the results can be explosive.a

So be great. Be bold!


*And my feeling is the the so-called “boring designer” maps to many of these traits, but they may manifest more internally than externally. When you work with good people, everyone cares, everyone has a unique and strong voice, and everyone has their opportunities to be bold, even quietly bold. Boring designer—you’re not as boring as you think :)

The Great Un-Maturing

"It’s about infinitely flexible, sunny appropriation."

At what point did a generation shed the pressure of “figuring it out”? At what point did we no longer feel the need to answer the question: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”?. I’m sure there is a long list of factors, including a social promiscuity only afforded in an internet age, and an economic promise that’s held true since WWII and only recently fallen completely apart (ie. commit your life, your identity, your soul to a life as a “company man” in exchange for a safe, predictable, and prosperous life).

Somehow, a generation has unburdened itself from the demand for maturity, the need for a 5-year plan, the pressure to adopt an identity with clear and defined edges. The “self” is now a fluid concept. And rather than panicking over the lack of a solid foundation, we are embracing the freedom. It’s not that there is no more normal (the so-called “post-normal”), it’s that now everything is normal

"Basically, normcore has… more to do with personalities: it’s the idea that an individual adapts to a situation at hand and embraces the normalcy of where they are and who they’re with. So you could go to a football match during the day and wear a replica football strip like everyone else, then go to a cyberpunk night later on and wear head-to-toe Cyberdog. Normcore represents a fluidity of identity that’s emerging in youth culture: a willingness to forgo a consistent individuality in order to embrace acceptance. As Luke O’Neill puts: ‘Normcore then, in its pure state, is about empathy and connectivity.’”

- Everyone’s Getting Normcore Wrong

(It always comes back to the Human Universals)

I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where each new hobby was fully supported, each new curiosity enthusiastically encouraged. Someone recently accused me of “collecting hobbies”. I do collect hobbies. I also collect passions, curiosities, threads of questioning, social groups, personalities, heritages, etc. As a generation comes of age being completely comfortable not knowing exactly who they are and perpetually figuring it out, we’ll see more interesting lives take shape, more daring ideas, more diverse thinking. 

It’s the most valuable lesson we can learn — that we all need to go through a painful, awkward un-maturing process if we want to be as authentically ourselves as we can be. In a Benjamin Button like process, we can all crawl back in time: at first we will have a hard time admitting that we don’t know ourselves as well as we had thought; then, all over again, we traverse the awkwardness of our teenage years: self-conscious, scared, and trying to just fit comfortably into the world as we shape and reshape ourselves; then ultimately we get back to a child-like place where we have few concerns other than satisfying curiosity and engaging in pure play. We go from having a stake in the ground on who we are to playing with and entertaining all the possibilities of who we could be.

There is a thread in our culture that is still demanding that a generation grow up. But it’s not going to happen that way. This isn’t a group of the lost and lazy who have deferred adulthood. We are comfortable in the fluidity that the world now affords. And so we continue to play. They play gets more and more sophisticated, the consequences larger and deeper. 

Best learn to play. Best get comfortable. Best start to un-mature.

Thought I would throw in some links to some ways to engage in some sophisticated play, for the newly un-matured:

Killscreen Magazine : an amazing journal-style publication covering “the intersection between games, play, and other seats of culture from art to music to design.”

Geoff McFetridge: every.single.thing — so good!

Patatap: just click the link and start playing!

Playmobil - *I* collect these — my kids are too young. They would choke.

Teenage Engineering: amazing sound toys (that I wish I had)

Yuichi Yokoyama: his stuff is minimal but puts your brain to work and completely absorbs you. 

What Really Happens When a Company is Acquired

Since February, I’ve been trying to articulate just what happened through the course of our acquisition process. It turns out that the process is still ongoing. 

So what happens in an acquisition?

First off, why do acquisitions happen? This type of smaller acquisition that I’m talking about is becoming more and more common. It’s not an indicator of an economic bubble. It’s not about a tech talent arms race. Buying a company for the expertise or processes embodied in a great team has become a reliable channel for sourcing ‘talent’. It all looks sensational from the outside, but the reality is that the math just adds up: finding the right people is costly; not finding the right people is a huge risk as large incumbents are under constant pressure to keep a step ahead of the small and fast innovators at the bottom of the market. Acquiring teams is becoming standard procedure(1) for big companies that want to maintain relevance by moving at least as fast as these ever-emerging competitive threats. In a market where driven individuals gravitate toward assembling a small scrappy team and taking a shot at something big, there is an ample supply of preassembled teams ready to be integrated into a bigger company and get to work.

