It may seem hard to believe, but only a couple of decades ago, it was nearly impossible to provide feedback on new or redesigned products. Take for example, Crystal Pepsi. One day in 1992, while you were looking for your favorite dark brown soda on the shelves, here was this new clear thing! You tried it, shrugged it off, and likely never bought it again. Because the process of providing feedback to companies was so difficult back then, you simply voted with your feet.
If you were intensely motivated, you’d pick up a phone book, call Pepsi headquarters long-distance, hope to get routed to anyone close to the Crystal Pepsi “user experience” division, and then come up with some sort of feedback smart enough to justify the amount of effort you just exerted. Or maybe you’d handwrite a letter and mail it off to a possibly unmonitored mailbox.
Barely anybody did this, and the end result was that a lot of products, including Crystal Pepsi, failed without their creators knowing quickly enough why people were rejecting them.
But now we have Twitter! And evvvvvverybody has feedback.
Today, a couple of friends of mine, Soleio Cuervo and Adam Michela, took the wraps off of their new design studio/venture fund Combine. I almost never make announcements about investments because I’m not much of an investor, other than boring municipal bonds and index funds, but I’m really excited about this for one reason:
Design, as a discipline, is very often brought into startups only when founders feel like they can no longer do without it. We are still at a point in our industry where those who have never worked with a great product designer before believe design is there to animate things, or make decks look shiny, or write blog posts about the geometry of a new logo.
The cascading effects of this sort of thinking are many. Products don’t end up evolving as quickly as they otherwise could. Design, as an industry, continues to struggle with uneven perceptions and expectations. And finally, designers themselves end up with very little equity in the companies they join because they didn’t join early enough.
There are a lot of ways that compensation in the tech world needs to change, but speaking from my own experience only, the clearest line between who makes life-changing money at a company and who does not comes down to when you started and at what level (the “when” part being more important usually). The difference between being a day zero founder and a day one employee is significant. The difference between being hired the day before a Series B round and the day after is significant. The difference between being hired the day before an IPO and the day after is significant. We are talking about, in many cases, one day or one week or one month being the difference between never having to work again when you’re done and barely even noticing a difference in your life.
Is getting in early just being “lucky?” Sure, to a point. But I would argue it’s hitching your horse to the right wagon that is the lucky part. Getting companies to value design and designers at the very earliest stages of product and company development is something we can change if we put some effort into it, and that is the part of Combine that I am most excited about.
If Adam and Soleio’s vision of assembling the best established and emerging designers in the world and helping place them inside of well-funded, early stage companies pans out, we will benefit from both better designed products and more designers who share financially in the success of what they help create. That is something I am happy to be a very small part of.
I am not a spokesperson for Combine, so any questions you might have should be directed towards Soleio or Adam. Actually, I can answer one question: it’s pronounced COM-bine. Anyway, if you are a designer or researcher interested in finding out more about the program, I encourage you to get involved. If this sort of thing was around ten years ago, I would have jumped in head first.
(This post also available on Medium.)
The best thing about aging is that with each passing year, you are less vulnerable to what life throws your way. The things that affected you deeply as a teenager — both good and bad — are now just manageable parts of your life, to be dealt with as any adult would.
For the most part, I’ve enjoyed this transition, and you couldn’t pay me enough to be a teenager again.
Not a month goes by when I don’t feel incredibly thankful to have grown up in the cradle of the early ‘90s Seattle music scene, but Chris Cornell’s passing this month really made me think extra hard about what music is and how it fits into the lives of those who perform it and those who enjoy it.
The fact of the matter is, other than my wife and my health, there is nothing I value more in my life than having gone through my teenage years in a city as it gave birth to a musical movement. I imagine this is also how people felt in San Francisco or London in the late 1960s, but the examples are few and far between. Even when new genres appear, it is rare they are so concentrated in one region.
I remember vividly the first time I saw grunge in person. On January 17th, 1992, a couple of my friends — Chris and Chuck — asked me if I wanted to go see this band called “Pearl Jam” at the Moore Theatre that night. Since we usually just spent our weekends getting baked in parking lots and listening to reggae, this sounded like as good of an idea as any. I was into Zeppelin and a bunch of other bands at the time, but as far as I knew, no great music came out of Seattle.
“I’m really sorry to hear you are leaving. I wish I would have known you were unhappy.”
Every leader who has been around long enough has probably had a conversation like this after one of their team members resigns.
In an ideal world, people are open about every problem they face in the workplace, but great leaders know that we don’t live in an ideal world. There are a lot of reasons you won’t always know what might be brewing inside your team. People can be shy. People can be afraid of confrontation or retribution. People can blindly obey power structures because that’s how they’ve been taught. People can feel like “telling on someone” is disloyal.
A trip to the dentist’s office (!) yesterday reminded me how important the concept of proactively asking for the truth is.
