Skin in the Game

Skin in the Game

In 2010, Aapo Bovellan spent his days working in the London offices of Nokia, and his evenings and weekends offering branding expertise to a video game startup that gave him an opportunity to become an early shareholder. Last year, that company, Supercell, raked in $2.3 billion in revenue on the strength of its first release, Clash of the Clans, and several spin-offs. Not long after completing that project, Bovellan and his wife teamed up with a colleague from Nokia to form Proxy Ventures. In the four years since, they’ve carved out brand identities for 14 startups, including game maker Another Place, Frill frozen smoothies, and apps like CurrencyFair and Peak—and they became early-stage investors in each of them. Clearly they’re doing something right: Proxy’s clients have seen average revenue growth of 202% year over year, and an average share price increase of 91%.

As venture capitalists continue to throw startling amounts of money at nascent businesses, more design firms are offering work in exchange for equity, and when they hit the jackpot, the world hears all about it. But not long ago, an equity deal was considered a sucker’s bet, like buying a lottery ticket or purchasing a can of magical beans. Is it a short-lived trend destined to fizzle out or a promising new approach that’s here to stay?

“The model we work with is sexy and shiny, but too many people think that there are a couple of ways things can go wrong and a lot of ways things can go right, when in reality, it’s the opposite,” says Red Antler cofounder and CEO J.B. Osborne, whose agency made a name for itself with the launch of mattress brand Casper. “And most of those factors are out of your control—someone goes to market faster, someone raises more money, the founders fight and break up the business, or they overhire. It’s an incredibly risky investment with only a small percentage of deals that are likely to pan out, so you have to be able to make quality bets and play the game enough times to make it worthwhile.”

Perhaps it’s smarter to say that taking an equity stake is more like playing poker than playing the lottery—an intelligent player who’s seen thousands of hands will always have the advantage. But for Osborne, it was never about the money.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the business model for creative services,” he says. “It never really made sense to me why someone should pay by the hour for something that could be incredibly valuable in the long run, so I was curious about how to structure things in a way that was aligned more with value creation than time spent.” When colleagues in the design industry heard he was accepting equity along with a portion paid in cash, they told him he was crazy. But as someone who doesn’t like being told what to do, those comments just added fuel to the fire.

“The vision was always to partner with our clients as much as possible, where our success comes from their success,” he says. “If we do good work, their business grows and if we create something that’s truly valuable, it builds our reputation, and we get piece of the upside.” Case and point: Red Antler’s first project was to establish the branding and identity work for Behance and 99U—launched by Osborne’s old college friend, Scott Belsky—in exchange for equity. When Belsky sold the company to Adobe in 2012, the small agency saw a nice payday.

So, if you’re considering adapting an equity model, what are the most important to ask of potential clients?  

“I ask a lot of entrepreneurs to talk about analogues,” says Alain Sylvain, founder and CEO of New York-based Sylvain Labs. “If I asked them to tell me about companies in other industries that they look up to, they’ll usually say Tesla or Patagonia—you can learn a lot about how they view creative work through that response. I’ll also ask what they know about manufacturing and whether they have an in-house chief technology officer or outsource their tech, which is a big red flag. And I’ll find out about the company of investors that I’m joining, so that I can be sure we all share the same vision.”

That first meeting can be crucially important, too: “If a client suggests equity in the first meeting, I never touch it,” says Sylvain. “The only projects I’ve done in exchange for equity are projects where I brought it up.

Bovellan and Osborne both say that the source of the referral also carries a lot of weight. Agencies involved in venture capital deals aren’t passively standing by, waiting for opportunity to come knocking—they’re meeting with VCs, reading the trades, and talking to experts who can offer background on any potential client. Because combining creativity with venture capital requires the ability to speak both languages fluently.

“Most designers don’t really feel like looking at term sheets and doing due diligence, whereas most venture capitalists don’t feel very compelled to produce mood boards,” says Proxy’s Bovellan. “To run a good design studio, you have to be able to attract good designers and establish a solid creative process, whereas the venture capital side has to be extremely disciplined—it can be hard to get all of those skills under the same roof. So one of our partners is focused purely on investments, another is completely design driven, and I’m half and half. ”

Proxy has found more success working with companies in the A series stage rather than those in the early seed stage. “By series A, companies probably have revenues of $500,000 a month, so they’ve already found out who’s buying their product and why,” says Bovellan. “And that means they won’t flip [their business model] to become, say an enterprise SAAS company or a B2B company, which means they’re more prepared to pursue branding and positioning [for the long-term.]”

Even after the due diligence is complete, the agency CEOs interviewed for this piece generally insist on taking a portion of their fee in cold, hard cash, for several reasons. For one thing, you’ve got to pay the bills long before your client is bought out for millions. Second, a little cash can minimize the pain when things go south, which will happen on occasion, no matter how careful you are.

One horror story: Sylvain Labs partnered with an entrepreneur creating technology that would produce custom shirts at a fraction of the typical cost. But after the agency spent thousands of hours on the project and developed a deep expertise, one of the partners walked out on the other, to pursue the work on his own.

“The whole thing completely fizzled overnight,” says Sylvain, “It was really painful, not only because we had spent money on it, but because we’d invested in the idea emotionally, and it was now irrelevant. That’s when we learned a mix of cash and equity is critical, and we started to evaluate every project more seriously—looking at business plans, doing our due diligence, asking lawyers and accountants to review balance sheets. That work really changes the relationship from a client and a consultant to an entrepreneur and an investor.”

