Ethan Marcotte is a designer, developer, writer and speaker who, amongst his many and considerable achievements, is perhaps best known for coining the term Responsive Web Design. He lives and works in Boston.
A man of many talents, Mr Marcotte has authored a number of books, including: the excellent Responsive Web Design, the definitive book for anyone interested in embarking on a responsive journey; Designing With Web Standards, co-authored with Jeffrey Zeldman; and Handcrafted CSS, co-authored with Dan Cederholm. A regular contributor to A List Apart, Marcotte also speaks at conferences internationally, spreading the responsive word far and wide.
We asked Mr Marcotte a dozen questions.
Where did you learn your craft?
I’m still learning, frankly. I started designing for the web over (Oh, God!) fifteen years ago, mucking around with HTML and a questionably–obtained copy of Photoshop in my college dormitory.
Web design really started as a hobby for me – a thing I tinkered with when I was avoiding homework – but it eventually became a bit more than that. After school I got my first studio job, working alongside some of the most creative, talented people I’ve ever met, and was thoroughly hooked at that point.
Who inspires you?
My wife, Elizabeth. She’s funnier than me, smarter than me, and more talented than me by miles.
What are your influences?
Blame my lack of formal training, I guess, but I’ve always, always loved a good movie poster. In my office I have prints of Schlutz–Neudamm’s Metropolis, Jim Pearsall’s Chinatown, Saul Bass’s Vertigo one-sheet, and John Alvin’s Blade Runner. I could stare at those for days.
Responsive Web Design has become part of the establishment since the phrase was coined back in 2010. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing RWD today?
There are plenty of technical challenges, but we’re fortunate to have folks far, far smarter than I working on them. Advertising is one of the thornier issues out there, but the likes of Mark Boulton and Roger Black are chatting about the challenges it, and other factors, pose in great detail. Performance is (and should be) a concern of every responsive–minded designer; fortunately people like Filament Group and the BBC are guiding us through some of the challenges.
Generally speaking, though, I get the sense that the biggest challenge for many getting excited about responsive web design is this: “Where do I begin?” We’ve been designing with a rather fixed view of the web (no pun intended) for some time now, and our process is just starting to break out of it. That’s the discussion I’m really interested in: How do we really design for a completely flexible design medium?
Looking forward, what lies beyond RWD?
Man, I don’t know. I rarely know what the web’s going to be in a few day’s time, much less a month or two down the road.
I will say that, in my own practice, I’ve found the way I work is changing. The people I work with realise the web has moved beyond the desktop, so my process has been changing, too. Much less formal, with an emphasis on prototyping, sketching, and revisiting old ideas as we test them. It’s a bit scary to toss out old, trusty methods, but it’s liberating, too. Y’know. When the crying’s stopped.
That said, I don’t think I’m the only one realising we need to change the way we work; if anything, things are going to start shifting more quickly. I mean, by a large, large margin, the next wave of urbanisation will be happening in the ‘developing world’. What does that mean for us, and our assumptions about what’s most valuable for our audiences?
I have no idea, but it’s going to be a wild ride.
As well as coining the term Responsive Web Design you’ve made great efforts in establishing a discourse for the humble animated GIF, which has seen a resurrection in popular culture after a decade of decline. What, in your opinion, is the allure of the GIFa?
Man. Everyone’s going to have a different answer for that question.
For me, GIFs are like this imperfect little emotional shorthand. I started using them on Twitter, where character counts make every letter dear, as ‘current status’ updates. (Which have apparently turned into a thing.) It’s much easier to point to something like this when you’re having a crap day than, you know, starting a Blogger account and openly moaning for paragraphs on end.
So yeah, my love of GIFs isn’t exactly the most… elevated form of expression, but GIFs have recently become a real art form: Gustaf Mantel’s IWDRM; Kevin Weir’s Flux Machine. Even something as simple as a little background animation can make an otherwise straightforward GIF feel poignant, almost touching. For a file format that, well, was born out of an accidental hack, I love that it’s both ‘high’ and ‘low’ art at once.
Language clearly matters to you – we particularly enjoyed your lesson in the latest issue of The Manual – yet language is often overlooked as a design element by many. How might we open the eyes of the masses to the wonderful opportunities that language offers?
I don’t know if I’d be in this industry if I hadn’t found Scott Andrew LePera’s blog and, through it, Zeldman’s. Hell, the only reason I got interested in that whole ‘web standards’ thing was because Jeffrey was writing about it so impossibly well. For me – and, I think, for a few other people – he elevated CSS and HTML out of talk of curly braces and angle brackets and into an imperative, using nothing but some of the finest language I’ve ever read. Hell, there wouldn’t have been any of this ‘responsive web design’ nonsense without John Allsopp’s A Dao of Web Design.
You’ve been cultivating your profile on Twitter since 2006, and fit the demographic of the early geek adopter perfectly. Twitter is a very different place than when you joined nearly six years ago, have the moves towards a more controlled, homogenous Twitter experience made you feel different about the platform?
Well, I don’t presume to speak for other early Twitter users, but my sense is that there’s a kind of cautious concern as we wait to see what happens next.
Twitter is, understandably, moving to make this wonderful thing they’ve built profitable, but I hope it doesn’t come at the expense of the openness and flexibility that made Twitter great in the first place. If there ever comes a time I can’t use, say, Twitterrific or Tweetbot to read posts as I want to, I’m not sure I’ll be as excited about it as I used to be.
But! Twitter employs some of the finest people I know, who care about Twitter as deeply as I do. I’m honestly looking forward to seeing what they do next.
You describe yourself as a true renaissance man: web designer, developer, speaker and author. If you had to pick just one, which would it be?
If the web went away tomorrow, I’d move into the hills of Vermont and write. Every day I don’t write something down – and there’ve been more of those recently than I’d like – I miss it.
(Did I really use the phrase ‘renaissance man’ to describe myself? Really? Could one of you two fine gentlemen punch me, please?)
What’s your favourite typeface?
Hmm. I don’t think I have one favorite. Lately, I’ve been circling around TypeTogether’s Abril for display, especially the heavier italics. I’m also a sucker for a good, geometric sans, and can’t stop drooling over Process Type Foundry’s Colfax.
What’s your favourite plain text editor?
For work, I’ve been using TextMate since it was released, and love it; it’s just as good as Allaire HomeSite, my lost love and The Editor To Which All Other Editors Should be Compared. I’ve recently switched over to the TextMate 2 alpha, since it’s now seeing a flurry of development, and it’s been fantastic.
