ZURB – The Company That is Constantly Learning

ZURB – The Company That is Constantly Learning

An Interview With Bryan Zmijewski, Chief Instigator at ZURB

After chatting with Bryan Zmijewski, it became clear to me that he is obsessed with constantly learning and making sure that the same holds true for everyone at his company ZURB. Even his parting words to me reflected this. He said that he was looking forward to reading the final blog post and seeing what I learned and took away from our interview – as opposed to seeing how he and his company were depicted in the post.

In this interview we discuss how ZURB keeps learning new things and shares them with their clients and the design community at large. We’ll also talk about a unique annual event where they donate their special expertise to help charitable organizations reach their goals.


HostAdvice: When and why did you decide to form ZURB?

My first real job was being a toy inventor, so I got my start in designing physical products.  Then the Internet came along and I suddenly had the opportunity to develop more meaningful products that would connect and affect a lot of people.

The challenge, of course, is that developing for the web demands much shorter development cycles.

I founded ZURB in 1998 and today we have about 30 employees and specialize in developing digital products and components.  What that usually means is complex web sites with an integral mobile component.  We don’t get involved in the back-end processing elements.

HostAdvice:  What does the name ZURB stand for?

Nothing really.  I originally wanted ZBDesign (ZB are my initials backwards), but that domain was already taken.  So I went with ZURB.

ZURB Office

HostAdvice: You spent nine years as a design lecturer at Stanford University – how did that influence you?

My focus at Stanford was on product conceptualization. This really helps you to learn about yourself, your media, and what your users really need.  I always learned how important it is to have a learning organization – an organization that is always learning and discussing new ideas.

HostAdvice: What’s the story behind your title of “Chief Instigator”?

I see my main job as being responsible for getting people riled up about what they need to be learning. I suppose I could also be called the CCO – Chief Curiosity Officer.

HostAdvice: Your site proclaims that “We’re a team of T-shaped product design experts with a bold mission: Change the way people design connected products and services” - What exactly does that mean?

All of our team members are expected to develop proficiency horizontally and not just in their narrow, vertical areas of expertise. By doing so, we all work together as a team, rather than just completing our own individual tasks and then “throwing them over the wall.”

ZURB at Work

HostAdvice: What is your “Progressive Design” Methodology?

Progressive Design is a system of tools, processes and methods built from our two decades of experience helping companies design better products and services. It brings entire organizations, not just designers, into the process of solving problems and moving projects forward – led by design.

In Progressive Design, there are two main elements: a flight plan and jumps. The flight plan is the overall process – the project plan.   It is made up of a series of jumps. Each jump is an iterative design step addressing a specific problem or issue and lasts 2-3 days.  A project flight plan will typically be a 10-week plan consisting of 20-30 jumps.

The jumps within a flight plan go through three different phases:

  1. Lift   -   Framing of the problem.
  2. Leap – Assessing opportunities.
  3. Land – Implementation / Production / Delivery


HostAdvice: In some ways, it seems like there isn’t all that much new in your process – more like back to the fundamentals and REALLY sticking to them.

It’s actually not that simple. There currently isn’t a standard methodology for the design phase.  We have the Lean methodologies for focusing on the user and the Agile methodologies for product delivery. Our Progressive Design offers a structured, unified, and interactive methodology for product design.

HostAdvice: You say that you set up your business to operate in four, self-supporting ways – What are those four ways?

Our four pillars of services are:

  1. Studios – Working with your team to solve design problems of all types
  2. Notable – Our product design platform to support Progressive Design
  3. Foundation – Our free, open source, responsive front-end HTML framework
  4. University – Online courses, so you can learn product design at your own pace

ZURB - 4 Pillars

HostAdvice: In what you call your “Playground” you offer free downloads of many of your technology developments.  Why do you do that? What types of things do you offer there?

We do that because we are constantly learning and trying out new things.  We want to share what we are “playing” with, so that we can learn what customers really care about.

In general, these developments are core to the projects we are working on.  We can do this without any complaints from our clients since our billing is project-based, not hourly based.  In that way, they get the benefits of our experimentation and learning “for free.”

Our playground projects are quite varied and include:

  • Motion UI – A library for creating custom CSS transitions and animations
  • Pizza Pie Charts – For creating responsive pie charts for any device
  • Responsive Tables and Email Templates
  • Orbit – A lean jQuery Slider Plugin

Some of our playground projects graduate into actual products (both free and paid).  One example is Strike, a tool for managing collaborative task lists. Why is it called Strike?  “Just line ’em up and knock ’em down!”

Our first, and perhaps our most successful, playground graduate is Notable – a product design platform  that enables teams to quickly and easily capture webpages and give feedback.  This has evolved into a full-fledged SaaS product that is currently being used by over 500 agencies.

HostAdvice: How would you describe your typical client and your typical project?

We work on about 100 projects per year, of which 80-85% are US-based.

Our typical client/project is one that is facing a significant design challenge.  They realize that they must do something new to grow their business and are struggling to figure out how to move their business forward. The fundamental question that we work to answer is: How do we provide more value to the customer?

HostAdvice: Every year, ZURB works with a nonprofit team and a few volunteers to quickly develop an entire marketing campaign.  Please tell me about that.

We call this ZURB Wired and we are sponsoring our ninth event this year.  This is an amazing experience where we work for 24 hours straight, dedicating our entire team and resources to help a specific charity reach their current goals. We aim to make a significant impact and have succeeded in helping these organizations to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and to affect the lives of thousands of people.

It is a very intense 24 hour period. The chosen organization must commit to having a core team of 5-10 people participate for the whole day, including a stakeholder who will stay and make quick decisions.  They must be motivated to make a lot of change in a very short amount of time.

Every one of our employees is involved in this project – from 8:00 AM Thursday morning until 8:00 AM Friday morning (and then goes home for a long weekend). We are all hands-on and at the end of the day there are hard deliverables, such as new campaign concepts and print collateral.

ZURB Wired

HostAdvice: What are your projections for your future growth?

For me, growth is not about headcount, but it is about impact.  We want to continue to grow our leadership in design via the use of the Progressive Design methodology.

HostAdvice: How do you see design evolving – in the next 1, 2, and 5 years?

I see designing evolving from a production approach to a strategic approach – that is core to the business. There are not yet a lot of systems or methodologies to make that happen, but there will be.  We believe that Progressive Design is a first step to help companies embrace design as a strategic process.

HostAdvice: How many hours a day do you usually work? What do you like to do when you are not working?

It varies somewhat from season to season.  During the year, I start my day by dropping my kids off at school on my way to the office.  I’ll typically work in the office from 8:45 to 6:30 or 7:30 in the evening, but as a business owner you never really stop working… I try to find the right balance and to spend as much time as I can with my family and kids. I enjoy playing sports with my kids and I love photography – I particularly enjoy capturing (other people’s) life events.

HostAdvice: If you were asked to give the graduation address to the class of 2016, what would be your message to them?

Wow – that’s a good question.  I would tell them that it is important to experience and try a lot of different things. But don’t do it haphazardly – do it within some framework with consistency and commitment, making sure that you are always moving forward.  Frame your learning in cycles so that you know where you are going with it.

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