UnderCover: Insights from UnderConsideration founders Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Insights from UnderConsideration founders Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit

Last night's presentation by UnderConsideration founders Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit gave me some insight into how to build a successful design career. He's a not-so-brief summary.

First, get a formal design education. It won't bestow you with talent or a crazy work ethic, but it will hone your skills and open doors. Bryony graduated from Portfolio Center. She joked about lugging her massive and gorgeous "Portfolio Center" styled book off and on and off subways to job interviews to earn her first break. Once you get that first job, then the real learning begins.

Armin got one of his first jobs at the now defunct web firm March 1st where he worked with hoards of old school web geeks. Consider that this was at a time when everyone believed the web and its designers were going to change the world. He learned a lot about web design but was appalled by the crappy design most web geeks were churning out. He wanted to bring real design values and aesthetics and dialogue to the web. Therefore it's not so coincidental that Armin decided to develop a blog. SpeakUp was born soon after—on the cusp of the blogging trend.

With it's in-your-face writing and confrontational style, SpeakUp became a hit by providing a forum for debate and whipping up controversy. But according to Armin, SpeakUp reached its tipping point only after Armin and Bryony presented at an AIGA conference and spread word of the blog to the 2,000+ designers in attendance. Nothing beats good old word of mouth advertising, after all.

Of course timing is not all about being lucky (and/or smart) enough to jump in at the beginning of a trend. It's also about knowing when to get out. Earlier this year, Armin and Bryony had the foresight to pull the plug on SpeakUp. "It was getting stale," Armin said, "we started seeing the same old arguments over and over."

As a woman I was pleasantly surprised that Armin and Bryony (as a married couple) discussed a more personal form of timing—baby making. When they decided it was time to start their family, Bryony quit her job and began freelancing, "in order to develop a client base" before she got pregnant. With most couples these days working equally hard at building their careers, it's interesting to see how other couples—especially two designers—negotiate critical family stuff.

It was also because of their daughter, that Armin and Bryony decided to leave NYC and move to more laid back (and cheaper) Austin.

Mexico City. Atlanta. Chicago. New York. Austin. It is important where Armin and Bryony worked and lived, especially since their claim to fame is built on what they've created online? I think so. Large (hip) cities just seem to have more opportunities for designers. Which brings me to my next point...

Armin and Bryony's success has a lot to do with how plugged in they are with the design community. Their sites are not primarily about their work or their achievements or their opinions. Instead all of their projects bring people together and become communal resources.

>> SpeakUp had several contributing writers and became what Armin described as a "[virtual] neighborhood bar where everyone had an opinion and one too many beers."

>> FPO not only features pornographic close ups of letterpress printed work, but also provides detailed information about these projects available nowhere else. Vendors, techniques, paper specs, cost (god forbid!)—all this data collected by FPO and distributed to the world!

>> Brand New is UnderConsideration's newest project. It is a blog that strives to bring us all the latest scoop on corporate identities and has already earned loyal followers even outside the design community.

And their community involvement goes beyond blogging—Armin and Bryony also teach, create books, attend and present at design conferences, do pro bono work (see their logo for Type Con 09), and even used to hold intimate design salons at their apartment in NYC. Most of these activities are not part of their jobs per se. Yet all of these activities have turbo charged their careers by creating more and more opportunities. Their design karma is very, very good.

Nope. Can't get away from it. Armin and Bryony are clearly incredibly talented, smart, dedicated, and an astounding team. Yet they still put in 12- and 18-hour days, fill in for each other when illness strikes, and struggle to balance career and family priorities. Glamorous as their lives seem from the outside, they work with strict regimens (waking up at 5:30 am; blogging between 7:30 am and 8:30 am; reading RSS feed for an hour a day; etc.) and a high level of efficiency to get it all done. At one point the couple was working on two design book projects—they were overwhelmed. "It was the worst mistake we'll ever make," Bryony said. "There is no magic formula," Armin emphasized. "You have to work your ass off!"

My question to Armin and Bryony was this: What benefit have you gotten from blogging besides making a name for yourselves? Armin's answer was that blogging made him a good writer. He didn't start off that way. Blogging forced him to take his visual process and to frame it in words. It pushed him to have a more coherent rationale for his design decisions. And along the way he discovered the sarcastic, smart-ass tone that helped him differentiate himself from the masses.

Oh. And also, now the ads they carry on their blogs make them a little money. Which never hurts, right?

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