Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Recommended

My Interview on Interface Lovers

Jordan Koschei on Interface Lovers

Interface Lovers is an online publication that interviews product designers about who they are and what they do. It’s enlightening to hear how other designers got into their roles and learn about how they work, and I was flattered when they reached out to interview me.

I’ve changed jobs since I gave this interview, so a lot has changed, but this will give you some insight into my design philosophy and outlook.

Bonus: They ask every designer for some music recommendations, so I’m happy to say that you can now find some sweet worktunes at Designer Mix #140 — Jordan Koschei on Spotify.

My Interview on User League

Jordan Koschei on User League

I was interviewed for User League, a new online publication from Dave Martin, principal designer at Automattic.

This quote sums up what I believe about design:

I like to think of design as a form of hospitality — we’re creating digital environments in which our users will live for a time. Those environments should make our users feel comfortable and confident, and enable them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. A good product gives the user superpowers without drawing too much attention to itself. It’s better to leave the user thinking, “Hey, I’m awesome” than “Hey, that product’s awesome.”

Thanks, Dave! Head over to User League to read the full interview.

Hurry Slowly Interview with Adam Greenfield

Adam Greenfield, author of the book Radical Technologies that I quoted recently, was interviewed on the Hurry Slowly podcast.

The conversation retread familiar terrain from the book, but it's always worth a reminder. The episode focused mainly on the sociology of the smartphone, and I found two parts particularly interesting:

  1. The idea that we're losing some of the "thinginess" of the world by allowing so many of our interactions to be intermediated by abstract bits floating around a noncorporeal network. We used to carry so many things in our pockets: credit cards, photos of loved ones, access cards for buildings or public transit. Many of the artifacts we used for navigating the world have been replaced by a homogeneous set of gestures performed on the same screen. We read the news and check the stocks on the same device that we find love and hail a cab. Everything is taking on a bland sameness.
  2. The way we live is being shaped by a tiny group of homogeneous people in a handful of nonrepresentative places. Our new "normal" is being defined by young knowledge workers in Western tech hubs who assume that everyone needs things like constant calendar notifications, email in their pocket, news alerts, etc. It's getting hard to remember a time before those things were normal — it's now sort of assumed that everyone should run their lives like a Silicon Valley designer or engineer.

Fascinating, and worth a listen.

The Generosity of Making

For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?

Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

This quote is about making food, but I think it goes for making anything: artwork, music, or even an app.

It’s easy to get caught up in the abstract side of what we do, but it’s so important to remember that behind every email answered, line of code committed, and pixel pushed are the people we’re doing it for.

Radical Technologies

I’ve been reading the book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield, and I thought this quote insightful, on how smartphones shape our lives:

It’s easy, too easy, to depict the networked subject as being isolated, in contact with others only at the membrane that divides them. But if anything, the overriding quality of our era is porosity. Far from affording any kind of psychic sanctuary, the walls we mortar around ourselves turn out to be as penetrable a barrier as any other. Work invades our personal time, private leaks into public, the intimate is trivially shared, and the concerns of the wider world seep into what ought to be a space for recuperation and recovery. Above all, horror finds us wherever we are.

I started reading the book a while back, but life got in the way and I’m finally picking it up again. It’s a breakdown of how nine different technologies are reshaping the world in invisible ways, from how the Internet of Things promotes a worldview of “unreconstructed logical positivism” (the belief that everything can be perfectly measured, and thus perfectly controlled, and human bias can be eliminated) to how smartphones make us nodes in a network, rather than discrete individuals.

Most books in this genre are either too optimistic or too pessimistic for my taste, but this one is neither technophilic or technophobic. Also unlike most books in the genre, it doesn’t read like a BuzzFeed article (“You won’t believe how these 9 technologies will make your life awesome!!!”)… it feels more like something Marshall McLuhan would write.

All-in-all, it’s been a lot to chew on, and I’m left with the feeling that it’s an important read. It’s certainly changing my understanding of the technologies that are coming down the pike. I’m a particular fan of the chapter titles, which sum up the thesis of each chapter and contain gems like:

  1. The internet of things: A planetary mesh of perception and response
  2. Digital fabrication: Towards a political economy of matter
  3. Automation: The annihilation of work

With a last name like Greenfield, it’s no wonder the author writes about high technology.

How to Find a Book to Read

Reading is the best.

