What I’m Writing

One year at Microsoft

Last week marked one year at Microsoft for me, and what an unexpected adventure it’s been! I thought I was coming in to lead a a stable of popular, but well-trodden web properties, and I ended up getting to work on a whole lot more, including Windows, Bing Chat, and the company’s biggest bet in years: Copilot.

Microsoft Copilot Logo
“The Handshake” — Designed with Love, in Puget Sound

I usually write a lot about the companies I work at but have held off until now because we haven’t been hiring. Well now we are! We’re specifically looking for Designers and UX Engineers to work on our design system for Copilot. Some of these positions are on my team and based where we have offices (Puget Sound, the Bay Area, Atlanta, New York, Vancouver, Barcelona, Hyderabad, Beijing, and Suzhou) and some are on adjacent teams and can accommodate fully remote work. If you are a Designer or UX Engineer with a passion for design systems and AI, we’d love to chat.

Our deisgn team in Beijing
A recent visit to our team in Beijing… I had never been!

So what has year one been like? The good and the “needs improvement”. 🙂 👇

One of the reasons I decided to join Microsoft was I missed the joy of in-person product-making. I know not everyone feels the same way so I’m not trying to make any broad statements about local vs. remote work, but for me, it has been even more refreshing than I expected. I usually come in 3-4 days a week, while others on the team are anywhere from 0 to 5.

It’s funny, sometimes I will wake up on a Monday and think to myself “ahhhh, this is going to be a chill work-from-home day” and by the end of the day, I realize I’ve been staring into a screen on video calls for almost the entire day and how much that slowly saps my energy. Meanwhile, in-person days are filled with walks, whiteboarding, and energizing sessions with some of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had. I realize not everyone feels this way about being in the office from time-to-time, but I do. Even our fierce, interdepartmental karaoke battle helped bring a bunch of teams together who had never met before.

Mojin killin’ it at design karaoke

The other great thing about lucking out and joining when I did is that we are embarking on one of the rare paradigm shifts that occurs in technology maybe once a decade. The 1980s were about personal computers. The 1990s were about the internet. The 2000s were about smartphones. The 2010s were about the cloud. And the 2020s will be about AI. The really powerful thing about all of these developments is that they don’t replace each other, but rather they build on each other. AI is the result of everything that came before it. If you got into design to help shape the culture of the world around you, these are the moments you treasure.

These turning points are also wonderful because they give you a chance to reawaken to your Beginner’s Mind. I have learned more in my first year here than at almost any other time in my career. Not only does the pace of technological change in AI force you to build skills as you go, but there are so many amazing engineers, designers, researchers, writers, marketers and other creative people to learn from, that it happens almost automatically.

When I was interviewing here, not even my prospective new boss told me about any of what was behind the curtain. Only during my first week did I find out all we are working on to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. That is Microsoft’s mission statement, if you hadn’t heard it before. It’s an uncommonly good filter with which we can all ask ourselves every day “does this project actually do that?” It’s quite freeing as it gives you license to question projects at every stage of development.

Ask questions as early as possible
Don’t sleep on these pillows

Another thing I’ve loved about my first year here is that I joined a group that has figured out how to ship very quickly. That also has its downsides, as we have plenty of craft problems to solve, but it’s great working for one of the largest and most established companies in tech and being able to ship within weeks of designing something.

One more thing that’s blown me away is the Inclusive Tech Lab, where we work on new technologies to make our products inclusive to people all of abilities and walks of life. No one experiences technology the same way, and teammates like Dave Dame and Bryce Johnson do a ton of great work to make sure that’s top of mind for everyone.

Finally, one of the unsung benefits of working for a native Seattle company again is that Seahawks stuff is all over the place. Presentations, charity auctions, everyday office attire… you name it. It’s nice to not be the only one with good taste in football teams.

Seahawks art on campus
There are actual seahawks on campus

I am no corporate shill, however, so I must also be honest about some of the things that need improvement over here.

At the top of my list is that Microsoft has not yet fully embraced the role design plays at most other tech companies. We were engineering-driven in 1975 and we are squarely engineering-driven in 2023. The world, meanwhile, has changed in that time. It is no longer sufficient for complex things to work. They must also shed their complexity. People expect the products and services they spend their time and money on to delight. To overdeliver. To give them superpowers. Those sorts of qualities only materialize when you have supergroups building products.

