Perspectives May 20, 2013

Tumblr & Human-scale Design

What do Charlie Brown & Tumblr have in Common?


*This article was originally posted to John Lilly’s Tumblr.



Lots of the chatter this morning is on the $1.1B headline, or the story of Marissa’s Yahoo, or Tumblr’s massive growth & relevance to youth, or New York’s continuing emergence on the world’s tech stage.

But I want to talk about something else that I find remarkable about Tumblr, even today, after about 2 years of working with the team there. What I find remarkable about the company is that it continues to design and build products that are human scale.

I’ll describe what I mean with an architecture analogy — most of the houses that we all live in are human scale. They’re built to fit the way we live. As you build bigger & bigger buildings, sometimes houses, sometimes public structures, they tend to focus more on “being architecture” or accommodating very large groups of people, or showing off. It’s the rare big public space that can relate to normal humans — they just outgrow us at some point.

That’s why we love the buildings that can relate — one of which, appropriately enough, is Grand Central Station in New York.

With digital interfaces, as you get big — and Tumblr, with it’s 105 million blogs and 300 million visitors each month is, decidedly, massive — you tend to lose your human scale, too. Interfaces get cluttered with new features & competing priorities — they tend to let the organization of the builders show through as opposed to the primacy of the user. Or they can become super precious, designed for hanging in a museum instead of daily use.

What I’ve loved about working with Tumblr is that they’ve kept this human scale in every aspect of the product. You can see it in the dashboard UI, you can see it in the creation tools, you can see it in the way they communicate with users, and most of all you can see it in their lineup of mobile products. It’s all just fundamentally more human in aspect than anything I’ve ever seen at this scale.

Here’s an example (of something they shipped today!) in their mobile interface:



The wonderful thing about that very small interaction (creating a new post) is that it matches the way your thumb moves across the screen, from bottom right to top left. It’s a tiny nuance that just fits right. There are hundreds of touches like this across everything that Tumblr makes.

It’s a testament not only to David, who’s a wonderfully smart & thoughtful designer & builder, but the whole team there, including folks I’ve been lucky to work with like Derek, Ari, Peter, Bryan, John & others. And also to Bijan Sabet from Spark Capital, who first convinced David to really go for it, and really grokked the product very early (like he’s done many times at this point!) — thanks for the introduction to the team, Bijan!

The picture above sort of sums it up for me — I took that picture in Tumblr’s elevator lobby when I was there for December’s board meeting. It was just so perfect, so understated, so elegant — so human.

For those who don’t know the reference, it’s from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)— Charlie Brown is sent out to get a Christmas tree, and this is what he brings back, despite the fact that the lot was full of bigger, shinier, nicer trees:

But Charlie & Linus took a chance on the smaller, more organic, more human tree. They got a lot of grief from their friends for not picking the shinier ones, naturally. But Linus put his blanket around the tree, and they all started taking care of it, decorating it, coaxing it into life.

And what they got at the end was this:



Clearly superior, in my view, and clearly human.

Congratulations to the whole team at Tumblr for the accomplishment, and for building such a massive global phenomenon, but in a way that’s so fundamentally human scale. That’s something to be awfully proud of. Looking forward to watching you humanize even more of our digital lives.

“It’s the rare big public space that can relate to normal humans — they just outgrow us at some point.”