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 got into design because my parents owned a pre-press business. At that time, pre-press was completely manual, using film, large-format cameras, and press plates.
The entire industry became digitised very quickly, which meant my parents had to shutter their business and my dad to go back to school full-time to learn modern digital desktop publishing. As this forced us to become a single-income household, we couldn't afford babysitting—I had to go to school with my dad after school.
In the back of the classroom, as a ten-year-old, I learned destructive Photoshop (before layers), Corel Draw, Macromedia Freehand. With these powerful skills I made (and sold) Leonardo DiCaprio calendars and Photoshopped my principal's hair onto my bald teacher.
As a young teen, I made my own Geocities websites, hacked my MySpace (most excited about embracing these new <divs>, which allowed more design flexibility), and was the webmaster of a relatively well-regarded *NSYNC website.
I never sought out being a designer, I guess it found me. I wanted to be a journalist—a foreign correspondent. But the 2008 recession had other plans for me, so I started designing things for people for money.
Despite spending years being on "creative teams," I suppose I don't really consider myself "a creative." I'm not sure I know what it means, honestly.
What is your favorite design discipline and why? How did you find out it was your favorite? How can young designers find out?
Our industry can become obsessed with the latest "discipline" and place a tremendous amount of pressure onto newer designers to embrace that "discipline," even if they don't have a particular interest, passion, or desire to learn it.
To me, design is not in the outcome but in the process. Part of the process is deciding what medium you use. Should it be tactile or digital? Does it need to change/adapt? How do we ensure the medium (platform, technology, etc) provides access to the all users? If we decide where our solution should live before we understand the scope of the problem and the circumstances of our users, we've already limited the design process through making a huge assumption.
Because of this philosophy, I consider myself an anti-disciplinarian. An anti-disciplinarian is someone who questions the traditional academic ways that disciplines are defined and inherited. As a result, I love exploring every single technology, process, and style. I code, I draw, I write, I make music.
I wish more designers held onto the exploratory phase. Seek out work you love. Try to recreate it. Remix it. Use a program you've never used before. It is only through trying that we'll learn what we love and what we want to invest in learning.
We should trust in ourselves to switch gears, even if we've spent 10 years down that path.
Do you think young designers should try to learn many disciplines or focus on mastering a single one?
I think designers should explore vastly, and allow their instincts to guide them. It may guide them down a path of seeking deep path toward focused UX design or 3D modelling work. Or, if they're like me, it might guide them down a wide path toward understanding design more broadly, and connecting the disciplines together.
I also think that we evolve throughout our lives. So, let's say we started off wanting to be good at one thing. When and if that search no longer brings us joy, we should trust in ourselves to switch gears, even if we've spent 10 years down that path.
We should encourage designers to learn how to trust themselves to create the path that's best for them.
What is your creative process? Do you think young designers should have a set of processes or go with the flow?
My creative process is somewhat organic, but I do like to rely on an old creative brief exercise. We get the team together and we think through these questions in a very superhero/comic book sort of way.
- Who is your story’s hero?
- Who is your story’s villain?
- What is their tension or conflict?
- What is the prize?
Now, those questions are lofty and big, and can change depending on who you ask. As I was investigative journalist by trade, I do my homework and ask a lot of questions of our stakeholders, users (prospective and current), and of the team to find out how those answers differ, and why.
Along the way, if something seems off, unclear, or peculiar to me, it’s an opportunity to dig deeper and to reveal an interesting mystery or helpful piece of information. Other times, in digging, I realise my own bias, misperception, or misunderstanding about something.
I think newer (and older) designers should approach process with an open mind. What’s more important than being dogmatic about process is learn how to have a mature and thoughtful conversation around the process.
I believe that part of our jobs as designers is to design the process of design. We need to understand the history—the ways it’s been done before first—then, we need to adapt those methodologies to the needs of the users, products, and our teams.
If I hear “We’ve always done it that way,” that is my first cue to find a way to understand why the individual is so entrenched in doing it this way. To me, that phrase indicates a woeful acceptance of the status quo—I want to understand why, then to challenge it.
Inspiration requires us to be open in all the senses we are privileged to perceive and to express.
How do you get inspired?
Inspiration is so prolific that I sometimes wish I could shut it off! Most inspiration I find is away my computer screen. It's in dirty alleys cast with early morning sun. It's in logistical finesse of a well-coordinated event. It's in a clever turn of phrase in a book. It's in a sad song and the lilt of a voice. It's in the last painting of a quiet museum in a small, unexpected city.
