On What You Want Your Life to Look Like & Why You Should Go Do That

Be warned, here be long narrative and life advice. Proceed with caution.

On Friday, February 10 I got into an unexpected conversation with a friend while making our “goodbye” rounds at a going away party for another friend (the best things in life typically come from community, but that’s a blog post for another day). The conversation began with some simple, “Hey, how are you—what are you up to these days?” and ended with me [Friday Night Lights spoiler alert] pulling a Coach Taylor and verbally processing that maybe it was my turn to start sacrificing some for the work pursuits of my wife because maybe it was her turn. So on Friday, April 20, ten weeks later, we moved to Greenville, SC.

Let me back up a few steps…

When we relocated to South Carolina from Boston at the end of 2007, Mandy was openly a bit terrified of moving to a small town (the NewSpring offices where I’d be working are in Anderson—population 35,000). She had only lived in Not Small Towns (Dallas, Seattle, Madrid and Boston), so we moved to downtown Greenville, an up and coming city with a metro population of 600,000+ and a thriving downtown.

Unfortunately, I was a personal finances idiot then, and while we were technically living within our means, we were doing so barely, with no margin for saving or really seriously tackling our student loan debt. “You can keep doing what you’re doing, but it will take you at least eight years to get out of debt,” said a financial counselor friend. So we made the difficult decision to break our lease on our brand new downtown apartment in Greenville and we moved into a tiny 50’s duplex in Anderson. It was a hard move, emotionally, not even a year into a marriage that had already included two cross country relocations, a found and lost job, chronic sickness and the implosion of some close relationships around us. It probably took a solid two years to even begin to feel “at home”.

I grew up in an even smaller town near here—population 3000—and I have a sort of locals only love/hate relationship with small, Southern towns, but four years after leaving Boston for South Carolina, we loved Anderson. Mandy learned the wise ways of shopping online, we tried to travel a good bit (mainly back and forth to Texas to visit family), found lots of local places, restaurants and rituals, discovered the best thrift shopping loop in existence, I started to get my act together with our personal finances and we managed to pay off somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 of debt. And we still drove to Greenville frequently to eat with friends, see shows, walk downtown and lounge in the park.

What we didn’t have, despite our efforts, was a vibrant artistic community for Mandy.

I work with an amazing team everyday—the immediate staff I serve with at NewSpring, as well as the interns, volunteers and other 200+ staff spread across eight campuses (and growing) in South Carolina. The work we do matters, the vision and mission are clear, the leadership is world class. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked. I don’t want to be anywhere else (nor will I be for the foreseeable future). But to be perfectly honest, while I am immensely thankful for it and never want to take any of this for granted, my personality is driven enough to not “need” a team to get things done and be encouraged I’m on the right path. But Mandy isn’t designed the same way; she thrives in community, she loves collaboration and essentially misses the community-based environment of higher education. She loved school. She longs for constraints.

So we moved. To Greenville (again). But this time to West Greenville instead of downtown.

I can’t think of a worse environment for creating and new ideas than one where you can do whatever you want whenever you want to do it, all on your terms (then again, I always label myself a designer, not an artist, so there’s that). Sparks come from many sources; it stands to reason that the more you expose yourself to, the greater chance for creating something new and good. Fortune favors the people metaphorically (and physically) rubbing up against other people. Cities are great for this. The suburbs, for all their comfort, are simply not.

West Greenville has a storied history, and quite a reputation. It, like many neighborhoods in South Carolina, trudges along quietly in the shadow of a long since abandoned textile mill, its remaining residents stuck in a perpetual reliving of previous era, sitting on porches, walking for transportation, living in houses they grew up in. People are cash poor—the median household income here is something like $28,000—we’re in the bottom 10% nationally for professionals and college degrees (FYI, I’m not helping that degree stat), and in the top 10% of Black residents, so you can likely extrapolate what a wealthier, bustling, young downtown Greenville perceives this neighborhood as.

But it’s also been identified as the Greenville Arts District. In and around a block of storefronts on Pendleton Street, the previous heart of the old Mill village, a loose collection of painters, sculptors, and other artists creating unique jewelry and furniture have been forging a new community of art studios. And a trio of young photographer friends opened up a shared shop last month. And so will we.

