Recorded: Future of Web Design London 2010
Keir:I’m here with Mr. Dan Cederholm, who’s just got off stage at Future Of Web Design London, 2010. Hey Dan.
Keir:How are you doing?
Dan:Good, good to be here.
Keir:You spoke about CSS3 a lot but you probably talked yourself out of CSS3 stuff. We could talk a bit about Dribbble today.
Dan:That would be great. I’d love t.
Keir:Cool, so I have a bunch of questions relating to the app and stuff but why don’t you give us a little insight into why you actually started the project in the first place. What was your motivation?
Dan:It goes back to 2004 maybe; Cameron Moll had done a thing called Screen Grab Confab on his blog.
Keir:Is that the one where people kind of posted what they were working on, at their desktops?
Dan:Exactly, a little piece of what you’re working on, small screenshot, and it was sort of tied to his blog layout at the time. It was meant to be sort of a look into what people were working on.
Dan:I remember a few years later sitting in a hallway in SxSW, talking to a few people and saying “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could learn more about what our friends or colleagues were working on, and get almost a peek over the shoulder of what they were doing?” Everyone’s working on cool stuff and we never get to see it.
Dan:At the same time, admittedly Twitter was sort of an inspiration as well. That became popular, an idea of a constraint as a creative device, 140 characters as opposed to 400 x 300. The Dribbble shot serves a few purposes and it’s easy to consume, and it’s quick. You don’t have to share an entire comp you might be working on with a client. You could creatively crop it and maybe leak out things without getting into trouble. There’s a few different reasons why it works. That was the inspiration and Rich Thornett, my friend, lives in Salem.
Keir:He’s the coder on the app?
Dan:Yeah, he’s co-founder and developer and CTO and whatever else you want to call him. We started this. Over the course of a few years, really, admittedly, we started building it. It’s evolved and it’s been a blast to build it.
Dan:Initially it was like let’s build it locally. Rich is a Rails developer and it’s in Rails and I love working with Rails as a designer as well, and being able to iteratively work with the developers is fantastic. It got to the point where “let’s have people bang on this and use it.”
Keir:What year are we talking now?
Dan:That’s probably two years ago, no probably two years ago is when we started building it. The first invitations went out probably about a year ago.
Keir:I remember last year at this time a sneak peak at the logo at Future Of Web Design.
Dan:Exactly, so Future Of Web Design 2009, Meagan Fisher, it was a way of announcing it, talking about the mobile side, which is kind of funny because we haven’t yet implemented it.
Keir:What happened to that?
Dan:I know; we can get into that again. We should have it. But when it came time for people to bang on it and use it, I thought I want to get my friends and my esteemed colleagues in there to show their work and what they’re working on, partially selfishly; I wanted to know what they were working on. I wanted to be able to see.
Keir:I think everyone would understand that.
Dan:So I made t-shirts. I had the t-shirt made before the app was even done; it’s just the way I like to work.
Keir:Create a t-shirt and they will come.
Dan:Exactly, do the t-shirt first. So we made a list of people to send these t-shirts to and a handwritten code instead of sending them an email saying “Hey, I’ve got this new site and I want you to check it out. Here you go.”
Keir:But they would’ve done anyway.
Dan:They might have, but they’re more inclined to say “I just got a t-shirt and a sticker, and he wrote down the URL on a card.” The idea was to entice people to do it and to use it. I knew they would post good stuff. I wanted to see what they would post.
Dan:That worked really well so we have this small group of people using it, behind closed doors. This was a Beta. I wasn’t ready for prime time anyway. Then when we said we need more people we gave them invitations and they would invite people they thought would do good work as well. It’s probably the same sort of thing; I want to see so-and-so upload shots and see what they’re working on.
Dan:It’s grown from there and it had been an unintentional closed community for a while because the secret is we had fulltime jobs going on at the same time, so launching it publically was a big deal and there was a lot of work involved. We wanted to do it right. There was a long period of time, maybe nine months of it being a closed Beta.
Dan:One of the downsides of that is I think some people assumed that’s what it was, Dribbble was this private area to sort of show stuff that you’d never show in public. That wasn’t the intention and part of it’s our fault for not communicating that. Then we finally launched it, publically viewable but kept it invitation only. That’s what it is still, today.
Keir:Just for clarification, anyone can go to the website and see the latest shots but you have to have an invite to actually join and be able to take your own shots.
Dan:Exactly, so the work is visible to the public, which I think is an important thing. We want to be able to share this stuff, and have it be viral and be able to have people share their work and leak products they’re working on before they’re finished, all the things that make Dribbble interesting, but up to this point we’ve kept it invitation only.
Dan:That actually does a couple of things. It helps us scale it. We’re just two guys, with fulltime jobs and families. We both have two kids at home and if we open it up and suddenly anyone can upload screenshots, there are a couple of things that would happen.
