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Episode 126 July 17, 2018 | 29min

More Than Type and Color: Talking to Robyn Kanner

We talk with designer Robyn Kanner about how to talk to designers.

Show Notes

The Conversations Designers SHOULD Be Having: This week, Paul Fordand Rich Ziade meet with designer Robyn Kanner to discuss her path from a tiny art school to a UX designer at Amazon to the founder of MyTransHealth. We talk about the complex systems that inspire Robyn’s design practice, and the surprising turn in her journey that taught her how to throw a literal punch.

Rich Ziade We may have to . . . cut out the F words but we’ll put like a duck sound —

Paul Ford Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

RZ That’s fine.

PF What should we replace it with?

RZ Uh . . . I dunno.

Robyn Kanner I can give you a sound bite, if you want.

PF Yeah, go. Uh, freakin.

RK Freakin!

PF There. That’s — [chuckles].

RZ There we go. Perfect [music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds].

PF [Music ramps down] We are talking to Robyn Kanner.

RZ Let’s go back to the very beginning. Did you study design, Robyn?

RK No.

RZ See that’s — [stammers] everybody who’s in design didn’t study design.

PF No, that’s not true. There are many people who studied design.

RZ Yeah, but —

RK It was a hesitant, “No.” But I —

RZ Yeah.

RK I went — I went to a — a weird art school in rural Maine, called the University of Maine at Farmington, and it was a graduating class of six. And I didn’t even graduate.

RZ Six?! [Robyn chuckles]

PF Ok. Ok. So let’s back up a few things up there.

RZ Woah!

RK Yeah.

[0:57]

RZ In a barn?! [Laughs]

PF So why Maine?

RK Uh, I grew up in Maine.

PF Ok. And you went to a school, a college with six graduates.

RK Uh, it was a much larger state school but mostly people focus on elementary education and there was a small little art program um and there was two professors uh Katrazyna Randall

and Dawn Nye and they kind of owned my life for four years.

RZ So, wait. Two professors and six students?

RK Uh, yeah.

RZ That’s a strong ratio.

RK Yeah.

RZ Did they follow you home? [Laughs]

RK Well there was — [chuckles] I hated it while I was there. I’ve grown to appreciate it deeply since I left.

PF So what did you — what did you learn while there? What was the big thing?

RK I think I learned to question everything um at the root of it. I — I think I left without trust but excitement.

PF And then how did you get from abstract theory to capitalist practice? [Robyn guffaws]

RZ “View cart”! [Laughs]

RK Yeah! Uh —

PF “View Cart” is the name of a memoir that —

RK Yes!

PF — now this is — uh! [Rich laughs]

[1:52]

RK That’s the new that I’m gonna be a working on, it’s “View Cart: a Memoir of Robyn Can”. Uh so while I was at school, I got really into music and um my life sort of began making albums and I designed I think 55 albums from like 2008 to 2010.

PF So you had the music. You have the sort of the band identity.

RK Yeah.

PF That is a very empowering moment.

RK Definitely.

PF When you go like, “I can make my own reality.”

RK Right.

PF “And I now — ” And as you get better you start to look like a better and better musician regardless [right] of how [totally] your music is.

RK Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I did a bunch of those and it was fun and it was great and then I realized I needed to make money at some point. So [chuckles] I went into music publishing and worked for James Brown’s last manager.

RZ Woah!

RK And — yeah. I — I basically like acted like a designer slash tour manager for two years.

PF Ok. You’re hanging out with James Brown’s world.

RK Yup.

PF And designing.

RZ That’s a — that’s — that’s it’s own podcast right there.

RK Yeah [chuckless], literally. Yeah, it was a lot.

PF 5,000 questions show up.

RK Yeah.

[2:54]

PF How crazy was it?

RK It was crazy.

PF Ok.

RK Oh yeah cuz that world taught me like what it’s like to get punched and it’s like to punch people and like what’s it like to have your like throat cut. It was like four a.m. and I was driving from somewhere to somewhere and like everybody was on some sort of drug and I was driving this 15 passenger van and I was like, “This is probably not how my life should be.” [Laughs]

PF No, probably not. Although I have to imagine that rural Maine preps you for being with a lot of —

RK Yeah it was smelly dudes.

