IDEA 2008: An Interview with David Armano

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As IDEA 2008 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Event Coordinator for IDEA, I fill a variety of roles, including the Interviewer of IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Liz Danzico).

This is the third interview in the series, and I got to spend time with David Armano, VP Experience Design at Critical Mass. David has been seen at many conferences this year, and has quite possibly been seen cruising through Chicagoland on his motorcycle in his down time. He also blogs about experience design at Logic + Emotion.

RU: How did you get your start in the design industry?

DA: At birth. I was born with two eyes and a brain and I’ve been a “visual person” since I can remember. I was always the person in class doodling, or drawing something. Or just daydreaming. I would say that the formal training I received didn’t really happen until I enrolled into design school (Pratt), and that’s where I learned the basics of design as well as how it intersected with technology. Like many, my first job out of school was in graphic design—I then moved into broadcast and in 1997 I made the jump to Web and I haven’t looked back. While I appreciated all sorts of design and the strategies that drive it, I’m really jazzed about the things I see happening in the digital space. The funny thing is that while I whiteboard quite a bit, I hardly ever draw anymore yet I’m known as a “visual thinker”. I still consider what I do (design strategy) to be part if the discipline. At one point in my career, I aspired to be an illustrator. Now I illustrate concepts which help people take action.

RU: How did you get your start as a presenter?

DA: In my previous life as a creative director which is one of the hardest presenting gigs anyone can ever have. No audience ever fired you for a bad presentation—but a client might. So that’s how I started (sort of). But I really started talking about industry perspectives around 3 years ago and things rapidly picked up in the past year or two and I’m sure the blog and writing has had a lot to do with it. I don’t consider myself an experienced speaker. Mostly, I use whatever skills I have to make the most of a presentation. My visuals help, and it REALLY helps that I believe in what I talk about. I’ve never taken a class in public speaking and the rules I give myself are simple. 1. Be myself 2. Do my best 3. Tell a story. The highlight of my speaking career was getting invited to speak at Google. I would have love to have participated in, but it conflicted with a family trip I had scheduled. Though it seems like I speak a lot, I’m actually a poor self-promoter and have been lucky to get invited to some great venues recently. People like Jared Spool have given me some big breaks, and I’ve been fortunate for it. I enjoy speaking and consider it a privilege. Anytime someone is willing to give you their time to hear you out, you have to take it seriously.

RU: What should the audience take away from your talk?

DA: I can’t answer this question really. People will take away what they want and that’s a good thing. I can tell you what I hope they will. I hope they will be excited about the future which I believe presents huge opportunities for people who understand how to create great experiences one interaction at a time. This could be through interface, through content or even through personal interactions such as responding to comments, etc. I can’t help but see a strong link developing between social networking and experience design. We are living in an age where we can design prototypes and get real time feedback. People can tell us what they want and we’ll have to be confident in ourselves to read between the lines. But at the end of the day, I believe that it’s more important than ever to deliver a great experience vs. building a myth around one.

RU: Who do you look to for inspiration?

DA: People. I’m a people watcher. When I have any free time, I’ll often try to watch people wherever they are. I watch how they speak to each other, what cars they drive, if they have a difficult or easy time opening up a door. I do this a lot online as well—through networks, and the digital destinations that people frequent. I’m also inspired by public places and how people interact with them. Millennium Park for example is a great example of a space that’s changed the face of Chicago. I love watching people play in the fountain and delight in it’s design. I’m also inspired my many of the new Web applications out there. Slideshare came out of nowhere and it’s treasure trove if inspiration. Both the platform and the content are inspirational and I love to see that somethng like this can seemingly appear out of nowhere and evolve into an incredibly useful resource.

RU: You really try to balance your work and presentation life with family time—in fact, you recently backed-out of a trip to Google in order to spend time with one of your boys at a summer camp. This is the type of move that many of us applauded you for, and it really sends a good message to people about maintaining that balance.
What advice would you give to people about maintaining work/personal balance as they’re trying to establish themselves?

