July 12, 2021

Centricity in Business: Design vs. Product vs. Human // Musing

I was recently asked in an interview if I felt that my previous company was "Design-centric." Without a moment's hesitation, I answered "Not at all," which wasn't a knock against the company. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if your company is Design-centric, you're focusing on the wrong thing.

That may seem like a strange thing for a designer to say, but I genuinely believe it. This may not be the position that I've always held, it is a position that I've arrived at after spending a significant amount of time working on software in the context of a biotech company. Design just isn't the most important thing to orient a company around. Ultimately, it's not what any company's customers are buying.

This is a good time to pause and break down what "Design-centric" means. It's likely one of those terms that will elicit different definitions from different people, but in my experience, it means that a company and its priorities are configured in such a way as to allow designers to determine how they work and that there are certain accommodations to the importance of design work. Some might argue that this means doing things like user or customer research as part of the process. I certainly grant that this is an important activity to engage in, but the words are important. It's "Design" and Designers at the center that I take issue with. Designers aren't the only ones able to gather customer feedback (e.g., go talk to the sales team), so why wouldn't you want a "Market research-centric" company? That might make sense in an agency context, though I'd suggest that it would be severely limiting for any organization.

Another term that I've been hearing a lot—particularly from product folks and CEOs—is "Product-centric" or "Product-lead" company. I'll be honest and say that I wasn't quite sure what that term meant when I first heard it. It seemed like a code for a certain type of company. From what I can gather, these terms generally mean a company with software product(s) at the core of the company. In this way, the product(s) themselves drive company strategy and direction. Experiences outside the confines of this product are generally looked at as secondary or ancillary.

You don't need to be clairvoyant to see where I'm going with this: why should the Product be at the center? What happens if the Product no longer serves the people that it was created for? What if the people that the Product is created for have significant context outside the confines of the interface and don't share that same viewpoint? If just making more of the Product is the end-all, be-all, then what gets people up in the morning? In many ways, this sounds a bit like the tail wagging the dog and if we've learned anything as designers, it's that you can't lead with the solution.

Keeping people at the center

I'd put forward another model. One where the company, its products, services, and structures are oriented around the humans that you're creating for and how you're solving problems for them. I've seen this orientation as a strong driver for innovation and experimentation. I've seen this act as a built-in North Star for a company that can remain consistent despite individual product or feature failures. Markets and attitudes may change, but staying rooted in people's problems and your organization's unique value proposition to solve those problems creates a more durable approach that will weather those changes.

In this context, Design as a function and designers can deliver unique value. We are experts in understanding our customers (those humans whose problems we're solving), and modeling different possible ways to meet their needs. It also positions designers as true partners across the organization and changes the conversation. We no longer have to say things like, "We are Designers, so we need to be a part of this process so we can do Designer-y things," and instead say, "We can help you understand our customers and what they need. We can also help you figure out what we can build to better meet those needs." Lastly, it creates natural connections to other functions that have close customer interactions, such as Sales and Customer Support.

There is the potential for this approach to go sideways, and I've definitely seen it. Chief among the pitfalls are Shiny Object Syndrome, where leaders will shift priorities to new opportunities to deliver value to customers before giving other channels a reasonable chance to succeed. After all, software isn't easy and sometimes it takes time to truly deliver value in a way that resonates with customers, not to mention the contextual whiplash that may occur to teams across the organization. A human-centric structure may also lead to an organization that has competing priorities within the same channel of execution. As with many issues, the way through some of these challenges is through strong leadership and ruthless prioritization. If the teams are able to stay focused on the human impact and have access to the context of strong leadership, the benefits outweigh potential issues.

I hope that this is something that you'll consider as you're designing the structure of your team, group, or company. That you think about your organization, how it determines its focus, and whether it's driven by a function, a solution, or the people that it serves.

What do you think? Do I have it totally wrong? Did I miss something big? I'd love to hear from you, so drop me a line on Twitter or LinkedIn and let's continue the conversation.

March 18, 2020

Top 10 Albums: 2019 Edition

There were quite a few releases that caught my attention this year. Whereas last year I wasn't able to put together 10 albums that I loved, this year I really had to make some hard decisions to cut it down to 10.

