No Ken Do (Musketeer Barbie Saves the Prince)

I WATCHED dozens of Barbie videos hundreds of times when my daughter was three and four years old. I can’t praise their animation, dialog, or other cinematic and literary qualities, but this I can say in their favor: every Barbie video we watched was feminist and empowering in its messaging.

This was not the Barbie my girl cousin grew up with, wondering which outfit she should wear to please Ken. This Barbie kicked ass.

In one video, set in 18th Century France, Barbie and her roommates overcame sexism to become Musketeers. They exposed a conspiracy, beat male villains at swordplay, and more than once saved the life of the kingdom’s rather ineffectual prince. (The downside of the Barbie videos’ crude but seemingly heartfelt feminism was that they tended to portray men as wimps or scumbags. Women are strong in the Barbie videos; good men are not.)

In another video, Barbie was an actor who became a film director when the director of the picture in which she was starring tried to patronize her. In Fairytopia, the first and worst animated of the videos, Barbie went on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style quest and saved an entire kingdom from ruin. In A Fashion Fairytale, she saved her aunt’s business from bankruptcy by an evil (woman) competitor, and then helped that competitor turn from the dark side to the light. In other words, she kicked ass but also nurtured and forgave. Assertive and supportive. A fighter and a hugger.

I watched these videos over and over, because children aged three to four thrive on repetition. I got familiar enough that I could quote the dialog as easily as I quote from Rushmore or North By Northwest. I was relieved when my daughter outgrew Barbie, because my mind craved something a little more grown-up in the film narrative department. But I never once worried that the videos were telling my daughter she could be anything but awesome. I never watched a single Barbie video that told girls life was about finding and pleasing anyone besides yourself.

This was also the time in my daughter’s development when we bought Barbie reading books and Barbie dolls. When I was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to look beautiful. When my daughter was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to earn a living.

You can find fault with Barbie. For one thing, she still promotes a vision of the world in which caucasian features set the beauty standard—a world in which, even if there are variously ethnic friends in the mix, the main character is always white. Then there are her unrealistic physical dimensions, which have been tied to self-loathing and eating disorders in girls and women. (Not that Barbie’s is the only unrealistic physique girls contend with—they’re bombarded with the stuff from birth.) The Barbie stories never question the established social order. They inspire girls to achieve, but obviously they don’t address male/female pay discrepancy or other serious social issues.

Musketeer Barbie saves the prince; she doesn’t ask why do we need a prince? Shouldn’t we invent representative democracy? And how about letting a woman run things?

Barbie won’t save us. But she’s not as bad as all that.

For young girls who have just begun seeing the world through the filter of gender, today’s Barbie does some good. Barbie videos were some of the only stories we watched back then that didn’t require me to immediately explain, apologize for, and caution against believing, one or more horrifying biases. Viewed a classic Disney film lately?

The internet feeds on outrage and cat gifs. And the recent outing of a Barbie story that appears to conform to 1950s-Barbie-thinking made perfect fodder. But it might simply be a book that teaches children how different professionals work together to create the digital games they enjoy playing. A designer is part of the mix; so are developers and other professionals, whose complementary skills support each other. That’s how it works when I design stuff. In my work, almost every day, there are things that go wrong that oblige me to call someone else to fix them. I notice a problem on a server; I reach out to a sysadmin. It isn’t because I’m a boy and boys are dumb. It’s because designers aren’t sysadmins.

All right. Fair enough. It was a terrible error for the illustrator to make all the technical people male. That sends an awful message—one lots of us have been working to fight. It’s disturbing that nobody at the publishing house realized the inferences that could be drawn from this mistake. And if this were my only exposure to Barbie in the past ten years, I’d be drawing those inferences and storming the barricades (i.e. retweeting) with the rest of my peeps.

But honestly? I spent two long years with the Barbie franchise. I think the women running it today are serious about girl power. Maybe the unfortunately timed illustration error reveals a deep sexist conspiracy. Or maybe it’s just one of those things nobody thought about while rushing a cheap book to print.

