Chase Reeves: Design is About Service, Not Pixels

I’m a big fan of Chase Reeves’ work. He is single-handedly changing how blogs work, look and feel. Everything Chase does stems from his desire to serve. In this interview, I had the pleasure of learning more about the man behind the design, his struggles, his work and why he thinks design is about service. Oh, and he’s from Internet. Enjoy.

Chase Reeves Headshot

Stop being so anxious and just start making things. {tweet this}

 

Chase thanks so much for joining us at The Grand Life. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about the work that you do?

Yeah, absolutely. I started off by designing. I just liked to make things so I got into the design stuff. I didn’t take any classes or courses or anything like that, I just started going at it and then that turned into: “I can design these things; I should try making it too.” So I got into coding, just because I loved the Internet. I loved that you could just throw up a web site and: “Hey, I have a web site now!” Immediately the world can see it, rather than just drawing a picture and showing it to my ten friends.

Most recently, I was working in the startup world as a marketing director, kind of business development…but no one really knows what that means. Marketing, talking, speaking, thinking, writing about: “Here’s this product, what does it do?” Design sort of got me into that. Because I am designing these sites where I have to make sure that my headline is good, not in terms of a conversion thing, but just in terms of: “Well that sounds kind of lame, or that’s cheesy.” You spend enough time doing that, you start to get a little better at it.

Then I guess that I went more into client work where I was designing sites for Think Traffic and Jonathan Mead of Paid To Exist and then Corbett [Barr] and I decided to partner up together to make Fizzle, which is our latest venture where we’re helping the budding entrepreneur get out of anxiety mode and into what I think is just a better way of being. So, helping them figure out all those things that they need to learn in a way that is not about all the anxiety and stress. It’s about: you’ve got all the good stuff so stop being so anxious and just start making things.

I consider myself more of an entrepreneur designer. I want to be invested in something, instead of making a bunch of sites.

Where are you from?

I am originally from the Bay Area, California. East bay, sort of in the suburbs, nothing sexy.

And you live in Portland right now, right?

I live in Portland now, yeah. Here, where we ride our unicycles to work in our utility kilts.

Portland is a cool ass city, I love it. Ok, so you talked a bit about how you got your start as a designer; you talked about it more on a grand scale. But what motivated you to say: “Ok, this is the work that I want to do?”

Really it started with just messing around with design. I say design now, because I know what it’s called; I didn’t know what it was called then. I was just trying to make a funny image that I could put on my college dorm shirt.

Every year we would make a shirt for our dorm and I was always the guy that had the funny idea. Like a really crudely sketched dog that was barking out of it’s butt and farting out of it’s mouth. So that was in college and earlier than that I was way into music and we would make a bunch of band posters and stuff like that for when we were playing shows. I was never trained in it. I never thought about it as a career at all, I never thought about it as a business.

I like designing, because to me it’s not just about the pretty pictures and the colors. You are designing a business, which is an interaction between at least one or two people, an exchange of value. It’s human, it’s cavemen, like: “I have this fish, give me your club and I will give you my fish.” Yes! This is human, this is relational. I am still very much like: “What I am going to be when I grow up and how did I get here?” and I don’t know. I am just, kind of, one foot in front of the other.

I like designing, because to me it’s not just about the pretty pictures and the colors. You are designing a business.

Chase Reeves at Desk

Do you call yourself a designer? Because I have interviewed several people who I would call artists but they don’t call themselves artists. Do you call yourself a designer or is there something else that you like to think of yourself as?

That’s a really good question, thank you for being sensitive enough to know. I think in recent time I am calling myself a designer more and more. But when I say design I don’t mean the colors and the pixels, I mean: I can’t design a site for you that’s good if your business idea sucks. Likewise, if your business idea is good I can’t design a sucky site for you. Because no matter what, even if it’s the worst looking, the most horrific thing, if the entrepreneur is in it, invested, has dug his heels in it, like: “This is the person I am going after; I am serving them. I want them to defeat the dragons that they have to defeat and I am going to give them the tools to do it,” that can’t fail.

I had to stop working with a client recently who I just wasn’t a good enough designer [for] because that person needed me to design something that they saw very clearly and I can only make what I see. I’m trying to be a good designer, but I don’t know how to do that.

I think I am getting more comfortable calling myself a designer, but it’s not that I’m good at designing things; it’s that I think in a design kind of way. Why are we doing that? Why is that there? You just see things and notice them. It’s ruining my life.

There’s much better designers than me, who do this stuff, who work, who take an idea and they work it around and then someone comes back with feedback and then they continue. That is an honest-to-God craft, labor of love, service that’s valuable. And I am just not good at it. I have to be in “it either works or doesn’t” mode for some reason. When it does [it] works really, really well, but when it doesn’t it feels horrible.

