Our thinking

Interview with Jesse James

10 April 2017

Recently, Catherine Callaghan, Software Engineer at Exygy, interviewed Jesse James, Designer and Front End Developer at Exygy, as part of the Exygy team member interview series.

So where did it all begin for you?

I grew up in a big family in Florida with six siblings. Because I had so many brothers and sisters, I needed something to kind of stand out. I think that’s why I was always trying to be creative and I was always drawing things.

I took a year off between high school and college — truth was I was kind of a fuck up and getting wasted a lot. I soon found that wasn’t super productive. Eventually I got focused and found a community college where I could study graphic design. This was the first time I really used a computer. It was this classic old Macintosh, the kind that was all in one unit with the disk drive built in. It had Photoshop and Illustrator on there. I joined the school newspaper staff just so I had an excuse to play with it. That was the first time I remember really investing in school and putting in long hours to learn something.

After that I wanted to get into Graphic Design, so I applied to a four year program at the University of Florida. For better or worse I ended up missing one of the application deadlines. As a result, they signed me up as a Fine Arts Photography major. Photography appealed to me because it was both creative and technical. I thought maybe I could just do photography temporarily and start studying graphic design the following year.

When the next year rolled around, I had changed my mind. In that year studying Fine Arts, I’d played with everything from photography to sculpture, performance art and new media. It was the mid 90’s, so if you combined computers and art, people didn’t know what to call it so they’ve so they called it “new media”.

I combined all these experiments together and ended up making these sculptures that interacted with the computer. Projections, inflatables, anything involving communication between an external analog interface and a computer, kept me pretty entertained.

Afterwards in grad school, I continued to study Fine Art, with a concentration on human computer interaction. I did a lot of exploration, and eventually gave up on the digital output and focused on mechanical sculpture. I made these wearable air-powered contraptions. I guess I’d look at them now and say, “That belongs at Burning Man.” They were these big monster gloves based on Godzilla movies. One was a big drill, one was a claw, one was a big eyelid. All these contraptions would allow a visitor to choose between damaging or playing with these big styrofoam blocks in the installation. Visitors would wear the arms, create characters and take on different postures and poses. Inspired by the playful spirit that came out of this, I had another body of work that involved crafting a series of these big cardboard helmets. These forms were also inspired by cartoons. I challenged myself to make one a day for two weeks, which resulted in more and more absurdity.

Mechanical sculpture based on kaiju monsters

Visitor to the gallery fire a trigger to animate the object.

Project to create one cardboard character a day for two weeks.

I learned about video projections, and then got hired by a couple of artists in New York to build their stuff. First I worked with a political/activist artist who was using animals as metaphors for the community interacting. We built these remote-controlled geese that would attempt to communicate with the normal geese. The goal was to allow you could try to integrate socially with another species.

Then I worked with a couple who reproduced cinematic shots through sculpture. They were all in miniature and involved cameras. One was the “cruising” scene from American Graffiti with cars lined up and down the street. We built this whole diorama, with the cars controlled by gears under the street. Cameras were set up along the road and at the ends of the road, filming these cars. We recreated scenes from Fellini’s 8 ½, and created this roller-coaster style one-shot camera track. We also produced this one long shot on a boat, where the edges of container holding the boat were shaped to mimic ocean waves, so as the camera rotated around the boat, it would rise and fall like the ocean.

Stormy seas for Jennifer and Kevin McCoy

So I was building all this stuff, and found another friend building stuff. We started working together and were getting a lot of jobs. One year we went to a furniture design show called Brooklyn Designs. I imagine the experience was kind of like a musician going to their first punk rock concert and seeing something done that was really accessible. We walked around the show thinking, “We could do this. We could make two or three things, make a furniture line and sell that.” And so we did. The next year, we built a couple tables, some shelving units, and a chair. We were both sculptors, so we knew the basics of how to make these. I knew how to model them on the computer.

We did that for five years and had a lot of success. The company is called Brave Space Design. We never really figured out how to succeed on the market level, so while the design part was really fun, and the working-with-other-people part was really fun, but eventually I decided that I needed something else to do, another challenge.

Custom wine bar and cutting table with Brave Space Design.

I’d been doing web design freelancing, and the work became more and more complex very quickly. I did a lot of WordPress work, and I eventually did a big project where I met Michael (Enslow, engineer at Exygy). Michael was the Project Manager, and I was brought in to do front-end development. So I worked with the visual designer for a while, then they left. I took then over doing both visual design and front-end. That all went on for about a year.

After it finished, Michael and I stayed in touch. We like to joke that we ended up doing each other’s homework. I knew a bunch of design-related front-end things, he knew a lot of back-end programming things, and we would just ask each other for help to get unstuck. We did that for about another year, and eventually we figured, “We should just do this together as a company.” I’d already had a company before, so Michael and I took a lot of time up-front to figure out our business plan.

Over time, we moved away from CMS work and began working more in tandem with high-end design shops doing really custom, responsive things. There was something about responsive design that I really liked. It reminded me of solving things mechanically with sculpture, and thinking of each part of the interface as an object. And figuring out how that object fit into other objects– folding, collapsing– all that stuff made sense to me. We found more and more clients that were looking to convert existing platforms into responsive things, and we developed a repeatable system for it. Which is where the pattern library work comes from.

