Herewith, a scene from last night’s interview with legendary web & book designer (and Dean of The Cooper Union School of Art) Mike Essl, who shared his portfolio, career highlights, early web design history, and more. Fun!
If you get a chance to meet, work with, or learn from Mike, take it. He’s brilliant, hilarious, warmly human, and one of the most creative people you’ll ever have the good fortune to know.
TEACHING is a great way to find out what you know, and to connect with other human beings around a shared passion. It’s an energy exchange as well as an information one, and the energy and information flow both ways.
I’ve been a faculty member in the MFA in Interaction Design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts since my colleague Liz Danzico cofounded the program with Steven Heller in 2009. As with all programs and departments at School of Visual Arts, the MFA IXDprogram is run by a faculty of busy, working professionals who teach one three-hour class per week, one semester per year.It’s the kind of gig that doesn’t interfere with your full-time job, and even makes you better at it.
(Fun facts: In 1988, I moved back to New York, the city of my birth, specifically so my then-girlfriend could study computer graphics at SVA; the highlight of my advertising career, which preceded my ascension into web and UX design, was spent working for top SVA advertising instructor Sal DeVito; and I subsequently enjoyed a long romantic relationship with an artist who’d moved to New York to study painting at SVA. So you could say that my eventuallyteaching at the place was overdetermined. When Liz told me of her new program and invited me to teach in it, it was as if half the prior events in my life had been whispers from the future. But I digress.)
Helping students have better careers
Since the program began, I’ve taught a class called “Selling Design,” which helps students completing their Masters thesisdecide what kind of work they’d like to do when they leave with their MFA, a few months after the class begins. There are so many opportunities now for people who design experiences, digital or otherwise. What should they do? Where will they be happiest? Inside a big company or a small one? A product company or an agency/studio? Should they start their own business?
And there are so many kinds of workplaces. In some, it’s your work that matters most. In others, it’s politics. How can you tell the difference before taking a job? We illuminate the right questions to ask and the clues in a student’s own personality that can lead to a great career or a blocked one.
The main teaching method is discursive: I invite designers who’ve had interesting and varied careers to come into the studio and have a conversation in front of the class. Mainly I ask questions and the guest speaker answers; then the class asks questions. Over time the speakers’ experiences and the takeaways I synthesize from them for the class create a picture of everything from how to tell if someone’s lying to you in a job interview to the signs that you’ve come to the right place.
A blaze of glory
This Thursday, May 2nd, at 10:00 AM, I teach my last class of the year, and I’m thrilled that my guest speaker will be Alexis Lloyd, Head of Design Innovation at Automattic, and previously Chief Design Officer at Axios, and Creative Director of The New York Times R&D Lab. In my initial months at Automattic, I’ve reached out to Alexis many times for help and insight, and she’s always generous, patient, and illuminating. It will be an honor and a pleasure to end my teaching year in what will surely be a great conversation with this experienced design leader.
For more about the MFA IXD program at School of Visual Arts, follow @svaixd on Twitter and visit https://interactiondesign.sva.edu/ . And for those who don’t yet know Alexis, here are some points of reference:
Every once in a while, life gifts you with a genuine moment. “>Here’s my friend designer/author Justin Dauer and his newborn, exchanging important information during, of all things, a business conference call. (By the way, Justin is now hard at work on the second edition of his book, Cultivating a Creative Culture, which I recommend for anyone leading a team: www.the-culturebook.com/.)
For your viewing pleasure…
We’re standing at the threshold of an entirely new era in digital design—one in which, rather than hacking layouts together, we can actually describe layouts directly. The benefits will touch everything from prototyping to custom art direction to responsive design. In this visionary talk, rooted in years of practical experience, Jen Simmons shows you how to understand what’s different, learn to think through multiple stages of flexibility, and let go of pixel constraints forever.
Gerry shared example after example of cases where most of this stuff didn’t matter at all to the person using the site or service, and drew the commonsense—but too rare in the corporate world—conclusion that if we spend our time making stuff that matters to our organization instead of stuff that matters to our customer, we will lose our customer. (“Nobody reads your annual report.”)
One of my favorite takeaways from Gerry’s session was about performance, but not in the way you probably think. Gerry pointed out that, in organizations, we are always measuring our own performance: how quickly did we turn that project around? Did we launch on time? Instead of dressing up our navel gazing with analytics that are about our tasks, we should measure our customers’ speed. How quickly do our sites and products help our customers achieve their goals? How can we identify and remove additional obstacles to completion, so our customers achieve their goals faster and faster?
We need to manage speed on the page, not just the speed of the page load. Manage the customer’s time on task. We won’t become customer-centric until we change our metrics—focusing on customers’ time to complete tasks, not on internal speed, and not just on the mechanical speed of page load—although page load speed (and perceived page load speed) are also terribly important, of course, and are part of improving the customer’s time to complete their task.
