Storytelling, Authenticity – and Other Inspirations of Etsy
We value most what we measure.
If you're a fan of the awesomely ingenious handmade marketplace called Etsy, then you're also a fan of Randy J. Hunt, creative director for the online commerce platform. He's arguably got one of the coolest jobs in the world: Leading a team of designers to build great Web and off-line experiences for an audience that celebrates great craft. He's also one of the guest speakers at this year's sold-out SAY Create which starts September 9 in Carmel, CA.
We've long been fans of Etsy and the creative energy of the makers that make it go, and are very excited to have him join us in Carmel. As a lead-up to his session at Create, we asked him about the intimacy of making things by hand, how storytelling fits into design – and what every company can learn from Etsy.
You've said that designers need to build what they design. Explain that philosophy and how you think it makes a difference… The materials, forms, tools, technology, and processes used to implement a design can have a huge influence on the final experience of that design. The more designer understands the constraints and possibilities, the more they can take advantage of the potential in them to create design experiences that range from efficient, to clever, to truly special.
By contrast, if the designer's knowledge is limited to only a part of the full process their designs go through to be made, then the range of possibilities along which they can make informed decisions is severely limited.
What do you mean when you talk about "handmade" being more than just a means of production or marketing, it is a way of living and viewing the world? "Handmade" as a worldview is really about prioritizing a set of values. Handmade is about intimacy – a closeness between people, things, our environment. And it's about things operating at a scale in which meaningful connections and relationships are possible. So in this case "handmade" is really a metaphor for "human scale", which is a more durable idea. In the broadest sense, it's about a distributed, networked view of the world as opposed to a consolidated, hierarchical view of the world.
You're also a storyteller. How does storytelling fit into design? I operate from the belief that design does not rise above content. One of the most compelling forms of content is the narrative, a story. In this sense design is inherently tied to storytelling, as stories are a powerful mechanism for delivering content, and the design operates in service of content. (Yes, there are times when design is the content, but that's for another day.)
Additionally storytelling becomes helpful in doing design work itself. If you can tell a story about your ideas, your rationale, and your thinking to a collaborators, client, customers, or even potential hires, you can help make the work compelling and get people excited about it.
How does a company like Etsy grow and keep its authenticity and its attention to craft and detail? Very carefully. Seriously though, we first have to understand what these things really mean to us. What are our core values? We've answered these questions and now we work to create tools, processes, and roles that make sure we're doing what we think we're doing. In addition we have to accept that this is difficult. We won't always get it right. Sometimes we make mistakes we need to be honest with ourselves about those mistakes and correct them with the same enthusiasm and spirit as we want all of our work to have.
And what can the rest of us learn from that? We value most what we measure. So, if authenticity and attention to the craftsmanship are important, we have to find ways of measuring them. This same idea is true for anyone. Those don't have to literally be numerical measurements, though in some cases they can be. They should be some consistent criteria that you check your work, decisions, and progress against to see if you're living up to the standard you define for yourself. Finally you have to get people to feel responsible for maintaining or increasing those metrics.
This is very much long-term thinking. If you're focus is on the short term, approaching work this way is difficult…perhaps impossible. This isn't something for the faint of heart either. It requires dedication and a lot of work. Thankfully, it's fun and rewarding work.
What are the biggest challenges you see designers face with new screen sizes like tablets & phones? Technical challenges are interesting, but they're resolvable. They might mean you need to produce more assets or consider more variations for use. Those challenges are overcome with research time, and planning effort. The challenge there lies in prioritizing effort more than coming up with the solutions themselves.
I think the biggest challenges we face with new screen sizes and devices are the contexts and use cases for these experience. It's difficult to understand is how people's behaviors and priorities have changed (and continue to evolve very quickly). What makes a person satisfied now? What solves an old problem better? Is there a new problem that's now an opportunity?
What design experiences have you seen recently that inspire you? In New York City the standard for parks is high. Central Park is the torchbearer, but the new Brooklyn Bridge Park being developed along the East River waterfront is an incredible design experience. It's been a collaboration between many public and private organizations. Smart programming has jump-started activity in the park would go on and on for pages (from fitness, to movies, to kayaking, to walking tours, to concerts). It makes the brand new park feel like a home that belongs to everyone. The landscape design and framing of the lower-Manhattan skyline is breathtaking.
Who's influenced you when it comes to design? Usually when someone asks me a question like this, I reference people outside of the design world. For example artists, writers, business leaders. That's where I like like to derive my inspiration. But there are some designers who have been very influential for me. These four in particular, who were all teachers and later to varying degrees mentors, colleagues, and friends:
Scott Stowell - For doing consistently intelligent work for the masses. The reach and influence of his work is wide. And it's never dumbed-down. It's always something you can both relate to and that lifts you up just a bit.
Stefan Sagmeister - For his self-awareness and willingness to do what it takes to pull off something most other people would consider too crazy or too difficult.
Milton Glaser - For his ability to articulate the power of design and place it in context of the overall human condition.
Steven Heller - For being a cheerleader for design. From Steve I've seen how that can excite and inspire designers, helping them understand the cultural impact and potential in their work.