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.