Today’s interview victim is Mike Rohde. I’ve followed Mike’s
blog for a number of years, and I had the good
fortune to meet him at the inaugural SEED conference (see his coverage
here and mine
Mike has gained fame recently for his Sketchnotes - notes and hand-drawn
pictures from events such as An Event Apart,
SEED, and the upcoming SXSW
2009, but apart from that he is a talented writer and
designer with a large portfolio of websites, logos, and other impressive
Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Mike. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thanks for the invitation Larry!
About me? I’m a kid from Chicago who loves to draw. I’ve managed to find
a profession that allows for and encourages drawing and sketching
I’m a designer and art director, with experience in print and the web,
with a passion for usable, practical and good-looking design solutions.
I’ve always had a technical side, being fascinated with computers and
technology since I was a young kid.
Fortunately for me, web design and working with technical people in my
work is a great fit, because I can share my design skills but also
relate well to the technical nature of projects and technical people.
I’m also a blogger since 2003 at
Rohdesign.com where I share my thoughts on
life, design, technology, visual thinking, music, cycling and whatever
else I feel is worth of sharing with the world.
I’m a husband and father, follower of Jesus and a coffee fan.
Funny you should ask because your question reminded me of a A List Apart
article on this very subject by Stephen Hay:
I liked this quote from the article, showing how subjective the role of
an art director can be, based on the discipline they’re in:
“In the movies, art directors are usually responsible for creating the
â€œlook and feelâ€ of the film. In advertising and print work, art
directors (often teamed up with a copywriter) come up with
â€œconcepts,â€ the creative ideas which communicate with us on a gut
level through such devices as theme, metaphor, and symbolism. Some art
directors do little more than dream up these ideas and present them to
clients, while some oversee almost all aspects of the design and
production process. Surprisingly, art direction is seldom taught in
schools and there is very little formal information on the subject; it
is often learned in practice.”
In my view, an â€œArt Directorâ€ is a designer with a 50,000 foot meta
view of design projects they work on. They are involved all the way from
listening to the client and stakeholders on a project, through the
conception of an idea to the design, development and production the
The art director is responsible for maintaining the vision of a design
idea, as much as is possible (or reasonable), to achieve the final
result. This means maintaining consistency in the project design,
structure, usability, colors, brand or identity and anything else
related to the design.
It also means working with the client to maintain these goals as well as
any team members producing the work, in my case developers who would
code the sites and back-ends for web applications. As an art director, I
feel I represent the user. I’m responsible for making sure whatever I’m
directing â€” a logo, an icon, a website or printed item â€” is
communicating the message my client wishes to send, effectively and
After many years as a senior designer I began to realize that while I
enjoyed the design aspect (and still do), I especially enjoy guiding a
project’s consistency between concept and completion, and continuity
between multiple items a company produces (website, business cards,
brochures, etc.). That’s when I felt comfortable calling myself an art
You have blogged about the process you follow to develop. Can you summarize what you do to get from a concept to a finished product?
First, I ask lots of questions, like “What are my client’s goals? What
is my client trying to achieve with this project?” and so on. I want to
know the ultimate reasons for what we’re about to do, because sometimes
what a client proposes may not be the right solution for the underlying
Once I understand the challenge, I read my notes, and synthesize the
goals for sketching. I use pencil sketches to help work out ideas that
can solve the challenges I’m facing. These sketches are presented to
clients with what I call “rationale notes” explaining the whys of my
I’ve found sketches invaluable to solving problems before I ever get to
the computer to produce my designs. Some designers may be afraid to show
clients their conceptual sketches. I’ve found that showing my sketches
to clients is an effective way to share my process, while leveraging my
client’s knowledge in solving the problem. Showing sketches draws the
client in, making them a part of the solution
While computer tools like Adobe Illustrator, Fireworks and Photoshop are
important, I feel my most important tools are my pens, pencils and
sketchbooks. I have several sketchbooks I use to solve design challenges
with pencil or pen, before I even get to the Mac.
On the Mac, I’m a big fan of Adobe Fireworks for web design and icon
design, since it offers very useful vector tools. I’ve been an Adobe
Illustrator user for many years as well, which I think makes Fireworks a
Where do you look for inspiration? Do you have favorite sites or books, or do you just observe things around you?
I have lately been looking in a variety of places for inspiration. As a
web and UI designer and art director by day, the applications and sites
I use daily provide inspiration to me.