And that deeper relationship can have a radical impact on the process.

Jonathan Levine, founder of Master & Dynamic, approached Sylvain Labs looking for help with branding and strategy for a new line of premium headphones. Sylvain’s team was engaged in pivotal decisions around pricing, naming, and launch strategy, even producing the materials that persuaded Apple to include the headphones on its website and in its brick-and-mortar stores.

“Entrepreneurs are desperate for creative energy, and the ones who are willing to give up equity tend to be the most progressive and open-minded,” says Sylvain. “Clients who pay us directly may say, ‘We want you to really push us creatively,’ but they don’t always want to be pushed; they rein us in all the time. Our entrepreneurs are always asking us to help them accelerate their brand to make a real impact, and when they say, ‘Push us,’ they really let us go for it.”

“When you and the client ultimately want the same outcome, that can shift the tone of the conversation,” says Osborne. “If you’re the agency that keeps saying ‘No,’ you’re just going to get fired, because the person who writes the check has the power, and that’s a dangerous thing. So it’s really important that you have the rigor to push and pull to get the best outcome. Our clients respect us because they know we’re not pushovers—they know we’re not just going to say yes and phone it in; we’re going to put in the extra effort to get to that outcome and ultimately work beyond what we’re getting paid, and that leads to a much deeper, more trusting relationship.”

That level of trust allowed Red Antler to launch product and marketing for All Birds, whose founders aimed to create a shoe that’s comfortable, stylish, and environmentally sustainable. “As we were figuring out how to position the brand, we knew we wanted to get away from a mission-first business, and instead focus on what will make people care about the product. And that meant style, comfort, fitting with your life, and a focus on travel and exploration.” Red Antler designed custom packaging that uses 40% less materials, an integrated e-commerce site, and a unique “unboxing” experience that seems to be connecting with consumers.

Of course, breakout successes will always be rare, and few agencies have the time, the expertise, or the stomach for the inherent risks that come with equity deals. But in a world that glorifies the entrepreneur, it’s a trend that’s likely to continue.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 12 years ago, The Apprentice was one of the country’s top reality shows, and now we’re all watching Shark Tank, which celebrates the entrepreneur,” says Sylvain. “Today, everyone seems to aspire to be an entrepreneur and invite a little risk into their lives. Even with our clients who pay for the work directly, there’s always risk: Will our work be successful? Will we get a second project? In some ways, it’s almost easier to have all risk encapsulated in a single project, where the results are plain for everyone to see.”


from 99U99U

Brooklyn Music Label Fool’s Gold Records on Turning 10

Brooklyn Music Label Fool’s Gold Records on Turning 10

When you meet Nick Catchdubs and A-Trak, the DJ founders of Brooklyn-based record label Fool’s Gold Records, you realize that for some people, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

The self-proclaimed music nerds started down this path young. A-Trak, a.k.a. Montreal-born Alain Macklovitch, had his first record label after winning the World Turntablist title at age 15 – the youngest winner ever – and Nick, whose given name is Nick Barat, helped launch online magazine The Fader as a writer. Today they somehow manage to juggle their independent music careers with the demands of their joint business, and seem to relish the challenges of pursuing whatever it is that catches their eye or ear: Stoking the rigorous love of their craft that has given Fool’s Gold the cult following it has today.

Ask them about starting a record label and both will reply, “Don’t do it unless you’re ready for it to consume your whole life!” – while grinning from ear to ear. Carving an authentic path rather than following trends, Fool’s Gold has always danced to the beat of its own drum machine. The duo’s collaboration started out with their groundbreaking art of mixing hip-hop and dance music together; now it means opening up a brick-and-mortar store with a long lease – in Williamsburg, naturally – while everyone else is running temporary pop-up shops.

A-Trak (on the left) and Nick Catchdubs (on the right)

Always driven with a genuine goal in mind and motivated by what they call DHM (Deep Hidden Meaning), Nick and A-Trak have never shied away from diving headfirst into ventures that don’t necessarily make sense on paper but succeed through sheer determination and passion. On first impression it looks like Fool’s Gold Records has reached the pinnacle as the duo celebrates 10 years in business. But look a little closer at their worldwide hip-hop festival tour and the opening of their beautiful new store and you realize they are just getting ready for the next phase.

99U Contributing Editor Dave Neslon figured it was time to sit down with the creative partners and learn about their ever-evolving path to success.  

How did the two of you meet?

A-Trak: We met deejaying some parties together in New York. I grew up in Montreal and was on the road with Kanye, but I was discovering a new scene in New York that grabbed my curiosity. I would play these cool little parties, and at a bunch of them promoters would pair Nick and I up together, and we struck up a friendship from there. That was around 2005.

Nick: As much as our friendship was started amongst changes in the DJ world, there were probably changes going on in the media and cultural world, too, which made a fertile ground for the seeds of Fool’s Gold, as the big companies hadn’t figured that out yet. And being on the ground floor allowed us to see that before they did.

A-Trak: This can’t be overstated. In the mid-2000s, music magazines couldn’t figure out their online presence. The reality we know now, where music gets posted every day and the internet is faster than print press, hadn’t been figured out yet at that time. As DJs, we were living in an online reality where we were finding new music every day.

