Joshua Davis

Joshua Davis

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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on November 14, 2000

Digital Web: Joshua, we are honored to do this interview with you. For those who may not be as familiar with your work as we are, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at Kioken?
Davis: Here’s what my bio says:

Joshua Davis who runs – is a one-man research and development web-site. Its objective is to apply design and technology into a collection of small, sometimes daily, modules – is incubating a lifestyle, a mentality, living with anomalies (1 : deviation from the common rule : IRREGULARITY; 2 : something different, abnormal, peculiar, or not easily classified), producing work in a world that is under constant flux and change.

He is also the sole creator of – which is the nemesis of what we perceive the web to be. No easy, short domain name. No easy to use navigation. No instructions. No Faq’s. No Ads, No Links, No Tech Support. No Help. No Answers.

A good amount of time is spent trying to – Unite : Communicate : Explore – on – where we cannot continue to grow in the field of design and technology acting independent – We must combine forces, and relinquish our interpretations about what does and doesn’t work. Understand that knowing where to buy bricks does not mean you know how to build a house.

Yet when the sun rises – Clients come to Kioken, , because they want an “off the hook” experience. As developers we shouldn’t assume that the general viewing public is an idiot. We should try to evolve the medium by making intuitive systems that educate the user – not design to what level we think they can handle.


Digital Web: Did you ever have any formal training in design or digital technologies? If so, do you feel that has made a serious impact on your success as a designer or do you feel that even without the training you could be successful? A lot of people feel that there is merit in having a degree in design while others feel that a degree does not mean as much as a rock solid portfolio. What is your opinion on this issue?
Davis: I went to Pratt in Brooklyn, Majored in Illustration and minored in Art History. I threw myself into art and art history during the day and taught myself programming at night.

I was in college trying desperately to pay for my own education – I had put together two prototypes for a children’s book I had written and illustrated. I sent these two prototypes to only two publishers I felt could only do justice to my work ( I was naive, work with me here ) and I was given rejection letters from both. I was young, I didn’t have an agent or rep, I can’t even tell you if they even looked at the prototype.

Well. what now? A student I was friends with, in the commercial design department, said that there was this new publishing medium called the internet, and I could self publish my work with almost no cost. Netscape 2 had just come out (freaky right? yes, I’ve been doing it that long) So Netscape had just published their book on Netscape 2 HTML.

During the day I was in school absorbing art, communication design and art history, and at night I was learning every nook and cranny of HTML publishing in Netscape 2.

Well, I ran out of money, was months late on my rent, eating macaroni and cheese, I had my phone disconnected, my gas for my stove had been turned off, I had no electricity, but since I lived on the top floor of this building I managed to string extension cords out into the hallway of my building and steal electricity from an outlet attached to the light bulb hanging in the hallway. Just to be able to boot up my homemade 386 DX 2 66.

So as I mentioned before, I was out of money – so I went to the dean of Pratt and said that I could no longer attend school. So she went to financial aid and got me more money to be able to continue school – then by fate said – Why don’t I get a job on campus? do you know how to write HTML for website production?

I of course was floored. So I got a job writing HTML for Pratt’s web-site.

Yet I never did finish my degree – I left during my Junior year. I felt the internet was going to pass me by and I decided to continue to teach myself everything I could as technology progressed. But school also gave me a foundation in communication design, fine art, art history and myth.


Digital Web: You have inspired designers from around the globe and from all walks of life with your sites and your art. With all the roles and responsibilities you play at Kioken, how do you still manage to find time to do sites like PrayStation and Once Upon a Forest?
Davis: Work is for the most part research and development – so most of my time is spent exploring ideas and building systems. These modules appear in my personal work, which maybe a few months from now a client may want to work into a web-site.

So It’s really killing 2 birds with 1 stone in that department.

Then there are speaking engagements, which are, again, fuel to the fire. Because I pick up different ideas from different people and different cultures, which then get re-worked back into my exploration as an artist and developer. So if anything it’s become a philosophy and a way of life.


