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Scott Benish and Josh Kneedler

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

By Ben Henick

Published on November 6, 2001

Digital Web:

I'd like to begin by asking about Dreaming America. How was the company started? How did you choose the name?

Scott Benish:

dreaming america, the idea, was started in 1994 when Josh asked if I wanted to help make a movie at the student run TV station. I was young and ignorant, so of course, I said yes.

Josh Kneedler:

this is about the same time we started confusing people by writing in lowercase as often as possible. dreaming america was on the rise and we would only write upper lower if we had to ;)

SB:

So we needed something to call ourselves, and Josh saw the words "Dreaming America" in a magazine or something - he liked the sound of it and so did I, so we slapped "a dreaming america production" in the credits of the movie. It just kind of stuck and we started using that for every production, including the multimedia things we started getting in to. Everything became a "dreaming america production".

JK:

nostalgia overload. i'm glad you didn't ask how the word ranger came about. we need to keep a little mystery around us.

SB:

dreaming america, the company, was started in 1997. There were 5 of us and someone had an idea to start a web design company. I was still young and ignorant, so of course, I said yes.

JK:

i remember working on the first version of our company web site. we made a mad rush to get it online because we had our first client on the line. we didn't get the client and it was the first lesson in how large the leads to paying work ratio can be.

SB:

We figured with the internet starting to take off, we would be rolling in cash in no time. The other 3 guys got tired of waiting for the truckloads of cash and found real jobs within a year. That first year was spent in Corvallis (where I was finishing school), and we did some really simple and inexpensive sites for local businesses. In 1998, Josh and I moved back to Portland and started working at it full time and we've spent the last 3.5 years building up the company.

 

Digital Web:

Tell us about your backgrounds. Do you have any formal education in design or were you self-taught?

SB:

A fair amount of both. I graduated with a Liberal Arts degree that I called "visual media". I basically got to make up my own degree, which consisted of classes in photography, graphic design, multimedia, video production, art, communications, film, etc. I basically did the course work for a minor in photography, but I weaved it in to my self-constructed major. I actually would have loved to take more design classes in college, but after 5 years at school, it felt like it was time to move on. I've also learned a lot via the self-taught method.

JK:

in college we were there at a time when "multi-media" was still gaining respect as a career path. i changed my major as soon as i realized that i could take classes in photography, video production, communications, and interactive media. there were no classes in how to run a successful interactive design studio. so, much of what we do is self taught out of inspiration or necessity.

 

Digital Web:

What kinds of projects do you produce at Dreaming America?

SB:

A pretty wide variety, actually. We call ourselves a "visual media studio" because we really do more than web sites. I mean, we started out making movies, just today we finished up a CD-ROM project, later this week we're going to construct some QTVRs that we shot a couple weeks ago, we recently did some print pieces for a local jewelry store, this past summer we did some consulting for an educational exhibit, etc. - the common thread is simply: design. We love designing all sorts of things. I love the possibilities inherent to all the different mediums.

The type of clients we work with is equally varied. Some design shops focus on certain niche markets, but we are happy to work with anyone who is interested in creating a great experience. You can certainly save time on research if all your clients are doughnut shops, but I think you also sacrifice a bit of perspective. Often, generality is seen as a weakness in business, but I think a healthy breadth of work and skills helps to bring unique perspectives to a project.

JK:

each deliverable may be unique. there are, however, common factors. every project requires some degree of client communication, asset gathering, design, production, and delivery. the real keys are communication and design because one will not happen effectively without the other.

i think its a bit ironic, but i think hard core programming gets lost amidst the buzz about browser based languages. i.e. html, xhtml, css, xml, etc.we make every effort to communicate to our clients the benefits of database integration, database conversion, real time data, and other backend solutions.

 

Digital Web:

Scott, you appear to be the poster child for Dreaming America. From what we've been able to see, you've been interviewed at Design Interact, UnDesign, and in ID Magazine. When will Josh get into the limelight -- or is this why he has no hair?

SB:

Heh, well I don't know about all that...I don't think I was interviewed in ID, I'd definitely remember that - ranger won a bronze in the interactive review but Josh's name was in there too. Also, I think perhaps you are forgetting Josh's 15 minutes of fame at NetDiver.