We rented the biggest house we’ve ever lived in for less cash than I’ve paid since I lived in a 200 sq ft studio in Dallas. It’s a block from the Arts District. It’s temporary, a way to get used to the neighborhood, to be here, to be in the midst of it all. And it is not without its share of quirks. One bathroom. Weird driveway. Miniblinds. Beige walls. No central air. (I grew up with window units and attic fans, but the South Carolina Summer can be brutal. Today’s high is 102° with 66% humidity. And mostly window units are just annoying—loud, spotty coverage, insufficient, ugly.) But again, this isn’t about me, this is about my wife. This is about community. This is about what do we want our life to look like?

We want it to be about community, about creating things, about risking. We’ll be splitting storefront space, the former Amazin’ Kreations Salon (you can’t make this stuff up) with our good friends at Billiam Jeans, and we’ll hopefully be open for business at the end of the summer, taking Shop-Keep from an occasional Etsy hobby to a brick and mortar collection of homegoods, furniture, vintage finds, unique items and clothing. You can follow along on Instagram with the shop progress, just search for #shopdashkeep or #billiamjeans (floors were being sanded today).

We don’t know what we’re doing, apart from risking alongside people we like and trust. But will I regret living in a house with window units on the shady side of town more than I’ll regret not trying to launch a business with my wife?

I think no. And thus we go, onward and upward, into the unknown.

On Insiders, Outsiders, Branding & Boredom

Earlier this week I wrote this on Twitter:

Random late night thought: a huge part of stewarding a brand well is defending consistency against the boredom of insiders.

It hit enough of a nerve to warrant a few favorites/retweets, so I thought I’d expound a bit. It wasn’t brought about by any one interaction or client or even brand, really, but having done this design thing for a few years now, you begin to see trends.

The nature of working closely with a brand logically means your interaction with that brand increases exponentially, typically far past the threshold of even the most ardent fans/users. I like and use Twitter on a near-daily basis, but if I worked at Twitter I’d constantly be interacting with it—like a foreign language student studying abroad, learning through immersion. The closer to the source, the more I know, see and experience.

But that presents a few problems, the most perceptible of which is that you’ve ceased to be your audience. If you’re not careful, you cease to build things for your audience and start to build things for yourself. You stop serving them and you start serving self. There’s a tricky line there—some of the best products, services and experiences are born from people building things for themselves—but rarely does anything large exist long term solely to scratch the proverbial itch of its creator(s).

Practical example: I work at a church with multiple campuses, each with multiple services (experiences, gatherings, what have you). On any given Sunday I interact with our brand, our services and our content for hours. I helped create our brand and have worked within those constraints for close to four years. So that video that runs mid-service? I’ve seen it 10 times before that Sunday. I maybe helped plan it, or write it, or set type for it, or review it. I see it run multiple times, on multiple days, maybe spanning multiple weeks. Dozens and dozens of interactions and touch points with the same content. Immersion.

So when I’m tempted to think “I don’t like it, we should try something else” or “this feels stale, let’s change up this sign or that template or that ritual” I have to remember that the average attender—the person we do all this stuff to communicate to and serve—might come to church once every four weeks. Or a handful of times a year. For the dozens of interactions I have with a solution or aspect of our brand, our primary audience probably has one or two, at best.

“I’m bored” is a horrible design strategy for implementing change. It proves you’ve lost focus on who you’re building a brand for in the first place. When you start catering to the bored whims of insiders you start confusing outsiders who are less familiar with your brand.

And when you start confusing outsiders, you stop reaching them.

On Learning in the Midst of Change

At times of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the world, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world which no longer exists.
—Alistair Smith

I Want to Work With You. For Longer.

A few months ago I wrote about how doing less work for more money saved client work for me. One of the points I discussed was the 15 hours each week I allotted for clients in 2011. It’s amazing how having a wife, a fulltime job (with five six direct reports) and getting a business going will eat up your day, and make 15 hours of anything seem untenable.

In 2012 I’ve dropped that 15-hour allotment to 10.

At last year’s Brooklyn Beta I had a fascinating lunch conversation with everyone’s favorite polymath Dan Rubin about the potential (and inevitability) that more of us would be engaged in longer term contracts with clients. Dan was getting ready to begin a multi-month on-site contract with a client as their creative director. I was just coming off a string of good, short term client projects (between two and four weeks) and wondering what it would look like to dedicate my client work hours to one client for a longer span.

