What led you to become a designer? Have you always been interested in making things?
I have always been interested in making things. It all started when I was really young. My uncle Mike was studying to be a humorist illustrator, and he was living with us – I must have been about six or seven. He was always working on drawings, paintings, and sculptures that were fun and humorist as opposed to the high art you kind of expect from art school. I still remember this one assignment he was working on. It was a cereal box with cavemen, kind of a play off of Fruity Pebbles, but obviously funnier. From that moment I was in love with art, collage, and creating arts and crafts.
I spent most of my free time drawing when I was a kid. I was inspired by really weird stuff. I would draw from KISS albums, and I was a really big fan of the Conan the Barbarian book covers that were illustrated by Frank Frazetta. And then, of course, Star Wars. I was also into this really cheesy '70s TV show called “Space 1999.” Most of my art was a mashup of these things.
Do they still make Leggs, the pantyhose that comes in plastic eggs?
After my mom bought those, I used to take the eggs and design moon colonies out of them (laughing).
I kept drawing, and spent a lot of time drawing all through high school, but mostly as a distraction in the back of the classroom. I never really took it seriously. Never thought I could make a career out of it. I was kind of a jock in school, too. I split my time between football and art classes, and was struggling with who I thought I should be versus who I wanted to be. At that age, there's a lot of pressure about what you should pursue.
I didn't take art as a career seriously until after I graduated from college. It was really challenging to find a job when I got out: I had a studio art degree, and I just didn't know what to do with it. So, I got a job at a screen printing company. It wasn't a very glamourous job, it wasn't screenprinting t-shirts for Mollusk Surf Shop or anything like that. It was pretty much just signage, but I totally fell in love with it. They still did mechanicals there, so I was always cutting, and pasting, and putting things together. This was my first introduction to the design world. Before that, I never even thought about design. I didn't look at things and think about them the way I do now. I didn't see the design in everyday things, and now I'm totally obsessed with it.
I worked there for about a year, and then I got a job working for a company that was doing e-commerce. They were distributing their product catalogs on diskettes and CD-Roms. You would basically put a CD-Rom in, browse the catalog, and make your purchases through a networked connection. They were making the transition to the web, trying to get these catalogs online, and I just lucked out. I was super young, didn't know what I was doing, and that's really where I learned about the web and the limitations of it back then (laughing).
It was really hard to find a job when I got out: I had a studio art degree, & I just didn't know what to do with it.
When you first learned about the web, what really got you into it?
The web and design were just so new and fascinating to me. Nobody I knew was doing it. It was different from what I was exposed to in school. I went to a liberal arts school. I wasn't around designers, everybody was studying finance, marketing, biology, and nursing. I think I graduated with five other studio art majors. Nobody was pursuing jobs in the design industry.
I was totally fascinated by the limitless nature of the web. All of a sudden there were these internet tubes extending everywhere, and everything was connected, and it was just amazing. It was so new, and none of us knew what we were doing. I loved the risk and the feeling of unfamiliar ground under my feet. I think that's what really drew me in.
You're a self-taught designer. Did you have an early mentors who guided you, and taught you about design?
Yeah, I'm totally self-taught as a designer. I started as a developer and designer, and I just learned while working. In 1998, I followed my then-girlfriend, now-wife to San Francisco. I actually had no idea what was going on here with the dot-com boom. None. I came out here so green. I interviewed at Studio Archetype, which was one of Clement Mok's companies. I was actually so embarrassed with my portfolio that I just hid it, and never even showed it. I said that it was being shipped out to the West Coast, and that I would bring it in when I got a chance. Luckily, the interview went really well, and at that time people were hiring like mad, so they gave me a shot without even looking at anything. I totally lucked out.
I didn't have that much one-on-one with Clement, but just being in his presence taught me a lot. He had a feel for simplicity that really spoke to me. He is definitely an early inspiration for me. I also had the experience of working with other really great designers like Sam Tripodi, Brian Christensen, and Bob Skubic, who I still collaborate with.
I actually worked at Studio Archetype for only about eight months. Sam and Brian left to start a boutique agency called Small Pond Studios. They invited me to come along as a developer/designer hybrid. One of the biggest achievements was just being accepted into that group. It was super intimidating – they are all so talented, and they saw that I had potential. That was an amazing feeling. I've always loved their work, especially Bob's. Bob is a fearless designer. He'll just try anything, he doesn't care. I mean, he cares about happy clients, but he'll take a lot of risks during the conceptual stage, and just pushes limits further than I've ever seen. That takes a lot of confidence. I never would have grown into the designer I am now without that experience.