So in this kind of environment, most companies — at some point in their lifecycle — end up entertaining the option of an acquisition.

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Develop for Tumblr Locally!

I really love Tumblr. I reeeeaaaaaallllly, really love Tumblr! For me it is a weekend craft box, a simple kit of magazine scraps and pipe cleaners and markers and white paste. It is a place where I can experiment with ugly bits and bad code. I am free here to make weird, experimental, emotional, ridiculous, collaborative, anonymous, curatorial, and archival things.

Tumblr in many ways is a perfect pro-am tool (another current obsession of mine: pro-am tools that give anyone access to the resources and ability to create in unpolished, imperfect, low-budget, lo-fi ways. And many of them come with communities hungry for that creativity). But for anyone breaking through the wall of out-of-box tumblogging, you’re likely to run into the limitations of the tool. Developing and customizing themes can be a chore with Tumblr’s in-browser customization panel. Their code editor is a feat of engineering and design, but for any serious development, it can get pretty frustrating. You can write locally, but are stuck with a messy process of copy, paste, save, tab over, refresh, view, repeat. 

I have discovered — ready for this?!? — an easy way to do semi-local, semi-live development on your Tumblog! 



Simple (semi) Local Development for Tumblr

1. Upload your CSS/JS files to a folder in dropbox (make sure this location won’t change during development).

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1. Right click the file in dropbox and select “share dropbox link”. You’ll get a link that looks something like this: https://www.dropbox.com/s/abcdef1234567/main.css

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2. Append that link with “?dl=1”. That changes the link from Dropbox’s default view document link to a download link. Since you are linking to this file as a page resource, you’ll want your site to be downloading just the CSS file on page load. If you link to Dropbox’s view link, the browser won’t know what to do with it. Now you just go use link tag in the <head> of your theme code to reference this file.

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3. Edit your CSS/JS file in your favorite code editor — no more janky in-browser code editor! Use LiveReload to dynamically process your changes live. Just set LiveReload to watch the project folder on dropbox. Then, in your browser, go to the live page you are working on and turn on LiveReload. Everytime you hit “⌘S”, it will force a refresh of the page resources — instead of getting an entire page refresh, only your CSS or JS will update — which is pretty great!

This is not true local development like you get in Wordpress. You still need an internet connection. You are still editing content and code that is on both Tumblr’s and Dropbox’s servers. But it FEELS like local development. It is fast and live and automatic.There is a short delay, but it is soooooooo much more tolerable than working in the Tumblr code editor, saving, tabbing over to the live page, and force refreshing (which sometimes doesn’t grab the new CSS since the existing CSS caches).

Good luck! Make great things! Leave more tips if you have them!

Intro or Extro?

Earlier today, Fred Wilson got a conversation going on his blog about personality types. The Meyers-Briggs personality test has long been a favorite of many people, probably because of its great balance of simplicity (reducing the complexities of human personality to four basic spectra)  and depth (but not reducing the entire make up of your identity to a single color, for example). 

I’ve taken a few informal online tests to determine my Meyers-Briggs profile and have landed on INTP. I won’t go into the specifics of each letter here (read up on the test and figure out where you fall). But it is that first letter that places me on the more introverted side of the Introvert-Extrovert spectrum.

For those that have met me (and please tell me if I am delusional here), I don’t think I am terribly awkward. I can carry a conversation just fine. I really enjoy meeting up with new people. I like being in most social situations (although I still find myself embarrassingly star-struck and tongue-tied around people I admire). I’m not the guy at the party ripping his shirt off and crowd surfing (is this something people even do at parties?), but I’m not exactly a wallflower.

But there is a simple test that helped me figure out just how intro or extro I was. (I think I read or heard about something like this somewhere but I can’t recall where). 

When you are in social situations (the type that we think of as a typical extrovert’s playground: small talk, introductions, group conversations) do you leave feeling energized or drained? 

