How Robinhood Emphasizes Design to Make Stock Trading More Accessible

How Robinhood Emphasizes Design to Make Stock Trading More Accessible

The idea of trading stocks, for many people, triggers a porcupine-like reaction. It’s too complicated, too expensive, and the platforms that allow you do it feel straight out of the early 2000s.

That’s why Robinhood has had such success. Since launching in 2014, the millennial-friendly investing app has accumulated more users than E-Trade and is valued at nearly $6 billion. Where its competitors charge trading fees, Robinhood charges nothing for trades and a key part of its success lies in its clean, easy-to-use interface, which has been recognized in its own right; in 2015, Robinhood became the first financial services company to win an Apple Design Award.

Alex Bond, 29, is the senior product designer at the Silicon Valley-based startup. After studying fine arts and graphic design at Colorado State University, she went on to hold several design jobs before spending two years at Pinterest. From there, venture capital firm Sequoia Capital brought her on as the firm’s 2016 Design Fellow, where she worked with portfolio companies to help them solve business problems through design.

Today, she’s leading Robinhood’s small team of designers as the company continues to improve its product. In the interview, she explains the strategies and tactics she uses to make trading more approachable.


Was becoming a designer in the financial services world something you aspired to do?

Not at all. Like many people at the company, I don’t have a financial background. I remember when Robinhood initially reached out to me I was like, “What is this, a bank? I don’t know about this.” And then I spoke with (co-founder) Baiju Bhatt and he explained the product and it kind of blew me away. I felt that this was generally a worthwhile thing to work on.

What’s the design strategy at Robinhood?

Throughout history, design has dictated what product is for what person. Sartorial code has dictated where certain classes of people can go or where they belong. Design is kind of a shorthand for who you’re allowed to be and what you’re allowed to use.

In the modern era, it’s not really different. When you look at the traditional financial brokerage account, there’s a lot being communicated there that isn’t in writing. Whether it’s the landing page or the product itself, the design can feel very alienating to customers. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but it serves a purpose: it’s obtuse, difficult to parse, and, as a user, it can make you feel like trading is not for you or maybe those fees you’re paying are really worth it because this all feels really complicated. I think there’s a lot of muddying the water to make it seem deep.

At Robinhood, we’re conscious that design, beyond the words, communicates who a product is for. We’re focused on design that’s friendly, that’s inviting, that doesn’t intimidate you, that isn’t condescending. 

We make use of simple colors to remove as much information as possible, so that it’s clear to the user what’s happening.

Robinhood’s designs often begin with pen and paper. Image courtesy of Robinhood.

Robinhood’s main color aesthetic is bright jungle green. That’s not a color we typically associate with financial services. Tell us about the thinking behind this design choice.

Traditionally in the stock market, green means up and red means down. That’s a really quick visual cue, but in the wrong application, it can feel intimidating and clinical. Rather than just your typical primary green, we wanted ours to be a little bit more vibrant. I think that it speaks to a younger generation.

We make use of simple colors to remove as much information as possible, so that it’s clear to the user what’s happening. For example, we have day and night mode in the app that reflects when the markets are open and closed. Overall, we try to remove as much decoration as possible and use color as a way of communicating what’s happening in the moment.

In our work, we’re referencing Swiss design from the middle of the century. We’re getting back to basics and rethinking features through the lens of patterns that make sense to a contemporary audience. 

Robinhood’s minimalist interfaces use color to convey what is happening in the market.

The heart of all design questions is: “What problem is this trying to solve?”

How do you know what users want?

I’ve been at companies where research can feel like they’re a second-fiddle team and a lot of decisions by leadership are based on educated hunches. At Robinhood, our roadmap is almost entirely influenced by our research team. As we start solving problems, they’ve already done foundational research on users, on possible products. They’ve already started thinking ahead for us. And they partner with us to work on these projects. When you have facts and information, it makes decision-making easier. 

What are the questions you ask yourself as you’re designing?

The heart of all design questions is: “What problem is this trying to solve?” It’s something you can always go back to and, at any given moment, it can help you find the right solution. There are so many ways to make something look appealing, to make decisions about hierarchy, layout, type, color. For example, there is no reason we can’t have a technicolor app. But the fact is, the problem we’re trying to solve at Robinhood is clarity. We need to be clear and friendly and relatable. That is the lens through which we’re able to make design decisions. It’s what lets us rule out things that, while nice, don’t solve the specific problem.


from 99U99U

The First Five Years: Should I Try to Negotiate the Salary of My First Job?

The First Five Years: Should I Try to Negotiate the Salary of My First Job?

Getting started in your creative career is tough. You’ve got boatloads of ambition and energy, but you lack experience, the kind of knowledge that feels like you can see into the future because you’ve been there before. So we’ve introduced a new column that will allow you to get the benefit of hindsight before you’ve actually gone through the experience. Welcome to “The First Five Years” where Mitch Goldstein, a professor of design at Rochester Institute of Technology, answers reader questions related to the unchartered waters of beginning a career. This month, Mitch answers a question about how to determine, and maximize, your first salary. 

Q. Should I try to negotiate the salary of my first job?

Knowing what your first job should pay is challenging: this number will vary wildly depending on geography, industry, studio size, studio clientele, and so on. Make sure to do some online research first (a good start is searching for “junior designer salary” in the city you are looking at). Once an offer has been made, you should always attempt to negotiate your salary — there is no reason not to, and every reason to try.

