What I Learned When I Started a Design Studio

Earlier in the year, I wrote a bit about the design services industry in two blog posts: first, I wrote “The End of Client Services” in July, which outlined my thoughts on why the best interaction design is done outside of the studio/agency model. Then in August I followed up with “In Defense of Client Services,” which expands a little bit on why I believe services is such a difficult way to earn a living as a designer. I had meant to write a third post, but getting Mixel out the door got in the way. Over the past several days I was finally able to find the time to hammer out this follow-up.

Actually, I’ve been making notes for this blog post all year long, because it was ten years ago that I co-founded an interaction studio here in New York City, partnering with some colleagues from a previous employer. I stayed with the studio for four years, and I learned a lot in that time. Building that business significantly changed my outlook on the design industry, but I haven’t written too much on why. A decade later seems like the right opportunity.

What still strikes me the most about that experience was how little my former partners and I understood at the outset about what it takes to build a successful services business. In the years since, I’ve met lots of designers who have either founded or had the ambition to found studios or agencies of their own. Most of them, it seems to me, are laboring under misapprehensions very similar to the ones that hobbled my former partners and myself.

So here are a few of the key lessons that I learned from co-founding my own design studio. The usual caveats apply, of course, in that everything about business is contextual, and so your mileage my vary.

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Breaking News

BehaviorThis is going to be a hard post to write, so I’m going to keep it as short as I can, but forgive me if I run long. After pouring so much of my blood, sweat and tears into Behavior, I’ve decided that the time has come for me to leave this terrific company that, with a little bit of cash and a lot of ambition, my partners and I co-founded in the dark days of late fall, 2001. My last day at Behavior will come just a little more than four years after we legally opened doors — as of 31 December I’ll no longer be a member of Behavior LLC.

This decision is no cause for alarm; my departure is on completely amicable terms, and my partners at the company have been kind and gracious enough to wish me luck in my future endeavors. By the same token, I wish them great continued success too, and I’m absolutely confident that there’s lots and lots of great design work still to come from Behavior. I guarantee it.

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Interview at The Weekly Standards

The Weekly StandardsTo faithful readers of this weblog: if you stick with me, you have my pledge that you will not have to read about Behavior’s redesign of The Onion in perpetuity. At least I hope not. Looking forward, I hope to get famous (or at least infamous) for many more projects as interesting and as influential as this one, but in the meantime, I’m humbled by the fact that at least some people continue to find it interesting.

One of them is James Archer who, aside from being the founder of Fortymedia, is the publisher of The Weekly Standards, an online magazine focused on the real world practice of standards-based Web design. He’s just published an interview with me which discusses at length — you guessed it — the redesign of TheOnion.com.

But wait! That’s not all you get with this article because, for absolutely no extra money, James has thrown in a major added bonus: a very thoughtful, fair and insightful critique of the redesign as a whole by none other than Garret Dimon. Even if you scroll right past my own rambling answers to James’ questions, don’t miss Garret’s comments.

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The Funniest Grid You Ever Saw

The Onion GridIt’s hard to deny the rightness of at least one complaint that some people have had about Behavior’s recent redesign for The Onion.com: there’s a heck of a lot of stuff on that home page. My defense is: there’s also a heck of a lot of free stuff on that home page — and througout the site, too. I’m not just talking about all of the archived content that, now unbound by the subscription model that previously restricted it from public consumption, has floated up to the front page for ready access — like old friends, they rotate in and out randomly to let you relive good times. I’m also talking about the new content that will now appear in the right-hand column, comedic tidbits released by the editorial staff every day between issues, again for a grand total of free. Not to mention the loads of ‘regular’ content that’s turned out faithfully every week. All of which justifies the abundance of advertisements — someone has to pay for all that great stuff.

So that adds up, and before long you have a page that, inevitably, people will consider crowded. I’d like to believe that we made a conscientious and serious effort at trying to present all that content with as much clarity as possible. We won’t win any awards for minimalism, but we did a very respectable job, in my opinion, that borrows best practices from online news sources that do it very well already. And we made sure to add a little extra goodness of our own: a flexible yet comprehensive layout grid that underpins every page on the site.

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Making New Fake News

The OnionIt’s been so long that I’ve been wanting to write this weblog entry that I almost don’t even know what to say anymore. So I’ll be blunt: earlier this year, Behavior was fortunate enough to have been selected to redesign the online edition of The Onion. Our assignment: a major overhaul of the satirical newspaper’s online presence from top to bottom, and to help their Web team open up the entirety of their online archives — previously subscription-only, now freely available to everyone, gratis. A huge undertaking.