It’s not about what you enjoy. It’s about the subtleties of how you respond psychologically and physiologically. You can be the kind of the party but somehow, for the introvert, there seems to be this expenditure of energy that comes as a cognitive and emotional cost. 

I love going to conferences and attending events, but for me, it is a form of work. It is work that I enjoy, that I get great satisfaction from, but it is work. I can get lost in a conversation with a colleague or friend and lose track of time. But floating around a crowded room, “mingling” and schmoozing” — I never get to that state of unconscious flow.  I would guess that the extroverted side of the personality spectrum is full of people that gain energy from these situations, but maybe are drained by too much time alone in their own head. 

So accepting all the stigmas that come with it, but feeling very much like I don’t fit the stereotype, I have accepted myself as an introvert. You can leave a comment here if you wanna talk your personality type or head over to Fred’s post on AVC and join the conversation >


Rhythmically Challenged—
It&#8217;s 5:15 a.m. and my alarm goes off. This is the start of a new rhythm for me, a rhythm that starts with the vibration of my phone against the hard surface of a bedside dresser.
Over the next several hours the rest of New York will begin a drowsy procession as diligent runners and morning dog-walkers hit the park; early-shifters at neighborhood coffee shops retract corrugated steel doors to reveal vacant storefronts; and hordes of commuters emerge from high-rises and brownstones to disappear down subway station steps and head to work.
Everyday, everyone and everything moves with elegant, unspoken coordination. It&#8217;s a routine I watch with curiosity, awe and a bit of envy.
As a breathing, beating, slouching bit of biomass, I am terribly deficient of one thing: this song-like rhythm.
Walking, for me, is natural. Beyond that, running is a clumsy chore, coordinated athletics are ambitious, and dancing is just out of the question. The order of operations for my day is in constant flux. I suspect even my heart beats in frighteningly irregular spurts. My life as sheet music would be generously described as &#8220;avant-garde&#8221;.
But it reliably begins, everyday, at 5:15 a.m.
This meandering lifestyle is driven by a set a personal priorities and philosophies (variety over predictability, growth through discomfort, time with people I care about, etc.). It&#8217;s driven by creative energy and excitement (an idea or a solution that needs to be recorded, built, shared, etc.). It&#8217;s driven by needs, usually on an as-they-come basis (pay that bill, see a doctor, etc.). It&#8217;s driven by a genetic predisposition to chaos (read here for my thoughts on ADD as a learning style rather than a disability). I&#8217;ve attempted to establish routines, I&#8217;ve tried that dance, but it has always ended up feeling forced and awkward.
But I get up, every day, at 5:15 a.m.
Jack Cheng wrote a wonderful post about something he calls "habit fields". The idea is that objects and spaces can be triggers for behaviors. The recline of a chair, the arrangement of objects on a desk, the quality of the light in a room — all of these things act as triggers to our behaviors, and &#8220;the sum of these stored behaviors is an object’s habit field&#8221;.
5:15 a.m. is the first habit field of my day. But rather than designing a space around behaviors, I have built a block of time. I wake up early not to start a routine, but to create a field, a sacred space, that all of my philosophies, priorities, energies and ideas can exist within. It is a precise and intentional initiation, a turn of a key and single spark into a combustion chamber that then drives the rest of my day. At 5:15am, before that the rest of my world begins, I have a few undisturbed hours to answer to no other time table, no other rhythm but my own. It is by far the most productive time of my day.
The work itself is not a routine. There is very little repetition in my design process. Instead, habits have become a way to create protected spaces for me to work within. Morning is a special space for me. It is my studio. It is a place for focus and flow. It is my favorite space to work in.
It&#8217;s not my only space. I have spaces for working and spaces for thinking and spaces for not thinking.
When weather permits, I commute by bike (I&#8217;m determined to bike 90% of work days this year and got some gear to make that possible). Biking is thinking space, but not a quiet one. It&#8217;s loud with the sounds of traffic and chains and exertion. It&#8217;s a unique kind of meditation that I have come to rely on.
I&#8217;ve also found an unexpected quiet space on the roof of our building. I try to get up there every evening. I have lived in New York for almost 5 years and have never found a place as quiet as our roof. There is still plenty of ambient city noise that reaches our rooftop. It&#8217;s another kind of quiet. It&#8217;s empty and alone. It is above everything going on below. It is like surfacing for a few still moments before diving again into the sea of everyday concerns.
What I do in these spaces is still just as clumsy and non-routine as it always was. These spaces are big enough to allow for a lot of movement, and that is what I need. But I am diligent about making and being in these spaces. It&#8217;s a small amount of routine that even I can manage. It&#8217;s a rhythm in service of open, rhythmless, creative space.
After a good ride, and a few quiet minutes on the roof, I get to bed pretty early. And the next morning, without fail, but also without fanfare (except that of a few excited birds), I get up at my time, my sacred space, 5:15 a.m.

