I had no idea mega-designer Paula Scher wrote a children’s book back in the early 70s. Just recently re-released in a new edition, The Brownstone is the story of the inhabitants of a NYC apartment building all trying to live together and get along.
Living in harmony with your neighbor isn’t always easy, but it’s doubly difficult if you’re a bear living in a New York City brownstone, getting ready to hibernate, and the kangaroos’ tap dancing upstairs and Miss Cat’s piano playing reverberate through the walls and floors.
The original has been long out of print (copies are $275 and up), so this is good news.
The internet went crazy yesterday three separate times: when the FCC officially endorsed Net Neutrality, when two llamas escaped, and over the color of this dress.1 A solid three meme day. That scuffling sound you hear is the media scrambling to deliver all sorts of different takes on What It All Means™. The only one I really read, and the only one I’m going to link to, is Paul Ford on why Buzzfeed got 27 million pageviews for #TheDress2 and some other site didn’t.
What I saw, as I looked through the voluminous BuzzFeed coverage of the dress, is an organization at the peak of a craft they’ve been honing since 2006. They are masters of the form they pioneered. If you think that’s bullshit, that’s fine — I think most things are bullshit too. But they didn’t just serendipitously figure out that blue dress. They created an organization that could identify that blue dress, document it, and capture the traffic. And the way they got that 25 million impressions, as far as I can tell from years of listening to their people, reading them, writing about them, and not working or writing for them, was something like: Build a happy-enough workplace where people could screw around and experiment with what works and doesn’t, and pay everyone some money.
This is not said as an endorsement of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is utterly deserving of insanely paranoid criticism just like anyone who makes money from your attention, including me. But it’s worth pointing out that their recipe for traffic seems to be: Hire tons of people; let them experiment, figure out how social media works, and repeat endlessly; with lots of snacks. Robots didn’t make this happen. It was a hint of magic, and some science.
I’m reminded of a story about Picasso, possibly apocryphal:
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.
“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”
So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.
“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”
“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.
“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”
To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”
Similarly, designer Paula Scher took only a few seconds to come up with the new logo for Citibank for which Pentagram likely charged big money for:
How can it be that you talk to someone and it’s done in a second? But it is done in a second. it’s done in a second and in 34 years, and every experience and every movie and every thing of my life that’s in my head.
Ford is exactly right about BuzzFeed; they put in the work for years so that a post that took probably 3 minutes to write captured more traffic in one day than some media outlets get in an entire month. (thx, @DigDoug & @jayfallon)
Update: A post from BuzzFeed’s publisher, Dao Nguyen, explains how the company’s tech team reacted to the unexpected traffic.
We have a bunch of things going for us at this point. We have heavily invested in infrastructure provisioning and scaling. We know exactly how to scale fast from running drills.
Some design heavies — Paula Scher and Gary Hustwit among them — choose their design highlights of 2008.
The best conceived, designed, and expressed total idea, ever: Barack Obama’s entire campaign, each and every part of it, including Barack Obama.
Two designs I found interesting were the Surface Table (made of carbon fiber, it’s only 2mm thick for a 13-foot-long table!) and Boudicca Wode Perfume, which sprays on blue and fades to transparent over time. (via quips)
Joel Spolsky, popular tech writer and founder of Fog Creek Software, has an article in the September 2008 issue of Inc. called How Hard Could It Be: How I Learned to Love Middle Managers. In it, Spolsky details how he came to the idea of building a small company where middle management was unnecessary. He took particular inspiration from an article he read about a GE plant.
It was about a General Electric plant in Durham, North Carolina, that made jet engines, and it offered a portrait of the perfect work environment: a factory that had more than 170 employees but just one boss. All the engine technicians reported directly to the plant manager, who did not have the time or the inclination to micromanage. There was no time clock, and people set their own schedules. Pay was egalitarian (there were only three pay grades), and workers who assembled the engines could switch tasks each day so their jobs were not monotonous. The result? In terms of quality, the plant was nearly perfect. Three-quarters of the engines it produced were flawless, and the remaining 25 percent typically had only a slight cosmetic defect.
The no-management rule worked at Fog Creek for a time but as the employee count crept up, cracks appeared in the system. Employees became disgrunted, in part because of a perceived lack of availability of the only two members of management, the CEO (Spolsky) and the president. To fix the problem, Fog Creek established a small layer of middle management.
