Buddy Boor and Jeremy DeBor,
Co-Founders of Other Things Creative
Buddy Boor and Jeremy DeBor are designers and co-founders of the Chicago creative design collective and agency Other Things Creative.
Where do you work and what is your current title?
We’re two designers that make up Other Things Creative, a small digital and branding studio in Ravenswood, Chicago.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself & your background.
Jeremy: Buddy and I are both native to Michigan. We met in college but didn’t become friends until after college when we both made the decision to move to Chicago. I came to Chicago first working for a small web studio and then after a fire in my apartment building Buddy and I wound up becoming roommates for a year, that’s when we started working on Other Things Creative in our spare time.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a designer?
Buddy: I was always into art as a kid but I didn’t see it as career until high school (if I was thinking about careers that early at all). My junior year I had a 3-D art class that was pretty geared toward design. Our teacher brought in a representative from CCS in Detroit at the end of the semester to speak to our class and walked through some graduates’ work and jobs. The work was awesome, I was pretty much set on being a practicing designer from there on.
Jeremy: That’s an interesting question because I’m not convinced I have that figured out. I think the easiest way to describe what we do is to say we’re ‘designers.’ But that’s a little problematic because that word is going to mean different things to different people, it even changes definitions for me from day to day. I have a lot of different interests and I struggle to decide just what kind of designer I am or want to be. Our society wants these definite boundaries around a person and I think a lot of people struggle with trying to limit or focus themselves into an easily branded box.
To answer the actual question though in terms of what Buddy and I are doing today: I think we first decided we wanted to run our own studio sometime in 2013. The company was already made at that time – we started it in late 2012 – but it took shape slowly and we didn’t really start taking it seriously until later on.
What was your first design job? Any interesting stories about how you broke into the field?
Jeremy: While I was in college I worked for the College of Nursing at Michigan State University in their communications department, designing merchandise for the College, printed collateral materials and culminating in redesigning their website. It was a pretty basic job but it did expose me to a lot of different mediums in the industry and how production actually ‘worked’ which they don’t really teach in schools. It was also the only time I’ve worked in-house as a designer and it was interesting cause now after attending and photographing all sorts of nursing events and talks I have this little well of knowledge about nursing that I wonder if I’ll ever find a use for. It’s interesting how intimate with the source material in-house designers are. Sometimes I wonder if that becomes a viable career path for people – to start in a job as designers for programs and soon find themselves as designers of programs. I could never handle the stress and responsibility of being a nurse though.
Please describe a normal day at your current job. What’s the workflow like? What are your primary responsibilities?
Buddy: As a two-person shop, we wind up wearing a lot of hats and split the day up between design work, project management, and business development. We try to divide and conquer these responsibilities pretty evenly so we can both still have a hand in the creative work.
A typical day usually starts with answering any day-blocking emails, then diving into actual projects. We aim to carve out heftier blocks of time to focus on a single problem, as it can sometimes be easy to kill your entire day through a thousand minute distractions. Pepper in two or three client presentations throughout the week and you have a fair picture of our day-to-day.
That said, no two days are the same. We make an effort to allow time to focus on personal passion projects and our own branding materials. For example, Jeremy is working on an animal illustration series for Inktober.
Jeremy: Yeah, our clients are pretty diverse so we don’t have a very set routine of things we do in a standard week. One week Buddy is a developer and I’m in animation land and then the next week we’re both together writing proposals for packaging designs. I think as we continue with this company it’s our intent to narrow our focus a bit and specialize in what we consider our key areas of expertise / passion, but I’m also interested in supporting our clients holistically, which I think means a more robust pipeline with our freelance network. We rely on other small studios or creative freelancers to do the things we can’t so meeting more people with more skills we can trust and bring into the fold with our clients is something I’m hoping to keep working on.
Are there any memorable war stories, client interactions or close calls that have taught you something important about how things work?
Jeremy: In terms of how the industry works – I’m amazed they don’t teach this more in schools. Or they didn’t in mine anyway. I was definitely someone who walked out of college with a lot of weird ideas that were quickly shut down by realities. To me, design is a bizarre discipline that’s taught in colleges as though it’s some grandiose nuanced thing (which it is) but when you give someone your job title out in the real world I think how they typically interpret you is either ‘this person can make my website,’ or ‘this person can make cards for my son’s birthday.’ And both of those things might be true but they don’t jive with the ideology espoused in a college design program where people are led to think in terms of big ideas and problem solving first. Especially at an entry level I think people walk into jobs with a very grand idea that they’re being hired for their ideas – how can this system be better? What is the best approach to this problem? – when in fact they’re more often being hired for their knowledge – can you run the software? Do you understand technical requirements? What are you production skills?
For the record, I think that colleges are right in their approach because they’re training innovators and lifelong learners who are incredibly valuable. But I think most college programs could do with a reality check and dig deeper into the technical side based on the students’ interests. Some might say the college doesn’t have time for both sides when they have a limited time to train the students so they concentrate on the big ephemeral skills you can’t get on the job, but I think that’s just playing to the section of students who are lazy. I think the bar in design programs could be raised, and a designer who can’t handle the production side of their niche is disadvantaged in my opinion. Especially at an entry level. I think internships are valuable but kind of a sham, we would be better off to let people actually start working when they’re ready to work.
What’s a common mistake you often see entry level designers make? What are some tips to avoid or overcome it?
Buddy: A common mistake people make on a first job is being a little too passive. Do what you’re asked, but don’t wait around to be told what to do next. When you start a job, you’re part of a team – don’t be afraid to make contributions or suggest a new idea.
The opposite of this shouldn’t be aggression, however. It’s important in this field to be able to take criticism. This leads to a more open, unified team and personal creative growth.
