This is the fourth of our ten Tech Specs interviews. Previously, we talked to Ladies & Gentlemen Studio.
Name: Abe Burmeister
Job title: Cofounder of the Brooklyn-based clothing company Outlier
Background: Fresh out of school, I started an animation company with a couple friends and got involved in some early web animation stuff. I parlayed that into a not-particularly-successful TV animation period—that lasted about four years. Then I started doing freelance web and graphic design, and then I moved more into interface design, working with a lot of financial companies. And then one day about six years ago I couldn’t find particular pieces of clothing that I wanted, and all of a sudden I had a clothing company.
Computer setup: I have a standing desk with a basic, large-screen iMac. And I’m a devoted Wacom user. I’ve been using Wacom tablets since the turn of the century, and now I basically can’t touch a mouse—I can’t stand to use one for more than about ten minutes. I’ve had situations where I’ve forgotten to bring my Wacom tablet to a freelance gig, and I’ll literally run out and buy another one.
I don’t actually use the Wacom to draw that much, I just use it as a mouse substitute—there’s a mouse mode and a pen mode, and my guess from talking to other Wacom users is that 80 to 90 percent of them use it in pen mode. I’m actually the only person I’ve ever met that uses it almost exclusively in mouse mode.
In any case, I actually find that I don’t use the desktop computer or even my desk that much. Basically, what happened is that I created a standing desk for myself, which is great, except I started to find that I would just sit on the couch with my iPad Mini instead. So now I spend more computer time sitting on the couch doing stuff on the iPad than I do standing at the computer working.
How much of your workday do you spend in front of the computer? Probably about half, maybe less. I’d say I use the desktop about 20 percent of the day and the iPad or iPhone for another 30 percent. The other half of the time I’m either walking around and involved in really physical stuff, or I’m in meetings.
Most used software: I’ve spent the last year with the philosophy of doing everything possible to minimize the amount of time that I’m in e-mail. And so I use Slack a lot, which has really helped—we were in the Slack Beta testing period and fell in love with it, and now almost all of the company’s internal communications are in Slack rather than e-mail.
The key thing about Slack is that it defaults your communications to public, so it sort of inverts e-mail. You’re posting something that everyone can see, so it really opens up the communication among a group, because everyone, if they want to, can read what’s happening. But it’s designed in such a way that you don’t feel some huge pressure to read every thread or be on top of everything.
When I’m on the iPad, I work a lot in a program called iA Writer. I find that a lot of my work now actually involves writing—a lot of what I do is clarifying the ideas behind designs, explaining why things need to exist, what we’re trying to accomplish. And then after those things are built, I’m trying to clarify what it is that we actually created, and how we can best communicate that to the world.
For writing, I find that the iPad Mini form factor is really transformative. It’s my favorite mode of writing out of anything. I thumb-type in portrait mode—it’s not quite as fast as touch-typing, but it’s fast enough and very intimate. I feel like I can have a really good relationship with the words.
And then when I’m on the desktop, I work a lot in Illustrator—that’s my go-to program when I have to do more traditional design work. It’s probably 80 percent Illustrator and 20 percent Photoshop.
Software that you thought you’d use more often than you do: I guess I had high hopes for doing sketching stuff on the iPad, and I went through a lot of different pieces of software and was pretty frustrated with all of them. I’m almost like a native Illustrator thinker. And while there are some great drawing programs for the iPad, nothing lets me manipulate objects in the way that Illustrator does.
Phone: iPhone 6
Favorite apps: Besides iA Writer, I love this calculator app called Soulver.
Apps that are actually useful for your work: I use Numbers quite a bit. I wake up and do ten minutes of very basic business stuff in bed every morning—just updating spreadsheets and making sure that I pay everybody.
Other than that, there’s a conversion app that I use a lot. There are a couple industries in the world, and clothing is one of them, where you’re just constantly converting measurements. So I find that really useful.
Other devices: I’ve been playing around with a NODE—it’s a little Bluetooth sensor device, and you can plug a bunch of different sensors onto it. In particular, I’ve been trying to work with this color sensor they have, called NODE+chroma. We’re hoping it could be useful for matching colors and comparing things, but it hasn’t gotten past toy status yet.
Other machinery/tools in your workspace: We use a digital microscope sometimes, to look at fabrics and get a sense, on a literally microscopic level, of what’s going on with the materials that we’re working with.