If a company wants to hire you, asking for more money is not going to suddenly make them change their mind. They may not increase your pay, but they will not suddenly tell you to go away, either. Any company that does take an offer off the table when you politely ask for more money is not a company you want to work for, anyway.

So many people look for a job purely by trying to logic their way through the process — is this the “best” position? Will it give me the “right” opportunities? Will I get to work with the biggest name clients? Will I get a desk in a cool loft space? Do I get enough vacation days? Are the office snacks organic? These are all legitimate things to think about, but so often we forget the most important metric: does it FEEL right? Does it seem like a place you want to be for 40+ (or 50+, or 60+) hours a week? Do you want to sit next to these people all day? Are you excited to start? Always, always trust your gut — if it feels bad do not take it.

Remember that it is much easier to find the dream design job when you already have a design job.

Everybody has a different situation and different needs — there are some people who can afford to take a low-paying job with a big-name studio, and there are some people who have to cover more expenses. Be very honest with yourself about what your reality is: will you have to work a shift at Starbucks to cover the shortfall in a low-paying but “impressive” design job?

You might have massive student loan debt, you might have a child to support, you might have expensive housing. Make sure to take care of business and cover your living expenses. That amazing BIG NAME DESIGNER STUDIO job might not be worth putting your rent on a credit card just for the chance to work there. An incredible job that does not pay you enough to live might not be that incredible.

There is no reason to approach your first job like it’s also your last job.

Remember that it is much easier to find the dream design job when you already have a design job. You can pay your bills, you will learn how commercial practice works, you will get some valuable experience under your belt, you will make industry connections, and you will be less panicked and desperate on interviews. Just like a company can fire you, you can quit when something better comes along, so do not be afraid to take a job you will not keep forever, especially if puts you in a place where you want to live.

There is no reason to approach your first job like it’s also your last job — what you do in 10 years might be completely different from what you do tomorrow. When you do leave, you should never, ever stand up at your desk, yell “I QUIT!!” and run out into the Brooklyn sunshine. Design is an extremely small world, so give two weeks notice and leave on friendly terms.

Lastly, if your resume is filled with a dozen jobs in as many years, that might be a red flag to a possible employer (and maybe to yourself: you might be better as a freelancer than as an employee.) 

from 99U99U

These UX Designers are Rethinking the Voter Ballot 

These UX Designers are Rethinking the Voter Ballot 

I was five the first time I went to vote, excited for a field trip with my dad that conflicted with bed time. The polling place was a school gym. The room echoed with the clunk of machine levers as each vote was cast, and I munched on brownies from the bake sale set up in the lobby. That visit, which was repeated each election throughout my childhood, made it statistically far more likely that I would become a regular voter myself. Many people aren’t exposed to the voting process at a young age, and millions never make it to the polls.  

Whitney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell, co-founders of The Center for Civic Design, are focused on those people: where they fall off the voter journey, and how to get them back on. So they’ve set out to bring UX strategies to the myriad systems of local, state, and federal election offices, using human centered design thinking to shepherd citizens through the registration process to the moment they mark their choice on the ballot.

Chisnell and Quesenbery got into election design around 2001—the year that the infamous Florida butterfly ballot took over the headlines. Chisnell remembers watching the news as voters left the Miami polls questioning who they’d voted for and wondering what the design process behind the curtain had been. As it turned out, it was pretty flimsy. Usability testing and human centered design hadn’t found their way into elections at that point. Instead, design decisions reflected the perspective of the election officials: Did the materials meet regulations? And how would the ballot be counted?

“Democracy is a design problem.”

Like a happy meeting of two platonic halves obsessed with voter intent, it wasn’t long before Quesenbery and Chisnell found each other. They ran a Kickstarter together, producing the Field Guide to Ensuring Voter Intent. It was free for election officials and raised over $20,000. “We were like, ‘This is getting less like a hobby and more like a thing,’ recalls Quesenbery on their ‘will you be my co-founder’ conversation.

The Field Guide to Ensuring Voter Intent helps local officials create well designed ballots. Photo by Rowan Bradley

They launched The Center for Civic Design shortly thereafter. Their slogan? “Democracy is a design problem.” They’ve been together ever since, except for a brief sabbatical when Chisnell joined the United States Digital Service—the newly minted founder had planned to say no, but when Obama appeared on her White House tour she was hooked. “It was a very compelling recruiting pitch,” she admits.

Over the last decade, Civic Design has worked to dispel the myth that non-engaged citizens are apathetic. Instead, they’re trying to understand how the system has disenfranchised the non-voting and the non-registered. They are finding that, between regulations, time constraints, and lack of transparency, it’s just plain hard for people to travel the path from registration to the point where they have a ballot in their hands. The good news? A lot of these challenges can be solved by the tools of design: plain language, white space, wayfinding, new technologies, and a predilection for usability tests. Upgrading the voting systems hasn’t been easy. “The processes are 19th or 20th century processes and design is a 21st century process,” says Chisnell.

Sometimes the issues are too complex for just a copy change. Remember the infamous Virginia tied election of 2018, which was decided by pulling a slip of paper out of a fishbowl?

