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A Book Apart

Q&A with Dan B. and Dan C.

Feb 21, 2019

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This week, we’re celebrating two book anniversaries (bookiversaries?) for CSS3 for Web Designers and Practical Design Discovery. And what better timing than now, to get to know the authors a little better!

First up is a Q&A with Dan Brown, a web designer, cofounder of EightShapes, and author of Practical Design Discovery—a book on why discovery is the first and most essential step in successful design work. He shares why he has a daily word count goal, what the tech industry needs more of, what he loves about his basement workspace, and more below.

Dan Brown

ABA: What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day on the right foot?

Dan Brown: My morning routine entails three key activities: record my time from yesterday, write 750 words, and make breakfast for my kids. I still record my time manually, rather than letting our time tracker capture my tasks as I’m working on them. It helps me determine my work priorities for the day. Writing 750 words is a habit I try to keep, though it often peters out later in the year. It’s a muscle I like to exercise, and I’ve learned that writing helps me think, so I usually use this time to think through challenges in my life. Finally, I get emotionally grounded by making breakfast for my kids. I love cooking for people, even if it’s just a bit of oatmeal. This time together helps me remember what’s important and lets me catch up on their lives.

ABA: What is your favorite thing about your workspace?

DB: I love my office, which is in the basement of my house. I’m surrounded by books, and I have ample horizontal surfaces to use and lots of cubbies in my desk. I have a chair just for writing, and I have a large-format printer. It was the first major purchase for EightShapes, so it’s more than ten years old. I use it a few times a year, and though it’s bulky it’s kind of a reminder of how far we’ve come.

ABA: Is there anyone you’re following the work of right now, that you’d recommend others pay attention to?

DB: Keep an eye on Hareem Mannan. She’s writing great stuff about the UX world, like inclusivity and career development.

ABA: What does the tech industry need more of? Less of?

DB: There’s so much wrong in the world now, and the tech industry is a microcosm of that, so there are many ways to answer this question. For what they need more of, my go-to answer, however, is self-reflection. I think it’s important to distinguish self-reflection from self-indulgence. Or pointless navel-gazing. But looking at your own behavior and actions and decisions, with genuine sincerity and honesty and open-mindedness, is the starting point for making a change. You can’t know what you’re doing wrong–even if other people tell you plainly–unless you have an honest conversation with yourself.

ABA: In moments of self-doubt, how do you recharge and rally to keep going?

DB: It may seem counter-intuitive, but I always get energized by a critique. Putting my efforts in front of someone to see what they think, gives me the swift kick I need to keep things going. As hard as it is to hear others cutting into my ideas, critique is crucial to the creative process. But getting that new perspective, seeing the work in a new way, we open our mind to new possibilities and approaches. We think of critique as a process for winnowing, but it’s really a process for opening up new ideas. By the way, moments of self-doubt are, like, daily. Hourly. That’s the point of the work, no? If you didn’t doubt yourself you wouldn’t push yourself. That’s the single unifying aspect of designers: we’re perpetually dissatisfied with our own efforts. Critique is the vehicle for making those doubts concrete, but also giving us a path forward.

ABA: What is your go-to source of inspiration when you’re trying to get out of a creative rut?

DB: I’m going to answer a slightly different question: How do you avoid wedding yourself to a single concept or idea? I think this is a big problem in our creative processes. We ask people to generate ideas, but they then come up with one and become emotionally attached to it. When I’m in the brainstorming phase, I try to come up with at least two approaches. This is hard because the way we solve problems pushes us toward a single solution. We’re pressured to make sure our concepts are comprehensive and stand-up to detailed scrutiny. There’s a time and place for that, but unless we brainstorm a few approaches, we don’t have a good way of dealing with outright rejection.

To come up with several different ideas, I’ve collected little heuristics over the years: shortcuts that let me plumb the depths of my creativity. Usually it involves turning things inside-out or upside-down. Like, I prioritized this user’s needs, what if I prioritize a different user’s needs. Or this navigation is grounded in nouns representing content types, what if I tried nouns representing topics. Or, the UI is structured with an inbox-style framework, what if I tried more of a hub-and-spoke framework. Patterns are starting points, and those are valuable to creative work. But sometimes I don’t need a starting point as much as I need an algorithm for shifting my perspective.

ABA: Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night? What is it?

DB: So, this is weird, but when I’m anxious, I sleep. It’s like a coping strategy baked into my physiology. The more anxious I am, the more tired I get. So, things that keep people up at night are the things that make me sleepy. But that’s probably not what you meant.

