Thoughts on design, life, and general balderdash by Jonas Downey.

The power of free design: why you should do pro-bono work (sometimes)

A few months ago, my uncle Tim started a project to restore a small theater in downtown Antioch, Illinois. The century-old theater had closed due to general disrepair and outdated tech. It needed an extensive revamp, and it was going to be costly.

Tim’s a real estate developer, and he was putting up his own money to get this project off the ground. But he needed help. He wanted to do a Kickstarter project and a fundraising campaign to raise $100,000 for the renovation.

He asked me if I had any recommendations for someone to make a website:

I need somebody good, fast, cheap and available. That’s only 1/2 a joke.

The only person I knew who fit that impossible criteria was me! I believed in the spirit of the project and thought it was worth my side project time. So I offered to help (for free.)

He had some rough marketing materials drafted, but it was clear we needed something more cohesive. I asked him to tell me the story of the theater, so I could get a sense of its past and future. From there, we moved on to visual design. I explored some type and color treatments and we chose a logo.

Antioch Theatre logos
Logo sketches. We had the name spelled wrong.

Then we designed several print materials to get the word out locally, including brochures, posters, and an enormous 200-square-foot banner to hang on the front of the theater:

Antioch Theatre banner
One giant banner.

Finally, I launched the website, while Tim’s team got the Kickstarter campaign started and planned promotional events.

Throughout the whole project, we spent extra attention on copywriting. We carefully explained the theater’s rich history and its ongoing value for the downtown. Bottom line, if anyone was going to give us money, they had to understand why it was worth it.

All together, I spent about 3 weeks of my occasional spare time on the project, and we ended up with a strong marketing effort, with a unified look and a consistent message. If you were anywhere near downtown Antioch, you couldn’t miss that SAVE THE ANTIOCH THEATRE logo on posters in every shop window.

But even with all that promotion, we weren’t so confident this would succeed. Will people care about a neglected old movie theater? Can we really raise $65k on Kickstarter for a small suburban town? For a while, the campaign stalled out around $25k and it seemed like we were done.

Not so. In fact, the campaign took off like crazy, and we ended up raising nearly $20,000 more than the original goal—enough to hit a stretch goal and upgrade the projection tech to 3D.

So, marketing done, money raised, theater saved! End of story, right? Not quite. Turns out that the campaign built a wave of energy and kicked off a broader movement toward improving the entire downtown:

I am not exaggerating this, but the messaging has inspired key business people to engage in the overall downtown revitalization effort, and has instilled a belief that things can get done. They see that residents will respond to quality.

This is what design can do—it can inspire people and change things for the better. It’s easy to forget about that when you’re doing client work, or routine production work, or whatever your day-job specialty happens to be.

Furthermore, pro-bono work gives you a chance to stretch your legs and try stuff you’ve never done, which can improve your day job work too. With this project, I took time to learn Sketch and used Basecamp with folks who were new to the product. I discovered some interesting challenges with onboarding, and used features I rarely use in my regular work. These lessons will help me improve Basecamp.

If you have the means and the time, take on some free work* once in a while. Help out a cause you feel strongly about. When money’s not at play, you’ll be motivated by an entirely different set of factors, and you might be surprised by the results.

*Jessica’s chart holds true: be careful to set clear limits and scope on the project, so you don’t get abused and everyone knows what to expect.

A message from some far off star

My grandmother died 17 years ago, due to complications after heart surgery. I was 16 then.

A few days ago, my mom gave me a letter that grandma wrote to me before her surgery. I didn’t know this letter existed until now. Receiving it almost 2 decades later, as a grown adult with his own family, somehow made it even sweeter and more impactful — a shot directly to the heart. It’s the best letter I’ve ever received, and some of the best advice. Though it’s a private note, I wanted to share her wisdom with you too.

Jonas -

That last letter you wrote to me was so wonderful. But then, you have always been wonderful and dear to me. I know that you know this -

I wish for all 3 of you happy years ahead, and compassion and caring and faith in others and yourself. Love and be a caring and dear son as you have always been. For your closest family will be the strongest and most loving part of your life, including your wife and kids to come. Peers come and then go. Though it seems they will always hang around, somehow this isn’t the case, and within a fairly short time they are scattered here and there. So it is your family who will always be in your corner.

And so will I, from some far off star!

I love you

Love - Gramma

Tips for quick and flexible design prototyping

This article was originally published at With their site transitioning to Creative Bloq, I’m republishing here for posterity.

For the past several months at 37signals, I’ve been working on a new app called Know Your Company. At the beginning of the project, we had a lot of ideas, but we weren’t sure if they would gel into a cohesive product or not.

