I was recently interviewed by Working Not Working as part of a video series about freelance creative professionals. They reached out based on my profile on WorkingNotWorking.com. I was invited to join the WNW platform in 2014, as I was making the leap into full-time freelance. WNW allows me to showcase my work, update my availability, and has connected me with the top design studios, agencies, and tech companies in San Francisco. I’ve recently updated my portfolio and joined some other design platforms, but you won’t be able to convince me they matter. Armed with with an embarrassingly outdated portfolio, no exposure, and my WNW profile, I’ve worked steadily for years taking on amazing design roles. The best design projects come through WNW.
In my career, I’ve opted for an unconventional route to focus on creating design. Being interviewed by WNW was a unique opportunity to reflect on 15 years. Throughout of my career, I’ve been solely-focused on every step of the path. This interview was turning around to watch the sunrise over the wilderness I’d traveled through. It illuminated obstacles I’d overcome, things I was unaware of, and the path ahead.
The interview took place at my home in Sebastopol. By the end, I was surprised by how much I had to say and its relative coherence. One of my answers moved a producer to tears! Later, I hit a bullseye practicing archery, made a moderately heavy olympic barbell lift (without warming up and wearing jeans), and capped off the night hanging out with the WNW crew at their ‘Drinking Not Drinking’ event in San Francisco. They explained my interview would be cut down to my best answers, so I’ve recreated what I can remember and added a few questions I’ve heard on the WNW Overshare podcast.
Where are you from, did you grow up in a creative household?
I was born in Hamilton, Ohio. When I was four, we moved to Santa Barbara, California where I grew up. I was raised in an academic and creative household. My dad was an accomplished research chemist and inventor and practiced music as a hobby. My mom was initially an English teacher, and went on to teach and practice many forms of art. Thinking of our home, I can hear “The Entertainer” flowing out of the piano and can see the shapes of Matisse’s cutouts.
In school, when art time was finished, I wouldn’t stop. My teachers eventually gave up, they knew it was no use. Throughout school, art classes came naturally and were my escape. Nearing the end of high school, I attended Multimedia classes at a local community college and learned Adobe Photoshop 4.0. I was intrigued, but this was 1998 and I wasn’t aware of design as a profession.
The Cowboy and the Smurf (Left: Me, Right: My Brother, Peter)
Where has your career taken you? Why did you go freelance?
After high school I went to the University of California, San Diego because they offered a “Visual Arts” program. I quickly discovered this major consisted of term papers and was grooming students to become art critics. After my freshman year, I transferred to the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. There, I pursued a traditional artist’s training before landing in my digital design major, “Computer Arts: New Media.”
After graduating, I returned to San Diego to start my career. I had an internship and freelanced before taking a web design role at a traditional advertising agency. After two years, I moved to Orange County to work at the prestigious Flash design studio, JUXT Interactive. Todd Purgason, the force behind JUXT was an early web design pioneer known for his creative audacity. Experiencing the expression of Todd’s creative vision felt like standing in the middle of a hurricane. He spoke with tremendous conviction, his hands gestured like lightning flashes, and his voice rose to make the culmination of his ideas feel like thunder.
Scenes from JUXT Interactive: Column One: (Top) Being surprised at my desk, (Bottom) Todd's Book; Column Two: (Top) Todd Purgason, Creative Director, (Bottom) JUXT 2004 Temp Site, used from 2004-2009; Column Three: JUXT's Newport Beach Studio; Column 4: Celebrating with some of the crew (Top) L-R: Hampus Hansson 'Hampy', me, & David Tindale 'The Captain', (Bottom) L-R: Miguel Castro 'Chizzler', Jorge Fino 'Rubber Mallet / The Sheriff', Matt DeAngelo 'Jersey', & Enrique Camacho 'NoLobo.'
