No Clients, No Limits, No Deadlines—Welcome to the Hell of Redesigning Your Own Website

No Clients, No Limits, No Deadlines—Welcome to the Hell of Redesigning Your Own Website

Redesigning your company’s website should be the ideal design experience—an opportunity to highlight your proudest achievements without a pesky client looking over your shoulder—but it’s often the one task every agency employee dreads. There’s no shortage of excuses. An agency’s site is a vital tool for generating new business, but it’s the only project that doesn’t end with an invoice, so it’s constantly competing with paid work. And when 30 or 40 cooks are messing around in the kitchen, a few food fights are inevitable. If there’s any truth in the old trope about the cobbler’s children having no shoes, then the design industry has barefoot kids running rampant.

We spoke with several agencies that emerged from the experience with plenty to say.

In the fall of 2016, Threespot’s chief creative officer William Colgrove noticed their website had gotten a little stale, so he created a simple one-page “front door” with a graffiti aesthetic that announces: “We help progressive causes make the world a better place.” The approach is consistent with the founders’ history of performing together in Washington D.C.’s punk scene in their younger years; and when Donald Trump was elected weeks later, it seemed even more appropriate.

“One of our clients recently told me, ‘I hire you so I can put you in front of people and you can say unpopular things that they need to hear,’ so that ‘rebel’ aesthetic makes sense,” says Colgrove, who believes too many agencies construct bland, soul-less portfolios for fear of putting off clients in search of versatility. Colgrove sketched out Threespot’s punk aesthetic on his own, then brought it to fruition with the help of a creative director steeped in UX design.

“The idea was to make it like a Ramone’s song—a tight, catchy, two-and-a-half-minute song that you’ll remember.”

Once the design was locked, staffers selected six of their favorite projects just before launch. Animations were added as an additional touch, later in the process, and the site was coded from scratch, without a CMS.

Ammunition (in Brooklyn and San Francisco) also realized the need to add energy to its site, which includes a portfolio of industrial design, brand identity, and user experience work.

“In the past, we’d always created beautiful renders of our work on a grey background with drop shadows, which was all we could really do the day a product launched,” says Aaron Poe, VP of digital. “But we realized that we needed to show the Square stand in a cafe, a Lyft driver out in San Francisco, and Beats headphones worn on a subway because brand development is about all those touchpoints, not just a logo.”

homepage web design Agency Leroy

Homepage layout, courtesy of Agency Leroy

Helsinki’s Agency Leroy took a distinctly Scandinavian approach to its site (surprise, surprise), echoing the sparse design of Tumblr with scrolling series of images introduced with one or two sentences of copy—and that’s it.

“With copywriting, the shorter the text, the longer it will survive,” says creative director Janne Hänninen. “If you say, ‘This year, we did this…’ and launch into the details, it’s going to age faster than something more neutral—and every case should be pretty self-explanatory, anyway.”

“For us, the goal is to promote the attitude of the agency itself rather than explaining every single case.”

Agency Leroy also has one of the simplest staff pages you’ll find, eschewing colorful portraits of employees for a simple listing of names, titles, and contact info. “The photo archive of our personnel is never quite complete—someone always says, ‘My hair doesn’t look like that anymore,’ and it’s just one more excuse to avoid launching your site. Remove those obstacles and lower the threshold—that’s my design philosophy.”  

Perhaps that’s why the design process was led by a two-person team that included Hänninen. “We kept the rest of the agency aware of what was happening, but it was presented more as, ‘This is the direction we’re going in. If anyone has anything to say, now is the time,” he says.

“The process was intentionally forced [to move quickly], because we know that this site will be run over by the next design pretty soon, anyway.”

For its part, Ammunition worked hard to keep people within the agency informed, so they’d feel more comfortable with the changes ahead. “We were very transparent throughout the whole process” says VP of marketing and communications, Sara Munday. “We didn’t want to go away for months, do the work, and come back with this big ‘Ta-da!’ moment.”

homepage web design Brand Union

Project page layout, courtesy of Brand Union

Of course, it’s a fine line between checking in and being beholden to dozens of opinions, a lesson that Brand Union’s digital creative director Marta Swannie learned quickly. “When we began our redesign we had a lot of people involved, but in the end we narrowed it down so that key decisions were being made by two people—the CEO and the chief product officer—and that really sped things up,” she says. “With the size of our network and so many people in different time zones, it was the only way to [keep things moving forward].”

Move quickly, yes, but don’t mess it up. Swannie was tasked with the redesign her first week on the job in London, making her first client the company’s global CEO, no pressure.

“We treated our site design like a proper client project: we had to reconcile the budget every week, check in with the worldwide client director, and we had a full team [assigned to the work].”

When the design team needed content from offices, official briefs were sent out to staff and followed up with a note from the CEO. Ammunition took the same tack, advertising the project as a “nine-month labor of love” that started with the typical stakeholder insights they’d pursue with any substantial project.  

“We discovered the site itself was being viewed 82% on desktop and only 18% on tablet and mobile, and we thought there was an opportunity to improve that,” says Poe. “But we also learned that a lot of our prospective clients were viewing everything on 27” monitors, so there was a big opportunity to fill that gap, literally, with richer images and more animations so the site didn’t feel so static; those findings were key to making the site look the way it does now.”

Building the site is one thing, but once it’s live, whose job is it to add new work and updates? Unlike a typical client project, there’s no hand off and walk away at the end of your own site redesign. “In managing Ammunition’s previous site, I was the only person who knew how to upload new content, which was a lot of work,” says Munday. “Our new site has a more comprehensive content strategy that requires editing images and wrangling video, so we had to discuss how things would work in practice. In the end, we created a team of people to help out.”

homepage web design Ammunition

Homepage layout, courtesy of Ammunition

Once Ammunition’s site launched, account reps continued to schedule five hours a week for upkeep, which includes creating assets for the blog, writing copy for new projects, and photo shoots of client work “in the wild.”

Making the new site easy to update was also a top priority for Agency Leroy. “We made the backend so straightforward that it’s impossible to fail,” says Hänninen. “There are no options and no layout decisions to be made. For creative people, the self-criticism is so bad, we put the threshold for publishing as low as possible.” Hänninen admits that the simple layout means that small projects and huge projects all receive the same treatment, but it’s a small price to pay.

“I believe agencies should think of their own sites like a magazine—there’s always going to be another issue. You’re going to have to re-do the entire site in a year or two, and that should lower the pressure; it doesn’t need to be perfect.”

You will make mistakes. You may waste time, and you may waste money. And you’ll probably argue over quite a few things that don’t really matter all that much. Just take note, for the next time.

Brand Union’s lesson was a simple one: add a little more padding into the schedule before flipping the switch. “We were about to go live and I remember realizing that we were still waiting for client sign-off for several of the case studies,” says Swannie. Clients had all asked to see the design in situ, which means there was little alternative to waiting until the last minute, but when you’re juggling dozens of approvals over the course of months, the very last one can easily slip your mind.

Threespot’s Colgrove looks back on the project and wishes he had been a little more forthcoming early on. “Sometimes I have a very clear idea how a site should look, from the language to the design and the tone, and I haven’t been clear with my staff, because I wanted to give them a chance to run with their own ideas,” says Colgrove. “But I’ve learned I should be more honest and more direct early on—I shouldn’t be afraid to say, ‘This isn’t good’ or ‘I don’t like this typeface. If you’re particular, then you’re particular—own it.”

from 99U99U

More Than Bookstores, These Shops are Must-visit Meccas to the Printed Word

More Than Bookstores, These Shops are Must-visit Meccas to the Printed Word

Librairie Drawn & Quarterly
211 Rue Bernard O, Montréal, QC H2T 2K5, Canada

For the comic and graphic novel enthusiast, Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly is a revered pilgrimage site. The thriving store is the physical location of world famous graphic novel publisher Drawn & Quarterly, stocking its own titles as well as books produced by other international alt-presses, like McSweeneys, Fantagraphics, Koyama, New Directions, Breakdown Press, and more. There’s no other place in the world so comprehensive. Whether you’re a comic regular or new to the scene, you’ll be drawn in and swept away by the varied illustration styles and innovative visual storytelling on draft.

Art Metropole, Toronto
88 King St. West, 2nd floor, Toronto, ON, M5V1N6, Canada

This legendary, artist-run non-profit publishes, distributes, and exhibits artists’ publications and other materials. Founded in 1974 by Canadian artist collective General Idea, Art Metropole has always been on the cutting edge of Toronto’s artistic community. Here, you’ll find video, audio, and electronic media carefully set beside bespoke books and thoughtful printed matter on conceptual art, which you can read in between viewings of Art Metropole’s must-see exhibitions and installations.

Penguin Shop
320 Front Street West, Toronto, Canada, M5V 3B6 

Here’s one for the committed collector of Penguin Classics, that famous sixpenny, orange-spined series that has become a 20th-century design icon. Penguin Random House’s first permanent shop is here in the lobby of its Canadian headquarters. It’s packed with 300 titles, branded mugs, notebooks, and brightly colored tees. Toronto-based design studio Figure3 created mobile bookshelving for the tiny space, designed to mimic classic Penguin spines. Better still, company staff—both editors and designers—work the store. Go pick a Penguin.

William Stout Architectural Books
804 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94133, USA

Carrying over 70,000 titles in the fields of architecture, graphic and industrial design and urban planning, William Stout Architectural Books is a vital United States resource for anyone in the creative industry. This space was founded 30 years ago when a former architect decided that the US needed a place that stocked the hard to find tomes he appreciated in Europe. Design professionals will let out heartfelt sighs of admiration as they flip through the rare compendiums that they find here.

Hennessey + Ingalls
300 S Santa Fe Ave M, Los Angeles, CA 90013, USA

Since 1963, Hennessey + Ingalls has been Southern California’s largest and most extensive source for books on all things visual. With thousands of art, interior design, graphics, photography, fashion, gardening, and decorative art books, you’re sure to find anything specific that you’re looking for in this 5,000-square-foot space. In 2016, the shop relocated its entire operation to downtown LA, closing its Santa Monica and Hollywood stores, to become one of the major go-tos in the city’s rapidly developing Arts District. 

Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books
2916 N.E. Alberta St., Portland, OR 97211

Old and new beautifully collide in this essential Portland destination, a shop and gallery admired by creative locals for its intriguing mix of contemporary design books and vintage postcards, photographs, and other scraps of inspiring antique ephemera. On this snug spot’s walls you’ll find a monthly rotation of contemporary artworks by local artists and illustrators; and below, a tightly packed inventory of titles are aligned tidily in square wooden shelving units. Between bright tempting books on the functionality of decorated letters or contemporary Polaroid art, you might spy a copy of our very own 99U magazine. Nothing average here.

Dallas’ Joule Hotel, The Taschen Library
1530 Main St, Dallas, TX 75201, USA

Stay at the Joule Hotel in Dallas for some basic rest and recreation, but the smart boutique hotel’s Taschen Library will really send you places. The German publishing company, famous for its collectable books on art, photography, interior design, architecture, film, and fashion, curated this small, cozy shop in 2013, just by the Texan hotel’s lobby. It’s been called the “Joule’s jewel box of a bookshop”. re you’ll find items with a jewel’s price tag too, with some volumes ranging reaching up to $1,000+. Quite a trip.

Dallas-Joule-Hotel, Taschen-Library, bookstores, design

Image courtesy of Dallas’ Joule Hotel, The Taschen Library.

Graham Foundation Bookshop
4 W Burton Pl, Chicago, IL 60610, USA

Located on the premises of a prestigious art foundation, this bookstore offers a selection of publications produced by grantees along with titles related to its public programming, as well as new forward-thinking books on architecture, urbanism, and design. It also carries monographs, catalogues, and theory-based titles from the likes of Sternberg Press, MIT Press, Spector Books, and the Architectural Association. Designers will swoon at the shop’s white mesh display cases, which snake around the wood paneled room, designed by architect Ania Jaworska.

Horse & Buggy Press and Friends
1116 Broad St, Durham, NC 27705

If you’re in Durham and find yourself pining for some traditional, hand-cranked letterpress goodies, you’re in luck. Look no further than the Horse & Buggy Press and Friends. Two sturdy 1960s Vandercook proof presses sit at the bank of this charming graphic design and book production studio, and at the front of the 500-square foot location, you’ll discover an art gallery and gift-shop (presumably constituting the “…and Friends”). The store showcases work by industrious craftspeople from across the Southeast—whether glass and pottery or printmaking and drawings. There’s also a top-notch selection of books and magazines about all things craft based. Craft enthusiasts who make it there will find plenty to share.

Ooga Booga
943 N Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90012, USA 

No “best bookstore for designers list” is complete without the cultish Ooga Booga, a hidden away second floor shop in LA’s Chinatown that carries a ramshackle mix of books, zines, mixtapes, records, home goods, and apparel. The store programs—from concerts and film screenings to much-anticipated book releases—in its second location, known as Ooga Twooga and located in the art space 356 Mission. You owe it to yourself to boogie on down to Ooga Booga whenever you can.

Actual Source
50 E 500 N Suite 103, Provo, UT 84606, USA

Those with an eye for the deadpan and heavily typographic will undoubtedly find what they’re looking for here. Actual Source is the collaborative design practice of Davis Ngarupe and JP Haynie, and together they create publications, identities, websites, and spaces. But Actual Source also ambitiously collaborates with designers to release limited edition books, magazines, fonts, clothing, and furniture, which they sell at their office space in Provo and online. In the mood for experimental type specimens, that look like no other specimen you’ve ever seen, or a contemporary magazine musing on the Bauhaus? Look no further.

Actual-Source, bookstore, designstore, designstudio, publication

Actual-Source, bookstore, designstore, designstudio, publication

Image courtesy of Actual Source.

31 E Columbia Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19125, USA

This Philly bookshop was named after the conceptual book artist and theorist Ulises Carrión, who once said, “a book is a sequence of spaces”. The shop’s owners have taken this idea literally, carefully planning how each book is displayed in the warehouse-style interior of the store. Bookshelves mounted to the wall show off carefully selected tomes like precious paintings, with their covers facing outwards.

Artland Book Company
B1 #122 Jen Ai Road, Sec. 3, Taipei, 10657, Taiwan

This special Taiwanese store has been importing art books from around the world since 1985—making it a global go-to for artists, designers, and art lovers. Stocked from floor to ceiling with weighty art tomes, Artland offers paper-y compendiums on everything from seashells and gardens to Renaissance painting and Taiwanese traditional folk art. Books are arranged in a sleek and modern space, and you’re sure to leave with a new coffee table book (or two).

Daikanyama T-Site, Tokyo, Japan
17-5 Sarugakucho, Shibuya 150-0033, Tokyo Prefecture

If you’re a contemporary Japanese design enthusiast, then T-Site is not to be missed. In a gorgeous modern building, designed from T-shaped bricks, you’ll discover a crisp and unusual selection of design and lifestyle books and products. The stores’ curators match books with other items with pleasing care: one blogger has recounted how beside a recipe book for Japanese shaved ice, the store sells locally produced glasses to house the dessert; next to tomes on obscure psychedelic illustrators, you’ll apparently find matching tea cup sets; beside books on historical artists, you’ll discover a series of figurines inspired by them. If the afternoon isn’t enough time to make all your discoveries, you’re in luck: this shop is open until 2am.

Basheer Graphic Books
Bras Basah Complex #04-19, 231 Bain St, Singapore 180231

You’ll find this legendary store in the Bras Basah Complex of Singapore, a mall area with the largest number of bookstores in a single complex in the country. Catering specifically to designers and artists, it’s here you’ll be able to find any book from any discipline that you’re looking for, whether calligraphy, animation, interior design, or graphics. Get lost in this creative community haunt to find what you’re looking for.

The Book Society
22 Jahamun-ro 10-gil, Sajik-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea

There is no better place to find books designed and published by graphic designers for graphic designers than this South Korean independent shop and publishing house. One might go so far as to say it is a wonderland of design. Bold, purple posters fill the walls. Tables are stacked high with curiously bound publications of every color imaginable. Those with a love of experimental typography and unusual paper stocks will feel right at home. Deeply informed by the use of printed materials by conceptual artists of the 1960s, The Book Society is interested in printed matter as both cultural artifact and network.

Art & Design Bookstore, Mumbai
04 Ramnimi, Mandlik Road, Colaba, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001, India

A five-minute walk through the Kalaghoda art precinct, which houses historical museums and art galleries, you’ll spot this small boutique, which is stacked with striking design volumes. Elegantly tiled floors and sturdy shelving make this space perfect for some contemplation. Take your time taking in the eclectic journals from all around the world as well as catalogues by local artists. For practicing designers inspired by what they find, the store also sells artisan notebooks and sketchbooks.

Vişnezade Mahallesi, Süleyman Seba Cd. 52/A, 34357 Beşiktaş/İstanbul, Turkey

Make sure you have plenty of time when you visit Minoa. In this bookstore and café, a whole day can pass by without you even noticing. Hours might be spent browsing the political comics from Turkey’s thriving new comic scene, or peeling back the pages of sleek architecture compendiums situated under the store’s great chandelier, which are adorned with books. Minoa organizes regular reading events and pop-up concerts, which you can enjoy with a glass of Turkish wine or an intense expresso. We also hear that the breakfast shakshouka is very good. See you in a week. 

Happy Valley
294 Smith St, Collingwood VIC 3066, Australia 

This concept store in the heart of Melbourne’s thriving creative neighborhood caters to the design-minded with its impressive array of art books, modern homeware, and specially selected stationary. You might leave Happy Valley with a classic coffee-table-sized book on Australia’s contemporary gardens and a matching terrarium, or you might be more attracted to the latest Monocle guide and a sea-scented candle. Happy Valley is the ideal place to mix and match your books with your lifestyle.

Perimeter Books, Melbourne
748 High St, Thornbury VIC 3071, Australia

Celebrating independent publishing is what Perimeter Books says it’s all about. Focusing on small press titles, well-crafted design books, and home-grown zines, this clean and bright treasure trove is a go-to for the book-lover meets minimalist. Simple wooden shelves present books with their covers pointed outwards, so that each beautifully produced tome is akin to an objects d’art itself.

Do You Read Me?!
Auguststraße 28, 10117 Berlin, Germany

Wandering the German capital, you’ll perhaps notice the number of people with typographic tote bags reading “Do You Read Me?!” slung over their shoulders. Those with an eye for design should take heed and follow the signs. They will lead you to the bellwether of independent magazine retail, Do You Read Me?!, founded by graphic designer, Mark Kiessling and store manager, Jessica Reitz. At the front of the shop, black walls with black shelving show off each carefully selected magazine as if it were an artwork. At the back, there’s a small yet intelligently curated selection of specialist design and architecture books. Not to be missed, and yes, we read you.

Do-You-Read-Me, bookstores, magazines, publication, design

Image courtesy of Do You Read Me?!

Skalitzer Str. 68, 10997 Berlin, Germany

Hidden in the back of a typical Berlin courtyard and traceable by the sound of experimental music streaming from its door, Motto is filled with singular finds. Its selection is especially on point because Motto the store belongs to Motto the distribution company, which spreads art catalogues and independent periodicals worldwide. The shop’s focus is on photography, design, theory, and art books, and at the back of its Kreuzberg location you’ll also find a curious selection of zines (and possibly the store’s snoozing black cat). Niche titles sit alongside titles released by international publishers, are scattered in an order that, wonderfully, seems to lack any rhyme or reason.

