Why Amazon?

Phillip Hunter
AWS UX Design Architecture Team

Dear Phillip:

After meeting with you to discuss your Mobile UX Designer position, thank you for also either/or considering me for the position of Visual Designer assisting your design team. For about an hour I felt like a real human being again, finding our common interests in design, sociology, technology, and human psychology, while listening as you described your business goals and my potential role helping you achieve them.

During our interview, you asked me a very simple, thus very good, question:

Why Amazon?

Our conversation turned before I had a chance to answer, which means I have given it a good deal more thought. As a former bibliophile, it would not have occurred to me to apply to the online bookstore that virtually crushed out of existence the few retail venues that I used to enjoy in meatspace. But someone pushed your hiring tweet into my feed, and I try to remain open to opportunity when it comes knocking:

Which of the following possible answers will get me hired?

  • You are the Borg, and after seven years of post-graduate professional development, I am ready to be assimilated?
  • Because if Amazon coughs up the salary you suggested, that beats rebranding and identity on the campaign for a Seattle School Board director who could not design her own identity, write her own tagline, or articulate how she planned to solve problems debilitating public education, instead, wasted valuable time post-primaries raging her derision for her visually educated, impoverished staff, yet was still successfully elected despite a budget vastly smaller than the corporate-backed incumbent?
  • Ditto with my work for Stanford University, whose in-house, salaried designers neglected to proof the colors against their corresponding hexadecimal numbers suitable for use according to their brand guidelines? And if their Graduate School of Business administrators want the various logos of their programs or departments scaled to the same size, then maybe their salaried designers could provide the web assets or design files so I don’t have to redraw Stanford’s seal from scratch? And surely their salaried business administrators could scrounge up an Apple somewhere on their campus instead of relying on their online design sweatshop labor for troubleshooting help installing font files illegally downloaded to their PCs?
  • Because all of my hours volunteering for Washington State’s Artist Trust and AIGA Seattle, even assisting in the former studio of Starbucks’ Global In-Store Experience Director while he complimented one of my installation suggestions with, “That’s the best idea I ever heard!” only led to still more volunteer “opportunities” instead of job offers?
  • Because throughout my first four years of post-graduate professional development, academia seemed to want me to supply not just educated skills but also bring my own budget to their impoverished departments, plus provide jobs for their students, and without credentials from progressively more expensive Ivy League institutions I am not qualified for non-tenure track adjunct labor earning not enough to live on in North America with no job security, in exchange for performing mainly clerical and data entry tasks, rather than research and scholarship or applying my educated professional skills toward solving real-world problems?
  • Or because, as I suggested to an unsuccessful Seattle mayoral candidate who did not want to hear my expertise after my experiences closely observing Washington school teachers in action, “If this is public education, then maybe we should reconsider the corporate options?”
  • Because you would arrange a face-to-face dialogue after just a few tweets, which to me communicates reciprocating respect, instead of requiring me to first slog through pages and pages of some badly designed HR interface inputting or uploading data redundant in this era of social media and cloud computing.
  • Because, unlike academia, you do not (still!) require portfolio files copied to a shiny disc-object and sent via snail mail in this era of cloud computing.
  • Because if the analogue publishers do not want to profit from my writing, editing, graphic design, full press production, coding, and multimedia skills, perhaps Amazon does?
  • Because I do not want to work for advertising agencies who do not want me to think?
  • Because your response to my interactive business card designed using currently available materials tells me that, while Amazon leaders may not always agree with my visually educated expertise, they will at least listen to me before making sound business decisions.
  • Because your responses during our conversation tell me you will make sound business decisions rather than seeming to do everything you can do to sabotage the success of your own election/project/department/team/family/business/institution/democracy.
  • Because your current web presence tells me that even a company the size and ambition of Amazon could really use my help to develop a visually coherent language to better communicate your products and services to your global audience.
  • Because if you deliver on your promised weekly crits with a multidisciplinary team from whom I might learn all the tech skills I would like to continue adding to my toolbox plus leadership who will hear the merits of an argument before making sound business decisions, that sounds less like a survival job, and more like a dream job to me.
  • Or there’s always the trite, because when a company with Amazon’s scope and influence makes even a tiny shift, that shift results in global change? And making teeny, tiny, pixel-sized shifts toward global visual literacy, while a humble occupation, sounds rewarding to me?
  • Or the “when in Rome” option: instead of resist the tech, why not fully surrender to the technology of any given era, and maybe along the way design some meatspace options even more delightful or with greater benefit to the needs of 21st century communities?
  • Or the answer I typeset in lead and letterpress printed on the backs of my business cards for my 2008 startup that resulted in double the web stats boasted by a local communications firm, or the efforts of an entire team to attract an already built-in audience for a microsite they built for Seattle Art Museum?
why not business card reverse

