Interview: Ze Frank,
Wednesday, December 4, 2002
by Mark Hurst -

Recently I interviewed Ze Frank, online performance artist and humorist. 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 starttinkering.

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

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 clips online.

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 friends.
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 strange.

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 experience.

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, 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 It's not sarcastic or demeaning.

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 sites?

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

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.