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 fell into design in a most unconventional way. Thinking back, I was always drawn to strong design for example I was a skater in my youth and the Powell Peralta brand had a beautiful, strong design aesthetic that I fell in love with; but I never really connected the dots that design could be a job. Fast forward to a dozen years later and I’m work as an engineer at Apple and I’m pretty unhappy with my career. This is 2003 and the web was just starting to come alive with creative design work. I fell in love in that moment and knew that I had found something special—only there was a big problem. I had studied engineering at school and so when I tried my hand at designing a simple website, it was clear that I had zero knowledge about design. But then I discovered coding. If I could code beautiful websites it would be a way for me to be a part of this beautiful design community that I had found online. (Coding is also much easier for an engineering-minded person to pick up as opposed to design) So I partnered with some great designers and started coding up their work.
Let’s step back for a second and look at where I was in my life at this time. I’m 26 or 27 years old. I’m married, have a mortgage, a full time job, responsibilities, etc. Yet here I am trying to pull off a career change. Most evenings and most weekends I’m in front of a screen working, learning, hustling. I did this for two years before things really started to get rolling. As my skills improved, so did the jobs I was taking on. Point here is that I hustled long before I started getting good leads and doing great work.
So as I was coding these websites for some of my favorite designers, I started to learn the nuances of design. I started learning the rules (that I didn’t know that I didn’t know): color, typography, spacing, hierarchy, etc. It was almost like osmosis. The more time I spent inside these Photoshop files, the more I picked up and the better I became at doing design on my own.
That was how I got started. From there it just kind of snow balled into more and more opportunities which lead to me to where I am today, Director of Design at Dribbble.
What is your favourite design discipline and why? How did you find out it was your favourite? How can young designers find out?
My absolute favorite discipline is motion work. This is a discipline that I can NOT do, but it doesn’t stop me from admiring it. Way back when I first took notice of design, there was this agency called MK12. They did this video/motion work that was/still is stunning. I absolutely loved everything about it. I’m not sure how I stumbled across it, but once I had found it I did everything I can to learn how they did what they did. I would spend time in online forums trying to learn as much as I could. Oddly enough, I never wanted to replicate what I saw, I just wanted to know how it was done.
These days, my favorite discipline might be User Experience or UX design. It became a passion because there were so many products with poor UX that I became obsessed with making products that excelled at user experience. For young designers I would recommend following those passions in disciplines that get you excited. Even if you’re like me and you find one that you can’t do nearly as well as the examples you find, it still shouldn’t stop you from learning all that you can about that discipline. Design is universal and there is so much overlap that you may find that anything you learn in one discipline could be applicable in another discipline.
The important factor is to discover what you’re good at and to know what you’re not good at.
Do you think young designers should try to learn many disciplines or focus on mastering a single one?
Great question. I think it really depends. Some people are naturally talented at illustration for example and it makes sense for them to pursue that talent to a mastery level. Others (like myself) aren’t as gifted in one area or another. In that case, I like to explore as many disciplines as I can to see how good I can get at each.
I think the important factor here however is to discover what you’re good at, or what you love most, and to know what you’re not good at. In my case, I can say with 100% confidence that I am not a good logo designer. I know when I see a good logo, but I couldn’t great a good logo to save my life—and that’s ok. If that type of work comes my way, I know to recommend some great peers who can take on the job.
What is your creative process? Do you think young designers should have a set of processes or go with the flow?
Design is a fickle mistress. Sometimes the inspiration is there and the ideas come hot and fast and you’re able to work through a design in relatively little time. Other times, it feels like you’re banging your head on your desk and you question why you even got into design in the first place. It’s this reason that I don’t have a process that I stick with. I just don’t know when inspiration is going to hit. At the same time, I know enough not to force it, instead I wait for my inspiration to come and when it does, I’ll be ready for it. Sometimes this looks like letting a project sit for days or weeks until an epiphany hits me.
Stepping away from the computer is an excellent way to let your subconscious churn on an idea and give you that little bit of inspiration when the time is right. Moving on to other projects or other todo’s can help free up that space to let your mind think on a challenging problem as well. If there is any process, that’s what it is. Knowing when to walk away and let things simmer in the background.