After three years at JUXT, I took an in-house position with an action sports company, FOX Racing. I was the Online Art Director working in the marketing group and managing a small team of designers and developers. After two years at FOX, I went to FUSE Interactive in Laguna Beach. Our main client was Kawasaki. Together, FOX and FUSE were a time when motorcycles were constantly on my screen. Also in this time, I became a parent. I had been spending long hours in the studio and was missing my family. I accepted an offer to work full-time remote for Citizen, a Portland, Oregon based interactive agency. We specialized in creating UX/UI design for digital products.
While working with Citizen, we moved to Santa Barbara and had our second son. I loved working from my home studio, determining my schedule, and seeing a lot of my family. Continuing this lifestyle was my primary motivation when I transitioned to full-time freelance in 2014. We returned to the Bay Area to have access to San Francisco’s exploding design scene. Around the time I was relocating, a friend invited me to join WNW. Coming into a market where I had few connections, WNW gave me freelance exposure, and helped open many design studio doors. Even a design studio named Design Studio.
What was the turning point in your career?
It would sound better if I had an instant success story including meeting the right people, quickly finding creative brilliance, going to the right parties, and winning awards. Instead, my story is one of struggle, highs and lows, helpful mentors, perseverance, course corrections, self-reliance and late nights.
There are two turning points in my career, The first was when I started at JUXT Interactive. I was intimidated by the talent level of the other designers and my confidence imploded. Todd and the senior designers showed me the path to improvement. Through their mentoring and my determination, I was able to renew my confidence and raise my skill level. Looking back, I was unfairly comparing myself to designers who’ve ascended to the very top of their respective design fields. To name a few from JUXT: Brian Miller is rising to the top of the illustration field, Jorge Fino went on to work at Apple and is listed on multiple patents with Jonathan Ive, and Joe Stewart has started his own agency, Work & Co. JUXT was an incredibly hard place to work, and Todd was the toughest Creative Director I have (and will) ever work with. Several jokingly refer to it as “Design Boot Camp.” The average burnout time for a designer at JUXT was four months. Making it three years there was a considerable achievement. If you need any further convincing about the intensity of JUXT, Todd’s nickname was “The Dreamhammer.”
The second was when I made the switch to full-time freelance, after a decade of working full-time. Looking back, all of my prior experience was preparation for this role. I had practiced in design studios, branding agencies, in-house departments, ad agencies, and interactive studios. I had a wealth of experience working in different design environments, mediums and styles. I was uniquely qualified to offer my clients a wide range of design services with the ability to deliver. While recently redesigning my portfolio, I assembled an alphabetical grid of client logos. I was struck by the breadth of clients I’ve partnered with. Letter A featured ABC, Adidas, Adobe, AIGA, Apple and AT&T.
What was the most important project in your career?
There have been many important projects along the way. The Adidas Smart Ball App received a lot of exposure (Zinedine Zidane attended the product launch). The Hotel Tonight app redesign has been used by millions. The Bare Minerals redesign was a chance to design in an unfamiliar category. For a large Adobe site, Todd’s creative brief was to “Make the best site ever. Make other designers fucking cry.” There have also been projects for family and friends that matter tremendously to a handful of people.
A shift occurred around the time I transitioned to full-time freelance. I learned how to thrive on my own with an Open Brief, minimal direction, and no production assets. I became comfortable starting with nothing, creating a visual style, building out a unified visual system, and creative directing my own work. Looking at my portfolio, nearly all of the designs feature unique visual styles I created from scratch. The FROG designs started with a vibrant color palette. The Heineken designs started with a beer bottle photo. The AIGA designs started with an event name. Now, when I hear “We have nothing, come back with something cool!” I’m inspired to create for those who show so much trust. Identifying the project(s) when this important shift occurred is difficult because it was a gradual process.
What’s been your biggest failure? Do you have regrets?
