September 18, 2020No Comments

No more boring apps

In 1970, artist John Baldessari took his entire life's work of landscape paintings, lit it ablaze, and watched decades of work burn to ash.

He followed with a long film of him repeating a statement that hit the art world: 

"I will not make any more boring art. I will not make any more boring art…" 

Baldessari then went on to produce some of the 20th century's seminal visual and conceptual art that has influenced entire new generations of artists.

Product design sits at this same moment today.

I've been in this field for a bit. I've worked for some big companies and founded a couple companies of my own (FiftyThree, Short of the Week). I've watched apps grow from a side hobby to big business. I've watched product design evolve from a small, nameless circle of misfits to one of the largest creative fields today. Every day, millions of new dollars are invested and hundreds of new apps are launched. The world is becoming a better place one convenience at a time. 

Apps have become an intimate part of our everyday lives. We wake up with them, eat with them, pee with them and go to bed with them. Software has eaten the world; some are ready to hail this as the golden age of design.

And it's time to burn it all.

The world of apps – once an exciting canvas for creative exploration – has become repetitive, predictable and… boring.

Seriously, I can't tell one app from the next.

There was that one hot app from a couple weeks ago that everyone was raving about, but I don't remember it anymore. Just this week, there was a new email app, a new metrics dashboard and a new bookmarking app. They are all destined to disappear into a sea of apps following the same formula — designed with the same boring templates, built with the same boring frameworks, promoted on the same boring landing page design with that same boring tone of voice. What we get are apps with generic, completely forgettable design promising to change our life by making some small part of it easier. Product design has become formulaic and the apps we make entirely uninspired.

I used to think it was just me. Then I started to notice something. I've started asking my product design friends where they find inspiration and I hear a lot about great architecture, graphic design, photography, video games, film and art. But no one mentions any apps. Seems odd, don't you think?

You can try it yourself with a slightly different question. Ask a product designer to name a few of their design heroes. You're likely to hear names like Dieter Rams, Paula Scher, Vignelli and Buckminster Fuller. What you won't hear are the names of anyone designing any software.

Sure, we're a young discipline, but so are video games. And you won't find a game designer who can't rattle off names like Miyamoto (Nintendo), Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid),  Arnt Jenson (Playdead) as well as a dozen titles that deeply shaped their childhood.

Something is off. This isn't an issue you'll find in other design fields like industrial design, fashion or architecture. Despite being one of the largest practicing creative fields today, product design seems to be missing out on something fundamental that exists in every other design field.

A couple years ago, I was ready to walk away from it all. 

I watched many of my friends leave design to reconnect with the world. Usually, that meant going out into nature for a long hike or to build a cabin.

I grew up in Alaska, so… I moved out to Seattle and started building furniture.

Woodworking is brutal. It's painfully slow to learn and very unforgiving. But the sheer act of jumping blindly into a new creative field as a novice really opened up my eyes. You'd be surprised how quickly designing a simple bench will lead you into existential questions about the nature of "sitting.”

Ever wonder…

Why there are so many chair designs?

I did. You'd think after thousands of years and millions of iterations, we'd have solved the problem of sitting. And yet, every year a new, amazing chair is unveiled that would put a new iPhone iteration to shame.

It turns out, there isn't one chair for everyone. There are many chairs for different people in different situations. There are lounge chairs, task chairs, benches, stools, poufs — all serving a unique purpose. If I were to go looking for a new lounge chair, I could buy a La-Z-Boy, an Eames lounge chair or Saarinen's womb chair. A chair solves a simple need with a diversity of viewpoints.

How is it that our apps, which tackle issues that are infinitely more complex than sitting– issues like human connection – offer so much less depth and diversity?

It’s all about growth.

To understand product design, you need to understand the tech industry.

The underlying appeal in software as a business is scale. With zero marginal costs, you can build your product just once and put it in the hands of billions. The goal is scale and the strategy is growth. But this strategy of endless growth cuts against one of the fundamental principles in design. 

"If you're small, it's to your advantage to be weird. You can build apps that the big tech companies never could."

Let's look at beer.

In the U.S. beer industry, the most popular beers by sales are domestic beers which are typically extremely light lagers. They can be made cheaply, quickly and are optimized to be as "drinkable" as possible (interestingly, it's a market dominated by two players). Then, there's a craft beer market where smaller brewers explore new flavors targeted toward regional customers.

The world of apps today is entirely domestic beers. Every app is designed to appeal to everyone. Which is another way of saying they're designed so as to not offend anyone.

Now, it's easy to understand why the big tech companies pursue scale. But what boils my mind, is that every small startup has seemingly set the same strategic goal for itself. First, offering some slightly more convenient solution to an ever more-minor problem, and then, with funding secured, attempt to apply that problem to the entire world. We've given up on "flavor" in pursuit of "drinkable."

When you design something to work for everyone, you make it special for no one.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

The strategy of scale is stunting the product design field. I've watched it corrupt teams as design values that were once "delight" slowly morph into "perform," even if not explicitly stated. I suspect, deep down, many of us know this, but simply can't find a way to square it.

As important as knowing what your product is, is knowing what it is not. And that starts with recognizing that your business is not the same as Apple or Google. Stop playing their game.

The big domestic beer makers draw their inspiration from the microbreweries. There are styles and flavors that a small brewer can explore that a massive industrial brewer never could. The big clothing brands are inspired by independent fashion designers. Blockbuster directors find inspiration in indie and short films. If you're small, it's to your advantage to be weird. You can build apps that the big tech companies never could.

In the world of chairs, you're not going to build a cheaper chair than Ikea. Why not build something they couldn't, like a more interesting one?

For me, this thinking begins to answer the question of what is missing in the product design field. It opens up the medium of software as a platform for something bigger than solving problems.

Why do furniture designers keep designing new chairs? We know it's not to solve the problem of "sitting." The chair is simply the medium. The true goal is something bigger: to inspire, to broaden our understanding of what's possible, or express something unique about what it means to be alive today.

Imagine if our everyday apps embraced this? What might we see? I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

We miss the point. We're supposed to be dancing.

Perhaps it's part of maturing, but I'm at a point in my life where I don't want more. I want better.

When I use your app, I don't want to see your company's KPI. I want to see your point of view. The world should know that you made it. People should feel your passion vibrating off the screen.

I want us to collectively raise the bar for what we expect from our digital experiences. Life isn't just a series of problems to be solved but moments to be lived. As we find ourselves spending more and more of our time in the digital world (especially now), we should expect that world to inspire, surprise and dare I say, even challenge us. We are lucky to be versed in a creative field where we can dream up magical things that can touch the lives of billions. Like other design fields, we should see the work of product design as not just a business optimizer but a powerful vehicle for expressing ideas that can push culture forward.

I know there are many designers out there with something to say. If where you work won't let you say it, leave when you can afford to, and find someplace that will. And if you can't find someplace that will, start it yourself.

That's what I did.

I left a perfectly comfortable job to start ANDY WORKS to rethink the role of design in our digital lives — starting with something as small as an app. The larger hope is to uncover an alternative way that products, and even businesses, can be built. Join me?

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

September 10, 2020No Comments

A counterintuitive way to get noticed

The typical marketing strategy goes like this: Promote yourself and what you offer. 

That may be a product, content or your own personal brand. Tell people about it and why it solves a problem for them, then repeat. 

An alternative strategy, especially for those just starting out, is this: Promote others’ work to get noticed.

Share work from those you admire, who align with your product. Be the champion of your users. Allow others to take the stage on your own platform.

Jack Butcher built his business on this strategy. He started Visualize Value, a creative source of wisdom and motivation, by posting visual quotes from people he admires on Twitter. His page slowly grew, and his business did with it.

“In retrospect, this idea could be called ‘reverse influence,’” said Butcher in an article reflecting on his business journey. “If you want a shot at more exposure: Make other people look good. Give yourself the job of a remote, unpaid design intern for anyone you admire.”

In doing so, you cast your net wider. 

Share your platform with someone who has a large following of their own and they may retweet you, reaching a whole new audience of like-minded people. 

Promote someone who faithfully uses your product, and they will be all the more loyal – the makings of a brand advocate. 

Become a resource of quality, curated content, content that naturally ties back to what you do, and your product or offering will fit seamlessly into that conversation, when the time is right.

August 26, 2020No Comments

Welcome to The Startup

This is it. After two weeks spent poring over your welcome packet, studying the internal Wikipedia, jotting down countless ideas and agonizing over your first-day outfit, you’re here. 

Your new startup job.

A motivational mural is the first to greet you when you step off the elevator, demanding you fail harder. House music pumps through unseen speakers. The office smells like disinfectant and cologne, an amalgamation of scents at once comforting and intimidating, like walking by a luxury retail store. 

A startlingly young-looking person asks you to sign in on the iPad mounted on the desk. In return, you receive your company branded hoodie. It’s official. 

As you make your way through the open office, you pass a heated ping pong match and meeting rooms titled “Beyonce,” and “The World.” You wonder what brave, disruptive ideas your new team is discussing behind the transparent glass. You can almost taste the energy, a flavor not unlike free KIND bars and organic coconut water.

You picture yourself breezing into that room, scribbling a product-defining idea on the chalkboard wall and punctuating it with a joke, bathing in admiration of your colleagues. Soon, you tell yourself.

And soon comes soon enough. After finding your desk and mentally reviewing the company’s core values (#1: Have fun!), you enter your first meeting with your design lead, along with an army of UX and design researchers. You’ve got a fresh grid notebook ready. Cold brew coffee (from the in-house tap) in one hand, pen in the other. 

The designers are discussing their weekends. The designers. You’re one of them now, part of the team. The room settles and the agile coach starts reading through the weekly update. KPIs are down. A lot rides on the upcoming release, which has been delayed for two quarters already. The team begins mapping out the upcoming sprint. You straighten in your seat, realizing this is your chance to make a first impression.

You raise your hand, immediately feeling like a school child. “I was thinking,” you venture, all eyes turning toward you, “we could probably increase conversions if we get their address on the second onboarding screen instead of the first.”

You’ve been using this product since its first release, and you’re brimming with ideas for improvement. In fact, you’ve wondered how the team has overlooked these low-hanging fruits, they’re so obvious to you. It’s why you decided to apply for this job in the first place; you could make a real difference here. 

“Yes,” replies the lead designer. “We’ve tried that already.”

You nod your head and scratch through the idea in your notebook. 

Undeterred, you jump in a few minutes later: “Have you ever considered combining these two steps? The second seems redundant.”

“Yes, we’ve considered it,” says one of the UX researchers with an almost imperceptible edge to her voice. 

You share two more ideas by the end of the meeting that are quickly shot down. 

It goes like this, meeting after meeting, day after day, your eager pitches (practiced late the night before on your roommate) meeting short, painful deaths the moment they enter the meeting room. 

“Nice idea, but it’d require too much time and budget.” 

“That’s not in our Q3 strategy, unfortunately.” 

“Good thinking, maybe we’ll consider it next year for V2.” 

“We don’t have the resources.”

“That’s too risky right now.”

“We’ve already tried that.”

Was it only three months ago you arrived to work an hour early every day, nearly saluting the word “hustle” painted in calligraphy on the lobby wall? 

Now you trudge into meetings with the others, five minutes late. You take your seat as far from the front as possible, where you can feign participation and avoid attention from the aggressive agile coaches. 

Was it so recently you attended every happy hour and Lunch & Learn, ready to connect with your team and soak up any wisdom they had to offer? Now you duck out early, eager to see any face but the ones you see every day for 10+ hours. 

Even the KIND bars now taste like desperation.

