Interview: Ze Frank, zefrank.com
Wednesday, December 4, 2002
by Mark Hurst
Note: Ze Frank will speak at the Gel (Good Experience Live) conference, May 2003, in New York City. Details here.
Recently I interviewed Ze Frank, online performance artist and
humorist. Zefrank.com won the 2002 Webby for the best personal
website (People's Voice award). It is perhaps the single
best entertainment website I've ever seen; the sheer variety of
videos, toys, essays, and other projects - all created by Ze Frank -
show him to be a kind of genius in creating online experiences.
Q: What's your background?
After getting a BS in neuroscience from Brown University in '95, I
played in a band for three years. When we split up in '98, a lot of
unemployed musicians were getting into Web design. The obvious thing
to do at that time was to take your already tremendous credit card
debt and get one of those beige Apple Macintosh G3s and start
I started learning some code, started illustrating. Then I went to
some website where something moved and I freaked out. That's when I
got into Flash. I worked for awhile as a designer at an interactive
agency, and eventually went freelance. I found myself confronting
the inevitable freelance challenge: how to deal with downtime. So I
started playing. I built "Meine Kleine Drawtoy," a rudimentary drawing
tool, and "Your Mama," a basic motion sequencer. That was the
beginning of zefrank.com.
Q: How did How to Dance Properly come about?
About a month before my 29th birthday, I aggressively launched a
campaign for my friends to come to my birthday party. I had just
bought a digital video camera, and I was trying to think of
something I could do with that, to learn more about putting video
My idea for the birthday invite was to create rudimentary video
clips of me dancing like a jackass. So I set up the camera, and for
about 15 minutes I spazzed out to Madonna's "Justify My Love" remix
CD. I imported it and chopped it into pieces, and made each dance
look like a loop. I wrote some fake critical responses and posted it
all on my site as "How to Dance Properly." I sent the link to 17
That was on a Thursday afternoon. I went out to dinner, and when I
came back, I was getting an e-mail every three or four minutes from people
I didn't know, saying, "I love this, who are you?" So that was
The next morning I woke up and found that the site was shut down. I
had a warning from Earthlink saying "we shut your site down as a
precaution, blah blah blah" because it was a free-hosting site. I
started calling Earthlink, and eventually they agreed put the site
back up, with a banner on the page.
When I went out Friday night, all my friends already knew about it.
I walked into the bar, and my friend said, "Hey, it's the dancing
guy," and some random woman turned around and said, "You saw that
link too?" Meanwhile, I was getting e-mails from people from all
walks of my life. Ex-girlfriends were writing me. My dad even got
the link from a colleague in Brazil before I told him about it. By
Monday it was getting over a million people a day, and I was getting
over seven e-mails a minute.
One of the first things I thought was, "How do I capitalize on
this?" But I was diverted from that model. A salesman friend of mine
told me, "I could make you $20,000 over six months, but that might
sacrifice some other good that could come to you." I was very aware
that something humorous and intelligent can become smarky once you
slap a Coke banner alongside it.
Q: What came after How to Dance?
The mass influx of e-mails I got gave me a lot of ideas. This one
woman's mother was fascinated with the kaleidoscope, so I created
three digital kaleidoscopes for her, including a "build your own"
version. Then this little girl and her family were on the site, and
this girl Ella asked her mom, "Where are all the animal noises?" The
family wrote me that, so I created this thing called Animal Noises
for Ella. Lots of other projects came from those early e-mails.
A lot of the projects have a humorous shell. It's an easy way to get
people involved, excited about submitting things. Like "When Office
Supplies Attack," I asked people to send me pictures of them getting
attacked by office supplies. Today that's the fourth most popular
thing on the site. At one point a few months ago, Office Supplies
was getting 30,000 visits a day.
Once I get enough responses, I display the project with little or no
explanation of what it is. I set the rule up, run the project, and
then strip the rules away. People come to the site and see this huge
page of pictures showing people being attacked by office equipment,
and they have no idea what it is.
So it's been an experiment in rules, generating rule sets that allow
for enough variety. Most people entering aren't artists, animators,
or even Web people. They're just common, average everyday computer
users. The rules have to be inviting and easy so that I can have
kids and older people do it, users who don't know as much, but they
have to be interesting enough to allow creativity to filter into it.
I just think it's so neat to be able to motivate people into doing
something that's joyous and fun.
Q: You don't often hear "joy" when people talk about user
There's a stylistic choice behind what I do on the site. I decided
early on never to talk down to anyone. Even though my style of humor
is sarcastic and dry, I tried to keep that out of the site. I wanted
to keep the feeling light and fun.
