You have no idea how things that happen to you as a child will shape your life. If you’re a parent this thought is pretty scary, but as a kid you just soak it all up. One of the zillion things that happened to me as a child was spending time in my grandmother’s darkroom. She was a professional photographer when such pursuits were rare for women.
My grandmother was already old when I was young — and she had been a professional shooter for many years. She had boxes of glass negatives that I wish I had now. I was fascinated by the big old cameras, the darkroom with the erie glow of its safelights, and mostly the magic of images appearing in trays of smelly chemicals that were seemingly conjured into existence from nowhere. And I guess it had a magical affect on me. All through primary and secondary school I loved photography and art of any kind.
Fast forward to adult professional life. I started my career as a stripper in Racine, Wisconsin. That’s the truth, but it’s not what you are thinking. So don’t make the mistake of Googling “stripper” to find out what I mean, I’m talking about a film stripper. While I was still in school studying graphic design, I got my first “real” job at a commercial printing company’s pre-press department. I used an enormous camera that shot 20×24 inch film negatives of “camera-ready art,” developed the film in a darkroom (see, it was in my blood) and “stripped” the negatives in place, ready to burn to lithographic plates for the printing presses. In addition to offset printing, the company also did commercial screen printing. I was excited about that because I loved fine arts screen printing and it was a way for me to learn all kinds of new things.
Mostly what I learned in my job as a printer was craft. Everything was done by hand. I learned what pixel-perfect meant before there were pixels. I have always considered the communication business a craft – to me it’s still the same today. I don’t really feel very far removed from the people in ancient times carving symbols on stone tablets. There’s an element of art and craft to it all.
One thing led to another and before you know it I was running the Compugraphic computerized typesetting operation at that same printer. It was the new frontier of what would later be called the desktop publishing revolution. From there I went to work for an ad agency in Racine, then as an advertising layout artist at the Denver Post, on to another printing company and finally to a couple more ad agencies in Kansas. The last of them I co-founded — and is where I am currently — the Callahan agency.
I love visual communications and I love solving problems with design. In my younger days I thought I was meant to be a photographer, printmaker and graphic designer. Then I moved on to being an advertising art director, creative director, film and video director. Over the past 20 years or so — since they very early days of the internet — I’ve been focused on the web and all forms of digital communications. In my current position at Callahan I’m responsible for developing and producing digital marketing for clients — UX design, websites, email, online advertising, content marketing, marketing automation, search marketing, social media and emerging technology. I have relished reinventing myself over and over as each of those transitions occurred — curious by nature, I love to learn new things.
Meanwhile, as my career went through its evolutions, all the really important stuff in my life was happening. I was blessed to marry my dear wife, Vicki — a smart, talented, beautiful, deep-thinking woman who has been my life partner and the best friend I could ever ask for. Together we’ve been blessed with an amazing family. In many ways they have all been partners in my career with their support (and toleration!) of all its challenges and demands. I am so grateful for them all.
In the last several years I’ve explored the area of user experience design on a much deeper level. Something about UX just clicks for me, like all the pieces of a puzzle going into place. I can see that as I look back on how I approached design before the internet even existed. I love how the complex parts of a digital project go together as I try to make them as simple and intuitive as possible.
Probably the perfect example of that from my earlier, pre-internet years is the bus schedule I designed for the Racine, Wisconsin, transit system. If there is anything that can cause people confusion — and maybe stress if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere — it’s trying to decipher a mass transit schedule. Designing that transit schedule so that it was as simple and easy to use as possible was a challenge that I took on with the same kind of passion that I have for my UX projects today. In 2011, I put some formality behind my interest by earning a UX Certificate from Rutgers University Advanced Technology Extension.
Ultimately after all these years in the advertising and marketing communications business, I know that a lot of what we do in this field is just not all that important. In fact many times I think our work doesn’t add enough positive value to our culture and society as it should — and can. We don’t cure cancer or stop crime or solve poverty and homelessness — although we certainly can help those who do those things communicate about it and promote their work.
To bring all that down to a much more mundane level — the level of the average person’s daily life, I believe that there is a lot of good I can do as a UX professional. Many years ago I heard a speaker say that it’s the accumulation of little frustrations that can sometime send us over the edge. He said something like, “You read about ordinary people in the news who snap after they break a shoelace.” We are bombarded with so many messages, so much new technology, so many things to learn and remember, so much overload on every front. Today, maybe some of our broken shoelaces are websites and apps that don’t work well and just drive us nuts.
I love making things work better so people’s lives can be just a little less frustrating every day. An awful lot of our time — in our professional lives and more and more our personal lives — is spent staring at a screen of some kind. I think it’s important for UX designers to stand for the something — and that something is really a someone: the user. And as I am prone to say, the user should not be thought of as an anonymous faceless person. The user is your mom, your child, your spouse, your best friend (and not the client or site owner, the account manager or creative team). Someone needs to stand up for the user. So that their lives can be a bit less frustrating. So they can accomplish their screen-related tasks faster and easier — hopefully to be able to get away from the screen sooner and enjoy some IRL time.
If you share that passion for UX, you may enjoy some of my blog posts. Take a look and add your comments — I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m sure that with the pace of change accelerating all the time, there will be plenty of reinventions ahead. Here’s to the future of trying, in some small way, to make the world a better place.