No one can hire me away from NewSpring right now—there’s too much foundational work to be done as we grow and I love it too much. But I also enjoy working with other clients, helping them solve their unique problems and see measurable success come from appropriate design solutions. And doing what I do—translating business needs into beautiful, functional user interfaces and experiences built around stellar brands—is difficult to do in sprints. This is marathon work. And I want to run with someone for longer than a few days.

My good friend Cameron wrote an excellent article about the state of design (and particularly design on the web) and said, “Nearly every CEO and VC I’ve met in the last six months is on a wild hunt for designers.” With that in mind…

Are you a startup or small business that can’t afford a full-time hire, or needs a high level of experience for specific projects? Are you an entrepenuer in need of consistent, considered visual help to bring your ideas to life? Do you need a Designer-On-Retainer or Designer-In-Remote-Residence? If so, I’d love to talk. I love design, I love my clients and I want to serve them better, for longer, in ways that can exponentially affect their mission.

Some Awesome Things My Team Has Been Making Lately

I love my design team. I’m super proud of the work they do at NewSpring, but I also love that they make things in their spare* time as well. Here’s a few of my favorites of late:

Chandler Van De Water designed and released his first typeface, Cubano, a confident, friendly sans serif display face with lots of personality. He’s working on his second one now.

Drew Delianides wrote a Cloud App raindrop to add the currently playing Rdio track to Cloud to share. You can grab it at Github.

Dave Keller shot and edited this documentary-style teaser trailer for The Explorers Club’s upcoming album, as well as a series of shorts for the Keller Film Festival.

Lindsey Hudlow made some gorgeous hand-lettered Valentine’s Day cards she screenprinted and passed out to the staff. She’s also been tracking the wardrobe habits of our whole team in a Google Doc which she then uses to impersonate one of us on the first Monday of every month. The anticipation is amazing.

*Spare time is a myth—you choose what to do with every hour of the day, and talented, curious people take that time to create awesome things. If that kind of environment sounds inspiring to you, we’re looking for another Designer and Project Manager right now.

Five Songs I Wish I Wrote

Being a Good Designer is Only 1/4 of My Job

My role is increasingly about identifying, recruiting, and interviewing talented designers and developers. I help try to get the right people on the team, and then attempt to create an environment that assists them in staying healthy, happy and productive.

But whether those designers and developers are a good fit in the first place is about more than just their talent. In fact, being talented is more like 25% of what makes designers successful at NewSpring. When we’re hiring (and evaluating the existing team) it’s been helpful to look at four categories as a good basic framework:


Can they do the job as defined? Do they possess the skills, good taste and judgment, curiosity and passion to excel at it? Without a baseline of competence, it’s impossible to benefit the mission.

Early on in my tenure, finding talented folks who wanted to move to South Carolina was exceptionally difficult. The majority of applicants to church roles think they’re much more skilled than their work shows. As we’ve grown, it’s become less of an issue. But on the flipside, talent can be a smokescreen as well, because good team members need more than just talent to contribute to the mission.

Don’t settle for mediocrity, but don’t get blinded by talent alone.


Do they fit in with the team? Are these the people I want to be on mission with, and do they want to work with me? Do we sync up well? Does the competence that got them noticed harmonize with the skills of the existing team? Do we want to hang out with them?

All big work is team work, so chemistry counts. If you sacrifice chemistry, you sacrifice momentum and derail the progress your team was making without them. It’s better to go a painful season without enough people on the team than to willfully hire people you know are a poor fit.

Trust your gut, trust your team. Never hire people you don’t like.


Do they do what they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do it? What is their reputation? Can they be counted on to use their talent alongside the team to accomplish our goals?

Some folks interview well, but interviews are typically sales pitches. What is the sum of their traits and actions up to this point? I have to fight to take my time on this one, but rushing in to hiring without careful consideration of character is disastrous longterm.

Vet early and often.


Are they supposed to be here? When a difficult decision is rolled out or a sacrifice needs to be made, can they see the mission or can they only see the decision/sacrifice? Is this just a gig? A paycheck? If so, all your investment in them won’t return exponentially.

