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Matthew Linderman and Jason Fried

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on June 21, 2001

If I were to ask the question, "Who designs for simplicity?" ...with out any doubts, the name 37Signals would come to mind. This small tight-knit group of web experts have proven their reputation by stripping design down to its bare essentials... taking away what is not required in order to communicate the message. Today we talk with two of the four people behind 37Signals. As this interview proves, it's sometimes the simple questions that are the most difficult to answer.

Digital Web:

To start things out, could you please explain to us your role at 37Signals and tell us a little bit about your background?

Linderman:

37signals is small -- only 4 people -- so we each wind up doing a little bit of everything (design, writing, client contact, project management, etc.). This approach wouldn't work everywhere but I think we've got a pretty unique group in that respect.

As for my background, years ago I started designing posters and flyers for my band and realized I both enjoyed it and was alright at it. At about the same time I heard about this newfangled Internet thing and got an internship at a company that had just started a web department. I learned a bunch there and moved on to another firm and then eventually joined up with the rest of the 37signals crew.

 

Fried:

Everyone here at 37signals pretty much does the same thing -- we design the visuals, we code the HTML, we manage the projects, we think, we write, we court new business, we turn off the lights at the end of the day.

 

Digital Web:

Have you ever had any formal education in design or new media? In your own words, how did you acquire your current skills?

Linderman:

No, I'm self-taught as a designer. The great thing about web design in the early days was that everyone was learning together, picking up techniques from each other as the medium developed. In retrospect, it was a special time the likes of which don't come along very often.

As for style, I'm inspired by a variety of sources: Blue Note album covers, WPA posters, Swiss design, Eames furniture, etc. Style often has to take a backseat online though. On the web, I think the challenge is more in presenting information in a way that's easy for folks to use/understand.

 

Fried:

No formal training. My degree is actually in finance. My interest in design began when I was in junior high school. My father used to bring home stacks of glossy annual reports. I was fascinated by the clean layouts, the data tables, the shapes formed by rows and margins of text, etc. I think that's what initially peaked my interest. And, then, there was the constant frustration with everyday objects that were poorly designed. I thought I could do a better job. I started designing visual interfaces for ANSI-character BBS systems (before the web -- and AOL) and then progressed to the web in 95/96.

 

Digital Web:

While many designers tend to feel the need to add graphical elements into a design to improve its effectiveness, you've taken the opposite approach: You simplify the design down to its core elements. Why did you choose this path and how does it affect the kind of business you get?

Linderman:

On a micro level, simplicity in design presents the audience with only the most relevant information. Plus, it results in quicker download times and easier comprehension. On a macro level, I think it helps people cut through the clutter that permeates the web and our overall culture these days.

I know how much I enjoy it whenever I encounter simple but effective design in my life so I try to return the favor. I think we attract clients who feel the same way. If a client wants a whizbang flash intro or scrolling tickers, they probably won't come to us. That's fine.

 

Fried:

We chose this because it makes the most sense to us. We design things that people use. People want things to be simpler. The more noise, the more "stuff" on the page, the more visual elements, the more the design gets in the way of the purpose of the functionality. We want the functionality -- the purpose -- to be the focus, not the art/interface. We attract the types of clients who share our views. We feel like our site gets our philosophy across pretty well. Clients who want Flash or Quicktime movies usually don't contact us.

 

Digital Web:

In your opinion, why haven't other design firms and web agencies picked up on the "no bullshit" attitude conveyed by 37signals?

Linderman:

People are scared of pissing other people off. Business folks are like politicians, they want to be all things to all people and that means being as inoffensive as possible. To me, that's pretty damn boring. I'm always more attracted to mavericks and truth tellers.

 

Fried:

Mainly because "business," "technology" and "no bullshit" don't mix well -- especially when you have profits to maximize, investors to keep happy, and a marketing staff to keep busy. We are lucky in that we are small -- 4 people -- so we don't have to live in the typical corporate environment that makes it really hard to be honest and bullshit free.

 

Digital Web:

Is it possible to run a large and profitable web agency?

Linderman:

Sure. A lot of people in this field made poor decisions in the past but that doesn't mean the whole situation is hopeless. Now that the wheat/chaff separation has occurred it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

 

Fried:

Frankly, I don't think creative businesses scale that well. But, yes, I do think it's possible. To me the key is to have very talented people who produce better work when they wear multiple hats. If you have to have a junior designer, a senior designer, an HTML coder, an information architect, and an experience designer on every single project then you are going to have a very hard time making any real money. But, if you have individuals who can design and code and understand usability and information design, then you have one person who can take the place of 3+ people. Is it easy to find those kind of people? No, but who said this was easy?

 

Digital Web:

Is there an underlying flaw in the business or operations model of larger firms?

Linderman:

One pet peeve that we have is how many firms grew just for the sake of growth. I can't tell you how many times we heard firms say something like, "We plan to staff up to 500 (from 0) in the next 5 months." Why? Where will you find these people? Do you have the revenue stream to justify this growth? There was a false "Field Of Dreams" mentality that if you build it, they will come.

 

Fried:

Yeah -- they have too many people and they spend too much money. I'll never understand why a web shop needs 100+ people. Unless they have 10-15 huge concurrent jobs going on, it seems horribly inefficient. Not that our way is the right way, but we have one or two people on a visual design project and that's it. These two people are able to handle projects that other firms have to put 5-6+ people on. How do we know? Because we've been on both sides.

 

Digital Web:

Where do you see the web services industry going in two years from now?

