Dan Saffer

Dan Saffer

“In general, I think that a component of living a happy life is that you have to feel that the work you're doing is meaningful.”

How did you become a designer?

I became a designer by accident. When I was a little boy, I would build little robots, or I would design things that you could climb inside and pretend to drive, like spaceships. Then, when I was a teenager in the 1980s, I would design and run bulletin board games off my computer. 

I didn't actually become a professional designer until late in my career, after I had tried a number of different things, but I guess design has been a thread through my life.

I come from families of factory workers, coal miners, and potato farmers. Being able to work with my mind to figure out problems is something I really value.

Did you build actual little robots as a kid, or were they cardboard?

There were kits you used to be able to buy, and there was one called Capsela. They were modular pieces that you could put together, and they had engines inside them, and you could build really dumb robots that rolled around. I made robots that I programmed to roll in all these different directions around the house. 

I bought one of the first home computers, and I was programming it back when I was 13, and I thought that was really cool. It was an old Timex Sinclair. It would get so hot that I remember putting ice cubes in a plastic bag, and putting them on top of the keyboard because the thing would get so hot (laughing).

Were you also into futuristic books or TV shows?

Certainly. I'm of the age where I saw the first Star Wars movie in the theater when I was seven. I saw it seven times. When I was growing up, I did read a lot of science fiction books and stuff. Thinking about the future was something that I did. 

I read a lot of boy detective stories, which is almost as relevant as science fiction to the kind of work I've done as a designer. Finding things out, putting all the clues together to make a whole picture and solve the puzzle: that's half of what design is. The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, Encyclopedia Brown, all of those were big. At one point, I had almost the entire set of The Hardy Boys, all of those blue books.

I read a lot of boy detective stories, which is almost as relevant as science fiction to the kind of work I've done as a designer. Finding things out, putting all the clues together to make a whole picture and solve the puzzle: that's half of what design is. 

You said you did a number of different things before becoming a designer. Can you tell me a little about the things you tried early in your career?

Sure. I went to college to become a film or theater director. That's what I was interested in. But then after two years into it, I said to myself, “You know what, I really like the writing part a little bit more.” I thought I was going to be a playwright or screenwriter, so I made my own major in the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA to do that. Then when I graduated, I didn't get into any playwriting or screenwriting programs. 

Did you apply?

I applied to a bunch of them, but was rejected by all of them. Then I switched to fiction writing, and I wrote three novels. I had an agent and applied to some creative writing schools, and it just wasn't meant to be. I wasn't very good at it, or I was doing something wrong, or my skills just weren't there. I had one professor who told me, “You can do the writing part, but you need to do more of the living part.” Which, of course, was the advice that I ignored. He said, “Don't go to graduate school, go to India.” I probably should've taken that advice. I didn't. 

So I was writing. I worked for a couple years at TV Guide magazine where I wrote the little blurbs that are the show listings. I wrote summaries for the last season of Cheers, and the first season of The X-files, stuff like that. Then I decided that I wanted to work in book publishing. I went to New York in 1994 and got a job at a book publisher, W.W. Norton. 

I was just an editorial assistant doing textbooks, and I had a Mosaic browser on my desktop computer. Then I started looking at the source code for websites, and I taught myself how to write HTML. This was when there were no books to teach you how to do HTML, you learned it by looking at the source code. There was an opening in our digital department who offered, “You know something about the web and about computers. Would you like to start working there?” 

So I started doing that, and eventually became the webmaster for Norton. I did that for a couple years, and it was a great cut-your-teeth experience because I did everything from setting up servers to designing new sections of the site and trying stuff out. It was at a time in web design when you could explore, and do whatever you wanted. It was really exciting and interesting. 

Microinteractions

“Are microinteractions details? Damn right: The magic is all in the details.” Don Norman wrote the foreword for Microinteractions: Design with Details.

Did you know anyone else who was doing web work?

I knew no one else who was doing any web work. I was working totally in a vacuum. I would find online forums of people talking about how to do stuff, but no, I didn't know anyone else who was doing the kind of work I was doing. It was a total mystery. There were only a couple thousand people designing for the web. It wasn't the following couple of years, when it just exploded. It was in the time when people said, “Do we really need a website?” 

My boss encouraged me as I learned. He actually encouraged me to leave and go work for a startup, so I did. I worked at a startup that was doing an interactive tv streaming service–and this was at the time where people were on dial-up modems. It was ahead of its time. 

