It’s inevitable that you’ll cycle through many types of working environments throughout your career. You might even learn that you like working in a cyclical pattern that ebbs and flows between two extremes every few years. Whatever you end up choosing, remember that you can always course correct and nothing is forever.
With 6 years of experience at companies large and small, both fully employed and self employed, I’d like to dive into some of the pro’s and con’s of working at various sizes of companies as a designer.
Please keep in mind that these have been my personal experiences so far, and are generalizations that all have exceptions.
Large companies are great for designers who desire the calmness and security in making steady (but sometimes slow) progress toward a goal, and the ability to reach millions of users with their designs and ideas. These companies often hire groups of generalists who work well together and place them on specific teams to create specialists out of the group rather than the individuals. The day-to-day typically consists of more meetings, critiques, and process discussions than you’d find at a smaller company. Perks like unlimited free snacks, meals, and stock options are often enticing, though for me always felt over-the-top and un-motivating compared to overcoming obstacles and wearing multiple hats.
Who will love it: designers who enjoy focusing on one portion of the product and iterating slowly and purposefully, designers who code their work and prefer prototypes over mockups, and people who enjoy the stability and perks that come with large companies.
Who won’t: specialists who can be discouraged by the anonymity of working among many people, designers who prefer variety and the ability to wear multiple hats in a fast-paced environment, designers who aren’t open to continual critique, questioning, and compromise, and people looking to help guide the vision of a company.
Small and mid-sized agencies and startups are great for designers who want to get their feet wet with lots of design challenges in a fast-paced environment. Agency work is inevitably driven by deadlines that seem impossible to meet, while startup work is all about pivoting quickly and getting out MVP’s to the users. There’s not always time for lunch, let alone weekly meetings to discuss your career goals, but the speed at which you accomplish things can be truly invigorating. At their best small companies can be an inspiring and exciting to work at, especially when your co-workers have complementary skill sets who respect each other’s craft and communicate openly. At their worst small companies can be draining, ask for too much of your free time to finish un-achievable deadlines, and become difficult when co-workers and bosses with domineering personalities stop you from doing your job.
Who will love it: people who learn quickly on the job and are interested in exploring many facets of design challenges, younger designers who are seeking more responsibility than large companies are comfortable giving, senior designers and directors looking to build out their own teams, and people who enjoy working in an authentic and close-knit environment.
Who won’t: people who value process and slow, purposeful progress over speed and making mistakes, designers who don’t operate well under pressure or tight deadlines, people looking to make impressions on larger audiences and iterate on one thing.
The self-directed career works well for people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, who want to be in charge of their achievements and failures and take complete ownership over the work they produce. Freelancers have to keep up with a lot more than the latest design trends. They navigate how to get the right clients (and talk to them), define a pricing strategy, and battle the stress of finding new work. It can be difficult to adapt to new groups of people, and sometimes the project can be over before you’ve had a chance to form a trusting relationship with co-workers. Companies tend to seek freelance designers only when they feel the pain of a looming problem or deadline, so it can be difficult to get up to speed with the issue at hand as well as follow up once the project has ended.
Who will love it: thrill seekers, designers who want to carve their own path, people who prefer variety and ownership over steadiness and community driven design.
Who won’t: designers who dislike reactive design, people who have trouble asking questions to get beyond surface-level problems that clients initially communicate, people who have trouble budgeting or saving money.
On weekday mornings MTA trains from all over the city carry gaggles of coffee-breathed New Yorkers to their 9-5 jobs. During peak hours there can be so many people crammed into a train that there’s no longer any need to grab a pole because it’s effectively impossible to fall during a sharp turn or abrupt stop. Communication and eye contact cease during the suffocating ride, replaced only by the burning desire for personal space and real human connection.
To me this is what working at a large company feels like. Little room for growth, failure, or change of course. No individual accountability. Quietly impersonal.
I prefer working with small teams of passionate people who bring strengths to my weaknesses, communicate openly and honestly, and hold each other accountable for doing great work.
In movies there’s always a director to guide production designers, cinematographers, actors, and post-production in bringing a story to life. The director is the person with vision, the driving force behind the film. No one in Hollywood would make a movie without a director.
Products also require a director to communicate a clear vision throughout every step of the project. Without a vision, designers produce broken experiences because of conflicting information and unclear goals. I help companies to define their vision by deeply understanding their audience’s needs and desires before starting any drawings, wireframes, or UI design.
Vision tells me what we’re creating, and it’s your story that makes me care. Help me understand your company’s journey. Where did you begin? Where did you run into conflicts and how did you resolve them? Where are you trying to go? The stronger the story we tell through the product, the more powerful the bond we create with the audience.
Once I know your story, I listen to your audience’s stories to help define the problems we’re trying to solve. Where do they get tripped up? What gets them excited? Has anyone found a unique way of getting around a common hurdle? What do they think about your product and how does that differ from your vision? Talk to enough people and their experiences will start to form a pattern. These stories are the dots I need to connect in order to define and solve problems that go beyond surface level thinking.