Civic Design has to be good at building trust in order to nudge government offices embrace change. Their secret? Listening.“Talk less, ask more questions,” says Chisnell. Don’t make assumptions. Try to understand the problem, the constraints and the resources. The two are the first to admit that they aren’t experts in running elections—they leave that to the election officials who, each year, martial an army of semi-volunteers, navigate the mania of filing dates, mailings, and then the elections themselves. Sometimes there’s resistance to Civic Design’s suggestions, but most people, they say, share the goal of making voting better for everyone. “They are salt of the earth,” says Quesenbery of their partners, “They are quiet innovators.”

The game changer that Civic Design offers election officials is the perspective of UX. In a project in Sarasota, Florida in 2008, the Civic Design team ran a usability test on a new ballot design which had candidates printed on both sides. At the bottom of the original first page in all caps, bold letters read “Vote both sides”. Maybe it was read by voters as esoteric bipartisanship or maybe it was just plain confusing. The net result? Half of the ballots came back with the second side still blank. Score 1 for doing usability tests ahead of time.  

This is the number one rule of ballot design.

The Civic Design suggested an instructions tweak. The copy was updated to read ‘turn the ballot over’. A natural A/B test played out when the neighboring county ran the original ballot design, giving Chisnell and Quesenbery the perfect case study to show that clear instructions, strategically placed and in familiar language, have a massive effect on ballot completion.

Volunteering on election day is a crash course in the kinds of questions and challenges voters have.

Sometimes the issues are too complex for just a copy change. Remember the infamous Virginia tied election of 2017, which was decided by pulling a slip of paper out of a fishbowl? Looking at that, Quesenbery thought, “This is exactly what happens when you have a ballot where people can’t verify their vote.” A verified vote system isn’t rocket science—it’s conceptually the equivalent of a diner experience in which you choose from a menu and then get a slip of paper, a receipt that lists your selections so you can verify what you owe. Voting booths similarly, could spit out a chit to be cast, counted, and audited just like any vote. The innovation isn’t just about convenience. This verification step adds confidence in the election process—a timely thing to bolster.

It’s not mandatory that election offices who work with Civic Design adopt their guidelines. But often, come election time, Quesenbery and Chisnell are surprised by how much design thinking they’ve incorporated. Quesenbery attributes it to leaving good tools out where people can find them: they make sure to send layouts in InDesign or Word files so they can be adapted, samples of good language. Often, they find that once an office takes one design element, they can’t stop. “By letting them work it by themselves,” Quesenbery says, “They take more steps than I could have made them.”

The 2016 presidential election result that took many by surprise put Center for Civic Design’s mission on the map. “We had toiled in virtual obscurity for a very long time,” says Chisnell. All of a sudden, their inboxes were flooded by people with election design ideas. “Our first reaction was ‘Where have you been??’” recalls Chisnell. Civic Design has now become a sort of clearing house; networking ideas, resources, and likeminded innovators. They expect another groundswell in the leadup to the midterm election.

We’re hearing a lot about how design leadership is taking over business. What would it look like if it started to lead in government? “Designers come to civic life and government thinking about what the experience is and what the outcomes for the public can be,” says Chisnell. They bring an actual process for understanding what people need. “The potential role of design in government is to change how government works,” says Chisnell. From the websites, to the way systems are built and tested, to how much projects cost.

So how can a designer get more involved in ballot design? Start by signing up to be a poll worker. With a little bit of training, you can show up on election day and see the entire process from the point of view of people working the polls. “Poll workers are awesome people who really love doing it,” says Chisnell, “You’ll meet a vast cross-section of human beings you might not otherwise get exposed to.” The experience is a crash course in the kinds of questions and challenges voters have. If you can’t commit the time to be a poll worker—the days can be over 14 hours long—register as an official observer. Anyone can do it, though, Chisnell warns, the clerk will think you’re spying for a political party.

Civic Design has gone from the fringes of government and UX to being experts in one of the most talked about topics of the year. But both founders have the capacity, stamina, and good humor for big changes, “Anybody in elections or politics who thinks they can set out a five-year plan and blindly follow it is just plain wrong,” says Quesenbery. And no matter what happens in November, Center for Civic Design will continue its drive to get more voters to the polls and have better materials waiting for them. “The time is right for CCD,” says Quesenbery, “Nothing much is going to stop it except for us just giving up.”

from 99U99U

How to Navigate the Messy Middle of a Creative Venture

How to Navigate the Messy Middle of a Creative Venture

The middle stretch of a journey is when the exciting moment of idea conception gives way to the long, slow, trying slog to the finish line. The promise of a fresh start is behind you, and the end far, far away. Volatility feels like the only constant. Each high—Yes! Champagne! $$$!—seems to be met by a heart-breaking low—Ouch! Rough! What happened?!

It’s this part of the journey where investor, entrepreneur, and co-founder of 99U and Behance, Scott Belsky, has directed his new book, The Messy Middle. Belsky’s insights are meant for people embarking on a creative project, whether they are founders, entrepreneurs, designers, or artists. The Messy Middle is a guidebook for navigating the time when you start to lose hope and become overwhelmed with self doubt.

Belsky, now Adobe’s Chief Product Officer, sat down with 99U to discuss what we misjudge about the middle part of a journey, the two most important characteristics for building something, and to share his lessons from The Messy Middle.

You’ve written The Messy Middle to focus on the wildly misunderstood part of a journey. What do we overlook about the middle? 

