Recently I sat down with my friend from Northern Ireland, Jordan Moore. Jordan is a brilliantly talented young designer, whose influence and creativity expands daily. Needless to say, I was honored when he asked me to share my story, and what design means to me, as part of the phenomenal Transcript series for members of his site.

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Jordan holds nothing back in sharing his wealth of experience from the trenches of modern responsive design’s toughest challenges. Besides working for some of the largest brands on the planet, Jordan also helped shape TypeCast into the Holy Grail of cutting-edge web type tools that it is today. Jordan also drops some seriously well-considered knowledge regularly at Smashing Magazine, and sometimes at .NET Mag.

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Thanks Jordan

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Jordan for allowing me to be involved with such top-tier content and interviews with the great pioneers of our time. It is truly an honor. Now, enjoy the interview.

Interview Transcript

Recently I caught up with one of my good internet friends Kevin Suttle. While he’s currently a designer, developer, writer, and presenter currently based in Cincinnati, Ohio, he’ll soon be joining the rebuilding of IBM Design in Austin, Texas as a Senior Product Designer. He’s got some interesting stories to share, so I thought I would share them with you too.

Jordan Moore: Describe your path to becoming a designer.

Kevin Suttle: My path to becoming a designer has always had an interwoven relationship with hacking. By “hacking” I mean, ‘getting something to function in a way other than that which it was originally designed’, not the more nefarious, stereotypically-Hollywood definition. For example, I remember a professor in college showing me how to view the HTML source of the Apple’s Trailers site and save h264 files. I had another instructor show me how to edit a .plist file in the package contents of iDVD so I could adjust the length of DVD menu music to play a full song instead of the default 30 second loop. I’ve always been driven by getting things to function the way I feel that they should have all along.

Frustrated by a lack of creativity and poor usability on the web, I opened up Illustrator and began designing my own UIs. A friend showed me that you could draw image maps and export HTML directly from Illustrator, and that felt awesome, because I could draw what I wanted to use. At the time, I didn’t know how to code, so this was a great bridge.

Eventually though, I had to get my hands into a code editor, because honestly, I needed the money. I had lived in the Philippines for awhile after college and was pretty much broke upon return. I got a couple of freelance contracts doing Flash for my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, where I designed and built interfaces for classroom simulations.

A couple of years later, I found myself so frustrated by the lack of thought in the software I was using, and once again, I decided to do something about it. That was a major turning point in my career, as I was quickly enveloped into various circles of Adobe and other large-scale software companies, beta and alpha testing many of their products.

Through the constant process of testing, bug reporting, documenting, and designing features, I found that I seemed to have a knack for writing, and others enjoyed reading what I had to say.

In 2010, I decided to turn my articles into blog posts, and I began speaking at several top UX, tech, and design-oriented conferences. The overwhelmingly positive responses to my writing and presentations has been a catalyst in the progress of my career.

Each word I’ve written or spoken about design has led me to this point, where I’ll soon be joining IBM Design as a Senior Product Designer.

JM: Who has had an influence on your path to becoming a designer?

KS: Over the years, I’ve had several people influence my path, but while the default expectation may be that I’ll rattle off names like Saul Bass or James Dyson, I think the people who have had the biggest influence in my path have been those that have given me opportunities along the way. I know it may sound a bit sacchrine, but really, people like Steve Weiss and Rich Tretola from O’Reilly Media, who gave me the opportunity to become a published author, and Shawn Pucknell, who always accepted my presentation proposals and let me speak among creative visionaries (including a surreal event in San Francisco where I spoke on the same day as Scott Hansen, a.k.a. Tycho/ISO50, one of my favorite recording artists and designers.) So, I guess there’s one. Others include Cameron Moll, who heralded the importance of mobile well before it become iFashionable, and Don Norman, whose gentle nature and uncanny knack for reducing the complex down into stunningly digestable terms made me want to design the world over again. From Steve Krug, who made me fall in love with testing my way to better products, to Jef Raskin, who guided me through the depths of cognetics and applied behavioral psychology in interface design, and Bret Victor whose ground-breakingly radical ideas rekindled my vigor for interaction design. Each one of these people left a deep impression on my outlook of design as it relates to the smallest experiences in our everyday lives.

Really though, every day, something inspires me to push interaction and experiences just a little bit further, to add that extra bit of detail. Whether it’s the feel of a handle on a cabinet drawer, or watching my 1 year-old son play with his toys, I’m constantly reminded that there can always be more humane designs. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, and keeps me up at night. I don’t sleep much.

JM: I know the feeling. I don’t set an alarm clock anymore, my kids are louder and wake me up more effectively than any app could. What do you do in your free time beyond the web?

