Why I’m a Designer Part 3: Finding Order in the Chaos

This post is part 3 of a series. You can read Part 1, Part 1.5 and Part 2 if you’d like.

Y2K (Contd).

Last time, I mentioned that we had 2-3 designers simultaneously pitching ideas to clients. What I omitted then but would like to clarify now is that each designer determined for themselves absolutely everything they pitched:

  • Navigation structure and labels
  • Content blocks and layout
  • Interactive tools & functionality
  • Branding & logo work
  • Visual design system execution

What this meant was that often a client would see different versions of all of the above in the same meeting. They couldn’t focus purely on the competing designs’ visual directions because they’d also be picking a navigation structure and maybe even a logo at the same time.

This was a pretty terrible process. Factor in that Project Managers also didn’t exist and unsurprisingly lots of confusion resulted all around. Designers would pitch competing and usually slightly misinterpreted ideas the client floated in earlier discussions. We’d catch a glimpse of the other designer’s work and decide to incorporate some of their concepts, creating a miasma of ideas presented all at once, similarly sourced but slightly tweaked.

Then Jen showed up.

Office Cell Phones and Pinball Machines

The subject of the all-employee email read

“Has anyone seen the office cell phone?”

These were incredibly rare devices and when our new office manager Jen Mylo (née Wells) needed to find it, there was something about her wording that immediately made me envision our plastic brick of a cell phone sitting on a bar stool, smoking a cigarette, talking shit about the employees that lugged it around the city. It cracked me up.

I immediately replied-all and said “I saw it a bar last night; it doesn’t want to see you.” My intention was to be funny and set a new employee at ease, that we had fun at this company. What actually happened was that she thought I hated her, which I learned a few days later when we were both part of a small group tasked with picking out a new office pinball machine.

I think I was the only one with a car at the time so I offered to drive. It was on this formative drive to Lakewood when I learned:

  1. Just how professional, detail-oriented and experienced Jen was and
  2. Just how bad I’d made her feel by being unprofessional over email.

I’m incredibly lucky that we cleared up the misunderstanding that day, chose a sweet new pinball machine for the office, and made friends for life (so far).

Roping the Dude Ranch Operator Back to the Web

When she spoke to Spiremedia co-workers about her life and work experiences, she was quick to mention her time on a dude ranch in Arizona, as an activist for Greenpeace, as the supervisor of a food co-op and many, many others. What she’d purposely be quiet about, and left off her resume entirely, was her time working on the web as an Information Architect. She was at the moment living and working in Denver along with her boyfriend, and wasn’t sure if she was staying long, so doing serious web work here wasn’t really on her list of priorities. “I really don’t want them to know I know how to do this” she’d quietly mention.

Of course “they” did find out about this unexpected IA on staff and quickly put her to work on our clients. By this time we had a team of 8-10 designers pitching sometimes totally off-the-wall ideas to clients and generally running the asylum. There was one incident where I went on vacation and left another designer in charge of my client work, only to return to a totally functionally-altered concept. Jen changed all that.

With the addition of Jen to our design team (as well as three experienced project managers: a lot changed for us at once), the process started to resemble something sane:

  1. These newly-added PMs would work closely with Jen and the client to determine what the site actually needed at a functional and content level
  2. Jen would propose and refine a site architecture and content deck. She would then wireframe this architecture and content layout, staying as design agnostic as possible. I still wish I understood how to do card-sorting as well as she did then.
  3. These documents would stand as blueprints for the designers to start molding into a visual model. Any specific design decisions in the wireframes were up for interpretation (size and placement of content, visual relationships, etc) and a serious effort went into the visual impact of the site.
  4. Once this work was complete, our developers now had both abstract definitions and concrete examples from which to synthesize the working site.

Clients no longer had competing, complete design philosophies to pick from all at once: each visual design was now proposed with the same labels, the same content, and the same architecture as the others in the meeting, and it had all been already determined. By working with Jen first, client expectations were set for what to get from the visual design staff and our expectations were set for what the client actually needed.

She enabled success on both ends of the spectrum by advocating for the users to the client early in the process, and then she’d pivot and advocate for the client and users to the designers when we came in later.

