January 2012

Interview with Dan Mall, Cameron Koczon and Travis Schmeisser

On a cold night in December, three of New York’s finest minds — Dan Mall, Cameron Koczon, and Travis Schmeisser — joined Simon to chat about the Big Apple, working with major clients, releasing products, and the need for more engaging and sensory experiences on the web.

SIMON: You’re all based in New York, but none of you are originally New Yorkers. What brought you there, and why is it such a crucial place to work from?

DAN: I’ve lived in Philadelphia for most of my life and I had the pleasure of working for some really big companies there. When I got married, my wife and I decided to take a chance, do something new together, and come to New York as a first adventure together in our marriage. I had admired Big Spaceship’s work for a long time and I got chatting with the CEO and founder, and our interests really aligned in the type of work I like to do and the direction he was moving the company. So I moved to NYC, and it’s been great.

CAMERON: I’d just started Fictive Kin after leaving a start-up, and having lived in San Francisco I’d wanted to move to NYC for some time. I knew design was an important part of what we were gonna be doing. At the time there wasn’t a lot of excitement around design and I figured more and better designers were in NYC than in San Francisco, which was heavier on the engineering side of things. I wanted to go to this place that would fit with what we’d be doing next.

Working with other people really lets you create things you couldn’t do individually, and I think there’s a lot of power in that.

Dan Mall

When I first got to New York, I attended this panel featuring lots of well-known Italian designers, including Massimo Vignelli. They were each asked why they left Italy, and I loved Vignelli’s answer a lot. He said, “I left Italy because the ceiling was too low. In New York, there is no ceiling”. And I thought that was pretty cool. You know there’s unlimited potential around here.

TRAVIS: I always wanted to live in New York; in a bigger city, and at the time when I left my own company nGen I was moving away from just doing web work and looking at experience and application design. There were a lot of opportunities in New York, and I ended up getting the job I wanted.

SIMON: You all work with other people. What is it about collaborating that matters to you? Why is it a rewarding experience?

DAN: If I work by myself I’m limited, and that’s the best thing about working with others. The better the people I work with, the closer to limitless I become. Working with other people really lets you create things you couldn’t do individually, and things that they couldn’t do on their own, and I think there’s a lot of power in that.

CAMERON: I put Fictive Kin together for the same reasons. In the playground of the web you’ve got all this potential to make a huge impact and there’s no way you’re going to do it by yourself. You need to work with a group of people if you want to have a shot at testing the limits. One person working away at something is never going to be as good as a small team. But you don’t need a huge team to make a big impact. Look at Tumblr or Instagram, or Instapaper where Marco Arment is an example of one guy making a huge impact. I think there’s major gains to be had if you move from 1 to 6 or 10 or something and you can broad a team of that size out really far I think.

TRAVIS: At 80/20 we’re still small, closer to 15 people, so it’s just a really nice, small environment and our projects are smaller. Everyone has to be something of a generalist and be able to touch all parts of the process, but there are people that are better at one thing than others or good at looking at certain problems in some way so its always nice to be teamed up with people, and I feel like I work a lot better than way. I definitely don’t think I’m any kind of silver bullet who has all the solutions.

CAMERON: Even if you have the silver bullet solution you couldn’t get it done fast enough to keep up. You really wanna be pushing things out quickly, so even if you were always 100% right in your intuition, the implementation side of that would be too slow if you were by yourself.

TRAVIS: Yeah, and it’s great when you are surrounded by such talented people that you get along with and work the same way. It’s amazing to be able to say “yeah, you make a decision”, then someone runs off with it and they come back and it’s often much better than you discussed or thought it would be.

SIMON: To what extent is that part of the agency appeal? Did moving into these incredible environments and the scale of clients attract you? Did it live up to your expectations?

DAN: It was definitely about the big clients. I really wanted to learn how to do work at that scale. The biggest realisation was that if your clients are not your team, the project is doomed to failure from the start. I find the projects that I’m most proud of and the most fun were the ones where my clients were part of my team and I was part of their team. I find that with big or small clients there’s no difference; if you find a good team, then the work and the output will be really good. If you don’t have a good team, you’re fighting up-hill.