The biggest problem with design today is that the industry is treading water. I see articles on Medium with thousands of “claps” that cover topics explored in detail years (or decades) earlier. You might see this as an old man shaking his fist at kids on the lawn, but I’m genuinely concerned that we’re not advancing design. If we keep rehashing the same old topics, how can we expect more important issues like ethics and inclusivity to become well understood? We have no way to ensure that the things we’ve learned about design over the years make their way into the far corners of the practice, must less the classrooms educating tomorrow’s designers. In ten years, is there going to be Yet Another Article on why you shouldn’t use first-person possessive in navigation labels? Or, will designers have a more thorough understanding of these issues, so we can produce industry-wide frameworks to deal with more complex issues? That’s what keeps me up at night. Or, well, you know what I mean.

ABA: What tool, object, or ritual could you not live without to get you through a week?

DB: My small firm EightShapes has a daily stand-up. We take 15 minutes in the morning to talk through our tasks. This is a bit of a formality because given our size and the kind of work we sign up, the specifics of our day-to-day don’t really impact each other. We end with a round-robin “closing thought.” Sometimes it’s routine. Sometimes it leads to a truly engaging conversation that ends up being the highlight of my work day. That little ritual anchors my day, and reminds me that I’m surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the industry.



Next up is Dan Cederholm! He’s the founder of SimpleBits, cofounder and designer of Dribble, and author of CSS3 for Web Designers—a book all about helping you learn or polish up your CSS3 skills. He shares why working remotely means his workspace is always changing, an illustrator whose work you should watch, how he tackles self-doubt, and more in the following Q&A.



Dan Cederholm



ABA: What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day on the right foot?

Dan Cederholm: Decaf. Specifically, a decaf mocha latte with just one pump of chocolate. It’s not a great habit, but, well, with the decaf…you have to make things at least a little interesting.

ABA: What is your favorite thing about your workspace?

DC: That it’s always changing! I work remotely, so while I have a dedicated office with a desk, I often find myself working from any room in the house. Or a coffee shop (that serves decaf), or from the road, etc. Freeing myself from the desk has been freeing, creatively.

Also, here’s a plug for Studio Neat’s Panobook. It’s my go-to sketchbook, and its landscape dimensions are perfect.

ABA: Is there anyone you’re following the work of right now, that you’d recommend others pay attention to?

DC: Evan M. Cohen.

His illustrations are incredible. The flow, the line work, the progression and evolution of shapes, the comic-esque presentation, and the existential themes—they all hit me like wow. His work is otherworldly.

ABA: What does the tech industry need more of? Less of?

DC: Less infighting. We’re all on the same team. It’s easy to forget the tech industry isn’t the world at large. We’re solving problems, but there are also more important issues going on in the world.

More humanism. Products that help people. I love things that help solve a really small problem. Let’s reinvent the can opener!

ABA: In moments of self-doubt, how do you recharge and rally to keep going?

DC: It happens so often that I’m not sure I have one strategy here. But stepping away to something that’s completely unrelated does help. I’ll pick up the banjo, take my dog for a walk, get outside. Changing perspective doesn’t always cure everything, but it sure feels better and helps me remember to enjoy the ride.

ABA: What is your go-to source of inspiration when you’re trying to get out of a creative rut?

DC: Dribbble. Ok that’s a somewhat biased answer.

But also, I find inspiration is ongoing. It’s not something I carve out, but rather I’m open to it throughout the day. I can be inspired by the boats cutting through the ocean, or the bass tone on the Brady Bunch’s incidental music. The lettering on a old shoe repair shop’s window, or an Icelandic bank note. The secret is to be always looking for it.

ABA: Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night? What is it?

DC: As I get older, I find I worry more about people. Are the people I care about taken care of? Did I treat people the right way today? Everything else is just checklists. :)

ABA: What tool, object, or ritual could you not live without to get you through a week?

DC: This is going to sound awful, but my iPhone. It’s always with me, and does a million things. It’s become the most important computing device, inspiration finder, communicator, camera, content creator, schedule manager, etc. etc. It sounds so obvious, but I remember the days before it was there. It’s a whole new world.

ABA: What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve made to do the work you do

DC: I think to get to where I am today, the sacrifice was just time. Time taken to stay up late and learn as much as I possibly could about design and the web. Time is our precious resource, and I’m always second-guessing the way I choose to spend it. The key, I’ve found, is striving to get better at choosing that spending on things that help you achieve the best balance for you. It’s a constant work-in-progress.



Snag your own copy of Practical Design Discovery or CSS3 for Web Designers in paperback or ebook today! Order both at the same time for 10% off instantly—no code required.