Jay Fanelli

Co-Founder of Cotton Bureau

Jay Fanelli

Co-Founder of Cotton Bureau Episode 09

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode 9 of Design Edu Today, the podcast series discussing topics concerning the state of interactive design education at institutions of higher learning. I’m your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Today’s guest is Jay Fanelli. Jay, a design school dropout, is one third of Cotton Bureau, the mutant child of the previous T-shirt store web design community United Pixelworkers and the grandchild of the dearly departed web design studio, Full Stop Interactive. At Cotton Bureau, Jay is in charge of colors, shapes and letters. Even though I’ve gotta think there’s more to it than that. Jay was named after a brand of pistol grips and lost only two Spelling Bees in his life. He made it from 1991 to 2008 without vomiting for any reason and strongly believes that the Nike Air Max 95 is the greatest sneaker ever designed. He also is hopelessly addicted to Coca-Cola. Welcome, Jay.

Jay:
Thanks for having me. That was quite an introduction!
Gary:
You’re welcome. But one question: how many Spelling Bees have you actually entered?
Jay:
By my count, I want to say it’s upwards of forty; maybe fifty, something like that. Between third grade and sixth grade, if I remember correctly.
Gary:
So that’s a good ratio then!
Jay:
Yeah, I was pretty good in my day.
Gary:
I’m terrible at it! Lack of practice! Before we get started, I wanted to let the listeners know that Jay has been interviewed on lots of different podcasts. He’s spoken at Creative Mornings and stories have been written about him in Net Magazine, most recently this summer’s Freelance issue. Amongst other publications, he’s even been on a KDKA News in Pittsburgh, so I’m going to post links to those interviews in the show notes because you should listen to them all. But to me, they’re all about the business of Cotton Bureau: how it grew within United Pixelworkers, the business decisions made, but not about the actual design. So, I want to talk to you about design; how you designed things when you ran Full Stop; how you designed the amazing United Pixelworkers’ site and how you designed the systems behind the T-shirts at Cotton Bureau and maybe get into that super-big question that I kinda have, is design good training to be an entrepreneur?
Jay:
All right.
Gary:
So, you worked at a few interactive design shops before you and Nathan started up the interactive design firm, Full Stop. You said that you don’t exactly have formal graphic design training. So, how did you convince those first couple of agencies you had what it takes to be an interactive designer?
Jay:
I would say, pretty honestly, that kind of a vacuum of leadership allowed me to do a little bit of what I wanted to do, without anybody trying to put me in a role. The beginning of my career when I worked at a couple different agencies, I was really just a client manager. I wasn’t a designer at all; I wasn’t in a creative role at all. I was somebody who was managing clients, I was having phone calls, I was making and sending reports, I was putting on a tie and getting on planes and driving around to different client meetings, but I wasn’t a designer, I wasn’t a creative director, I wasn’t an art director, any of that stuff. That was what I did in my free time, but it was never what I did professionally. I briefly went to design school for a Masters Degree in Interior Architecture and Design; dropped out after one year, it was a three year program, and then moved back to Pittsburgh where I got another job, really my last job at an agency and it was there that I was able to kind of work myself into a working reasonable successful web designer. It was a really small department in a company that didn’t quite understand interactive design and the handful of people that were in the department, there was five or six or seven people, depending on the time; we were a pretty tight team and we really knew what we were doing with web design, but the company itself really was pretty lost, so that’s where I was able to just kind of take the role that I wanted and I was working with, at the time, this was back in 2007 and early 2008 and then early 2009; Flash was still a thing, so there were a couple Flash developers there. That’s where I met Nathan Peretic, my business partner that we’ve started every single company together. Nathan was right out of school and he, like me, was basically a Political Science major who identified web design as a growth industry and decided to learn how to code, so this was his first job out of college, so he was still a pretty young kid. My best friend was working there as a web strategist at the time and there was a real need for somebody to step into a design role there. Because I’d been doing it for so long on my own, really since I was a little kid, I gave it a shot and I think the year that I spent in design school gave me the confidence to know that I could do it and to be very honest, there wasn’t anybody there to tell me to stop.