A couple of times, I’ve been disappointed with my work or the reaction to it, and wished I could try again. One of those projects was a design for Rihanna’s web site. When Def Jam Records showed her the designs, she said “What is all this stuff!?” The meeting was over quickly. All of the “stuff” in the design was content Def Jam had requested; tour schedule, album details, photo gallery, social feed, etc…
I read a quote along the lines of “there are no false steps in your path.” It implies we cannot achieve our successes without learning from our failures. A project not going according to plan indicates something is off, and required to shift my approach. A specific regrettable moment happened at FOX Racing. It was my first time managing and feeling the responsibility of the role. Trying to lead at FOX felt like trying to guide a team through the jungle. Every time we were headed in the right direction we’d be attacked by a tiger or get lost. Once, in a stress-haze I had some harsh words for a designer. I have since apologized, and we are friends. Relating this back to “no false steps,” I needed to experience this role to realize my passion was for design, not managing. That said, he didn’t deserve the harsh words, and I felt bad about it.
How do you approach creating design? What is your design process?
Design is a chance to celebrate the character of a subject. It's asking and answering "What is compelling, beautiful, dramatic, uplifting, funny, or mysterious about this?" I really try to connect with whatever that special or interesting thing is, and heighten it in the design. I want to go beyond what’s expected and cliché. I want the design to be authentic to the subject and to connect with the imagination. That’s the goal! Based in reality, but reaching out into fantasy. And always finely crafted of course.
I have a design process I follow. I initially connect with the subject to understand the tone of the project. When it’s time to make design decisions, this tone serves as a guide. I’ll then pick up my sketch book and quickly draw (or write) as many ideas as I can. I then refine my sketches in higher and higher fidelity until I have a clear concept I’m excited to create. At this point, I’m ready to start in a design software and will work in a distraction free sprint for one to two hours. I’ll then step away to do a non-design related activity like making coffee, archery practice, or picking blackberries. After twenty minutes, I’m ready to come back to the design with a fresh and objective view. I can decide if I want to continue with the idea, or if I want to make a drastic shift. From there, I’ll work in sprints and breaks through end of a project. Working in this fashion has added more intention to my design, and I’m always tinkering with my process.
Are there ways you self sabotage?
I used to struggle with perfectionism. At the start of a project I’d procrastinate, then race to beat the deadline, and finish wondering what I could have done with more time. Procrastination is being defeated by my fear of failure. While a good starting point is important, the magic of design is in the iteration. Now, I start as soon as I can. I trust I’ll follow my curiosity, patiently iterate, critically examine my work, and strive to see it objectively.
Who makes you jealous?
I love Alex Trochut’s work. It’s partly timeless graphic design and partly the sorcery of a wizard on psychedelics. He is proudly a student of the design masters; Herb Lubalin, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, M.C. Escher, Joan Miró, and more. In his work, I see the continuation of their legacies along with Alex’s wonderful and unique vision. While I love his work, I don’t waste time or energy being jealous. All work is created in different contexts. I only have admiration for skill and beautiful work.
In recent years, Olympic Weightlifting has taught me about comparison. Creativity is infinitely subjective, but in weightlifting the kilogram plates on the barbell present clearly quantifiable results. My foolish competitive drive urges me to lift as much as the strongest person in the gym. However, what I’m physically capable of as lifter is largely determined by my years of experience practicing technique, my nutrition, my recovery, and my bodyweight. The truest comparison is measuring my results over time. Compared to six months ago, if my technique has improved and my strength has gone up, I’m happy.
What’s your achilles heel as a creative?
Based on the studios I was working in and the clients I was designing for, my early design style was decidedly masculine. Characteristics of strength, distortion, rigidity, and intensity were reflected in my design. This style comes easily, and I now consciously navigate away from it to explore new styles. I challenged myself by taking on beauty and fashion clients to expand my design range. I have strived to create design for all audiences through a friendly, curious, and energetic tone. I’m exploring adding more femininity in my design work via color, line work, flow, and curvature.
Do you have a nemesis?
