I was writing a paper (on WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS) in the computer lab at Trexler Hall. It was 1993 and I was a 19-year old biology major on the premed path at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the lab tech was doing something odd on his machine. I had been interested in video games and computers since I was a kid, programming in BASIC and playing with Print Shop Pro on my grandfather's VIC-20 and Commodore 64, so I asked him what he was doing.
He explained to me that he was accessing computers at different schools around the country. He showed me how to use the “dumb” terminal to access Lynx and use Gopher to connect to an entire community of people who were as obsessed with the Dave Matthews Band as me. We would trade tapes of shows, discuss the music, share guitar tablature, and even critique and help each other build our own websites.
I was active in the DMB online community for several years. My website, “The Blue Water Baboon Farm” became one of those sites that was required reading for any serious Dave fan. In 1995, if you were to search AOL with the term “Dave Matthews Band”, my site would be the top search result — ranked even higher than the band's official site. My guitar tablature of the obscure “Heathcliff's Haiku Warriors”, written in 1995, remains a primary online source to this day.
Perhaps I spent more time making dupes of Dave shows than I did studying, because I didn't get into medical school on my first attempt. I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship from the University of Maryland School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and worked under Debra Counts, MD in the division of pediatric endocrinology.
Dr. Counts was a magnificent boss and true mentor. Realizing my comfort with computers, she tasked me with the design and development a medical records database system to streamline the operations of the division. The app was still being used in the division when I caught up with her back in 2004.
During my time in pediatric endocrinology, I became less and less infatuated with medicine. I saw the docs in the division spending more time on the phone with insurance companies and scrambling to get grants funded than actually practicing medicine. Doubts crept in. When I was wait listed by the University of Maryland School of Medicine on my second attempt, I considered it a sign and withdrew my name from consideration. I realized that, although it was a noble career path, it simply wasn't my career path.
I decided to go to graduate school for no other reason than going to school and working in labs was all that I knew how to do. I naively entered the combined Ph.D. program in biochemistry at the University of Maryland Baltimore thinking that it would be a cakewalk...that I'd be out in three years.
I couldn't have been any more wrong. Even though I loved science, I was a terrible bench scientist. I mean, I was bad. I would do the same experiment three times and get statistically significantly different result sets. Consistently.
I hated it. It was slow. It was boring. It was frustrating. I was completely uninspired.
However, during nights and weekends, I had been turning my online knowledge into a little freelance business for a little extra cash to supplement my graduate assistantship stipend. I called myself “Trophic Communications”. I designed club fliers and record jackets. I did logos and business cards. But the websites that I designed for SNS Records and Defining Entertainment were the pieces that really got me noticed. In 1998, I did a project for Flavourset Travel. My fee: Two trips to Ibiza where I proposed to my wife in the waters of the Mediterranean.
In the fall of 1998, I was in the lab conducting another experiment destined for failure when I got a call about a freelance project. The guy on the other end of the line was throwing around names trying to entice me to give him a price break based on “all the business that he could bring me”. One of the names that he dropped was Gr8. Sounded interesting so I opened Netscape and typed in www.gr8.com.
WOW! I was blown away. These guys meant business. I was just some guy who knew how to make websites. They were a full-on agency. I knew I didn't have a chance but when I saw that they were hiring, I shot off an ASCII resume and URLs of the sites that I had built.
Incredibly, I got a call.
An AdWeek Top 100 interactive agency wanted to interview me. Really?
As soon as I walked into the agency, I was both enamored and completely intimidated. There were entire walls filled with trophies and plaques. I was obviously out of my league. But the interview went well. They loved my creative instincts and liked that I could roll up my sleeves and get the projects produced. So they took a chance and hired me as a designer. Only 2 weeks earlier, I had no idea that this job even existed.
Leaving graduate school for Gr.8 was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. But telling my mother that I'd be leaving academia to design websites for a living wasn't exactly the easiest conversation that I've ever had.
