Achieving Empathy for Institutions with Anil Dash

Anil Dash

IN BIG WEB SHOW № 115 on Mule Radio, I talk with Anil Dash, a hugely influential entrepreneur, blogger, and web geek living in NYC.

Things we discuss include:

How government, media, and tech shape the world, and how we can influence them in turn. Our first meeting at SXSW in 2002. How selling CMS systems teaches you the dysfunction at media companies and organizations. Working for the music industry at the dawn of Napster. RFP-EZ. The early days of blogging.

Designing websites for the government—the procurement problem. If we’re pouring all this time into social media, what do we want to get out of it? How big institutions work and how to have an impact on them. Living in “Joe’s Apartment.”

Why, until recently, federal agencies that wanted a blog couldn’t use WordPress or Tumblr and how the State Dept got on Tumblr. Achieving empathy for institutions. Being more thoughtful about what I share and who I amplify on social media. The launch of Thinkup, and a special offer exclusively for Big Web Show listeners.

Enjoy Big Web Show № 115.


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140 Characters is a Joke

THERE IS ALWAYS more to the story than what we are told. I am not omniscient. It is better to light a single candle than to join a lynch mob. Other people’s behavior is not my business. Truth is hard, epigrams are easy. Anything worth saying takes more than 140 characters. Blogging’s not dead. F____ the 140 character morality police.

Web Design Manifesto 2012

THANK YOU for the screen shot. I was actually already aware that the type on my site is big. I designed it that way. And while I’m grateful for your kind desire to help me, I actually do know how the site looks in a browser with default settings on a desktop computer. I am fortunate enough to own a desktop computer. Moreover, I work in a design studio where we have several of them.

This is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Designers with personal sites should experiment with new layout models when they can. Before I got busy with one thing and another, I used to redesign this site practically every other week. Sometimes the designs experimented with pitifully low contrast. Other times the type was absurdly small. I experimented with the technology that’s used to create web layouts, and with various notions of web “page” design and content presentation. I’m still doing that, I just don’t get to do it as often.

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind—although nobody until you has suggested I simply didn’t have access to a computer and therefore didn’t know what I was designing. This design may be good, bad, or indifferent but it is not accidental.

A few people who hate this design have asked if I’ve heard of responsive web design. I have indeed. I was there when Ethan Marcotte invented it, I published his ground-breaking article (and, later, his book, which I read in draft half a dozen times and which I still turn to for reference and pleasure), and I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ethan lecture and lead workshops on the topic about 40 times over the past three years. We’ve incorporated responsive design in our studio’s practice, and I’ve talked about it myself on various stages in three countries. I’m even using elements of it in this design, although you’d have to view source and think hard to understand how, and I don’t feel like explaining that part yet.

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

This redesign is deliberately over the top, but new ideas often exaggerate to make a point. It’s over the top but not unusable nor, in my opinion, unbeautiful. How can passages set in Georgia and headlines in Franklin be anything but beautiful? I love seeing my words this big. It encourages me to write better and more often.

If this were a client site, I wouldn’t push the boundaries this far. If this were a client site, I’d worry that maybe a third of the initial responses to the redesign were negative. Hell, let’s get real: if this were a client site, I wouldn’t have removed as much secondary functionality and I certainly wouldn’t have set the type this big. But this is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. And on this one, I get to try designs that are idea-driven and make statements. On this one, I get to flounder and occasionally flop. If this design turns out to be a hideous mistake, I’ll probably eventually realize that and change it. (It’s going to change eventually, anyway. This is the web. No design is for the ages, not even Douglas Bowman’s great Minima.)

But for right now, I don’t think this design is a mistake. I think it is a harbinger. We can’t keep designing as we used to if we want people to engage with our content. We can’t keep charging for ads that our layouts train readers to ignore. We can’t focus so much on technology that we forget the web is often, and quite gloriously, a transaction between reader and writer.

Most of you reading this already know these things and already think about them each time you’re asked to create a new digital experience. But even our best clients can sometimes push back, and even our most thrilling projects typically contain some element of compromise. A personal site is where you don’t have to compromise. Even if you lose some readers. Even if some people hate what you’ve done. Even if others wonder why you aren’t doing what everyone else who knows what’s what is doing.

I don’t think you will see much type quite this big but I do think you will see more single-column sites with bigger type coming soon to a desktop and device near you. For a certain kind of content, bigger type and a simpler layout just make sense, regardless of screen size. You don’t even have to use Typekit or its brothers to experiment with big type (awesome as those services are). In today’s monitors and operating systems, yesterday’s classic web fonts—the ones that come with most everyone’s computer—can look pretty danged gorgeous at large sizes. Try tired old Times New Roman. You might be surprised.

