January 2012

Interview with Frank Chimero, Denise Jacobs & Trent Walton

For the first of three interviews with New Adventures speakers, Simon Collison got together with Frank Chimero, Denise Jacobs, and Trent Walton to talk about teaching, collaboration, the way design moves, and the ebb and flow of the web. So, grab a cuppa and strap yourselves in: it’s a big one.

SIMON: The three of you all teach, to some degree. What is it that matters to you about getting in front of people and sharing your ideas?

DENISE: I can’t help it. I like to share stuff. I like to help people. So, if there’s anything that I feel like I’ve captured or come across that’s gonna somehow help somebody else in some way, then I want to talk about it and share it. It’s a big part of the fabric of who I am.

There’s almost this very strange paradox of selfishness and selflessness about pursuing something which you’re passionate about. When you find out that you’re good at something and you enjoy it, there’s a kind of selfish pleasure from engaging in that activity. And one of the things I think is really important is that engaging in that kind of selfishness. You then become selfless because you’re really helping people, like a form of service to give back to people this wonderful gift you’ve been given.

There’s almost this very strange paradox of selfishness and selflessness about pursuing something which you’re passionate about.

Denise Jacobs

SIMON: It’s an excellent compulsion! Frank, you teach students on a regular basis. Do you learn things about yourself by doing that?

FRANK: Yeah. I initially started teaching because my mentor retired, and he didn’t like any of the candidates for his job, so I kinda slipped in and played dress-up-like-him for a year! That was a really nice experience. One of the reasons I feel compelled to teach is because I enjoy being a student, and once you start to teach you sorta figure out that it’s not a one-way bridge of information; it’s actually a back-and-forth — conversational, at least in the way I run my classroom!

I get 15–20 hard-working people showing up every single day for class; working and chiselling away at problems that I think are interesting. It’s like I’m helping them but there’s a big selfish part of it, like Denise was saying. I don’t necessarily think that the benefits I get from it are the same as the students get from it. But the perks of being in an educational environment — a conference or a classroom — for the speaker, the teacher or students, their needs don’t need to be parallel; they just need to be complimentary. The best experiences I’ve had teaching and speaking were when it was a mess! Everyone’s interests were so complimentary, it was kind of hard to deduce who’s teaching who, and which way the information was moving, because it goes out and comes back in and weaves together.

SIMON: Trent, do you see it the same way? Distilling your inquiry to reach a conclusion that you feel comfortable sharing with others?

TRENT: Yeah, exactly. I have been doing a lot of just coding random things to see what breaks and how far I can push things, not because I need to for a client, but because when you are speaking or doing a workshop you feel you need a unique or higher level of mastery; you almost get nervous thinking “what if someone asks me about some component of JavaScript and you don’t have a good answer”. Mainly, it’s much more fun to have this environment where it’s conversational. You could write a blog post about something you did and receive comments, but it’s not the same as real-time sharing of information.

The enthusiasm comes across much easier in person than it does with an exclamation point in a blog post. That’s my favourite part about workshops; that you can get excited, talk fast, ramble and wave your hands around and show all these wonderful things that you discovered and see what other people think. That conversational energy level you get with other people is very attractive to me.

DENISE: I think it’s really interesting you say that because we work on the web and we do so much interacting through computers, but nothing can replace that excitement and energy you get from real-life and face-to-face environments.

TRENT: Yeah, like when you’re commenting on a blog, all people see is the goofy smile you have on your avatar. I can make so many more faces than that and when you’re in person so much more can be conveyed.

FRANK: Many of the ways we converse now are disembodying, so it’s actually nice to have a body there whether it’s being able to assess body language or facial expressions. Being able to have a physical proximity to someone is a valuable mechanism because it makes you feel you’re on the same team.

SIMON: That’s a feeling I have with good conferences. There’s a sense that everyone’s in it together. Do any of you consider yourself mentors?

DENISE: From my own standpoint, I believe really strongly in the mentoring relationship, and if anyone asks for guidance I’m happy to give it to the degree that I can. So if someone says they would like me as a mentor, I’d be flattered and I’d do it to the best of my ability, and put them on to whoever I thought maybe a better fit or could fill in any gaps I have. And the other thing is that I’m always on the lookout for mentors to give me guidance as well. It’s this situation of reciprocity.

There’s always going to be multiplicity in the number of devices accessing the web and the number of users; you’re never going to be able to control all of it.

Frank Chimero

TRENT: I’ll be honest, I’m more propped up by my friends than you can imagine. If it’s a code question, my colleague Dave Rupert knows twice as much as I do so I usually just revert to what he thinks. So by default, I have to share, because everything I have has been given is through friendship and camaraderie. If you have a problem and you solve it or you see things in a different way, share that with somebody and it’ll enhance your skill set and perception.

