Bitblogger: Northcoast Zeitgeist

You know sometimes when you visit a blog and its author’s (or in this cause, authors’ plural) personality gallops off the screen and sticks in your brain like a stubborn earworm? Such is the case with Northcoast Zeitgiest, a blog I’ve been following since 2010. Joseph & Casey have things to say dammit, and they waste no time unabashedly putting themselves out there. I applaud how Joseph manages to connect politics & design, a gusty & compelling angle, especially coming from the charged battleground state of Ohio where Casey & Joseph live. Joseph is responsible for answering these questions, and it’s no accident that he’s the first male design blogger to participate in this feature. I just knew interesting things would come of it and I wasn’t wrong…

What was the first blog that hooked you?
It depends. Several years ago, when I first started blogging, I ran a progressive political site, doing so from just before the 2004 election to just after the 2008 vote. In those days, I was inspired by sites like AMERICAblog, Feministe, Feministing, and Pandagon, whose authors are all united in their passion and ease in combining wit and intelligence.

The first design blog I clearly remember bookmarking was Aaron Draplin’s. Apart from his talent and perspective, I was instantly drawn to his willingness to use his portfolio site to talk about whatever he wants to. He doesn’t just show off his work and call it a day. There’s a real person behind it, one I had a great time meeting at WMC Fest this year. He’ll talk about music, his city and his after-hours life with as much gusto as he will his latest project.

We hear A LOT about big bloggers but not so much about the little guys. In your words, why are small bloggers important?
Specialization and personality. Think about it like retail. You’ve got big-box stores and you’ve got neighborhood shops. Both have their value but you go to each for different reasons. Typically, mom-and-pop stores offer things you may not see at their larger counterparts. There’s also the human touch you get at smaller stores that keeps you coming back. You know the owners. They know you. They become a part of your life.

Small bloggers offer the same potential. The best ones specialize in ways big-time bloggers may not have the time or ability to do. There’s also the potential for more interaction between reader and blogger. Because my audience is much smaller, I’ve got the time to think about and respond to just about every e-mail that comes my way. We might have a smaller readership, but I’ve found they’re really dedicated to the site and enjoy interacting with us as we share our work and our lives.

I think this interaction is key to keeping things interesting. As a bonus, I’ve found that the more you have a conversation with your readers, the more likely you’ll be to get content – and jobs – out of it. All of these attributes can be true for the big bloggers, I’m sure, but I think the design blog world thrives when there are more (and varied) voices. Plus, without smaller blogs, you wouldn’t see as much interesting stuff rise to the point it gets on the radar of bigger blogs. So, in that way, we depend on each other.

Blogging is a TON of work and rarely pays the rent. Your family think you’ve lost your mind … so what drives you to blog?
To know me is to know that I’ve always got something to say. Plus, I’m a bit of an extrovert – albeit a shy extrovert, if that’s possible. On top of that, there’s quite a bit I’m passionate about. The things we write about – design, photography, our town, etc. – are things we both care very deeply about. So, in my case, it’s hard for me to separate caring about things like this from writing about them and sharing them.

Plus, writing is something I’ve always loved. It’s actually what I went to school for (my undergrad and grad degrees are both in journalism). And though I’ve found my passion in design, writing is something I’ll always do. In fact, my most fertile and creative times as a writer have come when I was working during the day as a designer. The itch to create will always be there, whether it’s pushing me to design or write.

And though I’ve found my passion in design, writing is something I’ll always do…The itch to create will always be there, whether it’s pushing me to design or write.

Blogging means putting part of yourself into the world for others to see and react to. How comfortable are you with being “out there?”
It varies. When I was writing the political blog, I wasn’t very comfortable with putting myself out there at all. Now that I’m writing about design, however, that’s changed. Creative people are all very passionate about what they do, and I’m no different. I try to inject as much of myself and my personality into my design and my writing as possible. I love hearing from people about our work or something that’s been on the site. And I’ve enjoyed the chances I’ve had to meet some of our readers. I’m trying to be better about blogging more and more consistently, which is hard considering I do it when I’m not at my day job. And, as much as I love doing it, it will never take precedence for me over my private life, so I’ve gotten better about managing my bursts of inspiration and scheduling posts several days out.