I now had two mentors helping me establish two keystones of my design philosophy:

  • Scott Upton solidified the value of designing for the web by using the fabric of the web itself: HTML and the browser. He taught me that using your interface as your design it is the only way to know it works.
  • Jen Mylo locked in the absolute necessity of hearing what your client and their users are saying, filtering it through the way your experience has shown you that people actually use the web, and turning that around as smart recommendations and decisions upon which to base your visual design.

I’ve plotted just about my entire career path between these two ideological pillars of how to build for the web. I’ll explain in Part 4 what I’ve done in the last 15 years with this foundation.

Trying to Sleep

My velocity, it shall be known
Places in the past, deleted, disowned

Ghosts and shutters and windows boarded
This fucking home, I cannot afford it

Airports and taxis, highways and tolls
Instructions to follow and a path to behold

Reconditioned air and I slump in my seat
Lines crossing through the sky and trying to sleep.

The clouds in my head clear around twelve
We are floating in waves, in seas of ourselves
Just heads above water, we speak and we scream
While below the surface we come apart at the seams

And try to sleep
And try to sleep

Why I’m a Designer Part 2: View Source

This post is part 2 of a series. You can read Part 1Part 1.5 and Part 3 if you’d like.

1999

As I stood in the cramped first-floor hall of the 300 building at the Art Institute of Colorado, my heavy bag of supplies dug painfully into my shoulder. I was with a friend and we were looking for jobs on the board, a task I undertook when I found myself in each of the three buildings we had on campus in Capitol Hill for the first time that week. As soon as we walked up, one posting in particular jumped out at me and I forgot all about the huge bag on my shoulder. It said in stark Franklin Gothic Condensed type:

SPIREMEDIA IS HIRING A RECEPTIONIST

which I’m sure doesn’t sound to you like that big of a deal, but to me it was like that paper was etched in gold. I’d been doing web design hourly for a small shop owned by a man who – in a daze of inspired light and beauty – named his company The Internet Design Firm. During my first week at this job I AltaVista’d (we didn’t Google back then) “Denver web design companies” to see what was happening in town, and to find work that could inspire me in times of need.

Spiremedia was an agency I found during this search whose portfolio suddenly redefined for me what a web site could look like, what the web could be. I had already spent a lot of time on their site, poring over the portfolio looking at the decisions the designers made on each piece, trying to determine what I could learn from them.

“What about this work is applicable to my own? What can I discard? What can I change about what I take, to make it my own, my clients’ own? How did they code that?”

It wasn’t just their client work, either: their own site was an excellent example of the thinking that went into everything they designed. I never dreamed I’d actually end up working there. I was a student who had done a total of 10 months of contract work in the industry, not one of the professionals these people clearly were hiring. I’d click “view source” in my browser, copy out some of their clever HTML code, and learn from their ideas.

And so but here was this flyer stapled to the wall, telling me they were hiring a receptionist. The privilege of my education leapfrogged me past wanting to apply for the job for which they were actually hiring, so my email’s subject line said “I don’t want to be your receptionist” and the body included a link to my portfolio telling them I’d admired their work for a while, and that I wasn’t a very good receptionist but I was wondering if they were hiring designers. I couldn’t have been happier when the reply came that they wanted an interview, but I had no idea what to expect.

Spiremedia's location in 1999. Imagine it without the hulking monstrosity behind it. Photo by Flickr user elmada
Spiremedia’s location in 1999. Imagine it without the hulking monstrosity behind it. Photo by Flickr user elmada
What I found when I showed up was incredibly disorienting: the building was out past Lower Downtown (the newly-named LoDo), on a street no one I knew had heard of. When I pulled my car into the dirt expanse in front of the building, I suddenly recognized it: this was the terrifying part of town where we parked our cars back in high school to go to St. Mark’s Coffee House. The concrete and abandoned 5-floor building at the edge of the dirt lot wasn’t so intimidating during the day, it seemed. What on earth was I going to find inside the warehouse across the street?

I couldn’t have guessed that it was going to be about 5,000 square feet of exactly what I’d been looking for since junior high, but this was not an office that my work experience had prepared me for. There was no sterile drywall bound by drop-ceilings and cheap carpet. There were no medical-grade waiting room chairs or neckties. No one was freaking out about the dogs wandering around and no one appeared to be over 30. Everyone wanted to be there.

