Interviewed by Mark Busse in March, 2006.
If there was a list of web innovators and heroes on this site, at the top of the list would be Ze Frank. Ze, (pronounced “zay”, short for Hosea), rose quickly from obscurity to world fame a few years ago with his viral email “How To Dance Properly,” a series of short looped video clips that the Brooklyn-based artist and web designer sent to friends as an invite to his birthday party. Legend has it the email was forwarded so fast that within days millions had logged on. His site was initially shut down due to heavy traffic, but an unstoppable force had emerged in cyberspace – a web personality that Ironminds Magazine credited with all-but saving the Internet through his innovative vlogging content. The cult of Ze Frank was born.
Consider this a warning: if you start exploring Ze’s website you may find yourself losing eight hours to it. It’s addictive. Poke around long enough, you’ll find a message from its founder that says “I made everything on this site for you… I like you the best. Please don’t tell the others.” Seriously, so many have come, yet it feels like Ze is talking directly to you.
Soon after his initial “lightening strike”, ZeFrank.com was named one of Time Magazine’s 50 Coolest Websites of 2005, won a series of Webby Awards, wowed audiences at conferences around the world, include TED, and has taught at various prestigious universities and colleges, frequently lecturing “about things that make him anxious, such as the creative process and airplane safety.” He’s considered a pioneer of teh vlogging format for his wildly popular episodic comedy series The Show, and his work has been featured in a variety of major design publications. In 2008, he graciously accepted an invitation from GDC BC Chapter to come to Vancouver, Canada to be the Graphex Awards keynote speaker, leaving Canadian designers rolling in the aisles with laughter. He is currently the vice president of video at BuzzFeed.
In 2006, Ze Frank generously took time out of his busy schedule to speak with Mark Busse at Industrial Brand about his popularity, creativity, inspiration, education, and the weirdest thing he ever ate.
MB: Thank you for speaking with me Ze, I really appreciate it. Many might be surprised to learn that you originally studied neuroscience at Brown University, toured as a professional musician, and began your design career self-taught. How did you become the darling of online humor with your site zefrank.com?
ZF: I don’t think it is because of anything in particular or deserved in any sort of discrete way. The reality is that I sent out the “How To Dance Properly” clip that unexpectedly became incredibly popular because it had that viral phenomenon attached to it. So, I gained a huge audience with that. I think everything sort of follows from that in a way because I spent a lot of time in the following five years trying to figure out how to keep that audience and how to garner it, so I put a lot of work into getting into a position where I can do a bunch of different things. But it really was just taking a whole bunch of shots in the dark. There are probably 120 projects on the site right now, but that’s maybe one third of the total number of projects that were released. So, there is a lot of crap, but there is a lot of skin shedding that went on and continues to go on. It certainly is a mixture of something accidental and a lot of hard work.
MB: People have tried to label you with terms like Performance Artist, Comic, Art Director, Web Designer among others. What do YOU tell people you do? Give us the elevator pitch.
ZF: That’s been problematic at times. I don’t really have a set definition. My general philosophy in working forward from the site is to reveal very little about myself professionally and not to characterize the work in a particular way, allowing people to make what they will of it. That actually has an interesting correlation to just online work in general: the more you contextualize a piece – whether it is writing, humour, video, a toy or a game – the more you restrict the possible interpretations of your audience. It is the same thing with careers. If you have an interest and you pursue that interest, it is limiting to call yourself one thing. The short of it is that I try as hard as I can not to call myself anything and let people do it for me because I play different roles in different scenarios. Sometimes I’m hired as a comic, sometimes as a consultant, and sometimes as a designer.
MB: Your legendary email invite “How to Dance Properly” became one of the fastest spread viral campaigns in the history of the Internet. Let’s talk about your experience with viral marketing. Have you ever heard of anything like it since? Or do you think it can be repeated?
