You Should Have Gone to Business School
I’ve been asked to upload the speech I gave at the 2016 Awwwards Conference in NYC. Here she is. The first half of this speech is about me and my journey. Feel free to skip…I won’t mind. Really. I will upload the video when they are finished being edited.
All typos are mine ;-)
The title of this speech is “You Should Have Gone to Business School” but this is really a talk about Design. Design with a capital D—I’ll get to what that means here in a bit.
The point of this talk is to deliver more uncomfortable truths about the state of our industry than comforting lies. And from that, I’m hoping you’ll be able to glean some insights on how to position yourself in a way to get your work sold through.
But first a little background on me and a bit on Firstborn. I figured some context might come in handy because:
- I don’t work the speaker circuit.
- I don’t have a blog.
- I did write a Medium article about digging ditches three years ago
- I don’t really have a portfolio site right now. So check out Firstborn.com in the meantime.
- I do have a beard…but I don’t have a weekly inspiration newsletter delivered fresh to your inbox each Sunday. I guess I’m not that cool.
Besides, we are at a state of peak content, you don’t need to hear from me. There is more than enough crap out there doing a decent enough job distracting you from work.
Actually, this talk, has me at the center of my own existential crisis right now. I’m not a guru. Or an Evangelist, like the guy speaking after me. I don’t want to be. I don’t even know what that means or what the appeal of being that is.
Who has that kind of time, anyway? It takes a lot of words and a metric fuck ton of time to write a 30 minute speech. Something, I’ve only just discovered. And you’re about to if you are reading this transcript now.
I’m a Designer who doesn’t get to design as much as I’d like to anymore. I turn 40 next year and I’m just trying to make sense of it all. The industry. The bloat. Tech weenies. Industry posers. And the bubble that is about to burst. I feel like a day of reckoning looms.
But before I slide off into an anxiety induced rage about the state of digital. A bit out me and firstborn.
Me, me, me…sorry, i needed to fill the time.
I started off as a freelance “web designer” in about 1998 based out of Denver, CO. I went to school for business—Marketing and advertising to be exact—and along the way I was smart enough (in hindsight) to have learned to use Photoshop and do some basic coding. At that time, I thought I was just wasting time. Turns out missing mid-terms, fucking around on my skateboard, taking photos and learning to get them online paid off.
I interned at some agencies. I freelanced for some some local companies creating their very first websites. I think it was about 1998 or 1999 at a company called LaserTech—they, not surprisingly, made lasers and laser accessories. I probably threw every photoshop filter at that site design. This is back when applying a gaussian blur would take 30 minutes to render. It sucked.
I sucked. We all did, it was the late nineties and few of us in digital had traditional design training. The interwebz were new. It was exciting. And it was just cool to be part of it.
Rookie Year: The Dot Bomb’s
The first .com bubble had recently burst. I was the first person hired on after massive layoffs at Brainplay.com, which quickly became kbkids.com, then kbtoys.com and finally etoys.com through an acquisition.
I was lucky to have a job.
Especially, if you consider, I skateboarded into the office with a resume and my book hoping to score just an interview, let alone land a job that day.
“Good enough to resize graphics” is what i heard the CD say from around the corner.
And that is what I did. I resized the shit out of graphics. I actually set up a script to do the bulk of it for me. That gave me the time to learn what Web Design was — which at the time involved knowing HTML, IA and some basic database work.
At the end of the day, I was just trying not to suck. I was at the bottom of the totem pole where I belonged. But I had drive. I wanted to learn. And I suffered from a great fear of sucking. And after a few of years I would eventually take over as the Design Lead. I remember taking the sites from 640px to 960px. A big deal back then!
Thinking I was some hot shit web designer I decided it was time to take this show on the road. And after 5+ years I left. Opting for gig at a mobile content startup over a cog in the machine type of job at Expedia.
