Matt Griffin shows us how empathy and sensitivity to the world around us is the key to great design. He teaches us how as a leader, the worst decision is no decision. He explains how hands are his most invincible UX resource or tool. He also inspires us starting out to take ‘every damn opportunity we can get’.
Matt Griffin is a designer and founder of Bearded and Wood Type Revival, and the director of What Comes Next is the Future, a documentary film about the web. He’s a speaker, writer, and an avid advocate for collaboration in design. He’s also a letterpress printer, and one of the creators of Wood Type Revival, a project which seeks out lost historic wood type and converts it into digital fonts for modern designers. Matt lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wife Elizabeth, and his son Argus. Previous to entering the world of design, Matt was an active musician (drums, mostly). He toured all over and played on a fair number of records. His band in college got kind of famous in Japan.
- Secret Identity (4:46)
- Origin Story (7:18)
- Bearded Closing its Doors (17:04)
- Biggest Failure (31:45)
- Awkward Testing Story (43:21)
- Design Superpower (45:44)
- Design Kryptonite (46:54)
- UX Superhero Name (50:07)
- Fights for Users (51:48)
- Habit of Success (63:25)
- Invincible Resource (65:22)
- Recommended Book (70:54)
- Best Advice (78:12)
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Jason: Greetings User Defenders welcome to episode 41. Today I got to interview designer studio founder letterpress connoisseur and now filmmaker Matt Griffin. We dive deep into design carousels how awful the world is and how good that is for us. Thom York cycle pants. Sorry cyclers and so much more. Please enjoy my deep yet hilarious interview with Matt Griffin.
Matt Griffin is a designer and founder of bearded and wood type revival and the director of what comes next is a future a documentary film about the Web. He’s a speaker writer and an avid advocate for collaboration design. He’s also a letterpress printer and one of the creators of wood type revival a project which seeks out last historic wood type and converts it into digital fonts for modern designers. Matt lives in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania with his wife Elizabeth and his son Argus. Previous to entering the world of design Matt was an active musician drums mostly. He toured all over the world and played a number a fair number of records and his band got pretty famous in Japan.
Matt welcome to User Defenders, I’m super excited to have you on the show today.
Matt: Thanks a lot. It’s great to be here.
Jason: And thanks for letting me wrestle with the alliteration in your bio there, a little tongue tongue tied there. But your band got famous in Japan. I love that it reminds me of Hasselhoff. You know he got pretty famous in Germany.
Matt: Big in Germany.
Jason: Oh yeah. They love them!
Matt: I mean we were no Hasselhoff, but you know you try.
Jason: You ever seen any of his videos on YouTube?
Matt: Oh yes.
Jason: There are just no words. I wanna say “splendid”!
Matt: The “Splendid Hasselhoff”.
Matt: Yeah. That’s good stuff.
Jason: So every superhero has a secret identity and origin story. Let’s talk about yours. I’d like to start the show by taking a few moments just to give us a look into your personal life.
Matt: Oh sure. So as you said I’m married to my wife Elizabeth for the last 10 years and I have a son Argus who’s a 7 year old and so we spend a heck of a lot of time together. That’s most of my personal life. I like biking a lot so I bike to work whenever I can and anywhere else that works but I’m not one of those like fancy bikers.
With the outfit and stuff I just my plug away like a marginal human being on my bicycle to get places.
Jason: What is it about the tights? I think the tight pants.
Matt: They’re actually like I mean I think I’m I’m the jerk for not wearing the tight pants because it’s more of like I just can’t bring myself to wear that outfit or any outfit like that. But I found actually after years of doing it, I kept…okay this is getting personal. So here we go. I’ve worn through a lot of jeans over the years and it’s always in the same place. And I’ll just leave it at that.
And it took me years to realize that it was biking all the time in jeans that’s wearing out the seat of my pants. And then I was like that’s why they were biking outfits.
Jason: That makes sense.
Matt: I went and got what are called in commuter pants which look a little closer to normal pant like they’re pretty normal. They just like dorky normal pants but they’re special and non-wearable and you know in the worn sense in the fabric.
So I don’t have holes in my pants anymore thanks to that. That’s the short version.
Jason: Biking saved my pants. There’s your next blog title there.
Matt: I think there’s also like a whole sweating chafing element to it or say in the play. So like it’s actually probably a really smart thing to do. Yeah I can’t I can’t do that. There’s something in my jeans that won’t let me wear that outfit.
Jason: Yeah. And bikers, I apologize for my assumption. They’re great you guys. There’s nothing wrong with. I’m gonna get some feedback on that I think.
Matt: And half of my Twitter followers go away.
Jason: But you know what. It’s a lack of empathy on my part and I apologize.
Matt: Me too.
Jason: So tell us your origin story Matt. What inspired you to pursue a career in this exciting challenging and ever evolving field?
Matt: Oh my goodness. So I came pretty late to design I guess as compared to anyone that came straight out of school. So I’m I’m 39 years old and I came to the Web somewhat early not like 80’s early not like Chris Wilson early but I came to the Web early-ish. And in the mid 90s I went to college in like ’95. I started school…college school not first grade that would be pretty weird. I started to like higher education in ’95.
Matt: I got my first email address like yay Telnet and started messing around on the early web. I had a Geocities account which is where I learned HTML. I was on Sunset Strip. For those of you who remember that was the where the music people were. And I have no idea what I did with that account. I really don’t remember…wrote about bands and stuff probably. And I made my bands I played in indie-rock bands and I played the drums a lot. And I made my band’s websites I figured out how to make my band’s websites when I was in college. And I actually went to school for audio recording at Indiana University in Bloomington the school of music there, and I did about three and a half years of that and then dropped out right at the end because I realized that if I was in audio I’d have to record bands that I don’t like mostly and try to make them sound good which sounded like my idea of hell. So I dropped out of school right at the end before I graduated which made my parents very proud.
And then I moved to Chicago as one does when you’re under-educated and have no job prospects, and I went with my band and I worked at a record store. I worked at Reckless Records in Wicker Park if anybody knows that. The snootiest of record stores. And played in my band. We somehow did get famous in Japan. Long story. But it’s not bad so I’ll give it a shot.
Jason: All right.
Matt: Before I joined the band they had one CD and a used copy of that CD ended up at a record store in Tokyo.
And the one person that bought that one CD happened to work for a record label called Trattoria records which is a subsidiary of PolyStar Records which is like a gigantic record label right? Trattoria is like a little cottage label that was run by someone who this guy Cornelius that was on Matador in the US and and non-Polish star when he was younger in Japan and had gone like platinum or whatever so they just he finished his band his platinum band and then he said they said what do you want. He was like I’m on my own record label so then he just started putting out weird records in Japan on this record label but was like major label funding. So the guy who bought the CD of ours was the drummer from his band and now like I mean our guy but like not a real fan. Just like the guy in the band that got famous right there basically just playing around and being a label. So he signs us we’re one of his favorite records of the year, and we ended up going to Tokyo and playing on Japanese television live and like doing magazine interviews and playing a played a big show in Tokyo and like it was like we got to be somewhat like a little bit famous in Japan doing that. My sister in law’s Japanese actually and she was in Tokyo a few years later and said she was at a restaurant and our video come on TV. So that’s kind of like.
But because it’s Japan like I actually didn’t experience most of it firsthand and it’s hard to know what like you know even the reviews I had to have translated in Japanese is very different than English. So a lot of that I had people telling me like I don’t I actually can’t translate. I don’t know how to say this in English it’s very poetic. So it’s very difficult to explain what it means but it’s it’s not it’s good which maybe they were just telling me because they didn’t want to tell me all the horrible things the review said but I don’t know. It was a it was a weird time. Let me tell you to be 22.
Jason: Yeah. Well it’s hard to really be successful in music. I mean it’s incredibly hard.
Matt: Some would say impossible.
Jason: Right. Yeah exactly. It’s you know it’s funny like this is in music is one area we’re less gatekeepers has not really helped that much. Right? Everybody can make a CD on GarageBand now on their Mac.
