How I became a designer
Each day, I attempt to design experiences that contribute positively to people’s everyday lives—from imagining fun ways for fans to navigate a movie website to how a new search engine might surprise us by surfacing answers that are several steps ahead of the question we’re asking. Here’s the journey I took to doing work that I love.
In my first week at the Brooklyn-based art and architecture college Pratt Institute, the school assigned me a 3D Foundation course offered by Industrial Design. This was an activist program founded by a few of the Bauhaus exiles who had fled the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany to settle at American art colleges in New York and Chicago. They were on a mission.
As Professor William Fogler put it, they viewed product design as a way to “contribute to people’s everyday lives”.
In their classes, my professors Gina Caspi and William Fogler would walk around the room before pausing at one of our designs—a food processor, a suspension bridge, or an abstract shape. With a slight head-tilt, they’d spin the object around, consider it from many angles, and ask questions about its functional existence:
“Is it contributing to the world? Why do we need this?”
“Does this improve on the experience of existing products?”
They saw young designers as “future shapers of the tools of everyday living”, and they insisted we make a positive impact. But they also asked questions that sought to validate or invalidate all manner of micro-decisions we were making aesthetically:
“If you took away this element from it, would the rest of the design cry at its absence?”
In a word, they taught us to think critically about the myriad stuff in our lives in the two principal ways that design effects people: aesthetically (graphic design) and functionally (how it works).
Into the real world
On graduation, I joined my friend and fellow Pratt alum Matt Mitchell in introducing ourselves to community gardeners in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At a community meeting, we offered to help them design and build whatever they wanted in their neighborhood park. They decided to rebuild their decaying wooden amphitheatre, which in the early 1970s had been designed and built by public artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Public artists typically viewed the public as consumers of their product, whereas Matt and I wondered if this disempowered the public. We made a pact that we would never design without people from the neighborhood designing alongside us. Over the span of 2.5 months we collaborated with 140+ neighbors after work each weekday evening and all day on the weekends. Together, we collected stones from all over the city’s abandon lots, and built a four-tier stone amphitheatre that still stands at 9th Street and Avenue C.
This segued into a collaboration with teachers at a public elementary magnet school PS15—also in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We helped their kindergarten-to-6th grade kids envision and build 1. a scale model of the neighborhood around their school, and 2. scale models of their ideas for playgrounds in their outdoor park.
Studying team design
These experiments in community-centered design led me to the University of California San Diego to study team design for a year, funded by a Carnegie Fellowship through Mike Cole’s The Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. A dozen years before I arrived, Mike was in the original workgroup that gave Don Norman feedback on early drafts of what went on to become the foundation of human-centred design: The Design of Everyday Things.
Dot com bubble
The following year I headed to Berkeley to join the huge influx of designers entering startups during the first .com tech bubble. In the San Francisco bay area, I cut my teeth as a junior designer at DigitalThink and Excite@Home Broadband where I did many hundreds of five-second animated, interactive graphics in Flash, Fireworks, Illustrator, and Photoshop. My art directors and senior designers broke me. I learned to keep up with their pace of two interactive animations a day. I learned not to be precious, I learned to take shortcuts when speed was called for, and learned to let go of my natural perfectionism with knowledge that my ephemeral products would be live for only a week.
During this period I lucked out when Bay Area design powerhouse Chen Design Associates gave me the chance to build and animate their first website.
The dot com bubble burst in 2001, sending me in 2002 to Los Angeles in search of work—for a very specific type of work. I wanted to make an impact in the most creative area of the web, which for designers (at the time) seemed to be the experimental websites that promoted feature films.
For over a year I was unable to break-in. I did freelance work for Toyota and some ad agencies. This work provided me with sorely-needed experience on projects that required months to design and where I could invest more thought, emotion, and interactive depth.
Then Aquent called. Aquent is an agency that matches design contractors to clients. Aquent called to say that that week, Warner Bros. Studio had won bids for several new movie sites. More then they could handle. And so Warner Bros. needed digital designers. The next day my new art director Anette Hughes—after seeing the work I had done for CDA and Toyota—assigned me as lead design and interaction design on my first movie website.
