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A practical starter guide to (motion design) freelancing

I’ve been a freelance designer in San Francisco for five and a half years. That’s meant a lot of things – I’ve gotten to work on great UI and UX projects, have edited hours and hours of video, screamed at render farms, wrote a book and taught classes on 3D animation. I’m far from the foremost expert on anything in my field, but I’ve been doing it for awhile and know the industry in a really strange way that people in stable, salaried jobs might not.

The most frequent question I get from friends and current or former colleagues is “So I just picked up a freelance gig – any advice?” After years of receiving that nearly identical email, it seems like as good of a time as any to assemble everything I know about freelancing in one place.

A couple of quick caveats: I’m a motion design freelancer, which specifically means that most of the people who will hire me are looking for someone who knows After Effects and Cinema 4D, as well as Illustrator, Photoshop, and a working knowledge of a handful of other pieces of software that help me do my job. Save for a couple of months, most of my experience has been in San Francisco, which is a different world from LA, New York, Chicago, or anywhere else. I think there are things about my experience that apply no matter your area of the country or your area of expertise, which is why I’ve put motion design in parentheses in the header. 

Oh, and I want to make it clear, too: I’m a designer, not an accountant, lawyer, or agent of the IRS. I hope this gets you started and gives you things to think about, but this is just advice based on my experience.

What does “freelance” mean?

When someone tells you they’re a freelancer, it probably means that they don’t have one single, steady job. Freelancers rarely have one single desk that they report to at one single company every morning. “Contractor” often means something similar, but usually implies that they’re working steadily at one company for some duration of time. But people with regular, salaried jobs are also capable of picking up freelance work on the side. For some of us, it’s all we do. This is all to say that the term means nothing.

You can call yourself whatever you want when someone asks you about your job at happy hour, but when it comes to taxes, those words become a little more important. We’ll get to that soon. For now, keep in mind that “freelancing” likely means one of a couple of things:

  • You work for a company, on-site, on their equipment (or in some cases on your own laptop), as a temporary employee, meaning you do everything you’d do if you had a full-time salaried job at the company
  • You work with a company, off-site, on your equipment, which likely means the company took on more work than they could handle with their staff and decided to sub-contract a job out to you
  • You work with your own clients, one-on-one, on your equipment, with no agency standing between you and the end client.

Sometimes the line is a little blurred between all of those categories, and some people feel very strongly about their roles in all of those different types of relationships. Freelancing isn’t so different from any “real” job – it’s important to know your role in the pipeline to prevent issues down the line. Are you going to be in direct communication with the client, or taking direction from someone at the company? What’s that person’s role? You might not want to think of your superior at the company that’s subcontracting to you as your “boss”, and they might not be, but understanding the hierarchy of how you fit in to a project is important no matter how you get hired or paid.

How do you find gigs?

Patience. Or, these things, listed in somewhat ascending order of preference:

Craigslist – There are a lot of problems with Craigslist. For motion designers like myself, there’s a chance that appropriate gigs will be listed in art/media/design jobs (most likely), tv/film/video/radio jobs (though be warned that’s also where casting calls and whatnot end up), web/html/info design (because in San Francisco there are lots of interactive firms that occasionally need motion designers and posts can end up here) or creative gigs (which is a catch-all section that will include “I need my hair done” as well as “I need a video editor for three weeks”).

The reason I don’t recommend Craigslist, particularly the gigs section, is that my experience has been that posters will highly undervalue your work. This is the worst offender of people suggesting that you should give them thousands of dollars worth of your time for free because it’ll look good in your portfolio. Most recruiters I know use Craigslist as an absolute last-ditch effort, because they know they’re going to get inundated with replies from people lacking the necessary skillset or experience. It’s kind of a crapshoot. But, frankly, gigs are gigs, and you never know where you might find something.

Consider setting up an RSS feed that’s tailored to you – returning anything in art/media/design that mentions your skill or software of choice, for example. And with any of these suggestions, keep in mind that the people who might hire you could be creative directors, fellow motion designers needing help on a project, recruiters or HR folks who don’t have your specific skillset and might use slightly different terms than you do.

Third party recruiters – I could write a completely separate overly-wordy post about the experiences I’ve had working with third party recruiters, but they deserve a mention here, because you will definitely end up interacting with some. There are a number of these companies in San Francisco, and the second you change that LinkedIn headline to mention that you’re looking for work, recruiters will find you and will invite you in to sign up with their agency.

The way it works is that you now have a recruiter on your side, so when a company contacts them and says they need a motion designer, they’ll go to their roster and look for an appropriate candidate to recommend for the job. It’s really appealing for companies to use these sorts of firms when they need a freelancer, because recruiting is hard work and it’s not always cost-effective to keep a recruiter in-house or to have other employees take time away from their primary job to find candidates to come on board for a few weeks. Some companies only use third-party recruiters to find candidates. Most of these firms work with companies looking for contract, contract-to-hire (you’ll work with them for a few months, and if it’s a good fit they may extend a salaried offer to you), or salaried positions, so know which one you’re ultimately seeking when you speak to someone.

If a staffing agency finds you a gig, you’ll technically be their employee, which can be great. You’ll likely be W-2 instead of 1099 (we’ll discuss the two later), and you’ll likely be paid weekly and immediately. The work you do Tuesday of this week will be submitted in a timesheet this Friday, and you’ll receive a paycheck next Friday. You get to skip all the potential frustration of invoicing and following up and being NET30 or waiting for their client to pay them before they can pay you – a shiny direct deposit a week after you do the work is pretty great. They’ll contact you when they have a gig that they’d like to submit you to, and while it’s different from company to company, most will have some sort of mailing list or website where you can see additional jobs they have open that might be suitable for you.

The way these companies make their money is by taking it out of the hourly rate for the job. So, for example, a company can afford to spend $90 per hour total, and the agency decides that means they can pay you $50 and keep the remaining $40 for their internal overhead. (Those numbers are completely made up and just for an example; I have very little insight into the algorithm that decides what percentage companies usually take.) Ultimately it’s up to the recruiting agency, not the client, to decide how that shakes out. I’ve had recruiters come to me with jobs that’d be great for me but the hourly rate is too low, and they make the decision to bump my pay up just a little bit because it’s still a good thing overall for their company if they can get me to take the job.

I’m not here to speak ill of recruiters, and I know some third-party recruiters who are very lovely people, but I will caution you to be careful. Especially when you’re first starting out, it’s really compelling to meet with everyone you can and get excited when they tell you that they’ve got all sorts of gigs that you’re great for and that they’ll keep you employed. I’ve had recruiters push the idea that they’re saving me money since I don’t have to take the time to look for gigs myself, which should totally justify making less than half my hourly rate that I make when I take jobs on my own. Their job is a balancing act – they’re working as your agent, but they’re also working as the client’s agent. Don’t be afraid to stand up for the hourly rate you know you need for your financial situation.

Industry-specific job boards – Often connected to popular websites for a specific industry, job boards can be great. Much more tailored and exclusive than Craigslist, and the mere fact that a gig is posted there proves that the company is up on what’s standard in the industry. Everyone’s got their favorites. I like Motionographer and Coroflot; there are many, many more. I keep a couple of alerts set up with Indeed, even though isn’t industry-specific, and have a filter setup in Gmail to redirect them to a folder I can check if I’m ever looking for work. (Incidentally, I also have all of the mailing lists from my various recruiters set up to go to the same folder.)

Word of mouth – This sounds a lot like cheating. I list it here not to say that my actual advice is “Oh, man, just wait for someone to think about you and you’ll totally get hired!”, but to say “keep in touch with people”. The industry isn’t as big as you think it is and there’s always work out there. Show up, be friendly, do good work, and people will remember you. I get emails all the time about gigs that aren’t quite right for me, and I’m always happy to recommend folks I’ve worked with in the past. We’re a chatty bunch, and we’re all better off if we can keep everyone working.

A note on “networking events” – I hate networking events. I’m no good at walking up to strangers and introducing myself and they just make me uncomfortable. I know that when I feel ridiculously uncomfortable, it’s probably evident when I’m talking to people, and that’s just never seemed like the best professional version of myself. My version of networking involves staying in touch with people I’ve worked with in the past, accepting happy hour invitations, and doing my best to always quickly respond to emails. It’s worked for me.

How do I get paid? What’s the difference between 1099 and W-2?

If you’re working with a company that routinely hires freelancers, chances are they have a system in place. Chances are that you’ll be hired as a 1099 contractor, but companies who routinely take freelancers for long-term contracts may want to hire you on a W-2 basis. There are legal reasons for each, and I’m going to wimp out here and point you straight to the IRS website if you want to further research the differences.

Something to be aware of with 1099 contracting versus W-2 is your liability for self-employment tax. Regardless of your filing status, your income is subject to a 15.3% payroll tax, split between social security and medicare. (12.4% and 2.9%, respectively.) Folks who are employed at a company where their taxes are reported W-2 split that 15.3% with their employer – you’re liable for 7.65% and they’re liable for 7.65%. When your income is reported via 1099, the company you’re working with isn’t liable for payroll tax, which puts the additional financial burden on you, referred to as self-employment tax. So you’ll ultimately make more money if you report W-2 (and most people find it easier to pay a little along the way as opposed to a huge sum at the end), but there are also benefits for reporting 1099.

I always advise people to try and get a little bit of both 1099 and W-2 work. Being a 1099 contractor allows you to expense things, which you will greatly appreciate the first time you drop thousands of dollars on a new computer. There’s no reason for you to pay taxes on the $3000 of your “income” you spent for the machine you work on every day. If you’ve got a dedicated room in your home that you intend to use as an office, you can expense part of your rent or mortgage. You can expense internet and phone bills. Taxes for freelancers are painful, so the more you’re capable of writing off, the better. And whatever you do, force yourself to save money along the way. Your first tax bill isn’t going to be pretty.

If you’re 1099, you’ll likely submit an invoice. Ask upfront what their payment terms are – NET30, while frustrating (because it means you’re waiting until 30 days after the job is completed to receive payment), is pretty standard. If you’re working on a longer gig, it’s not out of the question for you to invoice weekly or bi-weekly. Otherwise, imagine a six week gig – the work you do on the first week of January is invoiced mid-February, and you won’t receive payment until mid-March. For most freelancers, that’s a long time to go without getting paid. If you’re W-2, you’ll likely report through whatever their internal payroll system is, often what all the full-time employees at the company use.

How much should I charge?

That’s a personal question, and one that only you can answer. I’d love to give a range of hourly rates here, but the truth of the matter is that I have no idea what everyone in our industry charges. I don’t know what designers at any level actually make on average. I know what I make, and that’s about it. That’s terrible advice, right?

My hourly rate is personal to my expenses and lifestyle, and I have to assume it’s within the standard range for my experience level because I don’t get a lot of pushback about it. There are lots of salary guides out there if you worry too much about the number you come up with. For me, personally, I’ve got rent, internet, phone, utilities, and student loans. I don’t own a home, I don’t have children, I don’t have a credit card. The amount of money you need to stay afloat is probably wildly different from mine.

In addition to your expenses, consider your financial goals. Consider that you’ll want to set aside a liberal percentage of your income in preparation for your taxes. (I try to save 40% because I’m a paranoid monster and do a considerable amount of 1099 work; I’d rather be surprised that I had money leftover than freak out and find that I didn’t save enough. 30% is likely sufficient.) Don’t overlook your business expenses. You need computers and software licenses to do your job. Set a budget and then try to build in a cushion. No one is ever going to hear your hourly rate and tell you it’s too low – be prepared for the idea that people might try to talk you down, and consider what your lowest threshold could be.

Also, consider that you’re probably not going to be working full-time. In my entire career, I have never once had an entire year where I worked 40 hours a week. It’s difficult, as a freelancer, to always have your calendar full. This project or that will get extended, pushed back, cancelled. Booking one project that ends Friday and another that starts Monday is a guarantee that you’re going to run into problems with one of the two of them. You’ll figure out your own schedule and client management over time, but do yourself a favor and don’t base your hourly rate on a 40 hour work week.

