The Great Discontent

Yaron Schoen

Yaron Schoen

Photo by Ryan Hefner

About Yaron

Yaron is design lead at Twitter NY, co-founder of Float, and founder of Made For Humans. Prior to that, he built websites for companies like National Geographic, Time Warner, Electronic Arts, Travelocity, AOL, and more. He acts like he knows how to write, pretends to know a thing or two about music, and is pretty sure you have no idea how to really pronounce his name. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his amazing wife and gorgeous baby daughter.

Introduction

We’ve been wanting to do an interview in person for a long time. Yaron graciously agreed to make TGD history with us by being the subject of our very first face to face interview and it turned out to be so much fun that none of us wanted it to end! After some initial chit-chat, we hit “record” and began to learn about Yaron’s journey. His story begins in Manhattan, where he developed a deep-rooted love for user interfaces and problem solving at a young age. As a teen, he moved to Israel with his family, which is where he later began his career in the web. Read on to find out about the series of transitions that brought him back to New York, his love of travel and how it affects him as a designer, why design alone doesn’t satisfy him, his thoughts on creative community, and why the legacy he hopes to leave is multifaceted.

Interview date: July 2, 2012

On a warm summer night in New York, we rode the train from Manhattan over to Brooklyn and met Yaron in his neighborhood at Bar Tabac. We sat outside at a small table while we conversed over drinks, and this is what transpired:

[Round 1]

Describe your path to becoming a designer.

Honestly, my path wasn’t a clear one; I didn’t realize I was becoming a web designer until it actually happened. As a kid, I was always into the arts. I was a huge fan of comics and I used to trace, copy, and draw a shit-ton of my favorite superheroes. My walls were covered with drawings I made of my two favorite characters, Wolverine and Batman.

Our family also lived close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was young and we went there almost every weekend. I was fascinated by the Greek sculptures, the glass mosaics in the American wing, and the huge, open space in the Egyptian wing. In retrospect, I think I was mostly intrigued by how each section instilled in me a completely different mood by its design, which made me fall in love with interior design. I used to rearrange my room on a monthly basis and my big break came when I was 10 and my mom allowed me to rearrange the living room. I was so fucking excited about that! I loved fitting everything into just the right place and hanging paintings on the wall in the exact, right spot—something about that kind of problem solving made me happy.

Growing up, I was surrounded by computers because my dad was a computer scientist and worked in artificial intelligence. I was born in 1979, so I’m not sure which computer we owned, but my guess is that it was a Commodore or an Apple II. In any case, I grew up with old school computers—the ones you had to boot up with a floppy and then hope for the best (laughing). When I was about four years old, I used to boot up J-Bird and Alley Cat every single day to the extent that my mom used to call me “little J-Bird”. I was also a huge fan of the Sierra Quest games. God, I wish they still made games like that—ones where you have to think rather than just shoot the other players to a pulp. When the first Nintendo came out, I was hooked on Mario and Zelda like there was no tomorrow and of course there was also Gameboy and I even had an Atari Lynx! I guess user interfaces and problem solving were already deeply rooted into my brain and that environment felt natural to me—it was the perfect blend of technology, design, and creativity.

In the mid-’90s we were living in Israel and I remember the day my dad came home with a laptop. I never used one before and I fell in love immediately. The first thing I started playing with was MS Paint and then my dad told me to check out something cooler than that; it was this new thing called the Internet, where people could connect through servers. I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but it seemed super cool. I’ve been hooked ever since.

[Tina] Is your family from Israel?

Yes. My parents were both born in Israel, but lived in the US for 18 years. I was born in Manhattan and at the age of 13, when my parents divorced, my mom and I moved to Israel and my dad stayed in the US for a few more years before he also moved back to Israel. My mom and I lived in Jerusalem and he lived in Tel Aviv.

It took a while for me to learn the Hebrew language because I didn’t know it at all. It’s not an easy language to learn and 13 isn’t an easy age to move to a different continent. Because of the language barrier, I didn’t really pay attention to classes in junior high and high school. I was a serious trouble-maker and barely finished high school.

After high school, all my friends and I were drafted into the Israeli Army because it’s mandatory—I wasn’t really happy about that. I was a basic guard the first year and in in charge of discipline for the second year—me, in charge of discipline? Who would have thought? Anyway, the law states that you’re supposed to serve three years, but I managed to only do two—I’m not really army material.