Linderman:

People will still want web sites, they're just getting smarter about the whole process. I think web agencies will need to start showing their clients concrete results in order to survive/succeed.

 

Fried:

I hope the days of "let's hand the entire project over to a huge web agency, pay them 6+ figures, and get out of the way" are over. I actually hope companies bring a lot of the development work in house and rely more on outside specialists to help them smooth out the rough edges than to complete the entire project. When a project is in house, people seem to care about it more. But, I do believe outside help -- especially on the usability and interface design front -- can be a tremendous help. Sometimes in house teams are too close to the project to be objective and a fresh set of eyes can do wonders.

 

Digital Web:

Could you describe to us what happens on a typical day at the office?

Linderman:

Working on projects, posting to Signal vs. Noise, communicating with clients, listening to music, random debates and plenty more.

 

Fried:

Nothing special really. We get in in the morning and work all day. We also talk a lot, debate a lot, play a lot of different music, get frustrated a lot, etc. We also post to Signal vs. Noise an awful lot -- probably too much.

 

Digital Web:

...Wow. How do you guys manage to balance it all?

Linderman:

Luckily, we all work together very well. If any of us ever need help, someone else is there to help pick up the slack.

 

Fried:

I'm not sure really, but I think it's the strong mutual respect we all have for each other. We don't need to step on each other's toes, doubt each other's talents, or get in each other's way.

 

Digital Web:

Some would say that a design is complete when you can no longer take away any elements of the design without "losing its message" altogether. How would you apply this statement to the way 37signals executes their projects?

Linderman:

We definitely like to trim the fat. Whether it's in design or writing, we try to get across the essential message that is being communicated. There's too much noise out there to expect people to put up with unnecessary fluff. I think a lot of folks feel like that song from "Midnight Cowboy": "Everybody's talkin' at me. I don't hear a word they're sayin'..."

 

Fried:

I would say that's generally accurate, but it's important not to oversimplify by removing too much. If something is too simple, it's too complex. Simplicity is a compromise, a balance between emptiness and clutter. It's where things work best.

 

Digital Web:

The designs that 37Signals develops and the message that you guys convey seems to have inspired many designers so, I need to ask, what inspires you?

Linderman:

My biggest inspiration is my impending death. I'm constantly thinking "This is your life happening right now...What are you doing about it?"

I also feel inspired by my co-workers. They're pretty brilliant so I have to do my best just to keep up.

Otherwise, I get inspired by people who make things that give me chills. There's an endless list of people and things that do this, but it's always changing. For example, the other night I was listening to an old live version of Sam Cooke doing "Bring It On Home" and it nearly brought me to tears it was so fucking alive. That's the sort of thing that makes me want to create.

 

Fried:

I don't know if we influence people, but if we do, I hope we do a good job. What inspires me? Nature, simple forms, simple solutions, instinct, common sense. It seems to me that nature almost always finds the most efficient way of accomplishing something. Nature has already incurred millions of years of "usability testing." We have to much to learn. And, I draw a lot of inspiration from watching people have a hard time interacting with something. I love to think about how to make things better.

 

Digital Web:

How would you personally define creativity?

Linderman:

Peter Finch has a great speech in "Network" where he says, "I feel connected to all living things, to flowers, birds, to all the animals of the world and even to some great unseen living force, what I think the Hindus call prana." This is how I feel about creativity. It taps into some sort of universal force and reflects beauty, wonder, science, spirituality.

 

Fried:

Hmm, that's a tough one. I'm sure I'll have a different answer next week, but I guess creativity comes down to approaching a situation with an open mind and being willing to solve a problem in a way that benefits who the problem is being solved for.

 

Digital Web:

In your own words, what is beauty in design?

Linderman:

In design, I see beauty when a message is communicated with such clarity and purity that it just feels *real*...real like a Redwood tree, or Ella Fitzgerald's voice, or when a pretty girl walks by on a summer day.

 

Fried:

When design adds value. Something as small as a little texture on a rubber surface to help you get some grip. Something as large as St. Louis' arch to tell a story.

 

Digital Web:

What are your favorite or most-visited sites on the Web? Why are they your favorites?

Linderman:

I'm a sucker for good writing. Educate me or make me laugh and there's a good chance I'll return.

 

Fried:

I check out a variety of blogs (zeldman, kottke, metafilter, mighty-girl, etc) daily as well as the old standby -- Yahoo!. I know this is old news, but I still think Yahoo! is gold standard of the web. Yahoo! is the Swiss Army Knife of the net -- smart, fast, versatile, useable, and useful.

 

Digital Web:

What are some good examples of ways a web designer can simplify a design to improve its effectiveness?

Linderman:

Constantly put yourself in the other person's shoes. If you were visiting this site, what would you want to be there? Also, don't fight the medium. HTML text rules.

 

Fried:

In my opinion, designers should constantly ask themselves if an element needs to be there. Is the functionality enhanced because this is there, or is it compromised. Is this faster or slower because of this. What is the cost/benefit of this particular widget, this box around this table, this embedded table, etc. Question everything you do to find the right answer.

 

Digital Web:

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

Linderman:

It's just a computer.

 

Fried:

Thanks for reading. And, remember, there are just as many ways of doing something right as there are of doing something wrong.

 

Digital Web:

If there were something you could say to the next generation of web designers and independent content producers, what would it be?

Linderman:

Sweat the details. It may seem like no one notices the effort, but it's often the difference between good and great.

 

Fried:

You are always more patient with your own creations than anyone else will be. Be smart and think about who you are designing for.

 

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Related Topics: Keep It Simple (KISS), Web Design, Web Guru

 

 

 

Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.

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