As someone who has managed and worked with designers for most of my adult life, I get a lot of calls from people looking to check references on someone I’ve worked with or find out from me if there are other designers they should be talking to.
When I think about the range of critique I’ve provided in these situations, the term I always use to describe the very best designers I’ve ever worked with is five-tool designer.
Five-tool player is actually a baseball term used to describe someone who can hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, throw, and field. It’s the highest compliment you can pay to a player and is generally reserved for only the most complete athletes, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays. In fact, Major League Baseball estimates there are only 8 five-tool players in the game today.
Everyone looks for slightly different things in the designers they hire, but for me, there are five tools that stand above the rest.
This fascinating article about how an “election management firm” — under contract with the GOP — mined social network data and used it to bombard impressionable voters with content designed to manipulate them is thought-provoking and troubling.
Go ahead, read it first, and then come back. Also, for balance, read this counterpoint from Bloomberg doubting the data’s effect on the election, and listen to this podcast from Michal Kosinski who is the Stanford researcher featured in the article. Kosinski is unsure what effect data mining and targeting had on the election, but has plenty of fascinating things to say.
The first book I checked off my list this year was one I had heard about thousands of times since I was little but never actually read: 1984 by George Orwell.
I think what finally got me over the edge was this Reading List for the Resistance from Jason Kottke, so thanks Jason.
I very much enjoyed the book, and in a way, I’m glad that I waited until this very instant to read it. I think my younger self would have dismissed it as delusional and irrelevant, as I tend to retreat from science fiction the moment it feels implausible to me.
Reading the 1949 novel now though, at a moment in which the stiff boot of authoritarianism threatens to become part of American lives for the first time, I’m struck by how prescient it now seems.
There are a lot ideas from the book that feel more and more familiar in today’s world, but the one I can’t get away from is the concept of newspeak. For those who haven’t read the book, newspeak is a new language developed by the oppressive government that drastically reduces the amount and complexity of words in order to drastically reduce the amount and complexity of thought amongst the citizenry. The idea is, if you can remove say, 95% of words from the English language, new generations will not be able to formulate the undesirable thoughts represented by the eliminated words (think “coup”, “resistance”, “steal”, etc).
The end result is something of a pidgin. Very basic sentences, using a tiny subset of words, representing the minimal amount of thought necessary to keep the wheels of the totalitarian society running.
It strikes me that many of our communication channels today — while not being created with any sort of negative intent — may have ended up with similar properties:
“What did you ship last quarter?”
“When is this going to ship?”
“Real artists ship.”
The verb “ship” has a long history in the software development world and before that, the physical world. In the physical world, it originally meant “to transport something on a vessel”, and in the software world, it meant “to press a tape/disk/CD and send it out to consumers”. Since then, it has come to simply mean “release”, and even then, usually not in any sort of final form.
Everyone inside tech companies loves shipping. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and creativity from designers, engineers, PMs, researchers, and any number of other people, and when it’s good it puts a dent in the universe. It is no wonder then that so much of the machinery of tech organizations is centered around shipping.
But should it be? Especially given how much shipping itself has changed in the last couple of decades?
AIGA just published a fantastic rundown of all Olympic logos, as graded by Milton Glaser. Glaser is a legend, having created some of the most iconic design work of the 20th century, including the I ❤️ NY logo and the fantastic poster for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.
Logos, however, are a subjective endeavor, and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In other words, there is little objective truth in logo design… only a preponderance of opinions and feelings. It is possible to objectively grade a logo’s craftsmanship by looking for transgressions in things like alignment and stroke width, but in terms of how a mark makes you feel, beauty is much more personal.
With that in mind, there were some things in Glaser’s grading that I agree with and some that I disagree (even strongly) with, and thus, I decided to re-rank them according to a few criteria:
With those criteria in mind, here is my re-ranked list, in order of worst to best. Since I’ve ordered it this way, instead of by year, there is also a lot more snark at the beginning, but bear with me. Additionally, it’s important to remember that in practice, logos often go through many layers of politicking, compromising, and otherwise watering-down of what may have once been something much more impressive. Sometimes it is the designer’s fault that something didn’t turn out great and sometimes it is external factors entirely.
Results. Metrics. Impact.
When deciding how to evaluate employees, these are often the things companies land on. It makes sense on its face. If a company’s goal is to, say, grow its customer base from X to Y in 12 months, what better way to align employees to that objective than to try and directly measure their contribution towards it? You worked on Project A and it singlehandedly got the company 20% closer to its goal? Congrats, you are judged to be a successful employee and you will likely enjoy everything that goes along with that.
But what if you worked on Project B — not even by choice but because you were assigned it — and it ended up being a failure? Your results were terrible, you didn’t move metrics, and your project had no impact. Then what?
Welcome to the controversial world of employee evaluation in product design & development.
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