In New York?

Yes, this was all in New York. I was at this startup, and I was a developer. But I wasn't a very good developer. I taught myself there, too. I didn't have a lot of interest in it. I was interested in doing cool things, like making animated comics using really primitive DHTML, but I wasn't like, “Yeah, I'm gonna be a really great coder,” because I clearly never was. 

Then I started to work for agencies. I switched tracks and said, “I'm gonna be a project manager,“ or what was called a producer in those days. It was a combination of a project manager and a creative lead. So I started working as a producer on the project manager track. It was great because you got an overview of the entire product process: from the strategic part of things all the way through production and launch. It was great to have that seat at that table, because you could learn everything quickly. 

Then the roles in agencies where I was working really started to split. They started to split the role of producer into creative lead and project manager. I thought to myself, “I don't like project managing as much as I like doing the creative stuff.” So right before the first dot-com crash, I became a creative lead, or what most people call an associate creative director. I did that for about a year, and then all the work went away. I was out of work for a little while, and I asked myself, “What do I want to do? Where do I want to focus my career now?” 

At a couple of the agencies I worked at, there had been people called human factors specialists and information architects. They always seemed to have a really neat job. They seemed interesting–they were thinking about the projects in really abstract, conceptual ways. They were putting the puzzle pieces together to make a whole, which I really liked. 

Since I was still in New York after the dot-com crash, the money was where the money was. I got a job at an online brokerage as an interaction designer. In fact, I was the first person they had ever called an interaction designer. We actually had a discussion when I was first hired, “What are we gonna call you?” So I threw out a bunch of suggestions, and we finally decided on interaction designer. I was like, “Okay, that's what I am.”

I didn't pull the name out of the air, but I didn't realize at the time there was an entire history of interaction design. After doing that job for a year and a half, I said to myself, “I really should be trained in this,” because it was obvious to me that, being self-taught, there was lots of stuff I didn't know. 

That's when I went to grad school at Carnegie Mellon, and got my Master's degree in Interaction Design. After that, I moved to San Francisco, where I've worked as an interaction designer ever since. I've worked on a vast variety of projects. Now I do it mostly as a creative director, or director of interaction. That's the career path that I've been on.

After doing that job for a year and a half, I said to myself, “I really should be trained in this,” because it was obvious to me that, being self-taught, there was lots of stuff I didn't know. 

You're from San Francisco, right?

I grew up half here in San Francisco, and half in Baltimore. We moved to San Francisco when I was 13, so I had a split existence between the East Coast and West Coast. 

How have you seen the interaction design community grow over the span of your career?

It's a complete 360 from then to now. I remember once in New York, I went to an information architect's meetup. It was the first one I had ever heard of or gone to, and it was maybe ten people. Now in San Francisco, you can find a group of dozens of people to meet with every night if you want to. 

One of the initiatives I was involved in was helping start the Interaction Design Association. It started when I was in grad school. At first just online, I began to get involved with people who were forming this new group. They were splitting off from a couple other different groups, like the information architects mailing list (SIG-IA), the academic folks from CHI, the visual designers from SIGGRAPH. They were people who had tried to find their home in other organizations, and thought, “This isn't what I do, but for now it's close enough.” Then when forming this group, it was like, “Oh wait, that's what I do. That's the work that I do all day. I'm with those people.”

Basically, IxDA started as a mailing list of a couple hundred people, if that. 

In the states, or…?

It was international from the beginning. It was an open mailing list. All you had to do was say, “I'm an interaction designer,” and you got in. 

It took a while to start. I remember we had to toss out a topic every other day just to get people talking on the list. Now there's tens of thousands of people on the list, and it's just crazy. Every day, there are dozens of threads, and you literally can't keep track of it. It's become this massive, unwieldy group; it's the opposite of how it was in the beginning. 

There's become something like 60,000 members. If everyone was together in one place, it would fill a whole stadium! There are local groups in dozens of cities across the world, which is amazing. In just the ten to fifteen year stretch, interaction design has changed from something no one had ever heard of to this massive group of people. 

Did the group's growth completely surprise you? Did you ever see the group getting that big when you were starting it?

I never thought it would get that big. I thought there was probably 10,000 people for whom there was enough work for. I'm really bad at predicting things ten years out. I think everybody else is, too (laughing). It's hard to tell what's big. There were areas that we were barely thinking about ten years ago that are their own huge thing now, mobile being the biggest one. 