I’ve only spoken about hourly rates up to this point, but let’s not neglect day rates. I’ve never once had a design firm ask me for a day rate – they’re much more common in video production houses. It’s a great way to estimate how much you’re going to make off of a job, and it’s easier for the company to estimate their overall costs. It’s also a really easy way to not pay people overtime – and I don’t mean to make that sound sinister, because I’ve been lucky enough to rarely have that become a problem. Most of the designers and editors I know that work on day rates base theirs on a ten hour day, because that will likely balance out over time. You might run into a few fourteen hour days and feel frustrated that you don’t make overtime, but it balances out after a few shorter days. If you get the sense that the job is going to be weeks worth of sixteen hour days and are worried about being adequately compensated, bump your rate up. You’re a freelancer; it’s your right to charge what you feel is appropriate on a project-by-project basis.

What about flat-rate projects?

Estimate high, or write a really, really explicit contract and be explicit about the scope of the project and what will happen if the client exceeds that scope. (Preferably both.) It’s so much more difficult to negotiate terms in the middle of a project; get all of that out of the way as early as possible.

My strategy has always been honesty and transparency, and I’m always happier with how projects work out if I’ve been upfront from moment one. When I’m asked to bid a flat-rate project, I always return a number with a detailed explanation of how I came to that number based off of my day rate and the number of days I think it’ll take to complete a project. For example, if I’m creating a motion graphics piece for a client who already has a script and a general idea of the desired look and feel, I might suggest 2-3 days for style board development, 3-5 days for storyboards, 10 days for animation and a few more days for anticipated revisions. That means we’re looking at around 18 days from start to finish, multiplied by my day rate to give a number that I’m comfortable with.

Giving all of that information does two things: One, it gives a clear overview of the project timeline, which is helpful for the client to understand the process and what they should expect. If you run into problems down the line, you’ll always have that timeline (and later, a contract) to point to. Two, it gives you a starting point for discussion if that budget isn’t in line with what they were thinking. If someone replies to your email proposing a budget that’s 10% of the figure you quoted, you’ve already laid the groundwork to politely decline the project.

That’s not to say that you should necessarily set a hard line when you propose a dollar amount and be unwilling to budge. I like to provide a range when I can, and if someone needs me to lower the bid, I reply by letting them know exactly where we’re going to shave those days. I can turn a project around for less money, but it’s going to be less animation, less time for storyboarding, etc. The creative process is a tricky one to understand sometimes, and I’ve always found that additional communication makes everyone feel more comfortable and makes for an easier client relationship.

But you don’t have to report all your income, right?

Don’t get paid under the table. Just don’t. I mean, if your cousin needs a logo design and you really like her and she gives you a six-pack because she’s broke but really grateful, okay. (Don’t tell the IRS I said that was okay. Re-read that part above about how I’m not a lawyer.) I’m not saying that your mother should fill out a 1099 when you design the family holiday newsletter. I am saying that if you quote a client a $2000 job and they offer you $1500 in cash instead, maybe don’t do that. I haven’t been audited and I have no plans to, but I assume it’s not fun. If you want to be serious about freelancing, just get used to the paperwork, and it’ll get a little easier every time. Insist on accountability.

What else?

Find an accountant. Someone with experience with freelancers, who doesn’t mind answering your panicky questions, who can handle your taxes and make sure everything’s okay. I have an accountant that I pay a few hundred dollars every April who answers my emails within the hour and has been absolutely integral to my career. I’m convinced that his knowledge of deductions and what I can and can’t claim has saved me money over the years. Just find an accountant and let yourself outsource something.

Lots of freelancers choose to file an LLC. I haven’t discussed it here because most of what I’ve focused on is working with companies, not taking on individual clients. If you’re always finding yourself working for others, you may not find it to be all that advantageous.  If you’ve got assets to protect and are taking on clients of your own (rather than working through an agency), or routinely hiring other designers, it’s likely a good idea.

Some people have a huge preference for on- or off-site work. I like both. There’s something to be said for working cross-legged without real pants, but there’s also beauty in setting an alarm and leaving the house in the morning. Figure out a system that works for you. If you’re working off-site, realize it’s okay to walk away from the computer for an hour and get yourself a real meal and see the outside world. Email will wait.

Cut a demo reel you care about. Don’t make it too long. Create a portfolio that’s easy to update. There is no excuse in 2014 to have an unattractive portfolio. If you’re not a strong coder or web designer, use a service like Squarespace or Cargo. Keep your projects on Vimeo, too. You don’t have to spam every social media channel, but there’s no harm in letting folks know you’ve finished a new project.

And finally: I know I mentioned it before, but keep in touch with people. I sat in an office a few months ago with people I hadn’t worked with before, at a company that needed to hire a video editor for a project on a quick turnaround. Their regular go-to freelancers were all booked, so we started rattling off names of good editors we had worked with in the past. We were all surprised at both how many colleagues we had in common as well as how many names we didn’t recognize.

The way you can be that person someone else thinks of when they need an extra set of hands is to show up and do good work. Have just enough of an ego to know how to defend your work and not much more. Fight the battles that matter and let yourself compromise on the battles that matter less. Call colleagues you haven’t seen in a few months and ask them where they’re working and see if you can take them out for a drink after work. If you finish a job and someone asks you to keep in touch with them about your availability, they probably mean that and you should do it. If a gig comes up that isn’t for you, think of who you know that might be a good fit and recommend them. Be awesome and people will remember it.

Side note: Fellow freelancers, I would love to hear your stories and input on any of the above. One person’s experience is far from gospel. Agree, disagree? Let me know in the comments, shoot me an email (rizzo . jen @gmail.com), or give me a shout on Twitter @jrizzo

On women in tech, and why this all matters.

I was a theatre geek in high school. I was a musician first, which transitioned nicely into musical theatre, and then I settled down with a local theatre company that gave me opportunities for straight dramatic roles. I have never been satisfied with only knowing one side of the process, so I spent a few years working in technical theatre as well. I’ve never had an ear for sound, but lighting appealed to me immensely. Being a good lighting designer requires an artistic vision, an understanding of space and the people who will fill it, but executing that vision requires a strong technical knowledge base as well. I moved on from theatre over a decade ago, but I still regularly pull out things I learned then to apply to the motion design work I do now.

My usual partner in crime – who wore the hat of producer, director, technical producer, and lighting director over the course of our time together – was a year older than myself, considerably taller, bigger and stronger. He and I raced all over town for years, carefully constructing a deathtrap Jenga game of light fixtures filling every square inch of my 1990 Mercury Sable. We’d walk into dark spaces we had memorized from previous collisions with knees and elbows, taking longer than you’d imagine to realize we hadn’t actually turned on a light yet. We moved heavy things from place to place, always inevitably choosing the wrong one first and having to do it all over again. I was small, but I was fast, and I didn’t mind sweating a lot.

Our usual work day involved me hanging heavy pieces of equipment above my head while he shouted orders from the lighting booth. We were both happiest this way – he had about 50 pounds on me at the time, a number that becomes extremely important when you’re teetering atop a 1970s cherry picker two stories above a stage. (My mother once walked in to bring us lunch, saw that I had tangled my legs up in the bars of the cherry picker so that I could make myself an inch or two taller, and promptly walked back out. She called ahead of time from there on out whenever she knew I was having a lighting day.)

Our roles were unspoken, him and I. I was smaller and loved heights; he had the vision and needed to watch what was happening from afar and wanted as little to do with being 30 feet above a stage as possible. I ended up with most of the bruises and there’s a particularly great story about slicing my entire right hand open when I was unscrewing a fixture in the dark and didn’t realize I was running my fingers over a piece of jagged metal over and over and over. But it only made sense for us to do things that way. And after all of that respect for my strength and ability, at least once per production, I’d be asked by someone I barely knew if I needed a big, strong man to come do the real lifting for me.

 

My first college internship interview was a disaster. I was 19 years old, only a few short quarters into my design education. I was too young to afford real business attire, so I hustled together my most professional ensemble, prepared my portfolio, and went to downtown Cincinnati to meet with an agency that appeared to do great work. After making me wait 25 minutes past the scheduled time, I was pulled into a room with a creative director whose first question to me was “So, what is digital design, anyway?” The question struck me off guard, since this company had approached my digital design internship head and asked for qualified candidates.

He asked me two more questions after that and didn’t bother looking at my portfolio. He took me around the office so I could see the space and meet all of his colleagues, confirming that the only woman employed there was the one sitting at the reception desk. I got in my car, called my internship advisor, told her that I just had the worst interview of my life, and went home. A female classmate of mine shared the same experience with me the next morning in line for coffee. I wasn’t angry until I spoke to one of my male classmates the next day who had an hour-long interview where they joked around the whole time and gave constructive criticism on his portfolio. He got the job the next day.

 

When I was 21 years old, a few short weeks away from getting married, my digital design class required me to work on an animatic telling a personal story. I chose to focus on the stress of the wedding process, for a couple of reasons. One, it was a story with which I was intimately familiar by that point. Two, my entire home was covered in wedding bullshit, which meant I had infinite props for 4 a.m. “it’d be great if I had just one more shot” photo shoots.

If I hadn’t been so young and so stressed, maybe I would have seen the inherent problem there – I was already pushed to my brink, and I was choosing to submit my personal story for critique to a room of seventeen men, one female classmate (one of my bridesmaids, incidentally), and a female professor known for ripping ideas to shreds. My then-fiance and I had a particularly impressive fight one night, stress-fueled and loud and dishonest, and there was nothing I wanted less than to finish the rough draft of that animation. Grades are grades, and I was paying about $7000 per ten-week quarter as an out-of-state student, so I did it anyway. It was hastily completed, largely unsuccessful, but I had trapped myself into a corner.

My professor tore it apart, and she was probably right to do so. It was when she got repetitive and continued to make me feel like the worst third-year designer alive that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I tried repeatedly to get myself out of that conversation, because there was nothing more to get out of that feedback loop. The way it all happened is lost to time, but I realized I was going to break, and I was choking back tears. Her barrage of criticism continued even though everyone in the room realized that it had gone too far, and I walked out of the class. Seventeen men, my colleagues and my competition for limited internships, watched a woman twenty years my senior call “There’s no crying in design” after me, as if I didn’t know that already. (Verbatim. Real story.)

 

The above stories are just a small snippet of the ridiculous things people have said to me throughout my lifetime about my gender and my ability to perform in my field as a result of it. Overall, I am privileged to have led a life filled with emotional support. I don’t come from a particularly well-off family, and we struggled my entire life. I took on my own student loans, and aside from a couple hundred dollars here and there from my parents when they could afford it, have supported myself since the day I turned 18. My parents and grandparents recognized my independence and headstrong nature at a young age and would never have dreamed of telling me that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. They did not blink when I moved across the country to pursue whatever it was I wanted at the time, nor when I did it again, nor when I did it a couple more times after that. The suggestion that I cannot do something because I am a woman is not one that I’ve heard out of the mouths of anyone who professes to care about me, and I am grateful for that.

My mother lives with a woman and her soon-to-be fifteen year old daughter. She’s a talented violinist and loves to draw; the fact that she still runs to her room whenever I’m in town to show me her latest creation is one of the greatest joys in my life. She is smart and thoughtful and kind and I have an awful lot of faith in the person she’s going to grow up to be. I’ve known her for over seven years now and she’s changed her life plans as many times as you’d imagine. I’m not sure what she wants to be these days, but (despite having a mother who went back to school to begin a career in IT later in life) I imagine she won’t end up taking a career in tech.

If she did, on paper I’d be a pretty good advisor for her. I’m fourteen years her senior. I live in San Francisco and work in tech. I’ve been my own boss for five and a half years. There have been ups and downs, but overall my career has been wildly successful. By the age of 28 I’ve worked hard and have enough to be proud of, even though I’m not the CEO of my own startup. I like creating things much more than I like having meetings, and I’ve chosen to make my career move a little slower so I could develop the skills I was never all that good at.

The real problem is that I don’t have the faintest idea what I’d tell a young girl who wants to get into tech today. I genuinely believe that if you want something and you work hard, you can have it. As a person with six figures worth of student debt to get this career, I know it’s not easy. It’s hard to understand the world when you’re 18 years old and it’s even harder, at 18 years old, to know that.

I have worked with two female creative directors over the course of my career. Two. Total. (And they were spectacular.) I have worked with thousands of people in my lifetime with hundreds of clients and companies, and I have worked with two women in high-level positions of power in my industry. I have never been in a meeting with a female developer. I’m not the only female designer I know, thankfully, which occasionally gives me hope that the industry is changing and balancing a little. If the female designers I know that are at my level stay in the industry, in theory I’ll be seeing quite a few female directors ten years from now. I hope that theory is right.