In this morning’s meeting, you take your usual spot and proceed to tune out, eyes zeroed into your laptop screen, until you hear an unfamiliar voice from the front of the meeting table. The hopeful tone is jarring in the solemn room.

“I was thinking, if we removed that step it would streamline the flow considerably,” says the person connected to the raised hand.

It’s the new designer.

“We’ve already tried that,” you say without lifting your eyes from your screen.


August 11, 2020No Comments

Can a utility brand be an emotional brand?

An emotional tech product is a lifestyle product. It doesn’t necessarily solve a problem. It’s there for entertainment. It’s not a product that people need, it’s a product they choose. Think Netflix, TikTok or Instagram.

A utility product is a service. It exists simply to fill a need, improve a process or connect one thing to another. It’s meant to be used, not necessarily enjoyed. You want to be in and out, quickly. Examples: Google Docs, your banking app, your weather app.

More and more lately, the lines between the two are blurring. Utility apps are marketing themselves the way emotional apps do. They are appealing to our personal values and emotions rather than simply offering solutions to a problem. They are attempting to build a community around their product. They promise their product is more than just the service they provide. It’s a lifestyle.

Take the 2017 Dropbox redesign, for example.

The new Dropbox logo was released with lines like “Making the everyday more extra­or­dinary” and “unlocking creativity.” Vibrant ads started popping up around Brooklyn, joining the likes of whiskey and Adidas billboards, with headlines like “the world needs your dreamy energy.” 

The redesign was a departure from the tech company look; it was aesthetically pleasing. It felt fresh and modern, which is essential as times and styles change. But while Dropbox has expanded into creation tools like “Paper,” I still consider it a utility product. At the end of the day, most of us simply use Dropbox to store and organize files. I don’t *love* Dropbox, but I use it. And that’s okay. We don’t want it or need it to be more than that. 

Or consider the Mailchimp redesign from 2018. While many creative folks use Mailchimp, it is ultimately a tool for creating emails and marketing campaigns. It’s a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s the medium, not the message. Yet the new brand uses whimsical illustrations and “artful scenes” to present its offering. Again, we see a utility product marketing itself as an emotional product.

Of course, it makes sense that a brand would play on emotions to sell their product. It’s not sneaky or misleading. A brand wants to connect with people, and people are emotional beings. 

When you set out to buy a hammer, you’re not necessarily looking for a community, or a hammer “that’s more than a hammer.” You just need to nail something, and this is the tool to do it. You would likely choose the first solid-looking, affordable hammer you set eyes on.

But what if you learned that your grandfather swore by a specific hammer that hangs in his toolshed to this day? Or that this hammer has been used for over a century by the proud working class? What if I said this specific hammer enables creativity? That it’s the centerpiece of a sculptor’s or artist’s profession? I could go so far as to say this hammer allows art and creativity to exist. So do email clients and online file storage. 

But let’s look at the other side. Two companies that are non-emotional, utility tech products and own it: Slack and Basecamp. These companies also use playful imagery, but their message is straightforward. Slack is where work happens. Basecamp solves the fundamental problems of growing businesses. Both of these brands offer a tool, and that tool does their job well. That’s it.

Maybe it’s enough for a product to be functional. 

Last year or so, Slack redesigned its logo. Naturally, the design community was is an uproar. They Tweeted about the logo and Slacked the Slack logo to each other on Slack asking for everyone’s opinion and the only one I had was: Why does it matter? 

People use Slack because it’s faster and easier. I like the logo and I generally enjoy the way Slack works, but I don’t love it like I love my favorite sweater. If something comes along that’s better, I will use that. It’s a utility. Nothing more, nothing less.

Slack is not Nike. The app’s design is pleasing and modern, but I don’t choose Slack because it inspires me or aligns with my values. And that’s OK. I understand that some people feel differently or have a more emotional connection to Slack, but I’d guess that most use Slack because their company uses it, and because it just works. 

Yes, brands exist that offer both emotion and utility. Apple is an obvious example. Apple was at the forefront of this marketing approach, and they’ve always done it well. Apple products were never just computers or smartphones, they were tools that enable creativity. Before Apple entered the mainstream, it focused heavily on the creative class. Everyone knew that if they want to be taken seriously as a designer or filmmaker, they better use an Apple product. Apple computers are a tool that became a lifestyle, even a cult. So it is possible for a product to successfully do both.

Maybe it’s companies like Apple that have inspired this wave of emotional marketing for utility products. Or maybe, perhaps through social media, we as consumers are signaling that this is what we want from a product. Or maybe the agencies for these brands are pushing trendy strategies like content marketing as a one-size-fits-all marketing plan. 

The approach can clearly work. But as more and more brands get on board, I start to question it. Does every utility brand need to market themselves as a lifestyle brand to succeed now? Or is it enough to simply provide a great product that solves a problem? Utility brands can have personality, but is it accurate to market a time-tracking app or note-taking tool like a Coca Cola commercial? Do I now need to politically align with my note-taking app? Does my hammer need to encourage freedom and creativity? Or can it just be a hammer? 

In this quest to connect with consumers on an emotional level, are we sacrificing clarity and honesty? Will it all start to feel contrived, confusing and trite?

Perhaps tech companies need to be more realistic about who they are as a brand and what they actually offer to consumers. Maybe, as utility brands, they should be more focused on delivering value through functionality, utility, privacy and discretion, rather than promoting lifestyle values. 

Maybe a good tool doesn’t need to inspire. Maybe a tool that works well, speaks for itself.

August 3, 2020No Comments

For ONE magazine, print is far from dead

We've been talking about the death of print for so long now, the conversation itself long dead. While its true media has moved mostly online, print has persisted. That's especially true for the fashion industry.

We first started following the story of ONE, a fashion photography magazine, in 2017. At the time, founder Nicole Gavrilles had been running the magazine singlehandedly for seven years as a print-on-demand publication (meaning issues are only printed, in low quality, as they are ordered). Now she's celebrating the 10th anniversary of her "side project" with some significant changes in direction and process. A big one: Going full print.

We caught up with Nicole to talk about the challenges and opportunities of embracing print in the fashion industry, how she manages to get all her shit done between her full-time job, and what lies ahead for the new ONE magazine.

Nicole Gavrilles, founder of ONE magazine

It’s been three years since we last talked on DESK. What’s happening with ONE now? I hear rumors your printing process is changing and a redesign is coming. Tell us more.

Yes! A lot has evolved since the last time we talked. I continued my process of running the magazine on my own, but I came across more challenges along the way. Most of the challenges were around adding more written content or not having budgets to supply photographers with when shooting editorials for ONE. This always came back to the question I had to keep asking myself: How can I take on more work when I’m the only person running the magazine?

This year marks 10 years the magazine has been up and running. I’ve reflected on this milestone at the end of last year and the beginning of this year while also asking myself, what next and do I have it in me to keep going? A stylist I’ve worked with on a few past covers shared some interest in learning more about my process with running the magazine. After meeting up and us connecting so well, she and another photographer joined to help reshape the magazine’s next chapter.

We’ve been changing the process completely – from digital, to social and print. With our new mission statement for a better tomorrow; a cleaner, greener, more inclusive future. We’re now a womenswear fashion editorial magazine dedicated to sustainable and ethical production. This includes featuring only sustainable fashion and beauty brands as well as shifting our entire printing approach to be fully sustainable. With this new mission comes a new brand voice and aesthetic – something I’ve always wanted to take the magazine visually, and now have the moment to do so.

Print is, of course, a whole different game than digital. The costs increase, the planning process changes, the room for error is much smaller. Do you plan to finance the print version via something like Kickstarter, or will there be ads in this new version? And why do this now and not five years ago? 

Print is a whole different game field. But now, communicating you’re printing the magazine, people take you more seriously. I wish there was an easier way but in the fashion world, this is what it takes. I always knew one day if I was going to take the next step, I had to work with a printer. We will have ads throughout the magazine which will finance a huge portion of the magazine. Any remaining balance, I’m planning to finance. And we’re splitting the costs of providing budgets to certain photographers to shoot stories for us.

Five years ago, I wasn’t mentally or financially capable of making this huge step. Also, the magazine wasn’t at the place I wanted it to be in 2015. I knew I needed people to help advance the magazine to where we’re at now, but that wasn’t available for me back then. Everything happens for a reason, and having two people help shift and grow the magazine now, was the right timing.

"We’re not just any other fashion editorial magazine anymore. We’re carving a niche path into the fashion industry that’s been lacking a much-deserved spotlight."

We’ve said print is dying for the last 10 years at least. But I think it’s only made publications like yours even more special, almost an art form. A printed mag now is a gift to an industry and a treasure for readers. Are you concerned at all about the reach/power of print, or do you see it the same way as I do? 

I’ve definitely seen an interesting shift in some independent fashion publications in the past year or two. If presented and curated like a timeless art piece, it becomes more valuable to a follower and hopefully, becomes part of their collection.

We’ve received so much positive feedback and excitement about our new mission. I think that’s what makes our publication unique. We’ll be touching upon environmental issues within the fashion industry, on how designers and creators are rising above with innovative sustainable solutions. More people have shown interest in contributing because there’s a positive message attached to our new presence. We’re not just any other fashion editorial magazine anymore. We’re carving a niche path into the fashion industry that’s been lacking a much-deserved spotlight.

Before, you were doing every part of the planning and production process: Researching trends, planning issues and themes, selecting talent, coordinating and directing photoshoots, planning and editing stories. How is it working now that you have a small team of three?

It was definitely a handful, haha. Thankfully with having two editors now, we’ve divided up the work so each has their focus and checklist of items. A lot of the bones from the years of work I’ve put into the magazine were there, but we had to go in and refresh a lot of key areas such as the website, Instagram and media kit. But we also had to create some new organizational methods to track our progress on the stories for print and online, finances, etc. A lot of the day-to-day communication with contributors and running the Instagram are off my plate, since my editors handle that now. 

To be honest, we’re taking everything day by day. Since this is our first time working on a printed and distributed issue, we’re learning things as we go, connecting to people providing more insight and knowledge into the business/marketing side of the magazine and working on solidifying an LLC at the moment. This process is definitely an experiment and once we get through launching this issue, we’ll have our process in a better place for the next one.

Ten years is a long time to work on the same side project. How have you managed to keep it fresh over the years? Did you ever hit points where you felt you had to shake things up, or has it been a steady evolution all along?

Ten years is indeed a long time to work on the same side project.

Looking through the past 19 issues, a lot of them definitely feel dated and more relevant during the time they were released. It took me a long time to get the editorial design and photography aesthetic to where I wanted it to be. I wanted to shake things up every issue but I was always faced with, how much time do I have to get this out?

Most of the time, I didn’t have the time to update the editorial design, so it stayed as-is for years and it always bothered me. 

I would say the moment I finally sat down and redesigned the magazine was Issue No.16, which was released September 2018. Around that time, I quit my full-time job at a design agency where I spent over six years of my career, and then joined Squarespace as a product designer. In between jobs, which was 2.5 weeks, I spent the entire time redesigning the magazine. As much as I would have wanted to spend that time doing something else, it was my chance to make that visual upgrade I was yearning to work on.

"For the fashion industry, true print is still considered the most important. 'If it’s not in print, we’re going to pass.'"

I always enjoy reading earlier essays I’ve written here on DESK, because I can see clearly how my writing and my mind has changed and grown over the years. Looking back on your catalog of work, do you see any issues or articles that mark a change in how you work or how you think?

I think my previous issue, No.17, was where I could see things coming together more seamlessly. When I reworked my process two years ago, I outlined the areas that caused a lot of stress and redefined a new process to alleviate that stress from occurring. I became way more on top of things, starting earlier on checking off tasks by process of elimination, instead of leaving a lot of tasks towards the end. It helped streamline my process to work faster and more effectively.

