5 Things I Have Learned About Design Working at Underbelly

I have worked in the graphic arts my entire adult life (going on 13 years now), but I have learned more in the last three years at Underbelly Creative than at any other time of my life. Anyone who has worked at a small agency knows that part of the fun and part of the challenge is that we take on varying projects and assume different roles. I have taken on a few roles during my time at Underbelly. My main areas of specialty are Branding and Illustration, but I am getting better at Product Design every day.

A Little Background

As a child, I liked to draw, a lot. Crayons, graphite, finger paint, I crushed it! My mother, a very kind and supportive woman, would put my masterpieces on the fridge for everyone to see. Oh, the acclaim! An artist was born. I continued to receive praise and validation through High School and College for my creativity and attention to detail. My meticulous renderings and dedication delighted my art school professors. I took courses on typography and layout but never excelled at Graphic Design the way I did at painting and drawing. At the time I wrote Graphic Design off as “not my thing” and continued to develop as an illustrator.

After college, I had a mixed bag of professional successes and setbacks. I managed to get a few in-house illustration jobs over the years and always busied myself with regular freelance work. I produced artwork for fashion lines, comics, animation, editorials, textiles, children’s literature, and bands; lots of bands. I started to create a niche for myself creating art for indie rock, post-hardcore, and metal bands. They loved my dark little characters and unsettling scenes. My style could be described as a mix of cute and creepy, with vintage themes, and lots of linework. I was heavily inspired by turn-of-the-century illustrators and alternative comics. For freelancers, it is all about having a recognizable style. Clients will come to you looking for that signature look. They know what to expect and you know what to deliver. It makes things easier for everyone. Conversely, in-house design must be thoughtfully adjusted to fit the project/client. Prescribing the same solution to every problem is just bad design. I have always taken pride in my ability to work in a variety of styles and mediums. The greatest test of this has been these last three years.

Enter The ‘Belly

After a lot of moving around, freelancing, different jobs, and life experiences I found myself back in my home city of Salt Lake where I was lucky enough to land a job at an up-and-coming design agency, Underbelly Creative. Under the tutelage of the talented designers who made up the then six person team, I became immersed in the world of Graphic Design (capital G capital D). Leading up to that I had a casual relationship with things like logo design, typography, digital illustration, and UI. Now I was in it up to my ears and learning something new every day.

Writing this, I am reminded of the quote attributed to Aristotle “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.” I have learned a lot so I am very aware of how much more I have to learn. Still, I thought I would share some tips and methods that have helped me develop as a designer.

It is one thing to read or be told something, it is another to actually LEARN it. Truly learning a thing comes from experience, challenging notions, failing, repetition, from really nailing a project because you did everything right. Here are 5 things that I have learned about design working at Underbelly.

1. Get Inspired

Knowing how and where to look to find good inspiration for work is truly a skill unto itself. For me, it is never a good idea to dive into a project cold. This is a great way to spin wheels, make more work for yourself, and ultimately come up with stale designs. Seek inspiration daily, take notes, create mood boards, and most importantly always remind yourself of what you love about design, and why you started doing this in the first place. The more you immerse yourself in beautiful, thoughtful work, the easier it becomes to generate ideas and design solutions inspired by those sources. Through immersion, good design becomes part of your language. It goes without saying that you should never copy someone’s work. That’s stealing. Don’t steal.

Inspiration can come from books, signs, nature, architecture, music, or anywhere really. For many of us it usually comes from the internet. Most of you know about the heavy hitters: Dribbble, Behance, and Medium. Here are some sites you may not know about that I look to when I need to get the ol’ juices flowing:

2. Do Your Research

Before you touch pencil to paper, make sure you are armed with all the information you need to meet the objectives of the design problem. There is nothing worse than producing a useless masterpiece. A beautifully crafted piece of design that fails at its objectives is not good for anything except for hanging on your wall. Art may be subjective, but Design needs to work.

