Brad Smith

Founder of Wayward Wild

Brad Smith

Co-founder of Wayward Wild Episode 24

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode 24 of DesignEDU Today, the podcast series discussing topics concerning the state of interactive design education at institutions of higher learning. I am your host, Gary Rozanc, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Today’s guest is Brad Smith. Brad is an entrepreneur, brand expert and professional day-dreamer, who works and plays on the island of Manhattan in New York City. Brad is co-founder of Wayward Wild, a publishing and media studio which creates original content for print, film and web. He is the publisher of Wayward’s flagship brand, The Great Discontent, a publication and events series which shares inspiring conversations with today’s artists, makers and risk-takers. Once upon a time, he was the co-founder and CEO of Virb, a DIY website builder for creatives which was acquired by GoDaddy in late 2013. He was also founder of Neubix Studio, a mid-West bred design and branding shop which he thinks about often. He is survived by a pair of running shoes, a novel he never published and more Post-It pads than any human should ever own.

Welcome, Brad!

Brad:
Thank you!

I need to go back and re-write my website bio now that I actually hear that out loud! It’s a little ridiculous!

Gary:
Yeah, but it shows personality and that’s got to come through it, instead of just the bland, boring corporate-speak ones. All right, so before we get started, I want to tell the listeners to read the interview you were featured in on The Great Discontent. A lot of the questions I would have asked that are pertinent to interactive design education are covered in that interview, so no need to re-invent the wheel. That said, there are two questions that I’d like to ask in context with your experiences at Neubix, Pure Volume and Virb before I get into my main line of question.
Brad:
Certainly.
Gary:
So, during those years you worked with a lot of interactive designers. Based on your experiences, how ready were the entry-level designers coming right out of school, out of traditional graphic design schools, how ready were they for the industry?
Brad:
That’s really tough to answer just because ready is…I mean, none of us are ready at the start of our career. No matter how much schooling you’ve had or how much of an expert you are, you’re very green, you’re very new and you’re getting out there and kind of creating your mark in your initial brand and your work for yourself. I think less about being ready and it’s more about….I mean, to answer the question, very, very few are ready. I wasn’t ready when I started my first company. I started in this industry years ago as a designer and eventually parlayed into realizing that I’m not the best designer; I’m better at business and operations and entrepreneurship and I need to kind of step back and let the people that are really good at what they’re doing do what they do. So, very, very few were ready, but that doesn’t mean that the work wasn’t fantastic and the things that they were doing weren’t very well designed, wasn’t fantastic but yeah, I don’t know, does that answer your question?
Gary:
Yeah, well here I can ask from this angle: what could design schools have done better as educators, could have done better to prepare them?
Brad:
Ah! Do the work! Do the work as in…and I believe education is very important but at the same time, don’t just sent out a résumé that says, here’s where I went to school; I graduated, this is my degree. Have the work there, show the work. While you were studying, while you were in school, do projects. I don’t care if you’re not selling projects for money. Make something up. Just take an app that you feel could be improved and re-design it; do something that lives and breathes in your portfolio because way back when and still today, a résumé’s great but the first thing I’m going to do when I see that résumé outside of looking at where they’re located and their name, I’m going straight for a link to a website or a link to a portfolio or something like that. So, do the work and have the work there.
Gary:
Great. So, you also, in that interview you talked a little bit about the branding work you did, which was pre-Facebook being opened, it was only open that time to .edu email addresses. How much has branding changed since then because of things like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? In school we teach branding through…you’re designing a stationery set. Is that still relevant or is it….
Brad:
It’s funny you say this because I’m in the process right now of launching a new venture and I’m meeting with multiple brands right now, or multiple companies to develop logos, develop a word-mark for me. I’m talking with a PR company to do things like that. Is it as important? Maybe not. Do I care? No! Just because that is to me a new project or starting anything new, the best, the most exciting thing about that is to me, doing those things: having a logo designed, figuring out your speak and your ethos and your copy and doing all those elements. Is it not important? Most certainly not. It still is, but if you wanted to, you could potentially go out there and start a brand, start a company, with none of that. I’m seeing things all the time to where a Facebook page is their website, or their URL does nothing but re-direct to another service. If they’re a photographer, their brand, their URL does nothing but maybe re-direct to their Instagram page. So you most certainly…social media today makes it easier to not have to worry about that but that by no means is me saying don’t do it. I think it’s still very important. Very, very important.