How have you seen the magazine itself evolve, aside from its format? Has its style or voice developed in any noticeable way?

The style has evolved immensely. It evolved in the direction I wanted it to. It took a bit of time to get it there but I’m very happy with where we’re taking it now. The voice of a publication’s brand is an interesting piece and when working on this rebrand, we noticed the magazine doesn’t have a voice. Because the magazine was primarily imagery with either 1-2 articles, there was no place for it. The magazine stood as a platform for emerging fashion and photography talent, but I never had the time to establish its voice. Now with the rebrand, we have a clear voice and mission statement moving forward, where a true community can finally be built.

You’ve had a close eye on the fashion industry over the last decade, which seems to move on its own timeline – incredibly fast yet sometimes circular. How has fashion, or even just fashion photography, changed since you first started publishing in 2010?

What’s interesting is, the fashion industry hasn’t changed too much but fashion photography has. 

Within both, social media has changed everything. It’s the main platform you use to find emerging photographers, stylists, models. It’s the main platform to create and develop connections, and it’s the main platform that gives everyone access to “who's who” and “who knows who.” 

For the fashion industry, true print is still considered the most important. “If it’s not in print, we’re going to pass.” 

The process of making things happen is truly about who you know, and that still hasn’t changed within the fashion industry. For years I was able to run and produce issues without having to jump hoops just to be noticed, mostly because I didn’t care if people knew of me or not. The magazine spoke for itself over the years and it spread naturally by word of mouth. I was in no rush either; I just let things happen and come my way, and went from there.

In our last interview, we talked about the demands of work/life/side project, and how you were making an effort to balance your schedule and make time for yourself outside of work. What’s your view on that these days?

Well, it's an interesting time these days with being in quarantine in Brooklyn for the past four months. I’ve had a more difficult time during quarantine with a balance between work and life. 

Once the lockdown went into place in New York City, my work for my full-time job tripled. I’m in back to back meetings filling up my days with barely any time to get any work done. This has pushed me to work after hours to get actual work, done plus also being spread thin across multiple projects. I think I’ve been burnt out for the past few months? Haha, I don’t even know anymore. 

I’m being honest when I say this time hasn’t been easy for me. But it hasn’t been easy for anyone these days. I’m trying to do what I can by staying active, cooking, seeing friends and any other simple thing that provides some relaxation, like laying out in Prospect Park catching up on a good read.

You’ve reached out to so many people and coordinated so many projects online at this point, I imagine you are a master at the cold email, or just remote project management in general. Any practical tips for reaching out to people you don’t know, managing “creative types” online and getting shit done?

It’s always trial and error, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. First define the process that works best for you and once proven successful a few times, write down and stick to your process (reuse and improve on as you go). 

Setting myself goals is how I get shit done. If I set up a personal goal to have all images and content sent to me by X date, then that’ll give me a few weeks to construct the issue and release it by X date. Once you’ve got that down, it becomes a mental memory at that point.

For reaching out to people you don’t know, you’d be surprised how receptive people are if you add context in your approach. If you make your message seem more approachable to this person you’re cold-emailing, it’ll show that you care and spent time formatting this email for them. Adding touches of thought, research, care and a bit of your personality is a key to cold emailing / Instagram DM success.

In my experience, side projects always lead to more side projects, new opportunities and new relationships. What was the most unexpected thing to come from your work with ONE?

I think the most unexpected thing was one of my professors asking me to come visit and give a talk about my design career and how the magazine came to life. In early February of this year, I flew down to my alma mater, Ringling College of Art and Design, and did just that. It was a really special moment for me to connect with my professors and the place that gave me a platform to discover my passion and grow my skills in design. 

I think I’ve learned so much throughout these past 10 years that I now enjoy helping and encouraging people to discover and grow their passions.

Is there anything else you’ve been wanting to do with the mag that’s still on the horizon? For example, I’m curious if you’ve ever considered (or already done) paid partnerships with fashion brands or designers to feature their clothing lines and fund the magazine. 

You’re always one step ahead of me, Tobias! Yes, we are going to be working on expanding our online social presence, and paid partnerships is one of the main areas we’re going to tackle after the launch of this issue and in 2021.

You started ONE out of a desire to champion your friends and spotlight their work. Is that still your main goal today? What’s motivated you to continue doing this for the past 10 years? What makes it rewarding?

With our new mission, it’s still in our DNA, however, we are primarily focusing on providing a spotlight for sustainable and ethical brands moving forward. We will continue to collaborate and highlight work from emerging brands, but our new area of focus will make us stand out within the world of numerous fashion editorial publications. 

I’m more motivated and passionate about this new chapter because we’ve established a purpose and meaning to the magazine that was lacking before. I’m very passionate about environmentalism and climate change. And now that we’ve established this new mission, I believe our new vision can truly make a difference by helping creatives and educating viewers about sustainability within fashion. We’re also planning to donate all proceeds to an environmental organization/non-profit.

What advice do you have for those of us who dream of doing a similar side project (essentially a second job) we’re passionate about, but feeling unsure where to begin or how to manage it all (the finances, time, resources, energy, etc)?

Start small. It’s easier to grow a business/hobby/side-project when you take baby steps. Putting all your eggs in one basket all at the beginning could be super risky. Think of it as launching a new product – you want to test how your users interact with it first, then keep iterating and slowly expanding from there. This will help with discovering your process and how it works best for you, the resources and tools you'll need and the amount of time you'll dedicate per week.

What are a few of your favorite features in ONE from the last decade?

Most recently, we interviewed and photographed the recent collection of handmade organic materials by designer Signe Rødbro of Signe.  She took her production to Turkey where she opened Moon Tekstil, a sustainable and ethical factory in Izmir that offers fair wages, transportation, lunch and a comfortable, happy place to work for its employees.

Beginning of this year, I loved this story by Martina Keenan. Her effortless style captures such visually captivating moments.

I will forever cherish this stunning cover story for Issue No.13 by Manolo Campion, featuring Claudia Li.

Issue No.18 of ONE magazine,  featuring the rebrand and ONE's new mission dedicated to sustainable and ethical production,  will be out this fall. Follow @one_magazine for news and, of course, always-beautiful fashion photography.

July 16, 2020No Comments

Keep this to yourself

You know that one time you stumbled upon that ice cream shop, tucked away on a path you'd just happened to take on a whim? It was the smell that lured you in. That intoxicating scent of sugar and butter that transported you to childhood with a single whiff: waffle cones, made from scratch. You wandered inside, the scene warm and inviting.

For once, you knew exactly what flavor you wanted. The nostalgic decor, the kind face behind the counter, the swirls of creamy color beneath the glass, told you anything you choose can't be wrong; this place seemed to exist solely for your pleasure, conjured up from your own imagination. You floated outside in a reverie, one generously-scooped cone in hand, realizing you'd just experienced something rare and special.

Your first thought? Tell everyone you know about it.

Your second thought? Keep it all to yourself.

It is curious that we enjoy being the first to discover something good and share it with others. Perhaps because it further establishes what we'd like to believe: that we have excellent taste, a singular talent for spotting diamonds in the rough, an eye for quality. Yet at the same time, we have a tendency to hoard our treasures. We are greedy, selfish. We know good things are easily "ruined" once they become popular. So we are torn between the desire to proclaim (and thus claim) our find, and the instinct to squirrel it away.

That ice cream shop, the acorn dropped serendipitously at our feet and stashed deep in the hole of a tree, is the product I want to build.

Something a person feels they are the first to discover. Something they appreciate so much they want to keep it to themselves. A product they inevitably recommend to their closest friends, because despite how much they want to, it's just too good to keep to themselves. (Which is imperative here, lest the company quickly go out of business).

There's a beauty to this intimate word-of-mouth growth strategy. People who discover your product hold it so dearly, they'll whisper it only to those they know will value their recommendation (those most likely to use, appreciate and love your product). And those people will, in turn, do the same.

What follows is a beautiful chain of quality recommendations. People who align so deeply with your product, they ensure the value and existence of it.

The growth of your audience might be slower this way, but it will be far more qualitative – and that much better for the next person who discovers for the first time.

May 27, 2020No Comments

The universe of shared brand equity

Look at any tech or direct-to-consumer company today and you will quickly notice a visual trend: Simple, sans-serif logo. Short, punchy tagline. Clean, approachable branding.

Companies like this are popping up left and right, offering different products or services to the same demographic. While our assumption is that a brand wants to stand out, these do the opposite. 

Designers may sneer at the lack of originality, but the creators of these brands and products have discovered a fascinating approach: Why stand out if you can fit in? 

Entering the shared brand universe

There’s the obvious side effect to any trend: Everything starts looking the same. 

It’s become difficult to differentiate between today’s tech brands, they all look so similar. And I don't think it's because the creatives who work on them are unoriginal – perhaps quite the opposite.

One recipe for success is to fit into the existing space. By borrowing values and a visual story from other brands, you’re playing off established associations and perceptions in a consumer’s mind. It’s not a far leap for them to trust your brand if it looks like one they already enjoy buying.

Say a consumer purchases a mattress from Casper. Buffy looks like the same company but sells a comforter. Brooklinen the exact same but it sells bedsheets. Thus, the consumer follows the breadcrumbs between these brands for the complementary products they need. They’re familiar with the visual and messaging style, and it translates easily across a spectrum of commodities.

One consumer can be a customer of all of these brands, and these brands maximize on that potential. It works. 

If you want to be the Casper of razors, just look exactly like Casper. If your comforter company wants to reach the same consumers as Chobani, design your branding to match.

Lookalike companies are borrowing from a trusted, established aesthetic. The brand itself isn't at the center anymore. It's part of a family that’s familiar and comfortable to the consumer. It doesn’t have to work too hard to fit into our lifestyle because visually, it’s already part of it.

The risk of feeling and looking replaceable is real, but it seems to pay off.

The benefit of playing to trends

Compared to 10 years ago, the quality of design (especially UX/UI design) has improved greatly. Today we're able to execute on a simple product within days, because we’ve established conventions for everything we do. We don't have to rethink and redesign everything from scratch. Modern design systems and standards are a practical convenience; they not only save us time, they work.

Conventions are shortcuts for our minds, allowing us to execute faster. Likewise, trends are shortcuts for how we perceive the world around us. By leaning on trends, these modern brands have found a loophole to reach customers. 

We can talk about cheating or cutting corners. We can scoff at the apparent lack of innovation. But what is a visual brand if not a cue for your associations, preconceived notions, culture, upbringing, lifestyle? These brands are doing what brands are meant to do. In that light, they’re doing it well.

The question is whether the benefits outweigh the consequences.

What do we lose?

Creativity and originality are nearly synonymous. But maybe originality is an idealistic value. Maybe homogenization is a practical one. Perhaps we don’t always need to be “different” to achieve our goal. 

I struggle to find an answer to it. On one hand, I'm a creative person who values original ideas. To me, a brand is a personality that should be unique. To me, good design means making something that lasts. Something strong enough to stand on its own. 

But my ideal view of design may not be the right solution for all problems.

As designers, we can play trends and conventions to our advantage. It can be a smart and strategic decision to join the "shared brand space.” If I look at it purely from a commercial perspective, I can as easily see why the sameness is so effective. There are two sides to the coin. It’s a fight between my mind and my soul.

May 19, 2020No Comments

How can we build an extension of your mind?

For the first time last week, I wrote about a new project that has consumed a large part of the last year for me.