JK:

i must have accidentally left the "look like you're possessed by an alien" filter on our camera. i do tend to hide. scott has to deal with groupies, fan mail, photo shoots, stalkers, etc.

SB:

And of course, he is taking part in this interview, although I was meaning to talk to you about that - I think it might work better if it was just me...

JK:

the interview would be more surprising for sure. i don't know about better ;)

 

Digital Web:

While we're on the subject of "credit," how do you guys usually divide the work that's necessary to build a site – which one of you codes, which one of you designs?

SB:

We do both, so before a project begins we just define who is going to be responsible for what. It's nice knowing the other person is available to help wherever necessary.

JK:

we've been working together since 1994 so there is a lot of subconscious communication because we know each others' work style so well. our attention detail comes from our checks and balances system that has naturally evolved over the years.

 

Digital Web:

Tell us more about Fusion Pictures. What was the central idea behind the site… and how did you approach the project?

SB:

Fusion Pictures was a great opportunity to really try something different. It is a production company that some friends of mine started and they were willing to take some risks in terms of concepts and design. They didn't have much money, but they offered us a lot of creative freedom.

We started out by spending a lot of time figuring out who Fusion Pictures was, what they were trying to do and who their potential audience was. A pretty standard approach to good design.

One of the core ideas was that they were creating compelling media, but it was stuff that most mainstream media wasn't really dealing with. Also, their first feature was a documentary about a racially motivated hate crime, so social justice issues are pretty central. We came up with the idea that the kinds of things that Fusion was doing were like footnotes to mainstream media. Things that are important and are part of the fabric of our lives, but don't really get covered in the depth they should.

One of the central ideas that came out of that was to create different levels of content in the site. On the surface is the basic information, but there is another layer that is filled with snippets of content - footnotes to the main story. For various reasons, it ended up that a lot of the basic information parts of the site never got fully developed (we have a whole subnav system that we designed that hasn't been implemented at all). So the meat of the site actually transformed in to these things that are hidden from view until the user takes time to explore and uncover them.

It is a risky situation because on the one hand, it's a pretty cool idea - on the other hand, some people probably never find these hidden footnotes (despite our efforts to create multiple ways to access them).

JK:

this was a good chance for us to integrate flash elements within a dhtml foundation. they generally do not play nice together so it was cool to figure out that relationship.

 

Digital Web:

Tell us about the idea behind "Keep the Web Human" and what it means to you.

SB:

The world wide web is the largest human network in existence. Yet, all too often, the web does not reflect the quirky personalities of real, individual people. We try to tell stories about people or things that might not otherwise be shared with the web community.

Or, we try to tell a familiar story from a fresh angle; meaning, we don't limit ourselves to strictly the obscure. We certainly wouldn't turn down an interview with pt anderson. But we would try to do something more that just a standard Q & A, cause with a guy like anderson, that's been done a million times. We actually had an idea to have p.t. anderson and mike figgis list their top 5 indie films and then we were going to try to get the employees at Movie Madness pick a winner based on the lists. Unfortunately, anderson wasn't doing any press at the time so we got shut down by the publicist (or maybe it was the publicists assistant). I hear he has a new movie in the works, so maybe we can resurrect that idea for issue 3.

Anyway, the idea is simply to try to foster some humanity within this massive community of people that is connected via machines. Whether or not we succeed at that is probably up for debate, but that's the goal anyway.

JK:

Rangermag is rooted within idealism and an independent approach to publishing content. the stories don't have to have angles or slants. rangermag is also a benevolent production. we're not out to save the world, but we're also not going to be pushing hidden agendas. rangermag is a pretty simple idea so trying to explain exactly what it is can be pointless.

 

Digital Web:

That reminds us – what's the deal with the photo on your business card?

SB:

Another happenstance branding effort. I took that photo on a road trip to the Grand Canyon in '96 and somewhere along the way it got photoshopped in to some sort of mark. We started using it and it just kind of stuck. It's actually a pretty poor logo because it doesn't reproduce at all in less than full color - people seem to respond well to it though and at this point I can't imagine changing it.

 

Digital Web:

Like many of the creative agencies in the area, your office is located in the Pearl District of Northwest Portland. Does this proximity have a recognizable impact on the way you do business… or do you just like it because it's a side benefit to being in a cool neighborhood?