Dan:One would be the quality would go down considerably but also the scaling. We have this massive scaling issue that we’d have to tackle while the site still has a lot of room to grow. Hopefully it would be able to support us at some point, to where we can slowly grow the community.
Dan:We’re taking the slow approach and growing it over time for those reasons, for quality, and for scaling. That’s been working so far. The flipside of it is that you get a lot of criticism.
Keir:That’s what I was going to ask you. You mention quality, which is obviously very subjective. Were you aware of the negative feedback like “Oh it’s for those lot over there, they’re not going to let me in, it’s not inclusive,” that kind of stuff? I know you’ve explained absolutely valid reasons for that. You explain it in the email that you sent out when you said Dribbble was going public and you gave really comprehensive reasons for that. Did the reaction take you by surprise? Was it something you were expecting?
Dan:I think we were expecting it a bit, although the criticism is valid in a way. I can see both sides of it. Our defense is we’re letting the community decide who comes in by assigning invites to people. We did seed the initial group but beyond that it’s been up to the community to sort of decide who goes in.
Dan:That creates either people that are turned off by that, or people that are still excited about joining the site and we’ve had some really interesting things happen, like people creating domain names and splash pages that say “I want an invite, here’s my portfolio,” and a lot of things are happening on Twitter and peoples’ blog posts, “I really need an invite,” and people doing contests to give away invites because they’re sort of rare.
Dan:It’s a delicate balance for us because it was never meant to be exclusive. It was mostly a scaling issue initially; the technical requirement and we just wouldn’t be able to handle it. We’re not a large company with a bunch of resources.
Dan:At this point, that was the easiest way to maintain, to keep the scaling issue down but that’s not going to last. Eventually we want people to be able to participate in the site, or even potentially make it easier for people to get drafted by adding features into the site that allow you to sign up and sort of upload a few shots. Maybe those don’t go into the public stream but they are in an area where people could view them and say “This is great stuff, I want to draft them,” and use an invitation that way. That could be a possibility down the road, aside from all the other sort of stuff people are doing on the side anyway to try to get invites. It’s really been entertaining.
Keir:It must be fascinating to watch.
Dan:It’s been really entertaining. That’s great. There’s the negative feedback which is important to read too, and digest, and that’s been the most interesting part of this for me because building a community and sort of learning about how that works.
Keir:There’s probably an unintentional byproduct that at the end of the day you’ve launched a side project with a friend effectively out of your own time and pocket. Suddenly you’re getting these kind of feedback and you’re like “Well, I can kind of do what I want.”
Dan:That’s true; we can always say we’ll give you your money back if you’re not happy. [laughs] At this point there is no money to give back but all feedback is important, even if it’s negative, say, on a public channel like Twitter or a blog. People are talking about it, which is all good. It’s hitting a nerve somewhere with people and we’re going to listen to everything. You can easily sort out the negative for the sake of being negative comments as opposed to the real valuable criticisms that actually help us make the product better.
Keir:I think one of the interesting things, and you’ve referred to it all through this chat, is the association with the basketball and the whole metaphors around that. It’s very playful and it really befits the app and the drafting. Was that something you baked in from the beginning? Was it something you referred to and thought “that’s going to work, let’s stick with it”?
Dan:It’s great, the name I think came first. Dribbble and had the double meaning of dribble being a basketball term or bouncing ideas off people and also leaking stuff that’s not out. We thought this is great, it works really well. Rich is a really big basketball fan, by coincidence really, and also a pun master. Spend some time with Rich in a room and you’ll get some seriously good or bad puns. It’s fantastic, so it’s actually right for him; he knows basketball really well. I’ve always been a Boston Celtics fan, but I never played or anything.
Dan:Rich has more of a basketball vocabulary than I do. He was able to really link this stuff together, like “rebounds” and “playoffs” so we’re using all these terms. It’s fun in a way, I’m sure it probably annoys some people the length that we’ve gone. I think there’s a fine line between having a metaphor that helps create a brand and fun but you can go too far with it and be too goofy. Hopefully we’re not quite at that point. The basketball is pink and it’s a little weird, but it’s actually been fun to use that. Hopefully so far we’ve used terms that still make sense in a way. You don’t need to know basketball to use Dribbble.
Keir:I know we said we weren’t going to talk about CSS3 or anything like that but I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about the design challenges of designing an app over some of the other work you’re well known for. Was there anything in particular that you – there are obviously some lovely touches with the CSS3 and all the color tags and all the very signature Dan Cederholm stuff; what was the biggest challenge, design wise?
Dan:That’s a good question. The touches you were talking about, that is sort of easier for me. The stuff I’m writing about or speaking about, the stuff that’s difficult for me but actually maybe even more interesting and exciting because I haven’t done it a lot is the user experience stuff, information architecture and creating a product. That’s where Rich and I really collaborated. It’s wonderful to collaborate with somebody and in the same room.
Keir:You got to work together, a lot of the project was in the same room?
