The Walled Garden Awards

lion.gifDear Cannes Cyber Lions,

I’m writing just to say hi. I’ve looked at, and occasionally up to you for the seven years I’ve been working in an agency, but I’m leaving the agency microcosm soon and wanted to give you some advice before I go. It’s, um, kind of difficult to say, but, well, we’ve known each other for a while, and good friends tell each other the truth, right? So. Here goes.

I believe you’ve misunderstood the internet.

There, I said it. I know this has got to be embarrassing for you, being an internet awards thingie and all. I guess you didn’t get the memo. Although the truth hurts, I’m sure you’ll come out the other side a happier, shinier Cyber Lion.

Cannes Registration Ticks Me Off

Why do you force me to register to see the winners? It can’t be purely so that „the IAF, our official awards partners and relevant Emap Communications brands“ can throw a few more nuggets on top of my already overflowing spam folder, can it? That’s not what that extremely creatively worded bit on the rego form meant, is it? And, um, describe my job role? Give you my address? My phone number? Twenty-one mandatory fields? You’ve built a walled garden with high, thick walls, and want a DNA sample before you let me inside? For what exactly? You’re throwing press releases over the wall anyway, so what’s in it for me?

I’m afraid your site’s also doing your clients a disservice, and if they aren’t pissed yet, they sure as hell should be. What? You don’t have clients? Well, who are the agencies who send you submissions (and money) every year? And what if they realised that you’re using the medium for which they win awards (that’s the internet) in such a way that it reduces the chance of people hearing about their good work? If I was them, I’d be pretty pissed.

But, considering the way so many of your clients still use the internet–beautifully designed and animated, closed, unmashable ads that equal little more than click-a-minute-television–I’m honestly not surprised that you’re doing little better. My recommendation, and hope, is that you’ll one day see your role as a leading internet marketing awards thingie as a possibility to espouse and spread the spirit of the web and the methods that actually work. Openness. Transparency. Sharing. Participation.

You see, and it embarrasses me to have to explain this to you, but the internet is all about linking. Copy & paste is today’s marketing. Letting your fans mash your stuff up leads to success. Connecting little bits all over the place is what we do here outside the wall, and how people hear about new stuff. If your stuff’s good, some guy will carry it over the wall anyway, even if he does have to fill your form with bullshit to do it (yes, I’m sorry, but we do lie to marketers). And there’s a nasty chance that guy will own your Google juice, too. Making it easier by not building a wall in the first place just improves your chances of being loved. Have you heard that there’s a 14 year old on YouTube with 45 million views? He certainly didn’t do that with a registration form. How many registered users have you got? And how many registered as „Dr. Mickey Mouse“ like I did?

That’s it for now. I hope you take some time to think about this, and it makes you a bigger, better lion.

Yours sincerely,

Matt Balara

P.S.: I didn’t want to say it, but what the hell’s up with your logo? Dude, are you sure you want to wear that in public?

So congratulations to all the well-hidden winners of the Cannes Cyber Lions 2008! For those you you outside the wall who couldn’t be bothered registering, Dr. Mickey Mouse has sacrificed his 100% fake DNA for you. Here are all the winners in a PDF (unfortunately completely devoid of URLs), and here are the links:

Grand Prix



There are a hell of a lot of bronze winners, and my copy & paste finger’s getting tired, so if you’re interested in the Cannes Cyber Lions bronze winners, check out the PDF and you know what to do.

Originally published at

Rebooting My Life

This afternoon I’m jumping on a train to perhaps the loveliest European city I know: Copenhagen. Tomorrow the tenth reboot conference, and a hell of a lot of exciting changes in my life start.

After over seven years as an Art Director at Sinnerschrader, I quit my job. As of today it’s official, and as of the first of September I will be unemployed a freelancer designer.

Most of my colleagues jumped to a number of conclusions once they heard: I don’t like my new boss, I don’t like the company’s vision, I don’t like Matthias Schrader, I don’t like whatever.

Forget it. Chris, my new boss (Walli!), is a guy I very sincerely like and that the company’s needed for ages. I helped develop the vision, and as a direction for Sinnerschrader I believe in it and am proud of my part in it. Mattes is the German entrepreneur that I most like, respect and admire. I’ve learned bunches from him and will miss him. My colleagues are a pile of intelligent, interesting and funny folks that I’ll also miss. So why did I quit?

