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Dick Costolo, CEO &
Doug Bowman, creative director

Dynamic Duos: Twitter’s Dick Costolo And Doug Bowman On Humanist Design

As Twitter goes public, what a former stand-up comedian CEO and a Google refugee have learned about people.

Dick Costolo, CEO
Doug Bowman, creative director

If a movie were made of Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s life, it’s likely the onetime stand-up comedian would opt to play himself. His former cohort at Chicago’s Second City, Steve Carell, would be a slam dunk for Twitter’s head creative, Doug Bowman. The wry wit with a hesitant smile is the visionary tasked with taking the design of the microblogging platform into its next phase--a very public phase.

As his boss freely acknowledges, Bowman is one of the firm’s most important employees. “Doug's sense of Twitter’s look and feel is intuitive and clever,” Costolo tells Co.Design. “I count on Doug to keep the user's perspective front and center.”

CHARACTER COUNTS

And Bowman is committed to fully fleshing out these characters, well beyond 140: “We’ve got to remember our users are human beings," he's said. "They have emotions, insecurities, passions, and desires." The humanist designer is obsessed with delivering a positive experience to the people. “The power of delight is underutilized in our profession today--we are not delighting our users enough.”

The bringer of joy to those who tweet began his career helping shape Wired’s early digital interface and identity in the mid 1990s before becoming a highly in-demand freelance designer, hired by everyone from Capgemini to Cathay Pacific to produce sites and applications.

Google managed to convince Bowman to stay on full time after one of those consulting gigs. As the first “visual designer” at the then seven-year-old company, he spearheaded a cross-departmental examination that redefined the visual brand experience for the search giant. His disillusionment at its data-driven approach to design was evident (and widely noted) when Bowman announced a move from Google to a scrappier firm--Twitter.

“I had a recent debate over whether a border should be three, four, or five pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that,” he explained at the time, shifting his message from "Goodbye, Google" to "Hello, Twitter": “I see lots of potential to directly impact and to help shape the Twitter brand.”

BIRDWATCH

His new role was to include everything from design strategy to general UI changes, often steered by a careful sifting of the Twittersphere: Bowman regularly reads and analyzes tweets containing the phrases “wish Twitter had” or “wish Twitter would” to cull ideas from its users.

He even daringly meddled with the bird-in-the-hand of Twitter’s logo, calling the redesign “the ultimate representation of freedom, hope, and limitless possibility.” When he pointed out that the new bird was built on the geometry of overlapping circles (say, of interests, peers, friends, networks, etc.), the reference to a particular past employer was obvious.

It’s easy to see how his playful jab would resonate with Costolo, whose debut tweet as an employee in September 2009 was the larkish “First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Task #1: undermine CEO, consolidate power.“ Just over a year later, of course, he would indeed oust that CEO and take over the still-fledgling company.

MICROBLOG, MACRO LEAPS

The lanky, bald computer science grad says he often calls on his training in improv and comedy when managing the company. For example, he has referenced a director who chastised his troupe for going the lazy way, always setting sketches in apartments or laundromats, and called on them “to make bigger choices. Take courageous risks.” Sure, that advice was originally intended to steer Costolo into being an astronaut or an elf on a dude ranch or something. But today, the same mantra helps him take macro leaps in the microblogging business. He even created--and still personally teaches--a management class for newly hired middle rankers that’s aimed at making them challenge habits picked up at workplaces past.

That focus on people and their ability to transform (themselves, their industries, the Internet) in exciting ways is what binds Bowman and Costolo’s visions so closely together. Or as the lead designer has said, “Showing people you’re listening to them can turn around their perception of you.”

Read more pairings from Fast Company's 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:

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