Tools or software you’re thinking of purchasing: There’s a humongous one, which is that we could really use an ERP system, which stands for Enterprise Resource Planning. It’s a software platform that allows you to manage production down to a very material level—it’s designed to tell you, for instance, how many screws go into a car, and how many of those you have in stock, and how long it takes for you to make them, and when you need to reorder them, and all of that kind of stuff. That’s something we’ve been putting off buying for a long time. We know it would help make everything work better, but it’s also a massive investment of time and money to get it going. Even to just pick which one to go with and then install it and get it going and working across the entire team is a huge task.
How has new technology changed your job in the last 5–10 years? I can do all the stuff today on my couch, which is crazy. That’s obviously the mega one. I spent a decade working only on a laptop, but then when the iPad came out, I used that as a way to do the opposite—to have a desktop with as big a screen as possible, and then when I travel, get rid of the laptop and just use the iPad. I’ve been doing that since a month or two after the first iPad came out. The only thing I miss is Illustrator—oh, and fonts. There’s no good way to do fonts on an iPad; it’s really frustrating.
When it comes to new tech, are you a Luddite, an early adopter or somewhere in between? I’d say I’m a skeptical early adopter. I’ll never buy a new device the day it comes out, but I’ll wait for the lines to die down and then I’ll get it. I can get swept up in the hype a little bit, but I’m never like, “Wow, this is the new tech that’s going to change everything.” I’m very cautious about what the ramifications of a new tool might be.
Do you outsource any of your tech tasks? For the most part, we work in physical form—so when we’re designing stuff, we’re making physical patterns and drawing on paper and cut-outs. Then we use third-party services to digitize the patterns. They also do what’s called marking grading. So the pattern is one size and they transform it to your whole size range—that’s all done digitally. In addition, there’s laying out all of the pieces in the most optimal way for the fabric to get cut, so you’re not wasting fabric. There are specialist companies that do all of this; it’s the kind of thing that only exists in major garment districts, like in New York and LA.
What are your biggest tech gripes? Basically, I would kill for a working supplement of Illustrator on an iPad—that would change everything for me.
Also, I really want Apple to do a stylus, which I know Steve Jobs was utterly opposed to. But I buy all the new styluses for the iPad and none of them are good enough; they need to be done in a very Apple way, integrated very tightly with the software and hardware.
Basically, I would kill for a working supplement of Illustrator on an iPad—that would change everything for me.
What do you wish software could do that it can’t now? I’m careful about what I wish for with software, because I’m worried it will bite me in the ass.
Finally, we've all had instances of software crashing at the worst possible moment, or experienced similar stomach-churning tech malfunctions. Can you tell us about your most memorable tech-related disaster? Back in 2001, when I was doing mostly animation, my partners were in San Francisco and I was in New York. So I was going back and forth all the time, and I had this realization that I could do basically all my work on a laptop and a cell phone. I was having some housing troubles at the time, and I decided that I was just going to get rid of everything I owned except for a carry-on bag with my laptop and my cell, and then I could work anywhere—I could spend a couple weeks in San Francisco, and then I could go somewhere else, and then back to New York.
So I did this. I sold all my records and most of my clothes and all of my books, and I literally reduced my life down to a carry-on bag. Besides my laptop and cell phone, the one other piece of tech that was important to this equation was a thing called a Ricochet. This was an early broadband wireless company, and the device was amazing because it worked in, like, a dozen cities, it was probably the equivalent of 4G service today, and it was actually synchronous, so it had a faster up time than maybe even my landline connection right now. Ricochet had raised over a billion dollars and they had maybe 50,000 users. And, literally, two days after I started this plan with just my carry-on bag, Ricochet went out of business. Shut down completely.
And I remember that very night I had to upload some important files for work. I was housesitting at a friend’s place in New York, and I couldn’t get on her dial-up connection, and it was basically like the dawn of WiFi—there were literally three publicly accessible WiFi spots in the entire city. One of them was run by a professor at NYU, so I ended up literally sitting in Washington Square Park—which was still filled with drug dealers at the time—at midnight sucking on this tiny little WiFi connection. It was the only way I could get the files to my client at the time, and that’s when I was like, “OK, this is going to be kind of hard.” I actually stuck with the carry-on life for four years, but it was a tough start.
This article is part of the Core77 Tech-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technologies are shaping the future of design.
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