For writing? All I need is SimpleNote/Notational Velocity, and I’m happy.
What’s your favourite tea?
Cameron Koczon builds things, organises things and writes things (and, of particular appeal to our passion for gentlemanly pursuits, smokes an impressive variety of pipes). He lives and works in Brooklyn.
Mr Koczon is the co-creator (with Swiss Miss) of Teux Deux, a lean to-do list manager. He is also the co-founder (with Chris Shiflett) of Brooklyn Beta, one of the web’s most enjoyable conferences encapsulated neatly in its strapline: ‘Make Something You Love’. When he’s not busy building things or organising things he also writes, of particular note a superb and thought-provoking article on Orbital Content for A List Apart No. 326 (one of our favourite ALA articles of 2011).
We asked Mr Koczon a dozen questions.
Where did you learn your craft?
I guess my craft is building products and the only way I’ve found to learn about that is to start building products. You don’t really understand what goes into it until you’ve shipped a product and had people start using it. You learn so much by just going through that process. Our team has done this a few times now and I can feel us getting better. That’s an exciting feeling. We’ve got a strong product foundation now so I’m hoping to learn a lot more this year.
Who inspires you?
Lots. I’m just gonna start typing things ‘til I run out of juice: Disney, Pixar, Miyazaki, Hitchcock, Eisner, McCloud, Rams, Glaser, Hickman, Holmes, Dantes, Protagonist, d’Anconia, Jobs, Franklin, Edison, Lincoln, Hemingway, Rand, Stephensen, Gibson, Sturges, Coen, Coen, Anderson, Anderson, Day-Lewis, Hara, Theory11, Burt, Grove, Wallace, Wallace, McCarthy, Tufte, Bringhurst, King, Seth, Drooker, Miller, Busiek, Ross, Brubaker, Rachleff, Andreessen, Roth Eisenberg, Brown, Danzico, Santa Maria, Hische, Moll, Legend, Gutierrez, Oak, Weychert, Hunter, Johns, Bolt, Blankenship, Smith, Miner, Chimero, Pieratt, Desandro, Cole, Cheng, Brewer, Bondsy, Girl Walk, Clash, Withers, McKenzie, Park, Galpert, Zayan, Fadell, King, Rousso, Cederholm, Dhanaliwala, Krieger, Kickstarter, Airbnb, Square, Workshop, Paravel, Weightshift, OKFocus, betaworks, Less, Svpply, Build, Hyperakt, NY Mag, DIY, C.K., Henson, Rogers, Larson, Publick, Watterson, Hammer, Ward, Edlund, Tartakovsky, Franchi, Jaar, Murphy, Murphy, Persson, Laphroaig, Coates, Rios, Finkler, Battaglia, Collison, Wood, Howell, Tan, Perras, Birkebæk, Haas, Shiflett, Mincey, assorted McMahons and assorted Koczons. There are many others.
What are your influences?
Not sure. If my back was against a wall and I had to pick one person, I’d pick Fergie. We’re trying to do for the web what she did for music.
You work under the moniker Fictive Cameron and you work for a company called Fictive Kin. Why Fictive?
A ‘fictive kin’ is someone who isn’t related to you by blood, but you still think of as family. That describes the people I work with now and the people I want to work with in the future. It’s really the kin part that matters. As it pertains to my own online persona, I just wasn’t able to come up with anything better. My last name, Koczon, is difficult to know how to pronounce/spell so it doesn’t suit me to be Cameron Koczon everywhere.
The Fictive Kin menagerie appears to be growing rapidly. You’ve recruited a whole host of talented people, what are your plans for world domination?
We’re not really in the domination business. We want to build great products and enjoy ourselves doing it. We have a vision for the way the world could be and we’d like to build the kinds of things that nudge it in that direction. If you start talking the adorable, “change the world,” talk, it’s worth remembering that that takes some time. Fictive Kin needs to be in it for the long haul so we spend a fair amount of time thinking of our lifestyles as a product. We’re trying to develop a process and cadence that will enable us to keep learning, keep building, and keep having fun.
There are many content sharing services in existence, what makes Gimme Bar different?
The key difference is that Gimme Bar is not primarily a content sharing service. It’s a content saving service. The difference is subtle (which has caused us quite a few problems), but very important.
It’s important for users to own their content. Apps are fragile. They come and they gowalla (rimshot). People stick around. People are forever. Five years from now there’s a very good chance you’ll be using a completely different set of apps than the ones you are using today. Do you think you’ll still want your photos from the last few years? Probably. Remember. They aren’t instagrams, they’re your photos. They’re not tweets, they’re your status updates.
In aggregate all your content starts to tell some pretty interesting stories about you. Over time, as folks start to put more and more of themselves on the web, owning this aggregate content and keeping it safe is going to be a big deal.
The role designers are, increasingly, playing is changing; moving from mere service provision to shaping ideas from the outset. How does this change - foregrounding a design-lead approach - improve project outcomes and why are we witnessing it now?
Incorporating design improves project outcomes because it is a central ingredient. How does sugar improve cookie outcomes?
As for why we’re seeing all this attention paid to design right now, I think there are a few reasons:
1. Steve Jobs. Apple basically has a reputation as a perfect company and Steve as a perfect leader (if imperfect human). They tout design as their core and they’re about the most valuable company in the world. Hard thing to not notice if you’re an investor.
2. Supply and Demand. There’s a lot of money around these days which means lots of startups. Every one of these companies needs a designer and there simply are not that many competent product designers out there. The number of folks who’ve ever designed and shipped a complete web product is tiny. This may be a fault of design schools or of the past neglect of designers by the tech community or something else I don’t know of because I haven’t spent much time looking into it.
3. Differentiation. There is at least a little bit of concern that when your product is all bits, there is little room for differentiation. Things like design and branding offer opportunities for apps to stand apart even if other apps copy or do the same thing.
You’re visibly passionate about design and its potential to effect positive change. Brooklyn Beta and Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp have widened the frame of reference for design-lead startups. Is the future for startups as catalysts for change, doing good as opposed to evil?
I don’t think ‘design-lead startups’ is the right phrasing. While I certainly think this is an important time for design, it’s more about helping design play catchup to development and other disciplines. Chris and I like to talk about it in terms of ‘designer-developer teams’ or ‘design as a partner’. The following is from my A List Apart article:
It is difficult to rally for designers without making it seem like you are discounting the value of developers. It’s important to remember that what we’re trying to do is evolve the notion of the ideal team. The ideal team includes both design and development, working in tight communication and mutual respect from the beginning. This is an enviable dynamic and surprisingly uncommon.