IMS Melkmarkt
Melkmarkt 17, 2000 Antwerpen, Belgium

Located in Antwerp’s historic city center is IMS Melkmarkt: a magazine store reckoned to stock over 10,000 titles. If that sounds like a lot of magazines to fit into one place, that’s because it is. You won’t find much empty space in this wonderfully jam-packed store. It stocks stimulating international titles from all over, seemingly including anything you set your heart on. If you fancy a trip, bring the whole family: there’s a section of train themed magazines here for granddad, a tattoo section for your niece, and a little collection of potted plant books for the estranged cousin who has just got into landscape gardening.

Carrer d’en Tantarantana, 16, 08003 Barcelona, Spain

Those who visit Chandal say it’s like a visit to the past, in a good way. This retro concept shop specializes in Polaroid cameras, records, and independent magazines, which are all stylishly arranged on wooden shelving with requisite vintage charm. Chandal is unique in that it’s one of the few places in the world where you can buy a specialist photography magazine and then a special camera to imitate what you see in the pages. We’d say the interior is pretty snap-shot worthy too. Smile!

Under the Cover
Marquês Sá da Bandeira 88B, 1050-060 Lisboa, Portugal

This lovely restorative spot in Lisbon, very close to the Modern Art Center, is a breath of fresh modernism in an otherwise defiantly historical city. Its white-washed walls, mid-century furniture, and carefully curated selection of art and design magazines and books are a clean and mind refreshing break from the twisting, cobble-stoned streets outside. Here you’ll discover the latest copy of Apartamento, Monocle, or 99U itself, as well as unexpected city guides and beautifully packaged contemporary ephemera that that will set your collecting pulse racing.

Cinnober Bookshop
Landemærket 9, 1119 København K, Denmark

There’s no better place to find books on graphic design and illustration than a store owned by a graphic designer and an illustrator. This one contains thoughtfully hand-picked international books by Berlin Gestalten Verlag as well as home-printed postcards, bespoke notebooks, and countless publications on architecture, graffiti, graphics, and fashion. Situated in a basement in the magnificent historic district of Copenhagen, this hidden gem is an inspiring break from the usual tourist activities.

Triennale Bookshop
Viale Emilio Alemagna, 6, 20121 Milano MI, Italy

This modern bookstore, situated inside the La Triennale di Milano art and design museum, brands itself as a home for those who want to learn about the “culture of design”. Its carefree interior was created by Italy’s infamous Michele De Lucchi, including the bespoke tables where books are elegantly stacked. Specializing in Italian art publishing but also stocking numerous international books, you’ll find your way in this open, brightly lit space by the chalk signage informing you where “design” or “fashion” is kept. Triennale also has a playful and charming section of art and design books for children, making this a prime spot for any designer family out on a day trip in Northern Italy.

Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum
Spui 14, 1012 RM Amsterdam, Netherlands

Situated next door to the renowned independent bookstore Atheneum is a luscious newsstand brimming with printed matter under a striking red and white awning. It’s been open since 1969, when it stocked independent publishing and small zines by the punk and anarchist movements. Back then, a studio in the back hosted its own radio show. Today, the newsstand still dedicates itself to independent publishing and small zines from around the globe, and it displays its huge stock of titles in stacks like “vegetables at the greengrocer.”

Athenaeum-Nieuwscentrum, bookstores

Image courtesy of Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum.

Boekie Woekie
Berenstraat 16, 1016 GH Amsterdam, Netherlands

Boekie Woekie (or “Bookie Wookie”) only sells books by artists, whether that’s thick, hand-painted, one-off tomes or miniature, self-published curiosities photocopied by the art underground. A collective of artists founded the shop 23 years ago as an experiment, and now it’s become a place for serendipity, for finding something you didn’t know you wanted or something you’ve always wanted but could never find. According to the New York Times, the bestseller at Boekie Woekie is a vacuum cleaner bag full of dust from old books, just in case you don’t have book dust enough at home.

Selexyz Dominicanen
Dominicanerkerkstraat 1, 6211 CZ Maastricht, Netherlands

The building of Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, a former church that dates from 1294, now houses three-story bookshelves, complete with staircases, elevators, and gorgeous walkways. Restored frescoes adorn the vaulted ceiling and we’ve heard that music streams from the choir café, where readers bend over historic architecture tomes. This old world space was transformed into a bookstore by architects Merkx+Girod in 2007. It’s become a destination for those with a romantic love of books and historic design.

Grand’Rue 6, 1071 Chexbres, Switzerland 

This charming Swiss bookstore, perched on the hillside of a village, dedicates itself to all things visual inspiration. Here you’ll find publications on Japanese paper design, meticulously illustrated books detailing various types of herbs, guides to interior design, and gorgeous hardbacks filled with advice for home crafting. In addition to its impressive selection of design related titles, it’s said that this is one of the best stockists for independent magazines in Europe. 

Nieves Books
Köchlistrasse 5, 8004 Zürich, Switzerland

Established in 2001, Swiss publishing house Nieves Books has released over 200 artist books and zines. You might recognize the company’s beloved ghost logo if you’re an avid zine reader or an arts-comic enthusiast. Or you might have spotted it on one of the store’s ubiquitous totes. During your next trip to Zurich, be sure to stop by the Nieves offices and say hello.

Editions Imbernon
280 Boulevard Michelet, Unité d’habitation Le Corbusier, 13008 Marseille, France

There can be no better location for a design-minded bookstore than the third floor of Le Corbusier’s world famous Cité Radieuse. It’s a perfect place for books on modernism: inside an icon of late modernism itself. This third floor corridor, also known to residents as a “street”, also houses a bakery, an art gallery, and a restaurant. In Editions Imbernon you’ll find a special selection of books dedicated to the life and work of Le Corbusier, as well as other 20th and 21st century architecture, art, and urbanism tomes.

Book Therapy
Římská 1199/35, 120 00 Prague 2-Vinohrady, Czech Republic

Plenty of soothing white space, and a lot of potted plants greet you when you enter this palace of calm in the heart of Prague. All of the visually led hardcovers stocked in Book Therapy focus, in some way, on serenity and quietude, whether a thick photobook about mountain peaks, a guide to country living, Phaidon’s book on art as therapy, or a relaxing compendium on pottery. It’s ideal for the design-inclined bookworm, looking for some peace of mind and a little bit of targeted therapy.

Veverkova 5, 170 00 Prague 7, Czech Republic

Next to the ornamental facades of this historic European city, PageFive’s simple, white washed interior stands out. This bookshop and independent publisher, founded by a graphic designer and sculptor, specializes in art, architecture, photography, and design publications. It also stocks independent magazines in English and Czech. Vibrant prints, designed by local students, are for sale here, pegged onto hangers and hung in the windows like inky, bold flags.

Põhja puiestee 35, 10415 Tallinn, Estonia

Two giant heads stacked atop a former garage greet you as you walk down the driveway towards this hidden gem. Perched on the premises of the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia. This unexpected bookstore specializes in art books in the broadest sense, and brings together printed matter by international, independent publishers. It’s run by graphic designer Indrek Sirkel and artist, Any Vahtra. They also front a small independent publishing initiative of the same name. On warm summer days, you’ll find a number of plush red chairs in the driveway as Indrek and Any prepare for one of Lugemik’s book launches.

lugemik, bookstores

Image courtesy of Lugemik.

Krukmakargatan 24, 118 51 Stockholm, Sweden

Here’s another one for the magazine devotee. In the Södermalm district of central Stockholm, surrounded by small bars and independent coffee breweries, you’ll find this mecca for anyone interested in editorial design. It’s packed from floor to ceiling with paper-y goods, with one entire wall dedicated purely to magazines. You’ll also find a lot of design books and stationary here.

Good Press
5 St Margaret’s Pl, Glasgow G1 5JY, UK

The Good Press Gallery and bookstore was created to support international independent printed matter. As well as hosting exhibitions, self-publishing residencies, and talks, this Scottish art space has a sprawling zine collection beyond one’s wildest dreams. Tucked under a railway arch, you’ll find a number of lo-fi publications here, as well as posters and hand-printed artworks by local designers and art students. Prices are surprisingly affordable, making it a wonderful spot to purchase original artwork for buyers on the hunt for a bargain.

270 St John St, Clerkenwell, London EC1V 4PE, UK 

They call this the cathedral of contemporary magazine worship for a reason… The brainchild of creative director Jeremy Leslie, who has been designing magazines or writing about magazine design for more than 25 years, magCulture is the place to go (and the place to be seen) if you’re an independent magazine enthusiast. Looking for a magazine for the creative dog owner? They’ve got it. Looking for a magazine for your misunderstood red-head nephew? They’ve got it. Not sure what you’re looking for but know that you’re looking for something? They’ve got it. With an online shop and journal featuring weekly reviews of what’s in stock, magCulture is not only a place to visit when you’re in London, but also a place to visit—digitally—whenever you like. Go!

Tenderbooks, London
6 Cecil Ct, London WC2N 4HE, UK

A quick meander from London’s busy Trafalgar Square is Tenderbooks, a quiet space for independent artist publications and unique design books. Publication launches, group readings, and other events take place here on a weekly basis, and next-door you’ll find the Tenderpixel contemporary art gallery. At the front of the store, you’ll find a display case that changes monthly, exhibiting personal libraries and rare artist ephemera. Tenderbooks frequently commission limited editions to support experimental publishing.

24 Oldham St, Manchester M1 1JN, UK 

Magma has three memorable locations, two in London and one in the bustling artistic Northern Quarter of Manchester. Since it first opened its doors in Covent Garden in 2000, the shop has been quite the go-to for design professionals and visual culture enthusiasts, especially as it’s one of the first design boutiques of its kind in the UK. As well as selling affordable prints, one-of-a-kind t-shirts and totes, Moomin clocks, nick knacks, and enticing hand-crafted stationary, the three unmissable locations also stock comics, design coffee table tomes, and playful picture books. One of the owners also founded contemporary art magazine Elephant in 2009. Last but not least, Magma’s collaborations with publishing house Laurence King ensures a continual stream of compelling gifts, games, sketchbooks, and impressively decorated journals.

