Thanks for asking.

QShould designers learn how to code?


Do they need to?

I don’t know. When’s the last time you asked a print designer to create a Postcript file or PDF by hand? You never have. At most, your average print designer will do some basic pre-press prior to delivering the files. Then it goes to specialists who will tweak trapping and overprinting. Then it’ll go to plate/press/whatever you want to call it. I might be living in a fantasy land, but the fact that interactive designers even get ASKED this shows how bad the state of our tools are that even the most basic websites can’t be built with GUI-based tools.

To look at this another way, should developers know how to design?

Of course not! Programming at high levels is a specialized skill, best reserved for… oh, yes. Specialists.

Look, this isn’t complicated. Some projects can get by with minimal design work – a basic to-do list app can scrape by with mostly default UI elements. Some design projects SHOULD be able to implemented with automated tools. Some products need a full staff.

On Flat Design

QIs flat design bad?


No matter what Eli Schiff argues, it’s just a style. A reaction to what came before – the green felt abomination of Game Center, the rich Corinthian leather of Calendar, or random cartoon characters in the interface.

This is dumb. This? Don’t do this. iOS and Android have plenty of obvious buttons. This is a deliberately bad comparison, because in the right context either is a valid button. Hell, if you don’t think colored text is occasionally viable in a user interface, I think we need to talk about this little thing called hyperlinks.
Don't do this
Actually, I think the Safari and Remote icons are just fine. It’s a question of style. Neither Game Center icon is good. Nice switcharoo on the Facebook icon, though. The actual app icon is relatively unchanged, except for the subtraction of the gloss-thing at the bottom. Also – that’s not the Instagram icon!
Wait, are we defending random cartoon characters in a clipboard UI?
Wait, are we defending gradients everywhere and random cartoon characters in a clipboard UI?
Yes! This is a good example!

Flat design isn’t why designers are encourage to code, it’s not why prototyping is important, and it’s not why design careers have the lifespan of a mayfly.

Arguments in bad faith don’t help.

I do agree with Mr Schiff that it’s highly overblown as a design trend, and needs to be de-coupled from our perception of modern design. Everything else? Where the fuck was he when Flash was cool? I have one name: 2advanced. If you know what I’m talking about, you’re cringing inside.

Redesign, Part 2

If you treat a website like a problem, the first thing to ask yourself is, “Has anyone else solved this?” I’m not advocating for theft. I’m advocating for research. No one will have solved the problem of representing ‘You’ on the internet. However, you can see how other people represented themselves, how they display their work, and so on. I tend to do this in Evernote, capturing screenshots and links.

What am I looking for? I’m looking for people we tried to solve the problems I listed in Part 1, and whether they succeeded or failed. Granted, failure is relative here. For example, if I notice you’ve tried to make your personailty known through your site, you’ve probably succeeded. The failure is secondary – instead, I know to treat the subject differently.

I also like to identify trends. The one I currently like involves moving away from ‘slideshows’ and towards a ‘case study’ style of presentation. It can easily become overbearing, but I think some designers pull it off well.

I think all three of these show this to one degree or another.


Whether you’re an individual or agency, your website is how you show what makes you unique.

  • – shows the personality through content, but navigation suffers
  • – the written content on the site gives a clear glimps into Ash’s personaily, but I question the value of linking every social network you’re a member of. And yes, that means I’m judging here about a Twighlight soundtrack being on her Rdio favorites.
  • – despite no overt personality outside of the “thoughts” section, all of the visual details tie into her work.
  • – yes, it’s an ecommerce company, not a designer or agency/studio. Hush.
  • – Personality sometimes means serious. The language may be a little generic, but overall, you understand metalab is a serious company – they want to make things that will be used, and useful.
  • – an amazing way to explain the nature of a company that is one person, with a network of regular collaborations.
  • – that’s one hell of an intro

Navigation & Content

There are two basic ways work is presented: one page sites and the traditional work/about/etc divide. I don’t know if either is right. Single page sites are nice, but often lack ‘craft.’ To expand, it often feels like the designer didn’t bother to make decisions, and instead just decided to throw everything in that could fit. On the other hand, do single designers really require much more than a couple pages? If everything is a separate page, how do you call out the relationships between your work and your CV and your other content? I’ve got no answers here.

Redesign, Part 1

Doing it right-ish

Given my newfound role as a manager, and all of the process and research experience that goes with it, I’m going to try to be a little more methodical about how I redesign this time.

What’s good

  • Flexibility – it displays well in on tablets and desktop
  • Content updates – PHP build sit off of an XML file

What’s bad

  • There’s little sense of personality.
  • With more of my day job focused on thinking and writing and less on pushing pixels, that work gets segregated to my blog
  • Better integration of side projects
  • The smartphone experience isn’t ideal.
  • Lacking animation
  • Bloated code

Notice I left out design. Really, the design is OK. But it looks a bit like a wordpress template, and given how I want to change the content, I don’t think it’ll work.

