We’ve got some exciting news to share. Web and interaction design studio.zeldman is moving, from our digs at 148 Madison Avenue to a new location on Fifth Avenue. As of June 1, we’ll be designing, creating, and consulting out of our beautiful new studio space at The Yard: Flatiron North.
But we’re tired of playing landlord. Instead of debugging the internet router, tending to the recycling, hiring HVAC repair people, and seeking suitable replacement studio mates when a company moves out, we’d rather spend our time solving our clients’ design problems and making cool stuff like A List Apart, A Book Apart, The Big Web Show, and An Event Apart. And The Yard’s the perfect place for us to ply our trade and make our goods. (Plus we still get to rub shoulders with other creative business folk.)
We can’t take it with us: furnish your office with our stuff!
Running a co-working studio space meant buying a lot of furniture and equipment. Beautiful stuff, still in great condition. Elegant stuff, because we’re designers. Stuff we won’t need any more, now that we’re moving to new digs where somebody else does landlord duty. So we’re selling it, for a lot less than we paid. And that’s where (maybe) you come in.
Most everything must go, including our famous Eero Aarnio (style) ball chair (if its red cushions could talk!), custom Bo Concept shelving, Eames Desk Units from Design Within Reach, Herman Miller Aeron chairs (ditto), midcentury tulip table and side chairs, black glass desks, Nespresso espresso maker, file cabinets, icemaker, microwave oven, see-through glass mini-fridge, and more. These are beautiful things that inspire good design, and they deserve good homes.
Big Web Show № 158: Old Men Shake Fists at the Cloud – with Jim Coudal
IN Big Web Show № 158: internet veterans Jim @Coudal & Jeffrey @Zeldman on the death of blogging, the birth of Field Notes, the virtues of a subscription model, and much more. Begins in tears, ends in triumph. One of the most fun (and inspiring) episodes ever. Sponsored by Hotjar & Blue Apron.
AS THE HEAD of a newish design studio, I spend a fair amount of time writing proposals. And here’s how I like to do it.
I do it like a conversation, and that’s how we start: with phone calls and emails to one or two key decision makers, followed by a research period of about two to three weeks. And when I say research, what I’m really talking about—besides the usual competitive analysis, analytics, and testing—is even more conversations, but this time with a wider net of stakeholders and customers.
Some studios do this for free, and other studios only do it if the client has signed off on a huge project and paid the first big deposit. But we do this research for a fee. A small, reasonable, consulting fee. If the client then hires us to do the job, we deduct the research fee from the project cost. If they don’t, they’ve gained a lot of great information at a fair cost. (So far, they’ve never not hired us to go on and do the project.)
From intake to ideas
About two and half weeks into the research project, we have a strong idea of what matters most to the business and its customers, and we begin to have visions of solutions and innovations, large and small. We can’t help it. We’re interaction designers and it’s how our minds work.
After soaking in a potential client’s world for two-plus weeks, we can’t help beginning to invent designs that solve some of their big and small problems, and that enhance what’s already great about the client and their product. This happens in our heads whether we want it to or not.
At first, we are merely neutral listeners, forcing ourselves not to solve, not to imagine, but only to truly hear and understand. But within about fifteen days, we can’t help but begin imagining little modules and big sections, huge themes and tiny, innovative enhancements, which might please and help our client, their customers, or their staff. And so long as those ideas come from the product, come from what the client and their customers have told us, we feel free to begin sharing them.
The first design is written
We do that by writing a report where we share with the client what we’ve begun learning and thinking about their business. Although this report is structured like a business document, we think of it as the first part of design—the first written rough draft of articulating what the client’s business needs to do, and how design might help.
Because it’s a business document, and because we’re workers, not magical pixies, we share facts and data and things stakeholders and customers have said that ring true and that harmonize with other things other stakeholders and customers have said. But all that mustering of facts and data is in the service of a shared creative awakening to the design’s possibilities.