Matt: Yeah yeah it turns out that like being financially successful in music is not usually feasible. And I think was something that really changed my mind about that. So as I was doing all that playing in bands and being like you get famous in Japan at 22 you’re like famous in quotes in Japan at 22 and you’re like this is it. And like it’s only up from here right. Thank goodness I dropped out of school. It often doesn’t work that way. And then we came back to the U.S. and played 20 people at shows or whatever you know 20 bucks if we were lucky and it got sad real fast. I play in other bands and bands that did better than that in Europe and whatever and I got to do a lot of touring and making records for like the next 10 years basically or maybe five years I guess out of school and then decided to go back to school. I needed a real job and part of the thing that really convinced me was I was getting older needed health care. It seemed like a good idea. Pertinent subject at the moment by the way health care is good.
Jason: Survival is not a soft skill. That’s a Mike Monteiro quote.
Matt: That’s a good one yeah.
Jason: Staying alive I think is how he put it.
Matt: I can quote my seven year old son when I tried to explain that right now if you have money, doctors will treat you when you’re sick, and if you’re poor then you don’t get a doctor when you’re sick. He was like that doesn’t make any sense. You know seven year olds, they get it. But anyway I needed health care and a real job. And what I started to realize too was a lot of those like small bands like the indie bands are connected with financial support in some way like trust funds and things like that. So like they don’t have to be successful and that’s why they can get away with that. And you know no judgment like people have their legacies. But if you don’t have that and it appears to be that it can be financially feasible then that’s really confusing. You wonder like what am I doing wrong that I can’t figure out how to make this work. And the answer is well you granddaddy wasn’t an executive at Jack Daniels or whatever. So you know you don’t get checks every month.
Jason: John Daniels. John, when you’ve known him as long as I have.
Matt: Jonathan, old Jonathan Daniels
Jason: Oh yeah.
Matt: So anyhow at some point I decided I was going to go back to school and I’d been making all these websites and posters and things like that from my bands and I looked into the graphic design program in Indiana University which is where I was living and I was back in Bloomington and it turns out because I dropped out of school in the 90s when I tried to go back to school in 2004 2005 I was able to get reenroll and they backdated me to my 19. At that point I transferred in 96 I might 1996 rates for you which is much better in 2004 rates. Let me tell you. And also I’ve been living in Indiana so long that they made me in state so I had 96 the state rates. So I think I went back to school for like five thousand dollars a year or something at that point.
And as soon as I figured out that scam was like going back to school for something so I went for a design which seemed like it would be creative in the way music was but jobs and the way that music didn’t and that worked out pretty well. After that I got my and I decided to move back to Pittsburgh where I’m from. I’d met my wife Elizabeth and we decided to be like Pittsburgh to get a shot. I found out about my first real design job as we were driving into Pittsburgh in a U-Haul. It was like a good plan that we had. It was like I applied to jobs and then we just moved and hoped we could find one. I don’t necessarily recommend that but I got the job. It went OK. I did work but I didn’t really get along with any of my four bosses that well. Some more than others. Seven people, four of them are my boss which you know I should indicate something to you but I learned a lot about just how to be in a job. I also learned that I wasn’t super happy in that situation. I wasn’t sure if I was working for other people in general or just those people. And then I got offered some adjunct teaching at Carnegie Mellon University which is here in Pittsburgh doing some design teaching starting with just a production class. The person who had been teaching it had to go on maternity leave and they needed somebody last minute to take the class.
And Liz had already gotten teaching there in photo so it was sort of like knowing people that knew people and they said hey doesn’t your husband isn’t you a designer when he teaches class. And I did, and that was my foot in the door there. At the same time an old high school friend asked me if I wanted to leave and do web work with him. He was a developer and he was doing his own design at the time. He said he had too many clients and needed a full time designer and ask if I would work for him and I said absolutely not. I was. But I was thinking of going freelance anyway on my own. So I think I maybe I’ll just do that. And he said well maybe. How about instead of working for me, we just start a new thing and make it 50/50 and start our own studio and so we did that and that’s how Bearded started.
And I ended up doing that for it’s been almost nine years now. We’ve been doing that and now actually we’re stopping.
So we haven’t announced that yet.
Jason: Whaaaat? Do I sound surprised?
Matt: Feigned surprise. I told you in advance.
But yeah we decided to shut down Bearded partly for a number of reasons we can get into if you want.
Jason: But yeah I definitely want to hear this story because you’ve invested a lot of time blood sweat and tears into. Bearded and you guys have become like a real premier studio out there in a very renowned and you guys have done some amazing work. And so when you told me this last week we you know we were catching up for this time. I was both shocked, but also excited for you.
Jason: But yeah absolutely. Yeah. Can you tell us the story of kind of what’s transpired? And this is sort of a User Defenders’ exclusive.
Matt: Yeah other than some close friends. Yeah. Obviously everyone I work with, clients and things. So you’re pretty high up the list.
Matt: Yeah. So, I’ve been doing Bearded for almost nine years. We started in November 2008, so maybe even 8 1/2 halfs year or something like that. When we started it’s just me and Michael started the business together. And who’s the developer I spoke of earlier, and we worked the two of us. And then we hired this guy Dominic De Grouty, that I just adore. We hired him before he was even done at CMU as a CS major at CMU. And he worked with us for about three years and then he went off to Heroku and is now at a chain in San Francisco which was like a block chain development place. So really right out of the gate pretty talented people. Then we hired Matt Braun and who’s still with us now he’s a partner now and Brett Bender a developer is with us now. And then lots of other people. We grew over the years becoming at our largest I think nine or 10 people. But we tended to average around like 5, 6, 7 or something like that. And we’ve been doing it for a long time. We’ve done a bunch of different side projects. We did Wood Type Revival early on which was great, and that was the first thing we did I think that really got us known in the design industry. Which is if you don’t know about it was a Kickstarter project to buy a bunch of letterpress wood type stuff which is Matt Braun and I both do letter press printing, and lost printing, and lost old type places wood typefaces, and then print them scan them, outline them, and kern the hell out of them until we had workable digital fonts to give back to people gave us the money to buy the type.
Matt: So that was Wood Type Revival. We made apps here and there, none of which ever got big. And then I did the movie recently. What Comes Next is the Future which is at futureisnext.com. It’s a documentary about the web, and I spent about three years doing that, and I think when that ended, it took a while to occur to me but it kind of felt like you know now what like at first I was just like I’m so glad it’s over it’s been so hard doing this was such a lot of work while at the same time trying to run an agency and it took a long time to dawn on me that I had been tackling a very unusual project for a web agency–making a movie, in part because I was becoming a little bored with what we were doing and looking for something interesting and an interesting new challenge. And I certainly found it, it kept me busy for a few years. Too busy most of the time. And when it was over it felt like this vacuum. Like now I’m just back to doing what I’ve already done. I also think that we never grew really big and that was a conscious decision. I like the culture of a smaller place. I didn’t want to turn into like I don’t know a business man with all the ridiculous connotations that involves.
I just it just didn’t feel right to me. So I kept it small.
Jason: No swoopovers.
So you know like that I think that was good culturally but then the problem of a small agency is you run out of roles you run out of things you can do and once you’ve mastered everything there is to be done. There’s nowhere else to move like I can’t move to another department or be promoted right? And that’s true for everyone at Bearded pretty much. There wasn’t like another spot to move. So I think that became frustrating but none of that really came to a head because I just sort of assumed well I’d do this forever. This is my thing.
Other people come and go but I do this, this is what I do. And then an offer came along. I’d been speaking with people at Shopify for a while as you know an e-commerce platform in Canada that you may or may not be aware of and we were talking about some contracting work on that ended up falling through for various reasons.
But then the guy I was talking to said you know honestly what I’m really interested in is seeing if you wanted to come here.