I have worked with brilliant, thoughtful male creative directors. Men who understand people, who listen patiently and think for a second before they respond, who are empathic and produce beautiful work and care about the people who produce it with them. I have seen many successful projects completed by teams that did not have women on them whatsoever. So why is it important?

Perspective is everything, and some things can only be understood as we live them. I can’t tell you why there should be more women in “tech”, as a whole, because there are too many branches of tech that my life hasn’t crossed. For me to pretend like I understand everything about tech circles I don’t participate in would be exactly as harmful as men pretending they know everything about a female audience. I don’t believe that gender balance on a team is more important than (or cancels out) the need for any other sort of diversity. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Why do we need that sort of diversity? Because two dudes stood up at TechCrunch to give a presentation on their new app Titstare. Because a highly-compensated CTO’s poor finger got tired blocking everyone who had the nerve to mention that maybe women are underrepresented in this industry. Because the Texas legislature decided it was okay to confiscate tampons, and the NFL wants to make sure you display them as you wind through a male-dominated crowd at a game. Because smart young women are being turned away from tech because of asshole 16-year-old kids in their programming classes, and male teachers sit there doing nothing to stop it. By letting the industry be bad and unappealing now, we are not laying groundwork for the industry to get better. Why would a young woman want to get into this industry? The only advice I can give a young woman right now is that you have to want it and you have to fight, and I know in my heart that isn’t the same advice I’d give a young man.

The reason we need diversity in this industry is that we are making things for a variety of people. Women are buying your products, subscribing to your services. You can hire a market research firm to tell you what women want, or you can save yourself a few bucks over time and hire a couple of ’em yourself to see how your organization changes. If there’s another reason for all-male teams than “because it’s way more convenient to tell dick jokes when everyone in the room has one”, I would love to hear it.

And if your reason is “because there are no qualified women out there”, hell, you might be right. The talent pool is smaller. I would have a very hard time not hiring a highly qualified man because I was waiting for a highly qualified woman to come along. I bristled on a kickoff call a few months ago when a female account director confided in me how happy she was to find a woman to work with because things just go so much easier when it’s all women, you know? The problem exists on both sides. If you genuinely feel that way – that you’d hire a woman if there were any out there worth hiring – just try to be conscious of why you can’t find any. If you can’t find qualified female employees and you know a woman who might be interested in tech, maybe take five minutes and have a chat with her about why our industry is so great. That we create things, that we can help people, that we’re all working hard to make each other better. (And if you say all that, I’d really appreciate it if you meant it.) That is the advice I want to give to young women.

If all goes to plan, I’ve likely got about forty more years in this industry. I have reason to doubt that we’ll ever see a 50-50 gender split. But I’m holding out hope that we’ll get a little closer.

Google Maps Preview

Google recently announced that they were getting ready to roll out a new version of Maps, a product I use pretty heavily. Living in a city like San Francisco that doesn’t heavily depend on a grid system and being a person who gets around via bicycle or public transportation means I rarely have any idea how to get where I’m going, but access to searchable, customizable web-based mapping software means I at least look like I know what I’m doing. (Most of the time.)

I signed up to be an early tester and recently gained access to the new system. I haven’t spent hours with it, but so far I’m pretty impressed. Their team has addressed a number of problems that I’ve had with Maps in the past. Visually, I find it generally more appealing than previous iterations, but I question a couple of their UX decisions.

Note: I’m browsing in Lite Mode, because the non-Lite mode apparently requires OS 10.8. None of my computers use it, so I’m sure there are things I’m missing out on. I hope that when the new Maps actually rolls out, it’s more accessible.

Driving

Driving DirectionsWelcome to the new Google Maps. Let’s start with driving directions.

The usual players are here: turn by turn directions, point A to point B. I got Beer Revolution’s address by searching for it in my directions bar, an experience that has wildly improved. It’s hard to quantify why, but something about the searching I’ve done so far has felt faster, smoother, and more accurate at predicting what business I’m actually looking for.

Current Google Maps users will notice that we’ve got much more screen real estate than we used to, all dedicated to the map. I like this a lot. The overview is great and the map is generally what I’m most interested in, so removing the sidebar (used in previous versions for photos from surrounding locations, links to business reviews and other content) is a welcome change. More map is a great thing.

driving02_traffic

One great thing about the Google Maps app is its access to traffic information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been a passenger in a car coming home over the Golden Gate Bridge, only to hit a wall of traffic somewhere in Marin County. I’ll immediately reach for my phone to pull up Google Maps and get an update on how long we’ll be sitting here and where the major snags are. (Like it matters; we’re stuck there anyway. Still, knowledge is power.) The timing is often scary-accurate.

The problem with how traffic is interpreted in the desktop version of Maps is that aside from one “Currently…” message in the top bar, it’s difficult to really understand what’s going on. There are a lot of conflicting line weights here, and the label for the route still claims it’ll take 24 minutes (despite the “Currently 51 minutes” message a few pixels to the right).

Turn-by-turn driving directionsOpening the step-by-step panel creates an additional issue, but let’s tackle the traffic problem first. Despite sticking with the traffic overlay (as it should), there is now no indicator whatsoever that you’re going to be in traffic for 27 minutes longer than anticipated. This is a trip that will take twice as long as it would if it wasn’t 3:45 in the afternoon. That’s a really necessary piece of information that’s getting lost in the shuffle. Worse, it’s not even getting lost – the largest type at the top of the directions list is just blatantly wrong.

When I clicked the step-by-step link, I assumed the natural behavior would be to expand the panel shown in the previous image. Instead, we’re taken to a brand new view. It’s not unattractive – quite the opposite – but it is completely inconsistent with the previous experience. It doesn’t appear to me that there’s a good justification for that decision. If that panel was expanded, it’d still be larger than the previous iterations of Maps, allowing for greater type legibility and the same visually clean approach we see here. The two layouts feel startlingly disconnected.

Bicycling

Bicycling

It was a really great day for me when Maps came out with bicycling directions. San Francisco is a hilly place, but there’s usually a smarter route you can take within a few blocks that will be a much more pleasant experience. Dedicated bike lanes and wide, sharrow-painted streets abound if you know where to look. The Bay Area is also a particularly pleasant place to ride your bike great distances, like the one shown above.

Previous versions of Maps would show you every single nearby bike route with a green overlay when you looked for cycling directions, which is fun to explore but not always necessary when you’re just trying to get from one point to the next. I like that they’ve simplified the layout here, making it more consistent with other modes of transportation. (Though I haven’t found overlay options, which makes me wonder if that’s a Lite view issue. If you have access to non-Lite and yours looks completely different, please let me know and I’ll update accordingly.)

I’m given two basic bicycle routes, both of which I’ve ridden and are good routes to take. I love the hidden card visual choice here – it’s reminiscent of Google Now, which I’ve raved about in the past and continue to love. I like the gray vs. blue approach to differentiate the paths and I’m particularly pleased with how the times and distances are labeled.

Bicycling step-by-step

The same issues apply on step-by-step directions here that we saw in driving directions. Also frustrating is that the option to see my alternate route has been removed. I appreciate the decision to simplify (there might not actually be a reason for you to compare the two routes in a turn-by-turn list format), but deciding between two routes is now a feature exclusively limited to the visual overview. Jumping in and out of step-by-step mode to explore options feels unnecessary.

Walking

WalkingWalking directions are great, represented with a blue dotted line instead of the solid line used for faster modes of transportation. (I’ll skip getting catty over neighborhood names, but I’d just like to point out that no one has ever asked me to meet them in Dolores Heights in my entire life.) The alternate route representation that I like in bicycling directions finds a home here as well, but the same issue of hiding alternate routes in step-by-step vs. full map view still applies.

It’s a nice touch to have a simplified version of nearby rail options represented on the walking map. San Francisco has two major transit agencies within the city: BART, a rapid transit option that runs underground through downtown and into the Mission District, and Muni, which operates both buses and rail. Including bus stops might be beneficial for more rural areas, but if you were to do that on the map above you’d have literally hundreds of dots at nearly every intersection. By streamlining to just nearby rail stops, you remind walkers that there’s a shortcut if they’re interested, without beating them over the head with options they never asked for. 

Transit

TransitTransit directions are where Maps has always really shined, and the new version of Maps has made some great improvements. In dense urban areas, there are often many different transit lines you can take, depending on how much you’re willing to walk. From my corner of the city, you could feasibly take BART, the 12, the 14, the 27, and five or six other options if you’re willing to hoof it half a mile or so. There’s a lot of overlap between some of those routes – if you’re going from, say, 26th and Mission to 16th and Mission and want to rest your feet, the 14 and the 49 are identical choices.

There’s a lot of information represented on the map above. You can take either the Pittsburgh/Bay Point or the Richmond BART line to 12th street, and then you can take one of six buses down Broadway. (Or, as shown in the second option, you can walk a few blocks down Broadway and actually shave a minute off your travel time.) Google Maps used to represent all of these permutations as completely different routes, which, for the purposes of this specific destination, they aren’t. You can get on either of those BART lines and any of those buses and get where you’re going. It’s a very thoughtful way to represent all of those options.

transit02The step-by-step directions are similar to what we’ve seen before, and I know I’ve criticized how visually different the two layouts are, but I do want to commend the Maps team for their work on the timeline at the top. It’s not unusual for transit users to look up their options well before leaving the house – sometimes transit times can surprise you. I love the timeline view. The minute-by-minute view makes it so easy to see how long you’ll be walking, how long you’ll be sitting on a train, and makes it pretty easy to tell if you should walk or take a bus for a couple of stops. The second line suggesting that you could walk a few blocks or take the 72 for a really short period of time goes a long way to convince someone that they should just walk it instead, a thing that’s harder to understand on a map view.

There was a BART delay yesterday, and you can see that represented on the step-by-step instructions. I really wish that was represented on the map view, and it makes little sense that it wasn’t. It was a system-wide issue, reported on BART’s official website. Transit delays are notoriously difficult to predict, so I don’t mind the time not being updated, but a heads-up before you view the full route breakdown would have helped. I use these lines regularly, and if it wouldn’t have been for wanting to get a screenshot for this post I wouldn’t have gone to the step-by-step page at all. I suspect I’m not alone on that.

So the new Google Maps is rad.

I’m really looking forward to watching Google roll out Maps across devices. I don’t know if a mobile version is in the works, but I’d be surprised if it was terribly far behind. Their preview page declares “the more you use the new Google Maps, the more helpful it becomes”, which sounds promising. There’s a lot of intuition here that I recognize from Google Now, and I think that’s great. I’ve had previous issues with Maps’ intuitive features – recognizing “home”, for example, has always been inconsistent for me – but the newest version made searching and getting where I wanted to go a breeze. A little more attention could be paid to visual consistency, but this is still a huge step up from where Maps has been for years.

A couple edits:

A few friends who are also in preview mode have noticed a couple of issues that I didn’t cover here. Hopefully they’ll be fixed in the final launch, because they’re pretty big ones. I assume Maps is rolling out in preview in a limited capacity, but a couple things you may notice as you’re moving around:

@jrizzo I really hope they integrate and expand the “My Maps” functionality. Right not it reverts to old maps when clicked.

— Brian Stechschulte (@AllOverBeer) June 5, 2013

@jrizzo New google maps. Route point a to b. now try C. D. E. They killed multi-route directions. I switched back in ten seconds.

— Dan Fisher (@dbfish) June 5, 2013

UX Motion Design, Part 2: Anticipation

Welcome! This is part two in an ongoing series about how to integrate motion design into the user experience. The introduction is located here, and part one is located here.

Today, let’s talk about one of the most important design principles: Anticipation.

Anticipation has always been a key ingredient for animators. Imagine you’re going to jump, straight up. In order to propel your body up into the air, you’ll likely need to bend your knees a little bit. In the case of my boyfriend who has studied gymnastics, he prepares himself by rising up on his toes a little bit first. If your ankles are strong enough, you might be able to get away without bending your knees. But try to simply propel yourself upward with both feet firmly on the floor to start, and you’ll find that it simply doesn’t work. Your body has to do a little something. Objects are motivated to start in one way or another, and that starting point does a lot in helping us perceive them as “real”.