Typical headlines and the gravitational pull by all of the press around the starts and the finishes frustrate me. I feel like those are shallow, pithy ways of describing the journey, heavily edited for egos and sound bites, and don’t adequately reflect any of the provocative and sometimes controversial, or at least counterintuitive and conflicting insights that happen around the middle. 

What you need to think about in the middle of a journey is that sometimes the right playbook at the very start is the absolutely wrong playbook for the middle, and yet may become right again a little later on, and then wrong again. Leadership is about crafting instincts while understanding context and having some muscle memory around what you’re experiencing in the middle, and how to navigate it.

The muscle memory can come from your own experiences or those of others. Oftentimes, what I found in my own journey is that hearing a point of view of someone else, if I was careful not to just follow it because they found that it was useful, but rather just consider it as one data point, that wisdom is very helpful to me. I wanted to chronicle the essential insights for enduring the low points and optimizing the high points of that great volatility that happens in the middle.

The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky

The book looks at two key characteristics—endurance and optimization—to steer through the volatile middle miles of a journey. How and where can we apply these characteristics to what we’re building? 

Let’s get into the psychology of it for the moment. At the low points, you start to make decisions out of fear. You become overwhelmed by the self-doubt, the anonymity, the ambiguity, and the uncertainty of the moment. In such conditions we are more liable to make the wrong decision. Also, that’s where teams disband, where people lose hope. That’s where we add complication to our products because we can’t spend the time to find the right solution, so we just throw crap in there to try to solve it with complexity. It’s really where a lot of great new ventures and new projects within big companies start to unravel.

Then at high points, we start to make decisions out of ego and we actually start to believe, often falsely, that we are at a high point because of the things we did as opposed to good luck or good timing, or the work of others that may have been out of our control. It’s important to recognize that we’re liable to start making bad decisions at the high points as well.

In the volatility of the journey, whether you’re at a low or a high, you are in a spotlight of seduction to go down the wrong path. What keeps you grounded is being empathetic with what the customer is suffering from, and focused on doing what’s right for the team.

The Messy Middle; Scott Belsky

Image courtesy of Scott Belsky.

In one chapter you write about how teams tend to A/B Test products, but they don’t often A/B test processes. Why is it so important to A/B test the latter?

I think that we don’t feel like we have the luxury of testing and optimizing anything that works in the middle of the journey. If you have a Tuesday morning meeting and it just works, you don’t ever think well, maybe we should cancel and see what happens. But one thing I found across some of the most productive and admired teams, is that they were tinkering with the practices that were working. This makes perfect sense if you think about the world of A/B testing and the fact that you optimize the most important parts of the product. Optimizing process is important. If you believe that founders, entrepreneurs, leaders ultimately win because of how they manage, then how could you not allocate some energy, even when it’s scarce, to improving the things that you’re most proud of?

The Messy Middle Scott Belsky

Image courtesy of Scott Belsky.

You also write about hiring for initiative over experience. Why? And how does one spot “initiative” in a potential hire?

 When we started Behance, we didn’t have any money or connections really in the tech world. We had no choice but to hire people that didn’t have a lot of experience but had tremendous amounts of interest and initiative. What I learned from that is, while it takes maybe longer to build things, what you lose with having lack of experience in your team, you make up for, and then some, with initiative.

I find that people who have a history of taking initiative and things that are interesting to them continue to do so. Initiative is the best indicator of future initiative. And then when you start to become more successful or you start to have venture capital, you become a resume snob and you say, “Oh, well now I’m going to hire the most experienced people.” Oftentimes, what you’ll find is you hire experienced people who think within the box of what they’re experts in and are less open to ideas and alternative approaches because their ignorance in this case – or their knowledge in this case – has become a weight on their willingness to be open-minded. It’s important to remember as you’re building your team to continue hiring for initiative, even if you want to balance it out with a little experience at some point.


Instagram Photo

In another chapter you talk about how to allocate resources across the duration of the journey, in particular when it comes to negotiating with people. What is your negotiation philosophy?

If you’re buying a house, you obviously want to get the best price. But when you’re negotiating a partnership or a package for someone you’re hiring, it is the start of a relationship, and the last thing you want to do is get the better of them. What you ultimately want is to both feel like you got the right end that both people can feel really good about it.

My strategy is that I’m going to put out what I think you should be getting in your package and why, and let’s focus the conversation on what I might be missing or what you might be missing.

It’s about being straightforward and knowing that we started the relationship in a point where, two years from now, you don’t look back and say, “I got screwed.” But actually, look back and be like, “Wow. I was treated right and that’s the way I’m going to treat others,” because that’s self-perpetuating and that builds culture.

Scott Belsky The Messy Middle

Image courtesy of Scott Belsky.

Of all the lessons in The Messy Middle, which one do you feel that you’ve grappled with the most?

 In the final mile, for example, I talk about how the final mile is a different sport altogether and how you’d need a different set of mentors and a different set of coaches, if you will, because, despite all the confidence and skills you gained over a journey, before some finish line of sorts, you suddenly believe that you’re not ready.

In fact, it’s actually an entirely different set of factors that need to be considered in the final mile of a project. There were many times during my own entrepreneurial journey building Behance where I didn’t listen to outside people enough. I felt lonely at times during the journey and chalked that up to what it’s like to be the head of something and to have that burden on your shoulders.