Most of the work being done ten years ago was web. And most of the people who were doing interaction design work were web designers. Sure, there were people who were designing for interaction on devices, there were certainly people designing it in appliances and medical devices, but they were a small minority. There was a tiny fraction of people designing mobile apps. 

Now everyone who's an interaction designer has to work on phone, on tablet, on web, on tv. There's a much broader skillset you need in order to do the work. There's just so much more work out there. Companies now have a website, they have a mobile app, they may have a device. Digital has spread from something that was contained in your computer to *in everything, and around us all the time.* 

Digital has spread from something that was contained in your computer to in everything, and around us all the time. 

Canesta

Canesta is a home entertainment center controlled by gestures.

What role did you play in starting the Interaction, the annual IxDA conference?

I was one of the founding members of the Interaction Design Association board. At our board meeting in 2007 I said, “The thing that's really going to push this organization to the top is if we have a conference. We can't just be a mailing list. We have to get people in a room together to talk about these things, and to be a professional organization.” Some people argued, “No, we're a virtual organization. Let's stay virtual.” 

I was pretty hardheaded. I said, “I will do this. I'll be the first chair of the conference.” As it turned out, you need two chairs to start a conference. Dave Malouf and I co-chaired the first Interaction conference together in Savannah in 2008. We booked it for 400 people, and we didn't know if we could get 400 people to show up. We had to play with the numbers to make sure that we could break even. We said, “Okay, we won't be embarrassed if we get 200 people to come to this thing.” 

It sold out. We probably could've sold 200 more tickets than the 400 we sold. That launched the conferences, and it was a pleasant surprise. Now the conferences host 800 people, and they're around the world. There's no worry that you can't get people to show up for them. Now people expect them every year. It's become a tradition, and part of the institution. 

800 people is still pretty small. Sometimes I forget how small interaction design is when compared with other professions.

You can get 10,000 dentists at a convention without much work, for sure. It's still small when you think about the percentage of the overall population. It's still not very many people. The connection between interaction designers is probably one to two degrees of separation between any interaction designer on the planet at this point. The community is small. You get to know people, and people know you. 

But the ring around the core of the people who call themselves interaction designers is very large. Information architects, visual designers, human factors folks, HCI people, industrial designers. There are all kinds of people doing interaction design that aren't necessarily interaction designers. They have interaction design as a toolset that they can pick up sometimes.

I love designing things that are useful, that people can use and enjoy. My dad is a plumber, so I grew up really enjoying and understanding the value of tools, and a good tool.

Anybots

Touchscreen mounted on Anybots telepresence robots.

What do you value the most about being a designer?

There are a couple things that give me a lot of pleasure about being a designer. Certainly, I love to find an elegant, clever solution to interesting problems. I think that's something that is really engaging, and it's always a privilege to work on those kinds of problems. 

I come from families of factory workers, coal miners, and potato farmers. Being able to work with my mind to figure out problems is something I really value. 

The second part of that is I love to see products out in the world. I love to see people using products to solve their own problems, or to be entertained, or to be engaged, or just to see people enjoying them. 

I love designing things that are useful, that people can use and enjoy. My dad is a plumber, so I grew up really enjoying and understanding the value of tools, and a good tool. That is something I enjoy designing now: tools for other people to use. That's something that's really fun.

There are tons of other things I love about designing, too. I love working with other people to solve problems. I like that design is often a team sport where you can toss an idea to someone, and have them make it better than you possibly could've thought of, or to build on somebody else's idea and make it better. I do that a lot now in my current role as creative director. A lot of the way my job works now is that I only get to come in and make something better. I get to look and things and say, “Wow, have you thought about this? Maybe if you tweak that.” I provide a pair of fresh eyes to look at something and tweak it, just to make it a little better. Those are all the things that I really enjoy about being a designer.

Like with everything, there are some days where I just think, “Why am I doing this? I'm a phony, I shouldn't ever do this kind of work.” Some days you're like, “Wow, that was really clever. That was a great solution to this.” Those are great days.

Just from working with you, I can tell that you love your job. Can you tell me more about that?

I think one of the reasons I love doing this job is that I wandered in the desert for a while to find it. I did a bunch of other stuff that wasn't quite as good of a fit. Once I found this, I was like, “Oh, this is something that I can latch onto.”
 