Gary:
Well that actually…I have two questions that I want to follow up but one, this is an observation. So, you said you’ve been designing your entire life and maybe people who draw, people who are illustrators: they’ve been doing it all their life; they already know how to draw when they go to school. School just kind of at that points makes them do it critically, put it into perspective, but the talent to draw was already there. So, I kind of look at that’s what happened for you is that since you’ve been designing your whole life, the ability to design was already there, just that one year in school just gave you a way to put it into perspective, maybe. Just an observation.
Jay:
Yeah, I think for me it gave me some formal training on technique, especially foundational kind of things; proportion and color and things like that; scale. For me, I could draw when I was a kid. I wasn’t the best at it, especially as I got into high school and there were people who were really spectacular at illustration and drawing, but I was always into, I guess what I grew to know as design; things like logos and I jokingly mentioned my love for the Nike Air Max 85. I remember drawing sneakers in my notebooks when I was a little kid; eight, nine, ten years old. I remember I always loved uniform design, those sorts of things. I think in another life I’m probably working for Nike designing college football uniforms or something, but I guess I was always into it and I always had some talent for it and I think spending a little bit of time in school taught me how to formalize it a little bit and like I said, when I came back to web design, like I said, that gave me the confidence to try to pursue it as a career. I remember my mom saying when I was in high school, because I was good at a lot of different things; I was good at math, I was good at science, I was pretty good at writing and social sciences, those sorts of things and I was good at art. And my mom kind of pushed me to go to art school or architecture or something like that and I remember telling her at the time; I want to keep that as a hobby and I spent, as I’ve said a number of times, I spent the next ten or fifteen years trying to get back to it as a job; if I could press the reset button, there are probably a couple other careers that I would pursue, all in design, either industrial design, as I mentioned or some sort of fashion design or uniform design; maybe even car design, I don’t know. But yeah, that’s where that came from.
Gary:
My reset button is toy design. Just would love to do that. Or architecture.
Jay:
Sounds great, yeah.
Gary:
So, how did you get your first portfolio to show in that first job?
Jay:
To get the job or…
Gary:
Yeah.
Jay:
To get the job, they hired me as a project manager and I made it a condition of my taking the job, you guys gotta let me design a little bit. And they didn’t really know what that meant. This was mostly a video production shop; there was about twenty five people in video production and about five or six people in web design and there was no one in the interactive department who was dedicated to design; there was one person who was a hybrid Flash developer and designer but nobody who was just designing websites and I’d been doing it for, at that point, about ten years on my own and thought I could make it work.
Gary:
So that actually does lead into that next question I wanted to ask. In an article you wrote on The Pastry Box Project, you gave recent graduates some advice in the article. And one piece that sticks out to me is, and I quote, “Be pro-active and anticipate needs. Look for opportunities to fill gaps. Don’t sit around waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Step up.” So, that pretty much defines your career, it sounds like. But you’re not the only person who’s said this. Joe Rinaldi, President of Happy Cog recently said he looks for pro-active in all his new hires. So, is a lack of being pro-active a common problem you see nowadays, since so many people are saying their number one advice is be pro-active?
Jay:
I think, and this is something I’ve said in a couple other places but not necessarily in this context: I think recent graduates are used to structure and they’re used to being told what to do; they’re used to assignments, they’re used to a schedule and when you get into the working world, especially in a small company or a smaller company, something that’s let’s say thirty people or smaller, we were a good example of that. Happy Cog is another good example of that. It’s tough to come out and just…a lot of companies that are that size don’t have a need for somebody who just does one thing and just sits at a desk waiting to be told what to do. There are a ton of needs in small companies and if you just sit at your desk and you do your assignments and you pump it out, you have to do that obviously, you have to get things done on time and you have to do everything that’s asked of you, but it also helps that if you have other skills or you see one of your colleagues that’s kind of struggling, either they have a deadline that they can’t meet or they have a particularly difficult client, something like that, stepping in, I think helps show some initiative and gets you noticed. And like I said, I think in the absence of a structured environment, a lot of recent graduates struggle because they’re not used to taking the initiative because school doesn’t necessarily teach you to take the initiative; it teaches you to do your assignments.