What I’ve since learned from other entrepreneurs is that it’s really good to have people you go to for specific things. I don’t think the right way to do it is to have an advisory board or to rely just on your formal board, which is a mistake that I made. The people that were most helpful to me weren’t necessarily the right people to be on my board. Certain people are helpful for specific things, and you don’t want to necessarily be limited to just a few people who are there for everything.

Scott is also the author of the bestselling book Making Ideas Happen. Watch his 2018 99U Conference talk here.

from 99U99U

What It Takes to Launch a Profitable Side Hustle

What It Takes to Launch a Profitable Side Hustle

Radim Malinic doesn’t like to sit still. At 40, the Czech-born designer has lived many lives — first as a heavy metal musician, then as a DJ, then as an economics student, and ultimately as his own boss at multi-disciplinary design studio Brand Nu in London.

But when you ask him about his most fulfilling journey, he’ll tell you it’s the one currently underway: Malinic has written the second volume of Book of Ideas, his self-published collection of advice and observations for people in creative jobs. The first volume, released in 2016, defied self-publishing naysayers and not only became an Amazon No. 1 bestseller in graphic arts, but turned a profit. To date, more than 10,000 copies have been sold.

In the interview below, Malinic muses on how he found success in writing and offers advice for anyone looking to start a money-making side project.

You wrote and self-published Book of Ideas to help and inspire other creatives. Did you think it would make a profit?

Not at first. Being in charge was my first motivation. Initially my objective was to complete the work and get it out there and see what happens if anyone finds it. I printed 1,000 copies and hoped for the best. Little did I know that those 1,000 copies would sell out in three weeks and there would be a huge demand for what I’d written. From there I became more shrewd about the profit margins, the production, and I discovered that, indeed, books actually can make money. If you’re working with a publisher, your cut is small. A book could make $20 and you could be getting $1 or less per book. By being in charge, all the money goes back to where it started.

Many people think that once they’ve published a book, that’s where the journey stops. But what you do after your title is released is the most important part.
Radim Malinic book of ideas

Self-publishing is great because anyone can do it, but that also makes it a crowded marketplace. What did you do to stand out?

I followed the exact marketing strategy and tools of big titles and publishing houses. I spent money on advertising. I made sure that I promoted the book well beyond the regular cycle of a publishing house title. Being in control was key here. I kept pushing the book out to various channels for more than a year just to make sure I covered all ground.

The problem is that many people who self-publish think that once they’ve published a book and they’ve got it in their hand, that’s where the journey stops. But that’s only the first half. What you do after your title is released is the most important part.

Radim Malinic book of ideas

A lot of people are unable or unwilling to think like a big publisher because they see it as being expensive. How much did you spend on advertising and promotion of your first book?

Normally it’s around 20 percent of what you bring in. If the book takes home £2,000 a month, I spend around £300 or £400 on advertising. It can vary, but I would say 20 percent is a good mark. It’s something I’ve learned from people in the self-publishing bracket who have done it successfully. 

Treat your side hustle like it’s the most important thing next to your day job.

Radim Malinic

What was your biggest challenge in starting a side hustle?

The first challenge is creative freedom. The book could have been anything; I had to validate the concept in my head before I started. I needed to make clear to myself “What’s the book I’m trying to make? How I am going to make sense of everything I’m going to do to say?” It took me awhile to come up with a very simple idea — that one page of the book equals one idea. Having a clear concept in my head proved to be absolutely crucial.

The other challenge is time. We all think the life of an author is somewhat of a TV series — we get a cottage by the sea, write, have a fish lunch in the afternoon, go back to writing. It doesn’t happen like that. I would find time to write whenever I could, at 5 a.m., on plane rides, train platforms while waiting for a train, wherever I could.

What’s your advice to someone pursuing a side hustle on top of their day job?

I think the nature of whatever we do, if it’s a full-time job or side hustle, is that you live and breathe what you believe. When I decided to write a book, I first established when it would come out because, without a deadline, I’d still be writing today. That’s why it took me four years to publish the first book, because you think there’s always tomorrow; today doesn’t feel urgent. The latest Vol.2 took just six months from start to finish. I learned to how to incorporate the side hustle in around everything else.

Treat your side hustle like it’s the most important thing next to your day job. I’ve found that there’s always an hour at the beginning or end of the day where you can do something for yourself. If I write a half a chapter at the beginning of the day before I get to the studio, or at 8 p.m. right before I leave, I get instant satisfaction that I’ve achieved something. Those little stages of completion that you go through are so rewarding and inspire you to do more.

I’d started something quite full of obstacles and unknowns and mistakes. Now I have an idea for another three books.


from 99U99U

Design Debate: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Inspiration?

Design Debate: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Inspiration?

In our newest design debate, Nadine Kolodziey,Thomas Kronbichler, and Polina Joffe weigh on the pros and cons of endless visual stimulation. Ready, set, debate.

“Following too many design feeds online encourages repetition and stifles creativity. That’s why we have to be smart in how we curate our personal streams.” —Nadine Kolodziey, illustrator

We’re online all the time, and that means we’re constantly in contact with visual stimulation of some kind or another.

If you’re always looking at other people’s designs on the bus or during a break, though, then you subconsciously involve it in your own output. Soon you realize: “Bummer; I’ve just made something that looks exactly the same as what other people are doing.” You copy and repeat, and although it might start out subconsciously, eventually you’re participating in a trend. You lose sight of your personal approach; what others are doing begins to cloud your judgement and intuition.