I shared my frustration with the current landscape, how instead of mastering our tools, we’ve let our tools become our masters. Modern tools pull us in with flashy features and the promise of an easier life. Yet we spend hours managing, organizing and cleaning up the mess these tools create for us.

Our note-taking apps and hard drives have become graveyards of information. Our carefully considered systems and structures become obsolete only shortly after we put them in place. There's a disconnect between the way we like to organize ourselves and how our tools like to organize us.

Our tools tend to see the ideal version of us, which is also why we're attracted to them. They promise a better, more efficient *you.* But the assumptions our tools make about us are not who we are.

Are we failing to keep our shit in order, or are our tools failing us?

We’re only human, after all. And knowing this, I believe there is a way to leverage how our mind already works, rather than trying to change it.

Creating an extension for your mind

To create a tool that complements how your mind works, we first have to understand what that means, both philosophically and practically.

If our goal was to create a NEW mind, we'd have to change the way your mind works right now. We would fall into the same trap as every other tool, forcing you to adapt to structures and mental models that conflict with the way your brain naturally operates. Instead, we're trying to build an extension of your mind. One compatible with the way you're already thinking and working.

The reason you're constantly trying new tools or setting up new structures is because they're aspirational by nature. You can compare them to strict weight-loss diets. They seem great in the beginning, but they're abandoned soon after. They're just too much work to sustain.

The most effective diets are those that stick with you. And the diets that stick tend to be those that fit into your existing lifestyle and way of thinking. They give you power, rather than holding power over you.

It's the same with everything else in life, including our knowledge and productivity tools.

So how does our mind work?

If there is one thing we know about our brain, it's that we know very little. While we’ve made advances in neuroscience over the years, the brain is still one of the least understood parts of our body.

But let's see what we do know. To build an extension of your mind, we're interested in three fundamental questions:

1. What type of memories do we have?
2. How does the input of these memories work?
3. How are these memories accessed?

We’ll start with the first: The types of memories we have in our minds.

💭 Implicit memories

Your implicit memories are usually acquired over time and unconsciously. They can affect your thoughts and behaviors in ways you don't even notice. Riding your bike is an implicit memory; even after years of not riding your bike, you'd still know how to do it. Same with swimming or brushing your teeth.

Simply put: Implicit memories are automatic memories. They're enabled and recalled by past experiences no matter how long ago you experienced them. They last a lifetime.

💭 Explicit memories

This is what we mean when we talk about "remembering something.” An explicit memory is consciously recalled. Explicit memories can be episodic, meaning they relate to a specific experience in your life, such as a holiday or traumatic event. Or they can be semantic, meaning they relate to facts or general knowledge you've acquired for a specific purpose.

Both implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious) memories are usually filed under your long-term memory, which can be recalled later or added as automated functions of your behavior.

Your short-term memory or "working memory," on the other hand, is what you're currently thinking about. It’s the part of your brain that helps you remember a small amount of information for a short period of time while you juggle other cognitive processes.

Since your memories are scattered all over different parts of your brain, depending on the type of memory, we rely on strong connections between neurons to complete the picture. And those connections can be strengthened or weakened over time depending on how they’re used. If those connections weaken, we lose access to our memories or can only dredge up partial information. And our minds attempt, whether accurately or inaccurately, to fill in the rest.

Memories tend to be formed more strongly if they're related to a strong emotional experience, and if the experience involves a combination of your senses.

You have no trouble accessing a memory of coffee with a friend because it involves multiple points of access in your mind. You remember seeing your friend, seeing the interior of the coffee shop. You can remember the taste of the coffee. You remember the smell of the cake in front of you. You can hear the chatter around you and the sirens across the busy street of New York.

These are all data points in your mind. If you can access one of them, they can trigger each other so you can eventually recall the entire memory. The fewer access or trigger points a memory has, the harder it will be for you to recall it.

If our experience isn’t accompanied by strong emotions or involves multiple senses, we'll need to work even harder to commit it to memory.

This idea of memory indexing is still only a theory, but we know when it works and we know when it fails. For example: You know this feeling when you're talking with a friend and trying to recall a specific fact you learned, but you can't seem to access it?

Interestingly, you CAN recall that you learned the fact, yet you can’t bring the full memory to the surface. Meaning, you know that you know it, but you just don't know it right now. Often what that means is that our neurons aren't firing the way we want them to be.

This is where our brain fails us, and it does so often.

Say you’re trying to recall an article you saw a week ago while browsing. You remember you saw the website, but you can't seem to remember which publication it was. You do know if someone showed it to you, you'd remember it again.

It might help if a friend helped “trace your steps” or threw a bunch of triggers at you, such as a color or keywords. The more trigger points, the more neurons firing, making connections and giving you the information you know you have in your mind, but just can't access.

Today, we’ve come to terms with not knowing everything – because we know where to find it. We have Google and Wikipedia, both great collective databases with a vast universe of information and knowledge. But these collective databases are full of things that aren’t connected to our own memories, which makes it harder to find that one thing we care about.

What we don't have is an extension for our OWN mind. One that picks up where our brains stop doing the work for us. One that enables us to collect pieces of information that might seem trivial in the moment, but important a week later when we’re trying to tell a story at a dinner party.

An extension of your mind should work the exact same way as your mind already works, but better. Think of it like your own little knowledge base, but without the effort of categorizing everything. It should be a supplement. Like an enhancement drug for your brain, but without the side effects.

This extension of your mind should be as messy and intuitive as your real mind, but it should sort itself automatically when you need it to. It should be a place for the information in your brain to spill over, without the fear of losing it. It shouldn’t aim to change how your mind works, or even teach it something new. It should support your mind, without you even having to think about it.

May 13, 2020No Comments

Behind the Carbonmade onboarding UX (a case study)

Designing an effective onboarding experience is a balancing act between solving as many potential questions or roadblocks as possible, while at the same time not overwhelming the user with too much information.

Onboarding flows might be my favorite part of a product. It's one of the most crucial elements of the entire experience.

A great onboarding experience can increase your conversion rate, engagement and brand recognition while lowering the barrier of entry – meaning, how fast someone can start using your product the way it's mean to be used.

Our usual onboarding requirements:

✅ From a technical perspective, we need to collect a minimum amount of data for operational purposes. Usually that's the email address, a username, a password or other information we need to create an account and maintain contact with the user.

✅ From a brand perspective, we can use the onboarding experience to set expectations and help the user understand what our product is all about.

✅ From a UX perspective, onboarding should guide the user through basic functionality, making them familiar with essential features or highlighting important parts of our product. Almost like a little tour – not too long but not too short.

I ultimately like to see the onboarding experience in three parts:

Part 1: Account creation - There is no way around it. It can be right at the beginning or further in the experience, but it has to happen at some point. Account creation is usually boring, but it doesn't have to be if done right.

Part 2: Core onboarding - What preferences do we need from the user to make the experience as personalized as possible from the start? What information does the user need to know upfront to have an optimal experience? The decisions here depend on your product.

Part 3: Extended onboarding - Here we make use of progressive disclosure, meaning we slowly reveal important information where the user needs it the most. The extended onboarding can be time or drip based, or it can be triggered by specific achievements or "experience levels."

While there are best practices for onboarding experiences, every product is different and benefits from different approaches. So as I walk you through our onboarding experience for my portfolio tool,, keep in mind that all of our decisions here may not apply every product. It just depends on the nature of your product and what you're trying to accomplish or solve.

But before we dive into it, here's the entire onboarding in one single video:

Behind the scenes of the Carbonmade onboarding experience

Step 1️⃣ — Minimize forms and cognitive load

For Carbonmade, we decided to go with a phased approach to minimize forms and cognitive load. Meaning, we keep decisions bite-sized, so you don't have to think too hard.

The majority of people don't enjoy filling out forms. It feels like work seeing a dozen input fields all together on a page. The more forms, the more your user needs to work. And the more work your user needs to do, the higher the risk of dropping out.

So we start light. Just one simple question: What's your name?

Everyone has a name. That's easy.


Step 2️⃣ — Commence hyper-personalization

Following our minimal approach, we're asking another simple question: What do you do?

To make it even easier, we autocomplete up to 130 professions and support the user with placeholder text inside the field and help text below the field. (Whenever possible throughout this experience, we aim to use actionable placeholder content in place of additional UI elements.)

The majority of people will pick one of the most popular suggestions. But those who type in something more specific like "Photo Editor" are pleased to find we thought of them too.


Step 3️⃣ — The effort heuristic & perceived value

After you complete the first two steps (your name and your profession), we take over and start personalizing your experience based on the preferences you entered. This third phase takes you through a journey of "creating your portfolio" on the fly and preparing a couple starting point layouts created for your profession.

Here we very intentionally create suspense to make use of the effort heuristic and increase the perceived value of our product. Our goal here is to communicate that magic that is happening in the background. And we don't want to rush through it:

"When a performed action happens faster than expected, users may not appreciate the effort put into it or believe that the action happened at all." (Great article here that describes how the perceived value and perceived functionalism can be explained through the effort heuristic.)

Ultimately, personalization and custom layouts for each profession is one of our biggest features, and we want to make sure that value is highlighted and understood.

Step 4️⃣ — Unpacking the goodness

This is where the real experience starts. There's a lot to unpack in this screen but every single little detail has its purpose. Let's break it down:

Personalization in copy — We add your first name as a logo to each preset option. It's a little detail that feels special once you notice it. We are specific about the headline copy, emphasizing that this is now all about YOUR profession.

Visual identification — Each layout is personalized for your profession. If you sign up as a 3D artist, you'll see 3D work everywhere. If you sign up as a photographer, all verbiage and layout designs revolve around photography. Another small (but big) detail, and if I didn't point it out here you wouldn't even notice. But subconsciously you feel understood seeing work you can identify with on the screen.

Aspirational identification — Each layout option has a title specifically designed to align with a certain personality type, or at least one we aspire to. Instead of using quirky layout names or generic terms, we use titles you might use to describe your own work. Again, a small detail but subconsciously you'll lean into one direction, based on your personality and aspirations.

Value verbiage — We take care to make every word in this experience relays value. Once again: it's the tiny, seemingly negligible details that add up to a lot. When you hover over layout options, for example, we use the word "Customize" instead of "Select." The word "Customize" implies you have control.

The paradox of choice — To avoid overwhelming you with options, we limit your choices to four layouts. But we know making this foundational decision can still introduce a little bit of panic if you fear being locked into your choice. To avoid drop-off at this point, a friendly note appears in the lower right corner that looks like a personal message. We wait a second or two before it pops up. Our goal? Circumvent this potential barrier by telling you this is not a final decision. You'll be able to customize everything later, so you don't need to worry about making the "wrong" decision. Existential crisis averted.

Everything you see in the above screen is designed to motivate you to pick a layout and feel confident in your choice, which keeps you moving onto the next step toward conversion. It also serves as a primer for what you can expect from the Carbonmade experience moving forward.


Step 5️⃣ — The final step

We made it! All we need is your email address and you have an account. That's right, no password. The "magic link" login is yet another intentional decision to make this experience as effortless for you as possible. But we're not done until we're done. Here's how we get you to the finish line.

Employing the sunk cost fallacy — Here we take advantage of a very human tendency: When we've put in effort and time into something, we feel the need to see it through to the end. Otherwise, all the investment we made was for nothing. It's a nuanced psychological behavior; if we would've made this any longer, you may have dropped out. If we would've made it much shorter, there wouldn't be enough "investment" from your side to justify an account creation.

A progress bar is an example of another UI element that makes use of the sunk cost fallacy. It reminds you of the effort you've made and subconsciously prods you to keep going. "You're almost there," we're trying to say. "Why give up now?"

