Ryan Gantz (he/him) is a principal designer on the audience team, based in Portland, Oregon. This interview was taken on August 29, 2019 in Denver Colorado at our annual team hackathon (VAX).
Courtney: How long you’ve been with Vox Media?
Ryan: I joined 12 years ago, as of this month, when the old school product team started.
Courtney: Wow, that’s such a long time! The company has changed a lot since then—how has your role changed?
Ryan: It’s changed in a whole bunch of ways. I used to be a generalist and I got to work on all kinds of things. There were sort of no titles or clear roles at that time. Over the years I moved into management, then moved back into an individual contributor role. I jumped across a whole bunch of teams. I’ve worked on so many things that we’ve launched over the years and most of it tended to be adjacent to Chorus itself. It’s been interesting to be able to work on the same thing and the same screens for so long. Now, I think of myself as a product designer. I work on user experience stuff and sometimes front-end CSS work as we polish different things.
Courtney: Tell me about your top two favorite Vox Media projects or moments?
Ryan: I would say the launch of The Verge, which was the first non-sports thing we did and this was a long time ago. A lot of that was really satisfying because it was actually building something new and it was a really close editorial collaboration. We were just fired up and pushed ourselves. Another favorite project, which was different in execution, would be the launch of Vox.com. It happened very, very fast and was like, a whole bunch of people colocated to do something in about nine weeks.
Courtney: It’s been a minute, but where were you before Vox Media and what made you want to be a designer in the media space?
Ryan: Part of what led me here was that for a couple of years before I started, I was working on a number of political campaigns, grassroots blogs and organizations—that’s actually how I met Trei Brundrett and some other folks. A lot of the work I was doing back then was basically in the wake of the Howard Dean campaign. Internet was kind of this new Wild West for politics, nonprofits, and building communities around ideas. Many of the tools that we built back then that were empowering people to feel connected ended up being the same model that served SB Nation. It was a chance to work on some of those same themes, but in a full-time way after having worked on all these progressive sites.
Courtney: Right on. What’s been your favorite part about working at Vox Media?
Ryan: There are two answers to that — one is that I feel good about all the different kinds of content that we publish, which is not actually my wheelhouse exactly, but it just feels like the mission and the quality of work we do is good, so it’s nice to support that. Then, all the people are just great. It’s really nice to work with fun, thoughtful, creative people who are smarter than me. It’s just a good thing to be able to do everyday.
Courtney: You mentioned earlier how your role has changed. You’ve switched teams. You went into management. Went back to an IC role. Can you tell me a little bit about what those experiences were like and how you made those decision with the support of your coworkers and leadership?
Ryan: Part of being in a company for a really long time that started as a small startup is that every 18 months or something, it’s a different company, right? The mission has been the same but it evolves, and the objective is the short term. Like, here’s what we’re trying to do and why —or even new lines of business. For a long time I feel like my role would just shift based on what was needed at the time. I have a general set of skills. There was a period of time where I was doing a lot of documentation, and periods of time where I was doing a lot of front-end work or branding work. Looking back, there’s a lesson which is that I don’t think I was intentional enough about what I wanted to focus on, or being clear about responsibilities for huge periods of time. If you’re at VAX working on a project, you jump in like “how can I help” and you fit in however you can. It’s so easy to do that, and in some ways, in the early days of the company, I thought about my work in the way of “how do I fit in today? What’s the right way to contribute?” A lot of that is actually a reactive mode. It’s not an intentional, “how do I fit in well? Where do I want to go? What should and shouldn’t be on my plate?” I think part of what even burned me out for a period was trying to do too many things and too shallow a way, and that may be more about my personality and the way my brain works.
Part of what I try to do now when I talk to other folks is suggesting that you have to say no to things and you have to be really active about what you want to say yes to. And you have to have a reason for it; if you’re going to manage people and focus on them, are you going to do all these other things?
Courtney: That really goes to show how intentional the design organization has become in the last few years and how everyone, including yourself, is really holding each other accountable to advocate for smart decisions. That kind of support and insight is really important, especially for the new folks joining the team.
Switching gears a bit, what are you going to be working on after VAX is over?
Ryan: We’re launching a couple of small SB Nation sites. I’ve been on the Audience team, so we’re doing a whole bunch of things simultaneously. I’m going to resume fixing bugs and working on the design system that powers Harmony. We’re trying to improve that as we launch new customers on Chorus, and I’m hoping I’ll also get to participate in rearchitecting that entire system. This metaphor we always throw around where you’re like, working on a rocket ship while you’re flying it. We’re doing that but we’re also designing the next version of the rocket ship to displace this one, so there’s a lot of moving parts. I expect I’ll be in Figma dragging some things around.
Courtney: What is your life like outside of work? Hobbies, side projects, books, movies, podcasts you love, anything you want to promote?
