Design & Art Direction | Thoughts
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Peter Theil’s essay on distribution is one of the most important business essays I’ve ever come across. After reading it I see distribution everywhere I look.

While Peter’s essay is fairly thorough here are some other forms of distribution it doesn’t mention.


My gym is gross. It has only two stars on Yelp. The treadmills are frequently broken and the AC works in fits.

But it’s adjacent to the 31 story office building where I work. So it’s extremely convenient. My coworkers and I use the gym despite it’s flaws.

Many years ago, I imagine there must have been a discussion between the gym owners about whether the lease amount was worth the price. I’d argue their decision to do it has guaranteed the gym’s success more than any decision made since.

Sometimes just being near people is all your business needs. 


We live in an attention economy. Twitter, broadcast news, apps – they all compete for our eyeballs. But with so much noise its difficult for people to remember your product.


Websites and apps are particularly vulnerable because they’re islands unto themselves with no distribution. If I visit everyday, I don’t pass by along the way. 

But if you can consistently capture people’s attention, thats a distribution strategy that might keep you relevant.

Jason Calicanis also knows the importance of attention. His podcast, This Week in Startups has not been a financial success but it’s done wonders for his career as an angel investor. It’s actually boosted his net worth more than his other (successful) business ventures:

@mtgentry81 y

— jason (@Jason)
November 13, 2014

His podcast gets him early access to talented entrepreneurs. And when those entrepreneurs are ready to raise money, Jason is one of the first people they think of to ask. He stays on people’s minds.


Many start ups in Silicon Valley want to disrupt higher education. If Wikipedia can replace Britannica, the thinking goes, online learning will replace physical schools.

But schools have the hidden advantage of distribution. Their process of teaching, (while not more efficient), is more effective than online learning.

Let’s compare:

Online: Fact (A) goes from the screen, into the students brain. 

University: Fact (A) goes from the textbook, through the teacher,  into the students brain. 

The difference is that middle step and it’s important. The teacher is a proxy for self discipline.

Students are human. And for most of them, it’s much easier to outsource the learning process to a teacher so they can focus on the course work at hand.

Looking back at my own design eduction, I probably could have bought the same books that were assigned in school and taught myself. But I wouldn’t have known what to focus on. Nor did I have the discipline.

I had no idea what typography was. But I had a teacher who did. She knew how important it was and she pushed me to learn it. Plus I was in a class with 30 other kids learning typography, so what the hell else was I going to do during that time?

Contrast that with online learning.  It requires you to have the discipline of the teacher while also playing the student. You’re the drill instructor and the cadet. 

Learning is difficult. It hurts a little. The classroom environment transfers knowledge to your brain in a way that requires less discipline than if you were to teach yourself. Thats why they have a better distribution strategy than web based platforms.


What happens when two companies with distribution in different verticals partner up? TMZ and Starline Tours did just that.

TMZ is a brand that people associate with celebrity. And Starline has a fleet of vehicles and guides that give tours of famous people’s homes. They combined the consumer facing brand of TMZ with the logistical network of Starline Tours and got something bigger than either could have built on their own.

It’s a particularly savy move by TMZ because it appears they just lent out their name.  

When distribution is taken away

Not long ago Oprah was the queen of daytime television. She had a remarkable 25 year run at ABC and picked up 14 Emmy’s along the way.


She definitely had product market fit. 

But in 2010 she quit her show. She wanted control of the product and distribution. She wanted to BE ABC.

Fast forward to present day and we’ve witnessed a rocky transition. OWN was finally profitable last year but her personal influence has waned considerably.

Is Oprah less likable than she was a few years ago? No. She just lacks distribution. She underestimated the platform that ABC provided and now Ellen has replaced her. 

If someone, a product, as compelling as Oprah can fade that quickly without distribution, what hope does your company have?

I’ve been freelancing on Wilshire Blvd, about a block away from where Biggie was shot. It’s a busy street with lots of foot traffic, which is nice because you don’t experience that much in LA.

Our building is 6 stories tall. Each floor has a shared restroom but the doors are always locked. The owners of the building want to deter passersby from entering, so they lock the bathroom doors and give each tenant a key. 