DA: Funny, I just mentioned that earlier. For me it wasn’t even a choice. Fact is I already work hard enough and don’t have time for “regular hobbies” like sports or TV, so the least I can do is recognize when I’m given a gift. I’d say the best thing to do is realize when we have a few hours or a few days to re-connect with the people who are important to us, we need to take a step back and do so. My little guy would never remember that I spoke at Google, but he’ll always remember fishing in that canoe.

RU: In my opinion, no matter what any of us achieve, our kids will always think of us as “mommy” or “daddy” and our parents will pretty much always know us as the kid they raised more so than the adults we become.
Do your parents know you’re “David Armano” like the rest of us do? And, of course, how do they feel about it all?

DA: True story. I’m in NY visiting family and my mom says “David, we’re so proud of you. Want some chick peas?”. I think that about sums it up.

RU: This is a set-up question: What’s your favorite way to communicate with people who aren’t in the same room with you?

DA: Of course you know the answer to this—it’s writing and visual thinking. 🙂 I don’t do a lot of video or audio because it takes more time and I like to get ideas out quickly in a medium I feel comfortable in. Words and pictures are as basic as you get, they are universal and can be shared easily. While the power of other mediums cannot be underestimated, for me words and pictures can communicate a lot with a certain purity as there is not a lot of production associated.

RU: Last question and it’s a 2-parter. Let’s be honest, you’re “internet famous” and people get some online cred just by getting public messages from you or mentions in anything you write and/or say. How has being a presenter and conference-attendee helped you improve upon your career?

DA: Oh, it’s re-defined what I do—absolutely. People are only now realizing how HARD it is to build a brand (whether personal or real) online and so, I am sought after for my experience in this area. Only two years ago I was plugging away as a billable employee with strange internet hobby and now I work a lot more on the strategy and evangelist side of things. Through it all, I still believe that positive interactions build brands and so in whatever I do, I try to either demonstrate this or get people inspired about it. I’m not in the weeds as much as I used to be—but since I talk about “being in beta”—I have to be open to where this is all taking me. I don’t know the end story. I don’t think any of us does.

RU: Part 2. Besides finding a hat, boots and motorcycle that best fit your own personal mojo, what would you recommend to people who are just getting started in the field and who are interested in becoming more active in the industry—or who just want to follow in your footsteps?

DA: This is easy in instruction and difficult to pull off. I started online with zero awareness and few connections. What I did was simply to provide value through my thinking and artifacts. Because I was willing to share this freely and do my best to be myself, it resonated with some (not all) people and that’s OK. You have to do something that sets you apart. Seth Godin says it best in his “Purple Cow” theory. You need to do something “remarkable”. This could mean being an uber-connector, a great communicator, or simply having a really unique perspective on something. The most amazing thing to me is that the Web is fundamentally a level playing field in which the niches can thrive on. People can simply come out of nowhere and build something with reach. It’s a huge opportunity for not just people but businesses. I can’t stress this enough. But the bottom line is that you need to be doing something that someone sees VALUE in.


About David Armano

David has over 14 years of experience in the communications industry, having spent the majority of his time in digital marketing and experience design. An active thought leader in the industry, David authors the popular Logic + Emotion blog currently ranked in the top 25 of the “Power 150,” as listed by Advertising Age. David’s writing and visual thinking has been cited by respected sources, such as Forrester and Crain’s, and has landed him in BusinessWeek on several occasions including their “Best of 2006”. David leads an interdisciplinary group of designers, writers and content strategists for the Chicago office of Critical Mass. Aside from his presence on the Web, David is known as an evangelist for customer-centric strategies and acts as an advocate for the creation of meaningful interactions, which influence behavior. In his spare time he contributes articles to various professional publications and spends as much quality time with his family as possible.

David still has not shaved his bear and enjoys calling me up in the middle of the afternoon to see if I’d like to hang out with him while he eats lunch.


About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access)

This conference addresses issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes.

This conference brings together people who are addressing these challenges head on. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds will discuss designing complex information spaces in the physical and virtual worlds.