Hey Liam! First, let’s talk about your journey. How did you get into design? When did you know you were meant to be a creative?
I'm tempted to start this answer by saying that my journey's unique, but I think that actually must be true of everyone, so I won't. But what I will say is that it's been unexpected. And I say that because I don't think there was ever a time when I was younger that I realized, "aha! I should be a designer." My interest in design came from a confluence of experiences, and grew over time as I learned more.
I often joke that in a former life I was a photographer. Really that former life is probably 10 years ago. I explored that practice as deeply as I could at the time, and ultimately realized that the goals I had in mind for photography stopped at composing expressive images. So I wondered how else might I do that. At the same time, I was studying Sociology and Studio Art in school, and "Studio Art" really included a lot of disciplines before finding a focus, so I got to see a few other things I might try. This is also where my fascination with learning about other creative disciplines probably started.
It wasn't until I got my first Android phone that these things ended up clicking for me. It was early in the platform's life, so there was a lot of energy going into customizing devices to get the experience you want with custom ROMs, customized home screen designs, even themes for apps and their icons. And I was really into that. I started by installing things and following customizations that other folks had posted on forums, and eventually moved on to trying to design things for myself. After a while I started writing for a popular blog in the community, and through that I was able to talk more about design and the things I was interested in. That connected me with other people interested in the same things which encouraged me to keep going. Eventually I started working with independent developers to create things, redesign apps, and invent new apps, and after that there was no looking back.
I say that all these things were a confluence because this shift in my focus came from several different but overlapping events, but also because I really believe the things I studied were the things I'm interested in—how people understand and relate to the world and the things in it, and how to conceptualize and create art and visible artifacts—and that at the intersection of those two things you have design.
After spending some time working independently on this stuff during college, I moved on to work on other types of interfaces on other types of devices, then went into freelancing for mobile apps, and eventually picked up a full-time job in New York doing both. Since then I've worked on apps, smart appliances, street kiosks, and even smart sneakers. Now, I'm at Google working with the Material Design system while helping other designers improve their work.
What is your favourite design discipline and why? How did you find out it was your favourite? How can young designers find out?
This is a tough question, but I have to think it’s the discipline I’m in now: interface design. I instinctively believe this because it’s a discipline I stuck to and kept exploring, and it’s one that continues to evolve and grow. Most other disciplines I’ve encountered or tried serve to inform this one in my mind, so it emerged as my focus naturally. I think young designers can find their own focus or passion by exposing themselves to as many disciplines—and people working in those disciplines—as possible. Encounter their work, listen to how they talk about it, read what they write about it, maybe even try it yourself, and see what emerges for you.
Learning about other types of design can help you develop a stronger point of view and can inform your work in unexpected ways.
Do you think young designers should try to learn many disciplines or focus on mastering a single one?
I think that having a focus or finding a space that you can really master is beneficial, and I think that learning about other disciplines can be important too. Learning about other types of design can help you develop a stronger point of view and can inform your work in unexpected ways.
The same design principles can manifest across disciplines in so many different ways that might speak to you from one discipline and not from another. For example, type design places a huge emphasis on optical composition in a unique way that UX design typically doesn't, and having an understanding of that can allow you to intuitively compose an interface that feels more harmonious.
Because designers in different fields approach their work from different angles, with different mindsets and different knowledge, you can map those things onto your own discipline - sometimes they'll fit and improve your work, and sometimes you'll just learn something new. Either way your design practice will end up richer and more informed.
What is your creative process? Do you think young designers should have a set of processes or go with the flow?
I think it's important to know how to do both, and I think my own process most often reflects that. There's a constant flow in and out of process-oriented work when I need to create a concept, iterate on a work in progress, and ultimately finalize something.
The process-oriented parts could be things like file management, research, discovery, and final production. The more free-flowing parts come in the improvisation that you can have with your tools, seeing what works and what doesn't, generating (and discarding) concepts, and discussing the work with others. I think, for me, these two modes of operation have to be in balance.
One's work is a reflection of oneself in so many ways.
How do you get inspired?
I try to pick up as much as I can from absolutely everything I experience. I think I spend most of my time looking for patterns and finding them. By taking apart the composition of what I see, or paying attention to the sounds I hear and the conversations I have, down to the experience I have when the subway turnstile tells me to "please swipe again," (why is there also a message that says “please swipe again at this turnstile?”) I can start to find things that emerge as through-lines, even if they feel contrived or unresolved in the moment. So much of design is concerned with problem solving, and I think the first step to solving a problem is seeing it. But you can also see solutions, or diversions, or beauty, and all of the things you pay attention to will feed into the things you're making.
One's work is a reflection of oneself in so many ways, so I think one's own experiences must always be a subtle kind of inspiration. When designing something for others, that inspiration must be acknowledged and moderated, but it will always be present somehow.
Do you think having a portfolio is important for young designers? What would your dream young designer portfolio be?
