Do Great Work, Repeat

The title is from Greg Story‘s article The Future of the Digital Design Agency in the United States.

I have been thinking about design firms.We can call them agencies, studios, evolutionary consultancies, or whatever. They are the firms that have unique skills, competencies and perspectives that it is difficult to capture or justify inside a company. Sometimes the value or impact is so important that it is better to have the resources in house. We are seeing this tension between agencies and in-house design being played out. Capital One acquired Adaptive Path. TeehanLax shutting down and the principals joined Facebook. SmartDesign shutting down. The misconceptions of working in-house.  This is compared to a bright future for design firms to compete on mindset. To build a new operating model to evolve at least as fast as the world around them.

The design firm is not going anywhere. The design firm, like a startup, has speed as their advantage. Being able to evolve the practice, the processes, the mindset, the tools, the outputs faster than the market while still doing great work is what defines the firms and people.

But there is something in the back of my mind that makes me think the business model is broken. This is most likely just a hangover from my >15 years of thinking about startups, venture capital and growth as the narrative of impact and success. The conversation to me is reminiscent of conversations I have with product companies and founders. It is probably just co-incidence.

Six months to two years of cash on hand is when the “studio is the VC for the org”. This is eerily reminiscent of funding for emerging companies. And it triggers a lot of questions for me:

How should design firms invest their profits? Should they invest in growth? Culture? New companies? Should the new companies come from inside the design firm, i.e., growth by attrition? Is the role for the design firm on that is like a General Partner (GP) at a venture fund? Is it one that is closer to a  Limited Partner (LP) that invests in funds managed by others? Are the skills and people that are capable of growing a design firm that is capable of having both growth and 2 years of operations in profits the same people to build emerging companies? Do skunk works and labs projects generate new businesses or new insights that can be incorporated into client work? Are their alternative monetization strategies and business models for design firms?

For design firms it is clear. Do great work, repeat.

Prototyping science fiction

“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” –
Dennis Gabor

Tiago Forte wrote a great piece about “What I Learned About the Future by Reading 100 Science Fiction Books“.  The article is one of the more inspirational posts about how to imagine, define and build a future for humanity. So much of what we as designers do is try to imagine a future. The devices, the interactions, the business models, the behaviours and the implications of choices played out on different timescales.

I also read a lot of science fiction (you can see what’s on my Kindle) but I had never thought about it as providing a near or long-term impact on to my speculations on the human condition. Here are a list of books including the Briand David Johnson book identified in the Tiago Forte piece that I need to add to my library and reading queue.


Photo credit: Ron Brinkmann CC-BY-NC-SA-20

Stories about a future worth creating

Updated: Adding Tobias van Schneider’s The Agency is Dead, Long Live the Agency and Ben Cline’s Design Studios are Not Going Away to list of 

The conversation around the shutting down of TeehanLax has been very interesting and insightful. For me, it has really shown the dominance of the venture fundable, highly scalable startup narrative in relation to technology, design and the human condition.

I have been focused on this narrative. We can call it venture fundable, we can call it scalable businesses, it doesn’t matter what we call it. Being able to build a company with 32 engineers that can surpass an entire industry is seductive. It is the American dream. Anyone can build a company with the scale, wealth and impact of The Social Network. It has dominated the conversation.

But is it the narrative that will allow us to tell stories about “a future worth creating“?

I remember the moment in 1995 where my role models changed. My role models had always been designers and commentators. People like Bill Moggridge, Don Norman, David Kelley, Brenda Laurel, Bill Buxton, John Seeley BrownNathan Shredoff,Lucy SuchmanHerb Simon, Stu Card, Abigail Sellen, Paul Dourish and others. (BTW this list is by no means complete). Designers of experiences and the explainers of behaviour. The moment was the Netscape IPO. It started to shift to David Liddle, Kelly Johnson, Ben Rich and the people that started the research labs and product development groups as companies. Then I was introduced to C. Gordon Bell’s High-tech Ventures: The Guide For Entrepreneurial Success. This was the first time I had read about venture capital and the types of company that can be built. It was eBoys: The First Inside Account of Venture Capitalists at Work about Benchmark that solidified it. I wanted to be a venture capitalist. It was the thoughtfulness, the wealth, the prestige and impact of this group of investors. It was Jim Breyer, Vinod Khosla, Mike Moritz and others. Because the story about new technology, new wealth creation and the ability to change the human condition were compelling. These were companies that affected my own behaviour. And it is still true today, I find myself reading David Skok, Mark Suster, Bill Gurley, Marc Andreessen, Mike Maples, Boris Wertz, Tomasz Tunguz, Reid Hoffman, John Lilly and others.

