Max Temkin, Designer & Co-Creator of Cards Against Humanity
Max Temkin is a professional designer, consultant, and gaming guru. He is the co-creator of Cards Against Humanity, the internet’s favorite game for horrible people, and a staple of the Chicago design community.
Tell us about yourself & your background. How did you become a digital designer?
I started doing design on the 2008 Obama campaign. I started as an intern and quickly saw that there was a need for people to make things online, so I just stayed late at night and started learning how to use Photoshop and reading about design. Since then, I’ve just cobbled together a list of skills that are just enough to get by for most projects. One of the best/worst things that I’ve learned to do is just say “yes” to everything, even if I don’t know know to do it. It creates a strong incentive for me to learn quickly.
When did you decide that you wanted to head into digital design professionally and why?
I studied philosophy in school, which I loved, and taught me how to think, but didn’t have a very clear career path associated with it. By the time I graduated school in 2010 I was already designing for political campaigns, and seemed like the thing to do.
Where do you get your design inspiration from? Who or what inspires you?
My favorite designers right now are Scott Thomas, Greg Wohlwend, Margot Harrington, Veronica Corzo-Duchardt, Wilson Miner, Cory Schmitz, Louie Mantia, and Tim Van Damme, I have also found them to be incredibly kind and generous people, and learned so much from studying and copying their work. The product designers Jony Ive, Dieter Rams, and Naoto Fukasawa have had a big influence on me. Most of what I know about design comes from learning about typography, and there are a wealth of amazing type designers at the height of their careers right now, Jessica Hische has a great blog post about this: http://jessicahische.is/talkingtype. I’m also inspired by many game designers (too many to name here) but a few of my favorites are Doug Wilson, Mike Selinker, Porpentine, Richard Hofmeier, Zach Gage, Brenda Romero, Beau Blyth, Ricky Haggett, and Phil Fish. DoubleFine and Capybara Games are inspirations in terms of their structure and continued quality output, they are doing amazing work at scale.
What do you think it takes to become a good designer?
Well I don’t know if I would describe myself as a good designer, but I often think about that Steve Jobs quote that we should try to “expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then bring those things into what we are doing.” I spend a lot of time trying to pick apart work that I really love, trying to understand what makes it work conceptually but also hitting “view source” and seeing how it was made. I’ve also found most designers to be pretty open if you just ask them about their work. I try to be, and I usually make a process blog post when I ship something good.
What are some industry sites or blogs that you read on a regular basis?
Twitter is the big one for me, it’s replaced RSS as the feed of interesting thing that I read. I never miss Daring Fireball, Marco.org, Rands in Repose, and I really love Kottke.org and Andy Baio’s Waxy.org linkblog.
What are a few of your favorite design software tools, and why? (Web frameworks, Adobe software, etc.)
The specific tools change from project to project. Traditionally I’ve done pretty much everything in Photoshop, but lately I’ve been working in Illustrator a lot more. Cards Against Humanity and any print stuff I work on is in InDesign.
Could you describe what a normal day of work looks like for you?
I don’t have much of a normal day, I like every day to be different from the last. Usually we meet up in the office around 10 and work until 5, but I often have meetings all morning and then get home around 7 or 8. Jim Coudal recently gave me some great advice; he said that your cell phone is the worst alarm clock in the world, because if it wakes you up, you start playing with it and immediately get into email and Twitter and whatnot. Lately I’ve been leaving my cell phone in my desk at night, and taking my time in the morning to have some coffee and plan my day out before I get online.
What do you think is the most intimidating thing for first-time designers who want to become great designers? How do you think they can overcome this?
As I’ve gotten a little more experience and responsibility on the projects I’m working on, I’ve become less excited about the technical bits of design like fonts, software, techniques, etc. and a lot more excited about the concepts and strategies that great design serves. Design is persuasion and persuasion is only valuable if it’s in the service of something good and true. Otherwise, it’s just sophistry.
If you could give some insights to first-time designers, what would you tell them? What did you wish someone told you when you were younger?
Pretty much the same as above! When I go to design events, I often hear speakers tell people to “follow their bliss” and “do what makes them happy.” I generally find that to be worthless advice that’s impossible to act upon, it’s the same as saying, “do anything in your life that serves your ends,” which is a horrible way to live. You don’t do good, honest work because it makes you happy (although it often does), you do it because you only get to do so many things in your life, and they should count.
Do you have any thoughts on what the future of digital design is?
I think there’s a struggle for the soul of the internet right now. On one side, you have independent creators using technology that makes it radically easy to create and share. On the other, you have big businesses like media conglomerates and telecom companies that can only exist in their current form if they get to decide what media people have access to. If it was a fair fight between these two sides, big business would just get killed, it would be death by a thousand cuts. But it’s not a fair fight, the battlegrounds right now are patent law, copyright enforcement, online surveillance… arenas where big business have all of the power, all of the money, and all of the influence. When I see things like the McCutcheon vs. FEC ruling, which allows wealthy people to dump unlimited money intro political campaigns, it’s hard not to despair.