Start ugly to stay honest
Now let me tell you how we present our findings: we present them in a Google Doc that the client can access, share, and comment on. We know that many design studios spend much energy visually tarting up even their most basic client communications. Thus, even a humble invoice comes dressed for the prom.
But we don’t do that. We save aesthetics and beauty for the site design. We keep communications open and plain, like an Amish shirt. And we keep communications editable, because this is collaboration, this is conversation, this is not a dead artifact, a take-it-or-leave-it. And Google Docs is the perfect vehicle for it. Just as the traditionally formatted typewritten screenplay is the perfect, neutral vehicle for a writer to share with a director.
This initial research report, this poem of business, this first, rough, written design, presented to the client via the homey simplicity of Google Docs, elicits more client/designer conversation, more emails, more Basecamp posts, more internal discussions in the studio.
And then, after about a week, we present the client with our proposal. Which is clearly the product of all our conversations, and particularly of all the important agreements we reached during that research period. By the time our clients receive the proposal, they are already nodding, as if they always knew what it contained. Because, in a way, they did. Because, if we did our research right, we’ve merely externalized and articulated what they already felt but had not expressed.
And even now, when we’re asking for serious money to do a serious job, we submit our proposal via Google Docs—because prettified, overly branded proposals are about the studio that produces them, whereas our work is about the client and their product. Because even the most painstakingly researched and written proposal, if it is too pretty and too studio-branded, feels like boilerplate, whereas an ugly Google Doc is clearly just work, to be modified or agreed to or argued about.
This is just what we do at our studio. You can try it or not. Personally, I like this approach and I’ve never had a client complain. I’ve always felt a little dirty when presenting a pitch that was too visually polished, and I’ve never won a single gig with boilerplate. Every job has to be earned by studying and understanding and knowing how to share what you’ve understood. At least, that’s how we do it.
YESTERDAY I took a bath. Doesn’t sound like much, but it was quite a treat.
I’m staying in a hotel room in Chicago, and there’s a tub here.
I have a tub at home but can never use it, because Snow White, our infantile rescue cat, who wasn’t fully weaned as a kitten, is always sh*tting in our bathtub and p*ssing on our bathroom floor. She has a litter box, and I keep it clean, but that doesn’t matter to her.
Because she was not weaned, she goes through the motions of an adult cat without understanding what they mean—like a Catholic reciting Mass before Vatican II. For instance, after she p*sses on the floor, she bats sand from the litter box all over the floor as well. She knows that sand batting follows p*ssing. She just doesn’t know why. It’s clear to me that her mother tried to teach her how to use a litter box, but she was taken away before the lesson stuck.
To keep our tub at home somewhat clean, I plug it and keep it filled with water. Since cats don’t like water, Snow White refrains from jumping into the tub and sh*tting in it. But the tub is always filled with cold water, which grows dirty over time. You’d think I could drain the tub and bathe in it. But, no.
The tub is hard to plug. Most times, the plug doesn’t work. If I unplug the drain to run a fresh bath, the plug won’t re-plug … water drains silently from the tub, and, while I sleep my innocent sleep, Snow White hops back into the tub and fills it with sh*t. The aromatic, meaty sh*t of cats.
The only way to stop her is to keep the tub plugged and never ever use it. If I think about this, it’s such an overwrought metaphor for so many blocked things in my life, I could scream and never stop.
Instead, I take baths in hotels, when I can, and count myself a lucky fella.
Love and proposals
CHICAGO. Spent my Sunday writing a contract for the ________ design. I find I really enjoy writing proposals. It gives me a chance to see the whole project clearly in my mind, and to demonstrate to clients not just competency but genuine concern for their products and a vision of how to help their business.
Turns out proposal writing can be as creative as anything else we do in design. The only obstacle to overcome is the angry kid inside who doesn’t want to do his homework. If I think of writing the proposal as a damned nuisance, then it is one. But if I view it as an opportunity to test design ideas, that’s what it becomes.