SIMON: Cameron, is this something you miss? Do you feel liberated by the way you work and the kind of work you do?

CAMERON: I certainly don’t miss client work. Working with anyone who’s talented, whether it’s a client or not, is pretty exhilarating. I like that we get to work on our own things, and I think that if you gave most designers unlimited time and financial resources they’d go and solve the problems that most excite them, rather than the ones that get brought to them. There are some major wins when you’re solving your own problems.

But there are all kinds of stresses and problems, like how do you keep the lights on? If you’re building for the web, getting people to pay is a real challenge, or building the right kind of apps that can change the world and make money, so you can keep an A-team around.

SIMON: Is it vital to define strong timescales and keep everybody motivated?

It’d be really hard to do a great job building a web app if it wasn’t something you really understood and wanted.

Cameron Koczon

CAMERON: When there’s no outside deadlines driving you, you need to create your own inside deadlines. I work with Tyler Mincey, who was a project manager at Apple, and he’s really talented as you’ve seen. There’s time for fluidity and time for rigidity, and you need to strike that balance early-on in the project; you want it to be pretty fluid and air out as many ideas as you can until you get closer to shipping, where you’ll then want to tighten up the constraints.

SIMON: Travis, how do you stay focused and get the best out of your day if you hit a brick wall?

TRAVIS: If you get stumped or have an issue or you’re just not feeling it, there’s so many bits to figure out and parts to look over [such as] data models in the background driving the UI, or you might need to figure out logic for how the system han- dles something like recommendations, which may be just be writing a message and thinking about how it works. So, if you’re not feeling all that creative or hitting a wall with something, there are all these other outside tasks which tie in and need to be done, and you can move on to them. If I’m really stuck I’ll just walk away and play Mario Kart.

SIMON: How do you bring play and delight into your work? When I think about Big Spaceship I think about surprising and unusual online experiences, and not doing things by numbers. Is there a culture of finding delight and surprise?

DAN: That stuff for us actually does comes from numbers. When we evaluate new projects that come in, we have a chart and we say “which one of these 5 things does this project allow us to do?”. Part of those things is: is it something we’ve done before? If it is then it gets a low grade. Is it something we get to learn something from? If it is, it gets a higher grade. We like taking on projects where we learn something on somebody else’s dime. We’re always pushing ourselves to do something we haven’t done before, and it’s a culture of experimentation where that kind of stuff is encouraged in small ways. Good work comes out of passion, and that’s not exclusive to Big Spaceship.

SIMON: You can see that joy and passion and the excitement of the team in the end product.

DAN: Part of it is just indulging in what we wanna do. We had this one project called The Most Awesomest Thing Ever and it started as a lunch conversation where one designer said “this turkey sandwich is the most awesome thing ever”. And another designer said “is it better than a back rub from your Dad?”. The first said “wait, you can’t compare the two!”. The other said “Yes you can! Which is better?”. And the idea stemmed from that. It was just a side project, but all of a sudden people loved it and we were on ABC News and got offers for a TV show, which wasn’t our goal. It all came from a passion, built in a week or two.

SIMON: With something like TeuxDeux or GimmeBar, I understand the business need to make those products, but as they’re crafted with love and passion, people have become quite loyal to those apps, would you agree?

CAMERON: I think it certainly helped that I really wanted those things, for myself to understand them, and see how they might work. It’d be really hard to do a really great job building a web app if it wasn’t something you really understood and wanted.

GimmeBar was something I’d wanted pretty badly and had thought about for a while. Once you start working on something it just evolves like mad. I wrote the Orbital Content article a while ago, and that was basically a thinly veiled pitch for GimmeBar and where’s it’s going. I didn’t sit down and say “I want to write an A List Apart article”. It was for me to get down on paper some of what was in my head so it was easier to share with the team; so that vision and idea was more tangible and they could use it.

SIMON: Travis, you’re working on “That Song Always Gets Me”. What’s the motivation for that?

