January 20, 2021No Comments

The best online portfolios of 2020

Semplice has become known for drawing the most talented creatives from around the world. And with the Best Portfolios of the Year award, the best of the best are put on spotlight.

Hundreds of portfolios are submitted every year.

The Semplice team handpicks two portfolios each week to feature in the Semplice Showcase.

Only 12 of those portfolios are selected each year for the Best Portfolios of the Year award.

These are the best Semplice portfolios of 2020

Congratulations to those selected, and to all runner ups.

Who will create the best portfolios of 2021? We can’t wait to find out.

January 12, 2021No Comments

The opportunity you’ve been waiting for

Smart companies hire people who are passionate about what they do and determined to work there. 

These people might not come along on the company’s timeline. They may not have an open position or a defined role on the team. But when that person comes along, they know better than to pass them up. They make the space. They create a role.

And so, the best question when job searching is not “are you hiring?” 

The question is: “Do you want to hire me?”

Mikael Cho, co-founder and CEO of Unsplash, put it nicely: “I love people who apply when we aren’t hiring. It signals conviction and people who don’t need permission to get started,” he wrote on Twitter. “Don’t wait for permission to apply to places you want to work. Every company I know will make room for someone great, even if they aren’t hiring.”

This couldn’t be more true for the creative industry. It’s like falling in love. You may say you’re not looking for it. You may turn down countless suitors, saying you don’t want anything serious. But when the right person comes along, it just happens. You weren’t looking for it. But you found it.

The majority of people I currently work with came through my internal network or random encounters. Hiring these people was as much an opportunity for me as it was for them.

If you want to work with a specific company, don’t wait for the door to open. Open it yourself. Make yourself the best person for the job, then go after it.

January 8, 2021No Comments

Why you feel uncertain about everything you make

Ask one person you trust for their opinion and you’ll get qualified feedback you can take into consideration for improvement.

Ask two people for their opinion and you may get conflicting feedback that prompts you to dig deeper and form your own conclusion.

Ask three people for their opinion and you may see a trend that confirms or invalidates a theory, swaying you in one direction or the other.

Ask four people their opinion and you have yourself a focus group, whose feedback can support your decisions or make you doubt them.

Ask five people, ten people, 20 people for their opinion and you will get answers across the board, sending you in every possible direction.

Ask enough people for their opinion and you’ll receive whatever answer you’re looking for – plus plenty more you didn’t want to hear. The feedback cancels itself out.

Getting others’ opinion can be valuable, until it’s not. So we must choose carefully when and how we get it. And realize that ultimately, our own opinion is what makes our work original.

January 6, 2021No Comments

The best design portfolios of December 2020

Once a week, we select two portfolios created with Semplice to feature in our Best Of  Showcase.  Here we've collected our favorites from the month of December.

With 2020 finally over, I think we can all release a collective sigh of relief.  As the year has wrapped up, we're continuing to welcome creative folks to the Semplice family as they take on the new year with a fresh online portfolio.

Browse the best portfolios of the month below to see fresh new work and get inspired for your own site. And if you've created your own portfolio with Semplice, be sure to submit it to our Showcase here. We might feature your site next.

 

To see more great design portfolios, visit the Semplice showcase. I'll be back next month with more of our monthly favorites!

Header image by Mathieu Clauss

January 4, 2021No Comments

How to future-proof your creative career

The world is changing fast, and the creative industry is no exception. The idea that robots might steal our jobs was laughable at one point. It’s feeling more possible by the day. That’s not to mention the growing competition from regular human beings. So how do we maintain our edge?

While artificial intelligence is still a long way off from being creatively coherent, it’s close enough to make us feel uneasy about the future. And in the meantime, the internet is lowering barriers to the creative industries. These days, you can’t turn around without bumping into another UX designer. Every week, we’re required to learn some hot new tool. In the tech and creative fields, the thirty-something folks are beginning to feel like old-timers. 

The creative industry already looks different since you entered it, and the pandemic has only accelerated the rate of change. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse is up to you.

You could see it as more people flooding in, saturating the field, snatching up your job options and making you irrelevant. Or you could reach for the same opportunities you fear others are taking from you. 

How do we stay relevant?
How do we stay valuable?
How do we stay on top of our field when the ground is shifting beneath us?

We continue learning and growing.

After interviewing some of the most admirable creative people we know here on DESK, we’ve begun to see a pattern. Those who rise to the top have something in common: They never consider themselves too good to be taught. They never stop pushing themselves to be better. They are forever curious, endlessly excited to learn something new or add to their skills. 

And this is where the perceived threat becomes a gift. The internet and advances in technology mean we don’t have to go back to school and get a four-year degree. We can learn and build on our skillset on our own time. Whether it’s taking a short course, following a YouTube tutorial or making a personal study of a skill you want to master, you can maintain your creative edge by continuing to sharpen it.

The New School, a creative university based in New York City, calls it Continuing and Professional Education.

Continuing and Professional Education at The New School is now offering online courses for creative professionals to grow their skills or pick up new ones. If you're interested in learning within a guided environment, registration is now open for courses starting in Spring 21:

Putting Sustainability into Practice (Fashion Sustainability Certificate)

The environmental crisis can no longer be ignored, and that's ringing true in the fashion industry. Things needs to change. Much of the 20th-century fashion system is outdated, destructive and quickly becoming irrelevant. This class is geared toward people in the fashion industry, at any level. Within the course, you use your business, project or idea as a case study or "tester" to contribute change within the current fashion industry. You will finish the course with an actionable project that can be a portfolio piece or plan ready to be implemented.

Become a more sustainable fashion designer  →

Lighting Fundamentals and Technologies (Interior Lighting Design Certificate)

This course is an introduction to the world of lighting design. It covers the fundamentals of lighting, including developing a basic understanding of light and human vision, lighting measurement and color. You'll leave having a working vocabulary of lighting terms and a knowledge base of lighting technologies and their characteristics. (Which applies to everyone from lighting designers to 3D designers).

Learn the fundamentals of interior lighting design →

 

Design Futures 101 (Futures Studies and Speculative Design Certificate)

In this course, you'll get an intro to the academic field of futures studies and design futures. The course will also touch on approaches such as discursive design, speculative design, critical design, strategic foresight and design fiction.

Get a better understanding of design futures →

 

"There's no 'finishing,' there's only moving forward."

For those interested in design courses: The New School's Parsons School of Design is ranked #1 in the United States. And since most certificate courses are 100% online, you don't have to be located in the U.S. to take them. They have what they call non-degree "adult courses," for those looking to pick up a new skill without pursuing a full degree, as well as certificate programs for professionals looking to advance in their careers.

The beauty of this approach: you don't have to commit to four years of study or work toward a far-off university degree. There's no "finishing," there's only moving forward.

Whether you decide to take a course or not, you can keep pushing yourself on your own time. Start with just 10 minutes a day. Recreate a piece of art in the style you’ve been wanting to try. Watch a YouTube video while you make your morning coffee. Ask a friend if they’ll spend one hour with you on Zoom showing you how to use a specific tool.

Instead of telling yourself you’re too old, or out of the loop, or too behind to catch up, take one little step. After a little while taking those small steps, you’ll look back and see you’re much further ahead than you thought you’d be.

December 21, 2020No Comments

Designer & maker Ana Kraš on not taking yourself too seriously

Ana Kraš doesn’t like to overthink things. The Serbian designer, photographer and maker isn’t too concerned with how others receive her work. Yet it's been well received all the same.

Kraš’ lamp designs for Hay, her collaborations with fashion designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh and Danish brand Ganni, her photography and effortless style have earned her the title “It Girl” more than once. She models for fashion brands one day and then photographs Copenhagen Fashion Week the next. 

But it’s not titles or recognition Kraš is after. She just wants to keep playing.

“It might sound strange, but my work always felt so personal to me,” says Kraš. “It always feels like it exists for me to play with it, not for others to see it.”

Kraš was born in Belgrade, where she graduated from the University of Applied Arts. Since then, she’s worked for herself as a furniture designer, model, photographer, set designer and artist, among other things. It’s not necessarily by intention – Kraš has said before that she wishes she’d had the opportunity to do internships – but rather that she’s followed her curiosity and ideas and they lead her here. It’s a strategy, or non-strategy, that has defined her career.

“I'm very responsible and maybe even too serious in some ways, but when it comes to curiosity and play, I'm somehow almost the same as when I was a kid,” Kraš says. “It's just how I am naturally. I'm not trying to maintain this approach to life.”

Her photography, much of which she shares in a stream-of-consciousness style on Instagram, often seem raw and unedited, shot from a bike or across a dinner table. The Bonbon lamps she designed and creates for Hay, while requiring hours of detailed handiwork, vary in color and pattern depending on what strikes her in the moment.

"Being concerned about people's opinion makes no sense because there will always be different and opposing opinions. So it becomes useless to even think about it."

Kraš says rather than trying to control her work, she simply follows her instinct. When she does get stuck, it’s because she can be indecisive. She may like dozens of variations of an idea, and can get lost in subtle details like color.

“Then I try to remind myself that there's no perfect choice ever, and that each choice is just a reflection of that moment and will lead to something that comes next,” Kraš explains. “I like to look at projects as a part of a bigger conversation that's an ongoing practice. So each project is sort of like a sentence. And it leads to the next sentence. And it builds up to a story. So not all sentences are so crucial, and there can be some average or even bad ones. But they can still build up a good story. That takes some pressure off.”

Kraš’ advice for relaxing and not overcomplicating your work? Pursue what comes naturally.

“I think confidence comes with a feeling that you're being natural, a feeling of being yourself. With my work I feel like one, it's a part of me. When I have to do things that don't feel natural about, I don't feel confident at all,” she says. “I think it's important to do things that are natural to you, and then you feel like you're playing on stable ground, in your yard.”

December 17, 2020No Comments

The best of 2020

Considering how unpredictable this year has been, it’s amusing that several of our top articles of 2020 are predictions. 

Our industry will never be the same, and that’s exciting. I won’t try to make any guesses about the future now, but I am optimistic. Some of the most beautiful movements in history came after a time of crisis. I can only hope this year inspires more creativity, more beauty, more ideas we've never seen before.

In the meantime, we will reflect on familiar ones: Skeuomorphism. Typefaces. UX design. Portfolio building. Of the 161 articles we published in 2020, these are the most-read:

1. The Kawaiization of product design

Claymation-style 3D hands imply our design tool is our friend. Circles and squiggles say our form-creation app is here to party. Muted colors and soft, rounded shapes signal safety. It is approachable. It is charming. It’s Kawaii.

Read article

2. Skeuomorphism is making a comeback

Something is missing in these modern UIs. They're clean. They're streamlined. They're optimized for productivity and speed. But they’ve lost their soul. Our apps and interfaces have all started look the same and feel the same. Even the icons blend together on our screens. People feed off visual stimuli, and the visual world online has become less and less stimulating with each year. And so we’re gravitating toward something new.

Read article

3. The best totally free webfonts and typefaces

Beautiful typefaces are usually an investment, but that doesn't mean you can't find affordable ones. Here we curated our top 12 picks, along with a few honorable mentions.

Read article

4. Art deco will be the visual language of 2021

Every trend is an answer to the movement preceding it, and minimalism has just about had its run. We are emotional and sentimental beings; we survive on self-expression. We will forever return to what has colored society since humans first walked the earth: art. 

We have yet to see how this plays out but can only hope it’s true for the coming year.

Read article

5. The most underrated page on your portfolio

There’s a page I don’t see on portfolios as often as I’d like. When I do, it feels like a treat. I go through all the other pages on the site first. I scan the homepage, usually click straight to the About page, followed by a few case studies. Finally, dessert: The Playground page.

Read article

6. How to write UX copy that makes your product a joy to use

Good UX copy is like a good speaker. It makes its users feel lighter, encouraged and capable. So to write UX copy that moves your users, similar principles apply.

Read article

7. The Carbonmade onboarding UX explained

A great onboarding experience can increase your conversion rate, engagement and brand recognition while lowering the barrier of entry – meaning, how fast someone can start using your product the way it's mean to be used. It's one of the most crucial elements of your entire product experience.

Read article

8. 5 gorgeous portfolios from creative directors

If you're a branding or identity designer, you typically have an obsession with detail. You are, naturally, an expert in typography. You've learned how to distill a story to its most powerful parts and present it in a compelling way.  So it's no wonder branding portfolios are some of the best out there.

Read article

9. Senior portfolios vs. junior portfolios

Does your portfolio change depending on your seniority? Of course, we know the work will evolve. But does the way you present it change too? Should it? Here are our thoughts on the subject.

Read article →

10. How to write concisely

The three hallmarks of good UX copy: Clear, concise and useful. Here we will discuss how to write concisely. We will keep it short.

Read article

Thank you to everyone who read DESK this year. Like most of you, I'd guess, we look forward to what 2021 brings.

December 9, 2020No Comments

The designer’s gift guide to watches

If you’ve been following me online, you know I love watches. I’m a designer, and watches are essentially what design is about. 

Watches are the perfect marriage of functional and beautiful. A watch is first and foremost a tool, but it can also become an intimate part of someone's life. Watches carry memories, and often the watch becomes a symbol for the experiences or people we cherish. A watch can be a new beginning or a window to the past life of someone else.

Because they are so personal, gifting a watch can be challenging – and navigating the world of watches even more so. But one thing is for sure: If you give someone a watch, you’re going to be with them every minute of the day, on their wrist. It’s a powerful gift.

In this short guide, I’d like to share some ideas for those considering a watch for their designer friend or family member. Most are fairly unisex, but you can decide for yourself no matter what the listing says. Also: These are not sponsored or affiliate recommendations. They're what I know to be good as a designer who appreciates watches and the art of watchmaking.

The beauty of watches is that you can get one for as little as $5 or as much as $500 – and way beyond. But in this article, we’re going to focus more on the affordable and in-between options. If you’re already thinking about gifting someone a Rolex or Patek Philipp, chances are you don’t need to read this article.

Let’s start:

Nr.1 — A classic: the Braun

Dieter Rams has been an icon in the design industry for decades now. His product designs have not only inspired a generation of industrial designers, but graphic designers as well.

This classic Braun Analogue is an affordable piece of design at roughly $130. It’s a quartz watch, so while it may not be as impressive on the inside (compared to a mechanically powered watch), it’s functional, accurate and simple. Exactly what your designer friend or significant other may value. 

Shop the Braun →

Nr.2 — The Numbers Watch by MoMA

Nothing says “I’m a graphic designer” more than a bold but minimalistic watch dial. If your friend is a graphic designer, they may already be aware of this watch. It was designed by Copenhague-based watch company LARSEN & ERIKSEN in collaboration with Mads Jakob Poulsen, who is a dear friend of mine.

Similar to the Braun watch with a quartz movement inside, this watch is $200 and simple, both on the inside and the outside. And one thing is guaranteed: people will comment on your watch when you’re wearing it. It’s a conversation piece. 

The watch comes in multiple versions, see images at this link:

Shop The Numbers watch → 

Nr.3 — The Casio G-Shock

You can’t go wrong with a Casio, and the G-Shock is a classic. Casio is famous for its hard plastic pieces, but this design offers a bit more. The G-Shock feels more premium (and it is, at $500), with metal cases in a range of nice colors. If your designer friend also loves the outdoors, this is the perfect gift for them. It’s practically indestructible. Get it in either black, silver or in a more fancy gold. 

Shop the Casio G-Shock → 

Nr.4 — The Mondaine SBB Swiss Railways watch

Still under $500, we have another graphic design- inspired piece: The Swiss Railways edition of the Mondaine SBB. The simplicity and ingenuity of Swiss design is celebrated by designers everywhere, and this watch encapsulates that. It was designed by Hans Hilfiker, a Swiss engineer and designer for the Federal Swiss Railways. It’s another iconic piece that your designer friend would wear proudly.

Shop The Mondaine SSB Swiss Railway →

Nr. 5 — The Braun Prestige Digital

Keeping with the digital watches for a second, next up is the Braun Digital at about $300. It’s a design statement, right on your wrist. If you’re a designer meeting other designers, they'll notice it immediately. As soon as they see the name Braun, they’ll know this watch is special.

Shop The Braun Prestige Digital →

Nr.6 — The Uniform M40 PreciDrive, a minimalist watch

For the more distinguished designer, there’s Uniform Wares. Still within the $500 price range, you’ll get elegant design and beautiful craftsmanship. While the watch is still powered by a quartz movement on the inside, you wouldn’t be able to tell from the outside. It’s simple and refined. If your friend is a minimalist, this is the watch for them.

Shop The Uniform →

Nr.7 — The Hamilton Field

Now, moving away from digital and quartz movements and entering mechanical engineering, we’re in the world of gears and screws. The Hamilton is iconic, beloved by even the most hardcore watch collectors who own watches 100x the price.

Inspired by military watches, the Hamilton is a more rugged piece but also beautifully designed with its bold hour markers and the 24h military time. Simple, functional and Swiss-made, this watch is pure graphic design. Nothing more and nothing less than it needs to be. Also, you can swap out the nato strap with something else and give the watch a completely different look. Get it at just over $500.

Shop The Hamilton →

Nr.8 — The Junghans

Next is the Junghans, at around $1,300. With an automatic and self-winding movement, it’s even more refined, more German, more elegant. Bonus points for your designer friend: This one's inspired by the famous Bauhaus design movement. Works for both for design meetings and date night. It’s the perfect watch for every day.

Shop The Junghans →

Nr.9 — The Nomos Tangente

We’re leveling up! This watch, also Bauhaus-inspired, is for a special friend or family member with refined taste. Quartz won’t do at this point. If you’re looking in this price range for this person, it has to be a proper Swiss automatic movement in a German design. Welcome to the Nomos Tangente, perhaps one of the most beloved, more “accessible” watches (priced at $1,900, they get much more expensive than this). High-quality materials and craftsmanship meet some of the finest and minimalistic dial designs in the watch world.

Shop The Nomos Tangente →

 

Nr. 10 — The Tudor Pelagos

If you’re buying this $5,000 watch, your friend is a special one. So special in fact, you’re ready to scratch the surface of high-end watchmaking. That said, you’re not about to dive too deep into the world of Rolex & Co.

The Tudor Pelagos is a beautiful, classic steel sports watch. It’s the perfect all-rounder. And the best part is, you can dress it up and down as much as you like. Works as nicely for diving in the ocean as it does on your wrist wearing a suit (your friend is the James Bond type, right?). The Pelagos is a watch lover’s watch. As an alternative, you may also like the Tudor Blackbay. 

Shop The Tudor Pegagos →

Nr.11 — The Omega Speedmaster, for the friend you really really like

You don’t just want to give your friend a nice watch, you want to give them a piece of history. A watch they will have FOREVER and most likely pass down to their children or grandchildren. 

The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch is iconic. And compared to other high-end watches with history and craftsmanship, it's somewhat "affordable" at $5,000 – which is all relative, I realize.

The Speedmaster was the first watch on the moon, worn by astronauts. That alone makes it one of the most unique gifts you can give someone. But this watch is also beautifully designed for someone with taste. It’s a watch people notice, whether they appreciate watches or not. And if they appreciate watches, they’ll know exactly what watch this is as soon as they see it. 

Shop The Omega Speedmaster → 

December 8, 2020No Comments

A typographer and designer’s guide to elegance

Every piece of Ayaka B. Ito's portfolio is considered. No subhead is overlooked, no hover state left to chance. Every color complements its individual project. Every piece of text is carefully kerned.

It's the best representation of how the New York based-designer and illustrator works: with diligence and attention to detail, owning every element of everything she does. So much so, she'll often create her own typefaces for projects, just to ensure originality and full control over the piece.

In this way, a decided elegance emerges in her work, no matter the client or project. And while much of that comes down to taste, style and expertise, we learn in this interview that for Ito, it's also thanks to endless studying and practice.

I think many of us associate “elegance” with softness, refinement or even traditional femininity. But I think work that is edgy, bold or dark can be elegant too. How do you define elegance? 

I agree! Elegance can be represented through any means, and it doesn't have to be associated with femininity or softness. The design can be big and bold or full of glitter — to me, creating something "elegant" is about carving out a beautiful space for the design to live in and allowing it to feel effortlessly elevated.

You’ve shaped your identity through your elegant projects and typefaces. It’d be easy to call this your “style” but I think it goes deeper than that – to the clients you choose and turn down, the projects you accept and your attention to detail, for example. Would you say this has happened naturally for you?

Looking back, I've always enjoyed making intricate and detailed crafts growing up, whether it was origami, sewing, drawing, or making jewelry with tiny beads. I grew up as a single child, so I spent most of my time working on long craft projects that helped me develop immense patience and improve my attention to detail.

In terms of my "style," it's something I've actively worked on over the years. I don't think I've ever imagined myself becoming a graphic or type designer with my current repertoire of projects, to be honest. 

Whatever I enjoy and am passionate about, I've made it my habit to learn everything about the subject matter. One day I'll be obsessed with traditional Disney animation drawings, and another day, I'm enamored by 30s Japanese lettering. I save every cent I can to allow myself to buy every book about typography, fashion, and arts that help build my foundation.

I also enjoy surrounding myself with people that inspire and push me. I cherish and curate every object we have in our home. Surrounding myself with as many things as possible that are meaningful, I believe, has taken shape into the body of work I currently have.

And this is the same with my career path. Whatever it took, I pursued working at two fantastic design studios in NYC — RoAndCo and NR2154 — where I had the opportunity to work with many high-end fashion, art and lifestyle clients that have also shaped my style of work. 

It has taken 15 years since I left Japan to shape these things, and I'm eternally grateful for every person I've met that has helped build my path. 

What role does typography play in your work? It seems to be a dominant one in the projects I’ve seen lately. You even go the extra difficult path of creating your own typefaces for clients. Why? 

I always hope to go the extra mile of creating something truly unique for every client. Let's say for a book project, I love designing not just the book cover and layout but also the typeface with which I set the content. My dream projects have been those where I can make everything you see on a page as original as possible.

Just as much as my handwriting or yours will be naturally different from anyone else's, I've learned that if I hand-draw logomarks or make lettering and typefaces, it helps me create something original naturally.

With an increasing number of graphic designers in the industry and design services becoming readily available, creating custom type has become my way of pursuing my own authenticity.

"I always go overboard for every project, finding insurmountable references and making tons of internal explorations."

What decisions go into your choice of a specific typeface for a project? Obviously some of it just “feels right” but are there any choices, conscious or subconscious, that you consider?

Whether I create a new typeface for a project or find the perfect existing one from another foundry, I always start by asking myself the following questions: 

  • What purpose should the typeface serve? Is it for headlines only or also body copy?
  • What medium will it be used on, digital or print?
  • Who are the client and the audience?
  • What concept or aesthetic am I trying to achieve?

Every typeface is designed for a specific purpose, so it's essential to pair the project with the right typeface from a practical perspective.

That all said, at the end of my exploration, I usually make my final decision based on intuition. If I love the typeface, I know I can get my clients excited about it.

The perfect typeface also will depend on the copy that you're writing. I wish I were a better copywriter, honestly. I can't stress enough how important good writing is. Good writing elevates the typeface and visa-versa.

I’ve worked with you before and I know you not only create gorgeous work, but you’re incredibly fast. Of course, a lot of this comes down to expertise and years of practicing your craft. But that truth aside: How do you achieve greatness on a deadline?

Oh boy, flattered you think so! Quite frankly, I always go overboard for every project, finding insurmountable references to making tons of internal explorations.

After years of consistently doing so, you start to build a repertoire of ways to explore ideas quickly, and eventually, you become more efficient with your process.

I wish I could keep my explorations to 2-3 ideas internally for every branding project. I think it comes from a fear of missing out. I need to exhaust every idea in my head to know that what I'm presenting to my clients is the best one.

I’d say for most traditional designers, typeface design feels like one of the most “inaccessible” areas of design. The expertise and level of craft aren’t something you learn in design school. How did you get into typeface design?

I understand! I never learned type design or even touched calligraphy in school. I studied new media design & imaging at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was truly an amazing experience where they taught you skills from 3D, animation, Flash, and Actionscript 2.0 (yup), but never traditional graphic design.

At my first job at Big Spaceship, I had great mentors Dan Mall and Jarrod Riddle, who had a deep understanding of type, which inspired me to learn more. I started by taking after-work typography courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Without knowing much, the class I took was a 10-week session with the legendary Ed Benguiat to learn how to kern… Helvetica. It was so hard and so intense, but so incredibly helpful. I took his class twice.

Thanks to NYC having fantastic resources, I also took many calligraphy classes at the Society of Scribes. I wanted to start from the basics, learn how to draw type, and understand the history of Latin alphabets. Hands down, my favorite class was learning Spencerian Script with Michael Sull! 

I started learning more about customizing type digitally through working on many logomarks at RoAndCo in 2012. When I was at NR2154, I was lucky to have great mentors again, Jacob Wildschiødtz and Elina Asanti who helped elevate my taste. We always pushed every project to build on bespoke visual elements. I made custom lettering and type design for books and magazines. After working on Free, a Japanese fashion magazine with a four-year run, I wanted to learn more about designing typefaces, because the font we used for the body copy was the only element on the page that I didn’t have full control over.

I took two months off from work to pursue Type@Cooper’s Condensed program to dip my toes in the typeface-making world. The program gives you an introduction to calligraphy, history, drawing letters and essential font creating skills, but I also learned that five weeks was just not enough. Luckily there was a spot open for the one-year extended program, so I continued studying while working full-time at NR2154.

I've been lucky to have projects where I could immediately include custom typefaces, so that's how I started making type design more of a focus in my work.

Currently, I'm also studying how to draw Japanese characters and creating a Japanese typeface. Due to COVID, I can't travel back to Japan, and the Japanese postal services suspended international shipping, so it isn't easy finding resources! It gets my blood boiling with excitement, knowing that there's an infinite amount of knowledge and skill to acquire. 

For those interested in getting into type design, here are a few of my favorite resources to start from:

Books:

Some of my favorite online resources for starting to learn about type:

Final question: Why did you choose Semplice for your portfolio?

Because it allowed me to experiment and implement exactly what I had in mind!

December 4, 2020No Comments

Behind the scenes of video game design, featuring Headland

Video game design is still a young enough practice to feel mysterious and discoverable.  That's even more true for mobile games. Going behind the scenes of Headland, a new action-adventure game for mobile, we learn the field of game design is one designers are creating as they go.

Northplay, a Denmark-based game design studio, is currently putting the finishing touches on Headland with intentions to launch this December – after working on it for more than three years. As we learn in this interview with Michael Flarup, founder and designer at Northplay, it's been a long and winding journey. Here Flarup shows us how Headland came to be, and what he's learned about game design along the way.

Hey Michael, congrats on the official reveal of Headland! Can you tell us a bit about the game? What inspired this world and story?

Thanks for having me, it’s always exciting to share something we’ve been working on for so long. Headland is the product of a long and arduous creative process. A lot of different people have touched it throughout its production cycle with the core drivers today being Christian Laumark and Julian Abela, who work for me at Northplay. It’s their art and systems knowledge that are really making it all come together.

We’re calling it an action-adventure game, but really it sits at the intersection between a lot of different genres with both a narrative arc and action RPG elements, like combat and item upgrades.

It’s a story about a young boy, Nor, who has his imagination core shattered by a powerful force. You team up with your robot friends to find the fragments and fight to regain your limitless creativity.

"The price of not following in someone else’s footsteps is a high chance of getting lost and not having anyone to look to for guidance."

Tell us about the touch aspect of Headland. What makes this new or different for mobile?

What players will hopefully find is that this is a very different type of mobile game. It’s ambitious and it goes against the grain of the platform in many aspects.

At the heart of that experience lies the enormous amount of work we’ve spent rethinking how a game like this should be controlled. Action RPG’s on touch have historically had a lot of heavy-handed UI with on-screen buttons, digital D-pads and menus. They often feel like mini PC ports converted for fingers.

We threw all of our assumptions out the window and tried to build controls entirely around touch. You swipe and tap your way through combat, you hit in-game interaction points and you tap through dialogue. At every interaction, we’ve asked ourselves what the best way of doing this on touch would be, and tried to build that solution. The result is a lot of small and big innovations that all come together to create a very accessible and fast-paced experience. It really just feels like it was built for the devices we carry in our pockets.

Releasing a narrative, premium game on mobile that you can complete in 2020 is by itself also a rare thing. The game isn’t built around microtransactions and there are no retention mechanics. The game is free to download with the first 20 minutes playable, and the rest of the game unlocked through a single purchase. It’s a game with an ending. In a mobile game landscape of hyper-casual quick-fixes, we wanted to make an experience we wanted to play that felt more like the games we bought and cared for when we were kids.

In a Patreon announcement, you said, “Pursuing this vision has led us through some challenging designs, life-questioning obstacles and several reboots.” What were the challenges and life-questioning obstacles? What about the game made it so challenging?

It’s exciting to make something new. Something that’s different from what everyone else is doing. You get to ask hard questions and reimagine. You get to take ideas apart and look at the components. But new needlessly comes at the expense of familiarity. The price of not following in someone else’s footsteps is a high chance of getting lost and not having anyone to look to for guidance.

Game design has a lot of that and Headland in particular has faced a long history of setbacks and reboots. It originally started as a Viking action game called Norse (some of its roots still visible in the game today). The original intention was making an action and exploration game for touch that really peeled back all the inherent complexities of that genre, with gameplay that was fast-paced, accessible and fun. The controls came into its own in those early days and largely made it intact into the game today.

But it wasn’t without challenges.

We spent a lot of time building the tech to make swiping feel just right in the game. Believe it or not, that’s something humans have a fine-tuned sense of. We built auto-aim that made you seamlessly hit the right targets around you. We then built combat around these new paradigms of touch. Creating and rigorously testing dynamics that played to its strengths and limitations.

Standing still and tapping wasn’t fun. Evading and repositioning worked great. So we designed encounters that force the player to think about placement. Enemies with attack markers and slow-moving projectiles. Granular life systems that are not too punitive as to dissuade players to take chances. Carefully balanced difficulty and progression that wouldn’t turn a broader demographic away but above all, the right feel to it all.

We went to great lengths to avoid cumbersome UI and designed in-world interaction points for things like opening portals, purchasing and upgrading. You even buy the game from a physical in-world Northplay store by hitting an interaction point. We built as much of the UI as we could into the game world itself to make it all more seamless.

"Game design is such a multidimensional activity that large chunks of the discipline remain unknown territory, even after having shipped many games."

The story was another major challenge that’s echoed through the many different phases the game has been through.

Sometime after the Viking phase of this game (which was originally envisioned as more of a rogue-like game), I started yearning for a more linear progression. Not only because we were struggling with randomly generated content (rogue-likes are hard) but also because I had a long-standing desire to leave players with a feeling after having completed the game. I wanted to tell a meaningful story with an emotional payoff. I wanted the game to be more than a finely tuned combat and loot machine. I wanted it to have heart.

I saw the narrative angle as something that would help us with the blueprint of the scope itself AND give it that much-needed soul I was yearning for. How hard could narrative game design be, right?

Well pretty freaking hard in the best of circumstances. Game design is such a multidimensional activity that large chunks of the discipline remain unknown territory, even after having shipped many games. This might seem surprising, but you’d be amazed at how many such blindspots are clearly visible in big commercial projects made by large teams. I see them now more than I did five years ago.

Narrative design was foreign land to us and here’s why we struggled: We, as a studio, are obsessed with how something plays. When we make games, we iterate fast on prototypes. It’s all about mechanics and game-feel from the start. That’s something I’m chasing as a game designer, and that passion turns into products that in turn attract people and foster a culture of improvisational and iterative design. It’s a very visceral and rewarding way to create an entertainment product. It creates games that feel great; they’re literally built through play and constantly tested and tweaked. It’s the Darwinism of game design.

It’s also absolutely impossible to plan, and narrative design requires planning. It requires you to have a pretty good idea of what you want to say and where you want to end up. It’s the difference between improv comedy and putting on a classical theatre play.

It’s easy to spot my mistake now, at the end of this road. I thought a strong narrative would help galvanize a much-needed structure for the game, but what I was really doing was introducing the antithesis of how we’ve historically made our best work. I have later seen many others make the same mistake, walking into the narrative woods never to emerge with a finished game.

Luckily we got help from award-winning game author Morten Brunbjerg, who helped us frame the theme of what we wanted to say. A story about the loss of limitless imagination we all experience growing up and how you can only really hope to regain fragments of it as an adult if you fight really hard. It’s something that resonated really well with our profession.

From this framework our world builder and artist, Christian Laumark was able to apply another of his many talents: writing witty and creative dialogue. It took many long Slack calls, revisions and rewrites during the pandemic lockdown before our cast of quirky characters started to come together on the page.

Ultimately the story also had to be told in a way that worked with the many systems we had built. It had to align with our core designs built around game-feel. It had to merge our improv comedy with that classical play. It hasn’t been without compromise, but I’m very proud of the result.

Headland has no microtransactions, ads or retention mechanics. Can you share the reasoning and philosophy behind this? What sacrifices did you have to make in choosing this path?

Whether or not this is a smart move really remains to be seen, but after having watched the mobile gaming landscape degenerate into hyper-casual, metrics-driven dopamine slot-machines, I didn’t feel like adding to that development.

From a game design perspective, I’ve always been drawn to the accessibility of mobile. From a financial perspective, I’ve always been drawn to the distribution of mobile. Those two things helped us get our start with millions of players enjoying our games.

Our claim to fame on the App Store has been games like "Conduct THIS!" and "Fly THIS!" Which were once described to me by a mobile publisher as ‘Dinosaurs’ because we didn’t have the right metrics to support user acquisition. Maybe they’re right. Here I am, making another dinosaur and it might very well be the last one.

Can you take us behind the scenes of a specific level or section of the game?

Absolutely. I sat down with Christian Laumark, who has designed and built most of the game, and put together a little behind the scenes walkthrough.

We usually start by sketching out the concept of the level, to imagine what it's going to look like, and make changes if the design isn't holding up. It's a good way to ensure that you don't waste time trying to realize an impossible idea.

Then we proceed to tiling out the terrain of the level with landscape blocks, which can easily be fitted together into all sorts of different terrain. We then decorate the level with, grass, trees, rocks –  known in game development as "dressing."

After layout is complete, we design all the battle encounters to fit the difficulty of the level and provide a satisfying progression.

In the end, we set up the functionality of the level. What is going to happen where and when — all the conversations with the characters, scripted encounters, and other special things that are happening in that level. We use a custom cinematic system we built for this exact purpose, so it's easy for the level designer to do all of this without having to write any code.

After the level has been all set up, we test it to make sure it's working as intended, and it's fun to play. Most levels have to fit into some larger progression in the game, so there’s also a few logistics to think about when it’s slotted into the overall arc of the story. We do a range of tests at the office with external testers who come in to play through parts of the game while we scribble down notes. Sometimes, feedback from those sessions leads us to make changes to specific levels where our ideas might not have translated into gameplay as well as we thought.

How much does a traditional background in design come into play as a game designer? What are the skills and knowledge that transfer over? Did you feel like you had to learn a lot entering this world?

I’ve always been interested in making games, and games have in turn influenced my visual design career a lot. When I was 10 I’d sit next to my friend a few houses over and make games in this old engine called Klick’n’Play. I was a geek and a gamer growing up in the nineties.

My career eventually turned to graphic design but I never forgot games and I never stopped playing— and while I’ve done a lot of work in the startup and app space, I think a lot of the visual design that I’ve produced over the years have a certain video-game quality. Icons have been a big passion of mine and I tell myself that you can see that in my work.

To be honest, I think quite a few different industries have skill-overlaps that are useful in the game design process. Game design is this multifaceted and expansive discipline that has more inroads than most other areas I have ever worked in. It makes the games industry a wonderfully diverse place filled with people from all sorts of backgrounds.

The traditional designer mindset can be both a blessing and a curse when you start designing games. On one hand, I feel like a big part of our jobs as designers is to design with empathy. To put ourselves in the user's place and try to create the best experience from that vantage point. I also think the best designers infuse those experiences with opinion, style and joy.

"The wonderful thing about game design is that literally anyone can start doing it right now."

Most designers also have a very keen sense of product. They’re working at the intersection between vision and reality. They’re used to translating between big ideas and small practicalities. Being empathetic toward users and being fluent in the language of products helps make strong game designers that understand what their players are looking for and how to give it to them.

On the other hand, designers are used to working in a world of rules. Whether it’s print or screen, website or app, poster or icon. A big part of being a good designer is knowing what’s possible and how to do it in the best way under a certain set of restrictions. That thinking can get you in trouble in game design. While there’s obviously a rich history of how to do things in games, it’s a lot less restricted and some of the best thinking comes from not relying on rules. The traditional designer will have to unlearn years of finding "the right way" to do something and will have to contend with the fact that there are many ways to achieve a result, and that those results are a lot more subjective.

Aesthetics is another area where I feel like more traditional designers can bring a lot to the table. Game design, with its depth, breadth and endless possibilities, can seem scary. One thing you can rely on is your taste in visual style. You can bring that taste to any medium and it’ll be an asset. Making something look good is a much bigger and more acceptable part of making games, and so while you might not at first have a good grip on how to create the right game-loop, you can sure as hell make it look nice.

In Headland I’ve been doing art direction but also simple things like color-grading and tweaking the post-processing stack to make it look just like I wanted. I have also worked on VFX in the game, which has been a new frontier for me. You might find that the tools are different, but your taste is very much applicable.

Say we’re interested in becoming a game designer. Where do you recommend we begin? What one piece of advice would you give us, based your own experience?

Game design is incredibly hard to learn in a vacuum. You can’t digest a lot of books or just watch a lot of YouTube videos (but those things can help you later on). Like a lot of other things in life, you have to go do it. And the wonderful thing about game design is that literally anyone can start doing it right now.

Remember when you were playing as a kid and you’d make up all sorts of rules for the fantasy playing out in front of you? That’s a form of unorganized game design.

As adults we might have a hard time channeling that if we don’t have a very special purpose in mind. So to get started with game design, you really want to design a game— preferably one that someone else can play. Designing games for yourself is incredibly hard and thinking about an audience is helpful.

"The key to game design is remembering how to play."

Games come in all shapes and sizes and if you can’t program or you’re not feeling like jumping in with a game engine, you can still make physical games. A simple board or card game is a really good place to start. Heck, throw dice in front of you and decide on a winning and losing condition and you’ve just made your first game. Playable game.

Game Jams have also traditionally been a great learning experience and once the world reopens, you’ll probably find a jam near you or you could join one of the many online ones that happen every year. Essentially you’ll make a game in a set amount of time, like 48 hours. At these events you’ll quickly see that most people have something to contribute to the game design process — even if they’re not seasoned game developers. Most people there don’t know how to code, many don’t know how to design but everyone remembers how to play.

The key to game design is remembering how to play.

Do you have an official launch date planned? When should we expect to see Headland available for download?

Headland will be out mid-December, come hell or high water. You can preorder Headland for iOS and Android here.

December 1, 2020No Comments

The best design portfolios of November 2020

Once a week, we select two portfolios created with Semplice to feature in our Best Of  Showcase.  Here we've collected our favorites from the past month.

Once again we're here to keep you inspired and motivated. That's why we're excited to bring you some fresh picks from our Semplice showcase. In November, we featured websites from design studios, illustrators, art directors, designers, more illustrators, and oh yeah — did we mention illustrators?

Browse the best portfolios of the month below to see fresh new work and get inspired for your own site. And if you've created your own portfolio with Semplice, be sure to submit it to our Showcase here. We might feature your site next.

 

To see more great design portfolios, visit the Semplice showcase. I'll be back next month with more of our monthly favorites!

Header image by Mathieu Clauss

November 27, 2020No Comments

The writing tool I didn’t know I needed

When I first started using mymind (already the pun potential is dangerous for a writer), I didn’t really use it. I dropped in a few screenshots for ad inspiration and forgot about them. 

A week or so later, someone complimented my writing in Slack. I screenshotted it and, afraid I’d swipe something so precious to my trash with all my other screenshots, stashed it away in mymind too. 

Then someone sent me a quote from Jerry Seinfield about how he proudly micromanaged the writing of Seinfeld. It resonated, so I highlighted the passage and saved it to mymind. 

Piece by piece, I found myself collecting the stuff that feeds my real mind – the inspiration, the validation, the motivation – into this external mind. A tweet thread about writing good headlines. A passage I enjoyed from a book. An article I appreciated online.

"After passively collecting for weeks, mymind has become a resource and home base for my work. It’s my own personal search engine." 

Before, I'd stash this stuff in various places depending on what felt “closer” at the time: usually Google Drive, my desktop or Pinterest. I still felt torn between those familiar tools and this new one, but with every click of the “Add to my mymind” button in my browser, it became more natural. 

*You should know, at this point, that I work with the team that creates mymind, so this is a biased review. But I've done my best to share my experience here, rather than persuade you one way or another.*

Soon I was taking notes in mymind. While I’d previously flounder about in a meeting, debating between Evernote, a Google Doc or TextEdit (and ultimately just emailing myself), I now have mymind open in a tab where I jot down my notes and hit Save. When I brainstorm with my team about a new article, I just copy and paste the conversation from Slack straight into mymind.

After passively collecting for weeks, mymind has become a resource and home base for my work. When I’m working on an article, I search a keyword to find my notes or research. When I’m brainstorming an ad, I search “inspo” or “ads” and instantly create a moodmoard. It's far beyond a writer's traditional swipe file. It’s my own personal search engine.

