Jaime Levy’s real name is not Jaime. She won’t tell me what her real name is, only that her parents named her after a Beatles song, and that she hates the Beatles—wishes they’d never existed—and so she’s Jaime, a nod to Van Halen, of all things, and the bionic woman, Jaime Sommers, her “idol” when she was just a punk kid growing up in the haze of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Jaime Levy is, in all things, self-made. And when what she wants doesn’t exist, she makes that, too.
As a graduate student at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program in the early years of New York’s new media renaissance, she figured magazines would go electronic soon enough; in 1990, she started publishing her own interactive floppy disks, point-and-click magazines full of sound collages, rants, gig reviews, and games. The zines Cyber Rag and Electronic Hollywood made her famous in the emerging cyberculture, and when the web finally caught up, she adapted her DIY interaction design to online publishing, becoming creative director of Word.com, one of the first magazines to properly make use of the new medium’s affordances. Word was scene-altering: The first time the New York Times ran a feature on web browsers, it used Word as its example site, and even the Netscape browser had a button pointing straight to it (the button was labeled “What’s Cool?”). The site’s icon-rich design, heavy with streaming audio, experimental layouts, and interactive experiences, was so ahead of its time that it had a tendency to crash browsers.
In those days, unmistakable with bleached-blond hair and a mouth as unfiltered as her hand-rolled cigarettes, Levy called herself the “biggest bitch in Silicon Alley,” a grunge prophetess of new media who wasn’t afraid to make waves, or make money. Her clients were rock stars—a floppy disk she created for Billy Idol’s 1993 Cyberpunk album was the first interactive press kit—and corporate giants alike. Samsung once hired her to create the “Malice Palice,” a dystopian chat room modeled after a post-Fall San Francisco, full of drug-pushing zombie bots and radioactive burritos. Silicon Alley, New York’s media-centric analogue to the Bay Area’s entrepreneurial internet boom, was her playground; Many East Village artists saw the web for the first time in Levy’s Avenue A loft, on a Mac II a hacker friend connected to a 28k internet connection.
At the tail end of the dot-com bubble, she was the CEO of a “production studio for the internet” called Electronic Hollywood, where she created interactive toys for major clients and authored a 16-episode Flash cartoon called Cyberslacker about life in New York’s IPO-fueled “trendy freakout.” As one of Silicon Alley’s most visible media darlings, she crashed along with the stock market in 2000, landing back in L.A., where she now teaches UX strategy at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering.
Tell me about being a teenager in L.A. in the ’70s.
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and the two big things that shaped my teenage years happened when I was about 13: my parents split up, and I was obsessed with skateboarding. I’d ride to school, or I’d just ride to the 7-Eleven, hanging out with the guys, trying to be cool. And then at the same time, this idiot named Judge Paul Egly decided to enforce this thing called forced busing. So instead of going to the school really close to my house, I had to wake up at 6 a.m. and catch a bus and go to school in Crenshaw. I was bullied on the bus; I was literally the only girl. I spent two years there, and it gave me a very hard shell, but it also exposed me to hip hop music and break dancing. By the time I got back to being a ninth-grade “Valley Girl,” I was not the same person.
When did you find punk rock? Was that a big thing for you?
Huge. Just as I was starting high school, I had my first job at the UA6 movie theater. These were more street-smart kids, and they dragged me to a party where I heard The Specials, and ska music, and became obsessed—so obsessed with The Specials that I decided that one day if I had a son, I would name him Terry, after Terry Hall. And we know I have a son named Terry.
Then you left L.A. to go study film in San Francisco.
I immediately moved to the lower Haight and started working at Skates on Haight. Within a year, the Mac came out and I started using a computer. More importantly, I was exposed to this thing called video art. I started shooting video, and back then it was all about getting access to edit bays, which was a huge deal. You either had to intern for a film or TV company or go to a college with a proper film and video department like SF State or NYU to get access to editing suites. San Francisco State was great because I got to be around artists who were experimenting with technology just for the sake of it.
“The disks were game-changing multimedia, because I think people saw a glimpse of what the web would be.”
Lynn Hershman Leeson ran the multimedia Inter-Arts Center when you were a student at SF State. Was she an influence on your work?
She was the most famous person there, so for sure. She brought in John Sanborn and all these other video artists. And it seemed to me the hippest thing, because I wasn’t going to make straight-up television. I was producing a lot of videos for public access. Filming [live, in-studio musical performances for] everyone from Faith No More to The Beatnigs. There was so much performance art and video art and experimental stuff in San Francisco, and you could live there for no money. I think the room I rented in some big Victorian was $120 a month. I’m so happy I got to experience San Francisco before it turned into the shithole tech bro place that it is now. Back then it was just all about burritos and experimental art.
When did you start integrating computer animation into your film and video work?
