When we decided to do an issue about first principles, we knew we needed to pull in voices and ideas from colleagues with wide-ranging backgrounds. So instead of interviewing one person in this issue, we bring you seven, each focused on three simple questions.

Each participant gave us capsule descriptions of their own first principles (professional or personal, organizational or individual), and talked about how those principles have changed over time and about the place where they began. We invite you to carry on the conversation by posting the underlying principles of your own work in the discussion section below.

Karen McGrane

Karen is one of the quiet revolutionaries of the UX world. In her client projects and education work at SVA, she does a lot more than she talks about. When she does speak, we listen.

The basic principle that underlies everything I do is that writing and design share a foundation. For better or for worse, in my work, I don’t make a big distinction between, say, content strategy and interaction design. Because everything is about understanding the user.

Karen McGrane's books
Karen McGrane’s books

My first exposure to the underlying principles of user-centered design wasn’t from design at all—it was from writing. The notion that you, as a writer, need to develop a clear mental picture of your reader really made a big difference in how I see the world. I learned to construct personas of my reader, conducted usability tests on documents—I did many of the activities we associate with UX design, but I did them all with written text.

Audience is everything. The tools we have to understand the user are what connect us, and what we should share, regardless of what field of practice we belong to.

How my principles have changed

The past ten years haven’t changed my principles, but they have grounded me in the politics of this belief system. When you get religion about writing for a reader, or designing for a user, it’s hard to see why everyone doesn’t grok that approach. But many businesses still struggle to make things that their users want, and they’re resistant to adapting their internal processes and structures—they’re still focused on what they want to say or make, as opposed to trying to understand what their users need.

Even within our field, there are politics around our ever-narrowing sub-specialties. I’ve certainly had debates with people who believe that, in practice, content strategy and interaction design are vastly different fields, and that we can’t expect people to understand both. But I prefer to ground myself in the principles that unite varying perspectives, because I think it makes everyone’s work stronger.

Where I come from

It would not be too much of a stretch to say that I studied content strategy in grad school. I have an M.S. in technical communication from RPI, and focused most of my coursework on human-computer interaction. My education prepared me well to work as an information architect at Razorfish after I graduated, and to play a variety of leadership roles in the UX department there. All of my professional history has sort of been leading up to content strategy.

Randall Snare

Randall is a New Orleans native living and working in Ireland as a content strategist. On stage, on the web, and in bars, she rarely says anything expected. We like that.

  • Understand who you’re working with (both in an empathetic and Machiavellian way). I find that most of my work is convincing people that a design/plan will work and can be implemented. It’s really easy to say “delete 500 pages and here’s our research to prove it,” but it’s very hard to make that happen. I work with really big companies and sometimes they’re governmental bodies, which is like working with giant T-rexes (getting an ID card to get in the building takes 18 months). So I find that if you really understand a person’s role within the organization, what they’re interested in (Do they want a promotion? Do they want to move into a different department?) and how they relate to others in their company, helps you to know what to say to them to get things done. It also helps you make them look good, which is every consultant’s job. Or if you’re not a consultant, it’s the best way to get a raise.
  • Make jokes even when it’s inappropriate. People get really emotional, myself included, when they’re working in web stuff. And it’s entirely understandable: often what we’re messing with are things that are mixed up in people’s jobs. Imagine if someone told you that what you do every day should be called something different because some guy called “the user” doesn’t know what it means. That’s emotional territory. Making jokes always works. Even if they’re bad ones. It puts people at ease and everyone can make rational decisions instead of emotional ones.
  • Do things outside of work so that you’re an interesting person. I think people in the web industry work very hard, and that’s great, but if all you do is work, then you’re boring (although talking about CSS in bars is awesome). There are two good things about doing stuff outside of work: 1) Meeting different types of people helps you to become a better communicator—and everyone in the web industry is in the communications industry, and 2) Doing things outside of your comfort zone makes you humble, i.e., looking stupid for an hour or so per week is good for you. I take dance classes with young flexible people, and sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and it looks like I’ve had a stroke and half of my body is paralyzed. I say that’s good for the soul.