Eventually, I hope to use mymind for the actual writing, not just the inspiration. I happen to know mymind has new features in the works to make that process more natural and seamless. While I like the idea of something clean, focused and less scattered than my current tools and process, I don't have any expectations. So far, mymind seems to know what I need better than I do.

November 24, 2020No Comments

Design in Greece 🇬🇷 featuring The Birthdays Design

Our latest addition to the Design Around the World series welcomes The Birthdays Design, an art direction and graphic design studio based in Athens.

Through this series, we've learned much of our understanding of other design communities is based on outdated and generalized information. While what we can read on Wikipedia may be technically accurate, it doesn't account for the complexities and nuances of a culture, place or people.

Likewise, one conversation about a design community cannot summarize or define it. But it does open the door for more learning, and more connections.

It'd be safe to guess many people's perception of Greece is based on its ancient art and philosophy, modern travel photography, and Greek letters appropriated by everything from college fraternities to yogurt companies. As we learned in this interview, those perceptions are so strong, they do affect Greek design to this day. But there's a lot more to it than that. We scratch the surface here with Konstantina Yiannakopoulou and George Strouzas, founders of The Birthdays Design studio.

Hey, Konstantina and George! Tell us a little about yourself. How many people are on your team and why did you decide to open a studio together? What kind of work do you do?

Our office consists of the two of us, and we host two internships per year. We met during our studies at a college of visual communication, and what brought us in contact then was our interest in music, the design of vinyls, concert posters and design history. This interest in music influenced the name of our office, a tribute to Nick Cave's first band, "The Birthday Party." Now that we are 35 and we do not consider ourselves so punk, we also use the abbreviation "Studio TBD."

Before our studies in graphic design, we both had different focuses, one studying public administration at university and the other computer network systems. We have been working together since 2013 while working in other agencies and companies, and we officially started the studio in 2017, when we decided to dedicate ourselves completely to it.

We don't consider ourselves as having a particular visual style, and our aesthetics might be described as a combination of two sides of the same coin. Our work is characterized by diversity, as we try to challenge ourselves by learning from each project or person something new. We seek to think within the given content and context, not separating design from its environment or restricting its existence in mere selling terms. To let it out there to play its part, as part of the wider environment in which it belongs, is unavoidable. We always like to have this in mind while designing.

An important part of our free time is related to research projects. Most recently, we completed a two-year research project within the Vakalo design school here in Athens. Other research projects focus on font design and case studies, such as TBD Armin. TBD Armin is a study but also a form of typographic experimentation taught by Armin Hofmann at the Basel School in Switzerland. We are very happy that this study has become really popular these days. It's like so many people from different parts of the world paying the same tribute to Mr. Hofmann. It's amazing what an educative technique can do after so many years!

Is there energy in the local design community in Athens? Do many platforms and events where you can connect with other designers?

Athens has an interesting and vivid graphic design scene. However its publicity is quite limited to platforms or events, if we think of other cities abroad.

It would be unfair not to mention, perhaps, the most established event for design, Design Athens, which hosts designers from Greece and abroad, as well as EBGE, the Greek Graphic Design and Illustration Awards, which is accompanied by a ceremony. Other important meeting points, where the community is exposed to sectoral issues, is the International Conference of Typography and Visual Communication, and Digitized, a digital design conference with notable speakers from the global scene.

"A 'Greekness' in design exists from the moment the Greek letters are placed, which is a blessing and a curse."

Athens is famous for its ancient arts, culture and learning. But I’m less familiar with the modern arts and design coming from Athens or Greece overall. How would you describe the design you see from Greek designers today? Is it influenced by your culture, history, or environment in any way?

The connection of the Greek designer with the past and the environment is possible in places that are not purely obvious and immediately explainable, as we believe that it happens to any designer anywhere in the world. This transmitter-receiver relationship certainly exists, but it involves a timeless complexity and is difficult to summarize in specific stylistic features, since design is a meeting point of many such material and immaterial stimuli of the past and present.

Regarding the influence you mention, a "Greekness" in design exists from the moment the Greek letters are placed, which is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it automatically testifies its origin, filled with its diverse and rich features, and a curse because it needs special, careful management to avoid leading to clichés or caricatures – unless, of course, that is the goal. We have come across many such examples even today, such as tourist items for sale that imitate the archaic capital font, which in many cases further limit this dimension of typography rather than evolving it.

This is an example on the edge, and the Greek design scene is by no means limited to this. On the contrary, precisely because there is a particularity in the use of Greek letters due to their special physiognomic characteristics, it has led designers to a more open, non-unilateral and confident design dimension, avoiding key visual summaries or general conclusions. A summarized word is flexibility, which we believe is the result of a deeper understanding of the past, that has nowadays created its own stigma in the current design scene.

It seems that Greece is still recovering from the economic crisis, and COVID on top hasn’t helped. How has this affected the creative industry? What kind of jobs are available for designers in Athens right now?

The COVID crisis is coming as a cherry on top, after the country's many years of economic crisis. It has affected all sectors, including the creative sector, and we expect a deep downturn in the economy as we are directly connected to the market. Designers will have to find once again ways to adapt and rearrange the services we offer, tending more to digital experiences since many services related to natural spaces, museums, exhibitions, events or even retail branding seem to be reducing.

Obviously, this greatly affects jobs. Graphic designers at the moment are called to offer a wide range of skills because there are no longer clear boundaries in new jobs, since specialization is not required. We meet this a lot in the existing job listings.

What does good design mean to you?

In our view, good design is timeless design.

It is a difficult task because "timelessness," as a meaning, is applied to something ephemeral, which is most of the subjects of our work as designers. So it becomes philosophically incompatible with the very nature of the work. But that makes it something revolutionary, even utopian. It lives in the now, it is a child of its time, but it wants to live in the past as well as in the future.

Nevertheless, good design is not only related to the designer, but also to society in general. We must recognize its role in important social issues, and accept responsibility on our part.

I know it varies from client to client but generally speaking, do clients in Greece appreciate good design and understand what it takes?

We are happy to meet people who understand the value of design and can enter into a productive collaboration, who are deeply interested in their subject and therefore in the designer. But of course, there are those who are unable to appreciate or understand the interim procedure (which is what actually leads to design results) and we don’t expect that from the early beginning of a collaboration.

Perhaps this misguided approach is not necessarily related to them, but to a more general perception or misunderstanding that has been established around the industry. In general, however, there are notable clients in Greece who appreciate and trust the collaboration with the designers, and many times they have seemed to exceed expectations. But the effort of designers never stops. Nothing is self-evident.

I read that Greece hired a chief creative officer for the country, to work on the country’s “narrative” and apply design thinking to issues the country is facing. What do you think about this? Do you think good design can impact your country’s society and solve larger issues Greece faces?

It is a positive thing that our government has hired a professional to build this narrative. It is very unjust the way Greece has been promoted in the past.

We ourselves hope for something coordinated, methodical and effective in terms of highlighting a modern and integrated image of the country to the outside world.

Obviously, tourism is an industry that should thrive and emerge in the best ways, as it has direct effects on the economy. But the COVID era has shown that even these established foundations are shaken. The country can no longer rely solely on tourism, and it cannot be a panacea for a better tomorrow either. It is necessary of course, but not the only necessary.

Greece's problems are much deeper, and it requires first an acknowledgment of mistakes and omissions, and then a collective and coordinated effort to create an important framework. In this context, design thinking is applied not superficially, but in substantial structures and with constructive cooperation within these structures.

"We do not consider a cultural identity something static, but the opposite. It is constantly evolving, yet influenced."

Globalization, especially American influence, is on the minds of many designers. Some feel it’s homogenizing design and contributing to a loss of a country’s cultural and visual identity. What’s your take? Has globalization affected Greek design in any noticeable way, either positively or negatively?

As we noted before, we do not believe there is a loss of cultural or visual identity of a place due to our influences, for the simple reason that the use of our letters brings us back to reality.

Even if you have been dramatically affected by something, it reminds you of where you are.

For example, we design covers for Greek publishing houses and sometimes, through design exploration, "West world" influence can make sense, while other times it can be a caricature. We have researched book covers of the past – and mention this application because it is the most massive medium of typographic expression in Greece, along with road signs – and these examples are of incredible interest. Even if those covers were then influenced by something else, we are influenced by them today, and that is what ultimately creates cultural continuity – but not in the context of a nostalgic mood or of preserving a tradition.

Another example from publishing houses: Some have to adopt the same covers as those of abroad (i.e. the original version) by adjusting the Greek title. And indeed the visual result, the tone of it, is completely different and sometimes disappointing, because Greek letters (even the actual translation of the original title), carry their own autonomous, expressive entity and need another handling.

So we do not consider a cultural identity something static, but the opposite. It is constantly evolving, yet influenced.

As the way of speaking and writing has changed, so has the way we process and perceive images. Realizing where you are (that is, that we are part of a global scene, in which you automatically influence and get influenced) leads to design maturity rather than dry imitation.

What is the quality of design education in Greece? Do good design schools exist locally, or do most people study elsewhere?

In Greece there are not so many institutions or schools where you can learn graphic design and visual communication. But each of the existing ones has its own legacy, identity and approach.

In the past, students increasingly studied abroad because they went to countries with a longer tradition in graphic design, such as England or the Netherlands. We believe that this has changed due to the growing popularity of design, but also due to the cost of studies.

The BA programs are also generally not much different from those abroad, and the importance lies in how a student with a personal interest in the subject will respond. If there was something we would like to see in Greece's design education, it would be research and the theoretical background of studies. And the interaction with other disciplines, such as investigative journalism or social sciences or humanities. 

What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?

Social media for us is just another way of showcasing our work, and we must admit is really time-consuming! As for the clients, they often visit only media accounts and not websites at the time being. It’s nice because we stay updated and can easily interact with people from all over the world. And since we don’t get lost in the formality of emails, this is getting more interactive and leading us to more collaborations.

In your opinion, what are 5-10 design studios from Greece that everyone should know?

It is extremely difficult to choose, five, 10 or even 20 design studios because we will definitely leave out designers who do a fantastic job. So we would like to focus on some people who offer something different but relevant to our industry.

1. Tind Extraordinaire  - The work of Manolis Angelakis, a master screen-printer who has greatly helped to popularize silk screen printing as a significant printing medium.

2. Greek Fonts Society - Initiated by T. Katsoulidis & G. Matthiopoulos, an important documentation of historic evolution of Greek typography.

3. Blaqk - The amazing artist duo of G. Paragrigoriou & C. Tzaferos, that master forms of calligraphy and geometry, in collaborative compositions, applied on all kinds of surfaces.

4. Duende Fine Bindings – The work of G. Evangelidis, a bookbinder who is devoted to keeping the materiality of books alive!

5. The Athens Zine Bibliotheque - Run by P. Theofilatou & T. Papaioannou, a library collecting zines of independent publishers, artists and more. 

And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Greek design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?

All designers and design communities can do a better job of communicating with each other by simply communicating with each other. Through events, discussions, exhibitions, workshops etc., and by highlighting the important matters of each period.

You can become more engaged with the Greek design community by going directly to the source – to the designers themselves, since there is no strong publication material behind us.

On a digital platform, you can visit, +design, a blog for news related to the Greek scene. An important source also is the archive of visual communication, which is probably the first organized design archive in Greece, selected and curated by Dimitris Legakis. And the Greek Fonts Society, which is an important, detailed documentation of the historic evolution of Greek typography.

Finally, we would like to announce a new engagement of ours in collaboration with Miltos Bottis: the Logo Archive Greece. It just started and will function as an archival material of logos in Greece, focused on the decades 1960-1990 and early 2000. It is part of the International Logo Archive, with designers and researchers working hard to create the respective archive of each country. This arose from the need to trace and then disseminate the design heritage of Greek design scene, which contains examples that are difficult to trace or collect in an organized and accessible archive. You can follow it here.

November 19, 2020No Comments

A bold new studio called Shy

I'm still not quite over the awe of the internet. To think you can decide to create a new business or pursue a new career and establish a presence for it online the next day? It's magic.

When we first saw the Shy Studio website launched with Semplice, we were immediately fans. Come to find out, it's the new venture of our longtime Semplice family member, Misha Shyukin.

Shy Studio is an independent motion graphics studio focused on artistic exploration, 3D motion and still life videos. The studio already has clients like Jimmy Choo, Nike and Adidas in its portfolio, along with dozens of detailed, otherworldly self-initiated projects.

Once we realized Shyukin was behind Shy, we had to know about the vision of the studio, the philosophy behind its experimental approach and what it was like opening a new business in the middle of a pandemic.

"I still spent around a month at home with a 2-year-old typing on my keyboard and breaking Wacom pens."

Congratulations on the opening of Shy Studio! Can you tell us what inspired the studio and how it came to be? How many people are on your team and what is the vision for Shy Studio? 

Thank you! I've been thinking about the transition from freelance artist to studio for quite a while. While it's exciting, it was equally terrifying for me to be honest. I started by hiring a 3D artist part-time to help me out with ongoing projects, to see how it will work, who then became the first employee in early 2020. It's just the two of us at the moment, and we expand a little bit with other freelancers if there's a project that we can't handle by ourselves. 

The vision is to have a place where I would enjoy working myself as an employee, and having a nice balance between commercial projects and self-initiated experimental work, where we can try out new techniques without the pressure of a commercial project.

How was it launching a new studio in the midst of a pandemic? Based on projects like “Quarantine,” it seems like Shy came to life during this time.

We're very fortunate that not much changed for us during Covid-19. Our workflow is 100% digital and we don't have many local clients, so we're very familiar with Zoom and Slack. And since we're just two people, we didn't even have to close down the studio. 

However, I still spent around a month at home with a 2-year-old typing on my keyboard and breaking Wacom pens. We used "Quarantine" as one of those self-initiated experimental projects that I was mentioning earlier and at the same time, it was an opportunity to define our visual look a bit clearer for ourselves.

What is your philosophy behind the experimental work? How do you find clients like Jimmy Choo that trust you and support experimentation? 

The experimental aspect of our work is certainly something I actively am trying to push into every project. Over the years I spent freelancing, it turned out to be the approach that works best for me personally, and gives me and my clients the best results. Of course, we do work with briefs and guidelines as well, which you cannot avoid with larger, more established clients.

Can you tell us about any projects you’re working on right now? Any sneak peeks for the DESK audience?

We recently published a project called “Artificial Bloom," a collection of various digital flowers and plants we made over the duration of two months, whenever we had a little bit of downtime in between projects.

I quite enjoy the workflow, where we slowly work through a specific topic and publish little bits of the project as we go along. I can see us doing a new variation of that soon. 

What made you choose Semplice for your website and personal portfolio?

It was a quick decision to also use it for the studio website. The main thing for me was that Semplice just lets you design and layout your site, move things around, drag and drop images, without having to dive into the more technical aspects of web design. As well as the animation elements which can be triggered with various scroll and mouse movements, very cool stuff! The customer support is also super friendly and helpful.  

 

November 18, 2020No Comments

Running a design studio where design is underappreciated

In April 2021, it will be five years since we started Dá Design Studio. Hurray! The dream was to build a design studio that was much better than what was available in the country – a design studio that put Nigerian design on the map of global conversations.

We wanted to build a studio that thrived on creating work that could compete anywhere in the world. Have we nailed that dream? We think we’re still on our way there, but we’ve come a long way from just a dream. What started with two founders has grown into a vibrant team and has impacted designers in and out of Nigeria. We’ve checked some awesome things off our to-do list, and we’re very optimistic about our future.

Nigeria is a recovering nation or developing, one if you may. We have a rich history of arts and culture, but we haven’t translated that into a strong design culture, at least not in the contemporary sense of what design is. We have many problems that give the illusion that design is a luxury.

That said, the world is changing rapidly. There’s more competition. Tools and educational resources are much more accessible, so these days, there are many stubborn Nigerians (ourselves included), doing amazing work in product design, brand identity design, etc. – choosing to defy the odds to create a culture and career around design.

Defying the odds is chaotic. When you add running a business in a place like Nigeria, plus selling a service people don’t fully understand or appreciate, plus the persistent mission to create great work, you set the game at probably the highest difficulty. The point is, we’ve had to make a ton of mistakes, we’ve had to be inventive and for that, each win has been beyond rewarding.

So, for anyone who’s curious, or anyone (masochists) who would love to try this sport, we’re sharing with you our top dos and don’ts. Here we go!

Do dream

Have a clear dream even before you’re sure of what goals will get you there. The dream will keep you grounded and unify your team, even when things are difficult.

Do amazing work

This one sounds cliché to say, but it’s by far the most important thing on our list. Amazing is relative, but if amazing is the uncompromisable goal, you will impress someone regardless. This sort of developing space has its cons, but it definitely has its pros. Consistently doing good work in such a young space makes it easier for you to get noticed, in comparison to places where design already has an established presence. People we've never dreamed we'd work with have been watching and reaching out to us for collaborations.

With the gift of the internet, think of good work like something that stinks (in a good way). People will smell it whether they want to or not. This is especially helpful because not only does it force those around you to pay attention, it expands your audience beyond your immediate environment where design is underappreciated.

Do solve problems

We know you’re probably thinking “Duh! We’re designers, we should solve problems, that’s the whole point of design.” We agree, but think of it this way: Go out of your way to find problems to solve, especially problems that are unique to you and your client’s environment. Be obsessive about finding these contextual problems and their solutions. There’s no better way to end the myth of design being a luxury than revealing its purest form: problems solved.

People see value in solutions that matter to them. We’ve had clients tell us we made them fall in love with design and truly mean it.

"People value and show off what they have to pay well for. You don’t need to be underpaid to get exposure."

Don’t joke with your money and value

When you’re doing design in this sort of space, you have to bring out your inner Mr. Krabs. Money is an issue, because people are more likely to pay for what they truly appreciate or need, not what they think is a luxury. So for the little you can get, especially in the beginning, be very intentional about how much your work costs and how you manage your money. You will find yourself doing a lot of the don’ts in this article if you don’t have money or you undercharge.

You really don’t need all the money, you just need a structure around the money you have. Budget everything. Don’t be shy to ask for your money or to charge well; if you do good work, clients will come. Besides, people value and show off what they have to pay well for. You don’t need to be underpaid to get exposure. Cheap clients typically refer you to more cheap clients. A smaller, well-paying market is actually bigger than a large market that won’t pay or won’t pay well.

To be fair, money isn’t everything. So the occasional “pro bono” or small fee isn’t a bad idea, but you have to be clear about the value you’re getting. Even if it isn’t monetary. In an environment where your line of work isn’t yet fully understood or appreciated, working without getting value is a bad habit and leads to low designer-self esteem.

If it’s exposure you want out of the engagement, outline what that means in clear terms. Meaning: How many referrals are you getting exactly? How many promotional posts? Do you appear on the client’s public sponsors list? Is that meaningful for your business? In what way is it meaningful?

This applies for all the work you do. Clearly define the value you’re getting. Monetary or not.

Do carve a niché

Carve a niche that’s tailored to your dream. You may be tempted to spread yourself thin and do everything remotely design-related you can find, just so your customer base is bigger and you can make more money to sustain your studio. (Whispers: “It’s a trap.”)

In our experience, when you have a niche, you build a reputation faster. People see and respect you as a specialist and people are far more likely to think of you when they need exactly what you offer. It’s like, how you’re more likely to be scared to pop your back if a spine surgeon told you not to, than if a general practitioner told you the same thing.

Plus, doing a singular thing over a period of time makes you a badass at that thing. This increases trust, as opposed to being good, but not excellent at many things, or doing what everyone else is doing.

To be fair, this particular ‘do’ is mostly our personal opinion. If doing multiple things is important to you, that’s OK too. We just think expanding from a successful niche is even better than starting out wide in a tough space.

"It’s funny how people come to you because you’re good, then make demands that make it harder for you to deliver your best."

Don’t compromise on your standards

It’s funny how people come to you because you’re good, then make demands that make it harder for you to deliver your best. Choose confidence and pride in yourself, even when you don’t have it.

It’s your duty to pace the engagement and paint a picture that reminds you and the client why you’re collaborating. It’s easy to get sucked into the culture vortex of not giving design the effort and credit it deserves. In the short term, compromising your standards may bring more money, more clients and make it easier to scale your business and team. And that's OK. But for us, we think if you’re crazy enough to come this far, you might as well focus on truly making an impact.

A good way to avoid money-related compromises is working toward at least one long-term-retainer arrangement with a client with whom you have a good relationship. No matter how small the money is, it’s a positive engagement, and at least you won’t die of hunger.

Do get excited about briefs over big names

Good design can come from a lot of different types of briefs, but great design only comes from good briefs.

Good briefs bring out the best in us and our selling point is being our best. Sometimes big names are distracted by the size of their names, so they may not put enough effort into their briefs. Getting too excited about your client’s status may make you shift your boundaries in ways that harm your work, studio and process.

Also, a lot of them in Nigeria for instance, are very familiar with the underappreciation status quo, and may knowingly or unknowingly force you into it. Bigger companies also have longer processes for sorting out payment, resolving any dispute and giving feedback. All of which may not be the most efficient or beneficial for your growing studio.

Don’t get us wrong – working with established clients with strong reputations does a lot of good for a designer, their reputation and most likely their pocket. But it’s far from everything. We’ve created rewarding work for our larger clients. But some of our most rewarding work, the work that has gotten the right attention, has also been from our smaller, growing clients.

"In a difficult environment, there’s no way a design studio is a sprint project. It's a marathon."

Don’t work for bad clients.

Please, not everyone is your client and yes, there are bad clients. Protect your energy and your dream.

Clients who have no intentions of shifting from the current state of things for the better, who show no interest in seeing the value in your work or any design work for that matter, are not good clients. Having short periods of financial dryness is better than always bringing in revenue that doesn’t allow you to get closer to the dream of your studio, or challenge your team in a positive way.

In a difficult environment, there’s no way a design studio is a sprint project. It's a marathon. So think long-term when choosing clients. Bad clients only bring unsatisfying work and more bad clients. It's also OK to fire your client.

Don’t take contracts and documents for granted.

Be careful what you sign or don’t sign. If people don’t even understand design, they may unintentionally or intentionally try to put you in agreements and situations that don’t favor you at all. Read everything twice and have an affordable lawyer read it twice. Document everything you agree with your client no matter how small. In some cases, even an email will do. You don’t want to ever feel forced to continue with a bad client or to compromise your standards because you signed something bad, or forgot to document something you all agreed on.

Don’t lie to yourself.

There’s always something you can do better. Find it and even if you can’t do it better now, set a plan to do it better in future.

Because the environment is tough, it's easy to blame it for everything and never look inward. If you think all your clients are bad, you probably have a lot of issues to work out yourself. If you’re honest with yourself, you are more likely to push your work further, learn and look at things from your client’s perspective too.

"Encourage those in your community who share your dream."

Do cherish good clients

Good clients allow a positive work environment, give helpful feedback and they keep you hopeful. Don’t take them for granted.

Good clients bring good clients. A lot of times, good clients take it upon themselves to be ambassadors for your work. They value your work, and they usually come back with more business. Especially if you’re a small studio that doesn’t have the time or resources for proper marketing, referrals are your saving grace.

Find out what makes them happy with you and your work. Support them. Try to connect to and genuinely care about their goals and business. It’s very fulfilling.

Do collaborate

It’s hard, but it’s easier when you have a support system. Encourage those in your community who share your dream, and if there are projects that you can’t handle by yourself, seek to collaborate. The work gets better, you feel inspired by others and you don’t stay stuck in your own head. As a studio, we don’t totally have this on lockdown, but we’re working at it.

Don’t be dismissive of what exists

We know everything we’ve said seems somewhat contrary to this last 'don’t.' It isn’t.

What exists in your environment is your opportunity to have a unique position, especially in the larger global conversation. That design is underappreciated here doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist here at all, and because it isn’t as good as it can be, doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. At the very least it offers lessons on what you shouldn't do, and at the very best it offers a whole world of context and authenticity.

Do know when to compromise

Not everything on this list is absolutely set in stone all the time. That’s not the way life works, we think. Sometimes, we trust our instincts and objectivity to make compromises. The big questions for us are:

1. “Is the compromise worth the reward?"

2. "How much does this reward matter long term?”

Finally, do have fun

The situation is hard. There are enough challenges as it is, challenges will always be there. Don’t burn out for burning out sake. Don’t romanticize hard work just for the sake of it. Breathe. If you have team members, enjoy having them on this journey with you, laugh, play, eat good food, be optimistic, relax when you can and enjoy yourself. It is also important to note that everyone agrees Dami is the funnier and sweeter partner. Thanks for reading. xo

November 13, 2020No Comments

When your portfolio is a brand in itself

We've said that a portfolio should be curated. This brings the picture of you are and what you want into clear view.  Few portfolios accomplish this better than The Locals.

The Locals was created by Søren Jepsen, a Danish fashion and lifestyle photographer based in Germany. Upon first landing on the site, you might assume it's a fashion publication. It is in fact Jepsen's collection of street photography, curated separately from his other work and branded with its own name. 

Jepsen has accomplished something smart yet simple here. In creating a narrative around his photography, he's made it stick in your mind. He's focused the spotlight on the work he's presumably proud of, and elevated it to its own brand. The Locals website aligns beautifully with our philosophy around portfolios, and just so happens to be built on Semplice.

Here we talk to Søren about the thought behind the website, how the pandemic has affected his work and what he sees ahead for the fashion industry.

Søren Jepsen, founder of The Locals – thelocals.dk

Hey Søren, can you tell us about yourself and what you do? How did you get into fashion photography? 

I started out with my own street style blog about 13 years ago, documenting the style of regular people on the streets of Copenhagen, my hometown. Today, I still shoot street style, but I also do a lot of editorials, campaigns and travel photography.

Tell us about The Locals. What is it and how did it come to be?

The Locals is my home on the internet. It’s where my street style photography lives. I also have a portfolio site that showcases all aspects of my work but on The Locals, I only present my latest street style pictures.

It grew out of my first blog, which was called Copenhagen Street Style. After a few years, I felt that that name limited the scope of my work, as street style photography became more mainstream a decade ago, and I branched out to different cities and events.

Today, I travel to all of the big fashion weeks and shoot most of my pictures there. The Locals is linked to a custom archive, where my clients can find all of my pictures from previous seasons and sort them by trend, person, fabric color, etc.

The Locals website feels so branded and curated, I thought it was a publication at first. This is such a smart way to position yourself, especially if you have a very specific interest and line of work. Did you do this intentionally from the start? How has it worked out for you?

Yes, it was very intentional to build it that way. I have a giant archive of thousands of pictures but felt that they needed heavy curation. It is very important to me that there is a red line in everything I do and that my work is presented in a visually pleasing way. That not only makes me stand out among my competition, but also lets the people looking at my work get the full experience that I intended.

I also love to change it up. If someone is looking for something specific, I direct them to my archive.

How has the pandemic affected your work? I know most fashion weeks were canceled or moved online. Do you see this impacting the fashion and/or fashion photography world in any permanent way – besides masks becoming the new accessory?

The pandemic had a massive impact on my work. I used to travel almost non-stop. I just looked it up: in 2019, I took 24 different trips to more than a dozen different countries. This year, I have mostly been at home since I returned from Paris fashion week in early March. There were a few short trips during the summer, but generally, work is very sparse. It is quite scary. Most fashion weeks have been cancelled, and travel restrictions and quarantine requirements make it very hard to plan anything. 

At the moment, I have no idea if and when things will be picking up again. I am sure that fashion weeks will continue to take place and be back once a vaccine is available. But I also think that the public might be looking for new ways of covering these events. People start to pause and question this all-out consumerism and the constant travel.

You’ve been doing fashion photography for more than a decade, and I see you catalog trends and your own OOTDs as well. What do you predict for the next decade of fashion? What trends do you hope or believe will come back? 

I’m sure we will continue to see a revival of some specific trends, as we always do. But that doesn’t really interest me. What I do hope is that we can take this forced break and this general reckoning with the status quo that we have seen at the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer to question the industry itself. I am hoping for a slowing down and for far more inclusive representation of marginalized groups, be it color of skin, gender or size.

One of Søren's OOTDs, featured on his site

Last question: Why did you choose Semplice for your portfolio?

Because it’s the best.  I have built my own websites for more than a decade and Semplice is far and away my favorite service. It doesn’t require a lot of programming skills to achieve beautiful and well-designed results. On top, it’s very fast and very easy to adapt to different screen sizes, which is just so important these days.

I am not the only one who likes it, by the way. I get a lot of positive feedback about my websites from people, and Apple even featured another one of my Semplice websites in a keynote.

November 10, 2020No Comments

The other worlds of Ash Thorp

Entering Ash Thorp’s world is like stepping into a kid’s comic book. There are robots and fast cars. Jiu Jitsu and outer space. Monster and machines.

Thorp has made a career of stuff as a motion, VFX and digital designer and director. Working on video games like "Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare," and films like "Ghost in the Shell" and "Assassin’s Creed," he’s become known for his ability to build transportive, futuristic worlds.

As it turns out, it’s a craft he’s been pursuing since childhood.

“I grew up in very humble surroundings, so I would use my imagination and mind to escape from reality quite often,” says Thorp. “The things that interested me growing up still influence me heavily today. I feel that I am continually trying to please my inner child when I create.”

One of Thorp's illustrations for "L'INTRUS BEYOND BATMAN."

As a self-proclaimed forever student, Thorp is constantly striving to hone that skill. How do you stir emotion in a viewer? What makes a character believable? How does light influence the tone of a scene? What makes for a real, immersive world? Lately, he's been studying films to find those answers.

"At the end of the day, my main goal is to convey emotion through all my art."

“I don't proclaim to be an expert on the requirements for what makes a film worthy to watch, but I do know what draws me to the films that I love, and that is always a great story,” says Thorp.

Thorp tries to break down how scenes in films work, searching for how and why they invoke emotion in a person. For him, it starts with knowing the subject matter to the point of authenticity. Making a believable world, he explains, requires knowing what motivates the characters to do the things they do and why.

Scenes from "Lost Boy," a sci-fi film Thorp designed and co-directed.

“I am continually experimenting and studying as I progress as an artist,” he says. “At the end of the day, my main goal is to convey emotion through all my art.”

Before creating his recent series of paintings for friend Vitaly Bulgarov's game, “Mortal Shell,” he first studied hours of gameplay and immersed himself in the game lore. He then pulled references of films and moments that he felt connected tonally with the game.

One of Thorp's recent paintings for the game "Mortal Shell."

He also studied Roger Deakins’ DOP work on "1917" and "Skyfall," particularly the end scenes at night. Since "Mortal Shell" is placed in a fantasy realm with no artificial lighting, Thorp looked for clever tricks Roger may have used to illuminate his cast during the night shoots.

A scene from the 2012 film, "Skyfall," which Thorp referenced while creating his paintings for "Mortal Shell."

Another film he paid close attention to was Francis Ford Coppola's “Dracula.”

"It's lit so incredibly well and has some very poetic visual moments," says Thorp.

After diving deep into those films, he focused on gaining a better understanding of the subject matter to figure out the best way to extract emotion.

“One method is to focus on the characters’ ambitions, and then create from that viewpoint,” he explains. “For example, if they are emotionally torn, I may choose to light the character in a high contrast form to reflect both their light and dark sides.”

Another recent painting for "Mortal Shell."

Thorp is currently teaching himself to use 3DS Max and Vray, after years of using C4D and Octane/Redshift for his work. He’s also working on his directing skills, and says he is learning to find patience with the process.

How he sees it? Every new tool or skill he learns unlocks a new list of opportunities.

“I am always trying to view the world as a student,” says Thorp. “I don’t ever want to settle on what I know or am comfortable with now, but I’d rather focus ahead on what I want to learn and who I want to become."

November 10, 2020No Comments

The art of making information beautiful

Bureau Oberhaeuser is a Hamburg-based studio focused on information and interface design. They've been doing UX/UI since 2011, long before most UX designers today entered the field. But the studio doesn't limit themselves by this popular term.

Bureau Oberhaeuser takes complex data and distills it into infographics, interfaces and digital experiences that make sense. While most digital designers today are focused on usability, Bureau Oberhaeuser believes UX design should also be beautiful.

The studio has been using our portfolio tool, Semplice, for their website since the beginning. So we finally decided to sit down with founder Martin Oberhäuser to understand what they do, how to present complex work in a compelling way, and what role beauty plays in UX and UI design.

Martin Oberhäuser, founder of Bureau Oberhaeuser

Bureau Oberhaeuser focuses on information and interface design. Can you tell us what that means, and how it differs from traditional UX/UI design?

We have a background in classic graphic and information design and creating print infographics, but we took this approach and transferred it to the digital age. In my mind, the thinking behind creating a good infographic and creating a great UI/UX design is very similar. In both cases, you really have to understand the problem you’re trying to solve and find unique visual ways to communicate your message in an understandable way.

In order to do that you have to dive really deep into the information you’re trying to communicate and become an expert on the topic you're dealing with. Only when you really understand the problem, can you simplify the information, narrow it down to the essentials and eventually communicate it back to others.

I don’t think the information design we’re doing differs that much from traditional UI/UX design. It's just a very complex version of UI/UX design with data and information as the main driver behind many of our design decisions.

You create concepts, which we don’t often see from established design studios. What motivates you to create and share these, when you’re certainly already booked with paid work?

The answer is pretty simple: for the fun of it. That's one of the main motivations, but it's not the only reason. These concepts often start because me or someone else in my team is frustrated with the available solutions to a certain problem or case. If we see a design solution anywhere in the digital world, that we believe isn’t satisfying and could be done better, we’ll just go out and do it.

One of my favorite quotes from James Murphy summarizes this approach pretty nicely: “The best way to complain is to make things”. (Fun side fact: I first heard this quote from Tobias van Schneider in Greece where we were both speaking at the same conference.)

Many of our self-initiated projects, which later became actual products, started off as a concept.

"Turning data into a visualization can really change the viewer's perspective. It’s almost like translating text into another language."

We see ourselves not only as designers but as creative entrepreneurs, and working on a self-initiated project (even if it's only a concept) is the first step of creating a new digital product. Obviously bringing a concept to life is much more complicated and time-consuming than just posting a case study on our website. But it's a first test to see how our concepts resonate with our audience and if it's worth pursuing.

Those concepts also get the attention of potential clients. If we don’t have a case study in our portfolio that deals with a certain topic, it’s very unlikely that clients will approach us with a similar challenge. You can also learn a lot by working on a project without any client involvement. You don’t have a briefing, a budget, a deadline or any of those things, so you have to learn to manage yourself. And this can only help your own project and your client projects to get better and more efficient in the future.

As designers, we’re taught to present everything in its most simple, beautiful form – but sometimes that tendency can lead us to misrepresent information and data. Our own biases can also get in the way, whether consciously or subconsciously. How do you avoid this with your work?

We have a saying in Germany that translates to “don’t trust a statistic you haven’t faked yourself." So this really is a big challenge, especially when you’re dealing with a lot of raw data, the way we do.

Turning data into a visualization can really change the viewer's perspective. It’s almost like translating text into another language. You have to read between the lines, interpret sayings, find different words, simplify certain phrases and while doing that, there is always a chance for misinterpretation. The good news is that raw data per se is unbiased and if you stick to the rules of “form follows function,” you’re less likely to distort this data. Whenever you ditch data or information in favor of a more beautiful layout you’re getting in dangerous territory.

Same is true for ignoring certain data points or simplifying data that doesn’t fit your narrative. I guess it comes down to a certain discipline to stick to the rules and make yourself aware of the responsibility you have as a storyteller. Creating an infographic can be similar to a journalists work; you are reporting about a topic and telling a story. So you should always try to stick to the same rules that apply to reliable journalism. A good way to do this is to involve as many people as possible, to double-check your work and make sure you’re not missing anything or mislead anyone.

Other than that I think it also comes down to experience. You learn from your mistakes and after creating hundreds of data visualizations, you get more cautious and are therefore less likely to remake those mistakes.

You’re working with complex problems every day. Do you ever get stuck or overwhelmed while trying to solve and visualize these projects? Any practical advice for designers for getting unstuck, avoiding overthink and simplifying complexities?

Again it comes down to experience. The more complex problems you dealt with in the past, the more likely you are to find good solutions for similar challenges in future projects. The problems that occur while visualizing data often have similar characteristics, so you get a good sense for what kind of visualization works for what kind of data. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t get stuck every now and then. The best way to avoid that though is to work with a great team.

If you have great creative people surrounding you like I do, you can always reach out and get a fresh perspective to help you get unstuck. My only other advice would be to question your layouts frequently and try to be very honest with yourself. Questions like “Does this visualization really help the viewer to understand the problem any better, or is it just visually pleasing?” or “Is the color of this button really sticking out and easy to find for the user, or do I just like the subtle color?” can really help yourself to be more aware of your designs and eventually get to a more satisfying solution.

I know it can be difficult for more “technical” designers to tell the story of their work in their portfolio in a beautiful, compelling way. How do you go about it, and what do you recommend for others in a similar field? How do we explain our process without boring our readers to tears?

I actually disagree with that. I think technical designers have a great repertoire of material that is worth showing. You just have to combine it in a logical and compelling way to tell your story.

To me, visualizing the thought process and highlighting why your design has a positive impact on the user experience is a much more compelling story, compared to just showing visually attractive artwork. It often just needs a few small tweaks to make your work look more exciting. That means putting a little more time into presenting your work and creating additional graphics or mockups to make your case more appealing. This extra work in my experience pays off in a big way.

The trick is to tease the viewer with some beautiful graphics, just enough so he’s pulled deeper into your case and starts to really read your case. You can’t scare the viewer away by starting with 30 lines of comprehensive text and then follow with a small image. People are visually driven, whether you’re presenting a redesign for tax filing software or artwork for a music album. But if you just present visually attractive work with no deeper story behind it, the viewer loses interest fast.

You’ve been with Semplice since the very beginning. Why did you choose Semplice for your site and continue using it all these years?

When we started using Semplice, we were just looking for a fast and easy way to set up our portfolio without the need to code. But what really made us stay on board over time was the ability to combine those great fundamentals that Semplice offers with some unique elements that we’ve coded ourselves. This way our website never looked like it was using one of those templates you can nowadays find everywhere.

And as time emerges we don’t even need to code these unique elements anymore, because Semplice got better and better and allowed us to create these components straight in the browser using the Semplice editor.

I’m very impressed by how Semplice managed to constantly improve their product over time. Looking at some other competitors it's actually shocking how little they evolved over the years in comparison. It's also great to know that the product we’re using was created by a small creative team that has a very similar mindset to ours.

November 4, 2020No Comments

UX copy sells

When you write, you’re selling something: A story. A belief system. A product. 

UX writing is no different.

Your marketing copy sells your product. Your UX writing continues selling it.

Good UX copy affirms our decision to buy your product. It makes it enjoyable and satisfying to use, ensuring we keep using and paying for it. We then become walking advertisements every time we tweet about your product or recommend it to a friend.

And so, the same writing principles you'd apply to advertising or marketing can be valuable here.

Don’t stand in our way.

How do you sell a puppy? 

Not by talking about how cute, playful or loving it is. You just put it into the customer’s hands, stand back and it sells itself. 

A good car salesperson knows when their customer’s ready to buy. They don’t pitch harder at this point, reminding them how beautiful a car is, or how cool they’ll look driving it, or what a great deal this is. They let the customer take it for a spin. They give you as much time as you need to circle the car, sit in it and imagine yourself cruising down the highway with the top down.

A good retail employee knows following you around the store will just scare you away. Instead, they make their presence known. If you have a question, they're ready to answer it. If you need another size, they'll fetch it. When you emerge from the dressing room, they tell you how great you look. When you check out, they say you made a good choice. A smart retail employee knows you're already in the store with your wallet. So they let you shop.

The best products sell themselves too. If someone’s reading your UX copy, that means they’ve already heard your pitch and chosen your product. Now put it in our hands and let us take it from there. Be there if we need you to point us in the right direction. Validate us when we complete a step or make the right decision. Then step back again.

On some occasions, more copy is required to help us understand or appreciate your product. In some cultures, people trust you more when you have more to say. But in most cases, less is better. If you feel like you need to write paragraphs of copy to explain your product, your product may be too complicated. Or you might be trying too hard.  

We’re already here. We’re sitting in the car. Let us put the top down and take it for a spin.

Speak to us, not about us.

As Vonnegut said, “Write to please one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

We are just one person using your product at any given time. Talk to us, not the room. With that in mind:

This: “The cart is empty”

Becomes this: “Your cart is empty.”

 

This: “Duplicate song on playlist”

Becomes this: “You already added that song.”

 

This: “Authorization access denied”

Becomes this: “Ask your admin for access.”


This: “Network connection lost”

Becomes this: “Check your wifi connection.”

We should feel like we’re having a conversation with you as we use your product. Which brings us to our next point.

Write like a person, not a robot.

The most loved products feel human. So talk like one:

Don’t be afraid of contractions. We’re used to reading and speaking that way. An error message that reads “You’re not logged in” feels more natural than “You are not logged in.”

Cut the ten-dollar words. Usually, the word that first comes to mind is the right word to use. If you’re looking up synonyms, you’re overthinking it.  You wouldn’t say “Please check your inbox for authentication purposes.” You would say “Check your email for the login link.” 

Have a voice. Read through your text messages from your mother, your significant other, your best friend, your boss. They all write differently. They choose different words. They use punctuation differently. You can hear how they sound in your head, based on their unique voice. Your product should have a unique voice too. We talk about how to find your brand voice and apply it to your UX writing here.