Gary:
But I think things like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, they’ve changed the way you have to approach an identity system; now you have to design a logo for Facebook to fit in the context of Facebook and so…do you…this is one of the reasons why I ask the question because I saw on Twitter that you were saying that hey, we’re thinking about a re-brand here, so I knew you were going through this process. Have you got to that point where any of these people you’re talking to are saying, this is what your new identity’s going to look like in these different….
Brad:
Yeah, I’m still in the discussion phase just because when you’re launching a new venture, you have to also launch it. I would like to just take and freeze time for two weeks and work on copy, work on the website, work on the branding. I have two interviews from the design agencies. Basically, design agencies send you a link and are like, fill out this interview, you talk about what you’re building, you talk about the product, and that tells them, is Brad and his new company a good fit for this or is it kinda not within our type of brand that we work with, so I wish I could freeze time and just work on that really fun stuff for three weeks but you still have a company to launch and teams to build and people to hire at the same time.
Gary:
OK, right so those were some other off-topic questions I wanted to ask just because I knew from your previous experiences, but what I really wanted to talk to you about, it’s something before I started this podcast, I always thought there were other career options for graphic designers beyond the traditional roles of print, branding and interactive design. I just feel like designers are more valuable than designing the visual look of something and it’s obviously that it’s valued, designers are valued, outside of the design industry.
Brad:
Certainly.
Gary:
So, can you talk about the rise of designers becoming, I’ve seen CEOs; I think designers are natural entrepreneurs or creative consultants. Can you talk about the rise of that?
Brad:
Yeah, I mean there’s a couple of different thoughts on that, and if I get off on a tangent I’m going to ask you to go back and repeat the end of the question so I can get back on track, but no, I think the biggest, most important aspect of that is the beauty and the benefit of understanding design and that is why you see somebody is a designer eventually in a company, in a large company, like a KickStarter or an Uber or whatever it may be that they move to the Head of Design and next thing you know, they’re on the executive board or potentially a CEO of the company. Design is one of the most important aspects of the internet and everything that we touch and do today from the interface on my TV over there to the internet that we use, the apps on our phone. Design is at the core of some of the most important things; it’s why you and I can pick up an app and learn to use it but also my mum can. It kinda transcends all this…it transcends communication and whatnot. So I think that’s why we’re starting to see that shift because just because someone’s a designer, doesn’t mean they don’t make a fantastic CEO of a company, but what makes them even stronger as a CEO is they understand not just the importance of design, but they understand the process of design and why it’s important. So I think that’s why we’re seeing a big shift in that. I by no means…I started in this industry twenty years ago as a designer; that is how I found…oooh, I like what I’m doing here; I’m gonna drop out of college and I’m gonna focus on this because design really captured me and got me in, and I do miss that at times, but I also know that I wasn’t the strongest designer and that’s when like I said earlier, I’ve kinda over the years stepped back and in many ways still act as, maybe a creative director, or an art director or peering over somebody’s shoulder when they don’t want me to. But yeah, some of the strongest individuals that I’ve had in former companies, all the way up to being a right-hand individual to a co-founder have been designers.
Gary:
And that’s one of the things, before I get to my next question, this is just off the top of my head, that’s…as a design educator, that’s one of the things that I’m trying to figure out…what is that? Is it the fact that they sat down and I had a student take four squares and re-arrange those four squares that tell these different stories so they look like happy, sad; is that process what makes them so good at being entrepreneurs? I mean, there’s something….
Brad:
Design is problem-solving and there’s many, many different things. Being a developer is also problem-solving but design is a huge interface problem-solver and when you’re a good problem-solver, that really transcends the media or the specific part that you’re working on. If you are a fantastic UX designer and you can solve some major problems, your brain’s probably going to work in the same way that’s going to allow you to solve problems of running a company and aspects like that, so I do, I think a lot of it has to do with the problem-solving aspect. I could be really wrong and a lot of people disagree with me but for me, from what I think, coming from a design background, when dinosaurs roamed the land, I think that has a lot to do with it.
Gary:
No, it’s something that…this podcast, I started off, was meant to be about what should print-heavy or traditional graphic design programs, what should they be teaching to empower interactive designers, but I’ve also, in the back of my head it’s just, I know we’re more than that. I know we’re more than print, I know we’re more than interactive and I’m just…this is the first time I’ve openly started talking about that and trying to look for a way to package that.
Brad:
And just kinda like what we discussed previously on a phone conversation; some of my right-hand people at multiple companies: Ryan Sims who I worked with for a decade through three, almost four different companies, four different projects, he’s pretty much in a Head of Design role right now at Adobe, a role where he doesn’t actually do as much design as what he used to so again, another designer kind of having the ability to problem solve and be an entrepreneur. My creative director at Virb, when we all left Virb in 2013 after its acquisition, he now has his own design studio and he runs a design studio; it’s not that he’s just a designer there; he is working directly with the clients, he’s running the company, he’s hiring individuals and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact he was a phenomenal designer but he also was able to solve problems and that leads itself to being like, I can be a designer and I can be an entrepreneur and I can run a company.
Gary:
And so, that’s an interesting way to mention it, because I never thought about it; that is the natural evolution: entry level designer, junior level designer, art director, creative director and the eventually you become your own and so…one of the things that got me, this is again, off the original topic but one of the things that attracted me early on to The Great Discontent was there are a lot of designer creative people but they were no longer doing design. They took their design training and they parlayed that into something that…who knows? They just saw a problem, they saw a niche, they saw something that nobody else saw and they just ran with it. But I guess being the principal or being the owner of your firm is the same thing. I never thought of it that way, I never thought of it as like, oh they just grew the business and they went that way instead of this way, so that’s interesting, I never thought of that. Thanks for pointing that out. So I’m going to ask, while the term Design Thinking is quite loaded, designers have a unique way of looking at the world, so I’ve struggled to separate that visual training like we were just saying, I struggle to separate the visual training designers undertake with the design thinking process that designers approach to a visual design and how it can be applied to non-design problems. Does that make sense? We were talking about it but can you better articulate it than I can?
Brad:
I don’t know!
Gary:
So, when you see this…when you’re doing these visual problem-solving, you’re trying to make things make sense to people but it’s based on visual. How does that…do you see that thread, how that goes to non-design problems? Can you pinpoint anything? If you can’t, you can’t.
Brad:
I wish I could because as I’ve said, I’ve seen a lot of it happen in just my own career of individuals moving from design only problem-solving and careers into different. I truly…I need to really think on that. I don’t know if I can answer that question right now!
Gary:
Yeah, I know….
Brad:
Yeah, maybe, I don’t know, that’s a tough question, that’s something I will be thinking about for a while after this wraps up today.
Gary:
All right, so…there’s this…whatever it is, like I said, I can’t pinpoint it and it’s going to take more than just one conversation to pinpoint, what is it about designers, let’s approach problems in different ways. But that aside, is there a way that…or…in design programs, we spend most of the time teaching the visual and to make it even a little bit more…explain it a little bit differently, I assign a project so I’m not even asking them to problem solve because I’m saying Client X is coming to you for ephemera or they want a website, they want a logo, they want this. I’m not even letting them go through the discovery process of finding what the client needs; I’m literally just asking them to decorate these things but yet it’s still there’s something about just that act of doing that is good.
Brad:
And I think with the designer’s brain, it’s not just decorating because you’re not just thinking about the client. If you are doing any type of design for the web or for apps or for whatever that is, your brain is constantly thinking about the end-user; how is somebody going to find this and how are they going to interact with it? How are they as a user going to interact with my design and I think that’s really key because you’re never just thinking about a client project as, well I’m gonna go make this look pretty. I think a really strong designer’s brain is constantly assessing how is someone going to use this? How are they going to interact with it, how are they going to utilize it and maybe that goes back into the previous question that you asked. I think that might have something to do with it.
Gary:
So then there’s that…like I said I think there’s more to…designers can be doing a lot more. Do you think there’s something that maybe we could do to kind of, as educators, play up that a little bit more instead of just saying, you’re going to be a designer, you’re going to have this book, this portfolio, you’re going to go be an entry-level designer somewhere. Is there something that we could do to expand that and help them see the potential or maybe better train them for the potential of being entrepreneurs?
