In my earliest 20s, I wrote a novel. Make that three. The first two were garbage—a kind of literary throat clearing. I shelved the manuscripts and moved on. But my third draft novel, “Sugar and Snow,” seemed to have something.
My Uncle George connected me to his friend, a famous writer. She read my manuscript and shared it with her daughter, who also thought there was something to it.
The famous writer asked if she could share my manuscript with her publisher. I, of course, said yes. Then I phoned all my friends to tell them I would soon be a published author.
After three months of silence, the publishing company returned my manuscript, untouched. No word of explanation. Not even the courtesy of a boilerplate rejection letter.
Unless you count a few fibs on the resumes I submitted to potential employers, I never wrote another line of fiction.
I drank my way through the next decade, and did not exercise my writing ability for nearly ten years.
The power to help… or hurt
I should not have been so sensitive at age 20, I suppose. Older writers had told me that rejection was part of the life. John Casey, an early writing mentor, survived the Korean War, wrote a novel about his experiences, and submitted it to two dozen publishers who weren’t interested. Eventually he siphoned a short story out of one of the chapters of his rejected novel, and found a little magazine to publish it.
John Casey became an award-winning novelist, but first he slogged through years of rejection, as all writers must. He’d told me that was the game, but my heart wasn’t ready for it. At 20, I wasn’t strong enough.
Perhaps as a partial consequence of how badly a single rejection spun me out of control, when I sometimes have to deliver tough news to a creative colleague, I’ve always striven to be kind about it. Maybe I’m excessively careful about not hurting people. But is that a bad thing? After all, I don’t know which people whose work I need to criticize or even reject are strong enough to take it, and which aren’t.
And neither do you.
Being kind as well as clear becomes a moral mandate when you realize the power your feedback has to encourage another person to do their best work … or to shut them down creatively, possibly forever.
In “Wild Strawberries,” Professor Isak Borg is told in a dream, “A doctor’s first duty is to ask forgiveness.” We never know whom we may harm, or how deeply.
I told you a sad story, now here’s a happy one. I’m part of a small publishing company. Evaluating book proposals is where our process starts. Being clear compassionately is our mandate—we recognize the tremendous emotional risks folks take when they submit their ideas for review.
Last year an author approached us with a proposal that wasn’t quite right for us. We responded with detailed feedback about what would have made it the right fit for us … and we chose our words carefully to avoid inadvertently causing harm.
This year that author returned with a spectacular proposal that we’ve accepted gratefully and with real joy.
I thanked the author for having had the courage to come back—after all, I’d lacked that courage myself after my brush with rejection. The author thanked us for the feedback and the way we’d presented it, saying they would never have had the willingness to come back if not for the quality of our feedback.
As a result of an author’s determination and our compassionate clarity, our readers and this industry will benefit from an author’s brilliance.
CAN design create a better user experience that engages readers and drives revenue? Can it fight fake news and help save real journalism at a time when news organizations large and small are underfinanced and under attack?
The challenge began October 17–18 in New York, with five pundits and five designers, of whom I was honored to be one, workshopping a project brief during a two-day conference event at the Columbia Journalism School. (You can watch videos of all these sessions courtesy of Fora.tv.)
The next phase took place yesterday in St. Petersburg, Florida, as the four other designers and I presented our work to a live audience. In this short piece, I’ll talk about the designs my colleagues presented; in the next, I’ll discuss my own.
Reconnecting with the people: the challenge for digital news
Roger Black described the difficulties facing digital news publications:
The challenge is serious. Fake news crowds real news. Numbers no longer add up for publishers. Readers jump from site to site without knowing where they are, or staying for long. You can see the brief for this project here.
Can design help? Well, as a I designer, I think it can. I mean, the design of most news pages is not what you’d call attractive. But the solutions proposed at Poynter will be much more strategic than cosmetic. And they’re strategies that can be combined.
—Five design answers that add up, Roger Black, January 20, 2017
“A news publication might think a bit more like Fitbit”
Between us, we designers had about a century of experience designing digital publications—internally, as consultants, or both. This means that, even though an open “design challenge” brief necessarily omits an unknown number of the specific requirements any actual publication design assignment would include, all of us were aware of, and to some degree addressed, typical news publication requirements not included in our brief.
Kat Downs Mulder, Graphics Director at The Washington Post, shared a prototype for a big-brand news site. Kat had just given birth to a healthy baby boy (congratulations!), so her work was presented by two of her colleagues from The Post. Kat did not design with the avid, committed news reader in mind (since those folks are not the problem for most publications). Instead, she pondered how to engage the typically fragmented attention of today’s distracted and passive news reader:
“A big-brand news site [should be] aware that people have a lot more to do in their lives than read the news,” Kat posited. Thus, “A news publication might think a bit more like Fitbit. That is, it should make you feel like it’s working for you. A reader should say, ‘I’m reading everything I need to know.’”