How does always looking for the “next big thing” flow into the ethos of Fool’s Gold?

A-Trak: When we started, it was considered novel to have a hip-hop song and a dance song together. Now it’s par for the course. It used to be dismissive to call a rising artist an “internet rapper.” Everyone’s an internet rapper now! The things that were new and weird when Fool’s Gold started – the rest of the world has caught up with that now. So it’s less about finding new variations and permutations and more about the quality level. For us, the challenge is taking what people are putting out there and making it better. We gravitate toward personalities that are compelling and look at how we can make them the best version of themselves.

Nick: When Fool’s Gold started, having good artwork was rare, so it was easy for us to stand out. Now we are living in a time with an aesthetic generation, raised on Tumblr and Instagram. Most people have it together in terms of presentation and art. Almost everything is good. Fool’s Gold’s job is to make it stellar. Anyone can make a record sleeve, but that stuff is worthless unless there is a bigger idea behind it. We often talk about this idea of “DHM.” It comes from a Nile Rodgers’ book where he talks about all his songs with artists, and making sure there was a “Deep Hidden Meaning” behind the things he did.

You have both been in the music business since you were young. When did you realize you wanted to start a label and why?

A-Trak: I had another label before with my brother Dave [a musician in the band Chromeo], called Audio Research. We would release one single a year. We were really interested in the DIY reality of pressing vinyl and putting out our friends’ music. It was about not waiting for someone else to give you the keys to do something. It instilled a reflex in my brain where if you are working on a song and it’s great, you end up having this natural inclination to press it up and put it out. You don’t just stop with a piece of music sitting on a hard drive. I was trained to do that from running Audio Research. When I started touring with Kanye, my first label went dormant, so when I met Nick I remember having some conversations with him about putting some new stuff out, but it was a different sound from what I did on my old label. We started exchanging MP3s and it felt like a fantasy baseball version of having a label – and that just turned into us deciding to start something new ourselves.

Nick: For me, I just felt like it was interesting and at the intersection of all the stuff I had a passion for. It’s funny, because now when kids ask what advice I have for starting a label, it’s “Don’t!” But you need some of that naive “Fuck it, I’m doing it” to get it started, as logically there are so many warning signs telling you not to do it. If you can disregard those it means you still have the fire to keep it going when things get tough. You have to have something beyond a logical sense of it being something that can sustain itself.

A-Trak: Running an independent business takes up every minute of your life. It’s a constant challenge every single day just to balance out the time for creative endeavors you want to do yourself as an artist and running a company with friends. But the stuff I’m proudest of in my whole life are instances of going where you are not supposed to go and breaking ground in some way. There are reasons why it’s rare to break ground. It’s not easy. It will drive you crazy. But I kind of love it.

Nick: If you can see it’s nuts and still want to do it, that means you should do it. It’s kind of like the difference between the person who goes into the cave to find treasure and the person who says, “Fuck that, something’s going to eat me.” I know a lot of talented people who just opted out, thinking, “This is going to be a hassle; I’m going to hit the bong now.” At the very least we can say we have this beautiful store.

What was the biggest lesson learned operating the label over the past 10 years?

Nick: I think one of the biggest recurring lessons has involved a certain amount of planning and rigorous structure outside of our creative impulses. Our first couple of releases made money straight away, and then we found ourselves in year three or four where there was a big stash of money in the bank account. But we were losing money on all the subsequent ones and not realizing it until two years later. Everything was by the seat of our pants, and every couple of years we would realize we needed to tighten different areas. Even just having staff: There have been iterations of the staff over the years that have been progressively more professional.

Nick: The thing no one tells you about working with other people is that the key to that sentence isn’t “working” but “people.” Regardless of what your goals are, if you can’t nail the interpersonal aspect of it, you’ll never be able to get to the philosophical mission side. We are so used to just doing things ourselves, but Fool’s Gold is greater than any one person. It’s cool to look back and see how everyone has played their part.

A-Trak: In the last six months or so I have gotten more interested in the biz dev side of Fool’s Gold, and there is one record mogul in particular who was giving me advice a couple of months ago. I went to him and said I wanted to hire a COO for the company, and his response was “I could give you names all day long, but the most important thing is that whoever you get to hire has to hang out with the rest of your team and have chemistry with them and respect them.”

At a company like Fool’s Gold, with just 10 people, the interpersonal jelling between every single one of us is just as important as the actual accuracy of our work. We are all perfectionists and like to think our attention to detail is what makes us stand out, but I think there was a time when it took us too long to get anything out. In any creative field, there is this feeling that you have to get shit out there into the world. Learning how to fine-tune things to get stuff out the door regularly enough has been a big lesson for us.

How does running Fool’s Gold now compare to running it in the beginning?

A-Trak: Having an office is nice; I remember when our mailing address was Nick’s apartment. There’s a larger scale pattern with Fool’s Gold where we try to find the next move when everyone is stuck doing something else. In the mid-2000s, when we were founded, the major labels were terrified by what downloading was doing to their economy and didn’t know how to market their music. We founded a record label the year everyone thought the industry was failing.