I feel like I've invested a lot of time to get better at it, and I feel I'm pretty good at it. Not every day of course. Like with everything, there are some days where I just think, “Why am I doing this? I'm a phony, I shouldn't ever do this kind of work.” Some days you're like, “Wow, that was really clever. That was a great solution to this.” Those are great days. I would say the majority of the days doing the work are engaging and fun. Being paid and encouraged to do something that just a fraction of people get to say that they do is a real positive.

There are lots people wandering in the desert. What advice do you have for people who are searching for something to do that they feel proud about?

In general, I think that a component of living a happy life is that you have to feel that the work you're doing is meaningful. There are a number of ways that you can do meaningful work. You can help people, you can be contributing to the culture, you can make things. There's a number of different ways that you can have a meaningful career. 

To go back to my dad for a moment–my dad's a plumber, and his work is super meaningful to him. He makes things, and he makes things work, and he's pleased when there's a new kitchen or a new bathroom. My mother is a psychologist, she helps people. There's nothing tangible about the work that she does, but it's meaningful for her because she helps people every day. 

I think it's finding that meaningful work, whatever that is for you. It helps if that meaningful work matches what you have an aptitude for. If you're not good at working with people, then maybe being in the service profession is not your thing. If you don't like the sight of blood, maybe being a doctor is not your thing. It's figuring out what you're good at, what you like to do, how you like to spend your days–and then matching that up with a profession that does good things for the world at large.

I love working with other people to solve problems. I like that design is often a team sport where you can toss an idea to someone, and have them make it better than you possibly could've thought of, or to build on somebody else's idea and make it better. 

What does living a meaningful life mean to you personally?

I think living a meaningful life is about participation and contribution in a number of different areas. I think in your personal relationships, in your family relationships, in your work relationships, and in your community, civic relationships you contribute; first, by being present and by showing up, and second, by using your talents to your fullest. 

This can mean simply showing up, moving boxes, and handing out food at the soup kitchen. It can mean making a sign or a website for your community group. It could mean contributing to your work's potluck. It could mean having a night out with your family at a dinner. 

Meaning is such a personal thing. Different people find meaning in different ways. I think it ties back to being useful, to doing things that are of use to other people, and I suppose even to yourself. It's not to say that you have to be useful all the time, because I feel like being idle or goofing around is a useful thing sometimes. There's really no use to sitting out in the sun and enjoying that, but I feel like there are things that you do simply for pleasure. I think having an air of gratitude about things, like just being able to enjoy the sun, is really important. 

Microinteractions

Illustrations created as supporting material to Microinteractions. Designed by Xiulung Choy

What advice do you have for new designers?

The advice I have for new designers: never work alone. Always work with people who are more senior than you. The worst thing you can do as a new designer is go work at a startup where you're the only designer. That's a bad situation. Or to go work at some corporation where you're the only designer there. I think that's just a recipe for your career to stagnate, and your skills to stagnate, and for you to feel very frustrated. I think new designers, and throughout people's careers, it's good to work both in-house and at agencies. 

Agencies will give you a lot of breath. You'll work with a lot of other designers, and you'll see a lot of things quickly. The years that I've worked in agencies, I've learned tremendous amounts of things, just by seeing a lot. You do five or six projects a year for different industries and companies. If I was going to use a sports analogy, you get up to bat a lot. You get to try doing different stuff multiple times a year. 

It's also good to be in-house, because you realize there's a different set of skills that are required to work in-house. You work on longer time scales, and you often see stuff all the way out to launch, which I think is an important thing. I think when you've actually done worked both in-house and at agencies, it's good to figure out, “Do I like the speed and pace of the consulting studio world, or do I like the deliberateness and pace of the in-house world?” 

Certainly, startups fall somewhere in the middle. Sometimes they can be quick and dirty like an agency, or they can be longer pulls to get a product out like in-house. It just depends on what you like to work on, and your speed. I tend to fall on the agency side, simply because I like to see new things a lot. I like to be handed a piece of new technology and be told, “Go do something with this.” I like to go to a new vertical that I've never worked in before, and have to quickly understand how that works. It shows you different slices of the world. You can take that slice and apply it to other projects. “I've solved this problem in another domain, and we can use that same thing here.” 

My last advice is to both contribute by speaking up and offering suggestions, but also to shut up. Just listen. Hear what the other suggestions are, and absorb the knowledge from people around you. You don't always have to contribute. But it's awfully hard to know when to do either of those things.