But is it the narrative that will allow us to tell stories about “a future worth creating“.

The Future of Design Agencies

“The future of design agencies lies not in their ability to become more like their in-house counterparts, but their ability to become more unique. They need to see, speak, and act differently. Their value lies in their ability to describe the changes they see in the world with new language. This, in turn, makes it possible for people to imagine the future differently from the present.” – Matthew Milan

I have not worked agency side in a long time. My only thoughts have been about the economics of scaling a linear business, and this is probably an artifact from a venture fundable view of the world (also see Jon Lax’s talk Let’s Kill the Billable Hour). It is time to start thinking about different narratives. It is  time to look to a new group building new models for inspiration.

I’m looking forward to spending more time listening and learning about different models for impactful businesses. What are the businesses and business models that inspire and intrigue you?

Feature Image – Photo credit Guigui-Lille

Windows Phone 7 Design Resources

MS Holm Daylight app from Clarity Consulting
MS Holm Daylight app from Clarity Consulting

I updated my Open Source Icons post earlier to include updated list of icons. The interesting part was this brought up some great mobile design and development resources. With the list of available mobile icons being just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Speckboy provides an unprecedented list of resources for mobile developers and designers it includes: Android, iPhone & iPad, mobile web & app testing, .PSDs of different phones, and other mobile platforms.

Tools

Training Materials

UX Guidelines & Tools

WP7 CS4 Design Template
WP7 Design Template for Clarity Consulting

Panorama Navigation

Panorama Navigation on Windows Phone 7

Icons

Corded Innovations

It’s time for a new laptop. In the recent past I’ve owned/used:

  • Dell m1330
  • Apple MacBook Pro (late 2007)
  • Lenovo X60 Tablet
  • Asus EeePC 1000HE
  • Apple Powerbook G4

All have been great machines but they have been lacking. The Dell m1330 has the audio jacks on the front edge, which makes using headphones on the couch an impossibility and the plasticy bits are glued/taped on, lots of power and battery life. The MacBook Pro is missing an SD card slot, the battery life is mediocre but the MagSafe connector and overall industrial design are winners. The Lenovo is a tablet which means it’s overpriced and under powered, it’s a good solid machine. The Asus EeePC has great battery life, but it is too small the keyboard is tiny.

Replug.com

I really like the MagSafe connector on my MacBook Pro. It has saved the laptop from an excessive number of falls (though the frame is now dented and bent from the few falls it’s had). I was wondering why we haven’t seen other manufacturers attempt to innovate around the power connector. Sure the easy answer is because Apple owns a patent for a Magnetic connector for electronic device. However, there are other patents with similar ideas and different implementations.

There is the Replug connectors for headphones (see photo). This combined with the MagSafe connector would provide break away connections for the 2 items often plugged into my laptop.

But why has no other vendor innovated on their power connections? Do consumers just not care? Is this feature non-essential in the selection of a laptop? Or is it like many of the features on a Mercedes S-class as described by Jeremy Clarkson,

“When a new S-class hoves into view, you need only look at the technology that lurks under its vast bulk and you’ll know precisely what will be fitted to the Ford Fiesta 10 years down the line”

It’s a look at the future of laptops. As much as I like hardware hacking, I’d rather not have to hack my power connector with a DIY solution (which is strangely similar to my desire to not add aftermarket products to a car).

Teehan+Lax – Senior UI Designer

Toronto, ON

Teehan+Lax is currently reviewing portfolios of qualified Senior UI Designers who will research, architect, and design interactive experiences for web, software and device-based interfaces. We are looking for someone who is passionate about creating experiences that delight end-users and drive business goals: someone who shares our belief that designing great user experiences is as much about evoking an emotional response as it is about providing users with a means to an end. Candidates must be able to show examples of how they solved complicated problems without burdening users with complexity.

Qualifications

  • At least 5 years professional interactive design experience.
  • College or University Graduate in a related discipline (interaction or information design, HCI, computer science, behavioural sciences, etc.)
  • Strong knowledge and experience in Information Architecture.
  • Ability to perform visual design a bonus
  • Strong leadership and people management skills.
  • Proven ability to mentor and develop skills in all levels of designers.
  • Excellent interpersonal and presentation skills, including the ability to communicate effectively in small and large groups at all levels of a client organization.
  • Must live, or be willing to commute to Toronto.

Creative

  • Responsible for the developing of underlying content and functional architecture, navigation systems, interface elements, information design, and screen layouts for Web sites and other interactive applications.
  • Able to perform systematic analysis (i.e. task flow, workflow, technological and organizational implications) and validation (prototyping, user and A/B/multivariate testing).
  • Able to explore and document design decisions in a variety of modes, from high-level sketches to boxes-and-arrows flow diagrams to detailed wireframes.
  • Proficiency with drawing and graphing applications, HTML, interactive prototyping tools.