But really, content is king

Yes, I pulled out an awful cliche, but it’s true. I have a couple school projects masquerading as “personal” projects. I’m over 10 years out – that’s not right. Also, there are many projects that don’t represent my. Yes, that Tecaté Chicas calendar was fun to make, and has given my great insight into the retouching process, but that’s not the type of work I want to do. Also, even outside of increasing my writing about design, work, craft, and life, my projects deserve more than a couple sentences – particularly when they’re collaborations with other designers, developers, and managers.

Why will this time be different?

I’m taking advantage of Evernote to catalogue everything I like when I look and individual portfolios and agency sites and preemptively preparing content. Also, for once in my life – I’m doing this because I want to, not because I’m afraid of getting laid off tomorrow.

I am bad at this.

With 2015 well underway, I feel like I can do a general status check without falling into the New-year-new-you cliche.


I have over 100GB of photos on my hard drive. This is probably not that much compared to many people, but after an accidental Dropbox sync filled my drive, I decided to run Disk Inventory X and discovered that my iPhoto library was the single biggest block. Much of that is due to my trip to Japan, my son, and my woodworking. Thus, I went on a backup binge prior to purging my files. I may be bad at backups – my process is entirely a cobbled-together mess, even if it is effective.


Granted, RAW photos can add up, but I have way more photos than I do design work. Now, my day job is very management heavy – I manage my product, I manage my developers, and I manage the process. This leaves very little time for design, even though that is half of my job. In fact, the most “designing” I do is my woodworking, but my abilities there are so limited and I miss the freedom of design. This wouldn’t be a big deal, but when I do get the chance to concept freely, I now tend to feel like I’ve forgotten how to design. I may be bad at design.

Life is not a zen koan (though that phrase should be)

Feeling as if you’ve forgotten a skill is incredibly frustrating. I think the only way to admit it’s lost, and the regain the skills the same way you learned them in the first place: practice. In my case, it’s designing without the constraints of a large ecommerce company. I need to work on small, fast projects each week, and occasionally tackle larger projects.

Some examples then?

  • Redesign
  • Learn Swift, so I can work with native apps on iOS
  • Splash-of-the-week
  • Revitalize my blog

One guess as to which comes first.

I gave a talk (part 4)

What a jerk, right?

So, that all sounds very serious. You’re probably thinking  “Wow, this sucks. What was I thinking? Why is this guy telling us all of this stuff?”

Someone needs to. I’m not trying to scare you off, but you need to realize that work will be a big part of your life moving forward.

You’re probably also wondering why I’ve stuck around in the industry for over 10 years?

I like to make stuff.

Back in 2009, after a year of banner ads and microsites for Bank of America, I was pretty sick of design and advertising. After 6 years of it, I came to the conclusion after averaging more than 1 job a year, it wasn’t for lack of variety. I actually started applying to nursing schools, and going on interviews, and doing volunteer work as prep and a reality check. And while I came to the conclusion that I could do it without a problem, and the schoolwork certainly wouldn’t be any worse than what I had here at TCNJ, it wasn’t want I wanted. And I realized I’d probably be just as miserable. Here I was, hitting the year mark at a job, again, and bored, unhappy, and it looked like if I wanted to get promoted, I’d have to find another job. Of course, the economy was tanking at the time so I figured I’d stay put. It got to the point where we spent several months planning an escape. Nursing school was an option. What if we sold our house and moved across the country? What if we moved to NYC so I’d at least have a shorter commute? What if we moved somewhere warmer? What if we took a vacation?

I was actually hanging out at a friend’s house in rural Mexico, about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas when my wife and I figured it out. We had spent the week hanging out, doing some martial arts training, sightseeing, and swimming, and generally enjoying a completely disconnected life. When I say “disconnected” I mean – he had internet access, sort of, but we didn’t use it. We bought fish at the fishing beach and other food from the farmers’ markets. We slept on his roof in a mango grove. We were woken up at 5AM every damned morning by a rooster . We walked on a beach where a busy day involved seeing 2 cows and a bull. And we were happy. We actually talked about dropping out entirely and buying land there. But my Spanish was rusty, and by the end of the week, we realized we’d get bored. And we started having that stupid discussion about how “if money wasn’t an object, what would you do?” I still think it’s a stupid discussion. The world needs janitors and ditch diggers, and frankly, I don’t think many people do that for love. But after a few days of talking in circles, I realized: I did like design, and I liked making things. I didn’t care what they particularly were, but I wanted to make things that were useful.

