A New Album: December

December2

It’s so easy to say that Decembers have always been complicated months for me. Who isn’t it complicated for? Every year, we run around and we try to express ourselves to our family and friends with commerce and we put pressure on ourselves to have the most fun ever on the very last night of every year.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a simple December, starting in 1994 when as a sophomore in high school, 4 days after Christmas, my family moved a thousand miles east to a place that felt ten thousand miles away culturally.

In 1997, this feeling of anxiety toward the last month of the year was heightened when as a freshman in college I had to tell my parents my 17-year old girlfriend was pregnant. I proposed to her on Christmas Eve that year with a ton of my family around, and it felt right for such a monumental decision to be made during December. We were married for 15 years, something no one expected when neither the bride nor groom could legally drink at their own wedding.

“We’re in lockdown.”

On December 13, 2013, my son Ian heard a gunshot while in class, and was subsequently put in lockdown for the next six hours. An 18-year old senior used a legally-purchased shotgun to come to Arapahoe High School and murder a girl named Claire in the hallway. He shot her in the face, which was the first shot my son heard. I’m not sure if my son heard the second shot, which was the murderer taking his own life.

This was by far the worst ordeal I’ve ever lived through, and am just now getting the help I need to manage the panic attacks that rarely but still happen to me.

And so: Music.

I wrote my 6th-ish album for a simple reason: I needed to get these feelings out of my brain and music is the easiest way for me to do it. This album is made up of three tracks and is only 10 minutes long. Each song represents the month of December for the year it’s named:

12//13

This song is my exploration of what it was like to go through the process of learning my son was locked inside of his school with an active shooter two years ago. I started it with a ton of siren sounds, which I toned back a lot for the final version because it was a little too jarring. When I wrote this song, I forced myself to walk through the memories of that day, and to take the conflicting and misaligned emotions and turn them into music. This song started out as a trigger for my anxiety, and has since become a way to focus on the pain so that I can heal from it.

12//14

Last December wasn’t nearly as traumatizing as 2013, but it came with its own set of ups and downs. I spent a good portion of it jet-lagged and sad in Rome. On the first anniversary of my son living through the shooting, I was 5,500 miles away on a work trip and separated from his mother, well on our way to divorce. I missed my girlfriend a lot and I’d had some really tough travel to get to Italy and wasn’t looking forward to the trip back. The month did end in a pretty amazing way on New Year’s Eve, for having such a turbulent middle. This song attempts to roll that all into one, which is hard. Drums ended up being unnecessary.

12//15

Which brings me to this year. The calmest December I’ve had in a while, it still started with me desperately needing (and starting) therapy for the PTSD I’ve been suffering since the shooting. This year also ended with me learning that it’s unhealthy and untenable to hold on to dreams you first felt when you were a child. I learned this year that it’s easy to build someone up in your heart and mind into a sculpture of a human that no one can live up to. This was painful to experience and this song attempts to capture the loss I’ve felt this year, and the destruction I put myself and others through just to experience it.

Web and Rockets

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United Launch Alliance Atlas V, Photo via NASA

Launching Rockets

My father’s a guy who builds rockets. And I don’t mean that he builds the model rockets you see at the park that get blown onto neighbor’s roofs by a slight wind, I mean that he builds the giant Atlas V rockets that launch actual shit into actual outer space.

So when I was kid, there were key points I can remember when we’d all head down to the pizza place closest to my dad’s plant to watch his and his coworkers’ work launch satellites into space. It’s a unique experience to witness your father witnessing his own work do something so mind blowing.

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Launching Websites

So while my father builds the rockets that launch satellites into space, I manage to do some (much less complicated, and much less tension-inducing) building and launching of my own: I work for the company that builds WordPress.com, the platform I’m blogging on right now, and we just launched some pretty cool stuff that we’ve been working on for quite a while.

I’m very happy to share that as of today, Automattic has released the source code for Calypso, our JavaScript- and API-powered interface that runs on WordPress.com. This has taken a huge effort on our part for the better part of two years, and I couldn’t be prouder. This comes with a shiny-new interface that we also used to build a Mac app.

So, is your website a satellite being shot into orbit? Not quite, but it wouldn’t be far off to think of WordPress.com as an Atlas V rocket to get your site on the web, anyway. 🙂

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

As a 5-year employee of Automattic, I have the option of taking a 2-3 month sabbatical. I opted for the shorter duration as I felt it was a good amount of time to get some artwork created and some studying done on being a stronger leader in my design community, so that I could come back to work strong. I felt like a 3-month break would have been too much time to get lazy and bored, making for a bad re-entry to work.

