An Interview with Haraldur Thorleifsson

Today I’m talking to an accomplished designer from Iceland who’s done some great work for companies like Google and Square. Without further ado, let’s introduce Haraldur Thorleifsson!

How did you get into design?

Most designers seem to have been drawing from an early age and obsessing over font ligatures since they were in diapers. I on the other hand can’t remember thinking about design for the first twenty years of my life.

When I was studying finance at the local university we had to build a very simple website for ourselves as part of a general IT course. There was something about it that I liked so I started experimenting with and soon after that I found Adobe Flash. And it grew from there.

And how long have you been doing it?

It depends on how you look at it. That course I mentioned was probably in January 1999, so I can pretty precisely pinpoint the actual moment I started designing (although to call what I did in those first few years “design” is a stretch).

I never really intended to make a career out of design, it was more a way to pay the bills while I figured out what it was that I actually wanted to do. After I became good enough to charge for my services, I used design and flash on and off to support myself through university, eventually finishing dual degrees in philosophy and finance.

I kept designing while I figured out what I wanted to do next. That turned out to be economics so I again quit design, for what I assumed would be for good, and started a master’s degree in economics.

But around the time I was looking for topics for my dissertation I realized that while the courses had been great, I did not want to work as an economist. So I started designing again, and again it was mainly a means to an end, a way to pay the bills while I figured out what else I wanted to do.

And that’s how it went for a long time. At various times I’ve started university courses in development studies for the 3rd world, construction engineering and applied to a song writing school. I’ve wanted to be an architect (my main inspiration being the works of George Costanza), veterinarian, and musician. But none of those things really panned out.

I think it was only about two or three years ago that I really decided that maybe this design thing was what I wanted to be doing (although I’m still not a 100% sure). So that was the very long way to answer your question. The short answer is that I’ve been doing this for somewhere between two and fifteen years.


Where have you worked?

In the beginning I worked for mostly Icelandic companies that you probably wouldn’t have heard of. Then in 2006 I moved to New York to work at Cuban Council. Since then I’ve been freelancing but in the last couple of years I’ve been working a lot with Upperquad.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really amazing companies like Google, Square, Motorola, TiVo, YouTube and Vodafone.

What has been your favorite gig thus far?

I’ve worked on some great projects but Google’s 2012 Santa Tracker is my favorite at the moment. I was a creative director on that project working with some really amazing people spread across ten cities in four continents.

We built our own little world based around Santa’s village. It had great HTML5 games, interactive scenes, endless easter eggs and small surprises for kids of all ages.

The site was only live for a few days during christmas so unfortunately you can’t see it live, but you can check out the case study in my portfolio.

Who do you look up to in and out of the design community?

I mostly work in the web design area and I really respect the work of people like Tobias Van Schneider, Dan Mall, and Trent Walton. Designing bigger sites is usually a collaborative effort so it probably makes more sense to name agencies. On that list would be places like Odopod, Fi, Paravel and Welikesmall.


What affects the way you work? What motivates you?

Working at home, as I do, is really great in many ways. But it also means that there are distractions everywhere. I have a 9 month old daughter who is (as I’m writing this) crawling around me, standing up, shaking my chair and smiling up at me.

Add to that all the other distractions of every day life, social media, etc and the result is that if I’m not careful, an entire day can go by with little or nothing to show for it.

To counter that I try to have firm structure and a detailed todo list. I’ve also found that I can’t function without deadlines. And of course lots of soda water and edamame peas.

My biggest motivation however is simply working on exciting projects. If the project is right then I don’t really need to work at it, it just happens automatically. If on the other hand I’m working on something that I don’t really want to be doing then that usually gets pushed to the last minute.


How does your location impact your work and design style?

Living in Tokyo for the last 6 months has given me a great appreciation for design. I can’t read or understand Japanese so the visual design of everyday objects is how I figure out how to go about my day – a badly designed, illogical train station can be an endless source of frustration and a huge time suck.

You can translate that to web design. Although most people can read the copy on the sites they are viewing, a clear, easily recognizable structure and the right visual cues can avoid a lot of frustration, save time and if done right give you a warm fuzzy feeling.

What was a defining turning point in your life?

When I was eleven my mom died in a car crash. That obviously had a very deep impact on me and I don’t think it’s something you can ever fully recover from.