Similarly, we founded a store with a five-year lease just when everyone else is doing a temporary pop-up. It’s just like when Eminem was first blowing up and every record label wanted to sign up a white rapper. That’s the opposite of what Fool’s Gold tries to do. We are never looking for a thing that already exists. We are just looking for stuff that catches our attention. Myself, Nick, and my brother Dave are the creative heads of the company, and we are hip-hop kids at heart.

And the braggadocio of hip-hop is the idea of stunting and making everyone around you go “Oh shit.” Everything we do here at Fool’s Gold has to have an element of that – whether it’s the lineups we put together for our events and finding an artist no one has thought of for the last 10 years and putting them together with the latest kid, or the architecture of the store itself, or Nick’s awesome accessories that he comes up with. It always has to have the “Oh shit” factor.

Fool’s Gold is a record label with a high aesthetic value. Where did that come from?

Nick: It boils down to taste. If you have good taste it extends to musical choices and visual ones alike. When we began, our art director, Dust La Rock, had a personal style that was very illustrated and detailed and highlighted his own esoteric interests in the Illuminati, etc. It became the early Fool’s Gold identity, but we evolved over the years and the artwork evolved with it. Our changing digital side has always been in response to the music primarily, but also the culture at large. We’ve never really followed trends or bucked them. If you have good taste, you have a sense of when your stuff needs to be refreshed or shaken up.

You both have a broad sense of style. How do you know something is authentic to the Fool’s Gold brand?

A-Trak: I wish we could put that in words, because every time we hire someone, that is the toughest part of the process.

Nick: At times it comes down to a level of intent, and you can tell who is sincere about what they are doing versus who is wearing the costume. That authenticity takes things to the next level. The idea of something being middle-brow is kryptonite to us. Of all the things that go into a professional career – you can learn the tech side and the business side, but you can’t learn to be cool. You can’t be a corny person and practice really hard and stop being corny! Charisma is natural, and we gravitate toward people with that charisma.

Of all the tracks the label has put out, which are your favorite and why?

A-Trak: It’s funny, because last night I was deejaying in Washington, D.C., and dropped an old Fool’s Gold classic, Treasure Fingers’ “Cross the Dance Floor.” Specifically, a Laidback Luke remix. Getting that Laidback Luke remix represented a time when some of these subscenes in dance music started intersecting. Up until the early years of Fool’s Gold, people rarely crossed those lines. When you go back to the older catalog there are odd choices that didn’t sell at all that I’m still fond of. The other day I saw the cover for an old Alexander Robotnick single and remembered getting the rights to a song by this Italian disco god and releasing it and losing money on it, and I am still so happy we did it.

Nick: Sometimes the misses are more interesting storywise than the hits. I love that we put a record out by the Susan, because we exposed people to it even if it didn’t sell well. The records I’m proudest of are the ones where we made something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The challenge of being attracted to such one-of-a-kind personalities is that some of them are particular, so you can’t always nudge people in the way you want to, so sometimes you just have to take what you get. My attitude to remixes is that they have to justify their existence.

We got GTA to do a remix for Giraffage–he makes Nintendo music, but it’s not a club thing. GTA is one of the best club music groups out there. So I thought if they remixed Giraffage it would be great. It was a challenge getting everyone into the idea, but they did the remix and it was phenomenal. GTA still plays that remix. I love that there is something that exists because I was stubborn enough to say, “Trust me, let’s do it.”

Fool’s Gold has grown beyond a music label. Why did you enter the clothing and events business?

Nick: It’s a very natural extension of what we’ve been doing. It’s cool that fans are educated, and the same person who cares about who produced a record cares about where the denim in their jeans came from. Record nerds are probably sweatshirt nerds too! We appreciate when craftsmanship goes into anything, and we want our product offering to reflect our sensibilities and respect our audience. We can bring in outside ideas in ways we can’t for an album project.

As a label owner, is there ever a situation where you see a big-dollar opportunity but know it doesn’t fit the brand?

Nick: That presents itself less on a signing level and more on a sponsorship level, as that’s the money that comes with strings attached, and we have to balance staying true to our values with the realities of our business. We have always had a very healthy respect for our fans and audience and would never do anything that felt like a sellout.

How do you focus when you have more ideas than money?

Nick: There’s no right or wrong way to do it. I think you need to be ambitious and realistic at the same time, and sometimes that’s easier said than done. You have to be crafty. I feel like we do more with less in certain ways, because the most important currency is ideas. Sometimes it’s better to have more ideas to get out of a situation than to just have a budget. For us it often boils down to outthinking people rather than outspending them.

As DJs and producers, how do you find time to run a business?

A-Trak: I have a natural tendency to take on too much, and I think it’s been a gift and a curse in my life. The challenging thing with that is finding the hours in the day, let alone the energy, to see through multiple projects. I believe that balancing multiple projects is why I have never gotten bored in my 20-year career and have stayed inspired. The thing that is fun and actually effective about having a music career and balancing that with Fool’s Gold is that there are all these synapses that feed each other.

As I’m researching music, I can find someone to sign to Fool’s Gold. As I’m out in the field deejaying, the opening DJ might tell me about his friend who is a rapper that is really killing it in that city, and I might end up signing them or collaborating with them. Nick is my partner, but for all intents and purposes he is my brain trust on the A-Trak side of things. I get access to one of the best brains when I am brainstorming for the next iteration of an A-Trak project. Everything is connected.