When it comes to motion design for interfaces and other user experiences, it’s easy to overlook anticipation. After all, a button isn’t “real”, and unless you’re going for a skeuomorphic experience, there aren’t many existing models for how your content should move. So, how can we best harness the power of anticipation in motion design?

Video games have long integrated anticipation as a tool to keep the user grounded in a confusing, ever-changing environment. Tetris lets you know what the next brick will be so you can plan where to drop your current brick appropriately. (The Tetris model is interesting because it shows the upcoming brick in a separate area from the main screen focus. If a 2013, HTML5/CSS3/responsive version was made, I expect we’d want a ghosted image of the brick to appear at the top of the screen. I also expect that Tetris purists would hate me for that suggestion, but take comfort in knowing that I’m not very good at Tetris.) First-person shooters often have an indicator on the screen showing if you’ve been shot from the front, back, left or right to tell you in which direction your next victim might lurk. In the Flash/iPhone/Android game Jetpack Joyride, an indicator appears on the right side of the screen to let you know a missile is incoming.

Jetpack Joyride - Incoming Missiles

Jetpack Joyride – Incoming Missiles

Infographics have been on the rise for the last few years, and for good reason: lots of information on a single topic contained in beautiful, fun-to-look-at images. With the rise of dynamic content over the last few years, it was a logical progression for designers to start bringing those infographics to life. Google’s new How Search Works is one of the newest and most widespread examples, but Designed to Move and Dangers of Fracking are also beautifully-designed examples. The Milwaukee Police Department famously created a parallax-heavy page for their 2012 crime stats that proved single-page scrolling websites aren’t just for design firms. They’re all beautiful and engaging, but each one suffers from a degree of difficulty with anticipation.

My household recently had a large debate over websites like this, and it turned out we ultimately shared the same issue: legibility. Websites like this exist for a very good reason, which is to create an educational experience by masking it in a dynamic, fun one. I live in San Francisco and have little reason to read Milwaukee crime statistics. In fact, the chances of me stumbling across that content on my own are slim to none. But they created a visually engaging experience that was striking enough to be spread across the web, and it stuck with me so much that when I asked my boyfriend if he remembered what the URL was, he immediately knew what I was talking about. (He couldn’t remember the URL, either, but “one page police website” got us there, which is telling in its own way.) You likely wouldn’t want a law textbook laid out like this, and I’m not 100% sure I’d be comfortable with my heart surgeon learning how to crack my chest this way, but as an experience with the side benefit of educating people you might not otherwise have the opportunity to educate, it’s a great tool.

All the examples listed above are generally done really, really well. They take new technology and create valuable experiences with it. I spent more time on them than I would have in just about any other form. The issue, however, is that they’re all using motion design in a way that decreases their legibility and makes for a less linear progression than I imagine the web designers intended. Let’s start with Dangers of Fracking. It’s beautifully illustrated, and its scrolling, “animated” approach to giving you breaks between information is great for pacing users in a situation where users are ultimately pacing their own journeys based on how quickly they choose to move.

The one thing they got wrong is anticipation. As you scroll, text is introduced in boxes. In some cases, as you scroll further, that box expands with additional information – it’s a way of pacing you out and giving things to you one step at a time instead of throwing all of the type at you at once. An effective idea to be sure, but done too late. In each instance, it’s all too compelling to read the information in the box and then start scrolling, only to see once you’ve scrolled past it that it turns out that box will be expanding.

fracking

Sometimes boxes expand, sometimes they don’t. In the case above, the box doesn’t expand until it’s 32.6% from the top of the page. Why not begin to fade in the content when it’s 80% away from the top, having the entire message appear when it resides around 35-65% of the available browser height, and animate out as the user progresses to the next section? (There’s also a case to be made for not animating out, because the user has already watched a transition take place once, and if they want to move back and forth and re-read something, it may make for a more disorienting experience to constantly have to re-live a transition. It has long confounded me that Google’s The Mobile Playbook re-starts everything from one page to the next, and is particularly frustrating considering the subject matter.)

Inception Explained does a really beautiful job of using single-page scrolling to tell a story. The “animation” is entirely scroll-based, but doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Information remains on the screen long enough to be legible, information fades in and out to let you know you’re about to learn something new, and their visual design is so heavily designed that it makes a very linear path out of content that’s anything but. It’s important to remember that UX motion is just as much about how things move as it is about the method used to move them. Scrolling motion is still motion triggered by the user. Inception Explained tackles its motion from place to place with a very different approach from How Search Works, but they’re accomplishing the same things. Since How Search Works is defining the timing of its transitions rather than allowing the user to define them, it makes for a very different experience.

The final thing to remember about anticipation is that you shouldn’t overlook termination. Despite both being Google products, How Search Works and The Mobile Playbook handle termination very differently. The former leaves content right where you left it, while the latter reloads every time you navigate back and forth. I admitted earlier to being perplexed about the decisions they made to reload their content every page, and I think their newest infographic handles termination significantly better. Still, there are arguments to make for each. If the transitions in your content are simply fading in as you scroll, there’s probably not much harm in having them fade out as well. The chances of the user reading your content when it’s in the top 10% of the browser are pretty low, and removing the final traces of that content allows for more interesting things to happen in the background. If you’re using a horizontal scroll instead of a vertical one, removing that content makes even more sense. With vertical scrolling, you can still read the final few words even if 90% of the content is gone. If even a small percentage of the left or right side of a paragraph is taken out, reading that content is out of the question.

Taking elements out, as a general rule, should be a shorter and simpler transition. We’ve already seen them. The more an element moves, the more it’s given weight. Fade it quickly, get it out of the way, and open the stage to showcase your new content. Termination is equally as important as anticipation, but equal importance doesn’t have to mean equal treatment.

To sum up: Think about how you bring elements in, and think about how you’re going to get them back out. When it comes to anticipation, a little goes a long way in keeping your users oriented and engaged. In the next part of this series, I’ll address motion design for mobile and the specific challenges and benefits of integrating animation in a handheld environment.

An introduction to motion design for UX

When I was taking print design classes a decade ago, a commonly heard refrain in critiques was about moving eyes around the page. It’s a big thing – you want to engage people as long as possible so they read your content, and if you’re really doing it right, you’re establishing a hierarchy of information. What should the reader know first? If they’re ten feet away from the poster, what are they going to learn? If they’re holding it in their hands, how does the message change? As designers, we want to give you information in a way that hooks you in, gets you interested, and educates you.

Those same principles held true when I started studying web design. Move the eyes around the page. Compel people to look here, and then here, and then here. Make sure there’s incentive to check everything out.

Mobile was a different story. You’re looking at limited screen area, very little is standardized, and we can assume people are coming to you for information first, playing second. The state of interaction changed significantly when mobile started gaining traction. Rollover states long reigned supreme for giving interactive hints to your users, and that was great, because instead of cluttering up your otherwise straight-forward beautiful design with things users might not need, you could cleverly hide them away. Pop-up hints, previews of things to come, all possible as soon as a user’s mouse moves to investigate content a little further.

In mobile space, there are no rollovers, but there are gestures. We’ve spent the last few years hearing that gestures are not only helpful, they’re the way of the future. Apple introduced the Magic Trackpad in 2010, offering desktop users some of the multi-touch capability they had been (theoretically) enjoying on their laptops and mobile devices. Hardware runs in cycles the same way software does – we become convinced that there are better ways to do something, so we see five competing solutions come on the market, and ultimately one will emerge supreme. The issue is that we begin to think there’s necessary value in gearing every solution toward the victor. Remember when Apple changed scrolling direction with the release of Lion? You’re likely used to the new method now, but well before it was even released to customers, tech blogs were flooded with speculation that Apple was trying to kill off the desktop, that they were moving everything about their OS to be in line with mobile standards. I knew how to go about switching it back to the old way well before I ever used the OS.

There are a lot of issues with moving toward a gestural interface, but in general they don’t seem to outweigh the benefits. Mobile screens are getting larger and clearer year by year, but we’re still looking at limited real estate. If your content supports it, there are a lot of great reasons to not waste screen space on navigation. You do, however, have to come up with an elegant solution that teaches your users how to use the system. Designer Max Rudberg posted his thoughts on his blog a few weeks ago (If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it), and he makes some great points. He also provides some great visual examples of UI animation used in lieu of navigation. Luke Wroblewski also briefly addresses motion design in his book Mobile First:

Lastly, visible affordances, tips and animations can help ease the transition as well. You can start out by using the interface elements to explicitly call out where gestures are possible, then gradually reduce their presence as people become more familiar with where they can use gestures to get things done. Just be aware that when you’ve got too much help text explaining how things work, the gesture-based interactions in your app might not be as natural as you might think.

Motion design – be it for web, mobile, or responsive design that manages to satisfy all platforms – is important in more than just teaching people how to play and interact. Flash became so popular in the early-to-mid-2000s for a lot of reasons, and its animation capabilities were right at the top of that list. We could move one step beyond basic layout principles and make the things you need to see literally jump out at you. On an otherwise static canvas, your eye is going to go directly to whatever’s moving. There was a period of time in our web design history where we saw truly, truly awful solutions, but they came out of somewhere earnest – remember <blink> and <marquee>? They were early stabs at using motion design to control the way users receive information. They were awful, but they were effective. (Anyone learning how to design in the late 90s that tells you they never threw an animated gif inside of a marquee tag is a liar and shouldn’t be trusted.)

There’s no denying it, there’s a lot of bad Flash out there: the irrelevant Hollywood blockbuster-style intro, the complex, drawn-out transfomrations triggered by a simple click of a button, the noise and the drama. It might make the designer feel good, but it sure as heck isn’t making the user’s experience better. True, there is a time and a place for a long Flash intro movie and for complex interactive interfaces. Generally, however, web site visitors are looking for some information and more often that super-cool Flash movie stands between them and their goal, instead of helping them reach it.

Want to make a guess at what year that was written? You’d have to look well before Steve Jobs wrote his letter about why Flash had no place on the iPhone, well before Adobe acquired Macromedia. Michelangelo Capraro and Duncan McAlester had the right idea 11 years ago in their book Skip Intro – technology is great and it’s good to know we can do things, but it is all too compelling to forget whether or not we should. (Also, you can just pry my worn copy of this book out of my cold, dead hands. It remains one of my favorite design books to this day.)

Good motion design can be center stage or it can be nearly transparent. There are great arguments for both. Regardless of which method you choose, motion design is necessary to reassure your users that they’re accomplishing a task. Users need to know that something is happening, otherwise they’re prone to be confused, re-click (or drag, or swipe), or abandon the process entirely. Instapaper fades out your previous content and briefly shows both pages as the new content fades in, iBooks falls in line with Apple’s traditionally skeuomorphic approach by physically showing a page turning.

photo

Whatever your chosen approach, it’s more important than ever to keep your users aware that things are happening. If a website isn’t loading quickly enough, people will check the loading indicator in their browser. It’s why we came up with Flash intros in the first place – make something happen while all of that content is loading in the background. Thankfully we’re seeing a move away from such things now that there’s a reasonable expectation that users have a monitor with decent resolution and a high speed internet connection, but motion is still important. The uncertainty we see in mobile design is reminiscent of the uncertainty we experienced in the early 2000s – 640×480 or 1024×768? Netscape or Internet Explorer or Firefox? We’ve just transferred those concerns over to iOS, Android, Windows or Blackberry.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be showcasing examples of great motion design in interfaces for mobile and web, as well as providing guidance on sequencing, timing, and information hierarchy. I’ll introduce as much technical information as I can, though I’ll be writing from my experiences as a designer and not as a programmer. (That said, if anyone out there is particularly well-versed in UX animation from the other side, I’d be happy to speak with you about your experiences.) This is not meant to be a how-to, but a theoretical guide to what’s important and why. Motion design as part of the user experience is still a little uncharted, but it’s my goal to share what I’ve learned so far with you, and hopefully I’ll gain a little from the designers around me in the meantime. Stay tuned!

On listening, learning, and guessing at what will grow

There is no way to issue a job order for a specific subtype of a good with multiple subtypes. If you have a mandate to make piccolos, the best you can do is to order instruments and hope for the best.