Around my third or fourth year. I met this guy who had an Amiga, and he was making these animated e-zines, but he was mostly uploading them to a BBS, and the content would be things like his penis animated—it was just shock stuff. But the idea of integrating animation with the video… it was kind of a free-for-all, where you could do something that no one had done before. And then I saw this LaserDisc that was part of a museum exhibit. It was [an interactive video artwork] by Grahame Weinbren, and it was about two famous 19th-century texts, Goethe’s Erlkönig and one about the dreams analyzed by Sigmund Freud. But you could basically control the narrative by touching the screen or clicking around. I saw that and I was like, this is all I want to do with my life now.
Interactivity with video and storytelling. And someone said, “Oh well there’s this program within the graduate film school at NYU.” This was before the web, obviously, so I had to look it up on microfiche at the SF State library. I was too afraid that they wouldn’t let me in, so I decided I would just bum-rush the school. I went there just before Christmas break and it was snowing and I just walked in. I had bleached white hair. They saw me, and they were like, “What’s this person doing here?”
You eventually talked your way into a full ride at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.
I told them I couldn’t afford to go there, but that I wanted to do things with technology that no one else had done. The program was full of people paid for by Citibank to design ATM interfaces. I was pretty much the first artist. Now if you go there, it’s totally evolved into the school I wish it had been when I was there, but it doesn’t matter, because it was the only place in the world where they would let you do what you wanted to do with technology.
Cyber Rag, one of the first electronic magazines to be released on floppy, was your master’s thesis at ITP.
I learned graphic design by doing interface design. I look at Cyber Rag now and I see interactive concepts in there that I think are actually kind of interesting today: buttons that swap in and out or animate across on the screen, which is totally unacceptable for a product that’s decidedly not a game. It was in black and white, and I was stealing art from Love and Rockets, and sampling all these noise bands—it was everything about art and technology and music and storytelling and me jammed onto a floppy disk. It was so distilled, in terms of bandwidth. I didn’t think I would ever finish it because the idea of compressing all that and making it play off a floppy was stupidly ambitious. I was so far ahead of my time, for better and for worse, so I had to send the disk out to all the magazines that I respected, like Mondo 2000 and High-Performance magazine, and the editors would get them and they’d look at them and they’d be like, “What the fuck is this?” And then they’d stick it in their computer and it would explode with all this content, and then they’d write about it.
You distributed the disks in bookstores and record stores, rather than at computer meetups. I love this intuition you had to go straight to the non-computer people. Because even though it was a technological object, Cyber Rag wasn’t for the technoculture.
It wasn’t for nerds. I was using the technology, but I was making it for Gen X-ers, and Gen X-ers weren’t nerds yet. They didn’t even own computers. At best they had the Mac Plus or the Mac SE, so that’s what I made Cyber Rag for. I went to all the hipster bookstores and galleries and said, “Here’s 10.” I couldn’t demo them, but I fronted them and then they sold out. People went gaga over them because no one had seen anything like it, and they were only six bucks. Eventually I sold thousands. The disks were game-changing multimedia, because I think people saw a glimpse of what the web would be.
What did you bring to interactive media that nobody else could have brought?
Fearlessness. I’m that person that got beat up so much in junior high and just didn’t give a shit, who could walk into a school and say, “I want to come here.” Insanity, relentlessness. That’s how I am when I set my mind to something. This despite the fact that I’m a girl and I don’t code. I could communicate with developers. Before the UX methodology existed, my way of communicating interactivity to programmers was by writing out experiences as “scenes.” I would literally write things like a screenplay: screen one, this is what can happen. Life was fine for me before wireframing became this mandated tool for expression.
Can you tell me about your CyberSlacker parties?
Oh my god. What’s sad is that it was before digital cameras. It would have been way too lame to pull out a camera at one of these events because they were so cool. The first party, Phiber Optik—he was a hacker who went to jail—came over and hooked my Mac II up to probably the first 28k connection to the internet out of the East Village. I had this big ass two-story loft in the East Village. Part of the party was to show all these people the internet. They’d come to the loft, and it would be alcohol and drugs, but imagine you could go over there and see the web for the first time, and here’s DJ Spooky playing. We were all partying and hanging out and talking about tech-driven art. It was all these interdisciplinary people coming together. We did the parties at the loft for as long as we could stand it, because they just grew. It was always about people bringing their computer stuff to show off, and trying to get the East Village scene up to speed with tech.
“I was basically making websites offline.”
When did you start designing for the web? Did you get it right away?
Immediately. I was working at IBM as an interface designer and there was barely anything for us to do there. One day, my friend Kevin showed me the Mosaic browser and I just—no bullshit—walked out. I just saw a home page and I was like, “That’s my disk online.” I turned in my notice and I went home and found the one guy in New York who knew HTML and had him teach me.
It seems a lot of people in New York saw the web and realized that what you had been doing was making websites offline. They came to you because you were the established person in a field that didn’t even exist yet.
I never heard it put that way. But yeah, I was basically making websites offline. Razorfish and Word.com both came at me at once. Word was like, “We want you to be our creative director and we have $1 million.” Whereas Razorfish was like, “We’re going to make websites and you’re going to get paid in equity and be a third partner of this company.” Those were my two choices at that point. I went with Word, which was total freedom. We were the place [online] where people could come every day and see a new story that was nonlinear, with an ambient soundtrack. Every day a new technology would come out that we could leverage, like the ability to stream audio, or the ability to have an animated gif. Imagine!
