Goodbye, Mike Kruzeniski

I lost one of my closest friends today

Jon Bell
6 min readJul 7, 2021
The day after his wedding

Here are a few stories about my friend Mike, who recently passed away.

[Update: a memorial page has been posted. Go there to find ways to help or be notified of further information.]

His reputation preceded him

When I went to work at frog design, I noticed everyone kept talking about this client named Mike. He was apparently a great industrial designer who had done some cool futuristic stuff at Nokia. But more than that, he made people happy. He loved telling jokes, he loved the people he worked with, and that love rubbed off on my coworkers. “Mike’s great,” people told me. “You’ve gotta meet him.” So I did, and everyone was right. He was great.

Mike’s two primary modes

We became friends, and I quickly noticed two aspects to his personality. One side was the classic company man. Logical, strategic, and nearly impossible to beat in a debate. I once described arguing with him like getting caught in a spider web. He had a truly brilliant mind, and I don’t think I’ve come up against a more formidable debater in my life.

The other side, somehow, was someone with a notably high emotional intelligence. I could sometimes spot him toggling on his empathy in the middle of a conversation. I had never seen anything like it. I’m used to people either being big-hearted or being a by-the-book professional. Mike somehow did both. Speaking as a person who’s more intense than funny, I always admired that he could be great at his job and light-hearted at the same time.

Leading from the punchline

I once told Mike that some leaders “lead from the back” and others “lead from the front,” but he was pioneering a new approach of “leading from the punchline.” He told dad jokes well before he became a dad. He seemed to relish his role as the unofficial court jester of the team. Morale mattered a lot to him, as did remembering to have fun.

I don’t have many pictures of him, but most of them have this vibe. Him goofing around and everyone laughing with him.

Trying to get a perfect photo for a presentation.
Nailed it
Holding court. He was pretending to be Chuck Friedman, a big cheese at Microsoft.
I’m gonna miss these jokes

The most supportive friend ever

Once I showed Mike a comic I drew and he looked up and said “why don’t you do this … like, all the time?” He was all-in for my side projects, every time. We’d get in big debates about the right way to do things, and we didn’t always agree, but he rode hard for me. He didn’t just compliment, which is easy. He made it clear through his actions that he trusted my judgement, loved my vision, and wanted great things to happen for me. That mutual respect powered our friendship.

Most people couldn’t pronounce his name

His name is pronounced like this:

  1. Cruise
  2. In
  3. Iski

Kruz-en-iski. He always told people not to worry about pronouncing it, but secretly it puzzled him. “It’s not that hard, Jon!” Everyone else called him “Kruz” which he was totally fine with. But on principle, I made a point to say the whole name, the right way, every time. It seemed like the least I could do.

He worked harder than anyone

Mike could churn out lots and lots of work. I’ve rarely seen someone with processes as fine-tuned. He’d make a list, do what needed doing, and make a new list. He made it look easy, despite juggling a lot of things at once.

When he went on paternity leave, I took over his role and struggled at first. He coached me on the phone about it. “See, when you’re leading you’re at the 10,000 foot level. When you’re in the pixels you’re down at the surface. If you toggle between the two too much, you’re going to throw your back out.” He recommended I carve out entire days for being in pixels versus meetings.

Later, when he was promoting me into his position, I asked if he was going to get bored. “Not at all, it’s my job to elevate to get out of your way.” And that’s exactly what he did. He was a natural at elevating and giving others space. He also taught me that designers do more than pixels and presentations. He made a documentary, drove team culture ideas everywhere he went, and gave lots of talks. He was everywhere at once, while giving people space. I still don’t know how he did it, but I think his intense focus played a big part.

At one conference, someone from O’Reilly asked if he wanted to write a book with them. He politely declined, and I couldn’t understand why. “It’s O’Reilly!” I said. “That’s not in my plan,” he told me. The guy was so organised he always knew what he wanted to do, how to do it, and how to say no to the other stuff. I learned a lot from that lesson and hundreds of others like it.

(Which, now that I’m writing it down, makes me wish he had written a book. But it wasn’t in his plan! Onward!)

Behind the curtain

Mike was a pretty private person. As his career took off, he worked hard to keep personal and work Mikes separate. This is a great video that blends the two. Mike had been invited to give a featured talk at SXSW, and this was the moment he noticed how enormous the room was. He was feeling anxious because the talk was going to be a bit controversial. But in the end, of course, he did a really great job, to a standing-room only audience. The conversations on Twitter he inspired lasted for a week. (And his controversial points turned into conventional wisdom a few years later, when flat design took over.)

But he didn’t know at the time that it would work out. After he realised the size of the opportunity (and peril!), he shut himself away to work for two days. The rest of us went to the beach and explored Austin without him, because he was on a mission. Productivity Mode Engaged.

The antidote to imposter syndrome

You know that awful voice in your ear that tells you you’re not good enough, and people don’t like you? Mike chased mine away because he believed in me. He got me the interviews that led to three amazing jobs, including the one I’m in now.

With Mike around, I could always say “well this guy I respect thinks I’m pretty great, so maybe he’s not wrong.” And now he’s gone and I miss him so, so much. Goodbye, Mike Kruzeniski. I’m so glad we got to be friends.