To find out, we built a functional prototype. During this phase, I stayed mindful of how I approach design problems. I wanted to forget my past tricks, build things better and faster, and try crazy stuff outside of our comfort zone. Here are a few tips I picked up along the way.

Start with the essence

When you’re first starting out, the sky’s the limit, which is both exhilarating and overwhelming. Narrow down by identifying the core of your idea. What’s the one thing that’s so important, the project couldn’t exist without it? That’s what you should work on first. Start exploring and see if it even has legs. If not, regroup and start anew.

Focus on what it does, not how it looks

Conceiving ideas is hard and fiddling is easy, so you might lose your mojo by working on unimportant details too soon. Be disciplined, focus on capability and avoid distractions that slow down your progress.

We fell into this trap. We accumulated too much styling in an early version, and started wasting time debating it. Realizing our folly, we switched the entire UI to plain black and white to ensure we were working on the real problems.

Hang loose

Once you have distractions under control, play it fast and loose. Try your wildest ideas first. You can always fall back to something more conservative if they don’t work out.

We always like to experiment with weird elements — interesting shapes, animations, colors, or layouts. Forget what’s been done before and do something different. Look for real world inspiration.

Follow interesting paths

Ideas build on themselves. One idea leads to another, and suddenly you have a diverse pool of things to try.

Often these evolved ideas are stronger than your first ones, so don’t be afraid to change course for a few days. You might end up with a final set of features that’s entirely different than your original vision.

Throw it out

Many early explorations are junk. That’s healthy. At one point we trashed thousands of lines of code. Don’t get attached to what you already built - be critical, let it prove its worth, and relentlessly cut anything that isn’t working.

Do Repeat Yourself

When you’re working on a production app, optimization and the Don’t Repeat Yourself principle are important. But for a prototype, some duplication can be beneficial.

Let’s say we’re working on two similar features: messages and notes. Those interfaces and behaviors are similar, so you might be tempted to optimize right away and make them share CSS styles, markup, JavaScript, etc.

But maybe next week we’ll decide that messages should look or work much differently than notes. Or we might axe the messages feature altogether. Then all that optimization work was pointless.

Keep things decoupled until you’re certain they’re sticking around.

Fake it

A prototype should be as real as you can make it, but don’t go nuts. If something is too hard to build, stub in examples and get things as close to real as possible. (My early measure of “too hard” was anything that took more than an hour or two to figure out.)

As an example, at first we didn’t build authentication into the prototype, we just pretended there was a logged-in user.

Keep the momentum going and review often

Working on new stuff is fun, but there’s also no obvious deadline for when you’re done. So keep hustling and cover as much ground as you can. If you hit a lull, get out of it quickly by reconvening and deciding what’s next.

I also stayed motivated by watching my daily commits. I like to see a lot of progress every day, and Github’s profile page is great inspiration for keeping the streak going.

Mop the floor when you have free time

When you’re moving fast, trying ideas, cutting features, and stubbing in examples, things can get messy in a hurry. Take occasional chances to weed the garden.

We like to keep a “Chowder” list in Basecamp for minor problems that need attention. It’s the perfect list to tackle when your creative juices are tapped out, or if you’re waiting for someone else to finish some work before you can move on.

Know when to stop

At some point, the prototype needs to get real. This time we waited a little too long and had polished too much before calling in a programmer. This made it overwhelming for him to jump in cold. A good lesson learned – prove the concepts as fast as you can. If you’re confident the idea is strong, then get to work building with a real production crew.

So that’s what I’ve learned this time around, but the creative process remains a mysterious beast. What tips do you have for taming it?

What my daughter taught me about worrying

My daughter is an intense person. She’s curious and imaginative, introverted but outwardly compassionate, wise but silly, and deeply emotional. In her four short years, she has taught me more about my own life and character than I will likely ever teach her about hers.

But all those wonderful traits don’t come without a cost. Her sensitivity leads to frequent bouts of worrying. We don’t live a particularly stressful or troubling life — as careful guardians of her well-being, we’re purposeful about limiting her exposure to grown up problems.

So her worries are largely focused on simple matters. When she was younger and lost a toy, she jumped to absurd conclusions: “Is it under the house? Under the fridge? Is it in a tiny corner? In a vent? In the wall?” She worries that her mother has left the house without her knowing. She worries that her betta fish has died when it’s not moving. She worries that the stuffed animal she wants will be sold out. She cares about everything, even the flaked-off bits of polish from her painted fingernails, so she must carefully save them from an uncertain fate. And the list goes on and on.

Sad cat.
A worrysome text message.

These issues aren’t uncommon. She’s learning to manage her feelings and her level of control over her environment. These are healthy steps that will help her cope with bigger problems later.