My Glamorous Life: Crossing the Continent
RAINY MORNING IN NYC. Put my kid, my ass, and my suitcase in an Uber. Dropped Ava at school, then crawled to JFK via every emergency-vehicle-blocked thoroughfare Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens had to offer. The roads were all rain and sirens and nobody getting anywhere.
From JFK, flew across the country to surprisingly sunny Seattle. Now ensconced at the Edgewater, the Robert Mitchum of hotels. Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, it sits at the end of a pier over Puget Sound, perpetually threatening to drown itself, but somehow never going through with it.
The rooms are small, but many face the water. Some boast crow’s-foot tubs and windows over the water. Others, smaller and tub-less, make up for it with a sliding glass door to a tiny patio above the water. Mine is the latter type, and my sliding door is flung wide. Gulls caw and ships pass as I rehearse my AEA presentation and catch up on work.
I brought a sketchbook with me (it was a gift from Ava), and gave Ava a sketchbook before I left. We will draw while we’re apart, and compare drawings when I return to NYC.
WHEN my daughter Ava was much younger—about seven—I took her to Toys R Us in Times Square one Saturday that was also Saint Patrick’s Day. You couldn’t ask for a more chaotic location and crowd. After stocking up on a sufficient number of Barbie accessories (Ava was in a girly phase at the time), we headed out of the store and toward home.
It was a hot March that year. Unseasonably sweltering. The streets were unwalkable—thickly thronged with drunks and tourists—and there were no cabs to be seen. So we ended up hiring a bike rickshaw to take us home. I’d recently done the same thing in Austin, where the ride cost $10. The sign on the New York rickshaw also said $10. Unfortunately, it meant $10 per city block—as I discovered to my cost, and horror, upon trying to exit when we finally reached our destination.
But the ludicrous overcharge was worth it, because the trip created a memory.
Ava is half Irish Catholic and Bohemian on her mother’s side, half Ukranian and Russian Jewish on my side. At the time, she identified Irishness with her mother’s qualities, such as intelligence, warmth, and elegance. She did not know that Saint Patrick’s Day in major U.S. cities is mainly an excuse for high school and college students from out of town to come fall down drunk in the street.
As our rickshaw driver pedaled his way to the bank, we passed wave after wave of staggering, shouting, woohooing greenclad coeds, accompanied by slightly less inebriated predator dates. The women shrilled “hey” at us. They stumbled into the crosswalk. They vomited between parked cars and then made out with their companions.
Hammering down 38th Street in the shuddering rickshaw, Ava got up on her hind legs. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!” she shouted.
A drunken collegiate, making eye contact with the child while not necessarily understanding her words, shouted, “Woo-hoo!” and belched.
I think of it every Saint Patrick’s Day in New York. The righteously indignant little girl, the sweating Asian immigrant bicyclist, and the sea of drunken adolescents out of Trenton and Staten.
Mainly I think whimsically of those words. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!”
Automatic check-ins and the old, personal web
ABOUT A YEAR ago, around the time I launched my new design studio, I moved nearly all business-related communications to Basecamp 3, the latest evolution of the web-based project and communications management tool from my Chicago designer friends who used to be called 37signals.
One of Basecamp 3’s nicest features is the ability to set up automatic check-ins, such as asking all team members “What did you work on today?” at 5:00 pm daily.
On the surface, it’s intended as a way of letting everyone know what their teammates are working on, thereby deleting needless meetings from everyone’s schedules. But the feature can go much deeper, as I’ve discovered to my great pleasure. A day at a time, it can build community and help you design your career and your life. It even brings back some of the joy we once derived from the days of the personal web.
What did you work on today?
Over the years, I’ve started or cofounded several web-related businesses. Rather than limit my new studio.zeldman Basecamp exclusively to the designers, developers, and UX specialists who make up my studio, I decided to include everyone from allthebusinessesI touch.