After the army, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My mom encouraged me to go into computers because I was really good with them and I also had that artistic side and interest in illustration. She suggested that I focus on graphics for the computer, so I dabbled with graphic design, but it never really excited me. In 1999, I took a course called Multimedia 101, which was basically a crash course on computer graphics programs. I remember using FreeHand to recreate one of The Beatles’ album covers, dot by dot. It took me a week and I was happy with the results, but the journey was painful and quite boring for me. I just didn’t enjoy it.

Technically, my career started in Israel and even though I did take the multimedia courses, I’m pretty much self-taught. My first job was at a small web agency in Jerusalem. While I was there, we also created a content management system and an email newsletter service à la MailChimp, which didn’t yet exist over there. It was hard to sell or explain what we were doing because people didn’t really get it. I liked that. I think that was a huge part of what lured me into web design—it wasn’t yet well-established and the sky was the limit.

[Tina] Did you then continue to teach yourself as you went along?

Yeah. The classes that I took in the Multimedia 101 course were Photoshop, FreeHand, Dreamweaver, Director, Lingo, ActionScript, Flash, HTML, After Effects, and Premiere. CSS wasn’t a well-known thing back then so there was no CSS taught. I figured I would learn all the tools I needed and then decide what I wanted to focus on, but honestly, I’ve learned almost everything I know the hard way—by practice and experience. In essence, I dove into the deep end without really knowing how to swim.

[Ryan] What is it about web design and development that intrigues you? Is it still that a lot of people don’t get it?

[A dropped glass breaks on the sidewalk]

I think that was the main thing for me, especially when I started. I guess that when everyone “gets it”, my job is done (laughing).

[Tina] What was your path from that first job in Israel to what you’re doing now?

It was a series of transitions. I was tired of Israel and politically, it’s stressful there. The whole war thing wasn’t helpful and career-wise, I felt like it was time to move on and I wanted a new challenge. Honestly, I also really missed New York. I applied to a few agencies in NY and Fantasy Interactive, which was the first one I applied to, replied to me right away. They sent me a design test to see if I was the right fit and I had to take it a week before my wife and I got married!

[Tina] Did you meet your wife in Israel?

No, I actually met my wife in the deserts of Sinai in Egypt—that’s a whole different story. There are a lot of Bedouin tribes who have huts scattered loosely on the beaches of the Sinai peninsula. People go there for off the grid vacations. It’s a lovely spot and there’s no electricity—only sand, beaches, and seafood, which is caught and served on the spot. I met my wife there.

Anyway, I took that design test for Fantasy Interactive, passed, and got the job. My wife and I got married a week later and we had to move right away. The problem was that my wife wasn’t an American citizen, so she needed a visa to enter the States. So, we had just gotten married and I had to fly to New York, start a new job, and find an apartment while my new wife stayed behind for two months waiting for her visa. It wasn’t the best way to start a marriage, but we hustled through it and everything turned out perfect!

I started the job at Fantasy Interactive and all of a sudden, I was working for a world-class agency and building sites for big names like National Geographic and Time Warner. It was fulfilling and I was there for two wonderful years, but then I decided I wanted to work on a product. I had the opportunity to do that there with Kontain, but agency life was too stressful for me. It was a lot of the same thing over and over—get a brief from a client, build the website, ship it, never see it again, repeat. There wasn’t a lot of ownership. It was like caring for a baby and then finally, when she learns to walk, she walks straight out the door and never comes back. I wanted her to come back.

I then accepted an offer to join AOL and worked there for about eight months. It was too corporate for me. At some point, the company had to fire a large number of employees and they were offering a really nice buyout for those who opted to quit on their own. I had already decided I wanted to leave and had been preparing my portfolio and blogging, so I took the severance package, which gave me a cushion to start freelancing. I freelanced for a year or two, started my own company called Made for Humans, and also worked on some side projects.

At that time, I was also consulting for a start-up called Julpan, which was founded by a good friend of mine, Ori Allon. I met Ori in the jungles of Guatemala while climbing the Aztec pyramids—another crazy story. After coming back to civilization, we kept in touch and a few years later, he gathered a team of really talented engineers and created Julpan, which is the Aboriginal name for the star formation of Orion. Since I had been involved from the beginning, I became a consultant for the company and helped with product related stuff. About a year or so after Julpan was formed, it was acquired by Twitter. I remember the timing of it because we got acquired two weeks before my daughter was born and I had to fly out to San Francisco for the acquisition while I knew that at any minute, my daughter might pop out! Thankfully she didn’t arrive while I was gone. She’s nine months old now, which is about the same amount of time I’ve been working at Twitter.