We were like your work. We were going to try you out with a project but if you’re interested in talking about this and if you’re open to something new we could talk. And at the time I said no, I wasn’t ready for that concept yet. And then my family went to Australia and New Zealand. I was speaking in Web Directions John Alsop’s conference in Sydney which was amazing. He brought me and my family there and then we had two weeks of vacation in New Zealand and right during the conference when I was presenting the I gave a talk and I was presenting the film and the night I had to present the film was the night of the U.S. Presidential Election. And despite, all of my assumptions about the prevailing sanity of human beings, Donald Trump was elected and that really threw me for a loop. I think it’s a terrible thing. I’m not going to hide any of my political feelings. I think Trump is a terrible man and he does terrible things to lots of people, and he represents a lot of things that I think are despicable about human beings, and unfortunately are more prevalent than I’d like. We all have nasty things in us. Trump just lets them all out unapologetically. And when he was elected I felt terrible about the whole thing and I had to get up in front of a roomful of Australians and talk about a movie really like minutes after it being confirmed that Hillary had dropped out of the race.
So anyway I had to give up I gave sort of an impromptu little speech saying that. This is awful as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t know what to do about it yet. But the good news is I made this movie and it’s a happy movie so we came to watch that for an hour and feel good about ourselves and what we do every day at work. So we did that and then we spent two weeks my wife and son and I running around New Zealand half-pretending that nothing had gone wrong and fantasizing about moving to New Zealand and living a different life far away from the US. And I think that weird though that never happened and it’s just impractical to move to New Zealand for a bunch of reasons. It’s on the other side of the world and they have earthquakes all the time and they’re in this tiny strip of land on the middle of the ocean. Those those things don’t go together very well.
Jason: But Lord of the Rings was filmed there.
Matt: I mean it’s unbelievable. It’s gorgeous. I love it. And I kind of want to move there anyway someday I’ll put up with the earthquake but I have a young kid and my parents and Liz’s parents would be never seeing him and that’s not cool.
And jobs were a bit of an issue too like I couldn’t find anything that was like exciting you know. Australia is great for jobs but New Zealand feels right to me anyhow didn’t get anything going. But we came back sort of feeling like that was a missed opportunity. Maybe we should be doing something that maybe we should be changing our lives. Maybe we should be trying something different and maybe leaving the country isn’t so bad. And then Shopify got back in touch and said hey how do you doing. And I said great except you know all of politics. And they said well maybe you could come and take a break and come to Canada if you want if you’re still into it. And again I was going to say no I just I can’t imagine doing that like shutting down my business. Moving to another country is so much work and so much change. I just can’t get my head around it. And then it was my wife who said maybe you should talk to them just find out what they have to say. You can’t make a reasonable decision without knowing what’s going on and what they’re offering so I said OK I’m like, let’s do it.
And we started talking and they they brought me out there and I had a couple of days of interviews and talking with people and trying to understand what it was I’d be doing what this new life would be and wandering around Ottawa and seeing if we like the city and the more we talked about it the more we found out the more attractive it started to sound. And of course they made a good offer and more than that it was just the description of the work I’d be doing and the job was really compelling and the idea that I would be in a product company for the first time in my life I had all these new things to learn, new skills to develop, and be in a much larger company there are almost 2000 people.
Jason: Very stable company.
Matt: Yeah. I mean I’m not that doesn’t. I’ve gotten used to the instability. So you know the roller coaster is whatever. So I mean honestly it’s like at this point you either you get an ulcer and quit or you just kind of create this lie in your mind that everything’s fine so that you can exist every day. And I did the latter. I just pretend that I am not in danger of getting out of business ever. So I’m OK with that. I mean my feeling is like you work in a big company and you can get fired any day. Or they could do layoffs any day. Right?
Matt: So it’s all a lie. Security is a lie.
Jason: You know that’s true.
Matt: But you know I figured you can move around. You can do the thing that I had a problem with my own company had Bearded which is there were other things to do. If I get bored with something I can move to another department. I could learn new skills I couldn’t move up I can move sideways whatever. That’s all fine. So that was what became really compelling and then the feeling that everything I’ve done I guess my initial feeling that I didn’t want to do it was if I stopped doing Bearded, then it’s all for nothing that’s throwing all that work away. You know that invalidates everything I’ve done up to this point. And it took me a while to realize that that’s not true. That those good experiences and that good work and all of the building of that thing are still there and are still just as important as they were before. And what I take away with them is the sense that I’m better for it. I’ve learned I’ve grown all the people that worked on it learned and grew. All the clients we had learned and grew. So everyone took that with them as themselves. And then I can take that onto this new job. So all of that stuff does live on.
But through the people who did it and that really changed my attitude about it that I can take all this stuff go somewhere else have new experiences and maybe the worst outcome would be to keep doing Bearded keep doing this thing I loved, but past the point where I loved it, and that was really a bigger danger to ruining the whole thing than just stopping.
Jason: Wow. Well thanks for telling that story Matt. There’a lot happening behind the scenes here obviously because it is such a big deal, it’s such a big move, and it’s hard to uproot your family especially let alone in the United States where you’re already a citizen but seriously like to another country where everything is completely different, and you have to really learn how all the nuances of things that you’ve grown so accustomed to here in the U.S. So that’s I know that’s a good deal.
Matt: Yeah. Super weird. I mean it’s like right there right. So you think like it’s like Ohio or whatever like moving to Minnesota. It’s not. All the utilities are different like the mobile providers are different. The ISP’s are different. The currency is different and the currency exchange changes every minute and it’s crazy like retirement savings is different…just everything’s different.
Jason: Well I commend you brother for your courage and for being willing to step out of the comfort zone and also to put something that you’ve worked so hard to build on the altar. And I know that you know it’s it’s hard to kind of see the good in it right now maybe even for some of your team.
Matt: Oh I think that’s much harder for them. They didn’t make the decision right? They’re just reacting to my decision. And I think that was part of the hard decision for me too was can I do this to these other people? And I think what I finally realized is like you know all of our careers are our own responsibility, and people leave you know like I’ve run this business and plenty of people have left the job and I didn’t hate them for it. I was like OK that’s what they have to do right now in their career, and at a certain point. That’s what I did. And we had a talk with the partners and I said look this is what I need to do. If you guys want to keep doing this I have some ideas about how you can do it and I’m going to make it as easy as possible for you to do it in terms of you know my ownership in the company and everything. And they talked about it and ultimately decided they didn’t want to keep doing it and felt too much like starting over and they were going to take the opportunity to try new things too. They’ve both been doing it for you know six to seven years.
And so that was the decision that everybody made ultimately and that’s OK.
Jason: Yeah. It’s hard to see the future. But the reality is is that so often it kind of takes a little bump for us to kind of do something even greater right, than what we maybe even imagine ourselves doing. So it sometimes takes that so, I think that the challenge now will be a thank you later I think. But you built a great team man and I know that it’s a testament to you and your leadership.
Matt: It’s a testament to them and they’re really hard work mostly I think. I mean I just try to provide an environment where people can do good work. I’ve been really lucky that people hired and I think that was the other thing that encouraged me was everybody that’s worked at Bearded I think that’s been a way for them to prove themselves and then move on with that reputation. Better than when they came in. So it’s not like I’m just you know throwing people in the sewer or something right. They have their stamp of approval and I’ve worked really hard to to find them places that they can apply and make contacts for them on their behalf and certainly talk them up in any references. You know this is how things move on sometimes.
Jason: Indeed. And sorry about this segue because we’re going to talk about failure, and I don’t believe that.
Matt: Oh, I can talk about that though.
Jason: And certainly you know this big step you’re taking is not a failure it’s a it’s a big success. And for you and your family and for your future and all your people as we just talked about. But I want to talk about before this. This is the part we talk about life altering experiences and we get into your transformation. Can you tell us a story about what’s been maybe the biggest failure in your career? I think it’s sometimes a great way that we can all learn and we certainly learned from our own failure and our own mistakes the most. But I think we also can learn from others as well.