Yeah…Ringtones Aren’t That Cool
Keep in mind we are pre-iPhone at this point in the aughts and we were trying to develop a mobile marketplace. Ringtones and wallpapers were an actual thing. Fucking flip phones and shit.
I developed the identity and positioning of the brand. Designed and coded the front-end of the market place. But it was soon clear that this wasn’t going to work. We were way to early. And I wasn’t really into the idea of spinning off a porn-centric version of the company like a couple of my friends did. And did so successfully.
I want everyone to close their eyes and imagine what porn ringtones sound like. Have a good mental model. Great work everyone.
After about 9 months I was out of a job when the owners sold the company — really the content — and shut down the office. So…yeah…I was there long enough to help position a company in a way to make someone else money. Live and learn.
Developing My Style: The FL2 Days
I ended up interviewing at this tiny studio with a guy named Ian Coyle. And, I was like, holy shit, this dude is fucking insanely talented. And in an odd bit of foreshadowing, we both talked about our favorite site at the time which was Firstborn’s (v6). Kinetic type. Helvetica. Perfect math based motion. It was rad. Still is.
That site, to this day, is still one of my all time favorites. It introduced me to grids. Swiss thinking. Typography. To motion. To Design.
Anyway, I decided to join Ian at what we’d go on to call FL2. I was the fourth employee.
Now, this was definitely a gut-based decision. It wasn’t altogether rational in the traditional sense. My other option was a much higher paying job as senior interface designer at Quark. Anyone remember Quark?!
Now, this was a fun and pivotal time in my life. Both in regards to the creativity going on within digital at that time, but also because of the team we’d go on to create and the friendships that came out of it.
All we wanted to do was make cool shit. Every single person on the team was constantly pushing each other. And it was fun.
We grew FL2 to around 20 people and in doing so went on to create some really exciting work along the way.
Some of it might look cheesy now, but we were really trying to do things that hadn’t been done before — whether that be aesthetically or programmatically.
We were passionate. We wanted to do things that other people weren’t doing. We were exploring what it meant to be a creative in digital — for right and wrong. Everything we did was super scrappy. There were no silos and we all had to do a lot more than what our titles suggested.
Because of that—because it wasn’t “someone else’s job”—all of us learned a ton. About business. About this industry. About clients. And about ourselves…which proved quite helpful later in our careers.
A lot of our work was direct with clients. We did very little production work with agencies, and if we did work with agencies, we had a seat at the table with the client. We weren’t some digital specter lurking in the background.
We were there to shape the digital strategy through design and technology.
From a revenue and new business standpoint we road the housing wave, which was awesome, until it wasn’t of course. We did a ton really cool interactive microsites and giant touchscreens for sales centers all over the US. For the most part all developed in Flash.
The real estate development companies only cared about making their property seem better than the other guy. It was about design and innovation and “coolness” seemed to move real estate.
That sector was into what we were putting out. And we did things that no one else was doing. We moved the needle forward. Which is all we can ever want to do as designers—Designers in emerging fields.
When the housing bubble burst so did a lot of that kind of work.
We had to do a lot more work with traditional advertising agencies which was not really our thing. Change was in the air. And after five years a lot of us wanted out. And being that none of us pitching, winning and creating the work had a stake in the company we all jumped in rapid succession.
- Ian went freelance before meeting up with Duane King and embarking on that journey.
- About a year later I headed to Firstborn. Bringing with me Kristin Keefe who now leads production and accounts at Firstborn.
- Our close friends Matt FaJohn and Matt Wiggins joined Legwork as partners and continue to kill it.
- Codin Pagnel, our back end dev, went on to finish CargoCollective with his brother.
- Erin Tagg, one of the producers, left to Digitaria and now is their VP of production.
- I was lucky enough to get to work with Chad Tafolla and James Deagle again, both former FL2’rs that joined Firstborn
- Other notables at FL2 (and all around awesome dudes): Dave Soderberg and Matt Schreiber
Needless to say FL2 was out of business.
From hot shit local shop getting international recognition, to out of business in about 4–6 months.