Looking at the releases that caught my ear, I definitely see a thread of post-rock running through the choices. One or two might be a pure nostalgia trip, but the vast majority are albums that are a product of this moment in music. They draw from the past, then infuse those sounds with a very modern flair that references a broader spectrum of contemporary music.

With one exception (I Hate My Village's self-titled debut), all of these records are sophomore efforts or even mid-to-late career releases. I could chalk that up to recommendation engines serving up more of what I've already enjoyed, or maybe there's another factor. Regardless, I'd say each of these releases is a strong evolution or maturation of an established sound.

Ex Hex – It's Real

I've heard Ex Hex described as the best arena rock that's meant to be played in a garage. I certainly can't top that description, and this record really delivered on that sound. Each track has a full, round sound with a clarity often absent for smaller independent releases. Despite the sound, it lacks the pretentious and ostentatious musicianship from the era of the rock gods.

FIDLAR – Almost Free

It's hard to call this a "mature" record—this is still FIDLAR after all—themes of getting older pervade. While the first track is a pretty weak Beastie Boys impression, the rest is just fun punk rock ’n’ roll. Nothing earth-shattering, but good stuff.

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1

I have to admit that I arrived pretty late to the Foals party. A few years ago, a friend dumped three or four of their albums on me. Therefore I experienced Foals out of order, with no baggage. I was immediately smitten with Antidotes in its entirety. While I was less enthused with the more recent albums, that I still have a soft spot for the band. Everything…Part 1, while certainly not in the same bucket as Antidotes, feels like it has some of that original DNA to me.

I Hate My Village – s/t

If you listen to one album from this list, I hope it's this record. I stumbled on this band randomly and become immediately fixated. How often do you chance upon an Italian band playing electro-infused post-rock weirdness steeped with African rhythms? You wouldn't think that it would work but it absolutely does it rips. And they have a song called, "Tony Hawk of Ghana," so that's immediately awesome.

Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation – Sacred Dreams

I really liked their last release, and this just sounds like more of the same. Same-y in a good way.

PRIESTS – The Seduction of Kansas

It's possible that I'm the only hipster that slept on the first PRIESTS album. As much as I love a lot of the post-punk bands they are referencing, the first record felt toothless. It was like someone had taken a bunch of tracks by the great UK post-punk band and ran it through a machine to grind off the edges, then re-recorded it. I gave them a second shot with this record and it's much better. I often find sophomore release to be more subdued, but I'm thrilled to say that's not the case here.

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won't Hold

There are no bounds to my passion for No Cities To Love, so I had high hopes going into this record. Hopes stayed high as the first couple singles were released, but in truth this never reaches the high mark of Sleater-Kinney's previous effort. It is, however, still a very good record that I listened to quite a few times this year.

Sneaks – Highway Hypnosis

When Sneaks's previous album came out a couple of years ago, I was really impressed and eager for more. I'm glad that the wait was worth it. It's the same basement tape weirdness, but with a bit more production and an ounce more polish.

Le Butcherettes – bi/MENTAL

Raw and loud, this album isn't without its tender moments. It rarely slows down, but that's really the appeal and from start to finish, it's a good one. There are some cameos from punk luminaries as well, which are worth checking out.

Worshipper – Light In The Wire

Just straight-forward old school hard rock and/or metal. This wouldn't be totally out of place had it been released in ’74.

Honorable Mentions and Late Entries

  1. Off With Their Heads – Be Good. Fun album, but not really different from their well-trod formula.
  2. The Black Keys – Let's Rock. As much as I like The Black Keys, this seems like a collection of B-material.
  3. Wolfmother – Rock’n’roll Baby. I missed this one when it came out, so I'm just starting to listen now. But I really like it.
  4. I.K. Dairo – The Best of I.K. Dairo. It's kind of lame to include "best of's" on a list like this, but I'm enjoying this collection.