First, we eliminated the need to get both me and Michael in the room. You have a question? I’m the CEO. Talk to me. If I want to consult with Michael, that’s my problem, not yours. Second, we appointed leaders for two of the programming teams — in effect, creating that layer of hierarchy that I had tried to avoid.
And frankly, people here seem to be happier with a little bit of middle management. Not middle management that’s going to overrule the decisions they make on their own. Not symbolic middle management that only makes people feel important. But middle management that creates useful channels of communication. If my job is getting obstacles out of the way so my employees can get their work done, these managers exist so that, when an employee has a local problem, there’s someone there, in the office next door, whom they can talk to.
Given his inital progressive approach to building a company, I’m surprised that Spolsky didn’t try something a bit different. For instance, Adaptive Path is structured using an advocate system. AP co-founder Peter Merholz explained the system to me via email.
It’s a way of avoiding typical management structures, where you have people reporting up a hierarchy. Our current structure has two levels… Executive management, and everyone else. That “everyone else” doesn’t report to the executive management. Instead, the report to one another through the advocate system. Each employee has an advocate. An advocate is like a manager, except they don’t tell you what to do. They are there to help you achieve what you want, professionally. Employees choose their own advocates. They simply ask someone if they would be their advocate.
Merholz allows that what the advocacy system doesn’t help with is communication across the organization — the very problem that was plaguing Fog Creek — and would likely work best alongside a light layer of middle management. But with the right guidelines and some slight changes, I believe it could work well in a company of 20-30 employees.
The Grey Dog’s Coffee restaurants — there are two locations in Manhattan — use a slightly different system of rotating management. Co-owner David Ethan explains.
From a historic perspective, I like to think that it’s one of the few truly bohemian places left in New York City, just based on the way we run it, like a commune. The management system here is that everybody manages. In order to work here you have two tries to show you can manage the place and if you can’t, you’re fired. Everybody manages about one shift a week and everybody’s equal. People work hard for each other. I don’t want to let you down because tomorrow it will be me. And I think they enjoy the responsibility of running a New York City restaurant. They get to pick the music, set the vibe, the lighting, everything. And they’re all pretty laid back, so it’s got a bohemian nature.
Running a restaurant each day and operating a software development company are quite different (for one thing, having a new boss every week wouldn’t work at a company like Fog Creek), but rotating managers on a project-by-project basis might work well. (BTW, I think Adaptive Path at one point rotated the presidency of the company through each of the founders in one-year chunks.)
Pentagram’s organizational structure provides a third possible way of avoiding a traditional system of middle management…although probably less germane to the Fog Creek situation than the previous two examples. The company is composed of several loosely connected teams that operate more or less autonomously while sharing some necessary services. Pentagram partner Paula Scher explained the system in her book, Make It Bigger.
As a design firm Pentagram’s structure is unique; it is essentially a group of small businesses linked together financially through necessary services and through mutual interests. Each partner maintains a design team, usually consisting of a senior designer, a couple of junior designers, and a project coordinator. The partners share accounting services, secretarial and reception services, and maintain a shared archive. Pentagram partners are responsible for attracting and developing their own business, but they pool their billings, draw the same salary, and share profit in the form of an annual bonus. It’s a cooperative…
She goes on to add:
Pentagram’s unique structure enabled me to operate as if I were a principal at a powerful corporate design firm while maintaining the individuality of a small practitioner.
Working small with the resources of a bigger firm, that’s the common thread here. I imagine there are many more similar approaches but these are a few I’ve run across in the past couple of years.
Paula Scher argues that the design of advertising has gotten a lot better in recent years but that the graphic design community isn’t paying too much attention.
I’m not sure that the graphic design community as a whole is paying any attention to this. I don’t see very many speakers from the advertising community invited to speak at design conferences (except for the very few who lead branding groups at agencies and in some circles they are still considered the enemy). I don’t read about it on design blogs, and I’m not seeing books published about it. I’m not seeing advertising, in any form, turn up in any design museum exhibitions, not at the Modern, not at the Cooper-Hewitt. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum has an annual designer award category for Communication Design and I’ve never seen an advertising person nominated since the award’s inception.
Pentagram’s Paula Scher illustrates the typical lifecycle of a blog discussion for the NY Times. More and more, I’m seeing threads skip immediately to steps 9 & 10: “Impugn the character of thesis author” and “Impugn character of anyone who even considered agreeing”.
Short profile of designer Paula Scher in Fast Company. “I’m not going to put on a party dress and play nicey-nicey because Laura Bush is having tea with people she doesn’t know who the hell they are anyway.”