So I think I am getting more comfortable calling myself a designer but it’s not that I’m good at designing things, it’s that I think in a design kind of way. Which means: “Why are we doing that?” Why is that there? Why is that that color? There’s a space between those two things, have we thought about how much space there is? You just see things and notice them and, to my wife’s disdain, now I can see my house and the Ikea couch that we got four years ago. Hell, that’s not even–that’s not even good at being a couch! It’s ruining my life.

Chase Reeves Logos

Thank you for sharing that. We often hear all the nice shiny stuff, but thank you for just being open enough to say that. So I have checked out several of your sites. Now on Ice to the Brim you write, and I quote: “I collect and develop thoughts on things that matter to men who work.” And your company is also called Matterful. Where does this motivation to do work that matters come from and then, secondly, what does that mean to you?

I think it’s a piece of our generation. Our grandparents were just screwing caps on bottles, working in the factory. This is what you do, you do work for the man. “Why would you change?” That’s a kind of meaning, they’re magnetically attracted to that sort of life because everybody had it and it was a new thing compared to what they had before, which was the chaos and uncertainty of The Depression and all the other stuff that was going on. So screwing caps on bottles sounds like a great idea.

Then our parents, which were the baby boomers who wanted a little more chaos. We had the 60‘s because they were rebelling against the caps on bottles thing. But I want a framework. I don’t want to screw caps on bottles, but I still want a framework that’s a little safer than the chaos. I am looking for a better framework and so that’s what the meaning thing is for me.

It started young for me with the Jesus stuff. My family wasn’t Christian or anything like that but I was attracted to it…probably because I was in high school and you could go hang out with your friends on a Wednesday night or you can stay at home with my parents; I am like: “I am going to go with them!” That just started clueing me in to: “Ok, what is it for?” “Why are we here for? Why are we doing this?”

Most people don’t think about their website in terms of service at all. If you think about: “I am picking a person to serve, to help them defeat their own dragons that they have to go defeat.” That is a far cry from: “I can make a website. I want to make money doing it. How can I do that?”

I am grateful for that. Jesus and I are sort of seeing other people now, but still that meaningfulness, that  matterful thing, I hunger for it. Either it matters that I am in a marriage with my wife and that we have 3 year old son–either that love counts–or it doesn’t. And I have to live in the world where that counts. If that counts, then what I do with 70 or 80 percent of my time…my craft, my work, my thing that I do…I want that to count too. I want that to be for something. I don’t need a black and white kind of definitive answer, but I do need a direction. So for me that’s what Matterful is about.

Most people don’t think about their website in terms of service at all. If you think about: “I am picking a person to serve, to help them defeat their own dragons that they have to go defeat.” That is a far cry from: “I can make a website. I want to make money doing it. How can I do that?”

On Ice to the Brimm, the reason I say men there is that I really care about the plight of…

Hold on there. That’s my next question, so you’re taking me to it. You are very focused on men. You write a lot of information geared towards men. You have your site Father Apprentice which you say is “to help new and used dads make the most out of the fatherhood.” I don’t want to get too personal but where does that come from, why is it so important for you to do work that helps men?

Because it has been such a struggle to be a man for me. The poignancy of being a new dad is so hard. Your whole life is a selfish prick and then you wake up one morning and you didn’t sleep at all because you have this kid that needs you to live. But you don’t breastfeed, so he doesn’t actually need you. But I’m a good man and I am going to stick it out and do the thing. It’s just a super huge challenge and it was a tough transition, but it’s good and I’m glad I went through it.

On the front page of Father Apprentice is this big, ugly anvil. Just a massive, ugly, anvil. The reason that’s there is because fatherhood is the anvil. You don’t get to shape your son on the anvil, you get shaped on the anvil. And someone else is using your kid as a hammer to work you in some sort of shape that is usable for the world. So the men thing, that’s particular to dads but also even just to being a regular guy.

 

Chase Reeves Father Apprentice Anvil

 

That plight of the modern man, that story, that’s been my story and I want to do it well. And naturally, when I understand things about it I want to share them. Also because, I’m sorry, I can’t help women. I don’t know how to help women. Not that you have it easier but just…I have no answers for you and I know that I have some answers for men.

When I say design I don’t mean the colors and the pixels. I mean: I can’t design a site for you that’s good if your business idea sucks. {tweet this}

Well said, well said. Lets switch gears and talk about your work, specifically sites that you have done. I first discovered your work by visiting Jonathan Mead’s Paid To Exist site and I just fell in love with the new design. You did a great job with that. And then I found Corbett Barr’s new site design that you did [for] Think Traffic. So can you share a little bit about your design philosophy? I know you talked a bit about it, but just more specifically.

My design philosophy is really what I said previously, which is if your idea is good, it’s really hard for me to make you a shitty site. Not because I am an excellent designer, just because I have made myself sensitive to what that idea is.