Six Other Press, 2008, identity, full press production, letterpress from movable lead and wood on Magnani Pescia.

I still take type-geeky pride in managing to find in a dusty metal shop a face that could fit sideways the text press in a 72-point line, and that my startup favicon was initially set in wood and printed letterpress before I digitized and optimized the image for web usage. As you can see from just the updated multigif version on my social media portfolio site, that level of attention to detail readily translates to vector graphics, digital typography, and the speed of 21st century communications. My experience working with physical type taught me to anticipate the shift years ahead of the curve in UX to “flat design” which of course is not a new aesthetic at all, but simply a long-overdue return to modernist design principles. Just because the software engineers enabled us to highlight and drop-shadow everything under the sun does not mean those visual distractions were necessarily good ideas for improving human-to-human communications.

With Amazon’s commitment to hiring veterans and providing equal opportunity to qualified minorities, females, and people with disabilities, would you consider pushing a seven-year veteran of America’s war on democracy to the head of the hiring line? Maybe also fast-track your job application deadline to sooner than 11 September, a date historically rotten with negative energy? Because I’m not sure how much longer your “talent” can survive the brutal warehousing that Seattle has chosen for its untouchable classes, similar to impoverished women in Pakistan, no, worse, because at least they get cots instead of dirty mats on dirty floors:

amazon equal opportunity

Screenshot: Amazon HR interface.

To put my experiences in first world perspective, if your boss was judged by the same standard applied to a destitute, multiracial woman, after being trafficked by his own family, he would be locked up without access to competent counsel or fair trial, transported in shackles and chains across the width of the state for his long-term thinking and writing skills, and force-fed psychotropic pharmaceuticals that might leave him feeling suicidal, hands trembling, with difficulties concentrating, increased irritability, bleeding from his orifices, or suffering side effects identical to symptoms of intense trauma currently defined in the pop cultural imagination as “mental illness.” Since I’ve already used doors as cheap substitutes for desks we have that in common as well, and wandering walks were one of the assignments I gave to my former first-year university students.

Bonus, to your two-pizza team I bring the “symptoms” of “expressing new ideas” (err, otherwise known as innovation) and what I like to call visual literacy rather than “cre8tivity,” but none of the wild mood swings between depression and frantic tasking ­– which may lead to the accomplishment of business goals but more likely their opposite – or rage typically associated with the behavior currently labeled by the psychiatric industry as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, or the side effects of heavily marketed pharmaceutical “treatment” options, happy evidence supporting my 2008 MFA theories about the healing power of art-making, as data-collecting psychologists and neuroscientists worldwide may soon conclude. If they keep researching at their current pace. And if their research can become less biased by pharmaceutical dollars. Or if those researchers can kick their personal pharmaceutical habits. Or it may take them another decade, their 2014 discovery of the importance of handwriting to information processing, learning engagement, and memory retention coincident with Idaho’s violation of my civil liberties.

With kudos to Amazon, you have actively reached out, the federal government gets its quota, you get the qualified talent you seek, and I get my life back: wins all around.

During our interview, you mentioned you would like to apply your design skills toward solving the problem of hunger in Africa; in essence, I’ve already accomplished that design research for you, simply by visually analyzing a vernacular graphic design “solution” to a communications problem, before connecting the financial dots to recognize the same multinationals that benefit from slave labor in Africa also reap lucrative administrative salaries on the backs of the impoverished in the United States. So what do you do when the folks earning salaries to ostensibly solve these troubling global design problems are instead exacerbating them? In my opinion, the Justice Department would be well advised but may not be neutral enough to investigate the nonprofit laundering money for terrorism, both foreign and domestic, if government operated half as well as business, and began design researching from the pain points of any given problem, or listening to the point of view of their clients, before establishing sound public policy. If you listen to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s opinion of my extended family, my opinion is formed by not just my education in psychoanalytic and feminist theories, but also some considerable personal experience now. As you and I discussed, however, while it is good to recognize that we are all interconnected, those decisions are matters of politics and power, and well beyond the scope of any one designer.