Naturally, I’m mindful of people’s bandwidth, so anyone who doesn’t wish to participate can opt out or selectively block threads or projects that don’t interest them. I also refrained from inviting two staffers from one of my businesses who, for whatever reason, have just never hit it off with Basecamp. (Evangelizing any tool, however much one personally loves it, is like trying to convince a carnivore to go vegan. It accomplishes nothing, and leaves everyone feeling hurt.)
Save those two folks, with whom I collaborate through other methods, everyone else I work with on a daily or weekly basis, across all my little businesses, has access to a shared Basecamp. And every day at 5:00 pm Eastern Time, Basecamp asks all of us, “What did you work on today?”
The evolution of open sharing
At first, those who chose to participate took the question literally, sharing the work-related tasks we’d accomplished that day. But, over time, we began something sharing else. We began sharing our lives.
As if in a Unitarian church group, or an AA meeting, we share daily joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations. One of us has a child leaving the nest; another’s child may have had a tough day at school. One of us is writing a book, another has begun physical therapy. Some of us comment on each other’s shares; others use Basecamp’s “applause” feature to indicate that we read and appreciated what was shared. Some folks write essays; others share via bulleted lists.
Hearkening back to the old, personal web
Sharing and reading other people’s posts has become a highlight of my day. Of course it helps me get my work done, but more importantly, it also lets me focus on my life and professional goals—and those of my friends. I love getting to know people this way, and I deeply appreciate how respectful and safe our sharing space feels—partly because Basecamp designed the space well, and partly because I work with people who are not only talented and bright, but also kind and empathetic.
If we all sat together in the same office space, I doubt we would let down our guard as much as we do when responding to Basecamp’s automatic check-in. Indeed, far less personal sharing goes on with the non-remote colleagues in my NYC studio space—probably because we are all there to work.
It reminds me of what life was once like on the old web, where people shared honestly on their personal sites without fear of being harassed. I’m not the only old-timer who misses that old web; in recent years, several of my internet friends who once blogged blithely have switched to opt-in newsletters, sharing only with subscribers. Although I mourn the personal, open-hearted web we once shared, I understand this impulse all too well. Sharing with my colleague/friends on Basecamp restores some of the joy I used to take from sharing and listening on the old open web. You might try it.
Authoritative, Readable, Branded: Report from Poynter Design Challenge, Part 2
THIS year’s Poynter Digital Newspaper Design Challenge was an attempt by several designers and pundits, working and thinking in parallel, to save real news via design. In Part 1 of my report from Poynter, I discussed the questions driving the challenge, and talked about the design work done in response to it by my colleagues Kat Downs Mulder, Mike Swartz, Lucie Lacava, and Jared Cocken. Here in Part 2, I’ll discuss my own work and the approach we took at my studio. But we begin with a quick look back at the past designs that brought us to this point:
Experiment № 1: The Deck
During the past decade and a half, as both a publication designer and a publisher, I watched in horror as our publications became reader-hostile minefields of intrusive ads, overlays, and popups. The first thing I tried to do about this (besides removing the web equivalent of chart junk from my magazine) was to offer an alternative approach to advertising via The Deck, an ad network I cofounded with Jim Coudal of coudal.com and Jason Fried of Basecamp (formerly 37signals). The Deck permitted only one appropriately targeted ad per each page of content viewed. As primary instigator Jim Coudal put it:
A buy in The Deck reaches the creative community on the web in an uncluttered, controlled environment, far more valuable than a standard banner or a single text ad among dozens of others.
Jim, Jason, and I hoped that our cost-per-influence model would replace the CPM race to the bottom, and that our quasi-religious use of whitespace would be widely imitated by the smartest publications online.
But that didn’t happen. Advertising just got more intrusive. The Deck succeeded as a small business supporting a network of interesting small publications, but not at all as a primary influencer on the direction taken by advertising that supports web content.