I understand why people might want to be part of a trend. A client might want something that’s trendy – and it could be helpful strategically to be thought of as part of a collection of people who work in a certain way. Ultimately, though, it’s limiting on both sides. The illustrator doesn’t have a sense of individuality in their work, and all clients are buying similar styles – which means their brand lacks distinction.

If you’re trying to get inspired, looking at other creative work is the wrong strategy.

It’s important to look at other designs – to know what’s going on – but in moderation. If you’re trying to get inspired, looking at other creative work is the wrong strategy. It’s personally very hard for me to be inspired when I follow a lot of other illustrators online. I’ve been using Instagram for two and a half years now. At first, I always looked at other illustrators’ work. Of course I did, because it’s what I do. I love illustration. But then I noticed that it was hindering my creative potential.

I started noticing that I was working in a similar color palette to many others. I noticed that looking at other work reduces the personal courage needed to try something new. When I look at a finished piece of work by another illustrator, it’s impossible for me to see potential in it. I can’t be creative, because I’m compelled to mimic what that other person has done.

The solution lies in how I choose what to follow online. There is a difference between looking at work by your colleagues and looking at general images. I’m interested in online inspiration that becomes like a “hint,” and I curate my social media streams accordingly. Instead of following other illustrators on Instagram, I follow content that’s aesthetically intriguing. I’ll follow people who collect unusual stones or take photographs of beautifully arranged Japanese food, for example.

I particularly like ‘I’m Google,’ a blog that arranges images not thematically, but visually. When I view images like these, they immediately spark new concepts and directions in my mind, especially when I’m beginning work on a new commission. These sources then become a trigger for me: I’ll see an image of a rock from outer space when I’m scrolling, and its form will inspire how I then arrange a composition.


“Online inspiration encourages international networking and conversation. The problem is when images of design are circulated without context.” —Thomas Kronbichler, founder and creative director, Studio Mut

At Studio Mut, we are big fans of digital space, and we’re not afraid of inspiration overload. We’re a small studio in a small town in the middle of the Alps—this is Heidi land here—so the internet provides us with incredible inspiration from all around the world. It also gives us a platform for presenting our own designs, which would have been impossible 10 years ago.

Because of how images circulate online, we can reach a European and American audience with our work. And as a result of online feeds and social media, the graphic design community is now extremely close. This has negative effects, of course – a lot of people say graphic design is getting too similar aesthetically. But the positive side is that there’s a lot more graphic design today. People can get involved in the industry from almost anywhere, instead of just major cities; it’s more inclusive. There are people in small towns all across Europe, for example, who are doing crazy things, and we’re all able to watch and support one another from afar. The circulation of images online is ultimately good for graphic design as an art form.

I’m not inspired by images of a particular design. Instead I’m inspired when I hear about a designer’s process.

The problem is that online there is not a lot of curating. With certain blogs and streams, there is no explanation in terms of where an image comes from. Projects that were designed for friends and projects done for huge companies are circulated in the same space, which is interesting, but I miss the sense of differentiation and context.

The story behind a design and how a problem is solved is so crucial to one’s understanding of it. I find that I’m not inspired by images of a particular design, but instead I’m inspired when I hear about a designer’s process. Learning about a designer’s particular philosophy is far more likely to inform my own. I also enjoy hearing about how a designer approaches client-relationships. This, of course, cannot be summed up by a simple image.

I’ve personally moved away from browsing on Tumblr blogs and Pinterest because what inspires me most is hearing about how a problem was solved. Ultimately, the most inspiration I get is from videos of designers talking at conferences. There is something so exciting about hearing people talk about their process. I get a lot from how someone frames a project and approaches it; how they describe client relationships and how they deconstruct a brief. I like to hear about the stumbling blocks they came up against, and then how they overcame them. Therefore it’s not creative process that informs me (Studio Mut’s creative process is very formulated now); rather it’s more attitudes, or ways of thinking, that I find inspirational.

I can watch all of Michael’s videos without having to leave my studio in the Alps.

Just last week, for example, I binge-watched all videos of Michael Bierut talks available online. I love how he presents his work, and how generous he is with giving credits to other people for example. It’s his attitude that I admire. And I can watch all of Michael’s videos without having to leave my studio in the Alps. It’s perfect.


“It’s extremely important to be aware of what’s happening, and online inspiration has streamlined that process.” —Polina Joffe, art director and graphic designer

If you know what others are doing, you can choose to engage with it or you can choose to reject it. In order to form opinions and make informed decisions, you definitely need to be in the know.

I’m constantly looking at what other people are doing online, and I’m continually soaking things up on blogs and social media. Then when it comes to a specific project, I will do project-specific research. The amount of inspiration we have via the internet makes this research phase very easy and productive. I often remember concepts and ideas that designers have used previously that I’ve come across on social media, and then I update, transform, and remix those ideas with my own so that they work for my specific brief.

Online browsing has given me a huge visual dictionary of concepts and approaches that I hold in my mind, and I can dip into it whenever I’m beginning a new commission.

We often talk about creativity coming from within, but I don’t know if I believe that. Everything comes from somewhere.