A video created by Scott Upton with an original iBook and external video camera

Thick, wooden warehouse columns broke up the space into distinct areas. Existing long before many floors of offices had been built around them, they stood like stoic Redwoods throughout the office, ancient and real. I marveled at how many people must have done how many kinds of work in this building near these columns, and noticed this group of people covered them and the exposed brick in artwork and ethernet cables. The waiting area for clients was made up of a duo of (also wooden) old-timey school chairs which faced pinball and Asteroids machines. The music was loud and the person interviewing me had about 1,000 toys on his desk in the only private office I could see.

I was home again.

The Year 2000

Spirexmas99
Spiremedia Holiday Party, 1999.
Spiremedia often worked in a traditional design agency model: 2-3 designers were assigned to each new project and tasked with designing something totally different from their counterparts. The client would choose a design (or they’d make the worst of all possible decisions and combine two of them), and the designers whose work wasn’t picked would go on to new projects. The selected designer would work with the client to design each page, using whatever tools necessary, and hand it over to development to build. This was and continues to be a super common way to do web design, but the end result is that you’d usually get your designs built not quite right by the developer.

Part of doing web design was (and continues to be) understanding what the medium is capable of. If we designed something crazy or just not-quite-possible, we’d get an approximation of our designs live on the web and this was a thing I’d get sort of sad about. I wanted my pages to look and work how I designed them, dammit.

What Sucked About The Web

I alluded in Part 1 to a tendency of entirely visually-focused graphic designers to make fun of the web in 1999. At the risk of sounding incredibly “get off my lawn” about it, here’s an incomplete list of things we didn’t have as web designers when I started out:

  • Fonts. We could set our page’s text in any font we wanted as long as it was Verdana, Arial, Trebuchet, Georgia or Times as these fonts were available on most platforms. Using one of them ensured your pages looked similar to the highest amount of potential users. Want a different font? Time to make a bunch of header graphics!
  • Fast Internet. Most of us still had 56k modems at home but at work we used expensive lines that still were geologically slow by current standards to build and launch sites that hoped to gain mass adoption. We were building tools that aimed to be useful in a technical universe that hadn’t quite arrived yet.
  • Colors. “Colors are darker on Windows” was a common refrain heard around the office. Clients never saw the colors we saw on our Macs because have you ever tried to color-calibrate your client’s Windows NT-running-computer’s monitor? Of course you haven’t because it’s impossible. We always assumed the colors we chose were mere suggestions for how the end-user’s computer would render them.
  • YouTube. Seriously, think for a second about the web before YouTube or much video of any kind. See also: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Spotify, StackExchange. We did have the real Napster, though.
  • Standards. Jeffrey Zeldman is my hero for starting the Web Standards Project and getting the dialog between browser vendors started. A standard way to write HTML and Javascript for all browsers simply wasn’t present at first.  Zooming out a bit from the idea of technical web standards, we also didn’t have much in the way of usability research or prior art. Each client was an opportunity to try something new so something as basic as a site’s navigation was up for grabs.

What Was Awesome About the Web

Without a clear mode of operation to follow, we got to make things up. We tried to figure out what this new “web interface” idea should really look and feel like, given the limitations of the browser. We couldn’t do the UI heavy lifting you had on the desktop, and the whole idea of pages broke the application metaphor anyway.

We improvised and we changed course quickly because that was and continues to be the benefit of designing for our platform:

  • We weren’t desktop software designers because they had low-level control over their UI and could respond instantly to user input. Flash was the closest we could get but it felt like cheating to use it.
  • We weren’t graphic designers because we had web text to deal with, and navigation, and clicking, and scrolling. People had to use what we designed, not just look at it.
  • We weren’t multimedia designers because we used a document markup language to code our screens and we had to factor in a page load between each click.
  • We weren’t developers because they used ColdFusion and SQL and PHP and other acronyms I didn’t understand.

Linking Leagues and Asking Why

My first two clients were businesses commonly referred to as dot-coms to denote their internet-only status. My official title was Production Artist and my job was loosely defined as helping designers put their work on the web. My first two projects ended up being simply design projects that I used code to produce, which has impacted my entire career to-date.