Do you follow your stats? How are they useful to you?
I’ll glance at my stats from time to time when I’m in the content management system moderating comments or preparing to post stories. Honestly, though, they really don’t matter that much to me. I only really take notice when there’s a big spike if one of our stories gets picked up by a larger site, but I refuse to let the ups and downs of them govern what I write about. If you ever find my stories loaded with search engine-attracting keywords or other optimization trickery, you’ll know I’ve been kidnapped and replaced with a soulless SEO-Bot. Let’s hope it’s a benevolent SEO-Bot. Only time will tell.

…women have better taste and are better writers than men. It’s interesting, when I think through the creative people I know, most of the sites run by women are both portfolio- and blog-based, while most of those run by men are portfolio-based.

Why do you think there are more female design bloggers?
Probably because women have better taste and are better writers than men. It’s interesting, when I think through the creative people I know, most of the sites run by women are both portfolio- and blog-based, while most of those run by men are portfolio-based. I find the combo sites far more enjoyable. Sure, I want to know what you can do, but I’d also like to learn about the person doing it. Blogging is about building community, so it doesn’t surprise me that with more women getting together to start design collectives – think Quite Strong and Parliament of Owls – you’re seeing an explosion of female bloggers.

It’s something that should be nurtured and encouraged, because design has a reputation as being a male-dominated industry, even though that’s not at all the case in the trenches. So more women designer/bloggers! And more LGBTQ designer/bloggers! And more African American designer/bloggers! And on and on. Nothing worthwhile is strengthened by keeping people from being able to do it. The design and blogging communities will only get better as more people (especially those with diverse backgrounds and experiences) get into them.

Who, in your mind, cuts through the noise the best? What makes their content more memorable?
Anybody with a clear perspective or who consistently delves into the process behind his or her work. I really enjoy strawberryluna/Allison Glancey’s blog. Elaine Chernov’s new travel blog, Design Vagrant has really been a pleasure to read. Jessi Arrington’s Lucky So and So is a great example of putting yourself out there in a fun and memorable way. Austin Kleon’s site is a must-visit, too, if only to marvel at the creative fire he possesses (go Ohio!). On a somewhat more local front, I’ve always been a loyal reader of The Donut Project, a wonderful design blog started by a group of Kent State University alums I’ve gotten to know. All big talents that you’ll be hearing from soon (if you’re not already hearing from them).

Your guilty pleasure blog? Go.
Fuck You, Penguin is a site that Casey hipped me to and that I got into way too late – considering they don’t publish anymore. We’re both animal lovers, but we’d sit there and literally laugh out loud reading each other stories from that site. We’re all suckers for adorable animal pictures, right? Add to that devastating personal critiques and you’ve got internet magic.

That said, since it’s sitting dormant, I’ll cite two active Twitter accounts that are worth your time when you’re looking for a mental break: @FriendFromHS and @Channel11News. The journalist in me loves how close the Channel 11 tweets are to those of actual local news outlets, while the fictional friend from high school seems plucked right out of my graduating class.

Do you have a favorite source for awesome content?
I find quite a bit of inspiration for content from the people in my Twitter feed. I follow and interact with a lot of really creative people, so there’s always something bubbling up out of that. Elsewhere, I’m drawn to sites like Coudal Partners – whose amazing Fresh Signals sidebar I was lucky enough to guest edit last year – as well as Grain Edit, Brand New, and FPO. I do enjoy the popular image aggregator sites, but I’d much rather look through my Dribbble timeline, because I know where those images are coming from.

What’s the one thing about the blog world that’s got you stumped, the thing you’re dying to ask somebody but haven’t?
Would it kill people – I’m looking at you, Tumblrs – to provide credit for the images of people’s work you post? Would it kill those doing the creating, though (guilty as charged), to remember to put a little credit line on the images we post? To Art Chantry: Could you please turn your amazing Facebook picture posts into a full-time blog? To Jim Coudal: Could we see a letterpress Layer Tennis this next season? To Jennifer Daniel: Could you start a blog devoted solely to your mind-blowing data visualizations? To Aaron Draplin: When are you going to start working on a book about your work? To my fellow designer/bloggers: Can you write as much about WHY you do what you do as you write about HOW you do what you do?

Your top three favorite posts you’ve ever written?
Wilco (The Shirt).
Embrace Frustration. My speech at WMC Fest 2011.
Getting back to work in 2010.
BONUS! Here’s my favorite post Casey’s ever written: The ritual that nourishes us (in more ways than one).

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