How my principles have changed

Ten years ago, writing to me meant writing fiction. When you write fiction, you have no idea about your audience; they don’t matter except to hand you awards and ask you to sign their copy of your book*. Now because I work as a UX consultant, the mechanisms of writing have changed. It’s more of an interaction, and it has much more to do with space. I’m also far more interested in writing non-fiction (plug: Mapped), which is like creativity with constraints. I think constraints facilitate the creative.

Randall Snare's rule on singing
Randall Snare’s rule on singing, from the iQ Content kitchen

And I’m less of a snob, if I count snobbery as a principle. When you’re 22 and carrying around Rilke, you’re a total jerk. Web snobbery is far less offensive.

*I don’t have a book and no one’s ever asked me to sign a copy of anything. Cue violins.

Where I come from

My roots are deep in fiction (this doesn’t mean I’m not a real person). I studied fiction in New Orleans (New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts, about which I can’t say enough good things) and New York (Hunter College), almost as a trade, if fiction were recognized as such.

What’s good about studying fiction is that it makes text evaluatable. I can read something and give you reasons why it works or it doesn’t. Now, I may operate with different metrics than someone else, but standards exist, and therefore I learned to discuss fiction beyond the plot summary. I learned about things like imagery and tone and syntax and sound—all that good stuff. And this has helped me immensely in my career as a designer/strategist/information-person/writer (aren’t web industry labels fun?).

Henrik Berggren

All this editorial stuff we do relies on technologists and visual designers to turn it into sites, products, books, publications—to make it real. Henrik is one of the minds behind Readmill, a new-school reading tool from Berlin of which we’re extremely fond.

  • Simplicity—Born out of frustration for things that do not work, I guess. Lots of interfaces try and do too many things at the same time. Lots of people seem to be afraid of simplicity, afraid that simple means less valuable. I now believe that it’s the complete opposite.
  • Openness—With openness comes trust and that’s a key part for me these days. This is something I think a lot about when designing social software. It’s hard to create a space on the web where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. Trust, and distrust, stays in the joints of the network, just like memories stay in the walls of old houses. So it’s important to get it right from the beginning. For example, this has made us stay away from complicated privacy settings to focus on an open API, and to avoid any auto-following of friends.
  • Design—Without great design, technology is only half of what it can be. I really appreciate both and when they both shine, you’ve built a great product. A technical solution that solves a hard problem, with a user interface that is simple to use. If you’re missing either, it’s not really a great product any more.
  • Ideas are worth nothing, craft is everything—Something I truly believe. I think it was David Lynch who said that ideas are everywhere, free for anyone to use. And I think that everyone has ideas, lots of them, both good and bad. So I chose early on to focus on craft. Minding the little details that make a difference. And this is where I have a soul mate in David my co-founder. We share the passion for perfection of details.
Henrik Berggren's Readmill space

Henrik Berggren’s Readmill space

How my principles have changed

Oh, they have definitely changed. I used to be much more focused on technology for the sake of technology. Today, tech is only one part of something great. Also, my sense of products has also vastly changed. And to be honest, I think it comes mostly from hanging out on the web for 15 years. I’m raised on hyper communication, surfing on modems, and building webpages. This has made me appreciate the construction of services and apps. And has made me realize that developers are the people of the future.

This also has to do with craft. The more time you spend using digital products and services the more you learn about what to appreciate. And as stated I was raised with using computers so I have it in my blood stream. All those long hours after school playing with Encarta 95 and my Commodore 64. Now it pays off.