LeagueLink was a startup aiming to enable recreational sporting leagues to self-organize tournaments and practice schedules. It combined elements of e-commerce (for gathering league dues), messaging (for inter-team communication), and content management (publishing league and team news). The only Javascript this app used was for image-based navigation rollovers. Ajax would be just a cleaning supply for another 5 or 6 years. Click: page load. Click: page load.

Why.com (forever embedded in my brain by its clever logo leveraging a question mark for the dot: Why?com) was assigned to me at the same time. This was a search engine that included a social aspect: other users were able to rank, rate, and recommend search results for given terms. Apple launched a service called iReview not long after, effectively killing the company. Two things stand out during my time working on why.com: it was the first time anyone in our office had heard of Google, which powered our search results (we thought it was a weird choice), and it was this project that provided me with my first business trip.

I didn’t realize it at the time but Scott Upton, my lead on the aforementioned projects, was also the designer whose work I’d most admired in the company’s portfolio from afar. I still haven’t had a creative director quite like him for three reasons:

  1. He was doing the work himself, and his structural decisions cascaded down to the specific screens I was working on. Any style I’d developed in school or on my own was out the window, it was time to explore someone else’s partially-defined design system and extend it.
  2. There were no Photoshop files, as he was building a clickable prototype, a shadow-version of the functional web app being built by the client. The code wasn’t for production but it made the creation of new screens so much faster and more compelling than doing flat Photoshop work. We could use our site as we designed it, and could tell when an idea wasn’t working long before users or the client saw it.
  3. He was patient and always advocated for the user’s best experience. I envied his ability to sketch in front of a client to get buy-in on a better idea than what they were floating back to us. Cleanly-drawn lines and clear ideas won out – most of the time.

For the first 6 months of my professional career, code and design were one and the same. There wasn’t a developer alive who’d touch Flash at that time and having our hands in the code of a site, no matter the language, gave us a control over the end-result that no amount of wire-framing or Photoshop mockups could give us. The client would usually see screenshots of our work, but that work’s production had a web-native methodology baked into it; we knew the screens we designed could be executed in code because we were already doing it.

Why I’m a Designer Part 1.5: Design Emergencies

This post is part 1.5 of a series. You can read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3 if you’d like.

Some common stressful situations that could have ruined your day circa 1999:

“There’s a typo on the final production graphics that millions of people are looking at right now.”
  • Print Designer: “Well, fuck.”
  • Web Designer: “Here’s a new version, I’m overwriting the old one over FTP immediately.”
“Users hate the new placement of the button for the feature we shipped last week. No one can figure out where to find it and they’re throwing bricks through our windows.”
  • Desktop Software Designer: “We can hide under our desks until the next release literally ships to physical stores 12 months from now. People will have to drive a car to buy it.”
  • Web Designer: “I just moved it back. Let’s figure out a way not to have that happen again. But if it does, we can still just move it back.”
“The colors aren’t right. The red is too purple.”
  • Print Designer: “It looked fine on my screen. I must have put the wrong QuarkXpress file on the Zip disk.”
  • Web Designer: “Yeah, that’s gonna happen. There’s no way to enforce color consistency across platforms right now, so that’s what the colors look like on your monitor. Unless you use this incredibly constrictive web-safe color palette, that’s just the way things are. It sucks but there’s not much I can do.”
“No one is clicking the BUY NOW button!”
  • Print Designer: “Talk to the web people.”
  • Web Designer: “Well, fuck.”

Why I’m a Designer Part 1: A Timeline

This post is part 1 of a series. You can read Part 1.5Part 2 and Part 3 if you’d like.

1979 – 1991

Me at Sea World before we knew it was evil
Me at Sea World before we knew it was evil

I was an “Arty Kid.” I have no idea whether this is because my genes conspired to make art a thing I could do or if I simply had enough people tell me I had artisitc ability so I internalized it as best I could, but either way my childhood included an awful lot of drawing. The neighborhood recreation center was where my brother played basketball games, but I remember it as where I attended my first art class at 7 years old.

Art taught me how to create a space in my brain to play with a visual idea, and how to make that idea happen on paper. It also taught me how to learn from a failed experiment and try again on a new piece of paper. I often used my worksheets for this instead doing of the boring work that I already understood on the front, to many of my early schoolteachers’ chagrin.