Digital Web: Every day it seems the Web edges toward being more and more corporate and marketing driven. Corporate design is what pays the bills yet most artists struggle to bring a slice of true creativity to their works. How do you manage to do this in your own work? What do you say to the client to get them to see the bigger picture of “what can be” and not just “what has already been done”?
Davis: Funny enough – not a whole lot of convincing really takes place. Clients come to kioken because they know what we are going to deliver to them.

You see it’s harder to convince a client to use any interactive environment if all you do is produce standard HTML web-sites.

Kioken has started off as an interactive environment, so clients come to us to realize their bigger picture.


Digital Web: There has been lots of rumors through the grapevine that Kioken fired this client or that you refused to do this other project, etc… this is of course, unverified. Is, in fact, Kioken terminating client relationships, and if so, what were the driving reasons for that action?
Davis: The big Bossman was quoted as saying in The Industry Standard that “we had to fire Sony… they weren’t listening to us, so we let them go.”

He finished up his comment by saying that “What the client sometimes doesn’t understand is the less they talk to us, the better it is. We know what’s best.”

Now this comment is painfully honest.

What it says is that most clients are not up to speed on what is possible and only shut down any process of anything exciting happening if they dilute the process.

You’re a studio – is it not your job to know more about the environment and the technology then the client may know?

Of course.


Digital Web: A lot of design agencies are cycling through employees faster than the market can keep up with. Some are leaving the industry altogether while others are just looking for a better job. In a world of pre-IPOs and Internet start-ups, what do you feel is the determining factor for retaining employees, and more specific, retaining web designers?
Davis: Kioken is like 17 people ( give or take ) and in the years kioken has been in the business, I think only 3 people have ever left.

Go to Kioken at 3:00 am and there’s half the studio there.

You want to stay at work – because work is based on play.

You make your own hours, as long as the work gets done; you’re required to play video games and watch DVD’s.

The studio is there to help you grow creatively and push you. And in return people who get hired at kioken become part of the family. A family which is so devoted, that leaving the company is pretty rare.


Digital Web: You started a site that brought the entire design community together to share ideas, discuss issues and work together collaboratively., in my opinion, is a huge success. What do you think makes it such a success and what do you think is the next step toward furthering the process of designers collaboratively working together?
Davis: I had spent some time exploring community sites and, for me, they seemed flawed.

I wanted to communicate with a community of people on a site that was about anything and nothing. A site that could be about heavy concept in design but the site itself have no design. So audience was very important.

Dreamless I think is only 3 or 4 gif files – it’s built using HTML and CSS talking to PERL files on the backend – I would design it to be very mute and neutral – shades of gray – and not be flashy or even have any art. This would allow dreamless to have people talk about design related issues or anything deemed interesting.

It also a very tight environment – some discussions are started by moderators and users can reply to the opening thoughts.

There is also a base understanding of respect. There are always two sides to any story and users can battle out their ideas and not blatantly offend anyone because they feel their way is better – and if this type of discussion happens, threads are closed or deleted all together.

Community is about respect and banding together to help perpetuate our ideas.


Digital Web: You mentioned once that you wish you could use the full capacity of your brain and you cited that Einstein probably only used 10 or 12 percent of his brain. There is a theory that Einstein as well as DaVinci used not only their left brain but also their right brain to an equal amount… you yourself use a lot of mathematics in your work as well as artistic skills. In some ways people see you as a genius web designer, now you may not agree with that, but do you feel that it is perhaps that you are skilled in both hemispheres of the brain?
Davis: Big misconception here.

I’m horrible at math. I was a sponsored amateur skateboarder in high school – trust me I wasn’t going to math class. I think that if I was good at math, and I was my own math teacher, I would have been far more interested.

I’ve just tried to absorb a ton of philosophy, myths, science, and methodologies, just to try to see things in every angle I could – sometimes I find myself looking at things which become complacent, to find beauty in things we deem common.

I try to break things down to the simplest form and then work my way up to better understand the complex whole.

And there are times I feel really insane – I mean really, really insane.