KS: These days, I’m not overwhelmed by large amounts of free time, but when I do get some, I spend it at my local CrossFit/MMA gym, teaching Muay Thai kickboxing. I’m undefeated (1-0!) and love the mental and physical challenges it brings each time I step onto the mat. When you’re training with someone, or even sparring/fighting, you have to be creative. You need to constantly be evaluating and predicting what your opponent’s next move will be, all the time planning yours, and looking for under-defended areas. It’s more art than science, obviously, which allows for free-flowing creativity and a splash of personal style, all within a set of constraints. That’s the very definition of design, isn’t it?

JM: Why does design matter?

KS: Design matters because, at it’s essence, it’s only about one single, solitary principle: communication. Nothing else. Pick any aspect of any discipline across the range of design studies and it will inevitably boil down to communication. Color communicates mood, cultural relevance, information hierarchy, etc. Alignment communicates typographic order, conveys structure, defines relation, etc. and so on.

As humans, the vast majority of human interaction is visual/non-verbal, whether it be through facial expression, body language, or gestures. We possess the capability to conceive staggeringly elaborate language systems, each containing thousands of inflections and tonal cues. Yet, as we’ve adapted and evolved through the Information Age raising purely digital, born-online generations, we’ve learned to visually express ourselves by way of emoticons and gifs. You may chuckle in derision, but think about all those IM or SMS conversations where you’ve chatted entirely in reaction gifs or memes. The way we’ve been knit together as humans reflects the ultimate goal of good design—to communicate simply, beautifully, and naturally.

JM: Let’s talk about how you work. What tools do you use?

KS: For me to be effective, my tools and workflow must be as responsive as the work I product. The goal is to to use the best tool for the job while keeping pace with updated best practices.

That being said, my current software setup looks like this:

iTerm2 (Zsh shell), Git, GitHub, Tower (Mac GUI client for Git), Sublime Text 3, Chrome DevTools, Sass (SCSS flavor), Dropbox, and Evernote. Everything except some of the tools themselves is stored in DropBox or on GitHub. That way, I can automate setting up new machines, and instantly be productive. User experience isn’t just limited to apps and websites.

My personal work mostly involves hacking on my dev environment, as well as contributing to and improving exisiting open-source projects.

JM: Let’s change gear a bit, what drives you to keep going?

KS: What drives me to keep going is what got me here in the first place: the human race is responsible for a poorly-designed world. Traffic, browser support, the DMV—these are all problems we’ve burdened the world with. Thankfully, we’re finally in a place to do something about mending our self-inflicted wounds. Whether it be signs and iconography for maps/wayfinding, or providing “divine light”, there are literally billions of design problems in the world that affect the daily lives of people. It’s easy to forget the human element in our increasingly-digital existence. We’d do well to remember that. It’s the most important motivation there is.

JM: What’s next for you?

KS: I’ve had several projects up in the air for a very long time, and I’m starting to normalize my schedule so I can get back to working on them. What’s really exciting about these projects to me is that a few of them involve collaboration with some notable folks in our industry—designers and developers that I have a great deal of respect for. Many of them involve areas that are new to me publically, so it will be good for me to showcase my interests and skills in areas outside the ones I may be known for.

Writing is also a major area of focus for me now. I’ve got several large-scale publications under way, including one piece that’s taking shape at Smashing Magazine, (that you were of great help in reviewing). My Evernote is densely-packed with article stubs and topics that I’ve been meaning to write about, which will be publishing in the very near future.

I’m also incredibly excited to begin my journey to Austin, and my role at IBM Design. It still feels like a dream, and I can’t wait to get started.

JM: What legacy to you want to leave behind?

KS: When I look back on my life in the year 2111, I’ll want to have memories of my professional legacy that reflect the fervor and empathy I weave into every bit of my designs. One major pillar of my personal brand that I am hoping to reinforce is that code is a design tool.

There are so many designers who can remember how to apply complex, layered blending modes and can recite RGB values from memory, but are simultaneously petrified by the mention of the dreaded “command line”. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a hybrid, but I inititally only learned to code so I could make my interfaces interactive. Later, I learned to program to make my code fast, responsive, and clean—these are not the same thing.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, developers can also learn a lot about design from beautiful code. A well-considered package structure and naming convention lends itself equally to thoughtful information architecture. Ensuring code is performant and accessible to various user interactions is also a goal of great user experience design.

The larger point I’m trying to make is that you’ll never learn as much as you can by working inside a box with blinders on. Comfort is great, but it when have any great design breakthroughs been comfortable to those who happen upon them?

Also, I’ve always found that getting away from the computer once in awhile and learning an analog skill can sometimes translate and make me a better designer. Working with my hands makes me more personally confident, which in turn makes me less afraid to try new things when I’m back in front of a screen.

I want my legacy to be the bookmark for the time when the term “hybrid” started to fade away, and being a “designer” implied that you could build what you drew. I want designers to own their products, and no longer be limited by “technical challenges”, the terminal, or even hardware. I want to help usher in a new era of multi-dimensional designers and polymaths. I want to inspire the current and future generations of designers to learn by hacking, and using tools like code, to make better designs.

Technology is shaping design, and design is shaping technology. It’s time for us to use both to the future.