When in doubt, read your writing out loud. Does it feel natural to say? Or does it sound stiff and awkward?

Write like you talk. It's not only easier to understand, it's more warm and personal. It's human.

Write for an international audience

Your sentence may feel natural to you, but does it to someone who speaks German as a first language?

Will that 80s American film reference make sense to someone who lives in Singapore?

Will that expression translate to something offensive in Japanese?

Will that sentence fit on a button when written in Mandarin?

Write your UX copy assuming it will be translated. Whether you have an international audience or not, it will make you a better writer. 

We have people using Semplice.com across the world, and it forces us to write without leaning on puns, references, slang or cliches. We use simple words, not fancy synonyms. We strive to be plain, not poetic. We do the same for our international audience here on DESK.

Read anything by Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck and you’ll see simple writing is powerful writing. When you’re not hiding behind stuffy vocabulary, every word rings clear.

Avoid cliches and hyperbole

The only brands who can say they’re “the best” are those that have an award or research to back it up. Otherwise, you’re not saying much at all.

The same goes for cliches like “unleash your creativity” and “optimize your workflow.” We’ve heard it all before. It doesn’t tell us anything useful or different.

The same goes for adverbs. Words like “effortlessly” and “seamlessly” require too much effort to write and are not seamless to read.

The same goes for adjectives. Cut phrases like “award-winning” and “life changing” and you’ll save room, and say more.

Same goes for "faster," "better," "bigger," "smaller," and “more."

These claims and phrases got old and died about 20 years ago. At best, we read right over them. At worst, they make us cringe. And when it comes to UX copy, they just take up precious space.

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Ernest Hemingway

Keep your sentences short.

Read this sentence from Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea":

“Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

Now read this sentence from Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl”: 

“She had got up with these last words; she stood there before him with that particular suggestion in her aspect to which even the long habit of their life together had not closed his sense, kept sharp, year after year, by the collation of types and signs, the comparison of fine object with fine object, of one degree of finish, of one form of the exquisite with another–the appearance of some slight, slim draped “antique” of Vatican or Capitoline halls, late and refined, rare as a note and immortal as a link, set in motion by the miraculous infusion of a modern impulse and yet, for all the sudden freedom of folds and footsteps forsaken after centuries by their pedestal, keeping still the quality, the perfect felicity, of the statue; the blurred, absent eyes, the smoothed, elegant, nameless head, the impersonal flit of a creature lost in an alien age and passing as an image in worn relief round and round a precious vase.”

Did you actually read that last one? Or did you get turned around and lost halfway through? Me too. 

There are times for long sentences, especially in narrative-based writing, where you’re taking the reader on a journey, creating a rhythm and flow. But for UX writing, shorter is better. Use more periods. Use fewer commas.

It’s not about you. It’s about us.

We’re not interested in how hard you worked on your product. Or how advanced the technology is. Or how smart or fast or efficient the system is. We’re interested in what that means for us. How it makes our lives better, makes us look better, makes thing easier or otherwise benefits us.

You could talk about the better camera lens. Or you could talk about the sharper, higher quality photos we can take.

You could explain the layers of security in your highly encrypted checkout. Or you could tell us our information will be safe.

You could say you’ve been awarded for your fast delivery times. Or you could say we’ll receive our food in an hour, guaranteed.

Make it scannable

Want us to read your copy?

Then let us skim it.

We talk more about this here.

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Read more from our UX copywriting series:

→ Content or design first?
→ Best practices for UX copywriting
→ We don't want to read your UX writing
My best products are a joke
→ Writing UX copy for buttons and links
→ Making your product a joy to use
→ What is UX copy?

October 30, 2020No Comments

Monthly portfolio inspiration of October 2020

Once a week, we select two portfolios created with Semplice to feature in our Best Of  Showcase.  Here we've harvested* the best of the best from the month of October.

With summer over and the year winding down, this is the perfect time to finish your portfolio. It's been impressive to see incredible portfolios sent our way this month, from photographers and industrial designers to 3D design studios. Here are my latest favorites to keep you inspired.

*We make no apologies for dad jokes

If you've created your own portfolio with Semplice, be sure to submit it to our Showcase here. We might feature your site next.

 

5 STYLE

FOREAL

kaeptive

SHY STUDIO

Fabio Santaniello Bruun

Goran Krstic

The Locals

Emilios Farrington-Arnas

 

To see more great design portfolios, visit the Semplice showcase. I'll be back next month with more of our monthly favorites!

Header image by The Locals

October 27, 2020No Comments

We don’t want to read your UX writing

Both ad writers and UX copywriters share the same challenge: They are writing for an audience that doesn’t read.

Some might read your headline, if you’re lucky. They will only read your body copy if they’re sitting on the toilet or stuck on a train. They will avoid your digital banner ad at all costs. Humans famously have short attention spans. The internet’s only made it worse. 

According to a Nielsen Norman Group study, people are likely to read just 20% of the words on an average web page on an average visit.

We don’t read.

We scan.

It may seem even more difficult for UX writers, considering our copy is stuffed into boxes and underneath buttons and grayed out in form fields. But modern reading behavior is actually our advantage. While scanning, our eyes go straight to the headlines, buttons, bulleted lists and help text that allow us to complete our task in the most efficient way possible. Otherwise known as the UX copy.

Our goal as UX writers is not to captivate our readers. It’s to help people accomplish their goal. It’s a compliment to your product if someone can complete their tasks without paying much attention to your UX copy. (We say UX should be intuitive, don’t we?) With that in mind, we can take what we know about modern reading patterns to make our copy better. 

Lead with the conclusion

Journalists are taught to start their news articles with a “lede.” The lede summarizes the entire article in just a sentence or two, explaining the who, what, when, where and why of the story. It’s visualized as an inverted pyramid, beginning with the most newsworthy info. 

The idea here: Get to the point. Write an article that doesn’t require us to read the whole article. Do the same for your UX copy.

People often read in an F-shaped pattern online, starting with the content at the top left of your page and making their way down. Naturally, this means the copy at the top of your page gets the most attention. So lead with your main message on every page. You might just find, while prioritizing your content, that you don’t need the less important content at all.

This applies not just to your paragraphs and visual hierarchy, but to individual sentences. When we write passive, poorly structured sentences, our message gets buried. More on writing strong, active sentences here.

Write headlines that answer questions

The same rule applies to your headlines. Ideally, we can get answers and understand your main message by scanning the headline alone.

Say you have an issue with your coffee grinder and reach for the instruction manual. You likely won't read the entire manual, but rather skip ahead to the troubleshooting section that most closely describes your issue, scanning headlines like "Unclogging your grinder" and "Replacing the on/off switch." Your UX writing doesn't necessarily have to be this dry, but you can use the same approach. Include the benefit or the answer in your headline, or at least point us there.

We often feel pressure to be “clever” with our writing. This leads to puns, poetic lines and marketing speak that makes for useless headlines.

Consider an app that offers one day delivery for pet food.

You could write a headline that says: “Delivery times that make your tail wag” 

Or it could say this: “Pet food, delivered tomorrow.”

The latter answers the question before we even ask it: How soon can I get my pet food? The former doesn’t say much at all, but does make you gag a little.

Let it be a relief that you don’t need to write cute or clever headlines (although that doesn't mean you can't be funny or creative at appropriate times). You need to write headlines that work.

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” David Ogilvy

Don’t waste words

Knowing we don’t have our user’s attention for long, and not much of their attention at that, we have to choose our words carefully. 

Writing concisely is hard. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter." 

To that end:

– Remove buzzwords and promotional language. Adjectives like “cutting edge” or “revolutionizing” are useless, meaningless fluff. Plus, they’re cringey and played out. So are adverbs like “seamlessly” and “fully” and “very.” So are filler words and phrases like "of course" and "in order to." Cut them and your sentence gets tighter and stronger.

– Write your sentence, then write it again, but shorter. Keep rewriting until your sentence is at least half the length it originally was. 

– Don’t try so hard to impress. You could say “Increase your profitability” or you could just say “Make more money.” You could say "Suggested from your recent activity" or  "You might like this." While your exact wording depends on your product's voice, the most simple option should always win.

NN Group did a fascinating study around concise copy and usability, comparing different versions of the same paragraph. Some used promotional language, others used bullet points and tighter copy. The final, improved paragraph was 124% more usable than the original.

We talk more about writing concise UX copy here

Break your copy into short paragraphs and bite-sized segments

The only person reading long paragraphs is your high school English teacher, and she probably doesn’t enjoy it. 

– A good rule: Each paragraph should focus on just one idea. Only tell us what we need to know now, and reveal the rest later when it’s relevant (otherwise known as progressive disclosure).

– Use headlines to guide us through the page. 

– If you have a list or several points to make, bullet them out. 

Buttons and links should describe the action we're taking

If we’re trying to accomplish a task in your product, assume our eyes are jumping straight to your links and buttons.

We could land on a button that says “Learn More”

Or a button that says “See pricing”

If we haven’t read a single piece of content on this screen, which button is most useful?

Read more on writing for buttons and links.

Know when copy isn't the solution

Every additional second we spend, scrolling, clicking and searching increases the interaction cost (the sum of mental and physical effort) required to use your product. Your goal is to keep the interaction cost as low as possible.

Sometimes, especially when we're skimming a page, an icon does that better than a line of text.

Sometimes, the copy doesn't need to be improved. The design does.

Other times, the screen simply needs to be better optimized for the device we're reading on.

Know your user,  think about where they are in the process, what they need to do next and what gets them there as quickly as possible.

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If you’re just joining our UX copywriting series, catch up here:

My best products are a joke
→ Best practices for UX copywriting
→ Content or design first?
→ Writing UX copy for buttons and links
→ Making your product a joy to use
→ What is UX copy?

October 23, 2020No Comments

The easiest and cheapest form of writing

Too often, I feel fired up about a subject and think: I’m going to do something about this. I sit down to write and find, 10 minutes later, hundreds of words on the page with barely a line break. 

I’ve done it, I think. I really cracked the case on this one. 

I come back later and realize what I wrote reads like a fever dream: Wild, baseless claims. Tenuous or nonexistent threads of thought. Rambling ideas that lead nowhere. 

Or maybe the writing’s fine. Maybe I’ve really driven my point home, illuminated the issue, but offered zero solution. I’ve essentially just complained, thrown a wet blanket on my readers and walked away. 

Criticism is easy. It’s not hard to see flaws, point out oversights, call someone out, find errors, denounce trends or dismiss the value of something. Any idiot can do it – just look at Twitter. It’s not so easy to rant and provide coherent, thoughtful reasoning for your criticism. It’s even more difficult to offer a solution.

Rants have their place, and I take pleasure in writing them when it seems fitting. But when I do so, I try to ask myself these questions to see if I’m actually offering any value to the people who may read it. 

Am I qualified to criticize this?

A food critic makes a career of understanding the nuances of flavor or the history of regional cuisine. They’ve studied the subject intensively, maybe even practiced it, and exposed themselves to the best and the worst in order to provide an educated opinion. They are qualified to criticize, and they provide a service to their readers in doing so. 

If you’ve experienced the thing you’re ranting about first-hand or have some sort of authority in the space, perhaps your rant is warranted. Maybe you can offer constructive criticism that stirs your community to action.

Or maybe not. As a designer, I may feel qualified to critique another designer’s work, or some design trend, or some product that doesn’t live up to my standards. That doesn’t necessarily mean I should. Read on. 

Am I offering any kind of solution?

If I’m fed up enough with something to go on a tirade about it, it’s likely I feel (rather self-righteously) that I have a better idea for how to do it. After all, if I don’t see the potential for things to be better, why am I so upset about it?

If I’m going to complain about something, I aim to propose a better way. Otherwise, I’m just annoying.

"I wrote mostly positive reviews. I don't write about places that don't interest me." Jonathan Gold

Have I done my research? 

If I make an impassioned stand about something, only for someone else to immediately point out the obvious holes in my argument, it’s going to be pretty embarrassing. It also discredits any authority or trust I might have had before.

It’s assumed you didn’t contribute to the system you’re ranting about, or work on the project you’re criticizing, or attend the meeting where a decision was made. Which means you don’t have context. It’s possible the thing that makes no sense to you only seems senseless because you don’t have all the information. Before you complain about it, find all the information you can. Only then can you reason your stance thoughtfully and productively.

Is my opinion adding anything new or helpful?

Nothing is more tired than Twitter pile-ons in which designers criticize some brand’s new logo or redesign. For one, what is your critique going to do? It’s already done. Second, you’re one of 1,000 other people saying the same thing. That can be useful to enact change, but there are plenty more important causes to pile onto than some company’s logo. 

Think about what result you expect from this rant. Are you offering a new perspective or shedding light on the subject? Or are you just going to fire people up for no useful reason?

Am I just being mean, spiteful or negative for no reason?

Negativity is the last thing we need more of in the world. If you’re just writing out of pure anger or spite, or just because you can, or because it feels good to hate on someone from behind the protection of your laptop screen, reconsider.

October 21, 2020No Comments

The myth of “creative freedom”

If you’ve ever done freelance work, you’ve experienced it. When briefing you on the project, the client seems open and relaxed. “We trust you,” they say, “go wild.” 

You dive into the project excited. Finally, you have full creative freedom, a client who gets it. You do the work, confident in your direction and taking every creative liberty you were offered. 

Then you deliver your work and the client hates it.

What happened?
Were you misaligned on the direction?
Did the client change their minds?
Did you just miss the mark?

While all of the above may be true to an extent, it's likely not that simple.

"Constraints are necessary for creative work. Without them, nothing happens."

Full creative freedom doesn't exist.

If you haven’t defined in clear terms what the client needs or wants, you’ll be taking shots in the dark with your work and hoping something hits the mark. Usually it won’t, because the client has nothing to judge it against besides their current mood and subjective taste.

Always start a project with some sort of discovery and briefing. And, whenever possible, write your own briefs – even if the client has already provided one. This allows you to define the terms of the project in your own words, and make sure your understanding of the project aligns with your client’s. It’s also an opportunity to set a tone and energize your client at the beginning, affirming their choice to bring you on board.

The client may say you have full freedom on this project, but you don’t. More likely, they aren't communicating or aware of what those limitations are. So you can help define them, and you should charge for this process. Include a discovery phase in your estimates so you get paid for it, the client knows to prepare for it and it’s accounted for in your timeline. 

Once you’ve defined the measures of success clearly, you can find creative freedom within them. And you’ll have something to point back to when you present your work. Since you’ve set the objectives and limitations beforehand, you can better justify your decisions, find a clear solution or bill them for a new one. The client may disagree with your solution, but they can’t disagree with the terms you agreed upon together. 

Constraints are necessary for creative work. Without them, nothing happens. Our minds spiral into dozens of directions and we eventually despair. Full “creative freedom” doesn’t exist unless you’re doing a personal art project – and even then, constraints are usually helpful. 

Ask questions early and often

If you’re unclear about anything, even a seemingly small detail, ask. Don’t soften or bury your question with phrases like “Just to confirm” or “I was wondering if you could clarify” or “just making sure." Don’t worry about sounding amateur. Just ask the question. 

When you ask simple, immediate questions, you get clear, helpful answers. Every question you ask reduces the chance of misunderstandings down the road.

"Never assume you and your client are on the same page."

Break up the process

If you sense you and your client might be misaligned, or it’s happened in the past, then you may need to break up your process. Don’t disappear for two weeks while you go into design mode. Add more phases to your process to keep your client in the loop and keep you headed in the right direction.

Build a workshop into your discovery phase. Add more layers of review and approval. Schedule a weekly, 20-minute check-in call. These are your tools to close the gap between you and your client. You won’t always need them, but if it seems like you do, you should use them.

Communicate every step of the way

Never assume you and your client are on the same page. Take notes, send follow up emails and reiterate takeaways at the end of your phone calls. This is not to make a legal case out of your project (although if your client relationship is to that point, read this). It’s to make sure you’re on the same page and agreed on the deliverables. 

Every time you share a brief update about where you are and where you’re headed, it will make your client feel more involved and invested in the final result. The more involved your client, the more they’ll feel they did the work, and the more they’ll like the final result. Make them feel like your work is their own, and you’ll be more likely to succeed.

Keep your communication clear and concise. Nobody wants to receive a long email recalling a meeting verbatim. If you overwhelm your client with long, “let me know your thoughts” emails, you likely won’t get a reply. Most people will ignore those emails and eventually grow impatient as you pester them or stall the project waiting for an answer.

Keep it short and snappy, and give your client an easy way out. Let them pick between two options or set them up to give you a one-word answer: yes or no. If you have multiple questions, don’t send them all at once. If you must send more than one question or action item at a time, number the list so they can reply in an orderly manner. 

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Designers must also be project managers, even if you already have one on your team, and especially if you're working alone. If a client says "the sky is the limit," it's your job to bring that limit back down to earth. It may seem appealing at first, but a loose, poorly defined project won't do you any favors. To feel free within a design project, you need boundaries.

October 15, 2020No Comments

Establishing your identity as a designer

We like to say designers are not artists. It is not our goal, so we've been told, to express ourselves. Our goals are our clients’ goals. Our style is the brand we’re designing for. And yet, we are expected to have a point of view. To stand out and make a name for ourselves.

Early in our career, it's a confusing conflict. We don't have much work to show yet that sets us apart from countless other designers. And we probably don't have the luxury of choosing projects and clients that align with who we are. Yet we feel an existential drive to be unique, find our style and become known for something.

So how do we establish our creative voice and identity while doing work for others? How do we offer our perspective within the constraints of a brief? How do we meet modern design expectations in our own way, without settling for a trend or style that might box us in?

Or, when we’re working within established systems and best practices anyway, does it really matter?

We asked a few established, independent designers for their take.

"Our point of view and the willingness to express it as designers will be the most important asset when robots take over our industry."

First, how does style play into it?

Voice and identity and style tend to get wrapped up in the same conversation. While they are inextricably linked, there is a distinction. Think about it in terms of writing:

A writer's voice is their unique perspective, their way of seeing and filtering the world.

A writer's style is the technical choices they make (specific language, words and turns of phrase) which may change depending on the piece they're writing.

Their identity is how they fit into the world. It's how they are perceived as a writer, where voice and style coalesce.

A writer may choose a specific style again and again, and become known for it. Or they may write a range of novels over their lifetime in varying styles. No matter what style they write in, their same voice will come through. Their voice is their point of view. Their style is how it's expressed. Their identity is the result.

The same is true for designers. Our style preference may change over the course of our career, and from one project to the next. There's nothing wrong with that. It's our voice that will, hopefully, come through loud and clear no matter the style. And that's how we make a name for ourselves.

So how do we find that voice?

Pranjal Kaila, who goes by the moniker "ajeeb," primarily creates visual identities and brand strategies. Image from ajeeb.in, made with Semplice.

Trust your instincts 

For our voice to emerge, we have to listen to it ourselves first. As we work and learn, those instincts will get louder. And the more we trust them, they get stronger. They may even guide us in an opposite direction from what we or our clients expect.

“Usually when clients approach me they tend to have a certain expectation in mind or are looking for something similar to what I had already done. But I don't let that drive my creative process,” says Pranjal Kaila, an independent interdisciplinary artist & designer based in Gurgaon, India. “I approach projects from a tactical standpoint and make decisions based on my intuition."

Your intuition is formed, in part, by your education and experience. But it also comes from who you are. The more you trust your gut, the more you begin navigating the world on your own terms. Eventually, that defines the work you do.

Work toward the project goals. Follow the brief. But also follow your instincts and see where they lead you.

Libby Connolly creates thoughtful identities & branded content, including beautiful typography design. Image from libbyconnolly.com, made with Semplice.

Play to your strengths

For Libby Connolly, an independent designer and art director based in Portland, Maine, establishing her identity means catering to her strengths and unique eye for design. 

"A lot of my work is type-driven and usually layered with varying elements and fine detail," Connolly says. “This is my personal style, however, those stylistic preferences can take many different forms.”

If you also have a love of detail, or color, or words, embrace it. Whether you're working on a product UX or on branding projects, we will see that love for detail or color come through. We'll begin to know you by it.

When possible, choose projects that fit those strengths. For many of us, it's a luxury to turn down work that doesn't feel like a natural fit for us. But anytime we can proactively and intentionally seek those projects, our shape as a designer comes clearer into view.

“That is why a client hires a creative person – to bring the style and voice to the project," says Tracy Doyle, an NYC-based creative director and brand consultant. "If you are starting out and receive a brief where the client is asking for a specific style that doesn't feel inherently right for you, perhaps it isn't a good fit. I understand that saying no takes courage, especially in a tough economic climate, but sometimes it is the wisest decision you can make.”  

Tracy Doyle is a creative director and brand consultant working with clients like CHANEL, Tiffany & Co. and Gucci. Image from tracydoyle.com, made with Semplice.

"Having a distinct identity is the very essence of any creative medium, and design should be no different."

Absorb everything 

“Be a sponge,” says Connolly. “Browse design blogs and just look at other work, a lot of it. Take note of what you gravitate towards and why. Then try it out on your next passion project. This is what will ultimately become your own unique eye for design. Just absorb as much as you can. I still practice this exercise to this very day.” 

Doyle seconds that. 

“Ingest everything — especially when you are starting out. Visit museums; dissect typography; binge-watch cinematic gems; read voraciously; attend performances and study how movement, sounds, set, and costume all come together to create a performance."

While design handbooks and tutorials may be handy in the moment, won't find yourself there. It's the greater world that teaches you, inspires you and shapes your unique perspective.

"Different mediums all contribute to your creative capacity to produce ideas and form your point of view, but they also teach you how different types of work can evoke an emotional response," says Doyle. "That becomes a powerful tool when considering what you want the audience to feel when engaging with your own work.” 

Don't discount self-expression

We may say art and design have different goals, but design is still an artistic practice. No matter how hard we preach otherwise, our designs are a visual expression of who we are.

“Design should be approached like any creative medium,” says Doyle. “A Fellini film looks, sounds, and feels remarkably different than a film by Agnès Varda; a painting by Modigliani is distinctly unique from, say, a Rothko or Alex Katz. Having a distinct identity is the very essence of any creative medium, and design should be no different. In part, this is about differentiating yourself from others, but it is also about your own sense of expression.”

Kaila agrees.

“Unlike economics and science, design problems can have more than one right answer,” Kaila says. When every brief is broken down into formulas and processes, your creative voice is what will make a design solution unique. Our point of view and the willingness to express it as designers will be the most important asset when robots take over our industry.”

We don't just "find" our identity. We can shape it.

We talk about "finding" our identity, as if it's already out there and we just have to stumble upon it. But we have more control than that implies. Just like you'd craft an identity for a client, you create one for yourself.

“Creating a distinct creative identity for me means putting my best foot forward in attracting like-minded creatives and clients,” says  Connolly. “For example, if I wanted to appeal more to tech companies, I’d portray myself much differently."

A client or company has countless options when selecting a designer for a project. It’s not your years of experience or your mastery of specific tools that make you their perfect choice. It’s the clients you choose and the work you create. It's your attitude, your voice, your process, how you describe yourself. It's who you are aligning with who they are. 

The place where all of it comes together? Your portfolio.

It's here we see the picture of you develop – a story you tell through your website design, your case studies, your bio, even your typography choices. It's where we see your style and hear your voice without the filter of your client or the medium. It's where you tell us who you are on your own terms.

Celebrate the continuous process

Our interests and tastes will change over time. And that shapes the work we do. Even the most recognized designers don’t have it pinned down – or even define themselves by that unsatisfied state. It’s what motivates them to learn, experiment and evolve.

“Trying to find your own identity is hard,” says Kaila. “I think I am still in the process of discovering it."

Cover image by Pranjal Kaila.

October 15, 2020No Comments

Why your unconventional design resume gives you an advantage

The design industry is a fairly accessible place to build your career. By this, I mean you don’t have to go to art school to become a successful designer.

My introduction to design began with reading many DESK articles about UX design and finally enrolling in a four-month UX bootcamp.

I think about design bootcamps the same way I think about online dating. When dating apps first came out, some found it embarrassing to admit they used those apps. There was a stigma around “resorting” to online dating. Likewise, I used to be embarrassed about the fact that I was a graduate of a UX bootcamp – maybe because it exposed the fact that I didn’t “start” my career until my mid-20s. But these days, everyone seems to be a graduate of an accelerated program, and online dating seems to be the most common way young adults meet.

I now realize how valuable it is to embrace your background in our industry. In fact, I believe those who first worked outside of design have their own unique advantages over art school graduates.

Your non-design work experience is relevant

A friend of mine worked in the service industry for a decade before switching over to design. In interviews, he used to skip over that period because he thought it was irrelevant, but soon came to realize that it was exactly that experience that set him apart from other candidates.

His time as a server gave him the important skill of conversing with people and making them feel comfortable. In design, 80% of the work is presenting and persuading, and the other 20% is the actual pixel pushing. This soft skill he cultivated over 10 years working in the restaurant suddenly became something he would highlight during his interviews, instead of skipping over.

I have a similar story: Before design, I worked in customer support. It’s not a glamorous job; every day I had to talk with customers and hear why they’re feeling frustrated, confused or angry with a product or service. As a product designer, I’m an advocate for the user, and my time as a support specialist, albeit unknowingly, helped prepare me for this career. I use the communication skills I picked up in customer support every day in my design career when working with teammates, collaborating with product partners and presenting to stakeholders.

Even when I got my first design internship with House of van Schneider, I spent a portion of my time working as part of Semplice’s support team, which helped me learn the product quickly while interacting on a daily basis with our users.

We all pick up soft skills in our jobs like time management, critical thinking and the ability to collaborate. These skills are transferable from job to job, and we should view them as the hidden gems that have the potential to differentiate us from others.

Leverage your interests as inspiration

As designers, we’re called to be creative with our solutions, and one way we can do this is by drawing from our personal interests and hobbies — even if those experiences don’t seem immediately relevant to the task at hand.

For example, if you like to collect sneakers as a hobby, that online sneaker shop you browse every day might have an excellent purchase flow that inspires a design solution for your current project. Or you might get inspiration from a particular sneaker colorway when deciding on a color palette for that brand guideline.

It takes practice to recognize and remember these details, interactions and patterns as inspiration, but those ideas are the ones that bring real value to projects. In my experience, creativity stems from taking an idea or piece of knowledge and repurposing it in a new way, almost like recycling an idea.

Your personal perspective is valuable

I saw a tweet today that read, “If you’re only hiring people who think like you, you’re creating an army of robots.” It’s important, especially during these times, to have diversity in your workplace. One reason why a diverse team is more effective is it brings more unique perspectives to the table.

I’ll take an example from a past project of mine where my team was designing a product page for a car model. We were discussing what content to highlight and were going around in circles about what was more important – the number of seats, the in-car technology, the color options?

My teammate made the point that when he was looking for a new car, the first thing he checked for was how much cargo space the car had and if it’d be able to fit his children’s strollers. This colleague was one of few on our design team who actually fit the target demographic we were designing for, and his perspective allowed us to design for a common use case we hadn’t considered. Ultimately, his perspective led to a better experience for our user.

Thankfully accessibility considerations are becoming more of the norm, but it’s still easy for us to prioritize visual aesthetics over visual impairments. Several of my colleagues have some degree of color blindness, and while there are plug-ins and other tools we can use to check accessibility, it’s always useful to get their eyes on a design.

We would be doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring or diminishing the different experiences and circumstances that brought us to where we are today. The more we embrace our backgrounds, the better designers we can be, and the more inclusive we can make our industry.

October 9, 2020No Comments

Custom, minimalistic motorcycles handmade in Austria

On DESK, we always enjoy exploring creativity beyond the UX or brand design we're typically surrounded by.

It's here, not within our own field, that we find inspiration. And that's how we discovered Vagabund, a custom motorcycle shop based in Graz, Austria (which happens to be my hometown).

We decided to talk to Paul Brauchart, one half of the two-man Vagabund team, about building a brand that's more than "just a motorcycle shop," and just what "form follows function" means for beautiful, minimalistic bike designs.

Vagabund’s tagline is “We‘re not reinventing the wheel, but we‘re rethinking it.” How are you rethinking it? What are some of the dreams or requests you (and your customers) have that traditional motorcycles or the existing market weren’t fulfilling?

To us, Vagabund is more than just a motorcycle garage. This is where we started five years ago but now we’re growing into a larger brand that is seeking to diversify. We are getting some awesome companies that want to collaborate with us and we’re very excited for what the future holds.

When it comes to designing the bikes, we usually try to get rid of all the unnecessary stuff and integrate everything as minimalistically as possible. We’re currently working on a fantastic motorcycle which includes a ton of handmade aluminium bodywork. Our main goal for the future is producing motorcycles that are artistic pieces, yet still totally functional and street legal.

Do you mostly modify existing builds or are you designing and building some bikes from scratch?

Normally we work with pre-existing bikes as EU regulations can be problematic. For us it's not worth building a whole brand new suspension, frame or engine. However, once the bikes are stripped to their bare skeleton we recreate all the other parts from scratch.

I suspect people who do what you do have made a life of tinkering, making, following their curiosity. How do you get into motorcycle design? Did you do some sort of design or engineering before this, or did you just find yourself here?

I studied information design and Philipp Rabl, my partner, studied mechanical engineering. We both grew up constantly around motorcycles and were always building things. I met Philipp while we were both studying and working as test drivers.

What is Vagabund’s design philosophy? I’ve seen “simplicity” and “form follows function” mentioned in your marketing, but motorcycles seem anything but simple and your motorcycle designs are beautifully detailed.

Thank you, that’s kind! Simplicity is definitely what we strive for. While motorcycles are complex, we're trying to design as simply as possible and still maintain functionality and legality. It’s a huge challenge designing around existing bikes, we need to watch legislation and still try to achieve our minimalist aims. This is a challenge we love; it's not good enough if it looks nice, it´s still a vehicle which must be roadworthy.

Can you give us a behind the scenes look at your work? How many people are on your team, who does what and how does a typical customization process go? How do we work with you as a customer to get our dream Vagabund bike?

We are a two-man-show; I mainly do the design, marketing, graphics and conceptual stuff. And Phillip mainly does the engineering elements like CAD, welding, electronics and the mechanical stuff. However, we work closely together and our work often overlaps; I’m always in the workshop and Philip often designs too.

Typically when new customers contact us they have seen a previous Vagabund motorcycle that they admire, and we use this as a basis to craft them their own original piece. We try to create a whole experience around our customers getting a Vagabund motorcycle.

A big part of riding a motorcycle for many people, at least in the United States, is the culture and community. What is the community like in Austria? Do you aim to influence or change it in any specific ways?

I do think that the “community” feeling is much bigger in the States, and we aren't as much into this motorcycle scene. But there is a big motorcycle culture here, especially since we have fun roads to drive on through the countryside.

We aim to bring back some value to the field of custom motorcycles, and therefore mostly build limited stuff. We’ve chosen the longer path but a consistent one. We are trying to build a brand that develops cool products, and if we can influence the community in any way it would be awesome.

In the States (at least in the cities), bicycle sales have surged during the pandemic, and it looks like motorcycle sales are booming too. How has the pandemic affected your work, either positively or negatively?

We’ve been very fortunate during the pandemic and thankfully haven’t been affected too badly. We’ve managed it well and are grateful that our customers are still with us.

You’re already shipping worldwide. Where do you go from here? What’s the roadmap for Vagabund? 

VagaMOON 😀

Jokes aside, we’ve also got some really exciting projects outside of the motorcycle realm. We’ve had our own clothing for a while now, and are currently collaborating with other companies on some cars, bicycles and other cool things.

We’re now thankfully reaching a stage where other companies would like to identify with our brand and image, and that's really crazy because we just started building motorcycles in a small parental basement workshop around five years ago. We definitely won't limit ourselves in what we're doing and creating.

Photography by Stefan Leitner

October 8, 2020No Comments

How to create a UX writing portfolio

It may seem like UX writing is in a perpetual grey area. Like a lot of design disciplines, the field is having an identity crisis.

Trying to get a UX writer position is difficult because not many people know what it is, how to approach it or what skills even translate to UX copywriting.

When looking for positions in UX writing, you may come across titles such as:

  • Content Designer
  • UX Content Strategist
  • User Experience Copywriter
  • Product Writer
  • Content Writer

There are tons of overlapping skills in all these positions. Some might have varying degrees of product or marketing tasks, but all of them mean the same thing: You’re going to be writing research-backed, retention-focused microcopy.

Titles tend to trap you in a box. I have a background in content, but because I have worked so closely with products, I have tasks that translate to UX writing. It doesn’t matter your title; as long as you’ve written for products and/or about products in notifications, emails and onboarding, you can be a UX copywriter. 

Creating a portfolio to reflect your UX writing capabilities is one of the most frustrating things about the discipline. However, as soon as you know what the hiring manager is looking for, it becomes a whole lot easier. 

UX writing leaders are looking for three main things: That you have experience on a design team, familiarity with design systems and an understanding of the end-to-end UX design process. 

State your place on the design team

Hiring managers want to know how you fit in with the design team. The design team can also mean product team, tech team, creative team etc. — essentially, a team focused on the user journey.

It’s important to mention who you worked with, reported to and managed in your portfolio, as the hiring manager wants to know you can communicate with designers and have knowledge of the design workflow. They want to know if you can speak the lingo, have an understanding of UX and know how to work on a product.

If you’ve worked for a large company, your role is probably more concrete and easier to define. If you’ve worked for a startup —like me — defining your place in your team’s workflow might be more difficult. 

In my portfolio, I clarified like this:

“I worked with a multidisciplinary design team, under the CTO who served as art director and project manager. I wore many hats and UX wrote for the new website and app, defined the brand voice, and helped the front-end and back-end designers optimize behavioral flow through scriptwriting and user research.”

There are many ways to go about showing off your role in a design team, but for most hiring managers, this is a must-have.

"The hiring manager wants to know you can come in and begin communicating with the design team right away."

Learn the design system lingo

In a lot of job descriptions I’ve seen, the company wants you to have experience with design systems. Don’t worry, you most likely have the experience. 

Different design teams have different lingo. Working for several startups and often working alone when freelancing, I learned I did know a lot of the design team vernacular, I just wasn’t exposed to it the same way as UX writers in large companies. 

Learn the lingo and use the same terms in your portfolio. One of the ways I did this was by reaching out to UX designers and writers at large companies and walking through the job descriptions. They simplified the terms and helped me apply it when walking through my portfolio. 

The hiring manager wants to know you can come in and begin communicating with the design team right away. 

For example, here is a job description for a UX content strategist role at Zendesk:

There are tons of words in here which can be confusing to someone who has never been exposed to them, such as “navigational nomenclature”, “audits”, “standard methodologies”, “taxonomies”, etc.

If you have a background in content, chances are you have experience with these terms. Regardless, don’t be afraid of these words. When I construct my portfolio, I like to break down these words, simplify them and apply my experience to them. 

"Navigational nomenclature" essentially means using consistent words to navigate a user to an action in a navbar or CTA.

"Auditing" means doing usability analysis such as A/B testing, gathering user feedback or using analytics.

"Taxonomies" refers to information architecture. Do you have experience structuring product content for maximum accessibility?

In your portfolio, you should be using the same design lingo you see in job descriptions. However, do not force it. Hiring managers just want to see you’re familiar with the terms, but use them organically and sparingly. 

"The hero takes a journey, meets an obstacle and finally, triumphs. In this story, your user is the hero."

Define, in detail, your work in the end-to-end process 

The best way to define your place in the end-to-end design process is by creating a story of the user successfully completing an experience. Focus on how someone discovers the product, how someone onboards and the first use of the product. Include specific details around how you impacted this process with your writing.

Typical places UX writers have impact are:

  • Onboarding
  • Action flows
  • Buttons
  • Error messages
  • Notifications
  • In-app purchase flow

If you have any experience in these areas, you’ll want to share it in detail. 

Here is an example of how I did this in my portfolio:

The user journey is a big part of the end-to-end design process. The hiring manager wants to know you have a holistic understanding of the product development process from validation (user research) to building solutions (UX/UI) to validating solutions (analytics).

It's the classic story structure we learn about in school. The hero takes a journey, meets an obstacle and finally, triumphs. In this story, your user is the hero. So share their journey in your case studies: With a problem, goal and results – ideally, a success story. Here's how UX writer Tamara Hilmes introduces her case studies:

This serves as an outline for her case study, and she dives into the details from there.

Here’s another example of a more direct way to share your impact:

The writer shared what the copy looked like before and after they worked on it. This can be a useful approach, but most hiring managers will be looking for your thought process behind these decisions as well.

Create a narrative with your portfolio

The portfolio isn’t just a window into your experience. It’s also a glimpse into your personality. 

While this may not be a deal-breaker, the hiring manager also wants to understand your overall character and see if you have an eye for design and UX.

You can see an example here, where the writer lays out their approach and brings their voice into play:

Creating a UX writing portfolio is extremely challenging compared to visual creatives. While designers can convey their personality and style through images, the place to show yours is in stories around your experience. 

Share the context of your company, the context of your role, why you made the decisions you didand what you would’ve done differently. This shows your overall understanding of your work and conveys your style and personality.

October 5, 2020No Comments

Behind the scenes of book cover design

Creating book covers is a dream design job. Many of us have it on our bucket list. Few of us find ourselves designing book covers full-time.

Janet Hansen is one of those special few who designs book jackets for a living. In almost a decade in the industry, she's designed for a range of clients and publishing houses, including The New Yorker, the New York Times, Penguin Press, Vanity Fair, New Directions and Farrar Straus & Giroux. She currently works as an associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf in Manhattan, while freelancing everything from rebrand projects to New York Times illustrations on the side.

In this interview, Hansen takes us behind the scenes of her work. We learn just how much freedom a cover designer actually has, the standard process and strategy when designing a book cover, and a lot more.

 

Some of us imagine a jacket designer collaborating closely with the author on the cover, finding a way to capture the essence of the book in one beautiful image – only after reading it and pondering its themes, symbols and characters deeply on their own. I'm sure it’s not (always) quite as romantic as that. How does it typically go for you?

While I do enjoy reading and visually analyzing a manuscript, it’s true that I sometimes am not able to, due to deadlines and abundance of projects. There’s also a surprising number of people involved in the cover approval process: publishers, agents, editors, sales — so it is not likely for me to be in direct contact with the author without many others involved. 

It’s also important to remember too that while writing is an art form, ultimately a book is a product and its cover is an advertisement. My job is to find a balance between capturing the essence of the book while also making it “commercial” enough to entice retailers into marketing it and readers into buying it.

Artwork by Daniel Bjugård

Like any design work, I imagine there are publishers who just “get it” and give you full creative freedom, and others who don’t. Is that accurate, or are you typically given freedom to explore whatever direction you choose?

I’m lucky enough to work with people who allow a good amount of creative freedom. I will admit though, due to years of working with a group, I sometimes habitually steer my design into approaches I know will gain a more mass appeal. It’s important to break out of that habit though, and to test what a book cover could be even if it means more recurring rejection.

There are of course instances where an editor or author requests a very specific approach. I find that in these cases it’s sort of like shooting yourself in the foot.

Photograph by Jouke Bos

I am curious how far your final drafts usually are from your first ones. Can you walk us through the journey of a specific jacket design, from concept to final design? 

Here's one that I think has changed in an interesting way…

Here was my first sketch for “The Slaughterman’s Daughter” (out in February 2021).

While the feedback was fairly positive, there was pushback on the idea being primarily a playing card. Also was pushback on the script type. I was initially concerned about removing the look of the playing card, but after trying it I realized it still worked well (and maybe even was better?!).

What I found out when I changed the type though, is that it wasn’t really complimenting the illustration in the way that the handwritten script was — it was a much weaker cover.

I begged for permission to hire an illustrator to rework this quite amateur illustration. And with Kelly Blair and John Gall’s blessing I was able to hire the very talented Jon Kutt at High Road Design, who elevated my wonky sketch into a beautiful work.

I presented this one to our Pantheon team and there was concern again about the type (womp womp!). So I went with the more book cover friendly typeface that complimented the subject matter well. Final approved sketch below.

Through experiences like this, have you learned any specific ways to not only pitch your designs, but fight for them? Any tips for designers who also face the possibility of design by committee?

I actually don’t do much of the talking! I tend to just listen. I don’t rule out criticism or suggestions until I have thoughtfully considered them. It’s also important to speak up if you feel strongly about why a design does or does not work — and to back up your opinion with facts and examples.

Where the magic happens. Janet's WFH desk.

What are a few of your favorite published covers we can find on bookshelves (or online)?

I’m really excited about Hiroko Oyamada’s new novel ‘The Hole’ that is coming out this October. And an old jacket of mine I never cringe at is ‘Voices in the Night’ by Steven Millhauser. 

When it comes to the design I do, we have systems and best practices in place that guide the work. Are there any kind of best practices for designing book covers?

Reading the manuscript is step one for me. If I don’t have the time, I at least read several chapters. I highlight recurring themes or any visuals that I think could represent the book well, then create a grid of these themes and try to think of ways to visually represent them all. I usually will narrow my ideas down to three different concepts, and then focus solely on those.

It seems like a practice in restraint. Any insights you can share with us for narrowing your focus and creating your own restraints with the playing field seems wide open?

While I think of visuals that capture the essence of the book, it also needs to work well with its title. I try to steer clear of imagery that is used often on covers, and instead go with something that is visually interesting to me personally.

I usually find my inspiration outside of book cover design, in fine art or film. If the concept is one I have not seen on a book cover, and it is abstract enough that it could be interpreted in more than one way, I think that is a good thing. 