In music, a supergroup is when a singer, a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist (and so on) who are all at the top of their game come together to create an album. In tech, a supergroup is a researcher, a couple of designers, a product manager, and a Volkswagen Bus or two full of engineers. Up until a decade or so ago, a lot of tech companies followed the model of packing projects with as many smart engineers as they could find and only sprinkled in things like design and research as necessary. I still see some of this thinking in pockets over here. I’m trying to influence things, but it’s a delicate dance, especially when the company has had such enormous success by doing so many other things very well.

I think there are plenty of people here who still feel like being engineering-led is unequivocally good, but to those people I would say that in a modern tech company, design is engineering. It’s no better or worse, but it does have very different leverage in the building of a product.

A diagram of a cross-functional team
Mess up the green or the yellow, and all the blue work can be wasted

On the plus side, Microsoft has never had as much design and research talent as it has right now, and we are increasingly looked to by the executive leadership team as lighters of the path. When we go into high-stakes meetings, we always go in with pixels and prototypes, which are uniquely good at cutting through bullshit and ambiguity. As a wise person once said, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.

There are a ton of amazing designers and researchers who have been here for 10 and even 20+ years whose hard work has led to this moment of evolution for the company, and every day I am in awe of their perseverance.

Temple of the Dog concert photo
Temple of the Dog: Seattle’s greatest supergroup

Next on my list is how often we get in our own way with “procedural goo”. I’ve worked in plenty of large companies including Twitter, Disney, and MSNBC, and have never seen the level of approvals, paperwork, and rules that get in the way of speed and autonomy here. Just transferring someone from within my own org to a slightly different role within my own org took a dizzying amount of effort. At most companies, this would have been about 10 minutes of work: one minute from me and nine from someone in HR trying to navigate to the right screen in Workday.

Then we have acronyms. My GOD do we have acronyms. I actually liked acronyms before I got here! I usually think they are cute. After seeing a new one almost every single day since getting here, I have resolved to never use them either inside or outside of work. I even say “Cyan Magenta Yellow Black” out loud if I have to!

cf2gs logo
When I think of bad acronyms, I always remember cf2gs: an excellent, but unfortunately named ad agency from Seattle’s past

Finally, the last thing on my list — and this is where you come in — is dedication to craft. It is so tempting to try and “science” your way into viable products these days. Build the beginnings of a customer base through rudimentary product-market fit, and then fastidiously optimize your funnel, your game mechanics, your viral loops, your push notifications, and so on and so forth. These gains are not always easy to come by, but they are rooted in ruthless experimentation and allegiance to short-term data. Our north star is at least pretty pure — Daily Active Users — and that metric is usually a good indicator that you’ve made something people like, but doctrinaire allegiance to almost any singular metric can quickly make people forget why we are in this profession to begin with: to improve lives. Or to put it squarely in Microsoft parlance again: to help every person and organization on the planet achieve more.

If you ever find yourself asking the question “how can we increase Daily Active Users?” instead of “how can we make our product better for people?”, you’ve already lost. Metrics are trailing indicators of qualitative improvements or degradations you’ve made for your customers… they are not the point of the work.

Recently, we’ve made some excellent strides in prioritizing qualitative product improvements even when they fly in the face of metrics we care about, and it’s really gratifying to see. It reminds everyone that a product is the collision of thousands of details, and the crafting of these details requires taste.

Edwin Land and his magic Polaroid camera
The Polaroid SX-70 camera: a triumph of design, engineering, and dedication to craft.

Designers are often looked to as “owners of craft and taste”, but craft is very much a team sport. It’s not just how things look and feel but also how they work. I very much like how Nick Jones (channeling Patrick Collison) at Stripe put it in this video:

What we put out there should quite plausibly be the best version of that thing on the internet“.

To do this takes an unbroken chain of excellence:

  1. An idea that can improve lives if executed well.
  2. Foundational research to light the path before design and coding begin.
  3. Rich design explorations and prototyping to make the experience palpable.
  4. Buy-in to build it at a level of quality that makes the team proud.
  5. Impeccable UX engineering and UX writing to make sure every detail is dialed.
  6. Well-conceived server-side engineering to make it scalable and maintainable.
  7. Creative marketing to prime people for the experience.
  8. … and finally, maybe more important that anything else on this list, the will to keep refining relentlessly after the experience is launched. This part is so often neglected as companies rush to build more things.

Some people would look at this list and think “yep, makes sense”. Others would look at it and think “sounds slow and not very agile”. The trick to balancing this level of quality with speed of development is realizing that it’s often more efficient to experiment in step 3 than it is in step 6. This is why so many modern tech companies realize that hiring more designers and researchers doesn’t waste time and money… it saves time and money. With less than a week of one designer’s time, we can produce a wide variety of prototypes to test with real people. Just recently, we created an entire GPT-powered research application without even bothering a single engineer.

