Work inspiration with
My name is Jason, and I have a curiosity problem. My job title is Director of Design and Product Experience at Fresh Tilled Soil, but I tend to describe myself as a compulsive tinkerer. I’ve always been someone who will take things a apart to understand them better (starting with my first bike when I was about 6, and continuing through today with a 45+ year old car), and that’s essentially what I do as a designer. I lead client workshops, define our design process and serve as a day-to-day touchpoint and ‘block-remover’ for our project teams. I also write and speak quite a bit about web typography, user experience and design process, though most people know me more as the guy who posts pictures of our dog Tristan on Instagram. I also used to race bicycles (road) more or less for a living, and still ride quite a bit now.
How did you get started in UX and typography, where did you study?
I went to school at Rhode Island College back in the mid-90’s to study Graphic Design. I also did a lot of printmaking there, but my biggest stroke of good fortune came in my on-campus job. I was hired in the Publishing Services office to work as a designer but also to ‘figure out this web thing’ and create the school’s first website. It was the perfect combination of design and technology, and came right near the start of the web back in 1994. For me, the constant combination of learning about design, figuring out technology and applying them together formed the basis of my outlook on design and the web that’s still very much the same today.
After figuring out that first site, I just kept getting more and more work. Eventually I ended up teaching myself about database design, application development in a few different languages and platforms, and started building both front and back end systems in addition to designing. Again—that just seemed the logical extension of design thinking and system design.
Oddly enough, my interest in typography started in school, but didn’t really take off until 2009, many years later, when Typekit launched. That was the first time we could use real fonts on the web, and I started using it right away. When I met the folks from Monotype’s web font service in 2010, I offered to help with their Drupal module (Drupal is an open source content management system). They took me up on that and then asked if I’d be interested in writing for their blog. That’s what really spurred me on to start researching and writing more, which in turn led to writing a book about it for O’Reilly, and speaking about web typography all over the world (including London, Munich, Sydney, Toronto and all over the US).
Looking back, would you recommend your path to beginners?
For beginners, I’d really emphasize two things: learn the fundamentals of design (and by that I mean color, typography, layout, branding), and be curious about everything. Schools are having a tough time pulling everything together in a cohesive education for people interested in the web, but they DO have a solid perspective on design fundamentals. For now, it’s up to us to put that together with our own self-directed learning to really complete the picture. And don’t forget: we’re inventing our own future, so everyone has a voice. The best way to learn something is to teach it, so don’t pass up the chance to try!
What are the books and weblogs about UX and type design helped you to improve your professional skills?
There are a lot! I try and read regularly: articles, blogs & books are all fair game. Two of my earliest favorites though really stuck with me: 'Elements of User Experience' by Jesse James Garrett, ‘Subject to Change’ by Peter Merholz, Todd Wilkens, Brandon Schauer, and David Verba, and ‘ The Design of Everyday Things’ by Don Norman. They really taught be that UX is about far more than the pixels on the screen, and really encompasses every part of the interaction between the user and the product or site. More recently there have been a ton of great posts on Medium (UX tag) that are often collected from elsewhere on the web. As for typography, I can’t say enough about what I’ve learned from Tim Brown and others on the Typekit blog, Alan Haley and others on the Fonts.com blog, Jason Santa Maria (author of On Web Typography), and Rich Rutter (co-founder of ClearLeft & Fontdeck, also currently writing a book called ‘Web Typography’). I can’t fail to mention Erik Spiekermann though. His book ‘Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works’ was the first book on typography I ever bought, and really started my love affair with typography.
What is your ideal work environment? Do you work in your studio or prefer to mix a few activities?
I really like working in the Fresh Tilled Soil office space—it’s a beautiful 100 year old brick building, and we’ve got these amazing high ceilings and huge windows. We also have a huge number of really nice, smart, talented people who are a treat to work with. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a day on the couch working next to my dog Tristan—but I usually prefer to be around people. It gets my creativity going!
As for speaking and teaching—I enjoy just about every combination of small and large events, workshops and even a couple of college courses. Being around conferences and students always teaches me new things, and I always end up bringing fresh ideas and perspectives back into my work.
Who are the designers, colleagues in your country or outside you admire most?
There are loads, but I have to single out a few who have been tremendously supportive and have guided and inspired me over the years. Dan Mall was one of the first speakers I met at my first web design conference back in 2008 (Future of Web Design in NYC), and we had a great conversation about maps. His talk was great, and the conversation was totally at the other end of the spectrum: he was really engaged one-on-one just as much as he was on stage. That set the bar for me, and I’ve always tried to be like that when I’m speaking at events as well. Josh Clark is another (he used to live in Providence and was part of our original UX meetup there), and he really encouraged me to pursue speaking and writing. Jen Robbins introduced me to O’Reilly and paved the way for my book (and was one of my best editors). Jeffrey Zeldman’s advice for speakers and leadership in the web community was another big influence. I could keep going, but it’s almost easier to say ‘the web community as a whole’: almost every speaker I’ve met, every attendee, every student have all been so interesting and interested in learning and sharing. It’s what drives me to keep doing the same. It’s a real honor to count so many of these people as friends.