PF Yeah.

RK Yeah, it was a like a lot of smelly dudes in the van.

PF Yeah.

RK Yeah, yeah, yeah [laughs].

PF Alright so. But [stammers] so you keep designing.

RK Yes.

PF And then um somewhere along the line you end up at a place like Amazon. Like how does that — how do you get to Amazon?

RK [Inhales] Uh well it was a lot of stumbling. So I went from, you know, working in music to working at a non-profit to working at an agency to like I got my first contract job at Staples because I lied my way through the door and —

PF Were you at agencies or were you freelance?

RK I was mostly a freelance contractor [ok] up until I landed at Amazon.

[3:53]

PF How did the transition to — like Amazon’s a web company [yeah] like how did you get to — how did the web stuff happen?

RK Uh I made this site called My Trans Health. It’s a website designed to help trans people get access to quality health care. It was a massive AI, UX, and sort of UI experience and it got a lot of press, and one of the managers at Amazon found it and sent me a note and was like, “I want you to work here.”

RZ Oh, Amazon.

PF Yeah, that site’s still going, right?

RK Oh yeah, yeah, they’re doing ok.

PF Are you still — wait, do you — is like My Trans Health something you ran or was it a not-for-profit or like what —

RK I — I still run it. Yeah, it’s a non-profit. I actually redesigned it last year. I never posted it though [ok]. I got too much anxiety about it. So.

PF Oh no! You need to release your new design.

RK I know. Yeah. It’s —

PF I hate that feeling.

RK It’s sitting —

RZ It is. You know what it is? You lived with it just a little too long.

RK Yeah, I — well, it’s — so it’s the first time I did it I did this round of press and it was a lot of prying into my life in a way that I wasn’t used to. And the idea of going through that cycle again really gave me a bunch of anxiety.

PF Suddenly it becomes, “My trans opinions coming back — ”

RK Yeah.

PF Yeah, that’s —

RK It’s — it’s like a lot.

[4:55]

PF No, I’m sure people are — when people are committed and connected to a thing, oh my god.

RK Totally.

PF So you’ve got this design [yeah] which you think is better but you —

RK It’s much better. Yeah.

PF You just can’t handle the 200 emails that are gonna result.

RK Yeah.

PF God! That’s totally fair. Who can help you answer? Someone — get someone to help you answer those emails.

RK Yeah, well I still don’t — I think people thought My Trans Health was a lot bigger than what it was. It was three people. Um and we all had full time jobs while we were making it. So [chuckles] it was — it was a lot of time and energy and we all lived in different places while we were doing it [right]. Um we all had literally like trans surgery in the middle of working on it, too. So our lives were pretty chaotic while we were making that experience, yeah.

PF I think about this, too, when you’re — when you create something and like there’s a lot of heat and light when you’re making new thing [right]. You’re life is really tumultuous at that point and then it goes out. It’s very emotionally tiring to go back to it.

RK Yeah, it’s a lot.

RZ Sure!

RK Yeah.

RZ Sure!

PF Alright, so yeah this is the tricky — this is where you need — like you need help and you need — and — and this is the hard part with side projects. It’s brutal.

RK Yeah, I mean I think my identity was like a quote/unquote “bad thing” for a while and then all of a sudden it became a really good and popular thing [mm hmm] and never really having the time to process that while trying to ship an actual experience. That was sort of the experience of it and I think it’s interesting like when I look back on it now like for as much sort of press it got or whatever like that — no real like people who hire designers really got it. Like I interviewed at a lot of places in the middle of that experience and everybody was like, “Cool job. See you later.” Like there was a lot of doors shut on me.

[6:20]

RZ and PF Interesting.

RK Yeah. Yeah.

PF What weren’t they understanding? What was it — what happened?

RK It’s not that they weren’t understanding. They just didn’t know how to have a conversation about it. Um they didn’t, they weren’t able to separate me from the work that I did um and I mean it was deep UX problem like to solve that kinda stuff. So, and whenever I would get deep into like the sort of the meat of problem, they’d kinda pull back out and just there was a lot of like patting me on the shoulder like, “Good job, kid.” And I was like, “If this was like a shoe company you would think that I’m the freshest shit. It’s because it’s like a health care company that you’re kinda devaluing me right now.”

