Jon Bell: on design communication and neo-grunge

Jon Bell teaches design at UX Launchpad.


I’ve met many aspiring web designers who don’t see coding as important. Why is it important to know some HTML / CSS... ect?

I am fascinated by the number of people that argue that you don't need to code. Maybe you don’t have to learn lots, but the basics can help. If you're going to work with a developer, being able to convert what you're thinking into their language is super important. I teach a class called UX launchpad with my friend William that helps bridge this gap. In one day we teach some of the basics of design to engineers.

How else do you like to nurture that relationship between developer and designer?

“How can I disagree, but keep an open mind?”

Some people call it “beginner’s mind.” It makes you a better listener and collaborator. I like going to the dev and saying, "Oh, can you tell me a little bit about that?" And, I point to the thing and say, "I'm not sure what that is." And, I might know exactly what it is, but, when you say, "train me" you learn to speak to each other. Another thing I do is show them something I’m working on and ask, "Do you have any thoughts on that?" And, then I bite my tongue. Someone once told me, "act as everyone can teach you something." And, it's a great line. You shut up and they'll bring up a point. I might disagree with the feedback. So, then I ask myself, “how can I disagree but keep an open mind?” Oftentimes, I end up agreeing with them and together we discover some great new idea.

Does a large part of this dance between dev and designer come down to feeling out your relationship?

I'm actually giving a talk at HIVE this year called “Design While Shipping.” I talk about 10 things I've learned about actually shipping software which doesn’t have anything to do with pixels. It's working with people.

Conventional wisdom is that people are the most important asset to a company, I disagree and here’s why: Imagine you're on a team of 5 designers who like each other. Let's say a world class rock star designer then joins that team, and he's amazing on his own, but he's a pain to work with. It causes the connections to start fraying. On some past projects there were a couple notable people that were "great designers" and they held the entire studio back. You didn't want to work with them. They acted like Don Draper in a world where Don Draper is irrelevant. I'm not going to be a Don Draper to get there, I'm going to be a collaborative hard working person. That's what software design has to be. When people think they can channel Steve Jobs and get results, they are simply wrong. I've never seen that person walk in, throw their weight around and have a healthy team in the end. Never. I've seen the reverse many times. You have to nurture the connections. There is you and me, but it's the third thing between us, our relationship, that we need to pay attention to. 

"When people think they can channel Steve Jobs and get results, they are simply wrong."

What about believing in the product? Isn't that a crucial component to success as well?

I do agree that believing in the product is helpful and preferable. But, I've worked on plenty of products where the group is not that proud because they can see that it's not panning out. It ends up being okay because those group relationships are genuinely strong. On the flip side I've worked on products that we all believed in because it was a cool project, but it didn’t pan out. We were at each other’s throats or it was a dumb idea. In the end it often didn’t matter how much we believed.

What is this term you mentioned: Neo Grunge? How does it apply to design?

Coming out of the 80’s and into the 90’s we had a bunch of corporate hair bands (Motley Crue pictured above). And, all of a sudden “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hits the airwaves, and I remember the first time I heard it. I was at a sleep-over party with a bunch of dudes playing streetfighter, and every single one of us was like, “Who is this? Where can I buy it? I need it right now.” We never heard anything like it. We’re all like, “Woah. What? That’s actually real.” You just felt like the band actually meant what they were saying. There had always been punk and indie and all that stuff, but they were actually going mainstream with indie stuff. It was a big deal!

Was it the first time that you experienced something mainstream and authentic?

Yes. Authenticity is a huge thing. And, I’m very excited that everything got templatized, so a designer can actually get to work making things rather than figuring out tables and CSS and all that - I like that, I think it’s good. It also means many web sites look the same now. What I want is Kurt Cobain for design and tech culture. I want someone to come pierce through and say, “I actually have something to say. I’m actually going to connect with people and I’m going to be authentic. And, it’s going to matter and be something that people respond to." So, when I say Neo-Grunge I wanna see the grunge ethic return. The 90’s are back and I want to see it hit the web.

"The 90’s are back and I want to see it hit the web."

What advice do you have for someone who’s trying to make an authentic app?

Look past the money. As soon as you’re doing it to sell out I can tell and so can everyone else. Look past the money. It probably means staying in a day job, but if you genuinely, actually at a Kurt Cobain level are trying to do your own thing then you’re not trying to get venture capital. You’re not trying to sell it. You’re just doing it for its own sake. Love the work because that’s it. It’s there in front of you.

It’s hard to get an authentic feeling with an app though.

I agree. Something like a simple little indie game that you just did on your own and you’re not expecting much money can convey that authenticity.
Apps have become the new CD-ROMs. When CD-ROMs were big everyone thought they needed them. We soon realized most of them were unnecessary and that’s where we are now. Most apps are used an average of 1.1 times - we see that in the current data. Apps have gotten conflated with this hair band culture of like, “...and we’ll tour the world!” What people really want is a small smokey club with Dizzy Gillespie just pouring his heart out. The grunge ethic is going to come back. I think people are going to realize how dumb it is that just about every app that you install disappoints you. We have lots of people just like you and me willing to make great products. We like the problem solving, and the design challenges, and fixing the world.