Gary:
I’m glad you bring that up because that’s something that I wrestle with internally when I teach because I assign: make something. That’s not how it works, because we’re already giving them the solution to the problem; that’s not real problem-solving either. The real problem would be to just go, all right, ask the client what their problem is and then tell them, oh yes the website is the way to solve that. No; the website is not the way to solve that at all. You should just…you need new content, the website’s fine! And I think we don’t do a good enough…it’s not that we don’t do a good enough job, it’s just that I don’t think we’ve ever stopped and thought about that line of what that kind of creates and you’re right, that’s a good observation that that creates somebody who’s not pro-active; it’s somebody who’s reactive and is waiting to react to something and so we need to…I think we can do little things in the classroom to shift that thinking.
Jay:
Yeah, the definition of design is constantly growing, constantly expanding and it’s one of those things where it’s like, if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; a lot of designers think that they can solve every problem with what is traditionally thought of as design; visual design, they think that a new logo will solve the problem when, as you mentioned, new content may be what they need. And that’s been an interesting lesson to learn, especially as we’ve transitioned into product work is, we have this attitude as designers where it’s like, every six months or every eighteen months we need to re-design the entire website. It’s like well, do we? Is that the right thing for the business? And running a product business has given us a really raw introduction to what that kind of thinking results in.
Gary:
Can you talk a little bit more about, or describe what you mean by product design or a product business?
Jay:
All right. We make a thing! Called Cotton Bureau. And Cotton Bureau is an online business that makes and sells T-shirts, at its most base. So we define a product business as a group of people working on the same thing, whether that’s an online application, either a web app or an iOS app or an Android app; a virtual product, something like that, or something that makes physical products. So, the work that we do is exclusively to promote and grow one thing and that one thing is Cotton Bureau and what we used to be and what a lot of other places are, client services businesses where you’re an agency who works with clients to work on their one thing, so they may be the ones who have the app or the physical product that you’re working on and then you go and work with another client on another physical product or another web app or another website. So, we made the trade to just tackle one of our own products as opposed to continuing to work with clients on theirs.
Gary:
And I think that’s an important distinction for design education nowadays because you did not design a website; you built a product that took the form of a website but because that was the right solution for the problem. And there is a distinction and I don’t think that we look in education at that particularly, that big scope of the word…students are going to go into the industry now and they’re going to be creating products for clients, not necessarily static brochure type stuff any more.
Jay:
Yeah, I mean it’s…education’s in a tough spot, especially as it results to interaction and…
Gary:
You can call it whatever you want!
Jay:
Online web design, interactive, whatever we want to call it. Everything changes so quickly and you, as an educator, have to be way ahead of things in terms of creating curriculum and making sure that you are…that the student that you start creating today comes out the other end four years later with a relevant skill-set and because things change every…every six months, especially in web design and app design, interaction design, trying to plan four years ahead is pretty much impossible, so I don’t envy you your position but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a problem.
Gary:
It is, it’s difficult, but I think in that same…no; there was another Pastry Box article, maybe it was actually the same one, you said,“Learn to code. This is coming from someone who couldn’t code his way out of a paper bag.”
Jay:
And still can’t!
Gary:
Why do you think that is important, but more specifically, for designers?
Jay:
Learning to code gives you this common language with the people who are making the thing that you are building. A lot of people like to pull out the architect metaphor when they talk about designers learning to code.
Gary:
I haven’t heard that one yet.