Management

  • Provide leadership throughout project discovery, Information Architecture, visual concept development and front-end development.
  • Help manage day-to-day operations, including setting priorities, assigning resources and ensuring project goals are achieved.
  • Oversee simultaneous projects from inception to completion, reviewing project plans, designs and deliverables.
  • Identify and implement process improvements to meet project and team needs.

Client

  • Work with Partners and Associates to ensure they are reacting appropriately to the strategic, logistic and creative needs of the client.
  • Participate in the creative role of new business pitches, proposal development and project initiation.
  • Work closely with clients through a consultative, participatory approach. Establish and nurture good client working relationships.

Team

  • Oversee the creative output of your team.
  • Monitor and drive an ideal balance in the available skills and personality of the team towards the needs of our customers.
  • Monitor and drive the team to utilize the best and latest methods and tools to be competitive.
  • Help develop the culture and mindset of the team to ensure they are healthy, happy, inventive, curious, and open.
  • Mentor the careers of your direct reports.
  • Promote a culture of innovation and teamwork.

What’s different about working at Teehan+Lax

We focus exclusively on front end user experience design for the digital channel. There are no back-end build teams, no offline divisions. Everyone you’ll be working with desires to create best in breed user experiences. In fact, 90% of the staff here hold creative positions. That means no Account Managers, no Managing Directors, no Business Analysts. We maintain very little hierarchy. There are two roles at Teehan+Lax: Partners and Associates. The people with the right skills are put on the right projects. We’re small and nimble. There are no pitch teams, no “B” teams. All of our staff work directly with our clients, so if a client has a question that relates to IA they’ll speak to the Associate or Partner who worked on it – not an account manager.

How to apply

If you’re talented, smart, hard-working and dedicated, we’ll enable you to do the best work of your career. Send us a resume and portfolio of your work to “jobs [at] teehanlax [dot] com”. Suitable candidates will be contacted promptly. Please no phone calls.

meshU schedule

meshu I’m a big fan of meshU. I was lucky enough to speak last year. Mike McDerment has announce the initial meshU schedule today. Perhaps a little Rails focused on the development side (AideRSS, Unspace and Engine Yard – even 37signals on the design side), this might be a result of FreshBooks using Rails for part of their infrastructure. I hope that Michael and the team will consider expanding the technologies to include things like PHP and Drupal, jQuery, other MVC frameworks, other mobile & rich client development environments, configuring your development environment.

The initial schedule looks great for designers and developers. It’s hands-on practical exposure to leading Web 2.0 technologies, techniques and patterns. meshU is a bargain, it’s $289 to attend ($25 for a limited number of student tickets). It fits right into a similar spot that TechDays filled for developers on the Microsoft stack. Way less expensive than Mix, PDC or Web2Expo particularly when you remove the travel costs. I love seeing world-class talent and conversation happening in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver (yes, I know that meshU is only in Toronto – for now).

Design

Development

Management

What: meshU
Registration: $289 – Limited number of student tickets at $25
When: Monday, April 6, 2009 (all day)
Where: MaRs Discovery District Auditorium

Toronto, Ontario

A web without windows

moz_design_challenge_logoCan’t help but love the shot at Microsoft in the latest Mozilla Labs Design Challenge post. Nice.

No windows, no unnecessary trappings.

I’m sure that this was not intentionally aimed at Microsoft’s IE8 RC1 announcement. But it made me laugh. It’s hard to imagine the world without the trappings of the personal computer. This is one of the unique challenges presented by August de los Reyes about Predicting the Past. I’ve been thinking more about personal health data, and thinking about how to build solutions aimed at informing and altering behaviour. Not on the scale of transformation that the Office Labs and MSR teams did with Future of personal health concept.  The video storyboards used in the Aurora Concept and the MSR Future of Healthcare videos are a great medium for students to express the complexity of the environment and the changes they see in predicting the future.

The question posed by the Mozilla Labs team is about extending the interpretation of the web. What does a user experience look like if the web is ubiquitous?

The Design Challenge is a series of events to encourage innovation, and experimentation in user interface design for the Web. Our aim is to provoke thought, facilitate discussion, and inspire future design directions for Firefox, the Mozilla project, and the Web as a whole.

It’s an interesting outreach to inspire and engage members of the Web community. It builds on the work that Mozilla did with Adaptive Path on the Aurora Concept exploring the future directions and ideas for Mozilla as a browser. The Design Challenge Spring 2009 asks 20 students to answer the following questions:

“What would a browser look like if the Web was all there was? No windows, no unnecessary trappings. Just the Web.”