Was creativity a part of your childhood?

Definitely.

Do you have any fun stories you want to share?

Well, my mom always goes on and on about the fact that I made this amazing drawing of a car when I was two. I think everyone has some sort of creative bone when they’re young, but I was really into the arts, perhaps more so than the average kid. I drew and painted a ton. I was in love with buildings and drew the cityscapes I could see from the view of our Upper East Side apartment—I could actually see the Twin Towers from our window. I was also a fan of Bob Ross and used to paint imaginary landscapes with trees and mountains while I watched his show.

Did you have any “aha” moments along the way when you knew you wanted to focus more on web?

Yeah. If I try to pinpoint my “aha” moment for the web, I think it was really the first time I took a text file and translated it into something visual on a browser using tables and colors. It was awesome. But really, I continue to have “aha” moments with what I’m doing all the time. If I stop having them, I’m probably going to go do something else.

Did you have any mentors along the way?

No, I didn’t. That’s the sad truth. When I started my career in Israel, I was self-taught and not a lot of people were into web design. That was when I needed a mentor the most; obviously you can always have a mentor, but it’s most helpful when you’re starting out. I guess my boss at my first job was kind of like a mentor. He had established his web design company in Israel in 1999 or 2000, which was unheard of. I really admired his cojones to create this thing that not a lot of people understood. But when it comes to an actual design mentor, I don’t know. Perhaps the creative director at Fantasy Interactive was a mentor in the sense that he instilled pixel perfection into me. I guess I would say I’ve had role models, but not necessarily mentors.

screenshot of floatschedule.com
Yaron is co-founder of Float, a tool to help companies schedule their team’s time while working on projects.
screenhot of a charity; water page
The Dollars to Projects campaign is one of the multiple projects Yaron has designed for charity:water.

“One of the best pieces of advice I can give to a designer is to be well-traveled. Design is really about people; the more you understand humans, the better you will be as a designer.”

Have you had to take any risks along the way in order to move forward?

Technically everything is a fucking risk, but career-wise, I’ve taken many. The biggest and most impactful risk was right after I finished my Multimedia course over in Israel. The human resources group at the school assisted students in finding jobs once they completed coursework and I decided to sign up for work to see what would happen. I wasn’t really expecting anything to happen and so, instead of waiting for some sort of reply from them, I decided to buy a ticket to India and go backpacking alone for a few months. I figured that would be the time to go because I wouldn’t have another chance once I started a career. In reality, it took me a month or so to actually get the courage to buy the ticket. Of course, the same day I bought the ticket, the school called to say they had a job for me—it couldn’t have been more poetic.

I went to meet my potential employer and the team. They were great; the office was great. But it was a tough decision. I knew that if I didn’t go on the trip to India, I might not have another opportunity to go—I wasn’t yet invested in a job or relationship or anything that would tie me down. But if I went to India, I would come back rusty and everything I just learned would be wasted. I also didn’t know if I would be able to find such a cool job opportunity again. I chose the job and never flew to India. That might have been the biggest risk I took.

In retrospect, I don’t regret that decision, but I would have loved to backpack throughout India. I’m not sure when I’ll have the chance to do that again. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to a designer is to be well-traveled. Design is really about people; the more you understand humans, the better you will be as a designer. There’s no better way to understand humans than to travel, especially alone. That throws you into situations where human interaction is everything.

On a personal level, do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

Yeah, totally. I did a lot of work with charity: water and I contribute to them as much as I can. It’s cliche, but the web has so much potential. There are a lot of real life problems we could be solving by using the web as a tool. It’s such an exciting time to be working in this industry and I try not to forget that or take it for granted. The only way I technically give back is through work I do with charity: water, but I would love to do more. I’m not sure what or how. I’d obviously love to have more time to do that and stop falling into the “busy trap”.

[Ryan] You write pretty regularly on your blog, which I appreciate because it’s not always design related. Do you see that as a way to give back?