Where I come from

I come from technology and interaction. Probably leaning toward technology. Essentially, products have always been important to me, I want to figure things out and learn how they work. If it takes too long or is too hard I get bored or frustrated. I have the attention span of a five-year-old. So when we design and build things at Readmill, dead simple is the benchmark. When I got my first computer ~1990, I think I broke it five times in one year, just because I wanted to try to improve it in different ways, and then when we picked it up from the repairman I always questioned him thoroughly about how he fixed it, went home, and tried the same thing. I was lucky to have such patient parents.

Elizabeth McGuane

Elizabeth is one of the early migrants from journalism to content strategy, and has a habit of sneaking forehead-smacking reasonableness into the most heated conversations.

  • Ask questions, even when you’re up against a deadline and the answer could be complicated
  • Be nice to people, because someday you might have to call them with bad news
  • Don’t meet bullshit with more bullshit, for obvious reasons if you do the math
Elizabeth McGuane's slightly tidier than usual desk

Elizabeth McGuane’s slightly tidier than usual desk

How my principles have changed

Sadly, I think the no-bullshit principle has become more crucial since I moved into design and advertising. Which is not to say bullshit didn’t exist in journalism—each world has its own special brand. So, the principles haven’t changed, but I keep rediscovering why they matter. And I’ve learned other things too. I think the key lesson I took forward from print into the web is that content is always a details game. Maybe people don’t think of strategy as being about the details—they start yelling “tactics! tactics!” when you talk nuts and bolts—but I think it is. Just like in the newsroom, the more you understand about what’s really happening now, the farther ahead you can see.

Where I come from

I started out in the newspaper game, y’see—I trained by talking fast and being an expert wearer of porkpie hats.

Really, I worked at a well-respected national weekly in Ireland, The Sunday Business Post. I was an editorial assistant and then a writer, and I learned about editorial processes and deadlines and the absolute power of subeditors. I fell in love with interviewing writers, and loved getting paid to go to the theatre, but eventually realized I did all of my reading online, and it felt like there was a wider world out there that I should explore. I don’t like there being stuff I don’t know. iQ Content, a UX consultancy, took me on as a content specialist, even though I had no technical or design experience, apparently on the strength of my cover letter, which basically said “I know nothing but I really want to learn.” I was at iQ for three years, and I had amazing mentors there in UX and project management and CMS-wrangling.

Those three years happened to coincide with the rise of content strategy as a special practice—and now I’m a content strategist. It all looks like it makes sense when I look backward, but it didn’t feel that way on the way up.

Ian Alexander

Some people engage in long online dialogues about their ideas. Others drop in and say blink-inducing things and then vanish in a puff of smoke and style. Ian’s one of the latter, and we lured him here by promising rare sneakers.

  • Do you want to be right or do right? This principle keeps us honest and forces us to check our egos. It also trains us see things from different perspectives, and reminds us to always keep the customer’s point of view in mind.
  • Every project requires a little crazy. At our agency, we aim to inspire change. Sometimes we can’t execute that change because of budget, scope, or timing, but we endeavor to push a few notches farther than we believe we will land. Being safe rarely works.
  • Do the hard stuff first, then iterate. Everyone talks about iterating, being agile, and getting to a minimally viable product, but I think the most important part of those strategies is tackling the most difficult aspect of the project very early on. This does not mean that you have to provide the final solution but rather that you indicate the most significant hurdle (a process in itself) and begin to attack that problem. Too often we do what’s easy, but still time consuming, and then have to redo that work based a new paradigm.
  • No “creative” (in the agency sense) without strategy. This is a hard one and it contains two lessons. First, almost without exception, strategy should inform creative decision making. Second, if you are rushing, you usually don’t care about the client or project—and if the client is rushing, they don’t care about the relationship with your agency.

How my principles have changed

Over ten years, the first three have been constant, and the last is new to the game. Ten years ago I was 34 and watching many worlds collide: publishing, programming, user experience, marketing, management, and many other fields were playing leapfrog. Those things seem to be settling now and this makes strategy more accessible.

