In 1999, I had the good fortune to work alongside Dan Licht at an NYC digital startup called SenseNet, RIP. Back then, although still in his early 20s, Dan was already an accomplished art director and digital designer. Today he’s a fantastic comics illustrator, artist, and creative director. Check his recent art on Instagram and his client work at Daniel V. Licht dot com.
Apropos of nothing in particular, I present my all-time listening (first 5.25 rows) and more recent listening:
Because I’m weird that way: Sometimes I’ll listen extensively to a particular artist from my collection whom I might not have played in a while, simply to bump them higher in the mosaic or reposition them for a more pleasing composition.
If Spotify exposes you to new music, Last.fm helps remind you of great music in your existing collection that may have slipped your mind. (Not an advertisement. I use last.fm and get great pleasure from how it helps me discover and fuss with my music, as I once spent hours in the old days stacking and rearranging my LPs and tapes.)
And that’s how I stay out of the pool halls.
Public Service P.S: If you do decide to try last.fm, please, by all means, pay the small monthly subscription fee if you can. Doing so supports the under-resourced team that keeps the service going. It also removes the ads, making the site usable (the ads are a nightmare), and gives you the option to view your music as a visual grid, like those shown in my screenshots. The grid-view makes the site. It gives you, not just a visual record collection, but a visual artist collection, if you’ll allow the conceit. I love it.
An earlier version of this post also appears on my Facebook stream.
First, be kind.
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.
Creators, never give up.
Gatekeepers, first be kind.
Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash
This story is a bit long, but I promise it will be worth it, because it contains the two most important principles every designer must know and take to heart if you intend to do great work anywhere, under almost any circumstances, over the long, long haul of your career.Sticking To It – fresh from JZ in Automattic.Design
NONE of us knows what today will bring. And for many of us, these are fearful times. So I wanted to take a breath, pause a moment, and share two small gifts I received this morning at the start of my workday:
You know, for kids
First, Rob Ford wrote to my daughter and me to tell us that Macaw Books will be at Frankfurt Book Fair next week to promote The Little Trailblazers, a children’s book of illustrated stories to which we contributed.
It’s been more than two years since a younger Ava and I co-wrote a rhyming story for this collection of tales written by “Internet pioneers” and illuminated by brilliant illustrators from around the world—50 contributors from over 25 countries, 50/50 female/male ratio.
When the book’s original publisher withdrew their support due to its lack of mass commercial potential, Rob could easily have given up. Instead, for over two years, he fought to find the right publisher and charity organization to align with the project.
Today word came that The Little Trailblazers will be in aid of Unicef’s work for children. I can’t think of a better fit. Rob’s vision and perseverance have been something to behold, and I am grateful to have had the chance to collaborate with my kid on what will be her first published story.
Art & copy
Next, Dougal MacPherson presented a trio of narratively related illustrations for an important upcoming A List Apart series directed by Aaron Gustafson. I’m thrilled that Aaron conceived the series, found the authors, chose ALA to publish it, and is shepherding the entire project. I can’t wait for you to read it.
And, although I should be used to it by now, I’m still gratefully astonished by Dougal’s ability to take complex, technical topics, find their common truth, and create a unifying visual narrative tying them together for A List Apart’s readers. Oh, and he draws great, too.
There is much that can go wrong in our lives, most of it beyond our control. Sometimes how the afternoon sunlight looks as it warms the tops of trees is what you get that day to remind you that life is a gift. Or, hey, don’t knock a good sandwich.
But sometimes—especially if your line of work can at least partly be described as “creative”—sometimes you are reminded just how incredibly lucky you are to know and work with passionate, talented people. And that is fuel, not only for continued effort, but for gratitude.
Also published on Medium.
Illustration: Justin Dauer
Ten Years Ago on the Web
2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugs, worrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.
I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.
Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)
Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.
Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.
I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)
In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.
As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts one, two, three, or four, have a look back.
IN AN IDEAL world, we’d be able to modify a design or graphic for the web while keeping the original intact, all without opening an image editor. We’d save tons of time by not having to manually reprocess graphics whenever we changed stuff. Graphics could be neatly specified, maintained, and manipulated with just a few licks of CSS. Oh. Wait. We can do that! Justin McDowell gives us the lowdown: read Blending Modes Demystified in today’s A List Apart.
