Matthew Smith

Matthew is the Chief Creative Officer at Relay Foods, online, sustainable and local grocery. He speaks internationally on design, and has written for .net Magazine. Matthew lives in Greenville, South Carolina where he founded CoWork Greenville.

You can follow his tweets @whale.

Published Thoughts

Find your singularity. Find the non-work thing that demands so much of your attention that all other attentions walk away — tail between their legs. Find it, and do it as often as you find yourself believing you’re able to multi-task and be a craftsman.

Are you taking time to design your family? This is the question I’ve been asking myself.

I wake up some nights with an interface problem spinning in my brain – unable to figure out where to put the series of actions for an unsolvable UX. It’s terrible, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it dawned on me that I’m not waking up thinking about how to solve education for my sons. I’m never white-boarding solutions to help my daughter feel dearly loved in the face of a culture that will objectify her.

One of the most impactful things I can do in my life may be the least worthy of publicity or even retweeting.

This last week I attended Brooklyn Beta, one of two conferences that are must-attend for me. During a late night whisky-thon with Cameron we were talking to several of the web’s most talented and discussing the idea that we should be designing to the best of people instead of the worst. We talked about feeds. The endless stream of new content. Feeds are an over-saturated flow of thoughts, ideas, pictures, quotes, drivel, and opinion—all published to the web.

This can produce franticness, a need to keep up. I heard one of my favorite designers recently suggest, “it’s like Twitter has turned me into a personal PR machine”. We are influenced to constantly keep up with our personal public representation. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, News Feeds, Tumblr, Instagram, and others like them all pulse with activity, building confidence with stakeholders and investors. This is sold to us as a place to connect with people, they are “social” networks. Undoubtably much good has come through these mediums, but at its core are these mediums for community truly good for us?

How do we design for communication that has natural and human boundaries? Boundaries like sleep, life-span and death, hunger and thirst, triumph and failure, knowledge and wisdom, immaturity and playfulness. This summer I re-learned to exercise and diet. I had to take care of my 34-year-old body so that it might last another 40. It’s not good for me to gorge on pizza and beer, though I crave it fortnightly. It’s good for me to enjoy pizza and beer but I must weigh that it has an economic and physiological cost that I have to be prepared to pay.

The cost of digital content is much more subtle. I’m able to rack up immeasurable, fractional, digital debt in the form of tweets, responses, comments, photos, inspiration, reaction, access, passwords, usernames, opinions, ideas, and the list goes on until I find that I have changed. I am becoming what I must be to balance and interact with the content around me or I risk being lost below the waves. I’m enslaved to a system.

But as a designer, this isn’t just a personal question of whether or not I should go on a digital diet. The question is whether I’m serving good to those who use and receive my design. If you’re building products, or making things for the web, I think it’s your question too.

The Discipline of Wonder

There’s a rust topped hummingbird rolling his nickel sized head back and forth about 12 feet in front of me. This is as still as hummingbirds get unless they’re asleep or dead. He’s on the lookout for rival hummers who would love a sip from his prized sweet-water feeder. There’s a white shield of feathers just under his gullet that frames his pride and strength. It adds presence that adds volume beyond his size. He’s truly wonderful.

Are all his characteristics necessary? Is his plume or his color a trait developed for safety or reproductivity? What can explain the utility of the whir of his wings or their ghosted shape fanning the air? Has explanation become our first instinct of observation?

This morning, I am content to remember to simply enjoy him buzzing and humming. Fascinated by his efforts to protect his territory. There is a full circus of wonder packed into this miniature creature.

This short experience this morning makes me think I’ve forgotten to seek awe. I literally mean that I have not properly budgeted time for it. It is not hard to find. A simple blade of grass breaking ground is more than enough to shut me up and remind me to stand silent and small before the vast sum of all creation. It’s only when I am placed firmly in that sum – as a handful of dust made living by the magic of a loving designer, standing alongside grass, and bugs, and birds, and oxygen, and bacteria – that I can be the designer I wish to be. It’s then that I am most able to create with a tenuous marriage of wonder and utility.

I need to return to some kind of discipline, a daily reminder to seek wonder. It’s a more natural part of being a “fine artist”, but since becoming a designer I’ve neglected the practice. This little hummingbird has me thinking about how I might effect a small moment of enjoyable awe in the web and mobile experiences I create as a designer. How can the businesses I imagine and bring to life draw out wonder in those it serves or in those who are employed by it?

When everything in our work is pushing us toward convenience, through speed perhaps, we ought to stand still in the moving stream and reflect whether those efficiencies are making life for people truly richer, better, or fuller? I suspect we have lost some things that the analog taught us as we trudge up this digital path. I’m going to see if I can re-find some of them.

Design is a question before it’s an answer.

Great designers should be asking questions of each other and of those who receive our designs and use our designs or we run the great risk of designing from within the structure and limit of our own thinking. We are translators. We seek to make simple and obvious what once felt obscure and abstract. We do this by listening and then synthesizing what we hear into a coherent picture.

Have you asked any good questions today?

Be a limited human being.