Rhythmically Challenged

It’s 5:15 a.m. and my alarm goes off. This is the start of a new rhythm for me, a rhythm that starts with the vibration of my phone against the hard surface of a bedside dresser.

Over the next several hours the rest of New York will begin a drowsy procession as diligent runners and morning dog-walkers hit the park; early-shifters at neighborhood coffee shops retract corrugated steel doors to reveal vacant storefronts; and hordes of commuters emerge from high-rises and brownstones to disappear down subway station steps and head to work.

Everyday, everyone and everything moves with elegant, unspoken coordination. It’s a routine I watch with curiosity, awe and a bit of envy.

As a breathing, beating, slouching bit of biomass, I am terribly deficient of one thing: this song-like rhythm.

Walking, for me, is natural. Beyond that, running is a clumsy chore, coordinated athletics are ambitious, and dancing is just out of the question. The order of operations for my day is in constant flux. I suspect even my heart beats in frighteningly irregular spurts. My life as sheet music would be generously described as “avant-garde”.

But it reliably begins, everyday, at 5:15 a.m.

This meandering lifestyle is driven by a set a personal priorities and philosophies (variety over predictability, growth through discomfort, time with people I care about, etc.). It’s driven by creative energy and excitement (an idea or a solution that needs to be recorded, built, shared, etc.). It’s driven by needs, usually on an as-they-come basis (pay that bill, see a doctor, etc.). It’s driven by a genetic predisposition to chaos (read here for my thoughts on ADD as a learning style rather than a disability). I’ve attempted to establish routines, I’ve tried that dance, but it has always ended up feeling forced and awkward.

But I get up, every day, at 5:15 a.m.

Jack Cheng wrote a wonderful post about something he calls "habit fields". The idea is that objects and spaces can be triggers for behaviors. The recline of a chair, the arrangement of objects on a desk, the quality of the light in a room — all of these things act as triggers to our behaviors, and “the sum of these stored behaviors is an object’s habit field”.

5:15 a.m. is the first habit field of my day. But rather than designing a space around behaviors, I have built a block of time. I wake up early not to start a routine, but to create a field, a sacred space, that all of my philosophies, priorities, energies and ideas can exist within. It is a precise and intentional initiation, a turn of a key and single spark into a combustion chamber that then drives the rest of my day. At 5:15am, before that the rest of my world begins, I have a few undisturbed hours to answer to no other time table, no other rhythm but my own. It is by far the most productive time of my day.

The work itself is not a routine. There is very little repetition in my design process. Instead, habits have become a way to create protected spaces for me to work within. Morning is a special space for me. It is my studio. It is a place for focus and flow. It is my favorite space to work in.

It’s not my only space. I have spaces for working and spaces for thinking and spaces for not thinking.

When weather permits, I commute by bike (I’m determined to bike 90% of work days this year and got some gear to make that possible). Biking is thinking space, but not a quiet one. It’s loud with the sounds of traffic and chains and exertion. It’s a unique kind of meditation that I have come to rely on.

I’ve also found an unexpected quiet space on the roof of our building. I try to get up there every evening. I have lived in New York for almost 5 years and have never found a place as quiet as our roof. There is still plenty of ambient city noise that reaches our rooftop. It’s another kind of quiet. It’s empty and alone. It is above everything going on below. It is like surfacing for a few still moments before diving again into the sea of everyday concerns.

What I do in these spaces is still just as clumsy and non-routine as it always was. These spaces are big enough to allow for a lot of movement, and that is what I need. But I am diligent about making and being in these spaces. It’s a small amount of routine that even I can manage. It’s a rhythm in service of open, rhythmless, creative space.

After a good ride, and a few quiet minutes on the roof, I get to bed pretty early. And the next morning, without fail, but also without fanfare (except that of a few excited birds), I get up at my time, my sacred space, 5:15 a.m.