Post script

Boy howdy is this post late. I originally wrapped up this post in early January, but I got sidetracked in a quagmire of tool issues. I stopped paying for the Adobe suite a while ago, and I used this post as the motivation to finally arrive at replacements. Of course, that was a horrible idea as I ended up testing a bunch of applications that just weren't ready for real use. In the end, I found an app that's working (not sure yet if I'm totally sold on it), but did the job and I was able to create a header image. Three months late. Oh well.

February 21, 2019

Monthly Fascination: February ’19

It's been a long winter. I've had some personal stuff going on, and life has been pretty full with things that aren't necessarily writing. As a result, I've let the posts slip on this site. This is fine in the grand scheme of things, but I do think that doing this thing is a helpful muscle for me to keep flexing. They're a reminder to think about design and creativity outside the constraints of my day-to-day life. With that in mind, I'm back at it.

A couple of other updates: I published the post that I had started but didn't finish back in October of 2018. Here it is if you're interested. I also finally let go of a few things, worked through some logistics, and got my newsletter going. It'll probably be a month endeavor, similar to this, but focused on a wide lens than design. If that's your thing, there's a sign-up form here.


With the dramatic disruption happening in the device space, the topic of type legibility seems to come up every few years. Up to this point, practitioners have relied on anecdotal evidence or best practices when designing for legibility. The Centre Visibility Design has taken on the task of researching what actually makes type more readable. At least, we have some real evidence.


A motion design studio based in Cape Town, okalpha has both a stunning body of work and an amazing site. I suggest that you spend a good amount of time with both.

Break Maiden

Purveyors of that current style of branding rooted in the vernacular of pseudo-naive Americana, the folks at Break Maiden are masters of the form. Even though I’ve moved away from brand design in my daily practice, I still have a lot of appreciation for the people that do it well. Check out all the work for some stellar examples.

February 18, 2019

Monthly Fascination: October ’18

(I had this saved to my drafts folder, but never actually published it. Here it is, better way late than never. I've got another post queued up for February links that I'll post later this week. I'm not going to edit it, but I didn't end up getting the newsletter together for this post, which is why I delayed it. I've got it going now, and will be sending out the first issue this week as well.)

A couple quick items of house-keeping before we jump straight into it: the first thing is that this is the first month that a post in the Monthly Fascination series will be accompanied by an issue of my all new newsletter. Christened "Frequent Fascination" to tie it into this series, as well as lean into my love of alliteration, it will consist of a list mix of content from this post as well as a few other things that other may find interesting. It's the first time that I've tried to do something like this and I'm interested to see how it goes. If you're interested, you can sign up here. Secondly, I'd love to hear some feedback on these posts. Are they worth while? Does the format work? Should they be more…or less? Whatever you think, drop me a line.

The three links that really caught my attention this week all coincidentally had to do with the idea of created space. Two relate to created space that we build around ourselves, and the last with the identity that we build around that space.

Brand Design for Pedro Salmerón, Architect by Buenaventura

I was really drawn the simplicity and flexibility of this system for the architect Pedro Salmerón. Speaking from experience, it's such a challenge to create identities for creative practitioners of any sort. Consisting of basic rectangles and 45 degree slashes to structure space, with subdued textures and a very neutral palette to round everything out. The designers at Buenaventura did an excellent job creating something interesting that also lets the architect's work take center stage.

A Map of Every Building in America by the NY Times

A fascinating project. Maps that don't answer questions, but instead suggest them. The thing that really sticks out to me is the interplay between humans trying to structure the environment and also being structured by it at the same time.

An Algorithmically-Derived Personal National Flag

With our global culture increasingly dominated by nationalistic fascists, the discussion of what ties out together as country(wo)men has never been more important. What if we didn't pledge unwavering allegiance to symbols that come laden with centuries of burden? A project by the Puerto Rican design firm Muuaaa suggests that maybe we should find strength in our own beliefs and symbolism. Leaning on a system that generates flags from a subset of an individual's choosing, the studio created a way for people to walk away with their own national identity.

That's it for this month. I hope that you found some of these tidbits stimulating, or at least interesting. Let me know either way, and thanks for your time.