Design Is A Relationship

Mike Monteiro

MIKE MONTEIRO is a man on a mission. He wants to improve design by fixing the core of it, which is the relationship between designer and client. Too many of us fear our clients—the people whose money keeps our lights on, and who hire us to solve business problems they can’t solve for themselves. And too many clients are even more frustrated and puzzled by their designers than the designers are by the clients.

It’s the designer’s job to fix this, which is why Mike first wrote Design Is A Job, and spent two years taking the message into conference halls and meeting rooms from New Zealand to New York.

I wish every designer could read this book. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine—many of whom I consider far better designers than I am—struggle every day with terrible anxieties over how a client will react to their work. And the problem isn’t limited to web and interaction designers. Anybody who designs anything burns cycles in fear and acrimony. I too waste hours worrying about the client’s reaction—but a dip into Mike’s first book relaxes me like a warm milk bath, and reminds me that collaboration and persuasion are the essence of my craft and well within my power to execute.

If the designer’s side of things were the only part of the problem Mike had addressed, it would be enough. But there is more:

  • Next Mike will help clients understand what they should expect from a designer and learn how to hire one they can work with. How he will do that is still a secret—although folks attending An Event Apart San Francisco this week will get a clue.
  • Design education is the third leg of the chair, and once he has spread his message to clients, Mike intends to fix that or die trying. As Mike sees it (and I agree) too many design programs turn out students who can defend their work in an academic critique session among their peers, but have no idea how to talk to clients and no comprehension of their problems. We are creating a generation of skilled and talented but only semi-employable designers—designers who, unless they have the luck to learn what their expensive education didn’t teach them, will have miserably frustrating careers and turn out sub-par work that doesn’t solve their clients’ problems.

We web and interaction designers are always seeking to understand our user, and to solve the user’s problems with empathy and compassion. Perhaps we should start with the user who hires us.

Animate This: Val Head on CSS, Pittsburgh, and The Big Web Show

Val Head

DESIGNER/DEVELOPER Val Head and I discuss her new book A Pocket Guide to CSS Animations (Five Simple Steps, 2013); the Web Design Day conference; working as a hired gun; JavaScript and CSS animation; the great city of Pittsburgh; what it takes to run a workshop; and more. Enjoy Episode № 104 of The Big Web Show on Mule Radio.

There’s Always More


Big Web Show № 98: Designer Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman

I CHAT with internet radio pioneer, design author, and brand maven Debbie Millman about broadcasting, writing, teaching, publishing, learning to be happy in your own skin, and the importance of early failure to long-term success and happiness. Enjoy Debbie Millman on The Big Web Show.

(Want more Debbie? Check Observer Media–Debbie’s legendary audio interviews with the likes of Jessica Walsh, Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Maria Popova, Stefan Sagmeister, Dave Eggers, Jen Bekman, Gary Hustwit, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Erik Spierkermann, Jessica Hische, and many more.)


And now for something completely different

IN THESE PAGES I have written on many subjects, but I never expected my ass to be one of them. The untimely passing last year of Hillman Curtis changed that.

Hillman was a friend, an inspiration, an artist admired by many designers and filmmakers. Over a brief but luminous career, he invented himself first as a songwriter in a touring post-punk band, then as an art director and eventually the design director of Macromedia (and Flash evangelist Numero Uno), next as the founder of a boutique design studio and the author of design books that have sold over 150 thousand copies—a staggering achievement in an industry where cracking 10,000 copies sold makes you a rock star.

He was a generous mentor and pal to the digital design community, perpetually sharing his insights and enthusiasm, and encouraging others to do and be everything they could be. If you needed studio space, he would find you a desk. If you were low on funds, he would help you land a suitable gig. Hillman and I worked on a couple of projects together when I first founded Happy Cog. The jobs went well and the work was good. He was a supportive and honorable design director.

Hillman’s final public creative incarnation was as a filmmaker. He is probably best known for his “Artist Series” about designers including Milton Glaser and Paula Scher, and artists David Byrne and Brian Eno.