This came down to a difference in vision between those of us who built the company and the owner.
He wanted to turn us into a banner shop. Clearly, that did not sit well.
When I look back on this two things stand out:
- One. I love knowing that those of us creating the work and driving the vision went on to have success after. That we were able to create such an awesome culture that we continue to talk and work with each other in some capacity or another. That we were able to use FL2 as a launching pad for the next phase of our careers.
- Two. And this is more of a cautionary tale to future owners and team leads out there. Just because your business card says you are the boss doesn’t mean you are the leader.
When you have a great team, one that is super tight, driven and share and work toward a common vision—not just your paycheck—when the lynchpin leaves…they all will leave.
Now that I lead a much larger team it’s something I’m always looking out for. I identify my leaders. I treat them as such. I empower them. I protect them. I listen as best I can. But, I don’t coddle them. Never coddle. I’m not much of a coddler.
I should also mention that I have a keen eye for rooting out those who want to undermine a culture.
It’s equally important, actually…it’s more important, to watch out for these people. And, I’ve definitely made mistakes here and given someone the benefit of the doubt for far too long. Maybe taking the blame for not training someone right. But training never made a lazy person great — it’s really just an excuse — “I need training”. It’s amazing how much damage one person can do.
Nowadays, I’m just as excited about what we do together as what they do next. More so the latter.
When I started at Firstborn 7 years ago there were only about 40 of us all crammed into a small studio in Hell’s Kitchen. We’re now a little over a hundred and have some space in TriBeCa.
If you would have asked me ten years ago if I’d ever land a gig at Firstborn the answer would have been a resounding no. Not possible. Not plausible.
It’s still a bit crazy to me. Flash was peaking in 2009. Firstborn was one of the most famous Flash shops in the world. And I was this new guy saying “Flash is, sorry, dudes, dead. The writing is on the wall.” I’m literally talking with the guys who wrote books on Flash. It was hard pill to swallow. This was a perception is reality type of thing and Steve Jobs controlled the reality.
It’s probably why I spent everyday for the first two years thinking that, “today, would be my last day at Firstborn.” That I was going to be fired.
I never thought I was good enough to be there in the first place. I was paralyzed whenever I opened photoshop in those early months.
My fear of sucking was once again alive.
This is also, likely, related to the fact that I wasn’t yet still a great designer. I was a selfish one. And I wasn’t ready for level of execution expected at Firstborn or the big brands we were working with. Or myself.
Come to think of it, I’m probably still not a great designer and that’s why I became an ECD.
What I did have was an understanding for ideas, strategy, business and how great Design plays an integral role in those.
I believe great Design is the ultimate strategic differentiator.
In 2009, Firstborn was looking to transition to more direct to client work.
This was the era of the “digital” agency being seen as little more than a production shop. An industry wide transition was happening — we wanted a seat at the table — with the client — we wanted to own the idea.
Which i liked.
I never liked the idea of winning awards for other people. I actually care very little for awards in general but understand they are a necessary evil. For your career. For my career. For new business. For our collective ego.
I was then, and still now, not overly concerned about what a client may think about a new idea or execution. That is to say, something that hasn’t been done before or on the latest best practice checklist.
Let’s discover our own best practices and make everyone else follow them.
It’s about jumping off the bridge together. That requires trust. Build some trust with your client and they’ll be willing to jump off that bridge with you.
So what is Firstborn up to now?
Well, now we do a wide range of work. We’re actually a bit hard to pin down. In all honesty, I don’t know if that is a good thing.
- We do the occasional traditional ad campaign—we work with Audible a lot.
- We do a lot of eCommerce work with many of brands under L’Oreal
- VR has been hot right now. We’ve done a lot with Mountain Dew (4 projects to date) along with brands like Patron and Audible.
- And we are doing a lot more brand and product development and business building as of late. We’re actually in the middle of helping to pivot a company and the product that drives their business.