Design is engineering.

Finally, a brief note about prototyping. I would argue that the most impactful innovation in the craft of product development over the last 20 years has been the rise of rapid design prototyping. Prototypes that demonstrate an experience are useful not just in usability testing, but also in selling ideas up and across the organization. Engineers hate working on things that haven’t been thought through or “appropriately politicked” yet, and if you can bring them a working prototype that has already been vetted with users and various stakeholders across the company, they will love you for it and work hand-in-hand with you to get every detail right.

Design prototypes are the currency of a high-craft, high-speed product development organization, and they are increasingly the currency of our team.

Alright, back to the hiring. I plan to hire against the entire growing list of products our team is responsible for: Copilot, Windows, Edge, Bing, Start, Skype, SwiftKey, and so much more… but for now, this is a concerted hiring effort centered around Designers and UX Engineers to help build out the emerging design system for Copilot and our suite of AI-powered products.

If this is you, please have a look at the following roles we’ve just posted:

We’d love to work with you on the future of design systems at Microsoft!

Yes, Rubbing Snail Slime on your Face Actually Works

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a post on Mike Industries, so I thought I would resume programming with an unorthodox product suggestion that I am pretty sure you will love: snail mucin.

I recently got back from a trip to Korea where this stuff was all over the place. I had heard about people rubbing snail slime on their faces before but never really gave it much thought since I have quite literally never found any sort of face cream/lotion/serum that seemed any better than anything else. They are usually either too greasy or they evaporate too quickly. I’ve had pretty splotchy, combination skin my whole life, and oddly the only thing that has ever helped me is the sun. Come fall and winter, when sun is harder to come by in Seattle, things usually deteriorate pretty rapidly.

On a whim, I decided to buy three snail-based products: this cleanser, this serum, and this cream. Total cost: $45. (These are not affiliate links.)

It’s been almost two months now, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I haven’t had a single dry patch, blemish, or even a hint of redness since the very first application. Just a dollop of serum in the morning, a regular face wash with the cleanser at night, and a spot of cream right after. Whole thing takes a only a minute.

Other than the results, the best thing about this stuff is the way it feels. It’s just a super thin layer that stays on all day and you don’t even notice it.

Anyway, skin care is way off of my normal beat, but I figure if you’re looking for something new yourself or want to give an amazing gift this holiday season, you owe it to yourself to try this stuff! It really does work.

I’m Joining Microsoft!

Despite living in Seattle for almost all of my adult life, I haven’t actually worked for a local company in almost ten years. Remote work is great in so many ways, but in-person collaboration is what gives me life.

In confident pursuit of that feeling, I’m thrilled to be joining Microsoft to run Design & Research for their Web Experiences organization.

I was Microsoft-adjacent 10 years ago at MSNBC.com in Building 25, but this will be my first time as a blue badge, so to speak. I’m also thrilled to be joining Liz Danzico and John Maeda, who have also started at Microsoft in the last several months. I’ve known them both for a long time and have wanted to work with them forever.

There are several things which drew me to this opportunity, but at the top of the list is the people. Not just Liz and John, but the thousands of teammates in Seattle, Vancouver, Hyderabad, Barcelona, Beijing, and many other cities. There are certainly some great solo efforts in tech, but almost all of the best work I’ve been around has been the result of getting the right people jammin’ with each other. In my first several days here, I’ve already met so many of those people, and I can’t wait to continue the momentum Albert Shum created by carrying the torch for one of the best Design & Research teams in the Pacific Northwest.

The second thing I’m super excited about is the scale of the work. I’ve worked on the largest sports site in the world and one of the largest social networks in the world, but the properties in this group reach well over a billion people. Between the (refreshingly fast!) Edge browser, MSN, Bing, and several other products, Microsoft has quietly built up one of the top five properties in the world in terms of traffic and reach. They’ve also done it with humility, knowing how far they are from being perfect. I also love that so many of these products can and will be so much more as we begin to use some of the technology that’s emerging within Microsoft. In my first two weeks, I’m already overflowing with ideas.