On a more positive note, I would say that giving up alcohol for good changed my life entirely. I had been drinking badly for a few years, and it affected everything in my life in a negative way. It’s now two years later and I’m six months into a marriage to a wonderful woman, we have a nine month old girl, and I’m living in Tokyo, a city I’ve dreamed about my entire life and my professional career has never been better.

What was one of the worst design-related decisions you’ve made?

I think taking on any project just for the money is always a bad idea (although that’s not an easy thing to say if you don’t have any food in your fridge). I’ve taken on projects that I wasn’t interested in, just for the payday, and it is never worth it. Once the money inevitably runs out, you don’t have anything to show for it. Your time is the most valuable thing you have, so you shouldn’t sell it at any price unless the work is satisfying in its own right.

You should also always listen to your gut when it comes to evaluating the people you are thinking about working with. The client obviously has a huge impact on the outcome of any project. So if you don’t feel like there is a connection there in the beginning, it probably won’t work out. I’ve made this mistake many, many times.


And best?

Moving to New York in 2006 to work for international clients really opened my eyes in a lot of ways and got me the connections that are the basis for a lot of the work I’m doing right now.

What’s a normal workday like for you?

Soon after making the decision to move to Tokyo I realized that time zone wise it wasn’t the best idea. Tokyo is 17 hours ahead of San Francisco, where most of my clients are, so when people are starting their day in SF it’s just after midnight the next day in Tokyo. To accommodate for the time difference, I wake up at 6 AM. That way I can get at least half a day with my coworkers and clients across the pacific.

My inbox is usually full of emails when I wake up, so I try to plow through them to see if there is anything I need to tackle straight away. Early mornings are also usually packed with meetings, so I spend a few hours on Google+ Hangouts or FaceTime before I can start doing some real work.

At around noon, most of the people I work with in San Francisco have gone home – so then I can relax, eat lunch with my wife and baby girl and sometimes take a nap if I’ve had a long night the day before.

I try to make todo lists for the following day before I go to bed. So in the afternoon I go into design mode and try to check off everything I decided I was going to do beforehand. If I’m working with people in Europe, they start waking up at around 6pm so I might do a few video chats in the evening if need be. I try to go to bed at around 9pm when possible but sometimes that stretches to midnight or beyond if I have a big deadline.

What does your workspace look like?

My workspace in Reykjavik has a 27″ display, wireless keyboard/mouse and a mac mini. To the side there is a glass door that leads out into our small garden and then above my desk is a huge world map that me and my wife made together. It is made out of about 84.000 plastic beads, the kind that kids use to create little images and then melt together, usually with an iron. It took forever to make but I love it.

What’s your favorite album or artist right now?

A friend once told me I listen to exactly the kind of music he suspected people in the advertising industry would listen to. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

According to iTunes my top albums last month were Gossamer (Passion Pit), Wrecking Ball (Bruce Springsteen), Ultraísta (Ultraísta), Paper Television (The Blow) and Babel (Mumford & Sons). Bruce is probably the only surprise entry there if my friend’s statement is to be believed.

Where do you want to see yourself in 5-10 years?

I try not to make plans more than a few months in advance. But hopefully I’ll have a happy, healthy daughter and the same amazing wife.

What advice would you give to young designers just starting out?

When I was younger I liked to take things apart to figure out how they worked. I never did figure anything out, and I certainly couldn’t put anything back together, so this mostly meant that I had a lot of broken stuff.

I am by no means a natural designer or illustrator, so when I started designing I basically did the same thing. I would take screenshots of sites I liked and copy them, the digital equivalent of tracing from paper. This taught me a lot about spacing, typography, grids and how to create graphics from scratch.

I don’t think this was the worst way to learn, but figuring everything out on your own is very time consuming. If I had to do it all over I think I would study graphic design. Reaching out to more experienced people and learning from them is also invaluable.

Finally, remember that doing something creative is about being absolutely confident in your work, and at the same time you have to second guess everything you’re doing.

Finally, where can people find you on the web?

I’m on Dribbble and Twitter and I’ve been posting some case studies recently on my portfolio.

Jumpstarting a Design Community

Understand Your Compensation

Designer Monoculture

The State of Design Leadership

The Science of Product Design

Interview with Michael Flarup: Co-Founder and Lead Designer at Robocat

The Importance of Design Conventions