January 26, 2019

Top 10 Albums: 2018 Edition

Life definitely caught up with me this year. I spent very little time with headphones on, but I was super busy with work and raising a child. As a result I missed a lot of the music that came out. Looking at this list, I don't even feel completely thrilled some of these releases (heck, I was only feeling good about 9 albums total). They just happen to be the top of a very short stack. Not to say that they aren't worth listening to if you missed them, but I was hoping for a few more albums that really grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go.

Bass Drum of Death - Just Business

Real fun album. They're not reinventing the wheel here, but if you like BDOD's brand of straight-ahead garage rock, you'll be pleased with this one.

Beastmaker - (EP series)

How much material can these dudes put out? The volume and quality are just staggering. They put out 4, 10 song EPs this year alone, following last year's fantastic release of Inside the Skull. I can't say that I've scrutinized all of these EPs enough to recommend certain ones over others, but definitely give them a listen and pick them up if you're into heavy-ish stoner metal.

Cloud Nothings – Last Building Burning

This release snuck in under the radar, and to me it's really an album of contrasts. While not a huge departure for Cloud Nothings, the whole effort seems tighter but with a bit more looseness in song structure. It's fast and loud, but with some quiet and space creeping in. It's really an evolution of the sound that Dylan Baldi has been cranking out over the years.

Gorillaz - The Now Now

Neither Gorillaz nor this album need much of an introduction. At first this album felt like the off-album slump that Gorillaz typically put out (e.g., G-Sides, The Fall), but after a few listens the track Tranz hooked me. The rest of the album started to grow on me after and it's definitely solid—even if it starts to taper off towards the end.

Guerilla Toss - Twisted Crystal

Another consistently weird offering from Guerilla Toss, but still quite good. GT Ultra was definitely a bit weirder (in a good way), but I still recommend this one for fans. It's also probably a good intro point for the band as well, being less dissonant than some of their other offerings.

Hot Snakes - Jericho Sirens

I haven't been a huge Hot Snakes fan historically, but this one is a ripper. Unrelenting from start to finish and solid quality throughout.

Santigold - I Don't Want: The Goldfire Sessions

Quite uncharacteristic for Santigold, I Don't Want follows right on the heels of last year's 99 Cents. It's not as lyrically haunting as the previous record, but I still quite enjoy it.

Ursa - Abyss Between the Stars

Ursa was a recommendation from a co-worker, and it's a good one at that. The tracks can be a bit long (topping out at 10 minutes 16 seconds), but what a stellar release Abyss… is. Heavy, but in a way that's laden with texture. There's just such a sense of gravity and restrained energy throughout that is unleashed at the perfect moment.

Viagra Boys - Street Worms

If you can't tell from the name and album title, these guys just ooze punk attitude and delight in a contrarian position. I first heard their track Sports, which borders on novelty track, but remains fun nonetheless. Raspy vocals aside, it's not overly punky in presentation, the record leans more heavily on post-punk and dance rhythms. I'm interested to see where this band goes.

Recent misses on heavy rotation

I might not have founds much new music this year, but I did listen to a bunch of albums that I had just missed by a year or two. A few flew under the radar, so I figure maybe others could benefit from their attention as well.

Cowtown - Paranormal Romance

Unrelenting, up-beat punk jams.

Hüsker Dü - Savage Young Dü

Not the most fun listen start-to-finish, but such an interesting artifact of the evolution of a band.

Meridian Brothers - ¿Dónde Estás Maria?

This one is a bit of an outlier, but really great if you're interested in contemporary Latin indy music.

Shopping - The Official Body

Barely missed this release from last year, but I listened to it a ton. Great indy electro release.

Sneaks - It's A Myth

Another awesome indy electro jam, but far more low-fi. I'm really interesting to see where Sneaks goes with her 2019 release.

Uranium Club - Human Exploration

First track is called Black Semen. You get the idea.