In Carbonmade's case, we achieve this with a simple headline: "Don't lose your progress." With goal-oriented language, we're telling you that you're almost there. You'll be able to edit your portfolio in just seconds.

Social proof —  Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a way for us to connect with other humans by gaining insights on what they approve or disapprove of. It's used in advertising, product design or even social situations.

At a critical moment (the final step of onboarding), we use social proof to give you that final nudge to the finish line. It's at this point we choose to feature user reviews. When we see other people we respect are using a product we're about to use, we know we're joining the pack. It might also help us understand that this is not a scam (although, even scams these days know how to use psychological UX principles).


The last act: Extended onboarding

At this point, you already have an account. The first big part has been completed. Now, our extended onboarding comes into play to address any potential roadblocks and introduce essential functions of our product.

We didn't have extended onboarding for Carbonmade at first. We simply dropped users straight into the app. But soon we learned people were experiencing an overwhelming sense of information overload. They completed the initial onboarding, but it was too much information at once after that, so they procrastinated on building their site and ultimately dropped out.

Since then, we've added contextual tips and explicit affordance (visual cues that help you know how or when to use a feature) to progressively lead you along, rather than dumping it on you all at once.

Think of it like a video game. Instead of watching one long tutorial and attempting to memorize everything upfront, a computer game usually gives you small little tasks to complete and accomplish along the way. And before you even notice, you're playing the game and using shortcuts you didn't know before. That's progressive disclosure. It's a way of carefully designing an experience that only gives you the most necessary information at the time you need it the most.

The visual design itself can play a part here too. When you're first hopping into Carbonmade after sign-up, we fade the UI a little bit in the background as we introduce key concepts. You can't interact with the UI just yet, but it gives you a spatial sense of what you're about to see without overwhelming you.

Every product is different, but when it comes to the extended onboarding, you have to decide which two or three things your user actually needs to know, of the hundreds of things you think they need to know. Anything more than 2-3 bits of information will annoy your user and lead to drop-off.

It's important here to focus on communicating holistic concepts – that is, the foundational elements or philosophy behind how your product works – rather than narrow features or functionalities. In our case, we only need you to know this: 1. Everything revolves around blocks and 2. Everything is drag and drop. Just have some fun and try it.


Our onboarding experience is constantly evolving and always changing. It's a never-ending process of improving messaging and making (and changing) decisions based on the data we collect. For Carbonmade, our onboarding decisions so far have served us well – you can try it out for yourself here. I hope it will inspire you for your own designs.

May 7, 2020No Comments

My new secret project — an extension of your mind

The time has come. I'm ready to talk about a product I've been working on with my partner for almost a year now. I first shared this last week with my personal email list.

It's a different kind of product than you'd expect from me. It's not a portfolio tool – I think I’m good with Semplice and Carbonmade on that end. It's also not specifically related to the design industry. It's something new. Something I've wanted for a long time myself, and now we’ve built it.

I've used this product every day for the past 10 months. It's become an indispensable part of my workflow. And this is all my partner and I ever wanted: To build something we love to use ourselves.

Of course, we're not going to stop there. I want you to use it too, to see the benefits and hopefully enjoy it as much as we do.

I still have to keep you in suspense for now. So think of this as “part 1” in a series of articles I’m going to publish over the next month. I won't be able to share the name or the details of the product with you yet. But I can give you a little back story. I’ll tell you how we landed on this idea and what we felt was missing in the products currently out there. And from there, I’ll give you an opportunity to follow along as we're building and launching this new product.

"An extension of my mind"

This is what came first. Just a daydream, really, something we wished existed. Everything we built followed this mantra.

What I wanted was simple, in theory. If I see something I like, something I want to remember, I want to save it within a second. And if I'm trying to remember it later, I want to be able to find it within seconds. That’s it.

I don't want to deal with organizing things. I don't want folders. I don't want categories or structures. I don't want to think about how to make sure I’ll be able to find this later. I want something to do the job FOR ME instantly. An extension of my mind.

Of course, you might ask, aren't there already tools you can use to achieve those things?

I've tried them all. There's not a single tool you can show me that I haven't tried. Either the tools are too complicated, bloated, outdated or too specific. Without exception, I'm left with a Frankenstein model pieced together from a mix of tools that collect dust more than anything else. And talking to people around me, it seems like everyone is dealing with similar issues.

"We tend to take the path of the least resistance. When we're in the flow, we don't want to think about organization. We want to stay in the flow."

Our tools for simple tasks are broken

Our new product is born out of this frustration.

You may not be aware of it, but everyone has built their own little Frankenstein system. We can’t necessarily find anything with this system, but we feel some pleasure in managing our chaos. It's the sunk cost fallacy mixed with the illusion of productivity.

But we don't even WANT to build these rigged up systems. The majority of us aren’t interested in creating our own Wikipedia or our own knowledgebase. What we want, whether we realize it or not, is for our tools to get out of our way and simply do what we expected them to do in the first place.

We’ve got shit to do.

Our tools should help us spend LESS time managing information, not force us to adopt complex new mental models and build structures of folders, tags and categories. Software is supposed to take the work out of it, not add to it.

Our biggest challenge with modern productivity tools is that they’re asking us to build, maintain and control our own system. This all sounds and looks great in the beginning, but unless we’re a database structure genius with a love for documentation, we will be making mistakes in the initial setup of our system. And those mistakes will only waste our time instead of doing what we set out to do: save it.

At the time we’re putting our structure in place (folders, tags, categories) we’re doing it with our current knowledge of how things work. And it may function beautifully for about a week or two. We feel productive categorizing things, putting them in folders and maintaining our new system. But then a normal day takes over. Eventually, a piece of information, be it a note, an image or a bookmark, won’t fit into our existing structure. But we don’t feel like this single aberration justifies an adjustment or re-work of our entire structure, and we don’t have the time to revisit it anyway. 

Ultimately, our system falls apart. We become our lazy selves again and abandon the tools and the structure we so carefully put in place. What ensues is chaos – at least until the next time we muster up the willpower to do this all over again.

Let's look at some examples:

How are we dealing with note-taking these days?

The majority of the notes we take are "throwaway" notes. Often they're little snippets of something on our mind, something we want to remember later. The average note is no longer than a tweet and likely captured in 30 seconds or less. They're the digital equivalent of sticky notes. Some we want to stick around, some we don't. But each note usually has a clear purpose toward achieving a specific goal.

We eventually end up with a monster like Evernote where each note is a huge document with dozens of little snippets and styling options we never asked for. Other tools ask us to build entirely new mental models in order to use them, to inspire us to create our own Wikipedia. These tools cater to the information hoarder and tend to give us a sense of false productivity. They're a time sink.

When we're in the middle of creative flow, thinking about maintaining structures adds unnecessary cognitive load.

Evernote and most note-taking apps force us to stop and think in structures we don't care about. There are “notebooks” and lists of notes that all look the same on the surface. The visual cues are all the same. We can't find things at a quick glance, and often what we’re looking for is buried deep inside a note within a note within a notebook.

To avoid the forceful structure of our tools, we create a note called "Random Shit" and put individual, unrelated notes inside it. Later, when trying to recall that one piece of important information, we have to sift through all our random shit to get there. Sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

Our minds aren't built this way, so why are our tools?

I've seen people use Evernote or other note-taking apps but still avoid them in the most crucial moments. It's often faster to just write it on a post-it note and stick it on your computer. It's even easier to just send yourself a quick email (yes, we all do it). Others use the MacOSX notes app together with three other apps, depending on what "feels right in the moment.” I even write myself a Slack message sometimes because that's the fastest way to leave a note to myself, even though I'm swimming in tools that *should* be better for it.

We tend to take the path of the least resistance. When we're in the flow, we don't want to think about organization. We want to stay in the flow.

We're not using our current tools properly because they're too complex in the moment we need them the most. As a result, the tools we do end up using are not designed for this specific purpose. Ultimately, we end up losing things we wanted to remember.

We avoid our current tools because they're asking too much from us.

Which leads me to more pet peeves:

How do you bookmark websites you like? Articles? Videos on YouTube? A product on Amazon?

The process of bookmarking is completely messed up for most people. Here's what I've seen with my friends and myself.

If the website is an article, I may save it to my Pocket account to read later. Or I’ll write myself an email with the URL. Or I’ll Slack myself the URL. Whatever’s “closest” at the time. 

Even better: I’ll leave the tab open in my browser, i.e. my list of things "I want to remember for later.” Eventually my browser crashes and relieves me from the burden of things I wanted to remember (I'm aware of browser extensions that save all my open tabs into an archive I'm never going to look at again).

Or perhaps I’ll just bookmark the URL in my browser. I can put it in one of the dozen folders I have, with lists of websites I'm never going to look at again because how the hell should I find anything in there? All I see is link names, but I’m a visual person. I don't remember half of these websites or why I saved them, and I'd have to click on it to find out. Sure, I could use a more visual bookmarking tool made for that purpose. I'm sure there are enough out there. Just one more tool for one more very specific use case.

Or maybe I could just create a note in Evernote called "Links I like" and then just put lists of URLs in there. Forever to be forgotten and never even stumbled upon again because they're not visual enough for me to recognize at first glance.

We don't think in lists. We think in images. Our minds are visual by nature.

Bookmarks are strange. While the source is always just a URL, the reasons we bookmark a URL are very different. We might bookmark it because it's an article we want to read. We might bookmark it because it’s a website design we like. Or we bookmark it because it's a podcast we want to listen to, a video we want to watch or a product we want to buy. The use cases are endless, even though technically it’s always just a link. But each forces us to think differently when it comes to organization. Ultimately we end up with one tool for articles, one for visual website inspiration, one for products we want to buy and so on.

"New tools launching right now attempt to change our mind, rather than supporting it. While they may give us the illusion of control, the reality is that the tools control us."

What about visual imagery?

If you’re a designer or an art director, you know what mood boards are. We have tons of them because it's part of our inspiration and research process.

But everyone has mood boards, not just designers. Yours may be scattered across different places: Your desktop, your camera roll, your Instagram collections, your Pinterest. No matter what shape it takes, we all have a mood board somewhere.

If you see an image of a haircut you like online, you want to remember and reference it later. Or this nice chair you’re thinking about for your new apartment. Or this wedding dress you want to remember, not now, but maybe in a year or two.

Right now, you could use Pinterest for it, although it forces you to organize everything in boards and tag it. Pinterest is also public by default, so you need to make an effort to either curate for your followers or keep everything private (and I have a lot more to say about privacy soon). In reality, you only want to save this ONE image of a wedding dress. You don't want to create an entire board of wedding dresses yet. It’s overkill, and so is any tool specifically for mood boards. 

Many of us just save images or screenshots straight to our computer. We save things to our desktop because it's frictionless. Again: the path of the least resistance. I don't have to think about organization, folders, categories. I just save it, quick and dirty. And I will probably never find it again. Our desktop is the best solution we have, yet also the worst.

More often than not, we just take a screenshot on our phone to save it to the camera roll, the equivalent of the desktop on our computer. Quick, easy, painless. But again, most likely forgotten and never found again. I'm sure you've experienced the moment where you frantically browse through your camera roll trying to find an image or screenshot you saved because you wanted to show it to a friend.

What else do we save?

What about quotes or highlights I made in books I really enjoy? Do I mix them in with my notes? Create a big document? Do I need to find another tool for this?

Or this PDF white paper I found online I want to read later? Should I bookmark it? Save it? Upload it into a note?

What about my favorite memes I love to come back to and reference more often?

Is this turning into a rant?

I think you're getting my point. We have hundreds of tools, yet we're still struggling to find something when we need it the most. Our tools aren't built the way our mind is built.

