Shawn Blanc is a writer living in Kansas City. He has published a digital resource kit called Delight is in the Details, which is designed to inspire creative people to strive for excellence, “[craft] better design and [make] better products.” In addition to this kit, which contains an audio and ebook as well as videos and interviews, Shawn also produces two podcasts: The Weekly Briefly, which covers creativity and technology, and a daily podcast for paid subscribers. He also writes on his personal website and is the creative head of two others: a product review site called Tools & Toys, and The Sweet Setup, which focuses on recommending the best apps for OSX and iOS. Last but not least, he’s a husband and the father of two sons.
In this interview we chat with Shawn about creative control, neat stuff, and why we should think carefully about the gifts we put under the tree.
TOM BIHN CREW: Can you estimate how many things you and your colleagues have tested on Tools & Toys this year?
SHAWN BLANC: Before the re-launch of Tools & Toys, we did very few reviews or guides. But since we re-launched in October, we’ve done 10 reviews on T&T and 3 product-review guides. In total, the things we ourselves have tested and used for those reviews and guides is probably around 50 products.
TBC: What was the most fun thing you’ve tested so far? I know that’s subjective, but ...
SB: For me personally, it’s the Olympus E-M10. I bought the camera early this year and spent about 8 months with it before I wrote my review.
TBC: What sort of work goes into putting out a product guide vs. a single item review? Obviously there’s more testing and stuff involved, but how do you decide which items to compare, for example?
SB: Depends on the guide. For our Christmas Gift Guide, for example, we just picked about a dozen items that we love. But for something like our Pocket Knife guide, or our guide to fountain pens, I’ll get a writer who is someone that knows about the subject. And since they’re familiar enough with the options, they know what to compare and look for and recommend.
Our guides (like the Fountain Pens or Pocket Knives) are also more on the side of being “roundups.” We list several great options within a range of prices and use-cases.
TBC: So the reviews/guides of certain products are written not by your team but rather by people with specific expertise?
SB: Yes, most of our long-form reviews and in-depth gear guides are written by someone outside of the team. We’ve got a pool of freelance writers that we work with on a regular basis.
TBC: Do you find there’s a balance between wanting to cover the range of products that you do and having to relinquish some control over the content since you’re not writing everything yourself?
SB: When I first began writing for a living, I was working alone. And though it’s taken me a few years to get comfortable with not doing everything myself, now I can’t imagine it any other way. In fact, I’d love to relinquish even more control of the publishing process and have additional editorial staff who can work directly with our contributors—oftentimes I am the bottleneck when it comes to getting a new article out the door.
TBC: Do you maintain control over the creative vision of the sites, or does your editorial team have input?
SB: Both. I still primarily lead the direction and creative vision, but the guys on my team are all very talented and have a lot of awesome ideas. I often bounce my ideas off of them to get their input. And they also bring a lot of ideas and suggestions to the table as well.
TBC: On The Sweet Setup, you have a series that showcases the hardware and software tools different people use in their work and professional life. What do you think accounts for the popularity of articles like this? Is it that we like snooping on people’s personal workflows, or we want to capture some of that person’s productivity by knowing what they use?
SB: That’s a great question, and I don’t really know the answer. I think there are many levels that make the interviews interesting. In part, it’s a glimpse into how someone else is making use of software and hardware that we have access to. And it’s also a chance to see some of the tools they use to do their best creative work and how they make the most of those tools.
TBC: It seems like interviews like those give context for the software and other things you review, or show readers ways of using them that they may not have thought of.
SB: Yeah, absolutely.
TBC: Do you think that the obsession with hardware/software particulars is gendered in any way? I’m asking because only a couple of Sweet Setup interviews featured women. I don’t think the relative dearth of interviews with women about their tech use is unique to The Sweet Setup by any means; I’m just wondering if you can comment on this phenomenon and what you think about it.
SB: We want to significantly increase the number of women we interview in the upcoming year. The fact that women are so underrepresented in our list of interviewees is not something I’m okay with.
TBC: Does it have to do with the subject matter, do you think?
SB: It’s possible, but I doubt it. Most of our interviewees we connect with through an online application form we have. We just need to do a better job at reaching out to women and asking them if they’d want to be interviewed.
TBC: Turning back to Tools & Toys—there are many cool things in the Christmas Gift Guide, and buying through the T&T affiliate links will enable your team to donate part of the proceeds to three different charities. How did you choose these charities?
SB: Great question. We chose Samaritan’s Purse because what they do with Operation Christmas Child is so wonderful (and seasonally appropriate for our Christmas Guide). We chose St. Jude because not only are they a wonderful hospital, we also have a family connection—my Chief Editor for The Sweet Setup has a son, Josiah, who has received life-saving care from St. Jude and so we are always looking for ways to give back. And we chose App Camp for Girls because we love what they are doing to teach and empower young women to succeed in the technology and design space where they are underrepresented.
TBC: do you plan to choose different charities next year, or stick with these three?
SB: We’ll probably stick with these three, but who knows.
TBC: The fact that you donate some of your proceeds is something that makes what you’re doing different than the average review site. You also talk a bit about how you hope readers will practice intentionality in the purchases they make, and to pursue a more simple way of living. How does the idea of simplicity work on a site dedicated to reviewing consumer products, whether that’s software or actual material things?
SB: Thanks—it’s something we are still figuring out, but it boils down to this: we aim to be honest in all of our writing, and to never hype up something that we are not personally excited about ourselves.
It also requires that we trust our readers. Are we assuming they are average credit-card-crazy consumers? Or are we assuming they are clever, curious, and have the self-control to buy things they will get value from? And so we do our best to find interesting and clever things, to review great products, and then trust that our readers can take it from there.
TBC: There’s a consistent message, too, about how not everything works for everyone—so often, people feel like they must get X, even if X has no utility for them and/or doesn’t please them to own it. Things like that seem to become a burden.
SB: Exactly. Just yesterday over dinner we were talking about Christmas and how oftentimes we receive gifts from people just because that’s what you’re supposed to do. And we were joking about how what’s worse than getting a gift that you’ll never use? Getting 10 gifts you’ll never use.