The wrap-up

I'm tempted to say that 2018 wasn't the best year for music, but I think that's just me personally. It was definitely a year of broadened horizons for me, which is true of most years but I would say that the net was cast far wider than previous years. I spent a good bit of the year listening to African music, Afrobeat, and hip hop. I scoured some of the depths of post-punk, indy rock, and other releases that came out when my attentions were originally focused elsewhere. And to be honest, I spent a lot of time just spinning tracks from bands that I've loved for twenty years or more. If I had to guess, I think this coming year will be pretty similar. With any luck, I'll be able to spend more time listening though, and look forward to discovering more gems.

October 5, 2018

Monthly Fascination: September ’18

Quite the collection of design-related goodness this week. Everything from a site that just looks great to a talk that undermines some of the things that we hold so dear. Let's kick it off with a site that I found to be particularly enlightening, as well as a pleasure to read.

The psychology that explains how people interact with digital interfaces

I'll be the first to admit that I don't have much of a scientific background to my design practice. I do, however, understand that designers aren't the first group to study and be interested in what drives people. I really like how the content on this site breaks down psychology principles and directly related them to design patterns. I'm willing to be that there's something here for most designers.

Kleinschmidt site

Sometimes you just have to appreciate a nice site design. To be completely honest, I have no idea what this company really does, but I like what they have going on. They also made the excellent choice of working with the talented folks at One Design to bring it all to life. The site is a fantastic embodiment of good type, a dialed layout, and a brilliant mix of textures and imagery.

The End of Navel Gazing: a talk by Paul Adams

This talk may be called, "The End of Navel Gazing" but honestly it feels more like a punch in the gut. Mr. Adams really cuts to the quick, and calls out user experience designers on their bullshit. He questions how much designers really represent the voice of the user, and talks about the value of a less-than-viable product. Essential watching.


Last month I mentioned a sign-up for a newsletter version of this post. Well here it is. I'm not going to send anything out this month, but if you sign up you'll get next month's links delivered right to your inbox.

Monthly Fascination Newsletter Sign-up

September 10, 2018

Monthly Fascination: August ’18

July flew right by so I decided to skip over it and pick things back up in August. Most people have been on vacation, so I figure it'll go unnoticed anyway.

An Open Redesign of Firefox's Identity

Comp of the new Firefox logo on signage and apparel

While I wasn't particularly a fan of the outcome, I appreciated the process that went into the open redesign of the Mozilla organization. Mozilla wasn't asking for spec. work, and the process overall was much more akin to the process of product development that happens iteratively in plain view of stakeholders. While the work was done by an external agency for Mozilla, this time for Mozilla's child brand of Firefox has kicked off a rebrand process done by internal designers. Overall, I think both systems that have been revealed have interesting aspects. I'm looking forward to see how things develop.

The Future of Design: When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It

"[Design] has evolved into a way of thinking, of problem discovery, and of enhancing the lives of individuals, the experience of the workforce, and even the health of the planet."

It's not exactly news, but I had missed this article when it was originally published in 2016. Written by noted human centered design luminary Don Norman, what I really love about it is that it embraces design in all forms. Dividing design into two disciplines (traditional design as craft, human centered design as a process of learning), Norman nonetheless issues a rallying cry that calls for the joint partnership of both types of designers.

Work by Patrik Hübner

Branding for Brute wine

The design, art, and algorithms by Patrik Hübner feels like a glimpse of the future. I really like that the work has a strong touch of the designer that is amplified by code. It's a fantastic example of the how the concept can be further extended if the designer is savvy enough.

That's what I've been struck by in the past month. I'm planning to start looking into a newsletter integration for next month. If anybody has tips or thoughts, let me know.


July 10, 2018

Monthly Fascination: June ’18

My monthly round-up of interesting design that I've come across in the past month. If you missed the May post, it's right here.

Prospectus Typeface

Last month, the Lost Type Co-op released a really interesting serif face titled Prospectus. If you just look at the heavy weight, it looks like another take on the high-contrast serif faces that have become quite fashionable of late. I'd encourage you to look at the full set of weights and styles, especially the lighter weights an italic styles. It's a really unique face, with a very nice microsite art directed by Riley Cran.

The Guardian: Consumerism vs. Materialism

"If we want to cure affluenza, we have to get more satisfaction from the things we already own, more satisfaction from services, more satisfaction from leisure time, and less satisfaction from the process of buying new things."