Against Critique

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Part I : Challenging Assumptions

I’m working on developing a habit of challenging assumptions. It started with Designer’s Debate Club, a bi-monthly event I co-founded and have participated in as both organizer and debater. In selecting a topic, prepping the debate, recruiting debaters, and hosting the event, I have found myself digging into my own points of view on everything from formal education to the need for designers to learn code. It’s debate as sport, and the key is to dissect your own assumptions and anticipate the opponent’s attack. That habit has spilled over into my work and I plan on flexing that muscle further.

There are certain types of assumptions that now trigger this reflex. They are usually broad assumptions, things that have held true for a long time, and rarely been challenged. 

I recently joined a panel for a discussion/debate on the future of design education. The unchallenged assumption among that group was that the quality in-person discussion and critique that you get in institutions cannot be replicated online. But when you start to pick it apart, there seems to be little there that is fundamentally unique that can’t be — given enough time — broken up and provided by a series of specialized services. (Something I am slowly working on in my spare time).

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A Working Definition of Product Design

photo by Alexey Bednij

For the past ~18 months, I’ve been working as a product designer. And I’ve spent that same 18 months trying to understand what that means. This an attempt to articulate, in the broadest sense, what it means to practice product design.

My product design work is the work I am most proud of, but it doesn’t anthologize or summarize well. Most of it goes unnoticed. It’s doesn’t manifest as discrete, blog-able units. It doesn’t Dribbble well. It’s broader than wireframes or UI or screenshots. If a product were a house, it wouldn’t be the interiors, or the frame, or even the foundation. It would be the reason for the house, the motivation for the house, and the idea of what the house could be and the purpose it could serve. Product Design is formless.

I put a lot of time into brand, UI, UX, etc. But those all feel like they are at the periphery of what I do. Those skills exist in the execution layer and support the product, but without solid product thinking, they are baseless.

A year-and-a-half’s worth of thinking (and plenty of stammering through my explanation of why I left behind a more comprehensible design career) has landed me on this working definition of what it means to be a product designer. Here goes…

Product Design is…

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I see the value of writing clearly and concisely becoming an increasingly important skill for digital workers… an important medium for getting work done and convincing others of our ideas.

BRYCE DOT VC: Writing As a Competitive Advantage 

I’ve always loved working with with people that write; not necessarily for the content they produce, but for the signal it provides. A person that writes is someone that believes their ideas are worth being heard. In an industry that runs off of vision — vision that is often refuted or even mocked by peers — it takes a bit of audacity and presumption to keep pushing your own ideas, your own vision of the way things are and ought to be.

Writing is a signal that you believe in your own brain, that it produces quality stuff that’s worth other people’s time and attention. There are plenty of great thinkers and builders that don’t write, but I appreciate what writing can say about a person, sometimes even more than the writing itself. 

Me Love Tumblr Long Time

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Big news for Tumblr today. I’m a bit of a Tumblr fanboy — a fan of the service, the community, the amazing team, and of David Karp who has been a continually impressive CEO.

I published my first post just over three years ago. Since then, I have created 15+ blogs and this will be my 450th post on this blog alone.

Tumblr has meant a lot to me. But I really want to talk about what I feel it means to the millions of people that have found a home there. And I’ve put a lot of time in to trying to understand why that is.

Tumblr is about a specific type of identity. I’ll come back to that in a bit. First, a little more on what identity can mean to users these days.

For a long time, the internet was a haven for anonymous identity, people who wanted to be someone entirely other than their real-world selves. Anonymous identity is an important part of the internet, but the problem is it is not liquid. You cannot translate that anonymous social capital into real world capital.

On the other side of the spectrum is real identity. When Facebook bucked the MySpace trend and required new users to sign-up with a real name, it set itself apart as a network where the social norm is to represent some version of your real world self. This representation is as liquid as identity gets. This is the social capital you might use to make friends, find a job, and operate in the real world as a credible person.

But Tumblr is something in between. It’s where your aspirational identity lives. Aspirational identity is a projection of where you want your real identity to be in 2, 5, 10 years.