PF Gotcha.

RK Um so I had a lot of those conversations.

PF This is thing, right? You are a — you’re very systems focused [yeah]. Like every — every time I’ve read stuff by you or talked to you like I feel that . . . there’s an aspect of design which is, you know, “Let’s get the rectangles on the screen.”

RK Sure.

PF There’s an aspect that you studied in college which is the kind of how does this fit with that larger cultural frameworks that exist? [Right] And then there’s um and it’s an almost out of fashion way of looking at design [oh yeah] where it’s like it’s part of the big system — you’re creating this systems, humans are involved, technology isn’t first [right], you’re thinking about these design problems in a very organic way. It kind of got lumped into design thinking.

RK Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF Which, I mean, where are you on design thinking?

RK [Inhales sharply] It’s methodology [mm hmm]. I think designers think very highly of themselves for something that’s remarkably simple, for the most part.

[7:41]

PF [Under his breath] I need to go under the table now and just sigh [Rich laughs].

RK Uh I think design thinking is like great. “You know how to work Post Its. Cool.” Like but like you could put any designer in a room with a group of Post Its and like they’d probably come up with the same fuckin’ thing.

PF I do feel that there’s a lot of like, “We’re gonna make an amazing, new, artificial arm and [right] and then they get a stack of Post Its.” And then it’s like, “Ok!”

RK Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I think there’s a lot — and especially like in-house cultures thrive on you getting excited about those Post It notes [mm hmm]. I’m an existentialist and also a systems thinker which puts me in a very annoying place for [laughs] most people. So when I think of systems, I think of things that already exist. I think music is like one of the most perfect systems ever um because everything has a time signature, everything has a rhythm, and a melody. Um and they all work together at the same time which is, to me, the most wild shit in the world.

PF Sure. You’ve got scales and chords, and there’s a language —

RK Everything! Yeah and it’s all harmonious.

PF It’s been working for a thousand years or more.

RK Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So —

RZ And they documented it.

PF That’s right.

RZ There’s a way to like —

RK Right!

RZ — actually codify the thing.

RK Exactly!

PF Ah! I never thought of like sheet music as being the expression of a global historical system of knowledge.

RK Just systems!

RZ I mean that’s what it is.

[8:45]

RK I — yeah, I remember so I was at Staples and I was working on like a redesign of the paper packaging and um —

PF Oh like that they wrap the paper in?

RK Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF This is a big deal for Staples.

RK It was huge.

PF They let you in deep!

RK Oh yeah. Oh yeah. So I was in that room and basically the design director, his name is Grail, like he put us all in a room, all five of us, and was like, “Go see what you can come back with. Talk to you in a week.” And didn’t talk to us. He was just like, “Let’s just see what they come up with.” So I got really into systems idea and I took this idea of a flag. Like flags have basically perfect systems that work on like multiple scales [mm hmm] and I basically designed three levels of paper packaging that worked directly with how flags visual systems work and I brought that in and everybody else had like, like nice gradients and lines [Rich and Robyn chuckle] and like, Grail was like, “Talk to me about your system.” And I was like, “Well, it’s based on the flag structure that — ” And he immediately was like, “That’s — it doesn’t need to be this smart.” [Paul and Robyn laugh]

RZ That’s really funny.

RK Yeah it was like — I was — and so that was one of the first ones where it’s like, “Systems are cool, also like they can really screw you if you try to like try to be attached to them 24/7.”

PF Well and it’s, it’s —

RZ Also, no offence to Staples, you were at Staples.

RK No, I mean I think I [Rich laughs] there’s like some brilliant designers over there. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

RZ Hey, I’m just like outside looking into Staples.

RK Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely.

[9:59]

PF Also, you know, where — where I am now like I’m thinking Grail is going, “I have to walk this up the chain.”

RK Yes.

PF Right?

RK Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF “And I’m gonna have to tell Sue and Tim [yeah, yeah, yeah] that this a flag-based system [right] or I could say, ‘Blue is a cool color right now’” —

RK Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RZ Yeah.

