A designer, writer, editor, and publisher, Mandy Brown is co-founder and editor of A Book Apart, a contributing editor at A List Apart, and Communications Director at Typekit. She advocates for the reading experience on A Working Library and writes frequently for the Typekit blog. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Keith, and spends her days at Studiomates.
We’d like to preface this with a disclaimer: no matter what we write to introduce Mandy, it will be fucking inadequate. With that off our chests, we’ll just say that we’re huge admirers of the multi-talented, multi-tasking maven of the text and web. Thank you, Mandy, for talking with us about your craft and the creative community you’ve found in NY. Your passion for all that you do is evident; you’ve left us hungry—both literally and figuratively—and thoroughly inspired.
Interview date: October 26, 2011
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Describe your path to becoming a designer/writer/editor and all the other things you do.
I think I’ve always been a writer. I was an avid reader from a really young age and was dictating stories to my parents before I could even write them down myself. I think writing was something that came to me first and everything else emerged from that.
I didn’t go to school for design. I had no formal training in design whatsoever, but I was an editor for an undergraduate literary magazine when I was in college. It was one of those student publications where everyone submits their art, poems, and essays and a few of us picked the best and put them into a magazine. We had a tiny little budget to print it and hand it out to people on campus. It was very boring to look at, like it had been designed ten years prior; I think it was all in Times New Roman or something like that. It looked old for what was—in theory—a youthful publication.
One of the other people I was working with on the magazine had a bit of experience with PageMaker, so we tried to redesign it. We had no idea what we were doing. I don’t think I even knew what design was at that time, at least not in a meaningful way. We set it in Avant Garde with quarter-inch margins or something horrible. It was unreadable, but it looked cool, and people loved it. It had this energy to it that the old one didn’t have, even though it was technically inferior. That was the first time I did anything with design and I really enjoyed it.
I graduated from college and moved to New York in order to get a job in publishing. I put on my resume that I knew both PageMaker and Quark, which wasn’t true: I barely knew PageMaker and I had never opened Quark. But I figured I was good with computers and I could probably figure it out quickly. I landed a job at W.W. Norton & Company, partly because they needed someone to do layout work. I taught myself Quark and did a lot of copywriting and assistant level stuff because it was an entry level job.
I started designing a lot of black and white ads—the kinds of ads placed in academic journals. I got good at that and graduated to catalogs and books and posters. I enjoyed the design work more than anything else, so I ventured into doing that full-time. I took a couple continuing ed classes and talked with other print designers, but I mostly learned by exploring on my own.
Eventually, I realized that if I liked design, print probably wasn’t the future. I needed to figure out this whole web thing. I took a Dreamweaver class, but it didn’t quite make sense for me—it wasn’t print design, but then it wasn’t anything else I could wrap my head around, either. Then, someone gave me a copy of Zeldman’s book, Designing with Web Standards, and everything clicked. I started teaching myself HTML and CSS and eventually took over the web department at Norton, where I ran a redesign project before moving on.
[Ryan] How did you get connected with Zeldman and those guys at A List Apart?
I hired Happy Cog for a project at Norton. So I met Zeldman, Jason, Erin Kissane, and Liz Danzico, and we all worked on it together. It was a really good collaboration and we became friends. I tried to be a good client.
I started pushing Jeffrey about A Book Apart because there had been a “coming soon” banner on the A List Apart website for two years, maybe longer, but it clearly wasn’t coming very quickly. I loved the idea of short books about the web. I wanted to read those books, so I kept pushing him about doing it, mostly selfishly because I was excited about the prospect of them. After a while, it became clear that I could fill a role in the publishing house itself.
Very cool. Where did you attend college?
I studied at William & Mary. I have a Bachelors in Physics, but I was a double major with English, so I did all of the degree requirements for both English and Physics. W & M only grants a degree for one major so I could have graduated with either a B.A. in English or a B.S. in Physics. I thought a B.S. in Physics sounded more badass.
Yeah, it does. Where were you born?