Are there any specific trends you notice happening right now in cover design? 

Anything with large and legible type seems to be of trend, because of the concern of how a cover will read online at a thumbnail size. The problem with this trend is it does not necessarily look as nice on its printed counterpart.

"While writing is an art form, ultimately a book is a product and its cover is an advertisement."

Do you sometimes have to make an effort to design for the book, rather than leaving “your personal mark?” Or do you consider yourself having a recognizable strength or style when it comes to your jacket designs?

I’m less interested in leaving my mark than I am in making something that I think is refreshing to see in a sea of book covers. I don’t always succeed in that goal, but it’s something to aim towards. And of course, I have certain tendencies, like leaning towards simplicity or design that is stripped down and clean!

I’d imagine it’s beneficial that you enjoy and resonate with the story you’re designing – but do you ever struggle with getting TOO close to a story you love, to the point where it clouds your perspective for the design? 

There are times I have loved the book so much that it clouded my perspective as a designer to feel the need to market or “commercialize” it. If I don’t enjoy a manuscript, those are the covers I find the most difficult to get approved. A connection is missing.

Has the evolution of the book business – namely, our short attention spans, the rise of short-form, ephemeral content, book sales sadly moving mostly online to behemoths like Amazon, etc. – affected your work in any noticeable way?

My career began around the time Amazon and e-books came to rise, so I have always been working alongside this evolution. I try not to let this change how I design, but it’s sort of inevitable I guess. I still am a strong believer that the quality of the printed book should come first.

Despite everything happening online now, we are still (thanks to Instagram) more visual than ever. And we all know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we also know we’ve all noticed and purchased books based on the cover alone. Do you think, in this current age, a cover is still a valuable sales tool? 

A good cover is a signifier that the process of putting this book out in the world has been thoughtful. It lets you know that the people putting it together care about it. And if a cover is good, people are more likely to share it on their social media. There’s so many more outlets for advertising in that way. 

Are there any book covers someone else designed that you wish you’d designed yourself? What are they and why do you love them?

When I saw ‘Notes from a Fog’ by Ben Marcus (designed by Jamie Keenan for Granta Books), I had to pick my jaw up from the floor. It’s like nothing I have seen before. The reversed type, that photograph — just painfully brilliant, unexpected and deadpan hilarious. 

Another brilliant design is Na Kim’s jacket for ‘Tegan and Sara’s ‘High School.’ The handwriting in combination with the mirror effect gives off perfect high school vibes while somehow feeling like highbrow book art. I couldn’t imagine a better solution for this jacket.

Most book cover designers I know love reading. Do you? If so, what are a few books you’d recommend to us (either ones you enjoyed recently, or all-time favorites)? 

While I love to read, my reading for pleasure has gone out the window since the pandemic! It’s since been replaced with reading for work and reading how to raise a baby properly. Two books I’ve enjoyed thoroughly for work recently are ‘Whereabouts’ by Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Speak, Okinawa’ by Elizabeth Mika Brina.

Photograph by Guy Henderieckx

Rendered by Justin Metz

 

 

October 1, 2020No Comments

How to learn UX copywriting? Understand iconography.

This is an excerpt from our upcoming UX Writing book, exploring how we (as designers and copywriters) can write copy that helps people use and love our products. Sign up for book updates here

Understanding where and when copy is necessary is just as important as knowing how to write it. 

Sometimes, a message can be relayed through the design without content. Other times, a simple icon is more effective than a line of text. And in other cases, an icon should be used WITH copy to convey the message. 

If you’re just now joining this series, this is as good a time as any to talk about cognitive load. Humans, like computers, only have a certain amount of processing power and memory in our brains. When we interact with a product, we are using those resources to make sense of the system. The less cognitive load (ie. mental effort) your product requires from the people using it, the better. The higher the cognitive load, the more work your user has to put in to complete a task. 

The goal, obviously, is to make things as easy as possible for our user. That means helping them complete their task correctly, as quickly as possible, with as little strain on their brain as possible. Which leaves us with questions: What do people recognize and understand faster? Icons or copy? What if it’s both? What if it’s neither? 

While much of it depends on the context – where a person currently is in your experience, what they already know, what they don’t know, what device they’re using and so forth – we can establish a few general rules around that help us know when to use what. Let’s start with icons. 

When to use icons

An icon is most often used for repetitive actions: Visiting your profile, searching, favoriting an item. If we’re going to interact with a UI element within your product – for example, adjusting the volume – we’ll likely see an icon next to it that identifies the element. 

Icons are meant to simplify a message or idea, making it easy to understand at a glance. They allow us to scan and intuitively navigate through a product through symbols we recognize. They save space for designers and copywriters, especially on mobile. 

And, importantly, icons can transcend language. It’s one of the main reasons you’ll use one. While copy requires carefully choosing your verbiage and dealing with the complexities of multi-language support, an icon requires no translation. 

But very few icons can achieve these goals on their own. 

An icon should be understood without thinking. And we can’t assume people across cultures, languages, age and capabilities will understand the same symbols we do. If your icon makes them pause for even a couple seconds, it’s not doing its job.

As Nielsen Norman Group puts it, “Icons are, by definition, a visual representation of an object, action, or idea. If that object, action, or idea is not immediately clear to users, the icon is reduced to mere eye candy — confusing, frustrating, eye candy — and to visual noise that hinders people from completing a task.”

While we could get into UX design 101 here, we’re more focused on icons in relation to copy. So here’s an easy rule: 

Use a label with your icons. 

Perhaps a few exceptions exist, like a hamburger icon or a magnifying glass, but even these can be misconstrued depending on the context. A magnifying glass could mean “search” or “zoom.” A hamburger menu may be standard to you, but not necessarily to your grandmother. A clock, which seems like a pretty obvious symbol, could mean “current time” or “browsing history.” 

More technical people than me would call icons paired with labels a “cognitive affordance.” The label helps us understand how the icon should be used.

All icons and no copy, and your product is as frightening to use as an Ikea manual. There are entire websites dedicated to translating Ikea manuals, which notoriously lack instructional copy and require you to decipher complicated visuals.

Pull a screen from any of your favorite apps and remove all the copy. You’ll likely be left with something akin to hieroglyphics, at best. 

Take the Spotify app, for example. Here we’ve removed the labels they include with their icons in the dock.

Most of us understand the first two icons at a glance. The icon on the far right, however, is open to interpretation. We’d have to stop for a beat and think, or even click to confirm what it is: A Library icon. While this is the main “problem” icon, Spotify chooses to label all of them.

The other icons on this screen are intuitive because of the context. A play button is one of those few universal symbols that can afford to stand on its own, especially given the fact that this is a music app. Placed within a search bar and next to the help text that reads “Artists, songs, or podcasts,” we know the magnifying glass means “Search.” The microphone icon is debatable – Spotify assumes we understand voice functions based on our previous habits. Some of us may still need to click the icon to find out.

Labeling your icons also primes your user, teaching them the language of your product. If Spotify first introduces the Library icon with a label, they could potentially use that icon without a label later to save space – only because they taught us earlier what it means. 

This goes both ways. If you’re using an icon with copy in one place, but we’re never going to see that icon again past this first screen, why use an icon with a label? Just use the copy on its own without the icon and save the space. Which brings us here:  

When to use copy

Knowing when to use copy over icons depends on the context and the complexity of the message. If you’re struggling for even a few seconds about how to represent a concept, action or message with an icon, don’t use an icon. If you had to stretch to represent it visually, the chances are high we won’t understand your visual.

However, that doesn’t mean you need to write paragraphs of text. The more concise your UX copy, the better. Progressive disclosure makes that possible – tell us only what we need to know now, and explain the rest later when it becomes relevant. This is what allows us to intuitively use your product: progressive disclosure, priming and building on learned behaviors.

When words are paired with design, they almost achieve icon status. (Words are visual symbols just like icons, aren’t they? They’re just shaped differently.)

You won’t even read the “Next” button during an onboarding experience because it’s within a button, possibly even paired with an arrow icon, within the contained onboarding experience. Plus, you’ve clicked through these things hundreds of times. You’ve got the muscle memory.

If you’ve decided you want to purchase a dress online, you’re not reading the text that says “Add to bag.” Because of its placement below or next to the product image, along with the size and prominence of that text, you click the link without thinking.

When it comes to UX, copy is the silent hero. Yes, UX copy should still be creative. You should still take every opportunity to infuse your brand voice into your UX. If your UX copy makes people laugh, it can transform your entire product. But speaking strictly about the user experience: You know your copy is successful when we don’t think too much about it at all. 

Deciding between icons and copy: A non-comprehensive checklist

Summing up what we’ve reviewed here, this checklist by no means covers all scenarios. But it may help as you form mental models around writing UX copy.

Use an icon if:

– You can immediately think of an icon that visualizes the message, concept or action. 

– Your users are going to complete this action repetitively, or see this message throughout the system.

– You’re identifying a core UI element within your product (such as volume control)

Use copy if: 

_ You're using an icon. (Include a label for your icon, with a few exceptions.)

– This is the only time your user will complete this action, see this message or learn this concept within your product experience.

– You can’t immediately think of an icon. If you’re straining to visualize it, we’ll struggle to understand it.

___

Read more from our UX copywriting series:

My best products are a joke
→ Best practices for UX copywriting
→ Content or design first?
→ Writing UX copy for buttons and links
→ Making your product a joy to use
→ What is UX copy?

October 1, 2020No Comments

Monthly portfolio inspiration of September 2020

Once a week, we select two portfolios created with Semplice to feature in our Best Of  Showcase.  Here we've collected September's finest.

It seems to be the season to launch your portfolio. We've seen some incredible new sites this month, and they keep rolling in. Here are some of our favorites to keep you inspired.

If you've created your own portfolio with Semplice, be sure to submit it to our Showcase here. We might feature your site next.

 

Andre Suzuki

Max Amoto

Sascha Yeryomin

Lukas Halota

Maximilian Inzinger

JC Dela Cuesta

New Presence

Grand Matter

Silvana Yaneva

Matija Gabrilo

 

To see more great design portfolios, visit the Semplice showcase. I'll be back next month with more of our monthly favorites!

Header image by Bryce Wymer of Grand Matter

September 22, 2020No Comments

Design in Lebanon 🇱🇧 featuring Studio Safar

In our latest Design Around the World series interview, we are exploring a complex and dynamic design community: Lebanon.

Lebanon has been on the global radar since August of this year, after an explosion in Beirut killed at least 200 people, injured thousands of others and caused $10–15 billion in property damage. The catastrophe comes on top of the pandemic and an already-collapsing economy, and unrest continues in the city. (Read the news if you need to catch up.)

We're thankful Studio Safar made time to talk with us in the midst of all of this – the team is still orienting themselves after their office was destroyed in the blast. Here Hatem Imam, Studio Safar co-founder and creative director, speaks candidly about the situation in Beirut, the danger of reducing a city to a slogan, why women are championing the design scene in Lebanon and the renaissance of the Arabic letterform. Let's get into it.

Maya Moumné and Hatem Imam, Studio Safar co-founders, recently featured in Esquire Italia. Photography: Myriam Boulos

First, tell us a little about yourself. How many people are on your team and why did you decide to create an agency together? What kind of work do you do?

Studio Safar is a design and art direction agency. The team includes co-founders and creative directors Maya Moumné and myself (Hatem Imam), both graphic designers by trade; senior graphic designer Lynne Zakhour; designers Giorgia Labaki and Rana Tawil; business and studio manager Ali Abdallah; and copywriter/editor Sharon Grosso. 

The idea of the creating studio came about after I received a rejection letter for a full-time university teaching job. Looking back, I guess there wasn’t an existing structure that I felt I wanted to belong to, so based on Maya’s suggestion, we started one of our own. Most of our work is centered on the cultural sector and its orbit. The name Safar—Arabic for travel— evokes our interest in crossing cultural and linguistic barriers. In terms of scope of work, we do everything a graphic design and art direction agency does, in addition to publishing our own design and visual culture bi-annual magazine. 

Lebanon sits right between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, making it a passageway between the European and Arab world. And I know Beirut is known for its cosmopolitan vibe, at once historic and modern. How would you describe the design you see coming from Beirut today? Is it influenced by your culture/history/environment in any way?

We grew up being taught this narrative of Lebanon, but honestly, what city in the world is not a "melting pot," and a "rich mix," and, and? The danger of reducing a country or a city to these broad slogans is that it washes over every nuance, specificity or relevance. It generates work that resorts to facile representations that are not well-founded. I see this a lot with students and try to remedy it with research. Thoughtful design work coming from Beirut is rare, but when done right, it can open our eyes to the historic development of the practice, the origin of design conventions and influences, and at best help us learn from these references and innovate for today’s needs. 

Have you found a community of like-minded creatives in Beirut, or platforms and events where you can connect with other designers? 

We work with a network of creative people from a wide array of fields and backgrounds including film, literature, music, illustration, fashion and photography. Definitely our work producing Journal Safar, our magazine about graphic design and visual culture, has helped to broaden and strengthen this network. The fifth and latest issue, Migrations, for example, put the illustrations of fashion designer and illustrator Cynthia Merhej next to Myriam Boulos’ photography next to the musings of artists Sophia al-Maria and Yumna Marwan and the film stills of Elia Suleiman. 

That being said, our networks and communities are very far from “like-minded.” Not only do the individuals and collectives we work with in Beirut have a wide variety of different skill sets, but their backgrounds, opinions, styles and values all vary greatly too.  

Globalization, especially American influence, is on the minds of many designers outside the West right now. Some feel it’s homogenizing design and contributing to a loss of a country’s cultural / visual identity. What’s your take? Has globalization affected Lebanese design in any noticeable way, either positively or negatively?

American and European design history and thinking have definitely shaped our understanding of the field in Lebanon; you can see this vividly in academia. I think a more accurate term for it is colonialism rather than globalization. It starts with language and extends to all fields of cultural production, from fashion to architecture and of course design. 

Of course, it is a double-edged sword: On one hand, there is something exciting and new about the assemblage of influences and references. On the other hand, there is definitely a partial erasure of local conventions. One of our missions is to shift the attention of the design narrative from its fixation on the global north, and to look inwards and backward in history. However, we insist on not doing this purely nostalgically nor nationalistically.  

Sustainable design is increasingly a conversation in the design community. I know Beirut has struggled with this in the past with the 2015 waste crisis, for example. Is environmentally conscious design an interest for designers in Beirut right now? 

Environmentally conscious design is certainly an interest for designers in Beirut, as it is for designers everywhere. 

For us, environmentally-conscious or sustainable design definitely doesn’t preclude the importance of print. Print is a really significant part of our work, particularly our work publishing Safar. When carrying out a print project, sustainability for us means designing something that will remain relevant, beautiful and special for a long time — something that people will treasure and hold on to. It also means printing an appropriate number of copies for a given audience (this, of course, takes some time and experience to estimate accurately).

We encourage our clients to also take the sustainability of their projects into consideration. Even if a project has no print or physical product and is fully online, we strive to create identities that are carefully thought-out and designed and, as a result, will endure for a long time.

Studio Safar's cover design for Riposte Magazine and Slowfactory

In a paper written on Lebanese design 10 years ago, I read “A Lebanese school of graphic design is yet unheard of.” A lot can change in a decade. What’s the quality of design education now, in your opinion?

In fact, the first “Graphic Design” program was launched at the American University of Beirut (AUB) by Leila Musfy in 1992. I put graphic design in quotes because design was taught and practiced before that date in Lebanon, but was never assigned as a university degree as such before. Print houses, ad agencies, book and magazine publishers, poster makers, calligraphers and illustrators all took part in design making predating AUB’s program. The first printing press in the Middle East is located in a monastery in the Valley of the Saints in the mountains of north Lebanon since 1585. Today there are tens of design schools all over the country that can be divided roughly to American and French programs as well as in the Lebanese (public) University. 

I read that women dominate the graphic design scene in Lebanon, but their work is valued more abroad than at home. Do you see this to be true? If so, why?

It is a fact that there is a predominance of women in the field in Lebanon, but unfortunately, this is partly due to regressive societal misconceptions that consider design — and most liberal arts — as almost leisurely pastimes rather than “serious” careers. At AUB where I teach, both graphic design and architecture are under one school, and the numbers say it all: while in architecture you would have a roughly balanced gender ratio, in graphic design you can have 10% or fewer male students per year. 

On the bright side, women are indeed championing the scene and proving the importance of graphic design in cultural production. Perhaps this is resonating more abroad than at home at the moment, but this is slowly but surely changing.

I know Beirut’s economy was struggling already, and now with the pandemic and the explosion on top, it’s hurting more than ever. How has this affected your work? What kind of jobs are available for designers in Beirut right now? 

Previously, most of our clients were based in Lebanon, but as the economy has gotten worse and worse — with banks illegally restricting withdrawals and the exchange rate of the Lebanese Pound (LBP) plummeting against the value of the dollar — and now with the massive devastation of the August 4th explosion, most people simply don’t have the means to fund such projects. On top of that, and especially after the explosion, a significant portion of the population is trying to leave the country to find better work or educational opportunities abroad. That being said, a good chunk of our work comes from outside of Lebanon now.

The Studio Safar offices after the explosion in Beirut.

I’ve always understood it’s incredibly difficult to create Arabic typefaces (and it seems globalization has affected this as well), but I’ve been seeing headlines lately announcing some really beautiful new Arabic types, along with a lot of experimentation around Arabic scripts. Are you seeing more effort and care put into Arabic typography lately? 

There has been a new wave of amazing Arabic type designers in the past ten years or so. Kristyan Sarkis, Khajag Apelian, Wael Morcos and Lara Captan are just a few names of Lebanese designers we love. 

The Khatt foundation established by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès in 2004 in Amsterdam played an important role in this renaissance of the Arabic letterform. This has impacted our work tremendously. When I graduated in 2000, our selection of usable, well-drawn and bug-free fonts was limited to a handful, most of which were straightforward versions of classical calligraphic scripts. Today there are a lot more options for a designer for any usage from the most pragmatic (legible signage for a hospital), to the most expressive (experimental music festival poster). We look forward to more.

Thanks to the internet and now the pandemic, many designers are working for clients overseas remotely. How is it for you? Do you work mostly with local or overseas clients, or is it a mix?

With the ongoing pandemic and the economic collapse in Lebanon, we do a lot of work for overseas clients now. Fortunately, the technology (Zoom, Slack, Google Drive, etc.) readily available to us today makes working internationally pretty simple and straightforward. We definitely do miss the immediacy of real-life meetings, especially at the onset of any project, where people’s body language can be one of the most telling communication signals.

What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?

Social media is a great tool with which to promote and share our work on one hand, but more importantly to share our values with our audience. A lot of clients have found out about us and our work through our social media pages — namely, Instagram. We also use our Journal Safar page to share regional design history material and documentation as well as accurate and relevant information about current events and issues in Lebanon.

Social media is also an incredibly powerful tool for us here in Lebanon specifically. The banks in Lebanon have imposed informal capital controls, meaning that people here can no longer withdraw their funds in USD, and they can only withdraw a limited amount in the Lebanese Pound (which has, in the last year, lost around 70% of its value). 

When trying to print the most recent issue of Safar, we needed to pay for the printing in London, but the bank was restricting our access to our money. We posted about it on Instagram, and although we don’t have a massive following, the post received enough attention that the bank called us, apologized and found a “loophole” for us. They also asked us to remove the post. We didn’t because what they are doing is wrong and illegal. 

I know it varies from client to client but generally speaking, do clients in Lebanon appreciate good design and understand what it takes?

Before accepting any project, we always have an in-depth conversation with the potential client in order for both parties to determine if their work and project fit well with the ethos and work process of our studio. A lot of our work depends on mutual trust between us and the client, rather than their knowing or understanding ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ design — of course, not everyone has that background, nor are these notions objective truths. In addition to trust, we try to listen closely to our clients and to make sure that our design work responds clearly and logically to the needs and problems that they present to us.

In your opinion, what are 5-10 design studios from Beirut/Lebanon that everyone should know?

These are not all design studios but rather some Beirut-based creatives whose work we respect and support:

Mind the Gap

Studio Kawakeb

Mohamad Abdouni (art direction, film making, publishing)

The Council for Visual Affairs (communication and animation)

Public Works (critical design thinking and urban planning)

Ghaith and Jad (architecture)

Paul Kaloustian Architects

Far Architects

Fabraca Studios (product design)

David/Nicolas (interior design)

Super Yaya (fashion)

Renaissance Renaissance by Cynthia Merhej (fashion and illustration)

__

Read more from our Design Around the World series to learn about design in Egypt, Indonesia, Taiwan, Nigeria, Pakistan and much more.

September 18, 2020No Comments

No more boring apps

In 1970, artist John Baldessari took his entire life's work of landscape paintings, lit it ablaze, and watched decades of work burn to ash.

He followed with a long film of him repeating a statement that hit the art world: 

"I will not make any more boring art. I will not make any more boring art…" 

Baldessari then went on to produce some of the 20th century's seminal visual and conceptual art that has influenced entire new generations of artists.

Product design sits at this same moment today.

I've been in this field for a bit. I've worked for some big companies and founded a couple companies of my own (FiftyThree, Short of the Week). I've watched apps grow from a side hobby to big business. I've watched product design evolve from a small, nameless circle of misfits to one of the largest creative fields today. Every day, millions of new dollars are invested and hundreds of new apps are launched. The world is becoming a better place one convenience at a time. 

Apps have become an intimate part of our everyday lives. We wake up with them, eat with them, pee with them and go to bed with them. Software has eaten the world; some are ready to hail this as the golden age of design.

And it's time to burn it all.

The world of apps – once an exciting canvas for creative exploration – has become repetitive, predictable and… boring.

Seriously, I can't tell one app from the next.

There was that one hot app from a couple weeks ago that everyone was raving about, but I don't remember it anymore. Just this week, there was a new email app, a new metrics dashboard and a new bookmarking app. They are all destined to disappear into a sea of apps following the same formula — designed with the same boring templates, built with the same boring frameworks, promoted on the same boring landing page design with that same boring tone of voice. What we get are apps with generic, completely forgettable design promising to change our life by making some small part of it easier. Product design has become formulaic and the apps we make entirely uninspired.

I used to think it was just me. Then I started to notice something. I've started asking my product design friends where they find inspiration and I hear a lot about great architecture, graphic design, photography, video games, film and art. But no one mentions any apps. Seems odd, don't you think?

You can try it yourself with a slightly different question. Ask a product designer to name a few of their design heroes. You're likely to hear names like Dieter Rams, Paula Scher, Vignelli and Buckminster Fuller. What you won't hear are the names of anyone designing any software.

Sure, we're a young discipline, but so are video games. And you won't find a game designer who can't rattle off names like Miyamoto (Nintendo), Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid),  Arnt Jenson (Playdead) as well as a dozen titles that deeply shaped their childhood.

Something is off. This isn't an issue you'll find in other design fields like industrial design, fashion or architecture. Despite being one of the largest practicing creative fields today, product design seems to be missing out on something fundamental that exists in every other design field.

A couple years ago, I was ready to walk away from it all. 

I watched many of my friends leave design to reconnect with the world. Usually, that meant going out into nature for a long hike or to build a cabin.

I grew up in Alaska, so… I moved out to Seattle and started building furniture.

Woodworking is brutal. It's painfully slow to learn and very unforgiving. But the sheer act of jumping blindly into a new creative field as a novice really opened up my eyes. You'd be surprised how quickly designing a simple bench will lead you into existential questions about the nature of "sitting.”

Ever wonder…

Why there are so many chair designs?

I did. You'd think after thousands of years and millions of iterations, we'd have solved the problem of sitting. And yet, every year a new, amazing chair is unveiled that would put a new iPhone iteration to shame.

It turns out, there isn't one chair for everyone. There are many chairs for different people in different situations. There are lounge chairs, task chairs, benches, stools, poufs — all serving a unique purpose. If I were to go looking for a new lounge chair, I could buy a La-Z-Boy, an Eames lounge chair or Saarinen's womb chair. A chair solves a simple need with a diversity of viewpoints.

How is it that our apps, which tackle issues that are infinitely more complex than sitting– issues like human connection – offer so much less depth and diversity?

It’s all about growth.

To understand product design, you need to understand the tech industry.

The underlying appeal in software as a business is scale. With zero marginal costs, you can build your product just once and put it in the hands of billions. The goal is scale and the strategy is growth. But this strategy of endless growth cuts against one of the fundamental principles in design. 

"If you're small, it's to your advantage to be weird. You can build apps that the big tech companies never could."

Let's look at beer.

In the U.S. beer industry, the most popular beers by sales are domestic beers which are typically extremely light lagers. They can be made cheaply, quickly and are optimized to be as "drinkable" as possible (interestingly, it's a market dominated by two players). Then, there's a craft beer market where smaller brewers explore new flavors targeted toward regional customers.

The world of apps today is entirely domestic beers. Every app is designed to appeal to everyone. Which is another way of saying they're designed so as to not offend anyone.

Now, it's easy to understand why the big tech companies pursue scale. But what boils my mind, is that every small startup has seemingly set the same strategic goal for itself. First, offering some slightly more convenient solution to an ever more-minor problem, and then, with funding secured, attempt to apply that problem to the entire world. We've given up on "flavor" in pursuit of "drinkable."

When you design something to work for everyone, you make it special for no one.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

The strategy of scale is stunting the product design field. I've watched it corrupt teams as design values that were once "delight" slowly morph into "perform," even if not explicitly stated. I suspect, deep down, many of us know this, but simply can't find a way to square it.

As important as knowing what your product is, is knowing what it is not. And that starts with recognizing that your business is not the same as Apple or Google. Stop playing their game.

The big domestic beer makers draw their inspiration from the microbreweries. There are styles and flavors that a small brewer can explore that a massive industrial brewer never could. The big clothing brands are inspired by independent fashion designers. Blockbuster directors find inspiration in indie and short films. If you're small, it's to your advantage to be weird. You can build apps that the big tech companies never could.

In the world of chairs, you're not going to build a cheaper chair than Ikea. Why not build something they couldn't, like a more interesting one?

For me, this thinking begins to answer the question of what is missing in the product design field. It opens up the medium of software as a platform for something bigger than solving problems.

Why do furniture designers keep designing new chairs? We know it's not to solve the problem of "sitting." The chair is simply the medium. The true goal is something bigger: to inspire, to broaden our understanding of what's possible, or express something unique about what it means to be alive today.

Imagine if our everyday apps embraced this? What might we see? I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

We miss the point. We're supposed to be dancing.

Perhaps it's part of maturing, but I'm at a point in my life where I don't want more. I want better.

When I use your app, I don't want to see your company's KPI. I want to see your point of view. The world should know that you made it. People should feel your passion vibrating off the screen.

I want us to collectively raise the bar for what we expect from our digital experiences. Life isn't just a series of problems to be solved but moments to be lived. As we find ourselves spending more and more of our time in the digital world (especially now), we should expect that world to inspire, surprise and dare I say, even challenge us. We are lucky to be versed in a creative field where we can dream up magical things that can touch the lives of billions. Like other design fields, we should see the work of product design as not just a business optimizer but a powerful vehicle for expressing ideas that can push culture forward.

I know there are many designers out there with something to say. If where you work won't let you say it, leave when you can afford to, and find someplace that will. And if you can't find someplace that will, start it yourself.

That's what I did.

I left a perfectly comfortable job to start ANDY WORKS to rethink the role of design in our digital lives — starting with something as small as an app. The larger hope is to uncover an alternative way that products, and even businesses, can be built. Join me?

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

I will not make any more boring apps.

September 17, 2020No Comments

My best products are a joke

This is an excerpt from our upcoming UX Writing book, exploring how we (as designers and copywriters) can write copy that helps people use and love our products. Sign up for book updates here

Humor has been used to sell products since the early days of advertising. But rarely do you see it used effectively within the product itself. And it’s a missed opportunity.

When done right, humor can change your entire product experience. When done really well, your user will screenshot and share your UX copy, meaning your product markets itself.

But being funny, assuming you don't have a natural gift for it, is a challenge. A key ingredient to a laugh is the appearance of effortlessness. Ironically, effortlessness can take effort. 

Looking at the golden age of advertising in the 60s compared to now, it seems humor has changed. Before, it was nuanced. A good joke in a print ad made you feel smarter, like an insider, further cementing your alignment with the brand. These ads still hold up and are referenced and revered by copywriters everywhere. It’s called the golden age for a reason. 

Ads have evolved since then (with some exceptions, like The Economist's sharp print and billboard campaigns). What was once a full-length print ad is now a two-sentence Instagram caption. What was once a paragraph is now a pun. What was once subtle is now on the nose. 

But it’s not humor that has changed. The context has. And that’s the first important lesson to writing funny copy.

It’s all about context.

Context is the time we live in.

It’s the language we speak.

It’s our culture, the current state of the world, our politics, our age. 

For your product, it’s also the type of tool you’re writing for, what your user just did, what they’re doing now, what’s coming next and how they feel at that specific moment. 

Humor must be designed. A funny confirmation message might be delightful the first time someone sees it, but if they’re seeing it every time they complete an action, it gets old fast. What may seem funny in isolation, while writing your microcopy, will not be funny if it confuses your user or hits them at a point in the process when they don’t want to laugh – they just want to accomplish the task at hand.

Finding opportunities for humor in your product UX

You don’t have to crack a joke on every screen of your product, and you shouldn’t. It’d be exhausting for you and everyone using it. But you can infuse humor throughout your product in the right places. These are good places to do so:

  • Loading screens
  • Empty states
  • 404 pages
  • Confirmation messaging
  • Help text
  • Placeholder text

Let’s look at a few brands that do this well.

Not for the first time in this series, we arrive at Mailchimp.

The Mailchimp monkey character is instantly recognized by marketers everywhere, because they use humorous copy and imagery to relate to their audience. 

Consider the image above. This is the screen you see when you’re about to hit send on an email campaign, blasting your email out to hundreds or thousands of subscribers. Mailchimp recognizes the equal parts terror and pride that comes with launching. Those drips of sweat rolling off the monkey’s hand as it hovers above the GO button says everything. And right below the “Send Now” button is a tiny caption: “This is your moment of glory.” 

Mailchimp recognizes your fear and simultaneously celebrates your accomplishment. The image has been screenshotted and shared countless times, because it resonates. On this screen, you can see designers and copywriters working together as a team.

Note that Mailchimp isn’t laugh-out-loud, roll-on the-floor hilarious. You’re not going to tell your wife about that Mailchimp joke when she arrives home from work. What Mailchimp succeeds to do is use humor to make their product fun to use. And that’s saying a lot, considering Mailchimp is an email platform.

I will once again point to my own product, Semplice.com, as an example. One of the biggest challenges people face when building their online portfolio is getting started in the first place. It’s a daunting task, one designers notoriously put on the back burner. So after you’ve first set up Semplice (a portfolio-building tool) and the hype is still high, we want to give you that little push you need to move forward. And your dashboard is empty, awaiting your creations, so why not?

We could have left this page empty or wrote “You have no projects to show” – and we did, for a time. But after we added this playful little jab, our users started screen-shotting and sharing this page on Twitter. It spoke to them in their moment of hesitancy and hopefully motivated them to move forward. As a bonus for us, their screenshots gave Semplice some free advertising.

Here's another example from a weather app I made called Authentic Weather. Authentic Weather was like any other weather app, with one distinction: its sense of humor. We took every opportunity in the app UX to make people smile, down to the button text.

Authentic Weather gained a cult following not for its superior weather service, but for its sense of humor.

Techniques for using humor

How you use humor depends on your product and your voice (read more about finding your band voice here), but this is a good place to start.

1. Know your user and the context

Comedians are funny because they meet us where we are. They take an everyday moment and make us see it differently. At their most funny, it feels as though they have reached into our brain and named something we’ve felt before. They get us. At their least funny, they read the room wrong and make an ill-timed joke that falls flat. Crickets.

It’s that buzzy word “empathy” we love to throw around as designers, actually being applied. Recognizing how a person may be feeling while using your product allows you to meet them there.

Are they trying to access important account information? Then don’t get in their way with a useless joke – they just want their user ID.

Is this a point in the process where people typically give up and drop off? Then it may be the perfect place to drop a lighthearted word of encouragement.

Are a significant portion of your users speaking another language? Make sure your joke translates to that language, or it will be lost on them. Many of our users at Semplice.com speak English as a second language, and it’s forced us to sharpen our writing and crystallize our humor to its most simple and clear form. Which is to say, it’s made our writing better.

Think about where we are and how we feel at this specific screen. How can you meet us there?

2. Lean into a misconception, stereotype, challenge, fear or negative aspect of your product experience. 

Which is to say, know your product.

It’s the same approach those beautiful ads from the 60s took: Self awareness. Making yourself the butt end of your own joke. Acknowledging what we're all thinking and flipping the script. Making us feel like we're all on the inside.

Look for those little moments where you can show self awareness. It begins with using your own tool, understanding how others use it and how it – or the task they are using it for – is perceived.

3. Don’t try too hard.

If you feel like you’re forcing it, don’t. Forced humor is never funny. It’s perplexing, distancing and worse: annoying. And an annoying product is a dead man walking.

Which brings us to our next point.

4. Don’t be clever at the expense of clarity.

Read anything about writing UX copy and you will find this advice, repeated again and again. If your message is lost in your joke, re-write your joke. If it’s still unclear, kill the joke entirely. It’s always better to be clear than funny, especially when it comes to UX copy. 

5. Strive for consistency 

If you make a punny dad joke on one screen and use deadpan sarcasm on the next, your users are going to be confused at best and offended at worst. 

Start by knowing your brand voice. Is your brand the type to make lighthearted jokes or use dark humor? Are you offbeat and clever or silly and charming? Whatever it is, be that consistently. Once we learn your language, your jokes have a place to land.

___

For more about writing UX copy:

→ Best practices for UX copywriting
→ Content or design first?
→ Writing UX copy for buttons and links
→ Making your product a joy to use
→ How to write concisely

September 15, 2020No Comments

The slow creep of mediocrity

Open the app. Scroll. See a baby photo, a selfie paired with a poem, somebody’s dinner. 

Keep scrolling.

See a meme. Hit like. Type LOL, face muscles unmoving.

Continue to scroll: Past a latte, an ad campaign, a polished photo shoot. Past more stolen memes and recycled jokes and sponsored posts.

Like. Scroll. Comment. Like. Scroll.

As the eyes glaze over, the program runs on autopilot. The thumb persists in its mission, a movement memorized in the muscles, mechanical.

Not long ago, it was the job of human brains. But brains required more: An original idea, a twist, a punchline, a strategy, a journey, a hero. The program humans previously ran on – powered by emotion and imagination and taste and individuality – is now antiquated, rendered obsolete by The Algorithm. 

Corporations have saved billions on advertising. Why produce a high-quality video with a unique idea when a meme will do? Why labor over an ad campaign when they can retweet an influencer? Why spend 150 hours on a project when 15 minutes is plenty? 

Why put effort into the work when it will be buried in an instant?

Like. Scroll. Comment. Like. Scroll.

In the new world, this is all that’s required. No ad campaigns that double as high art. No hours spent kicking ideas around as a team, waiting for that magical aha moment. No late nights editing, putting the finishing touches on a project six months in the making. Hard work and deep thought are unnecessary when “good enough” will do just as well.

Humans adapted quickly, without question, to this new world. The automated program runs smoothly. The Algorithm takes care of the rest.

September 10, 2020No Comments

A counterintuitive way to get noticed

The typical marketing strategy goes like this: Promote yourself and what you offer. 

That may be a product, content or your own personal brand. Tell people about it and why it solves a problem for them, then repeat. 

An alternative strategy, especially for those just starting out, is this: Promote others’ work to get noticed.

Share work from those you admire, who align with your product. Be the champion of your users. Allow others to take the stage on your own platform.

Jack Butcher built his business on this strategy. He started Visualize Value, a creative source of wisdom and motivation, by posting visual quotes from people he admires on Twitter. His page slowly grew, and his business did with it.

“In retrospect, this idea could be called ‘reverse influence,’” said Butcher in an article reflecting on his business journey. “If you want a shot at more exposure: Make other people look good. Give yourself the job of a remote, unpaid design intern for anyone you admire.”

In doing so, you cast your net wider. 

Share your platform with someone who has a large following of their own and they may retweet you, reaching a whole new audience of like-minded people. 

Promote someone who faithfully uses your product, and they will be all the more loyal – the makings of a brand advocate. 

Become a resource of quality, curated content, content that naturally ties back to what you do, and your product or offering will fit seamlessly into that conversation, when the time is right.

September 8, 2020No Comments

Designing the future of mass transportation

You can't help but believe in Arrival when you see its philosophy for sustainable transportation. The UK-based company is set to redefine what electric vehicles mean to cities, and hopefully accelerate the future of this important industry.

Arrival designs human-centered solutions for public transport, including electric vehicles that cost the same as fossil fuel equivalents. Everything in the Arrival "ecosystem" is built in the company's micro-factories using a modular system, making production more efficient and fueling local economies at the same time.

But what first draws you to Arrival (at least, as a designer) is the beautiful, futuristic vehicle design. In most cities, mass transportation is not exactly a pleasant or preferred experience. With Arrival's bus designs, they've re-thought every detail of this dinosaur system, from the driver's space to seat design to touchless interactions.

Here I talk to Jeremy Offer, chief design officer at Arrival, about Arrival's design approach and the company's vision for the future of public transport.

Jeremy Offer, CDO at Arrival

Beauty is an important part of function. After reading about the design of Arrival’s products, I take it you agree. Why?

Allowing the function of a product to inform the aesthetics is a big part of our design philosophy. We strip away all adornments and unnecessary detail to allow the function of the product to clearly speak to the user through the language of its form.

It seems like Arrival’s new bus designs were prepared for a post-pandemic world already – or you just moved incredibly fast to adapt. Which was it?

Creating a sense of calm through the use of space, color, materials and light was at the heart of the brief we set ourselves when starting the project. Using sound and smell is also important to create a sense of wellbeing. These are all techniques used in the hospitality industry for a while now (think of the welcoming feel of a well-designed hotel lobby, or your favorite coffee shop), but unheard of in public transport. 

The modular nature of the design means we can adapt quickly – for example, to create alternative seating layouts, providing more personal space for passengers.

Touch-free interactions were also part of the challenge we set ourselves; capacitive proximity sensors on our bell-push, for example, means no one needs to physically touch it.

"The beauty of starting with a blank sheet of paper means we have no legacy."

Having a connected digital product to allow remote activation of certain features also helps us avoid unnecessary touch-points.

The simple, unobstructed nature of the interior means it’s easier to keep clean. All of our seating cantilevers from the wall, which not only gives the interior a visual lightness, but makes it easier for cleaning crews to operate quickly and efficiently.

The things that will help our passengers feel motivated to travel on public transport again, are the very same things we were striving for from the outset.

A big part of Arrival’s approach is its microfactories, allowing you to build efficiently with a modular system, customize vehicles for the market and support regional economies. This is so simple and makes so much sense – why does it feel so revolutionary?

The beauty of starting with a blank sheet of paper means we have no legacy. Vehicles have been produced on linear production lines that are only ever set up to make one thing – cars run on fossil fuels – since Henry Ford’s era. Using a micro-factory model that requires less space and capital investment means we can build vehicles local to each market, and to the volumes required for any specific model. We have the flexibility to manufacture many different variants of body on the same platform. The same micro-factory cell can produce a van one day and a different vehicle the next. By using our proprietary components, materials and manufacturing methods, we can raise the quality of our products, while reducing costs. 

We sat down at the formation of Arrival and asked ourselves fundamental questions: How should a vehicle be manufactured in the 21st century? What should the body be made from? How can we become more vertically integrated and less reliant on tier-one suppliers? How can we design for rapidly changing technology? All of these have led us to create a complete paradigm shift for the industry in the way a vehicle is conceived, designed and manufactured.

"Most of the roadblocks until now have been these long-held beliefs that there is only one way to design, engineer and build a vehicle."

Public transportation hasn’t changed much over the years. Many efforts (with exceptions) to overhaul public transport in the States are slowly killed through politics, budget cuts and technical limitations. Were you met with any regulations and roadblocks at the beginning of Arrival? What about now?

Pretty much all of the companies and transport authorities we speak to are super excited about what we are doing and are willing us to succeed. I think everyone is now on the same page, especially in the wake of Covid… things need to change. Whether it's the air pollution in the cities we live in or the broken service and infrastructure of the public transport systems we currently use, there has to be a better way.

Public transport and buses in particular, sometimes feel like they are only one step removed from the horse and cart: noisy, smelly and dirty. A beautifully designed, clean, electric future is what we are offering. I may be naive, but why would anyone object to that? We are having some promising conversations with cities and see real potential in building infrastructure solutions and seamless mobility services for local communities across the world.

America as a whole, compared to the UK and Europe, is a car culture – not a public transit one. Do you plan to expand to the U.S., and if so, how do you plan on tackling a system so deeply engraved in our culture?

We are already working with a number of partners, including UPS, which are headquartered in the U.S. It’s an important market for us, and we’re currently looking at a few sites for our first micro-factories.

America sure does love its cars, but we’re excited about the huge potential market in the U.S. for commercial vehicles – for example, the U.S. electric bus market is projected to reach $71.9 billion by 2024. More and more states are also committing to sustainable transport options; California recently mandated that all EV trucks sold must be zero-emission by 2045. Last year, we welcomed long-time GM exec Mike Abelson to lead our U.S. team and he’s doing a fantastic job at scoping out our potential growth there.