Don’t hire people who aren’t called to be on mission with you. It’s never worth the investment.

Using the 4-Cs for Self-Inventory

I use these four categories to assess the fitness/readiness of potential hires, but I use them to evaluate myself even more. I do enough self-inventory to know I excel at competence and chemistry, and I feel called to what I do.

Unfortunately, my character is often inconsistent and lacking. I have to be vigilant in listening, receiving feedback and making strides to change. Knowing we’re holding potential hires to these standards is a constant reminder to take responsibility for my lack so that it doesn’t put my team in debt and doesn’t delay or harm the mission. I have not done a good job in this area. I have to be better so we can be better.

Being a successful designer—at least at NewSpring—is about more than a killer portfolio. Talent can only take you so far. Talent doesn’t exist in a vacuum and by itself it can’t make up for a lack of chemistry, character or calling.

P.S. We’re hiring.

On Discovery & the Social Graph

This exchange happened a few days ago:

I don’t care what everyone is discovering, I only care what people I trust are discovering. People in aggregate have bad taste.

— Joshua Blankenship (@blankenship) December 8, 2011

Dustin was likely tweeting in response to the top-level #discover tab in the recently-shipped Twitter products. Whatever you think of the new Twitter, I’m primarily concerned with how broken #discover is in its current implementation. The discovery opportunities that exist for Twitter as a product and for me as a user are vastly under-served.

For example, what in my four years of interaction on Twitter would lead any sane person to think I care about Fantasy Baseball, #CosasAburridas, or Scott Baio? I’m not just listing random stuff; I have the opportunity to “discover” each of those are stories/trends right now in the #discover tab. But I don’t want to, because none of them are relevant to me.

If relevancy isn’t a priority, #discover actually is a list of random stuff. Or more specifically, it’s a list of random stuff I’m being shown by a service who has access to years of my documented behavior (content, RTs, favorites, frequency of replies, etc.) and seemingly doesn’t care because I should care about Scott Baio because…why? Other people on Twitter do? Or it’s easier to selling advertising to advertisers around Scott Baio or [insert trend here] instead of something I actually might engage with?

The #discover results could be almost any randomized content and it would be exactly as relevant to me as the current offering. How do you sit on that much data about your users, ignore it, and serve up Chachi instead? How is that not a massive, wasted opportunity? Why do you ship a product that doesn’t address it?

I don’t want to discover anything in the #discover tab. My 6000 tweets + favs/RTs should be enough data to serve up customized content.

— Joshua Blankenship (@blankenship) December 11, 2011

I don’t care what everyone wants to discover, or even what everyone is discovering, I only care about content that’s relevant to me based on my previous and current behavior and/or the behavior and content of people I trust. The aggregate stories/trends aren’t useful to me because people in aggregate have bad taste (or at least different enough tastes that serving the same content to all of them is silly). Surely somewhere in 6000+ pieces of user-generated content there is enough information to make #discover useful to me.

If you’re going to force “discovery” on users, at least give them content they might want to find. Isn’t that in the best interests of your users and your bottomline?

My Five Favorite Company Names

The Hard Part of Team Building is People

Getting big things done would be easy if not for having to manage people, right? But you can’t pull off big things without great people. Teams move big missions forward, not individuals.

This means your people are more important than your calendar. Your people are more important than your action items. Your people are more important than your bottomline.

Why aren’t you investing more time in them? Because it takes time and effort? Invest now and reap the benefit later. If you’re so busy you can’t personally acknowledge the people you’re working with, you’re too busy doing too much that doesn’t matter. Value and respect your team enough to plan and schedule time with them*.

*Managing by walking around doesn’t count. You’re just interrupting people trying to get stuff done.

Detroit! See It Through!

Filming the undefeatable citizens of a decaying city using Detroit transplant Edgar Guest‘s poetry as a script is nothing short of inspiring. I’m ambivalent about it being used to sell a magazine, but as a piece of art, it’s stellar.

See It Through
by Edgar Allen Guest

When you’re up against a trouble,
Meet it squarely, face to face;
Lift your chin and set your shoulders,
Plant your feet and take a brace.
When it’s vain to try to dodge it,
Do the best that you can do;
You may fail, but you may conquer,
See it through!

