Give us a brief summary of what you do/who you are.
I’m a designer in San Francisco. I recently started working as a product designer for Facebook.
Favorite gadget? Favorite non-gadget object?
I’m partial to my iOS devices, but I also have a soft spot for vintage stereo equipment. I’m especially a big fan of the products Jacob Jensen designed for B&O in the ’80s, so I have at least one too many record players than I really know what to do with.
Where do you get your news?
I ready a lot of news through links people share on Twitter or Facebook, but my wife loves the New York Times Magazine, so I get a dip in the NYT Sunday paper every now and then. I also have a lot of blogs and more traditional news sources in my Flipboard feed, which I read on the shuttle to work during the week.
What do you think of the experience on most news sites? Are there some you love? Some you hate?
I spent a few years working in the digital division of a newspaper so I understand some of the challenges new sites face. But as a reader, it feels like news online has been in a long cycle where the best way you could describe some of the better experiences was “not terrible.” I think we’re seeing some interesting new experiences in the last couple of years with the shift to mobile and tablets, responsive design approaches like the Boston Globe redesign, and reader-driven experiences like Flipboard or Instapaper and Readability. It’s a messy time, and not all the experiments will be successful, but it’s nice to see some new approaches
You were the original designer and one of the co-founders of EveryBlock.com. What was the process for creating the site like? What did the team hope to achieve?
EveryBlock was a really interesting challenge. When we started, there was a lot of buzz about the potential of geolocation data and “hyperlocal” news, but the challenge was really to find out where the value was, what the real use cases and products were. We started with some assumptions that I think were right and some that in retrospect didn’t really play out. A lot of our early focus was on civic data, which I still think is vitally important, but it’s a very difficult process to get that data out there, clean it up and then actually make sense of it. There’s no economies of scale there, it’s just the same uphill battle every time, in every city, with each new piece of data. I’m really proud of the work we did, and I continue to be interested in what the team is doing now.
What do you think the journalism industry/visual journalists can learn from EveryBlock?
I don’t know that I have any great wisdom from my experience with EveryBlock to impart to journalists. I think we learned a lot from the journalism community. The biggest lesson from journalism for me was the importance of context. All this data we were dealing with, none of it means anything in isolation. What I was always trying to do (with varying degrees of success) was to find ways to put each story or each data point in context with everything else connected to it. That’s something humans are very good at, and we have a long tradition of great journalism and storytelling to show for it. But there’s only so much information we can process, and we’re swimming in a sea of information and data and tweets and tickers. So to some degree we have to find ways to automate sense making, or at least to augment our own processing power by teaching computers how to help.
You just moved over from rdio to Facebook where they’re building an amazing culture of design. Why the move?
I worked on Rdio for almost four years, which is longer than I’ve worked on any other single product. It was an amazing experience, and it was really hard for me to think about leaving the team and letting go of the product that I felt so invested in and used every day. But I think there’s a cycle for this kind of work, and when you put your best ideas into tackling the same challenges for a few rounds, eventually you run out of steam and sometimes somebody with a fresh perspective can be the best one to take it from there.
The When We Build talk you gave in 2011 about shaping our environment through design is amazing. In it, you talk about making things, sometimes simply because we want those things to exist, or because those things will nudge the world in the right direction. What was going through your mind while you were giving the talk?
I spent a lot of time on that talk, I started with something small and it just kind of got away from me. I was really worried before I gave it that I’d gone too far, talking about contemporary art and using music and videos. So I was really anxious about it. But I was really pleased at the way people responded to it. Maybe it was just emotionally manipulative, but it felt like it struck a chord for a lot of people, some of the things I was thinking about were rolling around in other people’s minds too.
It seems to have struck a chord with the entire design community. What has the response been like since?
It’s been very gratifying to see people respond to it in totally unexpected ways. Just recently a designer emailed me and told me his mom watched the video online, and she cried. She gets so frustrated with computers and the digital products she uses every day, but she had never thought about the fact that people pour their hearts and souls into the things they built for her to enjoy.
What have you been making lately to nudge the world in the right direction?
There’s a lot of change right now, a lot of disruption in a lot of parts of our daily routines. Some of it is great, and some of it is really messy. There’s a lot of anxiety about the tools we use every day — that we rely on, or that we feel dependent on — and they’re changing right underneath our feet. We cling to the things we love, but they’re constantly being replaced or transformed into something new that we’re not sure if we’re going to love yet. I think what we can do as designers to empathize with that anxiety while at the same encouraging people to let go, to feel more comfortable in this constant state of change and this endless stream of information without being swept away by it. I don’t know yet what that looks like, but that’s how I’m thinking about it.
You can only look at one website for the rest of your life. What would it be?
That doesn’t sound like a good idea.
How do you explain what you do to your parents?
I wrote that talk for my dad after he passed away. He was a teacher and an author, and we talked a lot about work when he was alive. He was an early adopter of computers, so I think he connected with what I was doing. He was a historian, so he thought a lot about what he was leaving behind, physically in terms of the books he published, but also just in terms of what he contributed — to scholarship in his field, to his students, to his family and his community. I wanted to honor that, to use that historian’s eye to examine the digital artifacts we make that sometimes seem so intangible, but have real lasting impacts.
When are you happiest?
Drinking my first coffee of the day with my wife and dog in the park in the morning.
Larry Buchanan is a designer, illustrator and columnist soon to be living in Brooklyn. You can see more of his work here.