PF “‘And a lot of people — ’”

RK It’s a much simpler sale.

PF “Yeah, and if you look at like the way that Tiffany’s been doing it’s rebranding [sure] then we’re gonna get into that upscale market with the blue [right],” and then you’re over there with your flag.

RK Yeah, exactly.

PF Although, the systems thinking I think actually really does become necessary when you’re designing abstract software at scale [sure] like then it becomes a useful tool in a way that I don’t think design thinking does [right] where — like when I think of design thinking I think of like Post Its and [sure, yeah, yeah, yeah] — like we just started doing more and more uh Google Design sprints and stuff like that.

RK Oh interesting.

PF Do you have like a kickoff that you use? Is there like an approach that gets you into this mindset?

RK I like that. Are you talking about the sprint book?

PF Yeah.

[10:56]

RK Yeah, I like that book a lot.

PF I think it’s a very good compromise for like just getting everyone in a room talking and thinking.

RZ Well, it’s hard to get going.

PF Yeah.

RK Yeah. I mean I think what’s interesting is in-house you have to deal with politics. Like I think if you take a sprint at face value it’s really cool. Once you introduce like company politics it gets a lot hazier. I think when it comes to that approach you — you need a person who’s in the room who can balance feelings [mm hmm]. So once you have that person then you can work on the process but I think both need to be at play.

PF What does it mean to balance feelings?

RK I think when you’re in a room and you blend in-house people with like people are like from outside agency or whatever, there’s a lot of emotions happening in like how stuff gets done [mm hmm] and if you’re not managing those emotions and really figuring out like where each person is coming from and you put them all in a room to design something, I think it can get really messy. I think what works really well is when you’re on a sprint, you’re on the deadline, you’re all kind of in it together, and you’re functioning maybe like a sports team [mm hmm]. So you all understand your role in the system. And you — you ship that way.

PF Rich, you know about sports [laughs].

RK It would — so — like let me put this in this way: it would be weird if every single design agency had five Lebron James working on the same projects. You need like —

RZ Yeah. You need —

RK People around that.

RZ — the forward and the guard [yeah], and the [yeah yeah] — it’s a team [yeah]. I think what you’re getting it as it’s — it’s a dyn — a dynamic has to take hold, especially because it’s design, right? [Totally] Like cutting up that work. You can’t cut up that work, right?

RK No! No, no, no.

RZ “You do color scheme!” Like it doesn’t work like that [right, yeah, yeah, yeah]. So it’s very tricky and there’s egos involved and [totally] mm the whole thing.

RK But super exciting too.

[12:28]

RZ Did you have people reporting to you at Amazon?

RK Uh, no. I mentored some people but no.

RZ Ok, so can you talk a little bit about what you did there?

RK Yeah. Um I worked on a team called The Engagement Design Group. We primarily focused on community aspect stuff. So I designed everything from like reviews and answers —

RZ Oh, cool!

PF Talk about reviews as a product. What does that mean?

RK So fascinating!!!

PF Ok.

RK Um, I mean it’s the biggest scale ever, right? And uh it’s also in a shit load of languages [mm hmm] that uses like regular cells. So within like . . . sort of one platform of reviews you could be touching a hundred different devices and a lot of different code bases and a lot of different leaders of directors who products touch stuff. So it’s a lot of navigating conversations.

PF Alright, so there’s all this complexity. When you talk about it you sound closer to the tech but you’re a designer.

RK Yeah but the — the same thing, right? Like you can’t like operate them like separately. The one thing that I really appreciated about Amazon as a place is they had strong leadership principles and those leadership principles like help people sort of connect with each other when they were designing. So, sure, like I technically cared about like how the type looked and how like the button looked but also we had a pretty strong like system that was in place and it was less about like where the button should be and maybe more deeper product conversations like, “Should the button be there at all?”

PF So the Amazon you’re not reinventing like what — you’re not gonna choose a typeface.

[13:52]

RK No, very rarely. Very, very rarely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

PF So all of that stuff. So it’s almost never green field. Like everything is kind of already on Rails already.

