You don’t need permission from anyone to do awesome things. All you need is the time and space to work on it.
— Frank Chimero on The Great Discontent
I was reading an article on Marissa Mayer and this particular section kind of struck a chord with me, as it perfectly describes why I applied to Automattic:
When people ask Mayer why she joined Google after getting her masters in symbolic systems at Stanford, she likes to tell them her “Laura Beckman story.” It’s about the daughter of her middle school piano teacher, Joanne Beckman.
Mayer begins: “Laura tried out for the volleyball team her junior year at high school. At the end of the tryouts, she was given a hard choice: bench on varsity, or start on JV.
“Most people, when they’re faced with this choice, would choose to play – and they’ll pick JV. Laura did the opposite. She chose varsity, and she benched the whole season.
“But then an amazing thing happened. Senior year she tried out and she made varsity as a starter, and all the JV starters from the previous year benched their whole senior year.
“I remember asking her: ‘How did you know to choose varsity?’
“And she said, ‘I just knew that if I got to practice with the better players every day, I would become a much better player, even if I didn’t get to play in any of the games.’”
The moral of Mayer’s story is that it’s always better to surround yourself with the best people so that they will challenge you and you will grow.
“My quest to find, and be surrounded by, smart people is what brought me to Google,” she says.
A couple weeks ago, I decided it would be a fun design exercise to explore a series of themes based around houses from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. It comprised of three parts: creating a look & feel for each house, designing a base template to skin, and then applying that look and feel to the base theme.
I started by throwing together some style tiles for each house, looking to explore colors, texture and typography:
Next, I explored some potential layouts:
The first layout felt a little too corporate and the second one felt a little too complex, so I ended up going with the last layout, which I thought would fit the multiple skins best. Here’s the skins applied to that theme layout:
Built on shades of grey with a desaturated blue accent, Winter is like the Starks: dark, cold, and stoic. Winter features Titillium, a thick sans-serif to ward off the impending cold, and Crimson Text, a serif as sharp as Valyrian steel.
House Lannister drips danger, arrogance and power. Pride featurs rich crimsons and indulgent golds that hint at wealth. Domine is an enchanting and seductive header font, which is paired with the warmth ofSource Sans Pro.
House Targaryan is the biggest challenge, because while “fire and blood” evokes crimson and black, Daenerys herself is hot and white like the desert sun. She is sand and stone yet as soothing as an oasis. I decided to represent Daenerys with rich browns, tans, and blues. Queen uses Gentium Basic reflects her royal roots, while Cantarell hides danger behind grace and poise.
I don’t see these mockups going much further than this, but it was overall a pretty fun experiment.
In The Laws of Simplicity John Maeda posits, “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.” The final warning is important. Removing things often leads to simplicity merely because the user has fewer items to process. But removing visual cues that help the user mentally process the interface — such as graphical elements that group items, that differentiate buttons and labels and that make things stand out — could do exactly the opposite by giving the user more work to do. So, rather than guide the design by style, guide it by principle.
~ Dmitry Fadeyev, Authentic Design
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
- Brené Brown, Listening to Shame
This past weekend, I joined a hundred or so fellow hackers for the first annual Hack for Western Mass, part of the National Day of Civic Hacking. We focused on problems local to Western Massachusetts.
There were a handful of really interested challenges to address, but I ended up going with a challenge I have a personal connection to: local banking. I switched over from a big bank to a local co-op on the National Bank Transfer Day, and haven’t looked back since. Led by Pioneer Valley Local First founder Daniel Finn, the Benefits of Banking Locally challenge aimed to increase the number of people in the Pioneer Valley who bank locally.
My group was a small, but we had a great mix of people which really helped us focus on specific portions of our challenge. We started Saturday together, trying to identify key problems. What issues do local banks face when trying to gain new members? Why don’t more people bank locally? Daniel’s knowledge as a subject matter expert was exceptional, giving us key insights into the problems. Once we teased out some of these problems, we moved on to users: who already uses a local bank? Who doesn’t, and why don’t they? What triggers could motivate these users to make the switch from big bank to local bank?