My last advice is to both contribute by speaking up and offering suggestions, but also to shut up. Just listen.    

Microinteractions came out today. Can you tell me about the book?

I have been interested in product details for a long time. It's been something I've thought about, talked about, and noodled over for at least five or six years. It's just been in the back of my brain. At the beginning of last year, I wrote down all the things I wanted to think about in 2012. At the very bottom of the list was microinteractions, and I thought, “Huh. What's that about?” So I started thinking, “Hey, there's no real book around this kind of detail work. There's lots of stuff that tells you how to make a wireframe, or how to do documentation, or how to work in a lean process. There are all these things at a larger level, but there's almost nothing written to answer, ‘how do you refine something?’” 

For me, the purpose of any design book is, “How do I make my products better? How do I make them more efficiently, or make them more satisfying to people, or get them out the door faster?” Every design book should be about, “How do you improve the product or the process?” I've written some books on process before. That's basically what ‘Designing for Interaction’ is. With this one I thought, “How do you make the product better? How do you make the end thing more engaging to the people who use it?” 

I started looking at what does that. I'd been following this blog called Little Big Details. It's just a collection of little pieces of functionality: little pieces of products that are humorous or witty or well thought-out. I thought, “That's the thing. These are the microinteractions that are really making these things really exciting and really interesting. These are the things that make people love the product, and not just be like, ‘Eh, I use it, but if something better came along I'd totally switch to it.’ 

So then my editor at O'Reilly was asking me for a new book. I said “How about this new thing I've been thinking about. How about a little book on a little topic?’” And they liked it. It's just caught on. It's caught a wave of people really starting to think about details and how details work. 

For the last ten years, people have been thinking about system design, and tackling wicked problems, and these large-scale, ecosystem-style products. I think that there's another way to change the world, and that's from the bottom up as well. You can start by making little things really great. 

There's a long history of this, particularly with industrial designers. People like Dieter Rams, and the Eames, they all knew that these detail things were really important. In cultures like the Japanese, the way that the bento box is laid out is all about the presentation: these beautiful details that really make the food look very satisfying. 

I think the book is catching a wave of people interested in answering, “How do I make products better?” I've had a lot of people tell me, “I work in-house on a large web property. All I do all day is what you just said in the book. I polish microinteractions all day to make sure that they work–that's all I do.” A lot of people have said, “I've had a lot of trouble when working with developers, giving a name to why I care about making this thing polished, and now I actually have a name for it. I can say, I want a couple days to work on this microinteraction.’” Not that I named it—people have used the term microinteractions since the 1970s.

I think that these small things really matter. In the book, I discuss when Apple ‘Save as‘ from its operating system, and how angry it made me and a lot of other people. It was this tiny thing, it's a tiny piece of a larger process when you're working on a file. Because it got bungled so badly, and the replacement for it was not a good replacement, it really messed up people's workflows. It made everyone really upset. 

When you start thinking about it, it's like, “Wow, it's just a small detail. It's a microinteraction.” Then you start thinking, “Jeez, there's a lot of microinteractions, and they all make up this operating system. All these novel things: cut and paste was a novelty, scrollbar was a novelty, pinch to zoom was a novelty not that long ago. Wave to get a papertowel, that's a novelty. (laughing). There are all these little things that have become conventions, but were once these novel microinteractions. 

Then you start to realize there are microinteractions all around us. There's the lightswitch. There are all these different things that just do one thing. They do it really well, or they can do it really poorly. The things that do it really poorly, or don't have any thought put into it are just so-so. Sometimes they're invisible. I don't think about turning on a lightswitch. But if it has a really satisfying click to it, or it has a really nice movement, I might say, “Wow, that's really nice.” It's just a small moment of pleasure in a day. Get enough of those small moments every day, and your day is better. That's where the book came from.

When did you start writing about design? 

When I was in grad school, I wrote a couple papers. One of my teachers said, “You know, you should really publish these.” I thought, “Eh, I don't know. Why would I publish a paper?” I had written a couple online articles before I went to grad school, but I wasn't ever seriously thinking about writing design books. 

In fact, I thought after none of my three novels had gotten published that my writing days were pretty much over. I thought that maybe one day I would write another novel again. When I was at Carnegie Mellon, I was teaching undergrads Introduction to Interaction Design, and I had no textbook for the class. I was always piecing together parts of other books. “Here's a chapter on strategy. Here's another chapter from another book on wireframing. Here's a chapter on personas.” I was piecing the curriculum together. 