Jay:
OK, well it’s kind of a common metaphor where it’s like architects don’t need to know how to build their own buildings; they don’t need to know how to hop into a crane and move an I-beam into place when they’re building their own buildings but architects do learn structural engineering and that’s kind of I think more closely tied to what I mean when I say designers need to learn how to code. Not so much that you need to be able to pick up an air tool and rivet some steel beams together but you do need to know how forces apply to your building; you need to know how to build a building so that it doesn’t fall down, but you don’t necessarily need to be the one who’s putting the beams into place. And I think, if that was confusing enough…
Gary:
No, I get it.
Jay:
That’s I think what…I think that’s where web designers is headed. As the industry matures, people are going to be headed for roles that are a lot more specialized than they’ve been in the past, but everybody needs to be able to speak the same language and I think web design is still at a point in its development where designers are coming to the field from traditional backgrounds; print, things like that. And there’s a lot about print design that just doesn’t apply to web design and trying to hammer print design principles into place on the internet can lead to a lot of frustration, both your own frustration and the developer’s frustration and ultimately users’ frustration in a lot of ways. So, learning that common language of the internet, even if you don’t know how to make production level code, can really grease the skids when you’re working in a team.
Gary:
I have two questions and the first one is, how do you define code as…is it HTML, CSS, JavaScript, whatever, PHP, Ruby and that other one, the follow-up after you answer that one is, what are the things that print that don’t you think transfer. Or you can answer whichever one you want first!
Jay:
Sure. I’m probably the wrong person to answer this question, at least the first part of the question. But I would say HTML, CSS and maybe like some really basic JavaScript, although being a full stack web developer nowadays, there’s so many technologies and so many techniques and so many processes that go into… version control over the last few years is something that’s popped up as something that everybody“needs to know” or CSS pre-processors are something that“everybody needs to know” that’s part of everybody’s process. Not to pull a“back in the day when I was a kid” kind of thing, but I remember just jumping straight into Notepad and building a website. But now…
Gary:
Yep, that’s how I did it!
Jay:
Right. Now, it takes an hour and a half to get your environment set up before you’re ready to start actually coding anything. That’s tough and it makes it really intimidating for a student to jump in and get started because they don’t see results; it’s a lot more about protocol than it is about building, at least when you’re setting everything up. But I would say HTML, CSS, maybe a tiny bit of JavaScript at least. At least now. And once you get in a team, if you get into a team, your co-workers can tell you what flavor of CSS pre-processor they use and what flavor of version control they use and get you started down that road. What was the other question?
Gary:
In print design, you said that some things just don’t translate.
Jay:
So, the ideal; in print design, everything you design, everything you make, you know the exact dimensions of the thing that you’re going to be making, whether it’s a magazine ad or a poster or whatever it is; billboard. None of that matters in web design. None of that is the truth in web design. Especially now; the thing you’re building could be viewed on everything from a watch to one of those crazy wide-screen hi-def, LG monitors, so you don’t know how tall it’s going to be, you don’t know how wide it’s going to be, you don’t know what resolution it’s going to be, you don’t know the speed at which it’s going to be viewed, whether it’s somebody on a really slow mobile connection or somebody on a really fast pipe in an office. All of those things factor into web design and all of them are outside your control, whereas print design is very, very much about control; you can control every single aspect of the page, every single color, how it’s going to be printed, how it’s going to be viewed; none of that applies in web design and it’s getting more complicated by the day. I think Brad Frost, he’s a good friend, a really well-known web designer, he speaks everywhere around the world and he’s a good friend of ours here in Pittsburgh said something like, I’ll edit this for language, but he said, Samsung craps out a differently sized black rectangle every thirty seconds. And that’s the environment we’re designing for.
Gary:
Industrial design has really flushed and gone swirling because all they do now is draw squares and rectangles.
Jay:
You can thank Jonny Ive for that!
Gary:
Yeah. He’s good at drawing rectangles and squares!
Jay:
He is.
Gary:
I’m over-simplifying that. That’s kind of how I feel.