Black may be the clouds about you
And your future may seem grim,
But don’t let your nerve desert you;
Keep yourself in fighting trim.
If the worst is bound to happen,
Spite of all that you can do,
Running from it will not save you,
See it through!

Even hope may seem but futile,
When with troubles you’re beset,
But remember you are facing
Just what other men have met.
You may fail, but fall still fighting;
Don’t give up, whate’er you do;
Eyes front, head high to the finish.
See it through!

Breakdance Yoga

I will never cease to be amazed at what can be achieved through genetics, practice and good, old fashioned hard work. The human body is incredible.

On Unreasonable Men

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw

Chris Thile on Improvisation

Improvisation is essentially very fast composition.
Chris Thile

Some People I’m Excited to Meet at Next Week’s Brooklyn Beta

Next Thursday and Friday I’ll get the pleasure of attending a small, friendly web conference aimed at the “work hard and be nice to people” crowd.

Here are a few folks I’m excited to hopefully talk with (presented in order of their surname’s appearance in our fine English alphabet):

Josh Brewer — Part of the design team at Twitter and co-creator of 52 Weeks of UX. I love the work his team does at Twitter (and let’s be honest here… I really love Twitter). Given opportunity, I plan on pummeling Josh with logistics and culture questions about the Twitter design team in an effort to steal all their knowledge.

Dan Cederholm — Web designer, writer, speaker, entrepeneur, and designer/co-founder of Dribbble, a fantastic show & tell site for designers to share snapshots of what they’re working on. I’m massively grateful to Dan for creating Dribbble, as upwards of 75% of the client work I’ve done in the last year is a direct result of my exposure there. Dribbble hustles for me. I owe Dan a hug and a cold beverage.

Frank Chimero — Yes, Frank is a well-respected designer and illustrator. Yes, he’s writing a book I was happy to help fund through Kickstarter that went on to raise more than $100,000 in a few days. But mostly I just have a brain crush on the way he articulates thoughts. I want to know what his pain points are in the writing process, and if cash advances change your writing behavior, priorities and motivations.

Phil Coffman — Austin-dweller, one of the co-creators of Method & Craft, a sort of behind-the-scenes process blog about design, and a dang fine Creative Director at Springbox in the 9–5, too. I’m excited to make this friendship 3D, and hear how M&C has changed his workflow of outside projects.

Chris Glass — One of those annoying designer/photographer/blogger/entrepreneur types. Only from a small town in the Midwest. And not in the least bit annoying. Actually, stellar in every way. I anticipate unexpected brilliant topics of intellectual conversation.

Naz Hamid — There’s not a designer working and making things on the internet I respect more than Naz. That has as much to do with his ethos on work/life balance and independence as it does his studio’s admittedly stellar body of work. I can’t wait to finally chat in person.

Zach Klein — I’ve stalked Zach from afar for years. He co-founded and designed Vimeo, and then leveraged that success to do something much more important (and close to my heart)—buy beautiful wooded property with a stream and cabin(s). He makes me realize I don’t have to wait until I’m 50 to have my dreams. I’d love to pick his brain about work/life balance and entrepreneurial risk.

Cameron Koczon — Cameron’s helping run the Brooklyn Beta show. I knew we’d be friends when we met at Greenville Grok and, during an app idea presentation, he told one of my designers, “The app is great. I’m going to give you 6 months—if you haven’t built it by then I’m going to. I’m 100% serious.” Cameron’s also leading the charge on building Gimme Bar, which is the best thing on the internet. I’m 100% serious about that.

Ethan Marcotte & Elizabeth Galle — They go together ’cause they’re married. Ethan is blazing trails writing and speaking about the future of web design. Elizabeth does web work for The Smithsonian’s research branch in Cambridge, supporting a NASA X-ray telescope… IN SPACE. But more pertinent for why I want to meet them, they tandem tweet against the machine of human idiocy more eloquently (and hysterically) than anyone else I follow. They are, in short, my people, and I love them.

Ben Pieratt — Great designer (Book Cover Archive is a personal favorite) turned product designer now helping helm the ship of Svpply, a wonderful, minimalist site you can use to track the things you want to buy. When Ben says things like, “The internet kills all middlemen” and “[it’s] offering you a blank check and asking you to come up with something fascinating and useful” in this blog post, I think, “I want to have long, meandering, philosophical conversations about the potential of the web with this guy.”

