A Dozen Questions for Mr Brewer
Josh Brewer is Principal Designer at Twitter, and an accomplished author and speaker who, “Spends his time thinking about, designing and building things that live at the intersection of form, function and aesthetic.” He lives and works in San Francisco.
Mr Brewer is the co-creator of 52 Weeks of UX, “a discourse on the process of designing for real people,” which serves as an excellent resource on the wide range of practices that, collectively, encompass user experience design. In addition to his work designing and shaping experiences at Twitter, Brewer has also written for Typekit on Choosing Fallback Fonts and co-created FFFFallback, a simple tool for bulletproof web typography.
We asked Mr Brewer a dozen questions.
Where did you learn your craft?
I learned to care about craftsmanship from my father. He is a musician, a painter and a brewmaster. Growing up I witnessed his commitment to practicing, his attention to detail, and his commitment to the process that would produce the best results. I am thankful he imparted that to me.
As for learning my craft, I can trace it back to high school and college where I spent countless hours drawing, painting and sculpting. I studied the history of design and read everything I could get my hands on. That led to endless nights viewing source trying to deconstruct other peoples’ design decisions and markup patterns. Then I would take that knowledge and apply it immediately.
In other words, I practiced. A lot.
Who inspires you?
My wife, Dana Brewer, constantly inspires me. She is an amazing mother, wife and friend, filled with boundless creative energy and tons of faith.
My children. The wonder and joy they exude discovering the world one day at a time is indescribable. They’ve given me a new perspective on the work I do. They inspire me to do great work that they and their children will be proud of.
Finally, this community. I am inspired daily by the amazing men and women that are working in our industry. The encouragement, the sharing, the honest-to-god magic that people conjure up to do things we couldn’t do before… so inspiring.
What are your influences?
My family and my faith have had a huge influence on who I am, and how I live my life. In my work, it has been people like Massimo Vignelli, Paul Rand, Jan Tschichold, Dieter Rams, Karl Gerstner and Bruno Munari. Men to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and in whose work I continue to find simple truths that inform my own work and thinking. Music has also been, and continues to be, a huge influence in my life.
Ably assisted by the talented Mr Joshua Porter, you’re the co-creator of ‘52 Weeks of UX’, a wonderful resource that we repeatedly return to and regularly refer our students to. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Weeks 1-50, when can we look forward to the curiously missing Weeks 51 and 52 and what has proven the impediment to the completion of this project?
Life. I started at Twitter toward the last part of the year and Josh’s role at Performable was increasingly demanding. Between that and both of us having a wife and kids, it got harder and harder to keep up the writing schedule. And then, after a while of not writing, it got super-hard to just finish. We intend to get the last couple articles done very soon and then maybe do an ebook or some sort of compilation.
You’re currently a Principal Designer at Twitter. What role would you say your side projects had in landing you this dream job?
I think they definitely played a part. I think that side projects can show a diversity that might not be evident in a portfolio or even in your current job. Sometimes there is a part of you that does not have an expression in your day-to-day work and side projects can give you the freedom to play around and experiment and at the same time help to keep your skills current.
On 15 November, 2006, you joined Twitter as a user (with a Twitter user id of #12,555 your relationship with the platform was clearly long standing). On 29 June, 2007, the iPhone went on sale. Do you think Twitter would have broken into the non-nerd mainstream without the phenomenal growth of the iPhone and other smartphones?
Yes. I think that the service alone has been transformational in the way we communicate and discover things in an absolutely unique way. However, there is no denying the massive impact the iPhone and other smartphones have had on the adoption of Twitter. After all, the product’s roots are 140 characters delivered via SMS. The power of Twitter is most evident in the mobile context in my opinion.
You’ve had a vocal role in promoting Responsive Web Design, not least through your impromptu elevation to the chair of the ‘RWD Summit’ not long ago. Is there room for non-responsive design in our industry anymore?
That’s kind of a loaded question. Responsive Web Design, as defined by Ethan Marcotte, is the use of media queries, fluid grids and flexible images. But I honestly think that Ethan happened to get people to open up to the reality that the way we have been designing and building for the web has to change and adapt.
RWD, and I would add the ‘mobile-first’ approach, have been bundled together and are often mistakenly being thought of as a silver bullet. The reality is that you have to do your homework. You have to understand the content, the context, the business goals, the technical constraints, the financial constraints, the platforms on which you are building and then you can make the right choices about how you go about delivering the right product.
On the subject of responsive web design, if you could name one obstacle to the creation of responsive designs - technical or otherwise - that you could remove with a magic wand, what would it be?
The use of
px as the default standard of measurement on the web. If we would have been able to really embrace the fluid, adaptive nature of the web from the beginning I think things would be totally different. But the tools we had and the capabilities of the browsers weren’t in a place to support that kind of thinking and this approach to building.
I feel like I have had to unlearn a lot of ways of thinking and approaches to designing for the web that I developed over the last 10+ years. But I have to admit that thinking about design as a highly adaptable system of interconnected components from the very start is an incredibly exciting new way to work.
At Build in 2011 you quoted Paul Rand, stating: “design is relationships.” As designers, we should be in the business of creating better experiences for people which lead to deeper relationships, however, we’re often seen by those who commission us as mere decorators. What can we do to change this mindset?
For one, stop acting like decorators. The more we cater to demands like, “I need a mockup of a brand new design for our homepage in two hours to show to our investors,” the more we reinforce the notion that we just ‘make pretty’. That’s not design, that’s being a pixel-monkey.
Another thing, and maybe the most important, is to talk about and share our design process. Helping people understand what it is we do when and how we do it is key in changing that perception. It gives them a vocabulary and a context that changes the way the conversation happens and ultimately can lead to more collaboration up-front, which is a good thing.
What’s your favourite typeface?
Don’t I get to pick eight? Oh, wrong publication. Probably Akzidenz Grotesk, but man, Harriet from Okay Type feels like it was made just for me (will report back once I get the chance to use it a bit).
What’s your favourite plain text editor?
I wrote all of this in iA Writer for Mac and iPhone. I love it and have used it since the beta for the iPad came out. For coding, I have recently joined the cool kids and started using SublimeText. It’s pretty amazing.
What’s your favourite tea?
Single-malt scotch, preferably Speyside and at least 15 years old. Oh, wait, tea? Um, probably Egyptian Licorice.