Making "all the world's art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection" would be an incredibly ambitious goal for any company—let alone one founded in a Princeton dorm room. But that’s exactly where computer science major Carter Cleveland began tinkering with the idea for Artsy, the leading online platform for art education and collecting, where students, collectors, and other art lovers come together to connect with over 2,000 top galleries and 260 top museums, foundations, and artists' estates. Aiding Cleveland in this endeavor is Robert Lenne, a product designer-turned Artsy’s Head of Design, who has been at the forefront of the digital design world for well over a decade.
We spoke with Lenne to find out more about his design philosophy, the challenges of experiencing art in a virtual environment, and why Artsy’s next move will be into the real world.
Interview by Jennifer Wood (@j_m_wood)
In your opinion, what are the key elements of good design in the digital sphere?
I think that, especially in digital channels, it’s important to first focus on making things that are actually useful—services and products that people want and need—and then focus on making it usable and beautiful. If you go back even 10 or 15 years, you’ll see that design was all about how something looks, and that has really evolved. There’s a famous quote from Steve Jobs that “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Which is very true. But I also think that design serves a role. You have to understand what people need, how they behave, and what kinds of services and products they need in their lives. And you can use the design process to figure that out.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you see most often today in terms of the ways in which other companies approach design, especially in the digital world?
In terms of design in the world today, and in companies that are digitally-driven, there are a lot of components and you need to be good at a lot of types of design. So you have the brand and communication aspect, then you have to figure out which services to develop and what your customers or users need, and then you need to figure out the overall user experience, right down to really understandable UI design and great visual design. Getting all of this right is very hard, and there are very few companies that can do all of it well.
What is Artsy’s design philosophy?
It really goes back to what I was talking about earlier: Design having a role in defining what the company actually does. A lot of people talk about “design-driven companies” and what that means. I think that design is the most important factor; that it’s actually a tool for shaping a company, shaping a culture, and determining how you go about solving problems.
Artsy sets itself apart because of its dual focus on design and science. Can you talk a bit about this concept and why it’s so revolutionary?
We often talk about Artsy as the meeting point between art and science, and that’s quite literal. We have people from very strong engineering and technology backgrounds who have a deep interest in art. So we have engineers on our team who are actually active artists represented by galleries; they exist on Artsy the service, and they’re also building the Artsy product. On the other side, we have art historians who are highly analytical and who are using technology and collaborating with data scientists to draw out insights that haven’t necessarily been possible or common in their field before. As a designer that’s very exciting, because I’ve always seen design as sitting on the intersection between art and science. Being able to collaborate with my colleagues and work in that kind of environment is very special.
You’ve served as the company’s Head of Design since 2011. What exactly does that entail and what is a typical day like for you?
In the early days, when we first started, it was only me. So a lot of my work was building out the initial version of our website and our app. We’re still a small design team—just four people—so a lot of my time is spent making sure that the team is set up for success. We run a fairly studio-like environment, similar to a traditional design studio or design school, where we do a lot of critiquing of each other’s work and bouncing ideas off of each other. So we really try to create and encourage that kind of environment… I still do a fair amount of hands-on design work, which is always fun and really stimulating.
In the past, there’s been some debate within the art world about the use of web technology, most specifically because it’s not always easy to capture the texture and very specific elements that one pays attention to when looking at a piece of art in the real world. How have you addressed these issues?
We do a lot of practical things to make the experience as good as possible. We make sure that we have really high-resolution images and that we have the technology to support that at a scale. For example, one of the things that’s been holding a lot of organizations back is that they’ve been worried about their images being distributed, so we have several methods for protecting all of the images on our platform. This is especially important for photography. If you look at a photo by Gregory Crewdson or Cindy Sherman on Artsy, it’s actually split up into thousands of small images and we watermark all of them. We also try to get really good installation shots and we try to show two-dimensional works to scale, so that you get a real sense of the artwork.
Ultimately, it’s a very different way of consuming art and it’s not a replacement for seeing art in the physical space. We think that people should still go and see art, and having access to images and information about art will encourage them to do so. However, there are benefits to Artsy’s environment. Like, I think seeing so many examples of one artist’s work all together tells a different story about their practice and the idea that they’re engaging with in a way that you wouldn’t experience if you were seeing just a handful of their works. On Artsy you can see works by Richard Prince spanning many decades, next to bodies of work by related artists like Barbara Kruger, and Robert Longo. The ability to do that with any artist is very powerful. And as soon as you discover something on Artsy, you can learn more about the work or the artist.
You guys have partnered with hundreds of the world’s most prestigious art museums, galleries, fairs, and even private collectors. In the beginning, was there any trepidation on the part of these types of institutions in taking part in this kind of project?