Last year when New York City was frozen by the Polar Vortex, I finally broke down and bought a big, puffy jacket that went down to my shins. When I got outside I instinctively went to bury my hands in the pockets, only to find that the opening was too small for the bulk of the jacket around my wrists. I couldn’t fit my hands in them while wearing the jacket. I couldn’t believe it. Did the people who designed this jacket never try putting their hands in the pockets? And are pockets not one of the primary features of a jacket? Was this an MVP? Did some designer just create this on a computer in Miami in time for the Holiday season?
In contrast to the jacket, I’ll talk about the Moment Lens. Tired of all the cheap smartphone lens attachments being sold in the market, Moment created a lens to rival the quality and craftsmanship of professional photography gear. My favorite detail about the lens is that it mounts securely to your phone with a twist and lock motion, which not only eliminates light gaps between the lens and your camera sensor (a common complaint with the low-end alternatives,) but also mimics the same motion photographers use when switching lenses on a DSLR. It’s no surprise then that the small team who made this lens are photographers themselves, with over 25 years of experience creating professional gear.
I work on teams who take pride in the quality of their product, not the teams who need to put in the least amount of effort into a market opportunity. Great products are designed by people with a personal investment and interest in the problem they’re solving, and those who use it think “this was designed by someone like me.”
Over the course of my career, design has come to encompass so much more to me than just skillfully painting in wireframes and hoping for the best.
Products with integrity are made by designers who sit at the table throughout the entire process of building them. Working with a small team, I want to help shape the vision, connect with the audience, solve the right problems, and see the design through iterations and implementation. Thoughtfulness and collaboration is important to me during each phase, and I need work on a team who feels the same.
If you’ve been nodding along throughout the post, I’d love to hear from you! Shoot me an email and let’s work together.
Most people don’t know that I come from a family of artists and designers. I consider it my secret weapon, and the reason that I am a designer with a deep love for visuals and the art of craftsmanship.
My Grandpa, Lou Nolan, started his own design firm in the 1960’s, Nolan Duffy & White, and later went on in the 70’s to form Nolan & Associates. As a highly sought-after commercial artist, his work included US Navy Recruitment Posters, U.S. Postal Service Stamps, and the logo for NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, among other things.
His personal hobbies included sculpting, painting (especially with watercolor), and making meticulous, tiny model replicas of U.S. Naval ships. I remember as a kid he would sit down with me and give lessons on how to paint with watercolor. One of my favorite lessons was when we were painting a still life of bananas and oranges, and he taught me to use purple to shade the banana because the cool, complementary purple would make a richer shadow against the yellow than just black.
My Aunt, Mary Beacon, is a fine artist who is well known for her beautiful oil paintings of dogs. One of my favorite paintings of hers is of my childhood dog, Casper. I remember helping my mom photograph Casper, who was acting as our model for a painting Mary had in her mind. We took photos of him looking down while standing on top of a stone wall at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY, which eventually turned into a gorgeous painting.
Mary would send me a package of art supplies every Christmas and has always encouraged me to explore my creativity. In High School she bought me this incredible book called “Harley Brown’s Eternal Truths for Every Artist” which taught me how to use value (light and dark) to create compelling compositions, use complementary colors to make things pop, build excitement with dramatic lighting, and breathe life into to my artwork. True to the title of the book, I find myself using these techniques in my web and interface design daily.
My dad, Kerry Nolan, studied photography in college and is a custom faux finisher who stains and finishes cabinets, walls, doors, and libraries for luxury homes. He’s literally the best guy in the business, renowned for his work in multi-million dollar homes across Northern Virginia. He too has a passion for craftsmanship and doing the job right.
My dad bought me my first sony sketchpad, creative software like KidPix, Dabbler, and Photoshop, and my first (and second and third) camera. He’s the one who told me I could be a Graphic Designer when I was trying to figure out what to do in college because that’s what Grandpa did.
I come from a family of artists, designers, and entrepreneurs. Seeing the success of my family members working hard at their craft, all independently employed, has inspired me to do the same with my skills. I’m so grateful to have been brought up in a family who always nurtured my desire to be creative. Their success and encouragement is the driving force behind where I am today, and where I aspire to be tomorrow.
This was of course Jessica’s doing. Queen of lists and getting shit done. In an hour she was able to direct the shoot and get multiple types of photos. When we got stuck on one thing, it was easy to jump to the next.
I don’t have any lighting equipment, so we specifically planned to take pictures when Jessica’s apartment had the most natural light drenching the room we were shooting in.
I use Lightroom to post-process my photos and choose selects. One thing I love about Lightroom is the ability to copy and paste settings to any picture. I wanted the photos to feel bright and punchy, just like Apple’s Emoji. So, when I found the settings I liked for the shots of Jessica working at her desk, I used that on all the photos of her working at her desk; when I found the settings for the single product shot of the poo, I copied that across the other product shots as well. It’s important to note that this technique requires photos to be shot in the same light with the same camera settings to achieve the most consistency.
