In November 2012, I made the trek up to the other end of Ireland, stopping momentarily in Dublin to spot a design hero of mine, before continuing on to Build Conference, a web design conference run by the ever-impressive Andy McMillan. Throughout a week of excellent talks, excellent films, excellent workshops and excellent beer, I got to chat to a whole host of my favourite designers, and I thought it was only fair to share some part of that experience with you.
Matt Kump, today’s guest, is a Canadian designer who was, up until two days before I talked to him, working at Tiny Speck on an awesome little game called Glitch, which sadly closed its doors last month. But let’s not dwell on the past – I had a great time talking to Matt about a formal education in design, responsive design, the perfect salad, and much more! Here’s what he had to say:
Hey Matt, thanks for joining us on The Industry. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
I’m a UI and interaction designer, from Vancouver – been doing it for 4 years professionally now. Before that, I went to school for print and branding. I run a non-profit called Trade School Vancouver; It’s a barter-based education system, so you trade goods for classes, instead of money. I try to get involved in side projects that aren’t specifically web-related, when I can.
And so, on that subject, with the design industry changing at such a fast rate, how important is a formal education in design, do you feel?
I definitely think there’s value to design education: It’s important to understand the fundamentals of design, whether that’s graphic design, fashion design, industrial design – It’s kind of, well, I don’t wanna say irrelevant, but it’s not too important, because you can apply your mindset to the web in so many different ways. I have a very branding-heavy mindset; I started doing design from logos when I was thirteen, so that’s what I know. I apply that to a lot of work I do: That’s where my idea of a user’s experience comes from – how they interact with a brand. But, to get into the industry, and to get started, it’s not completely necessary. Like, I didn’t learn coding in school, I taught myself.
How did you get into design?
I started when I was about 11 years old. My uncle taught me HTML and CSS, and I started making webpages on GeoCities with flaming text links and stuff like that. After that, I kept making different websites for various things over and over. Playing a game called Hattrick was where it really kicked off. It’s an online fantasy football manager, and one thing that you can have, if you’re a paid member, is a logo for your team. So, all these paid members needed logos. I had made my own, somebody saw it, said “Hey, that’s pretty cool, make me one!”. So I made theirs, and that happened again, and again, and again, and after a few years of playing Hattrick, I’d made over 1,000 logos in the game, and it was in that period of doing that every single day that I knew that was what I was gonna do for the rest of my life.
And that was all for free?
Yeah, it was all for free. I didn’t make barely any money on it, but it honed my Photoshop skills to acute sharpness. And then I just went to art school right after that. Like, immediately: Two weeks after high school, I started art school.
If you hadn’t become a designer, what do you think you’d be doing now?
Probably cooking…? Yeah, probably something culinary, I’ve always had a fascination with food. My favorite TV show is Masterchef Australia, which is weird – It’s not even in my country. There is an US Masterchef – they just call it Masterchef – but it’s garbage. All they do is DRAMADRAMADRAMA, there’s no actual cooking. There’s no Canadian one… We have some cooking show, I dunno what it is. It sucks too.
But yeah, probably cooking. That’s the only other thing I really like. Or sound production. But I don’t know how to do that at all. I just play guitar.
Well, exactly, yeah! Do you think it’s important to be a real person online, as opposed to some Photoshop/HTML bot?
Definitely. I mean, there are millions and millions of people who just Photoshop all the time and post “Hey, I Photoshopped!”. That’s all they live and breathe. My Dribbble has almost none of my actual work on it, it just has bullshit that I do for fun. You gotta show your sense of humour, your principles, who you are. That’s what’s gonna make people want to work with you, connect with you – Even if you’re the best in the world, if you’re an asshole, I’m not gonna work with you. I’ve experienced that a few times. Represent yourself well. In life – it’s not even just about online. Be yourself, whenever you can. Well, always. Unless there’s a lot of money involved.
Hah, of course. Outside of other graphic design, what inspires and influences your work?
I play a lot of games, so there’s a lot of that in my work. I played a lot of games growing up, so there’s a big 8-bit, 16-bit influence. The first thing I did that was “design”, I guess, was making custom spritesheets for video games, as a kid. Using MSPaint. It’s always been a passion of mine. Visually, outside of graphic design, that’s been my biggest influence. Art doesn’t influence me too much, just because there’s so much of it. I listen to music a lot too, but I’ve never been able to translate that into graphics.
So, you live in Vancouver – Does that have any impact on your work?
I think it does. The culture of Vancouver definitely has an impact on the way I work – I kind of feed off of what I see subconsciously. And then there are just trends that happen in design that bleed into my work – the artists, the logotypes, the old Vancouver. There’s a lot of history there, even though it’s a relatively young city. The West Coast lifestyle is very nature-based, so you see a lot of that in design there – it’s all trees and mountains everywhere. And a lot of green and blue.