For 3.5 years, I got the rare opportunity to work on some popular movies — as Warner Bros. Studio’s Lead Interaction Designer. This role was unusual in that my design colleagues at Warner Bros. were exceptional graphic designers who transitioned from a then-fading print design industry to the blossoming web design industry. They approached the web as they had a print-based poster, book cover, or magazine: as a series of static, beautifully laid out pages, with arresting typography and visuals that caught the eye and told a story graphically. In contrast, I had never designed for print—rather I got my start as a digital designer, approaching internet design as an interactive and functional medium. Interaction designers care about aesthetics, but far more about how people get around, empathizing with (what we called at the time) the enduser’s journey. In this capacity, I was a solid collaborator with print designers. They did beautiful mockups and I suggested and designed ways to make those static pages come to life. I did this in code, on a timeline, and with graphic tools. I attempted to design dynamic experiences that provided intuitive paths for people to travel in nonlinear directions.
Precursor to UX design
But at this point (2003–2006), I hadn’t done a single, proper, usability study. I did the normal things I learned from the Industrial Design program at Pratt. I built rapid prototypes to vet ideas with my colleagues (other experts). I observed silently as my fellow designers and engineers, project coordinators, art directors, and executives interacted with my prototypes for the first time. I iteratively improved things, then put them in front of people who hadn’t seen them yet. These were not good usability studies: there was no rigor, no team taking notes, and I didn’t extend it outside of this group of people most likely to already anticipate how to navigate it.
I read books on best practices. I leant out my dog-eared copy of Homepage Usability (2001) to five, six, seven colleagues—always suddenly realizing I needed it back because I came across an issue (where to put a search field, or language to use for a login button). No other resource matched the guidance from this book in either research or authority. But I didn’t piece together that the authors of Homepage Usability (Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir) were directly connected to the founder of human-centered design, Don Norman.
It was then that I happened to return to Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. When I had read it years prior it was as theory; I hadn’t evolved into a practical designer with any kind of influence. But on re-reading, something switched. I understood profoundly that I was home. I say “home” seriously: my mind is obsessively active and easily bothered when it comes to products. Within a few seconds of glancing at a faucet or a chair, or after ten seconds of using it, my mind races through its materials, where it was likely manufactured, shortcuts made in assembly, micro-decisions made in the product’s design. I see not an object but a process.
I’m easily beat at chess. A chess champion visualizes 10 potential moves ahead of me and calculates 200 outcomes before making a move. To solve a crime, Sherlock Holmes assesses and orders and deduces the why’s of a thousand small observations about people and scenarios. I’ve never even come close to solving a Rubik’s Cube.
But I have a talent which I thought was a useless eccentricity until rereading Don Norman’s book: when I notice a flaw in a product (be it a coffee kettle or an application), I think through a dozen design solutions dismissing most of them, settling on a few. Over the years, I’ve become verbose and literate about it, and I make compelling cases for trying out certain solutions. Growing up with this in my head I felt fairly isolated. But Don Norman—he was speaking my language, and he organised it. His insights applied directly to the work I’d been doing for the last decade.
Finally I learned to apply proper UX to game design and digital product design
In my freelance work, I realised it wasn’t enough to come up with design solutions without vetting them with the real people who might likely use them. And it wasn’t enough to begin serious design prior to thoroughly understanding a product or service’s customers and the tools they choose to use currently to get their jobs done.
I was finally practicing real human-centered design in 2009 while creating the movie player for Movieclips, prior to accepting a position at 42 Entertainment.
I read everywhere about human-computer interaction. I took every course on Lynda related to user experience research and design, interaction design, best practices. As each of Chris Nodder’s courses came online, I kept learning techniques to apply and ways to understand human-centered design and to sell its value within the companies I worked. Eventually I attended Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) workshops for certification.
Cut to: recently…
Over the course of 3.5 years, I co-led a team who brought enormous positive change to the University of California Los Angeles, its graduate students, and the staff and faculty of its 121 graduate degree programs. Half of that story is detailed on Medium here: A Form Was Never Just a Sheet of Paper (2016), and in a 9 minute case study version UCLA Service Design (2018). The other half of the story is about making the difficult decision to put down the university’s decade-old website and replace it with a modern site (no story about this is published yet). I led the research, documentation, card sorts, prototyping, and user testing of a new site and its services—built around students. For the first major form that our team’s form engine launched, it perpetually prevents UCLA from losing 300 staff hours each year, every year, and instead of a form taking two weeks on average for staff and faculty review, it takes two days.
I left UCLA intent on returning to the Bay Area, but first I took an extended trip travelling around Europe, working freelance, based out of Amsterdam. Next up? Who knows? Watch this space.