There are a few reasons, here in order of importance:

Homesickness Can be Cured

I miss Australia and Australians, simple as that. For the ten years I’ve been in Germany, all of my friends have heard the sentence, „Next year I’m moving back to Australia,“ so many times that they’ve stopped believing me. I’ve stopped believing myself. Laziness, comfort and continual „one day“ thinking kept it a theory, but I’m sick of hearing myself say it without doing it, so now I am.
I’m moving to Sydney.

Move to Grow

I was born in the U.S., moved to Australia at 9, moved back at 16, back to Australia again at 23, picked up double citizenship, and after bumming around the world for many months, I landed in Germany at 28. I’ve never stayed anywhere as long as Germany. I’ve never worked anywhere as long as Sinnerschrader. More and more intensely in the last two years, I’ve been getting sick of my comfortable, sedentary life. I miss challenges, travel, insecurity, learning, and all the other things that come with going somewhere and getting used to everything again. These things bring more growth than anything else I know, and it’s time to grow again.
I’m looking for some challenging uncertainties.

Mid-Life Cliché?

Sure, I’m 38. It’s almost officially time for a mid-life crisis isn’t it? Well, I haven’t bought a sportscar I can’t afford, I haven’t snagged an athletic, 19 year old, blonde girlfriend, and I haven’t renovated my wardrobe to try and look half my age either. I’ve quit my job, and will be going solo and moving to the other side of the world.
Mid-life crisis of the hyperconnected? You tell me.

What Now?

I’m preparing the countless things (I’m sure I’ll forget something) that are necessary to leave a country after ten years. My last day at work will be towards the end of August. I’m spending as much time as I can with friends I’ll probably not see for a long time. On the first of October I’ll be flying to Sydney and setting up a new home base there.

I’m Free!

As of the first of September I’ll be working as a freelancer, consulting and designing interfaces, primarily for the web. If you’re looking for someone who can analyse and understand your online problems, and develop interface concepts and visual designs to solve them, get in touch. Don’t let my new location in Sydney deter you. I’m fluent in English and German, am eager to travel by working anywhere, and believe in working through all the tools I use online. Say „hi“ at hello AT mattbalara DOT com.

I also gave my first talk at the next08 conference a few weeks ago. To be honest it was terrifying, but also invigorating and addictive. Judging by the feedback, I believe I did a pretty good job, too. Have a look at the video. I’m working on new talks and looking for places to present them.

If any of this is interesting for you, now or in the future, get connected on LinkedIn or Xing, follow me on Twitter, and subscribe to this blog’s feed.

The blog here will also be warming up, with more regular posts, a new look and a stronger focus on design. I’ve often blogged about social media, and that’ll be shifting over to /message, where Stowe Boyd generously invited me to blog with him. My first post went online last week.

Although all of the changes are coming extremely hard and fast, and sometimes it makes me wobbly, I’m terribly excited and am more than anything else looking forward to it all. For the first time in a long time, I’ve got a solid, persistent feeling that the future rocks.

Originally published at

Top-Down Boxes or Bottom-Up Piles?

Photo by A30_Tsitika - click to view

A chat with Ryan Singer after the next08 has been bouncing around in my head for a few days. We got onto some basic info architecture assumptions which define almost all sites my company makes, and most sites in the web. The more we explored the idea, the more both of us were surprised at how these assumptions often keep users from doing what they’re used to doing in the web — finding things fast.

Top-Down Boxes in Boxes

A new site structure usually starts with a number of assumptions. Big Fat Assumption Number One is that the content chunks will be stuffed into a hierarchy of boxes. The first group of boxes form the 1st level navigation, and each of those boxes usually has more boxes inside it. Often the 2nd level boxes have more boxes inside them, and I’ve seen this boxes in boxes structure repeated down to the 5th level.

A user can only try to guess which box what he’s looking for might be in. And instead of getting the content chunk he’s looking for when he selects a box, he gets a new set of boxes and starts guessing again. When he finally reaches real content (after guessing, guessing, guessing, etc.) the chances are relatively good that he’s not found what he wants, and the guessing game can start from the top again.

If individual chunks of content (or user goals) are the bottom of our structure, we’ve just built an info architecture from the top down.