I want to see more fun and self-expressive projects. A lot of people have forgotten why they got in to design.

Travis Schmeisser

TRAVIS: I wanted to do something fun, and see what it would be like to have people do different interpretations of the same thing. Each contributor has a couple of song lyrics, and they may get a line from a song they don’t know, or one that they do. Each person gets two pieces within the project and it’ll be a linear narrative of the song. We’ll see how each person interprets that. I’ve picked a song that repeats a lot; especially at the end, so it has this repetition. I thought it’d be really rad to see the different viewpoints that are brought in.

SIMON: Are you satisfied with the things you see being created for the web. Do you find yourself excited and surprised by the things you see? Is there a strong sense of innovation again?

DAN: Absolutely not. I think the web is really boring right now. I loved the last few years in web design, where people were realising what is functional and what is useful and what is accessible. I think that’s great, because that had been lost and there hadn’t been a lot of clarity. A lot of us got into doing this because we saw something wacky or crazy or we were like “I have no idea how that was done!”. There was experiment for experiments’ sake. I remember things like that. A lot of those were weird and beautiful Flash sites, from the likes of Joshua Davis and Brendan Dawes.

SIMON: Making a CSS3 rotating Coke can is not the kind of innovation we want to see. Ten years ago the web gave us some real threshold moments, often made entirely in Flash.

DAN: I’m by no means a Flash diehard, but I do have a fondness for a lot of things that were done in Flash and the experiential site is being lost. People are doing the same kind of things in JavaScript now, but they’re not experiential sites because they don’t engage your senses. They’re technological achievements, and really impressive, but I rarely see something that engages my senses or something ultra sensory. One thing that comes to mind is the Take This Lollipop site. I watched that again the other night and it gave me chills! I don’t remember the last time a website gave me chills. That’s something missing in web design.

CAMERON: I’m with Dan. I look around and try to get inspired by things that are out there and it’s very rare that those chills happen, but I am excited about what appears to be a trend of folks being unhappy with that situation. It seems we’re going to get a lot happening very soon. We’re maybe a couple of months away from tons of interesting stuff and interesting people perhaps leaving their current engagements and making new and interesting things. If we have this conversation at next year’s New Adventures I think it could be very different.

TRAVIS: I wish more people had a greater passion for side projects that weren’t necessarily just tools or web apps. I want to see more fun and self-expressive projects. A lot of people have forgotten why they got in to design and the original reasons that they make stuff. A lot of other creative disciplines have people who form collectives and make projects together. We have that somewhat but it’s lacking in the sense of creating for the sake of creating, because it’s fun, or because you have something to say.

SIMON: One last question. What new adventures are you hoping to have in 2012?

CAMERON: The adventure I’d like to have is around self sufficiency. In the past when we think of things we want to work on we just think of the magnitude of the problem or its importance to us. One of the things that will let us keep solving big problems over the long term is if we’re a self sufficient company and we don’t need to rely on other folks. It just seems like any time you start taking outside money, you just set the timer on the lifespan of whatever it is you want to make. You’re gonna get Gowalla’d. You put all this energy into making a thing and the dynamics of how you fund it dictate that you don’t get to keep it or grow it. The more self-sufficient we are as a team, the higher quality our work will be.

TRAVIS: This next year’s gonna be about —

CAMERON: Startups! Join a startup!

TRAVIS: Ha-ha! No. I wanna be working on a lot of the personal projects I’ve got kicking around, getting more stuff out there. I’d also like to get closer to New York’s web and technology scene and see more of what’s happening.

DAN: I see a lot of designers nowadays thinking long term. There’s a lot of people leaving freelance or agency jobs and going to work on products. That’s a really great trend to see; people feeling invested in something that they can iterate on and learn from and ship and launch and all of that stuff.

But for me, I want to think smaller and shorter term. Rather than me saying I want to devote a whole year to a product, I want to devote a week to a product and see what I can do in that week because there’s something really powerful about constraints and the constraint of time is a huge one. 2012 will be about doing smaller things and doing more of them.


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