Copenhagen

Before my break would start though, I’d have an inspiring last bit of work to do in Denmark with the Automattic Design Team (the half that wanted to travel to Copenhagen, that is. The other half went to Atlanta).

WordCamp

During a jetlag-fueled haze, I quickly wrapped up the badges and schedule designs for WordCamp Denver. My first official week off included spending some good time with my kids, the longest time I’ve had with them since their mom and I separated in mid-2014. I also spent time that week designing the slides for my WordCamp Denver talk “Full-Stack Web Design: A Case Study in Interactive Prototyping”

Something Along the Lines of Dating

Between Copenhagen and WordCamp Denver, my girlfriend Beth and I got to see the premiere of a movie that we’d been extras in over a year ago called Something Along the Lines of Dating:

Apartment Decorating

Since I’ve now got an amazing apartment, I finally took the time to decorate it how I like:

Art

One of the main reasons for this sabbatical was art. I spent some time getting back in touch with my art school education by doing some drawing and painting: skills I don’t use in my every-day professional work, done with tools I’ve allowed myself to become unfamiliar with. Time to change all that.

Writing

I’d long had a blog series in draft form saved away that I wanted to flesh out and spend more time getting right before I published. This series turned into the Why I’m a Designer series on this blog that I started posting early into my break. I have 4 more parts planned, but I have some studying to do first.

Part 2 of this series is titled View Source and it’s a concept I’ve decided to flesh out even further by writing an Almost Famous-type film loosely-based on a fictionalized account of my first real job in the early days of the web. I was inspired by attending the premiere of the film I’d briefly appeared in; it seemed possible for me to actually make something worth watching. The rough writing I’ve gotten done is a baby step in that direction. I’ve been watching films by my favorite directors trying to study their work.

Music

Since writing isn’t a strong suit of mine, I decided to mostly tackle the View Source film through its music. I first created a Spotify playlist of the music we used to listen to in the office at the time, music that lived inside of a 300-disc CD changer that also powered what people calling the office heard when they were on hold. I augmented this list with music I was personally listening to a lot at my first job.

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The second part of this approach was to record an original motion picture soundtrack influenced by music made in the 1998 – 2001 range.

Some of the elements in this design are over 15 years old
Some of the elements in this design are over 15 years old

I also wrote these songs I’m not sure what else to do with:

Kid Time

I was very glad to spend some extended time with my kiddos this summer.

The Gin Doctors

I got to see my friends and Denver’s Best Cover/Tribute act (according to voters in The Westword) The Gin Doctors a couple of times this summer, which is always an incredible time:

GIFs

I found reasons to use these images:

Underground Music Showcase

I got to go to a couple nights of The Denver Post’s UMS event held on South Broadway. Highlight of the event for me was an epic performance by Denver’s own Slim Cessna’s Auto Club:

Vail Weekend

I got to go a wedding in Vail:

Denver

In general, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather spend two months re-energizing and getting back to my creative roots than Denver.

Why I’m a Designer Part 4: Ego and Empathy

This post is part 4 of a series. You can read Part 1, Part 1.5, Part 2 and Part 3 if you’d like.

Web 2.0

Then something funny happened that we weren’t expecting, but sort of hoping for: the web became a tool everyone used, all the time, for a ton of reasons.

New users were arriving online every day, and new services were popping up in droves to give them fun stuff to do there. Years after Wall Street left the “dot-coms” to die in the gutter, the former employees of these companies built new tools, with new ideas about what a web interface could accomplish.

Web users adapted and started to actually love the products they used online. Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, Del.icio.us: we all have memories of what was new about these things when they first appeared that delighted us.

The web was a super-fun place to be, both as a user and designer.

2001 – 2010

I spent the intervening years doing the following:

  • Being unemployed Lots of freelance
  • I built a web page with only 5 kilobytes of code
  • Building PHP and MySQL from source on Mac OS X
  • Building custom Content Management Systems in PHP every time I launched a website for a client
  • Getting a job where I helped Einstein sell bagels on the internet
  • Securing just a few long-term freelance clients that would support me for years
  • Getting a low-paying job for health insurance reasons, then quitting that job because I found myself editing .NET code in a shirt and tie
  • Getting a job doing data visualization and financial design for investment banks
  • Traveling to New York to work with clients on Wall Street
  • Learning and forgetting Flash, ActionScript and Flex
  • Building in CakePHP and taking offline a web app for people to record very personal data
  • Spending 6 months designing a 15×10 GIF (among many other things) for the front page of the New York Times
  • Getting a job where I designed screens for people with mental disabilities as well as for people whose job was to support those with mental disabilities
  • Watching the idea of “mobile” evolve from WAP-based apps rendered on Handspring devices to the responsive web and iOS/Android apps we have today
  • Getting a job at Automattic, working on the blogging system I’m using to publish this very post.

