Nikki Clark, Designer at thirteen23
Where do you work and what is your current title?
I’m a Designer at thirteen23, a digital studio right in the heart of the beautiful Austin, Texas.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself & your background.
I’m a perpetually curious night owl. I like learning new things and starting projects. You’re just as likely to find me photographing poured out paint as salvaging vintage furniture or hunting through Santeria shops. My design background is similarly eclectic: I started building websites in high school, then went into screenprinting, then publishing, and finally found my home in digital. Prior to thirteen23 I was the Creative Director at Monkee-Boy, and was fortunate to help grow the company from a tiny team to a mid-size agency. It was such a cool and unique experience to be part of building out a team and a workflow, which was definitely a design challenge in it’s own right. Now I design for clients full time on projects that span from strategy to visual design.
When did you first realize you wanted to do what you do?
I’ve loved design since I was a kid, but I never expected it was something I could pursue professionally because I can’t draw. In school, I was interested in psychology and sociology, and for a long time planned to end up in academia. I’ve always been fascinated with people and human behavior, but it wasn’t until college that I realized design was even an option for someone like me. Sophomore year of college I worked in a bar, and one of my regulars was a UX designer. I remember him describing to me what he did all day, and it was the first time I really realized that you don’t have to be an artist to be a good designer. I already knew basic HTML/CSS and was designing show posters for my friends in my free time, and at that point it just clicked.
What was your first design job? Any interesting stories about how you broke into the field?
My first industry job was actually an internship at Rural Rooster, which is a small screenprinting and web design shop in Austin. I was actually really fortunate that I was able to hang out there a few days a week without anyone swatting me away, I had zero professional experience at the time, a liberal arts degree, and a portfolio of mostly flyers I’d done for some musician and promoter friends. I was also way less cool than everyone else that worked there, so I tried to make up for it in hustle.
I was exposed to a lot of different design there, and got hands on experience with everything from burning screens to learning Drupal. I had a lot of freedom to explore what I was interested in: I got to make and sell my own print at Flatstock, book models and art direct and apparel shoot, and work on pro-bono identity projects. It was a lot more freedom than I probably deserved at that point, and a lot of my work was really terrible, but at the end of it I finally started to think of myself as a designer. My boss also had a huge library of design books, so I finally had access to a lot of the technical design guidance I missed out on in school. I would take those to my second job, as a bartender, and read them before happy hour crowds showed up.
Please describe a normal day at your current job. What’s the workflow like? What are your primary responsibilities?
An ideal day includes a good balance of collaboration time and alone time. One of my favorite parts about working on a small team is really getting to understand how every single person you work with works best, playing to those strengths, and helping each other grow. I love having someone I can bounce ideas off of or brainstorm with that comes from a different background than I do. After that though, it’s really important for me to have long chunks of uninterrupted time when I can focus on the work. Headphones can work, but often I need to physically go in another room or disconnect my wifi to get in that mode.
My role shifts from content and IA strategy to wireframes to visual design, depending on the phase of the project. In the early stages of a project there’s usually a lot more collaboration and iterating, when I get to the visual stage I often need more alone time. I genuinely enjoy the challenges of each phase, and am not sure I could pick a favorite if I tried. On the evenings and weekends, I like to work on personal projects and the occasional freelance work if it’s a really cool project. The goal is to only take work that is the polar opposite of my day job or allows me to experiment in an area I’m interested in.
Are there any memorable stories, client interactions or close calls that have stuck with you over the years? An event that taught you something important about workflow or how the industry works?
I did have one phenomenal mistake early on in my career that I’ll never forget. I got word that an artsy personal project I had done a few months prior was getting published full page in Advanced Photoshop magazine. I was really young and totally geeking out about this news, so much so that I forgot to save the PSD to my external hard drive. And (you guessed it) my computer hard drive died days later. So I’m stuck with this 72 dpi .jpg I had uploaded to Behance, and I have two days to get them a high res version for print, for arguably what was the biggest moment of my career thus far.
After allowing myself to completely panic for an hour or so, I decided that if I was good enough to get into the magazine, I was good enough to recreate this stupid file. So I stayed up all night, painstakingly recreated it by painting over all of the edges, ran test prints, worked more, ran more test prints, then finally got it to a point where I could send it to print. The lesson? I learned that allowing yourself to panic privately under pressure is okay, as long as you’re releasing it so that it’s out of your way. I try to go for a quick run or walk if I’m under a lot of pressure, or I know I’m about to have a tough conversation with a client. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always great at this, but it’s definitely what I am working towards.
What’s a common mistake you often see entry level people make? What are some tips to avoid or overcome it?
I often see new designers allow fear of being inexperienced to manifest into some predictable patterns that show up in their work. If a new designer doesn’t trust that their design system will work, often they have a really hard time with simplicity and minimalism. This shows up in a lot of different ways, it could be filling white space with unnecessary clutter, including every single navigation option at every single step on the user’s journey, or designing for every single edge case with equal prominence.
If your work is well designed, let it work as intended, then test it and iterate. If your work is poorly designed, getting all of that clutter out of the way will actually help you see the weak spots better so that you can test it and iterate. Either way, that clutter isn’t helping you! The best thing you can do is strip your work down as much as possible and have a more experienced designer give you some feedback.
Any industry sites or blogs you read on a regular basis, or anything else you read for inspiration?
Constantly. Both Twitter and Medium are great resources for me in staying up to date on industry news, but I also read a lot of blogs. Here are some of my favorites:
- UX Magazine
- Gather Content’s Blog
- The Hipper Element
- The Great Discontent
- Design Quixotic
And if you’re looking for an excellent article roundup, A List Apart has a great one this summer.
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?
I’m really excited about the scientific approach to design that we see coming out of movements like Google’s Material Design. One of the most valuable contributions is quantifying basic design principles into tangible laws, like “Material cannot pass through other Material” and “Motion should embrace the real-world behavior of physical objects.” Without many digital laws of physics to guide us, we’ve spent a lot of years fighting trends with poor usability and nonsensical animation.
It also is an excellent approach to help demystify design to non-designers, which is something we need desperately as a profession. It makes much more sense to a client to say “The ball fell due to gravity” than “The ball fell because we want it to be simple” or even “The ball fell because it looked cool.” I hope that these guiding principles are the start of a movement, and Material Design will serve as a foundation of principles that are continuously improved upon and refined. I never thought I would be excited to compare design to physics, but I’ve seen the fallout avoiding this discussion has caused over the years and I’m excited to see where we go from here.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the industry?
Surround yourself with people you admire creatively, even if they aren’t designers. Having a network of people passionate about what they love and humble enough to talk about what they are working on is invaluable. If you find a community in which you feel comfortable sharing unfinished work with each other, you’ll improve ten times faster than trying to become the world’s greatest designer alone in your room.
What do you think is the future of your industry?
Less building things, and more planning things. I hope, at least. Because of the rise of site builders like SquareSpace or even Facebook pages, web presence has become really accessible to the average individual or small business. There will always be the need for big organizations to have complex systems or complicated CMS functionality, but I think we’re on a clear path of devaluation for the production side of digital design. I’m not afraid of that, though, and I hope it will actually free us up to work on bigger and more complicated strategy problems.
I think the cultural recognition of UX as a “thing” was the first big indication that we’re heading in that direction, and I think Content Strategy will be the next one. I’m really excited about what we’ll be doing in 5 or 10 years, and I can’t imagine it will be anything like we’re doing now.