I was born in Okinawa, to a military family. We were stationed in Japan at the time, but my father was later transferred to Quantico in Northern Virginia. He left active duty when I was pretty young so we stayed in Virginia and I grew up there in the suburbs outside of DC. I didn’t have a typical military upbringing where we moved around a lot.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
I’m going to push back a little on that question because I think all kinds of people are creative. I don’t think there’s a special creative type. So, unless you had a really miserable upbringing, I can’t imagine anyone who experienced childhood who wasn’t creative.
So, yes, I did have a creative childhood. But I was not and I’m still not a visually creative person. My creativity has always been around words.
Was there an “aha” moment for you when you knew what you wanted to do?
I still don’t know what I want to do. I still haven’t decided. That’s probably why I do a lot of different things. I couldn’t pick one major in college and I apparently can’t pick one career. I’ve always had a renaissance approach to doing things. I want to be experienced in a lot of different things and be good at as many as possible. I think it’s clear at this point that whatever I’m doing is going to be close to the text. But beyond that, it’s wide open.
[Ryan] Weren’t you tweeting about that several weeks ago - about what you want to be when you grow up?
Yes, I had this brief moment where I was thinking about my birthday and feeling old and wondering at what point you have to figure out what you’re doing. Usually there’s a tipping point where you run out of time. But the responses I got from people were that nobody decides anymore. Or, if you do decide, you decide serially. You decide for this decade, and then 10 years from now, you decide something else. You get to be a lot of different things. I think it’s really exciting that you can always learn something new.
Did you or do you have a mentor? Who was it and how did they inspire you?
I have not. It’s hard to mentor someone who doesn’t commit to any one thing, so I don’t think I’ve made myself available to that. Throughout my career, I’ve been strident about doing things my own particular way, and I generally have problems with authority. So, I haven’t really been one to invite a mentor in.
Now, I’m trying to be a mentor to people who are younger, but I’ve still never had a mentor myself. I almost think that when you get older, you need it more. Things become more complicated, decisions are bigger, the consequences are different.
“Being around people in the web community, there’s this general feeling that anything is possible if you sit down and put enough thought into it. It’s amazing how many great ideas are out there and how encouraging everybody is.”
What advice would you give to someone who’s young and fresh and starting out with ambition?
I find this a difficult question because I’ve had such an eclectic path through my career, it’s hard for me to generalize my experience. The best advice I can give is to practice a lot and not let anybody get in your way. Do as much as you can and if it sucks, that’s okay. Keep doing it if it’s something you really want to do. It’s going to suck for a long time, but eventually that will change. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do whatever it is you want to do.
A lot of people told me I couldn’t do two degrees in four years, especially with such different subjects. If it can’t be done I have to figure out how to do it. I have that streak in me—not always to my benefit, but I acknowledge that it’s there.
Are the people in your life supportive of what you do?
My friends are hugely supportive. My husband, Keith, is a filmmaker and he’s always believed in me, always pushed me to do better. He’s a huge part of where I am today. I’m also part of Studiomates, which is the most supportive and amazing environment you could possibly imagine. It’s the kind of place where you say you have a crazy idea and instead of people saying it’s insane, they say, “I can totally help you do that. Let’s start tomorrow.” Being around people in the web community, there’s this general feeling that anything is possible if you sit down and put enough thought into it. It’s amazing how many great ideas are out there and how encouraging everybody is.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t always know what that thing should be, but I definitely feel like leaving things better than they were when you arrived is important. There’s just something great about what happens when a bunch of people get together and make something. That’s rewarding in and of itself. It’s nice to look back and say, “This is something I was a part of. This is something I helped bring into the world.”
There’s a book by Alain De Botton called The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. It talks mostly about the sorrows of work. People say horrible things about what their work is like. Something that stuck with me was this story about a biscuit-making company. A biscuit is a really easy thing to make. A single person or a couple of people could make a batch of biscuits to give to other people and experience that whole creation: what they made, what went into it, and the reward of giving it to somebody else. Making food for someone else is a very basic human act.
But, if you take what should be a complete experience and break it into a million pieces and give each person a tiny part of that process, the whole meaning of it is lost. It’s not just that each person is doing something repetitive and dull; what’s worse is that now that person can’t see their place in the whole anymore. They can’t look at the biscuits at the end of the day and say they played a part in it because it’s been so obstructed. I think there’s something naturally human and rewarding about making things, being part of something, and seeing your role in it. I think everyone needs that.