I can honestly say that during those 9-10 years, my work was used by millions of people, and that by 2010 my work reached that many people daily. I learned a lot during this time about how people use web applications, how they share content on the web, and how they talk to one another with the tools we build. I learned what my medium was being used for (fun fact: in 2002 I owned the domain “automaticmedium.com”) above and beyond what I was personally using it for. And all this time, I blogged.

The Importance of Blogging in Earnest

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I blogged when Napster was shut down, I blogged when the Twin Towers fell, I blogged when Apple launched the iPod, I blogged when my son was diagnosed with diabetes.

I used a system built in PHP3 my friend Tai and I paid $500 for and then I ported that blog to a custom system I wrote in PHP 4 which I then wrote a custom importer for in 2007 that pulled it all into WordPress. Blogging was and is important to how I work.

Ego & Empathy

While designing and building the tools my clients asked me for, I was simultaneously either plugging away at a new CSS idea on my blog, or trying out a new language to build a web app. My craft and I grew up at the same time and I tried to stay involved in it above and beyond my client work for two simple reasons:

  1. Ego: I needed a place to play. Client work was now very serious and very important and playing with new ideas often wasn’t the best choice for these projects. Not to say we didn’t pitch new ideas, they just often weren’t chosen for development. Knowing I should and could keep my code chops up by playing on my blog was important to me for increasing the quality of my work.
  2. Empathy: I really wanted to have my own site with an audience and user base that I considered my own. This way, I could truly understand a client’s desire to do right by their users because I spent evenings and weekends making something for my own group of people I wanted to please.

These two concepts seem diametrically opposed: Ego and Empathy. I contend that to design a web application that people want to use on a daily basis you need both the ego to say:

“I can make something people will want to use that’s better than what exists”

and the empathy to listen to what your users actually say when you launch it. Additionally, your empathy for what you’d want on the screen you’re designing goes a long way toward making something your users may want to use.

Try All of the Things

How do you build this empathy? One of the ways besides maintaining a web app by yourself is to be a die-hard trier-and-user of any and all web apps. Really use them for really real things. See what making boards on Pinterest is all about. Follow art blogs on Tumblr and check it every day. Try Snapchat and get confused and close the app forever. Stuff like that.

You can start to understand what else the rest of the world is doing with their digital devices on a daily basis; you can see where your app fits into your users’ lives, not just how your users’ lives fit into your engagement cycle.

Empathize with what your users do on a daily basis with your tool by doing the same things with it and by doing the other things they do on a daily basis on the web, too. Pay fucking attention to what works and what doesn’t and why. You can start to synthesize this information with the designer’s ego telling you that you actually can produce a better product. What can result is remarkable: an app that people love using.

That’s always been my goal for my work on the web: to make something that people love having in their lives, something that feels like humans made it for other humans. They’ll come back over and over and give you their money for things you’re building that they want to use. You won’t have to beg for money from people who want to pay you for what you make.

Up next, part 5: Designer-Driven Design

No Justice, No Peace

Boysetsfire, After the Eulogy:

No Justice, No Peace.
Rise.

Written, signed off
In the obituary: “What happened to us?”

Where’s your anger?
Where’s your fucking rage?
Watered down, senses lost.
Lazy, privileged,
Denial and self-gratified.

A tradition passed down to our blood-stained hands.

Give in, give up.
Give in, give up.

Rise.

Contented to strive for new worthless slogans.
We miss our potential for action and substance.
Contended to lie in our boring vomit,
Suggesting arrangements, while others are dying.

Stand up. Fight back.
Stand up. Fight back.

How many starving millions have to die on our front doorsteps?
How many dying millions have to crawl to our front doorsteps?

Written, signed off in the obituary: “What happened to us?”
Where’s your anger? Where’s your fucking rage? Watered down senses lost.

Where’s your anger?
Where’s your fucking rage?

Content and corrupted,
Contrite and disgusting.
Dig a hole,
It’s all over.

Forget the words and good intentions,
Unless we rise.
Unless we rise.

Rise.

Tear it down.

Rise.