Samantha is well versed in the magic arts of creative, standards-based, accessible web design. Previously as the Design Director at Phase 2 Technology and a former board member of The Art Directors Club of Washington DC, Samantha loves to participate in design community activities, which naturally led her to speak at events such as dConstruct and An Event Apart. Samantha, now working at Twitter, is the author of the widely acclaimed http://styletil.es/.
Your process should be as responsive as the products you are designing.
The best gift you can give yourself as a designer is to take a break and recharge.
For the better part of my life, I was an honest to goodness maker. I sewed, painted, woodworked, developed photos in a darkroom, and even welded my own jewelry. I boiled giant pots of water with tea to dye fabric and I hung oranges from my ceiling to stage still life paintings. If there was something I needed, I made it. From home furnishings to birthday gifts, I made them all.
Losing my maker mojo didn’t happen all at once. I don’t think it even occurred to me that it was happening. My plan had always been to pick a career where I didn’t feel like work was work, so I could live my life making, just on the behalf of others as a designer. Perhaps I have been in denial; I still make things… just internet things, right? The convenience of the digital slowly eked out the handmade; tidier, faster, and more portable found a more conducive space in my life.
I just got home from my third Brooklyn Beta. Every year I am inspired and reenergized, bringing back ideas on how to be better at what I do. This year though, the most profound takeaway was a realization about what I don’t do. Surrounded by friends who are starting their own clothing lines, building motorcycles, and this one dude (sorry I didn’t get your name) who is making a better bee hive for honey… I realized that I have lost my way.
I’m not going to pretend like I know how to change. I probably won’t wake up tomorrow and sew new pillows for my couch (though that is a likely place for me to start); but I will be aware that change needs to happen. I want to rediscover the curiosity and creativity that poured over from experimenting with different mediums and I want to feel that light-headed high I got the first time an image magically appeared on a piece of paper as I processed my own film. Thank you Brooklyn Beta for inspiring me to start looking.
More than anything in the whole wide world, I love learning. An education is the one true ticket to opportunity; it is the key to innovation in our industry. For that reason I feel strongly about fostering a design community that teaches and pushes for reforms in our universities to create graduates who have the skills to make amazing designers and developers.
In recent years several organizations and ideas have formed to try to solve the web industry’s education challenges. Leslie Jesnsen-Inman and Jared Spool are working on a very promising endeavor currently referred to as “The Unicorn Institute” that would give students the opportunity to work with professionals on real world projects . SVA has developed an impressive MFA in Interaction Design and Mark Boulton’s design studio has championed the idea of hiring apprentices.
In addition to these deeply intensive solutions there has been a rise of organizations offering part-time classes on topics that affect tech and design. Targeting busy professionals, they offer students night and weekend instruction for a few weeks to gain basic skills in web-related topics. You have probably heard of one near you, they have integrated into the web community and have fantastic marketing.
I recently read a resume from a student who took one of these skills-based classes. On a resume with no prior web development experience, a 6 week class at one of these schools made them feel comfortable with boasting that they had expert knowledge in CSS3 and HTML5. Unfortunately many people reading the resume took the claims for what they were; they weren’t intimately familiar with the specifics of the class to make a judgement otherwise.
It wasn’t that the student or learning organization were being intentionally deceptive, there just aren’t any clear standards to define these metrics. We have to demand more specifics and hold people accountable for certain skill levels in order to further progress in our industry.
Oftentimes it takes building several (if not dozens) of sites to understand front end development on an expert level, how on earth could someone learn these complex concepts in a few weeks? This person probably didn’t even know enough to understand what they didn’t know.
Don’t get me wrong, I think all opportunities to learn are fantastic. But in building a curriculum for web education that will contribute to innovation, we should not confuse skill-based classes with a well-rounded education or experience. We will be selling ourselves short to take these at face value.
People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are because the thing that matters most to them, is control over where they put their attention.
