Bethany Heck, Executive Design Director at Vox Media
Where do you work and what is your current title?
I work at Vox Media as the Executive Design Director of Audience Engagement, Video and Data.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself & your background.
My design education was a traditional print-based program at Auburn University, but web design was my biggest passion starting in middle school. It’s been my goal to merge classical design fundamentals and typography to new forms of media, and I’ve worked in the web design industry, big tech companies and at digital media companies.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a designer?
My father is a graphic design professor, but I never paid too much attention to what he did. I really got into design when I got into anime as a young teenager and taught myself photoshop, then web design and used imagery from those shows to make horrific monstrosities. The work was bad, but learning the tools was good, and I loved the combination of problem solving and creative expression that web design provided.
What was your first design job? Any interesting stories about how you broke into the field?
My first design job was working on campus at Auburn for the Alabama Cooperative Extension. It’s the organization that runs 4-H and master gardeners. It wasn’t a creatively fulfilling job, but it taught me how to restrain myself from the craziness I was doing earlier and forced me to learn how to do more with less.
Please describe a normal day at your current job. What’s the workflow like? What are your primary responsibilities?
I’m an Executive Design Director at Vox Media, and I own several areas of responsibility: Audience engagement, which is the team that handles how the websites of Vox Media look, and the video and data teams, which make the tools we use internally to create and manage video and gather and analyze data on how we are performing. Most of my team works East Coast hours, and since I’m in Seattle, that means I start my days around 7-7:30 and I’m wrapped up around 2-3. Vox Media is a very slack-centric company, so there are a lot of instant messages and conference calls.
My main responsibilities are art directing our brand interactive experiences and ensuring we are honoring the brands identities and making sure everyone is clear on what they are working on and feels empowered to do excellent work. It’s a lot of collaboration with other disciplines like PMs and engineers and making sure my designers are set up to succeed. I don’t usually have to design things on my own, but I will get heavily involved on things like typography because that’s my area of expertise.
Are there any memorable war stories, client interactions or close calls that have taught you something important about how things work?
Working at Microsoft made me fully understand the importance of empathy for your coworkers, especially those that work in different disciplines. I can remember being very frustrated by the behavior of PMs at Microsoft, and my initial knee jerk reaction was “man, these PMs are all just really bad at their jobs!” But that wasn’t fair and it wasn’t true. You will work with very few truly horrible or incompetent people in your career, and if you are experiencing friction, it’s likely due to a misunderstanding between what you as a designer are incentivized to do vs what your collaborators are incentivized to do. When I learned that PMs at Microsoft are rewarded for shipping features first and foremost, I had the context for the decisions that previously seemed nonsensical for me, and it gave me a framework I could use to try to help both design and PMs get what they want. Once you learn the “currency” someone else values you can frame what you want to do within that currency and you can have a much easier time getting everyone on board.
What’s a common mistake you often see entry level designers make? What are some tips to avoid or overcome it?
Young designers have the disadvantage of not having the context or experience to handle a lot of bumps that come their way in their career. I’ve seen younger designers make themselves and everyone around them miserable over “slights” that are just very ordinary issues that they will need to deal with thousands of times in their careers. When you are young, everything is a mountain, not an anthill. In these situations is valuable to have mentors you can call on, even if you don’t work with them, to give you advice and context and help you figure out how severe an issue actually is and give advice on how to navigate it.
Any industry sites or blogs you read on a regular basis, or anything else you read for inspiration?
I don’t read much in terms of design coverage because I think most of it is bad. It’s nice that it’s thoughtfully curated and I enjoy when they do posts that dive a little bit deeper than surface level on things. I have a regular rotation of pinterest boards, sites and dribble designers I look at every day to keep current on things and gather inspiration.
I collect a lot of books, and not just about design, and those are what I prefer to read instead of blogs. Most books you will find in the design section of a bookstore are eye-candy and provide no insight, analysis or commentary on work, and those types of books should be avoided. What I love to find is books on subjects that might have a large design element, but aren’t explicitly about design, like books about vintage matchbooks, advertising, military patches, etc. They are great examples of the practical impact of design and what it does beyond look great.
There’s something new and amazing coming out every day. What’s something awesome you’ve seen recently that you’re dying to share, or something you’re excited about?
Ah, too many to mention! I just got a book called “I swear I use no art at all”, which is a monograph of sorts by Joost Grootens. Grootens and his studio are famous for their book design work, and the book is full with creative visualizations and distillations of the books they have designed over the years without actually showing the books. One of the early spreads is a branching tree that shows how his first project led to two more, and continued to spread from there. They detail every grid they’ve used in their books designs, page layouts, paper stock, typefaces, even illustrations of the configurations of their various office spaces over the years. It’s nerdy and creative and incredible.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the industry?
Make friends with people who can help you get work. Nepotism is very real, especially in an industry as subjective as design, so knowing people who can vouch for you and your work in invaluable. Have a diverse portfolio and don’t get stuck just doing one medium or one aesthetic. I cannot tell you how many fantastic designers I have to turn away because they won’t take the time to design a webpage.
What do you think is the future of your industry?
Currently there’s a huge move of designers in-house at tech companies, and agencies are shriveling up. I wonder how much longer this trend will last. If corporations are not seeing a return on investment for design, these bloated design teams will get trimmed. The question then becomes what happens after that, and I’m not sure I can predict it. Agencies might have a resurgence, or we might see even more people running successful studio operations with the incredible amount of self promotional platforms designers have available now.
I also want to see where digital design takes design education. There are very few good design programs at universities and with the cost of school rising and the return on investment dwindling, I’d have a hard time saying I think people should go to school. However, I can almost always spot a self taught designer. The things you learn from a design fundamentals standpoint at a good program are invaluable. It’s my hope that people will use the web to create affordable, flexible programs for people who want to get the benefits of a 4-year program online without the crippling debt and time lost.