Are you satisfied creatively? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
I have moments of satisfaction, but I think that mostly I feel discontent (not to steal your title or anything!). I think that it’s good and healthy to feel discontent and know you can do it better. I’m very critical. I always look back and think, “Oh, god, I could have done so much better on that. I should have worked harder or I shouldn’t have rushed it.” But, there are moments when you do something that turns out really well, and you give yourself some time to absorb and appreciate that it went well, and tell the critical part of your brain to shut-up for a few hours. I think there’s something pleasurable about that sense of discontent. I wouldn’t ever want to lose that feeling that the next time I could do better.
In five to ten years, I have no idea. I want to keep making awesome things. Being a part of the web community has been super rewarding and I’d like to continue to be a part of that. Beyond the basic goals of giving back to the community that I’ve received so much from, and wanting to continue to put out things that are great, I don’t have more specific goals.
If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be?
I’m not big on regrets. I’ve definitely made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned so much from them. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t fucked up all the various times I did over the years. I don’t think there’s any one thing that stands out as something I would like to undo. There are lots of little things—like not always being present, letting myself get overburdened, and not giving myself enough time to relax or focus on any one thing. Or, not taking enough time to spend with friends and family because there’s so much work to be done. All of those little things add up.
I’m trying to focus on being more focused on any given thing at one time. I’m always going to be doing a lot of things and be pulled in different directions. That’s just who I am. If I can focus on each thing one at a time, I think it will be healthier for me and better for all of the things I’m working on.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
Oh, it’s huge, on so many different levels. Keith and I have lived in the same apartment in Brooklyn for ten years now. The neighborhood has gradually gentrified around us. The apartment we rent has become more “ours” over the years. When we moved in, we had no furniture. We’ve built a space that is calm, no clutter, lots of books. It feels like us. We live in the top floor of a Brownstone and we have a stoop. Anytime the weather is nice, at least part of our evening is spent on the stoop. We’ve become really good friends with a lot of people on our block. It’s a really eclectic group. There are a few couples who we met here and are now our closest friends. There are also quite a few “lifers”—folks who were born and raised on this block. They’re the real New Yorkers. In the warm months, I can walk down the block and everyone’s outside, having a beer, playing with kids, just chatting about what’s going on. There’s a real sense of community.
I was here for the blackout in 2003 and had to walk home from midtown Manhattan. Keith had been working in Brooklyn that day, so when I got home my first question for him was whether he’d bought water or batteries or flashlights. He said, “No, but I bought wine!” Our neighbors were already emptying out their freezers of everything that was about to go bad and we spent the whole night hanging out with neighbors, drinking wine, and barbecuing. It’s still one of my favorite memories in this city.
You are definitely part of an awesome creative community in Brooklyn. Have you always been part of a community?
I moved to New York because I decided to work in publishing and all the publishers are in NY. But I worked in publishing for a lot of years and never felt like I belonged to a community. I knew a lot of people, but never quite fit in, especially toward the later years because I became an evangelist for the web. There just wasn’t a shared vocabulary around that. I was talking about things that other people weren’t, or they were talking about them differently. For many years, I was the outsider.
That’s why I gravitated so strongly to the Happy Cog folks when I started working with them. Suddenly there were these people who understood, who had a lot of expertise, and who were supportive. I’d been looking for that and latched onto it. It’s made such a huge difference. You can see it in Brooklyn in particular with Studiomates and Brooklyn Beta. It’s an exciting time to be here. There’s something about the Brooklynification of the whole thing—very friendly, very warm, like let’s go work at a bar for a couple hours and bang out this new feature. Or, you tell me about your project and I’m gonna put you in touch with the eight people I know that you need to talk to. I’m grateful to have that.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I get up really early in the summer because I rise with the sun. This time of year it’s closer to 7am, 7:15am, 7:30am—depending on how many times I hit the snooze button. I usually go to the gym first thing, come home, make breakfast, have coffee, attend to email or stuff that’s cluttering up. Most days I head into the studio around 11am or so. We have daily calls with the Typekit team at 1pm Eastern, and I try to get some stuff done before that call. Early afternoon hours are spent talking with Typekit folks. Then I focus on the important stuff for the rest of the day until 7 or 8pm. I’ll cook dinner or Keith and I will go out depending on how busy we are. Then I’ll do another hour or two of work in the evening. If I’m caught up on work, I’ll read for an hour or two. I don’t get to the studio on the weekends, but I do still work on weekend days.