SB:

I don't think the neighborhood has much of an impact. It is certainly nice to be in the same neighborhood as other brilliant creatives, but I don't necessarily feel any sort of creative osmosis going on. We're in this neighborhood because it was where we found a kick ass studio space. It being in a cool neighborhood was certainly a factor, but not a huge concern.

JK:

i love the space. we started in basements and small closet style offices so we can truly appreciate what we have now. our warehouse space is welcoming, open, and refreshing :)

 

Digital Web:

How, then, would you describe a "typical" day at your office?

SB:

The limo drops me off at 11a.m., at which point the masseuse immediately starts working on me.........Um, I'm sorry what was the question?

We do so many things that it is hard to define a "typical" day. Usually I come in and do a quick check through my email. Then we meet to figure out what is on tap for the day and figure out who is doing what. Somewhere along the way I eat lunch and read some more email. It's pretty unexciting actually - a lot of time just sitting at the computer and designing or coding or emailing.

JK:

often it is not a typical day. its pretty easy to get sucked into working late or through the weekend. between a flash based site and a cd rom that we just released weekends have been hard to come by. luckily the all nighters don't rear their ugly head that often.

 

Digital Web:

We're interested in finding out how you approach the matter of a site's content when you are creating and implementing a design. Do you have any rules or beliefs that play a large part in the way you integrate a site with its content?

SB:

I suppose the main thing we try to do is have our perceptions of and information about the intended audience drive the content; and then that content in turn drives the design. Every project is handled differently, but we generally try to figure out who we are talking to, then figure out what those people want/need. It's not exactly rocket science, but I'm surprised at how many sites don't seem to even take this kind of thing in to account. Of course, it is never that simple - there are always uncontrollable factors that affect projects. I'm sure we have made plenty of sites with lousy content, because sometimes the client just really needs to put up their lousy content. It is not easy to convince clients that their content totally sucks and that they should give you more money so it can be re-done. Ideally, we would just not work with anyone who wasn't willing to do things the "right way", but in reality, being a small business often doesn't allow such luxuries.

JK:

i believe that clients must understand that content issues are going to cause project delays before functionality issues. content is a pretty over used term, but for our purposes it can be a killer. it is so easy for a client to just make assumptions about content creation without considering what it takes to produce it. it just takes experience and confidence to step up and deal with how variable time consuming content issues can be.

 

Digital Web:

You produce a cultural publication called Ranger Magazine. The topics of music and culture to which Ranger Magazine gives most of its coverage are already well-covered… and yet you went ahead and started building it despite the "competition." Can you tell us how Ranger Magazine came into being? What was the motivation behind it?

SB:

The idea of ranger had actually been around years before issue 1 was completed. From the very start of the company, we had planned to do rangermag as a sort of creative outlet and testing ground for ideas. We wanted a place to do things we didn't have the opportunity to do in the work we were doing for clients.

For years it lived in obscurity with half completed features, random layouts, etc. - we just never found the time to finish a complete issue. So when the idea formulated, there wasn't as much "competition", it just took us a couple years to get the first issue out. In those formative years the idea evolved from simply a design playground in to a way for us to meet and talk to interesting people and share their stories with the world.

In the end, it is mostly about us trying new things and pushing boundaries, so if there are people doing similar things, it doesn't matter much. Our main goal with ranger has always been to please ourselves and show what we are capable of doing. We certainly want others find it enjoyable, and we do work hard to try and make that happen, but we're really not out to compete with other zines. If we are happy and the people that see it like it (even if it's only a handful people), then I think we've achieved our main goal.

JK:

some of the early rangermag layouts were inspired by the layering and positioning abilities of css. it was possible to have that print magazine feel. of course a web site will never be a print piece, but those magazines laying around our office definitely inspired rangermag.

 

Digital Web:

Ranger Magazine is clearly not your average magazine, by any stretch of the imagination! The layout and design is on the same level of what I had hoped to achieve with Digital Web some time ago… but eventually, reality set in for me and I opted to focus on content rather than design. Other sites focus on design rather than content, while - somehow - Ranger Magazine manages to have a focus on content and yet maintain the balance of good eye catching design. How did you pull this feat off? Has this excellent balance of design and content fallen short of your expectations, met them, or exceeded them? Have there been any "surprises" as a result of striking this balance?