I grew up shy and struggled with self esteem and confidence. In school, I struggled speaking up in class, talking to girls was absolutely terrifying, and I preferred reading comic books in my room to school dances. Confidence issues surfaced early in my career, and my nemesis became my fear of failure. I had the skill and savvy to design, but fear held me back and I struggled. My self esteem was a roller coaster ride, hinging on the state of my latest design and my Creative Director’s opinion. Through experience, I was able to build confidence, explore new styles, and take bigger chances. Now, taking risks is energizing and inspiring.
How does your role vary with small businesses and agencies?
I love the variety that comes with being a freelance designer. In the case of working for a large agency or directly with a tech client, I’m brought on to work with a large team as a high-end design specialist. In working with mid size agencies or small design studios, I’m brought on as a design specialist and there’s often the opportunity to assist beyond art direction and design. I’m able to influence logo exploration, brand strategy, UX design, illustration, photo art direction, and development style guides. In working directly with a small business client, I’m able to infinitely influence a project by operating in a multitude of rules. If I feel there’s potential in a partnership with a client, I’ll invest time in the relationship to establish trust and confidence. From there, a client is looking to me for guidance, and anything is possible.
Photos from our yard, home, and neighborhood
Can you tell us about where you live?
Yes! I live in a beautiful rural area north of San Francisco, in the small town of Sebastopol. There’s a wide range of people and professions here including farmers (Sonoma County is known for wine), cultural and political progressives, the spiritually inclined, environmentalists, and artisans. In our neighborhood, farm animals are heard in every yard, and we are visited by deer, foxes, wild turkeys, and a peacock. Our one acre property is abundant with growth including giant Redwood trees, fruit trees, and a huge blackberry hedge. We’re outside the city limits, so we have our own well and septic system. Managing everything that comes with a country home has been a learning experience. When your sons find a box trap in the yard and load it with peanut butter, you’re the one who has deal with it. Even when it’s a live skunk.
What brands would you like to work with?
I’m always excited to work with new agencies, brands, and design studios. I love the design work many top brands and tech companies are creating and would love to collaborate with them. While I’m drawn to active lifestyle, outdoor, health, and tech brands, I prioritize working with talented and energetic creative teams. Working with the best teams and taking on the biggest challenges is a priority over a brand name, specific style or design medium. My career has been California based, and I’d love to travel given the right opportunity.
What brands wouldn’t you work with?
To quote a friend, “when our actions don’t match our beliefs” we feel remorseful. I take this advice into consideration when taking on new clients. I’d be going against my beliefs in taking on a big tobacco client, Monsanto or a Trump brand. While no company may be absolutely perfect, there’s one in particular I find abhorrent. If you are comfortable with child trafficking, drinking water being a “need” rather than a “right,” and wasting an estimated 210 million gallons of water annually just in California, I invite you to continue supporting Nestle. If this raises any red flags, you can read more about it here.
Yurt construction with my friend Max (Photos - Right)
What are you working on?
Earlier this year I worked with Apple via Elephant in San Francisco. After that I worked with DoorDash in San Francisco for a couple months before taking some time off to build a 30 foot yurt in my yard. I hired a friend to lead the build and we had a great time working and taking breaks to watch World Cup games. It was a big job and the longest stretch of physical labor I’ve done. Completing the yurt was satisfying, and I’m considering using it as a design studio some day.
During this stretch, I was working on the yurt during the day, and feverishly creating a new portfolio with the Semplice platform in the evenings. It was my first portfolio update in five years. I collected design work and created write ups for 40 projects. I finally joined Instagram, Dribbble, and Behance to share my work. I created logos and product labels for small businesses owned by friends and family. It has undoubtedly been one of my busiest stretches. I managed to finish everything I committed to and didn’t skip many weightlifting sessions. Now that my portfolio is mostly complete, I’m excited to pursue calligraphy. I always loved watching my mom’s lettering and feel inspired to take it on. I’m equally excited to spend some time reading, sitting in the recliner by the fireplace.