How would you define success? Do you think you’ve found it yet?
That’s a really tough question. I don’t think I’m successful. I mean, I’m happy, I’m comfortable, but I’m still in the very early stages of what I want to be doing, in that I don’t even know what I want to be doing. I feel like there’s going to be a feeling of contentment that comes when I’m successful – I’ll be like “I could not do anything else now, and be okay with that.” Maybe that doesn’t exist, maybe forever I’ll always need to do more. But I never try to measure what I do in terms of success, I always measure it in terms of “Is this valuable?” If, in some way, it’s valuable to myself, those around me, or complete strangers, in any way: emotionally, monetarily, then it’s worth doing. If not, then why bother?
What would you consider to be the greatest failure in your career/life to date? And for balance, the greatest success?
Um…. [long pause] My biggest failure would likely be one of my earlier projects when I first started at a web agency. It was my first job. I decided that I knew a lot more about Flash than I actually did (This was when people were still actually using it.) A client came to us and asked it they would develop their whole website in Flash and fancy ActionScript 3. And I was like “Yeah, I can do it!”
I didn’t know an ounce of ActionScript 3.
So, I spent 3 sleepless nights in a row figuring it out, and it was a big debacle, cost us a lot of money, made them super angry, and nearly got me fired. And, yeah, after that I stopped doing any Flash work.
Come to 2 years later, the founder of my last job, Stewart Butterfield – who founded Flickr and Tiny Speck after – did a talk, in Vancouver, as part of Creative Mornings. As a result, I started following the game on Twitter. Then, all of a sudden, he messaged me on Twitter, out of the blue, saying “Hey, come interview.” It was pretty cool. So I go in there, we have a couple days’ talks, and I start working there. All of a sudden, my path had gone from doing crappy shitty work in an agency to doing good work that meant something to a lot of people. Doing something new, unique, fun, valuable. That was probably the highlight of my career so far – getting to actually do something that meant something.
What tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started in design?
Find your muse. Find who you really respect. Not just because their work looks great – If it does, find out why it looks great, find out what they’ve learned in their life, and learn that. I’m not saying to leech onto a single person and copy them – although copying/imitating is a good practice.
You can learn a lot yourself, thanks to the internet, but knowing what to learn is the hard part. The technical things, that’s easy – it’s there, you learn it. As for the actual ways of thinking, you’re gonna need to learn how the people you respect think, and let that mould the way you think.
Now, for my Build interviews, I decided to add a fun little feature that would only work with in-person chats: A quickfire round. With the emphasis very definitely on the word “round” – Speed rarely factored into it. Essentially, each person picked 5 playing cards, with each card assigned a certain topic. Then, they had to speak on those topics for as long as they wanted, with quite interesting results…
Design cultures at big companies (Facebook, Google, etc.)
I think they’re almost impossible to manage. It’s especially hard when you have lots of products that you’re trying to keep unified. Facebook seem to do it fairly well. I mean, they iterate a lot, but they have one cohesive product, even if people bitch about the new versions all the time. Whereas Google, they have some really great-designed stuff, and then some not-so-great-designed stuff, because their teams are very separated, although that seems to be improving. I think that big companies are starting to learn how to manage their design teams.
The Ultimate Salad
Y’know, I’m a big meat eater, but I hate it when salads have lots of meat in them. The ultimate salad needs to have a balance of salty – like Feta cheese – sweet and sour – like strawberries – and some heartiness to it – like a root vegetable. That would be perfect. Maybe some nuts for crunch. Walnuts, if you’re not allergic. Perfect.
Responsive Web Design
All for it. It’s all about context. It’s always about context. Responsive, as we know it, might not be perfectly applicable to your service: You might need to go with separate sites, or you might take it overboard and do a responsive iteration for every possible screen ever. And that can waste a lot of time. But it’s definitely the future, even if we don’t call it “responsive design” anymore, and it just works into “design.” That’s how web design works. Even if we’re still calling it “web design” – it might grow beyond that: that’s such an old phrase.
Dogs? I love dogs. I’m more of a cat person, but I like both. I couldn’t decide between owning a cat or a dog. I haven’t got any pets at the moment – I can’t in my apartment, but my last roommate had a Shiba Inu – a little Japanese dog. The thing was adorable. Um, yeah, for some reason, I like how disconnected cats are, even though I still like it to be friendly. Not ferocious. But dogs are kind of a bit too suck-upish. But they’re still adorable.
The Ultimate Sandwich
Hmmm… Gonna have to go with The Cuban Sandwich, at Bunk Sandwich Truck in Portland. Frickin’ amazing. Just, like, grilled pork belly, flat sandwich, which just melts, and it’s amazing. All I can say is the Cuban Sandwich from Bunk Sandwich Truck. If you ever get to go to Portland, there’s so much good food in Portland, but get that.