I think that pretty well describes how I still feel. We want design to be a partner and partnership is a two-way street. If we improve the station of designers at the expense of their relationship with developers, we’re not really doing much of value.
As for the good vs. evil stuff, I’ll leave that to Google.
Meerschaum or Bruyere?
I can’t pick. Here is a picture of the pipes I own.
What’s your favourite typeface?
What’s your favourite plain text editor?
I don’t really have a favourite, but for notes I use Notational Velocity. I wish it did more, but I love it and I use it every day.
What’s your favourite tea?
I drink black coffee and Scotch whisky.
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.
As attendees at Brooklyn Beta since it began we can testify to the relentless care and attention to detail that is invested in the conference by all of those involved. Cameron Koczon and Chris Shiflett, the driving force behind the conference, pour every last ounce of passion they have into it and, as if this weren’t enough, have a dedicated and hugely committed team of volunteers pouring their hearts and souls into the conference too, ensuring - ably - that Brooklyn Beta lives up to its core values summarised in its motto:
Make Something You Love
Messrs Koczon and Shiflett care. They care about our industry and they care about supporting it to do more and to do better. As they put it:
Brooklyn Beta has two goals. We want to inspire you to make something you love, and we want to help remove any barriers that stand in the way. With our conference, we do our best to help spread big ideas and connect designers and developers together.
They succeed in this aspiration, admirably.
Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp is the next, exciting instalment in this dynamic duo’s passion and commitment to do right by our industry. As they put it, “Summer Camp aims to help designer-developer teams build the next generation of web products and change the world.
The Summer Camp to End All Summer Camps
Across a twelve week programme in the summer leading up to the Brooklyn Beta 2012 conference, the inaugural Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp will support a number of creative startups to pursue projects - big ideas with big impact - in short, projects that aim to change the world and maybe even, “Put existing abusive, mammoth institutions out of business (pretty please).”
In return for a 6% equity stake - which is designed to be reinvested to sustain future Summer Camps - they’ll invest $25,000 in your company, but that’s not all… not by a long shot.
Successful companies will have the opportunity to pitch their finished products to a small room full of the best investors in New York and beyond (given Koczon and Shiflett’s extensive connections, this alone is a fantastic opportunity).
As if that weren’t an added bonus enough, companies will also be able to avail of the support and adice of a stellar who’s who board of advisers which includes: Charles Adler, co-founder of Kickstarter; Dan Mall, founder of SuperFriendly; Fred Wilson, partner in Unions Square Ventures; Jason Santa Maria, Creative Director of Typekit; and Jeffrey Zeldman and Jessica Hische, of whom more than enough’s already been said. (And that is just the tip of a very, very large and very, very experienced talent iceberg.)
It’s this board of advisers, perhaps more than any other aspect of Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp, that’s the real jewel in the project’s eye. This level of talent and experience to draw from - all operating at a truly global level - is almost impossible to measure, provides a truly invaluable brain trust, and offers the shortlisted Summer Camp comapnies an enviable head start. With a collective few hundred years of experience contributing their all to the Summer Camp companies, you’d be hard pressed to find better minds to draw from.
If You Care, Step Up to the Plate
Koczon and Shiflett, and their respective FictiveKin and Analog teams, are that rare breed in our industry: passionate individuals who care enough about our collective future that they’ll take the time, care, and attention to detail to invest in people, invest in you. More importantly, rather than talking about what’s possible, they’ll put their heart and soul into making what’s possible, possible.
That commitment, that passion to put action before talking, is a rare quality, a quality to recognise and celebrate.
On the fringe of conferences we often hear idle discussion about the wonderful things we can collectively achieve if we just put our combined talents together. More often than not two barriers stop this from happening: time and money.
Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp removes one of these. As they put it:
We do our best at Brooklyn Beta to help spread big ideas and connect designers and developers together. With Summer Camp, we want to take it a step further and remove what is quite possibly the biggest barrier of all, money.
With that barrier now removed all that remains is time. If you’re passionate, have a great idea and have an entrepreneurial spirit you’ve no excuses.
If you’ve an idea for a web product and you’re in a designer-developer team (or can find a designer ying to neatly fit your developer yang, or vice versa), you should get your thinking cap on and put in an application. Applications open on 31 May, 2012, allowing you plenty of time to get something inspiring together. Sign up to be notified the moment applications open.
Go on. Take Messrs Koczon and Shiflett up on their offer. Make something you love. Make something to change the world. Make something awesome.
A year ago, this very day, we wrote a short piece titled Ideas of March as part of Chris Shiflett’s call to arms (of the same name), which encouraged a reappraisal of the balance between shortform and longform writing, urging a return to reflective writing.
Arguing for the need for a renewed balance between shortform (shallow) and longform (deep) content; and the need for a refocusing on original, longform content to counterbalance a move towards linked, shortform content, we wrote:
There’s nothing wrong with Twitter, and it certainly has its uses, however, working longform allows you to clarify your thinking; sharpens the mind; and maps into other areas of practice.
A year later we still hold those sentiments to be true so, when we received an email from Mr Shiflett inviting a number of writers, ourselves included, to celebrate the Ideas of March once again, it afforded a timely opportunity to reflect on a number of issues around writing, and its importance, that we’d been discussing.
Shiflett’s original call to arms revitalised many and, in a number of cases, proved the tonic for writers to dust down their ideas and start sharing them once again. Elliot Jay Stocks, writing yesterday, stated: “Last year’s post (by Shiflett) was the one single thing that got me back into writing, and I’m happy to say that the pace has stayed relatively healthy since then.”
When we wrote our first ‘Ideas of March’ piece, we believed - as we believe now - that there is immense value to both readers and writers through the creation of original content. Original content helps shape our collective knowledge and, when written with passion, can spark debate which, through dialogue, can result in our collective thinking moving forward.
Not all content is original, however. As publishing has evolved, twin tracked by the evolution of new publishing platforms - like Tumblr, for example - a content continuum has begun to emerge which represents different types of published content and, equally, different motivations for both creating and sharing the written word.
A spectrum exists which spans everything from the original or ‘created’ (new thought, wrought from thin air and strong black coffee) to the discovered or ‘curated’ (second hand thought, wrought from a culture of research and signposting towards others’ thoughts).