If you are fortunate enough to have a designated researcher on your team utilize them, cherish them, and learn all that you can from them. Most of the design projects I have worked on have not had the luxury of designated researchers so that responsibility falls on the design team. This means different things for different types of work. When designing a brand you should first identify the market, brand attributes, positioning, understand where they are coming from and where they want to go before you can effectively begin designing any visuals. For product design, you need a clear understanding of the problem, the desired outcomes, the product’s brand, and the users before you even open up Sketch. No matter how small the project take the time to do your research, otherwise you are just pushing pixels in the dark.

1Brad Working

3. Process Makes Perfect

Having a design process that is realistic, time-tested, and clearly laid out for both the client and everyone on your team makes everything better. I have been fortunate to work with some very knowledgeable and involved project managers to help develop our processes here at Underbelly. Developing that process comes through stresses, failures, and growing pains- so don’t be afraid to look to others to gain insight into what works for them. Once you have done some research into other people’s processes, take that information and apply it to your own design practices to find out what works for you and your team. Always be revising and adjusting based on what you learn. At a high level a solid design process should include:

  • A vetting process to determine if you are right for the project or the project is right for you.
  • A kickoff where the goals of the project are explained, roles are defined, information is gathered, and resources are provided. Do your research, right?
  • A realistic timeline is established based on the project needs, budget, and timeline. This needs to account for regular meetings, revisions, and client approval time.
  • It is a good idea to define how designs will be presented. In person is best. Video calls are good. If a meeting is not possible, we like to send a video screen grab. This allows us to explain the work and share our excitement. Throwing images over the fence and letting the work “speak for itself” is never a good idea.

It is true that every client is unique and every project is a snowflake so flexibility is important. We always do our best to account for likely deviations and potential blockers, but you can never be prepared for everything. That’s part of the fun.

4. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Whitespace is your god now, pay tribute accordingly.

Sometimes intricacies in design can be like a magician's misdirection. Look at these fine details but don’t consider the composition, check out this fun effect but don’t look too closely at the layout. It helps to ask yourself before you add anything to a piece, “Is this serving to heighten the design or does it distract from the objective?”. Removing or hiding unnecessary elements allows you to open up your designs giving the important content room to stand confidently in the spotlight. Use negative space to control pacing, hierarchy, and to give the user a calm comfortable experience. Busy design reminds me of a cluttered garage. You have everything there at your fingertips but it’s disorganized, confusing, and overwhelming. Clean the garage, put your tools away, but don’t be afraid to add a splash of color.

5. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

A piece of commonly used imagery at Underbelly is the vintage diver’s helmet. We use it in our promotional artwork and we decorate the studio with an arguably authentic Anchor Engineering 1921 diver’s helmet. These primitive contraptions allowed adventurers to explore deep underwater, a realm previously unknown and unavailable to people. The helmet is the technology that enabled them to step out of the familiar and explore something new, frightening, and exciting. I love this metaphor! That’s why I got it tattooed on my right forearm (my drawing hand).

Underbelly has encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and constantly dive into new and unexplored waters. That’s part of the culture here; always learning, growing, and challenging ourselves. Through learning new tools I have been able to expand my skill set. I am always trying to find better ways to create and to problem-solve. I encourage anyone, regardless of your interests or profession, to always be in a state of learning. If it makes you uncomfortable do it, learn it, and never stop getting better.

1Brads Arm

Better Together

The most important thing that I would attribute to my growth as a designer here at Underbelly has been the opportunity to learn from the team I work with. We have a mantra “Better Together”. By being humble, open, honest, and always supportive we have facilitated a culture of collaboration that serves to heighten all of our work. I have been able to partner with senior designers to absorb their knowledge gained from years of experience. I have been inspired by fresh insights from brilliant interns straight out of school. I have been pushed and elevated daily. For me, surrounding myself with a diverse team of wonderful and passionate people has made all the difference. I look forward to continuing to grow and learn and teach and make.

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