Even his personal life was inspiring. He had two children and a wife, and the love in that beautiful family could be seen a mile away.

Colon cancer took Hillman from us on April 18, 2012. He was only 51.

I don’t know if Hillman’s cancer could have been prevented with a simple screening, but I know a colonoscopy is recommended for most men and women when they reach a certain age, and I know I love my daughter very much.

And so, this morning, for her sake and per my doctor’s recommendation, I set aside feelings of embarrassment and fears of discomfort and had the test.

It’s really not bad. There’s no pain, it takes only a few minutes, and you’re unconscious.

This post may cross a taste line for some readers; sorry about that. I’m also sorry this page won’t help you write better HTML or sharpen your collaborative skills. But I love you and would like you to stick around.

Big Web Show 81: SwissMiss

IN EPISODE No. 81 of The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”) I interview Tina Roth Eisenberg, creator of swissmiss and tattly, founder of Creative Mornings, and cofounder of teuxdeux. We discuss discovering your path as a designer; why the motto “let it go or fix it” can help you create great product ideas; how to be a good boss; and how kids can have a profoundly positive influence on your career.

Listen to Episode 81 of The Big Web Show.

More Tina

To Leiden, To Leiden

THEY’RE SLEEPING in New York. They’re sleeping all over the world. Even here in Leiden, The Netherlands, they’re still mumbling and drooling in their beds. But not me. I’m awake and packing for my return home to NYC after three glorious days here in this ancient university town, where I was privileged to speak at the first Inspire conference. And all you got were these lousy photos.

Related: Design Problem

For Your Listening Pleasure

THE BIG WEB SHOW is back, baby! In spite of hurricanes, blackouts, and the vagaries of international travel, my 5by5 audio podcast about “everything web that matters” has returned to weekly broadcasting. Here are the latest episodes for your edification and listening pleasure:

Episode 76: Jen Robbins

Creator of four classic web design books (in 13 editions) Jennifer Robbins and I chat about her upcoming Artifact Conference for multi-device design; why sites are now systems, not pages; how style guides can function as a system design description tool; getting digital UX design into its natural habitat (hint: not a comp) sooner than later; what’s new in web design and the 4th Edition of her O’Reilly classic Learning Web Design; and loads more.

Jennifer Robbins has two decades of web design experience, having designed the first commercial website, O’Reilly’s Global Network Navigator (GNN), in 1993. She’s the author of O’Reilly’s Web Design in a Nutshell, and has taught web design at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI.

Episode 75: Evan Williams

Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, discusses what it’s like to be an internet entrepreneur, from the origin of product ideas to the art of the pivot. Ev is a notoriously private guy; it is wonderful to hear him open up and share his hard-won web wisdom in this episode.

Evan Williams is an American entrepreneur who has co-founded several internet companies, including Pyra Labs (creators of Blogger) and Twitter, where he was previously CEO. His new thing is Medium. Ev was born and raised on a farm in central Nebraska. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons. He likes long walks, tofu, and bourbon. Ev has blogged for over a decade at evhead.com; you can follow him on Twitter at @ev.

Episode 74: Chris Coyier

In Episode No. 74 of The Big Web Show, I interview Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks, CodePen, and ShopTalk about the path from employee to media maven, upcoming secret features for CodePen, coping with Retina images, finding sponsors, the success of his Kickstarter campaign, tee shirts for manly men, Twitter dramas about baseline grids, and more.

Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) founded and writes at CSS-Tricks, co-hosts a podcast at ShopTalk, and co-founded and is a designer at CodePen, a sort of Dribble for coders.

Episode 73: Sara Wachter-Boettcher

I chat with content strategist and author of Content Everywhere Sara Wachter-Boettcher (@sara_ann_marie) about how practitioners can organize and structure content to maximize its value, longevity, and future-friendliness.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a content strategist and writer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she drinks strong coffee and sometimes blogs. She is editor in chief at A List Apart magazine, and her book, Content Everywhere, is due out from Rosenfeld Media in the very near future. You can find Sara on Twitter trying not to say all the snarky things she thinks.