Three things happened to me within a couple of minutes on a recent Saturday morning:

  1. I was reading Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design, a fascinating look at design and solutions that focuses much more on the “why” of creation rather than the “how”.
  2. My boyfriend read me the above quote from the wiki for Dwarf Fortress, a largely text-based game with a system more expansive than any other video game I’ve ever encountered.
  3. I checked in on my Pocket Frogs game to see if my efforts last night to breed my incredibly time-consuming Level 15 frog had been successful.

For weeks, I have also had a friend-of-a-friend’s written voice rattling around in my head. Lindsay Markel is a phenomenal writer, and you owe it to yourself to keep her in your thoughts because she occasionally writes things like this:

In Rick’s prize-winning backyard with river rocks strung up with copper wire and daisy heads drifting in a glass bowl, I say the closer I get to thirty, the less I want to pretend that I know anything I don’t. I confess: when I bought the pair of decorative sweet potato vines and planted them at the edge of my garden, I thought I’d be harvesting armfuls of sweet potatoes by fall. He laughs with his cigarette, shakes his head, says a hundred times that I grew up on a farm, hon; don’t I know these things?

I just dig holes in the ground and see what happens, I tell him. Guess at what will grow.

My favorite part of the design process – whether it’s mine or someone else’s – is the “guessing at what will grow” stage. It’s the part of the process that allows a product to sink or swim. At it’s best, it’s the Twitter phenomenon – plant a seed, create a basic structure, watch it grow. The other side of the coin is the Apple Maps debacle – create a product, put it in your users’ hands, and find out immediately that you have a massive problem. They skipped a couple of important steps.

The top quote in this post is from the Dwarf Fortress wiki. Lawson has been playing it for weeks and it hasn’t seemed to get old yet. My understanding of the basic structure is this: It’s a time management game, sort of. In traditional time management games, you have a set amount of time and a certain number of things that have to be produced. As you progress, the timeline gets longer, but the objects become more complex and you need to create more of them. Usually, by the end, you have to go through a three step process, give or take, often of the “gather raw materials”, “create thing from raw materials”, “create second thing from combination of first thing”. In Dwarf Fortress, what you don’t know is that there are forty variations on the thing you could be creating, and you’ll certainly only find out that you made the wrong one after you’ve invested all your resources in creating it.

Bear with me while I tell you about Pocket Frogs. You begin the game with a small number of frogs. Your objectives, handed to you in various ways and with various rewards, are to breed specific types of frogs. Frogs have three characteristics: color, secondary color and pattern. Breed frogs, fulfill objectives, gain experience. Experience gets you to new levels, new levels give you new frogs. You’re literally guessing at what will grow, but basic genetics limit you to eight options when you breed two frogs together. If the two frogs you’re breeding share any one of the three characteristics, then, your options are reduced to four. Simple middle school biology. A mandate for piccolos, so you order instruments. It would be infuriating as a desktop game, of course, because it takes literal real-world time for these things to happen. As a mobile game, it’s perfect. Wake up in the morning, check on my frogs, maybe do something with them, let frogs do frog stuff for the rest of the day, check on frogs before bed.

I’ve been reading, writing and thinking about the user experience a lot lately. I’ve got two ongoing UX/UI projects that I’d really like to share with you soon, and they’re both utilitarian daily-use products. It’s been a little overwhelming to think about all of the use cases, to imagine how everyone but myself might use them. Since they’re both personal projects and not for paying clients, it’s easy to sit back and scribble page after page of all of the what-ifs, but after weeks (and months, in one of the two cases) of considering every option, I’m thinking about taking a step back.

The thing that I have to constantly remind myself about design is that the more I read, the more I write, the more I learn, the better of a designer I’m going to be. The job doesn’t end at 5:00. It’s one of the first things I can remember realizing about design school – you take one typography class and you start to see terrible type everywhere. You walk through supermarkets complaining about kerning. You start to see systems everywhere. It’s what makes you hear a quote about a computer game and link it to your book, your mobile game, your friend-of-a-friend’s anecdote. Everything is in play.

A designer’s brain often craves order and reason. It makes our jobs easier if everything fits into tiny little compartments. The easy problems require us to solve for X. The harder problems don’t even bother to define their variables. So we create schedules – we decide on a launch date and we work our way backwards. We can solve this part in eight days, this part in ten, this one only gets four unless we can manage to take one away from the ten. We set budgets that are often arbitrary and we let those dictate the entire process. We shy away from what might be the best idea because it would mean we can’t release our product one week later and time is money.

I worked with a client a few years back that needed their videos encoded in a very specific way that was relatively antiquated. We were re-developing their website at the same time, but most of the content (and therefore most of the budget) was devoted to video. There was an interactive component that our team was working on day and night and I was concerned that the way we were choosing to embed video in it was less than ideal. The reason? The client had paid another company to design a video player five years before, and therefore saw no reason to “reinvent the wheel”. The problem? The player was created using technology that, five years later, was completely out of date. Worse yet, the client would eventually admit that the video player itself had been a rush job, a response to a need that arose at the time and had little vision for the future. (Presumably because there wasn’t budget for it then, either.)

The solution might be as easy as communicating. Everyone, all of us, doing as much listening as we do talking. It’s hard to put a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but I think there’s value in asking why not. Is it that there isn’t enough surface area for all of the cutting boards or is it that our egos get in the way of agreeing on what we should serve? We might not be able to build a bigger kitchen, but I suspect that’s not actually the issue.

I recently had an incredibly valuable conversation with a good friend regarding our most productive professional relationships. Our stories were remarkably similar: the best products we’ve ever put out have come from situations where the key players on all sides were willing to listen to one another. Not everyone needs to be an art director or know how to animate or know how to code, but in order to be successful at any of those three things, you have to have a basic understanding of the constraints on the other side. I can open Photoshop, create an interface, bring it into After Effects and animate it – but if I don’t have a basic understanding of the steps to its actual implementation after my work is done, much of the value of that step is lost. A little education could go a long way and save everyone a lot of time and headache. I have to know some basic concepts about mobile implementation, they have to know some basic concepts about animation. Maybe there’s value in sitting down for half an hour and discussing what keyframe easing means and we’ll figure out the math together.

It’s harder than you’d think. We work hard, and we’re passionate, and it’s sometimes hard to see the higher-level problems with the work we put into the world. The economy is terrible and people are scared of admitting that they don’t know something. We argue, we stick to our guns, and sometimes we develop a destructive sort of tunnel vision that keeps us from seeing a great solution that’s just outside.

So what can we do, in a practical sense? I’d love to hear your thoughts – designers, engineers, writers, musicians, everyone – but for me, it comes down to a couple of things that I’m going to strive to be conscious of as I move into my next project:

  1. Look for inspiration outside of what’s supposed to inspire me. Read more, write more, spend at least an hour looking elsewhere before I start looking for comparative inspiration. If I’m starting on a new Android UI layout, no opening Photoshop, no picking up my cell phone, no opening my RSS reader to look through my go-to interface blogs. None of it. Surround myself with more things and try to be more conscious of what I’m seeing; allow myself to be less stressed overall and try to be open to ideas that originally seem dumb.
  2. Listen first, ask thoughtful questions second. I’m guilty of not paying enough attention sometimes; I think we all are. It’s easy to immediately let your mind run forward after hearing one interesting piece of information, but you might miss the thought that would come up after you’ve heard everything there is to hear. If something doesn’t make sense, ask for clarification. There is a chance of looking stupid for asking a simple question; there is a higher chance that the assumptions you have to make based on not really knowing the answer are going to lead you down the wrong path.
  3. The “do unto others” idea – respond to questions thoughtfully, even if the asker “should” know the answer. It only works if we’re all doing it.
  4. Allow yourself the freedom to be wrong. My senior year of college, I was thrown into a studio with a huge mix of majors – various design majors as well as various business majors, graduate and undergrad. We were all put on mixed teams with the goal of everyone bringing their individual knowledge to the table. Instead, what happened is that a ton of “stupid” ideas were generated. One group would immediately shut down the other – I am as guilty of it as anyone else in the class. We didn’t allow ourselves the freedom to be wrong. There could have been value in those “stupid” ideas, and if we had given each of them their fair share of time, we could have learned something. Instead, we all disliked one another and disliked the class. It could have been different. Should have been. If we never walk out of a meeting again asking what the hell so-and-so was thinking, we’ll all maybe be better for it. Be deliberately wrong. See what happens. It’s freeing.

It’s about relationships, it’s about listening, it’s about connecting dots that we don’t always know we should connect in the beginning. We’ll all get there. Jon Stewart’s speech in the Rally to Restore Sanity two years ago today was speaking politically, but it keeps coming back to me:

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, thirty-foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved by people who by the way I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Ah, well that’s okay, you go, then I’ll go.

And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned not hired as an analyst.

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together.

You go, then I’ll go; order instruments; guess at what will grow. Let’s try it.

Hillman Curtis, you will be missed.

In other words, you experience something, and it speaks to you. In the best of cases, it moves us to respond creatively. We want to add to or continue the idea.

– Hillman Curtis, MTIV, p.104

I will always maintain that I became a designer at a really strange time. I’m sure all designers feel that way – and I’m sure it’s not just limited to our field, either. Anyone whose career revolves around technology is in an interesting position. It’s not enough that we sit at a desk and do what we were trained to do every day, we’re also constantly learning, constantly seeking out information. As we all grow and create, the situation is only going to get denser and denser. I’m always both surprised and excited when I hear about a design firm that actively encourages their employees to spend X hours per day, week or month researching something new.

My claim about coming into design at a strange time is mostly rooted in technology, I suppose. I attended design school from 2003-2008. My major was “digital design”, and it hadn’t been around very long. Our college was largely rooted in traditional Swiss design, with a graphic design faculty that was on average twice the age of the digital design professors. The duality between the programs was, frankly, ridiculous. All the claims about the failings of both programs were absolutely true. Digital design students didn’t know a thing about typography, while the graphic design program largely wanted to ignore things like “the internet”. The two programs have merged now, which makes a considerable amount of sense and is certainly indicative of where design is headed.

I read MTIV very early in my career, back in the days where “new media design” was still used to distinguish things that happened on a screen from things that happened in your hands. It was smarter than anything we were learning in school. It was the first exposure I had to what design meant in a non-academic capacity, and the first time it occurred to me that inspiration was something you found all around you.

It seems like a simple concept now, right? Any designer that’s asked “what inspires you?” is supposed to give a holistic response, something about how there’s inspiration everywhere and you have to look to unconventional sources to find it. But at the time, it was beyond me. If I was designing a website for a specific product, I’d look at other websites for similar products. That’s how my inspiration worked. It was too simple, and it showed in my work. I was a young designer taking the easy way out not because I wanted to, but because it just hadn’t occurred to me to do anything else.

MTIV was the first thing that clicked for me. I doubt that young designers would get as much out of it now as I did then. It’s divided into three sections – process, inspiration and practice. Most of it’s pretty outdated these days, which is to be expected about a new media book from a decade ago. But today, if you’ve got a copy, you should pull it out and flip through the section on inspiration. I am amazed to see how much of it echoes how I feel about my career in 2012.

Once I’ve gotten past the self-doubt and all its trappings of self-consciousness, I can begin looking at the work that surrounds me – even if it’s so good I can’t help but feel threatened or is of a different medium than anything I’d use – and see the potential inspiration in it.

Hillman Curtis saw the world then in a better way than I’m even capable of now, and he never stopped. His career was centered not even around just making himself a better designer, but around making design better. He spoke of the value in sharing inspiration and adding your unique point of view. Taking everything that’s been done and figuring out how to make it better; learning the rules so that you know how to justify ignoring them.

My years in design school were often spent wondering why this mattered. Agonizing over a Flash project and getting lost in the details, forgetting the larger picture, not being able to see the forest for the trees. When I was at my worst, I’d pull my copy of MTIV out and flip right to the first page of the inspiration section. (My well-worn copy flips open to the above quote automatically.) I haven’t looked at it in years, but as soon as I heard the news today that Hillman Curtis had passed on, I pulled it off the bookshelf and was overcome by remembering all of those times when I wasn’t sure I was cut out for this. I never had an opportunity to meet the man or hear him speak, but his words have stuck with me for the last decade.

I feel so overwhelmed, sometimes, by all the inspiration that’s out there. I’m so grateful for all the people who came before me and figured out so many of the big things so I could obsess over the little ones. Hillman Curtis was an inspiration to all of us not just through his work, but through the humble way he was willing to discuss his passion for design. His words and ideas continue to inspire me a decade into my career, and for that, I am thankful. Rest in peace, friend. You will be missed.