Illustration by Brad Colbow
2001 IS CALLING, and while it may not look fresh, its message still resonates:
We believe that the web is a remarkable medium for new forms of art, personal storytelling, and all manner of information and services whose rewards are not necessarily financial.
The independent content scene is alive and well, but is largely unknown by the general web-using public.
We seek to support each other as a community, and to increase, if possible, the general public’s awareness not only of existing independent sites, but of the fact that they can create their own.
INDEPENDENTS DAY is a wholly non-owned, non-commercial, non-subsidiary of nothing.
Independent content on the web: a declaration of principles from 2001, still relevant today, from Independents Day.
THERE’S GREAT reading for people who make websites in Issue No. 421 of A List Apart:
Resetting Agency Culture
by Justin Dauer
Forget Air Hockey, Zen Gardens, and sleep pods: a true “dream” company invests in its people—fostering a workplace that supports dialogue, collaboration, and professional development. From onboarding new hires to ongoing engagement, Justin Dauer shares starting points for a healthy office dynamic and confident, happy employees. ?
Crafting a Design Persona
by Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek
Every product has a personality—is yours by design? Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek shows you how Weather Underground solved its personality problems by creating a design persona, and teaches you collaborative methods for starting a personality adjustment in your company. ?
AN EVENT APART Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Pictures of the city and the conference for people who make websites.
Notes from An Event Apart Chicago 2013—Luke Wroblewski’s note-taking is legendary. Here are his notes on seven of the ten presentations at this year’s An Event Apart Chicago.
#aeachi—conference comments on Twitter.
Chicago (Foursquare)—some of my favorite places in the city.
An Event Apart Chicago—sessions, schedule, and speaker bios for the conference that just ended.
AEA Chicago 2013 on Lanyrd—three days of design, code, and content on the social sharing platform for conferences.
THE NEXT AEA event takes place in Austin and is already sold out (although a few spaces are still available for the full-day workshop on multi-device design).
A handful of seats are available for the final event of the year, An Event Apart San Francisco at the Palace Hotel, December 9–11, 2013. Be there or be square.
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.
HARD TO BELIEVE, but it was ten years ago that I first heard Lawrence Lessig give a talk at SXSWi about an idea he had to save content from death by copyright law.
At the time, copyright law and digital creativity were at odds, and tens of thousands of cultural artifacts were disappearing from the commons because of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, a copyright extension pushed through congress by the late Sonny Bono at the behest of the Disney corporation. Corey Doctorow, one of Lessig’s partners on the SXSW panel, memorably likened the destruction to the slow motion burning of the Library of Alexandria.
But Lessig had a plan. And, remarkably, it worked: “For a decade now, Creative Commons has made legal sharing and remixing easier for everyone. After ten years, it has become the default third way.”
Let’s help this good work continue. Please donate to Creative Commons if you can.
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.
“WE ARE ALL PUBLISHERS,” claims Issue No. 353 of A List Apart for people who make websites. Design books with CSS3; craft a responsive web résumé.
Building Books with CSS3
by NELLIE MCKESSON
While historically, it’s been difficult at best to create print-quality PDF books from markup alone, CSS3 now brings us the Paged Media Module, which targets print book formatting. “Paged” media exists as finite pages, like books and magazines, rather than as long scrolling stretches of text, like most websites. With a single CSS stylesheet, publishers can take XHTML source content and turn it into a laid-out, print-ready PDF. You can take your XHTML source, bypass desktop page layout software like Adobe InDesign, and package it as an ePub file. It’s a lightweight and adaptable workflow, which gets you beautiful books faster. Nellie McKesson, eBook Operations Manager at O’Reilly Media, explains how to build books with CSS3.
A Case for Responsive Résumés
by ANDREW HOFFMAN
Grizzled job hunting veterans know too well that a sharp résumé and near-flawless interview may still leave you short of your dream job. Competition is fierce and never wanes. Finding new ways to distinguish yourself in today’s unforgiving economy is vital to a designer/developer’s survival. Happily, web standards whiz and mobile web developer Andrew Hoffman has come up with a dandy differentiator that is just perfect for A List Apart readers. Learn how to author a clean résumé in HTML5/CSS3 that scales well to different viewport sizes, is easy to update and maintain, and will never grow obsolete.
Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart.
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.