This quote from Sherry Turkle has haunted me since I heard it in the fascinating NPR segment “Are We Plugged-In, Connected, But Alone?” that looks at how devices and online personas are redefining human connection. It haunts me because having control over my attention is exactly what I crave.
In the NPR piece Turkle tells a surprisingly emotional story of a routine experiment with a robot named Paro that looked like a baby seal. It was designed to comfort the elderly and it changed her outlook on how humans interact with technology:
This robot was with an older woman who’d lost a child. And there was a group of us standing around […] to watch the reaction of this older woman. And she was pouring out her heart about losing this child, and she was comforted by this robot. This robot made her feel understood. […] I looked around and saw that this was being appreciated as progress.
[…] And I felt profoundly depressed.
Wow, what a bummer story to listen to between proudly multi-task managing my personal relationships through the internet and being uber productive. F-yeah, controlling my own attention like a BOSS.
And then it suddenly hit me: am I a horrible person for thinking that controlling my own attention by maintaining relationships through tweeting, texting, and e-mailing is maintaining a real life personal relationship?
Holy crap. Maybe she is right.
I looked at my phone and felt a rush of guilt. Damn that cute little robot.
The day progressed and the feelings imposed by Turkle’s words slowly drifted to the back of my psyche. I wasn’t feeling bad enough to change my behavior immediately but I was curious, what if she is right? What if we are slowly drifting into a disconnected state of vulnerability and society is going to implode on itself, all at the hands of social media and the devices that deliver it to us.
I started experimenting with my own dependencies on feeling connected; thinking through my actions, monitoring my level of comfort and rating my interaction with the people I was connecting with. I began to take out my phone in social situations to check Twitter only after I saw another person do so first. I analyzed my friends and relationships; was the way I was connecting with them hindering or helping my life? This was not a scientific experiment but more of a personal check-in.
Sure, I might be a little biased, but for an NPR story to hit me so hard I felt like it was worth the extra effort to just make sure I was on a path that I felt good about.
I slowly became hyper-conscious of my connectivity and that was making me feel more anxious and negative than the “loneliness” that Turkle suggested. I checked in with myself and the positive feelings of being connected far outweighed the feelings I had when I was forced to not be. And sure, I could try harder to relate with the people around me, but the level of engagement that exposed me to was at the mercy of convenience. That still allowed for comfortable pauses in my life to connect with other people who also were in a similar state of life-pause.
After many months of milling this over I decided that I am plugged in, connected but definitely not alone. Social media has done very much the opposite, it has actually brought me closer to the things I love. As a passionate and possibly OCD designer, the social web has given me the remarkable opportunity to choose my relationships based on interest, not on coincidental factors like location and I can control my attention at a level never before possible. I can instantaneously transport myself to any intensely stimulating conversation on a topic I care about. As someone who has always struggled with controlling my attention, this has propelled me to a state of uber productivity.
But this is just me and maybe you see things differently. I would love to hear from you. Listen to Turkle’s NPR piece and tell me, do you feel that the connected world we live in is leading you down a path to vulnerable distraction?
Yes, you can draw.
There is something about being a designer that provokes people to voluntarily confess to me that they cannot draw. I don’t know what it is, but people who are not designers or artists feel like being in the mere presence of someone whose job description implies that they can draw makes them spontaneously announce that they can’t. Are they self-conscious? Does it weigh on them? Are they embarrassed?
I don’t know. But it drives me crazy.
Drawing is a skill, and though there are people who were kissed by the grace of God to be naturally talented at athletics, singing or dancing, the vast majority of us who do have job titles in the arts field have learned to draw. But actually, if you want to know the secret to drawing, it’s not actually about learning to draw at all. It’s about learning to draw with confidence.
Practice can make you better at a lot of things, but drawing is an art, and art is subjective. That means there is no clear-cut way to inform me that I’ve failed. Art is without judgement. I could swim a million laps and be the most improved swimmer on the team, but time is always the final judge at the end of a race. Unlike sports, drawing is the one discipline that taught me the more important skill to have in any profession: confidence. I can draw anything and as long as I own those drawings, just like Picasso’s or John Lennon’s, my drawings will be successful.