The future is weird.

When it comes to tech nerds, I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m fascinated by technology, I’m an active member of just about every social media outlet there is, and I work in a pretty techy field. (And I live about 20 miles north of Silicon Valley, but we won’t mention that.) At the same time, I’m pretty analog, compared to other late-twenties smartphone-enabled nerds out there. I can see the value in paying with things from my phone but I don’t necessarily do it. I’m a pretty major Twitter user but when I’m out with friends, I try to keep it under wraps and enjoy the company of the people I’m with in real life. I’m far from an early adopter, signing on to my first smartphone in late 2009 and still not possessing a tablet of any sort. I buy expensive gadgets once and completely run them into the ground before I acquire another. I’m a little doubtful of technology sometimes – just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

My favorite of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules is “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. That quote comes back to me all the time, and not necessarily just relating to food. Before my grandmother passed, she was fond of reminding me that Windows were something you opened, and mice were what you threw out of them. (Don’t come after me, PETA, I didn’t say it.) She never touched a computer in her life and somehow managed to get by. I try to find myself amazed by the basic technology in my life, but I’m just so used to certain things that it’s really difficult. In a recent Louis C.K. special, he summed that idea up much better than I ever could:

‘I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes.’ Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly?

I’ve run into a couple of situations in the past week that just can’t be ignored, though – sometimes technology just smacks me in the face. Here are my favorites:

  • I’ve spent the past month working for a great design firm in Larkspur, CA. Larkspur is pretty close to where I live, but I don’t have a car and the work I do is so video-heavy that it sort of begs for a very powerful computer, so I’ve been doing all of the work from home. My manager and I feel like we work next to one another, thanks to Dropbox, iChat, Google Docs and our mobile phones. We’re sharing a folder directly from our respective computers with one another. When we save something there, on our personal hard drives, the other person also has it saved on their hard drive in a matter of minutes. We’re 20 miles away from one another and not touching the same network, but we’re sharing files instantly. We talk on the phone and IM one another all day and communicate through a shared spreadsheet where we can watch one another’s notes in real time. As soon as one of us has a thought, the other one is able to process it, respond accordingly and move on.
  • A friend invited me to dinner at 6:00 last Tuesday, and I had a somewhat important deadline to meet. I knew I’d be able to finish up the work in time, but this file takes around an hour to render, which meant even if I finished before I needed to leave, I wouldn’t be able to check the final output until at least 7:00. Pushing dinner back would have been inconvenient for everyone else, but skipping dinner just to sit around my house and wait for my file to be viewable seemed like a waste of time. The solution? Left the house at 5:45, rendered the file straight to Dropbox, and viewed the animation on my phone when it finished rendering. (I did excuse myself from the table and let everyone know ahead of time that I was going to have to step away for a work obligation; my friends are also workaholics so this sort of behavior is often allowable.) I was then able to text my manager and let him know that everything was kosher, all without having to miss time with my friends or panic and run back home early.
  • I was asked to come in and meet a team at a potential new freelance gig. This job is pretty transit-adjacent (a 30 minute walk from the closest BART station, or a short bike ride) and is only ten miles south of my house, so it’s also bicycle-friendly. But either of those options would take me about an hour each way, and it was a very busy day for me. It would only be a 15 minute drive, but I don’t own a car. Zipcar to the rescue! I pulled my phone out of my pocket, opened an application and booked a rental car for two hours. The entire process took about 45 seconds and a car was waiting for me one block east of my house the next day when I needed it.
  • The Zipcar experience alone is fascinating. You log on to a computer or pull out your phone, select a car, walk to a location within a couple of blocks of your current location, wave a special card over the windshield, get in and drive. I’m not a power user by any stretch of the imagination; my Zipcar trips are really for family visits, airport pickups and occasional pre-party grocery store runs. I use it every single time I need a car, and that has never once exceeded $1500 per year for me to drive a brand new car whenever I want. I can’t remotely imagine owning a vehicle at this point.
  • I’m a special events bartender at a beer bar. (This basically means I don’t mind crowds, am terribly friendly, and am therefore a somewhat ideal candidate for facing a group of angry people that have been waiting ten minutes for a drink.) I worked a big event last night that was only made possible through social media. And this wasn’t the first time, either. It was “advertised” via Twitter and Facebook. The local blogs (Eater, SFoodie, etc.) picked it up and wrote about it. People came in to this neighborhood bar to eat food from vendors they had never heard of, because they saw it on the internet. So many of my friends’ businesses simply would not thrive without Twitter.
  • Related: Every time I bartend, at least five people come up and introduce themselves, and they lead out with a variation on “You’re jrizzo, right?” (Occasionally it’s changed to “at” jrizzo.) Say what you will about social media detaching all of us from one another, but I’ve met more people in this city over the past three years via Twitter than I would have by any other method.

What I love the most about all of these things is that they’re examples of technology bridging a gap and making things better. Is it rude to step away in the middle of dinner to check a quick email on my phone? Probably, but if the alternative is entirely missing dinner in favor of work, I would rather my friends pull their phone out for two minutes at the dinner table any day. And I’m so grateful that somehow, posting inane status updates about what beer I’m drinking or what silly thing my boyfriend said has made my name and face recognizable to complete strangers when I pour a beer for them.

So, how about you? What’s working so well, it just blows you away?

Vegas, Baby!

If I could take a vacation anywhere in the world right now, it’d be Vegas. True story. Given a plane ticket with no destination and an unlimited travel budget, I’d go somewhere that Virgin America regularly flies from my town for $49. (I’d certainly stay somewhere nicer than I did last time, however. I bet room service at The Cosmopolitan is spectacular.)

I love Vegas for a lot of reasons. One, I like food, booze and gambling, so traveling to a town that doesn’t encourage me to be a better person is certainly my idea of a vacation. Two, there is no city in America that pays more attention to its image than Las Vegas. We agonize over New York skyscrapers and god knows you can’t put up a sidewalk cart in San Francisco without an Environmental Impact Review, but when it comes to “look at me” architecture, everything flies in Vegas. Some of it is effective, some of it is over-the-top gaudy. But if you’re looking to try a ridiculous idea that won’t take off anywhere else in the world, you can sure make an attempt of it in Vegas.

When we went on a trip back in February, we accomplished three tasks: finding everywhere on the strip that you could get a solid beer, finding the cheapest poker tournaments, and wandering through every single mall in every single hotel we stumbled into. (Mind you, Vegas is quite cold in February, and we didn’t know that, so let’s just say my big visions of laying out by a pool and rotating my way through every tropical drink on a menu were cut short.) You could spend a week going through casinos, taking pictures and analyzing architecture and you’d still miss half of it. I spent the early part of my career working at an architectural firm that specialized in large public spaces and an interior design firm that specialized in retail spaces, so Vegas is sort of a playground for me. As I mentioned, this trip was awhile ago, so some displays have most likely rotated by this point.

Bellagio exterior, daytime

The Bellagio is one of the newer hotels on the strip, constructed in 1998. All the structures on the strip are massive, so finding a way to set yourself apart is often important. There are two main drags that run through the strip, and the Bellagio is right in the center. While there’s a strong amount of automotive traffic (the main roads are at least four lanes), most of the traffic you’ll find here is pedestrian. How do you draw attention to yourself? In the case of the Bellagio, setting your main building far, far off the strip and separating yourself from the sidewalk by an eight acre lake with regular fountain shows set to booming music is a pretty great method.

The Bellagio structure itself is gorgeous, but you’d never know it if it butted up against the sidewalk. And they’re doing neighboring hotels quite the service by devoting so much of their property to open space – everywhere you look, from one side of the lake, you’re set so far apart from everything that the scale of these huge buildings is really put into perspective.

And, of course, with such a majestic exterior, you’ve got to follow the experience with a majestic interior. The Bellagio doesn’t disappoint.

The Cosmopolitan is the newest hotel on the strip and had been open for only two months when we visited. (It officially opened in December 2010.) Its aesthetic entirely focuses on modern, hip luxury – the flashing lights and slot machines are there, but they’re obscured by clean lines, crystal, and spaces that interact with caution, gently transitioning into one another but functioning separately.

The juxtaposition here between soft texture and hard, graphic lines is an excellent way to provide separation for the various lounges you encounter on your way into the casino. This softness+blocky neon motif continues for most of the first floor.

The use of crystal here would be over the top just about anywhere, but somehow in Vegas it manages to remain classy. They’re clumped together here, hundreds and hundreds of them stacked upon one another, creating an elegant centerpiece.

Elsewhere, we keep with the crystal theme and provide an extra textural element that’s meant to slightly obscure what’s behind it without separating it entirely. This is how The Cosmopolitan leads you from space to space – it gives you a glimpse into what’s to come but makes you wonder what’s really back there.

No detail is spared attention – what you see here is the vehicle entrance to the Cosmopolitan lobby. This view is too easy to overlook. It’s where cars will drive in and therefore offers the largest opportunity to get dirty immediately. It’s such a simple solution to just decide you don’t care about this sort of entrance and devote most of your attention to the actual lobby – after all, this is hardly a stopping point and really just exists as a transition. But here, the luxury starts when you exit your vehicle, not just after you’ve grabbed your bags and walked in to the door. It’s not every day you see white lampshades in a parking garage.

The lobby itself is no slouch, either. Remember that this is a brand new structure built from 2006-2010 – there was never a need to hide hundreds of bulky cables, CRT monitors, computer towers and printers. This is a hotel where you’re checked in via iPad – who needs big, closed-off front desks that keep you separated from the staff? The desks keep the space open, and the romantic styling of the furniture lends warmth to a space that’s so modern and clean it could otherwise run the risk of appearing sterile.

The screens lining the walls behind the desks are a small-scale interpretation of the massive motion graphics displayed on oversized columns throughout the rest of the lobby. As you can see from all the people standing around, they’re certainly visually compelling. I’m glad they resisted the temptation to make these informational – it’d be overwhelming. These screens solely exist as constantly variable texture. There are layers of depth here – if you want to get up close, you certainly can – but they’re ultimately just there to provide visual interest from any distance. The mirrored ceiling keeps the illusion extending upward and lends a little height to a (comparatively) low space.

 

When I was working in retail space in 2007, we were seeing the beginning of the interactivity trend. We didn’t have iPads yet, but we did have iPhones and other touch-screen devices, and with the invention of large-scale multi-touch screens (the Microsoft Surface was predicted to change the retail industry at that point), and we knew that we’d be moving that way over the next few years. It’s a little surprising that it’s taken so much time for us to move in that direction, but we’re still working out the kinks. The Cosmopolitan uses an interactive display in lieu of traditional floor maps, enabling you to get more information than would be possible on a static display. An interactive display is particularly effective in this sort of environment – a two-story shopping mall might not really benefit from an interactive floor map, but this multi-use skyscraper has a little too much going on to make print an effective option. And when you’re checking people in via an iPad, you’ve sort of already committed to digital options anyway.

The All Saints store in The Cosmopolitan takes a scaled-down approach to interactivity in their store, but does it quite successfully. Their aesthetic is entirely handmade and raw, but their target audience is the digital generation. In order to keep the focus on their products, unmarked display walls are combined with informative iPads. See a pair of boots on the wall that you like? Check out the iPad to see what they’ve got in stock and how much they’ll set you back. It makes for a really great experience if you’re wandering through the store browsing – no massive signs competing for your attention, just beautiful products.

The outside’s no slouch either. Their sign repeats the company name over and over in lights as a graphic element with a nod to Vegas, and a store with a glass front creates a defined interest by lining the front walls with antique sewing machines. All Saints prides themselves on keeping up a unified aesthetic but always contextualizing themselves into whatever space they’ve got – this is All Saints Vegas, and it’s done quite well.

One building over, inside the Aria, we found the Porsche store. A dark, mirrored back wall contains little pieces of motion graphics, without interactivity but still in a constantly fluid format. We weren’t as impressed with the technology here – the execution of the graphics in the wall is flawless, but the content isn’t much to look at. The motion design isn’t as strong as it could be and they’re ostensibly using it as a display to entice you into their products. I would have expected a little more out of a luxury retailer, but I’m not quite their target market, either.