I’ve found friends on Twitter suggesting great articles and design
inspiration, which is one of the reasons I find Twitter so valuable as a
designer. I’m happy to see so many design professionals tweeting.
Even everyday items and design solutions provide insight and inspiration
for me. I love hand-painted signs and am always aware of packaging in
stores, and other design elements I encounter in my everyday life.
Some sites I enjoy checking out for inspiration include:
I find inspiration to be best when it’s random and not too planned. :-)
Youâ€™ve gained some fame lately for your Sketchnotes. 37Signals linked to your sketches of the Seed conference (which I covered as well, though not nearly as graphically), and your notes from SXSW have been ever more widely covered â€“ including Boing Boing). Where did the idea for Sketchnotes originate?
They’ve been brewing for some years now. I’ve always been one who
sketches and doodles, as well as being a long-time note taker, but back
in 2007, I made a decision to intentionally combine the two at the
Adaptive Path’s UX Intensive workshop in Chicago:
It was well received and I enjoyed the process â€” so I kept doing
“sketchnotes” at other events like SEED 1 and 3, SXSW Interactive and An
Event Apart just this past October. Sketchnotes seem to be very well
received by attendees and non-attendees alike.
Now I’m being brought on at events as an official “sketchnoter” to
capture the event from a different perspective. I’m very excited about
this opportunity to become a resource. In fact I’ll be at SXSW
Interactive 2009 as an official sketchnoter this March.
Iâ€™ve found that taking copious amounts of notes helps me stay engaged in whatever Iâ€™m listening to or else my mind tends to wander. Do the Sketchnotes serve a similar purpose for you?
Yes. I find taking notes and sketching really reinforce what I’m
capturing in my head as a speaker talks. Sketchnotes are not meant to be
word-for-word stenographer notes, but interpretive. I capture what I
feel is important, which makes sketchnotes personal.
However, because someone is actively listening, processing and selecting
important ideas, sketchnotes have personality. What they maye lose in
fine detail is replaced with a concise, personal way of capturing the
Sketchnotes were intended for myself, but as I began posting them on
Flickr, I found others who had attended the same event connecting with
them. Even more surprising for me were those who hadn’t attended the
events seemed to enjoy reading my sketchnotes. Very cool stuff.
Right now I’ve focused on the Sketchtoon Coffee Calendar, producing
another edition of the same calendar for 2009:
I’m contemplating several different ideas that would create other
products for my and sketchtoons, but I’ve been so busy with work and
otheractivities, new product development has been on the backburner.
Thanks again for the opportunity to share about my work and thoughts
Larry - I especially appreciate your interest in my sketchnotes and
Ever since I discovered Bloglines some years ago, I’ve been hooked on
RSS. I subscribed to a slew of feeds and treated it like a to do list,
always trying to get it to zero. Subscribing to those feeds enabled me
to see and learn about a lot of things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Since that time, RSS feeds have been my primary source of what’s new and
interesting in the world of technology. Along the way, the feeds I was
subscribed to changed, as my interests changed, and I gave up Bloglines
for Google Reader. But my appetite for feeds has only grown.
Lately, though, I’ve seen a shift. Most days, I skim the headlines in
Google Reader, looking for specific sites, without ever getting the
unread count down to zero. What I’ve started noticing is that even when
I was keeping up on RSS feeds, I had already seen all of the interesting
stuff. The primary reason for this is Twitter.
Twitter is my social network of choice. Yes, I’m
on Facebook (though I succesfully avoided it for a long time), and I’m
also on LinkedIn, but the place I spend most of my social networking
time is Twitter. Most of the people whose blogs I’ve come to rely on for
news and insight are people I follow now on Twitter. I get more frequent
links and thoughts through that site than I ever would through a blog,
and it’s much more real-time than RSS. There are a number of sites which
even offer to send you notifications of new content through Twitter in
addition to RSS, like RubyFlow.
Additionally, I think sites like Reddit and Hacker
News are having a similar impact. Their
voting functions help to filter through the haystack to find the best
stuff and ensure that it rises to the top - at least in theory, I’m not
convinced that it always works in practice.
Perhaps the future of RSS and Atom lie as protocols that enable
applications to share information rather than as a consumer-facing
application of it’s own. They’re the plumbing, not the faucet.
While I still use RSS, and won’t likely be shutting down Google Reader
any time soon, I find that the interesting things seem to find me,
rather than me having to wade through feed after feed to find them. This
is a byproduct of me being connected to a group of people on Twitter
with similar interests, who share things as they come across them. I’m
questioning whether my use of RSS will decline as I consume more
information this way.