We are living in a time when the marketing ideas and the presentation are as important as the substance. There are a lot of lessons I have learned on the A-Trak side that will benefit Fool’s Gold, and the other way around. The biggest challenge is flicking off the giant switch in my mind. Most of my days are filled with the “hustle” work – the emails and the texts and project moving – until midafternoon. I try to dedicate the latter part of my day to some of my own projects and working on music. Going from Fool’s Gold email to trying to come up with an idea for a song are challenging persona switches.

What do you have planned to celebrate your 10-year anniversary?

A-Trak: The opening of the store is part of it, and we have events sprinkled throughout the year. The events side has become practically as big as the record label side of the company. We are hitting six cities with Fool’s Gold Day Off. At the same time, we are doing a new series of underground showcases in New York called “New York’s Loudest.” Even that sort of touches on part of our recurrent theme at Fool’s Gold: That when one thing gets big we try to nurture the next thing. The Day Off festivals have gotten big, so we want to do these little showcases. We are always mindful to have that three-dimensional approach to what we do.

Nick: We are working on a book. I’ve been a little like the keeper of the scrolls here when it comes to the label. There has been shit we’ve done that is almost like a surprise to me that we did it. The ups and downs of the label and the things we’ve released make it such a weird thing in a way. We have some weird little wavy sidebars that are important to the history of what we do. So with the book, I like that we’ll have this tome which you can go through chronologically, and it’s a thing I look forward to handing to a new employee that embodies the spirit of what we do. Right now I’m just going through everything and organizing, but the book part will come quickly, and it’s important that this 10th year ends first, as there is so much we are doing. As 2017 comes to a close, we will piece the actual bits together.

from 99U99U

Dave Nelson: On Making Design Front and Center at Microsoft

Dave Nelson: On Making Design Front and Center at Microsoft

When you think of design-driven software companies, Microsoft won’t likely be the first that comes to mind. You might want to reassess your biases, though, because it turns out that Microsoft has been picking up some of the best design talent in the game for several years now, and its design-forward attitude shows no signs of abating.

Dave Nelson, Microsoft’s principal creative director, is one of the design team’s brightest stars and is a key player in this seismic shift. Training in calligraphy at the age of 12 made Nelson realize that he would one day work in design. He studied under former students of luminaries Paul Rand and Katherine McCoy, receiving a rigorous design foundation before breaking into the commercial world. Nelson has been a catalyst for change at Microsoft by adopting a small and agile team model that not only forces designers and developers to collaborate, but also requires that every team member interact directly with customers in the field so they can witness how their products work in the real world.

By moving toward these small customer-centric teams, Microsoft has been changing the way it approaches product development. Having learned from past mistakes, the team has also reprised its design system Metro; it recently announced the launch of its successor, Fluent, which it created with the intention of adapting to today’s world, including the introduction of 2-D and 3-D capabilities for AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) interaction.

99U Contributing Editor Dave Benton recently sat down with Nelson to find out why curiosity is the number one prerequisite for his staff, how the small-team model works within a big company with such a global reach, and why the team’s ultimate goal is bona fide, possibly-quantifiable user love.  

When did you realize design was in your blood?

I always knew I wanted to be a designer. My grandmother got me into calligraphy in middle school, and it got me hooked on the graphic quality of type in communication. This led to the idea of advertising and commercial design, and then I knew I wanted to go to design school. My academic design career in college was extremely rigorous and very traditional. One of my teachers studied under Paul Rand and the other studied under Katherine McCoy.

You started your career as a Flash developer and designer. How has that influenced what you did later?

I stumbled into the Flash thing out of curiosity. In fact, curiosity is probably the one thing that has tied my career together. Insatiable levels of curiosity are key to me and my teams. Stepping into something you don’t know and trying something new – that’s important to me. When I got into Flash, it was a real do-it-yourself time in digital design. Through Flash I built a strong technical understanding that I now use on a daily basis. I learned how to push design with code, and gained the ability to talk to more technical people and bridge the gap between ideas and execution. Look at Charles Eames: He had to sit down with manufacturers to see how far they could bend plywood. Great print designers work the same way. Flash really helped me to fully understand materials and how to flex things as much as possible. I got interested in type and image and motion, but the kinetic quality of Flash is what drew me in. It allowed me to make things come alive and get rich feedback from screens, which were traditionally hard to interact with.

Do you feel that in-house designers are getting their seat at the table, whereas agency designers are still left outside?

When you’re a hired gun, you just have a piece of the journey and don’t have the same skin in the game to fully see a product through. When you build something and stay on track to make sure a product works the way it should, you are earning your seat at the table. Design has typically sat closer to the top of the iceberg, but we are now deep into the bottom, as there is a lot involved in making a successful product at scale: It’s the long game. A designer from an ad agency has their metaphorical muscles built as a sprinter, but here you have to slow down and work out that the impact of what you do today will come several months down the line. You have to be a marathon runner to work on product.

What are the unique issues and opportunities of designing for three-plus billion people?

Tactically, my team struggles with the localization of interfaces. It’s hard enough to describe a great experience in English on one platform. Mix two different platforms and multiply it by hundreds of languages – these are our current struggles. We need to make sure we are designing with a very focused perspective while keeping a universal one at the same time. Most recently I have been working with non–information workers. This forced us to get out of our comfort zone and hang out with people. We spent a lot of time trying to learn about people who don’t stand in front of a computer all day long.