Original content and signposted content both have a place - and there is certainly a role for signposting - however, we feel that the real value lies in the former, contributing new knowledge… In short, in writing. (Bringing us back to Mr Shiflett’s motivation behind the Ideas of March.)
Let Me Quote That For You
There was a golden age when the writer’s craft was celebrated. Synthesising thought and reflecting on the world we inhabit was something to be valued. Make a discovery? Write about that discovery. Offer your opinion on it. Since then, the emergence of platforms like Tumblr and its associated culture of reblogging, have given rise to a testimony to the reduction of the level of reflection once afforded, to nothing more than a ‘like’ and a bumping on of others’ content to one’s audience.
A consequence of this move towards signposting, over the creation of original content, has been a focusing on systems to codify this point and click model. The Curator’s Code – a project launched last week by Maria Popova with input from Tina Roth Eisenberg and design by Kelli Anderson – has given rise to an often heated discussion about the need to acknowledge the sources of content shared on the web.
At its heart lies a proposal for a method to honour the work of those sharing links through, as Popova puts it, “a system that codifies the attribution of discovery in curation as a currency of the information economy, a system that treats discovery as the creative labor that it is.”
Whilst we believe in the importance of accurate citation and offering credit where it’s due, we believe the focus should be shifted from citing discovers to citing creators. A not so subtle, but important point.
Rather than encourage a ‘Curator’s Code’ we should perhaps encourage a ‘Creator’s Code’, one which foregrounds the value of independent thinking and the addition of value. Rather than aggregating links, why not offer an informed opinion on those links, or even better, create something original yourself?
Whether we should call the sharing of links ‘curation’ is another question up for debate, with some disagreeing with this choice of terminology in strong terms. Writing about the Curator’s Code in Stop Calling it Curation, Matt Langer states:
The business in which we’re all engaged when we’re tossing links around on the internet is simple ‘sharing’. […] But we should not delude ourselves for a moment into bestowing any special significance on this, because when we do this thing that so many of us like to call ‘curation’ we’re not providing any sort of ontology or semantic continuity beyond that of our own whimsy or taste or desire.
While there’s arguably value in the filtering, editing and selection process - call it sharing or curation - it is by no means comparable to the process of creation. Matt Langer again hits the nail on the head in this regard:
…the often tortuous act of writing compared with the reading of someone else’s writing are two vastly different things, not just simple variations of unicode runes.
The problem with particular, some might argue, over-engineered ‘solutions’ like the Curator’s Code (reminiscent in its folly of the search for, and eventual discovery of, the ☃ character… for sarcasm) is that it serves to encourage a culture of endless linking, rather than a culture of reflection, not to mention creation of original content.
This comment, from one of the many discussion threads that followed the launch of the Curator’s Code, highlights another complication:
I feel like the problem is not that there isn’t some sort of universally recognised symbol, but rather a lot of sites just aren’t using best practices. The sites that aren’t doing a good job of sourcing aren’t going to magically start doing it once they have a nice bookmarklet to use.
As educators who face a perennial challenge to encourage our students to embrace accurate citation we understand the frustrations that a failure to cite sources properly can engender, however, we believe the solution to this problem doesn’t lie in adding another layer of complexity, which the Curator’s Code does.
Having to learn that ᔥ and ↬ mean ‘via’ and ‘hat tip’ respectively adds a layer of cognitive burden that, far from solving the problem of failure to give credit where it’s due, adds to confusion. This is only underpinned by the fact that we now have two symbols to decipher, further adding complexity. Marco Arment, who states forthrightly that the Curator’s Code is, “completely misguided,” summarises this line of thinking neatly:
First of all, readers aren’t going to learn what those symbols mean. The distinction between them is also unnecessary and will lead to more confusion.
On the distinction between the differentiation between references being either ‘via’ another discoverer or being due to a ‘hat tip’ he writes:
I’ve been running a hybrid articles-and-links blog here (↬DF) for a while, I wrote the function that added ‘via’ links to billions of reblogged posts on Tumblr, and I didn’t even know the difference between ‘via’ and ‘hat tip’ until today.
It’s very difficult to argue with this. What, pray tell, motivates one to deploy a set of newly minted symbols instead of existing, tried and tested terms i.e. via, or a set of existing conventions, i.e. hyperlinks or footnotes? Why replace an existing, working paradigm, with an obfuscated symbol: ᔥ – the hyperlink formerly known as ‘via’?
It’s a hard enough task to appreciate the value that lies in providing an accurate trail of references; adding a further level of granularity to this will, inevitably, lead to confusion. One can imagine the inevitable conversation: “Run that by me once more, what’s the difference between the ᔥ and ↬ symbols again?”
Over and Above
In an excellent ReadWriteWeb article titled Down the Rabbit Hole with Hyperlinks in Hand, Scott M. Fulton III comments on Popova’s Curator’s Code as follows:
For about three-and-a-half years, I ran the news department of a major web site where I had one hard and fast rule, the utterance of which will surely bring back headaches for my former writers. The rule was called ‘Over & Above’, and it boiled down to this: We would print nothing without the inclusion of original reporting.
If a story was inspired elsewhere, we would give full attribution to both the source and the author. But we would add original reporting - and by that, I didn’t mean, “original ruminations from the safety of one’s armchair.”
It’s this last sentence that’s critical. Citation is, of course, important; we’re all for credit where credit’s due, however, the opportunity should be embraced wherever possible, to add original reporting and a fresh perspective. The web is overflowing with content. There’s room for more of course, but we should - as writers - strive to add value at every step of the way. Rather than simply add one more link (and very little more), we should instead aim to at least offer an opinion along the way.
As Fulton puts it, “The balance, if there is to be one, is to assert that our job … is to add value - if not as a whole, in at least in substantively large part.”
If all you’re creating is one more link, what have you added, other than noise to what is an already noisy place? Opinionated criticism adds to the conversation, your contribution may even offer additional insight, a different perspective or new thinking.
It’s precisely this sentiment that underpinned our enthusiastic participation in the Ideas of March in 2011, when Mr Shiflett first promoted the idea. One more link on Twitter offers value, of course, but even greater value lies in offering an opinion through a more thoughtful and longer form piece of prose. By all means point your audience to what you’ve ‘curated’, but give them more than a link, give them informed opinion. Better still, address the ratio of original content and signposted content so that you err on the former, tell your audience - critically - why you signpost what you signpost (preferably in more than 140 characters).
Fulton summarises this line of thinking neatly:
While I appreciate the nobility of promoting an ethical concept [The Curator’s Code] as something cool to do, I often wonder whether the web as a whole has taken the linking business way too far.
