Managing designers 101


In their career, most designers will eventually be asked to manage other designers. The assumption is that if you’re good at designing and a bit charismatic you’ll be a good manager. However managing is not something designers are taught in college or even on the job. Designers are just expected to work it out.

With this ‘management gap’ in mind I set up a panel discussion to explore the topic as part of the AIGA’s Design//Work panel discussion series titled Managing Designers 101. The panelists were: Amy Stellhorn (moderator and Founder of Big Monocle), Brynn Evans (Senior UX Manager, Google), Jennifer Sonderby (Design Director, SFMOMA), Susana Rodriguez-de-Tembleque (VP Brand Experience, Apple) and myself (Creative Lead, Unity). The following article is based on the discussion held that night…

“Your job is not to be a manager. It is to direct” Susana Rodriguez de Tembleque, Apple

What does it mean to manage?

Firstly let’s look at just what managing is.

Susana Rodriguez de Tembleque started with an interesting point “In Spanish you don’t have the word ‘manage’. We say ‘dirigir’ which means to direct… it’s a much more inspiring word.” She described the process of directing as not solving day-to-day problems or managing people but is in fact looking after projects. Having responsibility as a leader in the creative realm means you are driven by a high level vision of the end solution. It doesn’t mean it’s about you or any control issues you might have. This can be hard because as designers we all want to be artists of some kind. We love creating great pieces for our portfolios that the industry will applaud. But as designers we put form to other peoples’ ideas not our own. As a result understanding both the problem outlined in the brief and the mind of the person whom it’s for are the key parts of leading creative projects.

To illustrate this point Susana described a time when she was an individual contributor working on a commemorative book for someone senior at Coca-Cola who had passed away. She spent a few weeks working on it, all the while thinking she would have a great portfolio piece. When it came to the review with the Creative Director he pointed out that the book was not supposed to be her book but was in fact for the people who knew him well, especially his family. After slowly taking down each printout one-by-one he replaced them with blank pieces of paper, on which he wrote a single word written on them. Those words were ‘Whisper’, ‘Celebrate’, and ‘Thank’ saying “This is what you have to communicate”.

“The most awful bosses are the ones you learn the most from” Jennifer Sonderby, SFMOMA

So, what does a good boss look like?

Everyone wants to have a good boss but just what makes a boss ‘good’. When the audience was asked what phrases came to mind when thinking about good bosses they called out phrases like ’empowering’, ‘listens’, ‘trusts’, ‘gives good feedback’, ‘encourages’, ‘backs up direct reports’, ‘appreciates your genius’ and ‘acknowledges good work and it’s creator’.

A key theme that emerged was that good bosses try to find the right role and work for people to self actualize. This sounds ideal and there was a consensus among the panelists about this. At this point I mentioned that when training new team members I make it very clear that I’ve done a good job only when the designer can think for themselves and do the job without needing my input.

And how do you treat direct reports? Jennifer Sonderby pointed out that it is key to “model the behavior you would like to see”. This is the acme of managing other people akin to following The Golden Rule but with more depth: “I’ve had some amazing bosses. The one I currently have is the Chief Content Officer. Essentially he functions as my support mechanism allowing me to take risks, allowing me to fail when I need to fail, take risks when I need to take risks and excel when I need to excel on my own growth trajectory.”

Good bosses also delegate. A lot. It’s hard to be any kind of individual contributor with even a few direct reports so the key is to teach them to mange more direct reports too. More delegation means you are less stuck for time and therefore able to take the decisions and meetings that come your way more seriously. At the same time you are further empowering your direct reports to make their own decisions too. Don’t be afraid to let go either. It’s fairly universal rule of thumb that it’s extremely hard to manage more than about a dozen or so direct reports. Just look at look at corporate org charts or the size of company boards or even the number of members in the President’s Cabinet.

“People don’t quit jobs. They quit managers” Amy Stellhorn, Big Monocle

What does a bad boss look like?

Your commute to work might be long and the work might be bad but having a terrible boss makes your life a living hell. This is something that most people overlook – the fact that your boss is likely to be the gateway to your happiness. Just as people end relationships that aren’t working for them they tend to quit their relationship with their boss not the job itself.

Why is that?

Well, when asked what they thought, the audience said that bad bosses are: ‘unavailable’, ‘micromanagers’, ‘managing up not down’, ‘contradict themselves’, ‘have no follow through’, ‘bipolar’, ‘made me anxious’, ‘mentally exhausting’, ‘didn’t respect what I do’, ‘most of my goes potential goes unused’ and ‘doesn’t even know what I do’.

Most bad bosses tend to be very focused on the task or goal to be achieved. Often they’ve squeezed out the human part of their relationship with direct reports. Or worse, they know only too well the impact they have on their direct reports and love the power trip of being in control. Having said that a fairly reliable indicator that a team is managed by a horrible boss is the fact that it has a high turnover of staff.


What is it like to manage for the first time?

As mentioned before, designers often get promoted because they are good at a core skill such as designing. Becoming a manager for the first time often means you are still an individual contributor but now have to think about other people, their tasks and their problems. You may be good at managing your own time but now you are responsible for others people managing their time too.

So far I’ve talked about the mental leap of understanding things from your direct reports’ point of view but there’s also a a leap in how they see you. After all you may have been ‘just one of the team’ up until recently. They will already have a good sense of what you are like dealing with time pressures, working with others or getting things done under pressure. However once you get promoted above your peers it can create a huge amount of hubris.