For example, a few years back, I worked on a credit planner for Discover Card. It wasn’t exciting. In fact, it was incredibly tedious. But it was powerful, and useful – and Discover Card was willing to open up a lot of data to the app, and this was well before “openness” was a thing. And I loved the fact that this it solved a very real problem (that it was really hard to figure out how your finances would be affected by a large purchase). That’s why I was happy doing “boring” work for a credit card company, but unhappy whenever I was doing advertising-related stuff, even when the clients were “cool”. I was happy working on the 2-year-long project that was renovating the 2nd floor of my house, even when I was inhaling drywall dust (or worse) all weekend. I realized that the problem was that I didn’t like doing useless crap. So, I got back to NYC, stewed, and then grabbed my boss and said that I wanted to do different things. I didn’t quit. I didn’t hand down an ultimatum. I just said that I wanted something other than banner ads, and wasn’t sure what I had to do to prove that I could do it.

Turns out, speaking up can work! I had the opportunity to work on a couple pitches, and eventually moved full-time onto another account where I did, yes, banner ads and marketing stuff, but also a Facebook app that helped get dogs adopted. And I got promoted, which helped too. Eventually it wore off, and I made a couple good decisions and a bad decision which worked out anyway, but keeping my goal of “making something useful” has helped keep things a little more even. Now, even if it’s just something for my woodworking hobby/side business or a random design project.

Putting a number on it.

That’s pretty much the reason I took my current job at eBay. Helping millions of people around the world find what they’re looking for, when they’re looking for some oddball, obscure item? That’s cool! Being responsible for how 4-5% (depending on the country and the day) of eBay’s revenue looks and works? That’s exciting. That’s work with an actual impact. On the other hand, if I explain to you that my role is a hybrid design/developer/product manager/scrum leader, and I work to incorporate data-driven design in our process for the visualization of algorithmic merchandising, it probably sounds way less interesting. I’d probably start to nod off myself.

Problem solving.

My first job, I actually fell into the web design role. I was a freelance designer for RCN, but I picked up the design tasks when they fired their web agency. I did a lot of static comps and HTML/CSS mockups, etc, for delivery to developers. At my next job, I did a lot of web-based promotion design and some Flash dev. Then I took a web designer/webmaster role, and I learned a very important lesson. There is no such thing as a webmaster any more, for a very good reason. Any site with any degree of complexity is too much for a single person to handle all design, dev, content, and maintenance tasks. I then spent more time in the agency world, first focusing on marketing sites (and learning many lessons about the flash dev) and then doing a mix of marketing and commerce-focused design for credit card companies. I changed companies a couple times, and ended up working at Organic, where I did banner ads, microsites and a Surface table for Bank of America, and marketing and brand work for Iams, Eukanuba, and Pur, and did conceptual work for Unilever and P&G for mobile and tablet apps, and contributed work for winning pitches for the BBC and The Hartford Insurance Co. Then I did work for a hotel in Miami with wayfinding needs and worked on a 3D TV interface for Panasonic, and a Magic Mirror for MAC Cosmetics, all of which I found intresting when I was able to ask and answer two simple questions: What is a problem I can solve? Can I make this enjoyable? Not every project will have an answer to those two questions. Those BofA banner ads certainly weren’t helping anyone. That’s probably why I hated doing them.


You could call that design thinking, if you like. Or user centered design. I consider that MBA-speak. I hate those terms. I think they’re terrible. I think it implies that we as designers don’t think about the holistic user experience all of the time, or that we’re ok with making joyless-but-pretty things for people to play with. Some designers do, I’m sure. But they’re terrible designers. Don’t be a terrible designer.

Being a good designer and answering those questions, makes you more than an interactive designer. Let’s take the example of an HDTV. Personally, I don’t find 3D that cool. It mostly gives me a headache and TV interfaces themselves are pretty lame. That’s problem 1 to solve. But there is another problem to solve here: Whether you’re using polarized lenses, or active shutter glasses, or -any- other 3D technology, when you mix 2D and 3D content, your brain breaks the illusion. In my case, it hurts to look at it. There’s a third problem: How do you make it easy to share content between a smart phone, smart tv, smart camera, tablet, pc, etc?

There are very real technical problems to solve, and the traditional way consumer electronic companies traditionally approach something like this is to treat it like a technical problem add even more buttons to the remote. But as an interactive designer, you are thinking about information hierarchy, and the low performance of embedded systems, and how text display needs to change in 3D, from 15 feet away, and how to make the app experience actually enjoyable to use for a non-technical user. As Apple used to say, it’s about mixing art and science.

I'm really not a web designer.

The other great thing about this sort of outlook (what is a problem I can solve and how can I make someone’s life better) is that it lets you move beyond banner ads and marketing websites. I did not learn to design for TVs or tablets at TCNJ. I never actually tok a web design class. I learned about principle of design, and I got a chance to apply what I was learning in other classes to design (and vice versa). It’s more about being a full product designer and thinking about holistic systems and how people interact with people, how people interact with technology, and how technology interacts with technology. But that’s really complicated to say, so I just say “product designer.” My products just happen to be mostly digital. But again, it’s about more than making a pretty website. The mobile app landscape completely changed when the iPhone was introduced. Then tablets became mainstream. The line between website and web app had blurred, focused, and blurred again. We’re changing how we can create and consume content. Things like the Oculus Rift are changing gaming. The PS4 and XBox One are changing what game consoles do. Indie games are changing what games are. Nest is changing how people think of their thermostats and smoke detectors. Wearable technology might be the next big thing. Right now, companies are designing new medical equipment. And all of this is new – all of it is interactive, and I’d encourage all of you to explore the possibilities.

