What’s your current position?
Partner and Creative Director.
What’s a typical day like for you?
6:30 am: Wake up. Eat breakfast (coffee, fruit, cereal or eggs).
7:00 am: Read and write. I usually write a gratitude list or a prayer.
8:00 am: Exercise. Swim, run or yoga.
9:40 am: Head to the office.
10:00 am: Dive into the day’s most pressing task. My work is a mix of collaboration, management and execution, so the day could start with a client meeting, designing something, reviewing a developer’s progress on a website or giving direction on a design project.
11:30 am: Email.
12:00 pm: Lunch. I’ll usually read a bit afterward or take a short walk.
1–5:45 pm: Work. I’ll take at least one short break to meditate or read. I’ll check email 1–2 more times, but I typically try to stay out of my inbox if at all possible.
6:00 pm: Head home for dinner.
How do you feel about working in St. Louis and the Midwest?
I didn’t love it at first (I’m from the East Coast), but it has grown on me. People are generally honest yet kind. The startup scene here is relatively new and thriving. There’s an entrepreneurial vibe that I’m encountering all over the place. It’s invigorating. I think when it comes to business and creativity, St. Louis is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
I’m meeting more and more local clients who value design as a strategic investment and are willing to pay accordingly.
We have significant problems around urban planning. St. Louis has many beautiful neighborhoods, but everything is spread out and feels disjointed. Buildings are often too far apart and streets are too wide. I’d like to see us move toward a more European scale in terms of proximity, which has been proven to foster tight-knit communities. When people live too far apart, they don’t interact very much.
I miss the ocean.
What’s the most satisfying part of any design project?
I have to cheat on this one. I love two stages of the process. The first is when you have a breakthrough idea and can’t wait to sketch it or jot it down. The second part I love is seeing people interact with the work. It’s not done until the audience engages with the end-product and brings their own layer of content or interpretation, whether it’s a poster or a website.
Tell us about one project you remember the most, good or bad.
The first time I hosted a design workshop for a client was in April 2012. We were designing an iPad app for Anova, a local designer and manufacturer of outdoor furniture. I’d had an idea about how we could build a creative consensus from the beginning, build trust and reduce design revisions.
We asked the client to conduct a couple hours of research beforehand, and look for sources of visual inspiration that would be appropriate for the app. We did the same kind of research, but went much further. We brought the client to the studio for a full day. Over the course of several hours, we created a visual brief that covered ideas around UX, typography, color and more.
Weeks later, we came back with a design direction and the client’s reaction was basically “Of course! We can see exactly how you got here from our research and the workshop.” They were thrilled, and we made very few changes after that. The experience was the polar opposite of the nervy, Mad Men-style big reveal.
Adding this element to our process has been huge. It drastically reduces design revisions, and it’s super fun. Sometimes clients put up a fight because they don’t understand why we’re dragging them into our office for a full or half day. But without fail, after the workshop they see the value and are very appreciative.
When was the first time you knew you wanted to work in design?
Senior year of high school. I took a class on principles of design at a local community college. I fell in love with design and never looked back.
What advice would you give clients?
- In the words of Dann Petty: Buy nice or buy twice.
- Hire designers who are generous and are invested in making work that is useful and timeless.
- Give feedback that’s clear and objective. “I don’t like purple” is useless. “This shade of purple seems too contemporary for the audience” is great feedback.
What skill sets will be required of a creative in 2015?
Essentially the same as now. But designers need to be flexible and willing to learn or even create new tools. For interactive design, I don’t think there will be any more of a need for designers to code than there is right now. We should definitely know enough about programming languages to understand what can and can’t be done online. Knowing how to code a little HTML or CSS can be helpful, but isn’t required. Designers and developers need to understand and respect each other well enough to facilitate deep collaboration. The creative process should continue in the browser. It doesn’t make sense for a designer to hand off a static UI and walk away. The real test of a design’s quality is when it starts to move and breathe in response to user input.
Just like typesetting and print layout have collapsed into the role of one designer, we’ll start to see fewer agencies compartmentalizing people into UX or UI roles.
Design is design, and a good designer can switch back and forth between systematic, behavior-based thinking and conceptual or expressive thinking.
Agility and good communication is critical. At Grain, we don’t silo employees. We expect designers to be equally adept in brand identity, print design, and interactive design (including UX and UI).
What roles are in the ideal creative team?
Designer, developer, copywriter, videographer, project manager, creative director.
What kind of music do you listen to?
It varies from heavy metal to classical, electronic to Americana. Current favorites: Deftones, Iron and Wine, Tycho, Mastodon, Arcade Fire, The National and Lorde. I listen to music almost constantly. It helps me think. I can listen to almost anything while designing, but for writing I can only listen to instrumental music at low volume.
What would you like to tell future designers?
- Find the clients and causes that you love. If you don’t love your job, walk away from it.
- Send thank you notes after interviews. It’s amazing how many people don’t do this.
- Run spell check on your resume. If spelling and grammar are difficult for you, find someone to help you proofread. Bad grammar on resumes looks sloppy.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Forgive yourself and others.
- Learn to listen for what the client isn’t saying (I still suck at this).
- Learn what it means to be a servant leader.
- Develop personal creative pursuits. Make things without caring whether they’re good or bad. The point is to be constantly creating. This will make you less prone to putting too much of yourself into client work.
- Write about your work. Write about what you know, and share it. It doesn’t have to be 100% original; it just has to be good. Writing will sharpen your design concepts and will help position you as an expert.
- Don’t fall in love with your first sketch.
- Building a business can and should be a creative process.
- Don’t be afraid of asking for what you think your work is worth. Money is a measure of value, and no one will value your work unless you price it accordingly.
Matt Steel is a creative director, designer, type-lover, poet, wave-starved surfer, father of three and husband of one. In 2013 he merged his design studio, Metagramme, with two other companies to form Grain, a full-service creative firm.