I grew up reading a ton — one of the benefits of being an only child, and of having been born in the days before YouTube and Buzzfeed existed to divert one’s attention — and loved the sensation of sinking into a good book. You’d open up page one, find yourself gripped by the story… and emerge hours later, unsure of where the time went. You’d have knowledge you didn’t have before, or empathy and understanding for minds other than your own. Books can change you.

My reading fell off in college; there are few things that can suck the magic out of a book like someone forcing you to read it. But the past several years, as I try to counterbalance the mental effects of working on the web, I’ve been reading a lot more and rediscovering the joys of a good book.

Here are some thoughts on how I read, why I read, and how I find books I’ll enjoy. Your mileage may vary.

How I Read

  • I prefer paper books to ebooks, because I find my retention dramatically decreases if I’m reading on a screen. I suspect it has to do with the topography of the page — words on a physical page are tactile and have a location in physical space, whereas on a screen everything appears in the same ever-changing glowing rectangle.
  • I make heavy use of the library, and generally only buy books that I think I’ll want to have in my personal collection. The exception is the two books a month that I get gratis from work (thanks, Dwell!)
  • I use the online library catalog a lot, and hitting the “Request Book” button scratches the same itch as “Add to Checkout” on Amazon. Much cheaper, too.

I generally leave the library with three or four books at a time, with some diverse offerings to make sure that I can switch gears if I feel burnt out on any one book. I like to switch up the topics I’m reading about, too, so I don’t get caught in a rut. I know some people like to dive deep into a single subject at a time; I like to dabble, and see how connections form between the different subjects in my head. Maybe that makes me a dilettante; I prefer to think I’m just well-rounded.

Why I Read

There’s a difference between reading to read and reading to have read — in other words, reading for purpose vs. reading for pleasure.

Most fiction, I read to read. Much nonfiction, I read to have read. I’m trying to close the gap between the two — ideally, everything I read would be for pleasure, and not solely because I want to accumulate the knowledge therein.

I find that there are three reasons I typically read a book:

  1. For pleasure — the mere enjoyment of reading.
  2. To grow my breadth of knowledge — to expose myself to something new.
  3. To grow my depth of knowledge — to expand my knowledge on a subject I already know something about.

Most books check at least two of those boxes. Some books — Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example — checked all three. That book deepened my knowledge of some ideas that I’d already encountered through Michael Pollan’s writing, introduced me to broader knowledge of sociology and anthropology, and was also a magnificent romp of a read. If I read it again, it’ll be for the sheer pleasure of it.

How I Find Books to Read

I keep a running list of books I’m interested of reading. It’s currently tracked in Things, using category headings to keep things organized, but anything will work.

It’s a flexible list — I add books liberally, remove occasionally, and feel no pressure to read everything on the list (good thing, too, since it’s got more than 80 items now). I just want a way to keep track of recommendations and interesting-sounding titles so I always have something new to read.

I also go off-list very often; if I see something interesting, I’ll read it. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s systemized every aspect of his life… that seems like a surefire way to suck all the joy out of it.

There are four ways I typically find books I’m interested in reading:

  1. Personal recommendations. If someone I know recommends something to me, I always put it on the list.
  2. Podcasts. If a podcast I like mentions a book, or has an interview with an author, I’ll often add it to the list.
  3. Other books. If a book cites another book, and I’m interested in going deeper on that subject, I’ll consider adding it to the list.
  4. A random walk through the library. Sometimes I like to just wander the library and look at the shelves. If a title or cover pops out at me — boom, new book to read. I’ll occasionally do this with a shelf I rarely visit, just to see if there’s some new subject I may be interested in pursuing. It feels like browsing the course catalog at college again — full of possibilities.

I try not to pay much attention to Amazon’s recommendations because I know they’ll be books that I like… which means they’ll probably be books that reinforce my existing taste. I’d rather broaden my taste by reading a wide variety of books than get into a rut by reading the same sort of thing over and over. I do have genres and authors I keep going back to, but I want to supplement those with non-obvious choices that no algorithm would think to recommend for me.

Bonus: A Few of My Recent Favorites

  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt/Theodore Rex/Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Biography)
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (Geography, Sociology, Anthropology)
  • Cooked, Michael Pollan (History, Food)
  • Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (Science Fiction, Weird Fiction)
  • Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (Science Fiction)

Kit

Here’s a page of pure navel-gazing: a list of real-world (i.e., not software) things that I use on a regular basis. Some are tools, some are toys, but all are objects that bring me satisfaction in some way.

