Advice from a Design Expert
I’m not your typical web design student. I spent the last 10 years of my life in the Air Force as a Military Police Officer. When I decided to change my entire life around, I foresaw two barriers to my success. One, I am 30 years old trying to shove my way into the fast evolving world of web design. Two, the experience I got from the military was as far from working in a tech field as possible. Air Force web apps pretty much only work in Internet Explorer (oh, the humanity).
But, back to my first point, I view the technology industry as a train, speeding across the country. It’s always moving forward and rarely stops to let anyone on. But this didn’t prevent me from grabbing my bindle (you know, that thing hobos have) and jumping on.
Like most students, I’m constantly asking myself, “Why am I in school, what am I learning?” and maybe not as common, “Am I learning enough?” Instead of pondering, I went straight to the source.
I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Eckhardt, a man of many talents, but most recently an Experience Designer with The Walt Disney Studios. He has worked in product/visual design for 18 years for a variety of organizations, including the NFL and the National Park Service. I sat down with him to discuss what it takes to succeed in the constantly evolving design field.
What did you learn in art school?
“I learned a process. I learned aesthetic theory. I learned how to see. There’s looking and there’s seeing. When you look at art, [you might say], oh that’s cool, I can do that, a five-year-old can do that. But if you can see art, you can see what the artist is trying to do. You have to learn how to see. I think if more people were taught to see, we would live in a more beautiful world. We wouldn’t have so much ugliness around us and visual pollution, from gross billboards to electrical wires all over this town [Los Angeles].”
“You have to learn how to see.”
“I [also] learned how to collaborate. I learned to have thick skin. I had very mean professors, I mean they were tough. Our professors were from RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), Yale and Basel, Switzerland. So these are like the cream of the crop design schools. Their curriculum, they were sticking to the process. The manual labor, it slowed us down. That’s another recommendation, is to slow down. Take your time with things. Don’t feel rushed. I know deadlines and stuff come up and I know you don’t want to be in what I call ‘analysis paralysis.’ Sometimes you’re thinking about something so much that you’re just afraid to push that pixel. What if I do it and its wrong? Forget about that, just do it and move on. If you do something wrong, own it, learn from it. You will be so much better person, better designer, better employee, a better collaborator. Admit you’re wrong. Nothing like failure to reveal the truth. If you want the truth, do something completely wrong and you’ll get the truth, real fast.”
“If you want the truth, do something completely wrong and you’ll get the truth, real fast.”
“I also learned how to express myself. I learned how to critique. Critiquing others work really, really helps you with your own. You cannot be a good critiquer[sic] unless you know how to see. Anything you say, back it up. Don’t just say, ‘I don’t like it.’ Why don’t you like it? I like the term, ‘what if?’ Say, ‘I don’t know if this is working, but what if?’ It leaves it open. It’s more diplomatic. The other designer needs to feel like, what you said will actually make their work better. At the end of the day, that’s what we want.”
What is “the process”?
“The process is:
1. Understanding. “Understanding is key. To understand, you need to research. I always put it this way: if you’re designing a book, read the book. Not only read the book, interview the author. Not only interview the author, interview the publisher and editor. If you’re designing a book, know the story of it. If it’s set in a certain town, research the town. If it deals with an issue, like a disease, or an athlete, research the sport or the medical condition. Do that first. Get a comprehensive understanding.
a. “Understand the readers. Is it fiction, is it non-fiction? Who are those readers? Who typically buys those books? Interview them. Get a complete and total understanding.
“That research isn’t always seen as productive, but to me it’s a huge and integral part of the process. If you honestly don’t have budget or time for user feedback and research, you have friends, coworkers, classmates. You can still do that research. You just do it Guerilla style.”
2. Create artifacts of understanding. “Taking understanding to the next level is shared understanding. Being able to communicate your ideas, your product, to a room full of people. You’ve done this research, you’ve come up with some cool ideas, how do you get those ideas out of here (your head) and onto something. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ presentation tool for this type of work. Build something out of construction paper, if you think that’ll work. Build a sophisticated prototype. Draw something in Illustrator. Whatever it takes to tell the story of that understanding of your designed product.”
3. Feedback loops. “To get from start to finish, products do this: loopy thing. Constantly doing feedback loops. Each loop is a collaborative session. The product keeps getting massaged to it’s ‘truth’. When I say truth, I mean: what’s the authenticity of this product? Is it authentically going to solve the business problem and the user problem?”
“You can’t make assumptions. You can make educated guesses, and that goes back to the research. Every time you make a decision, an ideation, back it up. ‘I did this because…the insights I gathered from this, led me to this and I think, not assuming, I think that will make it successful, but I’m not sure. Let’s show it to someone else.’ Test it and see if that assumption is true. Always challenge yourself and always challenge your assumptions. Never say, ‘It’s fine, ’cause I’m the designer.’”
Do you think that’s the purpose of design school then?
“Yeah, I think that’s the purpose of any art program. If you’re going to be a practitioner, and creating, visual communication, you should know how to see. Not only see, but interpret almost anything you look at. Once you break that seal, it’s really hard to live in this world.”
A lot of people say, you can teach yourself anything on the internet now, do you believe that?