Jay:
It’s all Apple is, just squares and rectangles.
Gary:
It’s mostly then the, just to reiterate that one, so it’s mostly you see it’s that fixed width no longer exists, that dimension no longer exists?
Jay:
Yeah, but it’s more than that; responsive design I think it’s simplified down to size: width…for the most, actually more specifically just width. Devices are different widths and that’s what responsive web design is. But responsive web design factors in so many other things and performance is something that really gets left behind as part of the definition and it’s becoming increasingly part of the definition but when you’re doing print design, you can add textures, you can add fonts, you can add big photos, things like that, and all of those things pile up when you’re talking about a website that’s supposed to perform. And again, somebody could be on a really fast connection, somebody could be on a really slow mobile connection and if you have this enormous website that is full of stuff, whatever that stuff is, whether it’s fonts or textures or photos; that can really affect how a user interprets not only the website but the brand itself. If there’s a brand you’re just being introduced to, for example, let’s say you have someone like Jeans Company or whatever and you want people to have a good first impression of the brand, well, building a big heavy website that doesn’t load on their phone is a way to negatively affect their business and we think about that all the time with Cotton Bureau. I think the next version of the site that we build, not that our current site is imperformant, but I think performance is going to be a big priority for the next iteration of what we build with Cotton Bureau.
Gary:
I’m actually writing…I’m in the middle of writing an article on that idea of performance. But I’m not writing on performance because there’s…Lara Hogan, Katie Kovalcin…I know I just butchered her name…anyway…so many people are writing about performance but I’m more interested in the fact that you mentioned comparing it to print budgets, because I think there’s a real, natural parallel there, because you mentioned textures and photos. Well, you know, if they don’t have the print budget, you start taking out photos, you start making it smaller, you do a shorter print-run; and in the print industry, in print design, everybody understands this idea of the print budget. So I think the performance budget’s a parallel, so I’m working on an article to say, when you’re thinking about a print budget, also you can think about it in the same way as you do with a performance budget.
Jay:
Exactly. I mean, a lot of people out there are writing about that stuff. Yesenia Perez-Cruz I know does a talk about performance. Dan Mall who you spoke to on the podcast, I think talks about performance budgets a lot as well.
Gary:
And one other thing that I wanted to…and also too I think another thing that’s missing and I want to get your take on that is, from print to interactive or however you want to define it, is motion. Motion is hierarchy; motion is now a design element that can be used to call attention to something just like color can, hierarchy can, typography can and it’s something that’s just not being taught or it’s just not being…you’ve hired some people at Full Stop; I’m sure you have at some point. How much skill do they have in that regard, coming in?
Jay:
I actually wouldn’t say that I have a ton of experience with that; we’re actually in the process of talking to somebody right now who might be the next person on the team who has some motion graphics experience but I know that Val Head on the podcast, she’s one of the motion and JavaScript gurus in our space so I’m sure she has a lot more to say about that. It’s just another tool in the toolkit that everyone; not everyone, but if you’re a designer, it’s a good thing to think about, it’s a good thing to have and it’s going to be increasingly important. It’s been important in app design for a couple of years now and the principles that apply to app design are starting to be applied to web design; there are ways to port that experience from one to the other. So it’s something that wasn’t important when we had very, very basic CSS transitions…
Gary:
And those are what I’m talking about because you had them on United Pixelworkers; those subtle animations made me know, oh, I’m supposed to click on this. Oh, you want me to read this, and I thought you did a really good job of…so those are the kind of things that I’m talking about when it comes to motion.
Jay:
Yeah, some of it is…it’s all as you mentioned, it’s all about applying the ideas of hierarchy, the ideas of calls to action; what you want people to notice, the order in which you want them to notice them, all those sorts of things; all those sorts of things apply.