Do you learn a lot by working with other disciplines?
I love working with developers. I actually feel more comfortable in that environment. I'd rather be in a room with a dozen developers than with a dozen designers. I think what they're doing is much more fascinating. We make things pretty, but to see what they can achieve on the back-end of things is just truly amazing. I think it's really helpful – especially if you're working in web or mobile – for designers to have a good understanding of development. Because if you don't, you're really missing out on a deeper level of collaboration: especially with developers that really know what they're doing, are really comfortable with their work, and aren't afraid to tell you how your idea could be improved on.
I was actually so embarrassed with my portfolio that I just hid it, and never even showed it…so they gave me a shot without even looking at anything. I totally lucked out.
What is the most challenging aspect of design?
The most challenging part, at least for me, is being able to step outside myself and take a look at my process. One thing that design has in common with creating art is that it's really about the process, it's not about the final product. It sounds cliche, but it's true. I think it's really important to make sure there's purpose with everything you're creating – that you're really looking at yourself, what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how you're going about it. It's really hard to do that because you get pushed into deadlines, and the journey gets lost. I think that's the most interesting part about it: being aware of the experience of designing, being part of that process, and learning from it. That's how you learn. That's the most difficult part, especially when you get busier.
What do you value the most about design?
The thing I love most about design is that, at its simplest, it's about communication, making connections, and the interconnectedness of things. Basically, as designers, we're spending our day creating connections between people: person to person, person to idea, person to machine. It's limitless. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
…it's really important to make sure there's purpose with everything you're creating – that you're really looking at yourself, what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how you're going about it. It's really hard to do that…
What advice do you have for designers just starting out?
I think it's really important to show purpose in your work. That comes with knowing why you're doing something, and being aware of your process. I don't know how important people's portfolios are these days. I've been working as a consultant for so long that I haven't interviewed anyone in years, but I think your portfolio is less important than your ability to show willingness and enthusiasm about learning.
If someone just walked into my studio, and their work wasn't that great, but they really showed that they wanted to learn, and they were really enthusiastic and motivated, I'd give them a chance. The same thing happened to me, someone gave me a chance. Anyone can take time and finesse the work in their book, but I think being enthusiastic and showing that you have a grasp of the details is more important.
What if someone with a big ego walked into your studio with a really strong portfolio?
I wouldn't hire them. I'm such a sucker for team chemistry. There are always debates in baseball about whether or not team chemistry is important, and I totally fall into that camp of “chemistry's more important than stats."
You've got to work with these people all the time. Some people have made a career out of being an asshole and making great work, but 98% of us can't work that way. You actually need to be able to work and deal with each other. That's how things evolve naturally when you collaborate, so you need people you're comfortable collaborating with.
There are all these amazing people - social entrepreneurs, activists, spiritual teachers, and even politicians - who do their work with an awareness that we are connected, and what you do affects the people around you, your community and your environment.
Tell me about the work you do with Global One Project. Is working for non-profit, social causes important to you?
That reminds me of another piece of advice for designers just starting out. A great way to build your portfolio is to donate your time doing design work for nonprofits. There's a San Francisco based organization called TapRoot Foundation where people volunteer time: project managers, copywriters, developers, designers - they all collaborate to create websites, branding, or marketing for non-profits that wouldn’t normally be able to afford high quality work. That's a great way to get design experience. The non-profit client is so happy that you're doing work for them that you can pretty much do anything. They don't have the same kind of limitations that corporate clients have. It’s also a great way to learn how to collaborate with others, since everyone involved is donating their free time and have their own peculiar ways of working.
What was the other question? Global Oneness Project! The Global Oneness Project is an organization that produces and distributes documentary films, media, and educational materials that challenge us to rethink our relationship with each other, our communities, the environment, and the world. And basically the common thread through the material we produce is…
Did you hear that? This bird just flew by - we have all these Acorn Woodpeckers and they are constantly dive bombing the birdfeeder off our back deck (laughing).
All the materials we produce - films, articles, photo essays, and educational materials, are based on the concepts of interconnectedness and community engagement. There are all these amazing people - social entrepreneurs, activists, spiritual teachers, and even politicians - who do their work with an awareness that we are connected, and what you do affects the people around you, your community and your environment. Since 2006, we’ve been travelling around the world documenting a range of these stories: everything from the survival of indigenous farming practices in Ethiopia to a San Francisco artist who paints with tea. We also distribute all of our content for free for educational purposes. We have this totally unique DVD and screening program designed to create dialogue and inspire action around the issues raised in our films. We have a selection of our films on DVDs, and we send them for free anywhere around the world. We just ask that people share the films, and invite their friends, or neighbors, or community to watch the movies and have discussions afterwards. We have shipped around 30,000 DVDs to over 100 countries. That is pretty amazing.
