In the first installment of my edition of “How I Work”, I waxed about the old days of the web, and how I struggle to explain what it is that I do. For Part Two, I’d like to share more about what influences me, both personally and professionally.
Writing About Music
Music had been a part of my life since I was little. I have fond memories of the music I heard in my parents’ cars. My mom listened to the oldies and my dad listened to singer/songwriters, and so the playlist from my youngest days featured The Monkees, Harry Chapin, Neil Diamond, and the Beatles.
While music has always been part of my life, I didn’t truly get into music until the early 1990s. The band that opened my eyes to everything was R.E.M. The song? “Man on the Moon” from Automatic for the People, their 1992 classic. I connected with their music on a level I hadn’t experienced before. I didn’t quite understand the lyrics (as was Michael Stipe’s style) but it didn’t matter at the time. I remember trying to play my guitar as Peter Buck did, and would listen to the same songs over and over until I memorized them and wore out CDs. Over time, I bought R.E.M.’s entire discography (save Around the Sun) and saw them live when tours brought them through my hometown of Chicago.
It wasn’t just about the music; it was about the stories. I tore into oral histories and biographies about the band. I learned and studied their influences, and influencers. I started to branch out and discover more music I enjoyed. I found a home in power pop, with everything from Big Star to Matthew Sweet, carving out infectious melodies in my noggin. I began to wrap my head around a framework for popular music.
But, one of the things I admired about R.E.M.– as with many musicians and bands – was their ability to completely explore new musical and aesthetic territories with each album release. While Vampire Weekend has adhered themselves to Futura (with good reason; a truly great typeface), R.E.M. had no specific visual aesthetic. Their band logo and accompanying art shifted wildly from Murmur to Fables of the Reconstruction, as it shifted further from Lifes Rich Pageant and Monster.
This isn’t unique to R.E.M. of course. Beyoncé showed her talent not just as an extraordinary musician with Lemonade, but as true student of history and art with its accompanying visual album. Lorde strongly considers everything from typography to photography and presentation as a part of her album cycles – witness Pure Heroine versus Melodrama. Björk has embraced technology in an effort to push her vision and work forward; it reinforces the idea that there’s more to the music than just the music. And I totally love St. Vincent’s current direction. Love it.
And I see a nifty parallel there with UX work. It’s not just about the interface; it never is. It’s about the context and the surroundings and the systemic structures around it – just for starters. I admire musicians who take broader context into consideration, and I’m endlessly fascinated and inspired by the ones who reinvent themselves regularly.
Dancing about Architecture
As an Experience Director, a large amount of my work deals with information architecture. And being an information architect means that the broader discipline of architecture is almost always on my mind. It can provide a really solid set of ways to grasp what exactly we’re doing when we define words and meaning, creating digital places and spaces.
I grew up and went to school in Chicago, a city blessed with amazing architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work was around the corner and up the street; Mies van der Rohe’s work was just an L ride away; neoclassical buildings stood alongside glass-and-steel modernist works. The capacity to have these buildings exist in the same space and even in the same block was a testament to the city’s diversity and change.
My formal knowledge of architecture is limited, yet I am inspired by thoughtful spaces and places. The Target on State Street – formerly a Carson Pirie Scott – works hard to show its Louis Sullivan origins. Grand, gleaming white columns rise up between the aisles of clothing and knick-knacks. The ornate ironwork above the main entrance, along with its heavy wooden revolving doors, evoke a very different era in retail. This blend of new and old doesn’t quite feel cohesive, but it works. It reminds me of the constant push and pull designers have: we create things for this ephemeral time, and yet there’s the possibility that our work will last for decades if we’re lucky.
A Sampling from 2017
When I zoom in and think about design work – the big, messy, beautiful umbrella of UX, visual design, content strategy, IA, and interaction design – I find myself driving towards understanding how the small decisions we make have much larger impacts. But lots of things stand out to me; here’s a sampling from the past few months.
The interactive short story 17776, by Jon Bois, struck a chord with me earlier this year by combining sci-fi, humor, and smooth jazz. It reminded me of the web of the late 90s due to its experimental flow and format. Set aside some time for it.
I’ve been reading Brand New for years. Edited by Armin Vit, Brand New takes a look at new identity designs – logos, interactive pieces, in-store environments, et al – and critiques them. I can turn to this blog every week and find something inspirational and challenging.
One last link. Earlier this year, Gilbert Baker passed away. You might not recognize his name but you certainly know his work: he designed the rainbow flag that has become an icon for LGBTQIA+ people. In one of the most design-y tributes I can think of, Fontself partnered with NewFest and NYC Pride to create a font in his memory.
These examples, both broad and specific, serve as a reminder that our work has the power to influence and bring about change. It might be a melody on your favorite track from your most beloved album. It might be a building façade. It might be a jacket that fits you just so. It might be words on a web page. It might be photos on a blog. It might be the spark that makes your world a better place.
The idea of pushing forward, understanding context in order to make things better, is what truly inspires me.