It sucks. I hate asking for the key every day, essentially announcing that I have to poop.

 Locked bathrooms are common around the city especially in gas stations and fast food joints. For the owners, inconveniencing customers with a bathroom key is better than dealing with a trashed restroom. 

I’m drawn to situations like these. Where bureaucratic rules are at odds with the rights of the users who have to live with them. It’s bad design.

I’m not the only one who is annoyed. To my delight, one our of our neighbors has revolted. Every monday morning he tapes the door so it can’t stay locked. But then every weekend the cleaning people tear it down, presumably under orders from management.

It’s this strange bathroom themed cat and mouse game.

Here are some of his door hacks from the past few weeks:


Duct Tape on the latch:



Duct tape is an instinctive go-to solution. But the pressure from the latch pushes at the tape each time the handle turns. By tuesday the latch pushes through the tape and the door locks.

Medical/scotch tape over the latch: 



This one looks janky. The scotch tape has less give than duct tape but this breaks down in a day or two as well.

Medical tape over the latch plate hole:


This solution attacks the latch plate. If the latch can’t find it’s way into the hole, the door won’t lock. Clever! He used medical tape and something like crumbled paper in the latch hole itself. 

Unfortunately the tape was gradually scraped away by the latch and by midweek the system failed.

Two weeks ago I threw my hat in the ring. I decided to attack that stubborn latch plate. It seemed to me like a failure of materials that prevented the previous hack from working.

At first I considered a glue based solution but that violated the property owner’s rights too much. Glue was overkill. The solution had to be easily removable and also last through the week. 

After doing some research I came upon this amazing prototyping material called Instamorph. It is moldable plastic that hardens at room temperature after you heat it in water.

If I could fill in the negative space of the latch hole with hard plastic that might do the trick…


After practicing on my door at home and briefly on the plate at work, I molded together this shape: 


Voila! Perfect fit and easily removable. The latch slid over the hard plastic effortlessly.


The moldable plastic worked great all week. But in an odd twist of fate, our company moved a couple blocks away to a new location. Had we stayed there longer I could have done a 3d scan of the stopper and then 3D printed them en masse for every floor. Free stoppers for everyone!


But I’ll leave that to the next poor sap who needs to use the toilet.

From 1970 to 2000 Americans gradually stopped spending time together. They joined fewer clubs, attended fewer dinner parties, and declined invites to join the local PTA.

In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnum explained this decline in social capital was due in large part to increases in TV viewership. Television was such a compelling product that we consequently spent less time cultivating relationships with our neighbors and family. 

TV had privatized leisure time.

From 1970 to 2000, the average person’s attention graph went from looking like this:


To this:


Americans gave entertainment (television) more attention at the expense of time spent with friends and family.

But as bad as this decline in social capital was for the soul of the country, each of the four categories above stayed neatly in its own silo. Back then, choosing television over playing bridge with friends was very much an either/or decision.

Not anymore.

In 2011 our attention is more sought after than ever and technology (namely cell phones), enable friends, family, and websites to reach us anytime. Physical and digital requests for attention now blend together and elbow one another for space.

Some examples:

  • When Fred Wilson’s wife checks twitter during family time. (Her kids say she’s ‘there, but not really there’).
  • Reading a text while on a romantic date with your girlfriend
  • Checking personal email at the office

Nowadays our attention graph looks something like swiss cheese, with different categories intruding upon one another at small bursts throughout the day:

From Venkat’s brilliant post on the subject:

But as you find and capture most of the wild attention, new pockets of attention become harder to find. Worse, you now have to cannibalize your own previous uses of captive attention. Time for TV must be stolen from magazines and newspapers. Time for specialized entertainment must be stolen from time devoted to generalized entertainment.”

I don’t mind if Facebook steals time from magazines. But it’s troubling when it steals it from a family’s dinner time. Think of all the hours teenagers spend texting friends while out with their parents. Moments that 10 years ago would have been spent (however reluctantly) chatting and bonding.

It’s hard for mom and dad to compete with Facebook and it’s cohorts. They are battling against companies who are aggressively mapping out the human psyche in order to trigger user’s pleasure center buttons. How can dad’s cheesy jokes compete for Jr’s attention when he’s up against a small army of game psychologists who know exactly what little Timmy craves ?