So I moved to California about four years ago, after being in Brooklyn for about ten years. Michael had moved here about two years before that. We worked in a co-working space with Grant (Kinney, engineer at Exygy), who was freelancing. Grant went to work for Exygy. Zach and Grant would reach out every once in a while with a project or overflow work.

We had a lot of fun working on those projects. One of them was the Google.org endangered languages project. We came in and worked with Pierre (Hunault, engineer at Exygy) and did the front-end using a pattern library and atomic design. It went really well, and we finished on time and under budget. That was our introductory project. Then Phil brought us in for an interview, we had a couple conversations, and came to Exygy in May 2015.

On a weekly basis, when are you the happiest?

I really like that we do these weekly check-ins with other team members, and I have two meetings with Grant and Michael that I really appreciate. I’m pretty goal-oriented at work, and so I need healthy reminders to talk about the whole person and what else is going on with me. Grant and Michael both do that really well, I do that for them, and it kind of flows naturally.

Another fun favorite that’s become regular is user testing. There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for a usability test. Preparing the prototype, writing all the test script, making the sure the language you’re using doesn’t lead the user. Once all that’s done, actually sitting down with the user is the most enlightening and humbling part of what I do. I can do all of this work to assume and guess what somebody’s going to do with something, but the real design happens when you step back and watch somebody use it.

Outside of work, I have a three or four-hour bike ride that I stick to every Sunday. That really gets me out of my head and into a full-body mode. Which I need often, because the work we do is a lot of sitting and thinking and problem-solving, and not using the whole body. Last year, I would do this ride up into Tilden, which has a massive uphill. It was brutal but rewarding. Now, I do this East Bay ride around the Embarcadero, which is nice because you can see the whole skyline. I like to go in the afternoon, and if I’m out long enough I see the colors change.

Any heroes, whether in your field or outside?

I’m a real geek for Jeffrey Zeldman and the whole Web Standards movement. One of the things I wondered when I discovered web design was if there was a definitive source of how to do things, because the Internet was like the Wild West. Zeldman and his site made sense to me because it dealt with the markup underneath the design and separated content and structure from decoration. It gave me a repeatable methodology anytime I was building stuff.

More recently, I love reading everything Ethan Marcotte has to say about the tenets of responsive design and systemizing it. Stephen Hay also wrote a really good book. Brad Frost does a lot of writing and research around atomic design, and how to break your UI into components in a way you can carry over from project to project. I got kind of used to finding my own way, and found a lot of redundancy going from project to project and discovering a lot of things all over again. So having these tools and guidelines when a project kicks off lets me focus on what’s unique about the project instead of reinventing the wheel and starting from scratch.

Have you thought about publishing your work, with the pattern library and everything?

I taught an eight-hour class called Modern Web Design Demystified on a service called Creative Live that summarizes a lot of stuff I’ve gleaned. I’ve written a couple small things about collaborative design, and parallel design with engineering. It’s a struggle to find the time to formalize it, though.

As far as writing, I think of myself more as curating ideas. I’ve always like making playlists. It’s less about putting some bold new idea out there. If there’s anything I want to add to the whole conversation, it’s the workflow. What does it really mean to work with multiple team members? What is the lifecycle of a product or feature as it moves through all these different hands? We’re working that now, and there are sometimes hiccups with pattern libraries where things get stale or fall out-of-sync. But there’s this whole exchange of user needs into stories, into components, into engineering tasks, back into features, back into testing. I’d love to talk about mapping how those user needs flow through the feedback loop of iterative design.

What kind of person have you dreamed of becoming?

For one, someone able to truly act as a conduit between design and engineering. And in general in terms of life, someone who invites more people in. Being a hybrid of different things, I tend to feel uniquely lonely in a set of problems I have to solve. So I think I have this illusion that I’m so unique in the problems I have to solve that it’s hard for me to relate to other people or find anyone else who has to solve the same problems. And I’d like to get over that, to a place where I’m looking at the things I share with others and the common problems we’re all solving. Just more selfless and more available. Seems like a nice goal.

What issue facing our world are you most passionate about and what personal experience have you had with it?

I think Exygy’s affordable housing project with the San Francisco Mayor’s office is really cool for me personally. I grew up in a family with six kids and a single mother. She never really had steady employment, so we bounced around a lot from rental to rental. She was always lying about how many kids there were, and we were always getting kicked out of apartments after a year because a neighbor or landlord would find us out. That was a struggle. So when I sit down with users of what we’re building and hear their stories, I can really identify with it. And I’m really inspired to see if I can help make the affordable housing process generally better for people.

Also, I have a brother who struggles with a disability kind of on the fringes. I’ve seen him struggle with the system to find support for his issues. The more I work on our affordable housing project and see how complex the system is, the more inspired I am to make as easy as possible for all users.

What’s changed at Exygy compared to when you started here?

