Thanks Ning

Thanks Ning

In June, Ning flew the winners and judges of its design challenge to NYC for dinner and celebration. This is a chronological telling of my experience.

Read my prefacing article Responsive design for Ning if you haven’t. Up to speed?

Ning went above and beyond to give winners an award experience in addition to cash and Apple products. They brought titans of the design and web industries to New York for conversation and feasting — not an easy or inexpensive task. As a thank you, I’m sharing my experience in depth.


Not disposed to saving ice breakers for a first meeting, I introduced myself to the involved people on Twitter: the contest judges (Dan Cederholm, Elliot Jay Stocks, Brian Hoff, Luke Wroblewski, Khoi Vinh, Ethan Marcotte); my fellow winners (John Lee, Rory McCawl, Mario Benites); and our Ning contact (Shali Nguyen). Following and interacting with them in the weeks leading into the awards dinner was edifying. These are people I wish I knew better, and before meeting them I felt like I did.

Day One: June 6, Arrival

Quick flights from MDT » IAD to JFK and subway rides put me in Manhattan by early afternoon. Ning booked rooms for travelers from afar at the New York Helmsley Hotel. Midtown views toward the Chrysler Building were exceptional.

View from the 29th floor of the Helmsley Hotel, about 377 feet above street level and 673 feet below the Chrysler Building’s pinnacle


After failing to pry open the windows for unobstructed views I ventured to WiFi. While in the air, Steve Jobs was introducing OS X Lion at WWDC 2011 keynote and dashing hopes of an iPhone 5 arriving anytime soon. Sans smartphone and too proud to ask the concierge for a printed map, I penned maps of Midtown, SoHo, Wall Street, and a few recognizable landmarks for bearings.

Low-fidelity yet highly effective handmade maps of Manhattan

Speak friend and enter

Then Rory tweeted his arrival from Belfast. He’d already been awake nearly a day, but agreed to wander around Manhattan with me. I had a great time talking and spending a few hours making a mighty loop of Midtown together:

  • Times Square
  • Museum of Modern Art (surreptitiously closed for 48 hours)
  • The Pond in Central Park
  • Apple Store on 5th Avenue
  • Trump Building
  • Bacon burgers at Irish pub near 54th Street
  • Lego store
  • Rockefeller Center
  • Top of the Rock Observation Deck
The Pond in Central Park
Lego Store
St. Thomas Church
Northern skyline from 30 Rockefeller Center
Southern skyline from 30 Rockefeller Center

My mappings proved reliable. We called it a night after witnessing a bicyclist slam headlong into a flung-open car door. Always wear a helmet.

Day Two: June 7, Exploration

I woke to fanfare that Ethan Marcotte’s anticipated book Responsive Web Design was available. This I bought immediately, of course, for a few reasons:

  1. I design for the web.
  2. I’m alive.
  3. My Ning design leaned heavily on responsive merits.
  4. I had dinner plans with Mr. Responsive Design that night.

Rory and I met for breakfast at the Comfort Diner on 45th Street before parting ways for the day. I set out with SLR in tow traversing landmarks in the Financial District:

  • Grand Central Terminal
  • City Hall
  • Wall Street
  • Brooklyn Bridge from the Pier 11 wharf
  • One World Trade Center construction

To Brooklyn

Bearing the 95°F sunshine, I walked the 128-year-old Brooklyn Bridge‘s span but hadn’t enough time to set foot in the borough. The footpath views were worth it.

1,595.5 feet to go
Northern view toward the Manhattan Bridge
Southern view toward of Manhattan’s Financial District

Back to Manhattan

I happened into Foley Square and recognized the New York County Supreme Court building from the assassination montage ending The Godfather.

Don Barzini couldn't run up those steps fast enough.

A warm welcome

I’ve been working with PRATIMA Skincare for about 17 months on various web projects. Their ayurvedic spa and headquarters is in SoHo, and this was an opportunity to finally meet them in person. The afternoon was spent touring the spa, upgrading software, and discussing our strategy & development roadmap. Working remote makes our relationship possible, but sitting across the table was a nice change.

I won’t spoil the experience of stepping into the spa. It’s a sensory knockout. Trust me.