For the past month I’ve been overhauling the design and content of my site, Made by Eno. Today I couldn’t be more excited to launch the update, which wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous help of my best friends Jessica Harllee and Charles (Big Chaz) Wood.
Jessica developed the site using Siteleaf, which has been an absolute pleasure to use. Both Charles and Jessica were instrumental in helping me wrangle in the copy and content of the new site. I’m incredibly grateful for the time they’ve given me to make this better than anything I could have done alone.
The first part of this tutorial series addresses choosing imagery for your composite. I go through my organization techniques using Adobe Bridge when dealing with hundreds of photos from a shoot. Lastly, I’ll talk about using the emotions from your copy to help search for the final image.
There’s no shortage of incredible (often free!) design assets on the internet. Tutorials, photoshop files, fonts, patterns, and icon packs are all yours for the taking. What, you haven’t heard of Tuts+, Premium Pixels, 365 PSD, Lost Type, SubtlePatterns or gasp dribbble?
I hope you’re sitting down for a while, because exploring these sites sets forth a domino effect! Embrace your hunt for assets as a way to simultaneously learn about their authors and how they became successful in their fields. Then, think about following these fine designers and companies on twitter to stay in-the-loop on their latest projects and what’s going on in the industry.Read more ...
As many of you probably know, the magazine models we may have drooled over in high school are anything but real. They are made slimmer, their pores disappear, their eyes have no wrinkles, lashes long and luscious. All of these things and more are done in Photoshop.
This example is extreme, and most photos can be edited with just a few simple adjustments to turn a good picture into a great picture.
As an example, I’ll show you what I did to a professional photo of a Mizuno shoe for their Slowpitch Innovation Landing Page. Keep in mind, I never would have been able to transform the shoe the way I had wanted if the original photo wasn’t spectacular in the first place. Even a photo taken with a $40,000 lens needs some TLC. I want all the designers to know that you should never leave a photo alone in your design - at the very least it will need its levels adjusted and most likely color balance. A photo that looks adjusted on white can look dull and flat against a black background. It’s all about the context.Read more ...
Here’s my process for compositing a sports shoe product into a dramatic background scene. This was done in Photoshop CS5 and makes use of adjustment layers, masks, and smart objects.
A timelapse of my 4 hour image composite in 4 minutes for the Mizuno Wave Enigma imagery.
10 incredible books to take a look at this summer. These books, blogs, and authors have been carefully chosen based on recommendations from trusted friends and colleagues, and are sure to ignite a passion to do what you love - love what you do.
Playing around with Photoshop animation tools to prototype a quick test for a way to navigate around a site. I’m liking Photoshop more for this rather than after effects because of the lack of control I have - not spending time trying to get the tweaning right. Just quick and dirty.
Also, when I say quick and dirty, let’s be real. This took me about 2.5 hours, but the more I make them the faster I get. It’s about asset building and being experienced about where to set keyframes for the pace.
I know most of the movement in this isn’t natural (easy in, easy out), but for prototyping’s sake it gets the ideas across. Being messy keeps me from getting hung up on design options later because nothing is set yet (ie: looks like shit.) Let me know if you have any questions on using the animation tool!
I’ve been rolling around the idea in my head that I could take some time off from work to just read. Maybe a reading road trip, who knows. It’s just that things are getting stale and my mind needs to exercise more.
I want to be someone’s apprentice, I want to read, ingest, discuss, write. I want to meet new people every month and make cool things with them. I need to make things to be a fulfilled and functioning person. I’m not too particular on what those things are, only that they should make a difference, and I am an integral part of their success or failure.
Why not have a crazy idea and run with it until it’s finished? Wake up in the morning, excited to start the day, go for a little walk, eat a light breakfast, chat with friends, and then just start making and learning and loving life. I can’t say it enough: I need to make things.
This is one of the most beautifully simple web designs I have seen in a while. The Design Cubicle, recently redesigned, strikes a chord with me in every sense: the color palette, the typography, the intricate and delicate pixel-perfect details… and to top it all off the content is fantastic, well-thought out, and interesting to read. I can’t remember the last time I was compelled to not only finish a long article online (or offline for that matter) and THEN look for more on the same site.
Brian Hoff’s article Understanding Inspiration resonated with me.
“Also, having recently redesigned this blog, I can relate to playing the role of a "recorder.” The color palette was inspired by a book cover I came across while browsing a bookstore in Princeton, New Jersey, while the cross-hatching–acting as shading running along the sides– was inspired by my neighbors old little white fence that is half hanging over into my side (the way the fencing weaved and intertwined). The subtle grey texture was inspired by a newspaper feel to put focus back on my content and purpose of this site: to read. A majority of what inspired this redesign was drawn by offline inspiration.“Read more ...