I’m curious if anyone else is experiencing the same thing.
As noted on the about page, I decided to write my own software to run
The following technologies were harmed in the making of this site:
VPSLink has good deals on VPS hosting. I pay \$24 per month for a 256mb
VPS, with impressive uptime. I originally intended to go with Slicehost,
but they had no slices available at the time (and didn’t for several
months as I recall), but I have not been dissapointed with VPSLink.
I haven’t found a better platform for developing web applications yet,
although I’m keeping my eye on the up-and-coming web frameworks in Ruby,
Clojure, and Scala. With the merging of Merb into Rails 3, Ruby on Rails
looks to get even better.
Actually, I like PostgreSQL better, but I run a Wordpress site on my
server that needs MySQL so I’m using it for this site instead of running
two database servers. I actually tried deploying with SQLite originally,
but I ran into issues with it. It takes some doing to make MySQL run
well on a memory-constrained VPS, but it’s possible (tip: don’t use
Developing complex layouts that work cross-browser is painful. Blueprint
is a CSS framework that makes it less so. It’s currently only used on
the administrative portion of the site, but I plan on reworking the main
layout with it as well. I’m also planning on playing with
960gs, which is similar (better, in the opinion of
JQuery is really, really good. I could go into all the reasons why, but
Chris Wanstrath and PJ Hyatt already
did. I’ve used
Prototype for a number of years, and JQuery just seems to fit better.
There’s a huge library of plugins available as well. The only downside
is the somewhat light documentation available for it, although that
seems to be changing.
Here’s my rule for web application deployment: Automate the Very
First One. This really makes all the difference in the world,
especially for side projects like this. When deploying is trivial you
will do it all the time. As I was working to get this
new site out the door, I spent part of an afternoon at the local coffee
shop to fix the few
remaining issues with the code and get the server configured. In that
time, I deployed the site 6 times. My point: deployment has to be easy
or you won’t do it. Capistrano makes it easy.
I’ve always used Mongrel for hosting Rails apps but Passenger (aka
mod_rails) is the new hotness in Rails hosting, and with good reason.
Once it is configured on your system, web deployments become very easy.
There’s almost no setup, and you don’t need all of the monitoring
infrastructure that mongrel requires. It runs under Apache, and as a
result uses somewhat more memory. This is certainly offset by the ease
of use and administration.
Provided by the same folks who brought you Passenger, REE reduces the
memory usage of your Rails application by roughly 30%. On a memory
constrained VPS such as mine, this is a huge deal. I was a little
concerned about running a different version of Ruby than the one I was
accustomed to, but lots of people are running REE these days, and to
date I have had no issues.
So that’s the tech behind this site. As I add some additional
functionality here, I will be bringing in a few other things, and I will
write about it as I go.
Git has a steeper learning curve than Subversion, but it’s definitely
worth learning it. It’s blazing fast, clean, and has some impressive
features, particularly around merging. For this project, I just used it
locally, without ever pushing to a server. I’d recommend using it even
when you’re not collaborating with other developers.
So, what did you use to build your latest project?
I’ve maintained a blog since sometime in May of 2005. As with many
blogs, posting regularity varied. Sometimes it was daily, sometimes a
month or two would go by with nothing new at all.
This is something different.
The content on the old site changed over time, just like it’s author.
Interests come and go, technologies that were once shiny and new have
lost some of their shine. I stopped writing short posts that were mostly
links to other people’s content, and starting writing longer articles. I
did some interviews, and a bunch of book reviews.
Then, as is prone to happen, I got busy. In the time I’ve been writing
this I’ve gone from having one child to having three. My job
responsibilities have changed. This site got a bit neglected as a
So a while back I started thinking about the site, and what I wanted it
to really become. And I thought. And then I thought some more. My
thoughts evolved over time, and I’ve settled on what I’m launching here
I’m a curious person, and always have been. My interests are varied, and
change often.This site is a reflection of those facts. Some of the
content from the old site has been migrated to here, much of it was not
as it was either not relevant or didn’t fit well with the new site. The
focus of this new site will be whatever happens to have my interest at
the time: mostly technology, software development, and entrepreneurship,
but extending into other areas as well. I will continue to do interviews
and book reviews, and have several of both to publish in the very near
I hope to write here on a more consistent basis, but they will be longer
articles and as such it’s not likely to exceed more than once or twice
per week. I’ve created a new section just for links to interesting
things, called Curiousities, and there will be content there daily.
