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/ Interview with Lance Arthur

Lance Arthur is the prolific writer from glassdog.com

Lance Arthur has been creating Web stuff since 1995. His personal Web site, glassdog.com, will celebrate its fifth year on the Net on April 14, 2001. 

He isn't planning to have a party of any sort, but that shouldn't stop you from sending presents!

Lance has appeared at several Web conferences including Miller-Freeman's Web98 and Web99, Thunder Lizard's Web Design World in Atlanta and Austin's South by Southwest Interactive Festival for four years running, where he is also on the Festival's advisory board. 

He lives in San Francisco, which makes him very happy, and works for Quris, an electronic touch marketing firm creating email, IM and wireless messaging products and services for big companies with lots of money. 

He is not writing a book about anything.

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/ How were you first introduced to the internet?

I introduced myself to it. It had been laying around out there all quiet and I was working as a network tech for a company in Vermont. Working at a bank, actually. I was crawling around under desks wiring up terminals to LANs and connecting phones to PBXs and all the technical magazines kept talking about the Internet and the Web and I decided to figure out what was going on. I didn't really understand what the big deal was from a business point of view, especially inside a bank. Banks are concerned with security and privacy and the Net was unconcerned with either.

So I determined to get on and figure out what all the terms and jargon meant. Like, what was the difference between the Internet and the Web? They seemed to be interchangeable in most articles I read. This was around 1994 or something, I guess. Not long ago at all.

/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?

Boring. I thought it was terribly boring. There was The Well and Usenet and so on. Lots of discussion spaces, nothing terribly interesting in it for me. I've never been big on the whole community thing. Remember that there was this idea that the democratic -- or chaotic -- nature of the Web would help us all communicate better, teach each other, share our dreams and ideas and so on and all come together in a new way without censors or government thought police and all that. Which I thought was a lovely idea but pretty far-fetched. At a certain point, people come to a place where their ideas and beliefs are fixed in place, and the more you try to show them another way of thinking, the more they resist it. How the hell was this computer network really going to change human nature?

Still, it was obvious that what this thing was good for was self-expression. Take the whole group-hug mentality and distill it down and you see that what we have is a space that's wide open to explore your own space, make your own art, speak your own words. In the process, you would probably find others with the same dreams and ideals and desire to create, and maybe little pocket group-hugs would form and expand your own creative impulses. Now that? That I could get behind. That I loved.

/ You are an *internet pioneer*, what exactly does it mean?

I got there early. I recognized something about the space that could be put to use, then I started using it. If you think of the Web as virtual real estate, I landed my boat on its shore and got off and started building things. Some other people prefer to stay on the ship and wait for something substantial to move into. They're the business people, the e-commerce people, who saw a different use than I. Justin Hall is the most obvious example of that type. He loves the Web in every way and what gets built is less important than simply building stuff that welcome people inside, coax them off that ship, show them the way. 

Me, I wanted to build pretty things mostly for my own amusement and ego. I wanted to build pretty things and then I wanted to find other people to build pretty things with them.

I guess the short definition was that I was lucky enough to be among the first off the boat, and I didn't just stand around.

/ Looking at your track record, you have a *multiple path* career. Why?

I used to let my career lead me. I wanted to be an actor in college, but I realized pretty quickly that I didn't have the strength of character, AKA "balls," to make it in the business. Becoming an actor is 90% about rejection. They reject you when you walk through the door if you don't look right for a part. They reject you when you open your mouth because your voice doesn't sound right, or you can't pull off an accent. They reject you because you're too tall, too fat, too white, too something they don't want. Whether or not you can act is beside the point, and that's depressing and true. So rather than become a professional waiter, I decided to give up that dream and do whatever I could to pay rent. 

I fell into that network technician job by accident. I didn't know anything about networks and was forced to take a role in figuring out a voice network, which lead to the data networking stuff, which lead eventually to investigating the Internet professionally, then finding I liked it more as a person than as an employee (the bank never pursued it while I was there because of the security issues) so I eventually quit that job and started doing Web development.