Public transit is the perfect example of the “we’ve always done it that way” phenomenon, in which outdated, unnecessary conventions and systems are carried down simply for tradition’s sake, or because nobody questions them.

When assessing traditional bus designs (or any other vehicles) did you discover a lot of confusing or unnecessary design decisions that no longer made sense? And on the other hand, were there any traditional design choices that still DO make sense, where there’s a legitimate reason for “always doing it that way?”

You’re right, we were often faced with the same responses to what we are doing: “It can’t be done” or “That’s not how you design a vehicle” etc etc. It may surprise you, but a lot of the dissent came from some of our own engineers in the first year or so. These were people so entrenched in the industry that they couldn’t think laterally about new ways of creating vehicles and systems. Most of the roadblocks until now have been these long-held beliefs that there is only one way to design, engineer and build a vehicle.   

The people that stayed around and have thrived at Arrival are the people who were frustrated by the red-tape and politics of traditional automotive.

We are a technology company at our heart, not an automotive company. We employ talent with a very wide set of differing skills, both from within the automotive sector and beyond – for example, we have over 400 software engineers working on our proprietary end-to-end technology solutions. This enables a cross-fertilization of ideas and allows different patterns for creating products, services and systems to emerge.

We have given our employees the space to think differently and to not feel afraid of failure. I’m proud to say that there are a lot of designers working throughout the company, not just in design. There is something of the questioning nature of a design-trained mind that is particularly suited to our culture.

Right now you’re focused on commercial vehicles. What about personal vehicles? Do you see the low-cost and high efficiency of Arrival’s system eventually translating to that arena?

As you say, we’re currently focused on commercial vehicles – and that’s because we see the most opportunity in this market, particularly with the recent growth of ecommerce. Traditionally, this has been an underserved market that’s dominated by legacy manufacturers. We’re lucky enough to have already signed significant supply agreements with UPS and other partners, so are confident in the unique appeal of our products.

We currently see more consistent demand in the commercial segment than the overall consumer EV market, but our model means we can scale quickly and flexibly to reach new markets. We have a fairly unique blend of industrial designers from some of the world's best consultancies, coupled with automotive designers from more traditional OEM backgrounds, so the design team is well versed in designing technology with the consumer’s end experience in mind. We are well-positioned to design and manufacture personal vehicles in the future.

"Until the industry adopts a ground-up design philosophy to represent the new technology, we will always have one foot in the past."

One limitation I see in our current mass-produced EVs is charging. When buying an electric vehicle you have to purchase/install an expensive charging station, potentially wait hours to charge, hope you’ll find charging stations where you need them on a road trip and, in many cases, have a membership/app for that specific station. The same is true for public transit. To adopt EVs as a city, you need to buy into an entire electric system, not just the vehicles themselves. And a system of charging stations – not to mention the electricity to power a fleet of buses – is expensive.

This is just one example of how our efforts for sustainability and efficiency can only go so far when the larger population isn’t participating.

Public transit is a huge step, but EVs still needs to be more convenient, more affordable, more appealing for everyone. How do you think we get there? And how soon?

Charging infrastructure has been part of the discussions we’re having with national and regional authorities, as well as organizations and customers. One of the reasons that public transport and the logistics industry have been a focus for us, is that they operate in a closed circle. By that, I mean vehicles generally operate the same routes and return to base, to a controlled environment, where the vehicles can be charged, cleaned and maintained before going out the next day. Their mileage is generally known, so doesn't tax the current range limitations, and new legislation adopted by many cities now means that fleets are required to become electric if they want to continue operating.

Costs to operate EV-powered transportation networks will become dramatically cheaper, cleaner and more efficient than their fossil fuel alternatives. Think of the time lost to servicing a fleet of diesel buses!

We need to re-evaluate the manufacturing systems, design and user experience. Most EVs you can buy today still share the same design and manufacturing methods as their diesel and petrol counterparts, I suspect mainly because they are essentially the same vehicles with the engines removed and electric drive-trains shoehorned in. Until the industry adopts a ground-up design philosophy to represent the new technology, we will always have one foot in the past and will never achieve cost parity with existing ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles.

How soon depends on the speed with which companies – used to producing what are fast-becoming obsolete products – can pivot to a new way of thinking and creating.

Arrival also plans to tackle ride-sharing. What will that look like?

A big part of what we do is software. This is the enabler of fully connected, joined up eco-systems. The hardware we produce is the gateway to these software-enabled services. This is particularly relevant in an end-to-end service like ride-sharing where the user experience is paramount. Connecting hardware platforms with software-enabled services seamlessly is at the heart of a successful ridesharing service.

What is the roadmap (pun intended) for Arrival vehicles and public transit rolling out? How many Arrival vehicles are already on the road and what can we expect in the next five years?

Over the last two years, we’ve been working with the likes of Royal Mail, UPS and DHL to validate our technologies. We are truly vertically integrated having developed all of the layers – from software to production platforms – in house, which is no small feat!

We are now in a position where the pieces are in place, we’ve built up manufacturing capabilities, we have a product that everyone is incredibly excited about, and a strong order book from established companies. We’re confident that we can meet our current production targets over the next five years, and are also in conversations around some public transit opportunities. I don’t have many more details to share on upcoming product announcements at the moment, but stay tuned!

September 8, 2020No Comments

How to make a career change into a creative field

It couldn’t be a better time for a career change. 

The current state of the world presents many challenges, but also opportunities.

We are more online than ever. Companies are changing how they operate, some hiring remotely for the first time. With no commute in our schedules, many of us have gained time back in our days to pursue new interests. 

If you’ve been thinking about switching careers to a creative field, now might be your moment.

Of course, it can be hard to know where to start. Do you quit your current job to focus on your new creative pursuit? How do you get a job when you have zero experience in the field? Can you be an intern past your early 20s?

While the answer depends on you, your situation and the specific line of work you want to get into, it doesn’t need to be as complicated or intimidating as it seems. 

If you can, explore your new interest from the safety of your current job

With most creative fields, you can easily dabble before making the full jump. By reading online, trying tutorials, testing out tools and playing around, you can gauge whether this is a passing phase or lasting interest worth investing in. 

In doing so, you’ll have a safety net to fall back on as you determine which way to go next. You’ll buy yourself time to make a sound decision before making the leap.

Do you lose track of time late at night while creating design experiments or tinkering with 3D tools? Do you find yourself winding down by doodling on Procreate? That’s a good sign this is the right direction for you.

Of course, you may not have the luxury to do this outside a full-time job. But if you have a couple free hours in the week, it’s worth researching and experimenting in your field of interest while you still have a paying job. 

Don’t default to what’s trendy – see where your curiosity leads you

It’s tempting to choose a direction that seems the most lucrative or popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for you.

Always start with curiosity. 

What are you always reading about online? What ideas and dream side projects do you find yourself returning to again and again? What do you do in your free time, not because you have to, but because you want to? It may not directly translate to your new creative career, but it can be a helpful place to start.

By following your interests and seeing where they lead you, you may uncover where your natural talent lies, and what you’d genuinely enjoy doing eight hours a day. And that’s worth a lot more than a job that only pays well.

Talk to those in the field you admire

Ask your friends in the industry about their experience. Reach out to professors or experts in the field. Learn about the industry you’re entering and make as many connections as possible. 

This can be as simple as a Twitter DM or a cold email to someone whose skills or career path you admire. Just be thoughtful of their time and get to the point – vague emails simply asking for “advice” or to “pick your brain” are a waste of both your time and theirs, and likely won’t get a reply.

Reach out to friends of friends and ask for their honest feedback on your beginner work, or their opinion on the courses or type of work you’re interested in doing. That 30-minute Zoom call could clear up any imposter syndrome you may be feeling, give you the boost of confidence or reassurance you need, or even lead to your next job down the road.

The beauty of the world today: Everything is online

Most of us don't have the option to just drop everything and enroll full-time in school. And you don't have to. You can learn on your own schedule, from wherever you are.

Open Campus at The New School is bringing their entire fall lineup online for the first time. Their courses are designed for the working professional, and with non-credit and credit options available, you can take just one course or pursue a certificate. 

If you're curious, here are some of their online courses starting October 12:

Graphic Design 1

Build your visual communication skills with an introduction to graphic design and experiment with creating powerful, effective imagery.

Introduction to Web and Mobile

Learn to create engaging websites and mobile apps using HTML, CSS and SEO principles.

Information Design for Infographics and Visual Storytelling

Bring ordinary numbers and complex data to life using research, typography, design hierarchy and more.

Storytelling for Time-Based Design

Be one of the first to pursue this innovative field of creating high-impact motion graphics. This course is part of the brand new Motion Design certificate at Open Campus.

AutoCAD 1

Start your interior and architectural design career by learning the industry’s go-to software: AutoCAD. This course is the first in the brand new Interior and Architectural Design Software certificate at Open Campus. 

Just start creating

In the creative industry, it always pays to continually learn new tools, best practices, processes and trends. But education, research and inspiration can also be a clever disguise for procrastination

If you’re always talking about this creative thing you want to do, reading books about it, looking into courses, doing online tutorials, asking friends and tweeting about it, when are you actually creating?

Just begin. Whether that means sitting down in front of your computer and finally signing up for a course, or creating your portfolio to start your freelance business on the side, there’s no better way to do what you want to do, than simply doing it.

September 7, 2020No Comments

DESK is 4: The best of the year, and what’s next

In honor of DESK’s fourth birthday, we’re sharing the top articles of the last year, and our goals for the next one.

Every year when the DESK birthday rolls around, we say “didn’t we just celebrate this a few months ago?” And while the sudden awareness of passed time will shake any human, there’s something great about it too. Because it means up to that point, you were blissfully unaware of it. You were focused on living in it – thinking and doing and being and working.

And this year, our little DESK team did a whole lot of that:

For the first time, we brought on guest writers who explored topics like therapy through design, the art of pricing freelance projects and the concept of designing your life. (If you’re curious about writing for DESK, read our submission guidelines here.)

We continued our partnerships for the second year, working with Adobe to write more useful 3D design tutorials, with Nike to introduce its digital design team, with Instacart to help designers get a job at this rapidly growing company. And we have more partnerships lined up, coming soon. (Want to be one of them? Read here.)

We did interviews with great minds and talents, including this one with Gerald Ghislain about the romance of perfume design, and this one about the beauty of imperfection with Italian sculptor, Massimiliano Pelletti, another featuring the dazzling, immersive art exhibits by teamLab, and several insightful interviews in our Design Around the World series.

We started writing a book about writing – specifically, UX copywriting. Read the series with excerpts from the book so far.

We’ve been working hard on making the DESK website and newsletter an even better experience for you, and for us behind the scenes. More on that soon.

And we published 222 articles. Here are a few of our readers’ favorites from the last year:

1. The Kawaiization of product design

The word "Kawaii” is a prominent part of Japanese culture. In English, it most closely translates to "cute.” In the last year or two, I’ve noticed Kawaii being used as a function in design. And it’s quite fascinating to unpack its benefits and potential repercussions.

Read the article →

 

2. A love letter to my website

This is a declaration of love for personal websites, written from years of thinking on the subject, reviewing thousands of portfolios, building websites for friends and bookmarking those of strangers. It’s a subject I’m so passionate about, I built my business on it. And recently, it’s become a matter of principle.

This one seemed to resonate with people, even more than we expected.

Read the article →

3. Skeuomorphism is making a comeback

Love it or hate it, Skeuomorphism has returned. Here we dive into the circular nature of trends and where they come from.

Read the article →

4. Your first 3D design tutorial with Adobe Dimension

We’re always happy to see a partner article in our top-read list, because it means the partners we’re choosing resonate with you. This beginner’s 3D design tutorial certainly did this year.

Read the article →

5. The best totally free web fonts & typefaces

Beautiful typefaces are usually an investment, but that doesn't mean you can't find affordable ones. Here we curated 12 lovely typefaces that are completely free to download and use for your projects.

Read the article →

6. Art deco will be the visual language of 2021

Every trend is an answer to the movement preceding it, and minimalism has just about had its run. We are emotional and sentimental beings; we survive on self-expression. We will forever return to what has colored society since humans first walked the earth: art. 

Read the article →

7. My new secret company

Last year, I announced a new venture: Joining Carbonmade.com as partner and co-CEO. We’ve come a long way since this announcement, but it’s still a nice introduction to Carbonmade if you’re curious about using it for your portfolio.

Read the article →

8. The books that changed your life

It started with a tweet asking for books that changed your life or had a massive impact on the way you think. It became a list of 76 books that were mentioned again and again. I’ve read several of these, added many to my queue and revisit this list anytime I need a new read.

Read the article →

9. How to write UX copy that makes your product a joy to use

As part of our UX copywriting series, we show how copywriting can make a product people love using. 

Read the article →

10. The future is here: Our 2020 design trend predictions

It’s interesting to look back on this largely satirical piece and see which “predictions” proved to be accurate. 

Read the article →

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What happens from here? As always, we want to make DESK even better. And that means writing better: More essays and articles that feel relevant and resonate with you. More thoughtful, honest insights on design that challenge you and us. More celebration of talent, more opening of doors that are typically closed, more curiosity. We want to focus on quality over quantity this year, instead of contributing more noise to your day. We want more guest writers that bring fresh perspectives to DESK, more partners whose products excite us, more interviews that open our minds and challenge our preconceived notions.

We want to do a whole lot more of the stuff that makes us look back a year from now and say “It’s already been another year?” Because, as they say, time flies when you’re having fun.

September 3, 2020No Comments

Want to be a guest writer on DESK?

We occasionally invite guest writers to share their perspectives on DESK. If you're interested in contributing an article, please read the following before reaching out to us.

Since its inception in 2016, DESK has sought to challenge and motivate the creative community.

We aim to make sense of design through everything else – art, fashion, culture, psychology, productivity philosophy, music, technology.

Finding outside perspectives and challenging our own way of thinking is inherent to DESK's philosophy. That's where you come in.

How to write for DESK

Before submitting your idea, please read this article detailing DESK's core values. We also ask that you read a few of our other essays and articles before submitting your idea, to ensure they're a good fit for our audience.

The DESK voice

If we invite you to write for DESK, we look forward to you sharing your own unique voice with our readers. However, we do expect it to align with our magazine's ovarching style. You can read about the DESK voice right here.

Interested in promoting your product?

If you'd like to share your product with the DESK audience or include backlinks to your own content, please read about our paid partnership offerings. We do not include backlinks outside of a considered paid partnership that fits our readers' interests.

How to submit your pitch

Please send an email to editorial@vanschneider.com with the article headline and a brief outline summary, including the main points and takeaways, for our editorial team to review.

September 3, 2020No Comments

The DESK voice

While several different people write for DESK in their own unique voices, we've established a distinct voice we filter all our writing through. It is:

Curious

We don’t know everything, and that’s exciting. We probe and pose questions rather than stating absolute truths. We challenge mainstream thinking without taking an authoritative or patronizing tone. We share our opinion confidently, understanding we may very well be wrong.

Candid

We state things as they are, without hyperbole or sensationalism. We are not afraid to get personal or address topics others might dance around. We don’t write for clicks or share disingenuous praise for payment.

Unassuming & accessible

English is a second language for many of our readers, which requires we sharpen our message and write in the clearest way possible. Plus, we just don’t like fluff and bullshit. We are plain-spoken. We avoid colloquialisms. We don’t try to impress with our intellect or use fancy synonyms when a more simple word would do.

While we want to inspire and write beautifully, we never do so at the expense of clarity.

Optimistic

We may get satirical but we are not cynical. We seek to challenge the creative community to think deeper and do better, not to shame them. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and look for any chance we get to make our readers smile. The language we use is motivating, hopeful and sincere.

Interested in writing an essay, article or tutorial for DESK? Start here.

September 2, 2020No Comments

The most valuable designer

You could have one or ten years of experience.

You could have dozens of awards and an abundance of praise from the press.

You could nail the brief on the first take, no revisions needed.

You could have a way with clients, the ability to sell or smooth over with charm and grace.

You could approach every project strategically, with the user in mind.

You could be a jack of all trades, willing to switch between design and video and 3D and coding and illustration and writing and photography.

But the most prized designers, and the most rare, are not defined by these traits.

The most valuable designers are those who do what they said they were going to do, when they said they were going to do it.

September 1, 2020No Comments

The glue to your product UX: Consistent microcopy

Good UX copy is consistent. That requires making decisions about your brand voice, perspective, style and strategy from the beginning, and sticking with it.

– If your voice is technical or academic, and you throw a joke into an error message at random, it may feel jarring and confusing for your users. If you have a personal, casual voice and then shift to dry, legal language without warning, they’re going to feel wary. Establishing your voice, and maintaining it throughout your microcopy, builds trust and strengthens your brand.

– Go to any product and try to change your preferences. Does the option say “My preferences” or “Your preferences” or just “Preferences?” Any of them work. All of them were a decision by the copywriter. And those decisions change the way your product feels, whether the user is aware of it or not. It also allows people to use your product intuitively and reduces cognitive load. If you start switching it up mid-sentence (ie. “Check your return status under My Account” ) or between different parts of your product experience (calling it “My Account” in one place, and “Profile” in another), it’s going to make things disjointed and confusing. Does your product speak in third or first person? Decide now based on your voice, and keep it that way.

– Use your terms and names consistently. If you call it “scheduling” in one part of your product and “booking” in another, you’ll create uncertainty, which puts that important conversion at risk. Don’t use a synonym in an attempt to be creative or avoid repeating yourself. Use the same word you use everywhere else.

– Remember to make your copy consistent with the platform your user’s on. If they’re using it on desktop, it’s “click.” If they’re on mobile, it’s “tap.”

– Do you write your headlines in sentence form? Do you capitalize the first letter of each word? Do you use subheads or no subheads? Our brains get accustomed to these patterns and while we might not notice your product’s formatting or style, we will notice when it changes abruptly. And it will slow us down.

– Do you phrase your calls-to-action as questions or commands? When you open Netflix, it asks “Who’s watching?” This is a decidedly personal and casual approach, where it could have just as easily read “Select account.” If someone’s walking through your UX accustomed to answering questions, you may through them off with a command in the next step. 

The best way to stay consistent: Creating a style guide for your team. Include your voice documentation and examples, whether you speak in first or third person, how you format the main elements (headlines, buttons, error message, etc.), and the universal terms for your main features. Educate your team – your engineers, your designers, your copywriters, anyone who may touch the copy – and review your product as a whole to ensure consistency.

While this may seem creatively limiting at first, it will actually improve your writing. "Switching things up" is not the same as creativity. Once we have clear, sharp sentences, we can more effectively have fun with them.

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This is an excerpt from our upcoming UX Writing book, exploring how we (as designers and copywriters) can write copy that helps people use and love our products. Sign up for book updates here.

Read more from the series:

Writing UX copy for buttons and links

Best practices for UX copywriting

How to write UX copy that makes your product a joy to use

August 31, 2020No Comments

Monthly portfolio inspiration of August 2020

Once a week, we select two portfolios created with Semplice to feature in our Best Of  Showcase.  Here we've collected our favorites from the month of August.

It's hard to believe we're reaching the end of summer, and soon enough, the end of the year. If updating your portfolio was on your list this year, there's no better time than now to do it. We hope this month's portfolio picks motivate you as they did us.

Browse the best portfolios of the month below to see fresh new work and get inspired for your own site. And if you've created your own portfolio with Semplice, be sure to submit it to our Showcase here. We might feature your site next.

 

Strictua

Ajeeb

Julius Hirtzberger

Bureau Oberhaeuser

Jordan Metcalf

Bastien Allard

Tom Robin

Camilo Hidalgo

 

To see more great design portfolios, visit the Semplice showcase. I'll be back next month with more of our monthly favorites!

Header image by Jordan Metcalf

August 26, 2020No Comments

Welcome to The Startup

This is it. After two weeks spent poring over your welcome packet, studying the internal Wikipedia, jotting down countless ideas and agonizing over your first-day outfit, you’re here. 

Your new startup job.

A motivational mural is the first to greet you when you step off the elevator, demanding you fail harder. House music pumps through unseen speakers. The office smells like disinfectant and cologne, an amalgamation of scents at once comforting and intimidating, like walking by a luxury retail store. 

A startlingly young-looking person asks you to sign in on the iPad mounted on the desk. In return, you receive your company branded hoodie. It’s official. 

As you make your way through the open office, you pass a heated ping pong match and meeting rooms titled “Beyonce,” and “The World.” You wonder what brave, disruptive ideas your new team is discussing behind the transparent glass. You can almost taste the energy, a flavor not unlike free KIND bars and organic coconut water.

You picture yourself breezing into that room, scribbling a product-defining idea on the chalkboard wall and punctuating it with a joke, bathing in admiration of your colleagues. Soon, you tell yourself.

And soon comes soon enough. After finding your desk and mentally reviewing the company’s core values (#1: Have fun!), you enter your first meeting with your design lead, along with an army of UX and design researchers. You’ve got a fresh grid notebook ready. Cold brew coffee (from the in-house tap) in one hand, pen in the other. 

The designers are discussing their weekends. The designers. You’re one of them now, part of the team. The room settles and the agile coach starts reading through the weekly update. KPIs are down. A lot rides on the upcoming release, which has been delayed for two quarters already. The team begins mapping out the upcoming sprint. You straighten in your seat, realizing this is your chance to make a first impression.

You raise your hand, immediately feeling like a school child. “I was thinking,” you venture, all eyes turning toward you, “we could probably increase conversions if we get their address on the second onboarding screen instead of the first.”

You’ve been using this product since its first release, and you’re brimming with ideas for improvement. In fact, you’ve wondered how the team has overlooked these low-hanging fruits, they’re so obvious to you. It’s why you decided to apply for this job in the first place; you could make a real difference here. 

“Yes,” replies the lead designer. “We’ve tried that already.”

You nod your head and scratch through the idea in your notebook. 

Undeterred, you jump in a few minutes later: “Have you ever considered combining these two steps? The second seems redundant.”

“Yes, we’ve considered it,” says one of the UX researchers with an almost imperceptible edge to her voice. 

You share two more ideas by the end of the meeting that are quickly shot down. 

It goes like this, meeting after meeting, day after day, your eager pitches (practiced late the night before on your roommate) meeting short, painful deaths the moment they enter the meeting room. 

“Nice idea, but it’d require too much time and budget.” 

“That’s not in our Q3 strategy, unfortunately.” 

“Good thinking, maybe we’ll consider it next year for V2.” 

“We don’t have the resources.”

“That’s too risky right now.”

“We’ve already tried that.”

Was it only three months ago you arrived to work an hour early every day, nearly saluting the word “hustle” painted in calligraphy on the lobby wall? 

Now you trudge into meetings with the others, five minutes late. You take your seat as far from the front as possible, where you can feign participation and avoid attention from the aggressive agile coaches. 

Was it so recently you attended every happy hour and Lunch & Learn, ready to connect with your team and soak up any wisdom they had to offer? Now you duck out early, eager to see any face but the ones you see every day for 10+ hours. 

Even the KIND bars now taste like desperation.

In this morning’s meeting, you take your usual spot and proceed to tune out, eyes zeroed into your laptop screen, until you hear an unfamiliar voice from the front of the meeting table. The hopeful tone is jarring in the solemn room.

“I was thinking, if we removed that step it would streamline the flow considerably,” says the person connected to the raised hand.

It’s the new designer.

“We’ve already tried that,” you say without lifting your eyes from your screen.

 

August 24, 2020No Comments

Design in Egypt 🇪🇬 featuring Nora Aly

Our latest interview in the Design Around the World series continues our journey through Egypt, this time with Cairo-based freelance designer, Nora Aly.

In our last interview with Engy Aly, we learned that the visual culture in Egypt is complex, layered and sometimes confusing. We talked about the quality of design education in Egypt, the jarring commerciality of advertising and more.

Here we continue the conversation with Nora Aly, discussing the visual extremes in Egyptian advertising, the jobs available to designers in Egypt and why the design scene in Egypt is dominated by women.

Hey Nora, tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into design and what kind of work do you do? 

I am a 31-year-old designer born and raised in Cairo. I studied graphic design in the faculty of Applied Sciences and Arts in the German University in Cairo. 

My story with design  – more specifically typography – started really early when I was around 6-7 years old, before even recognizing that this means anything. I was always interested in both Arabic and Latin calligraphy. I remember I used to really enjoy my calligraphy classes a lot. Whenever I had a pen and paper in hand, I used to write my name and some of my family and friends’ names in different experimental styles. I was also known in school by my good handwriting, especially in Arabic, a skill that I believe I inherited from my mother. I used to observe her when she wrote anything and try to imitate her handwriting. 

In high school, I worked on my first Arabic lettering as a tattoo design for a close friend of mine, and she inked it on her leg. However, I was not aware at all that these skills could be developed further and turn out to be something more than a hobby. All I knew at the time was that I am generally interested in art and crafts, and it felt right back then to join a faculty related to that interest. It was more like a gut feeling decision rather than a conscious one, which should be a constant reminder to always follow this invisible voice 🙂

Fast forward five years, I graduated and joined Kairo, one of the rising agencies in Cairo that focuses on advertising and branding. I worked there for five years, in which I learned a lot and gained a lot of experience professionally and personally. Three years ago, I left Kairo to explore a new flexible, independent lifestyle. I am currently working as a freelancer on various commercial and culture-related projects. I get a lot of branding projects, but I try as much as possible to select the ones that are dealing more with Arabic typography/lettering which, I believe, is my main focus and it is also what I enjoy the most. 

In parallel to the freelance work, I am working on my Master’s project which investigates the dying Nubian language (a language only spoken by a special ethnic group located in southern Egypt). This language is expected to die within 50-100 years because of many accumulative social and political occurrences. The language is not recognized by the country and the Nubian mothers stopped passing the language to their children, favoring the Arabic language instead due to the constant pressures that they face as an indigenous ethnic group in a dominating Arabic speaking society. In this project, I am working on a design solution that attempts to help the mothers to reclaim the value of their vernacular, in order to pass down the language to the younger generations and preserve one of the oldest languages in Africa.

Cairo is diverse and multi-layered, with many groups, politics and sub-cultures intersecting. Have you found a community of likeminded creatives there, or platforms and events where you can connect with other designers? 

Being surrounded in university by creatives from different backgrounds, but sharing more or less the same interests and passion, helped in creating a great community that kept on getting bigger by the time. It doesn’t stop here – social media is also playing an important role in widening this network now. It helps to get exposed to a lot of younger, up-and-coming designers, and stay in touch with the fellow creatives that I already knew.

As for the platforms and events in Egypt, I believe we have been seeing a significant rise during the past couple of years. I try to attend these events as much as I can to keep myself updated and connected, especially after quitting the agency life. I feel the need more now than before to meet people and exchange knowledge since I spend most of my time working alone.

In our conversation with Engy, she mentioned the diversity of Egypt's visual culture is shrinking as commercial advertisements take over and speak in a jarring, elitist visual language. How do you see it? How would you describe the current design coming from Cairo?

We have a very diverse, strange, multi-layered visual culture that says a lot about Cairo and its people.

If you are walking in Cairo’s streets, you’ll be overwhelmed with the amount of visuals that you’ll encounter from the excessive amount of billboards, the colorful and overly designed pick-up trucks, to the hand-painted advertisements and the old small shops’ nostalgic signages. 

I would like to make a small comparison that can give you a glimpse of the extremes we have in Egypt. If you look at the design of the majority of commercials on billboards, for example, and compare it to the hand-painted advertisements that are widely spread in less privileged neighborhoods, you can clearly see how the billboard designs are too western in how they communicate, mostly in English, and seek a certain impression that is not really influenced by Egypt or its culture whatsoever. 

While the hand-painted on walls advertisements are completely the opposite because they communicate using only beautifully made Arabic lettering, trying to be striking with very vivid colors to catch people’s attention in the streets.

In between those two extremes, there are designers that always try to produce work that is influenced by Cairo and its visual culture and heritage. Most of the culture-related projects give room for this to come to life.

If you are interested to know more about Egypt’s visual culture, I recommend that you check the following books:

“Khatt” by Noha Zayed and Basma Hamdy and published by SAQI Books.

“Absolute Egypt” by Raghda Moataz and published by Khatt books.

I’ve read that the arts and entertainment industries don’t get much recognition in Egypt, that these aren’t considered as important as other jobs. Do you see this to be true for designers?

Yes, I remember when I was an undergrad, students of other faculties like engineering and pharmacy used to make fun of what we do as designers and belittle our studies. However, I see this is changing with time. People are more aware now with design and its value, especially with the growing scene of entrepreneurship in Egypt. 

Of course, there are still people who don't understand the role of design and underestimate the designer's efforts. I meet some of them as clients, but I believe it is our responsibility to explain to them how design and visual communication can affect their businesses.

Engy described education in Egypt as somewhat limited, although slowly changing. It sounds like you had a positive experience studying at the German University in Cairo. How would you describe the quality of design education in Egypt? 

Before the German University introduced the faculty of Applied Sciences and Arts in 2006, as well as the graphic design department in AUC in 2011, design education was very limited in Egypt. Now, it is growing and getting more attention. However, this does not eliminate the amount of designers who were completely self-taught as well, thanks to the internet.

I know many international companies are headquartered in Cairo. What kind of jobs are available for designers within Egypt right now? 

Jobs for designers, in my opinion, are limited to advertising agencies. Yes, we do have some international companies headquartered in Cairo but the type of work is too commercial, to the extent that it is enough to kill any creative’s soul. 

It is very difficult to find a designer who is satisfied with the quality of work that they produce in an advertising agency, especially in the big/international ones. I believe that the kind of clients that afford to pay big agencies always tend to be on the safe side when it comes to their visual appearance, so the work produced becomes very boring and not challenging enough. On the other hand, startups and small/cultural businesses that can’t afford the fees of a big agency are the ones who most likely are ready to take more risks and experiment with their aesthetics, so they most likely go to freelancers or small studios.

I see that Cairo has a gap in the varieties of jobs that should be available for graphic designers. Currently, the available jobs are in agencies or teaching whether in AUC or GUC.

"A lot of the women designers I know have the best work ethic and drive, and that's why I think the scene here has so many powerful women."

Thanks to the internet (and now with the pandemic on top), many designers are working for clients overseas remotely. How is it for you? Do you work mostly with local or overseas clients, or is it a mix?

I work mostly with local clients but I had the chance to work with some overseas. I worked on several projects in Saudi Arabia, London and New York.

What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?

I used to get my clients through word of mouth mostly but within the past few years, social media started to have a great impact as well. Behance works best for me. I got a lot of clients through Behance, although I am not really good with updating my portfolio. I unfortunately get dragged with the daily routine and I forget to post about my work, but definitely the more present I am, the more clients I get, and this applies on Instagram too.

What does good design mean to you, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole?  For example, I know women’s rights are a big challenge in Cairo/Egypt (like most places in the world). Does design have a place in that conversation?

There is still a lot of “gender-shaming” in choosing specific professions for all genders. Some men might not gravitate to art and design due to wrong gender-conforming ideologies, making it a little more dominated by women here. A lot of the women designers I know have the best work ethic and drive, and that's why I think the scene here has so many powerful women. However, I think that the Egyptian design field (not the advertising field, to be clear) is pretty dominated by whoever works the hardest and creates with passion, regardless of gender.

Design is very subjective if you are going to judge it visually. To objectively judge a good design, in my opinion, it has to serve its purpose conceptually and aesthetically. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of making something that looks interesting visually, but is not necessarily relevant. This defies the whole purpose.

I am personally still exploring if design can have a real impact on a society through my Master’s project. Once I am done I’ll make up my mind regarding this point 🙂 However, I have always had high hopes in which design can make wonders, but I have to try it myself to see whether it is a myth or it can turn out to be true.

Sustainable design is increasingly a conversation in the design community. I know Cairo struggles with air and water pollution, due to the high density of people. Is environmentally conscious design an interest for designers in Cairo right now? 

Yes, it is. I was asked by two clients before while working on packaging briefs to come up with designs that are applicable to environmental friendly materials. It is more happening in product and fashion design though. We have a lot of young Egyptian brands like “Upfuse,” “Reform Studio” and Kojakm, who is a fashion designer who created a dress made out of recycled plastic bags.

In your opinion, what are 5-10 design studios from Cairo/Egypt that everyone should know?

Obviously I can’t skip Engy Aly. She was my first TA in college and my favorite too.

Sarah Mossallam who I used to work with a lot in Kairo, and we collaborated more than once after we both left the agency. She is a great illustrator too.

Ahmad Hammoud who I collaborated with as well on many projects. He is one of my favorite designers.

Christine Adel who designs children's games and owns a brand called “Zagazoo”

Moe el Hosseiny

Maram El Refaei

Omar Mobarak

Archief Cairo

Cairopolitan

Kief Type Foundry

HeheType

__

Follow Nora's work on Behance and Instagram. And if you're just now jumping into our Design Around the World series, catch up on our interviews with studios and designers from India, Jordan, Thailand, Serbia, Armenia and many more.

August 21, 2020No Comments

In search of something slightly better

Our life is an endless feed of opportunities. In search of them, we swipe by them.

We swipe right to find love. We match, and keep swiping. Something slightly better might be just another swipe away.

We save articles and books for later. We never come back to them. A new headline catches our attention first.

We continue swiping, in search of something new and fresh. Something to entertain and surprise us. Only we're not sure what, because as soon as we get it, we realize that wasn't it. There must be something better around the corner, just one more swipe away.

And because there is always more at our fingertips, we keep swiping.

August 20, 2020No Comments

How to design a case study page (tutorial)

As creative people, we know that presentation means everything. Yet when it comes to presenting our own work, we tend to sell ourselves short.

Case studies are our chance to put our work in its best light. But too often, we drop a half a dozen images on the page and call it done. So while we've talked a lot about writing portfolio case studies, now we're diving into how to present the work visually.

For this tutorial, we'll be using Semplice to lay out a visual project case study and show just how easy it is to present our work – rather than leaving our visitors to form their own conclusions.

Get inspired

First, it's helpful to view case studies of other designers you admire to see how they explain their projects. Observe how they visually walk you through their project story, what elements or devices they use, how their projects flow, what makes you want to keep reading, where you find yourself losing interest.

You'll ultimately do things your own way, of course, but seeing what works and what doesn't will guide that, and motivate you. Here are a few case studies we've enjoyed lately from our Semplice Showcase, for example (click image to view case study):

 

What we'll be making

Now let's start creating our case study page. I'll be making mine using my own work, for a fictional design studio.

I've made a demo using Semplice, our own portfolio tool. Semplice is centered around creating custom case studies for your unique projects, so you can design everything from your nav to your footer to complement each unique project.

VIEW THE LIVE DEMO

The case study example page we will be recreating

Getting started

To begin, let's head on over to the Projects area to create our first project. Projects in Semplice serve as your case studies. They automatically connect with the Portfolio Grid module, so you can display them on your homepage or Work page.

Creating the Cover

Now that we've set up our Project, let's add a Cover section. In Semplice, Cover sections are like hero sections, and are typically used with large headlines or full-width imagery for maximum visual impact.

For our purposes, we will use a nice, large image to introduce the page and set the stage. Go to the Cover tab from up top, and from the pop-up editor select "Cover (full-width)" from the dropdown.

Creating the introduction section

This section will serve to introduce the project and include necessary details like year of completion and credits.

First, let's add a text module with some larger text to serve as the project overview. Just add a simple sentence or two to briefly summarize the project. We will go in further detail below.

Next, let's add some of the smaller details such as credits. You can place Text modules stacked in rows to create both the subheadings and text lists for these areas. Once we have our text styled the way we want it, we can duplicate the column to quickly recreate our layout. If needed, we can also use spacer columns to offset the columns and create white space.

Now, below our overview, we'll go more in-depth about the project and explain our involvement. A simple text module and image module side-by-side will do the trick. If you need tips for writing the copy in your case study, read this article.

Adding detail images

Next, let's create a section where we can add images that support our case study. Think of your case study like a spread in a magazine, and put images alongside relevant copy, to make the reading experience highly visual and easy to scan.

For this section, I'll make some of the images "bleed" to the edge of the screen. This will add break up the visual flow of the page nicely. To do this, go to the section options and set the gutters to "off."

Setting our section to be full-width with no gutters.

I will also use spacer columns once again to offset the image columns and create some interesting variations in the layout.

Adding a spacer column to create white space

I've also placed text modules beneath each image for a caption, so we can give context to each image and allow those who want to scan (let's be honest, most readers) to understand our project story at a glance.

Adding a full-width image section

Now we'll add some full-width images to break up our page between paragraphs. For our full-width image section, simply place an image module on the page. In the image options, set the image size to "grid width" and in the section options, set the width to "full-width" with gutters removed.

Before/After comparison

Now for the fun part. To visually explain our process and help readers appreciate the work that went into our project, we'll use the Before/After module to display our final result. In this case, we will show a behind-the-scenes view of our prototype in the 3D rendering program, sliding to reveal the final outcome. You can do the same with a UX prototype next to your final screen design, for example.

Adding image galleries

If you have lots of images for your project, or a collection of similar images, you can also add image galleries to your page.

Let's place some offset galleries onto the page. We will also use this section to talk about the final results of our project and how it was successful.

Wrapping up

To wrap up the case study, we'll give a little shoutout to our team.

We'll also make sure the Next/Previous feature is enabled. This is a feature in Semplice that allows viewers to quickly jump between projects at the bottom of a case study to continue browsing.

Thank you

We created everything here with the Studio edition of Semplice, which gives you all the latest Semplice features. No matter what tool you use to create your case study, we hope this tutorial inspired you to create thoughtful, unique case studies to tell your project stories. We can't wait to see what you make!

August 19, 2020No Comments

Honoring the life and work of book cover designer, Adalis Martinez

If you read modern fiction, you’ve probably seen one of Adalis Martinez’s book cover designs, or have one your shelf.

Martinez designed covers for bestselling books like Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow” and Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” among many others. 

While planning an interview with Martinez, we were saddened to learn she recently passed away. Those who knew her describe her as adventurous, generous and hardworking. Even to those of us who didn't know her personally, it's clear she loved what she did.

As readers, we form emotional connections to covers. They can draw us to a book we wouldn’t otherwise read, bring a story to life in a single image and become imprinted on our minds. 

As designers, creating a cover is a dream opportunity. A chance to design something that is printed, held in the hands of countless others, interwoven through pop culture, displayed proudly on a bookshelf or table, wrapped lovingly as a gift. Something that lasts. 

And Adalis Martinez's work will.

August 17, 2020No Comments

UX designers automated by AI? When will it happen?

A few weeks ago, I posted a tweet, based on another tweet. It wasn't *that* controversial, but enough to get the attention of a couple UX designers (frankly, UX designers are easy to bait). Think of this as an extension of my tweet.

In the tweet I quoted, you can see a person building a little tool based on the GPT-3 AI model (never heard of GPT-3? Start here), which then proceeds to automatically "design" an Instagram looking-app based on his "natural language" description.

Let's not fool ourselves. It's a quick experiment. A proof of concept, nothing more. This plugin alone could hardly replace anything or anyone. But we have to look a bit further than that. AI is still progressing, but it is happening fast enough for us to ask some serious questions.

A big one being: Can AI replace the work of a UX designer?

When I talk to other UX designers about the subject (I'm one myself, just not so religiously attached to the title) I'm met with unwavering confidence that nobody will ever replace their profession.

But I wouldn't be so sure about it. If I can guess, about 80% of what UX designers do today will be automated in the coming 5-10 years. Some designers will be able to adapt just fine, and some will struggle. It's the same thing in most industries, whether we like it or not. We chose the race against technology.

Let’s look at some of the arguments posed in these conversations:

"UX designers can't be automated because the work is creative by nature, and only humans can do it."

Let's be honest here for a second. Yes, this is true for *some* design, but the majority of work that is put out these days is mediocre at best. And I'm not trying to be negative here. Mediocre is what's being asked for.

For example: The majority of apps you see these days work pretty much like any other app. They're all based on Apple's or Google's "Human Interface Guidelines.” They all follow the same best practice UX flows. They all follow the same UI patterns and UX paradigms.

Both UX and UI designers have been working hard to standardize not only patterns and systems, but also libraries and guidelines. In a way, we've been automating ourselves out of our jobs for the last couple years already. It's why you can take a 3-month online course and become a certified UX designer. There's barely any other profession *that* easy to enter.

Giving all these pieces to an AI and letting it figure out the rest seems to be a trivial exercise. There's no question about it.

Of course, true creativity for an AI might be some time away. But true creativity isn't really what's needed for the *majority* of apps or websites these days, at least by the look of it. Most look and work the same anyway. Who are we kidding?

"Yes, but UX design is so much more. It's about user research, empathy and data – only humans can analyze it in a meaningful or effective way."

This is the argument I find the most entertaining because, if there is *anything* that can beat humans with research, pattern recognition and analyzing data, then it is most definitely a machine.

In fact, I'd even argue that an AI can know *a lot* more about human nature than we know about ourselves. If you think about it, we’ve taken this for granted since the advent of computers. Most of our design decisions these days are data-driven. They're rarely "human" driven (although I am still very much a believer in that). But the tech industry has made it a habit to drive every single decision on hard data.

If the data says to do it this way, we do it this way. I would even argue, at most large companies, UX designers do nothing else but designing A/B tests. Throw them against the machine, let the machine decide, and then implement it. UX designers have become glorified servants of the data.

But you know who could design even more A/B tests, and do so even faster and more efficiently? Artificial Intelligence.