Brad:
I most certainly do. I think in every way, we are all entrepreneurs on some different scale. I don’t care if you just started a brand new job and you are fifteen people down from senior management and you love what you’re doing, in a way there’s an entrepreneurial spirit, there is a risk there. You, with creating this podcast, that is creating something out of nothing. But I do think it’s really important to not just focus on the craft of design and exploring, starting something and building something and that doesn’t mean you have to go out and start your own company, your own brand or anything like that but definitely learning about building something and starting something and problem-solving in different ways outside of just pixel to paper to screen can certainly help.
Gary:
Yeah, so that leads into another question that I had. It’s getting easier and easier for someone to create a digital service, so I’ll use ToDo, Editorially, Dribbble and these are all examples of people, designers, saw a need and said, let’s fix it so what can we do to empower that as educators? What can we do to create an atmosphere of, you’re not just going to create a portfolio; you’re going to create this too, you’re going to create this service? I don’t know what that service is, but…
Brad:
Yeah…
Gary:
I was basically asking how as an entrepreneur, how….
Brad:
How would you…how is an entrepreneur an entrepreneur? You are only one step away from anybody else and the fact that you were just ridiculous enough or naïve enough or silly enough or in some cases, smart enough, to take that first step and be like, I’m going to build this. I think…yeah, I kinda got off track there…
Gary:
Well no, the original question was, how do we as educators…help empower students to be like, instead of creating stationery or instead of creating a website, how do we empower them to create…services or apps…services, products, whatever.
Brad:
No, no, most certainly and I don’t think you need to have classes on, here’s how you form an LLC, here’s how you worry about getting your name trademarked, but I do think processes of not just hey, go out and make this look pretty and design this but your project this semester is to create a brand or a product or something; looking at, like you’ve said with Dribbble or any of these, it was nobody needed it before they existed but the second that someone had the idea and they’re like, wait, this doesn’t exist and this is very important; we can’t do without it now. Dribbble’s been around a very long time and it’s a site that I still visit quite frequently; the amount of designers that I have that send me portfolio links; that is going to Dribbble. Before Dribbble existed, nobody thought, we need a Dribbble, and that is true problem-solving right there, because there wasn’t a glaring need for, you know what? We need to do this thing where you only show a small snippet of what you’re working on, on the web, because that’s really where Dribbble started, it was a small screen capture of something you were working on and a lot of people originally would use it to kind of tease projects that they’re working on. Dribbble has grown into a much greater beast than that so I think one thing to do is, don’t have a task or an assignment of hey, design this website, but hey, design everything; concept and idea; wireframe and app. Think about how you would grow this as a brand and not just making a website.
Gary:
Yeah, great, and I’m actually glad you said that because one of the faculty I used to work with, as we were talking through all this kind of stuff and she kept coming back, it’s just branding, it’s just branding. It just keeps coming back to branding.
Brad:
And to be honest, I think if we took the fear out of…being an entrepreneur is risky; it is, and unless you’re lucky enough just to have a pile of cash there or investors, like, oh, if this goes south, we’re going to be just fine, it’s risky. But the biggest reason I think we don’t see more people just quitting their jobs as designers and running with that idea, is the fact that there’s just this ever so thin sliver of fear running through it; how do I? I’ve started doing a lot more mentorship and it took me years to start doing this because I didn’t have a lot of mentors when I started out and I made a lot of mistakes but throughout the years, I’ve started collecting really smart individuals that will give me advice and be honest with me and things like that and kick me in the ass when I’m not thinking about something properly. But there’s this thin layer of fear that runs through everything and it’s like, well, how would I even start to launch a company? And I was talking to somebody recently about possibly speaking at a conference and they want to do panels basically on, here’s the steps that you go to start your own thing; here’s how you form a business entity; here’s how you do this, here’s how you get your tax ID; here’s how you handle all this and I think it’s really, really smart because that is the most boring stuff on the planet but why aren’t more people just taking the leaps and going, you know what? When I get home from work at five-thirty every night, I’m going to start building my own product idea. I think it’s scary and it’s very unknown and really it shouldn’t be at all because it’s the easiest thing to do. It’s just like I said, that, what is the difference between what I do and what I was as a designer and I was just kind of silly enough and crazy enough to take that first step and be like, uh, this is probably stupid but I’m going to give it a shot and see what happens.