Again, this was an accident of sorts. I took a 50% cut in pay to change careers. I had no training, no portfolio, no degree, nothing really at all except my personal site and a friend in the business. She got me my first job and I was learning as I went. I had already learned lots about HTML and JavaScript, and the design I was doing was sort of made up, doing what I thought worked well. Didn't concentrate on usability or information architecture, didn't even know those terms let alone what they meant. The thing was and is that I loved the work, I had a passion for it, I wanted to learn all I could. And not to create better Web sites professionally, but to create better Web sites personally.

So I learned it all, because I needed it all. Some lessons were harder to learn than others, some concepts defied my understanding until I saw a good example in use instead of reading it in a book or seeing an image on a page. The Web is about use and interactivity. This doesn't mean that Web pages need to be proactive and annoying, only that people use them differently than anything else. So how do they use them? What do they expect? You need to know a little about a lot of things to understand the Web. Knowing only one thing -- even if you do that things extremely well, better than anyone else -- ultimately limits your success.

/ What was your initial profession?

Initial meaning first? I was a cook at McDonald's! It taught me that no job is safe, you can be replaced easily, everyone has to handle problems once in a while and you have certain responsibilities no matter how inane your job is.

My first career after giving up acting was in television. My brother is a TV news cameraman and he loved his job. Since I had no idea what I wanted to do, I thought I'd try his gig. I worked as the teleprompter guy moving the news feed for the talking-head anchors, then moved on to being the weekend news director, sitting in the control room telling everyone what cameras to take when, when to roll this tape or that, when we're coming out of commercial and so on. It was an easy job, and when it came time to think about staying there and moving up I decided I didn't want to. 

I had to quit because there was no future. Television news was a sort of right turn from acting, but there it all depended on the union and the chain of command. If the person directly above you wasn't moving, you weren't either. And there are only so many TV stations in a city. While there I also did a little puppeteering for a kid's show, believe it or not. That was fun, too, until we were cancelled. Being a puppet was just weird in about every way a job can be.

Then I moved on to the networking gig.

/ Describe your present professional activities and why you chose it?

I work at Quris in San Francisco. The company is just over a year old and was started by some very smart people I admired professionally. I was doing some freelance work for them for about four months and they kept offering me the Creative Director position but I wanted to give freelancing a try for a while before settling back into "the daily grind."

Quris is in the business of creating email, instant messaging and wireless communications for businesses to communicate with their customers however and whenever the customer wants or needs. In other words, if you go to a company's Web site and you already have a relationship with them as a customer or supplier or whatever, we can help them build an interface on their site to allow you to tell them when you want notification about your account or their services, to what sort of device you want it sent and when. So if you're watching a particular stock and need to know when it moves in a particular direction, you can ask that you get an email. If you have a beeper, we can send you a page. If you're using an instant messenger like AIM, we can IM you with a link to go make a trade. It's putting the power of communication into the user's hands.

On the business side of things, we also help them design, develop and distribute promotional messages that their customers opt in to receiving. If you use a particular credit card and you want to know when there are special deals for you, you tell your credit card company to send you a monthly newsletter with those deals and we're the ones who design the newsletter and mail them out.

My role is Director of User Experience. It extends beyond the design of messages, which I should point out is not just the graphic design of the HTML-formatted messages and involves copy writing and editing and the information design, into the subscription process on the Web site, branding and voice considerations and how to use each format -- email, IM and wireless -- to its best advantage.

I chose it because it wasn't strictly Web design. Designing Web sites gets to be very mundane after a while. Clients all start making the same demands regarding structure and operability and sites start to look alike, except for color schemes and logos. I was growing bored with it, frankly. Quris was an avenue into new real estate, if you will. It was another ship I could take and start exploring how messaging works, how wireless works, what could be done under the tight constrictions of those media. Could anything be done? It gave me an opportunity to explore something new. It appealed to the explorer in me. And I wanted to work with smart people, and Quris had them. The people you end up working with are much more important than the job you end up doing.

/ Describe your path to becoming a professional designer.