RK Well, everything has a legacy, right? Like I think every time that I touched a product at Amazon I knew I might be messing with code that’s at least seven years old.

PF This is really interesting, right? Like the classic design model is you come in and there’s a blank page.

RK Right.

PF And this is not your world at all.

RK No. I mean not really. I mean with My Trans Health it was like a blank page but I made that blank page but I don’t think — that’s a classic design thing then like we’re kind of fucked here because a lot of things already exist. I — I don’t think new things need to get made as much as old things need to get better made.

PF Well that’s the thing with this industry, if you’re going into it, if you’re going into Amazon, you’re going to be picking up something that thousands of people have touched [correct] and you’ll be one of the thousands [right]. And so like where do you get started there?

RK Conversations.

PF Ok.

RK Mostly. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF Good coffee.

RK Yeah, it’s a lot of coffee conversations. I think somebody asked me what I do really well a while ago and I told them that I’m really good at asking questions [mm hmm] and I think that makes like a pretty good designer is like I can listen to you talk and I can figure out a question that I should be asking you and that answer gives me a — a new question to ask.

PF See, it’s tricky. We’re a very practitioner focused organization, right? And so it’s like — and it’s a lot of times we’re parachuting into organizations and so we need like when we talk about the job, that’s a big part of it. You don’t open Sketch right away.

RK No! Never.

[15:13]

PF Or you might if you’re just sort of working some thoughts out [sure] but it’s like that’s not really what you need to be doing first.

RZ Even if it’s a green field, like you still need to process — like Amazon’s aim is — there’s one aim.

RK Right.

RZ There’s one goal. Right? [Yes] And they’re all these pieces that kinda connect.

RK Wait. What do you think the goal is?

RZ Amazon?

RK Yeah.

RZ To sell you shit.

RK I disagree. But I love that that’s your answer.

PF What is the goal of Amazon?

RZ Tell us the goal.

PF God, please, somebody tell me the goal of Amazon [Robyn laughs].

RZ To help me? To be in my house? All day long?

RK It’s to be a natural part of your life.

RZ A natural part of your life? Explain that.

PF The thing is is that Jeff Bezos is not natural.

RK [Guffaws] [stammers] Here’s what I think: I think most west coast companies are trying to have the goal of trying to be naturally in your life [mm hmm]. That means that what I see at least in a lot of east coast tech side is like they should be products and they try to get you commerce sold and that’s kind of the world. West coast tech what I really appreciate is they’re really obsessed with time. So if you like use time as a success metric then you start having questions about like where does this person need me? Or where can I be more effective in their life? Um and I think you can see that with products like the Echo. Even with Spark like you’re opening the Amazon app not to buy something. That’s a — that’s a shift of mind. So the goal is less to get your money and more just to like actually help you when your moment of life needs it, right? Whether it’s groceries getting delivered you can like walk into a store, you can pick up a product, whatever it is, like it’s a — it’s much a more natural —

[16:30]

RZ But fundamentally they wanna make money.

RK Um.

PF Isn’t that just a side effect of their successful existence? At this point?

RZ No, no, but they’re a publicly traded company. There’s [I know] success that’s driven by dollars.

PF I don’t think —

RZ Like being a natural part of life — of your life like you could argue that —

RK It includes money.

RZ It — yeah. I mean the — the — you don’t even have to worry about money for years if you’ve really nailed being a natural part of someone’s life, right?

RK Correct. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RZ I mean you — that’s like just sort of the crazy — like Uber losing billions every year cuz they just wanna seep into you [yeah yeah yeah] to the point that when they do finally turn the switch, they’re already in your brain and in your heart and in your soul, right?

RK Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF So, Robyn, you came to New York City about a year ago [mm hmm] and you were just talking about the difference between east coast and west coast tech culture. Break that down a little bit.

RK Well when I first started, east coast tech happened. I witnessed a lot of conversations about color and typography [mm hmm] and it was coming out of a world in which that was the last thing that I thought about. And I would be talking to all these designers who were working on projects and they were really excited about like a specific color palette or a specific like new web font. And I just could’ve like passed off as just like, “Oh cool.” And kind of walked away [laughs] but like what I really get excited with is figuring out that time bit, right? It’s less about — about figuring that when somebody gets into a place that they have a wonderfully new and sophisticated experience and more that if they’re in a Walmart and they have one battery of like life left and like they have bad reception, can they get a product in and out um in 30 seconds?