I like to tweak and experiment with my kit, so this is subject to change. I’ll do my best to keep this page updated as necessary.

(Note: No affiliate links here, just products I personally enjoy.)

Hardware

💻 Computer:

MacBook Pro, 15in, Late-2013. This was my work computer two jobs ago, and they were kind enough to let me keep it (along with the Thunderbolt monitor and an iPad Pro), an exceptionally generous move that I’m still grateful for. The battery and screen are starting to show their age, but I’m unimpressed with the current line of MBP’s, so I’m still holding off on a replacement. I may get a new battery soon, though — better to pay the $199 for a refurbishment than the $3k for a new machine.

🎧 Headphones:

Bose QC35s. I use a pair of noise-canceling, wireless Bose headphones when I’m in a coffee shop or similarly noisy environment, or otherwise need to concentrate. Putting these on puts me right into work mode. Note that the link is for the second-generation model, while I have the first.

Apple AirPods. I got a pair of AirPods as a gift recently, and have been pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoy them. They pair to my phone or computer more quickly than the QC35s, and are great for taking calls or listening to music/audiobooks/podcasts while moving around. They’re a great supplement to my other headphones.

🖥 Desk:

StandDesk. I use a StandDesk, a motorized sit/stand desk that can adjust its height at the touch of a button. I have presets for my sitting and standing height, though full disclosure: I mostly use it while sitting. I have a large-ish model (don’t remember the exact dimensions), with black legs and a white top. I originally ordered the bamboo top, but there was a customs issue — I ordered the desk soon into the company’s existence and they had supply chain issues, so I gladly accepted the white top instead. It’s a very good desk.

Accessories

💼 Messenger Bag

Fossil Buckner Messenger. I’ve been a fan of messenger bags since the first time I saw Jim Halpert sporting one in The Office. I had a Tumi bag made of ballistic nylon that lasted me close to 10 years with hardly any signs of wear. They don’t make that model anymore, but I keep it around in case I need to go out in heavy rain.

Currently I’m using a Fossil Buckner bag (I believe it’s black, though it looks closer to a deep blue), which is more stylish and “adult” than the Tumi that got me through college. It’s nylon with leather, so I’m wary of taking it out in the rain (I got caught in a storm recently and really thought the leather had water damage, though it dried fine), but it fits my computer perfectly and the magnetic clasps are a nice touch. It’s maybe my most-used gift of the last year (thanks, Erin!)

🍶 Water Bottle

S’well Bottle. I use a 17oz Teakwood S’well Bottle nearby whenever I work, usually filled with water. I love this bottle — it keeps cold beverages cold for 24 hours, and hot beverages hot for 12. Really impressive bit of engineering.

📓 Notebooks

Baron Fig Confidant & Vanguard. I’ve never been a huge fan of Moleskine notebooks, even though I’ve used my fair share of them. They feel cheap, and their whole contrived story about how they were the notebook of choice for the great early-20th century authors left a bad taste in my mouth, considering that the company was founded in 1997. I recently bought a Baron Fig Confidant hardcover notebook to serve as my journal, and have been very impressed with the quality. It opens flat, and the clothbound cover is a very pleasant to the touch.

I also got a three-pack of softcover Vanguard dot grid notebooks, which I use for design work. I got them to bump myself up to free shipping, but I wind up using those notebooks just as much as the Confidant.

🖋 Pen

Zebra F-301. I have terrible handwriting, and I find it helpful to use a pen with a fine point. I love the stainless-steel Zebra pens with a 0.7mm point — they feel great and write great, and they’re not particularly expensive.

✏️ Pencil

I’m not a pencil guy. If it’s mechanical, I’ll use it.

Consumables

🛁 Soap

Hudson Made Morning Shift Okay, story time: A few months ago I was at a work retreat at Mohonk Mountain House, and the soap in their shower was maybe the best thing I ever smelled: it was rosemary-mint, and it left my face feeling tingly after. A really great way to wake up in the morning.

When I got home and had used the remainder of the soap, I considered buying it online, but it was realllly expensive. Also, my wife said it made me smell like bread, so… deal-breaker.