And the great thing about a lot of these interactive experiences is that you can iterate, quickly. Not that you should push changes at random (see: my previous comment about no such thing as beta), but you can tweak interfaces. You can track clicks and eyes and behavior. You have tools at hand to make things better. You don’t have to test 41(!) shades of blue like Google did years ago, but you can find out if users prefer more items with smaller images or fewer items with bigger images, or if they scroll horizontally, or if button style 1 gets more clicks than button style 2.

Cthulu rises!

So, as a designer, you’re looking at all of these things and trying to provide answers. It’s actually a little overwhelming. Fortunately, you won’t be working on this alone in most cases. In almost all cases, there should be a team supporting you (if there isn’t, and it’s not your job to grow the team, that’s a warning flag).

At eBay, the Merch team is divided into front-end (display, api, etc), back-end (data and algo), teams for each page type, vertical categories like motors and fashion, the global header team, registration, site speed, social… everything.) Even the home page has 3-4 different teams that own components. And there are design systems groups that go across pages and organizations. Each product team has its own designer(s), developers, and managers. There are server & ops groups, database people, content creators, info architects, people managers, product managers, general managers… it’s madness. I lose at least one day per week towards trying to find someone who is accountable for a feature that I need.

Now, eBay is a big company that owns other companies that are also big, so yes. It skews towards complexity. Think of eBay as a blue whale. It is a huge, mammoth beast, but moves pretty well on it’s own. It just has a lot of inertia. And if something upsets that inertia, it can take a while to correct (see: eBay wasting millions of dollars on Skype a few years back). Because for a big company that can’t afford a colossal fuck up, pushing code to the live site that breaks the home page or, say, causes the number “3” to pop up semi-randomly on a major customer-facing page causes tons of Customer Service calls, and a late-night, drunken code push during the company summer party because you realize you left a javascript “alert” statement in the production code.

But even though most projects aren’t to the scale of eBay, most digital products are built by teams nowadays. A portfolio site, or small business or vanity site can still be done by one person. Maybe you’ll need 2, if it’s being hooked up to WordPress or some similar CMS (though I recommend trying it yourself on a non-critical project). iOS apps… yes, there are the oddball apps where the whole thing is made by one person. That’s pretty damn rare, though. If the app is any good, that person is a genius, and I am jealous of them and I hate them. Anything bigger though, professionally speaking, is being developed by a team. You can segment out the skill set according to some basic lines.

Strategy does research on competitors, possible features, user behavior, trends, etc.

Information architecture focuses on the, well, the architecture of the information on the site. They’re responsible for defining the organization, and diagramming features. User Experience Design builds on both of those, but starts with the perspective of the user. Interface Designers (or Visual Designers) actually design what something looks like. Obviously, they have (or should have) a lot of conversations with the IA/UX people). Front end developers create the display code – HTML, CSS, Javascript – and may hook it into a templating engine. Back end devs build the templating engine, hook up data sources and external APIs, and for more complex projects may completely rewrite the static HTML within a framework like Django (for Python), Ruby, or Node.js or whatever platform is supported/required. You have content teams to actually create content. Then there’s QA that performs automated checks, and browser testing and management trying to keep everyone on track. And that doesn’t get into levels of seniority (for example designer vs art director vs creative director vs design director) because those are different everywhere. Not every environment will have 15 different disciplines working on a single site – for example, many small shops don’t have QA departments. They just get everyone in a room and make them use a site, and designers may do front-end dev and developers may do both front-end and back-end.

I like sandwiches.

You can’t reasonably expect anyone to actually do all of these things (well). Even with my multiple responsibilities, there is plenty more that I mostly ignore. It’s best to think about it like a “T”. You have a deep knowledge in 1 or 2 subjects, and a general curiosity and a little knowledge about a lot of things. Valve (the video game people) do a great chart of this in their employee handbook. They use the example of the Heavy from TF2 as a metaphor for their employees (who should be generally interested in the business and process of making video games, but have their specialty in AI, or character design, or planning, or writing, or motion capture, or whatever. It make a nice sans-serif T. Same for interactive designers. You can’t be an expert at everything. If I had to make my own T chart, I’d have visual design and user experience be the deepest part of the T. I’m pretty shallow in content, data, analytics, back-end dev, and QA. I try to know just enough to not embarrass myself. Front-end dev, Process and people management? Somewhere in the middle. In my case the T is more of a W. Or maybe a serif-T. But that’s ok. The point is to develop a professional sense of curiosity, but know where your strengths lie.

