Interviews

Becoming the Lorax: An Interview with Justin Dickinson, Designer-at-Large

By Ashley Taylor Anderson August 9, 2016

If you’re a podcast junkie like I am, you can tell the difference between a good interview and a fantastic interview after the first five minutes. My favorite episodes are the ones in which you can tell the interviewer and interviewee are creative or intellectual kindred spirits, whether they’ve been friends for years or just met for the first time in a recording studio.

I had my very own kindred spirit moment when I spoke with Justin Dickinson, recently Director of Design at Vimeo and now creative-at-large in New York City. We chatted at length about design, user testing, storytelling, and the privilege of being a modern-day Lorax. Read on for some stellar insights from a stellar creative.

Did you fall into design by accident or by choice?

JD: Design is figuring out how to help people tell stories and make things, which I think is why I gravitated towards it. I chose design strategically in college and in my career, but if I look back on it, I think I had a natural inclination for it. Design appealed to me because I could never really draw very well, but found that I could use tools and code to make things beautiful.

As a young person, any time there was ever an opportunity to design something, I did it. Instead of playing sports, I was on Yearbook in high school. I loved Yearbook because there were limitations involved. You had to fit stuff in a certain space.

Additionally, the idea of making websites was fascinating to me from the very beginning. I started writing HTML way back in the day just so I could build my own web pages. I looked at the source code for other websites to figure out how they were made, and learned the rest from those awesome O’Reilly and Dummies books.

HTML Coding  Learning web design by reading source code = scary stuff

What was the design process like for Vimeo on Demand.

JD: It was a really inspiring project. Vimeo speaks for creators—essentially, we serve as the Lorax for creatives. We really care about the creators, and we’ve always been a safe haven and network to help them share their work with the world.

The original idea for Vimeo on Demand came out of some internal conversations. As we thought about our offerings and our users, we were like: Creators are able to upload and share content. What if they were able to sell it, too? There’s an emerging market of people who want to sell their work, and we saw a lot of potential there.

Our creators stand out because of their unique content. They may not have the audience of “How to Make a Murderer” or “Game of Thrones.” but there’s a steady longtail group of viewers that matters to them a lot. That was really the motivation behind it, the concept of, “what would it look like to have an open platform for creators to share and sell their work.

Vimeo On Demand Video for sale on Vimeo on Demand

I think my favorite part of the process was that, any time we tried to make it really specific, we pulled back to ensure we kept it as open as possible. This applied to everything from the user interface to specific language. So instead of saying “sell your film”—which relies on a lot of assumptions—we said “sell your work” to keep it general. And it was great, because there ended up being people who had series and instructionals and even sonogram videos. We realized that even small things can influence the user’s experience in a big way.

As a designer, how do you approach testing your ideas?

JD: Testing your ideas is so critical. Before I test an idea or design internally, I try to run through my presentation with a friend first, because they have no context for what I’m talking about. They’re usually a good litmus test for places where other people will get confused.

Over the course of my career, I’ve come to realize that testing is super important. It was one of those things I was hesitant about at first because I’d heard horror stories of other companies doing it in a sort of vacuum. But it’s all raw material and data we can use, and it’s a great way to settle arguments.

There’s a few different types of testing that can be beneficial. One is just guerilla-style testing, where you rough together a prototype of some variety and get it in front of a few people. Usertesting.com is great for that, friends are great for that, even other people in the company who aren’t closely involved with the product.

If you want to be a little more strategic, it’s good to run AB tests and see how specific elements perform. The problem with that is then you’re just testing thing on a continuum, so you may end up with the best version of the original thing, but it’s still one thing.

It takes courage within the organization to know what to test and what not to test.

When you get momentum, you can see by the whole of testing where things are going directionally, and then you can start making more instinctual decisions. You can also begin to look at something and logically reach the conclusion that it’s wrong and not worth testing. It’s important that you go forward with things that feel good that you want to learn more about, rather than testing one thing you hate and one thing you love and hoping the one you love wins.

The danger with data is that it can be spun in any way you want, really. It’s an art form, especially in this day and age of listicles and clickbait headlines.

Clickbait Headline A clickbaity headline from Forbes

And cognitive bias is so real. If a test goes the way you want it to go, you roll it out. If it doesn’t, you question the results and reliability of the data. So you have to be keenly aware of your own biases and blind spots when you’re fielding tests and analyzing the results.

As a designer, how do you balance creativity and business results?

JD: I think if you look through history—and this is going to sound real Kanye—artists have always had patrons. The battle between creative vision and financial support has waged eternal. As grandiose as it sounds, that kind of puts designers in a sacred space with people who’ve done and made some amazing stuff.

One of the struggles of a designer is that you have all these ideas and expectations, but it’s actually not on you to bring them to life. You don’t hold the budget; you’re not the decision maker. And it can be extremely frustrating. But it’s part of the greater process that doesn’t get talked about enough. The end result of the process is launching the thing you’re making, so you have to get good at talking to stakeholders.  

If designers are professionally empathetic to their users—which they should be—and then they have to turn around and sell those ideas to stakeholders, your stakeholders are really just another kind of user. As a designer, this requires knowing how to describe an idea to each type of user and selling them on it, whether or not it directly contributes to profit.

The great thing about creatives is that we have the tools to create the things we’re pitching. So instead of just describing a thing that doesn’t exist, we can hack together a prototype that approximates the thing we envision. Kickstarter is such a great example of this. People put together videos saying “here’s what this thing could be,” and it makes a real emotional impact on consumers who then go on to make their ideas a reality through the funding process.

