A Digital Fire in the Belly : Interview with Nate Burgos of Design Feast

I rarely meet people in design who embody the type of quiet and consistent commitment to excellence—with a degree of humility. Just doing it without making a fuss while creating exponential value should be celebrated.

The internet of today is a space that has many digital destinations, and even a few that are known as a place of curated and well-crafted content and even motivational online communities. Nate Burgos represents a designer that has the fire in the belly to contribute to the awareness and knowledge of what is available on the internet.

Since 1999, Nate has been nurturing Design Feast, a webliography of great content that he curates on a regular basis. Nate and I have collaborated and I’ve contributed to Design Feast by sending him interesting links. He is always appreciative and makes a point of celebrating the fruits of collaboration.

Design Feast has grown from interesting links, to interviewing designers, to a blog, to a book and now to films that focus on design books. The journey of discovery has been of great benefit for those that are interested in Nate’s work.

After twelve years, I sat with Nate to discover the backstory of Design Feast.

How and why did you want to create Design Feast?

It was 1999 and the internet was new, and remains new (Happy 20th Birthday, WWW!). Websites were cropping up very quickly and I wanted to make one. I knew right away it would be design-related because that is what I do for a living— learning and relearning in practicing design. I wanted the site to focus on more than one design discipline.

The word “feast” kept coming to mind from one of my favorite books—Ernest Hemingway’s memoir about his time in Paris, which be describes as a “moveable feast”. This is a pleasant and romantic way to view design. Broadly speaking, design is everywhere and “Design is everything. Everything!” as claimed by Paul Rand, a teacher and mentor of mine.

I think about Design Feast not as a website, but as a web presence. Romanticizing here again. Sounds hokey, but I believe it, and I’m trying to create an archipelago, where Design Feast is a worthwhile island in a common sea. The challenging part is feeding the feast. It has become my personal cabinet of curiosities.

There is this great term that I discovered at the “weblog” by Jason Kottke . The term is Wunderkammer, German for wonder-room. There are so many wonderful people, places and things to discover. It’s neverending. It’s what makes design a moveable feast.


How has Design Feast grown since it started?

I just wanted to make something. I knew what the focus was going to be and have kept working at it. I’m fond of websites that are established and crafted, and admire people who do it for the sake of doing it. I kept adding links, aligned to my taste, over time.

On the home screen, there is a number of how many sites on Design Feast. But quantity is not what drives me to keep working on the site and the efforts resulting from it. Discovering people’s creative ideas and efforts, and sharing these, are what drive me.

The taxonomy of the site is based on what I’ve been calling: the family of design disciplines. With Architecture, hands down, that is what it is called. In the case of Information Architecture, Content Strategy and User Experience, these are called by other names. At the time, I called this area “Interactive  Design” which I still need to re-address.

In 2007, I thought about engaging in editorial. I started the Designer’s Quest(ionnaire), asking seven questions to a designer, whatever the discipline. In retrospect, I wish I started this series earlier, but there is an appointed time, as my photographer-friend Michelle Litvin put it, for everything. The Designer’s Quest(ionnaire) has developed into an interesting body of thought, and I’m thankful for all of the participants (yourself included) who answered the questions. It led the way to a series of fascinating interviews, from Chicago-based all-female collaborative Quite Strong to information designer Audrée Lapierre in Montreal, Canada.

Discovering all of these creative efforts by people, everywhere, keeps nudging me to be more curious about the practice of design and how practitioners articulate it. Design Feast has a thoughts on design section. I appreciate people who can talk about design in a straightforward and elegant way. It’s a popular part of the site and inspired me to distill it into a book called Thought Leadership by Design which led to converting the book’s site into a blog. Another outgrowth of the work on Design Feast is The Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire) which hones in on people and their experiences in web-based writing and publishing of topics they’re passionate about. There was an appointed time for all these things, and all the discovering and curating steers me in the direction to make more connections and, in turn, more things.

Since starting Design Feast, which subject area has grown and is now a large part of links or comments?

Architecture is a deep practice. There was already an available portfolio of content, lots of it and increasing, on the web to mine and explore. The section on graphic design is deep, along with industrial design. Fashion design, not so much, which is surprising because it’s pervasive. The depth of sound design on the site is very thin. I know it exists, but have not meandered enough to discover people and projects for this discipline.

