Cutting my web design teeth back in 99, by our Design Partner, Jason Mesut
Twenty years ago, I was working in Reading on a work placement at Yell.com. It was my first proper design job, sandwiched between some intense years at Brunel University.
Every day I would churn out another website, to a crappy brief written by a sales consultant who was used to selling paper ads. We regularly flipped between laughing and crying when the logo provided to us was badly photocopied and screwed up. Or when the ‘client’ asked for the webpage to be about 4cm x 6cm on his screen. I had no idea what screen he had.
But I learned a lot. I learned from others like me, making it up as we went along. The Web was great back then, and at the same time it was really shit. A free for all. No rules. Many browsers. Sub 13kb banners, and sub 40kb web page targets.
That was already a headfuck. But at Yell, I had a lot of briefs. A lot of shit ones.
Rewrite the brief
One day, I had the opportunity to go back to Brunel for a guest speaker event. My tutor, Ali Chappel (now Grey), asked her friend Simon Waterfall to talk.
I was a huge fan of Simon’s agency, Deepend. He was a Brunel alum, but he was also a legendary Creative Director. And he was infamous for wearing skirts, though I can’t for the life of me find a picture of him in one.
Simon shared great stories about Deepend’s culture, but one particular thing stood out, and has stayed with me ever since.
He told us to rewrite the briefs we were given. To challenge the assumptions that other stakeholders made, and do something greater for them than they knew to ask for.
At that moment, he became a huge inspiration for me. Deepend was working with some of my colleagues at Yell, but unfortunately I wasn’t that closely involved. I just admired their work from afar: the Viaduct site, the Hoover site, the Beetle site.
Every Friday, all of us in the Yell design team would gather around each other’s desks to marvel at the possibilities of the web, and absorb inspiration from innovators like Deepend.
Not only could I appreciate the work as it stood for itself. But also, understand what sort of culture and attitude had created the environment for it.
I bumped into Simon several times over the following years. But I was always drunk, and the music often loud. He probably never heard what I said, as I slurred something like:
‘you were a real inspiration back then in 99 — thank you’
I probably said this same thing again and again. I was always embarrassed afterwards. But the words he spoke back at Brunel stuck with me. I needed him to know.
Reconnect to your past
I’d worked a little with Chris when he first joined LBI, but I wasn’t a fan of the direction the company was taking. It was ultimately good for them, but not right for me. So I decided to leave. Chris kindly lent me his ear before I went, to understand why I was leaving. We never really got the chance to speak again after that. Maybe a tweet here or there.
So it was great to finally have the opportunity to gather in Wandsworth with Rob, Chris, and a bunch of other creative folks from all walks of life. Photographers, fashion brand owners, copywriters, service designers, strategists, and on and on. This was one of the first Group Of Humans gatherings, and I was honoured to be part of it.
After a few months, I noticed a lot of other amazing people, who I knew or wanted to know, joining the Group Of Humans. People like Dave Malouf, Steve Portigal, Gretchen Anderson. What was going on? I had to get involved.
So I reached out to Rob, and went through the process of joining the group. During our chats, he listed out a bunch of other people joining.
Including Simon Waterfall.
I casually concealed my excitement, but in truth I was deeply anxious. The last time I’d seen Simon, in Oakland, I’d made a royal tit out of myself. I’d fallen asleep at a bar. Spilt my drinks all over a group of people. And been the Embarrassing Dancing Singing Drunk Brit at a London Grammar gig. Coincidentally, that was the day before I had to run a workshop in San Francisco. It was about four years ago to this day, making that memory as old as my current business, Resonant.
Last November, I happened to be talking in New York at the DesignOps conference. By coincidence, a bunch of ‘Humans’ were getting together for lunch that day in Brooklyn, including Mr Waterfall himself. Setting my anxiety aside, I skipped part of the conference and rushed over.
As I entered, my heart raced. Who else was going to be there? What did they know about me?
What was I going to talk about?
One of the first people I clocked was my old colleague Ale Lariu, co-founder of She Says Events. She and Katie Carruthers had looked after me during my first manic pitch project, in my first week at Oyster Partners. We hadn’t seen each other for at least 12 years.
And then there was Rob. And Chris. And of course Simon. I met more of the Humans: the ones based in New York, and others who’d traveled there to help redefine the group’s purpose. We had a lovely lunch, and I had my first non-drunk conversation with Simon since I’d first met him 20 years earlier. We even took a selfie for our mutual friends.
And he showed his portfolio site to me, with a little video of the Beetle site I admired from that golden age back at Yell.
Raise the game
After lunch, Chris, Ale, Rob, and Simon shared their reflections for the Group Of Humans brand they had been working on. Chris shared the early seeds of what became the ‘Waste Not’ poem. You can read more about that here.
Simon laid out a metaphor for me that nails why I joined the Group of Humans. He talked about playing tennis:
When you play someone less skilled or experienced than you, it’s hard to play at your best, but when you play with someone better than you, you raise your game.
For years, many of us have been working with people not as good as those we learned from. Not as good as our past sparring partners. It can breed a form of loneliness and self doubt. Am I not as good as I once was? Is it because I’m getting old? Is my experience not relevant any more?
The people and industry around me seem focused on regurgitating solutions. Blandifying through design systems and material design uniformity. Wasting my experience. Potentially wasting our clients’ money on derivative solutions. And our time as a society. Do we need another chat app?
I’d often find myself intimidated more by the demands of the client , than by the calibre of the team I’d be working with. This is not how people do great things. We need to challenge each other. To raise our game. For the greater good.
Harness the GroupMind.
Early this year, the Humans tried out a little experiment. We had a project that many of the Humans wanted to work on, and plenty of relevant and lateral insight across the group. So the project team — including Simon — created a brief, and numerous Humans wrote stories around futures that could help guide the project work.
I was excited to contribute, and even more excited to have some of my stories chosen for further development. I got to see the other submissions, which left me in awe of the imagination, audacity, and writing skills of my fellow Humans. And if that wasn’t enough to intimidate me, I had to write a narrative alongside the legendary Carl Alviani. I’d met Carl earlier in the year, prior to joining as a Human. I’d never written a script like this before, and it forced me to raise my game.
A few weeks back, on an all-Humans conference call, Simon referenced my input on the GroupMind stories. He was kind and called out the lateral nature of some of my input.
That was nice. It was like a loop had finally been closed.
And it made me realise:
It’s hard meeting your heroes. It’s even harder working with them.
But sometimes we need to be intimidated.
To feel challenged.
To raise our game. To raise the game.
Sometimes we need to rewrite the brief. Challenge internal assumptions. Push for better.
And remember that our heroes are human like us. They might actually need that little bit of appreciation that you can give them. To re-energise their desire to keep inspiring others.
Ask yourself some questions.
- Who are your heroes? Or the talent from your past that you should reconnect to?
- Do they know how much influence they had on you? Have you told them?
- How are you going to find a way to (re)connect and hopefully work with them (again)?
- Or how are you going to channel their spirit in the work you do?
Because I know some of you talented folk are frustrated about the waste of design and designers right now. We need better. We need some greater inspiration. And so does the world.
One of my answers was to write this. The other was to join the Group Of Humans. An exceptional group of people organized in an innovative way to do amazing things.
It was hard to write this. Harder to share it with Simon to be sure he was comfortable with its nature. Harder to publish it for fear of criticism around its self indulgence. It felt too sycophantic. But sometimes people need to know the effect they had on you and your career. Otherwise, how would they know?
An exceptional group of people organized in an innovative way to do amazing things | Waste Not