Once we figured out our problem and our users, we split off into an individual sketching session, with each of us drawing various solutions we saw to increase the amount of people switching over to banking locally.
After sketching, we regrouped to talk about all of our potential solutions, mixing and matching until we came up with a game plan: a story-based website that led you through the personal and community benefits to banking locally, culminating in a call-to-action prompting you to switch to a local bank.
Xin Xin and I worked together on the design of the website, while Julia Mattes and Sam Dana tackled the research and content creation (making Xin and my job much easier!). Daniel updated the current PV Local First website to include the new data about local banking he, Julia and Sam found. Kelly Dwan worked on developing the new story-based site, while Ron Martinez and Matt created an interactive map allowing people to find local banks near them in the Pioneer Valley.
Sunday was a whirlwind of working — Xin and I finished up the design, and Kelly jumped over from setting up the back-end to working on the front-end for the site. Julia and Sam started entering content and local bank information to feed into the map, which Ron continued work on while Matt floated between sections to help everyone out.
By the end of the day, we weren’t quite finished, but had enough to show off during our presentation:
Kelly and Ron are working together after the hackathon to finish up our solution. The website portion is almost complete, and you can check it out here.
All of the presentations went really well. It was exciting to see what the other groups had worked on over the weekend! Everyone had something really cool to show. Overall, the weekend seemed to be a total success.
Thanks to the organizers for putting on what was the best organized hackathon I’ve attended (with hands-down, the. best. food), and to the sponsors for helping the event happen! Can’t wait to attend again next year.
Yesterday, a group of us in Boston got together and celebrated WordPress’s 10th Anniversary. We were one of hundreds of parties planned around the world. We had over 100 people RSVP’d, but ended up drawing a crowd of about thirty. It was a pretty nice, intimate event.
Thanks to everyone who came by last night, special thanks to Steph Yiu from Automattic for getting a bunch of tshirts for us, and extra special thanks to Meadhall in Kendall Square, Cambridge for being such a fantastic venue! Finally, thank you, WordPress, for being a source of employment for so many, a cause to rally for, and a treasure to the world.
This morning, John O’Nolan relaunched the website for Ghost, a new blogging platform that blew up the internet for a couple days when it was first announced last November. From the few screenshots I’ve seen, it looks like it makes blogging easy. Like, really, really easy:
We’ve seen a pretty big jump in blogging and writing platforms in the past year: just look at Medium and Editorially. I think Ghost is a little more exciting though, because it’s not a service — it’s web software. It’s an open source blogging platform that, from the sounds of it, will work like WordPress — you’ll be able to download and install it anywhere.
I’m pretty stoked about Ghost, not just for what it is, but for what it means. I love WordPress, I love that it’s evolving, and I’m excited to see where it goes in the future. But it hasn’t had a big competitor in a while, especially on the blogging front. A dose of really strong competition could push WordPress to become something greater.
Ghost is being funded via Kickstarter, and is poised to meet its goal within 24 hours. Want to help it out?
Two weeks ago, I concluded my three months as a user experience apprentice at Fresh Tilled Soil, a Watertown-based design firm. I spent three months in a team of five apprentices (Xin Xin, Dave Levine, Mat Budelman and Sean Smevik) improving my user experience, interaction and interface design skills (and getting paid!).
The five of us came from very different backgrounds. I worked as a user interface designer and occasional front-end developer as a freelancer and consultant, within agencies, and most recently within a startup. Xin was an animation major before working as lead designer at a startup. Sean was also an animation major, but went into freelancing. Mat worked as a print designer before picking up web design and development, and Dave, a Starter League graduate, worked with startups in Chicago as a UX designer and developer. We all had varying degrees of prior industry experience and expertise, which made us ideal candidates for Fresh Tilled Soil’s apprenticeship program.
Now that I’ve had a brief vacation and had time to gather my thoughts, I wanted to give an overview of the program and my experiences with it.