Gary:
You know, one big take-away I got from that and what I know you think is, so I want to know how educators can help empower that and I think one of the things that we could do is in addition to the traditional visual training is actually kind of put a scaffolding around things, remove that layer of fear, so if they’re afraid to do something, maybe if we could scaffold…like, OK, if you’re scared to do this, how can we reduce that fear? Maybe it’s…this is research…go and look; go verify that your idea hasn’t been done before and then I think that would be time well spent.
Brad:
I completely agree.
Gary:
Just figuring out a way to scaffold that fear; train them once they identify…identify fear because it just may be it’s really fear but their brain is just telling them, this is not a good idea when it’s really…no, that’s something there.
Brad:
Yes, and to go the other way too, if someone is a designer, that doesn’t mean that they need to be entrepreneurs or come up with an idea, build something, because some people are just damn good designers and they are happy, they don’t want to deal with the shit of launching a product or running a company or something like that. They just love what they do and there’s nothing wrong with that at the same time, but I do completely agree with you.
Gary:
And you’re right, that’s just it though, it’s for those people that are designer-ly but maybe aren’t …they’re going to be the knock-out, everything they make is just awesome and beautiful and gorgeous, but they can apply design in a different way and that’s really…that’s what interests me, more so than just somebody who’s making a slick interface, somebody who’s got some gorgeous hand-done lettering; I’m more interested in that other space where it’s like, what can you do to change, make, create that other people wouldn’t do and to me that’s what’s interesting. So, have you ever thought about that, have you stopped and thought about it? Because you’ve done so many different things that we’ve read in your bios; have you ever stopped back and said, I’m glad my design background…has my design background helped me? Did you ever make that correlation?
Brad:
Oh, most certainly. Yeah, most definitely. And like I said, I am not a phenomenal designer; I’m not even a good designer and it was very early in my career with my first company where I realized: hey, Brad; it’s time for you to take a step back and let the professionals really handle this. But, being a self-taught designer, it did help me in a certain way still to this day with looking at design problems and solving them.
Gary:
No, and it’s becoming something that’s really prevalent in the industry; I’m going to use Google Ventures for example. Google Ventures has a team of designers that they will attach to anything that they fund; here’s your designer, you should probably listen to them because they value…and they’re not designing anything; they just want…recently, I don’t know if you’re…where you fall in the realm of sports fan or not, but I’ve recently been starting to think about analytics in baseball is really just like design thinking: it’s just you’ve got all this information on the table and because you’re looking at all of it and looking at different ways of re-arranging it, you’re finding the patterns that work and other people don’t notice that.
Brad:
Agreed. I am the world’s worst expert on anything sports-ball, I will just put that out there right now!
Gary:
Well, you weren’t born in Cleveland, Ohio! I was, so…
Brad:
That would probably change things had I been born in Cleveland, Ohio!
Gary:
Yeah, I kid you not, if I don’t have the game on, on the Sunday, a Catholic nun comes out of the closet somewhere and starts beating me until I turn on the Browns game!
Brad:
I have a dream that goes very, very similar to that! Unrelated to sports, but…
Gary:
Well that’s great. So, we’re actually kinda running up on time, so before I let you go, is there anything that you are working on that you would like to share or something you want to promote? You’ve got about a hundred things, so…you can talk about them all!
Brad:
Yeah; there’s a lot going on right now. I’ve spent kinda the past year and a half with working with The Great Discontent and Ryan and Tina and building a team there and continuing to grow the brand and really just kind of perpetuating their dream of growing that. But in the process, Wayward Wild which has been the parent company of The Great Discontent for a while has kinda just sat there, dormant, since we formed it a year and a half ago. And going back to problem-solving, I have over the past year and a half noticed a lot of things with content creators and story-telling brands, not just saying print, but digital publications; maybe your content is a YouTube series that you created but I’ve really started studying and figuring out a lot of the problems that can be solved for really good story-telling brands that are very passionate about what they’re doing and really good at it but if they don’t get some assistance on the business side or how to generate revenue, they’re going to go away, so just because you have to make a livelihood, you have to form a way to make money out of your passion project or it’s never going to shift out of that; it will just be that thing that you do from 6pm to 11pm for the rest of your life.