ZF: I strongly doubt that anyone could do it on purpose. People tend to look at these experiences in retrospect. Most people that create something that is popular have sort of a story about why it became popular. And it’s not just them – the entire design and marketing community start concocting a mythology about the essence of what made it popular. I think it is a little more complicated than that. It has something to do with an underlying property of networks and this kind of power-law distribution of events. It is also a bit like lightening striking.
Now that’s not to say that there aren’t particular aesthetics or rules that you can apply to work to give it a higher chance of becoming viral, but we have to define what that means. The formal definition is that it has an exponential growth curve at some point in its life cycle. How large that growth ends up being depends on how much time it spends at that exponential growth part of the curve. So massive outcome has to do with this weird synergy of a lot of small, tiny exponential growths all coming together. I don’t think that that can be forced. Take for example Subservient Chicken. There were probably 300 campaigns that were trying to crack the viral nut that were all released at that time and one of them hit. And so now as a community we all say “Oh, well Crispin Porter has an idea about what makes something viral”. But I’m not sure that is the case. It seems to help if you are funny or provide an excellent service like Hotmail did. It seems to help that it is simple and it helps if it is not purely language based.
And it comes back to context. The more context you bundle in with the information, the less opportunity there is for audiences to re-contextualize it to make it important for them. I think that was a strength of Subservient Chicken – it was not branded even though it was a Burger King campaign. It really did have a sense of discovery. And this commitment to avoid heavy context leads to a lot of really interesting things. Despite the incredible past popularity of How to Dance Properly, people will still write to me and tell me their story of discovery. They really feel as though they’ve come across something in the wilderness that they then send to all their friends unaware of the larger context.
MB: In an era with celebrities such as Ricky Gervais now charging for his popular podcast and Adam Curry making buckets of cash with his Podshow Podcast Network, have you considered combining new technologies such as podcasting with your writing skills, comedy and reputation to monetize your site?
ZF: It is certainly something I think about. My main concern these days is how I keep doing what I’m doing. I’m trying to release a weekly show that will probably first live online, but has the possibility of being ported out to cell phones or other platforms. The trick is to do a lot of things that you like and believe in and hope that everything comes forward from that. I don’t know if setting out to make money is the best way to do what I do. Maybe I’m just a terrible business person!
MB: These days you consult for agencies and corporations helping them with the creative process. How do you define creativity?
ZF: I think of it more as a verb than a noun. I just finished teaching a course called “The Creative Act” at NYU. It was a very deep and heavy exploration of how other people look at creativity – from philosophers and psychologists to managerial psychologists and artists. Any time you go through a process like that, you come out on the other side fairly confused. So, I don’t have a straight answer for what creativity is, but I do believe it is a very highly personalized question. People have to figure it out for themselves. But in that search, the main things that keep on coming up have to do with the basic properties of thought: how you think; how you use metaphors; how you look for related and unrelated concepts around whatever you are thinking about.
What prompted me to teach this class was an observation that most people use the word “creativity” quite liberally, and self-identify as creative, but they have no clue what it actually means. They sort of drift through the creative space which can be incredibly anxiety-provoking when you are challenged to be creative and have no formal methodology or access to different ways of doing things. I am constantly trying new things – even things that I am potentially bad at. But you just go ahead and do them. From that, you start to learn whether or not you like to do that thing. And you can find the core skills that you need to develop so that you can do that thing more often. So many people when they approach a new thing whether it is writing or playing music or designing something, they sit and fantasize about the things that they think are cool and sexy about it. Then they sit on that fantasy for a while and say that they will do that some day, but first they need to get better at ‘X’. But it is important to just go ahead and do it so that you know whether or not you actually like that activity. And it could very well be that the majority of the work that you need to do is not ‘x’. Writing for example is not just about having a huge vocabulary or understanding sentence structure. It has to do with a lot of other things, primarily the act of actually sitting down and typing.
MB: What are your favourite techniques for becoming inspired, for unlocking your brain?