When The Mirage opened in 1989, it was the most luxurious resort on the strip. There are bits and pieces now that seem outdated, but it’s been through enough changes over the years that it holds up relatively well to the test of time. The layering from the street view is great – it pushes you back from the main structure, employing a technique similar to the Bellagio, but instead of leaving that space open it gradually ramps up its landscaping to eventually pull your eye up to the height of the building. The gold windows, particularly when the sun catches them, are a sight to behold.

The space division in The Mirage is a little more traditional than The Cosmopolitan, but ultimately chooses to stay relatively open. The bar pictured above takes on a very different aesthetic than the other individual spaces around it, but leaves the front entirely open and just separates using low walls, so you can see in and out with ease. They’re relying on individual visual design to differentiate rather than focusing on actual dividers, to a pretty successful result.

 

 

The most separated of The Mirage’s spaces is Revolution, a bar that also functions as the last thing you’ll see before you enter The Beatles’ LOVE theater. It’s also one of the most recent designs here, opening in 2006. It’s a great space. The huge lettering at the front provides a great divider for the space, the bar itself is beautiful, and the design effectively bridges the aesthetic gap between the shiny casino behind it and the clean, bright theater just past it. And I’m a sucker for a gorgeous back bar.

The entrance to LOVE is just plain fun. You’ve got your very own rainbow carpet underneath you, and using shiny white surfaces everywhere simply reinforces the importance of the entrance. The mirrored spheres above the corridor are my favorite, lending an awful lot of visual interest to an otherwise boring dropped ceiling. All lines here pull your eye directly to the silhouettes at the end. Sparkly and shiny and fun.

Across the street and just a few feet down is The Venetian, an embodiment of traditional class and luxury. The Venetian sticks to its image throughout – everywhere you go, the idea is reinforced that you’re standing somewhere fancy. Despite relatively recent construction (late 1990s), it ignores the compulsion to go modern and sticks with what Vegas does best: overdone and big. The structure itself backs up all the flourishes and details, creating a big open space that allows room for them and doesn’t crowd you in.

I’ve been to the Napa Bouchon multiple times (as well as the bakery and Ad Hoc) and am pretty convinced that Thomas Keller can do no wrong. I love the Vegas interpretation of Bouchon – it’s a big, big space, and it’s difficult to make big spaces feel intimate and comfortable while you maintain an air of sophistication, but they manage to do it here. The food is incredible, of course, and they’ve managed to make the restaurant feel like a French bistro without making it kitschy. Certainly worth a visit, and fits in with the Venetian’s grand aesethetic.

 

Also contained in The Venetian is the original Sin City, which is ultimately a small kiosk in the retail/dining area. The Venetian has allowed all of its outside vendors create whatever space they want, and Sin City opts here to stick with their aesthetic (this is one of three locations on the strip for their brewery) instead of molding to the architecture around it. It would almost feel more out of place if it DID stick to The Venetian – Sin City has a pretty strong image, and this bar only seats about ten people in a very small space. I love little kiosks like this. The visual design is really strong, and even though you’re only separated from The Venetian by your own back as you sit on the bar stool, it really does feel like a separate world.

The bar top is the same one used at the larger location in the Flamingo (I haven’t visited their third location, so I’m not sure if this is standard across all three). A little swirly and disorienting, but fits in really well with the bad-boy Sin City branding. And if you’re nice to the bartender, after awhile she’ll pass you these shots, which taste an awful lot more like Mountain Dew than you would imagine. I think there was a cactus on the label. It was a long trip.

Unfortunately at the exact opposite end of the strip from where I was staying is my very favorite location to get a good beer, Pour 24. I’ll save all the descriptions of why this is a great beer bar (I’ve got another spot for that sort of behavior), but this is also my favorite example of a kiosk-type location in Vegas. Pour 24 is in New York, New York, and has little to do with its surroundings. It is entirely open – not even a low dividing wall here – and overlooks the casino floor. It’s also gorgeous. The displays for liquor bottles are an awfully fun visual element and they’ve come up with a simple blue-and-yellow color palette that’s reinforced throughout the small bar without being a punch to the face. It’s unassuming but sort of draws you in at the same time. Televisions are placed high enough to not really disrupt the space but I can attest that you won’t strain your neck if, say, you’ve got a terribly important basketball game to watch. (Though we certainly don’t need to be concerned about THAT this season, but I digress.)

And my word, look at that bar. Drinking a beer in a complimentary color certainly helps.

And on another beer-related note, it’s fun to contrast Pour 24 with another one of the (only) beer-focused spots on the strip: The Pub at Monte Carlo. I just love the back bar here – when you’re contending with around 100 tap handles, it’s difficult to figure out what to do. They’ve left a lot of space between the taps and the front of the bar to enable their large staff to move around and pour, but that pushes the tap handles pretty far back from the customer. To give you an idea of the type of bar they’re running here, they’ve used the high ceilings to display a series of beer logos, and while I wish they were putting in a couple more of my favorites instead of playing so heavily to the macro breweries, it certainly does scream “this is where you can get a beer”. The space is just huge and really demands a centerpiece of a bar, and they’ve accomplished that reasonably well here.

I might live in San Francisco, but I love Las Vegas. Everything competes for your attention to varying degrees of success. The approaches here certainly wouldn’t work everywhere, but we can stand to learn a lot from the attention to detail. I can’t wait to see what’s changed on my next trip.

Beer Tracking: A Better Way

In my non-professional life (which is not to overlook my bartending career, of course), I’m a pretty massive beer nerd. I am that person who will fly across town at a moment’s notice to find the just-tapped rare keg of some bourbon barrel-aged whatever, who always takes a second suitcase on vacations for purposes of bringing back beer from my destination city, whose supposedly-networking-based Twitter feed is over 50% nerdy discussions about this ale or that. We’ve all got our vices (I prefer “hobbies”), this is mine.

Over the past few years, a number of mobile apps and websites have emerged to make beer consumption a little easier. Through a combination of Twitter, Foursquare, BeerMenus (mobile website, but no app) and Untappd, beer nerds are more connected than ever.

We put in an awful lot of work for it, though, and I tend to skip most of the options out there because they simply take me away from the people I went to the bar with. I typically check in to a location on Foursquare before I actually arrive so that I’m not even messing around with that. It’s why I don’t use Untappd much – I just don’t want to be constantly ignoring the people I’m with.

Before we go any further here, let’s define the basic tools beer nerds have at their disposal. (Note: I realize there are other tools on the market; this is my personal system and the one I know most of my friends are using as well. I also realize there are beer tracking apps other than Untappd, however, it seems to be the most popular cross-hardware option out there and is therefore what I focus on.)

  • Twitter – Certainly not beer-specific, but very important in the San Francisco beer community. Most of the key beer bars in the city are using it to announce new arrivals, and even if they aren’t, our community is so obsessive that we instantly share whatever we’re excited about on their behalf. It’s not uncommon for me to see four or five people post what they were drinking at Toronado/City Beer/Beer Revolution, etc. Events are also announced ahead of time and constantly re-tweeted, so for those of us with desk jobs, it’s pretty easy to drop in around 4:00 and see where we should be drinking that night. I credit Twitter with at least 80% of the people I know and the cool events I’ve been privileged to attend.
  • Foursquare – also not beer-specific, but it sure is for me. I use Foursquare almost exclusively for the app itself (i.e. I very rarely have it cross-post to Facebook or Twitter) and am pretty private about who I add as a contact, as well as where and when I check in. If I’m checking in on foursquare, that’s a sign that I’m happy to meet up with my authorized friends if they’re in the area. If one of my friends checks in at a bar around the corner from me, I’ll probably drop by and see them. Likewise, I don’t mind if they stop by and see me. And since the pool of places we go to is ultimately pretty small, even in a big city, this often results in fun social outings that I might not have had otherwise.
  • BeerMenus – A great concept that no one uses. Harsh, probably, but it’s among my biggest pet peeves. What BeerMenus is set up to do is be an open source collection of every beer list at a bar. Anyone can update it – in fact, when I’m bartending, I try to update it that day so that just in case someone looks at it, it’s up to date. It’s a big job, though, and often takes me at least 20 minutes of searching and double-checking our list. I’ll do it even when I’m not bartending, and if I’m somewhere that has a beer I really appreciate, I’ll add it – but you can never trust its accuracy unless someplace specifically advertises that they update there. (Healthy Spirits keeps theirs shockingly up-to-date and I find this immensely useful.) The tool is set up, but let’s face it – no one is using it.
  • Untappd – Originally a mobile web app and now native on both iPhone and Android, Untappd is my beer-tracking tool of choice. The idea is simple: You’re drinking a beer that you either want to remember (my method) or you want to let your friends know about (less my method, but many people use it this way). In the same way that you check in to a location with Foursquare, you “check in” to a beer. There’s a searchable database that you can add to from your phone, as well as an option to rate the beer, leave comments, and add your location if you so choose. There’s a social aspect here as well, where you can look through your list of friends and see what they’ve been drinking and what their thoughts are on what they’ve had lately.

Four great tools at our disposal with somewhat overlapping information. The problem? No one plays nice, and everyone suffers. Let’s talk about how the user experience of these tools.

User Experience, or “Things you do on your phone while you should be socializing and drinking with your friends”

Let’s walk through my walkthrough when I go into a bar. I probably won’t be using Twitter, and I won’t be using BeerMenus once I’m in the door, so we’ll focus on just Foursquare and Untappd.

I’d like to note that I’ll be doing some criticizing here, and it should be noted that criticism comes from a place of respect. Having the ability to whine about the existing system means there IS an existing system that has so many good ideas, it’s been forcing me to sit down and very seriously consider what isn’t working. I’m so impressed by the teams that have put the existing tools out there, but now that we’ve got those tools, we’re overlooking a lot of important links.

The first thing I usually do is check in via Foursquare. I’m either on my way or just walked in the door, don’t have my menu yet, and so I have a few free seconds to play with my phone without it interrupting my experience. I’m skipping the first two screens for purposes of not putting my friends’ personal Foursquare data all over the internet, but this is a five screen process.

  1. If you’re opening your app for the first time in awhile, you’ll see your Friends screen, which lists all your friends’ checkins in backward chronological order.
  2. On my Android phone, I hit the Search key to open a dialogue that says “Find places” at the top, followed by a dropdown menu of everywhere I’ve searched for recently. Since I’m not a huge Foursquare user and I’m a regular at a number of places, I often can just scroll the list down a few entries to find where I want to check in, otherwise, I can start typing. As you enter keys, it narrows down your list, so by typing in “pi”, I usually find Pi Bar pretty quickly.
  3. This brings up a screen confirming my location, its address, people currently checked in and tips that other happy boozers have left.

  4. Hitting “Check in here” takes you to a page with additional options – leaving a comment, sharing or not sharing (if you choose to not share, it checks you in to the location but shows you as “Off the Grid”, which I suppose comes in useful for those moments where you want to remember where you’ve been but don’t necessarily want to make your location public), as well as exporting your checkin to Facebook or Twitter. Note: This doesn’t connect to Facebook Places for a second checkin, simply posts to your Facebook wall with a link to Foursquare.

  5. Once you’re confirmed, it lets you know that your checkin has been successful, and in my case, confirms that you are a drunk. (If I mentioned that they also have food and are 500 feet from my door, does that make my 95 checkins better? And that those 30 weeks probably all involve trips to Pi Bar because slices are like $3? Let’s just pretend this isn’t from my real phone and move on.)

Five screens to navigate through in order to check yourself in. Provided you’ve got a fast phone and a fast service provider, not necessarily the worst thing in the world. The Android OS does allow customization in the form of adding Foursquare locations to your home screen, meaning if you go someplace regularly (as your resident drunk clearly does), you can make a little shortcut straight to your favorite places and tuck them on a side home screen somewhere, saving you two steps. I presume iPhone users are probably stuck going through the whole process, but I’m happy to be corrected by someone on this.

If you’ve ordered a drink that you’re excited about – and if you’re me, you probably have – it’s nice to have that recorded somewhere so you can tell someone about it, remember to buy it at your local store, or just remember that you’ve had it before if you go somewhere new and are examining their list. This is where Untappd comes in.