Ryan: I have two kids, and that consumes a lot of time. I’ve become so busy with work and family over for the last few years that in some ways, my Instagram is my only creative outlet, which I kind of regret. I should probably set up some paint and canvas and paint again at some point in my life, but step one is taking a guitar out of the guitar case. Chasing kids in circles, making lunches and mowing the lawn, which keeps growing, consumes a fair amount of energy. I do a fair amount of running. I should probably pick another race to force myself to train for to get back in the habit. I do a lot of audiobooks and podcasts while running, and to distract myself from the fact that running is sort of hard.
Courtney: What podcasts and genres of audiobooks do you think help you run your best?
Ryan: For a while, there was this whole phase of my life where I was listening to all sorts of pop science books and post-Malcom Gladwell stuff, and I’m starting to burn out on that. I want just escapist fiction now, whether it’s science fiction or something good. It could be anything, but with some of the best books that I’ve been listening to, I end up running more because I can’t wait to find out what happens next. It’ll be the middle of the day and I want to go run to a chapter of a book. I like Reply All and I’ve been hooked on Switched on Pop for a little bit. I’ve listened to about half the episodes of Today, Explained and it’s one of my primary news sources now.
Courtney: Going back to your kids and spending time with them, what is the best lunch that you’ve packed for them?
Ryan: Shockingly, my six-year-old Twyla has become impressively passionate about tuna fish sandwiches. I did not see this coming. I do, per her request, cut off the crusts which could be a metaphor for the modern snowplow parenting in which parents, like, remove too many obstacles from their children and they get to college and they have no skills. So apparently I’m trying to start that early by removing any single thing that my daughter doesn’t like. That’s probably going to backfire at some point. Life is so busy that we end up with a lot of packaged snacks, so the best launches are probably the ones where there’s some fruit in there, but there’s a whole bunch of things for my kids to unwrap and eat, and they’re very excited about, it and I feel slightly ashamed about it.
Courtney: But that’s kind of nice too because it’s like a holidays situation where you get to open gifts…
Ryan: Yea, like over the course of the day, they get a bunch of presents to open. My kids should do a daily YouTube video or live stream while unboxing their own lunches. That’s how they’re going to make us millions. This is a reminder that I probably need to up my lunch game.
Courtney: What’s an ideal lunch if you had an unlimited amount of time and no distractions?
Ryan: I follow a friend on Instagram who has an account called Let’s Bento, and she assembles really beautiful little Bento box lunches for her kids. It’s sort of like a UX challenge — you have a bunch of requirements which includes not feeding your kids trash, it has to be a balanced meal that they’re excited to eat, and that doesn’t result in them just giving a bunch of stuff to friends. It’s just hard to do that and also have a bunch of variety. I should blog about this.
Courtney: This has a lot of parallels to our work. Balancing project partner and user wants and needs.
Ryan: Yeah, you have business needs, you need to have a nutritious lunch, but you also want to appeal to the user, but you can’t just give them fluff. I don’t user test, though — I just put whatever I want in the lunch and they just have to eat it.
Courtney: A header carousel could be an example of fluff.
Ryan: Right, it’s where one of the older kids just declared that they wanted that, but it’s not good for them, and now their teeth are falling out.
Courtney: Switching gears again here: our PDT organization is remote-forward. Imagine you could set up your office anywhere in the world and bring anyone with you. There are no time constraints and it could even be a different time or era—you could take your kids to Jurassic Park and work from a brontosaurus or something. Where would you go?
Ryan: I can imagine working in a fairly large glass cube somewhere really beautiful, but also they deliver food there. I imagine having an office that had enough screens, standup desks, some couches, some bean bags, and a lot of white boards, or you write on the glass. But then the whole thing was just plopped down and then outside the glass is I don’t know — Iceland, or a forest to walk through.
I could talk about “remote-forward” work and some of the invisible challenges of it for a while, but I have discovered that I actually need to pace around to think well, and being able to go out into something that’s beautiful or interesting is better for my brain. I do better work when I have collaborators, so maybe that office is shared-ish sometimes, with two people, because sometimes I need to externally process and talk through things.
Courtney: Maybe there’s some way to create an online room where people can just pop in and out when they need to talk through things.
Ryan: This keeps coming up. I don’t travel as often for work now, it’s only a couple times a year where I end up sharing space like this with everyone, and I’m reminded really quickly that the ability to pace around, bump into someone and start talking to them is really valuable, the serendipity of it. It’s valuable for me to get distracted by something intellectually stimulating for a minute, and then come back to the project that I was focused on. And it tends to help. It’s hard to create those conditions when you’re solo in a home office and trying to accomplish that through Slack channels. It ends up being too much.
Courtney: I can relate! So, If we were to do a second interview later on and dive into one subject of your choosing, work related or not, what would you want to talk about?
Ryan: The unseen collaboration costs of teams being so remote. We’ve ended up with many (valuable!) remote-first process workarounds that do have some drawbacks when it comes to certain phases, and work like creative thinking and divergence. I think we’ve worked around that need, but don’t really see the cost of it. There’s a lot there regarding collaboration, people, and what it’s like to work in a place like this over 12 years that I could give a terrible TED talk about.
Thanks to Anna Graves for transcribing the interview and for Laura Holder for her edits.