Jason Santa Maria
Founder of Mighty, a Brooklyn design studio. Creative director for Typekit and A List Apart. He discusses design on his award-winning website.
“The more life experience you have, in most cases will equate to experience with people, which influences you and how you might communicate with someone.”
How did you get started on this path after you finished your undergrad?
Wow, I don’t even know anymore, there are so many intersecting lines. I basically started out in an agency where the workload was split between print and web, about down the middle. That’s where I really learned to build websites and to love the web. After that I went to a primarily interactive firm for a couple of years. Then I ended up freelancing off and on for a bit and ended up working with Happy Cog for a number of years. I then went back out on my own again and now I’m employed by certain companies but also not home to just one of them. So I’m kind of wearing a lot of hats on any given day.
If you had a plan when you finished school and had stuck with it, where would you be, or what would you be doing right now?
That’s a really good question. I think when I got out of school, I kind of already sparked an interest in the web for myself so I probably would be working on the web. I guess in my head I kind of thought I would end up at a really prestigious firm. At the time I think I wanted to work at a place like Chopping Block because I just loved the stuff that they did so much. If things had just panned out exactly that way, I probably would’ve ended up at a firm of some sort.
Were there certain decisions that you made or someone else made that diverted you from that path?
Well, I definitely don’t think my career path was my decision alone. So many factors go into starting at a new job or leaving a job. I think, if anything, my nature of being afraid to commit to one single thing, or doing one thing everyday has led me in this path of doing so many things. I don’t know if that is going to work out well in the long run. If it makes me too faceted to be strong at any one thing, I’m not sure – I hope it doesn’t. But right now, I enjoy the variety, the diversity, and the kinds of things that I get to work on; I get a good taste of a lot of different things and it lets me apply the skills I have to them.
Is there one decision or experience that sticks out in your mind as career changing?
I guess it was moving to New York. I was at a position in Philadelphia where I was with Happy Cog, working both with the Philadelphia office and the New York office. It dawned on me that I didn’t have anything specifically holding me in Philadelphia and I could try going somewhere else. So I decided to move to New York and it was totally life changing. Just coming here and immersing myself in the community opened up my eyes up to a lot of different things, a lot of different areas of the discipline that I think of as design. When I was in Philadelphia, I think I had a much more cordoned off view of what graphic design and certainly web design were. I feel like now my view is much more broad. An experience like that changes your thinking about what it is that you do and where you want to go.
Do you believe that being richly experienced in life makes you a better designer?
Absolutely. The more life experience you have, in most cases will equate to experience with people, experience with life situations, and the way that people react to situations; which influences you and how you might communicate with someone. The best storytellers I know are usually older people, because they have more life experience. They understand how to tug at people’s emotions, how to say the things that will get a reaction from people and how to make something engrossing and interesting. That only comes with observation and being in many situations yourself. I feel like life experience compounds itself and it rewards at every turn.
So immersing yourself in a different culture might change your perspective on design.
Certainly, yeah. Either a different geographic culture or a different ethnic culture, absolutely.
Like moving to China Town…
Yeah, or just moving to China.Those things have great impact because you get a completely different perspective than your own. Any opportunity that you have as a designer to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, gives you great perspective.
How do you think someone can create the best opportunities to make the best decisions in their career?
For me, It sounds silly but I try to just keep an open mind. There are people who are optimistic or people that seem lucky, I feel like those people just leave themselves open to opportunities. Part of it is being at the right place at the right time but it’s also being able to recognize when an opportunity is in front of you. Which is much more difficult than you would think, seeing an opportunity in front of you and knowing that you might be able to be a part of it. It takes time, but it also takes the ability to keep your eyes open. There are so many opportunities all around us all the time. Every person you meet is an opportunity to change the career you have. They might be able to take you in and employ you, or they might be able to introduce you to someone else. I don’t mean that to sound like you’re taking advantage of someone, just that every person you meet has a perspective and their own life experiences and those can combine with yours to make something new.
So first impressions are important?
They can be, yeah, but I don’t know. It’s all about personality. There are many chances for impressions.
Good point. Are there any common decisions that some people just starting off often make? Mistakes that can be easily avoided?
One of the decisions that I know a lot people getting out of school want to make and I know I did, too, was to think that it’s a good idea to start your own company. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but I feel like the vast majority of designers, not entrepreneurs or anything like that, the people who want to learn visual design, one of the best things you can do is study under someone. Actually be an apprentice to someone or work at a place where there are people who have senior experience over you. You can learn vast amounts everyday just by watching. Just by listening and watching.
When you strike out on your own right away, you miss some of those opportunities. Of course you can learn tons on your own; you might be able to learn that same stuff, it could just take much longer. But the insight that you can gain from someone who has that experience is immensely useful.
Agreed. When I first started out, I felt it was really important to have a creative director to learn under.
Well, the knee-jerk reaction is that you want to get out there and start making amazing work like all the work that you’ve been looking at while you’re at school. It doesn’t always work that way. That’s okay because it takes time to really develop a sense of yourself and a sense of your own style, a sense of your own taste, and I think it’s totally okay. There’s always time to do good work.
Where does your motivation for making decisions come from?
For me, motivation is where I can learn something. Learning drives almost all of my decisions. Finding myself an opportunity to grow is more important than almost anything else. I realized in my career that the times when I’m not happy are when I’m not pushing myself to learn something new. I need to be someplace that I can learn.