Ramping Down & Moving Forward

change in view

It won’t come as much of a surprise to those close to me that I’m planning on retiring dotmatrix studios as a business this winter. Housekeeping will keep me billing clients as such until the end of this calendar year, but any aspiration of evolving the business passed a few years back. It’s time to move forward, or as my favorite philosopher once said:

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
Alan Watts

I’ll continue to consult independently while I shift my focus to pursuing the right fit of an in-house design management position.

Quite honestly, it’s a few years past time for me to return to the challenge of building, collaborating and developing professionally with an internal team. And regardless of the results of my full-time pursuits, I’m going to pursue work that is more strategic in nature, which is not to say I won’t dive deep on projects, but at this point in my career I’m exponentially more valuable upstream consulting strategy, defining direction, mentoring designers and working cross-functionally.

Before my life becomes too hectic in this next phase of my career, I figured this might be a good time to document the history behind my studio (RIP), hash through its evolution and take into account the positives that I took away from these past 10 years. By no means do I consider this to be a case study of any particular importance, but it could provide interesting fodder for those looking to strike out on their own.

86 Bedford Street

When my stint with Ameritrade ended a decade ago and I moved from Jersey City to Greensboro, my professional goals were simple enough: to open my own shop. After three years of negotiating the waters of a development-centric organization sans executive Design support, I had become disillusioned with the politics of leading an in-house product design team, on deadline, while fighting turf wars to meet the needs of our clients.

In comparison, the notion of running my own shop, making decisions that fit my approach to design, business and the ripening opportunities of the web was more than appealing.

After a few months of consulting I quickly came to realize that I wasn’t interested in constructing a traditional agency; I had zero desire to get caught in the loop of chasing down work in order to maintain a bench of designers. That was when I took inventory and came to understand that my interests revolved around three distinct axes:

  1. to collaborate with as many of the best and brightest I could find
  2. to work on projects that I found to have value beyond a paycheck
  3. to immerse myself in community-building efforts

This “mission” is what drove the choice of the dotmatrix name and mark. Riffing off an analog printer’s output—imagining individual members of a team or community coming together to create something larger than themselves—within the spoken equivalent to a top-level domain, the branding was ironic, cryptic, geeky, aloof, and executed with sophistication (thanks, Tina)
sean coon office

After putting 10+ years in the industry, I was still an artist at heart who trained as a designer and learned the art of business out of necessity. If I was going to run my own shop, it would be by my own rules, so I decided up front that I wasn’t going to chase RFPs and local clients—let alone propose panels and angle for speaking engagements—but rather invest my time and efforts in openly posting my thoughts and ideas about our quickly evolving 2.0 world and attempt to meet potential collaborators.

From ’05 to ’07 I attended a good number of conferences—from SXSW to Emerging Technologies at MIT—and met some brilliant folk along the way (such as Tara, Doc, Nate, and David). The more I posted, the more I became a part of the 2.0 conversation and the more project feelers I’d get in return. Over the last ten years, every project I’ve worked on was the result of either a past colleague reaching out, a referral or someone pinging me based on my writing.

dotmatrix studios never marketed itself with a website or a twitter account; we were the speakeasy that you came to know by word of mouth.

The Work

One of the advantages of setting up shop in a city like Greensboro is the cost of living, which can give you the opportunity, if you’re so inlined, to balance your time between paid gigs and creative pursuits.

After contracting with Behavior Design to rethink and design the Media Matters for America platform, I had the opportunity to assemble a full team to design the CMS for Scripps Networks, which was to be used to publish, manage and monetize content for multiple high-visibility online properties (i.e. The Food Network, HGTV, DIY, etc.). I’d co-lead scrum calls on Skype and interview users on location every few weeks. Working out of offices Knoxville and NYC with a team based in both, including London and Minnesota, the project was a bonafide feat of collaboration.

In my (few) off-hours, I ended up becoming waist deep in the local music scene, and after watching my musician friends struggling landing crowds at shows and getting their music to the masses, I came up with the idea for the dotmatrix project (DMP). Encompassing all three of dotmatrix studios’ mission elements (collaboration, value project, build community), DMP was an experience design challenge both online and off.
dmp banner greensboro

Offline, we crafted the shows to be experienced by the audience as a mixture of a studio recording, a video shoot and a live show, which got the locals talking and showing up in numbers; online we posted high quality documentation of the shows and promoted both the documentarians and musicians as if they were all rock stars.
dmp-site

The goals of the project were large (win grants to pay documentarians and open a venue were just two), and the commitment exhausting (I carried equipment with the engineers, contributed to designing & hanging show posters, produced the shows, managed all creative collaboration, etc.) and in the end it was just too much to juggle with full-time paid design work. We produced our last show in May of 2010 and imbibed a few tall ones to celebrate a good run of close to three years worth of monthly shows—all through the efforts of a volunteer community of more than 200 local, creative souls.

For the last five years, dotmatrix studios began the slow ramp down from taking on team-oriented projects to individual consulting projects, with me eventually teaming up with a few different shops: Bluespark Labs (where I took a UX Director role for a minute until I felt the itch to try one last time to make dotmatrix work) and my current partner, Analogous. The work has been challenging and interesting—from the startup Knewton.com to FXCM.com to Indiana University Libraries to the Inter-American Development Bank—but priorities change.

It’s A Wrap

Sometimes I look back on where I was in 2005 and wonder if I made the right decision to move from NYC to the south; to leave Silicon Valley offers on the table in order to startup my own business. I have zero regrets. While ten years removed from being employed by a large company might make it difficult to transition back into a full-time product team, too many amazing things have happened to me over the past ten years to think twice about my decision.
family

If you ever have the chance to do your own thing, regardless of the obstacles that lay in your path, be sure to go for it. Take that risk, as life is too short, or as the kids say nowadays, “YOLO.”