"OK Tobias, why are you trying to ruin UX designers?"

I'm not. Nor am I trying to ruin part of my own profession. But I have to look beyond the pretense and be honest with myself. I like to ask questions and see where the answers lead me.

We still don't know exactly what tools we will build to leverage AI in a way that can become "dangerous" for us. Right now, AI is just a thing. It's a playground that can do a lot of things, but nothing really well. But give it five to 10 years and things will look quite different.

I don't expect to have the same job I have now in five years. Things will change, most likely in a direction I least expected. Asking myself uncomfortable questions prepares me to some degree. I expect nothing and everything. I do expect uncertainty.

But what I ask myself is: 

Are we doing ourselves a disservice by settling for mediocre design, just because it seems to "work better?"

Do we really benefit by automating our craft with systems, best practices and guidelines?

If all of our work is only focused on "improving the metrics,” then how could we possibly compete with an AI?

I don't know, but we will find out.

P.S. On a slightly different note, here's a little snippet from a chat I had with the GPT-3 AI. I found it interesting and quite beautiful, in a way. It even made a typo, cute.

August 13, 2020No Comments

The age-old truth social media is missing

Social media has always taught us the more followers we have, the better. The size of our audience defines our perceived importance.

Our platforms and their algorithms have trained us, even cornered us, into this way of thinking. Our measure of success is our continual growth. An unfollow means failure.

And so we've forgotten what is timelessly true: That quality can be more valuable than quantity.

You measure the health of an email list not by how many people are subscribed, but by how many of those people actually open your emails, read them and click through. And social media is no different.

I'd rather have 1,000 engaged followers than 10,000 who ignore, mute or scroll past my writing, even though they're still technically "following" me. That little number at the top of my profile means nothing if my posts fall on deaf ears.

Brands are starting to figure this out, experimenting with "micro-influencers" who have a higher impact on marketing partnerships and sponsored content than those with 3x their followers.

Meanwhile, we individually agonize over our ratio of following to followers, and give our attention to those with a large audience who have nothing meaningful to say to us.

Picture 500 people in a room. It's a laughably small number on social media. But a live audience of 500? It'd be pretty cramped in that room. And what if those 500 people were people who believed in what you do and say, who cared enough to share it with others, who proudly made their association with you known? What if those 500 people had a small but engaged audience of their own, who felt the same way about them as they do about you?

Give just a few people something to believe in, write something that resonates with them, activate them, and they'll be more powerful than ten times that many.

August 11, 2020No Comments

You could plan your life, or you could design it

The human-centered design process — from empathy and research to rapid prototyping, iteration and so forth — often helps us to bring meaning, joy and discovery into other people's worlds. But what if this same design mindset could be used to design ourselves and our lives? 

What if we perceived our own abilities, lives, and careers as opportunities for discovery, rapid prototyping and iteration? In other words, what happens when we are the product?

This phenomenon originated at the Stanford d.school, where students across majors scramble each year to enroll in a course called Designing Your Life. The curriculum’s core frameworks have now been disseminated through a best-selling book and bundle of online resources to equip students, mid-career professionals and elders alike with the tools to reimagine their lives through a design lens. 

Take a moment to try one of the Designing Your Life exercises right now, using this worksheet

The idea is this: Instead of envisioning your life as a linear route from Point A to Point B, imagine three disparate paths forward, each addressing a unique set of questions you might have about your future life and career. Title each path like a story, and rank your resources, enthusiasm, confidence and coherence in moving forward. You might be surprised by the unique directions you explore when you give yourself permission to dream a little longer.

This exercise is only scratching the surface. Like other “self-help” approaches, designing your life is a process that requires deep self-reflection, personal awareness, time and courage. And like other design processes, it’s one that involves frequent iteration.

When the methodologies first sunk in for me during my freshman year at Stanford, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I had learned this back in middle school.”

Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, I attended a competitive all-girls school for seven years that championed the motto, “Women Learning, Women Leading.” Being surrounded by high-achieving peers plus teachers with high expectations turned out to be a double-edged sword. My 13-year-old self was ambitious, inspired and motivated… to be perfect.

"I remember once literally wrapping my report card into a gift box to give my parents for Christmas, hearing repeatedly that this was all they wanted."

I was trained to see the world as right and wrong, yes and no, A+ and A-. I would hand-write my essays first in pencil and then over in pen, dutifully erasing the pencil marks from underneath to make my homework as neat as possible. I would raise my hand in class to repeat exactly what the textbook said. I once literally wrapped my report card into a gift box to give my parents for Christmas, hearing repeatedly that this was all they wanted.

Most of all, I remember spending hours with my back curled over a spiral-bound notebook, my right hand vigorously racing across the pages. Through adolescence, I would fill dozens of journals with written reflections on my feelings, relationships and “plans for the future.”

Katie and her Girl Possible team on the road.

Planning our lives is a perfectionist’s dream but the antithesis of designing our lives. Unlike planning events, meetings or meals —which are quite useful exercises with direct, tangible benefits — planning our lives can be futile at best and destructive at worst. The process confines our dreams to the little we know, locking doors before we consider they might exist in the first place.

What color, texture and magic the world opens up to us when we stop having a plan and start exercising a mindset for constantly learning, pivoting and immersing in every moment.

Here are two more exercises you might explore to further apply a design mindset to your life:

1. Lean into your discomfort zone.

a. Draw three concentric circles on a piece of paper, like a target. The innermost circle is your comfort zone. As you move farther from the bullseye, you get farther outside your comfort zone. Everything outside the circle or by the edges of the paper are activities you need the most courage to do.

b. Starting from the center and extending to the outermost ring, write down five to 10 activities in each area that you want to do but might need a little extra nudge to make happen.

c. Finally, compare your comfort zone map with a partner. Did you flag skydiving as “level-three scary,” only to find that it’s squarely within your partner’s innermost comfort zone? Maybe they could show you the ropes. See if there are also activities where the opposite is true and your partner can lean on you in return.

2. Challenge your assumptions and hypotheses.

a. As with any design project, start with what (you think) you know. What are your assumptions about the type of work or environment that makes you feel happy, fulfilled or grounded? What are your hypotheses about the type of industry, role, or company where you belong?

b. Design a low-risk experiment where you can test these assumptions. Are you curious about what it would be like to work at an early-stage startup? Set up a few “lunch and learns” (similar to design research interviews) with people employed at seed-stage companies you admire. Do you fear that you might hate working in sales but recognize a small part of you that wonders, “What if?” Draw analogous inspiration by making calls to boost voter registration or to support a political candidate. Catalog the things you hear, learn and feel along the way.

c. Synthesize your learnings and insights, and keep going.

When I first learned this way of thinking, learning and doing, it flipped my worldview and set me free. I was determined to help bring this mindset to more people — especially youth who might be struggling with the same pressures that had held me back when I was their age.

A few colleagues and I co-founded Girl Possible, a 501(c)3 nonprofit geared towards empowering middle-school girls to become leaders of social change through design thinking. We raised $35,000 on Kickstarter to spend 14 weeks driving across the US in an RV, teaching design thinking and leadership workshops to 1,500 girls across 32 states. Since then, we’ve evolved our curriculum into a series of teaching toolkits, a summer program and more.

Girl Possible helps middle school girls uncover their individual leadership abilities, think critically, articulate their ideas and connect with others to tackle real issues in their communities. Photo credit: Austin Meyer

In our workshops, we address the million-dollar question that every student has been asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer? Doctor? Lawyer? Musician? This question suggests that at some point, we suddenly “grow up” and become a single entity that already exists in the world and has a name. It assumes our journey to be finite, our path linear, and our destiny meant to be predetermined.

At Girl Possible, we flip this question and ask girls instead, “What kind of change do you want to create in the world, and how can you take the first step towards achieving that dream today?” In other words, we ask girls to stop planning their lives and start designing them.

Katie leading a Girl Possible camp session. Photo credit: Austin Meyer

Most recently, I co-founded Period Futures to help spark curiosity and conversation on the future of periods. Inspired by the same design mindset and question of “What if?”, our team regularly releases design provocations intended to push the boundaries on what’s possible, equitable and culturally-acceptable in menstrual health.

For example, what if “leak-free” apparel were no longer the exception, but the norm? Imagine a world where “100% period-friendly” was a universal standard or formal certification for clothing manufacturing that you could expect to see clearly marked on the tags of underwear, shorts, skirts, pants, dresses and suits across major brands and suppliers.

Or, what if middle schools were visited by a traveling “maker-space on wheels” where students could build their own custom period product? Envision 11- and 12-year-olds gaining hands-on learning experiences on the menstrual cycle as they 3D-print their own menstrual cup or disc, or sew their own washable pad.

Katie also co-founded Period Futures, which sparks curiosity and conversation around the future of periods. Illustration by Roshi Rouzbehani

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have categorized “talking about periods” squarely within my discomfort zone—let alone launching an organization focused on igniting more conversations in this space. Now, it’s difficult for me to imagine a more fascinating or meaningful sector to explore. Designing around the future of periods has unlocked new ideas for me around what my own future might hold, too.

We are all living, breathing prototypes, constantly growing, evolving and transforming in beautiful ways. Forget perfect plans, narrow paths, and what we should say when we raise our hand and voice. Through designing our lives, we can unlock futures we might have never thought possible.

August 11, 2020No Comments

Can a utility brand be an emotional brand?

An emotional tech product is a lifestyle product. It doesn’t necessarily solve a problem. It’s there for entertainment. It’s not a product that people need, it’s a product they choose. Think Netflix, TikTok or Instagram.

A utility product is a service. It exists simply to fill a need, improve a process or connect one thing to another. It’s meant to be used, not necessarily enjoyed. You want to be in and out, quickly. Examples: Google Docs, your banking app, your weather app.

More and more lately, the lines between the two are blurring. Utility apps are marketing themselves the way emotional apps do. They are appealing to our personal values and emotions rather than simply offering solutions to a problem. They are attempting to build a community around their product. They promise their product is more than just the service they provide. It’s a lifestyle.

Take the 2017 Dropbox redesign, for example.

The new Dropbox logo was released with lines like “Making the everyday more extra­or­dinary” and “unlocking creativity.” Vibrant ads started popping up around Brooklyn, joining the likes of whiskey and Adidas billboards, with headlines like “the world needs your dreamy energy.” 

The redesign was a departure from the tech company look; it was aesthetically pleasing. It felt fresh and modern, which is essential as times and styles change. But while Dropbox has expanded into creation tools like “Paper,” I still consider it a utility product. At the end of the day, most of us simply use Dropbox to store and organize files. I don’t *love* Dropbox, but I use it. And that’s okay. We don’t want it or need it to be more than that. 

Or consider the Mailchimp redesign from 2018. While many creative folks use Mailchimp, it is ultimately a tool for creating emails and marketing campaigns. It’s a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s the medium, not the message. Yet the new brand uses whimsical illustrations and “artful scenes” to present its offering. Again, we see a utility product marketing itself as an emotional product.

Of course, it makes sense that a brand would play on emotions to sell their product. It’s not sneaky or misleading. A brand wants to connect with people, and people are emotional beings. 

When you set out to buy a hammer, you’re not necessarily looking for a community, or a hammer “that’s more than a hammer.” You just need to nail something, and this is the tool to do it. You would likely choose the first solid-looking, affordable hammer you set eyes on.

But what if you learned that your grandfather swore by a specific hammer that hangs in his toolshed to this day? Or that this hammer has been used for over a century by the proud working class? What if I said this specific hammer enables creativity? That it’s the centerpiece of a sculptor’s or artist’s profession? I could go so far as to say this hammer allows art and creativity to exist. So do email clients and online file storage. 

But let’s look at the other side. Two companies that are non-emotional, utility tech products and own it: Slack and Basecamp. These companies also use playful imagery, but their message is straightforward. Slack is where work happens. Basecamp solves the fundamental problems of growing businesses. Both of these brands offer a tool, and that tool does their job well. That’s it.

Maybe it’s enough for a product to be functional. 

Last year or so, Slack redesigned its logo. Naturally, the design community was is an uproar. They Tweeted about the logo and Slacked the Slack logo to each other on Slack asking for everyone’s opinion and the only one I had was: Why does it matter? 

People use Slack because it’s faster and easier. I like the logo and I generally enjoy the way Slack works, but I don’t love it like I love my favorite sweater. If something comes along that’s better, I will use that. It’s a utility. Nothing more, nothing less.

Slack is not Nike. The app’s design is pleasing and modern, but I don’t choose Slack because it inspires me or aligns with my values. And that’s OK. I understand that some people feel differently or have a more emotional connection to Slack, but I’d guess that most use Slack because their company uses it, and because it just works. 

Yes, brands exist that offer both emotion and utility. Apple is an obvious example. Apple was at the forefront of this marketing approach, and they’ve always done it well. Apple products were never just computers or smartphones, they were tools that enable creativity. Before Apple entered the mainstream, it focused heavily on the creative class. Everyone knew that if they want to be taken seriously as a designer or filmmaker, they better use an Apple product. Apple computers are a tool that became a lifestyle, even a cult. So it is possible for a product to successfully do both.

Maybe it’s companies like Apple that have inspired this wave of emotional marketing for utility products. Or maybe, perhaps through social media, we as consumers are signaling that this is what we want from a product. Or maybe the agencies for these brands are pushing trendy strategies like content marketing as a one-size-fits-all marketing plan. 

The approach can clearly work. But as more and more brands get on board, I start to question it. Does every utility brand need to market themselves as a lifestyle brand to succeed now? Or is it enough to simply provide a great product that solves a problem? Utility brands can have personality, but is it accurate to market a time-tracking app or note-taking tool like a Coca Cola commercial? Do I now need to politically align with my note-taking app? Does my hammer need to encourage freedom and creativity? Or can it just be a hammer? 

In this quest to connect with consumers on an emotional level, are we sacrificing clarity and honesty? Will it all start to feel contrived, confusing and trite?

Perhaps tech companies need to be more realistic about who they are as a brand and what they actually offer to consumers. Maybe, as utility brands, they should be more focused on delivering value through functionality, utility, privacy and discretion, rather than promoting lifestyle values. 

Maybe a good tool doesn’t need to inspire. Maybe a tool that works well, speaks for itself.

August 10, 2020No Comments

How to make a great work page for your portfolio: A Semplice tutorial

Your Work page (often your homepage), is your first impression. It tells the story of your work when you're not there to do it. And with Semplice, there are many ways to tell that story.

From our Advanced Portfolio Grids to the traditional Portfolio Grid to manually building your page, Semplice allows you to create essentially anything you design, without templates.

Here are just a few recent examples we've enjoyed lately from the Semplice Showcase:

Yu Rong

Instead of using your standard thumbnail format, Yu opts to use mockups and devices overlaid on top of large, marquee typography. It makes for a fun scrolling experience as you scroll and immediately shows how Yu Rong thinks outside-the-box.

Ayaka Ito

Ayaka uses the Advanced Portfolio Grid feature (comes with Semplice Studio) to showcase her work. She makes every element her own, using beautiful type, custom hover effects and colors that complement each thumbnail.

Studio MPLS

Studio MPLS uses a more traditional approach to the portfolio grid, but makes heavy use of the thumbnail hover effect. This effect gives you a visual preview of each project on hover, adding to the visual excitement and encouraging a click.

Leandro Assis

Like Yu Rong's site, Leandro makes use of a fixed background image with overlaid portfolio grid items. The design highlights Leandro's personality and creates a joyful scrolling experience.

Tracy Doyle

For her portfolio, Tracy used a minimalist approach. Instead of relying on visuals, she uses a simple text grid that puts emphasis on the high-profile clients she's worked with.

 

What we'll be creating

For this tutorial, I'll show you how you can quickly and easily create a compelling work page using Semplice. We'll explore a variety of four different approaches to the work page design, giving you just a sample of different options and layouts you can use to show off your work.

I've created fake studio called PLY® Studio featuring some of my own personal work. This is what we will use to build out our Work page.

We will use a fake studio to create our portfolio site. Work samples by Jon Vio.

Getting started

First, we need to create some projects that will appear on our Work page. If you're just starting out with Semplice, here is a help guide for creating your first project.

With our projects created, let's open up a fresh page in Semplice. Name the page "Work" or something similar.

1. The standard grid

The standard grid of thumbnails, what we call the Portfolio Grid in Semplice, is a tried and true way to show off your work in a clean and simple way:

VIEW THE LIVE DEMO

The Portfolio Grid consists of a masonry-style, 12-column grid comprised of your project thumbnails. Each project thumbnail can be given a custom column width. There are a variety of options to customize your Portfolio Grid width, including adding a thumbnail hover effect, live project filtering, and more.

Let's go ahead and place the Portfolio Grid on our page:

You'll notice right away the Portfolio Grid is populated with our projects. If you don't see your projects right away, make sure they are PUBLISHED and not set to DRAFT.

Let's now adjust our project thumbnail widths to evenly space out our thumbnails and create a nicely aligned grid. I've set my first project to 12 columns, which will give us a full-width effect. To get the two-column format, we'll set the next two projects to have column widths of 6. For the smaller images, we can set these to display three rows across by setting each column width to 4.

PRO TIP: You can quickly adjust individual project settings by hovering over the thumbnail from the Portfolio Grid and clicking the edit settings icon.

Let's also display our project title and category underneath each project thumbnail. To do this, set "Title & Type Visibility" to show both the project title and category.

2. Text Grid

Another interesting way to display your work is in a Text Grid. The Text Grid is a layout preset included with the Advanced Portfolio Grid as part of Semplice Studio edition. To learn more about the Advanced Portfolio Grid, read this guide.

VIEW THE LIVE DEMO

To create our Text Grid, we'll drag & drop an Advanced Portfolio Grid (APG) module onto our page. You then have the option to choose which pages or projects you want included in your APG grid, so let's go ahead and add them.

After adding our projects, go to "Change Grid Preset" and set the preset to Text Grid. Once done, you'll notice the APG has automatically populated our projects in a vertical text list.

I'll keep the Title direction option to the default Vertical setting and style the grid accordingly. To get the cool mouse hover effect, set the Mouseover effect to "Original (Stick to Mouse)." I've also enabled the Title Mask effect. Note: this effect will only work if the Title direction is set to Vertical.

3. Overlay Grid

This is a popular style right now for Work pages: Overlaying your project thumbnails on a fixed background image or text:

VIEW THE LIVE DEMO →

For this portfolio effect, we will place a standard Portfolio Grid on our page. Next, we will need to create images of all of our thumbnails as PNG files with transparency. The transparency will allow the background to show through while the scrolling through the Portfolio Grid.

With our transparent PNG thumbnails set, let's now add a fixed background to sit behind our Portfolio Grid. Go to the Look & Feel tab from the editor and set a background image. Adjust the size and placement to your liking. Finally, under the Background Attachment option set the background image to be fixed.

Alternatively, you can also use our hack guide to create a fixed section that will sit behind your portfolio grid. Just be sure that the section where you placed your Portfolio Grid has a higher Z-index value (located under Section Styling) than your fixed section. Otherwise, the Portfolio Grid will not sit on top of your fixed section.

4. Split Grid

Another interesting way to showcase your work is to use the Advanced Portfolio Grid module and create a two-column fullscreen grid. This grid is really great for putting the focus on your work and simplifying your presentation.

VIEW THE LIVE DEMO →

Once again we will use the Advanced Portfolio Grid for this effect, and choose the Horizontal Fullscreen layout preset. Place a new APG grid on your page. The default layout preset will already be on the Horizontal Fullscreen option, so no need to select it.

Also, I recommend setting all of your images to the same dimensions for best results.

Next, let's set the" Images Per Row" to 2, and the image size to "Cover." I've also opted to hide the Project title and category.

Lastly, we can add a nice Mouseover effect for our thumbnails. I've opted for a nice zoom effect.

That's it!

It's really that easy to get a variety of different ways to display your projects with Semplice. Of course, these are just a sampling of different layouts and effects. It's really up to your imagination. We hope you enjoyed this tutorial!

August 7, 2020No Comments

Inspiring portfolios from freelance designers

As a freelance designer, you are your own brand. So it's always interesting to see how independent designers position themselves through their portfolio.

It's the thoughtful project curation, the strong About page bios, the clear sense of personality, that makes a freelancer's portfolio unique. At least, that's the case for these freelancers' portfolios – all made with Semplice.com.

Libby Connolly

Visiting Libby Connolly’s portfolio, there’s no question where her focus lies: Brand identity. While her projects also involve typography, web design and art direction, she’s curated her work purposefully to make her own brand crystal clear.

SEE PORTFOLIO

 

Lebassis

Lebassis’ portfolio couldn’t be more joyful. His personality comes through in every project, button and animation. We get a real sense of who he is, which can be just as important as the work itself. 

SEE PORTFOLIO

 

Nelson Balaban

I always enjoy portfolios that are clean and simple, yet still stylized. Nelson Balaban’s portfolio is a perfect example. From the unique typeface to the sleek hover effects to the snappy page transitions, he creates a distinct vibe without distracting from the work.

SEE PORTFOLIO

 

Tracy Doyle

Tracy Doyle’s portfolio is classy, as you might expect for someone whose clients include Chanel, Tiffany & Co and Gucci. The homepage leads confidently with only text, listing her clients in a large, elegant typeface.

SEE PORTFOLIO

 

Kristoffer Brady

I’m a big fan of Kristoffer Brady’s work, and it’s represented beautifully in an almost analog design on his homepage. His case studies are straightforward and personal, which makes me actually want to read them. 

SEE PORTFOLIO

 

Ayaka Ito

The attention to detail in Ayaka Ito’s portfolio is astounding. Every project, down to the color of her hover effects, is thoughtfully, even lovingly made. Which seems to be the case for everything she creates.

SEE PORTFOLIO

___

For more portfolio tips and inspiration, browse our Portfolio Project series.

Cover image from Libby Connolly's portfolio, made with Semplice.

August 6, 2020No Comments

An ancient, long-forgotten trick for doing good work

In this industry, we live and breathe productivity. We tap our forearms and inject articles about optimization and efficiency into our veins. We are rabid for hacks, tips, shortcuts, templates, tutorials that allow us to accomplish as much as possible, in as little time as possible. We praise the people who consistently ship new work.

We are conditioned this way. Rewarded for coming in under hours, under budget, ahead of the timeline. We are taught to create workflows and follow standards that allow us to function like Ford factories. 

And all the time, we wonder: Are we doing good work? Can it be better? Are we proud of what we’re creating?

No matter the industry, we want the job to be done fast. Production increases, profit margin improves, money flows. 

But the secret to truly great work – work that lasts, that is noticed, work that makes a difference – is taking the time it requires.

“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” Raymond Joseph Teller

I pride myself on the ability to work fast and work well. But when I look back on some of my best work, the projects that changed my career, it wasn’t the work I knocked out under budget. It was the work I spent laborious, painstaking hours on.

Sometimes, the secret to great work is simply time. 

Time you didn’t scope for. 

Time the client may not have budgeted.

Time that doesn’t necessarily make you the most productive, efficient designer in the business, but does make you a better one.

August 5, 2020No Comments

Six years of Semplice

Six years ago, two German designers had an idea. One based in Munich and the other in New York City. And because an idea wasn’t enough for us, we got to work.

Months later, we pressed the launch button. Semplice.com was officially live, ready for business.

That day, our first customer purchased Semplice. He was from France.

Six years later and five versions of Semplice, we’re still here. Still independent. Still doing what we love.

But it’s not just two people anymore, it’s an entire team, spread around the globe. What started as a remote company is to this day a remote company.

“Build with pride” has been our slogan from day one. And while we hope this stands true for every website built with Semplice, today it is even more true for Semplice as a company. 

We’re proud to be able to build Semplice for you, and with you.

On to the next six years!

August 4, 2020No Comments

The best advice is not where you’re looking for it

Tons of advice is shared on the internet every day, yet the best advice is not usually found there.

The pervasiveness of self-help literature proves there is a market for advice. People are eager to know how to do things in the smartest and most efficient way possible, with as few regrets as possible. Makes sense. We only have so long to get it right and humans are, by nature, terribly insecure.

Yet we often waste time seeking advice in the wrong places. We read articles and books that only skim the surface or repeat oversimplified truths we already know. We take a stranger’s contextless Tweet to heart. We search for deeper meaning in Instagram captions. 

While we can still benefit from that approach (clichés and platitudes are perpetuated for a reason), we gain more when we dig deeper:

1. The best advice is usually kept in small circles and not shared broadly. 

Easily accessible advice is likely information you already know. That doesn't mean it's bad advice. But if you're looking for something that changes your perspective or expands your worldview, you'll need to work harder to unlock it.

This type of advice is found within small circles, where trust is established, honesty is assumed and the floor is open. It's here the people with the experience and wisdom you seek feel safe to share it.

2. The best advice is so simple we don't understand its significance yet.

The most spectacular advice is often dressed in plain clothes. At the time, it seems too simple or insignificant to get our attention.  It's the things our parents said to us over and over again, yet we only understand it 30 years later.

3. The best advice is so offensive to you, you don't want to believe it.

The best advice is insulting, uncomfortable and often offensive to our existing belief system. This makes us prone to ignore advice that could benefit us, and it also reinforces point #1.

The best advice remains unshared and limited to small circles of trust. The potential consequences of sharing them widely keeps the best advice within smaller circles.

August 3, 2020No Comments

For ONE magazine, print is far from dead

We've been talking about the death of print for so long now, the conversation itself long dead. While its true media has moved mostly online, print has persisted. That's especially true for the fashion industry.

We first started following the story of ONE, a fashion photography magazine, in 2017. At the time, founder Nicole Gavrilles had been running the magazine singlehandedly for seven years as a print-on-demand publication (meaning issues are only printed, in low quality, as they are ordered). Now she's celebrating the 10th anniversary of her "side project" with some significant changes in direction and process. A big one: Going full print.

We caught up with Nicole to talk about the challenges and opportunities of embracing print in the fashion industry, how she manages to get all her shit done between her full-time job, and what lies ahead for the new ONE magazine.

Nicole Gavrilles, founder of ONE magazine

It’s been three years since we last talked on DESK. What’s happening with ONE now? I hear rumors your printing process is changing and a redesign is coming. Tell us more.

Yes! A lot has evolved since the last time we talked. I continued my process of running the magazine on my own, but I came across more challenges along the way. Most of the challenges were around adding more written content or not having budgets to supply photographers with when shooting editorials for ONE. This always came back to the question I had to keep asking myself: How can I take on more work when I’m the only person running the magazine?

This year marks 10 years the magazine has been up and running. I’ve reflected on this milestone at the end of last year and the beginning of this year while also asking myself, what next and do I have it in me to keep going? A stylist I’ve worked with on a few past covers shared some interest in learning more about my process with running the magazine. After meeting up and us connecting so well, she and another photographer joined to help reshape the magazine’s next chapter.

We’ve been changing the process completely – from digital, to social and print. With our new mission statement for a better tomorrow; a cleaner, greener, more inclusive future. We’re now a womenswear fashion editorial magazine dedicated to sustainable and ethical production. This includes featuring only sustainable fashion and beauty brands as well as shifting our entire printing approach to be fully sustainable. With this new mission comes a new brand voice and aesthetic – something I’ve always wanted to take the magazine visually, and now have the moment to do so.

Print is, of course, a whole different game than digital. The costs increase, the planning process changes, the room for error is much smaller. Do you plan to finance the print version via something like Kickstarter, or will there be ads in this new version? And why do this now and not five years ago? 

Print is a whole different game field. But now, communicating you’re printing the magazine, people take you more seriously. I wish there was an easier way but in the fashion world, this is what it takes. I always knew one day if I was going to take the next step, I had to work with a printer. We will have ads throughout the magazine which will finance a huge portion of the magazine. Any remaining balance, I’m planning to finance. And we’re splitting the costs of providing budgets to certain photographers to shoot stories for us.

Five years ago, I wasn’t mentally or financially capable of making this huge step. Also, the magazine wasn’t at the place I wanted it to be in 2015. I knew I needed people to help advance the magazine to where we’re at now, but that wasn’t available for me back then. Everything happens for a reason, and having two people help shift and grow the magazine now, was the right timing.

"We’re not just any other fashion editorial magazine anymore. We’re carving a niche path into the fashion industry that’s been lacking a much-deserved spotlight."

We’ve said print is dying for the last 10 years at least. But I think it’s only made publications like yours even more special, almost an art form. A printed mag now is a gift to an industry and a treasure for readers. Are you concerned at all about the reach/power of print, or do you see it the same way as I do? 

I’ve definitely seen an interesting shift in some independent fashion publications in the past year or two. If presented and curated like a timeless art piece, it becomes more valuable to a follower and hopefully, becomes part of their collection.

We’ve received so much positive feedback and excitement about our new mission. I think that’s what makes our publication unique. We’ll be touching upon environmental issues within the fashion industry, on how designers and creators are rising above with innovative sustainable solutions. More people have shown interest in contributing because there’s a positive message attached to our new presence. We’re not just any other fashion editorial magazine anymore. We’re carving a niche path into the fashion industry that’s been lacking a much-deserved spotlight.

Before, you were doing every part of the planning and production process: Researching trends, planning issues and themes, selecting talent, coordinating and directing photoshoots, planning and editing stories. How is it working now that you have a small team of three?

It was definitely a handful, haha. Thankfully with having two editors now, we’ve divided up the work so each has their focus and checklist of items. A lot of the bones from the years of work I’ve put into the magazine were there, but we had to go in and refresh a lot of key areas such as the website, Instagram and media kit. But we also had to create some new organizational methods to track our progress on the stories for print and online, finances, etc. A lot of the day-to-day communication with contributors and running the Instagram are off my plate, since my editors handle that now. 

To be honest, we’re taking everything day by day. Since this is our first time working on a printed and distributed issue, we’re learning things as we go, connecting to people providing more insight and knowledge into the business/marketing side of the magazine and working on solidifying an LLC at the moment. This process is definitely an experiment and once we get through launching this issue, we’ll have our process in a better place for the next one.

Ten years is a long time to work on the same side project. How have you managed to keep it fresh over the years? Did you ever hit points where you felt you had to shake things up, or has it been a steady evolution all along?

Ten years is indeed a long time to work on the same side project.

Looking through the past 19 issues, a lot of them definitely feel dated and more relevant during the time they were released. It took me a long time to get the editorial design and photography aesthetic to where I wanted it to be. I wanted to shake things up every issue but I was always faced with, how much time do I have to get this out?

Most of the time, I didn’t have the time to update the editorial design, so it stayed as-is for years and it always bothered me. 

I would say the moment I finally sat down and redesigned the magazine was Issue No.16, which was released September 2018. Around that time, I quit my full-time job at a design agency where I spent over six years of my career, and then joined Squarespace as a product designer. In between jobs, which was 2.5 weeks, I spent the entire time redesigning the magazine. As much as I would have wanted to spend that time doing something else, it was my chance to make that visual upgrade I was yearning to work on.

"For the fashion industry, true print is still considered the most important. 'If it’s not in print, we’re going to pass.'"

I always enjoy reading earlier essays I’ve written here on DESK, because I can see clearly how my writing and my mind has changed and grown over the years. Looking back on your catalog of work, do you see any issues or articles that mark a change in how you work or how you think?

I think my previous issue, No.17, was where I could see things coming together more seamlessly. When I reworked my process two years ago, I outlined the areas that caused a lot of stress and redefined a new process to alleviate that stress from occurring. I became way more on top of things, starting earlier on checking off tasks by process of elimination, instead of leaving a lot of tasks towards the end. It helped streamline my process to work faster and more effectively.

How have you seen the magazine itself evolve, aside from its format? Has its style or voice developed in any noticeable way?

The style has evolved immensely. It evolved in the direction I wanted it to. It took a bit of time to get it there but I’m very happy with where we’re taking it now. The voice of a publication’s brand is an interesting piece and when working on this rebrand, we noticed the magazine doesn’t have a voice. Because the magazine was primarily imagery with either 1-2 articles, there was no place for it. The magazine stood as a platform for emerging fashion and photography talent, but I never had the time to establish its voice. Now with the rebrand, we have a clear voice and mission statement moving forward, where a true community can finally be built.

You’ve had a close eye on the fashion industry over the last decade, which seems to move on its own timeline – incredibly fast yet sometimes circular. How has fashion, or even just fashion photography, changed since you first started publishing in 2010?

What’s interesting is, the fashion industry hasn’t changed too much but fashion photography has. 

Within both, social media has changed everything. It’s the main platform you use to find emerging photographers, stylists, models. It’s the main platform to create and develop connections, and it’s the main platform that gives everyone access to “who's who” and “who knows who.” 

For the fashion industry, true print is still considered the most important. “If it’s not in print, we’re going to pass.” 

The process of making things happen is truly about who you know, and that still hasn’t changed within the fashion industry. For years I was able to run and produce issues without having to jump hoops just to be noticed, mostly because I didn’t care if people knew of me or not. The magazine spoke for itself over the years and it spread naturally by word of mouth. I was in no rush either; I just let things happen and come my way, and went from there.

In our last interview, we talked about the demands of work/life/side project, and how you were making an effort to balance your schedule and make time for yourself outside of work. What’s your view on that these days?

Well, it's an interesting time these days with being in quarantine in Brooklyn for the past four months. I’ve had a more difficult time during quarantine with a balance between work and life. 

Once the lockdown went into place in New York City, my work for my full-time job tripled. I’m in back to back meetings filling up my days with barely any time to get any work done. This has pushed me to work after hours to get actual work, done plus also being spread thin across multiple projects. I think I’ve been burnt out for the past few months? Haha, I don’t even know anymore. 

I’m being honest when I say this time hasn’t been easy for me. But it hasn’t been easy for anyone these days. I’m trying to do what I can by staying active, cooking, seeing friends and any other simple thing that provides some relaxation, like laying out in Prospect Park catching up on a good read.

You’ve reached out to so many people and coordinated so many projects online at this point, I imagine you are a master at the cold email, or just remote project management in general. Any practical tips for reaching out to people you don’t know, managing “creative types” online and getting shit done?

It’s always trial and error, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. First define the process that works best for you and once proven successful a few times, write down and stick to your process (reuse and improve on as you go). 

Setting myself goals is how I get shit done. If I set up a personal goal to have all images and content sent to me by X date, then that’ll give me a few weeks to construct the issue and release it by X date. Once you’ve got that down, it becomes a mental memory at that point.

For reaching out to people you don’t know, you’d be surprised how receptive people are if you add context in your approach. If you make your message seem more approachable to this person you’re cold-emailing, it’ll show that you care and spent time formatting this email for them. Adding touches of thought, research, care and a bit of your personality is a key to cold emailing / Instagram DM success.

In my experience, side projects always lead to more side projects, new opportunities and new relationships. What was the most unexpected thing to come from your work with ONE?

I think the most unexpected thing was one of my professors asking me to come visit and give a talk about my design career and how the magazine came to life. In early February of this year, I flew down to my alma mater, Ringling College of Art and Design, and did just that. It was a really special moment for me to connect with my professors and the place that gave me a platform to discover my passion and grow my skills in design. 

I think I’ve learned so much throughout these past 10 years that I now enjoy helping and encouraging people to discover and grow their passions.

Is there anything else you’ve been wanting to do with the mag that’s still on the horizon? For example, I’m curious if you’ve ever considered (or already done) paid partnerships with fashion brands or designers to feature their clothing lines and fund the magazine. 

You’re always one step ahead of me, Tobias! Yes, we are going to be working on expanding our online social presence, and paid partnerships is one of the main areas we’re going to tackle after the launch of this issue and in 2021.

You started ONE out of a desire to champion your friends and spotlight their work. Is that still your main goal today? What’s motivated you to continue doing this for the past 10 years? What makes it rewarding?

With our new mission, it’s still in our DNA, however, we are primarily focusing on providing a spotlight for sustainable and ethical brands moving forward. We will continue to collaborate and highlight work from emerging brands, but our new area of focus will make us stand out within the world of numerous fashion editorial publications. 

I’m more motivated and passionate about this new chapter because we’ve established a purpose and meaning to the magazine that was lacking before. I’m very passionate about environmentalism and climate change. And now that we’ve established this new mission, I believe our new vision can truly make a difference by helping creatives and educating viewers about sustainability within fashion. We’re also planning to donate all proceeds to an environmental organization/non-profit.

What advice do you have for those of us who dream of doing a similar side project (essentially a second job) we’re passionate about, but feeling unsure where to begin or how to manage it all (the finances, time, resources, energy, etc)?

Start small. It’s easier to grow a business/hobby/side-project when you take baby steps. Putting all your eggs in one basket all at the beginning could be super risky. Think of it as launching a new product – you want to test how your users interact with it first, then keep iterating and slowly expanding from there. This will help with discovering your process and how it works best for you, the resources and tools you'll need and the amount of time you'll dedicate per week.

What are a few of your favorite features in ONE from the last decade?

Most recently, we interviewed and photographed the recent collection of handmade organic materials by designer Signe Rødbro of Signe.  She took her production to Turkey where she opened Moon Tekstil, a sustainable and ethical factory in Izmir that offers fair wages, transportation, lunch and a comfortable, happy place to work for its employees.

Beginning of this year, I loved this story by Martina Keenan. Her effortless style captures such visually captivating moments.

I will forever cherish this stunning cover story for Issue No.13 by Manolo Campion, featuring Claudia Li.

Issue No.18 of ONE magazine,  featuring the rebrand and ONE's new mission dedicated to sustainable and ethical production,  will be out this fall. Follow @one_magazine for news and, of course, always-beautiful fashion photography.

July 30, 2020No Comments

Monthly portfolio inspiration of July 2020

Once a week, we select two portfolios created with Semplice to feature in our Best Of  Showcase.  Here we've collected our favorites from the month of July.

With summer in full swing, designers are more often than not busy with work and finding time between busy schedules to work on their portfolios. Still, we're amazed each week at seeing the creative talent of those who choose to use Semplice to build the portfolio site of their dreams. Here are some of my favorite picks from the month of July.

Browse the best portfolios of the month below to see fresh new work and get inspired for your own site. And if you've created your own portfolio with Semplice, be sure to submit it to our Showcase here. We might feature your site next.

 

Hansraj Dochaniya

Kristoffer Brady

Michael Schmidt

Patrick Corrigan

Libby Connolly

Pedro Pinto

Studio MPLS

Raúl Gil

Alexine Beltran

 

To see more great design portfolios, visit the Semplice showcase. I'll be back next month with more of our monthly favorites!

Header image by Tracy Doyle

July 29, 2020No Comments

The top 10 DESK portfolio articles of all time

We talk a lot about portfolio building on DESK. We’ve always been interested in helping creative people do their best work and share it in the most compelling way possible – so they can get more work that makes them proud. 

Good work feeds your portfolio, and a great portfolio leads to more good work. The two fuel each other, and that’s what we’ve always found exciting. 

In our effort to motivate and inspire the creative community, we share everything we know about creating a portfolio. Between Semplice, our more advanced portfolio tool, and Carbonmade, for anyone who wants a beautiful online portfolio, we’ve learned a lot and see fresh, new portfolios every day.

We review analytics every month to see what our readers find most useful, so we thought it may be helpful to share those insights with you now and then. These are the most-read portfolio articles on DESK of all time, in order. 

1. How to write project case studies for your portfolio

Writing case studies might be the most dreaded part of building a design portfolio. You already did all the work – now you have to sit down and EXPLAIN it all? But case studies are the heart and soul of your portfolio. They’re your chance to put your work in its best light and tell the story the way you intended it to be told.

Read article →

 

2. The most important page on your portfolio

And if there is one thing we’ve learned, it's that a single page on your portfolio always gets the most views. And funnily enough, it's not your most popular project.

Read article →

 

3. How to make a portfolio when your work can’t be shared

An online portfolio is critical to a designer's success. But what do we do when we work on a confidential project where we’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement? Or what if we worked on something that hasn’t launched yet, but we really love the project and want it on our portfolio now? Or what if the nature of our design work doesn’t really make sense for a visual portfolio?

Read article →

 

4. What leading companies never want to see in your portfolio 

 

Through our How to Get a Job at X series, we've talked with creative directors and recruiters from companies like Nike, Spotify, Pentagram, Disney, Shopify and BBDO. These people see dozens of design portfolios a day and might make their decision about a candidate within seconds of landing on their page. So we asked them for the secret to a successful portfolio – one that gets us a job at their company.

Read article →

5. How to make a portfolio as a UX designer

 

No matter what type of design you do, an online portfolio is a must. In most cases, companies and clients simply won’t consider you for a job without one. While a UX designer may believe their work doesn’t translate well to a visual platform, a portfolio is even more important for UX work.

Read article →

6. Avoid these 5 things when building your portfolio 

 

For some reason, when creating our design portfolio, everything we praise about good design seems to be forgotten as we work in perfect isolation. 

Read article →

7. How to build a design portfolio as a student

 

Building a portfolio as a student or young designer is a catch-22: A portfolio is all about showing your design experience, but to have experience you first need a job. Here we share how to build a portfolio when you’re just starting out.

Read article →

8. 15 ways to quickly refresh your portfolio

The only thing worse than not having a design portfolio is having one that’s poorly made or out of date. Here are some quick tips to refresh your portfolio and start getting more of the work you want to do.

Read article →

9. How to create a one-page portfolio with Semplice

A tutorial for designers or studios that want to create an elegant and interactive one-page portfolio or landing page using Semplice.