The present day designer refuses to die.


Cognition: Behind the Music

Happy Cog president Greg Storey describes the thinking behind our latest little experiment in online publishing and community:

Last week we launched Cognition, a studio blog, that replaced the traditional open-mic text area commenting system with two options: Either post a response via your own Twitter account or link to a post on your own blog.

As the primary instigator, Mr. Storey explains his and the agency’s rationale for doing away with traditional comments:

The problem with most comment threads is that they can reach that useless tipping point very quickly. Without having an active moderator to keep up with all of the various threads it’s practically impossible to provide any sort of conversational value.

Meanwhile we have also informally noticed a decline in blog usage since the wider adoption of Twitter within our community. … Happy Cog loves blogs. … What if we could help bring some life back into the old network by encouraging people to write blog posts when they have more to say than what can fit into one-hundred-and-forty characters?

Read more and comment if you wish: Airbag: Babylon.

Cog blog offloads comments.

The agency launched by a blog finally has a proper one of its own. Happy Cog gently introduces Cognition.

Speaking of experiments, there’s our comments section. [W]e’ve collocated our comments on Twitter. Share a tweet-length response here, and, with your permission, it will go there. If you are moved to respond with more than 140 characters, post the response on your website, and it will show up here.

Is This Thing On? – Cognition

Responsive design is the new black

Collylogic.com, retooled as responsive design. The wide version.

The blog of Mr Simon Collison, retooled as responsive web design. The wide version.

Collylogic.com, retooled as responsive design. The narrow version.

The blog of Mr Simon Collison, retooled as responsive web design. The narrow version.

See more versions in Mr Collison’s “Media Query Layouts” set on Flickr.

Read the article that started it all. Coming soon as a book by Mr Ethan Marcotte from A Book Apart. (The current A Book Apart book, Mr Jeremy Keith’s HTML5 For Web Designers, ships Friday. Mr Ethan Marcotte will be our guest this Thursday, June 24, on The Big Web Show. Synchronicity. It’s not just an LP by The Police. Kids, ask your parents.)

The beauty of responsive web design becomes obvious when you see your site in smart phones, tablets, and widescreen desktop browsers. It’s as if your site was redesigned to perfectly fit that specific environment. And yet there is but one actual design—a somewhat plastic design, if you will. An extensible design, if you prefer. It’s what some of us were going for with “liquid” web design back in the 1990s, only it doesn’t suck. Powered by CSS media queries, it’s the resurrection of a Dao of Web Design and a spiffy new best practice. All the kids are doing it.

Well, anyway, some of the cool ones are. See also the newly retooled-per-responsive-design Journal by Mr Hicks. Hat tip: Mr Stocks. I obviously have some work to do on this site. And you may on yours.

Seen any good responsive redesigns lately?


Stop chasing followers

The internet is not a numbers game. It’s about dialog, persuasion, and influence.

You don’t want a million people reading your HTML5 blog. You want members of the HTML5 working groups and key influencers from Google, Apple, and Microsoft reading your HTML5 blog. Likewise, it’s better to have twenty meaningful comments than a thousand +1s.

Ditto with Twitter follower counts. What it would gain you to acquire all the followers in the world? Bragging rights? Mysterious leverage? The ability to convince a not-very-bright business person that what you have to say matters, because n millions follow you?

Following doesn’t mean paying attention. You don’t want numbers on Twitter, not really. What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about.

This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs. Especially not eyeballs that aren’t even watching. Eyeballs is so 90s. And it was never the right metric.

This thing. If numbers are your strategy to win at this thing, you’ve already lost. This thing is not a game. There is no winning. There is only mattering. If you don’t understand that, you aren’t making a difference.


DWWS3e Live on Boagworld

There’s been a lot more opportunities for just thinking outside the very strict design parameters that we usually work with. Then just thinking about not just designing for any particular device but a particular context. Because even if you are on a mobile phone, if you’re viewing something on a subway in the morning versus in the middle of the office at 10:30, your environment sort of dictates how you want to interface with a particular piece of content. That’s really what’s been firing me up as a long term proponent of flexible designs, letting the user dictate the experience. I sort of see that as the next step, thinking beyond the desktop.

Ethan Marcotte and I talk about the third edition of Designing with Web Standards and discuss the future of the web—a podcast by Paul Boag, with full transcription.