What would you recommend to designers starting out?
Here we go!
• A career is easier to navigate when you believe people are doing their best. Have boundaries, but assume good intentions.
• You’re capable of more than you think.
• Apply to your “dream” jobs. If you’re ready, they’ll notice.
• When considering where to work, the team of designers you’ll work with is just as important as the name on the door.
• At some large companies, the environment can feel impersonal and you’ll work less with the senior creatives. Smaller design studios are more intimate, and allow for more collaboration and reviews.
• Become part of a team of designers. A team environment provides mentoring, accountability, and inspiration. This is important early on, the option to go solo will always be there.
• Find your mentors, relentlessly study their design, and be a sponge.
• In literature, has anyone written ‘The Great American Novel’ at twenty? In any creative practice, coming up with a unique point of view, style, and honing craft take time. Work hard and be patient, it will come.
• “Fight for you work” is a popular phrase of late. I would add “to a point” to the end of it. Value healthy partnerships over winning a particular point.
• The purpose of design feedback is to help the team succeed and to deliver the best work. It’s never a personal attack. *If it does feel like that,* talk with this individual in private. Tell them how their tone or language make you feel, and that it’s preventing you from delivering your best work.
• Ask for as much clarification as you need to start a project with confidence.
• In a design career, progress is measured in years and decades. Those in a hurry seldom get what they want.
• Try lots of styles and mediums. Find one(s) where you can work timelessly and get great at them.
• Every design style you learn adds to your repertoire. Working in a singular popular style is the equivalent of an actor who can only portray one emotion.
• If you are being directed to design something in way you don’t agree with, design it as suggested along with your better solution. Your directors will respect your critical thinking and initiative regardless of how it works out.
• Be a self starter. Don’t wait or need permission to follow your creative curiosity.
• There are always lots of new, fancy and expensive design tools. You have enough to excel right now.
• Know you belong and are valued by those around you. Being hired is a tremendous vote of confidence in you personally and professionally.
• Be fundamentally and technically sound. Don’t cut corners.
• Many talk a mean game. Fewer produce. Speak through your work.
• Today’s great art and design was not created in a vacuum. Study the masters: Glaser, Sussman, Rand, Deck, Lubalin, Kent, Cooper, Bass, Haring, Mondrian, Matisse, Rams, Young, Fili, Müller-Brockmann, Pineles, Tschichold, Carter, Casey, Carson, Klee, Rothko, Delaunay, Eames, Lichtenstein, Léger, Griffin, Phillips, Mouse, Vignelli, Di Spigna, Miró, Malevich, and many more.
• Even if they appear stoic and serious, designers are generally very empathetic people. If you’re having personal or professional troubles, talk with them, they care.
• "There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path." — A. J. Muste. Enjoy every day of your career. If you don’t feel like that’s possible, make adjustments until it is.
Stony Point Road at sunset
What are you struggling with?
As a full-time freelancer, I’m continually meeting inspiring creative teams and taking on big project challenges. Working with the creatives on these teams can be intense and inspiring. Projects eventually finish and people go their separate ways. These people have busy careers and lives leaving little time to keep in touch. I’m lucky to work on a recurring basis with some of my favorite studios, but it can be six months, a year, or two years between seeing people. I’d love to have a consistent creative community, but I’m still figuring out what it looks like.
Are you afraid you’ve peaked?
NO! I’m only getting started. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art had a profound effect on my creative mentality and workflow. Pressfield exposes all forms of excuse as a fear of failure. Not feeling too high or low at a project’s finish and diving into the next yields consistent improvement. His book should be required reading. There are phases of my career that are finished. Creating Flash animations (R.I.P. Flash), and coding HTML no longer inspire me.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Professionally, I want to continue creating the best design possible and to evolve my style. My legacy as a person is more important, and I want to be remembered as a good friend and dad. I don’t want to be obsessed with career and withdrawn from family life. I want to be active and present with my sons. My six year old son was recently thinking about his friends’ dads and told me, “You’re a fun daddy, I’m lucky I got you.”