Matt: Absolutely. You know the thing that felt the worst in my career was starting so late as a designer and the fact that I waited so long to get back to school for design. I got out of design’s school when I was about 30, and I had my first entry level design job at 30 and I was making you know $30000 a year. I joked that I made a thousand dollars a year for every year of my life which when you know that there are 22 year olds that are doing the same thing feels pretty bad and I’m like how do I catch up on that eight year gap. Yeah. I felt like such wasted time and I actually felt really resentful towards music and what I had done with music for that for a long time for a few years I really felt like I had screwed up by not taking a career seriously and trying to do this impossible thing with music and what it finally led me to though was to quit that first job about a year and a half in and start my own company because I had been applying to jobs. No one would even call me back or email me or anything. And I realized that the only person that was going to value me in the way that I required at that point was myself. I was the only person to take a risk on myself. So we started our own company. I was like all right I’m going to prove it.
I’m going to go out I’m going to do what I think is good work because no one else will let me do that and see if that happens. And I mean it worked out pretty well it gave me the drive I needed to make up that lost time and work really hard and for a while kind of fake it and like pretend like I had more experience than I did. You know I only had a year and a half professional experience and I was pitching projects to clients that had never heard of me or anyone else and I had this weird name you know like who are these Bearded people. And I mean I was lucky that I had some adjunct teaching at CMU so I could say I taught at CMU. Just be vague about it.
It looks good on the resume man.
It does. Adjunct doesn’t usually, I mean my wife has been adjunct professor for years. I think the adjunct position is incredibly exploitative for a number of reasons but if avoiding all of that issue I think you put, “I teach at Carnegie Mellon University” on there and at least gives you some like “OK well he can’t be a complete idiot”. Little do they know. But that helps.
And then after we built up all that stuff and sort of ultimately I was able to realize that all that time playing in bands and what seemed sort of like screwing around was really formative for me to be able to do everything else that I do. And I think if you can learn how to take four very creative, very opinionated people with very few resources–no money, very little sleep and who care about every little decision, and you can get consensus and actually like produce things and accomplish things in that situation you can do anything. You can definitely run a design business. So that was really really valuable experience in building stakeholder consensus that a client organization now seems like nothing compared to like writing songs in a basement with three tired very opinionated other people.
Jason: Well Matt your story just made me think about some of our Defenders listening. I mean I’ve actually interfaced with some who are pushing 40 maybe 50, and just now sort of realizing they’re having that eureka moment that aha moment if you will where they’re saying you know this is something I really want to do. I’m tired of whatever you know fill in the blank that I’ve been doing for the past 20 years or whatever 30 years of my career. And certainly a very hard thing to pivot, you know later on in life, but it’s happening. And this is an exciting field to work and obviously and honestly as you say what comes next is the future. I mean everything related to this comes next right? I mean this is the future.
Matt: Who the heck knows.
Jason: Exactly yeah. But I mean I can tell you this is going to involve technology. It’s going to involve artificial intelligence is probably whether you like it or not involve virtual reality. The jury’s out on that one for me still. But all that to say, what do you say to those folks? Those Defenders listening. Those guys and gals that are like you know I want to do this. What do you say to those people who are like I want to do it, but is it too late for me? Am I going to be able to catch up? Do I have to catch up, or what do I do here?
Matt: Gosh it’s hard isn’t it.
I mean I people have asked me things like how did you get your first clients. I can’t even answer that because the guy I started with he he had some clients already. So that magic was already there. How do you start from zero? I actually don’t know. And it was close to zero. I mean we had like one $5000 website and the logo project you know it wasn’t like we were rolling in the work.
But every little job we did helped make the next job. And I mean I can tell you, geez, one of our first projects also was like my parents company needed a website so we made that right? That stuff happens. But I think you start out and you take every damn opportunity you can get, and make it work for you. And that I know that’s also a statement that comes from a position of relative privilege that I’m a person who could afford to quit my steady job and take CMU teaching and an uncertain future and know that the worst thing to happen was I’d move into my parents house you know. So I like I certainly get that. So I don’t know I don’t know if I can give advice to people like that. It’s a big risk and it’s very complicated and can you make a move to a field like this at any point in your life? Maybe, I don’t know. I also really am reluctant to go with that like, “follow your passion” you know “you’re a shooting star” kind of bulls**t speech because I also think that comes from a place of severe privilege that if you care about it enough you’re going to make, that’s bulls**t. Absolutely not. That’s not true at all. There are many factors that go on to “making it” which maybe we can define as just like making enough money to survive. That’s hard to do.
And I think if someone gave me good advice once it was Irene Au when we were making the movie and that was to look for the intersection of what you’re good at, what you love doing, and what the world needs and I think that third component is really crucial and people forget a lot. If there is no demand for that thing you are good at and love, it does not work. I was really good at playing the drums. Still pretty good. And I love doing it. But there weren’t enough people that wanted to hear the kind of music I wanted to make. It doesn’t work. Doesn’t matter how passionate you are, it’s not going to work for you. And I think the thing that’s been most successful for me is keeping an eye out for those opportunities as they present themselves and just trying to make the right choice of “I’m going to try this now”. It’s not about writing a 10 year business plan and then following it out cause you know what the opportunities are going to be. It’s about always keeping those feelers out for any opportunity no matter how insignificant seeming, and following it and if it doesn’t work you drop it and try and find that next one. And you just keep adjusting with what you have at your disposal until you claw your way up that hill to something that works. You know. I wasn’t just like I want to move to Canada, and I’m going to figure out how to do that. But that opportunity showed up and after my wife convinced me to look at it. It did seem like the best option even though it was scary and maybe painful.
And she pointed out this does not happen often. It is not often that something like this shows up on your doorstep. So you need to think really hard about it before you turn it away.
Jason: You know that’s great advice Matt. And there’s a lot of good nuggets in there to take away from. I was just thinking too about following your passion and it’s easy to say that, and certainly it’s not. I think it’s important to do what you love to do. If you have the opportunity and you really work hard to attain that. But I agree with you as far as following your passion that’s not always the best idea, because I’m super passionate about coffee.
Matt: Yeah right?
Jason: I love coffee. I’m super passionate. I like to roast coffee at home, but I can’t feed my family. I have a very large family. I cannot feed them with my coffee passion, so thankfully I am passionate about this work, and I’ve been able to do this you know for since 2000. So I’m grateful for that but I like what Angela Duckworth says I think it was her, she said it from the great book called “Grit”. She says, “Don’t follow your passion, foster your passion”, and you keep looking like you just said keep looking for those opportunities and you know and take them on. And even if it’s something you’re doing on the side until you get that experience and build it up and then that confidence happens too with every win you get with every little project you succeed on, right? Build that confidence up and then you can ask for more money if you’re freelancing. And not be embarrassed by it even if you are, maybe you should be a little embarrassed by what you’re asking for in your contract. Right? Cause you could always come down a little bit too.
Matt: So I’ve written a lot about this like mechanics of making a design business work on A List Apart. If you’re thinking about starting your own studio or you do run your own studio feel free to go look at those articles. But, one of them that I think is actually pretty meaningful to me because the one about being the one about being profitable for me because it took me a long time to feel comfortable with the idea of being profitable, that is charging more money than you absolutely require. And what I realized after years of not being profitable, and just scraping by was that is untenable and you’re just waiting for the moment when you go out of business. That you have just enough money to pay the next month you’re going to fail eventually because there going to be some months where that project doesn’t come through. And we were project, to project, to project forever, partly because I felt embarrassed about you know “overvaluing myself”. And then I realized that profit is an essential part of the padding of running a business that there were lean times, and there will be good times, and you need to prepare for both of those. So yeah you’ve got to build in all the time you spend and more you have to make more money than it costs you to do the work.
Jason: That’s right. Yeah. I said “Business = Revenue > Expenses”. And you know that’s the bottom line. And you do have to make your business work that way.
Matt: First time we had three or four months sitting in a bank account that’s when my horrible anxiety about the business started to go away. That waking up in the middle of the night in sweats and counting down your invoices to the last penny you know and timing of every check when it was going to arrive. That’s miserable and you can’t do good work that way. So figuring out how to have that panning is absolutely essential.