Thanks! Not really. Honestly, I primarily write for myself as a creative outlet and if people enjoy what I write, then that’s an added bonus. It’s humbling if people find it to be helpful, but that is never the goal. I’m not necessarily as good at explaining technicalities or design processes or providing insights into my techniques as other talented folks are—I admire folks who are good at that. So when I write, I try to focus more on the theoretical, bird’s eye view of things. Lately I’ve tried not to focus too much on design; I’d rather tell stories and insert design themes into them.

[Round 2—cheers!]

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Who has encouraged you the most along your creative path?

I was fortunate to have support. When I started my career in Israel, my biggest supporters were my mom and dad. Even though my mom didn’t understand what web design really was, she was the one who initially pushed me to do it because she had a sense that I would be good at it. Obviously, my wife is a huge support for me and she was technically my business partner in Made for Humans. And my daughter has no choice but to be supportive—she’s stuck with me (laughing). I guess I would say that the women in my life—my wife and mom—are my biggest supporters.

Are you satisfied creatively?

Absolutely not. I don’t think I will ever be satisfied creatively. I came into the design world from more of an artistic angle, so design alone doesn’t satisfy me. That is why I write; why I used to illustrate each of my blog posts; and why I have a music section on my site. I might become satisfied in one creative discipline, but that would only lead me to dive into a totally new and different discipline. Who knows? Creativity might strike in a place I least expect. I might find creative satisfaction in cooking or gardening or even in raising my child. All I know is that I’m extremely hungry for more.

Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?

You know that scene in The Godfather when Vito dies in his garden? I’d like to have that garden and tend it, play in it with my kids, have no worries, and drink wine and eat great food.

Seriously though, I really have no idea. I was never much of a planner and most of the time I just plan for the near future and let life take its course. I hope to have more artistic outlets; I’d love to compose and release an album; I’d like to learn a new trade, maybe something manual that has nothing to do with computers.

I do hope to be better at stopping, slowing my pace, and enjoying the small moments in life—they usually fly by too quickly. The past decade has flown by and I want to take my time in this next one so that I can grasp what’s happening and enjoy myself more.

“I might become satisfied in one creative discipline, but that would only lead me to dive into a totally new and different discipline. Who knows? Creativity might strike in a place I least expect.”

If you could give one piece of advice to another designer starting out, what would you say? You already mentioned travel. Is there anything else?

Don’t be scared of failing. If you’re scared of failing, you won’t try new things. I’ve noticed that when I sketch out an idea, I tend to get it right on about the fifth try. If I’m scared to keep on trying, I’ll never release anything worthwhile.

[A horn honks in the background]

There’s no art to it; you learn from your failures and it’s a pragmatic process. It’s about trial and error and learning from your mistakes. To me, that’s one of the differences between art and design. In art, generally speaking, something flows out and you don’t necessarily care what the consequences are, whereas in design, it may or may not flow out, but you care about the consequences. If you fail in those consequences, you need to be ready to iterate.

[Ryan] In design, people have to be able to interpret what you’re trying to communicate and with art, it’s open to interpretation. It doesn’t matter.

Exactly.

[Another glass breaks—it’s a crazy Monday night in Brooklyn!]

How does where you live impact your creativity?

Immensely. Environment does affect my creativity; I don’t know exactly how, but I know that it does. New York has always been my muse. When I was young, we lived next to Central Park and maybe this is connected to my childhood because my grade school was there, but my favorite place in Manhattan is Central Park West. I love that street; I always feel at home there and my soul fills up with a ton of energy and inspiration just from being there. Actually, now that I’m in Brooklyn—this is not popular to say—I feel like I’m in exile. I’m a Manhattanite; I always was and always will be. There are a lot of great and talented people in Brooklyn, but when it comes to the city and the vibe and architecture and landscape, I belong on the island—that’s where I get filled with creative energy.

I was in Paris a few months ago and that’s a good example of an environment affecting my creativity. When it comes to architecture, Paris is the most beautiful place in the world in my opinion. It’s so extravagant and everything is perfectly symmetric. I’m a huge symmetry geek and when I came back, I noticed that I had an urge to design symmetrically and center align everything! So yeah, I think environment does heavily influence me.

Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?

Yes, it’s extremely important. It doesn’t have to be a design community; it can be any kind of creative community. I have a lot of friends who are musicians and being around music inspires me. I’m actually a huge music geek, but unfortunately I never learned to play a traditional instrument. I do write and mix electronic music in my nonexistent spare time.