Finally, the other thing I’m most excited about is getting back into the office in a flexible hybrid environment. I’ve worked in-person for most of my career and remotely for the last four years, and where I’ve landed is that everyone’s preferences are different, and it’s just tradeoffs all the way down. Where you land depends on a mix of your personality, your life outside of work, and what type of job you have. For me personally, I very much like being around people and feel like I do better work when I am… but I also like getting back my commute time a couple of days a week and making daily jogging more convenient. Also, Henry (pictured above) enjoys the extra lap time. Microsoft’s hybrid policy is a nice balance, and it sounds like exactly the right setup for someone like me.

Speaking of the exactly right, this also feels — for me at least — like exactly the right time to join Microsoft. The company has been through several distinct eras over the decades, but this feels like the era of re-commitment to the planet. To customers delightful experiences, to employees a great environment, and to the natural world, a smaller and eventually negative carbon footprint.

It’s a new year, and I couldn’t be any more here for it!

How to Automatically Post your Tweets to Mastodon

Over the last several weeks, I’ve gotten in the habit of trying to move all of my Twitter activity over to Mastodon instead. I signed up for Mastodon several years ago, but only now are there enough people using it for it to replace a lot of what you might use Twitter for. Some of your friends are there, some of your favorite bots are there, and some news sources are there. What more do you need in life, really?

I’ve been using Pinafore (along with a user stylesheet I created… feel free to grab it for yourself) to use Mastodon on the web, and a combination of Ivory and Metatext on my iPhone. Ivory looks a bit nicer but Metatext has a Notifications tab that acts more you’re used to it working on Twitter.

If you want to move all of your activity over wholesale, go to town. If, however, you want to keep publishing Tweets on Twitter and have them automatically publish to your Mastodon account as well, this short guide is for you. The entire process should take around five minutes. It’s mostly just clicking around on a couple of websites.

Important: If you do this, the goal should not be just replicate your Tweets and never visit or engage on Mastodon. The goal should be to help you build your Mastodon presence and save you from having to manually double-post. Ideally you quickly get to the point where Mastodon becomes your primary crib.

Step 1: Open a Mastodon account

If you’ve already done this, great. If you haven’t, head to any server you want — like mastodon.social, for instance — and set up your account. You can always switch your server (along with any followers you accrue) later, so don’t stress about the server you choose.

Read more…

Performance is the Moat

There is no shortage of opinions about today’s news that Adobe will be acquiring Figma, so I’ll try not to repeat any of what’s already been said here. A lot of it boils down to designers and engineers being understandably concerned that the product they’ve grown to love and put at the center of their workflows over the past few years is now under the control of another company. Adobe-specific concerns aside, this unease would also exist if the acquirer was Microsoft, Oracle, Amazon, Atlassian or just about anyone else in big tech, save maybe Apple. The jokes would just be different.

As someone who competed against Figma for a couple of years, I want to talk briefly about what makes them so hard to catch, and why I think Adobe ultimately decided they would never beat them:


Even though I have spent over 20 years in the design industry working directly on consumer products, I never fully appreciated the importance of performance until working in the design tools industry.

Most digital consumer products are used in short bursts over a long period of time. Think about the Amazon app on your phone. You open it maybe once a week, peck around for what you need, hit Buy Now, and you’re on your way. If there is a two-second lag between purchasing and getting your confirmation screen, you don’t even think twice about it. Even in the case of an outright error, you just shake your head, hit reload, and things are usually fixed.

With professional production tools though — whether design, engineering, or otherwise — full-time craftspeople spend almost every hour of every work-week inside of your software. Every time something goes even remotely astray, it is noticed. Putting aside catastrophic stuff like data loss, even things like cursor lag, screen flicker, progress bars, and scroll/zoom performance are tiny paper cuts that form into pools of blood by the end of each day.

Figma did a lot of things right over the ten (yes, ten!) years they’ve worked on the product, but one thing they did that no one else has been able to replicate is meet and in some cases exceed native app performance inside of a web browser.

Nothing Figma has accomplished in the marketplace would be possible without this, and it is the thing that competitors have struggled the hardest to replicate. When you build software using native code, you get a lot of stuff for free. Need a scrolling list? Apple, Microsoft, and Google have multiple pre-built components you can use. Need to draw one semi-transparent shape on top of another? The system already knows how to render that. Need to optimize it all for speed? Most of that work has already been done.

Inside of a browser though, the work is rarely done for you. Even in instances where someone has already built a component, it’s often too slow or glitchy to use in a professional development environment. So what did Figma do about this? Over the course of several years, they:

It was this last one that really made me see how wide the moat was for the first time. Normally companies keep their secret sauce secret. After all, why would you want to give your competitors any information that might help them compete? But a company who routinely publishes information that is useful to competitors? That is some confident shit right there. It reminded me of a tweet I can’t find from several years ago:

“The design tool war is already over, but no one knows it yet.”