Recently I was at Hamilton & Adams, a menswear shop in Kingston, NY, browsing some of their grooming supplies. They had soap from a local manufacturer called Hudson Made, including Morning Shift — a bar soap made of peppermint, rosemary, and eucalyptus. It smelled similar but not identical to the Mohonk soap, and still left my nose feeling tingly afterwards.

I went back-and-forth on if I should buy it, since it’s fully 4× the price of the other soaps I like. Finally, a few weeks later, I went for it, using some gift money. I haven’t looked back — it’s a fantastic way to start the morning, and leaves me feeling invigorated and refreshed. As someone who really values my morning routine, I think it’s worth being intentional about using products that make me eager to get out of bed and get ready.

🐽 Deoderant

Schmidt’s Cedarwood + Juniper. The idea of smearing aluminum into my armpits to block the pores freaks me out, but that’s exactly how antipersperant works. I’ve been trying Schmidt’s natural deoderant lately, and despite the reputation that natural deoderant has, it works well and smells great. I naturally perspire a lot, and it’s been keeping up just fine. You can get a stick at Target for just about $1 more than the usual deoderant, so it’s not a huge risk to try it.


Any questions? Hit me up on Twitter.

Annihilation

Southern Reach Trilogy book covers
Book covers of the Southern Reach trilogy, courtesy of Wired.

A section of the Florida coast has suddenly, inextricably reverted back to nature. All traces of human life have begun to degrade, and the region — now behind a shimmering border of unknown origin — is only accessible via a hole of indeterminate size and stability.

A government agency known as the Southern Reach has been sending in expeditions to determine the cause and properties of the phenomenon. Each expedition has failed, plagued by disappearances, deaths, cancers, and mental trauma. We pick up with the Twelfth Expedition, comprised of four women known only by their functions: the Biologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Psychologist. What they encounter inside the phenomenon (known as Area X) can only be described as weird.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge shoreline near Lighthouse
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, on which Area X was based. This public domain image comes from Wikipedia.

That’s the beginning of Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer. The trilogy is stranger and more unsettling than can be conveyed in those two introductory paragraphs. VanderMeer is a writer of weird fiction, picking up the mantle left by authors like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.

It’s hard to pigeonhole the trilogy into a particular genre. It’s science fiction, I suppose, but only in that it’s fiction that involves science. I’ve heard it described as “bio-horror,” which sort of fits, since it deals a lot with bizarre and macabre elements of biology: animals that appear to be plants. Plants in the shape of humans. Weird chimeras of unknown origin.

VanderMeer has crafted a world that’s so fully-realized that leaving the book feels like waking up from a dream. It’s been two months since I put down the last book, and I still find my thoughts drifting back to it.

The lighthouse. The brightness. The strange fate of Saul Evans.


There’s a movie adaptation of Annihilation coming out starring Natalie Portman, and I probably won’t see it.

It’s not that I don’t want to. I loved every page of the Southern Reach trilogy. But it was also the most unnerving, dread-inducing, existentially horrific book I’ve ever been unable to put down. VanderMeer is an expert at creating a tone of mystery permeated by fear and dread. There were parts that made me nauseous. There were parts that made me short of breath. I have no desire to see those things brought to life on-screen.

There’s also my fear that the trilogy can’t be properly adapted into film. So much of Annihilation takes place in The Biologist’s head, and so much of it involves being able to make connections between words and phrases and thoughts in the character’s interior life. For a book so thoroughly about the nature of communication, something’s bound to get lost in translation.

Finally — and this is even though Jeff VanderMeer himself has given the movie his seal of approval — the movie was written based on the first book alone, ignoring the second two in the trilogy. The trilogy was released over the course of an 8-month period, and functions as a cohesive whole. The first book is informed by the second and third, so creating a standalone work without understanding the latter two makes it a different thing than the books. I suspect it will be more of a tonal successor than a strict adaptation.


I loved the Southern Reach trilogy, but I also don’t know if I can recommend it outright. As with any media, I think it’s wise to consider how it will affect you: Will I be a better person for reading this? Will reading this be time well spent? How will this affect my spiritual life?

Had I known how disturbing the book would be, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen to continue reading it. On the other hand, had I predicted the richness of the experience, I don’t know if I could have chosen to do otherwise.

The Man in the Arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Theodore Roosevelt