Amy illustrated this point with an anecdote. She had to promote one of two creatives over the other. It seemed to go ok until she asked the one that wasn’t promoted “How do you feel about X now being your boss?” To which she got the reply “Oh I don’t see X as my boss” Amy had to explain why this person was promoted and how the two roles suit each of the two designers’ personalities and abilities. Amy realized she had to make it clearer that both designers had a defined career path with growth built into it.

“As a manager problems come to you all day, every day so stay calm” Rick Byrne, Unity

What’s the difference between leading and managing?

As designers we are often expected to both lead and manage so I thought I’d explain difference.

The short answer to ‘what is leading?’ is that it’s driving the creative direction and the steering the whole team month-to-month or year-to-year. A key point to remember is that you don’t need to have ’director’ in your title to think like a leader. Meanwhile managing is more about taking care of the day-to-day problems that arise or how a finite project gets finished. As before, you don’t need the word ‘manager’ in your title to do this. In fact you’re probably doing this already by thinking about what your boss would like you to do.

In further describing the difference between the managing and leading I used a fictitious example from my military past. Leading is about providing overall direction as officers do e.g. “We need to take this hill because the enemy are using it to ambush aid convoys”. Managing is more about how we achieve the main goal like NCOs (non commissioned officers) do e.g. “First section will provide a diversion at the base of the hill while the second section will sneak up the side in order to launch a surprise attack from the flank”.

Crystal clear? If not here’s an anecdote from the design world to make it more concrete:

There was a time when I had to provide creative direction on a project for a stakeholder who could be quite difficult. I prepped the designer by explaining that in order to get something approved sooner rather than later we should do three concepts.  The first concept needed to be too plain yet ticks all the boxes in the brief. The second concept needed to be really out there – “let your flights of fancy take you wherever you want and it can go in your portfolio” I told the designer. “Next, create a third version that is just right (and somewhere in the middle of the other two)”. I went on to explain that the stakeholder will kill off both the plain and fanciful concepts. “Once they feel empowered by killing off the first two concepts they will naturally pick the one that we think is just right” I explained. In the actual meeting the designer struggled not to fight for our two sacrificial goat concepts. Yet by doing so the meeting went exactly the way I had stage managed it in advance.

“It’s surprising how often you can buy your team more team” Brynn Evans, Google

What do you do when you are stuck?

Sooner or later you’ll get stuck with a problem. It’ll either be not enough time, the brief isn’t clear, your resources are shrinking or there are technical problems. All of these lead to panicking or frustrated direct reports which means they aren’t doing their best work. No matter what the problem is you will be the one expected to come up with a solution.

Bryan Evans talked about how someone told her “Your role now is to be the shit shield. You’re going to hear a whole bunch of shit and you’re never going to want to pass that on to your team” when she first became a design manager. She strongly disagreed with that concept saying “I don’t believe that because I always found that if I know a little bit about what is happening beyond me I could do my job better. I try to relay the stuff that I think is important to people so there are no surprises forced on them. If something big is happening next week they can think about it now.”

Evan had some of these gems of wisdom to ask when there’s a problem:
– stay calm
– find out if it’s a tech problem.
– draw the solution out of those telling you the problem causing the hold-up.
– buy more time for the team if you can
– talk to people outside the team as to how they impact your team
– be transparent: put work up on a wall for reviews so everyone can see
– if you don’t have a specific solution say “I’m not sure but I trust your judgement on this”


Tips on managing

– Always remember birthdays
– Model the behavior you want to see in your direct reports
– Give credit where it’s due and don’t steal it for yourself
– Don’t panic – pause to take deep breaths
– Stay fresh by being hands-on on a few projects
– Manage up and down not just up
– Connect with direct reports once a day, even if over something small
– Be authentic: don’t change your feedback in front of non team members
– Don’t leave it to last minute to review work – no one likes late nights
– Reward time spent on drudge work with a more creative project

The panelists summing up to the audience


Hopefully if you’ve read this far you are ready for the mental leap that managing/leading creative teams and projects takes. Maybe you’ve made the leap already. Personally I see managing as more of an extension of design. You can do so much more if you magnify the positive energy and creative ideas that leading a team brings. In many ways it’s like being a parent. It’s very hard at first, taking up so much of your time and energy. But once you hit your stride it is very rewarding being there for their failures as well as cherishing all their great achievements.

*Panelists: Amy Stellhorn (panel moderator and Founder of Big Monocle), Brynn Evans (Senior UX Manager, Google), Jennifer Sonderby (Design Director, SFMOMA), Susana Rodriguez-de-Tembleque (VP Brand Experience, Apple) and myself (Rick Byrne, Creative Lead, Unity).


Working at a Startup 101



Every day more and more start-ups emerge to fulfill unforeseen needs and there aren’t enough designers to meet the demand. Whether they are the size of Google or just 4 people in a loft, chances are you’ll work in one at some point in your design career. With that in mind I’ve written this post on what it’s like to be a designer at a start-up with a leaning towards San Francisco/Silicon Valley.

So what is a start-up?

Usually a start-up is a young company that is creating an app, product or service that is using technology in a new way to solve a previously existing problem. Start-ups begin small and major growth spurts often come through rounds of funding from Venture Capital firms. These VCs hope the start-up will become the next big thing. However for every Airbnb, Facebook or Google there are thousands of small companies just a thumb swipe away, each one trying to ‘make it big’ too.