Fast forward a few years and everyone who has tried to match Figma’s all-around performance has fallen short. Private companies like Sketch and InVision. Public companies like Adobe. It’s not for lack of effort by hundreds of incredibly smart people. It’s just really frickin’ hard. Combine that with the fact that Figma is a moving target who is now building entirely new capabilities, and you can see why Adobe decided this wasn’t just a move they wanted to make… it was a move they had to make.

… which brings us back to a lot of the reaction we are seeing on Design Twitter today.

I don’t think people mind the abstract concept of Figma being acquired by another company nearly as much as they mind the very real threat of Figma losing what makes it so special in the first place: focusing maniacally on performance, thinking differently, and optimizing for user experience above all else. The backlash is an expression of how a lot of people feel Adobe has done in those categories over the last decade.

If I’m Adobe, I am printing out as many Tweets from today as I can, making a book out of them, and then doing this:

Boy absorbing words from a book

After that, I’m letting Figma lay the tracks for the next decade of this industry and rallying the thousands of talented people at my own company to rethink how the entire organization builds software. Within the next several years, it’s going to be possible to go from idea in the morning, to prototype in the afternoon, to working code in the evening… and the company who can do that most thoughtfully is going to be one of the most important companies in the world.

How to Order Fast Food while Inflicting as Little Damage to Yourself as Possible

Let’s get this out of the way first: I am not a dietician, an economist, or an ethicist. I am, however, a guy who likes to occasionally eat at fast food places. I’m also a guy who stops running over the winter, puts on a few pounds, and then has to lose them again in the spring… so I’ve been paying attention to how to eat “least badly” at fast food places.

Below is my dollar-store wisdom, in case you also want to enjoy fast food in moderation.

First, some golden rules:

Rule #1

No soda. This is an easy one. A medium Coke is 210 calories, 56 grams of carbs, and no protein. It’s also about $2 for something that costs about a nickel to make.

Instead, go with free tap water or an unsweetened iced tea. Zero calories and nothing artificial. Another nice hack that works at some places is going to the soda fountain and filling your water cup with club soda. There are usually two small tabs and one of them says “water”. The other one is the “off-menu” free club soda.

Club Soda
Welcome to the clubbb, playuh’.

Rule #2

No fries… or if you must, get a small every now and then. I understand people like fries. I like fries too. But even a small order of fries is another 220 calories, 29 grams of carbs, and only 3 grams of protein.

In-N-Out Fries
If you must eat fries, at least don’t eat these ones. Tasteless, single-fried garbage.

Rule #3

Study menus for what’s overpriced and what’s underpriced. For instance, at Mickey Dee’s, a McChicken, a hamburger, and a 6-piece McNuggets are all $2 apiece or less. Meanwhile, a Double Bacon Quarter Pounder with Cheese is $7.

These places all encourage you to buy the Value Meals, but since you aren’t getting the soda or the fries, individual prices matter.

Now onto the meat of the matter: what should you order at each of the major national fast food places?

Read more…

I’m Joining Kraken! 🐙

One of my favorite things about the design industry is that you can have a dozen completely different careers without ever leaving the field. For me, I started in print, then moved to digital, then to desktop web, and then to mobile. In terms of industries, I started in sports, moved to entertainment, then to news, then to social media, and most recently to design tools.

So much of designing is about learning, and the best way to make sure you are always learning is to put yourself into environments that are novel to you. The author Michael Pollan said it best recently when Kara Swisher asked him why he stopped writing about food and started writing about psychedelics:

“As a writer, I like writing nearer to the beginning of the learning curve. I like not knowing. I enjoy that process of learning.”

That sentiment is exactly why I decided to take the leap and join one of the largest digital asset exchanges in the world, Kraken, as their Head of Design & Research.

Kraken Reef

What is a digital asset exchange? On the surface, it may look like a place to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. Underneath though, the vision is much larger. Imagine a world in which all assets — physical or digital — are tokenizeable and tradeable, more or less instantly, without having to deal with the gatekeepers of the last century.

I am not a Bitcoin maximalist, an Ethereum maximalist, or any type of Other Coin maximalist, and I hold almost no crypto myself other what I’ve spent to support a few NFT creators. It is, however, becoming clear that with more smart people joining this industry, more regulation drafted which accommodates digital assets, and more creative use cases popping up every single day, there is a LOT of frontier to develop here. I look at this emerging part of the internet almost as a musical scene developing across the world. There are good bands, bad bands, old instruments, and new instruments, but more than anything, there is a sense that everyone is working creatively to change the culture around us.

