The question of whether or not you should have a niche is one of those questions that, in the design world, will seemingly never go away. Dann Petty, today’s interviewee, is a perfect example of finding a niche, sticking to that niche, and succeeding in that niche. With Dann, it’s the outdoors, adventure sports, and extreme sports – Starting out as a would-be surfer, he quickly developed a love for Photoshop that blossomed into a fantastic design career.
But I’ll let Dann tell his own story…
Hey Dann, thanks so much for joining us on The Industry. Tell us a bit about yourself and the work you’re doing.
Right on, thanks for having me.
Well, first off, I’m a Pro Surfer (web) and currently living in San Francisco, CA. Before that, I lived in a small teeny tiny town in Tennessee called Tullahoma. I’m 29 now, nuts – almost 30. Anyways man, for the past few months I’ve been heavily doing a lot of “investing by design.” It’s a fancy term I came up with that just basically means instead of getting paid, I got percentages of different companies in trade for design and creative direction. Works out pretty well actually and I’ve really enjoyed helping a lot of these start-ups take off. Most of them have been iOS apps though there’s a few websites wondering about out there. Now days, I’m working full-time at Obvious Corp.
How did you get into the design industry?
I failed as a pro surfer in Tennessee. Waves only came when someone made a big enough splash in the lake, so by default I did the next best thing, design. Truth be told, it’s the same old “young kid + Photoshop 5 that mom brought home one day” story that gets us all. Lucky for me, I had a great design school to go to when college time came around (O’More College of Design in Franklin, TN) to broaden my skills.
If you hadn’t become a designer, what do you think you’d be doing now?
I’d be living the dream. Traveling the world and surfing all day. Probably residing in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA right there by the reef. I use to live there for a couple years but design needed me in San Francisco. (Actually I needed San Francisco.) I still think about doing that everyday but in order for me to be awesome enough at surfing it takes several years. But hey, Slater is 40 and still shredding like a world champ. There’s hope!
What does a typical day in the life of Dann Petty look like?
Sleep deprived. Ha. I work a lot. Sometimes I say being a creative is a curse. Your brain never stops thinking of new ideas or better layouts. Anyways though, my days start off healthy with a protein packed breakfast right after I crawl out of bed. Before last month, I’d just crawl right over to my office chair. Sometimes before or after I took the dog out to do his thing. I typically check these sites first routinely: notcot.org, cnn.com, dribbble.com. Then TweetDeck and then finally email. For the rest of the day I’m typically in Photoshop until my acai bowl time for lunch and then ’til it’s time to go hang with my wife in the evening! And if the surf is up, best bet I’m out there in the ocean at sunset.
You’ve worked a lot with both web and app design – How do the two disciplines compare? Which do you prefer, and why?
It’s hard to compare the two since they are so different. But I think currently my favorite is iOS. Mainly because it’s more hands-on and that there are still tons of great ideas out there yet to be created. I’ll always love web design though. Haha, I’m just glad people finally realized that just because mobile is a smaller screen, it doesn’t mean it’s easier and quicker to design for. Still can’t believe how much I’ve heard that.
You do a lot of work for companies in the extreme sports, outdoors and adventure fields – Was this a niche you specifically tried to get into, or one that simply evolved? How important is having a niche, do you feel?
You gotta have a niche in my opinion. Especially if you are trying to make it in design. It’s so easy to get the work you want, you just have to brand yourself accordingly. I knew I always wanted to design for extreme sports and rad brands so I set up my style early on just for that. The new nixon.com is the perfect example. I set up my whole career as being a “pro surfer (web)” and designing for these types of lifestyle edgy brands and then finally, my dream project came which was redesigning that site. Go check it out and tell them the their “White Knight” sent you.
Your client list is pretty phenomenal – Nike, National Geographic, The North Face, to name but a few. How do you find working with such big brands? How does it compare to smaller client work – Which do you enjoy more, and why?
It depends, if I did the work as a freelancer like Nat Geo or Nixon I loved it and nothing compares. Working literally one on one with the client is awesome. No middle man. No project managers. No directors. No bosses. That’s when client work is epic. The small work is fun too though, just depends on how it’s set up. I loved working for start-ups like Chart.io and Lightt.com. Start-ups are usually so hungry and energetic they always want the best and timelines don’t interfere with that. They are way more willing to take risks than the likes of National Geographic and 9 times out of 10, they pay better too :D
What is your workspace like? Are there any design tools that you simply couldn’t live without?
My work space in my office is cool. I’ve got my 15″ 16GB MacBook Pro Retina, 27″ Thunderbolt Cinema Display, Wacom Intuos 5 wireless medium tablet and the usual iPad and notebooks. Currently running CS6 though not too stoked on it just yet. I upgraded from CS4, ha. My little dog, Machado (named after Rob Machado) sits on my lap usually when I’m working which is pretty rad. I had my wife paint the walls black because I like a nice dark space to work in.
It’s funny though, my desk looks like a Nixon store. It’s got like 17 Nixon watches on it plus my most prized possession a dripping wet used surf board straight from Rob Machado signed from Nixon saying “To Dann, Nixon’s White Knight.” Nixon didn’t have to do that, love clients that show appreciation like that. That’s what it’s all about right there. Oh, and I also have a Red Bull fridge that I use as a file cabinet.
My workspace use to be a surfboard out on the patio by the beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea :(
And finally, for those looking to get started in the big bad world of design, what tips or advice would you give?
Do it big, do it now and have fun. Most importantly, I always recommend every designer to go work in advertising. If you haven’t worked in advertising, you haven’t worked on enough exciting stuff IMO. I used to have to pump out like 2-3 sites a week and at least 20-50 creative banners. When you’re forced to think in a 300×250 box all day you start to learn how to think so much more creatively. Advertising forces you to think more creatively as well.