Alex Duloz on The Pastry Box Project

The Pastry Box Project provides an insight into the minds of those at the forefront of the web design industry. Creator Alex Duloz explains his views on diversity in the industry, how he's planning to make the writings into a book and how TV show Madmen inspired him to start the project

.net: What were you setting out to accomplish when you started The Pastry Box Project?
AD: I was in a Madmen run when the idea of The Pastry Box Project started to take shape. This TV show, probably one of the most subtle and well written aired to this day, often got me thinking about how interesting it would be to have direct access to the thoughts of 1960s advertising executives about their jobs and what they were doing.

Those people were defining a large portion of what their day and age was becoming (for better or worse) and I wanted to know if they were fully aware of the extent to which they were helping to shape the daily experience of millions of people, and, if so, how they felt about it. I had read some memoirs and some interviews, but that wasn't the raw material I was looking for. I wanted the right-now-in-the-heart-of-it kind of thinking.

I realised I could gather the material I dreamed of while watching Madmen. I simply had to ask people to share their thoughts about their work, the industries they're developing in and themselves. I logically picked the web industry, in a broad sense, with a focus on UX and design, as it deeply shapes the everyday experience of our times.

.net: How do you feel about how things turned out during this first year?
AD: I feel absolutely great. I mean, who wouldn't want to drive such an amazing vehicle? The Pastry Box came out of the blue, and got rave reviews. People really seem to understand what I'm trying to achieve with it, which is the biggest reward of all.

Also, Ben Ward said the project led him to revive his blog; Lea Verou started a personal blog; and Rob Weychert underlined how the project was a source of productivity for him.

Plain awesome.

The beginnings weren't always easy, though. I made, what I now realise were, poor design choices and I was bashed quite severely on Twitter and Hacker News for that. But I really learnt from the criticism I've encountered.

I always find criticism, and even sarcastic, hurtful comments posted on Twitter, very interesting. I must admit I somehow enjoy them, in a strange, masochistic way. But mostly, and more seriously, I firmly believe that resounding thuds are the sound of steps taken toward completion and success.

.net: How do you select your bakers (contributors)?
AD: That is a tricky question because there is no exact answer. Instinct would be as close to a satisfying explanation as I can give you, but for a pragmatist like me, this isn't really an acceptable algorithm.

I read blogs and watch podcasts all the time, and, over the course of the year, I start having a precise idea of who's up to what, and who's finding themselves at a cornerstone of where the web platform is going, in a very, very broad sense. It sounds a lot more pompous than it is in reality, but, in all honesty, at the risk of sounding like a stuck-up jerk, that's the gist of it.

Since diversity is a hot topic in the design/web dev community right now, I'd like to say that I certainly don't select bakers based on gender, race, or age. Someone recently sent me a tweet thanking me for the solid diversity of the project, to which I replied "I wonder how it's possible *not* to achieve diversity". If you read tweets and blogs and magazines, you'll quickly notice how rich the community is. So, if your project - be it a conference, a magazine or whatever - doesn't naturally generate diversity by itself, then question it, and reshape it until it does.

While I'm on that subject, I would also like to underline that there are times when a diverse cast is impossible to achieve. If you organise a conference and you have a very low budget that prevents you from paying for transportation, and you notice you've only invited, say, "white males" (those are the words that have been used recently, right?) who are knowledgeable about the topic of your conference in the area where your event is going to take place, then you're stuck.

So, if you find yourself in such a situation, the odds are that you've just put your finger on a social issue in your community. If you can confirm that it's indeed the case (there aren't only "white males" who could potentially talk about the subject of your conference and could have access to the knowledge required to speak at your event), then act on it, try to change something and communicate about it (start a blog about what you do).

Such actions are a lot more important than having another conference about some programming language.

.net: You're also behind One Two One Two Microphone Check (Ototmc)! How does what you capture here differ from what you get at The Pastry Box?
AD: I'm very happy you used the word "capture", as it defines my intentions behind those two projects perfectly. With Ototmc, I'm trying to get a sense of a person to which, as a reader, you can directly relate. With The Pastry Box Project, I'm trying to capture something more evanescent: an industry, and, through it, a facet of our day and age.

.net: What's the thinking behind dividing an online publication into issues?
AD: Since time is an important component of both Ototmc and The Pastry Box, it made sense to section content into issues. But it's really not different from the classical monthly or yearly archives you will find on most blogs.

.net: Why did you decide to make The Pastry Box into a book?
AD: During 2012, I received a few emails asking me if The Pastry Box would become a book, and telling me that such a move would be great. When I talked to the bakers about the idea they really liked it. And so... it was on.

Making a book in our day and age is quite adventurous, though. At the moment, I have absolutely no idea if it's going to work out or not. But the point is: if more than one of your users requests a feature then you should try to add that feature. If readers of The Pastry Box request a book, I want that feature to have a chance to be included in the project.

The funding campaign is a question to our audience: is the website enough or would they like us to seal its content in a paper version? I think it's better to ask such questions through a full-fledged funding campaign than through a poll. At least you know where you stand. If it's a "yes", then the feature will be included (we'll publish the book); if it's a "no", then we'll stick to the digital version, which is quite awesome as it is. It's worth a try, anyway.

.net: Coordinating a project involving lots of people who all have a stake is a notoriously tricky undertaking. Have you encountered any organisational challenges or has it mainly been plain sailing?
AD: Take 30 people, 365 days and the expectation of having 365 articles delivered, and shake all that up: you do indeed get quite a complex equation. But the coordination of the project's content has never been a challenge - at least not in a negative way. It's a constant pleasure to get in touch with the bakers, who are all incredibly nice people, and who really made it easy for editor, Katy Watkins, and me to not have a single 'blank' day since the project launched.

I'm more than happy to pay tribute here to the almighty Katy for her incredible job helping me with The Pastry Box. Actually, "helping me" is a very poor choice of words given the work she does, and I now feel that the project is as much hers as it is mine. Given her calmness, steadiness and reliability, I can picture her making her way very far in the editorial world, or wherever she wants to be, for that matter.

.net: Why did you decide to create your own crowd-funding platform, Backified?
AD: Since royalties are going to the Red Cross, I wanted to make sure that, in the event the book gets funded, we would spend as little as possible on third-party fees.

I was inspired by the guys at Lockitron. I love people who are not afraid of reinventing the wheel, who have acknowledged that creativity doesn't come 'ex-nihilo' but from refining and developing existing concepts. Look at what Lea Verou has done with Dabblet. It's definitely one of the most amazing apps out there, and she started it when jsFiddle was already big.

.net: Who else do you expect will use Backified?
AD: It's an open-source project. I am documenting it at the moment and anyone will be able to download it and use it for their own campaign once it's open-sourced, which will happen shortly after the Pastry Box campaign ends. Its templating structure is really similar to that of Wordpress so many users should feel at home. I'm happy I resisted the temptation of going the Node.js-command-line-elitist way. Going back to PHP, which I never completely left, was a nice and refreshing experience.

I have already received emails asking me if Backified will host campaigns. It's a tempting idea. But if I go that way, it's going to be a completely different model from, say, Kickstarter, which is already an absolutely awesome, complete project.

Only the future will tell.

You can read more of Alex's thoughts on his website, and find him on Twitter at @alexduloz