Digital Activism 101

Charis Tsevis
Illustration by Charis Tsevis

Al Gore from:
The Assault On Reason

[…] “Fortunately, the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework. It has extremely low entry barriers for individuals. It is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge. It’s a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas, in the same way that markets are a decentralized mechanism for the creation and distribution of goods and services.

It’s a platform, in other words, for reason.

But the Internet must be developed and protected, in the same way we develop and protect markets—through the establishment of fair rules of engagement and the exercise of the rule of law. The same ferocity that our Founders devoted to protect the freedom and independence of the press is now appropriate for our defense of the freedom of the Internet.

The stakes are the same: the survival of our Republic.

We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it, because of the threat of corporate consolidation and control over the Internet marketplace of ideas.” […]

Defenders Of The Common Man?

democratic party

The longer we drag forward within a completely partisan run government, the more the Republican Party proves to be vile and full of power mongers.

This particular administration spins faster than a dreidel on Hanukkah and smears more often than a left-hander writing in a rainstorm, but if one can remain objective when studying their tactics, one cannot discount the fact that they’re a well oiled machine, running their party with business-like effectiveness. They’re so organized, they remind me of a hive of worker bees, humming to the whim of the queen, existing only for the future of the hive and a taste of the honey they produce. This is how they roll—deep and in-tune.

So how do the Democrats stack up?

Bill Bradley recently wrote an opinion of the state-of-the-party in the New York Times, describing political organization in explicit detail; how the Elephants have created a thirty-year strong infrastructure— with defined roles, responsibilities and financing—to further their agenda, while the Donkeys get lost in the tactical arguments of the moment and eat their own in a fight to reach an elected seat.

In other words, the Republican Party has mastered the pyramid organizational structure. They’ve created a template for a replaceable leader at the top of a sustainable ecosystem, built to pro-actively defend their ideologies via responses in a moments notice from any type of Democrat or citizen retort.

Democrats, on the other hand, are renowned for tearing each other up during the primary season, unwittingly exposing each candidate to the Republican propaganda machine; a media machine that instills doubt in the minds of the casual electing public with repetitive rhetoric. So without the head-on-a-swivel organization of the GOP, each potential Democratic leader has to build his/her own pyramid of a strategic platform on the fly, sans the years of networking, research and coordination.

The results of such a non-strategy should be obvious. I mean, imagine how well an upside-down Egyptian pyramid would’ve worked out?

upsidedown-pyramid

The Democratic Party claims to be the party for the common man, but through their actions they actually project the appearance of being selfish and petty. As individual politicians, they don’t seem willing to barter for their place in a sustainable, Party structure, as they far too often seem overly anxious to take the weight of the world on their individual shoulders.

This me first perception can be illustrated in numerous tangible forms—their website is a classic example:

In the topical, global navigation, one category (People) reads as an attempt to describe the make-up of the Party. Rolling over the navigation nomenclature speaks volumes to their organization. What the Dems seem to want to do is show people that they have a broad set of programs and focus geared to numerous types of people.

democrat-website

What it says to me is that the Democrats cut the population into discrete targets, placing ethnic groups next to the disabled community; farmers next to Gays, Lesbians, Bisexual and Transgenders, etc. Sprinkle in each religion, old people, small businesses, unions, families, women and students and you have the American mixing pot.

Which groups did the Democrats leave out? How about Caucasian, middle-aged men? By creating this hodge-podge of Americans on a single level labeled People, such a representation in the navigation screams, “Us white guys can help you needy, poor and minority slobs out… vote for us.”

What kind of an inclusive message is that? How does that message leverage the very diversity they’re trying to represent through their party? It fails miserably.

  • Imagine an African-American, bi-sexual woman coming to the site to find out more about the Party. Wouldn’t she feel a bit more like a cattle poster—with dotted lines drawn on her psyche, trying to leverage her leanest and most tasty parts—than as a partner in a political movement?
  • What about an Asian-American, union member? Would this unspoken classification of European ethnicity as the default power representation model make someone feel uncomfortable?

Don’t get me wrong, compared to this current administration and the spin cycle of the right, the Democrats are still a beacon of hope, but an asteroid hitting the White House right about now would get the same props from me. Instead of going the Madison Avenue route and “marketing” the Party toward groups of people, how about simply exposing and addressing the issues that affect such constituents?

People know who they are; they need to know who you are.

If the Democrats want to expand their reach into the Independent/non-affiliated voter arena, they’ll have to start off by throwing their egos out the window, work together with a purpose, speak with conviction on topical issues and begin to create some form of a strategic plan to combat those evil, memory laden, pachyderms.

And fix the damn website.

strictly heart

beasties

what is that
that is not craft?
the time it takes to shake and bake?
the time spent coughing up a good laugh?
the time it takes to find a large enough room?
room for one?
room for all?
the time it takes to see June in December?
the time it takes to March to a Fall?

leaves drift down every year
dried up and dead in just a few
all eyes land in the gutter
while buds refresh anew
no, you don’t need an MD to bring back
your man from the edge
your jen from her pitt
here’s my option to hedge:

drama is just drama
except when it hits off in the street

you feel me?
’cause you do steel me
from passing the solid yellow line
from counting down the time
for when my tv guide is on hold
for when the story has been told
the knowledge of self-determination
the common source of a nation
the feet in the shoes when a toll has been hiked
“the ones i like to wear when i rock the mic”