The architecture of a start-up: Unity staff work n’ watch in comfort

Working at a start-up vs traditional companies

When compared with older, more established companies, start-ups definitely have a different feel to them. Filled with hope for the future everyone at a start-up is feverishly working away on a product that may be huge one day. However there are 4 major influences on any start-up that create it’s corporate culture:

Firstly, start-ups are living on borrowed time as the money to pay for everything usually comes from Venture Capital investment rather than sales. With their board appointees in the company the VCs demand growth in order to get a return on their investment. Results are key on a quarterly basis and not a lot of time can be wasted on getting things wrong. 

Secondly, start-ups attract a lot of Millennials as employees. Young, idealistic and probably lacking a mortgage, spouse or children they can risk having the uncertain future and lack of stability that comes with working at a start-up. This is just as well since Millennials may not thrive well in traditional companies where it could take years to get a senior role there.

More unique to each start-up is the founder’s personality who bring their own unique flavor to the company’s dynamic. They may be super focused and quirky but their vision saw a big enough gap in the market to create a company around. The Founder(s) will have a lot of control over company and product direction and will expect things to happen fast. They are godlike in their domains…

Lastly, each start-up’s industry will heavily define the corporate culture. For example, if you work in a gaming start-up the vibe will be very different from an enterprise data solution start-up. You can guess why and you can also guess which one would be a lot more fun (speaking from experience).

Expect to play with a lot of new technology at a start-up

How do you thrive at a startup?

’Start-up environment’ in a job spec used to be a warning that you’ll work very long hours but now it means more than that. Get used to these aspects of a start-up if you want to thrive in one:

Firstly, expect there to be few boundaries and scant or no job descriptions. However the increased expectations of delivering projects often causes equally increased autonomy which in turn inspires individuals to work harder and for longer hours. It’s a trade off: experience and responsibility for effort.

Secondly, get used to change. As the company expands it may physically move office several times. Likewise the whole direction of the company’s product(s) may change as customers use it in unexpected ways. The two factors combined may create a very disorganized start-up. It all comes with the territory: forewarned is forearmed.

Thirdly, accept failure or cancellation of your projects. Start-ups are trying to do something entirely new and no one knows if the market is ready for it. And since time is money (either could run out any time) projects can get cancelled to save both. Don’t worry – you can still put the project in your portfolio in order to get your next job.

Gilfoyle whiteboards the formula for Mean Jerk Time in Silicon Valley

What’s the day-to-day work like for a designer?

So how are things different for designers at a start-up compared to traditional companies?

Firstly, you’ll need core design skills such as UX, visual or product design. Ideally all three in the fluid environment of a start-up. This is a good thing for designers since you get to design a wider variety of projects with more responsibility than you would in other roles.

Next is scale. You’ll be working on huge projects that you can’t do on your own such as an app, website or game. As a result you’ll be collaborating with a lot of people who have very different skills to yours such as developers, data analysts, business development etc. Expect to do a lot of group white-boarding sessions with a huge amount of smart thinking. so you’ll be kept on your toes intellectually. 

Thirdly expect to do lots of iterations in bursts of activity called ‘agile sprints’ which are pretty much applied to everything in start-ups. This process was originally devised for developers to work in parallel on large projects. As a designers you’ll need to do a lot of prototyping or proof of concept mocks to communicate ideas or pinpoint errors. The ‘fail fast and fail often’ mantra  is used at this point to avoid wasting more effort later on. However in reality people don’t want you to fail at all and would rather you are ‘outcome creating’. Be warned.



Design work: from simple interactive prototypes for user research to a full UI audit

What will I actually be doing as a designer?

You’ll be working on an entirely new ideas (hopefully) as your start-up tries to create a better, faster or simpler method of doing something. Hopefully the team will be putting the user first with everything you work on. This isn’t rocket science. Users vote with their thumbs in a fraction of a second. Whether you’ve solved the problem well or not will be apparent very fast. With that as your compass here’s what you’ll be doing on a daily basis

With that in mind here are the activities that will fill your days:

– Talking. A LOT of talking. New ideas are what make start-ups thrive
– Meetings with product, marketing, sales and engineering etc.
– Drawing, mostly boxes, on whiteboards
– User research: asking people a lot of questions
Creating personas of the end user
– Wireframes in Balsamic, Zeplin or similar programs
– Interactive prototypes in Principle, Invision or similar programs
– Detailed files in Sketch, Photoshop or Illustrator

Always use the product before an interview: Fitbit on my son to pitch ‘Fitkids’

Getting a job at a start-up

The same thinking applies to getting a job at a start-up as it does for any other job. Ideally you’ll demonstrate an interest in the company’s mission e.g. an interest in fitness if you want a job at Fitbit. Look at it from the company’s perspective – they want their start-up populated by enthusiastic people who are living the dream.

You’ll definitely need to have used the product/service before an interview if you can. Even better if you make a case study out of solving an existing problem with the product. Think like the user and think like a business to show you have a ’T’ shaped skill set: flexible enough to be broad but also show you can go deep in one or two core areas. Demonstrate your process with good thinking visualized well and keep any text in a case study to a minimum.

Also try to find someone at the company and get them to add you to the internal system. Most start-ups offer good incentives for employees to find good hires. While you’re at it do your financial research – especially if you would be leaving a full time role to take a job at a start-up. Be aware that you may get offered shares or stock options as part of any financial package. Speaking of which…

Options: not just for your relationships

What are stock options?