Read article →

10. Wild idea: work on your portfolio while you have a job

Read article →

We’ve written a lot more than this. Visit our Portfolio Project series to learn how to write your portfolio bio, how to photograph your work for your portfolio and other tips for presenting your work online.

 

July 27, 2020No Comments

How to land a design job at Instacart

The pandemic has, in many ways, accelerated the future we knew was coming soon enough. Those companies that were already positioned toward the future were among the few that thrived, despite economic shutdown. Instacart is one of them.

When most of the country was forced to stay in place, Instacart was uniquely positioned to help – and has continued to adapt and meet the needs of its customers in a changing environment. As the New York Times put it regarding shopping trends during the pandemic, "In grocery delivery, there is Instacart, and then everyone else."

Now Instacart is in high-growth mode, and they're looking for designers to help lead the way. We talked with Himani Amoli, design manager, and Ryan Scott Tandy (RST), design director at Instacart, about what they're looking for in designers for their team.

Hey Himani and RST, thanks for doing this with us. Let’s dive right in.

Instacart is growing fast, and I imagine you need designers for several areas of your product and/or marketing. What kind of design opportunities exist right now and where do we fit into the bigger picture of your team?

RST: Design at Instacart covers a wide range of experiences; from designing for the customer placing their first order, to the Instacart Shopper making a delivery, to brands managing their ad campaigns, or even grocery retailers building on our platform. Design plays an important role, taking something that is inherently quite complex and making it simple.

Partnering with product management and engineering teams, our product design and brand design teams are actively working on the next evolution of this essential service.

Himani: We are hiring across the board for brand and product design. Looking for product designers, researchers, and also design leaders to help grow and manage the teams! 

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us? Or should we just fill out the application form?

RST: We are a people-based business so tell us your story. What brought you to design? What inspires you? Where are you looking to take your design career next? 

I love hearing about how people personally use the product. What brings them delight or surprise. What role does food play in your life? Even potential areas of improvement.

It’s always great to highlight areas of expertise that clearly align with the work we’re doing (ecommerce, marketplaces, ad platforms, enterprise).

Himani: Something that highlights how the work you’ve done is relevant for the role that we’re trying to hire for. Better yet, tell us how Instacart’s mission fits into what you’re passionate or excited about. And link us to your work that you think we need to see. 

If you’ve worked with someone who works at Instacart, opt to come in through that route, especially if they can speak to your work or share how awesome of a teammate you are!

The majority of our applicants are sourced by our recruiting team. They work with the hiring managers to understand the skillset of the designer, so the most important thing you can do is make yourself discoverable online. Link your portfolio to your LinkedIn/Dribbble. If there isn’t any work under NDA, don’t hide your work behind a password

"Portfolios are the best way for you to tell the story of your career. In the absence of that, a story is unfortunately created for you, either by the recruiter or the hiring manager."

How important is a complete portfolio? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Instacart?

RST: It’s critical to have your portfolio up to date and polished. It’s your best opportunity to highlight your creative process, output and achievements across your career.

Portfolios that clearly demonstrate results through strategic design work are great, but ones that also showcase these projects in a beautiful way, even better! (A good mix of systems thinking and visual design).

Himani: Portfolios are the best way for you to tell the story of your career. In the absence of that, a story is unfortunately created for you, either by the recruiter or the hiring manager. Portfolios also help us understand how you tackle problems. 

Your portfolio doesn’t need to have all the work you’ve ever done but 1-2 case studies of work that you’re proud of, showing how you process problems. 

A portfolio also helps us visualize you in that role, and helps us figure out how to cater our recruiting process to you based on your skills, interests and background. 

"A prototype is worth a thousand mocks. Show me how the thing you build works and you stand out immediately!"

What do you wish you saw more in portfolios from Instacart job applicants? 

RST: More products in motion, less static states. Portfolios that show prototypes (or videos of their products in action) tell a much better story of how something works or how it’s used.

I love it when designers share insight behind small details. Why a particular interaction was chosen or breaking down the thinking behind an icon set. Anything that shows commitment to craft, polish or quality.

Show us how data and research informed the work. Answering, why was this the best solution?

Himani: When we’re reviewing candidates, we’re trying to get a quick overview of their work so we can decide where to schedule a portfolio walkthrough or not. When looking at their online portfolios, we’re spending a few minutes on each and making a call, so be methodical about what you have on your online portfolio – remember you won't be there to voice over the work, so it has to tell a story on its own.

  • Your portfolio should highlight your best work. You only have 1-2 in-depth case studies to stand out so make sure you pick your best work, the stuff you’re most proud of.
  • For the case studies, don’t bury the lede; show the final polished product first, then you can follow up with the problem statement and how you arrived at the solution. Every time I land on a case study that doesn’t do this, the first thing I do is scroll all the way down to see the finished designs. No need for a grand reveal in the end. Get me hooked from the beginning. 
  • For any additional work you want to share, it's OK to just show the final polished mocks. Hiring managers will likely make a call on bringing you in based on the 1-2 case studies we already talked about above.
  • A prototype is worth a thousand mocks. Show me how the thing you build works and you stand out immediately!
  • Finally, tighten up the visual design for your portfolio. We want to know that you have a high bar for craft and the UI of your portfolio will be a signal towards that, not just the work you shipped.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

RST: Like a lot of companies these days, we’re conducting our interviews fully remotely over Zoom, and the entire process lasts about half a day.

We start the day with a portfolio presentation where it’s the candidate’s opportunity to shine and tell their story. After that, the day is broken up into one-on-one sessions with members of the team and hiring manager.

We make sure to carve out time in each session for discussion and for any questions the candidate may have.

How the interview process at Instacart might look for you

  • Remote portfolio screening

    Here you'll meet with a senior designer or a hiring manager to share 1-2 projects that you’re most proud of.

  • A full “onsite” meeting

    In pandemic times, this means more remote interviews.

  • Another portfolio presentation

    This time, you'll present to a larger group of people including other designers, the hiring manager and some cross-functional partners like researchers, engineers or product managers.

  • One-on-one sessions

    Here you'll meet with a designer to do a deep dive on your work. You’ll also chat with the hiring manager, a product manager and a few more designers. One of those sessions will also be a design exercise.


PRO TIPS  For Instacart, your past work is the strongest indicator of your abilities as a designer. Spend time preparing your portfolio and perfecting your presentation. Instacart also wants to know that you're interested in them – ask questions about the company, the team or the culture.

Do you have a favorite story of an application that really stuck with you? Something that stood out and got passed around between your team?

Himani: We interviewed a candidate remotely after shelter in place, and she anticipated the animations in her Figma presentation might not work well during the portfolio presentation on Zoom. So she shared the Figma link of her presentation with everyone and asked us to follow along in Observation mode, which was awesome! It showed me her creative problem-solving skills because she anticipated a user problem and preemptively solved it. 

You’re in high-growth mode, which is no joke. On your blog, your head of design says he’s looking for designers who are open and resilient, with critical thinking skills. Any other qualities or skills that allow someone to thrive on your presumably fast-paced team?

Himani: I’ve seen people glamorize working at a growth-stage startup and not really understanding what it means for their day-to-day. But some things that aren’t everyone’s cup of tea:

  • You have to be able to handle a fast-paced environment with a lot of ambiguity. 
  • You have to be able to operate in a nimble way, be open to feedback on your work and able to switch gears quickly.
  • Processes break when teams continue to grow, so you have to be able to handle changes and operate in an environment that doesn’t have all the structure in place. 

But there are a lot of upsides as well:

  • There’s still a lot of company building left in this stage, so you’ll get to define processes and culture for the team.
  • And most importantly, you have the opportunity to take on large projects that make an impact.

Would you hire someone who’s a cultural add over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

RST: Given you’ll be working with someone on a daily basis, I believe soft skills to be critically important. We see “culture-builders” as a requirement as much as technical skills or domain expertise.

Himani: We believe you need both at Instacart. Great craft is essential, but we care about many other soft skills as well. When interviewing we look for a signal on visual design, interaction design and product thinking, along with how this person communicates and collaborates with others. 

Self-awareness is also very important, along with a growth mindset. Humility is also such an important trait to look out for. 

Portfolio tips for your Instacart interview

  • Share prototypes over static images.

    Showing how your final product works will count for a lot to the Instacart team. Instead of the standard device mockup, Use Figma or a similar tool to create a prototype they can interact with.

  • Show a love for detail.

    "I love it when designers share insight behind small details," says RST. "Why a particular interaction was chosen or breaking down the thinking behind an icon set." Use your case studies to show you sweat the small stuff, which ultimately means you care deeply about what you do.

  • Include only your best work.

    Instacart spends only a few minutes reviewing you portfolio before making a call. Prioritize your best projects (ideally launched projects), and be sure to highlight your attention to both user needs and business goals.

     

  • Evaluate and refresh your portfolio design.

    "We want to know that you have a high bar for craft and the UI of your portfolio will be a signal towards that, not just the work you shipped," Himani explains. If you haven't updated your portfolio design recently, now's the time to make sure it feels fresh and modern.

  • Show the research, data and thinking behind your decisions.

    In your case studies, show what informed your designs and why you approached your project the way you did. Give Instacart a glimpse of how your mind works.

  • Think through your portfolio presentation.

    You'll spend the majority of your interviews at Instacart reviewing your past work. Walk through your portfolio beforehand and perfect the timing of your presentation, so you're not ad libbing on the call.

     

 Your product design job description includes: “You are a generalist who can drive the design process end to end.” What secondary skills do you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example: Do you prefer writing ability over coding skills? Photography skills over coding?

RST: An eye for good taste, prototyping, working with data, partnering with research, creating excellent documentation and presentation skills. 

Himani: Prototyping skills are a superpower that designers should use as often as possible. They can help bring ideas to life and also help get everyone on the same page.  

Strong writing skills can be such a valuable tool for designers. Both in their work and also when documenting design decisions.  

Strong storytelling and presentation skills can help designers convince others of their vision and rally people behind an idea. How you communicate about and present your work is an extremely important part of being a designer.

Finally, a high bar for craft quality.

As we all know well, the nature of work has changed drastically over the last few months. Are you open to remote hires for your team, or do we need to be on-site in SF?

As a company, we’re still figuring out how open or not we are to remote working. We’re continuing to hire in the Bay Area, as well as Toronto, but beyond that we’re considering US- or Canada-based remote candidates by exception only, and only at very senior levels.

Diversity and inclusion are more relevant than ever, and I see Instacart is part of that conversation online. How does this fit into your hiring process and current team?

RST: This is something we are taking very seriously. As a growth stage company, things move fast and we’re hiring quickly, but the design leadership team is taking a moment to stop and make sure we’re being deliberate about our hiring practices, especially when it comes to diversity. Everybody buys groceries, and it's our job to ensure that the people designing our brand and products reflect the communities we serve.

We know diversity is a critical ingredient of successful teams, especially a team that will design the next evolution of a product that’s universally needed.

We work hard to find candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds and handpick our interview panels to be as inclusive as possible.

Areas we, as an industry, need to invest more in: highschool and college education, internship programs, coaching and career development programs.

Himani: In 2020, we started using Textio, an AI writing platform that detects and flags unconscious bias in writing via job descriptions, job postings and email outreach – the design team is piloting the tool.

We are focused on building more diverse pipelines and a more inclusive hiring culture. We have 5 active ERGs that partner with us to celebrate cultural heritage months company-wide, with a full-month of programming dedicated to each. The design team is an active partner in developing, designing and helping to bring these cultural heritage months to life with multiple touchpoints across the employee experience.

How do you think Instacart is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?

RST: At Instacart, you’ll have a very special opportunity to both work on an important product, and at a critical time of company growth.

Designers at Instacart will have a tremendous amount of ownership and the chance to help build a company.

Himani: I’m not sure if this is different compared to other companies but some of the things we care about:

  • An entrepreneurial spirit with a bias for shipping
  • People who are self-starters and don’t feel the need to wait for someone to tell them what to work on next.
  • Ownership over their work. This helps people have a high bar for quality and motivates them to get everyone else on the same page as them.
  • Comfort in dealing with ambiguous problems 

Any parting advice for us? Something we forgot to ask that a potential candidate should know?

RST: Always do your homework. Know who you’re presenting to, be sharp on the timing of your presentations, and come with a set of thoughtful questions that will spark conversation.

Himani: Don’t shy away from showing us who you are! Let your personality shine. Let us know who you are beyond your work. Also: 

  • Make yourself discoverable online. Let us find you! 
  • We believe good design comes at the intersection of user needs and business goals, so when choosing projects to present, prioritize projects that highlight that. 
  • During portfolio review, always opt for showing projects that launched. Seeing concept work is nice, but showing work that made an impact for the users and the business is best. 
  • I’ve seen designers come underprepared to portfolio presentations and just scroll through their website, and it never goes well. Overprepare for your portfolio presentations! Work on your timing and come prepared to walk us through your story.

Since I’ve seen this question answered from multiple members of the Instacart team, I have to ask you now: What’s always in your cart?

RST: Doughnuts, always doughnuts!

Himani: These days, bananas. I’m making and consuming too much banana bread thanks to shelter in place. 

July 21, 2020No Comments

The art of pricing freelance projects

You’re a freelance designer. Your core capabilities are solid, you navigate software well, you have a good eye. You produce results for people across multiple mediums. Your skills have been honed and your work is your art. But you feel that you don’t get paid what you’re worth.

I get it. As a freelancer in any field, knowing what to charge is tricky.

The good news is, by making pricing a topic of priority, you can use it to help better portray your true value to people.

Alongside the art of design, seek to understand the art of pricing to get paid what you’re worth.

The problem

The problem with pricing freelance work is that there are an often overwhelming number of ways to do it:

  • Hourly billing
  • Daily billing
  • Fixed pricing
  • Value-based pricing 
  • Retainers

You’ll likely have heard of them all. Perhaps you’ve had experience with applying one or two of them. But which one’s the best? Which pricing strategy should you use when billing your client for work? Herein lies another problem.

The methodology to use will depend on multiple factors:

  • What the work is
  • How long it might take
  • What your position is
  • Who your client is
  • How much you need the job

There’s too much variability to declare a singular route as the winner for every freelancer and every project. These issues highlight pricing as an art form as opposed to an exact science.

Pricing is personal.

"Attributing yourself to one pricing method across the board isn’t always the best approach to getting deals over the line."

The fallacy

One person will tell you “hourly billing should generally be avoided” and another that “retainers are a great way to secure recurring revenue,” without clarifying or expanding on it.

While I agree with these statements, you can’t blindly apply this knowledge to every engagement that comes your way. This brings to the forefront why freelancers find pricing so difficult: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The idea that you can apply one pricing strategy to every freelance project in an attempt to maximize profit, for the length of your career, is, in my experience, impractical.

I don’t doubt that some people choose one pricing methodology, stick to it and are incredibly successful. There are always exceptions. But this isn’t always realistic, especially when starting out. I know I couldn’t afford to be so selective with my first client. It was only once I raised my value that I could start to exert more of my pricing preferences.

Even as a new freelancer, there are still certain pricing methodologies that suit certain projects. Attributing yourself to one pricing method across the board isn’t always the best approach to getting deals over the line.

There’s more to it than that.

Pricing is fluid.

"Price mirrors risk. Because you present as the least risky option, you can charge a premium for your work."

The reality

Value is the true constant that informs price. I’m not just talking about value-based pricing. Whatever pricing strategy you use, it should be based on value.

What do people perceive your value to be? In over a decade of freelancing, this question has informed many of the prices I’ve given.

I mentioned earlier that pricing is personal. This couldn’t be truer when giving and receiving prices for freelance work. When you present yourself as a jack-of-all-trades designer offering branding, web design, print design, UX, UI and illustration, is it really perceivable to a prospect that you can produce high-value work in all of these fields?

When you position yourself like this as a freelancer, you’re often seen as a commodity service provider as opposed to a specialist service producer. And the latter is commonly seen as someone who can provide greater value.

So because pricing is personal, you need differentiators that increase your value:

  • A specialism in service
  • A highly individual style
  • Credibility within your wider industry
  • Excellent soft-skills
  • An attractive personality

If you’re the stand-out freelancer, you become the safe bet in the eyes of clients searching for services. Price mirrors risk. Because you present as the least risky option, you can charge a premium for your work.

When a client can’t see the difference between your service and someone else’s, your chances of charging a premium for individuality are low.

When you’re the obvious choice, your value is high and so are your chances of getting paid in line with this. Your perceived value forms the basis of the art of pricing your freelance services.

From here, choose the most appropriate strategy for the task at hand and your current circumstances.

Are you looking to get your foot in the door? Be aware that your choice of terms may be limited.

You might want to avoid hourly billing, but are you in a position to blanketly reject that right now? Your play here would be to get an initial agreement, prove yourself to be indispensable and renegotiate to more preferential terms soon after.

Do you want to stick to fix-priced projects only? There’s always a client who comes along with an iterative project that they can’t fix the scope for.

Paid discovery can work to solve this, but when you can get started quickly and achieve a top-end day rate as an alternative, does it make sense to skip the engagement if they don’t go for that?

The reality of pricing is that there’s more than the price at play. It will benefit you as a freelancer to:

  • Understand a range of pricing strategies
  • Gauge the value of your service to people individually
  • Take an honest overview of your current circumstances

These all make up a part of the art. 

Pricing has layers.

"It’s more important to get started than to never start based on terms."

The Solution

How does a freelance designer solve the pricing matrix? Start with the methodologies:

 

Hourly Billing

When you bill by the hour, you’re punished for getting quicker. There is no incentive to do things efficiently as doing so directly reduces the amount of money you’ll earn.

Hourly billing also comes with additional paperwork in the form of estimates and hour logging. Which, quite frankly, isn’t always the best use of your time.

If you want to use efficiency as a tool to maximize your earning potential as a freelancer, hourly billing is generally not the way to go. Directly tying a unit of your time to a price caps your earning potential. There are only so many hours available in the day.

But it’d be naive of me to say that there aren’t outliers in this scenario. You might command an uncommonly huge hourly rate and only wish to work four hours per day, for instance.

Equally, it’s important to consider your current position in the market. Hourly billing might be a way to get a chance. It’s more important to get started than to never start based on terms.

If you do use hourly billing to gain a foothold, have the goal to stop using it as soon as you can. Make yourself indispensable to your current hourly client and build an audience of other people willing to hire you. This will give you the leverage to move toward more preferred methods of pricing projects.

"If results are being delivered, does it really matter exactly how many hours and minutes are logged each day?"

Daily Billing

Freelancers can approach daily billing in two different ways. I’ve found one to be more effective, in terms of getting paid what you’re worth, than the other.

It’s common to assume that when you give a price for a day’s work, that equates to 7/8 hours of your time. Clients will then assume that your day rate / hours worked = your hourly rate, and you’re no better off than when you started billing hourly. In fact, you’re worse off because a day rate is typically given at a lower price than if you were to bill the same amount of hours individually. As with hourly billing, daily billing in this guise shares all the downsides.

The alternative is to price a day as a day, and not a number of guaranteed hours. Providing you’re clear with your collaborator, this is how you unlock more autonomy. If you want to work an hour less one day and an extra hour the following day, for example, then you can.

The point here is that if results are being delivered, does it really matter exactly how many hours and minutes are logged each day?

In either fashion, you’re still tying a unit of your time to a price, which comes with its negatives. But it can work well. Especially in instances where the day rate is high and the work you’re doing is particularly difficult to scope.

Fixed-Pricing

In my experience pricing freelance work, fixed-price terms are nearly always the best. When you give a fixed-price for a piece of work, you know exactly what you’ll get paid and your client knows exactly what they’ll pay for it. There’s a level of safety in a fixed-price for both parties.

However, you need a watertight scope.

Scope creep is frustrating and costly for a freelancer. Make sure that whenever you give a fixed-price for a body of work, it is clearly briefed and agreed upon by both parties. Be clear that any work outside of this comes at an additional cost. 

Another rule to follow when working to a fixed price is to get a deposit. You can’t be fully sure that you have someone’s commitment to a project unless money has exchanged hands.

The key benefit to fixed-pricing is the converse of hourly billing: you are directly rewarded for efficiency. The better you get at performing your skill, the quicker you’ll get. And the quicker you’ll get, the more you’ll get paid in less time. The paramount thing here is to always retain quality, thus preserving your perceived value.

Value-Based Pricing

Value-based pricing is similar to fixed-pricing in its delivery; it’s a set price for a set body of work.

However, there’s one big difference: The figure that you present is wholly based on the value of the business outcomes of the project. The price that you give is usually a percentage, which can be justified as fair based on quantifiable metrics.

Here’s a short and simplified example:

Your client's average lead value = $500

You estimate that your work will get them 100 leads in year 1. That's $50,000 of value.

You give a price for your work based on a % of that figure.

If you can show the value, you can justify the price.

Although this differs from country to country, the problem with value-based pricing is that it’s often a tough sell. Because it can be a tough sell, the effort involved to do the research can often be quite costly.

The key to using value-based pricing is to gauge, on a per-client basis, how presenting a proposal with this method will go down. It takes much research to uncover the information that you need, and if you’re doing a lot of leg work for a client who won’t receive a value-based proposal well, it’s wasted time and energy.

Value-based pricing is more well-received when presenting to prospects who have significantly more money than they have time. If you’re speaking with someone who does not see the value in hiring you as an individual, other than another service provider, a value-based price will often fall flat.

Retainers

When you work well with a client and they’re happy with the results you’re providing, a typical route forward is to bump up your level of involvement. Retainer agreements, in this scenario, provide a level of safety for both the client and freelancer. It’s guaranteed work for the client and guaranteed income for the freelancer.

But naturally, there are pros and cons to retainers too.

With the uptick in guaranteed work, often comes with the expectation of a reduced rate. This has always felt wrong to me as it assumes that you have a problem selling your services. When you reduce your rate in this instance, you reduce your perceived value to the client.

A major benefit, on the other hand, is that you can sell a chunk of your availability and spread out your involvement throughout the month, which allows you more day to day flexibility.

Ultimately, for the long term growth of your freelancing business, place a priority on those retainers that give your availability to deliver knowledge, not direct labor. Direct labor is often linked back to time, and as with hourly billing, your earnings ceiling becomes limited.

When you deliver knowledge through a strategy engagement for instance, there is no limit on what the value you add to the project is worth.

Look to study all of these pricing methodologies, and create a list of preferences that suit the work that you do and your current position. Form a short-term approach that helps you arrive at your long-term, ideal pricing strategy. Charging by the day initially may lead you to a high-value ongoing strategic retainer, for instance.

Apply methods where appropriate. 

"Giving a price without researching your prospect is a sure-fire way to give the wrong one."

No matter which methodology you choose, use value to price

You don’t have to use value-based pricing to take value into consideration when giving a price for work.

Understand your value metrics:

  • Individuality
  • Credibility
  • Availability
  • Risk reduction
  • Results provision 
  • Price itself

Take time to understand what your overall value is compared to others in your field. Look into the worth of the results your services create on a client-by-client basis. Before giving any price, ask yourself this question:

“How much am I worth to this project?”

Knowing your worth better informs price.

Research your prospect

Giving a price without researching your prospect is a sure-fire way to give the wrong one.

You need to know who you’re potentially going to be working with: Can they afford your services? How large of a business do they have? Have they worked with freelancers before? Do they want to work with you specifically or do they just want the job done?

Know your client to guide your price.

Acknowledge your current position 

How’s your cash flow?

Are you just starting out?    

Are you a few years in?

Have you been a designer for a very long time?

Are you new to your industry or do people know of your work? What’s the current demand for people who offer your service? Be aware of where you are to help you make the right offers.

In conclusion

Pricing can form a barrier to entry for many budding freelancers. It’s a skill in itself that designers who are looking to go it alone must learn. No one can tell you it’s easy.

What I can tell you is that it becomes easier with research, practice and time. Each book you read, article you absorb, mentor you speak with and project you offer on, brings you closer to becoming better at pricing your work.

There’s no magic formula that will help you decipher pricing forever. Nonetheless, you can give yourself the best chance of getting paid what you’re worth through a focus on value. 

Pricing can’t always be solved by science alone.

Pricing is an art.

You can learn more on this topic from Tom in his book, "Pricing Freelance Projects."

July 21, 2020No Comments

Mastering the art of 3D lighting with Adobe Dimension

As we venture further into the world of 3D design, from abstract 3D art to 3D typography to creating geometric structures, we've arrived at a crucial point: lighting our 3D scene.

The difference between your standard 3D graphic and an image so cinematic and realistic, you wonder if it's a still from a movie, often comes down to lighting.

It's the glow from a streetlight. The reflection of light on water. The difference between direct overhead light and infused light from a window. The nuanced beauty of light that we experience every day, that takes effort and attention to perfect in 3D.

A cinematic 3D scene created using Adobe Dimension

Consider the fact that, when making an animated movie, it's usually someone's full-time job to focus only on lighting. Light is the essence of how we see and visually experience the world. The right lighting can set a mood, influence perception and evoke emotion. It's why it's impossible to leave lighting for last when setting up a 3D scene. Rather, your entire scene is centered around it.

Since our goal with 3D is to reflect the real world, some of the same principles we use for photography apply to 3D. Like photography, the right lighting as well as a keen awareness of your subject and composition are important. It all plays together to make a striking, believable image that resonates.

With this article, we'll share examples of various lighting techniques and give you general principles you can use in your own compositions. We will show you how you can get dramatically different results just from changing the placement of your light sources, and how you'll significantly improve the quality of your 3D work with purposeful, detailed lighting.

Setting the scene

First, let's take a look at a series of images that I created using Adobe Dimension. If you're not familiar already from our other articles, Dimension is Adobe's 3D scene design tool paving the way for designers and traditional graphic designers into the 3D world. (If you're just hearing about it or stepping into 3D for the first time, start with this beginner's tutorial.) Dimension offers default lighting set-ups for your 3D work, but today we'll be focused on manual methods to create your own lighting.

Being super inspired by the recent SpaceX launch, I wanted to create a simple scene with some sci-fi and space themes. Here is the result:

We'll use this image to examine the different types of lighting and how you apply them in 3D. Later, I'll show you how I achieved specific lighting effects for this image in Adobe Dimension.

The different types of lighting techniques

Just like the real world, there are many different types of lighting techniques that can create various effects. Placing a single light source in your scene, for example, results in dramatic shadows. Using only direct sunlight looks very different than soft, indoor light setup. Depending on the mood and feel you want from your image, you may have to experiment and find what lighting setup works best for your scene. So let's start with your main types.

Three-point lighting

A basic example of a three-point light system. From left to right: the key light, the rim light, and the fill light.

This is arguably the most important and commonly used lighting technique.

As the name implies, this technique uses three light sources to illuminate your scene: key, rim and fill. Each of these light sources play a unique role in lighting your scene.  Your key light is the primary light source that will illuminate your subject. The rim light illuminates the back of your subject, creating depth and allowing us to understand the shapes of the objects in your scene. Lastly, fill light is meant to eliminate harsh shadows in your scene and add some even lighting.

Placing a sphere is an easy way to view reflections in relation to our scene

Humans use light to understand objects and shapes with our natural eye, and three-point lighting gives us a full point of reference. This lighting technique is seen in every medium, including film, photography, product photography, event lighting and television.

 

Soft lighting

An example of a soft light setup. Note that the lights are placed far away from the subject, and are larger in size comparatively.

Soft lighting, as the name applies, means light is being distributed evenly throughout your scene. Harsh shadows are removed, creating a result that feels soft and balanced. This kind of lighting is commonly seen with product shots, or with traditional portrait photography. You can see in this scene it has changed our original image to feel much more calm.

To achieve soft lighting in your scene, simply place large light sources in your scene that are a good distance from your subject. The larger the lights, and the farther away from your subject they are, the softer your shadows will be. The default studio environment light when starting with Dimension is a form of soft lighting.

 

Single-light source

As the name implies, this technique uses just one light source. Single-light sources are typically used to create dramatic lighting, since having only one light means harsher shadows and areas where light is not illuminating your object. This creates a sense of drama and mystery.

This technique is used often in cinema as a tool to center your focus and set a mood. Use it to your advantage to create interesting moods, or where your subject does not clearly have to be defined. It's a simple method, but when used right can be the perfect lighting trick up your sleeve.

Direct sunlight

Sunlight is one of the easiest ways to light your scene. Note the harshness of the shadows due to the size and brightness of the light.

As the name implies, this lighting technique relies on a single light source: the sun. Direct sunlight is great when you want to replicate a natural outdoor scene. Using sunlight as your main light source will naturally result in harsher shadows, since sunlight is incredibly bright and the appearance of the sun is very small in relation to us on earth.

Using sunlight to light your scene is very popular for architectural lighting. Most 3D programs, including Adobe Dimension, include the ability to add a sun to your scene. These programs also typically aim to replicate the real effects of light from the sun based on it's positioning in the sky. For example, lowering the position of your sun will typically result in a "sunset" effect where light is much warmer and shadows are hugely elongated.

When using sunlight as a light source, I highly recommend using it alongside image-based (HDRI) lighting environment to get real-world reflections. This is because the sun exists within an “environment” or sky, and to get realistic results you will want to simulate both a sun and real-world environment.

More on environment lighting below.

Backlight

Backlight pertains to placing your primary light source behind your subject matter. As with the single-light source technique, this method will also produce dramatic results. It also adds a sense of mystery as it obscures the details and shapes of your primary subject.

This type of lighting is typically seen in film and in promotional sports photography. Though this lighting technique is one of the more rarer ones used, it's a great one to have in your back pocket if you're going for a cinematic vibe.

Environment or image-based lighting

Environmental lighting generates light based an existing image, typically in the form of an HDRI (high dynamic range) image.

HDRI is a 32-bit image (meaning it contains huge amounts more of data) that stores a range of exposures, which is impossible to do with an 8-bit image. An 8-bit has pixel color values ranging from 0-1, whereas 32-bit can go as high as 100 (in case of the sunlight). This will differentiate a white object in the HDRI, for example, from a white LIGHT source. HDRI images can provide an incredibly rich source of light to your scene that replicates what we see with our naked eye.

Environment lighting is great if you want to quickly generate a simulated real-world lighting environment. Adobe Dimension includes these in the format of lighting presets, though you can use your own HDRI maps as well. The largest drawback to using environment lighting is you lose the ability to control the placement of your light sources, since the lighting is based on an image with predetermined light positioning.

An example of an HDRI image:

And now with that image applied to our scene:

In Dimension, HDRI maps can be applied under the Environment lighting options.

Different types of light objects within 3D programs

There are various different light objects you can use to light your scene in any given 3D program. Some use different names for the same type of light tools or objects, but it's helpful to know the difference between each.

Directional lights

A directional light object is one that emits light in a single direction, much like the sun. Typically, the light direction can be adjusting in the program as well as the edge softness.

Point light

A point light will emit light in all directions from a single, small point. Light will be cast evenly, despite the direction the point light is rotated. These type of light objects are typically used for things such as light bulbs or candles.

Area light

An area light emits light that is confined within a single object, such as a rectangle or sphere. An area light object will simulate an effect very similar to real-world lighting objects, such as fluorescent lamps or lighting studio equipment. In Adobe Dimension, you can recreate the effect by applying a Glow material to an object. You can then even add texture to the light by placing an alpha mask into the Opacity slot.

Sun

We've talked above about using sunlight to light your scene. To achieve natural sunlight, you will need to use a sun object in your 3D program of choice. Typically, you can adjust the sun positioning, angle, brightness, and cloudiness.

Breaking down our 3D scene

Now that we've covered the basics of 3D lighting techniques and light objects, let's break down what I did to I achieve the results from our sci-fi inspired renders.

For this simple setup, the lighting is based on a three-point lighting technique. There is a large "key" light illuminating our subject. This is lighting the majority of our spaceman, along with creating the largest reflection in the helmet.

Next, I've added a large, soft fill light with a red tint set directly behind the camera to fill in the harsh shadows. I then also created a rim light to illuminate the back of our astronaut.


Additionally, I've also added some environment (HDRI) lighting to create some reflections in my scene for added realism. The environment lighting will create some additional reflections on our astronaut's visor and suit. Oftentimes, I will combine environment lighting with standard lights. This allows me to still have control over my main light sources, but get those real-world reflections from the environment map.

You can toggle on environment lighting in Dimension with a single click, and choose from a variety of presets.

Finally, I've added a highly reflective material to the visor of our astronaut, as well as applied some darker plastic materials for the suit. I've also applied some normal maps to all of my objects for added texture, more on normal maps below.

Here is an interactive embed of our scene, for further analysis:

Pro 3D lighting tips

Use clay first

I'm not talking about literal clay. Rather, remove all the materials from your models when setting up your lighting. This will allow you to view the lighting without the distraction of reflections or color. Later, when you are happy with your lighting setup, you can apply your materials to your objects.

Removing materials allows us to see our lighting clearly, without distraction.

Composition is key

The placement of your lights is very important. It's also important to place your objects in a way that will allow you to easily light and manage your scenes. For example, if you want a particular subject in your scene to stand out, you'll need to light them properly and place them in such a way that will naturally lead our eye. Try placing your subjects in areas that are most well-lit, ensuring not to make areas of secondary areas brighter than your subject area. For areas you want to be less distracting, try reducing the light.

Toggle lights one at a time

To get the best idea for where your lights need to be placed, try turning off all of your light sources and only keeping one on at a single time. This will help you understand where you need to make your adjustments to your light placements without the distraction of other light sources.

Be mindful of reflections

The materials you use in a scene can have a big impact on how your lighting reacts. Since some materials absorb light differently, such as metal as opposed to a fine cloth, you'll need to be intentional with your material choices. If you want a lot of reflections in your scene, consider using a lot of materials that are metal or contain a high amount of "roughness" or reflection. Sometimes, adding more reflective material to your scene can increase visual interest simply because of the light bouncing around and off of your reflective surfaces.

Sometimes it also helps to add objects to your scene that will bounce light and add additional reflections. An example of this is adding a floor object in your scene, or setting a "glow" value to objects you've strategically placed in your scene.

Use materials with normal (bump) maps

Another way to add realism and use lighting to its full potential is to create materials that have "normal maps." Normal maps, also referred to as bump maps, contain height information in the form of bitmaps that simulate textures or imperfections on the surface of your object, based on the way that light is hitting your objects. Since all real-world objects contain some sort of imperfections, they are incredibly useful for creating realistic scenes.

An example of a normal map.

Here is a before and after of the same exact shot, with and without the normal map above being applied:

Adobe Stock has some fantastic materials that come pre-made and optimized for Adobe Dimension, with normal map information already included. I highly recommend using materials with bump maps applied over simply using the defaults of whatever 3D program you are using. You can also generate normal maps from images or textures in Photoshop as well. Personally, I find normal maps work best when scaled down, thus increasing the amount of tiled patterns and heightening realism.

Angles matter

Don't place lights directly in front of your subject. Avoid placing your lights in symmetrical positions from one another.  Instead, always tilt them at off-angles or 45-degree angles in relation to your subject. By doing this, you'll avoid "washing out" your objects and allow for more shadows to play in your scene.

The larger the light, the softer the shadows

The larger your light source, the more light will diminish shadows and create a softbox for your subjects. In contrast, using smaller light sources means harsher and more direct shadows. If you are finding your shadows too harsh in your scene, simply enlarge them.

Add color

You don't have to use straight up white light for your scenes. Sometimes, you can bring interest just by adding a color tint to your lights to give it a different feel or that cinematic touch. In most programs, including Dimension, you can change the color of the light source.

Experiment!

Sometimes to get that "perfect" shot you may need to simply play with the lights in your scene. Each object and composition is different, so sometimes you may have to play with your light placements and colors to get the perfect look you want. Don't be afraid to move things around or break the rules.

Note: special thanks to Raoul Marks, Angelo Ferretti, and IUPUI University for the 3D models featured in this article.

July 17, 2020No Comments

Working for enterprises vs. startups: A designer’s playbook

Since 2018, I've been chronicling my journey as a designer, beginning with my design internship here at House of van Schneider. Now, after nearly two years working in an agency, I've grown more confident as a product designer and directly seen the impact I can make on a project. Interestingly, that impact is much different depending on the client.

If you are a designer, you’re most likely working in-house, for a startup, in an agency or as a freelancer. And for those of you just starting your design career, you might be wondering what the differences are between these work environments as you decide where you want to work.

Many designers want to work for an agency at the beginning of their career because it exposes them to a wide range of projects and industries. Here I’ll detail some of my thoughts on the spectrum of work you'll do in this role – and how your impact differs depending on whether your client's an enterprise (a larger, established company) or startup company.

Established processes vs. creating new processes

No matter where you work or who you're working with, you'll quickly learn the agency life revolves around process. It's the regular meetings, specific communication practices with the client and defined timelines that keep the machine moving and the work flowing.

Enterprise: If your client is a larger, more mature company, it will likely already have its own processes in place. For example, one enterprise project I worked on had already defined a thorough process for conducting user testing. The product designer would prepare a prototype and complete a research specification template for the UX researcher, who would conduct user interviews on a specific platform, summarize their findings in a deck, and present the deck to the product designer and team.

Startups: A startup, depending on its stage, might not have a process in place. Recently I worked on a project where we were the first designers to touch the product. In cases like this, it’s important to bring our best practices to the project to help shape it, so we can do the best work possible and provide guidance for the client.

Rigid vs. fluid roadmap

Product roadmaps are a high-level strategic document to help align teams, stakeholders and priorities. Depending on your client, you may be following a structured roadmap or navigating your way through one that's more loosely defined.

Enterprise: Within an enterprise, the product roadmap may be established by management or product owners, and product designers might have little to no influence on shaping the roadmap. Because many teams touch a product, there will be interdependencies; this makes it critical for all teams to adhere to the timeline prescribed in the roadmap. Practically, this means there may be strict deadlines to meet so your work isn’t a blocker for other teams.

Startups: Startups have fewer and smaller teams, or perhaps there isn’t even differentiation between teams within the company. As a result, the roadmap might be more fluid, with the opportunity for a designer at any level to have an influence on the roadmap or timeline. However, because the roadmap is fluid in nature, it may change frequently depending on budget, shifting priorities or investor opinions. So don’t get upset if you spend a month designing a specific feature, only for it to be deprioritized.

Slow and steady vs. busy bee

Businesses are just like school projects; the more people on a team, the longer it takes to get things done.

Enterprise: At bigger businesses, there are more opinions, competing priorities, the usual company politics and processes. This results in a slower pace than that of a startup. Remember, with enterprises, any proposed changes to a product have to be greenlit by the teams it might impact. 

Startups: Startups are able to be more agile because of their size, but this can be a double-edged sword. In cases where a start-up has a short runway, there can be immense pressure on the employees to increase their output so the company doesn't fail. 

User data and feedback

Enterprise: Enterprises are usually of a certain maturity level; they’ve been around the block a few times and have history within their industry. These companies should have data on their user demographics and understand how they use the product. Even better, they have a user research team to handle user testing and data aggregation. Having data to work from is incredibly valuable. It eliminates the guesswork, saving the company time and money.

Startups: On the other hand, a startup in an early stage, without a product on the market, will have no data on their users, what they want or how they will use the product. In fact, they may still be searching to see if there is a product-market fit. For design, it’s difficult to work with a lack of data. Of course, there are general design principles and UX patterns you can follow, but without quantitative data, there will also be a significant amount of guesswork involved. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself having to double back on work once user feedback starts flowing in.

Why work with an enterprise?

The most valuable thing I learned while working with enterprises is how to communicate and collaborate cross-functionally within an organization. This might not be explicitly stated on a job listing, but you can be sure every company will look closely for these soft skills when deciding whether to hire you. It will help you become a designer who others enjoy working with, which can propel your career even more than your technical skills. Through my enterprise clients, I also learned how to cater my design presentations to a wide range of audiences (you won't present to a product manager or engineer the same way you do to another designer).

With an enterprise client, your design work has the potential to make a huge impact. If you help redesign a landing page for a company that operates in multiple countries, your work will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. That’s exciting, and something to be proud of. Just keep in mind that while the potential is great, it will be a large mountain to climb.

Why work with a startup?

Startups test your grit and design competence. You likely won’t have access to the design support you’d find at an enterprise, but you will have an opportunity to take the lead and bring your expertise to the table. Given the high stakes for a fledgling business, you'll likely feel more skin in the game and personal satisfaction from its success. Plus, you’ll have more of what all designers covet – creative freedom. 

Your work for a startup can contribute to its success or failure, which can be thrilling (you may be the only designer on the project, so anything user-facing was created by you!). But due to the fast-paced nature of startups, there’s a chance it could be easily overhauled in a short time frame. 

___

These are of course generalizations based on my personal experience working with these types of companies as an agency designer. It’s completely possible that an enterprise might have no design processes in place, or that a startup doesn’t need much from your design team. Whatever project you work on, take the challenges in stride, and try to capitalize on the unique opportunities you have in your situation. 

July 16, 2020No Comments

Keep this to yourself

You know that one time you stumbled upon that ice cream shop, tucked away on a path you'd just happened to take on a whim? It was the smell that lured you in. That intoxicating scent of sugar and butter that transported you to childhood with a single whiff: waffle cones, made from scratch. You wandered inside, the scene warm and inviting.

For once, you knew exactly what flavor you wanted. The nostalgic decor, the kind face behind the counter, the swirls of creamy color beneath the glass, told you anything you choose can't be wrong; this place seemed to exist solely for your pleasure, conjured up from your own imagination. You floated outside in a reverie, one generously-scooped cone in hand, realizing you'd just experienced something rare and special.

Your first thought? Tell everyone you know about it.