I haven’t always been like that, I used to just work for people, designing this thing, or whatever. I am not good at designing sites, I am good at designing things. I am good at designing Paid To Exist. I am not a good designer, I am good at making Fizzle. That’s a very specific audience with very specific dragons to slay, that I’ve made myself very aware of and very in tune with and that feels like I’m on that same journey. So that’s how I am able to make a site that resonates with them.

chase reeves whiteboard

It’s not resonating with my dad. When my dad sees my sites he’s like: “They all look the same. Why don’t you make things different looking? They all look the same.” And I am like: “That’s awesome, great feedback dad.” That’s not a big concern for me. My concern is: “Who are the people that are landing on Think Traffic and how do I best serve them?”

Corbett came to me and said “Lets redesign the site.” And I was like: “Ok.” I spent, 4 or 5 days just reading comments, just going through almost all of them. There were thousands and thousands of comments and after a little while I started to just be invested. You see people. For example, a year ago this woman was saying one thing and then two months later she’s like: “I think it’s going a little bit better now. Thanks so much, Corbett!”

You see the impact that these blog posts are having. It came to a head with a guy called Steve. On one post where Corbett asked: “What’s one thing that you are struggling with right now as an entrepreneur?” Steve was one of hundreds of comments and he said: “You know, I have got twenty thousand people coming to my site every month. I’ve got traffic, which is cool. I just have no idea how to monetize this. I don’t know how to make a dollar back on this thing.” He was saying the right things, “I like these people. I like what I am doing here, I just don’t know how to actually get a buck. I have a kid. I have a family. I need to make this work.”

And so I found that about a year after Steve had written it. I read it and immediately I was like: “This is an awesome story.” And I went looking for Steve and he was gone. He pulled his site. I’m sure he has lots of great reasons for why he stopped. You know? And it was a probably a good thing for him, but to me there is a very poignant story.

This was a person with a dragon to overcome, with some demon to defeat; Think Traffic was putting a sword in his hand and we needed to do a better job at it. That’s why I said: “I am good at designing Think Traffic.” Because I own it. I become it; it becomes a part of me. Same thing with Jonathan Mead at Paid To Exist where you do the same sort of investing in the story. I consider myself more of an entrepreneur designer. I want to be invested in something, instead of making a bunch of sites.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of designing, let’s say Think Traffic? I’m really keyed in on what you just said about Steve’s story. How does the way you approach the design serve someone like Steve, who’s at that critical point?  Those two questions may not go together, but you get what I’m asking.

A little bit a process and a little bit about how that process would meet…

Meet the needs, right.

So first of all, like I said I start with the comments. I just read through. Normally I am redesigning a site that is successful already, or at least it has those comments. If you have those comments you can do the research of learning who the person is.

Reading through all those comments on Think Traffic I realized: these people are brave. That’s what had me. They are putting their ass on the line, they are trying stuff, they are going for it.

So you start with the comments and then you, kind of, look…? 

…to form the person and what dragons they have to slay and then what that does is help me to understand the darkness and the light. Where are they now and where [do] they want to be? What are the demons that they have to defeat? What will it be like when they are defeated? That kind of contrast, the darkness and the light, really understanding how to communicate. Getting that down so that I can put together a good headline or a good theme, kind of tone of voice for this site because most of my sites are very text driven, they are all text…

Yeah, I noticed that.

But when you land on it, it’s a sense of trust, it’s a sense of interest, it’s a sense of: “This isn’t just thrown together.” So it’s all finely tuned details. When I am at a site that’s good at selling to me it will say something to me that I didn’t really know how to say but once I read it I am like…

So, your job is to articulate what that person coming to the site might think and feel and know, but they don’t know how to say it?

Exactly. And there just a lot of work that goes into that. I can show you how I do it in terms of process. I just did this recently for a presentation that I gave, I like, so here’s my [shows notebook]. These are the sketches. I was trying to like sit and visualize: “What do these people look like, who’s going to be the audience?” and all these up here are questions like: “What do they already know about what I am talking about?” What’s awesome about them?

Reading through all those comments on Think Traffic I realized: these people are brave. That’s what had me. “Dude they are brave.” They are putting their ass on the line, they are trying stuff, they are going for it.

So now with Fizzle that’s something I know about my audience, they are brave. Whether or not they are going to be successful–because part of them aren’t going to be–but there’s that 10% percent in there who are going to go on to do big things and that’s who I am serving. Regardless, all 100% of them, even for just being the audience at Think Traffic or Fizzle, they are brave. They are having these thoughts. They are thinking: “I might be able to take my life into my own hands completely.” And that might be the right thing or it might not be the right thing for them, but the fact that they are thinking about it means they have this braveness to them. Just thinking through and then asking: “What’s likable about them, what do they already know? What’s the dragon they have to defeat and what tools can you give them to do that?” That brings it all down to this primal black and whiteness.