Pańska 3, 00-124 Warszawa, Poland 

This tall and brightly lit shop of art-related books is located on the breezy ground floor of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. In just a few square meters, this store manages to miraculously fit hundreds of titles along its walls. Its café sells traditional Polish pierogi. If you really love the taste, just around the corner you’ll find Bookoff’s sister location—Cookoff—which is devoted to food-related titles (and where they apparently safeguard the pierogi recipe).

Salon Fuer Kunstbuch
Luftbadgasse 16, 1060 Vienna, Austria

It feels like you’re entering into a dense cloud when you walk into this industrial gray art bookstore in the Austrian capital. The books, extremely rare, are arranged by color, drift into focus like a rainbow in the fog. Some of the out-of-print editions are not for sale, making the Salon somewhat of a gallery too. The store regularly hosts exhibitions and artist talks, in the tradition of great European salons of the past.

Livraria Freebook
Barão de Capanema, 199 Cerqueira César, São Paulo, 01411-011, Brazil

Located between a cemetery and a huge store specializing in chandeliers–between light and dark, as it were–you’ll find this mysterious bookstore stocking imported fashion, decoration, and design paraphernalia. Ring the bell of the tiny purple building and you’ll be invited in by the expert staff, who are open to giving carefully considered recommendations. The corridor-shaped shop is filled with bright turquoise, ornamental cabinets and plush red chairs, like a surreal portal taking you from the outside world to another one of words and images.

Casa Bosques
Córdoba 25, Roma Nte., 06700 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico

You’ll enjoy browsing through Casa Bosques’ intelligent selection of design, art, theory, and fashion titles. Kick back and read in one of the store’s casual Jean Prouvé chairs, among succulents and ferns. The shop is inside a whitewashed, renovated home. You might stumble across the store’s resident dog, napping amidst the ferns. Casa Bosques obtains its idiosyncratic selection of titles through independent publishers and alternative distribution channels. The gems stocked there are difficult to find anywhere else. Locals recommend the homemade chocolate bars, too.

casa-bosques, bookstore, designbookstore

casa-bosques, bookstore, designbookstore

Image courtesy of Casa Bosques.

Quagga Rare Books and Art
84/86 Main Rd, Fish Hoek, Cape Town, 7990, South Africa

For collectable Africana art books, magazines, and antique maps, you could do a lot worse than this small speciality shop, which many describe as “more like a small museum” than bookstore. The historic “collection” sells paintings, watercolors, prints, and unique documents, alongside contemporary South African art and photography books and second-hand international titles. Logo design enthusiasts will find one-off rarities, like an album of matchbox labels, and those with a love of illustration might be drawn to the brochure for a botanical art exhibition held in Cape Town in the ’80s.

from 99U99U

Find Friction, Forget Logos, F*ck Buzzwords, Fight Assholes, and 42 Other Ways You’ll Do the Best Creative Work of Your Life This Year

Find Friction, Forget Logos, F*ck Buzzwords, Fight Assholes, and 42 Other Ways You’ll Do the Best Creative Work of Your Life This Year

It’s the end of 2017. That means, like many people, we’re taking a moment to look at the year in review.


It was a whiplash-inducing kind of year. Before we burn some sage to cleanse the air for 2018, we’re rounding up what we’ve learned to help us better focus and answer the question: Where does the best work that we can make start? With ourselves? With our collaborators? With a martini or two? 

We broke our learnings down into five parts: self-improvement, honing your craft, client relations, collaboration, and ‘big picture,’ which is a fancy way of saying everything we couldn’t fit neatly into another category. Onward!


Self-comparisons and one-sided competitions are toxic. Ignore ‘em.
“I have learned that comparison and competition are enemies of the artist,” says writer Mike Sager. “How did he get that assignment? How could she win that award? How many books did she sell? What’s his hourly rate? All that should matter is the piece of work that sits before you. There is you. There is your art. At the elemental level, nothing else matters.”

Safeguard your freedom to pursue happiness.  
Amos Kennedy Jr. quit his job as a systems analyst to become an letterpress printer, taking a major pay cut and sacrificing security to pursue his craft. “We have this model of working forever for somebody and then retiring and going off to play golf. And that’s the good life,” he says. “We aren’t taught to be independent and free… That freedom that we so long for is, basically, an ability to express ourselves and just be happy.”

If you’re going to strike out on your own, have a little cushion.
When you take the leap, give yourself a timeline and some cash runway, or else you might wait forever. “I had six months’ worth of savings,” Ugandan photographer Sarah Waiswa says of ditching a corporate career and striking out on her own. “I told myself, ‘If I can’t create a sustainable career as a photographer in six months, I have my Masters to fall back on, and will get another job.’… It’s easy to wait for the perfect time to leave your job, but fear will kill your dreams.”

Don’t approach your next project with a pre-planned excuse.
Researchers believe about 70% of us will experience a period of career self-doubt, a common workplace symptom known as Imposter Syndrome. This can lead to shame, anxiety, and giving yourself a ready-made excuse for when things go wrong. But new research shows how you can fight back against the self-doubt and rebuild your confidence.

If there’s a barrier to your calling, find a way around it.
Photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi covers unrest and turmoil in places like the Congo, South Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda. She started out as a humanitarian aid worker in Congo, but when her colleagues were evacuated during a crisis and the photographers were allowed to stay, she embarked on a new photojournalism career. Now she stays in conflict zones long after everyone else has left the field, lending a different kind of hand to those in need.

Find the subject that will make you a student for life.
“I was bad at everything in school,” Todd Hido admits. But once he discovered his interest in photography, Hido pulled a 180. “I wanted to go to school because that’s where the darkroom was and I found something that made me excited about being there,” he says. “Ever since, all I’ve ever done is photography… I’ll be a student of photography until the day I die.”

Don’t call Beyoncé. She’ll call you.
Laolu Senbanjo wasn’t searching for Beyoncé when he left his human rights law career in Nigeria to open an art gallery. “[The gallery] was my safe haven where I could create magic with people who understood me,” says Senbanjo, who later moved to Brooklyn. Shortly thereafter, Beyoncé got wind of him, and Senbanjo answered a cold call from the singer’s reps to bring his Afromysterics design aesthetic to her album, Lemonade.

Get fluent in financials.
“If a designer is able to translate something like a creative brief into a business brief, that gives you a huge leg up,” says Amazon Music’s digital design and UX lead Marisa Gallagher. “It’s a craft in that you’re learning how to speak with the right language.”

Be the person who sticks up for you.
“I wish I knew not to be so hard on myself and not to beat myself up so much,” says Debbie Millman, host of the podcast Design Matters, reflecting on her 20s. “I wish I knew not to take everything so seriously in terms of my worth and my value. I wish I had spoken up more and stuck up for myself.”

Adopt the perspective of the age you feel, not the one you are.
“I’m surprised to find myself with the chronological age of 77, when really I feel as if I’m still somewhere between the ages of 14 and 28,” says Sydney-based painter Ken Done. The key is “keeping your eyes open and trying as best as possible to get the most out of every day.”

You should have the right to disconnect. And you should use it.
France has passed a bill that bans bosses from contacting employees past 5 p.m. and on weekends. The rest of the world can take a hint. France’s “right to disconnect” legislation is a recognition “that asking people to work crazy hours just isn’t helpful economically,” says Katrina Onstad, of The Weekend Effect: The LifeChanging Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork. “We’re so tethered to our workplaces and our devices that that concept seems almost sacrilegious or a sign of weakness.”

Never give up, at least until you’re ready.
“When you get booted out, look at that as the beginning to create something new,” says animator Floyd Norman, reflecting on when Disney forced him into retirement at age 65. But Norman wasn’t done yet. He returned to the Disney lot, found an open office space, and kept right on working on his own designs. “You’re in charge of your life, not the corporation… Always remember—it’s not over until you say it’s over.”

Be as big a fan of yourself as Kanye West is of Kanye West.
When was the last time you Tweeted something like, “Hi Grammys, this is the most important living artist talking,” or “I’m not even gon (sic) lie to you. I love me so much right now”? If it’s been a while, take a page from Mr. Yeezy himself who reminds us he’s got our backs: “I am of service to the world with my art and I just want to serve more.”

Stay gold, Ponyboy.
“Try a bunch of stuff,” says artist and author Adam J. Kurtz, “Be a little reckless, smoke weed one time, kiss someone nice, stop trying to be cool—it’s not working, it never worksand generally let yourself live.”

Honing your craft

Break with Tradition
While Master Calligrapher Aoi Yamaguchi has respected the spiritual and aesthetic customs of her craft, she’s also branched out from the tradition to make it her own. “I do calligraphy in various formats to make a living from teaching, logo work for clients and businesses, and commissioned work for personal collections,” says Yamaguchi. She’s even turned her handwork into live performance.

Don’t do something well over and over. Do something new over and over.
Ivan Chermayeff, the late graphic designer behind the familiar logos of Barneys, National Geographic, and NBC, stayed creatively active late in life. “People who want to retire want to do other things,” said Chermayeff. “Travel. Plant a garden. I don’t. I’ve been doing those things every day my whole life.” Just as in his craft, Chermayeff demanded novelty and new terrain from his golden years.

You dont have to be a 9-to-5 person, but rhythm can help your creative flow.
Australian hand-letterer Gemma O’Brien says she’s not a 9-to-5 person, but she is most productive when she sticks to a routine of working overnight (from 4 p.m. to 2 or 3 a.m.) With calls and emails at a minimum, she’s able to tap into adistractionfree” zone. “I just feel like there is something about nighttime where I get in a less alert state, and that allows me to relax and do the work,” she says. “Its deadly quiet, and from the attic I can see the moon. Sometimes, if I have a really hard deadline, I can also see the sun come up.”