“If you solve the customer’s problem, they’ll solve your problem.” When you understand your customer’s top task, and focus relentlessly on helping them achieve it, you build a relationship that works for organization and customer alike.
Tomorrow I’ll be back with another top takeaway from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker. The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017.
LIZZIE VELASQUEZ, age 25, weighs 64 pounds. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, she was not expected to survive. Her parents took her home, raised her normally, and, when she turned five, sent her to kindergarten, where she discovered, through bullying, that she was different.
The bullying peaked when an adult male posted a photo of thirteen-year-old Lizzie labeled “World’s Ugliest Woman” on YouTube. The video got four million views. The uniformly unkind comments included sentiments like, “Do the world a favor. Put a gun to your head, and kill yourself.”
Rather than take the advice of anonymous cowards, Lizzie determined not to let their cruelty define her. Instead, as she reveals in this inspiring video captured at TEDxAustinWomen, Lizzie channeled the experience into a beautiful and fulfilling life.
TOMORROW, WHICH IS also my birthday, I begin teaching “Selling Design” to second-year students in the MFA Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts, New York. Liz Danzico and Steve Heller created and direct the MFA program, and this is my second year teaching this class, whose curriculum I pull out of my little blue beanie.
In this class we explore collaboration and persuasion for interaction designers. Whether you work in a startup, studio, or traditional company; whether you design print, products, purely digital experiences, or any combination thereof; whether you’re the sole proprietor, part of a tightly focused team, or a link in a long chain of connected professionals, it is only by collaborating skillfully with others—and persuading them tactfully and convincingly when points of view differ and yours is right—that you can hope to create designs that make a dent in the universe.
During this spring semester, we’ll explore collaboration and persuasion from many points of view, and hear from (and interact with) many accomplished designers who will serve as special guest speakers. For our opening get-acquainted session, we’ll focus on texts that explore the some of the most basic, traditional (and rarely taught) aspects of design professionalism from the worlds of web, interaction, and print design:
Narrative of standing up to new-client pressure to do something against the designer’s self-interest, or which devalues design. Story told here is about money but it could be about any designer/client conflict in which the designer needs to gently educate the client. (Some designer/client conflicts require the client to educate the designer, but that’s another matter.)
AFTER ALL THESE YEARS designing websites and applications, I still don’t think in words like “affordance.” And when my colleagues use a word like that, my mental process still clatters to a halt while I seek its meaning in a dusty corner of my brain. (When someone says “affordance,” there’s always a blank where thought stops, and then I see a mental image of a finger pushing a button or stroking a surface. Somehow that one image stands in for everything I know about what “affordance” means, and I’m able to jump back into the discussion and catch up with everyone else.)
Should you ask B.B. King if the lick he just played was in Lydian Mode, he could probably answer you after stopping to think about it. But after all these years playing blues guitar, B.B. King doesn’t say to himself, “I’m going to switch to a Lydian scale here,” he just plays blues. Scales and vocabulary are necessary when we are learning the craft behind our art. But the longer we practice, the more intuitive our work becomes. And as it becomes more intuitive, it disconnects further and further from language and constructs.
This is why young practitioners often argue passionately about theory while older practitioners tell stories and draw pictures.
Of course any practitioner, green or experienced, can create a word to describe the work we are inventing together, just as anyone, young or old, can have the next great idea. And it is most often the young who come up with exciting new ideas in UX and design and on the internet—possibly because they are still exploring theories and trying on identities, while those who work more intuitively may shut themselves off from the noise of new ideas, the better to perfect a long-term vision.
But the nice thing about the experience arc I’m proposing is that it allows younger practitioners to use words like “affordance” when working together to create a website or application (and soon we will stop distinguishing between those two things), while the older, storyteller practitioners use simpler, down-to-earth language to sell the work to clients, investors, or users.
We need both kinds of practitioners—theorists and those for whom everything has become intuitive second nature—just as we need both kinds of communication (craft vocabulary and storytelling) to do Our Jobs in Cyberspace.™ Don’t you think?
Where are you on this arc? Are you the kind of designer who gets fired up from reading a new theory? Or do you sketch and stumble in the dark, guided only by some Tinker Bell twinge in the belly that tells you no, no, no, no, hmm, maybe?
I teach a class called “Selling Design” in the MFA Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts in New York.
Although the class’s name focuses on persuasion, it’s really about learning where great ideas come from, recognizing and fostering our best ideas, choosing the right partners to collaborate on those ideas, and finding and growing an audience/market. Persuasion is a key part of all those phases, but we focus on the entire process.
Guest lecturers from various backgrounds contribute their experiences and insights each week.
My students are amazing. They’re about to become the first group to graduate (is that the word for it?) from SVA’s fledgling program created by Liz Danzico and Steve Heller. Hire them if you can. Watch them make their mark.
Teaching at School of Visual Arts is a small but growing set on Flickr documenting our class—and the nearly two years I spent waiting to teach it. (I’m the last faculty member in the two-year program to actually teach a class, as my class is the last in the sequence.)