Finding the balance between commercial work – which can feel pretty meaningless at times, and non-profit work can be quite fulfilling. I definitely recommend that designers and developers, especially people just starting out, really open up to the idea of doing work for the social causes that they believe in, and continue spending part of their time devoted to this type of work. As designers, we can't solve all the problems in the world, but there are small things we can do.
Finding the balance between commercial work – which can feel pretty meaningless at times, and non-profit work can be quite fulfilling.
So you think of design as a social cause?
Yes. There are so many different ways that designers can contribute their time, from doing simple branding projects to acknowledging the growing importance of web presences now. A lot of non-profits still don't even have a website. So just helping in those ways is huge. It's not super-sexy, but that's where most of the work usually falls. It's kind of grunt work, and it's really easy to donate your time. You make the most amazing connections in the most unusual places, and I totally recommend it to anyone.
As for the Global Oneness Project, it's a little different. It's actually part of my career, and something I dedicate half my work time to, so that's a totally different experience. I really believe in the concept of what they do. It's been something that I do that defines who I am as a person, and as a designer.
I get the impression that you love what you do, but work isn't your entire life. How do balance work with your free time?
It's difficult. I'm really busy. I’m almost working two full-time jobs when you add up my two primary projects, and any small freelance jobs I may take on. It's really important to be productive when you're working! It's so easy to get distracted. I spend a lot of time surfing to get away from the stress of it all. Some people go to museums and gallery shows for inspiration, but I spend my free time running trails and surfing. Those activities consume a lot of my time as well but that’s when I find my moments of clarity and inspiration. Luckily I just love doing it all. It kind of works itself out.
You have to give yourself boundaries, and you have to be dedicated to your work. Because especially with surfing - it's so addictive, it can totally control your life. When I go running, I'll think about design. I'll get out in the woods, away from the distractions of our modern life, and all the solutions that I was trying to find at my computer will start to come to me. I'm also fortunate that I spend a lot of time working from home. I don't have a daily commute, and that opens up a lot of time during the day to fit it all in. It's a constant challenge, and I do end up working a lot of weekends.
There is something new to learn from everyone you work with.
How did you figure out how to set those boundaries for yourself?
Bird chirps loudly in the background.
Trial and error (laughing). It's definitely trial and error. Sometimes I fall behind on stuff, but I never fall that far behind. It's really important to do good work when you're working. It goes back to being really conscious of your process. You can totally get lost, go down this road in your work, and waste so much time. You find yourself hours later, or days later, and you're like, "How did I get here?” If you can be really aware of your process, and really aware of what you're doing, it actually saves a lot of time. This is something I definitely had to learn the hard way. It wasn't always easy to have what seems like a pretty privileged, balanced life.
It's been over a decade since I've done the forty hours in an office thing. I usually go to Global Oneness Project two days a week, and spend the rest of the time working from my home office. I find focusing is a lot more difficult when you're in an office all the time. My assumption is that a lot of time is wasted in offices. Nothing beats face to face collaboration, but there are so many office related intangibles that add up to wasted time. When you're at home working for yourself, you use your time differently. And mixing up your schedule keeps things interesting. When I do have a meeting or onsite, I get super excited to see people, and it's a whole different mindset. You have to be really conscious of what makes you happy, and that’s a challenge. It's not easy, because sometimes you have to do stuff you're not happy with. You've got to factor that in.
What I value, what I want, and what I'd be happy knowing is that I left the people I worked with with a lasting impression.
What impressions do you want to leave with your work?
It's funny, I don't feel so attached to the artifacts I create. I think that's one thing I find amazing about the web - you spend all this time building things, and their usefulness just deteriorates with time. You can’t get attached. It's a great lesson in ego. What I value, what I want, and what I'd be happy knowing is that I left the people I worked with with a lasting impression. I don't want people to think, “That guy was an asshole.” I really enjoy collaborating with people. There is something new to learn from everyone you work with. That’s what is important to me, not the amount of awards I have or books I’ve written. Those things don’t really mean much to me. It's more about the interactions I have. Even though some of my interactions don't go that well (laughing). I'm always trying.