Jason: That’s great stuff. Matt, so in your years of running Bearded, I know you guys have done user testing, and I’m curious have you ever had anything really crazy or super awkward happened during those sessions?
Matt: You know I haven’t really. Nothing totally nuts. We actually had a fun one recently. I’m sure there’s people that have seen or heard this but we were doing usability testing for a college web site. We had these exclusively college students and particularly were looking at admissions. We were only using like 18/19 year olds so high school seniors, college freshmen. And this one kid who I think was graduating high school senior finished the thing and he had been pretty critical about the site design he was looking at. At the end, he started talking to someone in the next room and he was saying like, “Oh man I totally ragged on that website. Man, I was brutal on them. I can’t believe they paid me $75 for this” and just started kind of going off on it. And I wasn’t on the call. I wish I had been because I really would’ve messed with him. They just like ended the phone call, and I was like, “Man, guys why didn’t you. There’s so many things you could do with that one is just you wait for a moment of silence and say, ‘Hey, hey buddy…we’re still on the call here…so about that $75”. You could do that.
Jason: We haven’t signed that check yet buddy.
Matt: Just because you know it’s funny you would do it. Of course you’d pay him. But, that’s a good lesson for a young person to learn about what you say while you have a venue cam and a microphone in front of you. It’s like making the rude comment about a client into Slack while at your screen sharing or something. I’ve never done that but I’ve seen it happen to people. And you’re like, what are you doing?this is why you don’t make those comments into Slack. Just don’t do it, like don’t. It’s never worth it you know. So that was funny. I had a client this isn’t user testing. But, I once had a client refer to breadcrumbs as cookie crumbs, and I just think that’s adorable. Wish we would call them that all the time.
Jason: And then you’d have to rename cookies.
Matt: They could be “breads” I guess we’ll just switch them.
Jason: Cookie crisps.
Matt: Your browser breads. Nah, that’s terrible.
Jason: Atkins trails.
What’s your design superpower, Matt?
My design superpower is to listen to what people are saying and asking for, then figure out what their actual real needs are, unearth their misconceptions about the situation, and then help them build consensus about what decisions need to be made, and what they need to do next.
Jason: Dang that’s a mission statement right there. You just gave us a mission statement. That was very well articulated Matt.
Thanks, that’s most of my job is doing that thing, and I really like having a room full of people who are confused about how they should proceed and what they need to do or have harmful misconceptions. You know things that they’re stuck to ideas that are not in their own self-interest and do not support their own goals. I love walking in that room and listening to them and working with them and helping them to go down that path of realizing what will actually help them, and what they actually need to do. It’s like it’s so satisfying at the end of the day.
Jason: And I know that you mean that because you didn’t even have to think about that answer and it came out so clear. I love it.
Adversely, what’s your design Kryptonite?
Matt: My design Kryptonite…uh carousels I guess. They just put me in a bad mood.
Jason: Now why do we still use them? Why do we still do it?
Matt: Because they solve a very real internal stakeholder issue of everyone wants everything on the top the home page. They’re perfect for that. But it offloads an internal organizational problem onto a user experience which is awful. It’s absolutely awful right? Not only is it not giving the user what you’d think you’re giving them but then they pay a performance hit problem and if they’re on a slower network and have limited data, then you just really screwed up their mobile plan for no reason…for something they won’t look, which is super sad. So I think instead people need to figure out how to talk to each other and prioritize and understand from the user’s perspective what users need rather than just shoving all their crap in a carousel.
Jason: So good man. Yeah and it doesn’t matter how much data you show the stakeholders, they’re still gonna want to carousel.
Matt: Sometimes it does. No I give basically that speech about showing stats on carousels. It’s part of it.
So when I begin a client kick off one of the early things we do is UX primmer, and I walk people through a bunch of stuff that people need to know when they’re approaching a responsive user experience redesign for the web. And one of the things is carousels I hit it every time. It’s real short. I don’t get to belabored, but I do point out that it’s dumb. And it’s good to do that early before people start suggesting carousels. That’s the trick. Once they suggest a carousel then they need to sort of defend themselves a bit like it’s an ego problem then. Or they feel bad. Right? So either they feel bad that they suggested the dumb thing, or they get defensive because they don’t want it to be a dumb thing they suggested. So it’s good to get that just preemptively let them know we’re not going to be suggesting carousel’s today.
Jason: Yeah, it’s going to become like the IE rally cry maybe.
Matt: Oh yeah. There’s a progressive enhancement thing in there. You don’t have to have round corners on all your buttons in old IE. It’s fine. No one’s using the latest version of Chrome on one computer, and then like IE6 on another computer…that’s not a real user. It’s fine. Progressive enhancement’s good.
Yeah. So this next question is kind of a fun one. Matt and I always caveat it, because I know you didn’t get where you are on your own and you lauded your team and rightly so about how great your team has been, and I’m sure that you would say that they upheld you as much as you upheld them during these last seven plus years. I’m sorry. It’s been almost eight years. Eight or nine years.
Matt: I think eight and a half now.
Jason: Eight and a half years, yeah. So I want to ask you though you’ve certainly achieved a level of success in our field. And I want to ask you what would your superhero name be Matt?
Jason: Oh boy, I’m going to go with “Decisionor”. Because I have no problem making decisions about things. Let’s test it and find out if we were right or not and like move on but let’s not debate this endlessly. I’m a big of decider-ing.
Jason: That’s good man I like that…”Decisionor.
Matt: That’s a terrible name but it’s a good good good point to it.
Jason: I like that and again this speaks to your leadership and I know that’s what you’re going to be doing over at Shopify to is you’re going to be leading a team. And so to me I really like that answer Matt. And I think it really suits you because that’s one of the hardest things about leadership especially being newer to a leadership role is you always want to like make sure you’re making a right decision but you won’t know that until you make the decision.
Matt: The worst decision is no decision most of the time I mean you gather information and you don’t just like sit around going that one this one that one. Like I don’t want to sound like but like you listen to your team and gather the facts and draw on your own experience and then make the best guess you can and then be open to being wrong and changing it and that’s fine.
Jason: I love it. You kind of. You may have answered this possibly when I asked you what your design superpower was because I just thought that was such a great answer but maybe you’ve got something else up your sleeve here but I want to ask you one of my favorite lines from Tron was when he said I fight for the users. How do you fight for your users?
Matt: Oh boy, I think it’s usually when I’m interacting with stakeholders those internal folks and our group a little bit but mostly with stakeholders and organizations we’re working with where we try to just get away from opinions or hunches and get towards real user desires and tasks and making those overlap with the needs of the organization wherever possible. And then and then confirming those theories with testing and just getting people away from their own investments or the like my uncle’s a painter and he doesn’t like that color blue.
Like that’s no thanks. That opinion isn’t welcome here. I mean to start thinking instead about how to make your users happy so that you look good.
Jason: That’s good. Good stuff.
Matt: I mean what’s interesting I mean I think people complain about client stuff all the time you know and I used to complain about it a lot too until I realized that’s not their job. They have a different job and that’s not what we do. Surprise right. They’re hired to do something at their organization too much like we are and it has nothing to do with the stuff we do they don’t know how to talk about it. They don’t know what it is like for some short period of time they’re charged with making sure the website thing goes OK. And whatever that is, and they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. So the best thing you can do is make them look good by educating them when that’s appropriate but not overburdening them because again they have a whole other job they have to do and and working with them and supporting them so that they know that you’re hearing them you’re getting their feedback which is important, you’re getting their perspective which is important, they’re understanding about the industry that you know nothing about probably. So you get all that information from them and then take all of your expertise to help make the best decisions for them and yourself. They’re not trying to screw you up. They’re not like, man I can’t wait to launch this crappy thing I’ll have really come through for everyone if I just really just turn a screw and that’s just put a big old turd on top of it as much as I can. No one’s doing that.
Nobody’s like how do I make Matt’s life horrible right? His products poopy. That’s not a thing. They just don’t know. So being empathetic to that and trying to help take their hand and sort of walk them through this process and this thing that they don’t know much about and are probably pretty apprehensive about because they don’t know what they’re doing and their jobs probably on the line in some way or another making that easier for them, and making it easy for them to be successful. And when you do that those people can’t wait to hire you again which is a nice outcome for us right?