Your second thought? Keep it all to yourself.

It is curious that we enjoy being the first to discover something good and share it with others. Perhaps because it further establishes what we'd like to believe: that we have excellent taste, a singular talent for spotting diamonds in the rough, an eye for quality. Yet at the same time, we have a tendency to hoard our treasures. We are greedy, selfish. We know good things are easily "ruined" once they become popular. So we are torn between the desire to proclaim (and thus claim) our find, and the instinct to squirrel it away.

That ice cream shop, the acorn dropped serendipitously at our feet and stashed deep in the hole of a tree, is the product I want to build.

Something a person feels they are the first to discover. Something they appreciate so much they want to keep it to themselves. A product they inevitably recommend to their closest friends, because despite how much they want to, it's just too good to keep to themselves. (Which is imperative here, lest the company quickly go out of business).

There's a beauty to this intimate word-of-mouth growth strategy. People who discover your product hold it so dearly, they'll whisper it only to those they know will value their recommendation (those most likely to use, appreciate and love your product). And those people will, in turn, do the same.

What follows is a beautiful chain of quality recommendations. People who align so deeply with your product, they ensure the value and existence of it.

The growth of your audience might be slower this way, but it will be far more qualitative – and that much better for the next person who discovers for the first time.

July 15, 2020No Comments

The threatening but beautiful democratization of design

Designers notoriously don’t know what they want. On one hand, we want everyone to understand, appreciate and practice design. On the other, we’re masters in gatekeeping and protecting our trade.

Over the past ten years, design, as an industry and a craft, has gained the recognition it has always been asking for.

Graphic designers have leveled up from "digital artisans" to leaders of successful tech companies. Design, with a capital D, is about more than how it looks, but how it works.

Companies like Apple put Design on the map by embedding it deeply into their product and marketing strategy. "Designing" a business and product experience was once the differentiator. Now it’s expected.

As more companies adopted this approach, the design industry struggled with its newfound attention.

Design-driven became a hip keyword. It was plastered all over our Keynote presentations, meetings and marketing slogans. But it didn't mean anything. Designers vyed for a seat at the table, but didn’t know what to do when we got it. When we finally had the spotlight on us, we forgot our lines, froze on stage.

Over time, though, we got better. We learned to speak the language of business. We infiltrated the largest companies and started many of our own. We navigated the politics and found that seat at the table – at the head of the table, no less.

In our new world, we have both Design, as a philosophy, and design, the execution. We're both thinkers and creators. Design thinking brought a thoughtful process into every aspect of a business, while design as the craft supported it with the technical implementation.

We finally got what we wanted: The democratization of design. But it hasn't quite looked the way we imagined it to.

The democratization of design came in two phases:

1. Design thinking became the new standard. Today, good design is the expectation. We no longer argue the benefits of design, because they’re a given. Many companies might not understand exactly what design is, or what exactly they need, but they still rush to bring designers to the table as early as possible.

2. The demand for design as a service has grown more than ever. Perhaps this came from a deeper understanding of "design thinking,” or simply because we raised our base standard for aesthetics.

"When we can get someone on Fiverr to design our branding for a hundred bucks, why pay thousands of dollars for an expert to spend five weeks doing it?"

Design is now everywhere. We design systems to make design more approachable and affordable for non-designers. We’ve standardized the “craft” of design with new systems, and a new creative class was born on the groundwork we've been laying for years. We’ve worked to educate everyone in our company, from the engineers, the office manager to the salesperson, to become designers themselves. (Because the whole thing with "design thinking" is that it’s supposed to be everybody's business, right?) Both Design and design are now embraced by everyone – not just designers.

But this is where it gets tricky. Because when everyone's a designer, who's a designer?

Our modern design tools signal this new reality:

Canva is one of the largest graphic design platforms, yet most traditional graphic designers haven't heard about it.

Fiverr (perhaps the truest form of design's democratization) is one of the largest creative market places in existence, but anyone with respect for design doesn't approve of it.

Figma is a free design tool in the browser that enables everyone on every computer in any country to start designing, all barriers removed.

Design Pickle (a regrettable name) is similar to Fiverr but helps you find more dedicated designers at a low monthly cost. It's another way of making design more approachable, more affordable for those who may have considered it a luxury before.

Carbonmade (my own company) is a portfolio platform that makes it dead easy for any creative person to design their own website. It's for people who enjoy and appreciate design, but aren't necessarily designers themselves.

And it’s here we see how the democratization of design is a double-edged sword.

The more people with access to design, the more opportunities for everyone. Yet if everybody has access to design, we're making ourselves obsolete as designers. And while the bar has been raised for good design, we’ve simultaneously lowered the value of it.

When we can get someone on Fiverr to design our branding for a hundred bucks, why pay thousands of dollars for an expert to spend five weeks doing it? Why invest the time, money and effort in becoming the best at your craft?

Yet herein lies the beauty as well.

Before we had a 1,000 companies that wanted design, and only 100 who could afford it. Now we have 1 million companies that want design, and 800,000 who can afford it. And there are hordes of designers who want the job.

As we've found a seat at the table, the table has grown. There's still room for everyone; the client who hires on Fiverr or uses Canva isn't going to hire you anyway. And that Fiverr project is their entry point to design. Ultimately they will level up and hire you, but they never would have done it without getting a taste of it somewhere else first.

The democratization of design is threatening only to those who stand still. But it is beautiful for the rest of us who keep pushing forward.

July 13, 2020No Comments

The welcome death of agency speak

By now we should all know phrases like “holistic 360° approach” are tired in this industry. It seems we’ve recycled these agency terms enough, they’ve finally deteriorated. Yet even as old buzzwords die, two new ones pop up like weeds to replace them.

Burned out on the well-intended “storytelling,” we now choose to say “narrative.” And we’ve found new words like “solution” and “enterprise” and “sustainable” and “operationalize” and “bottom line.” Perhaps these terms meant something at some point, but now they don’t say much at all. 

It’s not clear why our industry takes empty words and phrases and runs them to the ground, but I suspect it’s an endless feedback loop. We use these terms while speaking with our clients, and in turn, our clients start talking this way too. They send their RFPs saying they’re looking for scalable solutions that leverage all channels and distribute their content across all mediums to reach a targeted audience and drive conversions, so we promise we’ll do exactly that. We win the business, we’re validated, nobody knows what the hell anybody just said but now we got paid to do it. 

Sometimes it works. We spread some dollars across the standard channels, have a few meetings and get some results that sound impressive in a report at least. And then we turn around and do it all again. Most of the time though, we distract ourselves and our clients with smoke and mirrors to the extent that nobody really knows what’s good or bad, successful or not successful, real or bullshit anymore. It all looks the same.

Imagine if we started talking like normal human beings with our team and our clients. If someone had the nerve to say: “Honestly, what the hell do the clicks on these banner ad even mean? Are people buying and loving your product because of these ads? If not, let’s do something different.”

What if a creative director said to a client: “I don’t have a strategy. I just think it would be fucking cool.”

Picture the heads that would positively spin on shoulders if we admitted, in a stakeholder meeting, “We tanked this quarter. We did a shitty, shitty job. But we have better ideas now.”

Yet we persist in creating the illusion of expertise, intellect and, notably, culture.

These agency marketing ploys have, somehow, managed to hang around for almost a decade:

“We are not just a digital agency. We are family.” 

“We are more than a branding studio. We are storytellers.”

“We’re just a bunch of kids who have no idea what we’re doing. Failure! We celebrate it. We also love dance parties.”

The “hip agency” angle feels like a button some kid pushed on an animatronic baby doll so many times it’s short-circuiting. “Me want ping pong! Me want beer keg!” it proclaims in a robotic voice, legs and arms gyrating mechanically in a dark hallway, reaching for nothing.

I’m all for teamwork, failure and dance parties. Currently, though, it seems like a yawn-worthy tactic to lure new hires. In 2020, trade “beer keg” with “diversity” and “ping pong” with “inclusive” – admirable values, but usually a half-hearted facade in reality.

Of course, some agencies live up to their own hype. The rest though, bury their blandness under ten-dollar words and performative, half-baked blog posts. Get the job and you’ll quickly learn it’s a hair-on-fire, back-stabbing, soul-sucking place to spend the precious 8 hours of your few remaining days.

Here are some fundamental values that will never be tired in this industry or elsewhere:

Honesty - By this I don’t mean simply listing “transparency” as a core value on your website. I mean creating a culture that actually lives up to the smiling faces on your Team page.  I mean having straightforward, no-bullshit conversations between team members and with clients. Every time.

Clarity - Clarity comes naturally with honesty. When you’re not trying so hard to impress, things become a lot more simple. Eliminate the buzzwords and you’ll find yourself saying something both you and your client understand and believe in. It makes everything a whole lot easier. 

Humor - Granted, there are some agencies out there that lean a BIT too heavily on puns. But humor, when done right, is timeless. 

As designers, we perpetuate the cycle just as much as anyone. We love boasting about our design systems and waxing poetic about our workflows. We’re so busy one-upping each other about who’s the most accessible, the most empathetic, it’s a wonder we get any work done.

It may just be human nature, our survival instincts evolving to the modern age. But I feel confident, with just a little effort, we can still do better.

July 10, 2020No Comments

Designing the future of clothing, where extreme functionality & creativity meet

In every good story, the hero takes a journey. In my world, it's the designers turned product founders. The startups grown into multi-million dollar businesses. Or, in this case, the extreme adventurers now designing the future of clothing.

I was first drawn to Vollebak simply for its style. It's the kind of clothing I'd wear every day, although I'm not exactly its target audience.

Steve and Nick Tidball, founders of Vollebak, create high tech clothing meant to withstand the most extreme of circumstances. Before starting the company, the twin brothers competed in ultramarathons through the Namibian desert, the Amazon jungle, the Alps. And they still adventure now, which inspires the outerwear they create.

I talked to Steve and Nick about their unusual creative process, the possibilities of sustainable clothing design and what it looks like to run a clothing brand like a tech brand.

Nick and Steve, founders of Vollebak

"What we saw was this amazing crossover where extreme functionality and the extremes of creativity were impossible to tell apart. And that’s where we realized we should sit."

You’ve experienced your most creative moments at the point of extreme physical and psychological pressure, including a shared hallucination that sparked the idea of Vollebak. Is this a creative process you’d recommend to others?

STEVE: I guess it depends on your capacity for tolerating risk and pain! So when we’re coming up with new ideas so many of them come from being outside in nature running, riding, paddleboarding. I’m a huge fan of the concept of flow, so I deliberately harness this state to come up with most of my ideas. On a practical level that simply means doing the majority of my thinking when I’m out doing sport in nature, or immediately after finishing.

So for example, our Plant and Algae t-shirt is the result of an experience we had competing in a six-day ultramarathon through the Amazon. At the end of the race, a bunch of the runners put their kit into a pile and burnt it as it was covered in a week’s worth of blood and piss and sweat. And we wondered whether instead of burning your clothing at the end of these races, you could simply bury it - so we set out to make a piece of clothing entirely out of natural materials that could be buried in the ground and return to nature once it reached the end of its lifespan.

The Plant and Algae T Shirt, made from pulped eucalyptus and beech from sustainably managed forests, and algae grown in bioreactors.

NICK: For us, the best ideas always come from getting stuck into the reality of a situation and talking it through until you come up with something interesting. But our creative moments also happen in less pressured environments, and outside the world of adventure sport.

One of the moments that proved really influential in creating our design principles was the elBulli exhibition at the Courtauld Institute – as we never got the opportunity to visit the restaurant itself. One of the things that stood out most was a bespoke plate they had created for one of their dishes. It was entirely black and molded with a series of unique oval indentations where the various elements of the dish were intended to sit.

What we were really fascinated by was how in a different context, if you’d been told it was a plate designed for a mission into deep space you would have believed it. What we saw was this amazing crossover where extreme functionality and the extremes of creativity were impossible to tell apart. And that’s where we realized we should sit. Nearly every subsequent aesthetic decision has fallen out of that.

The Deep Sleep Cocoon, built for the first missions to Mars, strips out light like an isolation tank. You can see out, but no one can see in.

Vollebak clothing can withstand fires, water, wind, time – extremes I don’t often find myself in, but I want the clothes nonetheless. Who is this clothing made for?

STEVE: We never set out with an overly-tight target audience in mind. Instead we started out with the question “What happens if we make the world’s most advanced clothing?” The reality is that this approach has been a magnet for people interested in the future.

NICK: We obviously have extreme sports athletes, adventurers and the military. And at the same time, we have a lot of scientists, doctors and entrepreneurs – people who are actively shaping the future in their fields. This has helped us grow incredibly quickly from a brand that started with just two pieces of clothing four years ago, to one where you can kit yourself out for most adventures anywhere on Earth.

Thhe Full Metal Jacket, disease-resistant clothing built with 65% copper.

My own products are geared toward a very niche group of people within an already niche market. And I’m happy staying there rather than going for the largest reach possible. I gather you think the same way?

STEVE: Before 2020 lots of our clothing had been adopted by people who seek out risk for fun – which is definitely a relatively small subset of people.

But what’s interesting now is that we can see the world becoming increasingly unpredictable, from disasters like flooding, wildfires and full-scale pandemics. And 2020 has shown that these really significant risks are now being faced by everyone. So I think what was once relatively niche might very soon not be.

NICK: If you’d asked people six months ago “How do you dress for a life and death situation?” you’d probably have been met with a lot of confused faces. But now, whether you’re seven years old or 70, you could probably debate the relative merits of covering your nose and mouth with a makeshift cotton bandana, wearing a homemade Perspex face shield, or leaving your house in a full hazmat suit.

So as we enter a new era of disease, the Earth heats up, and people of all ages are exposed to risk, gear like our Full Metal Jacket – which is our first step toward disease-resistant clothing – has much wider potential.

As far as I know, you don’t have a background in technology or science. How do you go about brainstorming and creating this clothing? Are you collaborating with scientists as well as fashion designers?

STEVE: Before launching Vollebak, we’d worked together in advertising for 15 years helping creative direct some of the world’s biggest brands like Adidas and Airbnb. So we took our experience from there to build our own brand. From the outside, we could see an industry that was fighting wars overpricing, trends and consumer eyeballs. But we couldn’t see the same level of competition around true innovation or ideas. And our background was in ideas.

NICK: When it comes to development, quantum leaps in technology are required for a lot of our gear, and it can take up to four years to find the partners we need and evolve the technology. We work very closely with partners who are also interested in exploring what the future of materials and clothing will hold. But they can come from extremely disparate fields, all the way from academic research, to fabric mills to military psychologists.

"I don’t know if anyone has ever put a camel in a lab before. But with our method, we don’t need to."

I know your clothing is inherently more sustainable than the standard, throwaway athletic clothing, and you’ve explored environmental friendliness even further with the Plant and Algae t-shirt. But when you’re working with extremely high-tech materials, it seems like you can only take sustainability so far. Do you see a future where you can create sustainably without sacrificing quality?

STEVE: So we have to explore advanced materials and sustainability at the same time – because the future will be built around both. And they may well collide at some point down the line.

Interestingly we don’t view sustainability as an advancement. 5,000 years ago humanity already had sustainable clothing. Otzi man was dug up wearing deer skin, grass and tree bark. His clothes were made entirely out of nature and would simply return to nature when he died.

So in terms of making sustainable clothing, we have some way to go just to catch up with where we’ve already been as a species.

NICK: My feeling is that with the rise of biomaterials, and fabrics that you will be able to grow in a lab, that ultimately the most advanced materials will also become the most sustainable. We might just be looking at a 50-year timeline before we get there.

The Black Squid Jacket, a waterproof and windproof outer shell that mimics the adaptive camouflage of a squid.

You like to ship your products early to get feedback early and iterate from there. Is there ever a battle with perfectionism and doubt at this stage, or is taking that risk another adrenaline rush for you?

STEVE: A lot of the ways we operate make us more like a technology brand than a clothing brand. In tech, you can either be late or early. To be late you’d stay in the lab for the next decade until you’d perfected lightweight armor made from graphene. To be early, you’d put an experimental prototype out into the world and harness the collective testing power of early adopters to improve and iterate.

So we open up our R&D process to our customers and to the outdoors, in order to accelerate their innovation and discovery. By taking these materials out of the research labs and into the field, we see our gear tested in the extreme scenarios for which they’re designed, and in some of the most remote parts of the world. And we’re comfortable with the process because it leads to excellent discoveries. For example, if we hadn’t released early, we might not have discovered that our Graphene Jacket could be used as a life-saving solar panel, or that you could strap it to a camel’s belly to absorb heat.

I don’t know if anyone has ever put a camel in a lab before. But with our method, we don’t need to!

NICK: Even for our first iterations, the process of building our gear is an exercise in no-expense-spared craftsmanship. While your idea is important, your execution is everything. A good idea executed badly is almost worthless. So we will only ever put something out into the world that people can see has had time, attention and love poured into it. While we come up with new ideas every day, very few are ever launched, and every piece takes between one and five years to make.

Adventurer Nikita Gushchin used the Graphene Jacket as a life-saving heat source when lost in the Nepalese mountains overnight.

You’re both into extremes when it comes to the outdoors, pushing your body and just general adventure. I sense it’s either all or nothing for most things you do. Does this apply to other places in your life/work?

STEVE: I would definitely agree that we don’t half do things. So even when I was told I had about 30 minutes left to live if I didn’t stop running an ultramarathon across the Namibian desert, I took about 5 hours out, then rejoined the race. Now I’m well aware that’s not normal decision making! And I suspect we do a lot of that in normal life too.

NICK: We definitely commit when we decide to do something. But we look at everything pretty simply, which is: When you’re 80 and you’re looking back at what you did, are you going to remember it? And are you going to be proud you did it? If the answer is no to either of those questions then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

The 100 Year Hoodie, a waterproof, fireproof, windproof hoodie.

I’ve found once you’re running a company based on what you love, you eventually find it harder to make time for doing what you love. How do you run a business and also make time for the adventure/life experiences that fuel it?

STEVE: Nick and I are very hands-on. Having spent 15 years as a copywriter I write every word we put out. I can’t ever imagine leaving this to someone else. But as ideas are at the center of our business, we try and spend as much time as possible doing the stuff that generates those concepts. So we always find time to run, ride, surf, ski, climb, kayak, paddleboard.

NICK: There’s a saying about how you should meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy, in which case you should meditate for an hour. That’s what we do with sport. The more we know we have to get done, the more sport we’ll do as it keeps our brains wired.

I know Vollebak has been compared to Tesla, and I’m a big fan of Tesla myself – but despite how advanced and futuristic its cars may be, they still look like... cars. Do you envision, or see a need for, a piece of clothing that might not even look like clothing? Or something so futuristic we can’t yet understand or see the need for it?

NICK: My gut is that Elon is only just getting started. Typically the things people like that are putting out into the world, are five years behind the stuff they’re thinking about in their heads. We’re the same.

STEVE: I think over the next decade and beyond our fundamental understanding of what clothing is, and what it is there to do, will shift. I think we will look back and laugh at how basic it is today. It won’t make sense that it just sat there on your skin doing nothing other than keeping you warm!

"I think I’ll just continue to be most excited about whatever it is I come up with that morning."

You built a product you wanted to use yourself. I’ve found that’s the best way to begin. What do you want or need now that doesn’t exist yet, whether that’s clothing, tech or something else?

STEVE: I would quite like to be able to clone myself to double my output. Or at least create a digital version of my mind so it can be working on problems while I’m sleeping.

NICK: I think I’d like a Boston Dynamics robot to ride around London. And a few pet ones for my children to ride.

The 100 Year Pants, built to withstand fire, nature, water and time.

Any new pieces coming out from Vollebak we should know about, or pieces you’re dreaming to create but haven’t yet?

STEVE: We’ll continue to look at intelligent clothing from two angles. We have to build the base conditions – looking at advanced conductive fabric like graphene and copper. And at the same time we’re working on "the intelligence" itself – so what it is that we want to gather and why.

NICK: I think I’ll just continue to be most excited about whatever it is I come up with that morning. Most of the time I don’t know what that’s going to be until it just appears. The only real limit we face is, can that thing be physically built today? Is the technology ready? Because it’s always far easier to simply think of something than it is to build it. But that’s the fun – marrying those two worlds.

July 6, 2020No Comments

Writing UX copy for buttons and links

This is an excerpt from our upcoming UX Writing book, exploring how we (as designers and copywriters) can write copy that helps people use and love our products. Sign up for book updates here

It’s widely known at this point that people don’t read, they scan. That makes your button and link text, in some cases, even more important than your body copy.

We have been trained to look for the Next button, click the Accept button or tap “Next” instead of reading introductory text. Our eyes go straight to the CTAs.

So your link or button copy serves two purposes: To set the user’s expectations and propel them forward. Meaning, one or two words can make or break your product experience.

First, the difference between buttons and links:

Buttons are generally used for the most important actions we take on your site or within your product. Think: clicking “Buy Now,” adding an item to our cart, completing a purchase.

You will also likely use buttons rather than links when guiding your user through a series of steps to complete a task, i.e. a “Next” button in a survey.

Links are typically used within body text as a soft CTA. You’d include a link within an article to link to other content. While buttons signal an important action, links encourage browsing.

Your copy may change slightly depending on whether you’re writing for a link or button.

Button copy should match the action

Your button should always clearly describe what action the user takes when they click it.

When they’re moving to the next step: “Continue”
When they’re completing payment: “Complete payment”
When they’re signing up: “Sign Up”

You get the idea. If someone is surprised by the result after clicking a button, it’s your copy’s fault.

That said, subtle differences in word choice can have an impact

A friend of mine working on an adventure resort website was tasked with increasing online conversions for trip estimates. After years using “Request pricing” for the button text, they A/B tested it with the text, “Get a quote.” The second option won by a landslide. Their theory: The word “pricing” seemed like a harder commitment. Getting a quote, on the other hand, felt less intimidating. They changed the button text and conversions skyrocketed.

Both “Request pricing” and “Get a quote” describe the action. They are both technically correct, in terms of best practice. But the second variation got more clicks.

If you’re focused on a specific conversion, it’s worth testing different copy for your CTA. You’ll never know if “Sign up” or “Create an account” (both of which say the same thing) perform better for your audience until you try both.

Just be careful to not get too clever. “Join us” is vague, and potentially confusing, compared to the straightforward “Sign up.”

Link copy can be more ambiguous

Since we’re not usually committing to anything or changing our experience in any significant way when clicking a link, the stakes are lower. You have more room here, both in length and tone, to be playful and exercise your brand voice.

However, descriptive, clear copy usually wins here too.

Your link could read simply, “Download the guide” or it could say more descriptively, “Download the quick start guide for easy set-up.” If I were scanning, I’d know immediately what the latter leads me to. Otherwise, I might have to read the surrounding text for context first.

Beware the “Learn More” trap

The classic “Learn More” button text is a cop-out I’m guilty of using myself (on this blog, even) with both links and buttons. Sometimes, it does the job. Most of the time, though, we can do better.

Take our Studio edition page for Semplice.com, for example. Most features link to their own sub-page, and we could have easily slapped “Learn More” or "Buy Now" on these buttons like we do elsewhere. Instead, we use the buttons almost as supporting text for body copy. Buttons like:

See all Grids
View Demos
Get Studio
See How it Works

Every button aims to play off the body copy above it. We’re not getting poetic or using puns, mind you. The text is still plain and clear, describing the action and setting expectations. Yet we’re using the buttons to build on the story and push the user forward.

Buttons & help text: The perfect pairing

Think about how your user feels and what they know or don’t know when clicking your button. Are they about to spend their money? Are they sharing their personal information? Are they wondering how much longer this will take?

The copy preceding your button should answer any questions they may have, but in some cases, help text can validate their decision, alleviate any concerns and give that final push they need to click.

With a short sentence beneath your button, you can assure them their payment is secure, their information won’t be shared, or that they’re about to make a great decision.

Airbnb knows its users are making a relatively big commitment when booking a place to stay. They understand you may be weighing options before you book. So, assuming the user may hesitate over that “Reserve” button, they assure you beneath that you won’t be charged yet.

Experian knows its customers worry that checking their credit score hurts their credit, so they explain with their button help text that it doesn't. The New Yorker knows you've been burned by subscriptions in the past, so they write "cancel anytime" below their subscribe button. It's here, with your buttons, that empathy (a word designers love to throw around) comes into practice. By thinking about how your user may feel when deciding whether to click your button, you can write copy that ensures they do.

This is another place your voice can come into play. Just make sure your message clarifies and supports, rather than distracting or adding complexity.

__

For more about writing microcopy:

→ Best practices for UX copywriting
Content or design first?
How to write marketing copy that isn't cringey
Finding your brand voice
How to write UX copy that makes your product a joy to use
How to write concisely

July 1, 2020No Comments

Monthly portfolio inspiration of June 2020

Once a week, we select two portfolios created with Semplice to feature in our Best Of  Showcase.  Here we've collected our favorites from the month of June.

It's been an inspiring month for sure. We've seen creative studios, art directors, illustrators and more all using Semplice to build the portfolio site of their dreams.

We're exciting to bring you yet another treasure trove of hand-picked portfolios. Enjoy!

Browse the best portfolios of the month below to see fresh new work and get inspired for your own site. And if you've created your own portfolio with Semplice, be sure to submit it to our Showcase here. We might feature your site next.

 

Ayaka Ito

Lebassis

Adi Constantin

Panoply

Yu Rong

KORRELAT

Dos Decadatres

 

To see more great design portfolios, visit the Semplice showcase. I'll be back next month with more of our monthly favorites!

Header image by Panoply

June 29, 2020No Comments

My new social platform of choice

I never thought I’d say this, but lately I’ve been enjoying LinkedIn.

Designers have historically scoffed at LinkedIn. I steered clear of it for the same reason I avoid conferences and networking events: I figured anyone there was the stuffy corporate type, trading business cards and buzzwords in ill-fitting suits.

And maybe that was true for a time. But recently, it’s changed.

Just look at the comments sections on LinkedIn posts, where most conversations take place. Compared to every other social network, I see fewer pile-ons or one-upping. I see less posturing and performing. A refreshing absence of long, rabid rants. Zero trolls or bots. It is, somehow, pure.

With exceptions, LinkedIn is starting to feel like Twitter did ten years ago. People aren’t trying so hard. They seem less jaded, more positive. They’re surprisingly engaged.

In 2020, LinkedIn has become the most wholesome social network.

In the early days of Twitter, we didn’t take ourselves so seriously. We were curious, we tried to be funny, and we didn’t worry so much about how we’d be perceived. We just shared what was on our minds, however trivial it may have been.

Scroll deep to someone’s timeline from say, 2009, and you’ll find one-liners like, “Just made some bomb tacos.” Now we’ve gotta have a punchline and get 30k retweets, or we’ve failed. We’d better make our stance known on political issues, or we’re doing it wrong. If I see two people on Twitter today having a positive, genuine one-on-one conversation, it feels almost embarrassing. Twitter’s not the place for sincerity. It’s a place to loudly state your opinion or promote your brand.

LinkedIn today has the innocence I miss from the early days of social media. Perhaps it’s because the platform is still fairly limited. It’s not as easy to jump into a conversation you have no place jumping into. Most of us are “connected” with a relatively small circle of people within a fairly closed-in network. I don’t sense an overreaching algorithm fucking with my sense of time and reality, or intrusive ads disrupting my feed.

Which is not to say it’s perfect. The UI is dismal, and I completely ignore notifications and “recent” posts, which read like spam whether they are or not. I often post my articles and peace out, engaging only when someone chooses to engage with me. Yet I keep coming back.

Maybe we’re all looking for an escape from the negativity of Twitter and the mindlessness of Instagram. Maybe LinkedIn HQ will catch on and learn how to take advantage of its users’ information, maximize engagement and become another platform we hate ourselves for using. Maybe the trolls will discover this little hidden gem and destroy it. We’ll see, and probably soon.

Until then, I look forward to connecting with you.

June 23, 2020No Comments

Design in Egypt 🇪🇬 featuring Engy Aly

Our latest addition to the Design Around the World series takes us somewhere we've wanted to explore for a while now: Egypt.

I found no shortage of talent when researching designers and studios in Egypt. Engy Aly's name came up more than once. The Cairo-based graphic designer was thankfully willing to talk with us, and so we did: About the overwhelming commerciality of visual culture in Cairo, about the quality of design education, using social media as a Cairene woman and more.

Hey Engy, thanks for doing this with us. First, tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into design and what kind of work do you do? 

Thank you for inviting me to do this interview! Well, I’m 37, born and raised in Cairo. I live and work in my home and studio in Heliopolis, north-east of the city. I don’t separate much between life and work so I work in the main living space of the apartment – close to the coffee and the kitchen! 

Growing up I’ve always had an interest in visual culture. My parents both studied art and work in architecture and interior design; they have a small studio together. I grew up surrounded by drafting tables, architecture tools, airbrushes and Letraset sheets, a tool I am still especially fond of and work with frequently in my independent project, Life Diagrams. My mum also worked with stained glass for some time. Working with our hands is something we both enjoy a lot.

I first studied graphic design in Cairo, in the early noughties (the early 2000s) at a then newly established design program. After graduation, I mostly worked in "fileclub," an influential and one of the few experimental design studios that existed in Cairo at the time. Sadly they closed around 2009, which is coincidentally also the year I started to work independently. Seven years ago, I felt the need to get out of the city and to go back to school, so I went for an MFA (now MDES) at the Basel School of Design in Basel, a city rich in art and design institutions and museums. 

Most of the projects I work on are related to arts and culture, although sometimes I also do some branding work. The past three years I have primarily focused on artist books and publications, partially because more and more artists are interested in using books as a medium. I also love teaching because it is a constant and mutual process of learning and unlearning. I’ve taught different classes at the American University in Cairo as well as sitting on various student thesis presentations and juries in other institutions. Finally, recognizing the pressing need for establishing platforms where a discourse around design can be expressed, I have also started initiating and organizing curatorial design projects. 

Engy in her studio

Cairo is considered the center of Egypt’s culture and politics. Have you found a community of likeminded creatives there? Do many platforms and events exist in Cairo / Egypt overall that connect you with other designers?

Cairo is the center of the “battlefield,” true! The city is composed of many different groups and subcultures with different, sometimes intersecting, interests. I can’t say I have a large network of fellow designers that I talk to on a regular basis, but I do have a local circle of “creatives” (I’m not so fond of this word) – artists, writers, designers, makers and educators that I am close to. Unfortunately I don’t spend as much time as I would like to with many of them, because I’m a bit of a house potato. 

Platforms are slowly but surely developing. Some might be too commercial for my taste and sadly a couple of the new platforms are completely male-dominated. There is a lack of independent, free-form, non-institutional, experimental constellations which is why I initiated ‘Sporadic Schooling,’ a long term program of happenings that has unfortunately been put on hold because of the pandemic. ‘Sporadic Schooling’ is a pedagogical tool that focuses on developing new models of knowledge production and sharing, by inviting top practitioners in the fields of design, critical theory and museum practice to develop open formats informed by their experiences and perspectives. I look forward to picking it up again when things are more stable.

"Real estate billboards constantly suggest that you are not supposed to feel you are in Cairo anymore. You are now in Paris, in Beverly Hills, on a Greek island."

Mini visual identity for ‘Photomarathon 2019’, Alexandria 15.11. Collaboration with the Luca Schenardi – lucaschenardi.ch

Egyptians are considered the originators of “visual communication design,” from hieroglyphics to the invention of paper to the first use of grids. And I’ve heard the streets of Cairo are vibrant with posters mixed with hand-painted lettering, murals, tiles and colors.

How would you describe the design you see coming from Egypt today? Is it influenced by your culture/history/environment in any way?

Actually the vibrancy and diversity of public visual culture, as well as the sheer quantity of non-commercial visual material, have shrunk significantly over the past few years. It’s not that easy to hang posters on the street anymore. Most institutions are veering toward online posts for announcements of events, since the virtual space offers more safety. This, for me, has also changed my emotional connection to the city. My essay, "The Gradual Disappearance," which I wrote as an introduction to the publication "Delusions and Errors," (2017) discusses this issue. 

A large portion of the city’s visual production is commercial advertisement, mostly for real estate developments on the outskirts of the city, and most of these are, frankly, hideous! These advertisements try to speak in a visual language that is intentionally elitist and projects an idealized image of a certain lifestyle as a selling point. Real estate billboards constantly suggest that you are not supposed to feel you are in Cairo anymore. You are now in Paris, in Beverly Hills, on a Greek island. I find this meeting between a perverse concept and the use of a generic visual material grotesque. These are the visuals one actually sees on a daily basis driving around. But on the other hand, there are many designers who do marvelous work, whether in the cultural sector (which is the sector more open to experimentation), the independent scene, or even some entrepreneurial projects that rely on branding, both online and in print.  

A large portion of the visual production is influenced by Western design, I think because material, tutorials and other resources are more abundant and accessible. But a lot of new local projects are based on cultural research and are trying to connect more with local material and the surrounding environment. 

Vector Walla Raster, 2017

Cairo is home to Al-Azhar University, the world's second-oldest institution of higher learning, and has the largest number of schools and universities in Egypt. What is the quality of design education like in Egypt? Do most designers seek a formal degree, or are many self-taught?

I have to say I do not find the history of Al-Azhar to be relevant to this topic.

Design education here is still somewhat limited but is developing quite rapidly, although I think not fast enough to accommodate the rising number of design enthusiasts.

Both public and private design programs exist, but they offer a different perspective on design education. Although some of these programs are a bit conservative in their educational approach, many of the students find their own way and their own paths to self-development. Many good designers are self-taught or have come to design from a different career. I have only worked in the private universities, so I’m not that well informed with what the public ones currently offer. But a conversation between both sectors is much needed. 

AN ANTHOLOGY OF PUBLISHED & UNPUBLISHED WRITINGS BY HASSAN KHAN. With Annotations by the Author 1993 to 2018. Ed. by Philippe Pirotte. Text by Hassan Khan & Philippe Pirotte. London 2019. 17 x 24 cm. 288 Pages.

Thanks to the internet (and now with the pandemic on top), many designers are working for clients overseas remotely. How is it for you? Do you work mostly with local or overseas clients, or is it a mix?

I have mostly been working with a constellation of people from different places and backgrounds – for example a typical project could involve an Egyptian artist, a German museum, an Italian publisher and a Swiss printer all together. So we work in a diverse team that is located in at least two countries, two time zones. It’s great, though it means I work a lot of weekends. Between the local weekend and the European weekend, I end up working all the time! But I enjoy this open and rich connection. The challenge is usually production; I cannot always fly to see the work getting printed and I miss that somehow, being present for the production. But it ultimately works out. I’ve also done some work in the U.S. and a lot of work for Cairo-based individuals and institutions. 

Engy's workspace

What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?

I’m not sure. As a Cairene female, you encounter constant harassment both in daily life and virtually, so I've decided to keep my main Instagram account private – to avoid attracting a lot of trolls.

Most of the work I get is based on clients coming across my work in person and being interested. I do not depend on my online presence, and maybe that’s why my website has been a work in progress for over ten years now (facepalm)!

"Our society is complex, layered and diverse, and real transformation has to be driven by changes in the whole structure."

A piece from Engy's "Life Diagrams" series titled "The long and utterly nonsensical wait for the world to change."

What does good design mean to you, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole?  For example, I’ve read women’s rights are a big challenge in Cairo/Egypt (like many places in the world). Does design have a place in that conversation?

I don’t believe good or bad design can have an actually large impact on the country. Our society is complex, layered and diverse, and real transformation has to be driven by changes in the whole structure. 

Women are quite present in design education, and I am quite happy with that. The TYPE Lab for example is a project initiated by women educators and hosts and highlights the role of women in type design and typography. There is a strong female presence in academia.

Visual for Sporadic Schooling: Experimental Type Design Workshop, 2020

Sustainable design is increasingly a conversation in the design community. I know Cairo struggles with air and water pollution, due to the high density of people. Is environmentally conscious design an interest for designers in Cairo right now? 

Yes, it is. But primarily in product design rather than in printed media. 

Publication design, Noor Abu Arafeh: Rumors Began Sometime Ago, 2018

In your opinion, who are some of the top design studios or designers from Cairo/Egypt we should know about?

I am not comfortable making a list of "top" designers. I would rather make a non-comprehensive list, in no particular order, of interesting visual practitioners that are part of my scene. Here are some of the people whose work I enjoy a lot:

Nora Aly
Ahmed Hammoud (sometimes Nora and Hammoud work collaboratively)
Salma Shamel
Ramses Wissa Wassef produces amazing scenic tapestry that you could stare at for hours
Nelly El Sharkawy
Mostafa Youssef
Walid Taher

And platforms like:

AUC Type Lab
Cairobserver
100 BAP
The Archilogue 

Some of the students that I have previously taught produce very admirable and bold work, including: Tasneem Tawheed, Salma El Kafrawy and many, many more.

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Thanks so much for keeping it real with us, Engy! We learned a lot through this conversation and will be following to see how the visual culture, education and design continues to evolve in Egypt.

June 23, 2020No Comments

Skeuomorphism is making a comeback

I've said it many times over the last few years. But today with even more certainty, I'll say it again: skeuomorphism is coming back.

For the reader who isn't deep into the design industry’s nonsensical terms, a quick summary:

Skeuomorphism is a term used in UI design to describe interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts, complete with hyperrealistic shading and depth. A well-known example is the recycling bin icon used for discarding files. 

The antithesis of skeuomorphism is “flat design,” which has reigned for the last few years. It’s exactly what it seems: Minimalistic, one-dimensional flat shapes meant to be clean and simple.

Both skeuomorphism and flat design have been the center of many heated arguments within the digital design community. If you're not part of this exclusive club, you have to understand that the noise is coming largely from a small group of people with firmly held religious design beliefs. According to them, there is only *one* way to design something. And you'll find those people on both sides of the argument.

But why do I believe skeuomorphism is coming back?

It's how trend circles work

We're humans and we get bored easily. Seeing one thing too long, we want the other back again. Look at fashion: Ripped jeans are in high demand one year and out of style the next. Our trends and taste constantly change, but they move in a circle. This is true for digital design, for fashion, architecture and even food.

Digital design is still young, but we’re starting to see the trends repeating themselves. The internet started out mostly flat. That was due to the technical limitations of computers at the time, and limited capability for imagination. The bare essentials were designed by engineers out of necessity, not because they had a grand visual vision.

Everything was new, so we needed an easy way to assign meaning and help people navigate this unfamiliar territory. And Skeuomorphism was born. 

First, we borrowed symbolism from the real world to explain virtual actions. Deleting something meant adding it to the trash bin. Saving something meant clicking on the little floppy disc. To take a note, I click on the icon that looks like an analog notepad.

From there, we started getting more creative. We went to painstaking lengths to make those symbols and the surrounding UI appear “real.” Digital artists took pride in using textures and lightning to create some of the most inspiring icons and UIs I've ever seen. What followed was leather-bound note-taking apps and calendars apps that simulated a ripped paper effect when you canceled an event.

The UI felt busy, yes. But it also felt warm, friendly, human. We simply had more pixels to attach our emotions to.  As you flicked through the carefully crafted paper turn animations in apps like Paper from 53, you felt creatively stirred. The UI was more than just how it works, it was how it made you feel.

But then, everything changed.

A shift in trends usually happens for two reasons:

  1. We become tired of what we’ve been doing. We start looking for something that feels fresh and new. Multiple movements compete for attention, and eventually a new style creeps in and becomes the norm.
  2. A more influential body makes the decision for us. Most designers are not trendsetters, they're followers. So if Apple or another influential platform decides *this* is the new style going forward, most of us will just follow.

Flat design took over as we became increasingly bored and overwhelmed by the hyper-realistic skeuomorphic world we’d locked ourselves into.

That and, flat design is *much* easier to get into. The hard skills you needed to enter the world of skeuomorphism were high. Flat design required less effort and way fewer software skills, both for designers and engineers. It was the beginning of "The UX designer who doesn't design” era.

Flat design also made more sense. A couple decades into "the internet," we didn’t need skeuomorphic symbolism to help us understand how software works. It simply wasn't necessary anymore. As we optimized our software, we also optimized our way of working with it. We streamlined our workflow, got rid of the clutter and continued to simplify.

For Apple, flat design was a way to enforce simple rules throughout their ecosystem. Apple loves to keep things consistent. Every design decision a developer makes with their app reflects either positively or negatively on the overall experience of the iPhone. It is in Apple's interest to make every app look and work as closely as their own, both from a visual and a UX perspective. If this is a good or bad thing for the diversity of design, I'll let you be the judge of that.

Flat design served as some sort of reset for Apple and their platform. What was once a colorful and messy garden of glossy icons and textures, a playground of user interactions, became a clean, streamlined system.

Fast forward a couple of years, to today.

We've learned and we've grown. Even our grandmothers know how to use an iPad. We've established standardized frameworks and default interactions. We've optimized our systems so much, we can build an app over a weekend. 

But something is missing in these modern UIs. They're clean. They're streamlined. They're optimized for productivity and speed. But they’ve lost their soul. Our apps and interfaces have all started look the same and feel the same. Even the icons blend together on our screens. People feed off visual stimuli, and the visual world online has become less and less stimulating with each year. And so we’re gravitating toward something new.

Today we're slowly moving toward skeuomorphism again because it gives us that emotional feeling we're longing for. As Diana Vreeland said beautifully: "The eye has to travel.” Babies love to play with visual, vibrant objects because it fully engages their brains. Grown-ups aren't much different.