That said, I also have reservations. People who chastise certain cryptocurrencies for consuming meaningful amounts of energy are correct in their criticism. In fact, I hope pressure of this kind stays forceful because it helps create things like:

  1. Proof of Stake, a method of verifying transactions that requires much less energy than some other methods.
  2. Chia, a coin that uses hard drive space instead of processing power, thus slashing energy usage by 99%.
  3. The Lightning Network, a layer that sits on top of Bitcoin and allows it to process many more transactions with much lower energy usage.
  4. Most importantly, a dramatic increase in the creation and adoption of solar and wind power around the world.

I also have questions about what gets better and what gets worse in the move from fiat to crypto. For instance, I love that our government can print money to help people make ends meet during times of hardship. I hate that it can print money to produce an endless supply of weapons and wars. I’m not smart enough to know how that all plays out, but I think for the foreseeable future, there will probably be both fiat and crypto so it pays to have a deep understanding of both.

So why Kraken in particular? There are certainly plenty of amazing places one could join in order to explore this new frontier. For me, it came down to:

  1. The indy mentality. This is hard to explain, but you know it when you see it. A creative band of people taking pride in the creation of something new and helpful.
  2. A vision much bigger than finance. If Kraken looks and feels like a bank in three years, we will not have done our jobs.
  3. An international focus. Kraken operates in 48 U.S. states and is the first exchange to get a U.S. bank charter, but its business is even stronger abroad. It is the #1 exchange by volume in Euros and has been for some time.
  4. A growing, profitable business at an inflection point. There are a lot of companies in this space that are doing super cool things, but their path to profitability is less certain. I’ve never been at a company that is growing the way Kraken is right now (and I’ve been at ESPN, Disney, and Twitter among others).
  5. An ex-colleague of mine, who just passed his two-year mark at Kraken told me this: “At every job I’ve ever had, I’ve wanted to leave after two years. At this place, I am even more excited today than when I joined.”

So what is my role in all of this?

Ultimately, to make the experience of participating in this new frontier easier, safer, and more fun for people all across the world.

In order to do that, I will:

… grow and nurture a diverse Design & Research team full of kind people who work hand-in-hand with Engineering and Product to produce delightful experiences.

And in order to do that, I would love:

to talk to you if you’re interested in helping build something fun, new, and exciting! I’m still too new to know exactly what I need, but I can tell you for sure we’ll be hiring individual contributors, managers, designers, researchers, content strategists, writers, and many more types of people outside my department (engineers, marketers, customer success peeps, et al). I am also interested in talking to agencies who may want to stop doing client work and join us full-time. Hit me up over email if you’re interested, or if you know people I should talk to (firstname at mikeindustries.com).

If you — like me — are curious about taking the leap into crypto, but you’re nervous about what lurks beneath the surface, come join me at Kraken. I’ve been here a few weeks now, and I can tell you that the water’s warm.

Anyway, that’s it for now. I look forward to building another great team full of fun people, and also reminding everyone in my hometown of Seattle that I don’t work for the new hockey team.

Here Lies Flash

In just a few short days, on December 31, 2020, we will say our final goodbyes to one of the most important internet technologies that ever lived: Flash.

I remember vividly the first time I saw Flash on a computer screen. It was 1997, I was finishing up college, and I had managed to teach myself enough HTML to think about pivoting from print design to interactive design as a career.

Web design, at the time, was a clumsy beast. Most web sites were essentially Times New Roman black text on a grey background with an occasional low-quality image here and there. The “design” part was often just figuring out how to best organize information hierarchies so users could feel their way around.

Once we got bored of basic HTML (there was no CSS at the time), we started doing unholy things with images. We’d set entire pages in Photoshop, slice our layouts into grids of smaller images, and then reassemble everything into a clickable mess. These were dark times.

My college, having invented PINE, was considered “on the front edge” of the internet at the time. Here’s is what our site looked like back then:

University of Washington Home Page in 1997

Even the most beautifully designed sites felt a bit lifeless, and once someone came up with a new layout that worked well, everyone would just ape it. To make matters worse, every new advancement in methods required more convoluted hacking to display correctly across Netscape, Internet Explorer, and every other fringe browser in use at the time. It was a total mess.