Some Definitions

I think “Attention Parasite” is an accurate term for these occasions. An Attention Parasite can be defined as anytime an electronic device is used while social obligations would demand otherwise.

As seen in the previous swiss cheese diagram, these parasites cause our relationships with friends and family to become fragmented, with our days interrupted by short texts, tweets, and notifications.

What’s the end result?

I think in the same way that TV extracted value from society in the past 30 years, these Attention Parasites will continue to extract value anywhere you bring your phone. Church, Thanksgiving dinner, school. 

It may seem like a strange thing for a physical place like a church to have to compete for attention with a digital product. But imagine if half of the congregation was on Facebook during sunday morning service. It would decrease the value of going to church for the good half, because the rest of the congregation would be mentally checked out. That would severely impact the feeling of community that many people get at church.

Bit by bit the value of these arguably boring institutions will be chipped away at. Death by 1000 tweets.

Can control what we pay attention to?

It’s difficult. In the timespan from 1970 to 2000 America decided television was a more compelling product than socializing, much to the detriment of society. 

If Facebook is more engaging than grandma’s stories about the Great Depression then it wins. If personal email is more interesting than doing work it wins.

Plus it’s not always clear what deserves your attention. How do you measure the consequences of watching TV against a sunday evening chat with a neighbor? People don’t think about the long term consequences of either of those things in the moment.

I’m not sure what consequences of all this will be. I think as digital products become more compelling there will be an increase in generalized feelings of discontent since these digital products are lousy at fulfilling our hierarchy of needs. 

Can Facebook ever rival hanging out with friends in real life? Is online porn better than actual sex? Can feelings of confidence, respect, and self esteem be experienced in digital methods that rival the real world?

Maybe once we realize these digital products aren’t very emotionally fulfilling we can start to channel our attention back toward areas that are. 




The best part of the show COPS wasn’t the car chases. It wasn’t the drug busts or drunken bar fights. The best part of COPS was the pensive moments right before they cut to a commercial.

This is when someone (often an officer) would speak over their shoulder to the camera and explain the scene that just unfolded. Sometimes they were sincere. Sometimes funny. But no matter what was said, when that COPS logo appeared, it made the entire scene feel profound.

This was the basic formula:

– Close up of the interviewee

– Interviewee laments that things aren’t like the good ol’ days

– Interviewee’s voice continues as the screen fades to black

– COPS logo fades in

Practically speaking this was an effective narrative device that gave the viewer a sense of closure. But it was so much more than that. That combination of logo and voice-over somehow gave the interviewee’s words deep significance.

They didn’t have to say much. Even if Officer Smith only spoke a sentence or two about the crack epidemic, when the screen faded to black and the logo appeared, his words lingered thick with meaning. The effect gave the viewer a (perceived) deeper understanding of the event that just occurred. You didn’t need to know the background of the crack addict, or the poor economic conditions in her hometown of Detroit. You felt it.

I’m torn.

Part of me hates this all-powerful logo which supposedly creates meaning from thin air. But another part of me really likes it.

The problem is, after the logo has worked it’s magic, your new understanding about the scene you just watched isn’t true. No new facts were revealed. It just felt like it. To use an analogy, that magical COPS logo delivered the same satisfaction you’d get after reading a good book, but without having to actually read or internalize it. It’s a hollow victory.

But I still loved these transitions. I liked hearing how the officers perceived the situation (even if they were glib). And I liked thinking that the upset mom whose son was stabbed got justice (even if we never saw that her son assaulted the guy’s sister first). I liked thinking that those teenagers drinking was just a case of boys being boys (and not a result of a chaotic home life). These thoughts that the logo encouraged felt good even if they weren’t true.

I’m certain that David Foster Wallace, a self-proclaimed American culture and T.V. aficionado liked these transitions. In fact they feel strikingly familiar to the end of several chapters in Infinite Jest, where some small scene gets examined as the chapter fades to black.

Fargo too! The end of Fargo feels like the end of a COPS episode.

I don’t know why these transitions had such an effect on me. They’re unremarkable, but they work. Collectively their message is clear: It’s a rough world out there.

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