But Design is at the core of all of this. Both Joon, our CCO, and I still design. We are very hands on and part of the actual work.
I hate management for the sake of management. I don’t know what “providing oversight” even means. Your project team doesn’t need a peeping tom—lurks.
Needless to say, the last 7 years has been a fun ride.
I’ve had, and continue to have, the luck of working with some of the most talented people in the world on some really awesome shit. It’s what has kept me engaged for so long.
But enough about me. I feel dirty talking about myself for that long. And that was way too long.
So, from here on out, pardon the hyperbolics.
Let’s talk about the state of interactive design.
So what the fuck does it mean to be a Designer? What should it mean? Not, sadly, what it’s become to mean in this current reality.
Design solves problems. Great design does so beautifully.
Logic would then suggest Designers solve problems.
Design isn’t just how it looks. It’s how it works, sounds, feels, etc, etc. Nothing new here.
Design is a process. It’s everything. I don’t think you can compartmentalize each phase. Or hand off parts of the process and portions of the work from one department to another. Great designers are part of the full journey.
How it looks — the aesthetics — is a only a small subset of design (and the most subjective). If you divorce meaning from design and only concern yourself with aesthetics you are doing it wrong.
But! At the same time, if you focus obsessively on functionality (the latest trend) and other people’s best practices, you too are doing it wrong.
Can you imagine how boring a purely functional world would be?
Design is allowed to have a soul. Interfaces are allowed make a user take pause. To take time to learn.
Do you think Snapchat would have ever made it through a traditional UX testing lab? Hell no. Snapchat from a user’s perspective is absurd. But, people will figure shit out if they think it’s cool. If they believe it provides value…and i guess you could make the argument that Snapchat, to some, adds some semblance of value.
UX and Design, treated as separate disciplines, that is how agencies, schools and clients treat them.
Treating Design as some fun but meaningless aesthetic layer. Where everyone’s opinion matters. No different than wallpaper.
Treating UX as little more than page after nauseating page of annotated rectangles and needlessly academic rationales.
We are creating a world of button monkeys trained to hang wallpaper on wireframes. Not good.
Somewhere along the line Designers — specifically interactive Designers — stopped thinking for themselves. Designers got dumb. We got lazy. The industry itself turned the interactive Designer — and creatives in general — into a silly meme. Easily distracted urban lumberjacks. All style. No substance.
And they did this to protect their own paper pushing, mid-level manager, “did you match the wireframe, bob?”, types of jobs.
We are losing the battle to fast talking, Mashable reading, hacks.
But…maybe the hacks have a point. I feel like SquareSpace is doing a better job than 95% of the designers; the UXrs; the devs out there today.
Why? Well i have some theories.
We built an entire process around mediocrity.
Advertising agencies needed to look like they got digital. This started in about 2010. So they scaled in a way that made it look like they had digital capabilities. They added strategists, UX teams, designers and art directors…divorced from the other half of their creative departments…which still boggles my mind. It just doesn’t make sense. Anyway…
Their digital product offering was, like advertising itself, mostly bullshit.
At the other end of the table brands and business had to scale digital too.
They needed internal teams that suggested that they too got digital. So they staffed up. They wrote RFPs requiring, as part of the project, needless documentation and a process defined by old, outdated IT departments.
Documentation, like wireframes, that the majority of stakeholders had no clue how to process. But that one digital guy or gal did…and it made them look smart and qualified. So the cycle continued.
More process equals more billable hours and shittier more expensive work.
If every ecommerce site is essentially the same (and has been so for the last 10 years) is there really a need for the traditional waterfall style wireframe process? Think about it. How is it that static wireframes are still a deliverable?
Are we really going to discover something revolutionary in the wireframe process? Something that leads to better conversion? Something innovative? I think not.
How this system still exists has really started to grate at me. We over complicate simple things for the sake of process.