Gary:
All right. Whoa, I just realized where we’re at with time. So, one question I wanted to talk to you about before I let you go is the platform behind Cotton Bureau. If I’ve followed history correctly, at some point it was a Shopify shop as the back-end. Is it still a Shopify or has it…
Jay:
It isn’t, and actually it never was. Pixelworkers was done Shopify but not Cotton Bureau…
Gary:
So, Big Cartel?
Jay:
Yeah, right. Pixelworkers was Big Cartel at first and then Pixelworkers was Shopify, but Cotton Bureau has been custom from the ground up since Day One.
Gary:
OK. Can you talk about the process of building that from why did you identify, this time we need to start our own? How did you work as a team, because you’ve got Matthew your lamp developer; you’ve got Nathan who’s the front-end developer; so how did you guys sit down and make this thing?
Jay:
Well, in the early days of Pixelworkers we didn’t know what we had and the idea behind it took a while to take off. So we wanted to start off with a relatively lightweight ecommerce thing, so we picked Big Cartel and it worked for us for a long time and it works for a lot of people and we still to this day are friendly with a lot of people at Big Cartel. At a certain point, the idea outgrew Big Cartel. We needed more in the way, especially back-end support kinds of things, reporting, flexibility in terms of products, things like that. The way that we sold things on Pixelworkers was really weird; the pre-order model that we discovered…discovered sounds like we’re the Christopher Columbus of pre-orders; that’s not what I meant!
Gary:
Hey, run with it!
Jay:
We sort of fell into or identified is maybe a better word. And a lot of ecommerce platforms just aren’t built that way. Ecommerce platforms for the most part are built to handle businesses that have inventory, which is most of them. And that’s not what we really were, especially at first. So we had to make Shopify do contortions and backflips for a while in order to function for us on Pixelworkers, so we knew that when we identified Cotton Bureau as the business of the future for us that we were going to have to roll our own from the very beginning to make it work natively in the way that it would function for us. I guess you could call it a design decision…
Gary:
It is!
Jay:
…yeah, I guess it is, I guess it is. But that’s kinda how we made that decision. We also didn’t really want to be dependent on a third party. So many online businesses today, as my business partner Nathan says, are just like towers of dependencies stacked on top of each other. You have this service plugged into that service to that service to that service and if one of them goes down, the entire chain can go down and although we are very, very, very small team, it’s nice to know that we can just jump in and fix something whenever something breaks. We’re never going to be processing our own payments; we use Stripe for that. We’re never going to be sending our own mass emails; we use Mandrill, I believe, for that. At least for transactional emails kind of things. There are a bunch of services that are plugged into Cotton Bureau that we’ll probably never get rid of, but as much of it that can be ours as possible, I think that’s probably…we have a technical co-founder of the company; if it was just me as a designer or even me and Nathan as front end developer, although he does way more than front end development than I can describe here, but if it was just me and Nate, we probably would have tried to build it on top of an existing ecommerce platform, but since we have Matt, we can build it ourselves.
Gary:
Well, I think the reason I ask that is, designers are going to need to, whether they’re going solo; so if they’re going solo, if they’re at a small firm, at some point they’re going to have to steer a client to the right solution and they need to be able to know that Shopify is the right solution or Magento is the right solution and they need to be able to, whether…they don’t have to design…they’ll have to design the front end but they won’t have to hook it up to Magento, they won’t have to deal with Inventory, somebody else do that, but they will need to be able to identify that as a need, as a solution to the problem and I’m just curious how you came about to understand that that was the solution to your problem was invent your own, and I had a hunch it was around the pre-order stuff.
Jay:
Yeah, it was, it was. And also as a company, we are blessed with the presence of Nathan Peretic who does more thorough research on options and services than anyone I’ve ever met in my entire career! So, when we were a web design shop and we had to identify a content management system for a client, we could count on Nate to do all of the work involved in deciding which one was the right one and he would more often than not make the right choice.