Ian Alexander's pals
Ian Alexander’s pals

Twenty years ago, I was 24. Being right and doing right were often confused, and so, in turn, were the results. Youth is often about rejection then creation in that order.

Where I come from

My background is 60% arts and 40% science. I originally went to school for writing then transferred to visual arts, and I worked on one of the first 3D printing technologies at MIT. I’ve done tours of duty as a general contractor, outsourcing specialist in China, technology writer, and e-learning technologist. The arts were and still are a major influence—I have always been interested how they affect things that people use (products).

Dorian Taylor

Dorian’s feeds are a constant source of provocative approaches and ideas that do more than merely provoke. His tangents are more interesting than most people’s straight paths to “productivity.”

Conceptual integrity: When I first read these words in The Mythical Man-Month, I was like YES. Brooks states that “conceptual integrity is the single most important consideration in system design,” and I agree with him completely. My understanding of this principle is so visceral that I have trouble articulating it, but I’ll try: you have gained comprehension of a problem. You grok it. You have a coherent form in your head and you can communicate it to others. You can see the whole. You can see its anatomy, the joints, where it comes apart. It is clear, it is beautiful, it is right. And if you don’t have conceptual integrity, you and your colleagues will fumble along indefinitely until you achieve it. Your results, if you have any, will be awkward and fragile. Try looking around your environment, and see if you can spot the artifacts that exhibit conceptual integrity and the ones that don’t.

Medium size: Archimedes said something like “give me a lever long enough and I will pry the world off its hinges.” We build microscopes and telescopes to see things that are small and far away; radio equipment to perceive bands of light we can’t otherwise perceive; trucks, ships, and airplanes to augment both our speed, endurance, and carrying capacity. In each of these cases, what we’re doing is bringing extremes to human scale—to medium size. We use statistics to make sense of seas of data, calculus to glean a concise understanding of the behavior of functions, algebras to understand the structures of sets. These systems collapse a different kind of extreme—unwieldy complexity—into coherent concepts that an individual person can contemplate. In some endeavors, you can’t expect to budge until you find the conceptual equivalent of Archimedes’ lever. And if you can’t find your lever, you will have to make one.

Isomorphism: This is probably my most important discovery in the past few years. An isomorphism is a fancy abstract mathematical concept which has enormous importance for how we learn and how we shape things. It goes by other names you might be more familiar with: metaphor, analogy, etc. But it’s stricter. It refers to a pair of functions which map between sets, the actual mechanics of connecting a metaphor to its referent and back again, with no significant loss of information. Using this principle it is possible to create cognitive tools for the express purpose of achieving conceptual integrity—you make that the task—and desired artifact (along with many other interesting and valuable artifacts) will simply drop out as a byproduct of the process. Make the goal to think more clearly, express more elegantly, and the widgets will become so stupidly obvious that you can bulldoze right through them.

Dorian Taylor's desk
Dorian Taylor’s desk

How my principles have changed

Complete inversion. When people tell you you’re talented and smart, you start to believe it. I suspect a lot of people with the “rock-star” mentality believe that their produce exudes from some preternatural source inside them. I did. But as the problems got more complex, the magic started to become unreliable. It’s like this: no matter how hard you flap your arms, you’re never going to lift off the ground. It isn’t that you aren’t strong enough, it’s that you just aren’t the right shape. But what you can do is get some canvas and some bicycle parts and make an airplane. So I decided to ditch the narrative of hero-martyr and mint a new one that relies on representing and re-representing form, rather than magic.

Where I come from

I’m self-taught and I started out low-tech. As a tweenager I wanted to do special effects for movies—building scale models, etc. I’ve always gravitated toward making things. Then I got a computer and got really into 3D modeling and the underground BBS art scene. Then the web started to pick up steam. I got really inspired in the late 90s by John Maeda and his students at the MIT media lab, doing generative art, infoviz and other gorgeous stuff coming out of the aesthetics and computation group. My visual design from the late 90s to early oughts was always pretty heavily instrumented with code, which I had picked up for that purpose. Turns out knowing how to program is useful for other stuff too. So I followed the loot to a programming career from about 2001–2007.