Hierarchical boxes are also made of „conceptual steel“ and separate chunks from each other. This works for a book: the boxes are chapters, which have boxes in them called paragraphs, which are full of chunks called sentences. But once a book’s printed it doesn’t change. Web sites change constantly, and boxes are change-resistant.

Bottom Up Piles & Lenses

Instead of imposing a structure on content chunks from the top down, why not look at the chunks themselves first; i.e. bottom up? If we find common attributes for the chunks, e.g. colour, and label each chunk either blue, green, yellow or red, then we have a labeled pile of chunks.

To find something in a colour labeled pile, users could use „lenses“. A red lens would make all blue, green and yellow chunks disappear, leaving only the red chunks visible. If our chunks also had an attribute size–with labels big, medium and small–they could then combine size and colour lenses to quickly find large/red chunks, or small/green ones.

Old Hat?

Sure, none of this is particularly revolutionary–it’s the way a great deal of those sites we insist on calling „web 2.0“ work. Flickr is a gigantic pile of images whose labels are tags, but also technical details such as which camera made the image, Creative Commons license, interestingness, etc. Most of Flickr’s navigation doesn’t throw the user into a box, it provides them with a lens through which they can look at the chunks they’re interested in, and ignore the rest of the pile.

Where The Hell am I? Who cares?

The assumption that drives us to make top-down box architectures is that without a structured, categorised series of boxes in boxes, the poor user will lose his orientation. I think this is seriously outdated thinking, which comes out of the interface thoughts of the pre-internet software design era. It might make sense in the focused, daily-use context of an application, but a user who can find any page in your site from google, and jump directly to it, doesn’t give a crap where he is as long as he finds what he wants. When I’ve asked a number of daily-use but less than cutting-edge users „where“ in the web they are right now, the answer surprised me: „What do you mean? I’m in Google.“ So much for that carefully thought out color-coded box hierarchy.

Hunters & Gatherers

Am I recommending that all of my corporate clients throw their hierarchies out the window? Hell no. But I would like to see them experiment a little more with piles & lenses to supplement their box hierarchies. Traditional boxes-in-boxes navigation is fine for gatherers, but google is teaching users hunter strategies: select a goal, focus on it, jump on it as quickly as possible. The next time you start a concept with Big Fat Assumption Number One, and begin stuffing content into boxes-in-boxes, take a step back, look at the chunks at the bottom, and see if you can offer the hunters piles and lenses to speed their hunt.

Originally published at


While standing outside having a smoke this morning, colleague Gregory Jacob brought me back to the subject of web design “theft”, which I wrote a couple articles about in 2006. Back then, the discussion showed that there are many varying opinions of where inspiration stops and theft starts. Greg’s example, which absolutely takes the cake in my experience, is without question way over the border.

Greg’s a Flash guy, with a pleasingly minimal personal site. He received a mail from a friend this morning, with a link to a stunningly similar site. Have a look:

After a little research it was clear that Foued, due to laziness, deficient creativity or most likely a combination of both, had simply downloaded Greg’s SWF and the XML which defines the site’s content, and after a little text editing, uploaded both on his site.

It Gets Better

Not only did he shamelessly rip off Greg’s work, but he then submitted his rip-off to numerous awards sites, and won on four of them.

It Gets Even Better

Not only did Foued win awards with stolen goods, but one of them, Dope, had already awarded Greg for the exact same site.

I’d like to take the opportunity to congratulate Greg. Not only a 1:1 rip-off (as we all know, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”), but four awards, and one of them twice. Well done Greg!

Too Easy to Do, But Also to Find

Things like this just leave me extremely confused. Let’s assume that Foued Azzone is not remarkably naïve, and knew full well how wrong this is. So he uses a stolen design, right down to the file itself, to promote himself and his talents. And in a medium which is so fast, and so everywhere, that the chances of this theft remaining undiscovered are zero. And in a medium where stuff like this gets publicised like wild-fire, irrevocably poisoning is own Google-juice. What could he possibly think this would do for his career? How could he ever dream of this being good for him?

Originally published at Matt Balara works as Senior Art Director at SinnerSchrader, Gregory Jacob is Head of Flash.

The Medium is Still the Message


I’ve been designing websites professionally since 1995, and never has any site I’ve worked on been discussed as much as the new SinnerSchrader site, and, to be exact, it’s not even a site at all.