Bringing together art from lots of different places is a requirement to make the service work, so we’re partnering with a lot of different entities, and each one has its own needs and concerns. So whatever the concerns of museums or galleries have been, we’ve addressed them a little bit individually. Different organizations are using the platform for different reasons: Museums are there because they believe in the educational mission of the service. They also want to promote their programming and exhibitions and engage with new audiences. Galleries want to promote the artists that they represent and their shows and work. There are a lot of regional art fairs that see Artsy as a way of connecting with a global audience, and international fairs that see it as a way of connecting with anyone who’s not there physically at the fair.
How has the way in which enthusiasts and collectors engage with art changed as technology has become more of an omnipresent force?
As you might suspect, people are engaging with art in digital forms more and more. I think that there’s probably always been a need for this, but there have been a limited amount of organizations like Artsy that are putting in the time and work that is required to make that happen. So we like to see that we’ve been a part of that [shift]. Our users are repeating our original motivation for doing this back to us, without us prompting them. So someone will tell us, “You know I wasn’t really into art. I thought it was pretty intimidating and didn’t know where to start. But then I fell into Artsy and really started exploring these connections.” It’s almost like we paid them to say it. [Laughs]
They’re right—art can be a very intimidating thing for people who don’t have a background in it. Artsy really helps to democratize the art form, and the app is a big part of that. You’ve talked about the idea of “disappearing interfaces” as a key component in the design of your app. Can you explain this a little bit more, and what that means in both the design process and end user experience?
Making the interface disappear, on a very practical level, is just focusing on the content and making sure that you’re really designing around the content instead of fitting the content into the design. On a more abstract level, it’s making sure that the user doesn’t think about the interface; that they’re just going through the experience seamlessly. It’s making sure that they’re thinking about the art and not the app that they’re using.
Even the Artsy branding disappears once you get into the app, which is a bold—and, to some companies, possibly counterintuitive—move. Was that a tough decision to make?
It wasn’t tough because from the very early days we’ve always said that Artsy is an “enabling” brand; we want to be the platform and we want to provide the helpful service. Not pushing our own branding is just a physical manifestation of that.
One of the benefits of the online medium is that it gives you extremely detailed information about your customers—what they want, what they don’t want, where they’re located, etc. What are some of the most surprising things you learned about the typical Artsy user?
Maybe the most profound thing we’ve learned is that there isn’t a typical Artsy user. [Laughs] People have different relationships to art—different knowledge levels and different preferences—so their behaviors and needs are all different from each other.
Which must prove to be a bit of a challenge from a design and development standpoint. How do you deal with having to create a single product for so many different types of users?
It’s probably one of the toughest design challenges at Artsy. So we find ways to help people state where they’re at, both explicitly and implicitly, and we personalize the experience somewhat to them. When you sign up, you have the opportunity to say how you’d like to use the platform, for example, if you collect art or are interested in collecting art, and that will affect which services we highlight for you.
How much of the company’s focus is on discovering art versus purchasing it?
We’ve always had this dual mission that Artsy is for both learning about and collecting art. Which has been perplexing for some people, because traditionally these two experiences have been seen as very separate. We think there’s a lot of benefit in collecting it all onto one platform. If you can get all the world’s art into one place, including what’s for sale at galleries and art fairs, that’s an amazing educational tool. And from a commercial standpoint, if we make more people educated and excited about art, there’s going to be a percentage of those people who will come to be interested in supporting artists by purchasing their work.
In addition to the app, what are some of the projects and developments you’ve worked on at Artsy of which you’re most proud?
We did something really interesting earlier this year with The Armory Show in Manhattan. We’ve been partnering with art fairs for a while, which is a really great way of getting a lot of new art onto the platform, and the value to the user is that they can preview the art fair beforehand and inquire about artworks remotely on Artsy. We expanded that this year with The Armory Show, as we wanted Artsy to be valuable when you were there in the physical space, so you could use your preferences on Artsy—artists you follow or works you’ve saved—to get a personalized guide to the fair. Art fairs can be very overwhelming, so what you got was a map of the fair with all the artists that you follow and your recommendations highlighted, so you could use that as your little guide and you could save them as you found them throughout the fair. This could be expanded out into larger environments, like even a city; if you’re in Chelsea, for example, we can use the Art Genome Project—the characteristics we’ve entered in about every artwork—and your preferences to tell you which shows you should see.
Making all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection is an ambitious goal. Are there any new products, developments, or partnerships you guys are working on right now to help further that endeavor?
We recognize that experiencing art doesn’t always necessarily happen on the Internet or in front of a computer. So we want to continue to be helpful in the physical space and we think there are tons of interesting things we can do there as a technology company with all these relationships within the art industry. We’re also looking into how we can offer deeper and better storytelling about art and artists, which is going to be one of our focus areas. So we’re looking to build out the robustness of information on our artists and artworks, but also offer more current content that you can use an entry point into the art world.