During your job application at a start-up you may get asked if you’ll take stock options as part of your compensation package. So what are they?

Well, they aren’t cash or shares.

Primarily it is the option to buy stock (shares) in the company at a later date. That’s right – they are an option to buy shares: not real money. In order to ‘execute’ your option you will have to pay money to buy the shares from the start-up itself. The hope is that the shares will rise in value when the company goes public.

So why would a company offer stock options? Primarily options allow companies to give some kind of (hopefully) financial benefit without any cost in the short term. However these stock options have to ‘vest’ over time i.e. usually you gain an additional 20% ownership of the stock options for each year you work at the start-up. This  is after an initial 1 year ‘cliff’ during which they don’t vest. Eventually you end up with 100% ownership of the options after 5 years.

Before accepting a job offer look at the start-up’s stage of funding i.e. whether it is at series A, B or C of funding. This is key as each round of funding dilutes the value of stock options. In contrast to stock options you may also be awarded RSUs (Restricted Stock Units) which are already paid for stock (shares) in the company.

Click here if you want to know more about the ins and outs of stock options.

Commute in style to Facebook with the ferry from Marin

Long hours and the commute to work

Once you get offered the job at a start-up then comes the commute. Previously a start-up job might have needed long hours in the office on top of sitting in traffic for a few more hours every day. However with advances in technology it doesn’t have to be that way… 

At the moment I work on a team which has people in Montreal, Shanghai, Copenhagen and San Francisco. This process creates non traditional hours as a result. You can leave work at 5pm to go to a networking happy hour or home for dinner with your family. Later on you can do more work from the comfort of your couch.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, many of the larger companies have wifi enabled coaches that take their employees from SF to Silicon Valley. Facebook even has a boat to get employees from the city or Marin to their HQ by the water in Menlo Park. Click here to read more about it.

Initially it might seem like you are doing more hours in this kind of ‘always on’ environment. However you have the flexibility of setting your own hours or being able to do something during the day such a child’s school event.

Tech companies in the 1950s and now


If you’ve seen the show Silicon Valley you’ll have seen how it parodies the incredible roller coaster ride of success and failure that comes with trying to start a company and launch an entirely new product. Art definitely imitates life in this incredibly well written show.

Your own job at a start-up could be similar: you could be working on the next big thing or it could just as easily crash and burn. It could be both over time as risk is inherent to start-ups.

Either way it’s usually a good experience to have under your belt. After all you’ll probably have fun and do interesting work. For example, one start-up I worked at had huge growth quarter after quarter. I had more responsibility than any previous job and I created a large body of work for my portfolio. I left for another job and by coincidence the company then had two bad quarters in a row. Almost everyone I had worked with was laid off in one day. Such can be the way of start-ups…

Designing logos 101

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Coming up with ideas: my favorite part of the process

Who needs logos?

Whether it’s a religion, political party or product/service a logo is the most compact representation of a concept. Just think of how much impact on your subconsciousness seeing a cross, a swastika and or a coke logo has. The logo is the mental gateway to everything it represents compacted into a brand that gets buried in the back of your mind.
I personally love creating identities as everything designed after the logo must tie into it. It is the Genesis of a brand. Since I’ve created so many logos lately I decided to write this post outlining the process I go through when sitting down to design one.
Jake Bloom MD: a client and his business
Kicking off the project
A key part of the kick off meeting is to listen closely to what the client has to say about the business/organization/service as they will have to live with it long after you have gone on to other projects. This is their baby and you aren’t a co-parent no matter how early you are in the process. Remember you might want to produce something amazing that appears in the Logo Lounge annual book but they will have to a very different view of success which will probably start with not wanting to alienate anyone.
To help flesh out where the logo should go I suggest something I did in a recent kick-off meeting. I asked the client to create 3 Pinterest boards for their logo project: one with general logos they like, one with general logos they don’t like and one which is their competition’s logos. This helps reduce the amount of guesswork you as the designer will have to do and also makes the client feel involved. If they baulk at the thought of the extra effort on their part tell them it will save them lots of billable hours.
Pinterest board of logos the client likes – created for the logo below
How much do I charge for a logo?

There is no hard and fast rule about how much a logo costs despite a client asking for a fixed price. If you are an individual creating a logo for a small business a fixed fee may be best for them as it is just something on their to-do list. Logo creation may not be in their realm of experience and you’ll have to do a lot of coaching

In general I prefer hourly rates so that the client pays for indecision on their part rather than having you pay for it in hours that can’t be billed for (taking you away from other paying work). Remember they may not be as familiar with the process or how logos and brands work in subconscious ways. They may just regard it as a simple mark that you apply like a rubber stamp to everything.
If you are reading this post you are probably not able to charge the kinds of fees large companies are willing to pay (to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars) to branding agencies for a whole identity system. By contrast to all that I often create logos, not for money but for creative kicks e.g Kickstarteresque small businesses. This way I am in the driving seat as I am doing them a favor. 
My competitive study of plastic surgeons for the logo below.
Assessing your logo’s competition
Unless the logo is for an entirely new concept it is likely to have some pre-existing context and competition. Take the time to Google the competition’s logos looking for any common imagery in that industry/area of expertise. There will probably be some recurring cliches and stereotypes as other designers have gone for the milieu’s low hanging fruit. You’ll have to ask yourself are they valid symbols or just the easy way out?
You can also Google blog posts or design portfolios in the same industry to see what is out there. Hopefully you can use this process to elevate your concepts either to be on par with or above the industry standard before moving onto the next phase in the process…
Inspiration: pushing your logo further