Digital Web: Studies have been conducted that show that society educates people to be left brain oriented. They say by the age of seven, only 10% of the population show signs of high creativity and by adulthood the percentage decreases all the way down to 2 percent. Creative people such as yourself are hard to come by, what do you feel can be done to encourage or allow more creativity among the population? Do you feel our society is too structured in the way of left brain thinking to be able to bring itself out of this established upbringing?
Davis: I’ve actually put a ton of thought into this. I have always wondered why as children we have always taken part in creative activities, and then as we get older we either get discouraged about not being able to duplicate “exactly” what we see or are other forces at play?

The forest has helped me reach to a large amount of people all of whom, I hope, walk away with a different impression or experience.

Maybe the world wants to start thinking again as a society? Trends tend to dictate a ton of this – and believe that society generates this supply and demand relationship.

What can be done?

As an artist or developer you’ll simply create the things you want to present to the masses – right now I don’t want my mind numbed by corporate advertising and sitcom television – and the work I create, I hope, encourages others to allow themselves to think and interact with something fun.


Digital Web: Things are changing pretty rapidly on the Web. Where do you think we will be ten years from now or even twenty years from now at the rate things are going? Do you see wireless web and web appliances being so integrated into our lives that it would be as common as, say, a light switch in a house? Do you feel this idea of Web everywhere is going to drive people away, that there will be a group of non-conformists that refuse to buy into the idea?
Davis: Wireless – my god I cannot wait.

I want it small and mobile and too explode as soon as possible.

I don’t feel the issue of non-conformity will be a factor – it will simply be everywhere – whether you choose to participate or not, and don’t feel that things will become so parasitic that human life depends on technology in order to breath and eat.

But it will surely bring in so many benefits. The notion of appliances shaking hands and chatting, transparently, will be something will not only embrace but welcome in order to automate our lives into simplicity.


Digital Web: What would you say inspires you? Is it art, music, other web sites, architecture, cities, people, nature, or something else? What sorts of things are most influential to you?
Davis: Anything, that presents my thoughts with data of infinite confusion.

The more confusing the idea, or sound, or web-site, or architecture, or cities, or people, or nature, or anything – the more I’m prone to keep looking at it, trying to discover and uncover things.

In the end it’s about exploration.


Digital Web: Are there any new projects that you are working on that you can talk about? Anything new that is coming out of Kioken that we should keep an eye out for?
Davis: Personally:

PrayStation is about to morph into its new Year 3 form.

The Forest is going to brace for a little facelift.

I have a package with open-source CDROM and booklet coming out this January. It will be all of the data I collected for PrayStation over the past year – so far the CD has well over 1200 files. I’m also working out some ideas for new products that will hit the web-site created for showcasing these things: – by designers – for designers – producing tangible products to keep our underground community alive and kicking.

Kioken is starting a new clothing line, a book created by everyone in studio, and a bunch of other stuff.


Digital Web: What are your favorite sites on the Web? Not just ones you visit all the time, but perhaps the ones you like the best because of the content, the art or the idea.
Digital Web: How would you define creativity?
Davis: I actually hate trying to define things in my own voice.

So the dictionary says: having the quality of something created rather than imitated: IMAGINATIVE

And that’s just fine for me. You see life isn’t complicated – People are complicated and they complicate life.

I prefer to keep things simple and when I try to define things – I over exposed crap and just end up getting convoluted ideas.


Digital Web: What would you say is beauty in design?
Davis: Being able to justify every pixel.


Digital Web: Is there anything you would like to say to the readers? Any last thoughts or inspirational comments you would like to add?
Davis: Not understanding is ok, it tells us that we are still open to explore ideas, that in our mistakes and failures we may discover new things.


Digital Web: Again, it’s been a pleasure to hear from you Joshua. We look forward to seeing more of your work and being inspired yet once again. Thank you for taking the time to share with our readers some of your passions and ambitions.
Davis: Tough questions – and I really wanted to take my best stab at them. – I hope you’ll enjoy my responses.


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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,