Draw every damn day.
Laura Seargeant Richardson, creative director at Argodesign dodged her mother’s suggestion to be a writer in favor of design research and strategy. But she still looks back with regret on not building a deeper habit of drawing. “While I have an eye for design, while I can creatively direct designers of all types,” she says, “I can never bring my ideas to visual life in a gratifying way. If I had to do it all over again, I would trust my instincts and draw every damn day.”

Plan you next road trip around inspiration.
Is there more to vacations than planning where you’re going to eat? Well, yes. These artist studio museums aren’t a bad place to start.

Put revision ceilings in your contract.
In one of her first client jobs, designer Kelsy Stromski lost thousands of dollars in billable hours struggling to interpret opaque feedback through untold rounds of revisions. “Now I show clients a few rough concepts early on (rather than perfecting dozens of options) and my contracts clearly note that each project includes two revisions, with additional rounds charged at an hourly rate,” she says.

Size doesn’t matter. Unless it does.
Stefanie Weigler and David Heasty, the husband-wife team behind Triboro Design, focus on being selective rather than trying to get everything that is out there. As a result, the studio can dedicate itself to special projects like branding for Everlane and customizing a typeface for Vanity Fair’s “Best-Dressed List.” By staying small, Weigler says, “we have better control of the work and a lower overhead that allows us to not take on every project.”

Just do it.
Cedric Kiefer, cofounder of Berlin-based studio onformative, believes you shouldn’t overthink decisions, big or small. “I used to think that a concept would be more valuable the longer I worked on it. After a while, you learn that the simplest idea is usually the best one.” Kiefer lives the impulsive mantra he preaches. He founded his studio without ever having met his cofounder in person and moved to Berlin. “I think if we had thought about it too long, we might have missed our chance,” he says.

Client relations

Does that buzzword mean what I think it means? #leverage
There is a big gap between our understanding of what ‘innovation’ is in a digital agency versus what clients imagine innovation is,” says Pauline Ploquin of Struck. “For them it’s the shiny object and virtual reality. Those are not a long-term strategy.” What is Ploquin excited about? “The next frontier is the mind of the consumer,” she says, “We are geeking out on neuroscience, rather than just virtual reality.”

Avoid “small” changes that create a ripple effect of additional work.
Clients will always see the opportunities for a nip and a tuck in everything that comes their way. And who doesn’t want to make their client happy, right? But whether it’s a changed word in a mission statement, or a logo color shift, those small tweaks can have a resounding (and time-consuming) effect on all the already completed work in your project. The founder of the San Francisco firm Elefint suggests putting up workflows, shortening feedback loops, and making clear SOWs to stymie client’s small changes habits.

Ask Psych 101 questions.
Graphic design icon Louise Fili is a client whisperer. She brings the same care and attention to client meetings that she brings to her logo designs. “Whenever any students ask me what I recommend that they do to become a designer: Take a Psych 101 class,” Fili says of preparing for dealing with clients. Often, her questions aren’t too different from those a therapist would ask. “They’re nervous. I talk them off the ledge, and then it’s usually fine.” Her favorite question to ask an antsy client? “What are you afraid of?”

Kill the deck.
“We are doing much less documentation,” Michael Burkin of Doberman says of new ways to foster client collaboration. “Our brave and creative clients have much more interest in spending the time we have together to iterate rather than us create a bunch of decks that we present to them and then wait for feedback and waste a lot of time on.”

Make a five-year plan, a ten-year plan, and a hundred-year plan.
Bill Makky runs a sculpture casting foundry in Brooklyn. His clients? Some of the biggest names in the art world today. And the art world of yesterday, too. Makky stores extra castings of bronze sculptures as an old-school form of insurance: an artist might not sell every edition of a sculpture in their lifetime, but their estate might sell one years after their death. Makky himself became an expert on intergenerational business planning, stewarding the bronze sculptures that his father and previous owners contracted decades before Makky took over the foundry.

Build up trust to last a lifetime.
“Politics is about who you know,” says Pete Souza, on becoming the chief White House photographer to President Obama. “You can be the best photographer in the world, but if an up-and-coming senator is already connected to a competent photographer they like, chances are they’ll chose them if they decide to run for president… There are dozens of photographers in the country who are more skilled than me, but I believe I was the right person for the job because of the way I worked with President Obama.”

Know where your clientsbonus comes from.
Dave Snyder, Firstborn’s executive creative director, has helped brands like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and strategically reposition themselves. He says to earn clients’ trust, you must genuinely understand what’s driving them and it’s okay if it’s partly the cash. Learn where their bonus comes from. Then, he says, “you’ll have a better opportunity to position your ideas in a way that will earn them more money.”

For Pete’s sake, be on time.
Erik Spiekermann, a German type designer and entrepreneur, who juggles multiple businesses, lives by the clock. I’m always on time. And everybody who is not drives me crazy,” he confesses. “It’s rude and inefficient.” The Edenspiekermann founder learned this the hard way after constantly arriving five minutes late to meetings. One day he calculated the four-figure dollar value of this wasted time and says, “From that day on, I realized I could be five minutes early.”


To get to know a citys design community, find peers at its indie bookstores.
There really is no better way to connect with a new place than browsing the shelves of the city’s best bookstores, meeting fellow design and art bookworms.  If you’re looking to explore in a new place, visit a design bookstore and youll find your community.

Work with people who make you laugh.
Roz Chast is well known for her portfolio filled with decades-worth of New Yorker cartoons. But, the artist has a litany of collaborative projects as well. From children’s books with Steve Martin to illustrating for Patricia Marx, Chast says it’s important to share a sense of humor with those with whom you collaborate. Especially, if you’re trying to make your reader laugh. It makes for a more successful product, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.

No silent disagreement.
“Speak up” is one of the mandates at the design agency Big Spaceship. It’s a culture choice certainly; there’s nothing worse for workplace culture than unexpressed disagreement. But founder Michael Lebowitz says the commitment to open communication is just as much about giving space for new ideas as it is about office relationships. “I have a lot experience in what we do, but I don’t have the perspective of someone who has a 23-year-old’s interface with the culture right now,” says Lebowitz. “An intern’s view is as valuable as mine, just in a completely different way.”

The fight that’s worth it is the one for common ground.
Ettore Sottsass, an 80-something Italian architect, was asked to build a Silicon Valley house for David Kelley, the 50-something American founder of the design firm IDEO. With different aesthetics, but a mutual admiration for each other, the two sparred and experimented until the final product managed “to express the vision of both architect and client.” The two learned habits of argument and negotiation that meant both could walk away feeling like a “winner” with their friendship intact. 

Allies matter. Know who has your back.
Photographers documenting combat zones or natural disasters may be vying for coveted print space. But, on the ground, it’s important to know who can let go of the competition. “When you’re in a war zone and you’re working with someone who’s competing with you, it just doesn’t feel safe — and it is already not safe,” says photojournalist Annabell Van den Berghe. “You have to be with somebody who has your back.

Historically speaking, we’re at ‘peak asshole.’ Plan accordingly.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, some people are born assholes, some people achieve being assholes, and some people have being an asshole thrust upon them. According to Robert Sutton, we have to watch out for that last one. He notes our workplaces come with all the trappings of “power imbalance, sleep deprivation, people who are overworked, overcrowded, and in a hurry.” Work to diffuse the effect of these powerful forces on yourself so that you don’t wake up to see that the office jerk is in the mirror looking back at you.

Never underestimate the power of the dinner table.
While WeTransfer founder Nalden (yes, just one name) envisioned his company as a service to make virtually sharing files easier, he still believes that, “in the end, people make the difference, so you want to look them in the eyes, have a laugh or two, and collaborate and make decisions together. That’s why you need to have people on the ground.”

The bigger picture

Use your communication skills to empower social change.
Designers and the creative industry have the skills to resist and organize, to inform and educate. During this global period of instability, designers must use their particular talents to strengthen grassroots causes and challenge exclusionary political ideas.

Design to match your medium.
Francesco Franchi was one of the darlings of the Italian design magazine community. Then he took on a new challenge: newspaper. Now, as managing editor at la Repubblica, he’s knee-deep in news cycles and breaking headlines. One of the most important tenets that he brought over from the design world is an understanding that not every channel should try to do everything. Franchi’s strategy separates out the online newspaper from the print. “It’s about keeping breaking news as digital,” he says, “And then thinking about the paper as something more luxurious; something you can read on the weekend.”

Can’t change the technology of a product? Transform how people connect with it.
Changing the formulaic makeup of condoms is an uphill battle against government regulation. So, Tiffany Gaines and Claire Courtney co-founded Lovability, a company that’s repackaging condoms in discreet breath mint-style tins in hopes of shifting consumers’ perceptions. “We’re able to do these minor things that actually do a lot of heavy lifting in the anxiety battle. It transforms anxiety into power,” says Gaines, adding, “It needs to be more like lipstick, something that makes you feel sexier and braver and bolder when you use it.”

Bone up on your health sector knowledge.
“We are seeing a growing interest in design strategies applied to healthcare,” says Barry Katz, author of the Silicon Valley design history Make It New. “Biotech is now poised to make the same sort of move that software and electronics did toward the consumer markets.” Katz smells a whole new design space there. “That’s an enormous opportunity for design,” he says.

Discover your inner Benjamin Button
Architect Daniel Libeskind didn’t create his first building until he was 52. “There is an immortality to being creative,” he says. “As your work continues, you become younger. You discover youthfulness—braver, bolder, more confident, more adventurous. You discover possibilities.”

Need help telling your story? Connect it to larger life themes. 
Start writing your story by finding universal pursuits and truths in your narrative (or your brand’s). Then, incorporate the one-of-a-kind details and experiences that bring your unique perspective to life. Norma Jeanne Maloney, for instance, is a Texas sign painter whose story of sacrifice for a creative passion is all too common, but whose Old West saloon-inspired lifestyle and cowboy hat sets her apart. Add action, conflict, your own style of voice, and leave readers with pearls of wisdom to apply to their own lives.