Now you’ve got the brief and assessed it’s context you need to prime yourself for the most creative part of the process by establishing up design standards to hit in your mind. You may already go to many AIGA events, design meet-ups or other design events to get a feel for what other designers think about and are doing. If you don’t I highly recommend that you do

In order to get inspired alone and in front of a screen I suggest looking at this year’s Logo Lounge Trend Report in order to see what trends are in vogue and get a contemporaneous feel for the project. Next look up the industry or logos in general on Pinterest. The beauty of this is that you can ‘pin’ anything you find to your own boards to keep, assess later, send to the client or get other designers’ for feedback on. Here’s one of mine:
All this is fun and yet adds to the mental stew of bits and pieces being created in your mind.
I could probably fit 6 on my microsketches on a single stamp
My submission for the Love by Design fund raiser
Time to sketch the logo
I carry a small 4” x 6” page-a-day diary around with me all the time as a kind of notebook. I use it to draw loads of micro sketches in a short amount of time. Few of the sketches are ever larger than the smallest postage stamp as I work my way through the various possibilities fast. In this phase I just need to get to the concept quickly not the detail. It’s like brainstorming on my own – a very necessary step to avoid a lot of wasted time later on.
While the notebook is the physical surface that I draw the sketches on, the actual physical space is usually while I am on the bus either going to or from work. I find this transitionary state keeps me focused and helps me be more open to new ideas. I’m actually on the bus crossing the Golden Gate Bridge as I write this post.
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Mac development for an NGO’s logo: Wildlife Rescue
Taking the logo to the computer

All the previous steps help build a mental picture of the logo in my mind and higher standards to aim for. However when I take the concepts to my Mac they finally have to become real. This phase is definitely the longest since the devil is most definitely in the details. Some ideas that seemed great as a sketch can look terrible once you see them on screen.

Another key part of this stage is the fact that sometimes creative leaps occur by duplicating or distorting the artwork or even just plain accident. Another thing to think about is the fact that while busy working away on the logo for hours you need to pause in order to make sure you are still working on a viable concept and not just polishing up a bad idea. You can easily create bad ideas and the client may even approve them (or be the source of them) but its good to aim high if you want to get better logo commissions in the future.
Subtle finesse is necessary once you go to the Mac
What have I done?

Once you get going on the artwork on screen you can very easily get very blinkered on the creative route(s) you are taking. At this point it’s good to take a break for a day and work on something else. At this point you can send what you have to a select group of designer friends for feedback. Whether you listen to them or not you’ll see your logo in a different light.

If you now feel uncomfortable or unsettled about the design listen to the small voice at the back of your mind. It’s your subconscious trying to tell you something about the design. Maybe your subconscious can see a better solution that your conscious mind hasn’t worked out yet. it’s your gut check moment. If you do make changes or additional versions at this point the client will still be happy with more options to choose from rather than less options. Don’t show them any you hate just in case they pick it. Remember you only need one concept approved.

Show the logo in situ where possible for the client (ClusterTruck game)
Presenting your logo to the client

When you show the client your final designs you’ll have to make them look nice, ideally in a presentation, in order to create a good first impression. This is, after all, their dream made real. If you can’t be there in person then sending an explanation too is essential. Combined together this will give them something for the client to forward to others as frequently they will want to get another opinion too.

You might think you did a great job on your ‘final’ designs but as sure as bears shit in the woods once you write the word final in your file name you will get changes from the client.  The best thing to do is anticipate these changes in advance so that you don’t get frustrated by the feedback. If this feedback annoys you pause before replying and follow up later in a professional manner when you’ve calmed down. Remember for the client who is a non creative this process of back-and-forth is often as important as the final design.
Where possible show that the project was real.
Putting the logo in your portfolio

Always ensure you can put work in your portfolio for the world to see and you are not subject to an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement). Once the logo is out their in the world it is legally considered to be in the public domain and open for you to use as long as:

“You may display your work in your portfolio-including a portfolio Web-site under the doctrine of “fair use,” as long as:
– you are not selling reproductions of the work;
– you have credited the rights holder; and

– you are not violating any non-disclosure agreement with the rights holder.”

For more details click here:

In my portfolio I always show the whole process from my initial sketches to the final design. I’ve found that most people seem more interested in the whole story of how the logo was created than the final deliverable. I use as many pictures as possible to explain each step. This is because most people will just scroll down each page in a few seconds skipping over the text

To finish off the narrative I always follow up with the client to get any photos or examples of the logo in some sort of real world application. I feel this ‘validation’ step is key as I see so many portfolios show logos/designs straight out of Illustrator/Photoshop. The viewer is left guessing if it was a proposed mock-up logo or wishful thinking on the designer’s part. Check out some of these amazingly polished logo mood boards on Pinterest:

The inner journey of a logo designer

Fun vs Stress
There’s an emotional ebb and flow to the logo design process which I’ve turned into a graph above. Really, it could be any design process but the simplicity of the logo creation process makes it a lot easier to chart. The process is its most fun when there is the least amount of stress like in the early research and inspiration phase. This is mostly because you’re in the lateral thinking phase and haven’t had to come up with any ideas yet. Everything is up in the air and full of hope for the future of the logo.