But helping her through this phase has made me reconsider what we think of as “grown up problems,” and how we handle those problems. Trivial worries don’t go away with age, they just multiply. Adults worry about a tremendous number of things, many of them far more insignificant than the lost toy that’s theoretically stuck under the refrigerator.

Think of all the things, big and small, that probably concerned you today:

  • Which shirt should I wear? Do I look presentable enough?
  • Global warming is going to be awful.
  • Uh oh, I’m running late.
  • The lawn needs mowing.
  • Hey, I have new Twitter followers! I’d better think of a smart tweet.
  • What’s going to happen 15 years from now?
  • Am I getting enough done? What do others think of my work?

…and THAT list goes on and on, and on…

How do we deal with these worries? Some, we internalize. Others, we act on. And some, we need help solving. But regardless of our ability to manage them, why do we allow this crap to consume and distract us every day?

As pompous adults, we assume that our age and experience has granted us a righteous view of the true world. We’re eager to instruct our kids to get over their childish nonsense and join our reality. And then we teach them how to be agitated about unkempt lawns, baseball scores, physical appearances, and cell phones.

This is bad. Child worldviews are open ended and full of ideas and wonder. Adult worldviews are cynical and full of pointless bullshit.

For now, I’m going to be critical about what worries me and occupies my mental attention. I’m sure the kid will teach me a thing or two about what really matters and how I should feel about it. In the meantime, I’ll be right there with her in child world, for as long as she’ll allow me to visit.

My favorite stuff on the Internet, February 2013 edition

Once in a while I’ll empty out my Pocket and share some things you might like.

An ode to writing at night

Morning is a dreadful sight
My groggy brain be stale
Afternoon could be alright
But still to no avail

I try to write at dinner time
Cacophony abounds
After dinner no such luck
The child’s making sounds

Evening time is plenty fine
I’m feeling so much fitter
Regretfully I realize
I wasted time on Twitter

At last I’ve time to grab a pen
And sort out all my thoughts
Too bad it’s after midnight now
The words are mostly blots.

Doing less and saying more

I finally finished a new website, and launched this here blog you’re reading.

I made my last site in 2010. Back then I was freelancing, building a portfolio, and obsessing about tracking my various Internet detritus. My site was always my best outlet to fiddle with some tech and design ideas.

Since then, I found my dream job and I’m now quite satisfied with my tech and design fiddling. My 2010 self was no longer doing a good job of representing my 2013 self.

So when I set out to do this new site, I made a list of Lesses and Mores. Here they are.

Less old stuff

I don’t need or want a portfolio of past work, so it’s all gone (mostly.) I picked the last two things I liked and featured those.

Less technology

My former love was Symphony. I still think it’s wonderful for big projects, but I don’t want to be fussed with content management anymore. To that end I switched to Statamic, which is pleasant and made by some swell dudes. No database. Posting any changes instantly via Git. Easier.

Less identities

I killed my old separate domains (sorry, and brought everything under one roof.

Less boring

The site had to be bold, colorful, and fun, or I wasn’t going to stay interested in finishing it.

More to the point

I took out everything extraneous. No logos. No navigation. No fancyzoom. It doesn’t even have my last name. It’s one page. The URL is really short. Just read the one page and move on. It’ll take you two minutes, or maybe five if you’re a masochist and you click on everything. If you enjoy it, follow me on Twitter. That’s it.

More writing

I toyed with making the blog the main site, but I don’t have a good track record of keeping up blogs, and that’s why this is a separate site. But I have a lot of ideas for writing, and I’m excited to have my own place to share them.

Sometimes I might cross-link my SvN posts here too.

So there you have it! Welcome, and please come back again some time soon.

This Ephemeral Year

This Ephemeral Year

In 2010, I rebuilt my website. As is my way, I overloaded the project with too many technology changes, forcing me to learn tons of new stuff before I could do any real work. I also fell into the worst client trap of being perpetually unsatisfied with any design I produced. Nevertheless, I trudged on, and finally decided it was decent enough to launch in March.

One of the new features was the Ephemera section, which was rushed out the door at the last minute, but turned out to be the best addition to the site. The idea was to start tracking little memorable bits of my life — items that would otherwise be lost in time. I have a terrible memory, and I’m finding that my once-reliable Internet footprints are getting more and more fragmented across many different services. Back in the good old days, you could just read your email archives and remember everything that happened.

The Ephemera page does two things. First, it provides simple statistics about my various web activities. Second, it displays a record of my actual, physical life, which means that I’m required keep a minimal daily log of what happens. I had zero confidence that I could maintain even the most rudimentary task on a daily basis, so I kept it dead simple: a one-line text annotation, and a quantitative (0-10) ranking of the day in four categories: Mood, Workload, Sunlight, and Sleep.