New tools launching right now attempt to CHANGE our mind, rather than supporting it. They try to re-program how we think and operate, giving us more work than we had before. They’re new systems that need to be managed. While these tools may give us the illusion of control, the reality is that the tools control us.

All I want is an extension of my mind. Something where I can put things in and commit it to “my memory” as I go about my day, without any hassle. A place for my ideas and thoughts to spill over when my own mind can’t hold it all. And I want my extended mind to organize it, better than my own mind can, and make sure I find what I need again when the time comes.

It’d be designed just like our own minds, but enhanced with artificial intelligence. And this is what we've built.

Will it be great? We don't know yet, but what we do know is that we're obsessed with using it ourselves. And that's a good start.

While we focused more here on the flaws of existing tools and workflows, next I will talk about how we think it *should* be. I'm excited to share more with you soon!

December 16, 2019No Comments

My new secret company

Building portfolios has been a big part of my life and career for 15+ years now, from the dozens of times I’ve re-designed my own portfolio, to the countless times I reviewed portfolios as a creative director or at events, to the company I run today.

To me, a portfolio is the centerpiece of my work as a creative. It’s where all my projects come together to tell a story. It’s a place for me to reflect on what I’ve done and decide where I want to go in the future. My portfolio is my little home online, one I can fully own and design the way I want, compared to a sea of social networks that force me into their structure.

I ultimately declared my love for design portfolios almost six years ago when co-founding, an advanced portfolio builder and community for like-minded designers.

Since then, helping creatives build their best portfolio has been on my mind every day. We made it our responsibility to not only build the tools, but to also dig a little deeper. We sought to understand why creatives are building a portfolio, what they aim to achieve with it and how we can help them reach their personal goals with it.

We started asking simple questions such as:

Why does someone need a portfolio?

What makes a great copywriter portfolio in comparison to a great illustrator portfolio?

How does a portfolio change over time?

Who are the people reviewing portfolios, and how can we make it easier for them to find what they are looking for?

Does seniority within a field change the way a portfolio is designed?

We quickly learned the vast differences between how creatives approach their portfolio, from art directors to UX designers to creative directors, copywriters, makeup artists, illustrators and architects. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so we made it our mission to understand everything we could about each industry and build tools that help them reach their goals.

As a result of our learnings, we started sharing portfolio advice on and poured all of our knowledge into, making it one of the most advanced and loved portfolio systems on the current market. The Semplice community has become known for building beautiful, unique and often highly customized portfolios. Over the years, we learned that the typical Semplice member has a solid foundation for how web design works and enjoys the challenge of building from scratch.

While we kept adding more advanced features and streamlined the platform for our specific power users, we discovered there was demand from another group of creatives. In contrast to the regular Semplice member who loves to own and customize everything possible, these creatives dreamed of having a beautiful portfolio, but without the hassle of technicalities and self-hosting.

For those people, it seemed the only other option was a template. To me, they deserved more than that. So along with my team, we aimed to give them something better.


You’re now either completely surprised or not surprised at all. But let me explain everything in detail so it makes sense.

I’m happy to announce that I’ve joined Carbonmade as partner and co-CEO, which essentially means I’m fully committed to the vision and product. Together with my partner, Jason (who co-founded Carbonmade and has worked on it since 2005), we spent the past 1.5 years quietly rebuilding the entire portfolio product from scratch. We re-branded the platform and soft-launched it just a few months ago.

It’s been a humbling (and rather sleepless) experience combining our knowledge to build this new platform, and I have to admit I’m quite proud of what we’ve done so far. And as always, this is just the beginning. is the answer to where I left off above. It’s a fully hosted portfolio and media platform to build a personalized website, literally within minutes. It’s for those who want to get a site up as fast as possible without worrying much about technicalities, or settling for a one-size-fits-all template.

We built the new Carbonmade 4 specifically for photographers, motion designers, graphic designers, illustrators, makeup artists, architects, copywriters, concept artists – any and all creatives. There is no lengthy set-up. You just sign up within a couple seconds, drag & drop some work and when you’re ready to go live, you go live.

But before this turns into me writing how amazing Carbonmade is, you might just try it yourself. You can expect me writing about it much more in the future, consider this the intro.

So how does this new venture affect Semplice?

I’d be lying to you if I’d say it doesn’t affect Semplice, because it does. The good news is, it affects it in the best way possible as it helps us sharpen the mission for both companies even more.

Both Semplice and Carbonmade share a common vision yet differentiate themselves through mission and execution. They’re both products that live on a spectrum rather than opposing sides.

We will focus on making Semplice the most powerful and advanced portfolio platform, ensuring it’s the select tool for those who push it to the limits with customizations and unique layouts.

At the same time, we’ll make Carbonmade the most accessible and easy-to-use portfolio platform, enabling many more creatives to build a beautiful portfolio and get hired without the need to code or be technically literate.

I will personally continue to work on both products equally as I’ve done over the past 1.5 years, and I’m more than excited about what’s to come.

November 5, 2019No Comments

The art of doing

I’ve written about this so many times. Directly and indirectly, inspired not only by my own thoughts, dreams or concerns, but often those around me. A conversation with a friend that keeps repeating itself, in circles, again and again.

Why is it so hard to do the things we want to do?

Do we not want it enough?

Are we afraid of what happens if we fail?

Are we afraid of what happens if we succeed?

We can come up with myriad reasons, some valid and others perhaps not so much. Some say the start is the most crucial part of every project. Most fail before they even begin. The rest fail at the last 10% (but that’s a different story for another time).

Below are some tips and tricks I find helpful when working on my own projects, or starting up a new one.

The name is temporary

If you can’t find a name for your project, don’t worry. A name is temporary and can be changed any time. This is even more true in the early days of your project. While a good name can make a huge difference later on (those who work in branding know this), it doesn’t really matter in the beginning.

Move quick. Pick a “working title” as they do with movies. Don’t get held up because you can’t find the perfect name. Chances are you won’t find it for a while and you will just stumble upon it while working on something else.

"What problem are you trying to solve, and how can you solve it in the hackiest, most minimalistic way possible?"

You don't always need the .com

Don’t postpone your projects because you couldn’t find your perfect domain name or social media username. Focus on what’s important; you can always take care of the domain later. My own company, Semplice, started out as and only years later were we able to get the domain. If you have a name you like, use .io or .co domains or whatever else is available and works for you in the meantime.

Don't overthink the technicalities

If you have an idea for an app, your first prototype might not need to be a fully-fledged app. Perhaps it can start out as an email list or a spreadsheet. What problem are you trying to solve, and how can you solve it in the hackiest, most minimalistic way possible?

Don't let overthinking or perfectionism kill your project before you even begin. If your idea is to create an e-commerce platform, don’t yet worry about logistics or hiring an engineering team to build out your online shop. Take the core of your idea and simply start an Instagram account or a YouTube channel.  Build an audience, test the idea, see if people like it and only then move forward. If you find you have high demand and no platform to support it, that’s a good problem and where you want to be.

"All you want in the beginning is to see some momentum."

Build light and validate fast — "The minimum love-able product"

What’s the minimum you can do to make people understand and love the idea of your project? Create a landing page, curate a small Instagram account and run a few very specific ads to drive some traffic to your product. Watch the numbers and go from there. All you want in the beginning is to see some momentum. This is not only good for your product, but also your mind. You need it to stay motivated and keep moving forward yourself.

Keep it stupid

I've been preaching this message for a long time now. “Keeping it stupid” means you’re not over-complicating your idea and finding an excuse to procrastinate. Your idea and execution should be so simple that others might think it’s stupid. That’s when you hit the sweet spot of just enough challenge to move forward, but not too much to get stuck.

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” It's a good way to keep your idea simple, for yourself and those around you, and actually launch it.

September 2, 2019No Comments

When your target audience is yourself

It's easier to build something for your target audience if you're in it.

The idea here is simple. Scratch your own itch. Building something you want to use yourself is easier than building something you can’t relate to. If you have a personal interest in the result, if you plan to be the biggest fan of what you're creating, that investment will inform a product you couldn't build otherwise.

You don’t need research to know where the hole in the market is, what the challenge is or what the audience wants. You don't have to find the market. You create it.

Research is still helpful to reveal blind spots and biases, but that’s beside the point. No matter how much research you do, the product you build for someone else will not be the same as the one you build for yourself. 

Everyone has an idea for an app these days. Everyone fancies themselves an undiscovered genius. Building a great product requires more than the idea – it requires strategy, luck, timing, talent, connections, money.

But if you want to create something that solves your own problem, something you plan to love and use yourself, you already have a head start. 

February 19, 2019No Comments

Introducing: DESK Partnerships

If you've been reading here for a while, you know that DESK marked its two year anniversary just a couple months ago. What began as a weekly email newsletter eventually turned into a full-blown blog (the one you're reading right now) with a regular publishing schedule.

Our goal with DESK has been a simple one: write from and for creatives. When looking at the majority of design blogs these days, they're usually written by marketers who don't work in the design industry. After reading one more article about "The Top Design Trends for XXX" by someone who doesn't even practice design, we decided to write our own. By designers and for designers.

Over the past two years, we've been quietly trying to form our own voice and point of view. We've stayed away from guest posts and turned down sponsored articles. We wanted to make sure we knew who we were before we collaborated with other companies or writers. While this meant DESK would be completely self-funded without advertising (other than our own product ads), we felt it was essential for us to "find ourselves" before taking a step forward.

But today is the day. We're opening up DESK and introducing our new partnerships program.


Be the monthly sponsor of DESK

We're opening up a slot for monthly sponsors of DESK. If you look at the right top side of the blog homepage, you will now see a little banner. A banner that could be yours. If you would like to become a monthly sponsor and share your company, product or message with a creative audience, this is it. The only banner on the homepage, just you and us.



If you want more information about what else is included in this package, please reach out to and we'll send you our sponsorship deck.


Sponsor a series

A little over a year ago we introduced SERIES to DESK. As you might guess, series are collections of articles following a theme we find compelling. Current series include "Design Around the World," the "Freelance Life" series, "How to Get a Job at X" as well as our "How to Move to New York." Each series now has a little logo at the top, which can be yours. If you decide to sponsor a series, you will be front and center as we share new series articles with the design community each month.

If you're curious about this option, please contact and we'll send you our sponsorship deck.



Let us write about you or your product

In addition, we're opening up DESK to a select few who would like to work with us on articles in partnership. This could be one article or a series of articles. We can write them for you and about your product (or a related theme), or they can be written in partnership with you. Whatever it may be, we're open to it as long as we know our readers will find these articles useful.

For us, sponsored articles shouldn't feel like advertising. They should feel like genuinely useful and relevant articles that fit within the framework of DESK and meet the level of quality our readers expect. But to be fully transparent to our readers and give your brand the spotlight it deserves, each article will bear a badge at the top with your name and a link to your site. This will indicate whether an article is sponsored content, partnership content or a paid review. In any case, we will not publish press releases. Our DESK editors will work with you to create the perfect articles for our readers that promote your brand in a transparent way.



We're excited about this new step and curious where this will take DESK in the future. If you're interested in any of these sponsorship packages, please do reach out to and we can develop a personalized plan for you. We hope this evolution will help us grow DESK and not only make it more sustainable, but also open it up to different voices and content we weren't able to share with you before.

And as always, thank you SO MUCH to everyone who's reading and supporting our independent writing. We'll continue to stay true to our original goal: writing useful articles by and for creatives.

Tobias &  your DESK team

July 26, 2018No Comments

Full time vs. freelance vs. on your own

I've recently looked back at my (still fairly short) career, trying to find a pattern in my decision-making and understand exactly what makes me happy.

