The New Idiom had the opportunity to interview with alumni Chad Jennings. We talked with him about his personal publishing company Blurb, his experience bringing a startup to life, and the (somewhat) bygone era of photography at ID.
Tell us about yourself
I graduated from ID in the Human-Centered Communication track in Dec of ‘99 (though I started in the photography track which has since been discontinued). I am one of the founding employees and VP of Design at Blurb, a start-up, in San Francisco.
What was your background before coming to ID?
My undergraduate was officially in Business Admin and Marketing though I spent a good amount of my younger days in the art and computer science departments. Being less than enthused about actually making a living in marketing I chose to pursue photography and design. I worked as a photographer, but gravitated more toward new media (at the time CD-Rom’s) and the nascent web.
Tell us about your great company Blurb. How did the idea for it come about?
Blurb makes anyone an author – every blogger, artist, photographer, traveler, poet, gift giver, everyone. (This means you.) It’s the coolest way to make, share, and market bookstore-quality books.
I was lucky enough to work with Eileen Gittins, our CEO, in a consulting role in one of her previous start-ups. We kept in touch after our engagement was over and would occasionally meet up after hours to discuss the user experience, user personas, and business model for a company that eventually became Blurb. The genesis of the Blurb was simply one of an unmet personal need to make a professional quality book, affordably in a small quantity. She recognized that the customer and brand experience of a consumer-facing product would be a key driver of success. She pulled together a small team of four including me to help define and pitch Blurb to VC’s. We secured our first round of funding of two million dollars in April 2005.
Did you use any of our precious ID methods in planning Blurb?
Sure. The Blurb product wasn’t much more than a business plan and a few hand sketched UE models when we started. Our up front research consisted of interviews and participatory design with anyone we could find that might have a book in them. That was actually very easy. Our research turned up wonderful insights as these weren’t usually people who were trying to be a blockbuster author, they were creative people with a story to tell whether that was through photography, poetry, family histories, or even a fundraiser cookbook. From these interviews we created a number of personas and use scenarios which helped the entire company better understand what we were building and why.
Rapid prototyping and iterative design are also an important part of our agile product development process. We started with paper, then interactive PDF’s and were eventually showing people fully interactive Java prototypes of our application within just a few months. For the first year or so we didn’t have a product manager or marketing team so it really fell to my team to prioritize needs, define and design the end product.
What other projects and jobs have you been involved with since leaving ID?
I joined Method, a design consultancy, after graduating from ID during the .com boom where we worked for many start-ups, but also completed many research and interaction design gigs for companies such as Autodesk, Adobe, Microsoft, HP, Palm and Gucci. Working in the mobile phone space peaked my interest in the interaction design of products which lead me to Smart Design. At Smart projects included interactive TV project for Samsung and a cross-product navigation strategy for HP’s small screen and remote driven products.
In which ways and dimensions you think ID has changed your career?
There are really few educational programs I can imagine that let me to pull together my educational background in business, interest in computers and tools, and passion for photography and design into one degree. I learned much, but also other ID students and faculty at the time like John Grimes and Kathy McCoy introduced me to a business network it would have been difficult to join on my own.
Can you imagine what would you be doing if you had not attended ID?
I may have taken a different path and approach, but it is hard to imagine I wouldn’t have ended up in some field which merges technology and creativity. Most likely more on the starving artist than the corporate side though :-)
What are the skills learned at ID that you use the most in your current job/life?
I thought the tools and methods were the most important aspect when I first left ID. In hindsight the communication, collaboration, large group facilitation and management skills are what I find myself using the most in my current role. I have heard ID graduates referred to as very “horizontal” designers meaning that they can fill many roles in an organization beyond what has traditionally been called “design.” Being good at wearing many hats in many contexts is especially true at a start-up like Blurb.
What was the most valuable class that you took while at ID?
In a strange way the photography studios really helped me think about how to observe the world and how people interact with that world. To look for those “thoughtless acts” as Janet Fulton Suri calls them. That said, I do still pull out a dog-eared design planning three-ring binder from time to time for product planning inspiration and definition.
Which member of the faculty influenced you the most and why?
John Grimes was my advisor and really pushed me to think about what I wanted to get out of my time at ID. In the end I am a bit of an HCI geek and am interested how technology and creativity can be joined to create fulfilling experiences for people. John introduced me to that world.
What hard times did you have ID, and what got you through them?
There were of course many, many long, blurry nights, but the hardest time for me was really figuring out what in the end I wanted to get out of the program. As I mentioned I started in photography track and changed to the communication track after my first year. What I really wanted at the time was an interaction design track and there were initial conversations of a “human-centered software design” track which never came to fruition. What got me through this uncertainty were a few professors who believed in me and friendly cohorts I had made since joining the program.
If you could have changed one thing about ID while a student, what would it have been?
Besides the student loans you mean :-). Hmmm… I think I would’ve tried to have more one-on-one conversations with the faculty and searched out other students from different backgrounds and cultures to collaborate with more often. There is an amazing breadth of experience at the school that one can tap into that isn’t traditional course work.
What’s the best anecdote you have from the time you were at school (professor or student related)?
One of my first classes was with Tom Arndt who had a darkroom in the Museum of the Art Institute. Our first class we walked over to the photography department viewing room in the museum’s basement where they would bring out a variety of original photographs from their permanent collection. There before us were original prints by my heros: Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Diane Arbus to name a few. We then had our first class there looking at these original works of art and discussing the “art of seeing”. Still makes me a bit giddy to think about it today.
How many nights did you sleep at school?
I was usually at least able to drag myself to the Blue line before falling asleep. I lived in Wicker Park, but ended up at O’Hare.
What is the last book that has impressed you the most?
Everyday thousands of people create books through blurb.com. Each morning I come into my office and the first thing I do is take a look at our public book store (http://www.blurb.com/bookstore) and see the amazing books our users’ create with our product. I am always impressed and inspired. It reminds me why we started Blurb in the first place :-)
What other advice do you have for current and/or future ID students?
At ID we learn much about tools, processes and methods, but in the end our clients or sponsors don’t necessarily care about that process or journey. They want the destination…. the business or design solution. It took me a bit after leaving ID to grasp that the observations, prototypes, experience diagrams, were just steps I used as a designer to get to a solution. I didn’t have to present these to clients just because I felt they were valuable to my process or were just a lot of work. Before presenting anything I always ask the question “So What?” As in “So what does this mean for my client? Is there a clear next step in the project based on my research or iterations? Does the solution map against the original goals we set out at the beginning of the project?” This may seem obvious, but I’ve found it not only helps focus my communications, but also create more successful projects.
Chad is more more than happy to talk with students who are interested in exploring opportunities in the Bay Area, interactive products, and those who want to learn more about life in a start-up. Contact him at cjennings[at]blurb[dot]com.