[18:00]

PF Mm hmm.

RZ A bigger — bigger challenges.

RK Yeah, I mean I think that’s a cool design problem to have.

RZ Yeah.

PF Ok. So you’re talking to designers who are thinking about classic design-y things [right]. Is there a word for like the kind of design that you do?

RK Fffffft!!! Unemployable! [Laughs, Rich and Paul join in]

PF I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I mean —

RK Yeah, uh no, I don’t — I’m — it’s — to me it’s just design. I — I think if we think about the classic definition of design, right? It’s a solution to a problem within a set of constraints. Um for some unknown reason people got in their head that that meant type and color and for the life of me I don’t fuckin’ know why [ok] cuz to me it means so many different things um and those different things is the conversations that really excite me.

RZ To me this is product. This isn’t design.

PF Well, this is the thing —

RZ I mean that as a compliment. Not an insult.

RK No, I get it [Rich laughs].

PF All of these —

RK I get that a lot.

PF All of these boundaries are really blurry.

RK Of course. Sure.

RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[18:56]

PF Right? Like I mean engineering and — and we’re divided into product, engineering, and design but like —

RK Right.

PF — people definitely like [bridge gaps] there’s a lot of boundaries [yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course] that get blurred.

RZ [Stammers] I guess another way to kinda put it is the decisions you’re asking to make —

RK Right.

RZ — that you want power over could cost — there could be millions of dollars in difference in investment versus type and color because you may make a decision that’s fundamental to the core that could actually have a dramatic effect on a engineering agenda.

PF You’re a very high risk human being, right? Like [Rich laughs]

RK Yeah, I mean, I’ve lived in —

RZ Again, in a nice way.

RK Yeah, no, I am though. Um I also think that like that’s where the work is. Like it would be weird [yeah] if designers fought for years to have a seat at the table and then they were like, “Avenir!” [Laughter] That would be bizarre to me. Um —

PF Proxima Nova!

RK Yeah I would imagine that if you fought for a seat at the table for a really long time you were fighting more than a typeface.

RZ Right.

PF So, you came to New York City.

RK Yeah.

PF You’re at Etsy [yeah] and now you’re working on some personal projects [yeah, yeah, yeah]. What are you doing?

[19:58]

RK Well, I’m writing a lot. Um —

PF Ok. And you — you speak out a lot, right? Like —

RK I do. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF At conferences and —

RK I speak out a lot, I’m reading a lot more, I’m writing a lot more. I’m just really into this idea of storytelling right now and trying to figure out like different ways to tell stories.

PF So again like not necessarily design. Design just sort of seems to be like a core to the world view [yeah] and then other things like you sort of follow other paths [sure] and come home to design on a regular basis.

RK Well, look I mean for an industry that’s obsessed with design thinking, here I am, a designer approaching many different things with that like thought process [mm hmm]. So it’s technically still design to me. I think when I write words, I’m designing those words cuz I’m still like design is all about communication. So if — if we’re gonna like die on the fist of Sketch as far as design is like that’s limiting to the entire world cuz when I think about design, I think about words, communication, audio, uh every different thing that can come with it, right?

PF See I buy it and I buy it completely but the hard part is communicating it to the people who are sort of buying your services.

RK Yeah, I haven’t figured that out [Paul laughs].

RZ Well also just like getting people to let you do it.

RK Sure.

RZ Like even if you took a job [right], you know, you’re — you’re sort of walking around kinda selling this approach [yeah] in a way. Not explicitly [sure]. But you’re essentially saying, “Hey, give me more room. Let me [let a person breathe] have a little more power here than typically associated with design.”

PF This — I — this was the challenge of my career almost up until we started this business.

[21:22]

RK Interesting.

PF No one could figure out what the hell I actually did [right].

RZ I still don’t know what you actually do.

PF No, I know, it’s a really good question. Um no, cuz I’d be like, “Well, I’m a writer and I’m ok at it. And — ”

RK You’re a pretty good writer.