I have spent most of my life drawing. From the time I could hold a pen in my hand, my mother sat with me and taught me how to draw. A flower was the first thing I learned to capture on paper, and if you’ve ever sat near me in a meeting you know that they litter my notebooks. Millions of flowers that may not be good in the eyes of others, but they are my flowers and I drew them.
Believe me, you can draw, too. Don’t focus on learning to draw, but rather on being confident in what you make. Confidence makes the best makers. So let me assure you once again. You can totally freaking draw. Just try, and try again, with confidence.
The thing about improv is that it isn’t about being funny, it’s about being a creative contributor to a larger whole. Web design is very similar, I like to think of it as a team sport. Every role has a very specific contribution to something much bigger than the people who built it. Live performance has a lot in common with an online experience.
I am currently taking an improv class and here are a few of the things I have learned from it:
- Don’t try to be anything; good, funny, or energetic. Just be.
The harder you try to be any one thing, the more you miss the opportunity that presents itself at the time. In design, react to your client’s needs, your team’s capabilities, and your user’s goals. Preconceived ideas can limit your possibilities.
- Make your partner look good
Set the people up around you to make awesome. Whether you are in a scene or on a design team every role is equally important and the better everyone else is doing, the higher they can elevate you to succeed.
- Say “Yes, and…”
The word “no” can ruin project and scene mojo pretty fast. In both design and improv the sky is the limit, you can keep things positive while still setting realistic expectations. With the ever-changing nature of the industry, flexibility is invaluable.
- Know everyone’s name
I am horrible with names. The. Worst. (Though I am pretty good at remembering Twitter handles. ;-) ) Learning everyone’s names in my improv class has been a serious challenge for me, but the benefits have been off the chart. No matter who the next person I get thrown into a scene with is, I know their name. Knowing your team will help create a bond and respect for working quickly under pressure.
Taking an improv class has had an impact on my perspective as a designer and my role in the teams that I work with. If you have the chance to take a class I highly recommend it.
Just because you can do it all doesn’t mean you should do it all. Focus can mean the difference between good and great.
A few years ago a friend asked me what I was doing differently; my design work had “just gotten better”. She had worked with me in a previous environment and was collaborating with me on a project at different agency. It was clear that something had changed, but it was hard for me to articulate what it was; not only that, I felt noticeably happier. Without realizing it, I had found a way for me to maintain my “flow” at work.
Flow meaning my actual mental state: I was in my zone, designing like time didn’t exist, food didn’t need to be eaten, and all the puzzle pieces were snapping into place. It was a luxury that I tried to ration to myself for fear of becoming an unsocial hermit. It was a state fostered by a complex web of factors, all contributing to my ability to find my optimal state: being highly challenged and having the skills to meet those challenges without interference. It wasn’t entirely obvious to me at the time, but things like having a solid organizational infrastructure, working with a supportive team and reporting to management who championed my need to succeed all helped contribute to my happiness. Overall it was a cultural system that empowered me to seek my own challenges and face them uninterrupted.
I didn’t know this was an actual recognized psychological state until I watched a documentary called Happy, where I was introduced to the positive psychology concepts of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Csíkszentmihályi doesn’t just recognize my flow, he says it contributes to happiness. This perfect storm of factors actually contributed to me feeling very content.
While flow had previously been an achievable mental state while working on personal projects, painting, or gardening, I am not sure I truly had found a sustainable state at work. Contrary to popular belief there is no recipe for the perfect environment for a designer. I have had conversations with friends who swear that exposed brick and hip furniture make them feel more creative. Others feel inspired when they can dress however they want.
Both process and culture are the two most underrated topics in the design industry. They form the infrastructure that can make or break a project; it dictates how teams work together, how communication is performed, and how a designer finds their flow against all challenges that face them in creating a solution. We talk about innovation, but how do we build the systems that breed it?