Now, we hear that you’re big on cooking?
Yes! I love cooking. I cook breakfast almost every day and dinner as often as I can. It’s like therapy. There’s something about putting away all of my electronics and doing something with my hands for twenty minutes that involves no higher mental capabilities. I’m pretty good at taking whatever happens to be in the fridge and turning it into something. We didn’t do the CSA this year because I’ve been traveling too much, but most years we belong to a CSA and vegetables just show up at our door all summer long. I like eating fresh, local food.
Current album on repeat?
I’m going to get a lot of shit for this answer, but I barely listen to music at all. So much of what I do is dependent on words—writing, editing, reading—and I cannot listen to music and do those at the same time. Over the course of the last few years, music has gradually disappeared out of my life. The only time I listen to music is at the gym. Keith made me a playlist with Tool, Deftones, Nine Inch Nails, and so on. But outside of that, music doesn’t fit into my life anymore.
I have so many favorite movies. I love the old Terry Gilliam films, Brazil and Time Bandits. Or, Jim Jarmusch’s films, Ghost Dog and Dead Man. I’m a big Terrence Malick fan and loved The Tree of Life. I like those slow films that take over your senses. What else? Old Coen brothers stuff—Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing. Also, the Gus Van Sant trilogy of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days is one of my favorites.
I love the fiction of J.M. Coetzee. He wrote Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K. There’s a starkness to his writing that I admire. They’re devastating in this slow, quiet way. His later books venture into this weird metafiction where he’s writing his own obituary into his novels.
There’s a writer named Alberto Manguel who writes about reading. I’m a huge fan. The writing is lucid and compelling and has really affected me and the writing I do on A Working Library.
The Gift by Lewis Hyde is a favorite and I think everyone who’s making anything should read it. It’s about art, but it applies to so much of what all of us do.
I went through a period in college where I was completely obsessed with Thomas Pynchon. I have four copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, each one dog-eared. Two are held together with rubber bands. I had to read it over and over so many times to figure out what the fuck was going on. There’s so much ambition and architecture to his books.
I like really simple foods. I love fried chickpeas. You take chickpeas, fry them in olive oil with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, salt. It’s one of my favorites. Something I’ve discovered recently is Shishito peppers, which are long, mild peppers that you can pan-fry really quickly and toss in sea salt. You can eat the whole pepper; they’re not spicy at all. I love that kind of eating where you take something and do almost nothing to it and it’s just delicious. In the summer I like making roasted tomato soups or ratatouille.
I was a vegetarian for a lot of years and I still eat a lot of vegetables, but I’m post-vegetarian these days. I’m walking distance from a restaurant called Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens that serves Cote de Boeuf, a dry-aged steak. They show you the steak before they cook it so you can see all the marbling. It’s just a really good cut of meat, seasoned, seared briefly. It was super rare, salty on the outside, and mellow on the inside, served with a simple watercress and lemon salad.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I’ve been thinking about this question and I honestly don’t know the answer. I know a little bit around the answer, but I don’t quite know what the answer is. There’s something about the act of editing, which is such a big part of what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years, that feels like it might be it. When you’re editing something that someone else made, you’re helping them be the best version of themselves, but not in a way that inserts yourself into it. If you look at something I’ve edited, you shouldn’t see me, you should see the other person. That experience is really rewarding and I think it’s something I’m good at. It’s powerful in the sense that you’re allowing someone to do something that they might not have been able to do if it wasn’t for that support. If I’m able to inspire people to do better, that’s pretty much the best legacy. I don’t know if that’s enough or if it will change, but right now, it feels right.
“That experience [of editing] is really rewarding and I think it’s something I’m good at. It’s powerful in the sense that you’re allowing someone to do something that they might not have been able to do if it wasn’t for that support.”