I recently did a project for Tate London’s education team. The project was aimed at young people. First of all, if you’re working for young people, it’s important to be aware of trends that are happening in young people’s fields so that you can reference them. You need to nod toward a visual language that the audience will understand. If you’re not aware of that language, you can’t make those references. For the research phase of the project, I looked at how other designers have also dealt with communicating the idea of learning. Originally I had the idea of doing something with notebooks and binders. I then remembered projects I’d seen online that had used ring binders or notepad paper, and was able to go back and look at them again. Seeing how others have dealt with similar themes spurred new ideas for me.

We often talk about creativity coming from within, but I don’t know if I believe that. Everything comes from somewhere. For me, creativity is often about seeing how people have remixed ideas before, and then doing my own special and specific remix.

A lot of the history of visual communication has been about copying, updating, and shifting. There is, of course, a danger in recreating what others have done too much, and using similar elements to the point of ripping them off. That’s why you have to look at a lot of different sources when you’re doing research and getting inspired. The amount of images that we now have available at our fingertips, if used responsibly, can encourage a fresh take and keep us up to date.

Header image by Daniel Savage.


from 99U99U

Designer Confessions: The Most Embarrassing Moments Edition

Designer Confessions: The Most Embarrassing Moments Edition

We’ve all had spine-tingling, stomach-roiling episodes of  embarrassment. Whether we slip up ourselves or miss a thousand and one warning signs, we’ve all had OMG moments. However, with time and distance, we can often look back and smile rather than cry. In the spirit of having a collective laugh, we asked a few of our favorite designers to relive a time that made their faces burn.

To get us started, Arianna Orland recalls taking a project shortcut and drawing blood, illustrator Ping Zhu remembers botching her first big break with a major publishing house, and Zak Kyes recounts how he flew all the way to Asia just to be mistaken for someone else. Here are their stories.

Don’t cut corners when no one is watching.

Arianna Orland, Creative director, and founder of Paper Jam Press

I was freelancing in the 2000s, and I had to design these cardboard shipping boxes for one of my clients. It was also my responsibility to ‘comp the box’ – make a facsimile of the final packaging. I had ‘comped’ quite a few boxes in my career, so I thought this was going to be just another job.

Because I was freelance, I didn’t have a studio. I decided to use a service bureau to get the large-scale printouts I needed. And I asked them if I could use their production table. ‘Sure,’ they said. ‘But this is a favor. We can’t have nonemployees using the facility. Whatever you do, don’t cut yourself.’

“X-Acto cuts bleed fast. I was bleeding all over the comp, all over the table, all over the floor.

“The boxes I had done in the past were all on standard card stock. But these were a heavy gauge cardboard: a much thicker challenge for my X-Acto skills. When it was time to cut the cardboard around the curved edge, my hand slipped, and yup, I cut my finger.

X-Acto cuts bleed fast. I was bleeding all over the comp, all over the table, all over the floor. So there I was, a potential liability in someone else’s workspace, and still on a deadline to complete the job.

In a perfect world, I would have mustered the courage to ask for a Band-Aid right then and there. But instead, I told myself, ‘You can’t ask; they’ll kick you out!’ Then I remembered there’s an REI a block away! They’ll have first-aid kits. 

I stuck my finger in my mouth and ran down the street to REI. Thirty minutes later, I was back on the job. I tried to hide my Band-Aided finger for the rest of the day. 

The lesson? Obviously, I can’t resist: Don’t cut corners.

The real lesson? Never attempt to cut a curve on heavy-gauge cardboard with a dull blade.

Take your presentation cues from Madonna.
Sean Adams, Acting chair, Undergraduate and Graduate Graphic Design, Art Center College of Design

In 1996 I was invited to speak at the first AIGA National Business Conference. It was my first major speaking engagement. Most of my friends and design heroes made up the audience.

I was standing backstage, ready to go on, and the organizer told me, ‘I’m sorry, we’re running behind. You need to cut your presentation from thirty minutes to fifteen.’ I stepped up to the podium and began.

Rather than focusing on what I was actually saying, I watched the clock and cut sections of the presentation on the fly. The end result was a schizophrenic mash-up of words that made no sense together. I don’t think I was finishing sentences. Then, the time was up and I received a very, very lukewarm, mostly silent, sad applause.

As awful as this was, it was a blessing.

I was sure I’d ended my career right then and there. I walked Central Park for hours, replaying the train wreck over and over. Soon after, a magazine article singled the presentation out as the ‘worst low point ever’ and suggested, ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’

As awful as this was, it was a blessing. It knocked me down to earth and reminded me that I was not ‘all that.’ It taught me to be prepared down to even seemingly spontaneous comments. I learned that I should have said, ‘No. I prepared for 30 minutes. That’s what I need.’ From that point forward, at each speaking engagement, I took a cue from Madonna demanding that the AV be tested, the lighting fixed, and the timing confirmed. That doesn’t mean becoming a total jerk, just holding my own. Over the thirty years since, I messed up many other times. But mostly because I said something really stupid, not because of something that I didn’t get to say.

Treat every job prospect as an opportunity to break through to the next level.
Ping Zhu, Illustrator

I was still in school, and I went out to New York, where my professors had given me contacts of people to show my portfolio to. One of those people was Rodrigo Corral, an amazing designer who does book covers. 

I met with Rodrigo, showed him my work, and he was very kind. A few weeks after I got back from New York, he wrote to me and said, ‘We’re doing a book cover. Would you be interested in doing the illustration?’