SIMON: Trent and Frank, you’ve collaborated on the Lost World’s Fairs project. Do you actively seek out collaborative projects, or would you rather work on your own.

FRANK: I have been working for myself for a decade and I think what I’ve learned is that I like working for myself but I really hate working by myself. It’s nice to have other people there for the sanity check; to influence things and balance things out. I have been writing a book [The Shape of Design] by myself for about a year, and at this point I’m really close to finishing but I wish there was someone else to take it out from under my hands.

I really believe in collaboration and I feel I’ve been lucky enough that the times when I’ve done it it’s been really fruitful, but if you look at the body of work people know me for, most of it isn’t a collaboration in so far as the work itself. But it is very much a collaboration of the ideas and instigation behind it.

At this point in my career it’s like a mental collaboration about the process of getting to the point of understanding what the work is and what the work should do. But as far as executing it, I haven’t had a lot of instances in the last couple of years where doing the work has been a collaborative experience.

SIMON: Has moving to Brooklyn and working out of Studiomates influenced your approach to the book?

FRANK: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why the book is taking so long to write! I’m constantly getting new material every day just by hanging out, so now it’s like “this is really juicy — where does this fit in to this infinite jigsaw puzzle?” Now I’m just getting to the point where I’m saying “let’s keep writing these things down but not necessarily try to fit them into this thing I’m working on right now”.

SIMON: Trent, do you up your game or find a greater reward from collaboration perhaps?

TRENT: It’s definitely a greater reward. There’s a challenge there but my favourite component to this is that morale seems to be such a huge part of the work that I do and the way I work, so it’s nice when I have a lot of time working with Dave and Reagan [at Paravel]. Whether one of us is doing a job with someone else or we’re all together, or bringing Frank in, the more people involved I feel there’s a really beautiful component about interpersonal relationships and how we’re doing, and realising that part of my role in many projects isn’t just “is everything turned in?”, “is everything set up, and are out deliverables set?” But also “How’s everybody feeling?” and “what is everybody thinking?” or “what is your perception on this?” and really at the end of the day, if you do that right, collaboration is a big party.

SIMON: Are you generally satisfied with the things you see being created for the web?

TRENT: The first thing that came into my mind is I have a 10-month old son named Henry, and he has this squinty face he makes when he wants to go somewhere or touch something which he hasn’t before or crawl somewhere he hasn’t been, and he’s super-pissed that he can’t go somewhere yet when he’s prevented from doing so. I think that’s the proper posture or perception to have of the web; not to say that the work that we’re doing is not satisfactory, but that there’s always “what’s next?”.

Everything is always evolving and changing fast. The reason why I like this job above all is that what we’re doing now is gonna be irrelevant, at least from a technical standpoint, in a year or so, maybe more if we’re lucky, and that constant lack of satisfaction and no-complacency there, is really what drives me. It’s always “what can we do better?” or “what do we need to make things work best?”.

SIMON: Are you satisfied, creatively yourselves? Does the ebb and flow of the web energise you all?

DENISE: On one hand it’s very exciting and on the other it’s very frustrating. I’m always experiencing a sense of amazement when I look at what’s being created and how quickly things change. Especially because I’m like the grand old mayor — I’ve been working on the web since 1997!

SIMON: I heard you were about... 64 now? You look good for 64!

DENISE: I’ll tell you guys my real age. Ready? I’m 43, and started working on the web in 1997, so I have seen a lot of change and a lot of progression. There’s so many things you just couldn’t do at all, for a number of reasons — browsers and specifications and languages etc. For me, it’s “wow!” I do get these moments where it’s exciting and awesome and I just don’t get a chance to sit down, so it’s kind of an interesting paradox. I like to see all the innovation and people just coming into it who are in their teens, and all of the innovative energy and awesome amounts of creativity they’re bringing to the table.

SIMON: How do you see it, Frank? In your talk at the Build conference last year, you were quick to acknowledge that you’re not a ‘web designer’, although you know the medium very well. What’s your perception?

It’s weird to think that next to air, I consume more of the web than anything else, down to Skype conversations, emails, websites, Netflix, instant.

Trent Walton

FRANK: I think at this point, we all realise and accept the fact that the earth is going to continually shift under our feet. Whether our own personal disposition about how we handle information, or trends in front-end development like responsive design, but just getting to grips with the fact that everything’s going to move. There’s always going to be multiplicity in the number of devices accessing the web and the number of users; you’re never going to be able to control all of it.

It feels like we’ve come to grips with that, but what are the next few steps? We realise that’s the affordance and quality of the medium, and not necessarily a
shortcoming. So what I’m thinking about is “what’s the role of content on the web right now and how do we navigate a multiplicity?” and not just where devices always move and it’s unpredictable how the web site will be accessed, but also how do you deal with the instance where you can’t tell where the user is, and how do you deal with an instance where the user can’t tell the credibility of content based on how it works and how it thrives in a different environment and how it breaks. So everything moves, everything is connected, and what’s that word... everything is deeply inter-twangled.

