A life on the Web

From early renown in Web design, to widespread recognition and considerable popularity on instagram, musician, author, (and much more) Dan Rubin has lived a life curiously suited to the Web. One that eschews the traditional linear structure of a career, for the more inteconnected, graph-like nature of the Web.

Hear from Dan as he reflects on the lessons he has drawn from an already many and varied life on the Web.

Dan wasn’t sure what he could really talk about at WDS, given the broad range of things he’s been doing. But it became clear that the story itself was worth telling.

Dan’s been online for a long time. It starts in 1990-92. Dan was homeschooled and didn’t have access to computers until he was 12; and a neighbour gave them a Mac Classic. He also ended up with access to the internet at 14, thanks to a neighbour with an ISDN line (which was an incredibly-unusual high-speed connection at the time). It became a natural part of existence – the natural curiosity of the age plus the opportunity to look for things.

Then in 1994 he got access at home with a blazing fast 14.4k modem. (massive nostalgia hit as Dan plays the 56k modem connection sound) Suddenly he leapfrogged his mainstream-schooled peers. He had greater access to technology and information than they did. ‘The world seemed both larger and smaller.’

In 1995 he got a job working at a museum that was getting online. He was asked to build an interactive exhibition and said yes, despite not really knowing how to do it. He quickly learned about interaction design using Macromedia Director. It was probably the second online exhibition in America.

1998-2011 he kept working as a contractor; and worked with a lot of big clients. He was also doing lots of other things but he kept learning more about the web. He ended up being the creative director of moo.com for a year, which gave him his first opportunity to work inside a company.

Screenshot of the blog post by Jason Santa Maria

In the middle of that period, 2008, something important happened. Jason Santa Maria was doing art-directed blog posts, which was as unusual then as now. He put a post up about the Polaroid SX-70. Dan bought one on ebay, with a couple of packs of film. When he started shooting, he produced photos he actually liked. All previous photos had been absolutely terrible. He started liking his photography. It also rekindled an interest in physical product design.

By 2010 his photography hobby had taken off, to the point that people were coming to him for advice. He was running photowalks at SXSW.

Someone tweeted an icon of an app that looked like a polaroid; and said they were playing with something cool. So two months before it opened up, he found himself invited to use the beta of Instagram. That quickly turned into being one of the most-followed photographers on Instagram.

So he was able to transition incredibly rapidly to professional photography; and his experience with design helped build an impressive client list.

This got him to thinking… what portable skills do we have that we’ve never explored?

When we are young we all have varied interests. We are exposed to more things, we explore more things, we think about what we want to be when we grow up. Very few people are doing what they dreamed of doing when they were a child.

Dan had a lot of interests when he was young and perhaps explored more than his mainstream-schooled peers. It was normal to be curious, to ask to go to the library.

At some point as we grow up, the concept of focus is introduced. To be a ‘successful adult’ you need to pick one thing and just do that one thing. Maybe forever. That’s what you’ve got to do. Particularly starts when you start heading to university.

So we pare down our interests and pick A Thing™. If we are very lucky we get to work on a thing we love.

We forget about the possibilities.

Dan wanted to get back to the possibilities. He decided to have an experimental year, to explore and not chase paying work. He’d decided it was holding him back to focus attention looking for paid work. It took trust that people would come and ask. But he hadn’t had an experience for years where he’d been asked to do something he didn’t know how to do.

Many people refer to having side projects. Dan decided to focus on those projects. The balance in question was income vs interest. He’d focus where he was interested, not where the money was.

‘Happy accidents’ have become the norm. Things coming from connections built on the web.

  • Koya Bound – had wanted to design a book for years; and finally did it working with Craig Mod. They’d met at Web Directions a few years earlier. Craig invited him to go hiking in Japan; and everyone going on the hike was a keen photographer. The idea became do the hike, then see how fast the book could be produced. They ended up doing it via Kickstarter.
  • Emily Denton – Dan had found clips of her music and followed her on Twitter. She happened to tweet about working on getting used to being in front of the camera; right when Dan was looking for more portrait work. So they did a shoot. Through a series of unusual events, she ditched her producer and Dan ended up having a look at the recordings. He became her producer. They needed a film clip so he brought in people to do this and became the video producer too. So it became a huge journey working together… all from following on twitter.
  • Moment – Dan had been teaching workshops; and this led to helping them build a new business.
  • Camera & Phone Straps – working with a leather maker to create beatiful little camera straps. It’s a small scale project, but heaps of fun and leads to other things.
  • Hiut Denim – they run the Do lectures in a field in Wales, as well as making jeans. He got to know the owner of the company, they found out Dan has a design background… now they’re collaborating to make a pair of jeans.

Once people know you do a thing, they start asking for it. Other people are asking Dan to design books now. They’ll probably start asking him to produce music too. Amazing things happen because Dan started conversations and said ‘yes’ to things.

This all came from an intentional decision to go back to being driven by interest, tapping into a mindset of curiosity more like we had as kids.

One last thought that came out of Dan’s chats to John Allsopp… The importance of being human in a world increasingly dominated by tech. An overlooked common element is often you. You are the thing that connects otherwise-unrelated things, other interests. You are the connection.

Ref: David Lee Ted Talk – Why jobs of the future won’t feel like work

David Lee’s talk talks about getting people to work on things they’re inspired to do.

When you can bring your Saturday self on Wednesdays, you’ll look forward to Mondays More. – David Lee

We are now in a world that connects us to our interests; and to other people that share them.

If you can connect the dots between your interests, it can help you explore and lead to opportunities you wouldn’t find otherwise. The most exciting discoveries happen in the overlaps, the unexpected intersections between things.

Explore the intersections.