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Exploring art, technology and design at Basecamp. Joined almost 10 years ago via an invitation from Joe T.
Fun question, and one I think about pretty often.
Moving from Marketing design to Product design felt, at times, like changing careers. Marketing design is selling something you make. Product design is making something you sell.
There’s so many lessons learned, and I’m still learning everyday. Here’s a few off the top of my head.
Of course, this is a huge topic with plenty of opinions, room for debates, and plenty more perspectives. But these were a few quick ones that come to mind.
First and foremost, I love using GrubHub. Keep up the good work, because you guys keep my tummy full and happy.
I really loved working on The Distance because I had full control of the art direction and design process.
How it all started… - Jason Fried had long since wanted to start a new publication to celebrate long-standing businesses. So we decided to press on with this idea. - He asked if I wanted to run the show on the design side, and I gladly hopped on. - We hired a very talented journalist and writer in Wailin Wong to research, report, and write all of our stories.
About the first version… The first version of The Distance featured individual custom-art directed designs for every story. This was super fun, but super taxing. So much effort goes into designing unique layouts per story, it started to get a bit unwieldy. For me. I’m the one responsible not only for the visual design and art direction of each story and the site as a whole, but the code and development of the entire site, too! So I made a lot of work for myself up front.
Last week, we launched a brand new version. I’ve since redesigned The Distance to be more uniform, making it easier to hop to any story at any time. Visually, I wanted to lean more on the lovely work of our in-house illustrator, Nate Otto, and redesign the site so that it’s less about the visuals and more about Wailin’s writing. We’re really happy with the refined results.
On Editorial Design versus Product Design… Editorial design is one thing I was fortunate enough to study when I was a student. The careful consideration of space, typography, and an emphasis on the reading experience is really where Editorial design differs from Product design.
Editorial design wants to be read, consumed, and enjoyed. It screams, “Slow down. Read me!”
Product design wants to be used, and out of your way so you can focus on whatever task you have at hand. It whispers, “Hey, I’m here for you. Here’s where you want to go, I’ll be here if you need me.”
Both types of design if done well—like any great design—should actually go unnoticed.
That’s a great question. First and foremost, please note that my answer comes from Basecamp’s perspective, and may not be indicative of other remote teams.
To start, all of Basecamp works remotely—even the 12 employees who live in Chicago out of the 45+ who work at the company. So to directly answer your question, our design teams do indeed work remotely—and we work together, and with other programmers in this way.
Our remote working setup is a bit like this: - We share work on real code bases on GitHub - We share process, progress, and visual decisions on Basecamp - We chat on Campfire everyday - We have individual conversations with Messages/Jabber
That’s really about it in terms of our communication tool set. Now, to further this.
At Basecamp, to be a designer—product and marketing—means you wear a few hats. - Designers write their own copy. - Designers write their own HTML and CSS. - Designers sketch and prototype interactions with CoffeeScript. - Designers craft the visuals and aesthetics.
Now, this doesn’t mean every designer at Basecamp offer the same exact skillsets. Quite the opposite! Jamie are relied on more for visual and graphic design and marketing, yet we both work on product features. The other designers may be better versed in native app code bases and UI designs, so we default to them to work on new features and new products. It’s a balance of skills with our ever-awesome design team, and we complement each other well.
But I’d be remiss to say that everyone in Basecamp is wildly talented, and inspire the hell out of me. You can meet them here: http://basecamp.com/team
Everyone in the company helps out the Support team, talking directly to our customers everyday. There’s so many great findings here alone.
And, at Basecamp, we’re users of our own products. We use Basecamp to keep track of the progress we’re making on making Basecamp better, everyday.
We feel the pains that other people do, we get frustrated by certain things others people feel, and enjoy things that other people do when using Basecamp. When you’re so close to the product—when you use it, see it, feel it everyday—you’re that much more inclined to do a better job on it. Our names and our work are all over this—let’s do the best job we can.
So we take our findings, and the findings of our customers, and give ourselves plenty of discussion points which lead to new design tests, new design ideas that we try often. Not all of the ideas we work on make it into the real world, and that’s okay with us, too. Not everything will be “great” design as you mentioned.
But we’ll never know what’s “great” design until we’ve explored tons iterations of designs and weeding out what’s “not great.”
Thanks for the nice note. I agree with the mentality of “just doing it,” for sure, there’s no replacement for experience. But…
In terms of how, which is a great question for everyone, I follow my motivation when I have it. Somedays, I’m not interested in doing work—or I just don’t have the energy. Other days, I can’t keep my hands off the keyboard. Here’s a couple of things I’ve noticed about myself when I work.
Work when others aren’t. The early mornings or late nights afford me distraction-free focus time. These are often my best, most productive times. Plus, it helps make me feel less guilty looking at Facebook at 12pm in the afternoon knowing I either did some good work early, or am ready for good work later in the night.
Work in unusual places. I like to work in other people’s offices, different cities, and coffee shops when I’m trying to explore new ideas. When my environment feels routine, I tend to feel stuck myself. One of my favorite aspects of working in a coffee shop is that I get the feeling of having coworkers, yet none of them know who I am, need to tap me on the shoulder to ask if I received that one email, etc.
The Basecamp.com marketing website was a project that myself, Jamie Dihiansan and Jason Fried worked on during the transition of changing our company name from 37signals to Basecamp.
We really wanted to harp on the concept of narrative, and speaking to people like people. Most product websites are all too slick, too flashy, and too much of the same. We asked ourselves, what if we went back to how the web used to be, and rely on clear writing and some fun illustration versus slick design. Obvious blue links with underlines, large readable copy, and so on.
It’s not going to be featured in any design museums, or win awards. And that’s not the point; the point is to do a great job making people feel comfortable, make them feel treated like humans, spoken to by real people and above all, get to the point and sell Basecamp. Sometimes, all that takes is words.
We did try some fancier things, but we wanted it easy write on, easy to update, and easy to read. So that informed the current design today.
We do test different iterations of the homepage, different pieces of copy, but the design itself has been the same since February of 2014. We’re always open to change, though.
Good question. I really enjoy when I find moments of serendipity doing the work as opposed to looking for inspiration for the work.
In my classes I teach, I encourage every student to study great work that has come before them. Chew on it, figure out why they did what they did. I still do this, too. But I’m always asking two things:
So in a recent example, I worked on the Basecamp.com signup page. Here’s the dialogue to myself:
And questions like why can’t I do this on my own? and why the hell does everyone squish their browser to see responsive design shaped projects like jQuery.wanker.js.
So, those moments of connection happen when I keep digging, keep asking questions, and connecting things that never seem relevant before.
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