When I started working at Adaptive Path, I was complaining to Jesse James Garrett, author of ‘The Elements of User Experience’ about that. He said, “You should write the book about it. I'll be happy to give you the name of my editor.” So I thought, “Hmm, I wonder if I can do that.” I decided to try it, so I contacted New Riders. 

A year of hard work later, the first book, ‘Designing for Interaction’ came out. A lot of people liked it, and a lot of people didn't like it. That's fine, it was nice to be published. It was like, “Okay great, I've done the design book. I don't have to do write another again.” Then a couple years later, I'd been designing a bunch of touchscreen projects, and I was like, “Where's the touchscreen book? I don't see a touchscreen book.” 

I thought, “I wish there was a touchscreen book, because I would buy it.” Then I was like, “You know what? Somebody's gonna write a touchscreen book, and then I'm gonna be pissed because I had the idea to write the touchscreen book, and I just should have gone ahead and done it.” I wrote ‘Designing Gestural Interfaces,’ because I didn't want anyone else to write it.

That book fell through the cracks, because it came out before anyone was doing too much touchscreen work. It was also a combination of touchscreen and what I call freeform movement—gestural—interactions, which only a handful of people do even today. It was a weird hybrid of a book, and it was before its time. I've since heard from people, “That book was  prescient of some of those things.” And I'm like, ”Oh, that's very nice of you to say.” It actually caught some things that nobody else at the time was talking about. 

I had the writing bug at that point. I did a revision on the first book, which fixed all the flaws, so I think it's really good now. Then I took a couple years off, and next the microinteractions book came. 

It's actually been nice to be able to bring the writing and literature part of my life back into my design life. It's something that I enjoy doing. It's nice to have a side creative project that's all mine. Since I do so much client work and teamwork, it's nice to create something a more personal to me. I can say, “Hey, that's something I did.” That's a great feeling.

It's a nice feeling to have written, it's not a nice feeling to be writing some books (laughing). I'm glad that people like them for the most part, and that they're useful. ‘Designing for Interaction’ is one of the most used interaction design textbooks now, which is great. It's the whole reason why I wrote it: for people learning the craft, so that when they came out in the world they had a vocabulary and tools that professional designers use. 

Designing Gestural Interfaces

Dan wrote “Designing Gestural interfaces” in 2008, before anyone else could beat him to it.

How does writing inform your design practice? 

There's a lot of crossover. Writing has an underlying structure, the way that a product has an underlying structure. Being aware of those things is at the same level of creativity. You have to put things together in the right way to be able to communicate either an idea, or an action someone can take, or how something works: what the argument of the product is, or what the argument of the sentence is. What is the noun in this product, what is the verb? And you can think about it really from a one-to-one comparison. Sometimes it's like yeah, how does this noun (the button) turn blue (a verb) when I press it? There are things like that. That's a very obvious way and I use that sometimes in my practice, like I actually think about a piece of functionality as a sentence. 

But more often, they connect as a piece of communication, because doing the design and explaining it is symbiotic. Doing the design is one thing, but then communicating the design to the people who build it, to the people who are going to buy it, to the people who are going to use it, to your other team members, that's an important part of being a designer: clearly communicating what something's for and how it works, or how to build it, or how to use it. 

Sometimes this is a piece of microcopy: it's a single word, it's a button label. and sometimes it's the marketing copy. Sometimes it's instructional copy, sometimes it's documentation, sometimes it's the voiceover for the movie you made to help sell the product internally. There's a number of ways that design and writing kind of overlap, just as means of communication. Word and image has a superlong history, going back to when words were images back in hieroglyphics. and certainly once you start talking about visual design, a lot of that is actual text, typography.

Communication design is all about the combination of text and design. And then there's being able to write a clear email. That’s super important. Like,  “Hey client, here's what I'm delivering to you, and here's what I need back from you on this.” Just writing as a basic business tool is important. It's being able to write a tweet is an important part of marketing your book or product, or talking about what is is you're up to, so I think writing is such an essential tool. I remember one of the funniest things about the beginning of the web was all the outcries about how print was dead, and how writing was over, and instead it's like, No, actually, writing has exploded now. It's everywhere.

We've talked about design, we've talked about writing. Let's talk about speaking. 