Keep that dopamine pumping
Kat presented a multi-paned prototype. The wider pane on the right contained news content; the narrower pane at left was navigation. As I’ve just described it, this isn’t much different from the current Post website, but Kat’s prototype was very different, because it prized reader control over editorial director control; kept track of what you read; encouraged extra reading the way Fitbit encourages extra steps, and rewarded it the same way Fitbit does, with an accumulation of points that give the reader dopamine hits and create the perception that the “news app” is working for her—as a rewarding part of her busy lifestyle.
An Operating System for your city
Mike Swartz, Partner at Upstatement, a design and engineering studio in Boston, took on the challenge to smaller publications (such as his original hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) which lack the resources of a Washington Post or New York Times.
Mike’s presentation, “information OS for a city: redefining the opportunity for local media,” turned the journalistic prowess of a good local paper into a superpower, connecting readers to their city the way the “terrible towel” stunt concocted in desperation by radio announcer Myron Cope in 1975 reconnected Pittsburghers to their hometown football team, and helped the Steelers win Super Bowl X over the Dallas Cowboys.
There’s a potential for an operation like the [Post Gazette] to rebrand itself as more of an “informational operating system” for its city. With different types of products that are focused and useful and not necessarily bundled into a traditional news format, we can create more enjoyable experiences and more useful products readers will love.
Building reader interest and finding a way to pay for it all
Where the rest of us avoided the elephant in the room, in her design Lucie Lacava, president of Lacava Design Inc., boldly confronted the challenges of advertising and monetization. Algorithm-driven advertising frustrates users, who, in desperation, block it. Choked for income as a result, publications and advertisers create more and more intrusive forms of unwanted advertising. Nobody wins.
And while subscription models have worked, at least partly, for some of the very top news publications, such models are not likely to help most news publications in the near term.
Digital publication as digital application
Lucie’s design addressed these challenges by recasting the news as a hyper-customized application targeted at younger users, who get to choose news streams and ads that are relevant to them. “The elusive millennial” was Lucie’s target. I cannot do her idea justice with a couple of paragraphs and a single screen shot.
Affordable, immersive VR is here
Jared Cocken, brand and product designer for hire and co-founder of STYLSH.co., approached the “attention war” by showing how any size publication could create “video or VR driven stories that enrich a user’s understanding of the world around them.”
Because VR video is immersive, it holds viewer attention. Because it is reality-based, it fights fake news. (It’s hard to call bullshit on a scene you can explore from any angle.) VR also, potentially, builds compassion. It’s one thing to read about conditions in a Syrian refugee camp, another to visually experience them in VR.
Until now VR and video have been cost-prohibitive, but, working (and co-presenting) with VR startup founder Anna Rose and Hollywood producer/actor Banks Boutté, Jared showed how even woefully under-financed newsrooms can use newly designed, super-affordable tools to create “video or VR-driven stories that enrich a user’s understanding of the world around them.”
Blogging about a conference is like tweeting about a sexual experience. You had to be there. I wanted to record and share the outlines of what my fellow designers presented, but these few paragraphs should in no way be considered authentically representative of the deep thinking and work that went into every presentation.
You may see holes in some of the arguments presented here. In some cases, I might agree with you—some ideas, while dazzlingly creative, did not seem to me like the right way to save news. But in most cases, if an idea seems wrong, blame my telling. If you had been there and heard and seen everything, the value of the proposal would have far more apparent than it can be here.
I love that each of us took on a quite different aspect of the problem, and addressed it using very different tools. I’ll be back soon with a short write-up of the design approach I took. Meanwhile, I want to thank all the pundits, designers, and attendees in New York and St. Petersburg—and the Poynter Institute, Roger Black, and William R. Hearst III for making it all possible.
When I first met Lara, she was touring behind her excellent O’Reilly book Designing For Performance, a topic she brought to life at An Event Apart in 2016. But, as important as performance is, I was even more excited to publish her new A Book Apart book, Demystifying Public Speaking, because, for nearly 20 years, I’ve impressed on my design/development colleagues and students the vital importance of public speaking to the success of their projects and careers—and now there’s finally a book that tells them how to do it.
I believe in public speaking (and writing) because a person who is comfortable sharing ideas and communicating to groups can evangelize designs, principles, and best practices. This in turn helps build consensus, support collaboration, and keep everyone’s eyes focused on what’s best for users—instead of, say, which colors a powerful committee member dislikes, or how much bigger we could make a button or logo.