Jason: Yeah definitely. And I love that too like making them look good. Mean that’s what they’re paying us for right? Making them look good and making things work.
Matt: Yeah. They don’t care if Bearded looks good, and I shouldn’t either particularly. I mean you know I do but I do that by way of making them look good. Right? And I think that’s how you get your next job. That’s how you get your next client and your next project is by doing exactly that. I mean if you fight them and fight them and fight them and they hate you the whole time. I used to work with a guy that said something like it doesn’t matter if they hate us now because when we’re done the project’s going to be so great that they’re going to forget all about that because everyone’s going to tell him how wonderful it is.
That is utter sh*t. That is absolutely not true. People remember the bad human interactions they had way more than they like some design you did that don’t matter to them in a few years but eight years from now they’re going to laying in bed and going, man that guy was an as*hole. You know like that that’s stick with them.
Jason: So it’s true, we do remember that especially the negative things that are said. We do remember that way more than any positive things…it outshadows it.
Matt: You remember that horrible fight we had about that project like that’s the thing you remember not you may not remember the project look like but that fight will stick with you a long time.
Jason: I agree. So I think it’s sort of the tightrope act sometimes of being truthful about what you see as a design professional. Right? Be a harbinger if you will. Like hey, yeah we can do that, but this is something you need to know. Right? Like being able to kind of explain that with humility, and not with a forceful hand of like, hey I’m the professional you need to just do what I say.
Matt: “Listen to me. I’m the designer here, who’s the designer here?” Like that crap. Man, get secure with yourself. It’s going to be OK. Like you are the designer. We all know you’re the designer, settle the “F” down a little bit. It doesn’t really mean that much.
You just you come in there and say like, “hey let’s just let’s hang on back up for a second and talk about the project goals. What are we actually trying to accomplish?” And you can probably apply that to every situation no matter how large or small. “I wanna change that button color”. Let’s talk about how that does or does not support the project goals. I’d like that to be a brighter red. OK what does that do? Probably attracts more attention to that thing. Is that something you want to attract attention toward? And also do we want to distract attention from everything else on the page? Is that what we’re trying to do if it is, yes, let’s make that thing brighter red. If not maybe we shouldn’t do that.
Jason: And what does this do with design patterns right. Like does this look like an error right?
Matt: Yes. How does that affect that man. I’ve gotten into such a thing one time over with branding folks that insisted that every button was red, and I kept telling them we’re building an application. You can’t make the save button red. And we just can’t do it. Like let’s talk about basic human color associations and I came up with a whole demonstration of it using actually their existing website their donation form which I thought was very problematic, and it was a bunch of binary states like on/off, yes/no states using red active states. And you could not tell which one was which.
And then I redid it using green and showed it to him, and I redid it using one other brand called which was yellow which is more neutral. And we walked through it and I was like “tell me which one active”. And they honestly, they didn’t know they luckily they were high enough that they didn’t know the form well enough that they knew which one was supposed to be active and they couldn’t figure it out. They were honest they were like “I have no idea” and I said “that’s how your users feel”. They don’t know what’s going on here and you’re in fact pushing them towards the wrong answer using red as a positive color. People do see it that way. Red is fire, red is blood. You cannot beat that. Red is stop signs. You cannot beat that. I don’t care what’s in your brand manual, let’s think of another way to do this. And it worked.
Jason: Wow, that’s an awesome story Matt.
Matt: Oh thanks. I forgot about that one too.
Jason: I love that. That’s a that’s a good…
Matt: If red’s in your logo, don’t make it a default button color. Let me tell you. There’s not an application where you have things like save and cancel. Oh, save’ss red, cancels gray. Noooo.
Jason: No. That’s really good. That’s some good takeaways right there Defenders. Always be willing to challenge lovingly of course be willing to challenge assumptions especially from your clients. But do it in a tactful way because unfortunately as we were just touching on the design industry has unfortunately gotten a little bit tarnished by the former by just saying I’m the designer and you need to listen to me and that will cost that’ll be $20,000.
Matt: That’s never a good argument. “I’m the designer” is never a good argument.
Jason: No never, it’s an insecure statement it’s a statement of insecurity.
Matt: If you’re the designer prove it. Show me what you’re trying to do. You can’t just say “because I’m the designer”.
No wrong and likewise like in my example, if I just said red can’t be that color that’s bad. That’s not a good convincing argument and even explain in the abstract is still one step removed from something useful to say. Red has a negative connotation color we can’t use it for a save button. But to go, “it took me 15 minutes to put together a quick demonstration I got in the browser and changed some colors and inspector and took screenshots right. And then it was like here it is green. Here it is red. Here it is yellow. You tell me”. We did our own little usability test and that did it. Because once you use a practical example it directly communicates the thing. It’s not this like, “hmm let me think about that. Does that make sense?” You experience it and then you know.
Jason: Oh, man I love it. So I was just thinking about as designers. I mean we’re kind of journalists and a way you know it’s kind of like I think it’s just one of these newspapers I think it’s like the Chicago Tribune or one of these really big newspapers out there. I saw this movie called “The Case for Christ” it was very interesting. It was about a journalist who was a former atheist and he went out to dispel the resurrection of Christ. It was very interesting. He’s a journalist, and anyway there’s some scenes from the office. I think it’s the Chicago Tribune and there’s this big banner hanging up in the office of these journalists that says “If your mother says she loves you, check it out”. It’s kind of like you know it’s like isn’t that great? It’s like she says she loves you, but what show some proof. Let’s see some evidence right?
Matt: But does she really…Mom?
Jason: Bring the facts bring the facts out. But I just love that because I think as designers we really kind of need to sort of approach our projects in the same way. Right? It is not I my opinion is better than yours, or my experience matters more than yours. It’s like let’s examine the facts, let’s determine the problems, let’s figure out who the users are, and let’s solve this together, and I’m going to use my experience to help do that. And I’m going to work with you alongside you to help unearth those facts, and dispel the assumptions.
Matt: And sometimes we do those exercises and I’m wrong and that’s great. That means we’re doing it right. Right? If I was always right then it would clearly be bulls**t, that I was just pushing for my own ideas and good at arguing, which maybe I am but sometimes I need to lose those arguments. If the facts point the other way then that’s the way we go. You know I may come in there saying I hate carousels but every once in a while, carousel may be the right solution.
Jason: That’s true. And I admire your humility Matt and in being willing to admit that you know what there may be a case or maybe a project or maybe an audience or maybe a business model.
Matt: There’s totally a case. I’ll give you a case for carousel. Wanna do it?
Jason: The case for carousel.
Matt: OK. If you’re talking about multiple similar features of the same product for instance an iPhone. Go for it. Have your carousel you know? Because even if you skip the other slides you’re not missing the iPhone, it’s still an iPhone. But if you’re interested enough to see all of it then maybe you see it as like a sweet camera and the microphone and whatever iPhones have. That maybe is reasonable certainly more reasonable than four totally unrelated things in a carousel.
Jason: Yes that’s a good point.
Matt: The thing that I would caution about there though is that you still have that performance issue. So if you’re going to put things in that carousel, don’t pretend that it’s one image. No you put four images in there and really do what you can to to save people the download.
Jason: Yeah I like that perspective a lot Matt, because you can at least you can know if they’ve gotten to the content they’re looking for and you present them a carousel, at least you know that’s what they were actually looking for right? It’s actually relevant to what they want.
Jason: I love that. Awesome. There’s a lot of good takeaways on carousels in this episode too Matt.
Matt: Life itself is a bit of a carousel, isn’t it Jason?
Jason: It really is. It is. We can dive deep on that one. But we don’t have the time so let’s wrap up this show with the imparting of superpowers. What’s one habit you believe contributes to your success?