Twitter bashing has become a bit of a
past-time for some
people. I don’t think that the
criticism leveled at Twitter is fair or accurate. It is generally based
on a misunderstanding of the technical problems they are facing. In the
case of TechCrunch, it’s a desire to drive traffic to the TechCrunch
website by fabricating conflict and making personal attacks.
Twitter has had a hard time scaling. This is obvious to anyone that uses
the service, and is readily admitted by the people behind Twitter. The
present problems have brought out all of the Armchair Architects, and
I’ve seen a lot of commentary stating “I don’t understand why this is so
hard, all you need to do is [insert gross over-simplification of the
problem here]”. It’s very easy to apply some 20⁄20 hindsight to this
problem, but another thing entirely to be in the trenches day after day
working to keep Twitter up and running while trying to make large-scale
changes to fix the underlying problems.
Here’s the thing. Twitter was started as a side-project inside Odeo. It
was developed in Ruby on Rails, the same tool that they had used
successfully to build Odeo. While this choice is a major discussion
point for their critics, it seems to me to have been a very reasonable
decision. Ruby on Rails was what they were familiar with, and at first
glance seems to be a good fit. I suspect most people would have made the
same decision, given the same situation. The bottom line: They made the
best decision they could, based on what they knew at the time. Keep in
mind that nobody even knew whether Twitter would gain any traction -
certainly none of them could have anticipated the warm reception it has
Obviously their existing architecture isn’t working. The fine folks at
Twitter have figured this out, and they are busy rebuilding the system
to handle the current load and scale accordingly. This isn’t an
overnight fix - it will take time to rebuild Twitter with all-new
innards. Let’s be patient. Frankly, the internet needs to take a
collective chill pill on this topic.
If you’re not following me on Twitter, you can remedy that
One of the most useful ideas I’ve seen in the past few years was
Dashboard. Dashboard was an open source
project launched by Nat Friedman of Ximian (since acquired by Novell).
It’s aim was to provide a “dashboard” of information relevant to you
while you were doing work. If you were having an IM conversation with
your friend Bob, it would show you the last few emails Bob had sent you,
previous IM conversations with Bob, Bob’s contact information from your
address book, etc.
I had always thought that Dashboard was an intriguing concept, and one
of the few examples of real innovation on the desktop that I have seen
in a while. It was a bit dissapointing to see the project get sidelined,
but these things happen.
A project emerged
for OS X that is based on the same concepts, although implemented
differently. It’s called
is written by Tom Insam who is a developer at
Dopplr (though all indications are that this is an
independent project and not supported or endorsed by Dopplr).
Shelf watches the applications you are using in OS X, and displays
relevent information from applications local to your computer as well as
web sites (like Dopplr, naturally). Here is Tom’s own description from
the Shelf website:
Shelf is an app for MacOS that looks at the current foreground
application, and tries to figure out if what youâ€™re looking at
corresponds to a person in your Address Book. Then itâ€™ll tell you
things about them. … Just run it. Itâ€™ll sit in the background, and
watch the foreground application. If it can tie something youâ€™re
looking at (the current url in your web browser, for instance, or the
target of an open chat) to a person in your Address Book, itâ€™ll open
a window and show you their name and picture, and itâ€™ll try to fetch
RSS feeds for any URLs in their address card.
Although it’s a newer project (only at version .13), Shelf seems to be
off to a promising start. It provides hooks into a number of different
applications on OS X already (according to the Shelf site):
- Safari - looking at the foreground url, and for microformats in the
source of the current page.
- Firefox - looking at the foreground url.
- Mail.app - From the email address of the sender of the currently
- NetNewsWire - From the homepage url of the currently selected
- Twitterrific - From the homepage or twitter page urls of the
currently selected tweet.
- Adium - From the IM username of the current conversation.
- iChat - From the IM username of the current conversation.
- Address Book - The currently selected person.
This is an idea whose time has come, I think. There are obviously some
gaps here, for example if you use GMail as your email application (as I
do), or Google Reader for RSS feeds. Integrating with all of these
applications is a tricky problem, but it’s not insurmountable. I think
it’s certainly worth solving though, as the benefits could be huge.
I hope this project doesn’t fall by the wayside, as it has too much of a
potential impact on the way we work. It’s possible that Apple will
implement something similar, it seems like the next logical progression
Are there any other tools like this out there?