At Gr.8, I immersed myself in design. If there was something that I understood, it was learning. I worked nights and weekends. Read Rand, Tschichold, and Tufte. Studied the golden section. Devoured the work of Airline Industries, Kioken, The Attik, Vaughan Oliver, and Why Not Associates. I had tremendous mentors in Morton Jackson, who gave the opportunity and the confidence to trust my instincts, and Glenn Roeca, who rubbed away my rough edges and taught me what it means to be a design professional. With Gr.8, I got the opportunity to work with amazing people on amazing projects for well known clients. I won a ton of awards. I was promoted to Art Director within a year.
I consider my time at Gr.8 to be my formal design education. I was able to rationalize my instincts and understand the hows and whys of what I was doing. It was at Gr.8 that I developed the unwavering standard for visual excellence that I hold today.
Gr.8 is also where I met my future partners.
Jim Hagen and I were pulling another all-nighter at Gr.8 when I mentioned to him that we should just open up our own shop. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but he agreed with me. We thought that it would be a great idea to set it up like Pentagram where designers would own the company and there would be no layers between them and the clients. We'd call the new firm "no|inc" — a double entendre that communicated both our non-corporate structure and our dedication to digital. We approached Andy Spangler and Alex Markson to join the partnership and the four of us hung a shingle in April 2000.
It took us a while to figure out how to sell projects and run a business, but with the help of another one of my cherished mentors, Larry Rivitz, we started to put the pieces together. We underestimated and overdelivered on every project. We innovated constantly — even though there wasn't budget for it.
The work paid off when in 2002, with Larry's guidance and help, I developed a relationship that made no|inc the interactive partner for Berlin Cameron Partners in New York. Just five years earlier I was wasting away in graduate school and now I had business cards that read “Director of Interactive Services, Berlin Cameron Partners” and I was pitching Earthlink and ING Direct with Andy Berlin and Ewen Cameron.
With Berlin, I learned how “big time communications” are done. I learned the value of insight from Jon Steel and the necessity of concept from Izzy Debellis. Above all however, I learned the value of trust from Anthony Bianco, the managing partner of the agency and one of my most valued mentors.
At Berlin, we developed some really forward-thinking online strategy and creative concepts for Coke, Samsung and Silk Soy Milk. We developed the Walnut Acres website and a bunch of other interactive work for Boost Mobile, NY Life and the Wall Street Journal. I was on the train to New York a lot...often three days a week on top of my normal work load. It was grueling but I was happy because my partners and I were building something.
no|inc was on the rise and it felt great.
In the spring of 2005, I was out of control. I was working 16 hours days. On the train three days a week. Billing ridiculous numbers of hours. I had a new baby at home and my wife and I were buying (and selling) a house. I was literally so stressed out that I couldn't eat. I lost 35 pounds that winter using a potent combination of high dose stress hormones and the South Beach Diet. My mind was in knots but I was too busy to deal with it.
It became too much. I found myself chasing business rather than happiness.
I moved my focus from growth to balance.
In the years following my decision, I played key roles in some great work for The Rouse Company, Boston Properties, Advertising.com and TidalTV. But I never again felt connected to the business.
Grassroots Enterprise was an online advocacy firm in Washington, DC. Appropriately enough, my relationship with them originated on LinkedIn, the professional social networking site founded by Grassroots' chief investor Reid Hoffman. I had been providing strategy and visual design services to them through no|inc for a couple of years when I began to think seriously about leaving the partnership. Grassroots provided an opportunity to work on important projects with the power to create social change.
It felt right.
I began as Executive Creative Director in May of 2009. The change was good for me. New city. New people. New clients.
However, just 4 months into my tenure, the board decided to take the company in another direction. I was forced to do the same.
When thinking about what I wanted to do next, the answer was simple. Be happy. I took inventory of my life and thought of the times when I was most happy. Proposing to my wife. The birth of my children. Playing my guitar. Designing late at night with earphones blaring. Spending Saturday mornings alone at Gr.8 honing my craft. Starting no|inc.
I realized that the past 15 years were preparation for this — a chance to do it my way. I know who I am. I know what I want. And I know what it takes to be successful. I've worked in agencies and founded my own. I've developed online strategy for Fortune 500 companies and spent sleepless nights working against launch deadlines. I've had a hundred successes and made a million mistakes.
It is sum total of these experiences that afford me to distinct pleasure of offering the services of a world-class user experience design firm — without the firm.