Interviewing Zeldman…

Well this is one of the things I can scratch off my list of to-do’s. Looking forward to the DIBI Conference I spent a short while interviewing the Keynote speaker, Mr Jeffrey Zeldman. The entire interview is posted up over at the DIBI Conference website but here’s a snippet from the interview.

1) With everything that you do, what’s a typical day like for Jeffrey Zeldman.

“Typical” is a luxury I can’t afford. Each day is different. Thursday I worked out, wrote a Foreword for Andy Rutledge’s Design Professionalism (http://designprofessionalism.com/), held a planning meeting for An Event Apart, and worked with the nice people at Mail Chimp on a showcase video about A Book Apart. Friday I attended “Math Buddies” at my daughter’s school, held a Happy Cog meeting with my partners Greg Storey and Greg Hoy, and caught up with A List Apart author submissions. Today (Saturday) I’m catching up with travel plans, meeting schedules, and taxes and expenses for my businesses. Tonight I take time off to attend a play with a friend in the West Village.

2) You’ve now got An Event Apart in five different locations across the US. What has it been like building AEA over the years in to what it is today and are there plans to expand further in the future? Maybe moving internationally?

Six, now, actually: Seattle, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. It’s wonderful because there is a great community out there of passionate practitioners who care deeply about this web we’re building together — people for whom mere competence is not enough. Our attendees care as much about good experience and great design as they do about smart code and engaging content. We are not directors of this community, we are part of it. It’s like attending a festival of great web design every two months. But I don’t have to sell you on that dream: you founded DIBI, so you know how intense and wonderful these conference events can be. (And how much planning and work it takes to make sure attendees have a great learning and emotional experience.)

We started really small: Eric Meyer, me, and Jason Santa Maria in a rented room at the Ben Franklin Museum in Philadelphia, with about 100 attendees. Our friend Ian Corey brought the PA equipment and projector! The screen was the size of my head, there was no Wi-Fi. It was fun, but we’ve definitely come a LONG way in a short time. A lot of the credit goes to our event planner Marci Eversole and our lead producer Toby Malina. They’re fantastic, as anyone who has attended the show can tell you. Today we even have our own Wi-Fi guy, because no venue with the exception of one place in Seattle can cope with the amount of Wi-Fi our attendees suck down during the three days of An Event Apart.

Marci and Toby work on the show literally every day of the year, and their professionalism and ability to make stuff happen free Eric and me to focus almost entirely on content and the attendee learning experience.

3) How involved do you get in the day to day running of Happy Cog? Could you explain how you now fit in around the business and what your primary role is?

Although my title is still Founder and Executive Creative Director, I function more like a Chairman. Think Walt Disney, although obviously a lot less awesome than he was. Walt didn’t animate his later movies, didn’t design the characters, didn’t write the scripts, didn’t build the live action sets, didn’t direct the pictures, didn’t design the streets and buildings of Disney World, didn’t license the characters or design the merchandise that spun out of his creative galaxy, but his DNA was in every frame of film, every song, every Disneyland street.

Okay, now remove two thousand percent of the grandiosity and you have my role at Happy Cog.

With studios in Philadelphia, New York, and Austin, and with product ideas and content being produced in all three locations, we use Basecamp, Skype, and iChat to keep in constant contact and stay aware of what we’re doing and where we’re going.

On some projects I’m part of every key meeting and most major decisions; in others I hover. When you have presidents like Greg Hoy and Greg Storey and talent like the folks on this roster (http://happycog.com/about/), you interfere only when absolutely necessary with the day-to-day flow of client services work. Instead your job becomes strategic. Which authors should write on which subjects for our magazine (alistapart.com) and books (abookapart.com)? What kinds of products should Happy Cog create (Happy Cog Hosting happycoghosting.com is a recent addition) and how can we balance them with our client work? I make these decisions in cooperation with the two Gregs, and many of the big ideas come from them rather than me, but strategy and content fall primarily in my domain just as satisfying clients (and more importantly, their users) and winning awards are mostly Greg Hoy and Greg Storey’s turf these days.

4) A Book Apart is doing very well with some awesome books already published and Ethan’s book going on sale on the first day of the DIBI Conference. What made you get in to publishing and will we see a Jeffrey Zeldman A Book Apart any time soon?

Erin Kissane, Jason Santa Maria, and I talked about A Book Apart for years before Mandy Brown, Jason and I finally launched it. We waited until the publishing industry was hemorrhaging! I thought it was hilarious that our friends were making fortunes coming up with Internet apps and communities and *that’s* when we took the plunge back into the world of Gutenberg. But the books are doing well. I think we know what people in this community want to learn about because we’re part of the community and we want to learn it too! And we know the right people for the right topics. People who can see over the next few hills (leaders, not followers) and who write with strong (and strongly engaging) personal styles. It also doesn’t hurt to have an editor like Mandy Brown and a book designer like Jason Santa Maria.

Another reason we’re off to a good start is that we decided from the very beginning that our venture had to pay authors well. Publishing is a great way to burnish credentials and fertilize the world with your ideas, but it hasn’t traditionally been a great way for authors to make a buck. Authors often start with royalties of 8%, and publishers are often squeezed because of high overhead, tough-minded distribution partners, and so on. By bypassing most of that overhead and guaranteeing authors 50% of free and clear profits (instead of 8% of reduced profits), we offer an appealing combination of real money plus the expertise, convenience, and brand benefits authors associate with publishers.

This is not to say that our kind of publisher replaces the other kinds, any more than indie rock or underground hip-hop means the death of Top 40. Our community will always need great publishers like Peachpit and O’Reilly; we’re just another part of this ecosystem.

5) A short list of some of the things you’re involved with being Big Web Show, AEA, ALA, Happy Cog and A Book Apart, endless amount of public speaking and appointments with the Dentist is there a plan for what’s next in life for you? Is there anything you’d like to do which you haven’t as yet?

We may also need to find a new school for my daughter, which in NYC is a full-time job in itself. And although my wife and I remain amicable co-parents and our separation is low-key and friendly, we’re still stuck in a seemingly endless divorce that requires taking entire days off to go through five years of financial records and so on. Last year I also began teaching in the MFA Program in Interaction Design my friend Liz Danzico started at School of Visual Arts; engaging with the students is a fantastic experience. But, yes, I’m pulled in many directions, and it’s sometimes stressful.

What keeps me sane besides how much I love my daughter and my work is regular visits to the gym. Without those visits I’m sure I’d be losing it at this point. I’m basically a lazy man who likes to get stuck in a rut. My perfect night would be falling asleep on the couch with a mouthful of Oreos. By accident, some of my ideas have made me busy, and now my personal life is like a big-budget mini-series with lawyers, teachers, and therapists. It’s a lot of pressure for a guy like me. But running and weight training give me the strength and clarity to hang with it.

What I’d like to do? Take a girl other than my daughter to the movies. 

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Gavin

Lead Interaction Designer at DigitalDWP. Organiser of Industry, The Practical Web Conference..