What’s your approach to fielding stakeholder feedback?

JD: I have a don’t revise live policy. When I show something in a meeting and it doesn’t go over, the immediate response from the room is, “why don’t we make this bigger/change this color/move this here?” But that’s how you get bad designs. So I listen to my stakeholders’ feedback, and then I go away and think about it and make a new design.

The other thing I do is fight hard to separate the problem from the solution. So when someone says, “make that button bigger,” I may or may not make the button bigger. Instead, I encourage the stakeholder to get at the real problem—which is that the hierarchy or elements is off on the page—and then find a solution to it.

As much as possible, I try to train the business stakeholders to describe the issues they have in terms of the underlying “why.”

That’s also great because it forces people to separate their personal style preferences from real issues a user might share.

What part does story play in your design process?

JD: Story and design are intertwined every step of the way. That back-and-forth is so important. You can’t design without a story, but you also can’t write a story without a concept of the design.

One of the things that separates real designers and real writers from people who just have design or writing jobs is the ability to imagine yourself as someone else. For example, I’m a 33-year old single guy in NYC, but can I look at a user interface from the perspective of a 65 year old grandma on her ancient computer, or an 18 year old woman who’s texting her friend as she walks down the street? Being able to put yourself in those positions make you that Lorax—the one who understands those without a voice and is brave enough to tell their stories.

How do you view the modern relationship between brands and consumers?

JD: There’s so much content out there, and I’ve not yet heard of a startup who’s adding hours to our day.

The fact that anyone spends any amount of time with our brands is a privilege.

Consumers let you into their lives, into their homes, into their minds. We should feel grateful and honored, and be respectful of that privilege. It should motivate us to give them something that’s worthwhile.

With any kind of content, we’re competing with ritual and routine. What is the first thing you do when you wake up? What is the last thing you do before you go to bed? If a brand can work its way into those moments of people’s lives, that’s a real honor.

I think this all comes back to story. In previous years, it was enough to just throw your brand out there and have people see you. But now, consumers are smarter. They’re hesitant to listen to or believe stories that are just about the brand. They want to hear human stories, and to feel a connection through the technology they’re using. It’s important for brands to tell real stories, and to be able to produce them quickly.

Again, this goes back to being empathetic to your users. It’s very easy to get lost in data and numbers and lose sight of the real people you’re trying to connect with. Investing in creative that means something to your audience, and then using the data from that to optimize and learn and grow, will get you a lot farther than just trying to optimize something no one wanted in the first place.

This might sound apocryphal, but in one season of “Mad Men,” there was this part in the middle where Don Draper’s working with Connie Hilton. I heard rumor that it was a sponsored content play.

Mad Men Connie Hilton A possible sponsored content play by Hilton in Mad Men?

If it’s true, it’s really smart marketing. I’m a pretty cynical person when it comes to advertising, but I really responded to their message because it was in a show I love in a context that actually made sense.

What advice would you give to designers just starting out in their careers?

The real world isn’t school, where you’re looking for the right answer and you’re usually going to find it.

There is no right answer—there’s only what we do.

And when enough people keep doing something, then it becomes status quo. It’s freeing in a way, because you can never fail if there’s no right answer. There’s only something that performs better or worse than the thing you did the first time.

When you’re trying to innovate, you can’t worry too much about whether you’re doing the right thing in the right way. A lot of the fun is just figuring out things as you go. For example, when we launched Vimeo on Demand, we chose a few partners to roll out with. When we announced it, we just said we had a handful of videos for sale instead of trumping up the fact that we’d built an open marketplace. We wanted to see what the reaction would be. I think there’s value in holding some of your cards back, at least in early stage, until you can see how your work performs.

As you’ve matured as a designer, how was your creative process evolved?

JD: I’ve grown to value collaboration a lot more as I’ve grown in my career. When you’re in design school, you’re a single person working in the dark, trying to define your own tastes. You show your stuff to people, but there’s a lot of pride and fear, because you’re guarded against criticism.

When I started at Vimeo, I would work on something in my head and then on the computer until I thought it was good, and then I showed people. Now, I get the roughest of ideas in front of people, because I’ve learned that talking through it early makes it better.

Your brain has a funny way of smoothing over the cracks in things. An idea can seem wonderful, inside your head, and then when you share it with someone, you realize your brain is glossing over a bunch of issues. When you put an idea out there in front of others, you’re (a) immediately practicing the pitch, and (b) you get all these great opinions and healthy challenges, which is hugely valuable.

Collaboration also boosts generosity, which is very important. No one wants to work with an egotistical jerk. The ideal artist isn’t the moody, bipolar, eleventh hour creative—it’s a collaborative person you’re really excited to work with, and continue working with. I define success as an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to share their ideas, and shuts up enough to hear others’.

Where do you go for design inspiration?

JD: When I first started designing, I tried to keep up with trends and stay in the loop, but I felt like it was shadowing my judgment too much. Looking at someone’s website and saying, “I really like their menu, I’m going to use that,” is maybe the wrong way to think about inspiration. But if you look at more general trends across the market, that can be useful—as well as tapping into current trends, cultural phenomena, and other things that people either love or hate.

Snapchat Snapchat: One of Justin’s favorite sources of inspiration.

Hero Image Credit: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.

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