It’s the human equivalent of a design pattern. There are patterns in everything – grid layouts are a pattern. Patterns for laying out envelopes so they can be scanned automatically. Patterns for designing an oven that’s easy to use. Patterns that we establish within experiences as visual cues that something is clickable, or will play a video. But there are also development patterns (and their evil counterpart, anti-patterns). A common one is Model-Viewer-Controller. Basically, a model is data. Think, HTML. A viewer sets the display. This is CSS. The Controller is the browser and interaction through javascript. It can get really complicated, but this is a basic way of segregating information so that each piece of the puzzle is allows to do what it does best, and simplifies decision making.

Fail fast. Fail often.

But this is big, and takes time to figure out, and it does take a bit away from the joy of seeing something that is purely YOURS come to life… This is where I recommend, with no reservation, making you you always have side projects going. I admit, I am terrible at this. I have multiple abandoned side projects. Some too big. Some  too involved. Some not big enough. But, it’s worth trying. I don’t regret trying to start a cooking website. It was all about “cooking for nerds” but then I realized that the concept I had just wasn’t interesting to others, and I once I listed out the content I had, I was going to have a tough time creating more because I wasn’t interested. I’ve killed, started, and resurrected my blog half a dozen times. I’ve tried making comics to retrain my illustration skills. I was doing a series of book covers (based on whatever book I was reading on the train at the time). Turns out I write at a snail’s pace, and often the last thing I want to do when I get home is spend more time in front of my computer.

But that’s OK. One of the cliches of the dotcom economy (both the first time and this time) is to fail fast. It sounds stupid, but it’s not a bad idea. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it, learn your lessons, rebuild, and do something else. I still want to find a project that gets me drawing again (illustrate an existing story or do a sketch-a-day blog of some sort). I want to design a game at some point. I may restart my blog as “the daily something” in that I want to get back to making on shorter timelines, so I figure having to finish one project a day – even if it’s just a sketch – is a reasonable goal.


The only one I’ve really stuck with is woodworking. I have a small side business making “stuff.” Mostly martial arts gear for japanese martial arts (so wooden training weapons, sword racks, and some dojo niceties, but I’ve built some other random things, including an large torii for a dojo in DC. It doesn’t hurt that it pays me and doesn’t involve computers. Plus I get to play with logo design and experiment with web design techniques, and do business cards and make up promo materials that I have never gotten to do as part of a day job. It’s the ultimate student project for me, and has helped save my creative sanity.

The major attraction to me is that I’m generating a real, physical object that is durable, and semi-permanent – which is the one thing I miss about designing purely digital goods for so long.  If you put the wrong name or phone number on a business card, you screwed up and you’re going to be reprinting the entire batch. It’s not as easy as pressing a couple buttons. Imagine you’ve designed the new Cheerios box – and millions of boxes in, an error is found. Oops. You just killed a bunch of trees for nothing and you’re responsible for a huge product recall. Even worse, consider what architects and engineers go through. Discover a roof design is flawed after a building is finished? Or that your structure can’t sustain wind gusts? Or that you ended up building in a completely unsuitable location? If you’re Ghery, or IM Pei, or Frank Lloyd Wright, you’re fine and will be celebrated as a genius, not bound by the laws of nature. Everyone else, you’re screwed.

Digital, thus far, is ephemeral in any way imaginable, from the work we produce to how we store our work. I mentioned before how there’s no such thing as beta. What if we applied to digital work as well? What if changing a CSS file or fixing a typo cost as least as much effort as, say, having to knock a hole in the drywall in your house. What if updating a page template were as physically inconvenient as renovating a kitchen. We’ve taken it for granted that we can update quickly and that, even if we can’t, customers will rush out to buy the next version. And if we do make something long-lasting, we still have trouble archiving it for more than a year or two. It’s still mostly about the next big thing, and less about making something lasting. Let’s strive to make it permanent.

So, that ends that. I would’ve probably expanded more on what it means to work as an interactive designer, and more about the specific environments and types of projects to work on. And maybe, just maybe, I would’ve tried to sound a little less bitter. But where’s the fun in that


I gave a talk (part 3)

I had to put at least one meme in here.Briefly, I want to share some advice. This is based off my 11 year insane career path, so it’s ok to be a little cynical. Cynicism is underrated. But maybe it’ll help someone here.

Lovely networking graphic

The most valuable things you will get from any job are experience and connections. Experience in the sense of both portfolio pieces and technical skills, but also good habits. Connections because many people find jobs almost exclusively through referrals. I’ve only had a few job offers come through recruiters and normal applications. Most have been either a person specifically pointing me to a company, or friends referring someone to me – even years after I worked for them. The world is much smaller than you think. So don’t burn bridges unless you’re absolutely certain you won’t need them again.