I am not good at designing sites, I am good at designing things. I am good at designing Paid To Exist. I am not a good designer, I am good at making Fizzle.

We always hear about the successes of designers and creative professionals, can you tell us, you know, one or two things that were challenges for you and how you overcame them?

It’s been a constant search for a really good idea. I have been doing sites–my own sites–for a long time. A long time ago I had Write to Mean (Chase’s first website). The gist of it was I was going to write things about my life so that I could understand them a little better and, maybe, actually invest in what I am living a little bit more. Make sense of the past, do the work on writing of it so that would help me live in the present a little better.

That turned into Father Apprentice, because of my posts I started writing about fatherhood were just getting tons of people commenting. But I wanted to be doing stuff, to be making and writing things but I didn’t have that idea yet, and I knew it at the time. Actually I didn’t know it. Looking back I can just see that there was this energy, this, almost mania towards “I want to make things.”

So you have talked about Fizzle, what else are you working on right now?

It’s all Fizzle, that’s 100% of my time right now. I did do a speaking engagement this last weekend and I would like to do a lot more speaking. It’s all based on the idea of service and defeating the dragon instead of: “How do I get dollars from their wallet into my wallet.”

Freedom is being really good at enjoying myself.

Last question, what is freedom to Chase Reeves? 

Freedom is being really good at enjoying myself. Enjoying what I have to do. I have to do the dishes and I have to take out the garbage and I have to be with my family and I want to enjoy that. I want to enjoy that really well.

There’s a guy that I met, just randomly, his name is Bob Goff and he is just…I call him Peter Pan-ish. He’s insanely creative and thoughtful and he is always like [in child-like voice] “What do you want to do today? That kind of mentality has led him to lead the biggest law firm on the west coast and to be the US Consulate guy for Uganda. When ambassadors from African countries come to America they stay with him and he gives them a key to his house and…He is just like a four-year-old, like: “What do you want to do?” I’d like to be more like that. I think that’s what freedom would look like for me.

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12 Responses to “Chase Reeves: Design is About Service, Not Pixels”

  1. Lisa Jacobs November 28, 2012 at 14:43 #

    This is an excellent interview, Janelle. I absolutely loved this behind-the-scenes look at Chase’s career as I’m a huge fan of his design work.

    I had checked out his sites before, and I wondered why they were specifically angled toward men. Now I know! What a great story you’ve uncovered here :)

    • Janelle Allen November 28, 2012 at 16:06 #

      Thanks for reading, Lisa. It was great to learn more about Chase and why he does the work he does. Don’t let the jokes fool you–he’s quite a gentleman!

  2. Dee Copeland Patience December 1, 2012 at 21:33 #

    Great job on this! I love your style. Chase, Corbett and the crew are very inspiring.

    • Janelle Allen December 2, 2012 at 10:32 #

      Thanks for reading, Dee! Agreed, the C-crew are very inspiring.

  3. Kevin December 13, 2012 at 10:46 #

    I’m definitely a big fan of his work…I just love his style! I feel like that’s the type of designer I would like to strive for!

    • Janelle Allen December 16, 2012 at 13:42 #

      Agreed. Chase’s style is lovely. Thanks for stopping by, Kevin! Good luck in your design journey.

  4. linda esposito December 17, 2012 at 16:45 #

    Great interview and fabulous anxiety-related quote. Sometimes when I’m in a psychotherapy session with my clients, I want to say, “Just DO something–fucking anything–different. Because if you’re not willing to try and change, we’re wasting one another’s time (and your $)…” But I don’t say it like that…;).

    Chase is such a fun guy–I love his charisma and character, and of course, the manly designs. As a fellow Fizzler, I’m still trying to nail the ‘website as service’ philosophy…

    Thanks for the wonderful and fun interview Janelle.

  5. John Corcoran December 20, 2012 at 11:53 #

    Great interview, Janelle! I found this through Fizzle – nice work. Chase is a great guy. I hope to interview him later in the year so I will definitely re-read your interview before doing so.

    • Janelle Allen December 21, 2012 at 10:58 #

      Thanks, John. I had a great time interviewing Chase. Good luck with your interview. Let me know when it’s up!

  6. Chris Jacob (heard.fm) February 17, 2013 at 18:08 #

    Loved this interview Janelle! Chase is one fascinating dude. As always his photos speak a 1000 words. He makes me want to be a better dad… now THAT’s work that matters.

    • Janelle Allen February 24, 2013 at 10:07 #

      That’s beautiful, Chris. Thanks for popping in to TGL.

  7. Vesone March 13, 2013 at 17:40 #

    Great interview Janelle! Chase’s design aesthetic is incredible and he’s hilarious in his videos. This was a cool behind the scenes look at the guy who’s changing the design of the internet.

    Again great job with the interview.