In order for you to know your real potential as a designer or a business-person, you need to know your limitations. Constraints are a natural part of everything, technology and personality alike. By choosing to honor your limitations you’ll find that the time you offer to your work, or your family, or your relationships is substantially more potent.

Turn off your phone when you get home. Off. Don't just put it on the counter. Turn it off for a few hours at least each day. Why? So that you’re not always available to others. Be available to yourself. Be available to your family. Then at 8am when you turn your phone back on, you can be fully available and totally present.

Do something analog. I throw pottery, or take long walks. Do something the digital space has no hold on and give your binary brain a break. Play music loud. Drink with your friends and talk about space travel. Do anything but be digital dorks for a few minutes.

Originality

Originality is a myth. Not one of us can create anything ex nihilo – out of nothing. We all have to be acutely aware of how easy it is to be a stylist rather than a designer, following the latest hot trends or display techniques. But it’s equally important that we are careful not to choose a new design technique because we’re afraid of using a method or design pattern that is tried and true or just simply really well thought out. A great example is rounded corners. Rounded corners can be a style, but before they are a style they are a philosophy. Corners are rounded on physical products so that they are comfortable to hold and handle. An interface can emulate that and make a design easy on the eyes, creating a suspended disbelief in the realism of a digital interface. Don’t round your corners or not round your corners because of a style choice, make a decision based on how you can best serve your audience the content they want.

Service

When we are designing anything we should be asking ourselves how we can best serve the customer or the audience and then use the standard principles of design to execute on that service. Use a grid. Use clear hierarchy. Use color, line, form, and texture. Use space. Use movement. Whatever you use, use it with the intention of serving the people who will use and benefit from the content your design is serving up. If you’re struggling to make a decision with your client or with your team, simply ask each other which decision best provides quality for the customer.

Bourbon

I suggest discussing these topics over the following:

Gmail is free, but they have all my email data and probably know me as well as my wife. Twitter is free, but I feel compelled to keep saying something to hold my following—even if it's just blather. Zaarly is free, but if posting costs me nothing, then I'm more likely to have a weak commitment to my request. Most content on the web is free, but it costs me time to keep up with the incredible mounting pile. Do you feel the cost?

More here

For this pastry box, I'm just going to ask some questions. Places where my head is at.

  • Do you have a work ethic?
  • Do you tell your clients how long something will take?
  • If you're running late on that, do you let them know ahead of time?
  • Are you willing to bust your ass to get something done when you said it would be done?
  • Do you expect your client to be the project manager or will you lead it?
  • Can you explain what you've designed or do you expect the client to blindly trust you?
  • Do you command enough authority in a project to help keep it on track when a client tries to become the designer?
  • Are you willing to comp a client when the time it took to complete a project was grossly under your estimate?
  • Are you opinionated about how business should be run? Have you thought about it at all?
  • Do you call your clients often, or do you always wait to have them call you?
  • Does your client know what's coming next in the project, or are they always a little bewildered by the process? Have you asked them?
  • If you asked all your former clients to be honest about your performance as a business, not just as a designer, would you be confident or nervous about their response?

Stuff you should be considering. Our industry will never have the authority we need in the coming era if we remain weak in these areas. Press on!

SEO and concern for conversion are not the enemies of design. Design has a responsibility to know the business goals and to exceed them through great content, clear hierarchical layout structure, and emotionally compelling visual treatment – and testing. Testing is frustrating because it implies that your intuition as a designer is not enough. That implication is correct. Ernest Hemingway is famous for saying that “The first draft of anything is shit”, and it applies to our designs as well.

I think we've begun to align ourselves around camps of data and relational design. The former places value on pure data conversion and the output often feels spammy and unrefined. The latter relies on emotional engagement with the product to produce a connection with the user and subsequently earn their trust and move them to the primary action, but if it falls short of those hopes the user is often blamed for bad taste or stupidity. Both these camps need maturity, these are not conflicting goals, but they often have conflicting processes and execution.

If we can align the scope, constraints, and budget to accommodate for iterative designs for our products and clients we can improve the impact of our UX and design and win the trust of investors and business clients. The end result is that your design is quantifiably stronger, earning you more cash. This has a direct effect on quality of your fermented beverage intake. Thank me by buying me one.

We need a raising of the maturity bar in little web industry. I'd like to see more people asking questions of each other and learning from each other. I don't care if you've been using designing for 10years or 10 days, everyone still has something to learn – and often from the most unlikely places.

I'd like to see more people encouraging each other and spurring one another on. I'd like to see less back patting and more challenging articulate critique executed with a healthy measure of grace.

What is a designer? Is everyone at Dribbble a designer? Is there a distinction that needs to be made between someone who can massage pixels into place to create a stunning 300x400 view of illustration or interface and the individual who knows how to order chaos and solve problems visually, like an entrepreneur, and with care for human realities like budgets and timelines?

I think there is. I think the former is a stylist and the latter is a designer. Creating or copying styles is an art of itself and the talent shown at a place like Dribbble in this area is stunning, but true designers are few and far between. It's an incredibly difficult thing to aspire to, and I'm hoping that I'm on that path.