Forget the logo. Everyone else will too.
“A logo is a clunky piece of communication, unable to adapt to changing environments,” says Martin Lorenz of Two Points. Lorenz points out that as communication becomes increasingly context-related, the static logo will be much less important compared to the ability to develop flexible visual systems that are responsive to their environment. Look got the future and direct your thinking toward the information channels built for flexibility.

Design = business strategy.
“Design in the most classic sense is a potent business strategy,” says Firstborn executive creative director Dave Snyder. “That’s not to say it’s only about business efficiency. Everything needs a high level of craft,” he says. But ultimately, for Snyder, design is first and foremost a business choice, and a good one.

Design for friction.
Yes, everyone loves an easy solution. And sure, who doesn’t love having access to takeout at 10 p.m. at the push of a button? But what if the very thing technology trumpets most proudly—convenience—is getting in the way of the most important interactions—the ones that present challenges, build character, and widen our world view? Airbnb experience design manager, Steve Selzer, says that a designer’s golden apple should be moments of friction, not convenience. And that the question designers should ask themselves is not, ‘What product…’ but ‘What future do I want to create?”

Additional reporting by Zoe Zellers and Steven Thomson

from 99U99U

A Sound System Fit for an Emperor

A Sound System Fit for an Emperor

The Oswald Mill Audio showroom in Brooklyn’s industrial-artisan neighborhood of DUMBO is packed with the presences of luminary recording artists. Alicia Keys has rifled through the record crates of jazz, rap, and blues. JLO and Al Green have climbed the concrete stairs from Bridge Street to sit in the throne-like ‘listening chair’. For a Rolling Stone photo shoot, Gwen Stefani smashed bottles in the tub of the solarium-style bathroom. (The showroom also doubles as owner Jonathan Weiss’s studio apartment.)

But those aren’t the only artists whose presence can still be felt. Among the cherry and ash megaphone-shaped speakers that tower over the average person’s height, you can feel the ghosts of performers long gone. Weiss demos the speakers using old vinyl records. When he pulls yards of red curtains over the windows to dampen the sound, the room resonates with the vibrato of the French singer Barbara, and the rollicking notes of Willie Dixon, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson. These singers are all brought together by Weiss’s passion for fusing new industrial design with vintage audio to create the best sound and design experience that (a lot of) money can buy.


sound-system, AMO, speaker, dumbo


Weiss caught a glimpse of the heyday of sound quality when he was fourteen, cleaning up popcorn at an art deco movie palace in California. During their shifts, the staff would use the massive speaker system behind the screen to blast film soundtracks through the theater. “It was a magical experience,” says Weiss. Now, Weiss is on a mission to unmask what he sees as the audio industry’s decades-long focus on decreasing speaker size at the expense of sound quality and new technologies cutting out the music’s soul when compressing audio files into low-res MP3s. His solution? Bring back mid-century cinema speaker and amplifier technology because they knew how to do sound right.

Weiss founded Oswald Mill Audio ten years ago, after he bought and restored a four-story grain mill in Eastern Pennsylvania. For a brief span, he put his interest in the sensory experiences to work as a chef, crafting feasts of Dutch apple pancakes, coconut curries, and the occasional whole roast pig for visitors to the mill. At the same time, the audio underground, itching to test drive Weiss’ growing collection of antique audio equipment, morphed those food feasts into annual sonic ‘tastings’ of music listening and nerding out on audio equipment.

Those informal gatherings grew into Weiss’s current venture. To make his speakers, which can run up to $300,000, Weiss works with a prototyper, a loudspeaker and industrial designer, and an extended network of Pennsylvania-based craftsmen and manufacturers. For a founder fascinated by the invisible waves of sound quality, Weiss is just as obsessed with the caliber of the tactile elements of OMA’s manufacturing processes. The wood for the speakersash, cherry, maple, and walnutis milled from the Pennsylvania countryside. It’s the same wood used in Martin guitars that are made across the valley. Entire trees are purchased in boules and the boules are air dried for several years in solar kilns.


sound-system, AMO, speaker, dumbo


Weiss’s industrial designer, David D’Imperio, sketches out a pen and paper speaker drawing, which Weiss then takes to his loudspeaker designer, Bill Woods. Woods maps the design against the acoustic goals of each speaker. Weiss then shepherds the acoustic constraints to D’Imperio to inform his next round of industrial designs. OMA’s designers don’t necessarily speak the same language: D’Imperio “knows nothing about audio, but is a brilliant industrial designer,” says Weiss. “He’s like Houdini; you put him in chains and then dump him in water, and he comes out with something every time.” And Woods “doesn’t know anything about how to make something look beautiful, but he’s the world’s best at the acoustic part,” adds Weiss.

OMA isn’t large enough to warrant in-house manufacturing, so, once Weiss brokers a design agreement, the plans are sent to a local Pennsylvania woodshop that also counts Ralph Lauren as a client. “They build super high-end millwork, and then they make our speakers,” says Weiss.


sound-system, AMO, speaker, dumbo


Weiss doesn’t only design speaker systems; he’s committed to supplying the full audio set up, including the turntables, cables, and furniture for shelving. The 100-pound turntables are made of slate quarried in Pennsylvania. Once the heavy matte stone is cut, it’s sent to a Mennonite family-owned facility ten minutes away in Fleetwood. Here, the slate is shaped with a water jet on the same machines that Boeing uses to slice carbon fiber for airplanes. Weiss loves the balance between thousand-year-old manufacturing traditions and new technology. He points to a picture of a man in goggles cutting the stone. “This is as medieval as it gets.” Meanwhile, the mold for the coral-reef-like Ironic speaker is 3D-printed.

Weiss knows his speakers are for very few, and that’s okay with him. While he wouldn’t comment on revenue numbers, he says the business is doing well enough for him to move it into a new 42,000-square foot factory complex he just bought in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. There, the goal is to make a product priced at under $10,000.


sound-system, AMO, speaker, dumbo


Back at the DUMBO showroom, a potential client, whose company just went public, stopped by for one of the listening appointments Weiss requires to visit the showroom. Weiss put on a few classical records and disappeared into the kitchen while the music played. (He likes to leave people alone while they listen to the music.) The room filled with the spirits of concert pianists, ferociously raising the notes of past composers.

Afterwards, the customer asks Weiss to play some music off his iPhone. Weiss is disappointed; his speakers are built for vinyl records and he’s in a constant war with the MP3. But he’s a businessman and he connects the phone to the 3D-printed Ironic system. As the music pours out of the printed shells, the visitor takes pictures of the speakers with his phone. He sends a few texts. It’s hard to tell if he’s already sold and texting pictures of the soon-to-be-his speakers, or maybe he’s lost interest in making a purchase. In either case, when listening to the MP3 it does feel like the spirits have abandoned the OMA showroom and left us all alone.

from 99U99U

Jenny Arden: Look for Dark Horses and Misfits

Jenny Arden: Look for Dark Horses and Misfits

As Airbnb’s user experience design manager, Jenny Arden is tasked with the job of helping create a seamless experience for all Airbnb hosts, and that includes her mom, a self-employed writer living in Ashland, Oregon, an artsy hamlet at the southern end of the Rogue Valley, just north of the California border. “She adores meeting people and providing pastries and great coffee for them,” says Arden, adding, “Baby boomers renting out a small room are actually a key demographic for us.”

And Jenny’s mother has actually offered her daughter some advice on how to improve the host experience. “My mom has a warm personality, and she gives me feedback on how the platform can help match her with people who want that graciousness,” says Arden. “To get the value of her particular style of hosting is to be into coffee, pastries, and exchanging travel stories.”

Further personalizing the stay experience is central to Airbnb’s ongoing mission to connect people to places. It’s also tricky: How do you best match 160 million visitors to four million homes hosted by 2.5 million people in 191 cities? It’s a Rubik’s Cube puzzle, and Arden leads a team that aims to better support the growing number of hosts in a way that allows them to run their homestays as small business owners.

“Our guests, on average, use our platform maybe a couple times a year when they’re planning a trip and traveling, whereas our hosts, on average, open up our app several times a day,” says Arden. “Just the frequency alone changes the entire nature of the experience and what you have to design for.” Adding another level of intrigue is that about 90 percent of the host experience is offline – the product is the stay, the business goal is a great experience, and the technology is simply the enabler.

Ninety Nine U spoke with Arden about how Airbnb is designing for the superhost, what her team is learning offline that they are applying online, and how the line between design and business is so blurry these days she can’t even see it anymore.

jenny-arden, designer, rbnb, uxdesign, career, creative

Jenny Arden photographed in San Francisco for this interview.

One idea that has been born in the Airbnb community is that of the “professional host.” How has this come to be?

The big shift I’m seeing is that it’s not like one day you’re an amateur host and the next day you’re a professional host. It’s a gradation; there’s a spectrum. Some will enter into a market where you can have multiple homes, and they may choose to host for many people, and that gets into our co-hosting initiatives, where you can actually host on behalf of someone else. Interestingly enough, on LinkedIn there are 60 people whose title is “superhost” – they put that as their actual job title. I’m thinking about how professional tools can support those people to be killer superhosts and go from just the one-on-one [host experience] to thinking about scale.

One key digital tool in particular for a superhost is the easy-to-use calendar. Your team went through about 40 different prototypes of the host calendar before you got it right. What issues were you working through there?

When I talked to my team about that particular project, I kicked it off by saying, “If you nail the calendar, you won this entire project.” Other things are important, yes: reservation management, communication. But quite honestly, designing for a messaging system is easy, and it’s been done before. Coming up with a really robust calendar for hosting – that’s a new challenge.

Why was it so difficult?

The reason is because every single person thinks about their day differently and structures it in a different way. The construct of a calendar is pretty finite, like days and weeks. How you use a daily view, a weekly view, or a monthly view: That’s what changes. So what we ended up doing is, rather than saying there’s one solution, we created four different views to support what we found were the major buckets in the ways that people were using the calendar.