Style is the most distinguishably unique aspect of a designer’s identity. While style can be defined as a visual execution in a design, it can also be how a designer decides to execute. It is the most personal attribute of being a designer, and while a style may differ depending on the context of the problem being solved for, it is an essential quality that contributes to the evolution of a designer’s career. It is as personal and unique as a singer’s voice.
I can truthfully say, out loud, that “Gangnam Style” is one of my favorite fucking songs of the past decade. It is! Is it any better or worse than the latest Atoms for Peace album? Hmmmm… If only we had a celebrity panel of judges to determine that for us! What would J-Lo do? Paging Pitchfork, come in, come in! Pitchfork, we need you to help us determine the value of a song! Who fucking cares! I fucking LOVE IT! Who is to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice. The Voice? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing “Blowin in the Wind” in front of Christina Aguilera. “Mmmmm… I think you sound a little nasally and sharp. Next…” It’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last…
—Dave Grohl SXSW Keynote 2013
While one could measure the success of a design, when it comes to emotion and innovation there is a lot to be learned from Grohl’s statements about taste. As an industry the more we push agendas around style and taste the more creativity we stunt. Find your own style as a designer and not only will you be happy, but you will do your best work.
In the summer of 2002 I worked a few blocks from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I would often eat lunch there and it wasn’t long before I discovered the one work of art that has lived with me ever since.
Crowd Scene by Sidney Goodman is a realistic panorama that barely reveals the back of a group of people looking at something. The subjects are juxtaposed against an evening sky, basking in the warm glow of a low hanging sun. The scene is cropped in a way that makes the viewer feel as if they are looking up, while subtle hints of retro clothing and classic cars transport you to a time long passed.
What are they looking at? Where are they? Who are they? Wait, what on earth are they looking at?
It was hypnotic: first the feeling and then the questions, spinning out of control in my mind.
Goodman painted a mesmerizing atmosphere rather than a mere landscape. It was as though he’d started a sentence that I couldn’t help but to jump in to finish. Like Alice being thrown down a rabbit hole, I was delightfully lost inside of the Crowd.
I often think of this experience and the mood that Goodman created in that painting when I am designing. Setting a mood so that users can fill in the blanks is of paramount importance. Sometimes we are designing for content and other times we are designing for the content yet to be created. Wherever possible, I strive to make that place people go to for the journeys still to be discovered. A place like Goodman’s Crowd Scene.
Crowd Scene was rotated into storage years ago, much like some of my favorite web experiences. I check the museum on trips back to Virginia, but the painting remains tucked away somewhere. According to the VMFA website, the Lewis Gallery of Realist Art is scheduled to open March 2, 2013 with work from Sidney Goodman. My fingers are crossed that Crowd Scene will be housed in this gallery.
Marketing websites: we have all made them. They’re the online version of a brochure, better than a PDF download but not quite something that supports a dynamic flow of content. An easy win from the perspective of a design agency or freelancer; there isn’t a ton of backend tech, they are predictable in scope, and produce understandable metrics. Not only can we create a known set of deliverables, we are nearly guaranteed that they will need a new redesign in 2-3 years (bonus, more business!).
But, who the hell makes decisions about what they buy solely based on a marketing website? How much time do you spend browsing product marketing sites each week? Whether it’s choosing a restaurant or buying a car, I rarely observe influences in behavior based only on static marketing lingo on a website. Instead, I believe people spend their time online where they connect with other people or find transparent data.
Frequently I see people making decisions based on word of mouth, too. Whether it be from a trusted friend or an anonymous rating, people tend to value the sentiment of a third-party far above that of manicured communications. In the project discovery process I have heard some refer to this as a “social media component” or making a site “sharable”, but I loathe that terminology. Rather than getting inventive in how we facilitate this conversation we just sell our clients the same sites that we have sold them before.
Are we being as creative as we can be when it comes to connecting people online?