When linking becomes the focus at the expense of expressing an opinion or contributing original knowledge, what is one adding, other than noise to drown out the signal? Of course its important to attribute what we’ve learned to where we learned it from, but if we are to offer anything of substance and value it should be creativity, first and foremost. Going ‘Over & Above’, adding to the canon of knowledge, suggesting, questioning and exploring.
What’s Your Thinking?
Creativity has many guises, and the written word has always existed on a continuum ranging from the disposable and frivolous to the durable and profound.
We believe that there is value and opportunity in both the creation of content and the knowledge contributed by sharing and spreading the words of others. But the balance must lie in favour of the creator rather than the distributors of original content. By throwing praise, as the Curator’s Code has suggested, on the discovery of a link, we are, in the words of Fulton, “Confusing reproduction with creativity, and confusing source with origin.”
Finding a particular link first should not deserve a medal or a special unicode character. Original content, on the other hand, should be worthy of such attention. Perhaps we should promote a unicode symbol indicating that instead.
Whilst the hyperlink might serve as the backbone of the web, tying together threads of knowledge, the web offers us the opportunity to do so much more than mere linking - to offer insight, opinion and criticality. The Ideas of March offer us an opportunity to push further, to offer our own thoughts and share them with others.
Chris Cornutt has compiled a list of contributors to the Ideas of March appeal. Once you’ve worked your way through those, the #ideasofmarch hashtag has you covered for the remainder of the month and, hopefully, for some time to come.
We fully intend to answer Mr Shiflett’s call to arms, we’d urge you to do so too. The web has enough links, why not take this opportunity to add some original content as well?
Trent Walton is a designer, speaker and relentless typographic experimenter with a passion for car culture, specifically 60s car culture of the United States of America. He lives and works in Texas Hill Country.
Walton is a founder and 1/3 of Paravel, a small web design company that combines his talents with those of Dave Rupert and Reagan Ray. Together the trio have been designing and building for the web since 2002 where their successes have included, amongst many others, the site for Microsoft’s Lost World’s Fairs project which gave rise to the creation of Lettering.js.
When not working at Paravel, Mr Walton is a tireless web typographer, forever pushing the boundaries of typographic possibility at his blog where he has championed an inquisitive and sharing approach to all the web has to offer in these typographically exciting times.
We asked Mr Walton a dozen questions.
Where did you learn your craft?
I’m self taught… sort of. For the past 10+ years I’ve been extremely fortunate to collaborate with people more talented than I am. I’ve done well to cherry pick skills and knowledge from my friends. Above all, the relationships and working environment we’ve built at Paravel is conducive to continued education and innovation. We’ve always been unafraid to try or learn new things because we’re so supportive of each other.
Who inspires you?
I’m most inspired by those with whom I work and collaborate, whether daily or with one-time projects. I love the experience of seeing how people approach their work. Understanding of how and why choices are made inspires me more than simply looking at final products.
What are your influences?
When I was a kid, I’d go to automobile swap meets and spend my allowance on car badges like this one from a Cobra, or this one from a Shelby. Of course, they never found their way back to actual cars, but I thought they were so badass that I just had to have them, so I stashed them in an old shoe box. I know I talk about 1960s American car culture a lot, but I believe it’s the formative foundation for my love of type and sturdy design.
One of your essays, ‘You Are What You Eat’, struck a cord with us. We’ve been pushing this sentiment to our students for some time. What did you eat to get you to where you are today?
I ate whatever the hell I wanted to! By which I mean, I pursued and experimented with whatever I was interested in and shared it online. Whether it’s experimenting with web type, or writing extended essays on movie stars, at Paravel we do what we love.
Your company, Paravel, consist of a jolly collection of childhood friends. Would you be able to produce the high-calibre work you’re undertaking if you weren’t shacked up with your high school sweethearts?
Who knows. I wouldn’t prefer it. This pattern of finding a team and sticking together for the long haul has been modeled for me extensively. My Dad was with two co-founders at his company for over 35 years. Even bands I love (like Pearl Jam or The Foo Fighters) are interesting to me mostly because of how they’ve managed longevity. There was a lot of head-butting early on at Paravel, but we’ve continually invested in each other and resolved to stick together. Now, my favorite thing we’ve built together is our working relationships.
How does being from Texas influence your work? Do you think it would be different if you were instead located on the east or west coast?
Oh gosh, I’m sure it’d be different, but I couldn’t imagine it. Texas has always been home to me, and I’ve learned there’s no substitute for living where you want to live.
With a significant and relevant body of work to back it up, and having reflected and written on the topic, including coining the wonderful phrase ‘Content Choreography’, you have become somewhat of a poster-child for responsive design. Is this a determined effort, or a happy accident?
I’m not too interested in how people perceive me relating to responsive design, aside from the fact that I want Paravel to be hired to do it. If I’m putting a determined effort into anything, it’s helping RWD be better understood and practiced. This approach has restored my sense of wonder for web design, and I’m thankful that I don’t have to learn to build apps for every device to serve clients.
Your interest in web typography has not gone unnoticed. What advances are you looking forward to, what specific features in CSS specifications, future or present are you wishing for?
Experimental browser properties like
-webkit-mask-image: text interest me greatly. I’m also interested, but less studied and opinionated, in using OpenType features. Overall, anything that helps designers have greater control over web typography is a good thing in my book.
The care and craft you are putting into each article on your blog is the stuff of legend. Do you ever find that the level of effort becomes a hinderance for your writing?
Ha! I have a lot of fun working on articles for the ol’ blog. Dropping in custom design and code doesn’t make anything easier, but I like that it helps convey an idea while also giving me an outlet for front-end experimentation. I’ve got complete reverence for people’s time, and if they’re going to read what I write, I hope to make it as interesting, clear and concise as I possibly can.
What’s your favourite typeface?
Alternate Gothic by Morris Fuller Benton.
What’s your favourite plain text editor?
I just keep using TextEdit because it’s what Alfred App pulls up most often.
What’s your favourite tea?
Iced. Preferably next to a bucket of chicken.
Tina Roth Eisenberg, perhaps better known by her swissmiss moniker, is a ‘Swiss Designer Gone NYC’, entrepreneur and all-round creative whirlwind, with an eye for beautifully designed products which she curates and shares with the world daily via her much-visited swissmiss blog. She lives and works in NYC.