We are talking about the front-line workforce that doesn’t sit in an office; we call them desk-less workers. These are the baristas in a coffee shop, construction workers, health care industry workers. People who are on the go and working from multiple locations and are on their feet all day long. People interacting human to human. So you are building experiences to connect people and bring them closer together while they are working to be happier and healthier and more focused on what they are doing at work.

Finding the balance to go broad enough and serve the needs of lots of people is always a challenge. You have to find the balance of designing for a human versus designing for a system of people. Take the coffee shop barista. You are looking at a system: a group of people working together. We are essentially working on solving for the hive and how people work together collectively. It means you can have a huge level of impact on how you are changing the workforce. This is a sector that has been ignored to date, and much of their work is done on paper, so I also get excited about the potential reduction of waste. We are going to be able to reduce a lot of paperwork globally. One of our pilot customers became an early fan because the scheduling tools we built for her team have taken away 25 percent of the time she spent on creating schedules.

What is the biggest change you have seen at Microsoft in the five years you have worked there? 

When I first came in, the design team was ahead of its time. The team of inspiring designers here at Microsoft was one of the drivers of why I came here. We have worked through three phases of design as a company.  Phase one was “design as a service,” and it predated me. It focused on icon development and interfaces. Phase two was “design as a discipline.” This is the place where we started building studios and stronger thought leadership in the groups. Phase three is now. We’ve realized engineering and planning can’t do this alone, and so design is now at the center of the product teams. This has been a big shift!

Design used to sit in this ivory tower and yell at everyone to make things better, but now we are in this new state where we situate ourselves at the core of the product teams. We are all after the same end goal, and we are closing the gaps between concept and code. The second big change Microsoft learned from Windows 8 was to become more agile and more precise around how to execute. We’ve learned to push things out even if they aren’t perfect. Perfect is a good striving point, but it’s impossible to get to. Sometimes you have to just put it out there and get feedback so you can iterate. Embracing change is one of the core tenets of our culture. We promote the growth mind-set and try new things without being afraid to fail.

With the expansion of design and the growing recognition of its importance at Microsoft, how has that affected the company’s product and culture? 

A common focus for designers is the human condition. It’s about humans and experiences and finding ways to make things better. It’s about people. At Microsoft, our focus has been to make a difference in people’s lives. Our approach is different now as we start seeing successes from the inside out. We are starting to elevate discussions by looking at how we can get the computer to be more human-literate rather than making people more computer-literate. We are at the forefront of artificial intelligence, and the amount of data we are able to gather is really opening up a lot of opportunities to have products less in your face, and to have interactions that have no interface.

There is a global design trend focused on functionality and clarity. How has Microsoft recognized and adapted to this?

We think about systems in a couple of different ways. Metro was our first step into building a design language, but early on we saw the disconnect in the seams between our products. Each product group had its own aesthetic and process, but many of our products cross over. We really wanted to connect and build a more fluid system that could interact across the board. We also wanted to increase our efficiency – this was the drive behind Metro.

We quickly learned that Metro was hard to do, and that it required a graphic designer to make a Metro design feel right. We saw the need for increased flexibility and began planning Fluent, which started in Windows. Additionally, we had a need for a 2-D and a 3-D version of Windows. Are there ways that design patterns can affect the how data is presented? How do we interrupt people at the right times? These are some of the things we are looking at with Fluent.

We moved translating from 2-D to 3-D but we’re also looking at how these things fit in across time. We also have the rise of 0-D. There are new technologies, and we are pushing the boundaries of what they can do. Voice is now commonplace with features like Siri and Alexa. We have engineering systems that can recognize human voices, and bots are getting more intelligent. More conversational UI is becoming a reality at the consumer level. We are excited to see how voice-activated computing gets into this. We need to build more intelligent human systems that can adapt to you and become smart. Take scheduling a meeting with someone: It’s tedious and requires a lot of time and effort and human management. These are things that our systems should be able to do for us to some degree. Computers have caught up in a way that allows us to reimagine productivity.

How hard is it to manage one universal design language across Microsoft’s hundreds of product teams and rollout cycles? 

I think it’s impossible. Metro had all these guidelines and examples and lots of instructions, but it was easy to break and hard to police. I feel we’ve now embraced the fluidity and have more guidelines than laws. When you look at third-party developers, you see it clearly. Everybody has the same grid system in all the work we do. And we have one centralized icon group and put all our icons into a single font, which stops people from creating new icons for everything; it gets updated every two to three weeks. It’s a continual process that involves continual communication.

Users now expect consistent experiences across devices and in the cloud. How does this affect how you approach product development?

The cloud is our foundational starting point; knowing that devices are connected at all times is a given in all our planning and all our work. We also tend to look at the substrate – our central intelligence system. It’s a document graph. The cloud enables connectivity, but we have a level of intelligence and network connection that we follow through with. When we get to product planning and building, we all start with a core infrastructure built specifically for us that feels like Microsoft. But we also exist in worlds that aren’t Windows, and have products that have to live and breathe in IOS and Android, which are two very different platforms. How do we maintain our systems, and how do we fit into these platforms? We want to be really good guests at a party!