At heart, I’m a designer. I don’t write apps. Virtually all of my programming experience is in infrastructure—system automation, content management, business intelligence, internal tools, etc. What’s interesting about these systems is that it really matters that you get them right, and surprisingly they don’t end up amounting to a lot of code.

The conventional “tech” scene is all about racing to market before your competitors beat you, or your VC cash runs out. I just don’t buy that narrative though, and for the past four years I’ve been working out an alternative. It’s been this massive haul through management theory, pedagogy, cybernetics, semiotics, economics, finance, cognitive science, sociology, and more math than I had ever expected I would need to learn. I also started writing. To offer a quasi-romantic summary, it’s like healing the dichotomy of talk and action, so that action becomes a language, albeit typically with more expensive words. I believe this idea is essential to form-giving activity going forward, because it is becoming increasingly important precisely what we create, instead of just that we create.

Kat Meyer

The publishing world houses a lot of lovely people, but Kat Meyer stands out a mile away. She’s a choreographer of giant events, an editor of words and gatherings, and a friend of stories.

I have one principle, it turns out. I had to think about this, because I never thought of it as a principle as much as a goal, but now I see that it’s both:

Make all of your decisions out of love, not out of fear.

If that sounds hokey, I assure you it isn’t. It’s pretty primal and it’s also really real. It comes up every day. Decisions you have to make about doing what you know you should be doing—doing what is close to your heart—or, going the easy route and doing what is not scary.

It’s so much easier to not do things you believe in. Things you really believe in are scary to act upon. And it’s so much easier to just avoid taking the scary route. Something as simple as picking up the phone and calling someone you really admire but are sure will never ever in a million years want to talk to you—that can be scary. Greenlighting—and being responsible—for a project that may not find an immediate audience but deserves one, that can be scary. But it’s the love that drives you to do it that you should listen to. That’s my principle. “Listen to the love, not the fear.”

Kat Meyer's toes
Kat Meyer’s toes

There’s another guiding thought I carry around in my head that goads me to do stuff I would hesitate to do. It’s a quote from Diane Arbus: “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” That sums up why I try to get cool people on stage at conferences, or make sure that someone who has a really great idea meets someone who can help make that idea come to life, or even why I answer questions like this…we all have a lot to offer that is totally unique and totally matters.

How my principles have changed

In the past 10 years, these principles haven’t changed, but I do have much more evidence that they’re pretty good rules to live by.

And, I think I’m better at following them.

Some people, I guess, get less bold about things as they get older. Less willing to look like they don’t have it all figured out, or admit they need help, or maybe they do have it figured out…which is great for them, but I’m getting a lot bolder about admitting I have no clue and that the only things I do know are those defined by these sorta-kinda principles. If I listen to my heart and do my best to share those things I think are important—that’s a lot. It’s not easy, but it matters. It totally matters.

Where I come from

I’m from publishing. Editorial production for academic journals; marketing for a university press and a regional trade press; marketing and editorial for a children’s regional publisher and plush toy maker (not as fun as it sounds); marketing consultant for a “boutique” self publishing services company (that was enlightening); freelance social media consulting for all kinds of publishers; an honest go at trying to start a digital-first romance publishing company (not as easy as it sounds). And now a job (Chair for O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing Practice Area) that encompasses kind of all of the above and more—but is more focused on talking about publishing than actually publishing, though I get to do that too. Which means I get to talk to the people who are doing the stuff that makes the world a better place for creating and sharing content.

I like being from here. Publishing peeps are a tribe unlike any other. Word crafters, technologists, artists, storytellers, storysellers, curators, visionaries—all these people with a love for ideas and an inability to keep the ideas to ourselves. There are lots of good people in the world, but I feel at home here with these people. One could do worse.