There's the joyous sense of experimentation and play, which goes
against a very popular form of humor these days, which is unlimited
up-scale sarcastic anger, I guess. I happen to think it's very
funny. I'm a huge South Park fan, and I really enjoyed the Jackass
movie. On the other hand, I think there's a real lack of humor that
has a kind of sweetness, like what the Marx Brothers had, or Laurel
and Hardy. There needs to be a space for that more simple, fun,
light, and intelligent humor.
Q: Can you think of contemporary examples in that camp, as opposed
to the South Park camp?
I love explodingdog.com, what Sam Brown does. The drawings and the
way that he interacts with his audience are along the lines of what
we're talking about.
The Muppet Show would be a great example of what I'd ultimately want
to achieve, that split-level approach where you provide things
immediately funny and appealing, but intelligent enough for people
to guffaw at, on that other level.
Q: There's a similar spirit on zefrank.com. It's not sarcastic or
Part of that comes from risk-taking. My most popular pieces were the
ones I was afraid of releasing. "How to Dance" I only released to 17
people. My stomach churned before I released it because I look like
a total ass in it. There was this "wingin' it" kind of feeling. A
lot of people write to me imagining that I have this free joyous
life, where I just dance through life, creating projects.
Q: What actually motivates you, then?
Anxiety drives me. The only time that I'm really happy is generally
when I'm two-thirds the way through a project. Not after I complete
it, because then it's gone - and not when I start it, because I'm
daunted by it. I love being in the middle of making something,
feeling like it's almost done. The great way to achieve that is to
do a lot of small projects. The longer you work on a project, the
more polish you want, a lot of the quick and dirty personality
leaves the project. Anyone who's done design for larger websites
knows, the larger the project, the less personality it has
intrinsically, because of the rules and limitations that crop up.
Q: That raises an interesting question. How do you design corporate
experiences in your for-pay work?
I don't think that there is or should be as much room to bring your
personality into corporate design. You need to focus on elegant
solutions. You should be happy with something that strips away a lot
of the crap, says something in half as many words.
Unless you're an agency given the task of infusing a personality
into a brand, when you design sites, the brand is already out there,
and the client's bureaucracy has a kind of personality that it has
somehow agreed upon. It's your job just to find out what they
respond to, and repeat it right back to them.
In general, I don't have many clients where I say, "Here's your
personality, hope you like it." Usually they say they want "fun and
lively" and you say, "You're an architecture firm specializing in
psychiatric wards." That actually happened, by the way. If you
listen closely, all they mean is adding a couple shades of red into
their site, because their idea of what fun is so different - the
words are just failing them.
Q: So you create zefrank with a different sense than your corporate
I think they're kind of opposed. The stuff that I'm doing on
zefrank, I'd love for it not to influence designers commercially,
but just help people in how they think about making things, to show
people that really simple things, when done with care and
enthusiasm, can become incredible. They can be so much fun.
Q: What's next for zefrank.com?
Currently I'm working on a series of digital puppets that respond to
eq levels in MP3 tracks. Overall, things have slowed down a bit in
terms of how many things I've put up, mainly because the site
management has increased, just maintaining all the galleries and the
contests. The next big phase will have a lot more video. They'll be
skit-based, improv-based videos. I'm taking an improv comedy class,
and I want to practice on everyone.
P.S. Ze (pronounced "Zay", short for Hosea) will be speaking at the
Gel conference in May.
- - -
Get Good Experience by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- - -
Interview Patterns, Gel Patterns
These recent interviews have gotten more attention than any other
set of pieces ever published in this newsletter. (In fact, they have contributed to
a Good Experience subscriber list now over 55,000.)
Consider the patterns:
- Google's Marissa Mayer pointed out that "If you have usability
without a useful product, you don't really have much," and explained
why advertisers love the text-only ads.
- Amazon's Maryam Mohit talked about her company's relentless focus
on the "360-degree experience," shared throughout all parts of the
company... not to mention the underwear joke:
- And today we heard from Ze Frank, who talked about the "joy" he
puts into, and gets out of, his creative work. As he said, we need more experiences like that.
Here's the hitch: all three will be speaking at the Gel conference,
next May in New York City. This is the last week to order discounted
tickets - only $395, if you buy the ticket on or before Thursday,
It will be a fun time, it's a great price, it gives you a New York
weekend... but more importantly, can you afford to miss the
knowledge, the experience, the networking, all the value of the Gel
Get that ticket now for the lowest price, before the price goes up after December 12.
P.S. Sam Brown, the explodingdog.com creator who Ze Frank mentioned
in the interview, is also speaking at Gel.
Gel conference details
Back to Good Experience
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Get e-mail updates of goodexperience.com: e-mail email@example.com
Copyright 1999-2003, Good Experience, Inc.