These are not new ideas — aspirational identity has been around since kids have been lining their bedroom walls with posters of sports cars and rock stars. What makes Tumblr an incredible home for aspirational identity is that it allows users to escape the confines of their real identity and have this future view of themselves validated. You could be a high school-aged boy growing up in the rural midwest who is obsessed with dance, or a teen girl from a struggling family that dreams of traveling the world. Your circumstances might destroy your confidence, limit your opportunities, and strangle your aspirations. But on Tumblr, on a simple platform for self-expression, you have an audience ready and willing to validate not just who you are, but who you see yourself becoming. We are all, in some way, bound by circumstance. Aspiration is how we move beyond those bounds.

What I love about the internet and Tumblr specifically is this: it has given form to what people want to become. It has made aspirations real, tangible, living, and changing.

Think about aspirational identity and real identity on opposite ends of a weighted scale. When we are young, who we are might be less important to us than who we want to become. (Think about young children playing house or pretending to be an astronaut.) College might be where aspiration and reality reach equilibrium. We are shaping who we really are, driven by who we want to become. Then later in our adult life, we suppress aspiration and focus on our “real” selves.

This might spell doom for Tumblr. Is it a home that people just eventually grow out of and move on from? I don’t believe so. I think this Tumblr-using generation has somehow figured out what we would all do well to learn. Aspiration is important to all of us and, we start to lose something of ourselves when we settle into our real identity and stick there. It is the interplay of aspiration and reality that make us dynamic, always-moving entities that are interesting precisely because we can’t be pinned down. These are the people that are inventing and re-inventing themselves all the time and that ghost of an identity that lived only as dreams and whispers before now has a form for full expression.

Anyway, this is a long-winded love letter to Tumblr. I have high hopes for their future. I’ll be sticking with them for a long long time.

Pixels and Poetry

This was written for the forward of Kern and Burn, a Kickstarter funded book of interviews and essays from design entrepreneurs, including Aaron Draplin (Field Notes / DDC), Andy McMillan (Build Conf. / The Manual), Peter Buchanan-Smith (Best Made Co.), Ben Pieratt (Svpply / Lookwork / Varsity Bookmarking), and a load of other amazing folks



I.

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I graduated from design school with boundless optimism, jumping from the bubble of university life into a post-recession real world, where hope was a rare commodity. I believed that design could induce change — that it could shape the way we understand and interact with our world.

I moved to New York for a lead design position at a two-person shop and considered myself lucky to be employed, even though we didn’t have a single client. We filled our time with small-scale side projects that we hoped would land us paying jobs. The projects did lead to new clients, and the cash started rolling in. For the first time in my career, I felt like a legitimate designer—but I wasn’t challenged; I was comfortable.

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Stop Stealing My Style, Bro.

I’m guilty of quickly clicking when someone calls design theft. It’s the closest thing to soap-opera-esque drama that an industry full of type and color obsessed kern-wads will ever get to. When we see the fight, we come running like it’s a schoolyard brawl where we’re all secretly hoping for things to get really crazy.

But much of the time these brawls have little substance. If no one has ever told you this, learn it now: YOU CAN’T OWN STYLE. Your job is not to develop a signature style. Your job is to match appropriate solutions to problems. 

The decision to apply a specific style to address a specific problem is unique and ownable. Downloading free fonts from (the amazing) Lost Type Coop for a retro rebrand is a lot of fun, and you may be able to make some money in the process, but you don’t own the style. You own the decision that you made when you said “hey, this hardware store brand would look great in a post-war era retro style." And you weren’t the first to fit those pieces of the puzzle together (and from the look of things, you won’t be the last).

The more we try to mark off a little territory, to claim a little bit of the creative process as our own, the more we limit others — especially those young ones who are newly exploring all kinds of wild territory. Encourage creation, share freely, and add enough value in your process that you don’t have to piss all over some tiny little spot in a world of possibilities just so you can claim it as your own. 

Design is slowly developing a community of open source minded folks who freely share those useful but non distinct little bits. To be comfortable passing along your files, sharing your secret layer styles, and revealing how the sausage is made takes confidence that you add value at a higher level than the execution layer of a project. Execution is technical, it can be learned, shared, and repeated. The product level decision coming into that execution are where the real value lies.

You can’t own style. Style is commodity. Own an intelligent process for making decisions and you’ll have a defensible and competitive advantage.