So, what did I learn?

  1. Merely logging into a website, choosing four numbers, and writing a one-line sentence every day is incredibly hard to keep up. Feltron has the right idea by "outsourcing" the data collection.
  2. If you miss a day, or a week, you won't remember what the hell happened yesterday — let alone last Tuesday.
  3. Life is filled with countless meaningless interactions and uninteresting chores. Some days memorable things happen, and other days you eat pancakes and clean up cat barf.
  4. It's hard to be quantitative about your life. As an example, should my daily Sleep entry be an exact representation of the number of hours I slept, or should it be qualitative relative to how tired I really feel? It's a judgment call.
  5. Trends confirm that moderation is good. Big surprise, mood plummets as workload nears maximum!

How it works

I’ve been dreaming about doing native/live data visualization on the web for years. The technology is finally coming around; there are numerous libraries and tools available that do in-browser charting, using either SVG or the <canvas> element to render the charts. I tried almost all of these and settled on Highcharts for this project, as it was the fastest way to get some decent output. I combined that with a healthy dose of CSS effects, and there you have it!

View the project here.

Collecting life

My grandfather passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2004. He was a complex and conflicted guy. At times he could be inexcusably harsh, but he also had a sly and silly sense of humor. This Jekyll/Hyde situation left one guessing as to which grandpa would show up on a given day, but I rooted for the sweet, funny family man, and tried to dismiss the cranky curmudgeon when I could.

In his later years, he became increasingly immobile and dealt with chronic pain. He was a great outdoorsman, a navy mechanic, and craftsman in his youth, but years of hard work and the resulting physical damage caught up with him. Still, he kept up with several hobbies even as his body failed.

Joe on a bike
Joe Downey on a tiny bike on a Navy ship.

When I was a kid, my grandpa turned me on to coin collecting. It’s definitely a “young boy and his grandpa” sort of activity and I’ll always identify it that way. These days I have little time to devote to squinting over dimes and looking for mint marks, but I still appreciate the storytelling and historical aspects of collecting. When I see an old coin, I like to imagine who held it in their hand before me, and what was happening the day that chunk of metal was violently smashed into something valuable.

Maybe because he was bored and stuck in the house, or maybe because he simply liked it a lot, Grandpa collected coins until his last day at home. He had established a fairly substantial eBay habit to fill gaps in his collections, but his main late period interest was the state quarter releases. Most curiously (and resourcefully), he chose to organize the quarters in prescription pill bottles, each carefully labeled with the state’s name and mint. For the finishing touch, he engineered custom wooden shelving to hold each one of these pill bottles, with little circular holes for each one.

Quarters in pill bottles
Quarters in pill bottles.

I couldn’t help but love this. For starters, it’s telling that he had so many pill bottles at his disposal, though I hope they weren’t all from his own prescriptions (maybe he made friends with a pharmacist!) He lovingly and obsessively sorted these coins, but for what purpose other than his own amusement isn’t clear — he may have intended to share the collection with the grandkids someday.

Most bittersweet is that the quantity of coins per state decreases markedly over time. The early pill bottles are overflowing, but later states are represented by only one or two coins; the collection whimpers to an end abruptly at state 35 (West Virginia), which was the last quarter released before his death. He had the full intention of completing this collection, as I also have 15 states’ worth of empty, pre-labeled pill bottles that never met a quarter.

These bottles have been sitting in a box in my basement since mid-2005. Mainly, I’ve been too busy to do anything with them, but I’ve also been in a quandary about what to do. I was initially planning to complete the collection, but I decided against interfering with such a vivid snapshot in time.

We could also just cash them in. (Individually, they have high circulation rates, and aren’t in a physical condition to be worth much above their face value, even many decades from now.) My grandpa had a more valuable collection of older coins — which we are also storing — and our storage space is at a premium!

But cashing them in would neglect the object quality of the overall collection. All together, this is his last work. I envision him assembling the bottles, labeling them, analyzing each quarter and placing it in its right spot. I suspect that like any good journey, the process of collection was more entertaining than the end result. Yet the end result (and my imagining of Grandpa’s process) is all I’ve got left.

The question I can’t answer is: do we honor our relatives by keeping up the material things that meant something to them? Or do we simply acknowledge their contextual worth and move along? In a life busy maintaining our own odds and ends, what place do these objects have? If their value consists primarily of nostalgia or memory, then maybe the trash heap (or in this case, the bank) is where they belong. I just wonder if discarding the objects will inadvertently put the memories in the trash too.

For now at least, I still have the bottles. In a box. In my basement.