When hosts are looking at a monthly or yearly view, what they’re really trying to figure out is, Have I booked up my place? They want to make sure they have no availability. Maybe they see one week and no one’s booked it. Maybe they’ll drop the price a little bit, just for that one week, to get a booking in there. They’re optimizing and they’re trying to run their business, making sure they’re getting all the bookings they can.

On the weekly view, hosts are coordinating with the people that help them host, like their cleaner. They’re coordinating. Then on the daily view, hosts are looking at what’s happening today, who they need to greet, errands they have to do.

With the majority of the hosting experience being done offline, what’s one thing you’ve recently seen in how people host in the physical world that you have applied to the digital platform?

We’ve launched a new check-in feature, which is the result of a workaround we saw people doing. Our hosts were using a new mobile app feature that launched in November where users had the ability to send photos through messaging. What people were doing was essentially taking a bunch of photos in sequence to make a check in guide: Look for this store; look for that flowerpot; the keys are under there. Here’s the lockbox; punch this code. And they were drawing the code on top of the image. So we decided to make a photo-based template so hosts can show guests how to check-in to their Airbnb. This completely transforms communication between a host and a guest because it’s standardized. Every time you stay in an Airbnb now, you can look for the check-in guide and it’ll walk you through how you get into this place.

This seems like such a benefit for international travel, where language could be a barrier.

Absolutely. This was coming from our Asian markets, in particular. There are some parts of Asia where their addresses are not like how they are in the U.S., where we have specific pins on a map. In some Asian countries they have areas or blocks only, and the guest has to figure it out. Visual instructions are the only solution, so a picture guide was really the only way for those particular hosts to translate exactly where their Airbnb is located.

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Your team designs for host problems that need to be solved. Why does this work fall into the bucket of design versus more traditional customer service?

Because I’m part of the functions that create, that build, I have the power to actually make it happen. It’s one thing to listen, and those supportive roles are absolutely critical to success. I can’t do my job without them. But my job is to execute, and to choose and decide and ensure that the most important and meaningful features will be built. Even as designers we have our bias. We’re still always going to be skewed by our own perceptions, travel experiences, and history. A great customer experience partnership will be that sense of truth. They’ll keep you in check and make sure you’re actually doing the right thing.

In terms of hiring, what do you look for outside of the requisite design skills?

I may not be the norm in recruiting here, but I definitely look for dark horses and people who are misfits. I look for quirkiness – maybe they had an off-the-beaten path trajectory for how they got here. Everyone has to meet a particular bar, so I’m looking at what’s above that, and that’s usually purpose, and the number one prerequisite: heart toward people who are trying to make a living out of home sharing. Designers that are good at system designs, those who think horizontally and can see how one thing they do can percolate across the entire company – those designers can weed through the mess of feedback from all different sources; take that chaos and find that golden nugget idea, the actual problem, and execute without getting distracted.

On a career note, you worked for JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs early on, then at Google on self-driving cars, and now Airbnb. What is the thread that has connected these jobs in different sectors?

What I get excited about is creating tools for people so they have a better day. That’s a commonality between all of these industries, and, particularly with my career, what I’ve focused on. The second area is ambiguity. Every one of these companies and industries has had an intense amount of ambiguity. Earlier on in my career in banking, if I had ambiguity I would get super stressed. I would sit there and I’d say, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing” and I’d get really scared and frustrated. Now when I see ambiguity, I’m excited, because it means we’re doing something that no one has done before and we don’t have the solution yet. And that’s an opportunity for us to be inventive. I look for those moments more than for the moments of clarity.

You have a graphic design degree from Rhode Island School of Design, a degree in physics from Brown University, and you completed a business program for creatives at Harvard. How have those three disciplines fit in to what you do?

I’m definitely left brain, right brain. I found early on that art was not going to satiate me intellectually and science was not going to satiate me emotionally. I needed both. This led me to find user experience design before that term was even invented. I also broke every rule you can think of in college when it comes to academic careers. I was that first person ever to do a double major between RISD and Brown University at the same time. Now it’s an actual program, but you should’ve seen the look on Academic Affairs’ face when they discovered this was my plan. They asked me, “What are you doing? These are not the same schools.” My response was, “I know; I just don’t care.” I see what I want to do, and that is the path I will take.

Careerwise, I have not done all the right things. I haven’t climbed ladders. I haven’t done the politics that a lot of people find themselves falling into and hating because there is nothing in my personality that will support that.

jenny-arden, designer, rbnb, uxdesign, career, creative, interview

How important is it for a designer to have a business brain?

As you become more senior, it’s a requirement. In fact, the lines are so blurry I can’t even say business and design are two separate things anymore. What you’re looking for when you’re creating a great business model is a need for it to even exist in the first place. You can monetize lots of things, but if no one will want to put money toward that. And what design does is find the reason why someone should put money toward that. So a lot of people think of design as just being the front end, the execution of a plan. But what it really is is finding the human need for it in the first place.

Do you consider yourself a designer, or have you evolved more into a business executive with a design perspective?

It’s funny that I still see myself a designer because I literally – as many people at my level will say – haven’t opened a design [software] program in a year and a half. As you get more senior, execution is not your primary task. Your job is to push for stronger ideas as quickly as possible. So it’s a combination of those two – pushing, pushing, pushing, and focus, focus, focus.

If I were to put a label on myself, I am a hard-core entrepreneur. It will always be in me. At Airbnb I feel like I’m at the forefront of a new business model and a leading technology, and a company that’s making a lot of change. I’ve always seen myself as a founder, someone that’s diving into the unknown, doing something that’s new and scary.

Airbnb was founded by designers, as were Pinterest and Kickstarter, and there is some talk in Silicon Valley that we’re entering the era of the designer-founder. What’s your take?

These days I find that almost every single person I hire says they want to be a founder. They want to own their own company one day, which maybe is part of our process in finding the people who are very ambitious and very A-type. But in that, I’m starting to realize that the next generation of designers are not design practitioners in the true sense that we were seeing five, ten years ago – people who were going through traditional graphic design programs. What we’re seeing now are designers who are thinking business. They’re thinking, “How can I take something that matters to me, that I actually experience pain or excitement about firsthand, and use my skills as a designer to create a business for that?” That is a major shift among designers ages 22 to 30 these days.

Let’s end with where we started: What’s the best food your mom serves at her Airbnb?

Her cranberry nut bread with Irish butter – she’s Irish.


This interview was originally published in 99U’s special issue for Adobe XD.

from 99U99U

Ian Spalter: Find the Grind that is Your Personal Fairytale

Ian Spalter: Find the Grind that is Your Personal Fairytale

Welcome to Instagram! Step right up and take a selfie! Tucked right inside the front door of Instagram’s new office building on Facebook’s Menlo Park campus is an on-brand, magenta-shaded installation where visitors can snap a photo of their beautiful mugs – make sure to get the Instagram logo in the background! – and post them on Instagram, naturally, for a meta social media moment.

The entire three-story building is a real life interpretation of the app. It has everything from wall-sized picture frames displaying Instagram images from around the world to its own Blue Bottle Coffee outpost to an offering of free candy-colored toothbrushes in the bathroom. (Hey, it’s nice to have options.) If Instagram is a platform for sharing fairy tales, then this physical manifestation of that digital world seems to check many of the boxes for a nice, happy existence.

Over the last two years, Instagram has grown from 400 million users to some 700 million today. It might be the hottest brand on the planet (even if your mom is now on it or your feed is filled with baby pics), a platform that is becoming the world’s greatest collection of images, available to view for free at the tap of a button.

As Instagram has grown its user base, the company has also increased its number of staff designers tenfold, jumping from seven to 70 since Ian Spalter, the new head of design, took over the job in 2015. Spalter arrived from YouTube, and before that Foursquare, with the objective of developing a suite of tools for users so Instagram could continue to evolve from its photo booth roots to a visual hub for all kinds of shared experiences.

Ninety Nine U sat down with Spalter at Instagram’s new office – where, full disclosure, a selfie was taken in pursuit of this interview – to discuss his strategy behind building out the design team, the importance of a logo when customer-brand interactions are starting to take place beyond a screen, and how he nurtures his own creativity.

ian-spalter, instagram, creatice, career, interview, design

Ian Spalter photographed in and around Instagram’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

What impact has the user growth over the last two years had on the design team?

I inherited it a small team of talented people, so my job was to not screw that up. When you have a really small team, folks can work on lots of things. And as you get bigger, you have to create areas of focus but you still want to enable people to solve different parts of the problem spaces. You have to define those problem spaces fairly broadly. An example would be growth. We have a team that is just focused on growth, but within that you’ve got everything from helping users get in the door, registration, helping users get set up and orientated with what Instagram is, and then if people fall off Instagram, actually helping them come back in. Then we have a team that is focused on giving you the tools for expression: posting to your feed, Stories, or using direct messaging. Then we have a team that’s thinking about connecting you with interests and passions and surfacing that stuff. How you do find new, great stuff on Instagram? These are fairly broad problem spaces that you can build entire teams around to obsess about outside of any one feature, because we want people thinking about the features we haven’t developed yet.

Much has been said about the Instagram logo. How important is a logo in this day and age?

It would depend on what the brand is and what you mean to people. What was interesting about [the new Instagram logo] is that no matter what we launched, we had hundreds of millions of people tapping it every day, making an association between that mark and the experience known as Instagram. And so you have a tremendous responsibility to get it right. On the other side, people are going to use Instagram regardless of what the doorway looks like. The importance of having this one kind of mark or moment will start to fade and the brand experience will be the thing, more so than a particular symbol. I think it will take time for that to really change.

What you’ve seen is a lot of marks getting very simple, and part of that is that they become adaptable to the places where they may show up. It’s not just the bottle with the wrapper on it that is the moment. The logo is a lot more fluid, so I think the fluidity piece is important in figuring out how you create a mark or a system of marks that are fluid. But once you start to get into, say, Voice UI, how important is the logo at that point? Or if you get into things that are three dimensions, how important is a mark?

