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Jonas Downey

About Jonas Downey

On a molecular level, Jonas is mostly pancakes and caffeine.

Learning Rails made me a better designer

Jonas Downey
Jonas Downey wrote this on 38 comments

At 37signals, our designers write code. Not just HTML and CSS — Ruby and JavaScript too. We can all get reasonably far implementing an idea before calling in a programmer for help.

I was lucky to get a crash course in Rails when production for the new Basecamp was kicking into high gear. But even after a year in the trenches, I wasn’t confident I was Doing It Right™. So last fall I took the Rails for Designers class at The Starter League. Obviously, the class helped me get better at programming. I wasn’t expecting it to transform my design process — yet that’s exactly what happened.

Before you can walk, you have to stand on your own feet.

An interface isn’t just a series of static screens pasted together. It’s a flow, with inputs and outputs. You can’t truly evaluate an interface until you can use it, and you can’t use it until you build it. Anything less than the real thing is a fuzzy approximation.

It’s fine to bring in a programmer when you’re confident that your idea is worth building, but what if you’re not so sure? Now you’ve used someone else’s time and mental energy to make something that might hit the dumpster. That stinks.

This hit home recently when we started working on a new app. Before, we’d make a static mockup or build a few working pieces and then call in a programmer assist. This time, we’ve been able to stay in the prototype phase much longer – almost 2 months – without having to use up a programmer’s time to test concepts and explore ideas. Basic programming knowledge lets us dance without a partner.

You don’t have to be a code master. I am most definitely not. If you can just make things functional, that’s enough to evaluate and a huge head start for a real programmer to make it great.

Are you a designer who learned to program? How did it change your process? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Lessons in creativity and joy at XOXO

Jonas Downey
Jonas Downey wrote this on 4 comments

Last week, a small crew of 37signals folk headed to Portland for the XOXO festival. It was a high-speed joyride of creative spirit, and it might have permanently changed my outlook on making stuff. Here are a few of the morsels that will stick with me for a while.

Ignore cynicism. Do what you want, and love doing it.

The Internet appears to run on cynicism. Twitter is a complaint delivery protocol, and comment threads are polluted with meaningless grammar fights and nitpicky personal attacks. It’s hard not to be distracted and consumed by the blustering.

But somehow, at XOXO, everyone was cheerful. They showed beautiful things. They had fun. They were friendly. No judgement. It was a breath of fresh, caffeinated air.

The talks blurred into a DIY instruction manual for following your bliss. Every speaker shared the same recurring tale of overcoming self-doubt, failure, financial obstacles, and technical challenges to do something they could believe in (and you can do it, too!)

It was a much-needed reminder that the lifeblood of the Internet is still made up of respectful people who are wide-eyed and fiercely passionate about their work.

Work with people you admire, and spend some real, quality time with them.

I’m so fortunate to work with great people. But we’re busy, we don’t all live close to each other, and we don’t have a lot of time to hang out.

XOXO had so much fringe social time that even a bunch of introverts like us couldn’t avoid talking to each other. The social events were invaluable — I kept wishing more of our company was there too. It was team-building, fun-style. When your job is to make things together, your work will be better when you have fun together. Make time for it.

Conference events shouldn’t be be short and formal.

Andy Baio and Andy McMillan could teach a course in throwing a good event. In short: allow your attendees plenty of room to breathe. Don’t pack in tons of simultaneous sessions in a generic hotel. Give people an experience. Give them free time. Give them good food and loads of coffee in a weird place.

Look at other types of art, as much as possible.

Web design has a bad reputation for being stylistically trendy and same-looking. Some guy does a parallax scrolling site, and now your boss wants you to add that to your corporate PR website for some reason. Glossy buttons, Gaussian Noise, linen texture, new things that look fake-old, then back to minimalism and flat colors as a reaction to the glossy noisy textured fake-old stuff.

Turns out, there is a ton of inspiring work being done…in every other genre that isn’t web design! XOXO highlighted so much good work, and almost none of it was on the web. Movies, games, illustration, industrial design, comics, it was all diverse and interesting. Time and again, the web was just a way to deliver or sell it — the means, not the end.

So, get out of your chair and look at the world for a while. Then go make something new.

Exploring ideas in the pursuit of clarity

Jonas Downey
Jonas Downey wrote this on 11 comments

In my six months as a signal, I’ve worked with Jason F. on numerous design explorations for the new Basecamp. These sessions are always fun, and a few of them helped transform difficult problems into the UI you’re using in the final product. (One famously tricky one was the new Projects screen.) Our design process isn’t formal, but we’re fast and methodical. We scope most of our work into a week or two.

One of our recent explorations was a UI for adding groups or departments inside a company — such as the Marketing and HR groups inside Acme Widgets. This turned out to be a great example of how an exploration can produce an entirely different result than you originally expected.

Step 1: Define the problem and propose solutions

To start, we meet to talk about the problem, and sketch ideas. We each suggest some concepts and review them, trying to poke holes in our reasoning or spot any early showstoppers. This usually takes less than 30 minutes.

Step 2: Pick the ideas that are most likely to succeed

For this exploration, we had several ideas, but two stood out: a straightforward A-Z list, and a more visual circle-themed version.

Circle sketch