Let’s get the full disclosure out of the way first: I’m an Art Director at SinnerSchrader, and other than the occasional over the shoulder comment and discussion over a smoke, I had nothing to do with the idea, concept, or design of the new site. Go check out, click around a little, and come back for my thoughts on it.

As you hopefully noticed, it’s just a link list. That’s it. All of our content is „out there“ in the web. Of course most of it always has been, and now our site is the place where all of the disparate elements — job offers, client sites, employee profiles, how to find us, etc. — meet. Instead of a perfectly polished and organised glossy brochure, which is what most agency websites are, ours is a knot which loosely joins our small pieces.

What’s Good?

I’ve loved the idea ever since one of my favourite coleagues, Ron (whose blog is still „coming soon“) told me about it. And, in so far as our site is just a list of links, I find it a logical and consequent execution of the idea. The web is not a book or a wall or a television, so a cover or a poster or a video is certainly in the medium, but not really of the medium.

As I explained in my Naked Relaunch article, I’m also a strong believer in the „it’s never finished“ mentality, when it comes to web design and content. The most exciting aspect of the web is that it’s continually changing, growing and becoming more and other than it is at this moment. Our new site doesn’t take this aspect far enough (more on that below) but the idea of a living collection of links that are easy and fast to add, change and remove is where I hope the site’s going.

Those are just two short and small „what’s goods,“ but for me they’re much more important than the more numerous „what’s not yet good“ comments listed below. I’m a fan of ideas, and, when compared with ideas, niggling details don’t weigh very heavily on my scales.

What’s Bad Not Yet Good?

Well, the first thing that makes my idea-focussed brain itch is: the thing’s static. Nothing’s happened since it went online on the 5th of December (be careful, there’s German behind that link). If the most exciting thing about the web is the continual change, then an agency website which says, „our stuff isn’t packed away in a shiny wrapper, it’s living out there in the chaos“ must have a site where something’s happening. For now it’s just a link list. There’s nothing new, nothing changes, it’s not alive.

The site is an idea, and it’s pretty brave, and I haven’t seen anything like it before, but we couldn’t stop ourselves from squeezing in at least a little wobbly, animated, flickering Flash. Maybe we were afraid it wouldn’t be „pretty“ enough for an agency site; I wasn’t involved in the decisions, so I don’t really know. Personally I think the Flash is decoration which doesn’t serve the goal or message of the page itself. Although I actually quite like wobbly pink, gold and grey aesthetically, I don’t think the page would suffer much if it wasn’t there. In fact, Flash is a shot in our own foot as far as search engines, the back button, auto-discovery of the rss feed, and copying text and links are concerned. These are as much the nature of the web as are links and distributed content, so why did we ignore these? I don’t know.

Other than all of that, there are a few little details which picky usability freaks have been pinning on us — e.g. the newsletter field should make it clear that it requires an email address — but I think the basic function (open external pages in a frame and close the frame again) works and is understandable. A few tweaks, and we’ll shake the bugs out. No big deal.

How Could it be Better?

Number one on my wishlist: let it live. Collect feeds from employee, spit in whatever turns up under the tag „sinnerschrader“ on Flickr, collect the Tweets of employees, friends and the company itself, mash it up and call it „The Secret Life of S2“ or „S2nd Life“, whatever. We’re a web company, we make web stuff, and more than a few of us live in the web, so why not show it?

We could get our hands a little dirtier with the clients. Just linking to their sites isn’t really enough, or sometimes it could be too much — a link suggests we did all of it. Sure, we design and program complete sites for many of our clients, but we also produce banners, single pages, micro-sites, etc. Why not — in addition to the links — simply throw up some screenshots at Flickr, a case study in the blog, whatever it is that best describes our work for that client?

Kick the Flash out. As far as I’m concerned kick the graphic typography out as well — with the exception of the logo and the claim, of course. The flashier it is, the harder it is to change, as well as the problems mentioned above. If the idea is links, make it 95% about links. Right now we’re around 70%.

Oh yeah, and let’s put in a search, as Martin „Nielsen“ Seibert suggested (Achtung! More German!), thereby proving that he didn’t even begin to understand the idea. But if you do, please link our search to Google.

How do you like our new site? If you were the boss, what would you add, remove or change? Let me know.

Originally published at