If you truly want to see your passion project become your project: boring, sad to say it, but you’ve got to make money off of it, so what I’m doing with Wayward Wild right now is preparing to launch it in late May, so about a month from now, and what I’ve done is I’m taking the idea of a typical media company of old, a media company that’s a house of all these different story-telling teams; typically just in print but we’re not thinking only in print here, we’re thinking more in digital and film and podcast and things like that, and I’m mooshing it up with the idea and the concept of a tech incubator. So, a tech incubator brings in a small team that has a really good idea, they’re like, we have an idea, we can problem-solve and we want to build an app. The incubator goes, OK, what do you need help with? Is that funding? Typically it’s not even funding more; it’s giving them the team that can help them grow; it’s putting somebody in and helping them in a marketing situation, in a money-making situation, putting a sales person on their team, giving them good PR and press and things like that so what Wayward will be, it is right now, just not official and launched yet, is this incubator for content and story-telling brands to where we’re in the process of collecting really strong, great, small young brands that are good at story-telling and again, in whatever medium; maybe it’s print, maybe it’s digital, maybe it’s film and helping them grow and kind of realize the capability and the scope that their project could grow into.

Gary:
That’s interesting because when I…I wasn’t…I didn’t even know if you were going to talk about it because I know it was out there but I didn’t know if anything was official yet.
Brad:
Yeah, we don’t even know when this is going to air so this might actually go live before it’s up so whoops, I spilled the beans on that one! It’s not a big deal!
Gary:
Well, through the power of editing…whatever…
Brad:
It wouldn’t hurt if it was out there.
Gary:
Well no, and I mean at first when the things that you did have public-facing on it I was wondering if it was kind of like you are creating all of that stuff through The Great Discontent. I mean, you’re generating stories, you’re generating content through just about any medium humanly possible other than smoke signals!
Brad:
Which…that’s actually happening currently, yeah! Tried to find a good medium to deliver that one! No, it’s hard to really convey smoke signals in a digital world.
Gary:
And so I was imagining where you work as…you would help brands create their own content, not already existing story-tellers; for maybe for somebody who doesn’t have a story to tell, you were going to go in there and like tell them how to tell the story.
Brad:
And that, a lot of that was the core of the initial idea of what Wayward Wild was going to be and that’s like if you went to the website right now, which is just a holder page and read that copy, a year and a half ago, that was kind of the direction it was going; Wayward was going to churn out multiple brands but for us; The Great Discontent is just one idea and we were going to do this podcast series and we were going to do this YouTube channel and we were going to create a lot of this content for us. The Wayward that will re-launch, or in this case actually launch, this next month will be a very different iteration of that.
Gary:
OK, well great. Well that’s all we have time for today on Episode 24 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Brad Smith, for being so generous with his time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the DesignEDU Today hosting sponsor, Digital Ocean, and CDN sponsor Fastly, for making the hosting and distribution of these podcasts possible. Finally, I want to thank the AIGA and the AIGA Design Educators’ Community for their generous support of my research that led to this podcast series.

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