Sometimes the inspiration is there and the ideas come hot and fast. Other times, you question why you even got into design in the first place.
How do you get inspired?
Music is a huge inspiration for me. I’ve got a handful of albums that I will put on that help get me into that mode. Outside of music I’ve recently been inspired shoes and vintage skateboards. Objects that have design (obviously) but aren’t necessarily in the product design space are really interesting to me. The shoes that are coming out in the basketball space are incredible. The pair that Nike recently released for Russell Westbrook (Nike Why Not Zero 2undefined) are just nuts. The colors, the materials/textures. So very cool. Growing up a skater, I was in love with the Powell Peralta brand and I love seeing them reissue some of the old skateboard decks that I grew up lusting after.
I’m always inspired to see something new, something that is a bit startling in fact. We’ve seen such an homogenization of the web in the past 7 or 8 years that it’s exciting to me to see new ideas that push forward design in a good, challenging way. As I said before, design is universal, so the ideas can translate from one medium to the next.
What would your dream young designer portfolio be?
I think having a portfolio is important without a doubt. The most important part of your portfolio however is showing me how you got to the end result. This can best be done through case studies that show the challenge(s) you faced and the approach you took to solve those challenges leading to the end result. My dream portfolio for a young designer would be just that, something that showed me how you problem solve (1-3 case studies) and then of course some of that final work that shows me your aesthetic. A lot of product work is built upon established design systems these days, so the aesthetic examples in your work are there to show me that you have an understanding of design principles. Typography, color, use of space, hierarchy, etc are things that I would be looking for on the aesthetic side.
The most important part of your portfolio however is showing how you got to the end result.
What is the most important thing to know about design in your opinion?
A lot of potential answers here, but I’ll go with this one that I think will be most applicable for your audience: the most important thing to know about design is that it takes time. It can be easy to get frustrated seeing beautiful work out in the wild, or on a site like Dribbble, but you have to remember that the work you’re currently drooling over was a process that took time. No one wakes up and creates a masterpiece, it’s a series of iterations, critical feedback, more iterations, questions, approvals, more iterations, etc.
Learn to be patient in your work. Good design takes time, and that’s ok.
How can young designers get their first internship/job? Is it important to go to design school or not?
I’m a big believer in connections leading to new work opportunities. I would encourage young designers to make as many connections as possible online and in real life. Go to your local meetups, engage in online discussions, or reach out to your design heroes. See a job you want to apply for? Reach out to the designers/design team there. Introduce yourself, ask questions, show an interest in their company and their work. Connections have lead to nearly every job I’ve had.
Is it important to go to design school? I’m not sure. I think there are pros and cons to it. If you’ve gone, awesome. If you haven’t, but you’ve been doing work, learning on your own, awesome. For me, as a hiring manager, it comes down to your work, not your education.
Go to your local meetups, engage in online discussions, or reach out to your design heroes.
Did you learn any tricks during your career? Do you have any tricks you would have loved your young-self to know?
I may have learned some design tricks here and there, but I would encourage readers that there really are no tricks that beat straight up hard work, hustle, positive attitude and passion for design. If I could have told my younger self anything, it would have been to meet more designers earlier. As I said before, it’s the connections and relationships that have lead to opportunities for me, and I believe it’s what could lead to opportunities for anyone.
Do you have any favourite books/resources you would have loved to read when you were younger to help boost your creative career?
I was fortunate enough to come up in this industry back in a time when people would blog daily. We would all share what we were learning, tips and tricks for design or coding were being discovered daily it seemed. Really great ideas were being shared on the site A List Apart which was a goto resource for all things web design related. I read everything that was written there (and even had the chance to write a few articles myself). Both blogs and ALA were foundational in my learning.
Now a days it seems harder to pinpoint where to go for resources. It’s been spread so thin. I’m inspired to see design teams from large orgs starting to share more of their insights/learnings via publications on Medium. These are great resources for upcoming designers.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
Nothing to promote. Happy to offer advice from my personal experiences to anyone who may be interested. I’m not perfect, and I’ve had a heck of a journey to get to where I am, but I’m willing to share my learnings through my experiences with others if it might help them in their own journey. You can reach out to me via Twitter @motherfuton.