From reading your Visual Designer job description as it is currently written, it sounds like your marketing and business folks are accustomed to balancing fragile cre8tive egos against business goals. You’ll get none of that tug-o-war with me, simply because visual communications do not form a binary duality with business. Instead, I encourage your team to begin thinking of visual communications as very similar to written and verbal communications, only using a visual vocabulary, organized with visual grammar, integral to all business communications.

Simply put, if the visuals are not communicating your business goals, get rid of them.

As I successfully defended with my MFA thesis, written content cannot be divorced from visual form, and the same language should be communicated with the structure, whether printed book or communication intended for screen media. For that matter, ideally, written content, visual form, and structure should extend from virtual to architectural space. Your shift from the former VA Hospital to your new South Lake Union headquarters, with its multiple locations, wandering walkways, and private outdoor areas that welcome public seating as long as the public can restrain itself to civil behavior all tell me that Amazon cares about the surrounding neighborhood and is working hard to create communal space.

Now that I’ve stolen a peek at your AWS site, strangely, for a company built on tech, and a subsidiary department even more tightly focused on the burgeoning cloud market, your virtual space visual communications are less coherent than your architectural, landscape architectural, and urban planning space. Let’s call this the ‘before’ screenshot:

amazon aws home

Screenshot: Amazon AWS before.

My heart aches with compassion for whichever member of your team was tasked with creating these illustrations. All those curves. All those anchor points. All those handles. Hours of painstaking labor staring into a lighted screen.

This visual language I tried to educate out of my university students, by teaching them to pay closer attention to the subject-object problem for art and psychology, positive-negative space in design, or form-counterform in typography. It looks like somebody worked really hard to make line drawings of various computer parts. But powerful and persuasive visual language uses metaphor, not literal objects. And is Amazon’s cloud service in the business of selling computer systems, or, as we discussed, communications between and among human beings?

Here, a closer look at the site’s brand and naming convention, including the URL, has your external audience wondering if your cloud services are even a subsidiary of the online everything-under-the-sun behemoth, or do you mean to dissociate from the parent brand? Or is there some wavering of decision about the direction Amazon would like to go?

amazon aws logo

Screenshot: Amazon AWS logo.

Where is the cheery smile leading from A to Z? The acronym AWS may communicate internally, but obscures services to an external audience. No portion of this name and logo looks prepared to reduce to the scale of a favicon and still communicate your core identity. Maybe, as with Fresh local delivery of food products, thus more true to the umbrella brand, consider a renaming? How do you feel about Rain? All sorts of visual possibilities there between cloud services and seeing the forest for the trees. But of course I’d like to hear more about your business objectives before making further suggestions.

Scrolling down the same page, a second visual iconography emerges, where the subject/object problems become pudgier, yet still without metaphorically communicating or visually enticing the viewer to learn more about the product or service offered:

amazon aws scroll down

Screenshot: Amazon AWS before, scroll down.

Your iconography reminds me of one of my first semester design students, who arrived boasting of his software skills, thus I wasn’t going to teach him anything about design. But of course design literacy has nothing to do with software; software simply provides the tools used in any professional field today. With this form/counterform assignment, he created a mark for a landscape architecture firm, first drawing illustrations similar to those at AWS, and was busily adding more confusion or three dimensions in SketchUp as I made my rounds of the studio. We had a nice conversation about metaphor and paring down to the essentials to communicate his intended product and services. In class, he continued to socialize with his peers and fiddle with SketchUp for the next few weeks of the assignment, so I felt very proud of him when he showed up to final crit looking as bleary-eyed as I remembered from my college days. What I still love about this mark from my teaching or art direction portfolio is the image continues to visually communicate with audiences far removed from the field of architecture:

form counterform mark

Designer: Chance Munns, student work

Notice the almost-perfect yin/yang balance between positive and negative space? How the rounded curves of 20th century design technology echo the serifs of his carefully selected typeface? Each of your icons for your products or services should have this level of attention to detail.