I was also a “Computery Kid” but I don’t remember anyone telling me I was a Computery Kid because computers weren’t readily available until I was about 7. Once I started using them, I never wanted to stop and I was comfortable enough with computers that by the 3rd grade, when our classroom received an Apple ][ that none of the adults knew how to hook up, I could look at the wires and see where each one fit. By just trying them out I got it working, and I think that was probably the first time I was called computery.

When the Macintosh came out, my first exposure to graphic design was alongide my cousins as we used MacPaint to print out 10-page-long banners connected with that special dot-matrixy paper. As we spent hours designing Happy Birthday banners, I’m sure we used tons of my uncle’s paper but he never seemed to mind. I loved computers when I was a kid: they were clearly tools for making art.

1991 – 1994

For junior high (grades 7–9), I attended a computer-math-science magnet school that bussed kids in from all over San Diego. Each year, along with our intensive math and science classes, we also attended programming classes. I took my first coding class at a public school when I was 12 years old in the early 90s, something I could never have appreciated the rarity of back then, but now I know that access to educational programs like this is an opportunity not afforded to many young kids.

Bell Hr. High
Bell Junior High School, San Diego, California, 1993. Taking Instagrams before it was cool.

We didn’t have enough machines in the labs for each student, so we were paired up and wrote our code as a team for each project. The first team project in 7th grade was to create a frame-by-frame animation in BASIC by coding each individual frame’s pixel’s placement on an 80×80 grid, wiping the grid, and drawing the next frame. My partner Quentin and I coded a windmill that had two frames so that when it looped, it looked like the windmill’s blades were spinning. I like to think we were making 8-bit animated GIFs before browsers were invented.

While it’s true that this was my first exposure to coding, it was conveniently also a visual task: I was making art with computers. For all I knew, all of programming was about putting cool stuff on a screen for people to see.

hypercard_help
Help screen for creating a button with HyperCard

In the 8th grade, we learned about scanners and my partner Kenny and I used HyperCard to make an interactive Myst-like game, introducing me to my first onMouseUp event, a concept I had no idea I’d implement over and over again during my adult years.

Freshman year was where things got harder: our code was now to take a user’s input, use functions to perform math on that data and return the result to the screen. As we coded Pascal-powered forms to tell us how many cords of firewood we’d get from a theoretical tree, I again focused on the way data looked as it was displayed on the screen. My partner Lauren had a much stronger grasp on the math and data-processing side of the language and without her as a partner I doubt any of my projects would have gotten completed.

What I learned that semester, at Lauren’s expense, was that when the code had to start doing things that strayed too far away from a visual result, there were other people in the world who took to those kinds of hard jobs better than myself. My skills came into play when something needed to happen on the screen. As I later learned ActionScript and JavaScript, I had clear recollections of Lauren’s patient tutoring on how to use closing curly brackets.

What I was beginning to experience in school was an environment I’d essentially continue to search for my entire career: a smart, diverse group of collboratively-focused and really smart people working together to make digital art.

1994 – 1997

As my time at Alexander Graham Bell Junior High came to a close, the gap between my art and use of computers started to widen. Now attending a much more tradtional high school in Colorado, my access to technology in creative capacity was very limited for my sophomore and junior years. The ironically much better-equipped computer labs at my new school appeared to be used entirely for things like Excel spreadsheets and Word documents: the kinds of things that made me want to bang my head against the keyboard and start drawing on the margins of the page again.

My move to a suburban school in Colorado also came with a huge cultural shift for me. Saying I didn’t fit into my new school is an understatement as there were particular groups who actively and at some points violently rejected weird people like me. I turned to artistic pursuits to make it through this time and reconnected with the self-expression and healing that art could provide.

Making drawings, writing angsty poetry and playing my guitar filled my afternoons and weekends. This technical and cultural dark age was crucial to me finding the self-validation that art could provide and it gave me the time to get better at it. As long as I was expressing my emotions with art that improved in quality over time, I could deal with anything the lacrosse players wanted to call me in the hallway.

As senior year came into view, things started looking up. I had found a large group of outcast and cynical people at school like me and it was with this re-found confidence that I joined the school newspaper staff as an elective and found myself once again staring at a computer that expected me to make something with it. My first year on newspaper staff as graphic artist and music columnist also marks the first time a high school newspaper was 100% digitally-produced in Colorado. Every other high school here was still mocking up their pages with printouts and glue and tape, sending camera-ready art to the printer instead of digital files.