Couldn't even tell you. I never graduated from college, I didn't take any formal classes or training in design and layout, I know nothing at all about color theory or typography and any information architecture I know I picked up along the way. 

I've always been visually inspired, if that makes sense. I've taught myself to be aware of how I use things, how things react, how things compare and go together or don't. If you look at fashion and design, so much of it is based entirely on taste and there's nothing scientific or logical about it. There are very few definite positive or negative aspects. One year, one fashion is in style. The next, its direct opposite comes into vogue. Why trust what other people tell you is stylish when you can define it yourself?

Function is entirely different. I think we can all recognize the functionality of things, but we're not aware of them until we're made aware of them. Teaching yourself to become aware of functionality is deceptive because it seems like it should be easy, but it's not. Especially if you've defined yourself as a designer, I think you tend to want to defy expectations and explore new territory in defiance of function. "Who cares if it works, look how beautiful it is!" Tail fins on cars are a good example. They have no practical reason for being there, they don't "do" anything. But they added a sense of fun and adventure and speed to those overlong dinosaurs and reminded people of the future, the jet set, the indefinable cool.

I watched the Web evolve and made plenty of mistakes along the way, mostly because I could. There was -- and is -- room for play. You have to balance use with style and judge where to favor one over the other. There is no single absolute Web site design applicable to all endeavors.

My path, then, was to use my own space on the Web for experimentation and fun, to learn from doing, to make mistakes, jump into the deep end fully clothed, take chances, try things. Also, because I love the Web, I investigate what others are doing and how they are doing it. I ask questions. I try to teach and through teaching, I learn what others are thinking, why they do what they do, where they see the medium going. Frankly, a lot of user experience and Web design is listening to people and using common sense.

/ What is your favorite designing material. Why?

The computer. You can do anything. You can create 3-D models to twist and contort. You can play with images, colors, text, save all the different ways you played with them or destroy the whole thing utterly. You can paint and draw and sculpt and design.

I know there's a certain amount of the physical missing in this medium. No clay under the fingernails, no scent of linseed oil, no chalk dust all over your clothes. Your shoes will never look like Pollock's, your fingers will never be stained like Picasso's. But there's nothing stopping you from doing that art, the physical arts, and doing this, too. I think they complement each other.

I never considered myself an artist. I dabbled in watercolor and oils and pottery in school, but I was always unsatisfied with the result. The images I had in my head never matched what my hands could do, which annoyed me. Given time, perhaps, I could have developed those skills but I'm impatient. If I don't get something the first time, I get annoyed with myself. I greatly admire artists, for the most part. They convey their thoughts and emotions and opinions in an abstract way. I use words best, I think. And I use the computer to complement my words, rather than doing without.

/ What makes a good project?

A client who listens. A client who trusts.

The hardest part of any project is changing designs according to a group mentality. Everyone thinks they know good design, but everyone at a table will have a different agenda that, usually, opposes what's best for the customer who'll be using the site. Marketing wants bigger branding, larger and more prominent use of the logo. Sales needs banner ads everywhere, at the top, at the bottom, along the edges and incorporated into the copy. Engineering can't fit a lot of interoperability and personalization requirements into their schedule because the database wasn't designed the way necessary for those changes. And so forth.

If you know your job, you go in expecting all those objections and more and you have to be able to answer the questions. You also have to be able to say "No" with conviction. And your boss has to back you up. And it helps if your client's Web team is on the same wavelength as you. Get a feeling for what they're facing and try to be sympathetic to their usually impossible goals.

You will never end up with the design you envision. You just won't. You have to compromise. Remember that the design you present is going to be changed, sometimes radically, so don't get married to it. Divorce yourself from owning that design, because ultimately it isn't yours, it's theirs. They can massacre it, that's their prerogative, they're paying for that right.

You can come out of any project feeling good when you know you did your job. You presented alternatives, you did the best you could under the circumstances, you didn't betray the audience and you won a few important fights and lost some inconsequential ones. It's a process of give and take.