I’ve built up a big backlog of links. Here’s the first batch.
33 Pages of command line goodness. I’ve been rocking the command line
for almost a decade, but there’s a ton of stuff here I didn’t know.
Update : Hal Pomeranz, who created this document, sent me an email
with a link to the PDF version of the document. You can find it
I want to experiment with both of these languages.
The title is self-descriptive, and as you would expect from Ruby Inside
there are a lot of nice shortcuts here.
This has been pretty well publicized, but here it is in case you missed
it. Community Engine allows you to add social networking capabilities
(profiles, photos, blogs, forums, and more) to any application simply by
adding this plugin. Extracted from live websites, so it is real-world
Awaken is a slick little app for OS X that I picked up as part of the
MacHeist bundle. I’ve used it as a timer for those occassions when I
need to force myself to work on something for “Just 10 minutes”, but
here are some other uses.
I stumbled across a great site tonight, chock full of the geekiest
videos I’ve seen. The main sources seem to be university lectures. Very
good stuff, and in a variety of disciplines such as Computer Science,
Business, Chemistry, and Mathematics.
Check it out: Video Lectures.
In my time as a developer, and now managing a team of developers, I have
come to realize that there are two kinds of programmers: the Journeyman
and the Craftsman. These terms aren’t mine - I’ve seen them used other
places - but they describe the developers I’ve worked with pretty well.
…knows one programming language.
…knows one operating system.
…can’t be bothered to learn something on their own.
…doesn’t know anything about the operating system or hardware their
applications run on: “Someone else takes care of that”.
…never masters his tools. “I know my way around my IDE, that’s good
…doesn’t refactor: “It’s ugly, but it works. Leave it alone!”
…only learns about the part of the system they are working on. No need
to learn the rest of the system: “That’s not my job”.
…doesn’t want to take on an unfamiliar technology: “I haven’t had any
training on x”.
…knows a handful of programming languages, and is always on the
lookout for the next one he should learn. He knows that learning any new
language will stretch his mind and make him a better programmer in the
language he uses day to day.
…devotes time to learning about new technologies, and helps to make
others aware of them.
…understands the platform and operating system his applications run
on, because he knows that’s the only way to diagnose many problems.
…masters his tools. He can perform magic in his chosen editor, and is
always looking for ways to make himself more efficient.
…rarely passes up an opportunity to broaden his knowledge of the
system he is working on.
…is always willing to take on something he’s unfamiliar with. He can
pick up most things pretty easily, and enjoys the challenge of learning
One craftsman is worth three or four journeymen. Easily.
It’s the journeymen whose jobs often end up moving overseas (and
rightfully so, they add little, if any, value).
The longer I manage development projects, the more I value the craftsmen
I have around me.
I’d heard (first from Joel
believe) about a cool new travel planning site called
Tripit. I’m making arrangements for a trip to St.
Louis later this month, and so I thought this would be a good
opportunity to try it out. To say the least, I’m impressed.
The first thing that I noticed was the registration process: there
isn’t one. All you have to do is take any travel-related email
(hotel confirmation, airline itinerary, etc) and forward it to
email@example.com. If the email account you sent it from isn’t already
registered with Tripit, they create an account for you and send you your
registration details. Most sites would have you create an account first,
filling out a lengthy form before you could use it. Tripit’s strategy on
this is brilliant as it removes all barriers to entry to their service,
making it completely painless.
Tripit then takes that email and creates an itinerary. I emailed it a
hotel confirmation, and it was able to extract out the hotel name,
arrival and departure dates, the city I was staying in and more. It
builds a nice itinerary out of this data, and adds some useful
information to it like weather and maps.
Tripit also allows you to collaborate, sharing your trip information
with others in your party. There’s also a social networking component.
If you add contacts who also use Tripit, you can see who else might be
close to you on an upcoming trip. I don’t really travel enough to
probably get much use out of that, but I can certainly imagine that it
will be useful to a lot of people.
One other nice feature is that it can publish your itinerary in
iCalendar format, for
consumption by Google Calendar, Outlook 2007, or Apple’s ICal. It also
appears to have good support for mobile devices, though I haven’t had a
chance to try that out. One other nerdy item to note is that they’ve
marked up many of their pages with
All in all, Tripit is an impressive service so far.
I would definitely recommend giving it a try - it’s as easy as it gets.