As I thought about it, I noticed there are generally three categories of active jobs we can have. Luckily, I've had the opportunity to experience all three. All of them have their own benefits and challenges. All of them have taught me a lot about myself, how I prefer to work and what I want for my career.

1. Full-time

The first category is classic full-time employment. I've only worked a few years in my life as a full-time employee, but I know it's the standard for a reason.

Depending on my role as a full-time employee, I enjoy a certain amount of security. Full-time means I have a boss, or multiple people within my company to lead me. I trade my 40 hours+ a week for a monthly salary and a range of benefits.  Especially in larger companies, I may even get away with not giving 100%. Often 70% is enough to not get fired, and sometimes even 50% or less. I could get away with calling a few meetings a month and still look like an overachiever, even though I haven't contributed much.

I'm of course not saying everyone does that, but it's certainly a possibility as the structure and politics of a large organization cloud productivity. I know that I'm personally a horrible full-time employee who suffers from the Ringelmann Effect.

Generally, I've found working full-time the "easiest" when it comes to sustaining my own livelihood. I can get away with doing the bare minimum.  If I feel a bit lazy one day, I could just follow my manager's orders and that would still make me a good employee. Self-initiative may be rewarded, but it isn't necessary for survival.

I categorize full-time as a low risk, low reward kind of setup. This makes it the most popular choice, and I mean this in the most positive way.

2. Freelance, consultant or service business owner

The second category is everyone who sells chunks of their time by providing a service to clients (B2B). Meaning you may own a company with employees, or you're a solo business owner. But what defines the second category is that instead of answering to a manager or boss, you answer to your client. When you work, you bill by the hour or day. If you want to make more money, you simply bill more hours until you have none left.

I experienced this set-up when I had my own design studio. It's slightly different to working full-time. You certainly have more responsibilities, since you're overseeing the business end of things and also producing the output. Doing work results in getting paid. There's no monthly paycheck so unless you deliver, you simply won't get paid.

In this role, I'm less likely to become lazy and I can't hide in meetings. However, I may be still able to survive by doing the bare minimum. Working for clients, I usually work for a brief. If I'm extremely motivated I may try to challenge the brief and go the extra mile, but I don't have to. I may just answer the brief, do whatever was "good enough" and hopefully get paid. If I'm out of ideas, I can always do whatever the client asks me to do. Of course the work may be not that good, it may not win awards or make me proud, but it may be enough to pay the bills.

I categorize working for clients as a medium risk, medium reward kind of set-up. The more I excel at my work, the more I get out of it. However, I may get away with mediocre work.

“While you are alone you are entirely your own master.” - Leonardo da Vinci

3. Your own business & product

What defines the third category is that you own your own business and work on your own product that you sell directly to customers. Most bootstrapped or self-financed businesses fall under this category. Even funded businesses to some extent, although you could argue there may be less skin in the game.

I personally found this path to be the most difficult so far. I have no boss or manager to guide me. I have no client with a briefing or a particular problem to solve. I'm completely on my own. No one is telling me what to do, which is a beautiful and liberating thing but also scary and lonely at times.

I wake up in the morning and have to plan my own agenda for the day. I need to find my own problems to solve, and then solve them. And if I'm lucky (or good at what I do) I may be rewarded by customers purchasing my product. If I fail, most likely no one tells me what went wrong and for sure no one will tell me how to fix it.

Working on your own product I'd categorize as high risk, high reward. The more risks I take, the higher the reward may be. I have no security nets, but also no one blocking me from receiving the highest reward if I do well.

Weighing the Pros & Cons

The grass is always greener on the other side, but all of these options have their trade-offs. Here is my personal summary:



  1. Financial stability (at least, in theory)
  2. Benefits (healthcare, paid vacation, etc.)
  3. Stable work hours (at least in theory)
  4. Stable social circle (same people you work with every day)
  5. I can give 70% and still be fine
  6. Clear leadership, I get told what to do (in theory)
  7. Mentorship


  1. Fear of not being in control (can get fired for little reason)
  2. Less creative freedom, always have to answer to boss
  3. Need to be social to some degree to fit into office culture
  4. Most likely bound to certain work hours and location

Freelance, consultant, studio owner


  1. Freedom to work with whomever I want (in theory)
  2. Work from anywhere I want
  3. Work anytime I want (may depend on clients)


  1. I get paid by the hour, and I only have 24 hours in a day.
  2. Unpredictable income. One month nothing, another month a lot.
  3. Responsible for my own benefits
  4. Lots of trial and error finding the right clients

Owning a product business (with customers)


  1. Absolute creative freedom
  2. Work from anywhere, whenever I want
  3. More control overall


  1. No regular salary (unless I've figured out a recurring revenue model)
  2. Responsible for my own benefits
  3. Very lonely, unless you hire some friends (co-workers)
  4. High risk, high reward (both a pro and a con)

I've learned that all three models may be the best for me depending on my phase in life. Of course it also depends on personality and skills. I know people who thrive by working in a specific role full-time or in the service business. I also know some who thrive only if they're completely on their own.

For the most part, I fall between #2 and #3. I love working for clients because I love to serve. I thrive by simply providing value to someone, even at the expense of my own creative expression.

June 27, 2018No Comments

What I’ve Learned Doing Customer Support

For as long as Semplice has existed, I’ve personally helped with customer support. When we first started, I didn’t have much choice. In a small business, everyone does everything.

But even now that we have a great customer support team at Semplice, I still love jumping in there myself. Over the years, customer support has taught me a lot about people and about doing business. Here’s what I’ve found to be true so far.

1. You'll be forced to use your own product

Now you may think "who the hell does not use their own product?". Well, let me explain. Doing customer support requires you to actually use your own product as the consumer would in real life.  But the reality is, as business owners or even as designers or engineers, we're often not using our product at all (because we're busy designing it) or we use it in limiting ways that do not reflect the way the majority of our users uses it.

Customer support forces you to use the product from the perspective of your customers, and often these perspectives can be surprising to you. You might learn that users try to do something with your product that it wasn't intended for, which gives you insights into how you can make it better or add a feature that solves a particular problem.

The best insights you can get through customer support aren't always the direct feedback such as "I want feature XYZ," but come from simply observing the way your users use your product. I'm personally not a big fan of user research or anything similar to it, because it just means you don't know who your users are. The best way to find out who they are is in your support forum.

2. You'll deal with the very worst, and the very best

Customer support always attracts the extremes two, rarely the ones on the middle. It attracts those who may dislike you the most and come with anger, and it attracts those who love your product and come with an open mind and a smile. Everyone else usually doesn't even bother to write you an email (I'm actually one of those people, I rarely or almost never contact customer support).

But if we’re honest, most of us can admit we’ve contacted customer support before and lost our cool. Especially with big corporations and their endless hold music, we quickly feel powerless and impatient.

There’s a difference between being firm and being mean. You may get a response with extreme behavior, but now you’ve distanced the person helping you. At this point they just want you off their back and certainly won’t feel like putting in any kind of special effort for you. Any good support person is going to help and stay professional no matter your tone, but getting them on the defense closes doors you didn’t know could be opened otherwise.

We’re lucky to have some of the nicest customers at Semplice, but we haven’t escaped the strongly worded email or two. At Semplice we advise our support team to never respond to an angry email with anything but kindness and patience. In almost every case we’ve turned enemies into friends simply by hearing them out and being nice. Usually, it’s just a misunderstanding we can clear up for them. But responding in an angry or passive aggressive way only heightens a situation and burns the bridge immediately.

3. Explain everything and help people to understand your decisions

As a small company, we unfortunately can’t say yes to every request or we would quickly go out of business. But we've found that the more effort we put into explaining our decisions, even if that means it's a no for the customer, the more empathetic and understanding people are. We always aim to find a solution (or meet in the middle) but if something just doesn't work, we explain exactly why it doesn't work.

This took me a while to figure out, because in the beginning I always assumed a short reply would do just as well and people could connect the dots, but I learned that this is not always the case. Be honest, explain your thinking and your reasoning so people can follow you. Most likely, they will understand.

4. The biggest problems often require the tiniest fixes

We’ll go down all kinds of rabbit trails. We’ll troubleshoot for hours. We’ll send 20 emails back and forth with the customer. Only then do we realize changing “http” to “https” – the difference of one single letter – fixes the issue.

Of course it’s not always as simple as that. But often, when we’re presented with a problem, we don’t stop to think first. We rush in or fail to ask the right questions or share information proactively upfront, overlooking the solution that’s right in front of us.

I remember I always made fun of customer support when I called my Internet Provider because they would ask me basic questions such as "Is your modem turned on?" which always made me believe they think I'm stupid. But only after I've done customer support myself I understand why these "Base Level" checklist questions are so important.

5. If it's not the right fit, don't force it

We never try to push people to buy our product. If they're uncertain or it doesn't seem like Semplice will be the right fit for their workflow, that sale won't do us any good. That customer will struggle and ultimately be unsatisfied with our product, causing grief and wasting time for them and our customer support team. Instead, we do our best to help and provide all the information upfront, so our customers can make the right decision for themselves. Which is ultimately the best decision for both of us.

6. Sometimes it helps to hear from someone else

By that, I don’t mean pulling higher ups into a conversation to get a point across. I mean that sometimes, adding a fresh voice into an unproductive conversation can turn the whole thing around. It’s not whether that person has more authority, or that they communicate the message better, or that they’re better at their job. I mean, maybe they’ll offer a fresh perspective or more patience. But often, it’s enough that they’re a different person, making your customer feel heard and seen.

7. Everyone should do customer support

Everyone who joins the team should ideally do a couple of weeks customer support, regardless of whether you're an engineer, a designer or a project manager. Jumping straight into customer support is the best on-boarding for new team members because it throws you straight into the "lion's cage." Nothing can explain the product better or give you a better sense of how things stand than looking at what users are either struggling with, or what they love the most.


Most importantly, helping people is incredibly satisfying. I personally love helping creatives do their best work, and our Semplice customer support team does that every day. I’ve said before that one of my main goals in life is to be useful. Customer support, in that sense, means immediate gratification.

January 22, 2018No Comments

The Startup That Never Started: Lessons from .Mail

.Mail (I'm going to use DotMail here, for easier reading) was an email app concept I originally came up with and designed in 2010. DotMail never saw the light of the day. It never launched and it would haunt me for many years to come.

This is the full story, from where DotMail began to how it failed before it even got off the ground. Looking back, there wasn't a single reason for its failure, but many. Many lessons I've learned that I would like to share with you.

The .Mail logo

The DotMail story begins around early 2010. It was one of those ideas sleeping in my notes for a while, but I never knew what to do with it. It was just one idea one of many, roughly formulated and sitting there, waiting to happen.

Working on my design consulting business during the day I’d grown frustrated with how much time I spent wasting on email, so I was naturally looking for a fix. Over that year and the next, I spent a fair amount of time talking with friends and colleagues about their email habits, taking notes and adding them to my DotMail concept.

The more I talked about emails, the more I learned how many struggled with the way email worked (or didn’t work) at the time. I also learned that everybody had their own little hacks to make their email client work for them. At the time there wasn’t much happening in the email apps space. The most popular one (and my own favorite) besides Apple Mail, Gmail, Outlook and Thunderbird was Sparrow for Mac, launched by a small team in France in 2011. There were a few others such as Postbox, but they weren’t really solving it for me either, most of them were cluttered and feature packed with things no one needed.