Directly inverse to the fun curve is the stress curve which gets more intense as you have to bring the vagueness of the concept into the real world. This is the linear part of the process: “I need 3 concepts by the end of Thursday.” Usually the stress curve reaches it’s peak at or just before the client presentation.

Where the two curves intersect is what I call the Creative Nexus. This is where you come up with the best ideas: stressed enough to think hard while coming off the intellectual high of having thought deeply about the topic. After this it’s a bit like a race to the finish – the stress of which can create more ideas if you’ve done the intellectual priming of the early phases.
Concepting on the bus

The beauty of logos is that they are simple, small and finite compared to designing something like a website or book. As you can see my whole process is loosely structured yet is also fluid enough to be open to changes in direction. It works for me as an individual and can easily be adapted to company or agency needs

The only difficult part of the whole logo design process for a designer is that it is a two way street: the client may not aesthetically see what you see. Never forget that they’re coming from a place where they own the business, concept, product etc. And while the logo may seem like your baby it’s really just the summary on their baby. If the client kills off the logo idea that you absolutely love then you can always put in your portfolio along with the rest of its story for all the world to see. Somebody else will definitely like it…

Freelance Designer 101



Are you thinking of taking the plunge and leaving that stable full time job to go freelance? Suddenly laid off in a ‘restructuring’ and looking to freelance as a bridge to the next job? Wondering about the major changes you’ll undergo? 

Read on as I recount some of the learnings from my own career (where I’ve had periods of freelance several times) and an AIGA panel discussion as part of the Design//Work series ( organized by myself on going freelance. On the panel were 3 freelancers, Arianna Orland, Peter Nowell, Tina Hardison and Lisa Gibello of The Creative Group (a staffing/recruiting agency). 

In the movies heroes never look before they leap

Making the leap from salaried employment

You may be escaping a bad boss, bad work, a bad commute or were laid off. You may just want to switch industry or specialization. Either way making the switch from the security of a steady job to freelancing is like heroes in movies jumping though windows – you hope you’ll land on something soft…

Suddenly you will find that you have the freedom of not being watched 9-5 at a desk, in an office. You may end up with a much bigger variety of work too. However you will also feel trapped as doing spec work and account management could have you working 6-7 days a week. It becomes hard to enjoy time off and the year may have stressful fallow periods of no work followed by overlapping deadlines where you have to turn down work.

During this transition you will become acutely aware of the cost of everything and the need to save for the quiet periods. If you are the primary breadwinner, with a mortgage and dependents to support be prepared for some sleepless nights.

Peter Nowell from his promotional video for Sprightly Books

How to market yourself

So you quit your job or got laid off – now what? Well, it’s not all doom and gloom. Going freelance is also a genuinely exciting phase of your career. If it wasn’t nobody would do it.

So what do you do now? 

Devise a branding system for yourself and your portfolio. This can be both a stressful and fun undertaking. Ideally you had this prepared in advance. Always make sure your portfolio is ready to be viewed with only the kind of work in it that you want to get as a freelancer. One of the best portfolios I’ve seen is Peter Nowell’s videos explaining his key projects which took 4 months to create:

Tell your friends, especially any small (or large) business owners, about your big leap as you need to get the word out. Come to design events such as Meet-ups and AIGA events to avoid the loneliness of being at home or doing a lot of short stints in different offices. Remember people and their names as networking is not just accumulating contact details, it’s about making sincere connections. Write articles/blog posts like this one or teach classes to get the word out about your abilities.

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Tina Hardison at her desk

Independent or staffing agency?

A big question that lies ahead of you is whether you want to go fully independent and deal with everything yourself or rely on work from staffing/recruiting agencies. Most freelancers prefer the higher hourly rate of going fully independent but also rely on staffing/recruiting agencies when they don’t have work. Neither route can be relied on for steady work but if you already have contacts with a lot of companies/agencies then going fully independent may be your best bet.

One thing you probably didn’t have to do when you were salaried is constantly look for work. Sign up with several staffing/recruiting agencies as they are constantly being asked to provide designers at short notice. As a result they have to constantly keep a stable of good and equally important, available, designers.

As well as looking for work for you these recruiting agencies will take care of ensuring you get paid (whether they get paid or not) and any taxes you have through the work they send your way (see Billing and taxes below). Understandably, for doing this admin the staffing/recruiting agency takes a cut of what the client company has allocated for the job. 

Arianna Orland and one of her pieces from Paper Jam Press

Finding and keeping your own clients

Part of finding and keeping your freelance clients is that you have to work at it every day and at every industry event. You have to be interested in everyone and everything as you don’t know who may become a client or is friends of a potential client. I got one freelance gig (which turned into a full time job) from coaching soccer to the son of the COO of a major gaming company. 

Since most freelance work comes from word of mouth the key is to do good work and be a great person to work with from the start. In all your rounds of back-and-forth you will be representing and defending your own work so keep it professional. How you are during this constant back-and-forth is key as the relationship may be more important to the client than the actual design work itself.

Set boundaries and a value on your work (probably hourly) and bear in mind that client management is a huge part of job. However if the client becomes too difficult then you can be the one who ends the relationship. For advice on this read Peter Nowell’s article on breaking up with clients (

Mike Montiero’s books at A Book Apart

What do I charge clients?