Ultimately, never forget that you're getting paid for every minute you work on a project, whether those minutes are great or torturous. If you want to be an artist go develop your own vanity site where you can do exactly as you please. Make the navigation interesting and intriguing. Use wild colors. When you're working for a client, you're working for them.

/ You are a creative head. When did your love of visual art start?

Very early. I was always artistic. I was the school newspaper cartoonist in college. I used to design cars and buildings as a child. I loved drafting, using a straight edge and sharp pencils to draw objects, it was all very structured and I loved that. I was going to become an architect for a while until I realized how much math was involved and then I didn't want to go there. Although I love structure, I deplored the rigidity of numbers. Two plus two always equals four. Well, where's the fun in that?

I won blue ribbons in school art contests, I was constantly doodling and coloring and playing with pen and ink and paper. I developed my love of words much later than my love of art, and I found that I enjoyed writing more than I enjoyed making pictures or playing with clay. So I sort of let the other stuff fall by the wayside.

Secretly? I'd still love to be an industrial designer. I'd love to design furniture and cars and appliances. I love all that. The only magazine I subscribe to is Architectural Digest. I pick up Wallpaper occasionally, but the world of fashion is much less interesting to me than the world of things. The Eameses, Shiro Kuramata, George Nelson, the entire Alessi collection... man, I love that stuff.

/ What do you look for when hiring creative talent?

Remember I said that people are more important in an office than the job? The first thing I try to see is if I'm going to get along with this person. I spend probably the entire interview just talking about interests and likes and dislikes. I can look at the portfolio later, or online. I'd like to see what they consider their best work regardless of whether anyone paid for it, or if it's even online. I want to see what they would make free of restrictions, then I'd want to know why certain decisions in the process were made.

After determining if I like this person -- whether or not they like me is up to them, if I make an offer and they turn me down, I'll know either they don't want to work for me or they found a better job somewhere else. If it's only about money, I'm usually not interested in them. Taking a job only for money will get you into trouble every time. Anyway, after I know that I want to work with them, it's time to see how they'll do facing a client. I might ask them what they'd do in uncomfortable situations. How would they react if I told them not to back down on something? How would they react when their work is rejected? How well can they follow directions? Given a certain set of instructions and another set of difficulties, how do they resolve that? The whole people skills sort of thing.

Lastly I look at the work. I tend to think you can train good people to be better designers, but teaching a good designer to be a better person is nearly impossible. So if I like them and they seem smart about handling themselves, I see how good they are graphically, and interactively, and informationally. What are they creating, what decisions did they make and how did they arrive at the ultimate answer.

If they don't have their own space on the Web, I am also less likely to hire them. I want someone with a passion for the medium, which I don't think comes from making things for money all the time. When you look around the Web at the truly interesting and beautiful things being created, they are seldom in the commercial space. But when they are, I'll wager the designer has their own space as well where they go to play. Those are the people I want.

/ How do you promote your talent and land gigs?

Appearing at conferences is helpful. It gets your name out there and you never know who's in the audience. Contrary to what you might think, it's not difficult to appear at a conference. You need to come up with a good presentation that's specialized around a single goal. You don't give a presentation on Web design, for example, but you do on navigation. You don't do one on information architecture, but you do on using it to develop an e-commerce shopping cart. You have to pick out something specific to talk about and have a clear, clean presentation and really know the subject. You can't invent it, because some in your audience will be there to check their own preconceptions. And they'll challenge you and you'll need answers.

Secondly, write up some articles and submit them to sites like A List Apart or digital-web.com or Netdiver. They may not pay you, but you have published material publicly available for people to read and get an idea of what you think and how you communicate. 

Answer questions on mailing lists. Participate in forums. Becoming "recognized" is no more than using what you know and attaching your name to it.

Finally, make stuff. Create. Design. Develop. Put it up. Tell people about it. Keep going. Even if it's for your own amusement. The more you make, the more you learn and the more you have to show.

/ What makes a good web site?

A good Web site is one that achieves its goals. I know that sounds nebulous, but the question is also nebulous.

