Ten Years, Ten Speakers: Part III
As part of our A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design conference—we asked AEA speakers from the past decade what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed Parts One or Two, have a look back.
I remember 2006 as the year I gave up.
Ten years ago, I worked in a mall—at a cellphone kiosk, shouting at passersby about “RAZR™ phones.” It was my fourth year there. I made a little above minimum wage. I drove to work in a friend’s unregistered, uninsured car, and I slept in it when I didn’t have enough gas money to get me home. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with four other people. We only managed to make rent one month, thanks to one of the roommates appearing on Judge Judy. He was guilty.
2006 was the year I started packing to leave, without knowing where—to start walking south until there was something else. Until there was anything else. Two months of aimless hitchhiking later, “anything else” would start with my first website. First the one, then a handful that would never see the light of day, then an internship “for college credit”—funny story there, too—then my first honest-to-God job with a desk. It wasn’t long after that first website that I stumbled into my first AEA, here in Boston.
There, I found out that there was a whole industry of people like me, who came from whatever background, all of them landing in the same place as I did—all of us making it up as we went along. I made sense there, at my first An Event Apart. I found out that I made sense here, doing this. And right there in the room, I could see the brass ring—I could see that big, terrifying stage, and I wanted to be there. I felt like I could be up there someday, not long after feeling like I couldn’t be anywhere. An Event Apart gave me the kind of goal I was once so sure I could never have.
Years later, it gave me that chance. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the words to express how much that meant to me.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That’s a quote from Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, translated from French. It’s often quoted pessimistically, but I like to think of it as an optimistic reminder of the past’s impact on the present.
About ten years ago I was working at my first tech company, just a year out of college, feeling completely out of my depth. After all, I’d always planned to work in narrative animation, and tech was a much different world. My work at the new company involved creating setup wizards. At first, I struggled; what could I possibly know about setup wizards compared to an expert in the field? I assumed my past experience was moot, that I would have to learn to do this new job from scratch. But over time, I realized that designing setup wizards wasn’t too different from weaving a story. True, it’s a user-defined story, and nonlinear…but it’s still a task of taking the new user on a journey, from a beginning to an end. That realization unlocked a lot for me.
A decade later, so much has changed—jobs, friends, family, responsibilities, the ups and the downs. But storytelling and those early experiences with setup wizards have stayed with me, continuing to influence my work with onboarding.
Heather and I had just published issue 6 of JPG Magazine, our lovely little printed photography magazine. The theme was “OOPS!” Turns out, it was an appropriate theme for the era. Soon after, I would start a company with a friend to publish JPG and other community-created magazines. We would take money from the wrong people. We would make lot of mistakes, some very public.
Putting myself back in those decade-old shoes now is painful because I know what’s coming. By the end of 2006, it would all fall apart spectacularly. I’d lose JPG, lose the company, lose friends, lose a big chunk of my idealism. That failure sent me on a decade-long startup binge. Sometimes working for others, sometimes starting my own. Venture capital pitch decks and the constant hustle. It made me stubborn. I had to prove that I could make it work.
It took me almost a decade to break out the cycle, but I finally did. Last year, Heather and I left San Francisco. We now live on a 2-acre farm. We grow vegetables and raise chickens and goats. I build things out of wood. I still work for companies than end in dot-com, but I’ve regained some sense of balance. Now, how coworkers treat each other is more important than working on the next big thing. Keeping one hand in the soil and one hand in the digital makes them both better, and it keeps me balanced. It took me a decade, but I finally feel like myself again.
I’d just left my job as lead designer at the BBC to go freelance and accidentally form a little design studio. It was a year of feeling out of my depth, feeling like an imposter, and feeling incredibly excited, all in equal measure! It was a steep learning curve to go from the relatively safe walls of the BBC to the big, bad world to make my own living. And with it came a drastic change in tools, working environment, and how I spent my time. Gone were the days where I could spend all day deep-diving into a specific design problem with my head in Photoshop. 2006 was a baptism of fire into the real world of a commercial designer: managing projects, clients, cash flow, and politics.
I was working on an unbelievable number of artistic projects, as well as boosting my meager financial situation with some freelance web design. I designed the video projections for an opera about Nikola Tesla that premiered for his 150th birthday in Belgrade, Serbia, and then traveled to the BAM Next Wave Festival that fall; hundreds of tiny clips were triggered by custom software to play through four projectors onto seven screens. I distributed and eventually sold a short film that I’d directed the year before. I produced an ongoing video podcast about yoga and meditation. Took a performance class with Ralph Lemon. Taught classes, as an adjunct professor at Temple University, on Videoblogging and on Web Design Aesthetics.