I question whether or not the industry — especially giant client’s, with sluggish IT teams and the offshore dev vendors that support them — are willing to change it. It’s in their best interest to protect their silos and the needless deliverables because that is “how it is”. It’s not their job to change it. They are just a cog in the machine. Their end of year bonus doesn’t come from changing the status quo.
Look how long it took ie6 to die…thanks IT departments all over the world.
If there is one thing IT should never have a role in it is innovation.
Don’t let my disgust for wireframes be confused with a disgust of UX.
I believe UX is critical. But Design and UX are one and the same. They can not be separated. It’s all part of one process. A process that falls under one discipline. Design.
So please, stop with these stupid diagrams
An understanding of UX — the user’s needs — is a fundamental part of any Design discipline: Print, digital, experiential, product or otherwise.
It’s not a separate thing. It never was until quite recently.
If you believe it is a separate thing — you are probably doing it wrong.
You are being unbelievably lazy if you believe that it’s someone else’s job…to figure it out…to understand what the user wants… to figure out the content hierarchies and site architecture .
Your designs have a reason for being and it’s your job to know it.
It’s the difference between an Architect and the dude who shows to paint the house later.
You are just as bad.
Especially if you’re the type that finds it “insulting” when a designer didn’t paint your wireframe exactly to spec. Or worse, a scenario where the designer discovers a smarter way of doing something—more often the case the reality.
I’m sorry you are bitter about not having been born with aesthetic sensibilities, but are you really upset that the product is now better? Are you fucking kidding me? It boggles the mind…but i hear this shit all of the time. Even at Firstborn.
It’s always someone else’s job! It’s everyone’s fucking job you assholes.
I’m watching a new generation of designers flush the value of Design down the toilet.
This problem is only exacerbated by schools overly nuancing their curriculum. Big agencies adding layers upon layers of disciplines to further inflate their bottom line and further silo thinking—a short sighted endeavor i might add. And big tech companies, maybe the biggest culprits of needless bloat, staffing to their valuation and not what is really needed to run their product.
Learn to think strategically
At some level all great Designers have some sense of business acumen. All the greats seemed to. Rand, Beirut, Vignelli, the list goes on.
Now, I’m not talking about Accounting or a grasp of modern financial instruments. I’m talking about strategic thought:
- Who the fuck am I talking to?
- Why the fuck am I?
- And why should that consumer give a fuck?
They married that type of thinking with a strong perspective on what the designs should be. Their style.
If designers spent half as much of their time empathizing with the user; empathizing with team members; empathizing with the client’s position in the market, as they do jerking each other off on Dribbble we’d all be better off.
Find the creative gap. Exploit it. Create something that matters. Jerk yourselves off after.
I mentioned earlier that I believe design, used correctly, is a strategic differentiator.
I believe that Design, is in fact, a potent business strategy. But the client won’t see it that way unless it’s presented in a holistic way. Not as separate isolated deliverables.
So what can you do?
Designers, fight to get that seat at the table. To work through the business problem together. To write the brief together. To create together. It’s critical.
Let the client feel like they are part of the process — they are going to know a lot of things you don’t (it’s their business after all). Be interested in it or don’t take the job.
Now, I’m not saying to only do what they say. Far from it.
Just because you “hear” their words doesn’t mean you need to “listen” to them.
Explain what the purpose of the design or layout is. What your trying to solve and why.
Don’t address the hamburger menu or the “add to cart” button. Speak at a level above those singular elements.
Instead explain why the page exists and how it’s structure solves the business problem you, ideally, discussed with the client ahead of time.
If you position things strategically they will fight you less on the aesthetic specifics later.
Now i can hear what’s rifling around the back of a lot of your heads. “I’m not allowed at the table.” Well, this is an unfortunate reality.
But it’s only a temporary reality once if you decide you really want to be there.
For those of you just getting started in this Designer life…I always recommend starting at a smaller agency—20 or less—before moving on to a big one.
Yes. You will make a lot less money. But you will learn so, so much more. You will make your money later. You’ve got plenty of time. Trust me.