I rarely publish individual firms—unless they were pivotal to a respective discipline. For example, in the information design section, I added Richard Saul Wurman and Edward Tufte since they contributed a lot to this discipline. Incorporating individuals/groups as part of each design discipline is something I’m still looking into. I’m messy in discovering because there is so much out there. Author Susan Sontag coined Attention Surplus Disorder. I go through my daily diet of bookmarks (which I want to turn into “booksaving”), which then branch out to other bookmarks. I don’t make sure that the links on Design Feast are active or are being maintained because I’m always focused on discovery. But I’ve recently went through each and every link. There’s quite a number of sites that are no longer available. Wish this wasn’t the case. Discovering a site not found provokes empathy.


How do you evaluate credibility to sites you post on Design Feast?
(other than they are interesting to you?)

I try to take in the total compositional effect of a site at first look—its interface, writing and publishing. I do judge a book by its cover when it comes to subject matter presented online. There has to be typographic sensibility. I go to the About section and the archive. When a site is encountered, I acknowledge that it took time and energy to do.I don’t judge a site based on how often it’s fed. There is a site called amassblog by designer James Phillips Williams which deals mostly with his collection of books and typography. I check it a lot. Weeks would go by and nothing yet posted. I still go to it because every post is beautiful and matters, to me.

Everyone has particular destination sites, and there are site owners who don’t mind how often posts are made. They publish when they want to publish, and this is fine. Good sites which captivate our attention, also command our patience.Another site I visit many times, and whose finding frequency is very high, is the personal visual archive and popular design journal of swissmiss by Tina Roth Eisenberg. Lots of diversity and fun among the people, places and things swissmiss scouts and shares. On a related note, with diversity and fun in mind, I highly recommend attending the CreativeMornings monthly lecture series which swissmiss created. Sites have a pulse when their owners have a pulse (in more ways than one).


Do you ever post comments on people’s blogs?

On rare occasion but not much. When I do, it’s mostly to make a connection between what the post is about to someone or something related to it. Other than blogs, I do “comment” by giving credit, if this can be viewed as a type of comment. Maria Popova, who runs Brain Pickings, a wonderful and rigorous site, is a champion of giving credit. Her CreativeMornings talk stressed acknowledging people’s path toward discovery of a concept, a principle, a person or object and its role in making ideas and influencing the creative process.

On Twitter, I always try to provide the source for great sites that are identified. I re-tweet other people’s tweets, and if there is ample space to do it, I include the original source (link to the actual post or site section), wherever possible.


Since starting Design Feast, what are your general insights into the depth and boundaries of design?

One general reaction is that design is fearless. I’ve been noticing a growing pattern library of attitudes and practices of people who are creative and utilize the digital world, among others, to follow their intuition. If you look at Kickstarter, it’s communal bootstrapping which is becoming more popular as one way to getting ideas real—ideas about products, services and spaces by people who desire to do it on their own terms.

Even though Kickstarter is not only about designers, design has played a role in its success. I continue to find people who take time out of their busy lives to share themselves, whether it’s their craft or collection or both. When it comes to craft, photographer John Spinks documented the people and their tools in the factories who make clothing for London-based Albam.

When it comes to collecting, independent web and print design office Kind Company sustains a fantastic collection. It’s called Display, a curated range of important modern, mid 20th century graphic design books, periodicals, advertisements and ephemera.

There are many more examples of creative efforts like these. They feed design. Awesome projects. They prove a fearless cycle of design, practiced with an urge to make, and encouraging reflection to help meet, even make, a need or solve an issue—or to just provide delight.


What are the current trends you see on the internet landscape concerning design topics?

Process, craft, writing and work are big areas. People want to learn and keep enhancing what they have learned to adjust an existing approach or create a new one to help make their work and the experience of it better. People deconstructing their process, their toolkit, into a story is valuable to those who are curious about how people work in order to help inform getting their work done.

With writing, there are a lot of blogs by people who explore the relationship between thinking and making. With craft, the focus is on feeding, refining and sticking to one’s discipline. Aspects about process and craft constitute one of the reasons why I enjoy the interviews, for example, by Dave Cuzner with graphic designers, illustrators, book and magazine publishers at his blog Grain Edit.It’s very satisfying to notice the diversity of self-initiated creative projects, Do-It-Yourself—and not necessarily for profit. Creative people are always seeking. They go for it. Yay, #Creativity!

What concerns do you have about the level and quality of discourse you are finding online?