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You’ve worked for both agencies and in-house. Compare those two experiences.

When you work in an agency, you get a great breadth or range of work and a range of different types of brands, and that’s really educational and valuable. But in the end, I like the marathon ability to invest and go deeper. I feel like the trend right now is moving more things in-house, which overall is a good thing, because I think that means a lot of companies are learning to inject creativity and design into what they do as a company.

More and more companies are incorporating design into their process, and as the future unfolds, creativity is going to matter. Machines will be good at doing repetitive tasks that are based off of recognizing a pattern and then repeating it. But those who have trained themselves to be creative and invent the next thing will have longevity. Software will get very good at optimizing along a certain path, but actually finding a new path takes people still, and probably will for a while. The folks who are able to make intuitive leaps and be creative and generative will probably be better off. That’s true not just for designers. It’s true for every working person.

What’s one thing you do to nurture your own creativity?

That’s mostly at home, being able to tinker with ideas with my kids, whether it’s playing with marble runs or watercolor painting or things like that. I think those are the places where I get to play.

ian-spalter, instagram, creatice, career, interview, design

When you were the head of design at Foursquare, you asked your designers and engineers to draw the person they envision using the product. And then you also did an exercise where you used a Monopoly board to brainstorm the person’s user check-in moment. Why?

The first exercise was more of an empathy-building exercise: a shortcut to imagining in your mind who you want to actually have a great experience and what you want them to feel. That helps people get beyond themselves. Then the Monopoly one was an exercise where we were looking into redesigning the post-check-in screen, with a prompt for doing a team sketching exercise. The way it worked is that the designer wrote a bunch of different common scenarios – checking into a bar that your friend told you about, going to a local coffee shop. And they would shout it out almost like a game of Bingo. Everyone has about ten seconds to sketch out the scenario. What you got from that is people had the scenario in their mind, a person in their mind, and then they had ten seconds to say: “This is what we should see in this moment.”

Why the decision to do it on paper versus sharing this verbally?

Drawing is a commitment – especially if I gave you a Sharpie and I only gave you ten seconds. You’ve got to get to the shorthand of what’s important really fast. When you describe it, you could use all sorts of words, but it’s hard for me to understand what you really mean. Drawing gives us a point of reference to then have a conversation. Also, it’s fun to get people out of their comfort zones – most people are trained not to be comfortable with drawing.

You have a background in cultural studies. How does that influence how you see the world and how you design?

The cultural studies I got into are on the clinical science side, so Freud, Saussure, and Marx made up the school, and that helped me with thinking – coming at problems from different angles and appreciating what that brings. But more importantly is that I went to a school called Hampshire College in Massachusetts – a pretty young college. You could put together your own major; they had been doing that since they started in the ’70s, and that taught me a lot about being a self-starter and going from zero to one. Starting from something amorphous and figuring out a way to make something concrete gave me a good advantage going into more entrepreneurial environments, being comfortable when things aren’t figured out, and enjoying the process of working through that uncertainty to get to something good.

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What advice would you have for somebody who didn’t go to a Stanford about breaking into a Facebook or Instagram?

The most important thing is to find a certain aspect that you can really obsess about and lose time in. For me in college, I discovered that being in a computer lab doing graphics work was something I could spend 12 hours on. That was key. And from there, I was able to find an internship and start to get into the industry. But I think what matters most is figuring out what you feel passion about to grind hard on and begin making work and then leveraging that work and starting to connect with people who are doing that work, knocking on enough doors to hopefully get an internship and start to make your passion your profession.


This interview was originally published in 99U’s special issue for Adobe XD.


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Hector Ouilhet: Making Technology Human

Hector Ouilhet: Making Technology Human

Hector Ouilhet, Google’s head of design for Search and Assistant, is part of a rare breed in the tech sector. He appreciates the sartorial grandeur of a fine necktie and regularly wears one to the office. Today, he’s chosen a tangerine-colored Hermès cravat crawling with blue alligators and parrots that perfectly matches the pantone of the flower pinned to his left lapel. “Hermès ties are so intricate and interesting, and they usually help me strike up a conversation,” says Ouihlet. “And accents in somebody’s outfit say a lot of things about who they are.”

Ouihlet has routine and experiment days, where he’ll either play it safe or start with the accessory, like the tie, belt, or pocket square, and build the ensemble from there. With age, he’s gotten more adventurous. “Years ago, there were certain colors I’d never wear together,” he says. “Now I wear things that don’t feel fantastic yet, but I can see will eventually come.”

An eye looking toward the future is also central to Ouhlet’s work at Google, where he leads the design team making the products and interfaces that a good chunk of the population will be using in the next few years. His career trajectory was anything but a straight line. He was born and raised in Mexico City, then moved to South Korea in his teenage years to live with a relative (it was a youth rebellion phase).

Later, he studied fine arts, sculpture, and computer engineering in Mexico and then interaction design in Italy. Since 2008, he’s worked at Google in New York City and now in Mountain View, California, with a focus on the intersection of design, communication, and technology. He remains one of the most stylish people in the Bay Area. Ninety Nine U recently spoke with Ouihlet at Google’s San Francisco office about Google’s next-gen projects, including creating voice-controlled “conversational interfaces,” how his team is trying to make technology more human, and what he learns from watching his four-year-old daughter interact with his prototypes.

hector-ouilhet, design, uxdesign, interview, creative, career, google

Hector Ouilhet photographed in San Francisco for this interview.

What’s the most exciting new idea you’re working on right now?

I’m currently working on how you design a platform that is able to give you the right answer no matter what you’re looking for. It could be something very specific, like What is the weather right now? Or more broad, like When should I change the tires on my car? Then how do we apply that way of thinking to a new set of devices? The new set of devices is particularly interesting, because people like my four-year-old daughter won’t really know what certain devices are. She recently grabbed a keyboard, and she thought it was a guitar. She was touching the keys and asking, “Why is this not making music?” She saw a keyboard as an artifact from the past. And I’m also excited to look at how you mimic this notion of human-to-human conversation in human-to-technology conversation.

Actual conversations, with back-and-forth dialogue where the machines understand us?

Oh, yeah; that is where we’re heading. Communication works with two main pieces: audio and visual. Depending on the device, we’ll be able to use both. Here’s an example: You go to a restaurant and you don’t know what to order, so you have two choices. One is, the waiter can tell you the menu in a linear way. Or the waiter can give you a menu, and then you scan it and are able to jump around, because the visual medium is nonlinear. So you go directly to the dessert. Or to the beer.

To find out more, you can either ask the waiter or – imagine if the menu gets to know you better. The next time you come in, the first thing you’ll see on your menu is the beer, then the dessert: The menu adjusts itself to what we know about you. We can then design things like, “Okay, it’s a rainy Thursday. You feel like whiskey?” “Yeah.” So the next time it’s a rainy Thursday, the whiskey shows up without you even asking.

What kind of timeline are we talking about here?

Five to ten years. I was in Berlin recently, and someone asked me if conversational interfaces would happen in a leap or a breakthrough. Well, no. It’s like human beings: A kid doesn’t suddenly become an adult. You go through these painful yet interesting learning phases. Same thing with technology: It’s going to learn from you, and you’re going to learn from it. 

hector-ouilhet, design, uxdesign, interview, creative, career, google

You mentioned your daughter earlier. What have you observed and learned from watching how a four-year-old interacts with your voice-recognition prototypes?

Kids have a constrained vocabulary, and they use context to say what they mean. A sign like this [points to the ground] can mean, “Put me down,” or “I’ve got something in my shoe.” It could also mean many different things, depending on the location in your house. If you translate that to technology, how can you use a device’s location or place to help you in the experience? Because technology, like kids, has a constrained vocabulary and understanding. How can you use these signals to make your experience better? Maybe the first thing you would tell your device is that you’re in the kitchen, so it knows you’re in the kitchen and is only going to say certain things. You start treating the device less as a general-purpose machine, like most phones are, to something more specific, because this thing is in the bathroom, kitchen, or car. It’s fascinating to learn from little kids how much they use context to help them tell what they have in their hand.

You’ve said that Google technology must act more human. What do you mean by that?

I’m hoping that technology can get to know you, so the response you get from machines is better over time. Humans are predictable beings. Like when I ask for the temperature, the machine should know that I like Celsius because I’m from Mexico. I don’t know what Fahrenheit is. Things like that can make people appreciate that somebody’s listening. So if we’re talking and you make a reference to my daughter, I like that you’re trying to use the knowledge that we have of each other to enable a better conversation. That is how Search and Assistant should be, and are becoming, actually: more understanding of your intent. With that, we’re able to provide you with the right answer.

hector-ouilhet, design, uxdesign, interview, creative, career, google

On a personal note, you grew up in Mexico City. Was there a big design scene there when you were growing up?

Not really. At the time I was really into fine arts; that’s what I wanted to study. I studied that for a bit because my mom is really good at it, and she encouraged me. But my dad was like, “You’re probably not going to make enough to live on in the fine arts.” He asked me to consider engineering, because I always loved tinkering with machines. My first business, which I started with some high school friends, was making digital yearbooks that we put on CDROMs instead of printing them. We took photos of everyone in the school, scanned the photos, and burned them onto CDs. We would stay up all night doing that. I liked the act of creating – bonding creativity and technology to make something powerful. I ultimately studied computer engineering at University of the Americas Puebla, which, looking back, was the right choice.

Yet you’ve continued to dabble in the fine arts and even studied sculpture at one point. What impact has that had on your design process?

I love making something tangible, and now I apply that to how we work in our team at Google. We usually start our product reviews with a piece of paper the size of a table. Because something like Search is so deep and broad, we try to visualize it by drawing it, and then we draw on top of the original drawings to answer how we would code that design element. Drawing is a natural way to tell what you have in your head – once you see it, you can see your own gaps or your own possibilities.


This interview was originally published in 99U’s special issue for Adobe XD.

from 99U99U