Gary:
This is kind of a weird question: for my classes, for my students, I keep the grades online in it’s own little grade book that I made because I couldn’t find a tool that I liked so I just made my own. But I never designed the back end, so when I log in to enter the grades I’m looking at a straight HTML…
Jay:
Yeah, you should see the back end of Cotton Bureau!
Gary:
That’s what I wanted to know. Did you guys actually finish it on the back end because…
Jay:
So, it depends what you mean by finish. A lot of it has the same styles that we use for the front end but it’s not designed to nearly the same level of polish that the outside is. It has to be designed because that’s how we work the site; when you’re pulling the levers and pulleys on the back end, you need something to use but it’s pretty…what’s the word I want to use here…it could use a good sanding, we’ll say that!
Gary:
It’s definitely not polished where you could put it into…open source it and other people on the back could use it and look at it and go, OK, I know how to use this!
Jay:
No, I don’t think so. It’s not studs and bare drywall, but it’s definitely…
Gary:
That’s mine!
Jay:
It’s some cheap paint and linoleum!
Gary:
I don’t even have the drywall up; I have just got the studs!
Jay:
OK, we at least have that.
Gary:
Nice! All right. Before I let you go, is there anything that you’re working on that you would like to share or something that you want to promote?
Jay:
We’re in a tough spot with that because we don’t have…we’re very bad at planning; I’m very bad at planning and when I’m one-third of the small team that’s making the website, unfortunately I think I’m usually the roadblock to planning. We’re just trying to make this thing as good as we can make it and that ultimately I think is what any good product team is doing; we’re trying to make the experience as good as we can for designers, for customers and we have a to-do list a mile long of things we want to do or future products we want to roll out. I know we’re recording this podcast pretty early, before it comes out, and that’s tough for somebody like me because I don’t know that I could tell you what we’re going to be doing next week, much less a couple of months from now, but we have a couple long-term plans with Cotton Bureau, as far as what we want to do. I can tell you that it doesn’t involved T-shirts forever. There are some other products that we want to roll out and maybe by the time this is live, they’ll be out there.
Gary:
I mean, that’s good right there. It’s nice that you’ve got …you have a vision for Cotton Bureau; it’s not the status quo so that’s really cool.
Jay:
Yeah, I mean, we rolled this thing out back in June of 2013, in the start-up world there’s this…we’re not a start-up, but in the start-up world there’s this phrase,“minimally viable product”; basically it’s do as little as you can…do as little as you can to get it live and that’s what we did. And the website has really been in evolution since then; there have been very few big jumps, there have been very few complete re-designs, if any. It’s been in evolution from Day One to today and like I said before, I think designers kind of get caught up in these, let’s nuke it and then build it from the ground again, and it’s taken a while for me to even get out; I’m thirty-six years old, I’ve been doing this for a long time and now I have a business that I can’t afford to nuke and start from scratch and I still sometimes, I’m like, let’s just totally redesign the site over the next month and it’s like well, we can’t really do that. So it’s been nice to ease into this process of start with as little as you can get away with and then build it up and tweak it, see what works and see what doesn’t and change it and that’s an experience that we just never got with client websites.
Gary:
See, I’m glad that you mention that and the reason is, designers, educators, students: I think we all get caught up in that finished product and it comes from our print. When you’re done, when it’s printed, it’s done.
Jay:
Because it has to be perfect.
Gary:
Yeah, and with web, I was so…I have to plan this website, I have to have it perfect and it has to be perfect. No, it doesn’t. It has to be usable. It has to be usable and that’s it because then you can go, after you get a usable thing you can start adding features, you can start making performance adjustments, but just getting that minimal viable product is I think really hard because it’s so ingrained in design to have it perfect.
Jay:
Yeah; as Nate says, it’s a lot easier to steer a ship when it’s in the water than one that’s in the dock.
Gary:
Yes! That’s a good analogy.
Jay:
Yeah. The best thing about websites is that they’re never done and the worst thing about websites is that they’re never done. We’ve embraced I think the latter.