All hail our robot overlords

When you’re actually looking for jobs, find a designer you like. Find out where they worked, see who used to work with them, see what else they’ve done. The internet is great for stalking people. Maybe even reach out and say hi. Let them guide you. Just don’t be creepy. Be a human being. Same for companies. Got a company you want to work for? Reach out to them, even if they’re not hiring. See who works for them, and find out where they worked. See who used to work for them, and find out where they are now. Just don’t be creepy. Be a human. Also, make sure companies can see your work. Get a website. Make sure your work is on Behance, or Coroflot, or where ever else. Keep LinkedIn up to date. It’s no substitute for in-person networking, but every bit helps.


When you’re interviewing, have your presentation down. If you’ve got samples, make sure they can survive handling. If you’ve got a printed book or boards, make sure the prints/photos are in good shape. Make sure you can actually carry it. If you’re presenting on a tablet or laptop, make sure your battery is charged and if you’ll need internet access, make sure you arrange that beforehand. Make sure everything works. Talk process and decisions. Know your contribution. Don’t fake it. Also, don’t show everything for the sake of showing everything. I’d also rather see fewer deep projects than lots of shallow projects. Chances are, I will only ask you about a couple pieces in your portfolio – probably the strongest (because I’ll be curious) and the weakest (because I’m going to push you).

Nothing funny here

Understand what companies do. Be prepared to ask questions. Look past the PR. Find out what you’ll be doing. Curiosity is underrated, and will help you in the long run

And understand, your first job or two or three will probably suck. Sad but true. They’re the hardest to get. You’ll be the low man on the totem pole and do the most basic work until you prove yourself or move on. You’ll do a ton of things wrong. Eventually that’ll change (even if it’s only because you change jobs). Learn and grow. Don’t let your first job pigeonhole you. Complacency can hurt you in the long run, even if you like what you’re doing – for example, I had the opportunity to focus purely on Flash design/dev early on. If that became my only skill, I’d be virtually unemployable now. If you hate your first job, find something else. It’s a big world, every company and every client is a little different.

Take freelance on the side, if you can manage it, or start personal projects. The barrier for entry for getting yourself published online has never been lower. Whether it’s the Daily Drop Cap, the Daily Monster (both actual projects from designers I respect), or the weekly-something-I-just-made-up, it’s the closest you’ll get to your student work in terms of pure concept and self-expression, which is always interesting. Use the time to experiment and improvise. It’s a far cry from the daily exercise in compromise that is professional design.

Go to these two things

Design is a business. Remember how I just said how student work is about concept and self-expression and improvisation? Professional design is about getting paid, hopefully without selling your soul. Money’s certainly not everything, but life is much easier when you’re not worried about eating or paying rent. It’s also much easier when you don’t take it personally. Speaking about getting paid, there are two things you should check out on the internet:

  1. (Which helps answer the question you’ll have to answer constantly, “Should I work for free?” Hint: the answer is generally no)
  2. Fuck you, pay me (Not the scene from Goodfellas, but a very funny presentation about contracts by Mike Monteiro, who runs a design shop in SF.)

Once it's up, it's up

There is no such thing as beta. For those who aren’t aware of how software releases work, there’s a first release, called an “Alpha” – it’s a buggy mess. It’s generally not meant for public consumption. It’s just to test specific features. Then there’s beta – maybe opened to the public, this is when the bulk of the features are done, but you need a bigger audience to look for the odd bugs. Then there’s the actual release.

Guess what? There is no beta. When putting your work or thoughts online, remember – you only get 3 phases: zero (pre-publishing), a few (showing it in-person) or everyone (sending out password-protected links, posting your work in forums, whatever – once it’s out there, it’s out there.

Also, take yourself seriously. No one else will. And I mean that professionally, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Would you like a nice pair of aviators?

This is the biggie: Be careful drinking the kool-aid. You’ll have to drink a little bit of it. If you’re in a small design shop and you don’t think that late nights, and stress, and instability and insanity are exciting and at least a little cool, you’ll be miserable, fast. If you’re in an ad agency, accept that you are selling products. You’ll have to live with the fact that advertising is its own little universe where it is actually important in people’s lives. If you work for a big tech company, accept that things have a process and politics and move at a glacial pace sometimes. If you work in pharma… well… at least you’re not doing porn. I’ve never worked in pharma, for the record. If you’re freelancing, you have to learn to love that you never REALLY know what you’re going to be doing next week, and managing your expenses, and networking constantly, and filing your taxes. But I’ve worked for small ad shops, big ad shops, a non-profit, corporate, tech, design… whatever. You’re going to have to be engaged and present… and if you’re not, you’ll just be sad.