Here is the first version of Zeldman.com I could find, from 1998. Amazing for the era, and holds up impressively in a nostalgic, cyber-Americana sort of way, but you can see how limited we were by screen widths, color palettes, and layout technologies.

Then one day in 1997, I clicked on a link to Kanwa Nagafuji’s Image Dive site and the whole trajectory of web design changed for me. It looked like nothing I had ever seen in a web browser. A beautiful, dynamic interface, driven by anti-aliased Helvetica type and buttery smooth vector animation? And the whole thing loaded instantly on a dial-up connection with nothing suspicious to install? What was this sorcery? Sadly, I can’t find any representation of the site online anymore, but imagine the difference in going not just from black-and-white TV to color TV, but from newspaper to television.

Nagafuji’s work was such a huge, unexpected leap from everything that came before it that I had to figure out how it was done. A quick View Source later revealed an object/embed tag pointing to a file that ended in “.swf”. A few AltaVista searches later led me to the website of Macromedia, makers of ShockWave Flash (“SWF”), the technology that powered this amazing site.

I downloaded a trial version and was blown away at the editing interface. Instead of a shotgun marriage of Photoshop, HTML, browser hacks, and a bunch of other stuff that felt more like assembly than design, here was a single interface to lay out text, shapes, images, and buttons, and animate everything together into an interactive experience! It was magic.

After mucking around in the Flash editor (version 2 at the time) for a few hours, I did what every self-respecting web designer would do and immediately set out to find other cool stuff to copy. Over the course of the next several months and years I would find such gems as:

Yugop from Yugo Nakamura
Once Upon a Forest and Praystation from Joshua Davis
Nose Pilot by Alex Sacui
Natzke.com by Eric Natzke
Presstube by James Paterson
Gabocorp from Gabo Mendoza
John Mark Sorum by WDDG
2Advanced by Eric Jordan
NRG Design by Peter Van Den Wyngaert
The Hoover Vacuum Site by Fred Flade

… and of course, everything by Hillman Curtis (Rest in Peace)

(Sadly, much of this work is hard to relive due to Flash already being disabled in many browsers. I’ve tried to point to video demos where possible, but you can also try your luck with the Ruffle plug-in.)

From there, a bunch of us new designers set out to learn more about animation, type, scripting, and everything else that put you at the vanguard of the profession in those days. Flash was the first technology that showed us we could be great.

My initial effort was mdavidson.com, a rudimentary personal site that was the precursor to Mike Industries:

From there, I would move on to design Flash sites and features for ESPN, Disney, K2, The New York Rangers, and dozens of other organizations, never matching the quality of the masters listed above, but always breaking new ground in one way or another.

K2 Skates site

Other fun projects I collaborated on with my friend Danny Mavromatis included a virtual observation deck for the Space Needle, an interactive on-demand SportsCenter, and a Disney movies-on-demand service fully 20 years ahead of Disney+! All in Flash.

Perhaps the thing that gives me the most joy though is something we built and gave away for free: sIFR. What started as our brute-force attempt to use Akzidenz Grotesk for headlines on the front page of ESPN, turned into a more elegant implementation by Shaun Inman, which then turned into a scalable solution by Mark Wubben and me. We poured hundreds of hours into sIFR not to make any money but just to advance the state of typography on the web.

Over the next several years, sIFR was used to display rich type on tens of thousands of web sites. Although it relied on Flash, it was standards-compliant and accessible in its implementation, so it was the preferred choice for rich type until Typekit came along in 2009 and obviated the need for it.

All of this is to say, the role Flash played in helping transition the web from its awkward teenage years to a more mature adulthood is one I will always appreciate. And we haven’t even talked about its role in game development.

When discussing the life and death of Flash, people often point to Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash” as the moment things turned south for it. Worse yet, the idea that “Steve Jobs killed Flash”. I don’t think either of those things is actually true.

Flash, from the very beginning, was a transitional technology. It was a language that compiled into a binary executable. This made it consistent and performant, but was in conflict with how most of the web works. It was designed for a desktop world which wasn’t compatible with the emerging mobile web. Perhaps most importantly, it was developed by a single company. This allowed it to evolve more quickly for awhile, but goes against the very spirit of the entire internet. Long-term, we never want single companies — no matter who they may be — controlling the very building blocks of the web. The internet is a marketplace of technologies loosely tied together, each living and dying in rhythm with the utility it provides.