* I wrote this a month ago but thought it was timely in light of the Layervault thing. Layervault has been beautifully executed, but Kelly and Allan are also brilliant product guys and that is where they are creating real value. Hopefully this fight doesn’t distract them too much from continuing to create something really valuable. 

** Sadly, real design theft does happen, and community support in those cases is awesome to see: Aesthetic Apparatus, Varsity Donuts, The Fox is Black.

Sweet Textures, Bro!

I have no connection to Dribbble outside the fact that happily pay $20 a year to get much more that twenty bucks worth of value out of the experience. Dribbble is amazing. But it’s also a bit awkward. And like most awkward things, you can miss the goodness inside if you focus on the idiosyncrasies. 

First off, Dribbble is a real and very direct channel for independent designers to get work. It is delivering on a promise that professional organizations have been making for years: join up, get involved, grow your career. That value proposition is proven on Dribbble. With any other professional organization you join, that promise is dubious at best.

And this is important because (real talk here) things are looking kinda scary for designers. No one likes to talk about it. And it’s comforting to see that design budgets are growing and it’s becoming a focus for more and more companies. But supply is outpacing demand. I don’t have numbers on this. Just a bunch of friends struggling quietly, staying afloat, but worried about how long they can last, and I’ve been there many times before. Dribbble might be one channel to bootstrap an early design career. It might be a viable alternative to the agency salary-and-benefits route, especially at a time when those jobs are not as secure as they once were. 

The second point is much easier to miss. Dribbble’s pitch is that it’s a “show and tell for designers”, a place to share work and get feedback. But we all know that people are so damn nice on Dribbble that it’s hard to get anything but comments like “your graphic designs are literally blowing my mind” or “sweet texture bro”. As the world’s best feedback tool, Dribbble fails. 

But what the whole thing is really about is community. As more designers cut their agency ties and take up the cross of freelance work, Dribbble is stepping in as the place for workplace water-cooler chat. But instead of five fellow coworkers to chat with by the water-cooler, Dribbble is a freakin’ cafeteria packed with hundreds of fellow freelancers to chat with, share with, maybe even collaborate with. Dribbble isn’t just a better professional organization, it’s a better office space. If we stack it up next to the benefits a IRL office provides, it does a pretty great job. Getting design feedback is just one function of the office and it is probably the least interesting. No one develops loyalty to an office based on the groups technical feedback skills. An office is where you share news, commiserate, joke around, celebrate victories (personal and communal). 

If you’re not into it, don’t sign up, don’t pay, don’t share. But don’t underestimate this simple little service.

For some interesting further reading check out Clayton Christensen’s idea that we hire products for a job to be done

We often misunderstand what job we are really hiring a product for. I don’t think Dan Cederholm intended provide this breadth of services (community, career, social, etc) when he built Dribbble, but often the winners in a space fill in service gaps in new an unexpected ways. 

Interfaces aren’t a descriptions; they’re stories.

image

From George Plimpton’s interview with Ernest Hemingway, 1954:

Interviewer:

Do you make a distinction between “flat” and “round” characters?

Hemingway:

If you describe someone, it is flat, as a photograph is, and from my standpoint a failure. If you make him up from what you know, there should be all the dimensions.

This is why this conversation goes on, why it is worth having. The desire for more honest  (or at least more interesting) interfaces and a certain aesthetic have been lumped together and called “flat design”. I’m concerned with the deeper drive for mor pure interaction design, and there is more to it than altering your style or changing your habits in Photoshop. There is a fundamentally different process, something genuinely unique from print design. That difference goes much deeper than tools, and even defies directly translatable principles. “What’s good for print is good for digital” doesn’t hold up as a mantra of ‘flat’ design.

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I see software as the testing ground for the future, a place where we can put on our training wheels and get our ethics right and develop cultural and social norms for how technology should relate to humans.

Jonathan Harris, Founder of Cowbird

speaking at CreativeMornings/NewYork (*watch the talk)

I am more than optimistic about the ability of technology to go deeper, for our relationship to technology to become more intimate and meaningful, and, in turn, our relationships with each other. This will have less to do with the capability of engineering and more to do with the capability of users. We do not engineer meaning, but we can engineer things that pull wonderful things out of people. If you believe people are no more than like-button clicking machines you should be working to change that, or you should not be working for the internet.