Director of Interaction Design,
“It feels like that’s where really important things happen, when you make a decision and you stand by it.”
Did you know what you wanted when you graduated from undergrad?
It’s been a zigzagging path. I studied comparative literature in undergrad. My thesis was on this Marxist, surrealist poet from the ‘30s who was writing using Quechua indigenous song structures in his poems. It was fascinating to me, but there weren’t a lot of professions related to that type of study.
There was a group of people in that program who were into the deconstruction of books: taking them apart and putting them back together. They formed a pretty tight community around the letterpress shop on campus. It was a great place and we were exploring design without really knowing it, because we were thinking about it from a literary perspective. At the time I didn’t know that I was getting into design. I was just discovering this thing that I really liked doing.
How did you feel about design at the time?
I thought these were competing impulses: to do something good and socially responsible or to do something creative. I really saw them as being fairly opposed. Local Projects is a place where you feel like you’re doing something good, but you’re also doing something creative, and at the same time it’s a successful company.
It wasn’t clear that there was a path I could follow. I had these non-profit jobs where I would be laying out the newsletter and I found that I would clear out all of my work so I could focus and enjoy doing that. I thought to myself, “this is what I really like doing.”
Were there any choices that stand out as really shaping your life?
I’m not a super dynamic person. I was talking to a friend from school; we were talking about how both ended up in design. He would say, “I just met this guy and started working on this, and met another guy who was working on that, and then somebody offered me this” and I would describe that as dynamic. Things just happen all the time he’s following his interests and things are just coming together.
It could be a matter of perception, but I just set my sights on something and plow towards it really slowly. I seems silly to say I just sat down one day and declared, “I’m going to be a designer. That’s going to be my profession.” But that’s actually what happened. I think it was in the midst of working at non-profits and realizing that’s what I wanted to do
It’s funny to look back on it, because now it feels like such a middle class, semi-bourgeois profession. It doesn’t feel really risky, but at the time, my mom would call crying, “what are you doing with your life?” My parents are actually very supportive, but they did not totally get what was going on at the beginning. They really wanted me to go to law school. I guess compared to going to law school, being a designer is a fairly bohemian choice.
Copywriting was my first creative job. I remember being really nervous going in there the on the first day of work, knowing someone was going to ask me to do something creative. I wouldn’t call the work I was doing wildly creative, but I was being relied upon for something other than administrative abilities. That reality of that freaked me out at first. Whenever you go into a creative profession, you’ve got to develop that kind of confidence to know that you can do something pretty good, most of the time; that you can be relied upon by someone who will pay you money to go and do these creative things. It’s pretty stressful early on. I mean, it’s still pretty stressful sometimes.
How did you make that initial career decision?
Looking back on it, it seems like a very normal thing to me now, but it wasn’t at all when I made that decision. It was very much a decision where I put a stake in the ground and said, “This is how it’s going to work out.” It felt like such a major decision to pick your career at the time. I think I was 25 or something.
In some ways I look for other things like that where I can put a stake in the ground because it feels like that’s where really important things happen, when you make a decision and you stand by it. Even when it’s kind of scary or even when you feel like you’re not doing well at it and it’s not going to work out. That was probably one of the most important decisions I ever made. Otherwise I wouldn’t have moved to New York and I wouldn’t have gone to ITP; all these things kind of stemmed from that. Something else would have happened but it felt like a lot rippled from that one decision.
Where there choices made by others that impacted your career?
Robert Fabricant was one of my professors at ITP. He has a really amazing knack for passing by your desk as you’re banging your head against the wall trying to figure out an interaction design solution, and saying, “Why don’t you do it this way?” And it solves something you’ve been thinking about all day. It was that way in his class and I just really wanted to learn how to do that. I begged him for an internship at Frog Design and that’s how I ended up working there.
That was a big break. Up to that point I had done some design stuff. I was up in San Francisco, mostly learning on my own. Coming out of school and going to work there was a massive escalation of the level that I was working on, and the kind of people I was working with, and the skills that they taught. It was very traditional; someone gives you a break and things change. Career-wise, that was a very important turning point.
Do you think being richly experienced make you a better designer?
Not necessarily. There are some people that never leave their home but who are amazing designers. Does being richly experienced make you a better person? Absolutely.