Mandy Brown talks design, news and, ahem, reading


Give us a brief summary of what you do/who you are.

I’m a co-founder and editor for A Book Apart, and a contributing editor for A List Apart. I also serve as Communications Director for Typekit, where I write frequently for the Typekit blog. And I’ve been writing about (and advocating for) the reading experience for a number of years on A Working Library.

Where do you get your news?

So many places! I skim the Times and The Guardian most mornings to get a sense of what’s going on. I go to Talking Points Memo for political coverage, and to Mother Jones for analysis. I increasingly turn to Al Jazeera for news of the Middle East. I also read Truthout and ProPublica regularly, both of which demonstrate that focused, non-profit news organizations are able to thrive. And, increasingly, much of my news comes from Twitter; I’ve learned more about Occupy Wall Street from Twitter than any other source, partly from people broadcasting their experience and partly from following journalist’s reports in real time.

What do you think of the experience on most news sites? Are there some you love? Some you hate?

I can’t say I love any news sites, though some are certainly better than others. The Times and Guardian both have very competent, readable designs. On the contrary, the Washington Post strikes me as cramped and uncomfortable; the text just feels so unloved. Which is a shame, because I grew up with the Washington Post and still feel a great deal of nostalgia for it, but I can’t bring myself to read it online.
That said, my reading habits are such that I open a whole bunch of news stories in tabs, then one-by-one send them to Instapaper, where I read them in relative quietude. Partly that habit comes from needing to time-shift news to other parts of the day (on the subway, in between tasks), and partly it’s a revolt against the ads and ugliness that mark so many news sites.

You’ve said on A Working Library that “Our reading experience has become voracious and dispersed, and it needs new payment mechanisms that serve this behavior rather than hinder it.” And you’ve been pretty hard on most web advertising. What are your thoughts on a new payment mechanism? What could it be?

My gripe with web advertising is that it’s increasingly obnoxious and alienating, and on a path where it can only get more so over time. The cycle is vicious; each new and novel ad form catches our attention, then we (smart, determined readers that we are) learn to skip it or tune it out, then it comes back more obnoxious than it was before, and on and on. The only possible endgame there is the million dollar homepage: all ads, no content. And no readers, either.

So if that path is wrong, where else? I’m not sure, but I’m convinced whatever we end up with must respect the reading experience and the nature of the web. And that nature includes a strong interconnectedness — the ability to move from one bit of content to the next with little friction, to read dozens of perspectives on the same topic, to share and annotate and archive and read later and so on.

Paywalls don’t seem to me to be the solution to this, though I respect the people at the Times and elsewhere who are trying hard to balance the needs of a budget with the desire to make content shareable and discoverable. I’m just not convinced the tradeoffs are worth it: we shouldn’t have to trade reach (maybe the most important thing for a news story to achieve) for sustainability. Those two things — the success of a story and our ability to pay the bills — should be in alignment, not at odds with one another. The web is not designed for exclusivity.

Models like Readability hold promise, though I think we’re still in the early stages of figuring this out. What if a percentage of the money I pay to my ISP each month were distributed to the sites I visited? What if a micropayments system sent a few cents to each site I liked on Facebook? What if I could pay reporters directly (via Kickstarter or the like) to work on the subjects most dear to my heart? What if news orgs gave their content away freely, and sustained the business via other means (conferences, books, etc.)? We’re in this great time where it pays to experiment with as many ideas as possible, just to see where it gets us.

Only one thing strikes me as a mistake during a time like this, and that’s to assume things will work out just as they always have. I’m confident they won’t.


You’ve said you don’t consider yourself visually creative, but you found design, you are a fantastic advocate for the most important elements of design and you make things where beautiful creativity shines. What’s behind this paradox?

My design chops are a direct descendent of my attention to the text. I developed a good eye for typography by reading frequently and noting when that experience was pleasurable, and when it was not. Eventually, I learned what differentiated the two, and I took strongly to the process of making sure everything I touched was lovely. There’s just no excuse for it not to be.


In addition to your work for TypeKit and A List Apart, you’ve got a few other projects (A Working Library, Made By Hand. Can you talk a bit about those? Can you describe your process for picking and taking on new projects? Do you have anything really cool coming up?

A Working Library started as a relatively unambitious project to catalog my reading notes. I’ve long marked up books and written in the margins or in journals, but while the stack of paper journals is nice for nostalgia’s sake, the appeal of a searchable, shareable index of notes seemed a lot higher. Gradually, it grew into a place to talk about reading itself, a turn of events I did not predict but am really happy with.

Made by Hand is a documentary project led by my husband, Keith Ehrlich. Part of the project is to show that really beautiful filmmaking can happen on the web; to demonstrate that not only have the tools for shooting video matured, but that with skill and attention you can make something that’s lightyears better than your typical YouTube clip. The design (my part in the project) very intentionally reinforces the sense that this is the “big screen” on the web.

As for deciding what to work on, I have a few different metrics I go by: how strongly I feel about the project (have I been obsessing over it for months? or is it a recent, and maybe temporary, fascination?), who I get to work with (will we work well together? are our skills complementary? can I learn from them?), and who it serves. I am incapable of focusing on anything if I can’t clearly see how it will benefit someone other than myself.

On that latter point, I’ve lately been thinking about how content models are changing, and what that means for the people (editors, writers, and their many cousins) who work with content on the web. I hear from so many people who work with words and want to understand what the web is doing to their work, but aren’t sure where to begin. And part of that, it seems to me, stems from the lack of literacy around how the web works: how content is structured and delivered to screens large and small, what happens under the hood, so to speak. So I’m certain that one or more of the next projects I take up will try to change that.

You work at Studiomates, right, surrounded by creative energy?

Indeed! And not just creative energy, but a supportive, productive environment. Studiomates’ special power is not just the inspiration, but the wealth of experience you can draw on. I’m surrounded by people who know more than I do about all kinds of things, and are generous with their time and knowledge. It’s a real community in that regard, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Newsrooms aren’t known as the most creative places on Earth. How can newsrooms be more creative or harness creative energy like Studiomates?

I think there are two key ingredients to a creative work environment: small, integrated teams, and permission to fail. On the former, you need to work with people for whom you have a chance to get close to, and whose skills are different from your own. So, put the writers in with the designers and developers, and get them all talking about what they do. Encourage them to argue; good (i.e., respectful, thoughtful) arguments are great ways to learn and generate ideas.

Second, let them try new things and reward them even when (especially when) they fail. You have to be able to take risks to do great work, but too often institutions treat failure as a thing to be avoided rather than a thing to learn from. No one wants to fail, but no one ever did anything really great without first fucking up a few times.

What inspires you? And how do you get over creative roadblocks?

As far as I’m concerned, a creative roadblock is a problem you haven’t solved yet; you get past it by having a process to solve it. So, if I’m stuck in a writing task, I try writing something else, or reading, or talking it out (to myself or another) until I get through it. If I’m stuck on a design problem, I’ll do more research, or try to break it down into smaller parts and tackle them one at a time; or else I’ll grab someone else and go to a whiteboard and sketch and ask questions until something clicks.

I’m inspired by nearly everything: books, movies, people, food. People always ask what inspires you, but I think the more interesting question is how you answer that inspiration. I write things down; other people draw or code or point their camera. Inspiration isn’t something you find in the world; it’s something you discover within.