While not explicitly about design, it's hard not to think about the implications of our consumer lifestyles without considering the part that design has to play. I'm just as guilty of purchasing things for that immediate rush, but I've really become frustrated lately how expensive or just difficult impossible it is to repair so many of the electronics that I've acquired over the years. At the very least, it's a reminder to appreciate the things that we have.

A Shift in the Design for Politics

As much as our current political climate feels like a dumpster fire, it's nice to see that some progressives are embracing modern branding as a tactic to engage with a younger voting populace. The recent success of NY Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been really inspiring to watch, and I hope it signals a change in our national political discourse. In addition to the work for Ocasio-Cortez, the campaign of Suraj Patel also caught my eye.

I hope you found some of this inspiring, and check back new month for more.

June 10, 2018

Monthly Fascination: May ’18

I thought I'd try a series collecting some things that I found interesting in the previous month. They might be design, art, articles, words…whatever causes me to pause and dig deeper.

Robert Dawson's Library series

image © Robert Dawson

I've always loved libraries, and have since childhood had access to really great libraries and librarians. Dawson's Public Library photo series really captures the huge variety of libraries across America. Each one a reflect of the place where it resides and its history.

Phil Patton Lecture with Natasha Jen and Khoi Vinh

An excellent discourse by masters of the design field. I tend to side more with Vinh on the topic, but excellent points are made by each side. In all, a very relevant topic for the field of design as a whole.

The Art of Akira

When I stumbled onto Akira sometime in the early '90s, it blew my world completely open. It was such a transformative piece of art and an absolute marvel of the medium. The Art of Akira reveals of of the process work that went into creating it. Hat tip to Ricky Bloxsom for the link.

January 29, 2018

About Ursula

I've been thinking about the death of Ursula K. Le Guin and her affect on me. I discovered her books—specifically The Wizard of Earthsea—at a relatively young age. What age exactly I don’t quite recall, but certainly in that formative period of between 10 and 12 years old. While at the time I didn't really have any knowledge of Le Guin's work, the book resonated with me a way that few did from that period of life. After I had finished the book, I strongly call a feeling of, this is good, this is different.

What I loved about The Wizard of Earthsea was its humanity. Ged, the protagonist of the first book in the series, is of very humble origins. Throughout the book he struggles with purpose and ambition, greed, selfishness, and ultimately a path to personal redemption. Far removed from typical mythological or fantastic tropes, he follows a winding path that returns as often to internal conflict as it does external forces. In fact, all of the Earthsea books that I've read don't have a typical MacGuffin like so many fantasy and science fiction books. Instead Le Guin uses the tool of fantasy to focus in on the human condition, as all of the best genre writers have done before and since.

After finishing The Wizard of Earthsea, I moved on to other authors. I don't recall why, whether it was ignorance of other books in the series or even if I had not thought to see what else Le Guin might have written. Three or four years ago, however, I picked the book up again and read it absolutely enthralled. It seemed like an entirely different book; one with so much more depth and subtlety than I recalled. After finishing it, I move on to the second and third books in the series. Each was different but fascinating in its own way.

In reading some other's impressions of Le Guin's writing over the past week, I'm realizing the tremendous impact that she had by being an incredibly outspoken champion of female voices in genre fiction. She also wrote nuanced stories that centered around non-white characters and stories that explored gender. I wish that I could say that her writings had impacted me in that way. In truth, I haven't read the books where those issues are central themes but I'm looking forward to doing so. Regardless, it speaks to the myriad ways in which Le Guin challenged assumptions and spoke out for under-represented groups.

The world is certainly a less magical place, having lost the voice of Ursula K. Le Guin. Now is one of the times when we could most use her. With any luck, the people that have been influenced by her will rise to the challenge of shaping this world into a greater place in ways that we can't imagine.


I created the image at the top of this post for my New Years card last year. It's one of my favorite lines from Le Guin, and remains extremely relevant and poignant. If I learned nothing else from Ursula K. Le Guin, it's how to imagine ways in which things might be different from how they are now. If you've made it this far, I hope you'll also do the same.