The AWS line drawings also remind me of my “before” struggle to get to a visual identity and structure for my healthy communications model, Unplay:

In my design process, I wrestled with that similar urge to get the iconography of objects just “right” to communicate each of the products your service offers, so I am wondering if your illustrator might be working from a similar toolbox of inherited communications baggage? Would you like my help unpacking those bags with your team?

Still a third, sexier visual language, but inconsistent across your brand, emerges for your upcoming conference in Vegas:

amazon aws conference

Screenshot: AWS 2015 conference page.

So in meatspace we’ve replaced wandery bookshops with high-speed geek conventions to the town of my coming-of-age years? Is it okay if I bring along my knitting needles, maybe a book?

Continuing with my analysis of Amazon’s visual communications in physical space, since light bulbs have long been iconic for visually communicating “bright idea,” they are not innovative icons for visually communicating the concept of “innovation.” Awhile back, there was even a movement afoot to do away with incandescent bulbs altogether. What will “innovation” look like eighty years from now? We have not envisioned that yet:

light bulb innovation

Bezos Center for Innovation (edited).

If you want to turn that light bulb into art, maybe follow the example set by Paul Allen’s purchase of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s visual pun on 20th century technology, and adhere to the design grammar of scale:

typewriter eraser

Typewriter Eraser, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, 1999, Stainless steel and fiberglass painted with acrylic urethane; Space Needle in background.

In Paula Scher’s design lingo, that’s make it bigger.

But if you want to visually communicate “innovation,” the light bulb parked at the history museum says: don’t look to Amazon.

Maybe this is art in Seattle:

amazon window trash

Amazon window trash.

To me, this visual communication does not transcend trash:

window trash detail

Amazon window trash, detail.

The other side of the building looks like a poster shop at a low-rent mall:

window posters

Amazon window poster shop.

And since when did kitsch become art?

window kitsch

Amazon window kitsch

Regardless if you apply the label “art” or “design,” why is Amazon wrapping its global headquarters with data that does not visually communicate nearly as effectively as the Azzedine Alaïa windows at the downtown Nordstrom? Is it because we have neglected to teach a generation or two of screen media consumers how to make things with their hands? Or is it because a budget of $500 for rebranding, product design, and window installation for up to four months does not come close to federal minimum wage?

If Amazon genuinely wants to support artist labor and not just the salaries of arts administrators, to your team I add the only artist in the room participating in the collaborative breakout session at Seattle’s 2010 Designers Accord. Business writer Daniel Pink is only too happy to explain to your marketing folks why my contribution is important to the health and wealth of nations. Or corporations. (First rip off the die-cut jacket if you must read the print version. Flinching while I wondered why a design mentor whose aesthetic I deeply respect recommended a badly designed book paradoxically heralding the wonders of design, I nevertheless found some kernels of wisdom buried between the lines of the textblock that looks like it was designed using Excel and Publisher.) When most of the meeting attendees hastily averted their eyes or peered around the room, either reluctant to be vulnerable by speaking first, or unable to describe healthy communication in their workplaces, I provided a ready example, from my teaching experiences, what collaboration looks like in practice. Wrapping up the session, a Boeing engineer wondered aloud, “But what happens when management says ‘collaboration,’ and then we all go back to working in our individual cubicles?”

While an Idaho judge’s mind was a little too muddled to comprehend the value of healthy communication in real-world, business dollars, as you can see from my links to subsequent news reports, what happened next was Boeing went into $12 billion in cost overruns on their 787 Dreamliner. Top-down, dictatorial management soon cost the state of Washington educated engineering professional jobs. And the last time I checked, there is still that little issue of the costliest search so far in world history for one of their missing planes. That’s not “delusion.” That’s history. And one of the ways my thin thread weaves into its rich tapestry. Because all communications are visual, particularly in this era ripe with our 24/7/365 sexy 21st century technology, visual communications connect directly to business budgets.

Approached by a young Amazonian in the same coffee shop where we met, lured by my handwriting in the same hard copy journal I lugged to our appointment, after I asked why, he commented, “Because I don’t remember the last time I saw handwriting.”

Uh-oh.