This is the 64 million dollar question. 

Try to find out what others charge but since designers don’t tend to talk about money they may not reveal their hourly rate. So what should you do?

Generally the industry charges by the hour so start working out how many chargeable hours* you are prepared to do in a year. Next, decide the total amount you need to make in a year after tax. Then give yourself a profit of 10%, 15% or 20%.

E.g 40 hrs a weeks by 50 weeks = 2,000 hours.*
Target income = $100,000
$100,000 ÷ 2000 hrs = $50 per hour
Profit of 20% = $10
Rate per hour = $60

*remember this is billable hours and you’ll need to use the down hours for your marketing and billing.

However the panel recommended that you actually double the overall figure you think you need then minus 30-40% for tax you need to set aside (see next section). PLUS overheads

When having ‘the talk’ with the client about your rate explain your process as they will have to explain it to their boss too in order to get the budget approved. Show workings/process from previous projects to the client in order to add value to what you do. You may have an awkward moment asking yourself “Did I ask for too much or too little?” Don’t worry – because everything is a unique case there is no magic number. Sometimes you’ll blow it and sometimes you’ll luck out. It’s all comes with the territory.

For more on this process read Mike Montieri‘s books ‘Design is a Job’ and ‘You’re my Favorite Client’ and his talk ‘Fuck You, Pay Me‘ 

Lisa Gibello talking about the benefits of The Creative Group

Billing and taxes

During the Design//Work panel discussion Lisa Gibello had a good pitch for The Creative Group. She pointed out that TCG will provide you with one W2 tax form ( for all the work you did in that year and direct deposit the money to you whether they get paid or not. This avoids you having to continually chase down payment from clients and having many tax forms to deal with.

There’s also the tax benefits for write offs such as the percentage of office space used in your home, any phone and internet expenses as well as the depreciation on computers. You’ve got to keep receipts for everything but it all adds up to lower tax bills. Speaking of which…

How much should you put aside for tax? 30-40% of your earnings plus the fee for not paying quarterly taxes just in case you can’t paid on time. That might sound like a lot but in the US you are liable to pay estimated taxes when you work for self: these are 3 payments made to the IRS against your projected earnings not money you have already earned.

For those working in the US try to get everything on a 1099 ( if you can. This gives you a nice check from the client for you to then manage the ebb and flow of your finances throughout the year. For contracts be careful when you ask for payments terms. ‘Net 15’ means your client is liable to pay you 15 days after the invoice is received. However, Net 30 and Net 60 are more common in the industry.


Managing your healthcare

Coming from working in Europe the issue of healthcare never crossed my mind when I moved jobs. However being cut from an employer provided healthcare in the US can be a very terrifying prospect especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition. 

I remember in 2007 I left a job in the San Francisco Bay Area and the cost of COBRA insurance would have been just over $600 a month for myself that would not have included my wife and 2 my children. Luckily with the advent of Obamacare/Affordable Healthcare there is a safety net in place that is financially feasible for a freelancer. In the Design//Work talk Arianna Orland mentioned that Affordable Healthcare cost her $119 per month. She mentioned that the Freelancer’s Union also provides very good healthcare.

Most staffing agencies also provide some healthcare if you work with them on a continuous or semi continuous basis. Check which policy they follow but since there’s no guarantee of future work it makes it hard if you have any kind of ongoing medical problem.

A fun identity from my last period of freelance. Read more about it here


Going freelance is a huge leap of faith – a faith that you place in yourself and your abilities. If you don’t have that you will find the whole process very difficult. This faith will get you through the freelance world where you are only as good as your last project whether you take the independent or staffing/recruiting agency route.

As for me personally I prefer a full time job for the stability and because you have greater ability to influence things. Ironically most of my full time jobs evolved out of a freelancing stint with the same company. In one role I came to freelance for 3 weeks, stayed on after that as a freelancer and 18 months later went full time. I then stayed full time for another 5 years. So you just never know…


Best SF recruiting agencies:

24 Seven
Kate Gilman:

Jessica Cizek:

Katty Douraghy:

Creative Circle
Amanda Marshall:

The Creative Group
Lisa Gibello:

Hilary Bullock:

Mickey Pucko:

JBC Direct
Christina Welcome-Lopez:

Lab Creatix
Pei Evans:

Onward Search
Shannon McGrath:

Von Church

Cassie Walker:

Working as an in-house designer


Working as an in-house designer
There was a time when being an in-house designer was seen as a less aspirational role than being an agency designer. However the rise of companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter here in San Francisco the pendulum has definitely swung the other way. 

Having worked as both an agency and in-house creative I thought I would write about the pros and cons of the latter – everything mentioned below is something I have done at some point…


Hipsters now have more time to be hip
The Pros and Cons of in-house design teams
First let’s take a look at the to different worlds to see how they are both different:
Much closer to the decision making process and being relevant
Much better work/life balance (hence the rise of Hipster hobbies) 
– No need to work late nights and weekends on pitches 
– Closer to the brand with a more in-depth understanding of it
Often no need to track time/billable hours
Internal teams often ignore proper creative briefs and process 
Lack of variety in creative work
Google’s rebranding stayed in house and was driven by technology as much as design
Staying creative within established brand guidelines
When you line up the Pros like that it can be easy to see why in-house design teams are becoming increasingly popular as a career choice for designers. However with just one brand to work on your creative horizons can narrow very fast. So what should you do to keep the creative juices going?
Hire people with skills that complement your team’s skills
– Keep trying to push the brand in new ways yet stay true to its core principles
– Study other brands that have adapted in creative ways
Attend AIGA events, Meet-Ups and Creative Mornings
– Expose yourself to other designers and ideas
Enter your work into design competitions
Do volunteer design work for a non profit like as 826 Valencia