Dan:Yeah, and we use GitHub and that kind of thing so we can work whenever we can, when the kids are asleep.
Keir:I know that problem.
Dan:You sort of get in when you can. But being in the same room has been really cool and building this together and working on the product side together and coming up with features and interface stuff, that’s been the most fun. Not to circle back to CSS3, but in a way that helped from day one because we use Rails and sort of immediately had a prototype in Rails, a working thing. Using CSS3 from the start, this was two years ago so I’m using Safari as my development browser and I was using border-radius as a stop gap, like eventually we’ll have to replace this stuff with stuff that works everywhere. Then come to find out Firefox has support for this stuff, as we’re building the app. So we don’t have to do that.
Keir:Your audience is going to be using those browsers.
Dan:Exactly and that’s an important part of it, that the audience for Dribbble is going to be likely – our stats are ridiculous. There is practically no Internet Explorer. We don’t even have an IE stylesheet. It certainly works but they won’t get quite the same experience. That’s okay. That’s fine. We weren’t as concerned about replacing the areas that were using CSS3 because it was only IE that was going to miss those. It really helps in prototyping and I’ve always stressed that, that CSS3 or any sort of leading technologies can be helpful for prototyping, even if you’re not going to use them in production. Iterating and designing in the browser helped tremendously for building Dribbble.
Keir:Was that something you were in favor of?
Dan:Yeah, I definitely am. I do a bit of mixture. I would work in code and maybe take a snapshot in Photoshop, and do more detail work in Photoshop if that’s going to be faster, but I think being realistic about what you’re delivering and being quick, making quick changes, I’m personally faster with doing it in CSS. CSS3 helps tremendously with a bunch of different things, transparency, color, Border-radius, box-shadowing and all the stuff that you could turn off and on easily. You can try different things much more quickly than in Photoshop. It’s in a living, breathing thing. Seeing it in context –
Keir:Yeah, the context it will be used in.
Dan:Exactly, it’s already there. Thankfully it took us two years to build it so that the browsers caught up. We’re like “Oh great, we don’t have to replace with images or anything.”
Keir:I’m going to try to get some info out of you; on the future, it’s a product that’s doing really well. It’s got a vibrant community. Are you guys thinking ahead? Is this going to morph into a sort of product-based company?
Dan:That’s an interesting question. I would love to spend more time on it and I know Rich would as well. I think our hope is that it would sort of continue to grow and we’ll be able to spend more time on it soon. That will help the direction we want to go and the features we want to add and the way we want to grow the community. We certainly don’t want to keep it small forever. We want it to grow but we also want it to still be useful and fun to use, and interesting, so we want to grow it that way.
Dan:I think looking ahead to the future, we’d love for it to support us. That would be fantastic. I’d love to do that. I love creating products. I will admit I love doing that more than I like to do client work, creating products that become your client’s. I think Jim Coudal would say that. I’m a big fan of them and that model, in terms of creating products that become almost like your client’s. You’re doing a lot of the same work you’d be doing for your client but you’re creating something that’s your own and that is fun and exciting. That’s what gets me excited. That’s what I love about Dribbble and hopefully other things to come.
Keir:I guess the challenge is working out how it will sustain you. There are obviously models and stuff, there must be something that you guys are discussing.
Dan:Yeah, we have a lot of different ideas. There’s a lot of different places it goes and I guess being a community of web designers, there’s a whole host of ways that you could sort of – we have to think of revenue, but I don’t necessarily like thinking that way. I like thinking about the product more and what’s important for the product and what people are going to use. Our community is everything right now.
Keir:There’s a huge bunch of obvious – you’ve got a great web designer audience. I can see ways that you could get revenue streams from them, for sure.
Dan:Definitely and we’ve got a couple of things in the works. I’d love for it to make it easy for people that are good designers, that are available for hire, and for people to find designers easier. I know there have been numerous people on Dribbble that I hadn’t heard of before that are doing some incredible work and it’s because of Dribbble that I’ve found them. You get a really good sense of their style, of their process even, and even seeing people give feedback on other peoples’ work is really interesting. You get a different insight about how people work.
Keir:I love the iteration, where someone comes back and says “I’m not sure about this,” and they say “It’s staying,” and “I’m just showing you,” or “Oh thanks, I’ve changed this, I agree.”
Dan:It’s been great and there are some success stories there with people suggesting things that ultimately get folded back into the finished product. That’s really cool, so to be able to see that happen from the outside is a really interesting perspective on the designer and one that you might not have gotten otherwise. It would be very cool to be able to foster player profiles more and making it easier to search for people, and potentially search for people that are available and looking for work.
Dan:Yeah, so that’s a direction we can go. Hopefully that will happen soon.
Keir:Brilliant. Always a pleasure talking to you Dan, thank you so much for taking time out, and it’s a pleasure to have you hear. We’ll chat again soon, and all the best for Dribbble.
Dan:Thank you very much Keir.