Colin's Monster Mask
What’s your proudest moment?
Coming out of art school, describing my design work as “mediocre” would be charitable. A creative director from a design studio I was hoping to work with told me “I’d be lucky to be hired.” His comment stung deep enough to draw the blood of doubt. I was hired two weeks later, and my first day at the agency was a moment of validation. Upon introducing myself to the person I was sitting next to, she asked if my mom’s name was Jeanette, which in fact it is. I ended up sitting next to my mom’s childhood friend, Nancy, who recognized our last name!
I significantly raised my level at JUXT Interactive with a dogged perseverance. Short, private moments of peer recognition were the most meaningful. Seeing the design I created there win pitches, be praised by clients, and win awards was nice but didn’t carry the same weight.
Additionally, I’m flattered by the feedback that has come my way in recent years. Occasionally, design studios ask if the work in my portfolio was created by a team of a designers. I’ve challenged myself to work in many design styles and mediums, so I weirdly take great pride in that particular question.
What’s your biggest success?
My decisions to continue as a full-time designer, go full-time freelance, and to spend time between the country and the city were not conventional choices. These were decisions I made based on what I love and what felt right. Instead of worrying about the future, I trust I’ll make the right choice in the moment. I recognize I’m in a unique position, and it often feels like I’m living the dream.
What’s your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is that someone in my career is in a lot of pain and I’m unaware and therefore unable to help. I have omitted details in this answer for the sake of confidentiality. A designer I was working with had become disengaged and depressed. I knew something was off. As a mentor, I should have made time to talk, but I was overwhelmed with deadlines, meetings, and a busy schedule that week. Over the weekend, they tried unsuccessfully take their own life. This was many years ago, and the designer is now thriving. I’m still haunted by my inaction. If you are hurting, know you are loved and things will get better. Tell people how you feel.
Who inspires you?
My family. I remember watching my grandparents oil paint, play the organ, and throw on the potter’s wheel. At age thirty five, my dad left his full-time job to become a freelance consultant before starting his own successful company. In his free time, he would work through Mozart Concertos on the piano. My mom was initially an English teacher before going on to explore numerous forms of art including: art history, calligraphy, collage, Japanese brush painting, knitting, quilting, and more. She enjoyed a rich career of creating, teaching, and sharing art with everyone from kids to adults. Their creativity and ingenuity inspired me, and I hope to inspire others.
What do you listen to?
Since discovering electronic music in college, it’s been the soundtrack to my design career. My favorite variety is Drum and Bass. It’s lives in a high energy space, shifting between themes of beauty, love, power, drama, distortion, intensity, and abstraction. The music is inherently repetitive and draws me into a very high level of focus while I’m designing. I have turntables and DJ gear, and enjoying DJing at a beginner level. I recently decided my portfolio felt finished when the front page of it matched the spirit of a good Drum and Bass DJ mix; stylistically diverse, bold, vibrant, flowing, expressive, intense, and technical. If you’re wondering what DNB sounds like, I have shared a Spotify playlist.
I also listen to a lot of Tycho while I design. Their music feels like I’ve come to a beautiful utopia glowing with vibrant color, joy, peace and creative possibility.
What was your biggest challenge?
In recent years I went through a divorce. It was a test of my resolve and character. Through reading and the help of a therapist, I learned to experience feelings without judgement. I’m proud to have emerged stronger, in touch with my authentic self, on amicable terms with my ex, and with gratitude for the great things in my life. In 2018, my life and career are back in full swing. Unexpectedly working with Apple and being interviewed by WNW were great experiences. Having been through a tough situation helps me appreciate these moments.
Are you happy?
I am happy most of the time, but I’m not above feeling doubt and experiencing low moments. I am filled with joy making things, exercising, being outdoors, reading, visiting friends, and playing with my sons.