Macintosh Performa 5200 LC
Macintosh Performa 5200 LC, only available to education markets. My music column was called Cognitive Dissonance, I shit you not.

While the writers on staff used the 9-inch black and white Macintosh Classics along the edge of the room, I was allowed to use a much larger PowerMac 5200 LC that had a scanner attached to it and Photoshop 3.0 installed.

I felt home again.

I made graphics for the newspaper during school hours, but after class I’d hang out, scan my drawings and edit them in Photoshop. I’d go on the weekends and take photos downtown, then I’d scan the prints so that I could blend them into weird images to print and hang in my locker. I still wasn’t sure what the words “graphic design” meant but when my newspaper teacher suggested I do an independent study on it for the second semester, I jumped at the chance. Overseen by both the newspaper teacher and the director of the art department, I was allowed to investigate what graphic design was, produce pieces that no one had assigned to me, and get ready for college: a graphic design program at art school.

I simply cannot overstate the importance of a few key teachers in my life as well as the technology available at school and in my extended family’s homes during my childhood. I can’t imagine who or where I’d be without them.

1997 – 1999

I worked through college doing digital pre-press 3 blocks away from campus, spending my working hours pre-flighting and printing many of my fellow students’ work. I’d punch out and stay after countless evening shifts to continue printing and mounting my own work, supplies for which were available to me at a steep discount from my employer. I was spending 10-12 hours a day thinking about and producing design work.

I spent so many hours staring at this thing, hoping it would do what it was supposed to
I spent so many hours staring at this thing, hoping it would do what it was supposed to do

But something about the print world didn’t feel quite right. The amount of work that went into taking a QuarkXpress file from someone’s Zip disk and getting it to print correctly from our digital printers was obscene. There were crucial details that could be easily overlooked by the customer, rendering their prints completely useless. As school got closer and closer to completion, classes started leaning heavily on the student’s ability to go and get offset prints produced: an expensive task that I had zero interest in learning how to do.

The web was an obvious alternative as I could start going behind the scenes on the computer-side again. Instead of using someone else’s interface to create art, I was back to writing the code for a UI itself, a task I’d been introduced to with HyperCard stacks 6 years earlier.

The web was also a weird choice for a designer to make at that time. I’d be giving up fine typography control, throwing any semblance of faithful color reproduction out the window, and embracing lower resolution over higher. And I did this willfully and aggressively because I could make something, and I could make it fast, and people could see it anywhere in the world in seconds. Why on earth would I care about printing things?

As my formal design education was nearing its end, I landed my first salaried web design job in 1999 without a resume at a company that wasn’t hiring a designer. I simply emailed them a link to a portfolio I designed and built in Flash. Within a week I had an interview and I started work less than a week after that. I could now call myself a professional designer.

Up Next: Why I’m a Designer Part 2: View Source

I give places too much power.

And by that I mean that I store certain memories in physical locations and can recall them when I find myself revisiting. Commonly-trod ground gets overwritten often and complexly, in a tapestry of emotions’ colors overlapping like brushstrokes.

This makes for incredible site-seeing: remembering my grandmother taking me for a walk on this street corner when I was very small; it only happened the one time and I recall it clearly if for only brief repeating GIF-sized sequences at a time.

This beach is where I kissed my girlfriend. That one: my former wife, wedding ring tattoo notwithstanding. Fewer overlaps and clearer memories, relived and lived anew as time marches forward, the only direction it actually can. Given this much power, these places can seem a sort of bittersweet time machine but they’re not.

A dead friend’s former home always burning unseen a block away, red-tinged, geo-located in my mind as I take my daughter to school every day. Every fucking day. The Burger King where we waited for my son to escape his school alive. The heartbreakingly-named monument to the student murdered there directly across the street.

These places can become morbid beacons of the past, sudden and inescapable.

And so you try to overwrite this data with better memories, or at least so many that the place loses its particular color in a flurry of activity.

Another trick seems to be some level of dissociation: a prism with which to hold these feelings so that I can witness them from afar and appreciate them for existing, robbing them of their power to control me. I hope to hell this remains true.