Matt: Oh boy. I’d say, man caring about doing good work. Because frustrating experiences just feel bad. And so you know I want less of them in the world. So I think just making a habit out of giving a sh*t about people I’ve never met and will never meet and trying to feel their pain and their frustration and alleviated before it happens. And that’s I guess that’s my superpower.
Jason: That’s good.
Matt: We can all have that one right?
Jason: Yeah. And I think that’s one that should be contagious. I think we should evangelize that superpower. I mean that’s it’s really it’s all about truly caring about what you do and the people you’re doing it for.
Matt: Yeah absolutely. You know if you’re making websites just because you think websites look cool and you like being the person that made cool looking websites. I don’t know if you’re in the right business.
Jason: Or time era.
Matt: Yeah, right.
Jason: That’s how it was when I started it, and it was fun. It was super fun. Flash was a blast. It was like a playground.
Matt: Yeah. Oh yeah.
Jason: But there was more like you just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There’s a lot of that.
Matt: Pushing the boundaries is important right? Like we got to do that stuff. But ultimately if you want to be an artist, go be an artist. But that’s not what a designer is. I had a professor tell me that something similar in a class once. She was always so nice to me. Her name is Jenny Al-Shami and she was always so just friendly and bubbly and happy. And then some one of the students said that they felt one of the other students was really starting to develop a style because they had some consistent work and I was first time I saw Jenny get mad and she was like, “You don’t have a style. You’re not an artist, you’re a designer. Your style is whatever is appropriate for the project.” Right on Jenny.
Jason: Dang, mic drop.
Matt: Yeah right? Your style’s whatever is appropriate for the project. Right on.
Jason: Ah, that’s good. I love it. Matt, what’s your most invincible UX resource or tool you can recommend to our listeners?
Matt: I’m going to go with hands on that one. You know you can draw and you can point you can move things around you can pat people on the back. You can high-five them. They’re the best. I just I still like hands. After that, I’d say like prototyping in the browser. I think that doing, beats explaining most days. If you can just put it in the browser, or get it on the phone, get it on a computer. See how it works. Then you have something to talk about. I’m into that.
Jason: Awesome, “hands”. That’s good. That’s the first time I’ve heard that. That’s good. Hands are great. I’m thankful for hands.
Matt: Yeah me too. I mean yeah of course obviously if you have hand related disabilities there you know that does not exclude you from being a designer I’m sure.
Jason: That’s right.
Matt: There’s still lots of wonderful things to do.
Jason: That’s that’s absolutely true.
Matt: And then please talk to me and tell me all the ways I’m wrong I mean like, my ears are open.
Jason: And that’s a I’m glad you mentioned that Matt, because not everybody has them. Either by birth or through an accident.
Matt: Or just articulation right? Like having motor skill disability is not uncommon right?
Jason: So yeah absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned that, and I think it’s another case for empathy too right there.
Matt: Oh yeah. I mean this is I mean I’m an idiot all the time just so you know by the way, Jason. The ways in which I do not know how the world works are effectively infinite. So if your experiences contradict mine, I am quite happy to hear about them.
Jason: Yeah and I like that. I think that’s what makes us designers. Right? I mean if the world was in fact this kind of reminds me of an interview I did quite a long while ago but it was with Alexa Leigh Herasimchuk. I said you know, “What’s your design kryptonite?” And her answer was really fascinating. She said “Utopia”. Because if everything was perfect, there would be no need for us.
Matt: Yeah. Oh yeah. Luckily, everything’s terrible.
Jason: Everything’s awful here.
Matt: Yeah, it’s great.
Jason: I love it.
Matt: I had a discussion with a colleague recently when I was explaining why I was so down on certain term he used in web site navigation I think it was “explore” or “discover”. I hate both of them. I explain why I hate both of them mostly because they’re meaningless and don’t tell you what you’re going to get when you click on the thing.
And also because it makes an this really false assumption that people just can’t wait to just dig around and play in other organizations sandboxes when they they never want that they just want to find the thing they want to get the hell out of there and that’s great and you should work towards that, and not away from it. And he said after that explanation he said, “Wow you hate everything”. And I immediately responded, “That’s only because everything’s terrible.
Jason: Everything sucks.
Matt: But that’s great, because we’re designers and that’s our job is to fix terrible things…and that’s everything. It’s so great. I love it. There’s no end to our work.
Jason: That is true. And there’s always a new problem there’s something new cropping up every day.
Matt: Oh yeah. We can’t even keep up with all the terrible. It’s even the things we make good get terrible again before too long. So it’s just the best, I love it.
Jason: So maybe the title of this episode should be “Everything’s terrible and I love it, with Matt Griffin.
Matt: I’m all for that.
Matt: That’s accurate.
Jason: I think it could you know inspire some additional downloads.
Matt: Is that too click-batey?
Jason: Maybe but that’s ok, as long as somebody can hear this content.
Matt: At least it’s not like “5 Great Ways to keep Everything From Being Terrible. As long as you don’t do that, because I can’t promise that it’s going to still be terrible.
Jason: So I love reading, a lot of our Defenders listening do as well. So I I’m sure you do too, Matt. You have a lot of wisdom.
Matt: I can’t read but I would like to someday.
Jason: So you know there are some people who can’t read it’s true.
Matt: This is true but I was accused actually of not reading at all in my office jokingly because people talk about books and it just routinely ignore me in the conversation. And finally one day I was like guys you know I’m reading books too. And then they really dug into me for that one and never let it go. So “Griffin can’t read” is definitely a thing that’s said around my office.
Jason: Well speaking of click bait. So maybe you can’t read, but guess what? Try my Audible trial subscription by going to…I’ve partnered with Audible and I’m glad you asked.
Matt: Have you really?
Jason: I have.
Matt: Well do it, do the pitch.
Jason: OK. So we love audio. And you’re listening to audio right now, and it’s a great way. I think a great way to consume content a great way to let it connect to your heart before it connects your head. But I have teamed up with Audible and if you go to let’s see it’s userdefenders.com/freebook, you can try Audible for free, and they’ll give you a free book, and it’s pretty cool. It’s a great way to consume content without necessarily having to try to flip your pages, and try to decipher a bad typography.
Matt: That was fantastic.
Jason: How was that?
Matt: I think you knocked it out of the park.
Jason: Yes so thanks Matt. Thanks for indulging me, and I don’t know whether or not that makes the cut. We’ll see. OK.
So if you could recommend one book to our listeners what would it be and why?
Matt: I’m going to recommend more than one book but I’ll try to do it fast. OK. No problem. I’m into literary fiction according to a study, I think Google did. It increases our ability for empathy. Probably because you have to inhabit the mind of another person. So the last three books that I read, I read “Natural Histories” by Guadalupe Knittle which are a series of short stories I like her a lot. And then I read I think it’s a best seller but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie “Americanah”.
It’s a great novel about the experience of an African immigrant to the US and the perspective that brings and it was fascinating to see myself from the outside. I learned a lot. And I also read a Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” which was also excellent. That’s not fiction but great. Before that, “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. I finally read the whole damn thing, and it was amazing. Definitely if you’re interested at all in mood disorders and depression, anxiety or things like that as well as substance abuse problems in a totally wild epic gigantic fictional world it is for you.
Let me tell you, happy stuff like all the all the happy things. I mean I’ve found all those books to be life changing and some smaller more moderate way.
Jason: Have those been kind of a nice respites for how awful the world can be?
Matt: I mean a lot of them are about how awful the world is. So I guess no. But yes in that it’s not happening to me. I just get to hear it from the outside.
But I mean I’d like I mean I like sad stuff I like sad bastard music I like sad books.
Jason: What’s that mean?!
Matt: I don’t know sad things are pretty. I think sad things are beautiful a lot of the time. I’m a weirdo. I don’t know because you know life is tragic. Life is difficult and hard and painful even for the easiest of circumstances it’s really hard to exist in the world I think. And to be a person who is sensitive to the world around you and empathetic to the world around you is very very painful a lot of the time. You know, so getting experiences and evidence that we are not alone in that pain is really, really valuable and seeing the diversity of those experiences and sometimes painful sometimes joyful experiences I think is great. It’s like I think I found my first music in high school that was like music that expressed the pain of existence in one form or another and I was so happy because I felt like I’m not alone. Other people feel this way too and it’s OK to express it in some way. So you know I’m into sad stuff. It’s great.