Starting each workday with some analogue drawing/writing time will build a healthier, happier, more holistic workplace, time wisely invested before focusing your team’s energies to screen media. Yes, even the business folks. Maybe especially the business and marketing folks. Because the mind needs wandering time as much as the body is nourished by wandering walks. Soon you won’t need a dedicated Visual Designer. I’ll have to look for another job. Maybe transition to the UX position, because by then you’ll have taught me more about 21st century technology, which is what I want to learn anyway?

That’s it. That’s all that Amazon gets for free from me. As your Visual Designer, I would of course conduct a much more thorough analysis of your current web presence, the services visually communicated by your competitors, identify the needs of your current and intended market, and listen to the input from your internal teams. If you want still more constructive criticism, from a recovering liberal to a recovered conservative, may we meet somewhere in the middle to further discuss that salary?

As we discussed, I first cut my teeth on HTML while simultaneously learning to set cold type, designing sites and maintaining databases to assist the research scientists affiliated with the globally renowned program in human genetics at the University of Utah, including a site designed for a nationally attended research conference, yet both my Dell and my Mac laptops did not outlast my post-Great Recession-era job-seeking. While I have not personally built my own computer from scratch, my multiplatform skills and trouble-shooting patience were praised by the tech support of an entrepreneur on the other side of the country with that experience, who nevertheless needed my help to track virtual business shutdown due to two lines of code leading to her C:\ and D:\ local drives with paths inconsistent with the file organization on her remote server, thus resulting in no search results and 500 errors; in my analysis, the least of that business owner’s communication problems.

Maybe we could compare our adventures from Blackfoot to Blackfoot? Talk some more about Alan Cooper’s personas versus my deep design research working with many personalities in an environment he only uses as metaphor? I welcome your constructive criticism on either my digital work or that hand-bound portfolio too “dangerous” for a court of law. My analogue design book had been previously not at all frightening but useful as a substitute mousepad when I interviewed with a Seattle design firm and their infrared couldn’t interact with the swanky glass top of their conference table while we reviewed my web build that required me to troubleshoot Adobe’s JavaScripts to get my XML interacting properly. Listening to their feedback to include in my portfolio work relevant to global brands, I thought I would go one better and analyze the brands profiting from education policy that separates STEMs from blooms and coincided with the doubling of adolescent suicide during the same decade.

Unlike you, I didn’t have the two college friends who recognized the value of my art degrees to the field of technology. I ran out of mentors before I finished grad school. Further reading for your marketing folks, business writer Malcolm Gladwell thoroughly researches the importance of those connections to our society’s definitions of failure and success, using Seattle’s own Bill Gates as one anecdotal example. I prefer the Paul Sahre-designed boxed set. To me, Brian Rea’s illustrations add so much more to my enjoyment of the written content. But what’s your opinion?

Why Amazon?

Because you were responsive, and what respect means to me is hearing and being heard. What I’d like to learn from you is how you maintained such healthy listening skills while not just surviving but also thriving in the notoriously sarcastic corporate culture at Microsoft? I could be wrong, but I suspect something to do with your degree in English, much as Steve Jobs credits the invention of the graphical interface to just one calligraphy course and education technology entrepreneur Salman Khan his genius to public school and oil painting.

Before meeting with you, I was beginning to wonder if I would be able to regain an interest in first world problems, but now I feel confident that my experiences of being so far marginalized by society will actually strengthen your team, able to peer in and approach any problem as something of an anthropologist of my own culture, identifying problems others might miss before envisioning innovative solutions. Would you mentor me back into the world of business at the intersection of design and technology?

With warm regards,

Jana Brubaker

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4 thoughts on “Why Amazon?

    1. journal6other Post author

      While you’re rendering unto Caesar, maybe notice that my visual analysis preceded the NY Times exposé on workplace abuses at Amazon by some several weeks?

      Even more subtle-like, notice how Mr. Bezos’s response follows the first 15 sec of my communication model, Unplay?

      And when you’re ready to set aside the protective, but emotionally immature, device of sarcasm, in the final 15 sec, you too can learn how to practice healthy communications, the lack of which cost Boeing in excess of some $92bn and change since 2010, and still counting.

      Thanks for your scribbling in the margins.

      Reply
  1. Pingback: Resetting Your Moral Compass | journal6other

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