Design Observer is a magnet for reading and input. When it comes to comments submitted by readers to Design Observer’s pieces, I’ve noticed on a consistent basis that the comments are friendly and constructive. Thoughtful writing compels thoughtful feedback. This is never full-proof to guarantee a positive response to one’s work, but the move to make a thoughtful article, essay, image, and more, is a good step to invite thoughtful input.


Are you seeing less websites, and more blogs or other web platforms?

All of the above. Everyone has her or his means for extending design, writing, photography, filmmaking to the network and to the masses. The long shelf of creative variety is getting longer. With this comes the variety of ways to get something real on the web, from portfolio-website creation systems like 4ormat to content-management systems like Expression Engine. There are also website-creation-and-advisory systems like The Web Therapist.

You mentioned the downward trend of blogs, but I’m not seeing that. Blogs have staying power. They also encourage people to write. I recently discovered a charming blog called Shelf Appeal by Jane Audas, a freelance creative digital producer, who blogs about things, anything, you can put on a shelf. As long as there are physical journals and notebooks, there’ll be digital ones.


How have behaviors and expectations changed or are changing about Design Feast?

It’s a blessing to receive emails and tweets from people who tell me to keep doing what I’m doing. I sometimes get criticism and do try to put it toward improvement. Wine and personal branding expert Gary Varynerchuk believes that people recognize effort and appreciate it. Effort (“the hustle” as Vaynerchuk puts it) over time is a type of fermentation.

There was this daily cartoon emailed by Hugh Macleod of Gapingvoid, who has this tremendous pulse about life and work. In this email, he described life as a fermentation process, when we try to make life as meaningful as possible. With Design Feast, people have acknowledged this fermentation. I’m super thankful, and it motivates me.

You recently started developing videos on rare and seminal design books. Why?

I collect rare design books, which I’ve been thinking about showcasing in some way. Because what is the point of collecting all these books if they’re not shared? At first, I thought about making a blog with beautiful photography accompanied by an essay. Then I met Joe Giovenco, who knew about audio and video. He also composes and produces electronic music. Like Brian Eno.

I always wanted to make a film, engage in its storytelling and develop a compact storyline. I got Joe interested in collaborating on making a short film, which he never done before. Herbert Bayer’s book World Geo-Graphic Atlas was the first to film. It is one of the first books I was able to acquire and one that I show at design schools when given the opportunity. The book itself is so rich, from the 1950s, before digital production. It’s a unique demonstration of information design and teamwork.

Super thankful for everyone who watched the first Rare Book Feast film. Big thanks to Tina Roth Eisenberg of swissmiss, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and The Atlantic, Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners, Daniel Benning of ONEEIGHTNINE, and Dan Wagstaff of The Casual Optimist for featuring this first installment of Rare Book Feast!

I want to extend the series, to keep it going. Looking forward to reflecting on the next book and collaborating with Joe on producing the next installment.


What is the future of Design Feast?

When I launched Design Feast, I never stamped it with “beta” because work, especially on the web, is always evolving. Derek Sivers is an amazing self-made businessperson who founded CD Baby for independent artists in music. He writes a great blog. One of his pieces of advice is don’t tell your plans, just shut-up and do it.

It’s hopefully getting very close (and may happen at this interview’s posting), so it should be OK to tell this: Design Feast has been redesigned and will launch soon. I’ve cobbled the site together myself up to this point, which is why it remains a read-only site, and it was time for an upgrade. Megan Coleman, my designer-developer-diva, has been doing the development for the new site. She also built Design Thought Leader and my personal site. She has strong coding chops and is great to work with.

The web is like the ocean which makes me feel very small. Discovery begets discovery. I’m humbled by awesome people and their passion-projects expressed and shared online. I want to keep celebrating creative voices and work, to discover more people’s fire in the belly. I intend to grow Design Feast in the present tense but grounded in precedence. I want to keep discovering and curating as much as possible, and also feed meaningful by-products that come from working on Design Feast and its related initiatives.

I started Design Feast with these things in mind :

• Lobby design as a practice of good will in making our world a better place.
• Feed the curiosity about design and its promise to realize positive actions and outcomes.
• Facilitate the daily work of an aspiring or practicing designer of any design discipline.

If Design Feast is part of your virtual shelf, I’ll do by best to keep celebrating and serving creative culture. This is for long-term cultivation (like a bonsai) and hopefully for everyone’s joy and use.

Thank you, Adam, for this interview! Appreciate it.

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Photograph of book Thought Leadership by Design by Michelle Litvin.
Image of Paul Rand by Nate Burgos.


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