After the collapse of the dot com bubble and 9/11, you came back to Los Angeles and reinvented yourself. What were those early years in L.A. like?
Horrifying. It was so bad. If I went on a job interview and if I was to pull out, “Here’s all my press from New York,” that did not go over well. Saying you were CEO of a dot-com company was not a good way to pitch yourself at that time. And because I didn’t have a portfolio of deliverables, like wireframes or site maps, I barely supported myself. I detoured to DVD authoring and design, but the only place that would hire me was a porn place. For six weeks, my job was basically to scrub through videos looking for the cum shots. To be making minimum wage in a shitty part of the Valley timecode logging pornography… I fell pretty hard.
You had been like a rock star in New York.
And a party girl. I think the farther you fall, the harder you land. But finally my then-husband had a friend who was an information architect and I was like, “What’s that?” And he told me, and I’m like, “Oh, you mean it’s a structure of a website, this thing I’ve been doing in my head for 15 years? You just draw some lines on some paper and some boxes and arrows?” I decided I’m just going to become whatever this IA/UX/UI thing is.
How did you find your way into UX strategy?
I had already been doing strategy my entire career. I strategized how and what the products would be, dealt with the client, wrote the proposals, so all of a sudden I thought, “Oh, instead of being told what the product is, I could be put in room full of stakeholders who all have very different opinions, and figure out how to get a shared vision, how to build consensus.” After doing software design for decades, I knew exactly how the internet works and how content works. It was a new thing that I could learn about and fall in love with, and I’m still in love with it. I love strategy and especially how strategy intersects with user experience design. Why make a bunch of wires and argue with colleagues and stakeholders about the “look and feel?” I think I just got burnt out on subjectivity: “Ooh, I like this ’cause I like purple more than pink.” No, everything can be tested.
Is UX strategy design?
No, it’s what you do before design. You figure out what’s the product strategy, what’s the product? Who are we making it for? What features should it have? How are people going to find out about it? What are they going to do once they find out about it? How will the product make money? And then instead of building it, you prototype the most important parts and get customer feedback. Principled design is disappearing from the UX world; I have international students who have never taken even an art class who can make a native app using Sketch in two weeks. It’s so easy with all the toolkits. It’s all been commodified. If you’re a UX designer, unless you have five years of building digital products that actually see the light of day under your belt, your pay should be minimum wage. That’s all you’re worth to me. Because what have you done? Make some screens that have more than a few boxes on them, actually build some products. Make many, many prototypes. Do everything yourself, be truly hands-on and don’t just be like, “We’re going to design think our way through this.” I think there’s a lot of fakers out there. It’s not like we’re making a billboard or a packet of cigarettes—we’re making something that people are going to use. And so we need to know their mental model. That’s a lot more complicated. A lot of designers, they’re just pixel pushers, man. They’re not doing user research. They’re literally designing interfaces for themselves.
“I’m not saying design’s over, I just feel there’s less opportunities to do something that’s innovative.”
Still, there has to be a point where designers can make new contributions.
Well, as a musician, can you tell me if there’s any opportunity to make some kind of music that’s never been heard in pop music?
I used to wonder how there could be new songs left. How can it be that the combinations of notes haven’t been totally exhausted? But music is also about performance, production, culture, instrumentation.
It’s harder though, right?
It’s harder but there are different tools, different opportunities.
Right. And so many people have the tools. I’m not saying design’s over, I just feel there’s less opportunities to do something that’s innovative. It’s really, really hard, and it’s getting really complicated. You can’t just say, “Oh, I know how to do a wireframe. I’m a designer.” No, you need to understand all those other technologies that are related to it, so that you can actually make something that’s truly contextually connected. I’m talking about interaction design. Every design pattern has pretty much been done: we have the accordion, we have swim lanes, we have carousels, we have global navigation. I feel there’s less need for design or visual designers in the world of software design and that the opportunity for being creative is around integrating it with all of these other technologies—and the physical world.
I still think that’s design—it’s designing design.
I like seeing digital products as jigsaw puzzles, so I say, “Let’s look at this app, and then look at that app, and take a piece of this functionality, and a piece of that, and put it together, like cooking.” It’s all about minimalist design. Less is more. What are the two or three things this thing needs to do? Let’s make it do them really well.
Do you still think about your art practice?
I did a bunch of shit in this 10-year period of my life from 1990 to 2000, and I would like to preserve that legacy, which means constantly converting it so that it will play on contemporary computers. I took my VHS tapes and my DVDs to this transfer place and I was like, “Can you get all this stuff onto this new hard drive?” I felt I was going to a kitchen appliance center. The DVDs had to be frozen to work and the videos had to be baked. I think about my heroes, all the video artists that inspired me, the only way you’re going to see their art, man, is if it’s in a museum. For all the artists at the time—including me, smack in the middle of it—if we aren’t actively converting our work, it’s all going to be lost.