ZF: Well, there are two things. First, I strive very hard to get to brain lock as often as I can. I try the best I can to get all ideas out of my head and into some sort of a working form as quickly as possible. The best thing to do is to get it down in a two day version as fast as possible so it is not floating around in your head. The biggest impediment to my work is to have these little kernels of good ideas floating around that placate me. So becoming comfortable in that space of hyper-anxiety where you feel you have drained everything out of yourself and you might very well live the rest of your life like a potato not giving anything to the world is a good thing to do. I try to get to that place as often as possible.
The second thing I do is just start working. If I don’t have an idea, there isn’t much I can do except just keep working. That could mean simply opening an application I’ve never worked in and starting to build something. I also try to focus on releasing a lot of stuff. Get it out into the public eye. I feel there is a good chance for other people to look at even just sketches of ideas and see them in a totally different way than you would ever see them. And even in the process of working towards releasing something you go through that third phase of the Disney Process, which is to look at your work as an outside audience member.
MB: Do you have a core group of peers that you do critiquing with? Some people you trust?
ZF: I do. It’s the million folks that come to the site every month. They are as much peers as anyone else. They know as much as I do about the stuff that I make. But it also depends on the genre we’re talking about. If you are writing for a one-man show performance, it is harder to push that against people and in those cases, I just use myself.
MB: Some consider you one of the “Bad Boys” of Web design. Do clients ever expect you to be zany or perhaps even not hire you for fear of you not being serious or corporate enough?
ZF: It’s interesting that you’d say “bad boy”. I don’t usually come across that. Clients have used “Ze” as an adjective “we want it to me more ‘Ze'”, but I don’t know what that really means. The one thing that I associate my work with is finding moments of anxiety in life, like when you don’t understand something or you realize there are a bunch of social rules that apply in a particular situation, but you don’t know what they are. If I write monologues for the web, the wish list monologue that I did for Amazon for example, that is the kind of place that I start. What are the little moments of anxiety that we have around a particular subject.
I don’t think I am a bad boy, and I don’t think I am super avante-garde either. My passion lies in making things that a lot of people will like.
MB: You’ve been quoted as saying “I seem to make people laugh by making an ass out of myself,” yet you claim, “your stomach churned before releasing How To Dance Properly for fear of looking stupid”. What have you done recently that made your stomach churn?
ZF: There is that kind of cross dressing movie called Cause on the site that was kind of embarrassing to put out. You know, any time I put anything on film it is pretty awful. It takes hours and I kind of want to be doing anything else than that. It is really just pretty nasty to see yourself speaking and messing up lines.
MB: Let’s talk about education again. Do you think art and design schools are producing the same high calibre creative professionals these days?
ZF: Ahh, wow. I don’t know whether I’d even agree that they had produced them in the past. Obviously there are amazing people that come out of those programs, but whether they can actually produce stuff is an entirely different question. You know, regarding curriculum, program length, etc, it’s just really hard to compare modern programs with what was happening 30 or 40 years years ago in Switzerland, Austria and California. It was a very different profession: the world of print had a huge and very different kind of role and a lot of new stuff was emerging. The history of design is really quite short and there was a period in the past where a lot of manifestos were being written and some incredible explorations that were half intuitive and the other half had the structuralist component with heavy emphasis on grid layouts and so on.
The biggest challenge for modern programs is that the notion of design is so much more amorphous now, starting to include other things, such as the notion of experiential design, asking questions like what are all the components that lead to people feeling rewarded or treasuring an object or those kind of things. Well questions in design have blown things wide open in this age, and this idea where the destination of your design is so varied; being on screen, in print or environments, has led to a kind of segmentation of teaching design. I think that in certain areas it’s going to be hard to convince students to spend as much time in an apprenticeship model in order to gain the kind of incredible precision that someone like Stefan Sagmeister has.
MB: Where do you go to entertain yourself online?
ZF: I really like this music site called Aurgasm and I like to go to hyper-curated blog spaces like that where people can give me stuff to think about in nice little packets. I’m an avid Boing Boing reader and I think what those guys do is absolutely fantastic.
MB: You’ve added a blog to your site <http://zefrank.com/> which you update regularly. Yet other than a link to your host provider, you still avoid advertising. Have you found a way to cash in on your Internet celebrity and make some money or are you still just “doing it for the children”?