Jeremy: I agree with Buddy. You really need to just get into it. Don’t sit at the edge of the pond picking at tadpoles that come by. Get IN there, neck deep. Your boss won’t be mad for you doing ‘too much.’ They might need to focus you, they might shoot down a lot of your ideas because they’re bad, or they’re unpolished, or there’s some politics that you don’t fully grasp yet, but roll with those punches and keep working hard. Employers look to their youngest hires to invigorate the office. Be present, active and passionate and you’ll go far.
I think presentation skills also counts for a lot. When you’re headed to present something to your boss, rehearse what you want to go through a couple times first. Take your designs and drop them into a mockup that will help people visualize what you’re describing, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but I think a lot of designers are locked up in their own heads. They need to remember early in the process that their ideas need to be communicable to warrant trust and move forward.
Any industry sites or blogs you read on a regular basis, or anything else you read for inspiration?
Buddy: I read Smashing Magazine and CSS Tricks regularly. They both keep a pretty good pulse on the web design industry and cover a healthy breadth of topics, sending you on to the correct resources if you want to dive deep. AIGA’s Eye on Design and Brand New are solid design blogs too.
There are plenty of interesting niche sites to break yourself out of a blah mindset. Typeverything is a fun one for experimental typography inspiration, while Colourlovers and Kuler can be great for color. Often it’s nice to look for inspiration for only part of a project so it doesn’t influence the entire style.
If all else fails, a 10 minute walk can do wonders too.
Jeremy: Everything. Something a lot of people say is important (and even though I’ve heard it over and over I’m only just starting to grasp it) is being mindful in your life. Being present and consciously separate in every situation. Analyze your surroundings and really think about them. When you’re walking through the park try to notice the placement of the things around you and the sounds and smells and ask yourself why all of that is the way it is. We live in this age with an infinite amount of stimulus and it’s often necessary to shut yourself off a bit to stop from being overwhelmed but I think we can use that reaction a little thoughtlessly and stop paying attention. That’s also the definition of being in a rut so doing something new or different from how you normally do it can be very invigorating.
I also get my best inspiration from sources that have nothing to do with design, so I would say try not to silo yourself into only reading and learning from design sources. If you have other passions, pursue them. Again I struggle with the artificial boundaries around a job title, no one person is any more qualified to engage a topic than you are, we’re all just people. I also think that only looking at design sources makes you just like every other designer and increasingly less relatable to non-designers.
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?
Jeremy: Okay so it’s not design related and I’m probably late to the party as usual, but I just saw a TED talk about medical prosthetic advancements being developed from chemical compounds that are extracted from sequoia trees and fleas, then combined, and then implanted into tobacco plants and then extracted to make medical transplants that are essentially way better working tissue than what the person started with. Mind. Blown. The world is freakin’ crazy.
On a note that’s more in line with the artificial boundaries of my professional life, I’ve been really interested in VR technology and have started poking around with technical training in that. I think it might be a big field for communications design and education in the future and I’d love to be a part of that.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the industry?
Buddy: There are a couple of things. First, don’t be shy. There are so many people in the web and design field that would help somebody get their footing if they were asked. That doesn’t mean just locally, connect with somebody online that does the kind of work you want to do. The flip side to this is to be respectful of people’s time and keep it personal. There’s a lot of advice online geared toward asking potential mentors out to coffee to ‘pick their brain’. The prevalence of this advice results in many people’s inboxes being flooded with the same vague, somewhat inactionable requests. Instead, start with a small specific ask, such as an opinion of a project you’re working on. The relationship can grow from there.
There’s also an Ira Glass quote (that’s rung true for several years) about producing a mountain of work until you’re good at a craft. Even if you’re first starting out, try making something every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. Start small. Take a tutorial. Experiment. Try anything. These things start to build up over time. A small passion project can be just as valuable to talk through during an interview as a real client project.
What do you think is the future of your industry?
Buddy: Firstly, I think web designers & design firms will have to start offering richer experiences for the web to stay in business. Products like Squarespace and Wix are a dime a dozen now, and I think people are starting to build trust in those. While basic marketing sites are going to be harder to come by, people will always be willing to pay for good old-fashioned thinking. Creating experiences, flows, or paths that don’t come out of the box won’t just be a good case study anymore, it will be a necessity.
Another thing that gets us really, really excited about the future is the widening attention to both performance and accessibility. These are incredibly important issues for an inclusive internet, but for a long time they have been considered nice-to-haves. There are finally enough resources, support, and attention that nobody really has a reason to ignore performance and accessibility in their own designs.
Jeremy: Solid points Mr. Buddy. I also think we’re at a tipping point with agency culture. Buddy and I made the decision to work for ourselves and I think we will see a lot of that in the coming years. The internet has had a crazy effect on the world and I think we’re still at the beginning of the movement. As communication gets easier and people can coordinate with one another more swiftly the need for an agency/company to hover over a project becomes less and less important. Businesses can start working directly with talent which gives them two great benefits – one, it’s cheaper because they don’t have to pay to support all of the additional bureaucracy that goes into agency upkeep, and two they can be selective about their talent and have transparency for the work they’re commissioning. Agencies have this wicked trick where there’s a revolving door of talent and when you hire an agency to do your work you have no control over exactly who is going to be responsible to get it done at the end of the day. It might be the person who did the amazing work in their portfolio that got you excited in the first place, or it might not.
I think there will be a real market in the coming years for services and individuals to connect freelancers and form small teams to efficiently handle work – transforming designers from competitors to support structures for each other. When that comes to fruition there will just be one big agency, which is all the people who do things working together.