Most technology is transitional if your window is long enough. Cassette tapes showed us that taking our music with us was possible. Tapes served their purpose until compact discs and then MP3s came along. Then they took their rightful place in history alongside other evolutionary technologies. Flash showed us where we could go, without ever promising that it would be the long-term solution once we got there.

So here lies Flash. Granddaddy of the rich, interactive internet. Inspiration for tens of thousands of careers in design and gaming. Loved by fans, reviled by enemies, but forever remembered for pushing us further down this windy road of interactive design, lighting the path for generations to come.

RIP Flash. 1996-2020.

If you feel so moved, pour one out for our old friend in the comment section below.

Upgrading Mint for use with PHP 7+

This is a very niche post, but I’m posting it mainly to help people who might be searching Google for the solution to this problem: if you have been using Shaun Inman’s Mint for self-hosted website stats, you may have noticed that it no long works in PHP 7 and above.

When I noticed it broke, I spent several hours trying to figure out why and to fix it as quickly and easily as possible. Essentially, there are two reasons why it doesn’t work anymore:

  1. PHP 7 no longer lets you use "=&" to “assign a new object by reference”. I don’t even really know what this means, but I do know you can solve it simply by removing the &. There is only one place you need to do this in Mint’s code and that is on line 3409 of /mint/app/lib/mint.php where it says $DOM =& new SI_Dom($xml);. This problem was infuriating because it just makes the whole app fail silently, without throwing a single error. I spent a half a day deleting random code just to identify the culprit.
  2. The MySQL API has been deprecated in PHP 7 and Mint uses it for all of its database work. You’re supposed to rewrite all of your queries to use the new mysqli or PDO_MySQL APIs, but after a few hours of trying to do this, I realized my PHP skills were not up to the task and I opted for an easier solution instead. There’s a wrapper you can just include with your Mint install that translates all of the functions on the fly for you. This method is generally “not recommended” by people who actually know what they’re doing, but for a quick fix, it worked perfectly for me. If someone wants to patch Mint correctly, I will gladly post a pointer to it here. Anyway, all you have to do is download that file, upload it to /mint/app/ (next to path.php), call it something like mysql_bridge.php and then add this line right above the first include statement in /mint/index.php: include(MINT_ROOT.'app/mysql_bridge.php');

Voila! You’re done. The whole procedure should take only a few minutes.

Machine Learning and Cover Songs

There’s nothing like a great cover.

You’re rekindling angst at a Pearl Jam show and without any warning they go right into a Beatles song. You recognize some David Bowie lyrics on Spotify, and you discover it’s an unrecognizable version of Let’s Dance by M. Ward. You listen to Tiny Cities by Sun Kil Moon several times before you even realize it’s an entire album of beautifully fermented Modest Mouse songs.

How often have you thought to yourself, I would love to hear this person sing this other band’s song in their own style? For instance, I wish I could listen to Mike Doughty sing just about anything.

Over the past year or two, we’ve started to see artificial intelligence begin to approximate that dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective). First it was eye-opening deep fake videos of past presidents appearing to say things they never said, but now it’s moved on to much more creative and cool endeavors like OpenAI Jukebox. You should read the full description on the site, but essentially they are training models to identify everything that goes into a song: instruments, lyrics, musical style, and a whole lot more. The models are primitive for now, but even at this early stage, they can start recombining things in interesting ways like having Ella Fitzgerald sing a Prince song but in the style of folk rock.

I spent a good part of the weekend messing around in Jukebox, and it’s mesmerizing. It really feels like the beginning of something big, and just as excitingly, something that could get orders of magnitude better within only a few years.

When you listen to it, it almost feels like the first words of a child… or if you prefer, the first song from Jimmy Page.

A lot of the stuff in the library is pretty rough, but here are some of the most interesting ones I found:

Everything feels very Frankensteiny right now, but imagine a few years from now when these techniques are improved and expanded. We may reach a point where there is a virtually unlimited universe of concert-quality covers you can create with just a few taps. As a music lover, this is super intriguing, but on the other hand, I wonder how musicians will feel about it. And will their opinions change based on whether we can find a way to monetize it generously for them? I could see some artists rejecting this sort of thing outright because it’s not real music in the traditional sense, and I wouldn’t blame them. But what if you told them that every time their voice was mixed into another song, they made a royalty off of it? That might change some opinions.

This is going to be a really fun space to watch closely over the next few years. Until then, I leave you with another great cover: Metallica’s Orion — by Rodrigo y Gabriela. Incidentally, the header image for this page is from their Masonic Auditorium show in 2015. Pure luck but probably the best photo I’ve ever taken.

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