What led you into design?
I think I’ve always been interested in design, but I just didn’t always realize it. I grew up in a small town in the UK and used to spend hours drawing as a child. As I got older I remember wanting these drawings to actually do something. I started adding on video game overlays to them, drawing little non-working interfaces in pencil.
My older brother was always into technology and taught himself to code when he was young. So I think he got me interested in computers at a young age. When I was around 12 or 13, I got really into Flash and started making animations and imaginary websites. I made-up a company I called Zoom Active and developed an elaborate Flash website for it, which involved a UFO flying through a house and exploding to reveal the ‘client portfolio’.
Even though I was making pretend agency websites and user interfaces, it somehow never clicked that this could be a profession for me, I was just doing that stuff for fun. I took a career guidance quiz at school, and it suggested I be a ‘van driver’.
Other than the quiz, I didn’t have access to much career guidance; studying seemed so abstract and I didn’t really make a connection between class and a future job at all. I ended up dropping out of school and working full-time in a pub—and not a quaint one; it was part of a chain; the type where the burgers are microwaved and no one tips. After a long shift, I’d go home and make music with friends, and that kept me going.
I worked in a pub for a couple of years before I got a job at a local insurance company in the claims department. I’d spend all day on the phone to policyholders, other insurers, lawyers, and repairing garages trying to solve problems. In moments it was satisfying, but overall relatively soul destroying for me.
I didn’t really know where to go from there, I just knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. All I could think to do was take the things I enjoyed at the time, which was music and computers, and start a business out of them. The idea started out with me building custom P.C.’s for music studios (something which I had never done and did not know how to do) and morphed into me consulting with schools and colleges and trying to sell them computer-based music equipment. It was a slow start and I still needed to make money, so I got a job at B&Q (the English equivalent of Home Depot). I was on the morning stock team, so I’d start at 5am and finish around 12, then after my shift, I’d go home and spend the rest of the day working on my business. It was hard, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know... which was a lot.
The one thing I did know, was that there was something about piecing together a company which I enjoyed. Designing the website and the marketing material, coming up with marketing campaigns, moulding the outward perception of an entity. That I liked. At this point, I’d also seen my first real glimpse of ‘professional’ graphic design when my brother put me in touch with a freelance designer to help me with my company logo. Seeing a designer in action made it so real for me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s what I should be doing.
At that point, I decided to pack up work on the business, and go back to study design. As I’d dropped out of school I’d have to submit a portfolio of work in lieu of actual grades. So I threw in all the stuff I designed for the business, scrolled around deviant art to see what people were making, and did a bunch of self-initiated projects to fill out my portfolio. It wasn’t pretty, but they let me in.
I was relieved to find that studying design felt natural to me, and I felt at home being surrounded by it. It just seemed to click with all my natural instincts, and I wanted to spend all my time immersed in it. Through my studies I also got an ongoing gig with a new local fine art photography gallery, designing their identity and working on ongoing promotional materials. And then through that gallery I got a ‘proper’ job at a local business consultancy that was working with them and happened to be starting a creative arm to service their clients. This gave me a taste of design outside of class, and let me learn pretty early on that the hardest part of most projects is actually developing and managing a successful relationship with the client.
Towards the end of my studies, I worked on a brief for book publishers Taschen via D&AD. It was designing an iPad App for its monthly magazine/catalog. I was excited to work on it because there were so few designers designing for the iPad as it was still so new, it felt like the future, and a smart bet for my portfolio. I regularly worked through the night with a couple of the other students and had heated altercations with campus security who’d come by at 8pm to try and throw us out of the studio. Amazingly the work paid off and I won a Wooden Pencil at the D&AD New Blood Awards. Excited and ready for the spoils of being an award-winning designer, I was met with a deflating silence.
A few weeks later, I was setting up a new portfolio site on Behance, when I needed a sixth project to upload to make sure I had a nice symmetrical grid of rectangles, so I thought I may as well put the iPad work online. Shortly after uploading the work, it was spotted by a startup in New York who were building a software product for the iPad. We worked on a project together remotely, and shortly after they offered me a job as a lead designer. I said yes, we did the visa paperwork, and I flew out there with a medium-sized suitcase to start a new life.
