Designer Josh Rhode on storytelling, making news cool and Ernest Hemingway

Give us a brief explanation of who you are and what you do.

By day, and too often most nights, I’m a director and designer of both products and brand experiences on emerging platforms. Most recently, I spent some 10 long months into 2011 designing and architecting a new product ecosystem with an amazing team of friends, in which we quietly sought to build the most sophisticated (and fun) digital sport platform ever.

Favorite gadget? Favorite non-gadget object?

It’s hard to justify saying anything other than my iPhone. It’s my Rdio, it’s actually my Kindle, it’s my email, it’s my news, it’s just too many great things in one package.

Favorite general object would be my Nike Free Trainers, the great enabler of all things physical in my world.

Where do you get your news?

It’s completely changed over time, but at the moment it’s Twitter for “industry” news and, though infrequently, Google News for everything else. Google provides a simple, unfussy aggregator, which works well for me when I need it. I rarely crawl specific news platforms on their own anymore, but do sometimes appreciate poking around The Atlantic, ESPN Magazine, Wired, etc. I do stay super vigilant across the creative landscape of what’s created by peers, as I love seeing new tangible pieces of work or products, and in this area Twitter shines.

You’ve designed a lot of beautiful interfaces for mobile, tablet and desktop. With that in mind, what do you think of the experience on most news sites? Are there some you love? Some you hate?

There are dozens of news portals that demand recognition for their aesthetic quality, like TheVerge.com. You have design studios out there, like Area17, who are specialists in this arena, and prove time and time again that content can live in a sexy, branded foundation.

There are not many, but the sites I appreciate the most will have the greatest command of space with the minimalist amount of design. BostonGlobe.com, and to a lesser extent NPR.org, are both excellent examples of this. A well-designed platform removes obstacles so that the viewer is not forced to investigate the layout, scrutinize fields, and vibrate erratically and perpetually towards a piece of attractive content. When I fire up BostonGlobe.com across 2560×1600 of browser-space, the content just naturally opens up across the page in an effortless way. There is very little tension in the arrangement of content, and just enough rhythm in the grid so as to provide contrast. When I collapse my browser size, or load it up on my phone, it scales with just as much consideration. Most importantly, I feel invited into the layout, to settle in and observe.

If I were to compare that to CNN, the difference is clear. As it renders, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by a nervous energy, the content appearing as though it struggles to exist in its space. In this design, and with many others, there is an inadvertent yet unsettling sense of urgency, as though I’m being hastily dragooned into clicking the nearest article of interest and getting off the homepage as hurriedly as possible.

The goal of any aggregator layout should be to remove all tension and anxiety from the screen, let the content create feeling, and allow the user to dictate the pace.

With the amount of data that’s being collected now, presentation of that data is more important than ever. You’ve done a lot of data driven projects for Honda, Nike and other mega-clients. What’s your process like for these projects?

The process varies from project to project, but the most successful ones are beget by proper education and planning with clients at the onset. Determine everything and anything that can be done, cut it down to what should be done, and then cut it down even more, over and over. There is a still lingering misconception about data visualization, which is that you should strive to convey as much information as physically possible to the user. Call it the Iron Man HUD syndrome. Not all information is truly important. The best processes will drill down into data and find the most meaningful set, and iteratively focus it into the smallest and most economic amount of elements.

In general, I like an anaerobic approach to design, where my teams work in short, fast, but intensive sprints. When you make big, hard, sweeping decisions as rapidly as possible, you don’t have time to be become married to the work. It’s easier to stay objective, to abandon bad starts early, and to pivot rapidly. This process also allows your team windows of time each week to sit back and observe the results. Play with the mess you created, dig into it, experience it.

In a lot of your projects, the experience you create through design feels immersive. It all has an element of storytelling. Do you ever think about storytelling in your work and how that plays into these projects? How do you think about working with the data?

Yes, absolutely. Human interaction across time entirely rests upon storytelling, in all its forms. It’s a fundamental way for us to convey and understand ideas, and also to bring us together. Keeping a story at the heart of anything, be it design, interaction, cinema, even engineering, is a crucial notion but not a novel one. Brands have had a very long time to understand and master the telling of their own story in their own digital space.

But with so much new experiential design, and increasingly mobile devices at the vanguard of this effort, it’s quite a different ballgame. Artists, developers, brands, studios, and start-ups are still learning and exploring ways to build products that generate meaningful person-centric stories through the actions and inputs of its users. If you compare ‘apps’ of today to the utilitarian ‘applications’ of the previous decade, the results of this journey are readily apparent.

Sometimes it’s not clear what those stories should be at the onset, and it’s impossible to know without exploring and exhausting all options in intense design sprints. With a certain digital sport platform, my team and I were challenged at the onset by the clients: in a world where upcoming technology can track anything about your physical activity and capture it as data, what is the simplest, most meaningful story you can tell from that data? It’s a tall order, for sure, full of opportunity – but so much uncertainty. In that situation, and any in which the data is diverse and large, there are a million stories to tell, but you really have to find just one. That story becomes the currency of your experience, and the universal language by which all of your users can talk to each other. Once you find it, it takes a lot of effort to keep it at the center and ensure that all of your features, planning, and decisions do nothing else but convey it as simply and emotionally as possible.

Your work is just flat out cool. I imagine that has something to do with the people you work with and the process behind the scenes. Newsrooms aren’t known as the most creative places on Earth, so can you talk about what happens behind the scenes to make cool shit, and how that could be applied elsewhere?

Who says news can’t be cool? Though I’d argue it’s the job of the news to tell the news like it is, and usually the ones who fail miserably are the agencies who get in the way of their stories.

Consider the quote from Midnight in Paris, where Ernest Hemingway tells Owen Wilson: “no subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” There’s something to that. I’ll flagrantly appropriate that lesson here, and argue that any product, industry, or platform can be exciting if its founders are honest, passionate and maintain vision under pressure.

Creators and teams need to love what they’re creating, and they need to believe in it above all else. Passion feeds process, and great process feeds great products.

You can only look at one website for the rest of your life. What would it be?

Wikipedia. I tap into it on an hourly basis, for all walks of life, and it’s instrumental in satiating – though more often, fueling and provoking my curiosity. It’s also a humbling reminder for me that, not only is there so much left to discover, but so much of what I foolishly mistake as groundbreaking discovery is actually already well-trodden in history.

How do you explain what you do to your parents?

I’ve been so fortunate to have parents who have an interminable interest in what I’m up to, no matter what it is. But they, my mom in particular, hit the wall regarding how those things come to bear. Attribute that to my own lazy, equivocal answers over the years; she hasn’t made it past the “how do the codes turn into the robot guy on the screen?,” and I think we circle back to this one every time we catch up. Recently, my dad made a Twitter account and started following me, but that confuses them even further. So, I haven’t really explained anything to them very well at all, but I do share everything I make with them!

When are you happiest?

When life is dynamic. After working and unwinding in so many different capacities, on so many different projects, I’ve found that cadence that suits me best — and it’s one where I can work at high intensity, conquer some new goal, and then disconnect from everything for an entire week. I’ve had those spells where everything meanders along at the equivalent of a paced jog and my mind just starts to spin. I really enjoy the contrast of rigorous work, then the complete and total diffusion of vacationing and travel. One needs the other. Of course, above work and all else, I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by both people I love and inspire me.

You can find Josh’s personal website here.

Larry Buchanan is a designer, illustrator and columnist living in Bloomington, Indiana. You can see more of his work here.