A brief (and incomplete) history of a design meme.

There are many ways we could mark the official launch of our little business. There was the day our papers went through with the state, or the day we signed our first paying contract, or the day that Jenny, Walter, and I were all finally and officially employed by the company. But the date I like to use is Monday, November 20, 2006. That’s the day our website went up. And on that first day, the header on our site looked like this:

It was kind of odd, but we thought it was neat. The company was named for my grandparents’ mom and pop small business to evoke the small and personal nature of the business we wanted to create. What better way to symbolize that than through the vintage retail storefronts with the Fish Market lit up. We even had a little tweak on it as when it gets to be night in Seattle, it gets dark on our site as well.

(One weirdness was that the street lamps only made their appearance at night. During the day they were nowhere to be found. I attribute this to the little known early 20th century invention of retractable hydraulic street lamps. Very few remain today.)

I remember us discussing that when we shipped our first product we would have to open up a complementary storefront that represented our new creation. And how cool would it be when the street got full of colorful and bustling little shops, all representing web creations from our little company. And of course, clicking on the stores would take you to the respective site.

Several months later in the summer of 2007 we were about to ship our first product, They’re Beautiful! a virtual flower service. This lent itself well to our retail storefront theme. But before we put a flower shop on our street we thought it would be cool to tease everyone with some construction happening on the street to let folks know we were working on something. And while at the time there weren’t exactly a ton of people browsing our site, almost nobody even noticed. But we thought it was very cute.

And then on the day we shipped They’re Beautiful! the construction plywood came down and our lovely little flower shop opened for business.

All in all we were feeling very proud of all our cuteness and what we thought was originality. And it’s not that these ideas didn’t come from us, they did. We hadn’t seen anyone else do this, and we were pretty sure we were the first to do something like this. We weren’t. The folks at Cuban Council beat us to the punch.

Did we steal it from them? Of course not. Did we add our own innovation? Sure. Was it original? Who cares. This is how things go. When ideas are cool they seek out as many people as possible to execute on them. Neat ideas are promiscuous. We swallowed our pride and kept going.

Next we revisited our flower shop with some new bouquets. Sure enough a cool vintage purple flower delivery van pulled up in front of the store a couple of days before the new flowers arrived.

Then it was time to shipp our invitation service — Invitastic. This was harder as it wasn’t clear what retail presence a site like that should have on our street. We ultimately settled on a party. Instead of construction we had people setting up a party on the third floor of one of our buildings. If you looked closely you could even see someone setting up a disco ball. Almost nobody noticed this either.

To highlight the “partyness” happening in our header, when we finally launched, the party was in full swing, there was a banner hung from the roof, and people up on the roof sneaking out of the gathering to do who knows what. (Note: while I don’t think we considered it at the time, the Cuban Council guys also had folks – presumably themselves – up on their roof.) This one looks best at night.

It was in this version that we also introduced a billboard targeting some of our customers.

Our next app was going to be Carbon Grove, a carbon reduction e-mail reminder service. It was at this point that Jenny realized that she could no longer fight the monstrosity we’d created. The headers were created in photoshop at a relatively low resolution patchworking together tons of little pieces of vintage architecture and original art. They weren’t made quickly but they were definitely dirty. The headers really needed a complete redo, at high resolution, and in a photoshop file that was constructed properly.

What followed was several hours of trolling around vintage buildings in downtown Seattle with a camera and a week of really intense and boring work on Jenny’s plate. She was in a bad mood that whole week.

Some readers may at this point ask, with all this effort expended, did it ever occur to us that maybe we were spending a lot of time on something that really didn’t matter. After all, there are only three of us, and isn’t shipping new software and earning money the priority over chronic website header masturbation?

In short, no. It never occurred to us. And I doubt it ever will.

Once the header was reconstructed (for both day and night of course) we were ready to add the Carbon Grove city park to our little scene. Apologies to the historic landmarks that were razed to make room for this little urban patch of green.

That was in the Spring. This summer we shipped Elmore City Dance Club. The site lets you create your own dance diagrams and upload a matching video. The site is named after the town on which the movie Footloose is loosely based on. It felt like an underground, after hours, secret dance club was the way to go. And of course, neon looks better at night.

And this is what our header looks like today. Until you next see some new storefront open, or some subtle hint that some new tenant is coming to our little street. And who knows, at some point, when we run out of room, you may need to scroll the header horizontally to see all the action, or even interact with the people on the street.

It’s not that we don’t understand how design memes travel around in the ether. And we don’t think that anyone’s been copying our site or even inspired by it. That said, it’s hard not to take a breath when you see new sites popping up with such similar elements. I would imagine this is true for any creative folks who see an idea they connected with taking root in other places.

A few months ago State Farm put out a promotional site called Now What with this user interface.

And just the other day, Jenny found this little shot on the Bank of America site.

I guess it’s no surprise, that given people’s lack of faith in giant financial institutions these days that even a big bank would want to appear more “mom and pop”. I suspect it’s a motif we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the coming months and years.

While I think spending all this time on such a minor detail is part of what makes us who we are, I will admit to there being one critical downside. With all this work put into it, if we ever want to get rid of this concept from our site, I don’t know how easy it will be for me to part with it.

2 Responses to A brief (and incomplete) history of a design meme.

  1. Avital says:

    I love the little details you guys put in the banner :) Keep it going as long as you can!

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