Inspiration requires us to be open in all the senses we are privileged to perceive and to express. I welcome the floods of inspiration from everything but our industry.
Do you think having a portfolio is important for young designers? What would your dream young designer portfolio be?
The ability to show and to express our work is most important. The formal expression of that is a portfolio site or book. As someone who has interviewed many designers, I wish designers spent a bit more time with the work instead of on the affects of displaying the work. Presentation is not just the design of your portfolio—it's in how you tell a story about your role in the work. Your understanding of the problem, your articulation of the solution, the excitement about the end product, and the humility behind the lessons you learned.
I will always hire the designer who understands that design is not the piece in the portfolio, it's everything that it took to get there. That's what I would love to see them present.
Design brings immense power, which means we have a huge responsibility.
What is the most important thing to know about design in your opinion?
Design brings immense power, which means we have a huge responsibility. Through design we have the power to save lives (which means we can also take lives), we have the power to bring access to people (which means we also have the power to prevent it).
To understand our power, we must understand our privileges that grant us that power (which is why I spend a lot of time speaking about privilege).
How can young designers get their first internship/job? Is it important to go to design school or not?
The best way to get the job you want is to first create work that you would want to create in your job. Find something you are passionate about and design for that. Everyone has a story or a message they would like to tell. Start there. (It will always be more obvious to the person hiring you if you make something you feel something about. If you learn to present it, they will feel it too.)
As with most advice, I encourage designers thinking about design school to reflect on if it's best for them individually. Design school is really excellent if learning in an academic setting works for you, if you need the rigor of a support network to hold you accountable—and if you can afford it.
If a designer can't afford proper design school, many free and less expensive resources exist. But, it will require much more rigor and self-discipline on their part to hold themselves accountable and to do the work. Building a community online will be key to having a support and accountability network.
Every problem is solvable.
Did you learn any tricks during your career? Do you have any tricks you would have loved your young-self to know?
Every problem is solvable. Sometimes the solution is really difficult, sometimes we've framed the wrong problem, sometimes an assumption we've made is blocking us, and sometimes we're going to explore every single solution but the simplest one because that's the process. But I hold to it: We can solve every problem. Taking that attitude into our work, I think, helps to empower us to be more fluid thinkers. Even when I'm very stuck, I remind myself that I trust this concept.
Pen and paper is always the fastest prototyping tool and works great on bad WiFi. Our brains work quickly, so having something that can start working just as quickly is key. Also, pen and paper can only do one thing. Sometimes opening your computer (aka the Notification Monster) can really destroy your rhythm and flow. Pen and paper won't betray you like this.
Everyone has something to offer. Sadly, we don't get to pick our teams a lot of the time and we end up working with people that we wouldn't have chosen. But if we reframe people in this way, it can help us to overcome personality differences or maybe unfair assumptions we've made due to our bias.
And also, in rare cases, I believe that if someone is hateful or maleficent or treats you poorly, that sometimes the thing they had to offer was to teach us how to assert better boundaries and to part ways.
Do you have any favorite books/resources you would have loved to read when you were younger to help boost your creative career?
The best thing for me is to read books that extend my world view and challenge my perspective. Being a designer requires me to immerse myself into worlds other than my own. So as such, I read very few "design books." Instead, I read books on race theory and more race theory, the number zero, and how salt defined our history. I read fiction books about whether lobsters have feelings, cockroaches as social rejects, and roadtripping dogs.
To wrap up, do you have a favorite quote? How is it relative to your creative career?
"Your silence will not protect you."
– Audre Lorde
Design is political. In all the decisions I've made, there have been political ramifications, whether intentional or unintentional, whether known to me or not. As designers, we have immense privilege by working in one of the most centered, wealthy, and relevant industries of this generation.
We can carry on silently pressing the oppressive status quo, or we can use our privilege and power to do change the landscape for the better. Our actions can be small, like removing gender from a form, but they can have major positive impact.
We can speak out through the process of design, one pixel at a time.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
While it's not what pays my bills, my passion projects are what fuel me and give meaning to my work.
Currently, I'm building a database of developers of colour to help connect job hunters and opportunities and mentors and proteges called Devs of Colour, working on a dictionary to help provide access to the ever-evolving way we described ourselves called Self-Defined and reimagining what tech workers can look like with Style Dot CSS.