Jason: Well speaking of sad bastard music, what’s what’s it like Thom Yorke’s head you think?
Matt: I think it’s pretty sad.
I mean lately he’s had a really rough time. You know like that was I mean “Moon-shaped Pool” was sad enough when it was a divorce record but his wife died not long after that from cancer.
Jason: Oh shoot I didn’t know that. Oh shoot.
Matt: Yeah so I think I mean I think he’s sad anyway.
Jason: Dang, he was already said before that.
Matt: Yeah, and then like epically sad things happened so I mean I don’t know if he does like being already sad in general like prepare you for the sh*t that’s going to happen? Maybe. I don’t know maybe you’re like yeah of course this is happening this is this is what I thought was going to happen the whole time.
Jason: Don’t ask how much worse get a good don’t ask that question because it could get worse.
Matt: Turns out lots of bad things can happen. But I love that record the “Moon-shaped Pool” is fantastic. And I think partly Thom York and I share I would guess from his if his lyrics hold any water at all then we share some anxiety issues and like maybe some mood disorder stuff. So it’s like yeah it’s definitely like I don’t feel alone in this sh*t kind of kind of music for me.
Jason: Yeah it’s funny I actually share some of those feelings as well my friend…some of those challenges.
Matt: It’s not uncommon. I think people are often afraid to talk about it. But I think anxiety, depression, bipolar, all that stuff the whole mood disorder fun bag, are pretty common in creative industries and development, software, and all that stuff.
Matt: I’m pretty upfront about it myself. And when I mention it to people it’s pretty often that they reciprocate something.
Jason: Yeah, I believe it.
Matt: I think it’s fine you know we’ll all get through it.
Jason: I think it’s healthy.
Matt: It’s good to talk about it. I mean it hurts a lot but you have you I am. I luckily don’t have anything super severe horrible I’ve been able to work through it for the most part. Now I’m trying medication which has really helped a lot. And I wish I had done earlier. So if you are in that zone, and considering medication I say talk to a psychiatrist not a a PCP–someone who specializes in matching medication with people and give it a shot because. You know, it might get better which is pretty cool. Yeah I think you know we should just take away the stigma and talk about it, it’s fine. All our brains are messy and terrible blobs of chemicals and biology anyway…there’s nothing to be embarrassed about there.
Jason: Yeah. You know what we need each other and I think that’s one of the things that’s so neat about this community Matt and I know you’d be the first to jump in and talk about how incredible…we could actually be an entire episode talking about how incredible this industry is and the people that make it that way.
Matt: Without even knowing who I was or what I was going to do in the editing room and I’d say you’re either very foolish or very open.
Jason: And I love that you said that and the Defenders listening, check out “What Comes Next is the Future”. It’s so inspiring. It’s just a beautiful piece of work. It’s beautifully done, tastefully done. And I know you put so much you in the team but so much into it especially you know that this was a huge labor of love for you. So I’m going to highly recommend it’s going to be in the show notes.
Matt: You know one of my favorite things that came after I finally I didn’t let anybody see any of it until the week of the premiere when it was almost finished which is like, I know what is my problem right? Like that’s crazy. But I finally let one of my colleagues watch it who is one of the least technical people I worked with and she watched and she said one of the biggest impressions she came away with is the people who build the web are just good people who are trying to do good things. And it was so nice to see because you see so much bad stuff in the news. You know the Internet’s destroying whatever and trolls and comments and all the horrible parts of the Internet make a lot of news like you know people building it aren’t doing it for that they’re not like how can I make people feel shi*ty on YouTube comments like no one’s doing that.
They’re like How do I make the world a better place? You know, and that’s that’s nice to see that.
Jason: I fully agree Matt. Well unlike a Radiohead song, I’m gonna end this on an up note. What’s your best advice for aspiring UX superheroes…and you’ve given a lot already Matt, but do you have anything else you want to leave us with?
Matt: Oh yeah. Okay. Yeah. So this is maybe the wrong answer for this show, Jason, but I’m gonna do it anyway. My advice is to just not be a superhero. I feel like superheroes are really popular always, but especially during times of crisis, and that definitely means right now. And I think that there’s this wishful thinking that this one special person is going to come along and fix everything for us. And that’s just not how it works. There is no Superman. He’s not going to come and save us. There’s no Wonder Woman, as nice as that might be. They’re not going to fix everything. It’s just regular, flawed people with regular abilities, and capabilities, and knowledge, and limited thinking, and limited experience, and they’re going to have to fix it. That’s us. You know we’re going to have to do it. So I think we don’t need to try to be superheroes. We just need to be people trying our best. I tell myself a lot to do my best each day and no more than that. You don’t beat yourself up for your shortcomings. You just try to get a little bit better every day from what you learned the day before. One of my professors in school Paul Brown, who was like I think of as like my graphic design dad.
He gave me good advice over the years and he said when I was being frustrated on a project you know every project you should try to pick something that you can take away from it, that you can learn from it. And if you can do that, you’ll have a long and very satisfying career and if you can’t, you’re gonna be very frustrated, a lot of the time. So I think if you can do something like that you’re going to keep improving all the time. Your efforts will be valuable, your time will be well spent and eventually you’ll look up from what you’re doing and find that you’re not so bad at what you do as you were when you started.
And that’s that’s kind of a nice feeling.
Jason: Oh, that’s good man. I just appreciate your your vulnerability Matt and your transparency.
Matt: Hey, thanks.
Jason: Yeah. And in the superhero thing I appreciate that response too. I think that certainly superheroes concept in general can be a little fluffed up, a little more than it needs to be. And certainly.
Matt: It’s a seductive idea. I mean, I think it’s something that speaks to the heart of us as people like not only do we want to be special but we want to see people that are better. Right? And we want to see problems fixed, we want to live in a just world where justice is done. We all want that. And it’s so frustrating to live in a world where that is not happening most of the time.
Jason: Well if there ever was a time when we need superheroes, it certainly is now.
Matt: Now like I mean I think I think people love that because it’s gotta be great.
Jason: You know what I love too is just you know and this is the last thing I’ll say on this, but I think that part of it is that you know we had the original Batman, and the original Superman and it was almost just like you know a dude in pajamas. Right? Everything felt so staged, and I just want to say you know because this whole show it is superhero themed. And I think this is a good time to mention that. It’s not it’s not like the whole Batman, and Superman pajama thing of getting the glory and it’s really it’s and that’s why I think I like a lot of these modern movies a lot more because they really dive into it. Yeah, these people have superpowers, but you know what, they’re also struggling a lot. And here is their struggles. Like the Logan movie, I don’t know if you saw the Logan or not. Oh my gosh. I mean Thom Yorke could’ve done the soundtrack to that movie. But I mean it’s raw, and it just shows you in a deeper way than in a comic book pages could show you. I think the struggles and the personal struggles and the personal challenges but yet there’s still that desire. And I have this written down in my notes here, and I always have it in front of me for every interview I conduct. And it’s kind of the definition of a superhero and I really like this. I want to kind of close with this.
“Superheroes typically possess a strong moral code including a willingness to risk one’s own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward.”
Matt: That’s pretty good.
Jason: That’s pretty good right?
Matt: I can get behind that.
Jason: There we go. So I thank you Matt for being a superhero whether you accept that title or not. You are, and you have been.
Matt: I’ll accept that definition, I think I do my best in doing that when I can.
Jason: I think you do. And this whole interview has shown that.
Matt: You risk failure for the greater good right?
Jason: Yeah. This has been incredible Matt. I just want to thank you for what you’ve done, what you continue to do. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do over at Shopify and I just want to also say..fight on my friend!
Matt: Thanks Jason. That’s really nice. Thanks, you too. It’s been great getting to talk with you, and have this whole chat, so thanks a lot.