It’s an interesting question and it provokes a series of other questions:

  • What does the Web really mean?
  • What does the Web mean in the context of a device? Does the device have local storage? local computation?
  • What assumptions as designers are we making about bandwidth? latency? interaction? behaviour?

The question of what is the Web and how individuals and groups interact, communicate and collaborate is really interesting. I hope that design students will document their assumptions about the hardware, software, networking infrastructure, carriers and to make their visions real.

As the Web becomes even more ubiquitous, we’ll never have to leave it. Whether it’s on touch tables, giant wall-sized screens, mobile devices, or just our computers, exploring the interactions for browsing a windowless Web will become ever-more important in the next couple of years.

Great opportunity for 20 design students to design a vision for the future. Plus they’ll get to work with Beltzner, Madhava, Aza, Alex and the rest of the team at Mozilla. 

Trapeze – Usability Specialist

Toronto, ON

Trapeze (www.trapeze.com), a leading interactive marketing agency is seeking a talented Usability Specialist to help contribute to the design and development of projects for clients such as: Bonefish Grill, CBS Television, Cineplex, Disney, Jaguar, LandRover, Mattel, MTV, Paramount, Pizza Hut and others.

Responsibilities

As a Usability Specialist with Trapeze, you’ll be accountable for:

  • Participating in project kickoff meetings, ideation sessions, design reviews
  • Conducting comprehensive usability site reviews
  • Researching, analyze and help define user needs and design approaches
  • Formulating UX concepts based on client documentation, business objectives/requirements, and best practices
  • Documenting functional aspects, behaviours and experiences with the following
    deliverables:
    • mental models
    • user contextual maps
    • information maps
    • information architecture diagrams
    • wireframes and functional prototypes

Requirements

  • Understanding of information design, metadata and user centered design principles and methods
  • Proficient in choice of IA, prototyping, and diagramming application (Visio, Axure, Omnigraffle, etc.)
  • Strong analytical skills and attention to detail
  • Effectively communicate designs and concepts visually and verbally
  • Familiar with industry trends in usability
  • Organized and ability to prioritize

Nice to Have

  • Qualitative and quantitative research skills
  • Experience with:
    • facilitating usability testing, focus groups, customer interviews, card sorting
    • survey design and implementation
    • developing research-based personas
    • data and statistical analysis

Key Benefits

Strong written and verbal communication skills

  • Able to work under tight timelines for demanding clients.
  • A good team player, with effective people management skills.
  • Ability to effectively solicit input from other skilled team members before deciding upon the best approach.
  • Understanding the big picture with a sense of empathy for the end user

Package/Benefits

  • – Competitive compensation plan
  • – Comprehensive health benefits plan (medical, dental, life insurance and disability)
  • – Excellent working conditions
  • – Career advancement opportunities

To Apply

Email your current resume to careers@trapeze.com with the words “Usability Specialist” in the subject line. No calls, drop-ins or faxes, please.

Johnny Bunko and comics

JohnnyBunko-DanPink

Dan Pink has released his latest career book, Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, it’s a manga book with all of that advice you wish someone had given you. Over a bourbon last night, Eli Singer and I were reflecting on manga, well Scott Pilgrim, and career paths. I was saying that I never imagined that I would be and “Evangelist”, this honestly wasn’t on my career career path at any point. It feels like a “career choice based on fundamental reasons”, something that I thought would be inherently valuable regardless of what it may lead to.

Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen provides a beautiful summary of Johnny Bunko. The slides have only text or photographs from istockphoto.com. It’s 6 simple lessons about building a successful career that all students should take the time to read.

Comics are a great medium for telling stories.They allow artists and authors to create compelling characters in rich, believable worlds using nothing more than pictures. Kevin Cheng has shown that comics are a great medium for convey concepts including unbuilt sofware. Scott McLeod has published a series of books on the art form of comics as a communication tool including:

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
by Scott Mccloud

Read more about this book…

Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form
by Scott Mccloud

Read more about this book…

Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels
by Scott Mccloud

Read more about this book…

Dan Roam‘s new book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures has a great set of techniques and tools for those of you who can’t draw. The VizThink community is a group of visual thinks to share their philosophies, experiences and approaches for using visualization for learning and communication. (VizThink has hired Ryan Coleman as their Chief Community Evangelist. And we’re back to the career discussion, I wonder if Evangelist was on Ryan’s path). If “The MFA is the New MBA“, then the visualization and communication tools presented are the foundations for the next generation of leaders and CEOs. And your career path might not have included becoming a designer, but there is obviously some market exchanges that can happen when, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
by Dan Roam

Read more about this book…

Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (Voices That Matter)
by Garr Reynolds

Read more about this book…