Experiment № 2: Readability
Then about seven years ago, my friend Rich Ziade and his engineers created Readability, an app that sat between you and the ugly site you were trying to read, the way screen readers sit between visual websites and blind web users. Readability grabbed an article page’s primary content, removed the junk, and replaced the cluttered and illegible layout with a clean, readable page inspired by the clarity of iBooks and Kindle, which were just taking off at the time.
Rich released Readability 1.0 as open source; Apple immediately absorbed it into the Safari browser, where it continues to provide Safari’s built-in “reader” mode. (Safari’s “reader” mode was Apple’s first step in decluttering the web and returning it to the people who use it; “content blocking” would be the second step.)
Moreover, Readability 2.0, released by Rich’s then-company Arc90 the following year, added automatic payment for content creators slash publishers, as I explained at the time to anyone who would listen. Had Readability been allowed to continue the experiment, content monetization might have been less of a problem than it is today, and publication brands (the notion that it matters who publishes what we read) would be in exactly the same pickle they’re in anyway—except that readers would get their news in Readability’s attractive and customizable format, instead of from Apple News, Facebook, and the like.
I used to go around the world on lecture tours, warning my fellow designers that if we didn’t figure out how to declutter and compellingly brand sites, apps like Readability would do it for us. I still go around on lecture tours, but I’ve moved on to other issues. As for Readability, it was killed by a digital lynch mob after one powerful blogger, misunderstanding the motivation behind it, issued the digerati equivalent of a fatwā. But that’s another story.
Experiment № 3: Big Type Revolution
In 2012, inspired by Readability and frustrated by the industry’s determination to make ever less legible, ever more cluttered sites full of tracking and popups and everything except what readers need, I bet big on large type:
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.)
Writing in Forbes, Anthony Wing Kosner saw the future in my initially crude experiment:
If you want to know where the web is going, one clue is to look at the personal sites of top-tier web designers. And one trend that just bubbled to the surface is large body type—the kind you don’t have to command-plus to read.
Not to brag (okay, too late), but he wasn’t wrong. It was the future.
(Also, I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only designer at the time who reacted against tiny type and cluttered anti-user layouts by stripping pages down to only their most necessary elements, and boosting the type size to enforce a more relaxed reading posture. The idea was in the air.)
An uncluttered page focused on the reading experience (reminder: big type and plenty of whitespace) is now the default at several leading news publications. But many smaller publications, struggling just to survive, have not kept up. And so we have a perfect crisis:
Publications that do not encourage reading, loyalty, or repeat visits are struggling to survive at the very moment real news is under attack from an authoritarian president. What to do?
My response to the Poynter Design Challenge
There are many ways to respond to an existential crisis like the one facing most news publications. You can rethink the relationship between reader and publication. Rethink the job of the publication. Make news work more like a lifestyle app. Make it more immersive. My colleagues followed those paths out brilliantly (as described in Part 1).
But I went for the low-hanging fruit. The thing any publisher, no matter how cash-strapped, could do. The thing I had seen working since I started yelling about big type in 2012. I went for a clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded page. Authoritative because this isn’t fake news. Branded because the source matters.
The easiest, fastest, most readily attainable path to clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded design is through typography.
Any publication can be readable
Any newspaper, however poor, can afford better typography. Any newspaper with a designer on staff can attain it, if the paper stops treating design as a lackey of marketing or editorial or advertising, and sets designers free to create great reading experiences.
In my work, which is still underway (and will continue for some time), I focused on creating what I call “reader” layouts (and probably other designers call them that too; but I just don’t know). Layouts that are branded, authoritative, clean, uncluttered, and easy to read.
I played with type hierarchies and created simple style guides. Most of my little pages began as Typecast templates that I customized. And then Noël Jackson from my studio cleaned up the HTML and CSS to make it more portable. We put the stuff up on GitHub for whoever wants to play with it.