What does that imply for us, not just those of us who make the stuff that’s so deeply networked, but those people who now have to live with it every day in every capacity?

SIMON: Complexity frightens people, but that’s what we have: a wonderfully complex network. It’s beautiful in some strange way. Our role is to help people navigate through that; to design methods of coping with that. How do you think we handle that?

TRENT: It’s weird to think that next to air, I consume more of the web than anything else, down to Skype conversations, emails, websites, Netflix, instant. It’s overwhelming to realise that every piece of my life is affected by the web!

SIMON: Trent, you’re really interested in making and breaking things with web type. At Paravel, you and Dave Rupert seem to solve type problems internally as a team, and then share great tools off the back of that.

TRENT: It’s funny you say internally as a team, because these are conversations where I’m like “Dave, what should we do? I need this to work!”. And he says “Well, it doesn’t happen that way”, and I reply “That’s bullshit, let’s figure something out”. And he’ll come back an hour later and says “Well, plug this in and see if it works”. So he is sort of my hero in many ways. It’s all about no limitations with what we can do with web fonts.

SIMON: Denise - your recent articles for A List Apart resonated with a lot of people, and I especially loved ‘Reigniting Your Creative Spark’. What’s the ethos behind that?

DENISE: It’s mostly being very aware of the creative process and your own personal creative process. When you’re very aware of something you can start to control it and guide it, and expand upon it. There was probably a point in time when you discovered you were a creative person.

There are levels of awareness — saying “OK I’m a creative person, and I do this stuff” and then going out in the world and doing things, and then there’s up a level and saying “How am I creative?” and “how can I manipulate this so that I consistently get to the solutions and ideas that I want to?”. Where does it come from? What’s my brain doing when this happens? What’s the bio chemistry happening behind this?” You can take that information and leverage that. You find that “Oh, I can control that like I control my breathing”.

SIMON: Frank, your New Adventures presentation is something of a swan song. What is it in particular which excites you that you want to convey on the day?

FRANK: It’s gonna be one of my last talks of 2012. I think I’m most excited because it’s everything at once that I’ve been talking about for the last couple of years. It’s finally coming together into something that can make some sense in 40 minutes!

SIMON: It’s a conclusion of conclusions?

FRANK: Yeah, and the spoiler — the big conclusion — is that I’ve always been interested in what makes ‘good’ design good. And not necessarily what makes it aesthetically good, but what makes it work well, what makes people appreciate it, what makes it effective and what makes it special in its relationship to how it builds up culture and gives us all shared experiences.

The thing I’ve come to is that the way you measure how good it is, is by how much it moves. It starts out with the person making it and the movements they go through, so you can talk about practice and methodology and how it’s made — that’s an aspect of it. I think largely, though it’s what happens after the work is published and how it moves in that capacity and resonates with an audience. How does it stir something inside of the people it was made for; how well does it fit? And also, what do they do after they see it? Do they pass it on? Does it go somewhere? Do they share it?

The hunch that I’ve had, and I think all creative people have, is that there’s an extra value to our work other than the way we make pixels come up on the screen or to the extent that it makes dollars and cents shift from bank account to bank account. I think the way you get that is to look at the way that it moves.

SIMON: I’m going to wrap up with one final question. What ‘New Adventures’ do you hope to have in 2012?

TRENT: I really loved Brooklyn Beta, and a lot of the conversations I had were around building things that aren’t for clients. Things that we believe in personally or for the business. Lately we’ve not really put time aside to work on them, so we’ll be a bit more deliberate about that — building things that Dave, Reagan and I believe in. So more time for Paravel projects.

SIMON: Might we see more updates to ‘The Many Faces Of’?

TRENT: There’s gonna be a side component of that site coming up. It may or not be inspired directly by films like Police Academy.

DENISE: I’m really excited about the whole intersection of creativity, innovation and productivity, and ways of leveling up on that and making it better. It’s worked for the web design community but also how it’s something that’s really relevant for a lot of people in their own work, so I’m really excited about all of the great new concepts that are hopefully taken out of the ether and weaved together and put into something that may be helpful for people.

SIMON: And finally, Frank. New Adventures for 2012?

FRANK: Well, I’m gonna publish a book in 2012. So I think this year my big adventure is to re-integrate with the world a little and come out of the cocoon and share what I’ve been working on and just keep my ear to the ground and see what happens, because on the one hand you’ve got something that you’re incredibly proud of, but on the other hand it feels like you’ve scooped something out of yourself and there’s a space that needs to be filled up.


This article was commissioned for our January 2012 magazine. Like it? View all articles, grab our RSS feed, and subscribe to our newsletter.