– Read design blogs (hey, what a great idea)


three hipsters
“We’re from the agency”
How to prevent creative work going outside the company
Unfortunately most in-house creative teams have experienced the anguish of design work, especially a brand redesign, going outside the company. This usually occurs because the internal team is repeatedly told to stay within the brand guidelines until everyone thinks that’s all they can do. 
To avoid this happening an in-house team needs to:
– Create great work from the start
Be prepared to go the extra mile as agencies work late nights and weekends
Know how your work will be measured as successful e.g. money, clicks, etc
– Wine and dine the various VPs who approve creative work or else agencies will
– Understand the various approvers’ needs first before yours
– Itemize the cost of sending work out to an agency as this may shock VPs
– Always make the CMO look good


Talk internally about your team’s design work as often as possible
How to make your in-house design team thrive 
The success or failure of any in-house design team may often rest on how good it’s members are at articulating how much business value it can bring to the rest of the company. It’s not just dollars saved but more intangible things like making the brand look good compared to competitors or delivering a beautiful keynote for the CEO to present. 
Making it work:
Find channels to advocate for your in-house team
– Do VPs/approvers design favors e.g. something for their non profit 
– Ask if other teams need design work done
– Get your work/team mentioned in the company all hands 
Ask to pitch against the agency if work is being sent outside the company

– Bottom line: do good work


Concept boards from Clorox Digital Labs
In-house agencies
Increasingly something halfway between being an in-house design team and an agency design team has been emerging: the in-house agency. A great example of which is the Clorox Digital Labs but there are many more in the appearing in larger companies.
How do you build your in-house agency:
Hire people who have worked in agencies
Make everyone follow a creative process with briefs (which meet resistance at first).
Provide good customer service: more important than the designs for approvers
Don’t get complacent about working on just one brand
– Bottom line: doing good work is still the most important part





With this new paradigm of in-house agencies being much more creative and cost effective it’s the best of both worlds for everyone involved. Even Apple has recently moved it’s ad campaigns internally – a big step for them after the groundbreaking Think Different and iPod campaigns. In fact the best example I experienced of an in-house agency in my career was when I worked at an online publisher which also had external clients. It was wonderfully ever changing.


Designing a logo in 6 hours

A friend asked me to design a logo for a nonprofit focusing on raising funds in the US for various South Africa organizations who work to preserve endangered species, especially Rhinos (the original name has been altered below until it has been trademarked).

I was very busy at the time so only had an hour here and there to devote to the project. All together it was 6 hours and here’s how I broke it down into small sprints.

But first, here’s the final logo:


I looked at other non profit bodies doing similar work (1 hour).


While sketching I narrowed down a concept fast (30 minutes).


I changed a stock icon bit-by-bit for uniqueness (90 minutes).

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Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 10.15.51 AM



I looked at primitive and yet contemporary styles of logos (1 hour).




Next I started looking at color families (30 minutes):


Next came a font study to create a more primitive feel (1 hour):



Voila! The final logo in horizontal and vertical formats (30 minutes).



The Selfie Project: Gentlemen Adventurers

I already had a series of business cards which used the ‘Aviator’ image plus details on one side and 10 different movie quotes on the reverse thanks to It was always fun handing them out as the recipients guessed the movies that the quotes were from. After a while I wanted to take the project further.


One day, while in the local library in San Rafael, I looked across the street at The Belrose Performing Arts Center. While looking at the converted church I had a eureka moment: I could use multiple outfits from the costume shop underneath the theater to create 10 different personas. Seizing the moment I went across and explained my idea to Tori Arnold behind the counter. She was very helpful and I started quickly thinking through 4 different personas and poses on the fly.


Surrounded by over 3,000 costumes and a multitude of props I dived into the project by taking selfies. Having art directed photo shoots many times before I got all 10 personas done in two 3 hour sessions.

Gentlemen_Adventurers_selfie_process_2 copy

Each character took about 100 shots to get right with constant checking for light and angle as well as finding the right pose for each persona. Once back on the laptop I culled them down to two or three.


Next I would take my final selection into Photoshop to convert to black/white and alter the brightness/contrast. For the priest I added some shade to the background in order to bring out the bible (actually a diary).

Gentlemen_Adventurers_Priest_constr_1 Gentlemen_Adventurers_Priest_constr_2

I was much more prepared for the second session and finished the Gentlemen Adventurers with 10 characters: the Explorer, the Pirate, the Soviet, the Mummy, the Knight, the Viking, the Priest, the Bandit, the Sailor and the Aviator.

Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_1 Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_2 Gentlemen_Adventurers_cards_3

For two weeks I uploaded a new persona onto Facebook with a suitable cover photo.


Next I designed the cards and sent off the 10 different characters to be printed at (100 cards, with 10 different designs for a total of $54 plus shipping). This was the only cost for the entire project!

Capturing images: 6 hours
Photoshopping images: 5 hours
Design layout for cards: 7 hours

The Belrose Costume Shop:

Pacific Sun article on Margie Belrose:

Moo printing (up to 50 different backs per print run):