Using playbooks for designing and building products

These are the slides and speaker notes from a presentation I gave on July 21, 2016 at the Design & Content Conference in Vancouver, B.C..

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I’d like to start be asking you a simple question. How do you do what you do? Bad grammar and alliteration aside. That is to say, what actions do you repeatably and consistently execute to do the thing you are best at?

While you think about that I want to tell you about my experience answering this question.

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Credit: Josh Liba

I met Nick Chirls in 2013 at an event Josh Miller hosted at the Branch office in NYC. It was a round table conversation, very informal. Afterwards, Nick and I ended up chatting. We hit it off.

We kept in touch and over the next 2 years we would grab a beer when I was in town or connect at industry events. At the time Nick was working as Head of Investments for Betaworks. In that position, he had a unique vantage point to watch the development of the New York Start Up scene.

I’ve always liked the NYC startup community. It is different from the larger, more mature, Bay Area scene. Having worked with startups in both parts of the country, it can not be stressed how much the city, geography, history and culture imprint on the companies that reside in each. …

I delivered this eulogy for my Mom on November 6, 2013

I was raised by a pioneer.

Pioneers look at the open spaces where there is no road or even the faintest of paths and decide to move in that direction. They move that direction because they believe better things exist that way. They move in the direction of challenge and difficulty rather than away from it.

That was my Mom.

My mom grew up in the confines of a firmly middle class Toronto Jewish home. The path of the first part of her life was the very model of the golden child. An A student, cheerleader in high school. …

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Contemplating the end of your business

The documentary “Shut Up and Play The Hits” opens with an interview between the writer Chuck Klosterman and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. The documentary captures the band’s final days and last concert at Madison Square Gardens.

Klosterman asks Murphy “When you start a band do you imagine how it will end?”

This kept going through my mind as Cabel Sasser from Panic, presented an incredibly raw and emotional talk at XOXO.

Cabel described a period where he suffered debilitating anxiety over contemplating the end of Panic. He tried to come to terms with how his business would end.

When we start businesses, most of us don’t think about how it will end. But at some point we are faced with the mortality of the thing we’ve created and we all deal with it differently. …

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In the wake of this past week’s events there is a lot of talk about how the media and the Internet deals with breaking news. There are a lot of people claiming that the Boston Marathon media coverage was the death rattle on a corpse long dead.

The fact is, breaking news is messy.

It has always been messy.

Take a moment and watch Walter Cronkite break the news of the JFK assissination

The broadcast starts and Cronkite doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t know if Kennedy is alive or dead, how many shots, even what happened. The opening moments of the coverage involve a camera focussed on a hotel ballroom where Eddie Barker has to fill time with speculation and vague information. …

I was thinking about what albums fundamentally changed how I thought about music the first time I heard them. There are more than five in my life but these five I can remember vividly.

  1. Paul’s Boutique - Beastie Boys
    I remember listening to it and being so confused. Licensed to Ill was so accessible and this was dense and confusing, but I loved it.
  2. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back- Public Enemy
    Being a white Jewish kid in Toronto, this was music I wasn’t supposed to like. I remember the siren wails on Armageddon and getting chills. …

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“What am I looking at?” I asked

It was a Wednesday morning and Peter Nitsch, the Director of our Labs group at Teehan+Lax was standing in my office. We meet every Wednesday to discuss what he is working on. We started T+L Labs two years ago as a way to explore the possibilities of technology, because while clients are great, rarely do they ask you to really go out to the edges. That’s Peter’s job,to come up with experiments out at the edges and see what happens.

He has a job most geeks would kill for. The deal is this: He doesn’t work on client projects. Nothing he does needs to make money. His work does not need to be applied to any real world problems. He can make whatever he wants, as long as the company learns something new. We give him tools and resources; he creates and executes experiments. …

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On December 20, 2012 the New York Times released Snow Fall, The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a 5 part story of skiers and snowboarders trapped by an avalanche in Washington State’s Cascade mountain range.

It is an amazing story reminiscent of Jon Krakauer’s, now famous 1996 Outside Magazine piece, Into Thin Air. As a piece of journalism, John Branch’s Snow Fall is an extraordinary piece of writing. It is a form of writing not often seen on the Web; long, well researched, impeccably edited, Pulitzer bound. But most of the conversation around the piece surrounds its layout and presentation.

In between the words are incredible motion graphics, videos and photos that bring life to the story. In fact, most people commenting on the story really only viewed it as a picture book. Due to its length and depth I had to carve out a solid hour to read it and haven’t viewed every element. …

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In September of 2008, one of our designers, Greg Washington, began discussing a frustration he had. When starting any design project he would assemble a collection of images. These images are the foundational design research he would do before opening Photoshop or sketching. Over years of projects he collected dozens of folders of loose images on his hard drive.

Most designers maintain private collections of visual inspiration and research to fuel their creative process. Their typical workflow involved going out on the Web and downloading images to a local folder. There these images would sit with a bunch of other badly named files like img4065.jpg and fre566ba01.tif. If highly motivated, designers might bring those images into another program like Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop or Keynote to create a “moodboard”. …


Jon Lax

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