#SNDSF speaker Mike Swartz on asking the right questions

Upstatement partner Mike Swartz will return to speak at the annual SND Workshop & Exhibition in San Francisco. Design firm Upstatement has worked with publications including The Boston Globe and The Star Tribune and was recognized with a gold medal in last year’s Best of Digital Design Competition. Prior to starting Upstatement, Mike worked as an editorial designer. If you caught his talk with The Star Tribune last year at SNDDC, don’t worry — he’ll be focusing on something else entirely, problem definition and project strategies.

Upstatement has led digital redesigns of The Boston Globe, The Star Tribune and Harvard Law Review. Can you share some more background on your work and your team’s process?

We always start by interrogating the premise of the work. Why are we doing this? What’s the opportunity here? What’s the best thing we could do for the user? For the business? And we try to find that integration point. Even though some projects may seem simple, if you keep peeling back the layers you can find really interesting problems to solve and make sure you’re pointed in the right direction. That’s always our starting point: research and problem definition, followed by our agile design and build process. So for a recent project like MIT’s Technology Review, we asked ourselves “How can we capture the feel of the magazine in a digital setting?” It led us to a number of explorations and design concepts that re-assert the magazine’s classic design aesthetic paired with some novel ways to use illustration. We also spent a lot of time working with their team to find the best way to present their content on the web and have the site be a complementary experience to the printed book.

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You have experience as an editorial designer at publications including The Boston Globe and San Jose Mercury News, and you met Upstatement’s other partners, Tito Bottitta and Jared Novack, while attending Syracuse University. How does your background working in newsrooms influence Upstatement’s projects and design philosophy?

Oh man, it permeates everything. When we started Upstatement, we didn’t want to create another digital design studio creating flimsy brochure-ware. We wanted to stay true to our roots in journalism and design and build things that real people actually wanted to use. Like most people you meet in newsrooms, we have a pretty healthy skepticism and questioning of dogmatic thinking and status quo. I’d say we’re skeptical optimists. We’re always asking questions, trying to get at the heart of the problem and then finding a great solution. We don’t take things at face value, and want to see things for ourselves. We really value empirical processes. Everyone at the studio is encouraged to always be asking questions and looking for new approaches. This has led us to all kinds of great places, from the responsive design revolution the Boston Globe launch sparked to some radical re-imaginings of how spoken-word audio can work online. One of the big things I’m looking forward to sharing at SND is how we worked with WBUR.org to completely re-imagine the public radio experience in a digital setting. I think the only way to do stuff like that is to have a kind of split personality of never being satisfied with the way things are, and then coming at the problem with a huge idea and executing on it to the max. And that’s Upstatement.

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Upstatement partner Tito Bottitta wrote a great post for the Upstatement blog about what your team learned redesigning the Boston Globe’s website in 2010. You’ve taken on many more web design projects since. Tell me about your approach to responsive design. What best practices can you share?

That post was awesome, it’s still racking up the hits after all these years! It’s funny, we don’t even think of responsive design as a big deal any more. That’s just how websites work. Whenever anyone here sits down to design something, or write CSS, it’s just a part of the process. We spend most of our strategy and design time thinking of the big ideas, the conceptual thinking behind the content or user interface. And the fact that it’s delivered on a phone or a tablet is just a given. We design the experience and not just the object, and I think there’s a big difference. We’re designing for people, not for screens. I’ve seen some backlash against cookie cutter responsive sites, and I’d totally agree. There’s a lazy way to do it, where you take a huge splashy idea at desktop or tablet and it just becomes a stacked box list at mobile. But hey, at least it works. The next step is to find out what made that desktop idea great, what it made the user feel or what it did for the content, and then think about how to bring this with you across devices. It’s kind of cool though, I can’t think of another similar problem in other industries. Most people’s domains are known, fixed. And ours isn’t, it’s constantly in flux and totally affected by the choices our users make. We get to be editors, graphic designers, engineers and fortune-tellers all at the same time!

How is Upstatement planning ahead for future opportunities in digital media? Where do you see the biggest opportunities for growth?

Great question. One big area of intrigue right now is in the platform versus publisher debate. Should publishers control their own content distribution, or submit to a Facebook or Medium or other similar platform? I’m for publications doing their own thing, as a fervent open-web guy and card-carrying EFF supporter. But lots of publishers, especially smaller ones, can’t afford to control their own distribution or have the expertise or aptitude. Platforms can’t be ignored, and I feel like there’s a way for them to be symbiotic. Platforms need content. So I think the opportunity here is to move from just the building of private platforms for publishers (their own sites, apps, etc) to helping them treat third party systems as another distribution channel. And then all the fundamental issues still apply, like content strategy, branding, art direction, editorial design. This is all part of the content and the publishing brand that sets them apart. We’re doing more these days to brand publishers, help them with content strategy and art direction. And this applies whether you have your own code running on your own server with ads that you sold, or if you license your content to someone else.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Everywhere! I try to not get too sucked into one area, and actively seek inspiration from different disciplines and practices. Here’s an unordered list of the things that have inspired me lately:

  • The concept of wabi-sabi, which wikipedia defines as “a Japanese aesthetics and world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection”. See my comments on responsive design.
  • The work of Swedish graphic design studio Snask. They are wonderful and insane.
  • Glitch and generative art. Read Rosa Menkman’s paper The Glitch Moment(um)
  • Music production and techniques. Sound design and arrangement, and how producers work. This book is great and full of awesome ideas that apply to more than just music: Making Music
  • Fiction like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Philip K Dick and David Foster Wallace

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Last year you spoke with the team from The Star Tribune about their redesign. What will be the focus of your talk at SNDSF?

I want to talk about the concept of asking the right questions and the importance of problem definition in creating great work. We’ve been talking a lot about this at the studio and our recent work has shown us how important and fundamental this is to the Upstatement perspective. I’ll leave you with a quote from Muriel Cooper that I’ve been framing my talk around:

“Too often, the role of the designer is to clothe a set of messages they’ve had no participation in. Here is a book. You didn’t write it. You don’t change it except insofar as you present the information somebody else has generated. You’re not really collaborating, either, because the stuff is here, and accomplished fact. I decided I had to wash that out of my head and impose my own problems.”

About Courtney Kan

is a designer at The Washington Post and the editor of SND.org.

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