Creativity is about muses, whether it’s your environment or the people around you. You need to input in order to output; you won’t output anything if you’re in a vacuum. Throughout history, groups of talented people fed off each other and in the process, they created movements of similar work. That’s been the case with music, art, and design all along. It’s just the way it works and it’s beautiful.

That’s why it seems weird to me when folks complain about people copying them. To me, that’s a load of bullshit; it’s completely natural and legit to get inspired by your community. It’s not copying when you’re inspired by someone and you take their work and interpret it as your own. That’s what a creative community does and I believe we need to be more open to that. You may have already created a really good solution for something I’m working on and sure, I might use your solution. Who cares? I don’t care if I see websites that look heavily inspired by my work. If you can do it better or if you are just inspired to do the same thing, I say go for it! Fuck—if your version is better than mine, I might be the one who needs to rethink my version if my goal is to differentiate myself. A creative community is supposed to inspire each other in that way. It’s healthy and I don’t think it should be viewed in a negative light.

[Round 3 arrives—third time’s a charm!]

What does a typical day look like for you?

It used to be all about the parties, hookers, and blow, but now I have a baby, so…just kidding. I’d like to say I wake up at 5:30am with my wife and baby daughter because I’m a model father, but I don’t. I stumble out of bed by 6:30–7am at the latest, which is still insanely early for me—that never would have happened pre-baby. Then I brush my teeth, take a shower, go to the living room, and my wife and daughter are waiting there for me. We have a long hallway in our apartment, so when I walk toward my daughter, who is on her play mat in the living room, she gets all excited and claps and smiles—that’s the best part of my day (laughing). I take over baby duties for my wife and spend time with my daughter while my wife does her thing. I leave home around 8:30–9am and get to work at about 9:30–10am. I work at Twitter and am design lead at the NY office. I have a full day’s work with the best design team in the world and then I come home, hopefully in time for the sleep ritual that my wife and I have with our daughter. We give her a bath, read her a story, and then put her to bed. Then I clean some dishes, make some food, spend time with my wife, and fall asleep at 9pm. A good night is 11pm—that’s living dangerously for us.

Current album on repeat?

I listen to so much shit all day. Abbey Road is always on repeat. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of house music—Nick Warren and Sasha. I also like Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs; anything by Beastie Boys, Chet Baker, or Radiohead; and Late Night Tales by Fatboy Slim.

Any favorite TV shows or movies?

I like So You Think You Can Dance. I like sleaze or reality TV. It’s hard for me to focus on a series from week to week and I don’t have time to just download it and watch it. I try to watch stuff that doesn’t really have a plot so that I can just zone out. There can’t be a story arc through the series if I’m going to watch it. I’d rather not take it on because I won’t complete it. I do like Seinfeld though.

My default favorite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I guess I like Kubrick because another favorite is The Shining. I also like Mulholland Drive. Man, they’re all psychological thrillers. So I don’t look like I’m fucked up, The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy and The Breakfast Club are also favorites.

Favorite book?

I’m not sure I can pinpoint a favorite, but a few that come to mind are A Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series, and Pale Blue Dot.

Man, this is gonna sound lame, but I’ve had a serious drought when it comes to books in recent years. Since I don’t have a lot of time to read and finish books, I choose to read things I can quickly finish. I read more articles than I do books, which I’m trying to change. I recently read the Steve Jobs book, which is a nice transition into reading books again because it’s kind of work-related and it was a quick, easy read. Now I’m reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, which I’m in love with.

Favorite food?

That’s easy—hamburgers, Korean, and Mediterranean food.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Fuck! I have no clue how to even approach that question. I guess it depends; I can answer it in different ways. If you ask my ego, I’d want my legacy to be that of a person who created amazing experiences that affected the lives of millions. If you ask my soul, I’d want to be known as a person who created things from the heart and never gave a shit about what other people thought. If you ask my heart, I’d want to provide the best possible lives filled with joy and happiness for my wife and daughter. If you ask my conscience, then it’s all about charity and giving back to the community through philanthropy and helping to better the world.

People are complex animals and have so many different sides to them. For me, there’s no right answer. It’s a little bit of everything. I mean, in the end, who cares? I just want to live my life the best I can.interview close

“Creativity is about muses, whether it’s your environment or the people around you. You need to input in order to output; you won’t output anything if you’re in a vacuum.”

Erica Weiner Brian Dettmer