PF Thank you. That’s kind.

RK Pretty good writer.

PF No, I know but like [laughter] this is the thing. I have a writing career which is a hard thing to get [yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah]. Like I made one happen and then I’d be like, “No, I’m actually a media consultant.” And it’d be like, “Well, no, that’s weird.” And I’d be like, “Well now I’m writing again but I’m a media consultant. Actually I’m gonna go program the CMS.” And like —

RK But it’s all communication.

PF Yeah, it was all one thing for me [yeah]. It was all about like how can I make tools and frameworks for helping, you know, person A understand — it’s actually about helping person A understand person B [sure] with technology in the middle. I think technology gets in the way most of the time.

RK Of course. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF And — and so for me like I’m — I’m listening to you and I’m just going like, “Uhhh,” because you have to articulate what’s in your brain to people who are trying to buy something [right] and you don’t wanna diminish the quality of what you have to offer [right] but at the same time they must be going like, “Robyn, can you just get me that rectangle?”

RK Right. Probably. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RZ Yeah just sometimes just say, “Ah. Alright. Let me just give this guy his thing.”

PF I get the sense no and that’s where someone — [crosstalk and laughter].

RK I actually I wanna answer the question very like properly here which is yes and no. Yeah I’ll get you the rectangle but we’re gonna talk about it first.

[22:41]

RZ Ok.

RK That’s it. Like if we have a conversation about it first and I can figure out that that rectangle does x, y, z that’s gonna benefit x, y, z then I’ll get you the rectangle first.

RZ And if it’s not — it doesn’t seem to be the kind of environment where there’s — like, “God, this guy wants another 30 minutes. [Um] Can’t you just do the thing?”

PF Yeah.

RK Yeah. I don’t excel in that environment. Um —

RZ You just don’t click into it.

RK It’s not that I don’t click into it, it’s just that I consciously understand that that’s not where I’m gonna be most effective and I think [right] that’s — that’s fine.

PF I love that you’re sticking to your guns. I just — because I’m now someone who sells services all day [sure], I know the struggle you’re in. Like it’s just [yeah] it’s — it’s hard on the other side [yeah]. They — they don’t get it and they don’t like — people have so much trouble when they can’t understand what they’re buying [sure] and we run into this all the time except we’ve gotta commoditized to the point where it’s like, “We’ll build you your thing.” [Right] Right? And so we’ve sort of — like one of the good things about an agency is you get to take all that part in the middle that they may not understand [right] and go like, “You’re gonna be part of it, you can observe it, there’s gonna be a Slack channel [yeah, yeah, yeah] but also know that you don’t have to do like we’re gonna take all that away from you unless you wanna be in it.” [Sure] And like that is — I think that’s key to the business, right? Because [yeah] we get to sort of take that back and then people can get really into it here [right] without the client having to go like, “Am I paying for them to do things on Post It notes?” You know?

RK I think — here’s what I think: if somebody is asking me for a rectangle and they’re more frustrated with the fact that I’m asking them a question about the rectangle, I don’t think I’m the problem in that situation. I think the problem is you can’t tell me why you need a rectangle. Like that should be —

RZ Right.

RK — a very quick answer [right]. If you can’t do that, then I don’t understand why the rectangle should be there at all.

[24:28]

PF God damn that rectangle.

RK I mean and the conversation with the rectangle that designers wanna have was should it be three or five point radius corners? Um and I think there’s a better conversation to be having around that rectangle. Not that the three to five isn’t an actual important conversation cuz it might help increase conversion by .001 over a month but there’s a different conversation to be having.

PF So your goal is to back people into systems that they can then use to, you know, do better work in the future.

RK That would be ideal.

PF Yeah.

RZ Should you shed — I know this is gonna feel wrong, I think, you can say that’s a great idea. Uh the hell with the word design. I’m not a designer.

RK Uh no. I’m — I’m a designer.

RZ You’re a designer?

RK Yeah.

RZ What do you call the person who only cares about how rounded the rectangle is?

RK Designer.

RZ Lower case.

RK No, Designer. Period.