The common foundation is the thing that connects the dots. Each product then gets its own living layer that is specific to that product and allows it to shine specific to its audience. You start with the device and you go from there. Context is one of the principles we think about, and building systems that are contextually aware. The data and experience may be different, but everything comes down to that end touchpoint.  

You work on a small team unit at Microsoft. How does the size of a team affect product? 

We’ve grown the team from scratch over the last two years. Today we have an approximately 50-person centralized product team. It’s a mix of product, design, research, engineering, and marketing. About 15 of our people are working on design research. We had one or two researchers and one designer two years ago. What’s unique to us is that we are based in Silicon Valley, which is not Microsoft. Hotmail is really the only thing that was run autonomously here. Everything else here has been more of a technical center of excellence rather than product.

We have a program we’ve been running for a while called Compass, which was the catalyst that built our team. It might be one of the first design-driven products Microsoft has ever built. It’s a consumer advisory board, and we meet with our large-scale enterprise customers on a periodic basis and show them some of the work we are doing.

Two years ago we ended up finding an accidental insight through some of these customers, as they have a larger audience base than the typical IT business. We saw that the audiences we hadn’t talked to were actually larger than the audiences we had talked to. This led to a huge business insight and allowed us to prototype a few things out with a light tech team, and this in turn led to a pilot. They wanted to drive the way they were running their processes internally, so we promised a two-month-turnaround pilot, which involved us onboarding a small engineering team to get there. Luckily our campus doesn’t focus on a lot of other things, so it allowed us to get a team together to work on this tight timeline. We were scrappy and sent some engineers on-site directly to get the networks set up – essentially a “white glove” delivery of a really rough project. The engineers saw firsthand the range of emotions that real people had while working with their product. They saw the setup, the trepidation of trying to get in, the pain points, and the joy. The engineers were very energized by the experience. This became the central turning point for our culture today. Now every single person in the team has gone on-site and spent time with our early customers. This had never happened before at Microsoft. The change in perspective for engineers and other personnel has been huge. It has now become a regular part of our process to send people out into the field to spend time with customers and work through things with them, and it has put people at the forefront of our processes.

How has working in the field affected how you work on projects? 

We are now at the point of trying to find ways to measure user love. Utility is at the core of what we look at, and we had real people to talk to this time. Usability is the next component, and seeing people with different experiences use the product was useful. There’s no way to measure how much someone loves your product, so we are trying to measure the foundational leverage we have across our products. By having a small team, we were able to interact better with real people, but it also affected the way our teams interacted internally in a positive way. We are also running a program I’ve been calling the “Love Project,” where we are scientifically trying to find ways to quantify what user and customer love is, and how it drives usage and productivity. It’s exciting putting some science behind it.    

from 99U99U

In Search of… The Best Design Bookstores

In Search of… The Best Design Bookstores

Every designer has their favorite bookstore, a place they go to savor the delight of different paper stocks, to admire various typographic treatments and cover designs, and to uncover great tomes investigating design history and theory in thoughtful detail. If you want to get to know a city’s design community, there really is no better way to do so than to explore its independent book and magazine stores: These are the source, after all, of great ideas. From ramshackle, historic zine shops to luxe, modern, and spacious art book temples, here’s our list of the world’s best design-oriented bookstores for the jet-set creative. (Disclaimer: We take no responsibility for any excess baggage weight you might incur as a result of these recommendations.)

Arcana Los, Angeles

Filled with over 100,000 books, with an enthusiastic and knowledgable staff, there is no better place to source rare and out-of-print volumes or hyper-specialized design texts than Arcana. A visual and intellectual treat, the store occupies a gorgeously designed gallery-like 5,000 square foot open plan room in LA’s historic Helms Bakery building, and its books are displayed on immense metal shelves that divide the space into intimate rooms, creating what the designer called “a forest of books.” Natural light floods the polished concrete floors, making the shop a retreat, and a rewarding space for local designers and international visitors to browse conceptual art titles, hard-to-find magazines, obscure catalog, and tantalizing artist monographs in monkish contemplation. As with all the greatest bookshops, you’ll visit looking for one particular title, and leave with something else entirely, possibly something signed and numbered and way over your budget.

8675 Washington Blvd, Culver City

Arcana: Books on the Arts, LA. Photo by: Joshua White

Arcana: Books on the Arts, LA. Photo by: Joshua White

Livraria da Vila Lorena, São Paulo

Standing out provocatively in the busy, glossy neighborhood of Jardins, filled with expensive designer stores, Livraria da Vila Lorena is a tempting temple of books that smartly makes its own cool design statement in this most chaotic of cities. Great local architect Isay Weinfeld’s post-Brutalist masterpiece, complete with a dream storefront made of glowing revolving shelves, is a sharply modern, loving tribute to the classic idea of a secondhand bookstore; the selection here is general and varied, but with a precise and expert selection of graphic design and architecture titles that match the distinctly modern mood of the interior.

002, Alameda Lorena, 1731

Papercup, Beirut

Specializing in art, design, architecture, and photography and ideally located in the fashionable, vibrant bar packed Mar Mikhael neighborhood in the liberal north of the city, Papercup features a wide selection of international and local magazines as well as children’s publications, graphic novels, and hand-made stationery. Gorgeous tiles cover the floor, and there’s a laid-back sprinkling of midcentury furniture and a small cafe area that makes Papercup a deliberately cosy spot for what the owners describe as “coffee-infused book therapy.” The shop draws its unique strength by highlighting the Lebanese capital’s lively and diverse history of publishing and it’s independent media and by providing an event space that local publishers use for book and magazine launches.