Amidst all that, I taught myself CSS for layout and Drupal 5. Designed and built sites for an art curator, a university department, a small book publisher, and a non-profit media arts center. Spoke at Vloggercon on how to customize your site by hacking Blogger templates. Ran lighting for a weeklong music festival in the woods. And in December, started filming my next major project.
Basically, it was an insane year, but not a unique one. Most of those years went like that—mixing film, theater, teaching, and the web.
I was working as a Senior Designer for AOL, working on prototypes, and at one point trying out podcasts. I started the year by working on a blog that wasn’t based on a WordPress template. I met two wonderful designers during SXSWi, Veerle Pieters and Geert Leyseele, who were my tutors for CSS. They helped me not pull all my hair out. After my coworker, Kevin Lawyver, heard about my budding CSS skills, he invited me to be part of the CSS Working Group to help represent AOL and provide a designer’s view.
At the same time, I was making a plan to leave AOL. I had been there for 8 years and had survived about sixteen layoffs. I knew it was time to leave, and I had my sights set on going to San Francisco. I’d always wanted to work on projects that I genuinely cared about—something more than just a paycheck.
But what I learned at AOL was the large role of politics in companies. It’s never just about the design. You have to figure out why some decisions are made against all the evidence and data to the contrary.
Ten years ago, I had no idea how hard it would be for me in 2016 to remember what I was doing then. However, after referring to my records, it seems that I was running a two-person business called Brain Traffic, working with clients who needed better copy for their websites. My business card said “interactive content strategist,” although trying to explain what that meant was never easy… especially because my own definition kept changing!
I worked at home, had a Hotmail email address, carried a Treo, and owned an 8-pound PC laptop. A few of my career goals were to get a real office, work with a Fortune 100 company, and attend—yes, attend—An Event Apart. I had a two-year-old son and a baby girl on the way. I had not yet opened a Twitter account.
The thing I remember most about 2006, work-wise, is that, while we were insanely busy with great projects, I was never really satisfied with the small amount of time and budget we were given to plan for or design content requirements. Typically, we were handed a document with a list of pages to write, a site map, and some wireframes, and told to get going. I read and re-read books by Gerry McGovern, Steve Krug, Ann Rockley, Jakob Nielsen, and Lou Rosenfeld. I wished constantly that someone would write a book about content strategy for websites so I’d feel like I knew what I was talking about.
Like Rachel Andrew, I’d been invigorated by the @media 2005 conference, where I got to meet many of the people I’d been talking to in blog comments (remember those?) like Patrick Lauke, Gez Lemon, Jeremy Keith, and Joe Clark.
I’d been blogging and writing about web standards since 2003, and was beginning to work on making the Solicitors Regulation Authority website CSS-driven and accessible, after the nested-table hell I’d worked on since 2004. But this community gathering made me realize that there were actually teams of people who cared about such things, and made me want to join such a team, rather than constantly fight to make a website less terrible. So I began looking around for other jobs, which eventually saw me move to Opera, where I am today.
Ten years ago I was on top of the browsers. If you asked me, I could run down a list of quirks for Firefox, Safari, and Opera, though a full IE list would have strained my memory capacity. Nowadays it’s impossible to keep track of the differences among all browsers.
Ten years ago I had vaguely heard of the mobile space, and was aware that something called XHTML-MP existed, and that it was a dumbed-down subset of HTML. I also had my first speaking gig: a panel at the iconic @media conference in London. Nowadays I’m holding off on public speaking since most conferences don’t pay a fee, and I get tired of traveling for no good reason. (AEA does pay a speaker fee, by the way, and always has. Yay for them!)
Ten years ago, web development was simpler than it is today. That’s not to say we should pine for the Good Old Days—there’s plenty of excitement that comes with increased complexity—but we should still take care we don’t lose everything that makes the web the web. Simplicity, URLs, reach. That’s the core. The rest is…not exactly window dressing, but the web could survive without it in some form or shape.
Ten years ago I was hot off the heels of a redesign of A List Apart, just went out on my own to freelance, and starting to do some public speaking. All of these things were a mix of exciting and terrifying. I made lots of mistakes, but did some stuff right, and, most importantly, I learned tons from everything happening all around me. I had immersed myself in web design and the community through lots of blogging and events like SXSW. I made friends and found mentors during that time whom I often turn to now.