Yaron Schoen — I met Yaron at Greenville Grok the same weekend I met Cameron. He had me at, “If it’s free, it’s dead. Either no one’s going to do it or everyone is going to do it and it will suck.” Again, real talk. Yaron just took a desk at Twitter’s NYC office, and I’m excited to hear about what he’ll be making awesome for them.

Noah Stokes — Longtime friend, occasional collaborator, even less occasional finisher of projects together. Brother from another mother. It’s been too long, motherfuton.

Fred Wilson — Savvy Venture Capitalist, principal at Union Square Ventures (who have helped fund startups like Etsy, Kickstarter, Tumblr, Twitter and Zynga), and family man. Fred got on my radar when he wrote openly about USV passing on funding Airbnb and why it was a mistake. I love that kind of transparency, so I’d love a chance to talk shop with someone older and wiser in the industry.

The crazy thing is, I could keep typing names here. There are 200+ folks coming to this year’s Brooklyn Beta, and I have faith that every one of them will be in that “work hard and be nice to people” crowd. That means that in addition to this list (and the people I’m certainly forgetting), there are dozens of other potential new friends. Amazing conversations, ideas, sparks, prods, critiques, and plenty of other unexpected things will happen next week.

Rands puts it well in this blog post:

I have exactly one goal when I attend a conference. Through some bizarre and unpredictable sequence of events, I’m going to meet that one person I absolutely need to know. Who they are, what they’re building, or what they’ve done—it’s mind-blowing shit that, once identified, forever alters my perspective.

With that many amazing, hardworking, nice people in one room, how can it not happen?

See you next week, Brooklyn.

Steve Jobs on Death

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
—Steve Jobs, June 12th 2005 Stanford commencement speech (video)

Buzz Andersen on Innovation

I’ve always subscribed to the theory that innovation is a process of synthesizing disparate influences.
Buzz Andersen

Beware the Purists, Lest They Kill Your Innovation

Mrs. Blankenship surprised me a few months back with date night tickets to see Herbie Hancock in concert. I spent a good portion of the evening occasionally reading over the shoulder of a gentleman in front of me as he carefully, confidently typed an exhaustively venomous email to a friend about the show.

Photo credit: from the liner notes of Maiden Voyage

On and on (and on) he went. Hancock had “forgotten his jazz roots” and was “trying to be too hip”. He should “never allow that electric bass on stage” and has to “leave all this weird synth keyboard stuff alone”. Every time the band stepped out of the neat confines of his imagination, another three paragraphs of missives would erupt.

This Purist was relentless, because, by definition, that’s what Purists must be.

He didn’t actually want to see Herbie Hancock; he wanted to see an idealized/idolized version of Herbie Hancock—an era frozen in time like a fossil cradled in amber. He wanted the young prodigy pianist who was sought out to join Miles Davis’ second great quintet. He wanted BeBop. He wanted Blue Note. It didn’t matter what Herbie had been up to for the last 48(!) years, The Purist wanted The Summer of ’63.

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.
—General Eric Shinseki, former Chief of Staff of the Army

Purists are passionate, but their passion will build boundaries that stifle, strangle and eventually kill off innovation. When you set such strict standards, you must logically and consistently adhere to them. You force yourself to follow them to their logical conclusion(s) or risk excommunication from other standards bearers. You dig in your heels. You demonize anything that stands in opposition to the standard. You will not be moved. In that kind of culture, “other” becomes lesser and “that’s not how we do things” becomes mantra.

Amazing things can happen if you let smart, talented people have some room to run. The same things that are happening now will happen if you don’t.

On Personality Tests and Knowing Your Team

[Personality tests bypass] the process of learning via set of clever labels. If you want to understand someone, my advice is to sit next to them and solve a very hard problem together. You will learn who they are by watching how they think.
—Rands, Fred Hates It

On The Inevitability of Failure

The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.
Paul Virilio

Creating Controversy for its own Sake (and How Humility is a Rare Bird Indeed on the Web These Days)

This article was originally published on my now defunct long-form writing site So Serious. It is republished here for posterity, and for the enjoyment of you, the reader.