That’s a huge opportunity. Normally when people get a job offer, they stay up all night doing the best they can. But I had no understanding of what it takes to be an illustrator. I didn’t sense the gravity of the situation. So I took it as a school assignment: Come up with some ideas, do some rough sketching, then paint something. I did my sketches on graph paper. I thought, I’ll just use a felt-tip pen, draw something really loose, and put it on paper that’s not even plain.

I sent back some really crummy drawings. But I thought it wasn’t terrible. Rodrigo would understand what I was going for. His email back ‘This isn’t really what I had in mind. Maybe we should just stop here without wasting anyone else’s time.’

I didn’t know what to say. I was so ashamed that he thought, ‘These are so bad, I don’t even want to engage.’ I’ve never cried that hard again for any reason regarding work. I was like, ‘I’m never going to make it. I’m a failure.’ I was desperate. But I was also determined to make things right. As horrifying as that experience was, it shook me into place mentally.

I wrote him an email to say, ‘I’m so sorry. Please take me back. I can do better than this.’ And Rodrigo let me try again. I painted three finals: super refined; everything as polished as possible.

As horrifying as that experience was, it shook me into place mentally.

He wrote back, ‘Oh yes, this looks much better.’ Unfortunately, it dropped off the map at that point. He never got back to me on whether they used any of them. At that point, I was too afraid to ask him anything else. In my professional career, I’ve never worked with Rodrigo. Maybe I’ve been blacklisted.

If you ever get an opportunity, just don’t screw it up. Give it everything you’ve got. Do your best. Underperforming won’t get you anything. As horrifying as that experience was, it shook me into place mentally. I said, ‘No more phoning it in. Even if you think it’s okay, you have to do better.’

If Rodrigo ever sees this: I’m very, very, very sorry. But I really hope he doesn’t remember.

A red flag means “stop” not “charge!”
Mac Premo, Stuff Maker, Mac Premo, Inc.

When my wife and I met, we were both broke artists. As we built a life together, she realized that she needed a sense of security. So she got a corporate job as a product manager. I continued making art and was like, ‘This is going to work.’ Then the recession hit and everything took a dive. Nobody was looking for talent. Then this interesting opportunity to work on a print publication came up. I was going to be the everything for it: creative director, making videos, designing the website.

To hear the guy putting it together talk about the project – ‘It should be a print magazine. It should be online. It should be both!’– you could see this history of him not being decisive. One perfect example was when he’d plan how to get from one place to another, his time estimate was always about how long it would take if it was 2 a.m., when there was no traffic on the road. He was constantly running late. That’s indicative of an overpromiser-underdeliverer. That behavior meant we were always late, always stressed out, and I’d have to say to him, ‘No, we can’t possibly have that by the time you promised.’

I’ve gone into situations ignorant to red flags, but more often than not, honestly, I plough through the red flags. Plus, this was the middle of the recession and I had just had a second child, so for a few months, there was economic stability. As things started going bad at the publication, I continued to ignore them with the hope that the stability would continue. He ended up not paying me for a few months of work. It put us in a bad financial situation, and I should have seen it coming.

I still get some prospective client calls and hear the dodgy, sketchy, vague talk that I used to hear.

It was tumultuous. I had to downsize my studio. During that time, my wife was carrying the weight of the whole family. And the whole time, I was thinking, ‘But this is a good idea. It has to work. But he said he was going to pay me. He can’t not.’

About five years ago, my wife quit the corporate world. Now I’m technically the full-time breadwinner. I still get some prospective client calls and hear the dodgy, sketchy, vague talk that I used to hear. But that experience honed my instinctive decision-making skill set. I came out of it learning to trust myself more. Yes, there are times when you kick yourself, but that’s the hard part of freelancing; it’s a leap of faith every time.

Let your work, not your title, define you.
Zak Kyes, Creative director, Zak Group

Confusion is common in projects that have large teams from different cultures. But rarely does it lead to a case of mistaken identity.

Several years ago, a well-known museum in Asia invited me for a site visit to discuss a new project. At the time, I was the director of Zak Group, the graphic design studio I established in 2005. I was also art director of the Architectural Association School of Architecture. 

I landed late at night and was brought directly to a dinner. When I arrived, the museum director hushed the room to introduce me to his team as ‘the great architect from London.’ A polite moment of reverence ensued. This would have been very flattering. But only if I actually was an architect.

While my work as the art director of the Architectural Association had become well known, that certainly didn’t make me an architect. I felt like Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who is born in a stable right next to Jesus and is mistaken for the Messiah. That story doesn’t end well for Brian. I blurted out, ‘Graphic designer!’ I’m sure this sounded strange as a greeting. The director was puzzled. ‘Architect,’ he corrected me. This went on for some time. I was concerned, even panicked. I thought about going back to the airport. I’ve always fought for more porous boundaries between disciplines, so it felt surreal to be reasserting them.

The result of the confusion was that Zak Group received its first commission to design both the architecture and the graphics for a large-scale, citywide exhibition. It ended up influencing curatorial decisions in ways that would never have been possible if we were ‘just’ a graphic design studio.

Last year, for the first time, an architect joined Zak Group’s team of art directors, graphic designers, developers, and a project manager. She has since been mistaken for a graphic designer.

from 99U99U