SB:

It actually started out being all about design. Content was part of the early vision but not to the degree it is today. In the 2 years that this thing was germinating I started seeing more and more sites that were beautifully designed but had nothing else to offer. I got tired of seeing a site, thinking "wow", and then being done with it in 5 seconds - there was nothing to read or hold your interest.

I realized that we should try to have content that was compelling enough to stand on its own, but at the same time try to push the design as far as possible. I didn't see a lot of that out there (not that it wasn't out there, I just didn't see it - no flame mail please). Most sites I saw either focused on the content or focused on strictly design. Obviously, Born has been brilliantly combining design and literature for years, but they operate in a completely different space: fiction, poetry, etc. I felt like it might be a relatively fresh approach for a magazine to try to apply a high level of design to some meaty content.

I suppose this balance has met my expectations, but I always think things we do can be better. We're constantly trying improve the quality of the writing and the quality of the design - but I think we did an OK job for the first couple issues.

The big surprise I've encountered with this balance of content and design is the overwhelmingly positive responses. People seem to appreciate that we are about design, but still have something to read.

 

Digital Web:

The effort that goes into the production of each issue of Ranger Mag is obvious. We know that publishing a magazine is a lot of hard work. [laughs] You have two issues out already but it looks like the issues go out on an as-available basis. Despite this "conservative" approach, we get the feeling that on any given day you guys have a lot on your proverbial plate. How do you manage your time?

SB:

It is a constant struggle - which is part of why ranger is so sporadic. The client work always has to come first because that is what pays the bills.

And of course, the issues always take more time that we think they will, so we always ended up with massive amounts of stuff to do just before launch. And the launch dates slip like a rollerskater on an ice rink.

I feel like I'm constantly improving my time management, just like we try to constantly improve the design/programming/content of our projects. It's really about good organization and to-do lists. I probably couldn't function without my Visor reminding me when to do things.

JK:

you can't always get what you want. we'd be on rangermag 7 by now if we had the time.

 

Digital Web:

Ranger Mag takes advantage of DOM/DHTML where other designers would have run to Flash and called it done. It's well-known that the downside of using DOM/DHTML is the amount of time and energy required to build and test applications. Considering that you have a broad audience, how do you manage to do all of the required work without going nuts?

SB:

I'm not sure - maybe we have gone nuts.

I think it has to do with the fact that we started doing DOM/DHTML stuff back when we only had version 4 browsers to work with and the browser use was a pretty even split between Netscape and IE. At that time, we felt like if you wanted to do something cool, you pretty much had to build it cross-browser and cross-platform. So, part of it is we're used to dealing with all that, and part of it is we've learned a lot from past problems. A nice side effect is that the stuff we learn doing ranger gets taken in to projects we do for clients.

The browser landscape is changing though. We'll probably move away from version 4 support in the next issue. We've never really worried about excluding certain browsers if they can't deal with what we are trying to do. That is a horrible attitude when it comes to accessibility, and a lot of people are probably shaking their heads at how contrary that is to the very nature of the internet. And they are totally right - but this is our playground and we can do whatever we want. We deal with way too many x-browser & x-platform problems with the stuff we do for clients, so it's nice to be able to draw a line when it comes to the personal stuff.

I feel compelled to point out that we're not just doing things with DOM/DHTML - those are just technologies that worked well for what we were doing in the first 2 issues. Issue 2 had a few flash pieces and I'm sure it will continue to be a healthy mix of technologies. We've talked about doing an issue that is all QuickTime - I'd love to do that someday.

 

Digital Web:

As a complete production Ranger Magazine really needs to be seen to be believed. In your own words, where do you take special care to see that the site excels in its effort to present great content?

SB:

I think it comes down to attention to detail. Seeing an error message, or a broken layout, or a typo, or something that doesn't work the way it should...all that stuff really disrupts an experience. So we spend a lot of time trying to make sure that doesn't happen. If someone's browser can't handle certain technologies we use, we go to great lengths to make sure we explain this to them, explain why it is like this and let them know how they can fix this if they want. Not that I expect people to upgrade their browser just to look at our site, but you should at least give them the option. Having someone show up at your site and see a broken plug-in icon is just rude.