ZF: Many would argue with me as to whether I am a blogger or not. I’m still just doing it for the kids. I’m not really interested in monetizing that kind of thing. What I’m looking to do is explore short format content in some kind of episodic way. Blogging is such an amazing craft of real-time unedited self-expression that belongs to a whole category of rising activities that really require practice both on the publishing side but also on the self-confidence side. I use my blog to post stuff that is particularly interesting to me and to talk about things that I have done, but as a vehicle to really connect with people I haven’t found my stride in that space. It has to do with this idea of content that we were discussing earlier. I think to personalize that space to the point where it becomes interesting and readable, it takes on such as definitive form, whereas you’ll notice that most of the things I release are not branded. There’s no clear Ze Frank aesthetic. There’s the potential for not even realizing where it’s from. And that’s the space where I feel the most comfortable.
MB: As busy as you are with your career, speaking engagements, and your sites, do you still claim to answer all your emails? How’s that possible?
ZF: I don’t know what a weekend is. I think the trick is to find and explore stuff that you like doing. I just keep working and I like it. I’m always interested in people that want to work with me, notably there is a guy name Douglas MacDonald, who about a year ago contacted me and we’ve since created the scribbler robot and lotsofwires.com an online toy and art making site. So if anyone is interested in collaborating on something cool, give me an email.
MB: Are you still into virtual puppets?
ZF: Yeah, I still do some stuff with puppets and it interests me a lot. There’s a fun python engine that a guy named Dan Torup and I worked on that’s been showed around. These days machinima really has a lock on that market.
MB: You once mentioned that you were in awe of the designer Nando Costa. Who are you in awe of these days who has influenced you creatively?
ZF: There are so many people. My focus on visual design has ebbed a little and I’m less interested in beautiful things these days. I guess the people I’m in awe of now are people like Alex Steffen from WorldChanging.org or Cameron Sinclair who does Arhitecture For Humanity and Ethan Zuckerman, founder of GeekCorps. I’m inspired by people who seem to find endless time to devote to incredibly crucial issues in imaginative and effective ways.
MB: If you could switch places with another creative in any field, who would it be?
ZF: Oh boy. It would have been Spalding Gray but he’s dead, so I don’t know if I want to switch now. I think it would require having a totally different skill set, but I think what Sacha Baron Cohen does with Ali G and his other projects is totally unbelievable.
MB: Have you ever considered doing a feature film?
ZF: Yeah, hell I’m interested in anything. For the moment I’m focused on short format and television, but longer term I’d like to explore that possibility.
MB: What’s on your reading list right now?
ZF: I just finished Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta which I thought was absolutely incredible. And I’m just starting The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
MB: What’s getting the highest rotation on your iTunes?
ZF: I actually don’t listen to music. Well I do socially, and I’ll go to sites like Aurgasm as I said, but I very rarely listen to music. It’s one of those things where I can’t do it in the background. I’m the guy who will tell you to shut up in the car because I’m listening to the music. It takes a lot of my attention away. I really live mostly music free.
MB: I hear you like eating really old pickles? What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
ZF: I don’t even know what it was, but I think it was a blood clam. I had it in Honduras. It was some sort of a shellfish served in it’s own blood. No one in my local fish store knows what I’m talking about, so I can’t be sure. You eat it raw, squeeze lime on top of them and they contract. It was tasty.
MB: What’s next for Ze Frank?
ZF: I’m working on a show right now and hope to start releasing weekly episodes in mid February. I want to write up the Creative Act class I taught at NYC as there was a lot of good reaction to that. The other fascination I have right now is making online games for kids in the two to four year old range. Having spent some time recently playing with kids that age I realized that there really isn’t all that much out there for them.
MB: That’s a great thought to end on Ze, thanks. An entire generation a kids growing up influenced by you, looking for “brain lock” as often as possible revelling in the knowledge that living the rest of their lives like a potato is OK. Potatoes go with anything. Who doesn’t like potatoes?