  1. Again, to protect my friends, where they are, what they’re drinking – I’ve skipped this first screen. You’ll find yourself on the “Friends” tab when you first launch, which lets you know what your friends have been drinking, in reverse chronological order.
  2. Navigating to “Drink Up” shows me things I’ve had recently, as well as beers that are popular at this time.

  3. Let’s imagine I’m drinking an Anchor Liberty, a fine beer made right here in San Francisco, and a staple on the Pi Bar menu. When I search for “Liberty”, it happens to be the first one on the list.

  4. Clicking it gives me the style of beer, its ABV, the average rating, my rating (if I had entered one in the past, which I haven’t for this beer), as well as checkin options and additional information down below.

  5. Hitting “Check-in to this brew” brings you here. You can call it quits and check in, add a comment, add a photo, or attach your location, which is often important to me.

  6. Attaching your location brings up your favorites in the area as well as additional places that are close to you. For some reason mine is a little skewed here and believes I’m a few miles from where I was when the screenshot is taken. Since my location isn’t on this list, I’ll have to search for it.

  7. Searching for “Pi” hits the Foursquare API and returns a list of locations. It occasionally bothers me that I get things in this list that are clearly not drinking locations, but there’s a good reason for that – are you drinking at a concert? In a park? At home? It typically doesn’t force me to do much searching, which makes me wonder if it does in fact prioritize restaurants and locations that are clearly beer-friendly. Still an additional screen to search through.

  8. Finally, we’ve arrived at a confirmation screen. My beer, my bar, my additional information if I had chosen to enter it. One last option to correct or delete.

  9. You’re checked in to both the beer and the location, and here are some suggestions of other beers you might like. (This is rarely helpful for me, but if the algorithm was improved, I can see how it would be a useful tool to people newly getting in to beer.

This is a lot of steps. We’ve gone through fourteen separate screens, ultimately duplicated information, and depending on how much searching and crawling through information you need to do along the way, that amounts to a significant time investment. Two minutes might not be much in the grand scheme of things but it may very well make you feel like a great big jerk if you’re out with your friends and compelled to screw around with your phone for that long instead of enjoying their company.

And ultimately, this is the problem. I love having these tools at my disposal to help me remember where I’ve been and what I’ve been drinking – I’m a homebrewer, and I love to learn about new styles and flavors via tasting whatever strange beer I can find out in the world. I’m convinced there’s a better way.

The problem with BeerMenus

The problem with BeerMenus is almost exclusively that no one uses it. THAT happens for two reasons.

  1. Customers are not updating BeerMenus – it’s not their job.
  2. Bartenders and bar owners are busy as hell, and keeping up an online list is an extra job to pile on top of the already growing list of tasks. Sure, it’s an extra 10-20 minutes a day if you’re a place that regularly rotates your selection, but at places that have 50 taps and are rotating new kegs in and out all night, asking a bartender to stop in the middle of a shift to update a website is simply not going to happen.

The BeerMenus people have actually done a fine job with their product. I don’t have many complaints when I’m sitting down at my home computer updating the bar’s list. There are places in the world that do, in fact, keep their list 100% up-to-date.

We’ll get to some solutions for the BeerMenus folks in a moment, but let’s look at a few screenshots first. In the interest of consistency, I’m including mobile shots here, but their website is a great resource.

BeerMenus has a mobile site. I love me some apps, but realize that there’s serious value in a mobile website as well. Theirs is a great translation of their also-great website.

The “find places nearby” feature is a good one, and not a bad solution if your ultimate goal is to find a beer bar nearby. My GPS is off again on this one, which is why Pi isn’t included on this list.

If your location isn’t found in the first list, you’ll need to go back and then search for a location. Adding a search field to the list of locations instead of requiring the user to go back would be a nice touch, but at this point, I’m mostly splitting hairs.

Here we arrive at the actual beer menu, which would be unbelievably helpful in the event that it was ever updated. See how Pi’s menu was last touched 03/08/2010? This is one of the most popular beer bars in an unbelievably tech-nerdy city and not a single person has touched it in a year and a half. Note that I’m to blame for this one as well, but with locations like Pi, it honestly doesn’t make a ton of sense for customers to update it. The list changes every single day, and despite earlier Foursquare evidence, I am not, in fact, at the bar every day. If I updated it, it’d be completely different a week later.

Clicking on a beer takes you to its page, which gives you a description as well as other locations that carry it. The locations might not be all that useful coming from a location page, but remember that you can search for a beer from that home screen as well. The outcome is the same for both. And I’d like to note that there are only two options here for Anchor Liberty, one of the most common beers in San Francisco. I’ll stop whining about the lack of accurate lists soon, I promise.

Here’s what happens when you search for a new beer – if there were additional options, they’d be listed, but I’ve chosen a pretty specific search term and a pretty rare beer on this one.

One of the most helpful things here is that “updated” date. Since updates are rare to BeerMenus, it’s nice to know that something was updated just a couple of days ago. If Healthy Spirits had it on October 14th, there’s a chance it’s still there today – and at least worth calling and asking about.

The technology is there. It’s all set up and waiting for us. We’ve just got to find a way to make it more appealing to use.

Making Friends

There is absolutely no reason that all of this information doesn’t live and play in the same space. Consider the connections:

  1. Untappd is using the API from the app you originally used to check in to the location. Once you’ve selected a beer from the list, you search for a location with the exact same list you searched through to check in from the same device one minute ago.
  2. When you check in to a beer and then add your location, Untappd has a database that has the power to tell you where every instance of that beer is in the city.
  3. The exclusive purpose of the BeerMenus database is to know which beer lives in which bar.

My modest proposal? A unified system that connects the pieces together, emulating your actual, real-life process.

  1. Enter the bar.
  2. Survey the list.
  3. Select your beer.

The fourth step is drinking. And we’d like that to be our fourth step, too. So our process is this:

  1. Check in to the bar. Similar to what you’ve seen out there before, you can search for your location, or you can choose one from a GPS-based list. We’ll always prioritize your favorites, too.

    Wireframe created using the Teehan+Lax Android GUI PSD as starting point; because they are amazing and helpful and worthy of all your respect in the world.

  2. Survey the beer list on your phone.

  3. Select your beer, and you’re done.

But after all of that whining about how no one uses BeerMenus, haven’t we already proven that there isn’t an updated, actually-in-use list out there? Yeah, we have. Let’s try and fix that problem, too.

Queue, Kick, Crack

I love that BeerMenus is open to the public. I really, truly do. I love that any random person can go to a bar, have a beer, and add it to their menu online. But as much as I love that, it’s not an efficient system. For places that have fifty beers on tap – hell, for places that have twelve beers on tap – one customer is just not going to be able to keep that list updated. Relying on your patrons to keep that up to date for you is a system that just isn’t working. It has to come from within the bar.

But bartenders don’t have time for this nonsense. When a keg blows in the middle of my shift, I’m worried enough about getting the damn thing through the massive crowd, tapping it, lifting it into the cooler and doing all of that without a) covering myself in beer and b) angering a giant crowd. (I am a deeply nervous person and also not a great bartender.) Think about your experience at a bar: if you’re waiting on a beer, do you want your bartender to be ignoring you in favor of playing with his or her phone for five minutes, even if what they’re doing is updating the beer list online? If you’re every single customer I’ve ever had, the answer is that you don’t.

The power behind our system and the thing that sets us apart is a backend inventory management system for the bar. We’re making a little more work, but it comes in the form of replacing what the bar already has in favor of something that will be a better tool to start with and open up some basic frontend data for your customers. This isn’t entirely open: we’re not letting everyone know what you’ve got coming up, how many kegs you’ve got of it, any of that – just releasing your live selection.

I’m proposing a three step system: Queue, kick, crack.

  1. Queue – When the kegs roll off the delivery truck – you add them to your inventory. You’ve got Anchor Liberty on right now but when that runs out you’re going to switch to Speakeasy’s Big Daddy? Add that Big Daddy keg to your queue. Not sure what you’ll put on? If you’ve entered everything as it came in the building, you don’t have to worry about putting them in order; you’ve got a scrollable list there when you want it. Use this list as a backup or even a full substitution for your inventory list.
  2. Kick – When the keg blows, hit one button to say that it’s gone. It’s San Francisco Beer Week and you’ve got the only keg of Pliny the Younger in the whole city? When that keg blows, hit one button and confirm that it’s gone.
  3. Crack – Look through your queue, find the beer you’re replacing it with, and click to confirm that you’ve got it. Your list confirms that you’re out of it.

How you interact is up to you. Got a computer in the back office? A fancy iPad mounted somewhere? Notoriously nerdy bartenders with smartphones? Create accounts for your individual bartenders and give them access to update the list, or have everyone use the same account. Hell, let’s integrate it into the bar’s POS so that when you serve a new beer, it asks you what beer you just removed to make that happen.

The possibilities for this as an inventory management system are highly expandable. You usually carry bottles of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA but the distributor didn’t have it this week and you’re out of it for just a couple of days? Take it off the list. Upon deletion, the app asks you if you want to fully remove it (if it’s no longer distributed in your area and you know you won’t be getting it again any time soon), show it as temporarily out, or keep it on your private list that’s not visible to the public. “Temporarily out” lets searchers know that you usually have it, so they should check back later – turning it private means people probably won’t hound you about it when they see it on the list.

The truth of the matter is that a lot of places manage to keep a constantly updated beer list, but don’t keep their BeerMenus list going. Someone’s already sitting down at a computer updating the daily PDF but that’s as far as it goes. Monk’s Kettle, another fine establishment in my neighborhood, has an updated PDF menu every day and a notoriously informative Twitter account. I love that. But if I’m walking down Valencia Street, going to their website, looking for the menu, downloading a PDF and scanning it isn’t nearly as helpful as having all of that information in one place.

Monk’s also has a beautifully designed print menu that I’d never want them to change. What’s the solution? Enter everything into the system that feeds our new tool, and let the database populate into a well-designed, customized PDF, Word Doc, Excel spreadsheet, Illustrator or InDesign file. When a new entry hits the list, have it auto-update your Twitter feed. Feed it into a WordPress script that creates a blog post at 3:00 every day based on the most current list, templated to your specifications. The information is there; what you do with it is up to you.

What if the bar doesn’t want to use this content management system? They’re still around. Let’s take all of those traditional-style beer checkins and do something with them. With or without the bar’s involvement, we’ve at least got people checking in to beers at bars. Let’s put all of that information on a page for the bar – Untappd, I’m seriously talking to you at this point – because you know it exists. If I say I’m having a beer at Pi Bar, you’ve got that information. You know what beers people have checked into at Pi Bar; while it’s not an entirely cohesive list, it sure is better than what we’ve got now. If half of the beers on that board get on a list somewhere, it’s better than a list updated 20 months ago. It’s a start. Let’s link it all back to the bar so that if a customer checks in to a beer, it pops up a message (noticeably but not disruptively, of course) on the bar’s POS suggesting that someone just checked in to a beer. Allow them to confirm that the beer’s on now, whether it’s bottle or draft, and give the option to say what it replaced. One database, everything connects.

Anything else, nerd?

Sure, all sorts of stuff. But I’ve got to keep a few things hidden.

It’s not a solution for every bar and restaurant. It’s organized and nerdy and compulsive and a lot to imagine and has a little bit of an initial time investment. I realize that there are thousands of bar owners that think this is a bunch of work for a bunch of bullshit. But there are also coffee shops where you pay for your latte on an iPad using Square. There are bars with digital tap lists. (Really, really awesome digital tap lists.) And we’re already doing all of this stuff now, it’s just cobbled together and we’re doing it poorly. If we’re going to do it anyway, we should probably just do it really well.

And now it’s time for me to hear from you. First of all, I probably should have announced ahead of time that this isn’t just blowing smoke up everyone’s ass; what you’re looking at is a casually worded business plan that’s been in the making for some time. My partner and I went back and forth a few times about putting these ideas out into the world, but ultimately decided that we want to get people excited and we’re therefore showing our hand pretty early. So, tell us: What bugs you about your current system? What do you love about your current system? What am I completely wrong about? You’ll be seeing a lot more from us over the next few weeks, and I’d love to know that we’re on the right track.

Patrons, bar owners, and yes – designers and developers, we’ll be looking for you soon, too. Feedback here is great, but if you’re interested in seriously becoming a part of this project, email me so we can sit down to chat. Probably over a beer, because that’s obviously how I do things.

Thanks for listening. Let’s make something awesome.