Here’s a sampling of the rest of the AIGA Design Conference, stuff that I haven’t covered yet and didn’t belong in a post of it’s own:
Juan Enriquez gave what was probably my favorite talk about what’s going on in the world of genetics right now. I’ve heard him give a variation of this talk before (at PopTech, I think). He started off talking about coding systems and how when they get more efficient (in the way that the Romance languages are more efficient than Chinese languages), the more powerful they become in human hands. Binary is very powerful because you can encode text, images, video, etc. using just two symbols, 1 and 0. Segue to DNA, a four symbol language to make living organisms…obviously quite powerful in human hands.
- Enriquez: All life is imperfectly transmitted code. That’s what evolution is, and without the imperfections, there would be no life. The little differences over long periods of time are what’s important.
- Enriquez again: The mosquito is a flying hypodermic needle. That’s how it delivers malaria to humans. We could use that same capability for vaccinating cows against disease.
- Along with his list of 20 courses he didn’t take in design school, Michael Bierut offered some advice to young designers:
1. Design is the easy part.
2. Learn from your clients, bosses, collaborators, and colleagues.
3. Content is king.
4. Read. Read. Read.
5. Think first, then design.
6. Never forget how lucky you are. Enjoy yourself.
Nicholas Negroponte: If programmers got paid to remove code from sofware instead of writing new code, software would be a whole lot better.
- Negroponte also shared a story about outfitting the kids in a school in Cambodia with laptops; the kids’ first English word was “Google”, and from what Negroponte said, that was followed closely by “Skype”. He also said the children’s parents loved the laptops because at night, it was the brightest light in the house.
- Christi recorded Milton Glaser’s mother’s spaghetti recipe. “Cook until basically all of the water is evaporated. Mix in bottle of ketchup; HEINZ ketchup.”
- Ben Karlin and Paula Scher on the challenges of making America, The Book: Books are more daunting than doing TV because print allows for a much greater density of jokes. In trying to shoot the cover image, they found that bald eagles cannot be used live for marketing or advertising purposes. The solution? A golden eagle and Photoshop. And for a spread depicting all the Supreme Court Justices in the buff, they struggled — even with the Web — to find nude photos of older people until they found a Vermont nudist colony willing to send them photos because they were big fans of The Daily Show.
Bill Strickland blew the doors off the conference with his account of the work he’s doing in “curing cancer” — his term for revitalizing violent and crime-ridden neighborhoods — in Pittsburgh. I can’t do justice to his talk, so two short anecdotes. Strickland said he realized that “poor people never have a nice day” so when he built his buildings in these poor black neighbohoods, he put nice fountains out front so that people coming into the building know that they’re entering a space where it’s possible to have a good day. Another time, a bigwig of some sort was visiting the center and asked Strickland about the flowers he saw everywhere. Flowers in the hood? How’d these get here? Strickland told him “you don’t need a task force or study group to buy flowers” and that he’d just got in his car, bought some flowers, brought them back, and set them around the place. His point in all this was creating a place where people feel less dissimilar to each other…black, white, rich, poor, everybody has a right to flowers and an education and to be treated with respect and to have a nice day. You start treating people like that, and surprise!, they thrive. Strickland’s inner city programs have produced Fulbright Scholars, Pulitzer Prize winners, and tons of college graduates.
- I caught 30 minutes of David Peters’ presentation of Typecast: The Art of the Typographic Film Title and realized I should have gotten there in time to see the whole thing. I could sit and watch cool movie titles all day long. Among the titles he showed were Bullit, Panic Room, Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Superman. The title sequence for Napoleon Dynamite (which was discussed on Design Observer last year) was shown later in the main hall.
- At the closing party at the Museum of Science, we checked out the cool Mathematica exhibit that was designed by Charles and Ray Eames, two designers who were also pretty big science/math nerds.
- And some final thoughts from others at the conference. Peter Merholz says that “form-makers”, which make up the vast majority of the AIGA audience, “are being passed by those who are attempting to use design to serve more strategic ends”. (That’s an interesting thought…) A pair of reviews from Speak Up: Bryony was a bit disappointed with the opening Design Gala but left, like everyone else, in love with emcee John Hockenberry while Armin noted that the preservation of digital files is a big concern for museums in building a collection of graphic design pieces…in 35 years, how are you going load that Quark file or run that Flash movie?
For more of what people are saying about the conference, check out IceRocket. There’s a bunch of photos on Flickr as well.