“I believe, yes. I am self-taught in a lot of ways, but I don’t believe you can become a great designer in a vacuum. I think you need other people to collaborate. I think technical skills, absolutely. I had to fix something in the house, the other day…a faucet was broken, so I went to YouTube. Lo and behold, look at me, I’m a plumber. I taught myself Axure, which is another app you should look into if you’re learning digital products. It’s for prototyping. I say, it really allows me to think with my hands. I learned the technical skills for that but what I do with Axure would be nothing without the process. It’s just a tool. It’s like a hammer. A hammer can build a home, if you know how to build a home. You’re getting hired to create. That’s what design is, creating. Screw people with their tools, get the ones that work for you to help you create. You should be able to prove you can create these artifacts and you should have those artifacts in your portfolio to prove that you’ve done this work.”
“I am self-taught in a lot of ways, but I don’t believe you can become a great designer in a vacuum.”
Your First Job
For portfolio purpose, should you show an entire process from start to finish, or for at least one project?
“Robots read your resumes now, so you have to write your resumes for robots. Remove your dates. Make your language more like 10th grade. I’ve gone back and forth, I used to do these write-ups and be like, this is what I did in my process. It would be paragraphs. I would go to interviews, expecting people would at least read. They didn’t. Then I went the opposite, where I reduced it way down: this date, this is what I did, if you want to look at it, here it is. Ask me about it later. Then I add the case studies, to kind of expand on that. I feel like that’s working for me now. I would recommend maybe, do a more standard, buffet style portfolio, where they can get a good breadth of your work and then maybe a deep dive on one or two, for the curious. But again, still keep it brief. No more than like maybe, 500 words, tops.”
Do you think people absolutely 100% should go through internships?
“Yes, I believe in apprenticeships. Germany is interesting, because not every kid goes to college, but every kid gets an apprenticeship and they learn on the job. What I learned in school, was very high level stuff. These are all great things to learn, to get comfortable with yourself and your work. What I learned in the field, once I started doing actual work, with real clients…way more beneficial. Especially for this type of work. I think learning from a really accomplished colleague or mentor is by-far greater than any classroom. I highly recommend internships, I would demand you get paid. I would recommend doing it with some place you really admire and respect, if you can. Take it as an opportunity, even if you’re doing crappy work. My interns, I always brought them into meetings. They were always right there, witnessing. That access alone, you’ll learn so much from. Just being in that room.”
What is your experience, good or bad, with students straight out of school?
“Some students who come out act like they know it all. Don’t do that. Your degree is not a license to be snotty. The kids coming out of school who’ve impressed me are the curious ones. Also the ones who aren’t afraid to speak up. I’ve work with a lot of young people who had ideas, who were wallflowers. Some people, that’s their personality, but in a creative collaborative environment, learning to have the confidence to express yourself is a huge win. I find, that’s where success happens. In a creative world, fresh perspectives…is so beneficial.”
“Your degree is not a license to be snotty.”
How do you stay relevant?
“I’m a tech hobbyist, so I’ve always been enamored by technology, so that helps, it’s just natural for me. But its also my industry. I don’t have to force myself to be relevant. When the iPhone came out, I was like, ‘I cannot wait to design for that…to figure it out.’”
How do you personally gauge, what trends to follow?
“It all depends on who I’m working for. If you’re paying me, I will follow things. For example, now I’m working in the movies, so I’m really tuned into…back to that understanding…I’m tuned into movie-goers and movie purchases. Which I happen to be one, but that means nothing. Your own personal bias means nothing. Always question your personal bias. So right now, I’m really into movie trends, how movies are bought, sold, distributed.”
“I let my work drive the relevancy of the trends I follow, but I’m really tuned into the big players of the industry. I try to follow them as leaders, not as a fan boy, but really just trying to figure out what they’re doing.”
How do you prevent a burnout? How do you balance family life with this constant need to learn?
“I just demand it. Part of the reason I left the NFL was because I would leave for work early in the morning and not get home until 9:30–10, so I made a change to get that back. I would ask about it in the interview. You never get what you don’t ask for. Same for Salary. You ask for the money you want, and do your research. Always ask about it, and make sure to talk to more than just one person.”
“You never get what you don’t ask for.”
Another app that we talked about, but didn’t make it into this article is Sketch. I took his advice and started using it for my wireframes and mockups. I HIGHLY recommend it. Here’s how he put it: “All the widget shops, if you use photoshop[to design products], you’ll get laughed at. They’ve all moved on [to sketch].” Both apps we discussed are available at a discount for Students/Teachers. $50 bucks for Sketch and $free for Axure.
The conversation I had with Bob was a reassurance that I’m on the right path. I greatly appreciate him taking the time to mentor me and I know I will be better for it. In closing, here are more of his inspiring words:
“Never lose your curiosity. Always learn, whether you are teaching yourself, or you’re going to a class or you’re watching youtube videos…be curious.”
UPDATE: Final Final Thoughts from 2019
This originally published this article in early 2016. We're here now in 2019 and I've been a professional web developer for about 3 years. All of the info in this article is still relevant, with one small exception. Sketch. Sketch is still used a lot, but I've personally moved on to Adobe XD. It's free and has prototyping built-in. Figma is a strong contender too, however, after using all three, I prefer XD.