In addition to the daily inspiration she posts via swissmiss, which has gathered a not inconsiderable international following, she is also the founder of CreativeMornings, TeuxDeux and Tattly. As if that weren’t achievement enough, she is also the founder of Brooklyn based studio Studiomates, a hive of creative activity that’s quite literally home to a Who’s Who of creative talent.
We asked Ms Roth Eisenberg a dozen questions.
Where did you learn your craft?
I grew up in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by a minimal Swiss design aesthetic, and was taught the ins and outs of graphic design in Geneva, at the Ecole Des Arts Décoratifs and at the Fachhoschule Munich, Germany.
Who inspires you?
My studiomates. Daily.
What are your influences?
My Studiomates. The blogs I read. New York City. CreativeMornings Talks. Masters like Charles and Ray Eames, Milton Glaser and Dieter Rams.
You’ve been curating swissmiss for six years now, during which time you’ve gathered a not insignificant following. How much of a full time job is writing for the blog, and how has it changed over the years?
I started swissmiss in 2005 as a personal visual archive. Fast forward seven years and it’s anything but personal. The fact that I have over one million monthly uniques makes my head spin. You have to understand my context, I grew up in a town with a population of 3,000 people in the Swiss country side, cows in front of my door, and all that.
I spend about two to three hours a day on my blog. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Usually, when I blog a lot I have other deadlines that I keep pushing out. Blogging is my way of procrastinating.
I would love to spend more time on the blog, and there were times when I spent a good four to five hours a day writing and researching, but I have since put on more hats and I need to divide my time between swissmiss, CreativeMornings and Tattly.
It takes time to build a personal brand, but - as Gary Vaynerchuk put it in his recent TED talk [Do What You Love (No Excuses!) 1 - it’s entirely possible in our new-fangled internet age. At a conservative estimate, how long did it take, and what sustained you, while you grew the swissmiss brand?
I am not sure that’s the right way to talk about ‘swissmiss’. Sure, some people say I built a brand, but I just simply believe I created a work environment and life that is 100% true to what I believe in, and that makes me happy. People are fascinated by others that follow their heart and take risks. Now people say I created a ‘brand’. I say, I created an ideal life. The word ‘brand’ makes it sound too calculated and planned. There was no strategy behind anything I did. I simply followed my gut.
Luckily I picked a catchy name for my blog, which helps the ‘brand’ feel. So, in that regard, what sustained me is the fact that I just did what felt right and made me happy. Nothing fuels you more than being ‘in the flow’ and feeling that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and what fulfils you. I don’t want to get all spiritual, but I deeply believe that when you’re on the right track, things fall into place. When you’re trying to force something and it’s just not happening, maybe it’s just not meant to be, and you need to steer left or right. I am just lucky I found my path.
You created Teux Deux with Fictive Kin. What problems with existing to-do applications were you trying to solve?
I just wanted a simple, straight-forward app, without any bells and whistles. A simple list app that allows me to check things off and see the week in overview. No scheduling, no alerts, no repeat tasks. Just a basic list. We built TeuxDeux for ourselves and we use it every day.
In Communication Crisis you wrote about the irony of hyper-efficient communication leading to a world of under-efficient communication (being overwhelmed with messages). When email becomes your, “primary source of guilt,” what other channels would you suggest?
Messenger Pigeons? OK, just kidding. Yes, the guilt-inducing-email-problem is keeping me up at night. I get an unhealthy amount of emails every day. Add to that Tweets, DMs, Text Messages and regular mail. It’s a full-time job in itself to respond to everyone, and people get upset when I don’t reply and it kills me.
For a while I had an auto-responder that basically said, “I will try to get back to you as soon as I can, but it might take a while. I just want to set expectations right!” For some people that worked and they were understanding, others were downright offended by it. I will find a solution, I am determined. I will let you know when I find it. For now, I try to stick to five.sentenc.es.
As well as practicing as a designer you teach at Parsons The New School for Design. How does your teaching influence your design practice?
I’ve stopped teaching at Parsons, but will start teaching at the new SVA MFA Program called Products of Design next year. Teaching definitely shows you the power of experience. We tend to forget just how much work experience teaches us, until you are standing in front of a group of complete beginners that ask the same basic questions you did, when you started out. But, you also realize how hard it is to explain things, that after years of working in the industry, come intuitively. For me, teaching is forcing me to put into words what I just instinctively do, every day.
What do you like better? Chocolate or cuckoo-clocks?
What’s your favourite typeface?
Trade Gothic Condensed. And no, it’s not Helvetica.
What’s your favourite plain text editor?
Notational Velocity It’s a barebones note taking app. It doesn’t get any more straightforward. I love that it syncs with the Simple Note iPhone app, so I have all my notes on the go.
What’s your favourite tea?
AIGA have long fought the good fight against crowdsourcing, clearly articulating the very real issues that plague the ‘winner takes all’ (‘and the losers don’t get paid’) approach to sourcing design by subcontracting it to the masses, whereby countless hours of needless, generic work are wasted.
Richard Grefe’s recent article for the Institute, What’s the harm in crowdsourcing?, continues this theme and it’s well worth reading (if only to awaken yourself to the fact that government agencies the world over – in many cases the very same agencies that promise the creative industries will save us – have unsurprisingly opted, in the face of relentless economic constraint, to pitch for the lowest common design denominator).
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s use of crowdsourcing to design a logo … is simply the most recent highly visible example of a practice that we can expect to see more and more often. While those against crowdsourcing believe it undermines the value designers can provide a client through a thoughtful engagement, those who embrace it consider it an effective new marketplace.
Grefe’s analysis is a worryingly accurate assessment and one can almost hear the enthusiastic chorus of agency commissioners: “This, truly, is an effective new marketplace!”
Few would doubt Grefe’s conclusion that the crowdsourcing phenomenon is one we can expect to see more and more often as we embark down a road of long term road of economic uncertainty.
The challenge we face as designers is to articulate the value of a meaningful exchange between the client, expressing their needs, and the designer, understanding those needs and – critically – interpreting those needs (and, occasionally, identifying alternative, better-informed needs the client may never have even considered).
This exchange – one that is intensely personal and one that is fundamentally based upon a close working relationship between the client and designer – is critical, if the design process is to deliver more than simply an end product, devoid of strategic thinking.
Identifying design outcomes can, more often than not, stem from relationships developed between client and designer, where a designer grows from a position of understanding to deliver a campaign that reflects the clients’, often vaguely defined, needs.
The result? Both client and designer are happy.