Those who communicate comfortably, even when opinions vary and the subject is contentious, spread reassurance, which means the project not only focuses on the right things, but does so in a positive and supportive environment. Effective communicators inspire their groups to dig deeper and try more things—to work, and ponder, harder. This generally leads to more successful iterations (and, ultimately, projects), spreading good work in the community and leading as well to greater career success and longevity. Whew!
That’s why I speak. And why I strongly encourage my students and work mates to speak. Thanks to Postlight and to everyone who attended last night’s event.
AS MUCH as I love reading (and writing and publishing) books and articles about design, I’ve never learned as much from a book as I’ve picked up over time while rubbing shoulders with colleagues who share my work space.
It’s why, even though NYC office rents are ludicrously expensive, I opened a shared design studio space in gently trending NoMad, Manhattan in January of 2012. And why, just three short months ago, I leaped at the chance to help launch the Shopify Partners Studio Program—a coworking space and casual mentoring program for exceptionally talented freelance ecommerce designers and developers.
The first six participants included a web developer and social media consultant; a visual experience designer; a freelance web developer and blogger; two freelance designer/developers; and a copywriter/marketing consultant. Three of them sought feedback from me on exciting business and product ideas they’d come up with; two asked me for career guidance and business advice. All taught me more than I taught them, and inspired me to look at my own work and career with fresh eyes.
Most or all of these lovely and talented people will be moving on soon, as the next phase of Shopify Partner Studio begins. Which brings us to you.
Apply now to join the next round of Shopify Partner Studio! If selected for residency, you’ll gain access to a suite of opportunities to kickstart your business, including:
Free rent and high-speed Internet for three months in my studio on lower Madison Avenue.
Mentorship from your humble narrator, Shopify executives, and “other industry icons.” (I put the quotations around Shopify’s phrase to not sound like a complete egomaniac.)
Fast-tracked access to the Shopify Experts Marketplace, where Shopify sends its 243,000 merchants looking for help with store, theme, and app builds.
A free Shopify store to build your portfolio website.
A free ticket to Smashing Conference NYC.
So what are you waiting for? Join me and some of your smartest colleagues in an experience that just might help make your career. Apply now to the Shopify Partners Studio Program.
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 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.
CO-FOUNDER of Mule Design and raconteur Mike Monteiro wants to help you do your job better. From contracts to selling design, from working with clients to working with each other, his brief book Design Is A Job is packed with knowledge you need to know. This is one of the most in-demand titles we at A Book Apart have yet published, and the long, long wait for its release (and yours) is finally over!
Jeffrey was looking for us to do a more tailored, short run of the doll we had initially designed of him-215 to be exact. They were to be given away as gifts at the Hall of Fame after party being held at South by Southwest (right about now is where you can hear our jaws drop to the floor).
Here was the opportunity to put handmade work into the hands of 215 web designers and industry gurus at one of the largest interactive design conferences in the world-South by Southwest. Are we interested? Hells, please! So, after hashing out the details and specifics we set into work on the very complicated and detailed project. Below are just a few of the pictures we took documenting the process…
Dan is a former interactive designer for Happy Cog’s Philadelphia studio, former design director at Big Spaceship in Brooklyn, co-founder of Typedia and swfIR, and singer/keyboard player for contemporary-Christian band Four24. I can’t tell you what he is doing next — he has sworn me to secrecy — but trust me, it will be awesome.
Over a long career marked by extraordinary collaborators, Aaron and Dan are two of the smartest, and most talented people I’ve had the pleasure to work with. They are also friends. This isn’t goodbye, fellas.
SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST Interactive (“SXSWi” or simply “South by” to its friends) has somewhat brazenly announced that I will be the first inductee in its new Hall of Fame. The induction will take place during the 2012 Interactive Awards presentation in March of next year. There will be flowers and virgins. Well, flowers.
SXSW Interactive features five days of compelling presentations from the brightest minds in emerging technology. Founded in 1995—the same year I started this website—the Austin, TX-based interactive festival attracts tens of thousands annually.
I hope this announcement will not negatively affect attendance.
“REDESIGNS REQUIRE STRATEGY, otherwise they are merely reskinning. We don’t do reskinning. We do strategic redesigns that help the people who use your website achieve their goals. Strategic redesign starts with research. The notion that a design is ‘dull’ and needs to be ‘freshened up’ by a ‘burst of creative inspiration’ reveals a lack of understanding of, and disrespect for, design.
WALT DISNEY AND ME, a typical day, running Happy Cog, building An Event Apart, what’s next for A Book Apart, and more: DIBI, the design/build conference, presents An interview with Jeffrey Zeldman for your pleasure.
(I swear it’s a coincidence the last two posts have begun with inset photos of yours truly.)