I think having a portfolio—even if it's not one you're showing right now—is important. Even if you're just starting out, creating a portfolio of your work so far (even if it's all conceptual) is helpful for thinking about how to talk about your work, and how to tell the story of your career, your capabilities, and what you want to do next.
I think often we can spend months or years on a design project and at the end we don't have one thing that can convey those months' worth of information - the process, the story, the iteration on an idea, the ideas that didn't make it, the journey of how it became what it was and whether that matches what it could have been... So it's on us as designers to distill, shape, and convey that story successfully using the few artifacts of our work that we usually have. So if I were looking at portfolios, my favorite one would do that successfully for a body of work that tells the overarching story of its creator. A complete expression made of complete expressions.
Everything that’s created is art and everything that's created with intent is design.
What is the most important thing to know about design in your opinion?
This is a really big question. The truth is that the answer is probably different for everyone individually, and it probably changes over time. What I would give as my present-day answer is probably something like this:
I believe everything that’s created is art and everything that's created with intent is design. That means art is designed, and it means design is art too.
I think viewing it this way, as some sort of marriage between the systematic structure we think of when we think of interface design, and the intuitive and expressive properties we associate with art, has been incredibly powerful for me in my work.
This really clicked for me in the middle of the Cooper Union’s Type@Cooper Extended Program, where I learned type design. A typeface is an internally consistent system with its own rules and characteristics and, yes, even components. But you can’t rely on that alone to create a typeface that works, or a typeface that’s unique or expressive. You have to combine it with optical qualities, intuition, and a comfort with odd numbers that aren’t a multiple of four. And for someone coming from UI design it was challenging, but also so liberating when I brought that knowledge back to my full-time work.
How can young designers get their first internship/job? Is it important to go to design school or not?
I can't answer that question definitively, because I think you should do what you think is right for your own journey. But I can say that I did not go to design school. Many of the folks I've talked to over the years in other disciplines didn't go to design school either. And I think that's okay if you're willing to spend a lot of time learning in other ways. Many of the people I've talked to on Design Notes have unique perspectives on design and on the things they create because they approached the discipline from a unique angle based on their own experiences.
Ask why things are the way they are. Ask it often enough, and you’ll find out.
Did you learn any tricks during your career? Do you have any tricks you would have loved your young-self to know?
Oh, tons of tricks. Tons. If you pay attention you will continually pick up tricks here and there that you can use in other situations. From a practical perspective, one thing I would’ve liked to have grasped earlier on is the importance of working with grids and underlying systems. Coming from forms of visual expression that are more intuitive, it took me a little while to become fully immersed in the more systematic and structured aspects of design that we rely on for creating interfaces.
On a more philosophical level, I would love my younger self to have known the importance, roles, and realities of constraints, especially in the days of working conceptually. Defining what an idea is, what it needs to be, and—crucially—what it is not. Approaching any question like, “why don’t we,” or, “couldn’t we just,” with a type of suspicion that motivates you to think carefully.
You can also pick this up by learning or considering the rationale behind the designs that surround you in day-to-day life. Ask why things are the way they are. Ask it often enough, and you’ll find out. Over time, this assemblage of answers will give you knowledge to pull from when you encounter new challenges. A lot of the design articles I wrote back in the day (published or not) were geared toward figuring out and describing what motivated design details, and I think that really helped me grow in the early days.
Do you have any favourite books/resources you would have loved to read when you were younger to help boost your creative career?
Going back to my appreciation for grids and systems, one book I wish I’d picked up sooner is Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann.
On an inspirational level, an old favourite is the Illusive collections published by Gestalten.
It was first published in 2007, but if I had a time machine I’d also give my younger self Designing Design by Kenya Hara.
Designing Type by Karen Cheng gave me enough knowledge and inspiration to crave more from the discipline of type design.
I also have a loose collection of books about things like screen printing, abstract expressionism, pop art, and various books with collections of regional trends in things like advertisements, colour palettes, typography, etc. to satisfy my need to know what things are like in other disciplines and how everyone approaches the work differently. These are another source of inspiration.
To wrap up, do you have a favourite quote? How is it relative to your creative career?
“We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.”
She would go on to explain that this saying means that art should not be kept “off in a little niche someplace. You have no distinction between what is art and what is not art. You do everything as well as you can.” This really resonated with my ideas about the relationship we have with art, the relationship art has with design, and the relationship they both have with the world collectively. It’s a neat encapsulation of the idea that we should think of art as something intrinsic.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
Sure! First, I want to mention Design Notes, a show about creative work and what it teaches us, which I publish through Google Design. On the show, I talk to folks from different disciplines like game design, fashion, furniture design, robotics and AI, type design, music, animation, etc. to learn how everyone approaches their work in a unique way and what we can learn from each. I also like to explore the themes of how our work relates to us, the people who encounter it, and other work.
I’ll also plug my own Twitter where you can keep up with my thoughts on design and my bad jokes, my portfolio site where you can see some of my work, and a recent episode of Centered with my colleague Yasmine Evjen who hosts the show, exploring human-centered design in action.