The journey, when embarked upon with an open mind (on both sides), can often deliver far more than the initial brief dictated. The designer grows, but equally, the client grows. The result is often a team. A commisioner and realiser who, when working together and growing a partnership, can achieve a great deal. Much more than the simple, short-term, lowest common denominator form of transaction that crowdwsourcing suggests.
Where great design works the client and designer form a close bond, with a clear understanding and mutual respect emerging. As Grefe adeptly summarises:
For the designer, crowdsourcing demonstrates a lack of respect for the value of design’s full potential and places the lowest, rather than the highest, value on design services. However, it is important for designers to understand that it is not the practice of design that is being treated as a commodity but the design artifact, because most of those utilising crowdsourcing have no idea about the process of design or its potential contribution to positioning and strategy.
The emphasis on process is critical if we are to persuade clients – who let’s face it, are pressed in economically challenging times – to understand the real benefits of design.
When a partnership between client and designer works it’s about much more that simply, “I need X designed.” It often involves the designer offering strategic direction and giving guidance, based upon their accumulated experience and specialist knowledge.
The problem with crowdsourcing - and it’s a problem we need to articulate as designers - is that it reduces what is, in reality a complex relationship, to one that is fundamentally simplistic and focused only on the outcome. The reality is that design is much more complex and is less easily compartmentalised. When a partnership between client and designer works, its boundaries are often blurred, with the designer delivering much, much more than what was initially asked for.
At its most valuable, design is a process, not an end result. Where crowdsourcing is fundamentally flawed is in the perception it conjures that the design is an end product only. As designers, with much, much more to offer when working with clients, it’s our responsibility to articulate this clearly.
Focusing on telling that story will, in all likelihood, go some way towards dispelling the myth that crowdsourcing is the low cost panacea it’s often portrayed as being.
In 2009, Andy Baio - a writer and entrepreneur who helped build Kickstarter - ate his own dog food and launched a Kickstarter project called Kind of Bloop. The idea was elegant, and one we immediately fell in love with. As Mr Baio put it:
What would the pioneers of jazz sound like on a Nintendo Entertainment System? Coltrane on a C-64? Mingus on Amiga? For years, I’ve wondered what ‘chiptune jazz’ would sound like, but there are only a tiny handful of jazz covers ever made.
To satisfy my curiosity – and commemorate the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ – I’ve asked five brilliant chiptune musicians to collaborate and reinvent the entire album in the 8-bit sound.
The resulting album - which we backed at the time - was worth every
penny . Baio commissioned five chiptune musicians to collaborate and reinvent the entire album in 8-Bit sound, resulting in an oddly perfect blend of the old and the new, fifties melodies meets eighties sound cards.
Needless to say, this fine ensemble, needed to be packaged in an appropriate manner, and - attentive to detail as ever - Baio commissioned some wonderful cover art, crafted pixel-by-painstaking-pixel by pixel- and rough-taco lover SnackAdmiral. Every step of the way, Baio worked hard to ensure everything was above board and legal, as he puts it:
I went out of my way to make sure the entire project was above board, licensing all the cover songs from Miles Davis’s publisher and giving the total profits from the Kickstarter fundraiser to the five musicians that participated.
However, the one thing that Baio overlooked, which he never thought would be an issue, was the cover art… Fast forward to 2010, Baio was threatened with a lawsuit over the pixel art cover.
In February 2010, Baio was contacted by lawyers representing Jay Maisel, the noted New York photographer who took the original photograph 1 that inspired SnackAdmiral’s pixel art version 2. In their demand letter, they alleged that Baio had infringed Maisel’s copyright.
As compensation they sought: “Either statutory damages up to $150,000 for each infringement at the jury’s discretion and reasonable attorneys fees; or actual damages and all profits attributed to the unlicensed use of his photograph, and $25,000 for Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violations.”
Seven, doubtless nerve-wracking, months later, Baio chose to settle out of court. A creative project, for which he had raised just $8,647 (considerably above his Kickstarter goal of $2,000) in the end cost him $32,500 of his family’s hard-earned savings.
Despite his firm belief that he was in the right - which he articulates at length in a reasoned piece titled Kind of Screwed - he was forced to reach an out of court settlement to draw the proceedings (and, no doubt, a great deal of heartache and uncertainty) to a close. As he puts it: “This ordeal was very nerve-wracking for me and my family, and I’ve had trouble writing about it publicly until now.”
Baio is at pains to point out that his settlement is not an admission of guilt, stating: “The fact that I settled is not an admission of guilt. My lawyers and I firmly believe that the pixel art is ‘fair use’ and Maisel and his counsel firmly disagree. I settled for one reason: this was the least expensive option available.”
It’s a disappointing outcome to what – at the start – was a labour of love. One wonders what Maisel, who has been hounded so much since Baio published his piece that he has been forced to take down his Facebook page, thinks of the matter.
There’s no doubt the original image he took is iconic. As the cover of the word’s best-selling jazz album of all time it has doubtless been seen by millions. However, Maisel remains at heart a creative. An artist. This action - whether prompted by Maisel or his lawyers - sends a chilling shockwave through the creative community and one wonders how he might have felt, much earlier in his creative career, had he been threatened in an equivalent manner.
It breaks my heart that a project I did for fun, on the side, and out of pure love and dedication to the source material ended up costing me so much – emotionally and financially. For me, the chilling effect is palpably real. I’ve felt irrationally skittish about publishing almost anything since this happened. But the right to discuss the case publicly was one concession I demanded, and I felt obligated to use it. I wish more people did the same – maybe we wouldn’t all feel so alone.
Surely this isn’t what copyright law is about? To be used as a blunt stick to stifle creativity. One wonders why a hugely respected photographer, who lives in a 72-Room New York Dream House valued at $35 million would feel the need to stifle a younger artist’s creativity in such a manner. Not least given the fact that Maisel’s biography celebrates his ‘giving’ nature, stating: “Since he stopped taking on commercial work in the late 90s, Maisel has focused on his personal work and developed a reputation as a giving and inspiring teacher….”
We live in a remix culture. The web - in some of its finest moments - celebrates the re-imagining of the old in new ways. This culture, which lies aggressively at the heart of how we see ourselves in society today, should be encouraged, not stifled.
When Andy Baio embarked on his ‘Kind of Bloop’ project, it was to celebrate the music of one of the undisputed giants of twentieth century jazz, to bring his music to a wider audience and to celebrate creativity. It seems a pity that this celebration of creativity couldn’t extend equally towards the visual aspects of the project.