I guess I had this illusion when I joined Exygy that we’d all be working on the same projects all the time. I was used to being a part of a two-person company with two people working on a project. Coming to Exygy, I thought, “We’re going to have all these resources and we’re all going to solve this thing and the project’s going to be amazing.”

But the reality of staffing is that you can’t always do that. I’m lucky to work on DAHLIA (the affordable housing portal) which is one of the largest teams with eight people, so we do have a dedicated UX researcher and a dedicated front-end developer. We do have multiple dedicated application developers.

Seeing the things I work on keep on getting better is a high point. When I had my own company, I might kick a project off and then someone else would take over after a prototype and I never saw it after that. Now it’s satisfying to able to do the initial UX exploration, work the prototype, and eventually work on the application markup itself. It’s really cool to see the lifecycle of that product over time.

With DAHLIA, I get to do user research and prototyping, and I get to have a hand in building the application. It’s really cool to see design thinking go all the way through. I’m interested in evolving smarter and smarter pattern libraries, and designing systems that avoid technical debt.

Is there anything that you think people at Exygy might not already know about you?

I was in a circus for two years, in between undergrad and grad school. It wasn’t like a circus with wild animals, it was kind of like a Burning Man circus. Like an “indie” circus. We had people that sang songs, a puppet theater, there was fire, there was a lot of “noise art” happening. All the pieces I did had to do with equestrian acts, and one of them involved two performers who were miked against each other and as they danced with each other there was this feedback noise art happening. All of that was run through the lighting system, so the whole performance was a sound and light installation.

Cloudseeding Circus of the Performative Object

Then another was air-powered stilts that was like a bucking bronco. You’d get into them, then there’s a switch that you would fire, then they would try to basically throw you off of them. And while I did that, there was another person spinning fire on top of a trailer, so the whole thing took place in this converted trailer we turned into a stage that we towed across the country. We went up and down the East Coast twice, and then we went from Florida to California and back one year, playing a lot of colleges and music festivals. I still stay in touch with those people, they’re super successful, inspiring, and creative.

It’s really neat to look back at a group of friends after a while and think, “That wasn’t just chance.” It’s like looking at the Brat Pack– all these people are doing things. One is in a band, one is running an artist studio program, they’re all still practicing art for the most part.

I haven’t been to Burning Man, but that tour was similar.

Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

I have a friend who just moved to Santa Cruz recently, and a lot of my friends are looking at alternatives to the Bay Area because of the cost of living. I grew up in sort of a surf town on the East Coast, went to grad school in San Diego, so there’s something about surf culture and beachside towns I really like. I’ve been looking at living in Santa Cruz as an alternative.

And I do see myself doing less production work and doing more writing or managing and directing projects. I’d like to figure out what that looks like and how I can be most effective. How I can balance my technical skills with my UX chops and define a role that complements all that, so the skillsets add up I don’t feel pulled in two directions. And yeah, kids would be cool. I have a friend who has twins, and my brother just had another little girl. I look forward to having a little one to nurture and watch grow into this whole person.

If you could have a free year right now, where you could do anything, what would you do?

I’m split between traveling and building stuff. Part of me would like to travel and see my friends in Berlin and Italy, stroll through parts of Europe I haven’t been to. To see those places from street level would be fun.

I have a friend who runs a studio program in Brooklyn. For a while, even after moving here, I would go back to curate shows there. I don’t make work as much anymore, but I do like to organize how people walk through a body of work. It might be kind of interesting to explore curation of an art installation at that level. How do you lay out a body of work that tells a story, how do you push and pull someone through a space, and put them in different positions where they’re vulnerable or step back and see the big picture or zoom in and see the small details. The curation piece I enjoy doing, not just by myself but I have two people who I work with when I do that, so again it’s more of a conversation.

I’m chronically collaborative. I don’t like to say “codependent,” but “interdependent” on other people to make stuff. There’s something about making stuff all by myself that’s uncomfortable. By myself, I just follow tangents and it becomes flat and loses depth. Working with others allows me not to drill too far down into the details but consistently step back and look at larger patterns.

And the last thing is some kind of building of stuff. I have friends who I’ll see on Facebook who are able to balance having a job, buying and renovating a home, and doing all the furniture design and construction themselves. I’m not sure how sustainable that is, but I’d love to have that as an option.

Rather than go out and buy something to solve my problem, I’d love to study how I’m actually living in the space, figure out the surfaces and tasks I need to get done in that space, and then build a series of objects in that space to help me live there. But that takes living in a space for a while, and starting with it as a blank canvas and slowly building that stuff up over time. Which I’m happy to do if it’s just me, but I’ve realized that with another person, you need placeholders. Like, we need a coffee table. We can’t wait until we figure out how high we want the coffee table to be or what we need it to do, we just need a surface. So we end up buying a coffee table. But if left to my own devices I would kind of prototype everything, and have a low-res version of all that stuff, and overtime build it up and make it more specific. Designing in real-time for my family in space, that’s my ideal.

Jesse James is a Designer and Front End Developer at Exygy, and Catherine Callaghan is a Software Engineer at Exygy. Read more in the Exygy team member interview series here.