There is no one answer to the question, because it will depend on who's viewing and using the site. For example, I find Slashdot completely annoying. Obviously, thousands of others would disagree. It gets thousands of hits a day and is very successful in its goal. Would I consider it a good Web site? Based on audience reaction, yes it is. Based on my own use of it, no it isn't.

You have to figure out what the goals are before ever starting the design and development process. Are you trying to make money with this site? That prescribe certain decisions right away that will affect every other decision. Who is your audience? What do they want from the site? If you don't know that, how are you going to deliver it?

glassdog, for example, only has one main goal. It's there to amuse me and make me happy, to challenge me to top myself, to show off, to create things regardless of popularity or readership. Of course I'm concerned with making the audience happy, too. But if I did something tomorrow that chased everyone away, would I pull the site down? Absolutely not. Can you say the same thing for Salon?

Absolutely not.

Different goals, different success measurements. You have to set those goals first and see if you're meeting them as you progress.

/ How did you get involved in content publishing?

By publishing myself. I was always writing, but I would keep it all to myself or share it with my friends. The Web opened a door to a wider audience for all the stilly, stupid, amusing and insane crap coming out of my brain. It didn't matter to me who was reading it or even if it was being read.

Well, truthfully it did of course. But what mattered more to me was my recording of it all. I amuse myself endlessly. I think I'm crazy. And it's fun to go back and read the crap I wrote years ago to see how I've changed or improved.

Back in the days, as they say, it was easier to get noticed. There were all these page badge sites like Project Cool and Cool Site of the Day and High Five and BOBAWORLD on and on and on. So you'd submit your site to them all and you'd gain a little more audience each time, and they might link to you and then their audience became your audience and you could continue to gain more sets of eyes as you produced more content and became someone's bookmark.

Early on I decided I was having a lot of fun and other people should be having fun, so I started a subsite at glassdog called SPEW that people could contribute articles to and I'd HTML them and post them so their friends could see them. I hoped to involve more people in creating the Web instead of being merely observers. I think SPEW was there before Derek Powazek's the fray, certainly before Alex Massie's PBOT or AfterDinner. I didn't have any grand plans for world domination until much later.

/ How do you sharpen your talent?

As far as writing is concerned, I write a lot. I read a lot, too, as much as time allows. I play with words, with different types of writing, with rhymes and alliteration and white space. Technical writing is straight-forward and unchallenging, because you need to convey information but not necessarily thoughts and opinions. Creative writing is exactly the opposite, so how do you bring the reader into your head and understand the way you're thinking -- not just what it is you're thinking.

Remember I mentioned awareness, before, and I'm going to reiterate the importance of that. Become aware of what you're doing as you're doing it. Why are you making the choices you make? Why this color instead of that one? Why this word? Why this phrase?

Awareness is something I brought with me from my acting training. There are several exercises you're taught when learning that craft. Observation and mimicry. Why do people do certain things, behave in certain ways? Why do you? Why do you adjust your glasses using that gesture? How do you open a bottle of beer? How do you walk? How do you stand? Why do you cross your arms? Why do some people gesture when they talk? Why do people mumble and how else is mumbling manifested in their stance, their comportment, everything about them. You start to recognize relationships with the reasons why people "act" the way they do with the sort of person they are. You adopt those pieces into your performance.

And it's actually annoying at first. It ruins things. You start picking everything apart and recognizing similar traits and applying names to them. You no longer simply travel through life, you become a documentarian, of sorts. Enjoying things by simply experiencing them starts to disappear because you become aware of other colors, other symbols, other meanings.

I left acting but I kept this talent with me because I found it interesting. Now I apply it to myself when I am at a Web site, or when I am designing, or looking at colors and images. Why do those things work together, and those things don't? Do they always work together? When don't they, and why? What changed between point A and point B to make the things no longer work? Sometimes you can't articulate the reason, but you remember the circumstances and that's usually enough.

The danger in this method is that it's very personal. The observations you make are one-way, and you may not be seeing the whole picture. So you also need to read what others are saying about design or writing and adopt or reject the things you read. No one is always 100% right, including you.

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