The rest of Bootcamp was a mix of reading (Steal Like an Artist, Thinking With Type and About Face 3), presentations given by the FTS team, and a UX strategy and discovery challenge. Presentations were focused on pretty much every major segment of design and front-end development essentials, all from the lens of user experience. Our challenge focused on the strategy and discovery phase of a web app design project, culminating in a group client presentation and individual clickable wireframes.
Bootcamp was kind of exhausting, but was a successful way to begin our apprenticeships and get all of us starting on a similar level of theoretical UX knowledge.
At the end of Bootcamp, each apprentice was chosen by a mentor who could relate to our individual goals and skills. I was chosen by Steve Hickey, a total design & front-end dev badass with a love of good type. (Obligatory dribbble and github links.)
Our mentors were tasked with overseeing our work over the course of our apprenticeship. They provided individual (and occasionally group) feedback on challenge and client work. We checked in with them at least once or twice every week.
Individual mentorship is, by far, the best feature of AUX. Mat wrote a bit about it on the Fresh Tilled Soil blog. I have never before had an opportunity for the type of in-depth, personal mentorship that I received as an apprentice at Fresh Tilled Soil. Steve was able to see exactly where I was falling short in my work and guide me towards better ways of thinking about design problems and potential solutions. He got me to think about each design decision I made and be able to back it up with solid reasoning (no bullshit allowed). It was, honestly, exactly what I needed to improve as a designer.
We engaged in several challenges throughout the three months to boost our individual design and development skills. We converted a psd into an accessible form, identified problems with the modern TV experience and came up with solutions to those problems, designed the interface for a mobile MBTA app, and created something we could share with the design community (still a WIP). I was also given some sub-challenges by my mentor, Steve, to help improve specific skills.
Each challenge culminated in a presentation to the AUX team (apprentices, program leader and mentors), followed by an open critique. They were a chance for us to show of our skills and gain insightful feedback which helped us see where we fell short.
No good apprenticeship would be complete without, of course, client work. Each apprentice was involved in some client projects (sometimes alone, sometimes alongside our mentors). We also as a group had total control over one major project.
Our group project was a major point of learning. We did everything from the initial strategy and discovery phase, up to completion of wireframes for a redesigned mobile application and responsive marketing website with an account dashboard component. Mat acted as project manager, and our team collaborated, jumping in where appropriate and stepping back when not during each of our two-week sprints.
Sean wrote a bit about our first sprint, a two week deep dive into the existing product and assets, where we looked to identify the problem we would be solving in the next several sprints. We spent most of that sprint going in wrong directions. Finally, we just needed to step back, break the product down into its smallest bits, and build back up.
Our proposed solution kept only the essentials of the product, stripping away unnecessary layers and features. When it came down to it, the app was brilliant at one thing. It didn’t need the rest. It needed to focus on making that one task even easier, and our proposed solution (and a redesigned marketing site) would need to reflect that.
The weeks that followed were made of steady work and constant iteration. We would iterate on a deliverable a dozen or more times before it even made it to the client. We were all sad to see our parts in the project wrap up at the end of our apprenticeship, when we handed off all of our work to the FTS team to finalize. That one project taught me more about the user experience design process than any book ever has, and I am grateful we had the opportunity to work closely with such a great product and team.
Life After AUX
AUX was an amazing, enlightening, and humbling experience. It pushed me past my limits, challenging me in a way I’ve never experiences. It was exhausting. Overall, I can say with confidence that it was one of the best experiences of my life, and most definitely my best career decision to date.
Now that AUX is done, what am I doing with my life?
I’ve spent the past two weeks sleeping in, relaxing, and catching up on some projects I’m involved in. I’ve been working with several designers and developers on MP6, a plugin which updates the WordPress admin interface design. Most of my contributions so far have been to dashicons, the new icon font we’re using within the admin. I’ve also been working on post format icons.
I’m currently pursuing some job leads, but am still open to chat. If you’re interested in hiring me, I’d love to talk — please send me a message via my contact form.
Today, as a part of my apprenticeship at Fresh Tilled Soil, I wrote a blog entry about giving back to the design community. You can check it out here.