We just want to create the best possible experience. Of course, sometimes compromises need to be made - the Corey Martin story in issue 2 was going to have some other features (an overhead view of the movement through the imaginary space, links to larger views of the images), but we just ran out of time.

The other part is simply trying to have the design be driven by the content. We try to come up with concepts that reinforce what is being said, instead of just trying out some funky design and throwing some random content in there.

 

Digital Web:

What are your favorite web sites? (Design related sites, magazines, etc.)

SB:

That's a hard question for me to answer. I don't really have a small set of "favorite" sites. There are so many good sites out there that I end up looking at a lot of different sites. There aren't really any that I visit every day (except for a few news sites). I know that answer isn't very insightful, and for that I apologize. (I could post a copy of my bookmarks file, I think I have a couple hundred at least.)

JK:

i like sites that actually do something. you tune in and get a streaming trance station right away. this site will automatically do wake up calls for you. the web is full of great stuff, but really its hard to find a site that truly becomes a necessity in our busy lives. i think there is going to be a resurgence of that '96 excitement once people stop putting brochures online and start realizing that anything is possible. how about the web interfacing with hardware? robotics? we're just scratching the surface.

 

Digital Web:

What are the sources of inspiration that you've come to count upon?

SB:

Everything. I know that probably sounds trite, but it's true.

I read through design magazines because I like looking at and reading about good design, but I also try to be aware of all the beauty that is available in the world around us. I watch a lot of films, I'll flip through Cosmo just to check out the photos and design, I soak up as much input as I can - everything can be a source of inspiration if it's looked at from the right perspective.

JK:

i'm inspired by the notion that there is no secret recipe. i'm inspired by the idea that hacks will always be making ideas cliche, and that they can't touch new ideas. i'm inspired by independent thinking.

 

Digital Web:

In your own words, how would you define creativity?

SB:

I see we are getting to the tough questions now. Hmmm.

I see creativity as applying your perspective & knowledge to a particular situation or problem in order to formulate a solution. That sounds pretty scientific for a term often rooted in the world of art, but such things are inherently hard to define.

Creativity manifests itself in many different disciplines - programmers use creativity to solve problems just like graphic designers do, they just apply different sets of knowledge to different problems.

Creativity is just taking what you know or what you've seen and using it to come up with something new or interesting. I think that is why I consume stimuli as rabidly as I do, I feel like it fuels my creative juices.

JK:

from now on creativity will be called 63. how's that for 63?

 

Digital Web:

If you had to define it, what would you call beauty in design?

SB:

That is a tough question because beauty in design takes many forms - it depends what the goal of the design is.

Another overly evasive answer, huh? OK, I'll try again - beauty in design can be (but is not limited to): simplicity, complexity, detail, structure, true functionality, elegant behavior, appropriateness to the message...

Every aspect of design can be beautiful if it is executed thoughtfully.

JK:

beauty is when you are immediately struck by something. "oh, thats cute" or "sigh".

 

Digital Web:

Here's your soapbox: what would you most like to say to coming generations of web designers and developers?

SB:

I'm not sure I'm that sage - but, since you asked, here are some bullet points in an easy to reference, numbered format:

  1. Think. Take the time to think through every aspect of a project. Think about the audience, think about the message, think about the functionality.
  2. Test. Nothing pisses me off more than stupid errors that happen because someone didn't bother to test something properly.
  3. Strive for elegant, thoughtful solutions.
  4. The client is not always right. There is a reason they are paying you - if they aren't willing to listen to your suggestions, (try to) find clients who believe in your abilities.
  5. Don't assume that what is common is what is right.
  6. Listen to others, they might know something you don't. Share what you know with others. (A good example of this is the webdesign-l list - in the past 4 years, I've probably learned more from that list than any other source.)
  7. Never stop learning. (See #6).

These "7 Keys to Better Web-Design™" will soon be available on an inspirational poster for hanging in your home or office - your choice of 2 background photos: rock climber hanging from cliff or kitten playing with yarn.

JK:

being able to communicate good ideas is always going to be more important than mastering the latest and greatest technology.

i guess we have some posters to make.

 

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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.

 

Ben Henick lives in Portland, Oregon and loves clients who are equally intent on planning. Like a lot of web developers and designers, he's had a lot of problems keeping up his bank account this year... but he hasn't let his spartan circumstances dull his mind or his process.

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