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Justin Kropp comes back to a new tech future
IF YOU’RE A WEB DESIGNER, A TYPICAL career path leads away from your hometown, even a medium-size mecca like Chattanooga. And if you’re really good, it may lead to plying your trade in faraway places like Portland and Berlin.
It’s a new thing to see that path leading back, but that’s what happened for Justin Kropp.
After graduating from UTC with a BFA in graphic design in 2003, he worked in Atlanta, Birmingham, Baltimore, Portland and Berlin. Last year, he moved back to Chattanooga to join the growing technology and startup community.
“I started to see Chattanooga in the press a lot more and thought there was a good opportunity to do some good things, and that now my hometown could teach me a few things as well,” Kropp says. “There is no more or no less going on here creatively from a tech standpoint than a lot of big cities. We just don’t have a reputation yet. And there’s still, I think, a stigma that comes from Chattanooga being in the South—’Oh, it’s cute that you guys have a startup community.’ Maybe it was cute a few years ago, but it’s not cute anymore. We’re serious, and there’s a lot of great things being done here.”
Kropp designs for interactive user interfaces in Chattanooga for San Francisco-based Automattic, the maker of WordPress blogging software. His team of 27 people is spread across the globe.
“Almost the entire company—I would say 95 percent—is distributed. That’s what allowed me to pick where I wanted to live,” he says. “It’s a great model and I think more and more businesses are moving toward that, or at least understanding the value, given the right culture at the company. It takes the right culture for that kind of model to succeed.”
This week, Kropp was the opening act for the out-of-town headliner at Code & Creativity, the social talk series aimed at web designers, graphic designers and web developers. Steph Troeth, who works with MailChimp as a consultant, flew in from the United Kingdom to lead an interactive session on storytelling in user experience design, which is also the topic of a book she is writing.
Kropp spoke about the designer’s toolbox, which he says is in a constant state of flux, created by the need for constant product innovation and the web industry’s use of data to drive design decisions.
Until four or five years ago, he used the same handful of tools that every other designer used: PhotoShop, Illustrator, InDesign, paper and pencil. The process of working with a client was similarly uncomplicated: meet to understand the project, create exploratory concepts, finalize a design, then either print it on paper or code and launch a website. Now both tools and process are vastly different.
“Those four or five tools I would use for every project have now turned into probably 24 different things, minimum,” he says. “And now my process is all over the place, backwards and forwards. There’s no finished thing anymore. A web site is never finished. You can edit it, revise it, take it down, relaunch it. It’s a living thing.”
He is both excited and a little scared by this relentless churn.
“Everything is out on the table and ripe for disruption,” he says, which is a good thing, but, “It seems like every month there’s a new tool, a new framework, a new whatever to make our process more efficient, to automate things. It’s exciting, but my fear is that what I do as a designer is now being turned into almost manufacturing.”
Automated tools speed up design to serve the unrelenting pressure on companies to release a “minimum viable product” as fast as possible so users can start interacting with it at the earliest possible moment and developers can find and fix problems ASAP to keep users engaged. But less time means less design.
“Just make it work, make it look OK, get it out there and we’re going to work with users to finish the design,” he describes the process.
But there’s a problem in “collaborating” that way with users.
“They then become data,” he adds. “We want data to help us make some better decisions moving forward. The whole cycle just feels a little cold at times. The price we pay is this sense that this interactive experience, this app, this website was manufactured.”
Which makes it more important than ever, he says, for designers to remember the point of their work.
“We can become drunk on process and in love with our tools, but we shouldn’t be, because we’re not designing or building things for tools or process,” he says. “It’s all about people. We’re designing for people to use these things.”
The next Code & Creativity will be in April. For more information, visit codeandcreativity.com