The deeper I went down the email hole, the more I got fired up about DotMail. I needed to do something about it because the idea kept itching me. I was fully aware that designing a concept for an email client is one thing, but developing it and working through the technical hassles was another, and I certainly couldn’t do it myself. The idea had to be simple if I wanted to get anything done at all. So I worked through some concepts and ended up sharing my favorite one with some thoughts on my website. It was a fulfilling compromise: I could work on the fun stuff, sharing my thoughts and findings with no intention of ever building it. It was a nice little challenge for me.

One of the original concept designs for .Mail app (2011, sorry for image quality)

After much procrastination and many experiments I finally put something together I liked. I decided to publish a case study on my website that outlined the idea of the DotMail concept. You can see the original case study I published here. I remember it was around midnight that day and I didn’t think much of it; I just hit publish, shared it on Twitter and Facebook with my friends and went to bed. I felt good and was happy it was now out of my way.

The next morning I woke up to dozens of emails, tweets and Facebook comments. My little DotMail concept got shared way beyond my usual circle and I couldn’t believe it. Over the next 24 hours, hundreds of emails and more tweets rolled in not only with feedback, but with people asking me when the app was going to launch, despite me never mentioning anything about launching this app for real. It was a theoretical concept after all.

I was speechless, and quite nervous. Could I actually launch this app? What should I do with all this feedback? I never planned to work on DotMail beyond this concept, but suddenly other people were excited about it. As you can imagine, that made me excited as well.

So I did what everyone would probably do: I considered the possibility of making DotMail come to life. The pressure was on me anyway, and I could make use of the newfound exposure. Within hours that day I registered a domain and launched a little landing page with an email sign-up. For me it was more of a test to see how many people would sign up and consider using (and paying) for DotMail. It all still felt pretty unreal and rushed to me, but I wanted to measure the interest in a more meaningful way.

A quick landing page I launched within a day for .Mail

A couple days went by and thousands of people signed up to the DotMail email list. FastCompany wrote an article about it titled "A Simple Idea That Could Revolutionize Email And Save You Time." Many other online magazines and blogs showed interest and I couldn’t sit still from the anxiety mixed with excitement. Over the course of the following three months, more than 100,000 people signed up for the app. It was pretty clear. People wanted DotMail.

I sat down and tried to think about my next steps. Is this really what I want to do? Should I hire a developer and see how far we can go? After reading more into the details of email protocols and the technicalities behind it, I quickly realized I needed to look for help first, and maybe not even build this all myself.

My first thought was to reach out to the people at Sparrow. While it was a fairly basic email client, I enjoyed using Sparrow and thought there might be potential for a collaboration. I reached out to Dom, the founder, around mid 2012 and pitched him the idea of DotMail. I asked if there was any chance of working together and making parts of DotMail become reality on an already solid email client foundation. Because if you think about it, building an email client means you first have to build the foundation that any other email client already has. The majority of your effort will be spent laying the groundwork, doing the "boring" work and building the fundamentals that everyone takes for granted since many years (aka sending, drafting, receiving and displaying emails, which may sound simple, but is a nightmare in reality).

To my surprise, Dom got back to me and we connected via Skype. At the time, the Sparrow team was quite busy with the launch of their upcoming iPad app so we delayed our phone call until a bit later with a promise to stay in touch. I didn’t have high expectations, but it was worth a shot. But just two weeks later I got a short message telling me there was unfortunately no possibility of a collaboration in the future. They didn't provide any specific reasoning, but it didn't take long for me to figure out what happened. Just a day later, tech news announced that the Sparrow team got acquired by Google to work on Gmail. Sparrow, my favorite email client, was essentially dead. Google and the Sparrow team weren’t planning to continue Sparrow.

The core features of DotMail (2011, sorry for image quality) - Filtering social & promotional emails and grouping them together was one of the main ideas. Years before Gmail integrated their Promo/Social tabs.

Now that Sparrow was gone, the interest in DotMail increased. I had to do something about it and quickly started looking for a partner and developer who could join the team. As you can imagine, that wasn’t an easy task in itself. I wasn't just looking for a developer, I essentially had to find someone who was ready to commit with me as a partner. I needed someone who would invest their own time and money, who knew their way around front-end development for MacOSX, including the ins and outs of email protocols, and could build the engine. Finding all of that in one person would need a small miracle.

With all the press around the acquisition of Sparrow and my email concept, the email space finally woke up. Within months, dozens of other email client concepts popped up promising to solve your problems. Suddenly it seemed trendy to work on email clients. One of the more promising ones was called Mailbox, which was announced in early 2013 but sadly focused only on iOS. Mailbox had an interesting approach that I really liked. On top of it, Mailbox was hugely successful with its announcement and more than a million people signed up with the hope to see Mailbox launch a couple months later.

To me, Mailbox seemed like a new opportunity, especially because it was developed by a company called Orchestra which also developed a successful productivity app earlier in 2011. Orchestra had the funds and the talent to really make it happen. So as I'd done with Sparrow, I reached out to Gentry, one of the co-founders of Mailbox.

Gentry was one of the nicest people I've had the chance to meet in my career. He was open to a conversation without any promises and we exchanged a couple emails. However, the timing was unfortunate as it was exactly when Mailbox was preparing for their launch in early 2013. Gentry was busy dealing with Mailbox and getting it off the ground. I understood that talking about a Mailbox desktop client was just way too early. We promised to stay in touch while exchanging a couple more messages to see how we could eventually work together in the future.

Two months later, Mailbox got acquired by Dropbox, which planned to release a desktop version of Mailbox sometime in the near future. And while there were talks of me potentially joining the Mailbox or Dropbox team, I knew that DotMail wasn't going to happen. (Dropbox eventually shut down Mailbox in 2015, saying they were unable to “fundamentally fix email.")  I continued my search for a partner and developer, but I was thankful so far to have met so many talented people like Gentry in the process.

After almost two years I was never able to find a partner who stuck around long enough to make it work. I ended up working with three different people who eventually dropped out due to the workload and technical challenges. While we did get some prototypes off the ground, even after years of work we were still miles away from having anything close to a public alpha version.

The only comforting thing in these years was that 99% of all the other new email client concepts that got announced also never saw the light of the day. It helped to know this shit is hard and I wasn't the only one struggling with it. Secretly I was hoping that any promising new email client would get off the ground, but none of them survived, at least at the time.

In the end we failed horribly. It wasn't a matter of whether email could be fixed — that's beside the point. It came down to reasons much easier to understand in retrospect.

Underestimating the task at hand

Sadly, with every attempt at this project, we completely underestimated the technical challenges at hand. As I depended on my technical counterpart, I had to rely on their knowledge and estimates. What happened was that due to our initial excitement, most estimates were completely wrong. Ultimately, the developers I worked with slowly faded out and gave up. It was as much my fault as theirs; I failed at managing expectations and doing reality checks more often. And I don't blame them. The technology behind email is daunting and the end never seemed to be in sight.

The need for a more formal partnership

With all developers I made partners, there was a lack of commitment. Even when doing 50/50 partnerships, it was always a hit or miss. Even more so if these partnerships were with people I hadn't known or worked with before.

It’s why good hiring often takes a long time and why it is so important. If there is no existing trust, you need to trust the process of hiring and take your time. My mistake was that I did not take my time, but went with the first people who showed enough excitement to work on DotMail. As you can imagine, their excitement wore off quite quickly when the real work began. In the end I felt like I was constantly running after someone when we should have been equally committed. DotMail taught me a lot about hiring and firing, and my failure was that I didn’t do both. I didn’t hire properly and I didn’t fire fast enough. I was just wasting my time and theirs.

DotMail showed me that unless you've known someone for many years and have established trust in your relationship, you need a more formal working agreement that protects both parties — otherwise someone is getting fucked over.

My commitment was lacking as well, at least mentally.

Another reason DotMail failed was that over time, I only gave it a certain percentage of my attention. As my decision was to bootstrap DotMail and not take on external funding, I knew that both me and my partner needed to work on this in our spare time to finance it and make it work. But ultimately I never gave DotMail the attention it deserved, which leads me to my next point:

I simply didn’t love DotMail as much as I should have.

It took me a long time to understand why DotMail didn’t get the attention it deserved. I was initially fired up about the concept. I was excited to think about the challenges and I enjoyed sharing my findings with other people. Following all the exposure and feedback, I felt more of an obligation to work on DotMail, but in reality I was never truly excited about making an email client my full-time job. Sure, I loved the challenge of thinking about it here and there, but I wasn’t madly in love with the intricacies of email technology.

In the end, this lack of passion impacted everything about DotMail. It's not that I was lazy, I was still putting in hundreds of hours of work and I was determined to get it done, but I was treating it as a side project not fully worth the risk. I never considered going 100% in on DotMail and investing all my time in it. I simply had commitment issues due to a lack of love for the type of product itself. I loved DotMail, but I didn’t love the idea of working on emails for the rest of my life.

All I had was a rudimentary version running on my computer, a manifestation of false hope.

All of this wasn't apparent at first, but I later knew that if I had really loved DotMail I would have tried many more times. I would have tried even harder to find the right partner. I certainly would have taken bigger risks, especially financially.

After a couple years of failing and pushing DotMail in front of me, we never achieved anything worth shipping. I grew tired of finding new people, motivating my partners (and myself) and wasting my time on it. I had to make a decision and either shut it down, or fully commit and give it one last chance.

About two years after the initial concept, I wrote a blog post about my decision. DotMail was dead, but was it ever alive? All I had was a rudimentary version running on my computer, a manifestation of false hope.


Fast forward three more years and, still unsatisfied with email clients out there but now with much more experience under my belt, I gave it one last try. A promising developer and friend of a friend reached out to me and said he could and want do it, and that he would be able to commit a couple days a week to work on it. I was pumped, but we didn’t tell anyone about it. I wanted to spare myself the disappointment of publicly failing again.

We discussed the details, made a plan and got to work. Expectations were clear: We would both work on it on the side but we would keep a strict timeline, including regular check-ins every week. We knew it may take longer to finish, but now we had structure. We took my designs from 2011 and completely redesigned and refined them. I’m sharing a couple of them right here, for the first time.

We now had fresh motivation, we had a plan, we had designs we were excited about and more importantly, I could feel the potential. We stripped down the app to its core and planned out a realistic MLP (minimum lovable product) that we could launch within 10-12 months to family and friends. Nothing fancy, just something simple that runs purely on the Gmail API.

.Mail is back. Or maybe not.

But we failed, again. The excitement wore off after a couple months. My partner lost motivation and eventually dropped out of the project. I was mad and disappointed. Not at him, but at myself. I fucked up and I hated myself for it. I should have known better after all these years.

However, it was easier this time; no one knew we had secretly started working on DotMail again, so I didn’t have to apologize to anyone but myself. It took me only one night to sleep on it and I knew what I had to do.

Fuck it. Fuck DotMail.*

*But also thank you, I’ve learned so many things from you.


This was my (shortened) story of DotMail, the startup that never started. DotMail is only one of many projects I worked on that never saw the light of the day. Looking at all my projects, more than 50% never make it to the final stage. Dozens more, prototypes and sometimes even almost finished products, die on my hard drive. All of them have their own story. And despite the tears and anger, they were all worth it. They’re all failures that taught me a lesson or two.

You can still see the original concept here. And the updated version here.

Thank you for reading,

P.S. I'd like to thank everyone who ever worked with me on DotMail. Even if we did not succeed, I'm thankful for the time you invested and the trust you gave the project. Thanks to my crew at les Avignons, Matthias for helping me with the DotMail landing page, Robert, Michael, Lu, Mike, Juergen and everyone I've bored over the years with my DotMail conversations. THANK YOU!

June 7, 2016No Comments

The Product Midlife Crisis

Creating something out of nothing is hard. Creating something that people use is even harder.

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