Agopian Building Pharaon Street

Papercup, Beirut. Image courtesy of Papercup

Printed Matter, New York

No definitive list of bookstores for designers could ignore New York’s iconic Printed Matter. The venerable nonprofit founded by art critic Lucy R Lippard with conceptualist artist Sol LeWitt and other art-world personalities 40 years ago is more than simply a shop dedicated to artist’s books and related publications; it’s an experience. An archive teeming with paper, it overflows with decades of underground art zines, chunky hand-scrawled manifestos, small-edition curios, Risograph comics, and gorgeous, hard-to-find hardbound monographs. Printed Matter also functions as a salon for printmakers and print lovers; it’s been and still is the locus for artistic communities. From its early days it provided space for titles from Laurie Anderson, Edward Ruscha, and Lawrence Weiner (these now sit upstairs in protective glass vitrines). Today the shop promotes and – with its own mysterious, uncompromising logic – presents the work of esoteric independent publishers across the U.S. along its sturdy metallic shelves. It’s easy to lose yourself in the pages of photo-copied staple-bound zines, or to explore the narrow exhibition wing that showcases historical works on paper by various artists and collectives.

231 11th Avenue

Printed Matter, New York City. Photo by: Azikiwe Mohammed

Artazart, Paris

And of course, there has to be Paris. Shouting out across the banks of artistic neighborhood Canal Saint Martin like a home-made protest poster is the irreverent orange exterior of Artazart. Naturally declaring itself the number one design bookstore in Europe, possibly the universe, this captivating art wonderland and “bookstore of creation,” open an unusual-for-Paris seven days a week, stocks a comprehensive collection of niche, international books covering typography, illustration, graffiti, public art, maps, and interiors, with a particularly good photography selection. The inviting space also serves as a gallery, with new exhibitions twice a month, and a meeting spot for the local creative community, who at night gather at the nearby bar Le Comptoir General, an offbeat converted barn that functions as a local art venue. A definite Parisian paradise for the art-and design-minded.

83 Quai de Valmy

Artazart, Paris. Image courtesy of Artazart.

Artazart, Paris. Image courtesy of Artazart.

Mix Paper, Shanghai

This smart international bookshop of art and design titles opened in Shanghai in 2015 amongst a stylish “Mix Place” trio of stores. Branding itself as an “art and culture life space,” it’s quickly become a key center for the city’s thriving design scene. The three-floored haven has an atmospheric café-bar downstairs to aid contemplation, and its art-based second floor is filled with exquisite, heavyweight hardback visual editions and features a small pop-up exhibition space. At the top of some cool gray stairs, it’s the attic of Mix Paper that makes the store so unique. Its impressive, 12-meter long wall exclusively featuring independent magazines from around the world feels more like a permanent exhibition than a regular shop; the owners have taken to calling it a “magazine museum”. The extensive selection of design-orientated titles is noteworthy, and easilyon par with the likes of London’s magCulture shop and Berlin’s infamous magazine store, Do You Read Me?!

880 Hengshan Road, Shanghai (no website)

ProQM, Berlin

ProQM is situated in a late-1920s building originally designed by idiosyncratic modernist architect and set designer Hans Poelzig. Its striking progressive exterior reflects the forward-thinking, comprehensive selection of titles you’ll find inside; the outside is a gentle suggestion of what’s to come – when you enter, be ready to think, and spend some time browsing, as this shop is the world’s ultimate destination for design theory, and can easily become your own private library. The store was founded in 1999 by a group of artists, architects, and art theorists who decided to rethink the way bookshelves are organized, continually rearranging their wide-ranging selections in unexpected but ultimately logical thematic clusters. They do this to reflect current debates and topical issues. If you’re looking for a particular design thinker, you’ll not only leave with that author but find yourself introduced to a whole new set of others. This is an inspirational space that encourages the making of surprising new connections.

Almstadtstraße 48, 10119

ProQM, Berlin. Photo by: Katja Eydel

Libreria, London

Don’t expect coffee or Wi-Fi at this newly opened, self-consciously beautiful East London bookshop – you can get that across the street instead, at the buzzy new co-working space Second Home. Libreria, founded by the same optimistic conceptual entrepreneurs behind the work hub, is an antidote to a day on the laptop, a retreat for traveling designers who have temporarily set up camp at Second Home. The shop is stringently, if not a bit gimmicky, digital free (emphasizing the importance of separating however occasionally from your chosen device of distraction) and it doesn’t organize its stock into standard categories like fiction, science, or photography. Instead, there are playful, almost poetic themes – like family, love, magic, and the sea and the sky – purposefully designed to inspire browsers to make unexpected connections and open up new creative avenues. These thematic bundles are the perfect elixir for a stuck designer needing an imaginative solution to a creative problem. Ambitiously named after Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel,” this seductive bookshop is perhaps a little smaller than Borges’ infinite space, but honey-colored wood, soft, curving shelves, and warm orange light produce a soothing labyrinthine environment dedicated to books as ideas and their own infinite spaces.

65 Hanbury Street

Liberia, London. Photo by: Iwan Baan

Liberia, London. Photo by: Iwan Baan

Mendo, Amsterdam