At the end of my grad school, when you do your thesis work, you write a talk, and you give a talk about what it is you're working on. I submitted that talk to the IA Summit, because there was no good interaction design conference out there. I got accepted and that was my first time giving a talk to a group of people, and even my first time giving a PowerPoint presentation. Then when I was at Adaptive Path, they would encourage their practitioners to speak at their events. I was terrible. The first couple of years I was really bad—like, reading off of notecards bad. I was not good. Like, horribly embarrassing to me now. But it's one of those skills that the only way to learn it is to do it, you can't do it any other way. You have to get up in front of people and talk. 

Then I started applying to some conferences, and once the Designing for Interaction book came out people starting asking me to speak, which was nice, but then I had to come up with things to say. 

One of the things that's great about being a writer and a designer is the work often suggests things that are worth writing about. So I'll design something, and then I'll think about it. So it's like I would do a personas project, and then I’d write an essay on personas, and what I would find out at an abstract level when I was doing the project. Or I’d give a talk on personas, or the personas would end up as a section of a book, so the work generates the words. 

I started doing a lot of little talks, and it's gotten to be over the last couple years that I have one topic that I talk on for about a year, and then I feel like it plays itself out, and I put it out on slideshare, and then I come up with fresh material. Kind of like Louis C.K. or someone like that, (laughing), I do new material every year. 

It's just, what's this year's topic going to be? For instance, I got sick of that Albert Einstein quote about make things simple but no simpler, and so I'm like, “That's so trite, what's actually behind that?” so I wrote a whole talk on the complexity of simplicity that I did for a year. This year's, of course has been all about microinteractions, and next year it'll probably be something else, who knows.

I feel like I've done a number of interesting things in my career…but I know that I'm midcareer. I hope that I have, over the next 20 years of doing work, another bunch of signature pieces.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I think that the goal of any creative person is to have a large body of work over a long period of time. You may have different eras of work, like Picasso's blue period, where you're doing particular things. I'm proud that I’m building that body of work. I feel like I've done a number of interesting things in my career, and I have a couple books to show for it, and I have a couple products out in the market to show for it, but I know that I'm midcareer. I hope that I have, over the next 20 years of doing work, another bunch of signature pieces. 

Because the nature of doing consulting work, and particularly digital work, is that stuff disappears. The products that I did 15 years ago are long gone, the stuff that I did 10 years ago is long gone, the stuff that I did 5 years ago is changed. There's not a lot that I can point to (other than the books) that are up and running. People are still using the products that I've designed in various places. but almost all of them are altered or they've been revised and so they're not mine anymore; they're the world's or they're my client's or they're the user's. 

I would like, going forward, to have a couple more signature products. Things that people really like and are another moment in my career. I don't know what phase of that career I’m in right now; maybe I’m in the microinteractions phase where I do a lot of small things that are really interesting. It's a good time to be doing that with a lot of mobile apps and appliances and Internet of Things-style products coming out. But we'll see. It's hard to judge your career while you're in the middle of it. You can look back and say, “Oh, that was a nice period of time.” I think that i'm in a good period of time right now, and I'm pleased at what I know and have accomplished, but think that there's still a lot more to accomplish.

I think we're in an era of people solving a lot of problems that people don't really have, so solving meaningful problems to tough challenges is something I would like to have as a legacy. 

What lasting impressions do you want to leave with your body of work?

I've always liked the adjective clever. I always thought that it was a nice combination of surprise and delight and intelligence, and I really enjoy the clever solution to a problem. Or really delightful little moments, and I think that if you look back at iconic designers throughout history—and i'm certainly not putting myself anywhere near this pantheon—but the Dieter Rams, the Raymond Loweys, the Eames, the Michael Bieruts—they all have these really clever solutions to a variety of different problems. When you see the solutions you're like, ‘Oh that's clever. I wouldn't have thought of that.’ And that's what I would like people to look back at my work and say. Like, ‘He put out a series of useful products that had really clever, inventive solutions to problems that people really had.’ 

I think we're in an era of people solving a lot of problems that people don't really have, so solving meaningful problems to tough challenges is something I would like to have as a legacy. 


About Dan

Dan is the Director of Interaction Design at Smart Design in San Francisco. Since 1995, he's designed devices, software, websites, and services. Millions of people every day use the products he's designed. He speaks at conferences and teaches workshops on interaction design all over the world. He's the proud owner of a Masters of Design in Interaction Design from Carnegie Mellon University, and his design innovations have received several patents. You can find him on Twitter at @odannyboy.

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