That wasn’t the whole of it though, as we were also enlisted to perform a comprehensive overhaul of The Onion’s pop-culture review section, The A.V. Club, including a complete rethinking of the way that publication expresses itself online. It’s never garnered the attention that the satirical content has, but the A.V. Club is sometimes my favorite part of the paper — in any given week, they run some of the most intelligent and engaging reviews you’re likely to read on any new movie, album, book or video game.

We actually launched the A.V. Club several weeks ago — you can see it now at — AVClub.com — but wanting to keep things hush hush until both redesigns went public, we kept it mum. The Onion, by its nature, was more complex and more involved, and we’ve spent the intervening weeks working with their Web team to make the new site a reality at a pretty intense rate. And now, tonight, it’s finally done; it launched earlier this evening and you can go see it at TheOnion.com.

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Vote Gets a Vote

VoteSeveral folks have emailed me about this, but I just got my hands on a copy of the I.D. Magazine 2005 Design Annual last night; Behavior’s design for Vote: The Machinery of Democracy was lucky enough to receive a Design Distinction award. I had actually heard about this a little while back, though I wasn’t even sure what “Design Distinction” might mean. Now that I have the annual in front of me, it’s turns out to be something like a runner-up position, just a step above ‘honorable mentions.’ We’re in good company, too — the Museum of Modern Art’s gorgeous Tall Buildings, designed by the sharp minds at For Office Use Only, also received a commendation, which is very flattering.

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Programming Skills Wanted

Lionel RichieLionel Richie has a jukebox in his head, or so he said many years ago, and new songs pop into it all the time — a principal source of his boundless inspiration, apparently. I’ll never reach the heights of “Say You, Say Me,” but I’m starting to think I have a venture capital fund in my head, because new ideas for Web-based products and businesses keep occurring to me all the time. Over the weekend I had an idea for the funniest and most robust movie plot generator ever — not exactly a powerhouse enterprise, but something that I think a lot of people would find amusing for at least a while.

The problem, really, is my appalling lack of programming talent, a situation that’s becoming more and more acute with each new idea I generate and am unable to act upon, and compounded by the continual emergence of hot new technologies that seem like immense fun to play with.

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Something to Blog About

One of my new rules for getting more things done in the incredibly limited time I have between waking and sleeping is: don’t sit there trying to come up with something to post about on your weblog if you have nothing to post about on your weblog. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past ten minutes, when I realized that, shit, I could be answering emails to people who have been very patiently waiting for replies. Or I could be making some of the little tweaks that constantly need to be made to this site. Or I could be watching another episode of Ken Burns’s “Baseball” documentary, which I’m enjoying immensely. Or I could be working on any of the several Web projects I’ve been scheming in my head for months.

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Headin’ Down South by Southwest

SXSWRather than my customary modus operandi of burying myself in work and letting opportunities to meet living and breathing people out in the real world pass me by, I’ve decided to head on over to Austin, TX for this year’s South by Southwest Festival. I just booked my tickets yesterday, and I’ll be there basically from late on Fri 11 Mar through that Sun 13 Mar. As I mentioned last week, Behavior was fortunate enough to have two of our entries tapped as finalists in this competition, so there is at least some incentive for me to show up, though in all honesty that’s just an excuse to go see all the hot shot speakers slated to appear. Also, I’m hoping to meet at least a few people with whom I’ve been corresponding over email or through blog comments — this means you! If you’re going to SXSW yourself, please drop me a line so that I may humbly put a name to a face. I can’t wait!

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Bragging Rights

Vote: The Machinery of DemocracyFinalists in the South by Southwest Festival’s 2005 Web Awards were announced earlier this week. I’m really proud to report that two of the projects that Behavior launched in 2004 made the cut as finalists. Happily, both finalists happen to relate to our intense interest in last year’s presidential campaign: the site we launched for P. Diddy’s Citizen Change was nominated to the Green/Non-Proft Business category. And in the Educational Resource category, I’m really pleased and humbled to say that Vote: the Machinery of Democracy was also tapped. I’ve lost a little bit of my taste for Flash as a delivery method for substantive information, but I still like this project because we had access to some truly illuminating content taken right from the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s rich archives. Read more about it in my announcement post.

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