Back in May of 2009, a then 21-year-old designer named Dustin Curtis wrote a blog post called Dear AmericanAirlines in which he redesigned (read: moved some pixels around in Photoshop) their homepage, called them names, called into question their business strategy, and then called for the firing of their entire design team, “[who are] obviously incapable of building a good experience.”

Setting aside the arrogance of an article centered on an unsolicited JPG of the easiest page of a site to tackle—he “spent a couple hours redesigning [their] front page”—I’m amazed that anyone purporting to be a professional interface designer would assume a night of Photoshop earns them the right to be smug. It’s easy to “design” when you’re unencumbered by things like metrics, creative direction, business acumen, sales experience, actual functionality, enterprise scale, or any thought about how a site with millions of page views and users has to function. It’s easy to look at their site versus your comp and go, “See, mine’s better. You guys must really suck at this.” Unsolicited designs, if they’re going to be public and if they’re going to be done at all, should be communicated with class, humility, and a ton of research.

Andrew Wilkinson wrote a similar article recently redesigning the Zappos.com homepage and, while he was summarily ripped to internet shreds in this Hacker News thread, he was graciously responded to by Brian Kalma, the Director of UX/Web Strategy at Zappos. Wilkinson says stuff like, “I don’t know if your designers are using Photoshop 6 or what…here’s a tutorial to share with them.” Kalma responds with, “I appreciate your thoughts, your creativity and your care.” The company shows more humility than the designer, which speaks volumes about Zappos’ corporate culture and employees, and highlights a forgotten nugget of knowledge—there are real people on the other side of those sites.

Somewhere along the way on the web, a lot of designers and developers have abandoned common courtesy for condescending quips that drip with pride and ignorance. And these sorts of unsolicited designs, apart from their accompanying snarky commentary, would be interesting cases studies in what young designers think up, apart from the external factors affecting large sites. However, with the attitude they’re currently wrapped in, it’s hard to separate the message from the messenger.

But back to AmericanAirlines… apparently one of the UX Architects who worked on AA.com responded to Curtis’ article under the guise of “Mr. X,” talking about their process, how huge the team creating the myriad of AA.com content and functionality is, how it takes relatively no effort to create a homepage comp (“You want a redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives.”), and how enterprise-level companies don’t turn on a dime. He closed with some specific details about upcoming improvements to the site and signed his letter “Very truly yours (and hoping I don’t get fired for being completely incompetent)”

Only he did get fired. Even anonymous airing of corporate secrets is still a violation of most Non-Disclosure Agreements. And since little in corporate world is truly anonymous, it only took AmericanAirlines an hour to search their email servers, identify the guy, and show him the door.

Curtis posted The Incompetence of American Airlines and the Fate of Mr. X telling a bit of the tale. He says, “AA fired Mr. X because he cared…enough to reach out to a dissatisfied customer and help clear the company’s name in the best way he could.” No, they fired him because he violated his contract, in a very public way. His attempt to “clear the company’s name” made them look slow, dysfunctional, and incapable of internal communication between departments. Even if that’s all true, no company wants that image portrayed online by an employee. Employees can’t put their personal agenda ahead of the company’s agenda.

Companies with shareholders may very well be incapable of tolerating the openness and transparency so many social media folks clamor for. When every corporate decision you make influences the bottom line, in real time no less, you seek and destroy bad PR wherever it is found. They’re not clueless, they’re heartless—they exist to make as much money for their shareholders as possible. This isn’t horrifying; this is every day in most of corporate America.

So where does that leave us? A 21-year-old wrote a blog post. A guy broke the corporate rules and got fired. The internet (and the blogger!) is outraged. The name-calling continues, as everyone blames the big, bad, clueless, hopeless company. Mr. X will likely land somewhere less corporate, where speaking his mind is welcomed and his designs will see the light of internet day.

But the web will still be full of arrogant, uninformed, polarizing, self-promoting, controversy-creating content that has ramifications no one wants to own up to. And consequently, the web will still be lacking in common courtesy, humility, and the admittance that most of us don’t know best. Which is sad, mostly because it’s true.

Full Disclosure: I was an Interactive Art Director for AmericanAirlines’ advertising Agency of Record in ’06/’07