Designing the Message

Just before Stowe Boyd asked me to blog on /message last week, he sent me this tweet:

hey bro. Nice Tumblr template. I am interested in a reworking of my /Message typepad stuff. Ideas? Costs?

Stowe and I met, very briefly, last year at Reboot. I was impressed by his talk and we exchanged a few words. I doubt he even remembered me. So as two perfect strangers, we connected and sealed the deal with a few tweets. The briefing came in an email. Questions were asked and answered in a free-flowing mix of chat, email and tweets. He was in the U.S. at the time, and I’m in Hamburg Germany.

Since I knew we’d both be at reboot this year, I set myself that as a deadline for the first screens. I’m happy to say that we got to know each other much better, and he liked the design.

As a soon-to-be-freelance designer who’ll be living on the other side of the world as of October, this was perhaps the best possible test of a way of working I hope to practice in the future, and what for the increasing numbers of freelance knowledge workers (is there a term for us that wanks less?) will be the daily grind. Here are my thoughts and what I’ve learned so far:

  • It works. I honestly wasn’t sure it would. I’m sure it varies from client to client, and Stowe and I are both pretty open, flexible, and used to digital communication, but I don’t see why it can’t work with many other clients too.
  • Tele-working can improve the process. I’m used to clients that can’t talk before 2 p.m. the day after tomorrow, which wastes a lot of time. Despite the time difference, Stowe and I answered each other’s queries within six hours. At no point did I have to stop working and wait for anything.
  • Flow beats meetings hands down. Because we were constantly in contact, we didn’t overload each other with masses of information all at once, and didn’t make any decisions which couldn’t be discussed an hour or two later if needed. In a meeting once a month, the pressure to decide is high, and the cost of changing decisions is higher.
  • Online reputation matters. Stowe’s a bit of a rock-star in the online world, and I’m relatively unknown. He liked my own site’s design and how I write, and asked me to blog and design for him based only on that.
  • Trust is essential. Stowe didn’t have much to lose by asking me, but I could’ve wasted a lot of time if he turned out to be a jerk. I trusted him due to his reputation, and my trust was well-placed. Face to face client relationships can work (badly) with a lack of trust, online it becomes essential.
  • Face-time is important. Yeah, we’re both hyperconnected and can do almost everything online, but after reboot Stowe and I know one another better, have some shared meatspace memories, and trust each other more, which can only improve the online relationship.

So what’s come of it? Well, the design’s still in the fine-tuning phase, but the basics are there. Stowe wanted a simple, minimal design which would accomodate the group of bloggers he’s gathering around /message. At the moment it’s looking like this. Keep in mind it’s only an image, you can’t click anything and it only scrolls so far. What do you think?

And do you have any experience working with clients in far away lands? How’d it go?