That said, take it easy. This is the one thing I repeatedly fucked up. It took me 7? years to figure this out: You aren’t your job. Shocking, I know. Working 70-80 hours a week gets old fast. Working weekends gets old fast. It’s not healthy. It leaves you no personal time. And it leads you to a personal and creative stasis. You shouldn’t expect to walk out at 5PM every day – you’ll have to put in your time. You should want to go to work in the morning, but it shouldn’t be the only reason you get up. Because as soon as you hit a rough patch, or a friend quits, or your client fires you and things get crazy or god forbid, you get laid off, or you just decide it’s time for a change… it will hurt that much more, and it’s already going to suck. Stefan Sagmeister has a great story about this:

When I was moving to Hong Kong and was about to make a lot of money Tibor Kalman told me: And don’t you go and spend the money they pay you or you’re going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life. I didn’t and got easily out of it again. Most of my colleagues did not get that great advice and are still stuck in the agencies.

I don’t want to unfairly pick on advertising (design isn’t much better), but he’s got a point. Advertising is a crazy world that revolves around buying things you don’t really need. They pay a lot of money (most of the time) to make up for the stress and instability. As an industry they practically pride themselves on wrecking their employee’s lives and condoning terrible behavior. And many people buy into it as “the price you pay”. And to a degree, that’s true. You can have a lot of fun in advertising. Some people fall in love with it and stay forever and produce all sorts of really good work. But, If you end up in a world you don’t like (say, you hear self-important speeches about ‘positive contributions to culture’ and ‘conversation starting’ one too many times, or bashing of junior creatives who want to be treated as actual human beings), it’s very hard to leave when you’ve spent all of your money, and gotten into a lifestyle and spending habits that require that high salary.

Really though, it’s good advice for everyone, whether or not you go into the ad industry. Every industry has its dark side. It’s tough for you guys, just graduating, without a ton of money, probably with student loan debt. Being careful with money means you can move across country. Travel. Save for a rainy day and you can afford to wait for the job you want, not taking the first paycheck that can come your way if you find yourself laid off. It is genuinely liberating to get to the point where you don’t need that next paycheck.

Speaking of Kool Aid, you’re going to have to develop a sense of ethics. I’ve worked for absolutely loathed companies – My first job was for a cable company. I worked on Discover Card and Capital One. No one ever likes credit card companies, or their cable company. But both were full of shockingly decent people who wanted to provide a good product. I worked for BofA during the last crisis when they bought ML and Countrywide (nice people, at least), P&G Pet Care (they frequently have food recalls, but geniuinely loved animals). I draw my line there. My last big agency client was Citibank. I can say that I’ve drunk a little of the koolaid here and there… but Citibank crossed a line. I will not work for a company that is that openly, blatantly unethical and staffed by people who seem gleefully aware of that fact. And while I’m ok working on alcohol, I would never do tobacco, or porn ads (and yes, there is a place that does both of those).

And so ends part three. Here’s where my talk went a little long. Keep in mind I didn’t have much time to edit, but I would probably trim this part down a bit more in the long run, and talked a lot more about ethics. We make decisions every day, large and small, that affect our users. We can choose to make the easy decision or the hard decision or the right decision.

I gave a talk (Part 2)

Picking up where I left off, I had just finished talking about how the industry, as I saw it, had changed in 10 years. Now we get into my sordid career.


In 11 years, I have had 11 jobs, not counting short term freelance gigs and side projects. 2 jobs lasted more than 1 year. 3 lasted almost exactly 1 year. One company went bankrupt. One was bought and sold a couple times. I quit before I could be laid off. One was boring. One gave me gray hair. One laid me off after a year. One laid me off after 6 months. One laid me off after 3 months after bouncing direct deposit.


If you’re allergic to change, this is not the career for you (I’m an extreme case – but be warned, this happens). There is an incredible turnover in skills,  style, and technology and people that is mind boggling to anyone outside of the industry.

Lobster is delicious.

I’ve been a small cog in a big machine. I’ve work 72 hours on 4 hours of sleep. I’ve almost gone to nursing school. I’ve almost rage quit. I wrote an email to my boss describing, in detail, why we deserved to be fired by our client. I named 2 lobsters, Ravi and Sachin, after a couple outsourced offshore devs/project managers who were making my life miserable. They tasted delicious.

Not every day is easy.

Not a great motivational poster.

On the other hand, I made a calendar for Tecaté. The models were pretty. I helped grow a small company. I was on a video shoot with a barge mule (it was huge) and cheerleaders and fake blood. I had 3 interviews and a long-term freelance gig less than 36 hours after getting laid off. I’ve been poached and promoted. I wrote a “this is why we suck” email to my boss, and was praised. I helped animals get adopted, and I  helped raise awareness for clean water. I was unemployed for less than 12 hours (and fielded 3 offers) after getting laid off. I’ve worked with geniuses and cool people. I made something useful. I made something cool. For every skill I’ve lost, I’ve gained one.

Some days are pretty good. I’ve probably come out ahead.

Life is random OMG PONIES?