At the end of the day, the fact remains, Mr Baio has a $32,500 bill to pay. We can all do our part to preserve the realm of creative endeavour by supporting him. ‘Kind of Bloop’ is still available, albeit minus the cover art, and at just $5 it’s a steal. A mere 6,500 people who value culture and are prepared to pay a little to support it, will wipe the slate clean. We’d urge you to support Mr Baio by picking up a copy, you won’t regret it.
As the old saying goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
Launched amid much fanfare late last week 1, 2, 3…, Color is, apparently, “a miraculous application,” and one of the first of many, new life-changing applications for the ‘Post-PC World’ in which we now live. It’s also guilty of a not insubstantial degree of hyperbole, leading to a product launch that was ill-handled, at best, and - as Mike Rundle astutely puts it - has blown it, at worst.
There’s no doubt that the team behind the company is hugely talented - comprising Bill Nguyen, formerly CEO of Lala (bought by Apple in late 2009); Peter Pham, who previously founded BillShrink; and DJ Patil, who was previously LinkedIn’s Chief Scientist – and Color might, just might, be a groundbreaking new application. If there’s one thing we can learn from the Color launch fandango, however, it’s that it’s critical to get the message right before you swiftly pull back the curtains on your skunkworks project and loudly proclaim, “Ta da!”
Color’s press page promises, “a miraculous, free application,” however, its grandiose copywriting and obscure home page proved no substitute for a good, old-fashioned simple story. The result? A world of confusion and, far from the hoped for result, thought leaders that - for the most part - were left wholly unconvinced.
If the early adopters don’t get it…
When the thought leaders - the innovators and the early adopters - don’t get it, you have a problem on your hands.
As Seth Godin points out in his excellent book Purple Cow, the best way to get a product to mass market is to be remarkable and spark conversations or, to coin a phrase we’ve been using with our students, become ‘talkaboutable’.
When a product is talkaboutable, it spreads, becoming what Godin calls an ideavirus. Conversations spread, the word gets around, and if all goes according to plan, you have a hit on your hands. In today’s world of social and conversational media the word spreads faster than ever before thanks to the FOAFOAF (friend of a friend of a friend) phenomenon, powered by Twitter, amongst other tools.
However, if the message isn’t clear, that message can quickly become one you’d prefer not to spread. Innovators and early adopters wield huge amounts of influence and, as such, should be cultivated and handled with great care. If you don’t get the message right for this market, you’ve already lost half the battle.
One such influencer is Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. A positive nod from Mr Gruber can turn a product or idea into an overnight success, equally a negative nod can have the opposite effect. Writing on the day of Color’s launch, in Color: Breathlessly Overhyped Piece of Crap, Gruber summarised his first impressions of the app as follows:
Color is a new location-based social photo-sharing app for the iPhone and Android. Or something. I installed it and couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, and even if I could figure out the app, I can’t see why I’d ever want to use such a service.
Days later, reflecting on an interview - in which Color CEO, Bill Nguyen, tried to exercise some hasty, post-launch damage limitation - Gruber (now having seen the light) stated:
So it’s a data mining trojan horse. Well, that changes everything. Who wouldn’t love that? And it’s a good thing personal photos have no “personally identifiable information” – you know, other than images of you, your friends, and your family.
Oh dear. Not quite the response one imagines Color’s founders were looking for and, sadly for them, Gruber was far from a lone voice. When it all goes hopelessly wrong, however, the one place you can counter these kinds of responses - over and above undertaking the endless media round Nguyen subsequently embarked upon - is at home, or to put it more precisely, your home page.
It All Starts at Home
In our increasingly connected culture, everything inevitably returns to the web. Confused? Check the company’s web site, surely that’s where the answers lie?
Sadly, not so in Color’s case. Despite the ongoing criticism of the app and the confusion that surrounds it, the company’s web site remains just as it was the day it launched. Vague and, one imagines, intentionally obscure; it’s a case study in how not to write clear and unambiguous copy. Witness the following:
Find someone. Take pictures together. Party. Play date. Lunch? … Just look around.
This copy is far too clever for it’s own good and, in the wake of an endless stream of questions and confusion, leads the typically confused user nowhere. “Just look around.” At what, precisely?
Worse, the web site leads nowhere, other than an equally confusing press page that surely wins the prize for most excessive claims. It’s home to the ‘Post-PC World’ claim (of which Steve Jobs would doubtless be proud 4).
The bottom line? It doesn’t matter how great you think your app is, it’s what people think that counts. Witness the slew of one star reviews the app has garnered at the App Store.
Five Star Criticism
The result of Color’s poorly managed product launch is not just criticism, but - now - outright satire. Nestled amongst the one star reviews, is a solitary, beautifully crafted five star review, titled ‘Join the Adventure!’ that has garnered links from all over the web, including: Boing Boing, Mr Gruber, and a host of others.
The copy, by the mysteriously named ‘Ghostmouth’, is brilliant and perfectly parodies the confusing nature of the app that many have criticised:
Color is a ground-breaking new entry in the new genre of MMPRLMG (Massive Multi-Player Real-Live Marketing Games).
Imagine yourself emerging from the dense forest of the App Store(™). In a clearing ahead you see a shiny new icon, a multicolor wheel. Its name is ‘Color’. In the distance you hear the marketing dogs yelping buzz. “Social!” “Find someone!” “Party!” Your press Install, and your adventure begins!
The ensuing copy, which has clearly been carefully crafted, encapsulates the Color conundrum perfectly and reflects the many comments made by reviewers upon launching the app and being confusingly confronted with what 37signals describe as The Blank Slate.
As Mike Rundle puts it, “The app has a terrible first run experience and [it’s] getting decimated in the App Store with one star reviews.” Ouch.
The $41 Million Question
Will Color succeed? Who knows. The bottom line? When you’ve secured $41 Million in venture capital investment, your first responsibility is to tell a compelling product story: lead on the product, not the funding round. It’s perhaps the fact that the majority of the stories about Color’s launch led on the latter that led to so much confusion.
$41 Million is no guarantee of success; a good idea, wrapped up in a beautifully designed package and told via a compelling - and easy to understand - story is.
Rather than do the rounds of tech and finance blogs, Color would do better to focus on the fundamentals. Before you launch, put some thought into it. Test. Test. Test. Then test some more. Make sure your launch story focuses on the product, not the finance.
As Mike Rundle puts it, “Human attention is a scarce commodity in this flashy, New Thing Comes Out Every Day™ world we live in.” You only get one chance to make a first impression, let’s hope Color’s second impression improves.