Gary:
Yeah, and once you embrace it, that’s the…there’s no going back for you. But it’s good to embrace it. So, before I let you go, is there one final piece of advice you’d like to give design educators that we didn’t cover in this talk?
Jay:
Huh…
Gary:
Because you’ve got a wealth of knowledge there.
Jay:
Well…I would like to give some advice to, I guess, students but also just some things that you can pass on. We have a group of designers that we talk to quite a lot; they’re kind of a Council of Elders for us at Cotton Bureau; some big names, some less well known names, but everybody’s talented, everybody’s been a working designer for a long time and one thing that we talk about a lot in that group is, I’ll call it growing up in public…way back when, designers used to…you learned to design by you’d go to class and things like that, but you also copy things or you temp things that you see out in the world, just to learn new techniques; you see a designer who has a technique you like and you try to do it and now it’s part of your arsenal too. The difference is, maybe even as recently as ten years ago or even five or seven years ago, a lot of those attempts happened in private; they happened in class. The most public that they ever occurred was in class and if it was a poor attempt or an embarrassing attempt or, in some cases, you saw something from a well known designer that you liked and you basically copied it, a lot of those things happened in private and you can make your mistakes in private behind closed doors and the worst that happens is you get shredded by thirteen other people in a crit. What happens now, because of Twitter and because of Dribbble and because of Instagram is, everybody is taking those awkward steps in public now and they’re taking a lot of steps that they shouldn’t take publicly and the problem with that is no only….somebody can see one of those attempts and thing, ooh, this kid’s a rip-off artist, or this kid isn’t any good or whatever, and you can get labeled negatively one way or another very early on in your career, even when you’re a nineteen year old kid and you don’t know any better. And those sorts of things can stick with you because a lot of that stuff is permanent. The other thing that can happen is you can start to get an audience based on that stuff because the audience doesn’t know any better and you think once you build up fifteen hundred or two thousand or ten thousand followers somewhere; that can be validation for what you’re doing. And a lot of that is negative reinforcement masquerading as positive reinforcement. And I think we’ve seen that as designers who are maybe a little bit older, although we are by no means old; we’ve seen a lot of that pop up in graphic design; it’s just these people who built their own audience on social media outside of the healthy structure of design critique and they propagate poor technique or they propagate poor concept or in some cases like I said, outright plagiarism, things that aren’t original, to an audience that doesn’t know better and it can manifest itself in all kinds of negative ways. You could be taking work away from the kinds of people whose style you’re aping. Or you could just be putting yourself in a position where other designers think you don’t know what you’re talking about or setting yourself up to not be hired; things like that. There’s all kinds of ways that this can go sideways. And that’s something that I wanted to talk about today with you both as a design educator and also just speaking directly to students, it’s OK to try a new technique; it’s OK, to even copy somebody, as long as you’re doing it on your own time and you learn something from it and you can adapt it to what you’re doing and to yourself because if you let that stuff get out, it can sink you in some bad ways.
Gary:
And I do tell my students if they do that; give credit. Just write and say, hey, this is what I was trying to do; this is the person that I was looking at to try to replicate and I said makes you actually look pro-active like you’re learning as opposed to being a rip-off artist if you own what you are doing.
Jay:
Yeah, and the thing is, you’re not going to fool anybody. You are not going to fool anybody. The design industry is a lot more vigilant about that stuff; they’re probably over-vigilant about that stuff because there’s a lot of things that aren’t rip-offs that people call rip-offs; so you’re not going to sneak it by anybody if you try to put something out that looks like Jon Contino or Jessica Hische because Jon Contino and Jessica Hische have a lot more friends than you do and they all have eyes and they will sound the alarm if they see something they don’t like.
Gary:
Yes, they will. All right, well, that’s all that we have time for today on Episode 9 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Jay Fanelli of Cotton Bureau, for being so generous with his time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the Design Edu Today hosting sponsor, Digital Ocean, and CVN Sponsor Fastly for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. Finally, I want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that led to this podcast series.

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