What should you take away from all of that? It’s a random, capricious, and occasionally cruel industry. Sometimes it takes its toll on people. Sometimes it’s incredibly fun. And it never makes sense. You can either let it drive you insane, or you can figure out a way to make peace with it. How that happens is up to you.

So far, still so good. I’ll stop here because I’ve just taken nighttime cold medicine, and expect to be unconscious in 15 minutes or so. But also, This is about where my talk starts delving into advice, which is dodgy as hell.

I gave a talk (part 1)

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to the graduating seniors at my alma mater, TCNJ. As a part of their visiting artist series, they invited some alumni back to talk about their particular fields or work environments, and to give advice. It went ok. Frankly, I’m out of practice speaking to groups like this (work presentations are totally different), and I was off. This is part 1 of the talk I wish I gave.


First, I want to apologize to everyone for canceling last week. There was a typo in the initial email chain, and I wasn’t prepared for the sudden notice that I had 1 day, not 1 month to finish everything up.

I'm old.

So, I’m Dan Boyle. I graduated from TCNJ in 2003 with a BFA in Graphic Design. Since then I’ve spent my time working as a designer, in one form or another, in one industry or another, for one company or another. The economy crashed a couple times. I’ve taken jobs, quit jobs, and almost quit design entirely. I gained weight, lost weight, gained it again, turned 30 and discovered I’m not indestructible (those last two events were very closely timed), got married, bought a house, did some traveling, and had a kid. Right now I’m a designer and product manager for eBay.

While I’m going to talk a little (a lot?) about career stuff, and interactive design specifically, if I thought I could get away with it, I’d love to do nothing but brag about my kid and show you cute baby pictures, but that’s not really relevant to you guys. But I do want to say that while I will be talking a lot about working, that’s not all there is to life after college. But, it’s a big part of your life.

Kid pics

There is time for a couple kid pics, though.

In the year 2000

So, almost 11 years of this. 11 years ago, you weren’t even in high school yet. The art department was still on the 3rd and 4th floors of Holman Hall. Our 3D animation lab was “updated” to dual processor G4s from the old SGI systems. SGI was still a company. Fanky and Anita were new. Like, really new. I think I had Anita her first semester teaching here. I think I had Fanky his second or third semester here. It feels like at least half of the current campus hadn’t been built yet.

Get off my lawn

Many places were still using G3 computers. G4s were a luxury. G5s, much less any Intel-based Mac were years off. OS X had just come out and was a mess. Apple itself was in terrible shape. We had to use Zip disks and Jazz drives to store our work, until they developed the “click of death” and we raced to back up our data. If you were lucky enough to afford an external hard drive, a 60GB firewire drive could store your college career’s worth of work and then some (and would only set you back a couple hundred dollars). The closest thing to a smartphone that you ever saw was a Blackberry, and they were crap for anything other than email. Nothing approaching iOS, Android or modern Windows Mobile existed. If you were lucky a friend in the dorms had a PS2 and you could play multiplayer games on their couch. Everquest was ruining academic careers and relationships.

It's a fad

The internet was a smaller place. The internet economy crashed. It rebuilt itself, and now it is making itself look stupid again. The only real social network was MySpace. It was terrible. RealPlayer was a legitimate option for streaming video/audio. It was also terrible. MP3 downloading was illegal – no iTunes/Amazon/Google Play. Google was this weird little company. No one knew what to do with YouTube. It was harder get your voice onto the internet, but it was, conversely, easier to stand out, but finding an audience was tough. Free AOL CDs were everywhere, and a great backup when your cable internet went out (which happened at least once a month).

This isn't date, right?

No one had yet thought of the phrases “design thinking” or “user centered design” but we were all doing it. The Marketing and MBA people just hadn’t gotten ahold of it yet. David Carson occasionally showed up for speaking gigs. People actually knew who he was. Pentagram wasn’t just phoning it in. Digital Photography was the future, but still “actually” the future. You sure as hell weren’t getting anything decent from your cell phone. Quark was king, but it was terrible. InDesign wasn’t even a dream in Adobe’s eye. Photoshop 5 (not CS5!) was a huge upgrade, Director was powerful, but complicated – but worth mastering. Flash was the future of web design, and was responsible for incredibly innovative and completely unusable experiences. Now, Macromedia is part of adobe, Director is dead, and Flash is a niche within a niche, which is kind of a shame because a lot of the really cool stuff can’t be replicated (yet). Minimalism was an anti-trend. Web standards weren’t. Most web sites were just a collection of pages. Now we plan for responsive, mobile, accessible, webapps, and hi-dpi. WEBFONTS. OMG WEBFONTS. You have no idea how lucky you are to be in a world where you can use fonts other than Arial or Times New Roman on a website, and to actually expect it to work in most browsers.

I started to list all of the skills I graduated from college with that are no longer relevant, but it would make us all sad.