The awards dinner

Back to the raison d’être. Ning reserved a table at The Stanton Social in the Lower East Side, a tapas style restaurant that brought as many dishes as Belgian beers. It was delicious without question and the company was something of a surprise.

Party of fourteen Anne Driscoll, Jonathan Hull, Khoi Vinh, David Sklar, Rory McCawl, Shali Nguyen, John Lee, Mario Benites, Christina Lee, Jason Rand, Brian Hoff, Florence Tsai, Dan Cederholm, Brendan Falkowski
Shali Nguyen, Brendan Falkowski, Rory McCawl, John Lee, and Mario Benites
Dan Cederholm and Brian Hoff

Khoi Vinh, David Sklar, Jonathan Hull, and Anne Driscoll

Photo © Mario Benites

Ning’s team

Ning brought six employees more than I was expecting from varied positions and backgrounds. They were keen to ask for my thoughts on Ning’s platform, experience designing for it, and ideas for improvement. Moreover they were apt to joking and obviously comfortable having fun together. Thanks to Anne Driscoll, Jonathan Hull, Christina Lee, Jason Rand, David Skylar, and Florence Tsai for coming out. Special thanks to Shali Nguyen for coordinating the contest.

Fellow winners

John Lee (Keebs) took first prize with two podium worthy designs. His experience with the platform shined through by appealingly ordering Ning’s many content modes. Truly, I would have considered the judgement suspect if he hadn’t won. Read his words about the contest.

Rory McCawl placed second with a fittingly type-heavy design. He is studying a Masters course in typographic design at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. I wagered for him winning too, and was glad to see his work recognized.

My design won third, which you should know by now.

Mario Benites flew the furthest — all the way from Peru — to join us. His concept for a memoriam network won the Community Favorite award, and was well executed.

World-class judges

Khoi Vinh was out of conversational range at the restaurant, and had a family waiting at home afterward. We were only able to exchange a few words, which was disappointing because I’ve enjoyed his writing (especially on movies) for years before design was my professional focus. His book, Grid Principles for Web Design, was the first design text I bought after leaving the enterprise technology path.

Dan Cederholm and Brian Hoff were brilliant to speak with at length. I’m grouping them together because I opted out of midnight karaoke to continue discussing in a cab back to the hotel. I loved hearing their beginnings, how they made their way, and what excites them today. Dan kindly shared some history on Dribbble and where it’s headed. Brian obliged my questions about developing your identity and how The Design Cubicle shaped his.

Elliot Jay Stocks, Ethan Marcotte, and Luke Wroblewski were unable to attend — presumably to avoid peak awesomeness and summoning rogue Captain Planet. I was particularly stoked to meet Ethan as I count him responsible for incepting my an idea to make Ning responsive and consequently my being there. I later chanced upon Elliot at Brooklyn Beta for a chat, but Luke and Ethan remain elusive.

The after-dinner pub

A few departed, but most herded to a nearby pub to keep the conversations going and Ning opened a tab to keep the ales flowing. Cheers for that!

Brendan Falkowski, Mario Benites, Dan Cederholm, and Rory McCawl
Rory McCawl and Jason Rand

Florence Tsai and Brendan Falkowski

Photo © Mario Benites

Jonathan Hull, David Sklar, and Mario Benites

Photo © Mario Benites

Day 3: June 8, Departure

Early subway rides took me downtown to wrap up at PRATIMA, and back uptown to check out at the Helmsley. By chance, I ran into Florence in the lobby and we shared a cab to JFK; though another subway adventure would have had me smiling.

Thank you

Ning’s team outdid themselves. I hope they got as much from running the contest as I did from participating. The real prize was the experience, but I didn’t go home empty handed.

The promised 27“ Apple LED Display was thankfully given as an airplane-friendly Apple gift card. I swiped it for an iPhone 4S a few weeks ago, and the inevitable iPad 3 is on deck. After all, responsive designers need real devices for real testing. The additional $1000 prize paid for a trip back to NYC in October for Brooklyn Alpha, but that’s another story.

I can’t overstate how rewarding it was spending time with my web heroes and compatriots while finding them humble, approachable people. This is why I love the design and web industries.

Bravo Ning.

Discourse Gravitated