After a couple of years with them, I went on to work at a few other startups in the city, before starting my own design practice in 2015, co-founding Offhours with my wife Rebecca Zhou, and starting CPGD with Jessica Sheft-Ason.
What does a typical day look like?
On a good day, I normally get up around 8am, go to the gym, gulp down a smoothie, meditate, and walk down to my studio with my dog Chino at some time around 10 or 11 am depending on how distracted I get. Luckily I’m only a short walk away so it’s a pretty short stroll to get over there.
Once I’m in the studio I fire up a chamomile tea and deal with the most pressing matters first if I’m working on a project. I only work on one client project at a time, and normally take a little time off in between them. If I haven’t got client work on, I’ll be working on something for Offhours, or working on a new side project of some description.
I normally finish up at the studio at about 7pm on most days.
What’s your workstation setup?
Where do you go to get inspired?
I think I'm most inspired by scale, and being made to feel small in comparison; architecture, history, learning about movements and people trying to do something big and ambitious.
What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?
Seed.com - I’m a big fan of both the digital and physical products they produce. The digital experience is beautifully crafted and educational, and the physical product is thoughtful, sustainable, and packaged with mycelium mushroom
What pieces of work are you most proud of?
OFFHOURS - While it’s not necessarily the most boundary-pushing visually, it is the most holistic work I’ve ever done; I co-created the physical product with Rebecca (my wife/co-founder), designed the identity, packaging, wrote all the copy, commissioned artists, etc. It’s just very all-encompassing work that we put our heart and soul into.
What design challenges do you face at your company?
I think the toughest challenges I face are ethical ones. Balancing the flow of client work whilst trying to put my energy towards only companies that are putting something good into the world. There’s a lot of waste being created, and just because it has a nice typeface on it doesn’t make it OK. So being conscious of where I put my time and energy is top of mind. Making the right decisions for our planet when they aren’t necessarily easy or cheap ones, but endeavoring to do it however and wherever possible.
What music do you listen to whilst designing?
Any advice for ambitious designers?
Definitely, a few things:
If you’re lucky enough to find a job you enjoy while you're doing it (not for what it will get you), hang on to it, and be grateful, because you’re one of a small group of people in the world who’s managed to discover that for themselves.
Having said that, just because you enjoy what you do (or even if you don’t), doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be compensated fairly. Most young designers do not charge enough for their services. If you’re young and freelance, here’s a good tip for working out what to charge, have a think about what feels right to you and what would you’d be comfortable asking for, then double it. And you’re probably still too cheap. You can always reduce your rates if you struggle to get work, but I see far more people undervaluing themselves than I do the opposite. And on the subject of money, and I cannot stress this enough, do not be afraid to talk about money. Do not be afraid to ask about budgets, and do not be afraid to tell people what you charge in the first conversation with confidence. If you’re a commercial designer, that’s part of the job. You're wasting everyone’s time by being too afraid to talk about money upfront. Lastly, always ask for a percentage deposit, and never start work until the money is in your account.
Cut right to the heart of your design projects, always ask yourself why you’re doing something, or better yet why your boss or client wants you to do something if you get a very prescriptive task or project. As a designer you should take on the burden of that problem, the client's job is communicating it. A talented designer that blindly makes things will only ever get so far. Being strategic and inquisitive will take you way further.
Be nice, polite, and grateful. Often these qualities will outweigh your actual design skills when someone is thinking about working with you. Plus, it’s a small world, especially in design. It’s so strange but the amount of times people I don’t know have emailed me asking for advice or to buy me a coffee and pick my brain, and then after I spend an hour with them, I never hear from them again. I don’t expect a medal but a simple, thoughtful thank you email here and there will do wonders for your career, and your karma.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
If you’re in the US, we’ve maybe never needed someone like her more than now, so go support Elizabeth Warren. Or at least read about her, engage, watch the debates, and whatever you do, register to vote, and then actually vote when the time comes next year. As George Jean Nathan said, “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.”
Less critically, if you want to follow what I’m up to, or chat to me, you can reach me on twitter: @dmcgco