Episode 72: Derek Powazek

For the return of The Big Web Show, I speak with web pioneer Derek Powazek (@fraying), Founder and CEO of Cute-Fight, the online game for real-life pets and the people who love them.

Derek Powazek has worked the web since 1995 at pioneering sites like HotWired, Blogger, and Technorati. He is the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places (New Riders, 2001) and the cofounder of JPG, the photography magazine that’s made by its community. He has also been Chief of Design for HP’s MagCloud, advisor to a handful of startup companies, and creator of Fray, the quarterly book of true stories and original art. Derek is now Founder and CEO of Cute-Fight, the online game for real-life pets and the people who love them. Derek lives in San Francisco with his wife, two nutty Chihuahuas, and a house full of plants named Fred.

My Brother is a Monster

MY MOTHER played piano and cello. My father draws, paints, and sculpts; plays trumpet and guitar; and led an advanced R&D lab in the 1970s, developing robotics and rocket parts. You know what I do, but I also play keyboards and other instruments, studied music theory, and composed and produced music in my own studio before failing up into my present career. We Zeldmans go our own way, bring our own juice, and leave a trail of tears and gold. But my brother Pete Zeldman is the real talent in the family.

My brother Pete spontaneously composes and performs music of such rhythmic complexity that Edgard Varèse and Frank Zappa would be proud. Even with an advanced music degree, you’d have a tough time following the music analytically. But you don’t have to, because it grooves. That’s the crazy surprise of it. My brother plays 17 in the time of 16 in the time of 15 in the time of 14, with cross rhythms in simultaneous 3/4 and 7/8, and you could dance to it. Admittedly, you couldn’t pogo, but it doesn’t pretend to be punk. Musically it is probably the exact opposite of punk, but spiritually it is punk because it is pure affirmation.

My brother made two CDs before releasing his new video, Enigma, this week. I listen to these CDs a lot. Although I’ve watched my brother develop his unique rhythmic musical theories over the past 20 years, I don’t attempt to “follow” the music in any analytical fashion while listening. I just let it wash over me. So can you.

New art is rarely understood. New music is rarely what the people want. They threw tomatoes at Debussy and Stravinsky, and now their compositions are gentle backgrounds for dentist’s offices. White people laughed at rock and roll and their children danced to it. Those rockers laughed at hip hop and their kids dance to it. My brother’s music is like that. It is something new. It’s not going to be a movement because it takes a certain kind of twisted genius to conceive of and play it. But you might like it. And if you’re a drummer, you probably need to hear it.

I am proud of my brother and delighted to share his genius with you. Samples from his new video are available at pete-zeldman.com. His CDs are also available.

Insites: The Book Honors Web Design, Designers

“INSITES: THE BOOK is a beautiful, limited edition, 256-page book presented in a numbered, foil-blocked presentation box. This very special publication features no code snippets and no design tips; instead, 20 deeply personal conversations with the biggest names in the web community.

“Over the course of six months, we travelled the US and the UK to meet with Tina Roth Eisenberg, Jason Santa Maria, Cameron Moll, Ethan Marcotte, Alex Hunter, Brendan Dawes, Simon Collison, Dan Rubin, Andy McGloughlin, Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka, Josh Brewer, Ron Richards, Trent Walton, Ian Coyle, Mandy Brown, Sarah Parmenter, Jim Coudal, Jeffrey Zeldman, Tim Van Damme, and Jon Hicks.

“We delved into their personal journeys, big wins, and lessons learned, along with the kind of tales you’ll never hear on a conference stage. Each and every person we spoke to has an amazing story to tell — a story we can all relate to, because even the biggest successes have the smallest, most humble of beginnings.” — Insites: The Book


I am honored to be among those interviewed in this beautiful publication.


Insites: The Book is published by Viewport Industries in association with MailChimp.