RZ They’re all Designers?

RK Look: a basketball team is made up of many people who do different things. There’s a center, there’s a point guard, there’s a small forward. They’re all basketball players.

RZ Ok.

[25:16]

RK Design is just an umbrella word that includes a lot of different people.

RZ Yeah but you’re like on the bench. You’re the guard who’s doing the rounded corners.

RK For as much as like I don’t wanna have a conversation about whether it should be five or three point radius, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that conversation should be had. I think that conversation definitely needs to exist. It needs to work in order for you to ship great products [ok] but I also think that there’s another conversation to be having that might not be happening and that one is the one that I think can actually benefit.

RZ And it’s often higher level, bigger.

RK Right.

RZ You’re sort of challenging a lot of the — the notions behind the ask.

RK Why would anybody fight for three to five pixel ratio? Like who cares? Like isn’t there a bigger fight?

RZ There is! I [stammers] this is interesting because I think this isn’t only challenging people outside of design but designers.

RK I hope it challenges designers.

RZ Yeah. So you’re writing and just sort of have your own free time right now. Where — where would you like to go? Like what’s the next gig?

RK [Inhales sharply] So I’m fascinated by media right now. Um —

RZ Interesting. Nobody cares about media anymore.

RK Fucking fascinated by it! [Rich chuckles]

PF What do you wanna know?

RZ Yeah.

RK Well I’m fascinated by people, right? Cuz I’m like much more fascinated by the sociology of design more than the color of design. Uh I’d much rather have a conversation about people, right? And if I think about how people consume information, media designers seem at the heart of that. Um if you’re designing for media right now, you’re the person who’s shifting how somebody reads or consumes a story. Um and that to me is super, super fascinating.

[26:40]

PF 350 demoralized media designers just stood up.

RK [Laughs] Probably! [Rich snort laughs] Yes! Because somewhere in the heart of it there’s people communicating in those moments and digitally speaking like the idea of reading a story isn’t that far off from reading a story was like in the 1800s or the 1900s, like it’s not that super far off but I think if I was in that space, I’d probably go back there and back and forth and try to figure out like a cool way to tell a story.

PF I think a lot about the fact that we’re um we — we’re constantly saying that our industry is — is changing everything and then compared to electric light [right] it’s just a little tiny baby glitch.

RK Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF Like you know 500 years from now they’ll be like, “They used to read by candle light.”

RK Right! Right.

RZ Yeah.

RK Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF “And then one day they all got pocket — ” Like from electric light to mobile phones will probably be like a paragraph.

RK Easily. Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

PF Alright, so, who should get in touch? And how do they get in touch?

RK Probably just talk to me if you think weird. Like I think that [ok] that would be the — the best way to — to answer that question. Um I’m on the internet a lot. I feel like I have a very prominent uh voice online for the most part and um you can take it at face value or you don’t have to. I think sometimes I meet people from the real world who like know me online and they’re like, “Wow, you’re a lot more eloquent than I thought you’d be.” And I’d be like, “Why?” And they’re like, “Well, you tweet about getting high every night.”

PF Yeah every now and then your Twitter will be deeply intimate [yes] in a way that’s like, “Oh I know a lot more about Robyn than I did before.”

RK It’s a little bit of a show.

PF Yeah, yeah, I get that.

[28:10]

RK Um so I think for people who [music fades in] —

PF You’re having fun.

RK I’m very much having fun [laughter]. Yeah. Um to me it’s a show, right? That’s all it is. So, yeah, you know, give me a call if you wanna talk. Don’t actually call me though [Rich shushes].

PF No.

RZ I don’t think people are motivated right now to call you.

RK Yeah, don’t actually call me.

PF No one is — no one is phoning you.

RK Yeah, yeah, yeah. Send me an email. I like emails better than anything else.

PF Emails are so great.

RK I don’t even like Twitter DMs for the most part.

PF Alright well it’s been great to have you.

RK It’s been so good to be here.

RZ A lot of fun.

RK This has been fun.

RZ Yeah.

RK Please don’t hate me.

PF No, we love you.

RZ This was great.

RK This was great [music ramps up, plays alone for five seconds, fades out to end].