Courtney Sabo

Designer at Happy Cog

Courtney Sabo

Designer at Happy Cog Episode 11

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode 11 of Design Edu 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 Courtney Sabo. Courtney is a designer at Happy Cog, arriving there via Drexel University’s Co-Op Program. Courtney graduated this summer from Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design with a Bachelors of Science in Graphic Design. Courtney’s work has won several awards, including a Hermes Platinum Award, American Packaging Design Award and an International Creativity Award. She has also been featured in Graphic Design USA, The Dieline and in Graphic Design School by Wiley Press. Courtney was a 2015 Net Awards Emergent Talent Nominee.

Courtney’s earliest memories from childhood involve drawing letterforms and organizing everything she found or made. Now as a designer, she loves crafting beautiful typography and aims to make peoples’ lives easier and more enjoyable through intelligent and timeless design. When she’s not at work, Courtney enjoys playing squash, researching Drexel’s Polish Poster Collection, running along the Schuylkill River and experimenting in the kitchen, especially with desserts.

Welcome, Courtney.

Courtney:
Hi Gary!
Gary:
Hello! Right, so Courtney, I’m excited to have you on as a guest today; If I was treating interactive design education the same as I would any other design project, I’d be doing some serious research on the end user. So basically in this scenario, my graduates. So I really think you’ll be able to provide a different perspective from senior level designers or principals at digital agencies and offer new insights, because you’ve recently graduated from school but you also have the experience under your belt to kind of judge what worked and what didn’t. So, before we get into specific questions about the transition from Design School to working professional, can you please elaborate on Drexel University’s Co-Op Program? From what I can tell, this is a very unique program: it’s not a traditional internship?
Courtney:
Sure, sure. So, it’s a six month full time internship basically to put in more or recognizable terms. You can use Drexel’s system through it; they’ve really partnered with a lot of companies throughout Philadelphia, the States and some international as well. Their end goal is really to get you real world experience so if you’re making copy runs, like that has to be reported so you’re really working in the major that you think you’ll end up your career in. So basically, when you sign up for Drexel, you have an option to do one co-op, so one six month internship over the course of four years or you can do three of them in five years.
Gary:
Yep, that’s pretty interesting; that’s not like normal internships, the students kind of find them themselves and then they just get credit for class for it but it’s not really like ingrained.
Courtney:
Sure, yeah. We also do get class work but I think it’s definitely more valuable than just a summer internship, so we go to School year round to support the time that we spend on co-op and just those three extra months really makes such a difference in what you can get out of that time spent at a company.
Gary:
Like I said; that’s really interesting. So, the first thing that I…well…kind of a question backing up from that. The first thing I wanted to address was a quote from an article that you co-authored or you authored and you interview people was From Pixels to Inches and Back Again. It’s on the Happy Cog website. You wrote that “I admit at first I really struggled to design for the web.” Can you describe that struggle in more detail?
Courtney:
Sure. So, basically before my co-op, before coming to Happy Cog, I didn’t really know anything about designing for the web. At School we had just some really basic classes in web design is what they called it, but it was just learning HTML, CSS and some JavaScript but we really weren’t focusing on any UX or UI, so I think just in that, coming here and just seeing this much longer process was really overwhelming.
Gary:
All right, so then let me ask you this, because this is something I personally struggle with as an educator is, OK, if I have one three credit class to teach everything, which is just not possible, I then have to make the…I have to figure out what’s the best thing to do in that, in those three credits, and I always lean towards teaching the HTML and CSS because this, from my own thoughts in my head with no real research to back that up, it just seems like if you know a little bit of HTML and CSS, you’re at least exposed to the larger world, but do you think from your experience, would you have been better served by just having those three credits being focused on User Experience; UX, UI and not really on the HTML and CSS?
Courtney:
No. I really do think learning the code is an integral part of learning web design and I do think that you should learn that. More towards the beginning of that, I think schools in general could do a better job of sort of implementing web design in all of their classes so when you’re starting to learn about typography, so we designed a publication but at the same time, we could have designed a page for a website or just a content heavy website, so really the hierarchy works the same; it’s just a matter of pulling in web design into other classes as well.
Gary:
And that would have been…so what was the biggest single shock that you got from your first experience in working at Happy Cog, being different from your training at School?
Courtney:
I’m not really sure. Could you elaborate more?
Gary:
So, when you went to School, I mean when you walked into Happy Cog, I would assume that anybody, because I actually worked in the industry before I actually went to School, so I would just assume though, walking in you’d be super-excited and super-confident: I know I’ve got good skills, I’ve got this and then all of a sudden, bam, you’re like, whoa-what? I just can’t believe how different this was than what I was expecting when I walked in. Is there one thing that just stands out that was kind of like a shock to you?
Courtney:
I’m not really sure that there’s one specific thing but I think just in general the complexity of everything and really linking pages together and where surfacing content at one page might be more beneficial than another page, so maybe more on the content side or information architecture side, I think. That was something I had never really thought about before in School; definitely in School we’re focusing more on visual design so everything else about web design was then thrown at me. I was like, wow, I’m not really sure I have any idea what I’m doing!
Gary:
With that in mind, the content and the information architecture was kind of, I could see that being totally foreign, but I’m wondering wouldn’t publication design, wouldn’t designing a book kind of be parallel to that experience a little bit or why wouldn’t that be?
Courtney:
So I would say yeah, definitely, but I think in School we have to find our own content, so you can find as much or as little as you really want. So then coming here and having these really set requirements of what needs to be on these pages, or just on the site in general and trying to tie that all in was more difficult.
Gary:
OK. I think that’s something that varies from teacher to teacher because usually I…some educators give the content and then make you design around it; others are more free-form; you find and you develop the content.
Courtney:
Sure, I had the same thing too. Some of my professors gave a set curriculum or set word limit and some didn’t, so it was just really how much you wanted to put into it.
Gary:
OK. Another thing that just from our initial emails when we were scheduling this talk, you wrote, “I always think about how my work now could be introduced to my School curriculum.” And you also wrote again, in that same article From Pixels to Inches and Back Again you drew some parallels between print and interactive design. Could you give some specifics about what do you want to be able to sprinkle back into your education?
Courtney:
So like I said before, I think just introducing the web at an earlier stage. I think by the time we got to it was maybe Junior and Senior year in College but we already had such a strong foothold in the print side of things, to be thrown web was actually really scary because you were like, oh, I have to learn code. It’s like learning a new Adobe program almost; it’s totally foreign to you. So I think if we could have learned a little bit earlier on, it definitely would have helped. I think it plays well, like I said, with typography and hierarchy and layout and grids; it all plays together; it’s all just design; it’s just a matter of the medium.
Gary:
See, that’s really interesting because I notice that…you’re right, so there is that fear factor that comes into web design and when you…so that makes sense, so then when if you just offload the web design ’till the Junior or Senior year, it’s kind of already too late…
Courtney:
Mm-hm.
Gary:
…to get over that fear and then learn to jump into…then go on that self-discovery phase because it’s kind of too late: you’ve already gone down a certain path, so that’s really interesting that you’d like to see it injected earlier on.
Courtney:
Right, and I think too that earlier on in the education process, in College anyway, you’re introduced to a lot of things and from those many things you find a passion, but if you’re not being introduced into web design until later in the game, it’s really hard to get really focused and excited about it just when you have all these other things behind you.
Gary:
You know, this is totally off-topic and this just popped into my head. When…and you can answer this from your perspective or maybe the perspective from some of your colleagues or perspective from your peers at School: when you went to School, did you specifically go thinking you wanted to be a print designer?
Courtney:
To be completely honest, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Shortly before coming to College, I switched from being a Medical major, to a Bio major, into design. I just knew that I wanted to design something; I wasn’t really sure what. I had some experience in magazine design just, whatever that may be, in High School, but other than that, no, I wasn’t really sure, but once I got into College, I was actually like, I would never want to design for the web. And even after my first web class I was like well, this just isn’t for me, I just want to focus on brand identity and nothing else and then after coming to Happy Cog, it’s sort of when everything changed.
Gary:
All right; the reason I asked that is because I’m just curious now if that’s even…five, ten years ago that still was a choice that there was a choice so you could do one or the other. Where now, I don’t think there’s a choice any more I think you are doing both and I’m just wondering, now I’m just curious if that’s…what do students expect when they go into Colleges when they say, “I want to be a designer”. What do they expect to be designing? I’m just curious.
Courtney:
I’m not really sure I know. Drexel actually did used to have concentrations so you could focus on web or interactive or whatever they called it, or advertising or maybe environmental but I’m honestly not really sure what people are going for.
Gary:
That’s something I’m going to have to do some research on, that’s kind of interesting to me. All right; design educators aren’t perfect; we try our best to give our students the most well-rounded education possible that covers as many scenarios as possible. Sometimes things just don’t but sometimes things don’t translate. So, from your experience, are there some things from an educational standpoint, specifically learned in the classroom around print design that just don’t translate to designing for the web, for designing for user experience design?
Courtney:
Sure, I think I definitely had a couple classes where maybe you’re designing a movie poster or something that just doesn’t really have a lot of content so it’s more like editorial illustration, things like that. I think they can definitely play a part into the web but as a whole, I would say they probably didn’t help me as much but at the same time I’d also say that any experience in education at school was beneficial by far if I learned something from it.
Gary:
Yeah, and we’ve got to give props to Drexel because you’re working at Happy Cog, so your talent and their guidance obviously did what it was supposed to do. But I think that what I’m really interested in is what you just said about, you said the poster, but you said lack of content and I never actually thought about that before, is that: well yeah, I always think about it, there’s tons of content on the web, of course, but when you’re designing an illustration, when you’re creating a marque, when you’re creating a poster, when you’re creating a postage stamp, there’s not a lot of content, so you’re not learning to design with a lot of content in those print contexts, where maybe designing in a book, maybe designing an infographic that has a ton of content it more translatable.
Courtney:
Sure, and I think it just presents a bigger challenge; it’s just trying to fit more things in the best possible place in that layout.
Gary:
OK, see that makes sense. So, are there mock-up or prototyping processes that you did or tools that you wish you had learned and then been exposed to in School, because I think the process that you work in now at Happy Cog is probably different than you did when you were working in the classroom?
Courtney:
Sure. In terms of mock-up and prototyping tools, I would say they probably didn’t really matter in College. The technology side of it, it’s pretty easy to learn; we’re all quick learners with that. I think in terms of what would benefit me more, looking back, is that had I just had more interactive experience I think that would have been way more helpful with the design skills on that side than knowing a prototyping tool.
Gary:
Can you explain that just a little more? Because everybody has a different definition on what interactive is or interaction or all these. Can you give me a specific what do you mean by that?
Courtney:
Sure. I would just say digital in general, so, coming out of School, if I didn’t do the Co-Op, I would have no idea how to make a wireframe or what might go into that or the thinking behind it or what type of research you need to do to know what content needs to go there.
Gary:
OK, so, having more experience building those would have been helpful?
Courtney:
Sure, sure.
Gary:
OK. And that’s something, again, I think that’s…when I teach an HTML and CSS class, I have them draw out wireframes but I treat it very much like it’s doing thumbnails for a logo.
Courtney:
Right, right.
Gary:
And I don’t think it’s the same thing; I think it’s a different thought process. When you are working for a client and you start doing your wireframing, do you already know the content of the site or at least…how much do you know about the content to inform those wireframes?
Courtney:
I mean, I would say off the bat, it just depends on a client to client basis but before wireframing, I think that’s when you start understanding the content so if they’re keeping, let’s say, eighty percent of the content but what to just re-structure it, so you know that much and then maybe you’re adding to it, maybe you’re doing a little bit of copy-writing to fill in places that you think need filling in.
Gary:
All right, and again I think that’s the other thing, when you’re coming from a pure visual training, you’re moving the boxes around on these wireframes and if there’s no content attached to it, it just becomes decoration and it’s really not a thoughtful process.
Courtney:
Exactly. You can push boxes around as much as you want but if the person who’s using it can’t find the little number or email address or whatever they’re looking for on that page in the specific area, then you’ve kind of failed!
Gary:
That’s interesting. Where does HTML and CSS and front end development fit in to somebody that I guess identifies as a visual designer and how much of that do you need to know, do you think?
Courtney:
I would say you should be able to build a basic page out of HTML and CSS; I think you just need to know what’s possible for the most part. Of course you’ll have developers there by your side telling you that but I think it’s just something that you always need to be mindful in the back of your head, OK, I can’t do this because of X, Y, Z. I remember in School in our first web design classes, I think, either the first one or the second one, we got into this habit where we wanted to absolute position everything because we came from a print background and wanted something in a very specific spot and then going into web design and responsive web design specifically, everything shifting so you kind of have to play off and make sure that everything looks good at any size, too.
Gary:
Yeah, and that’s really, really tough to teach. And actually, OK, I’ll ask you this to see how you work, what’s your working process. I’m teaching my students how to use floats, use position absolute and all these different things to form the layout of the page and I’m also making it responsive and this idea that it’s mobile first. But I always…OK, so the process is, when I show them how to make a layout, I start with the desktop first; I say, this is how we get the layouts, this is how we move things across the screen. And then we go back through the code and create media queries but then remove, say we have something set up as two columns or three columns: we remove that and put that in the media query and replace it with 100% so the non-media query code is mobile first; it’s just this one standard column and then the media queries then enhance it. I do that because it’s kind of…when you’re doing a wireframe, do you start off with a single column mobile wireframe?
Courtney:
I think that definitely depends on the client and what it’s needed for. I think most things are going to work well on mobile because it’s just a single column. You don’t really have that many options. I think desktop is really where things can definitely get tricky in terms of making it not look cluttered. I think mobile first matters when you do have maybe a lot of navigation or things like that, that need to be in a small screen view.
Gary:
All right, because that’s one I’ve been struggling with because you said, the complexity of arranging the things on the screen, I think they need to learn that because it’s real easy to make it just fill the width of the screen.
Courtney:
Exactly, exactly.
Gary:
But with the idea of mobile first, that should be done first but then there’s really, it’s kind of hard to…I don’t know, it’s just something I sit there and I teach them how to reverse engineer things and I’m just wondering if that’s just…
Courtney:
Right, and I think that’s the challenge of websites because it’s all modular based and that’s not how you think as a print designer because not everything is contained in something per se.
Gary:
You know, I’m glad you said that idea because…what can we do as an educator…OK, you see it as modular so I’m going to give you an example is, my students, I said OK, we’ve done these three demos in class: now you have to go and you have to make your own outside of class but you can use what we’ve done in class and I said you can copy the code from these three, but they don’t see it as a module; they don’t see, oh I can just copy this HTML from this section and the CSS that made this section and drop it into this one and build something new. That just is totally foreign to them and I have no idea how to explain that, like you can just pick and choose these pieces parts. Is there a way that made sense to you that that’s what you could do or couldn’t do?
Courtney:
I don’t think when I learned it specifically I really have good advice for that but I think the one thing that I wish I would have done more during School was really looking at websites that exist already and just finding the patterns there and just pulling out: OK, this is on this page but it looks different on that page even though it’s the same content. So, things like that, really just picking up and finding where things are repeated.
Gary:
But I think…yes, I agree with that one hundred percent, but also, one thing I’m concerned about and I think this is where it comes from is design education is, everything on the web, and this is a generalization, kind of looks the same: I’m joking around about them, I said OK, we’re going to do these three demos and these three demos, I said, you could pretty much build any website that you see on the internet today, and I think that’s because we’re not pushing…and we’ve had print around for a thousand years so we’ve better have mastered it at this point!
Courtney:
Sure, and I also think that the scary point of using the word “modular” because you immediately think of a big hero image and three images beneath, or three content box beneath. So that is the scary thing and then you see that on websites and you think, well, I can do that, I can put text on top of an image and I’m done, but you don’t really question whether or not that’s the best thing for that website.
Gary:
Is there…what made you stop…OK, so to solve that, how would you stop…how do you stop and say, is this the correct thing to do? Where in your process at Happy Cog does that come in?
Courtney:
I would say just really thinking about the user: is this what the user wants to see? Is this giving them the content that they want? If you have a huge hero image, you’re losing a lot of text content in that area, so it just depends on what the website is.
Gary:
That makes perfect sense and I think it also goes back to this idea that there’s one or two classes. So those one or two classes are focused on teaching you how to make something instead of why are you making this in the first place?
Courtney:
Right.
Gary:
Where you get, and I think that if we sprinkled things through, like you said, I would love, I think every beginning typography class should be half on the screen, half in print just so you can…because like you said, the hierarchy is the same: the principles are the same, it’s just the execution is slightly different and I think you could pepper those throughout most programs. Anyway; another question I have for you is, I would assume designing a scripted project for a Professor in the classroom is radically different than working with a team at digital agency. Can you describe your working process now compared to what it is in School when you started a project? Maybe use the most recent thing that you’ve worked on at Happy Cog as an example?
Courtney:
Sure. So, I think a lot of times the client doesn’t really necessarily know what is best for them, so you can come in with a brief but the briefs change, unlike School. In School, you get a brief and you spend a couple classes sketching, your Professor is theoretically your creative director and maybe partly your client too. And then a couple classes executing and then you’re presenting your final piece. Definitely in the real world you have challenges all the time and there’s always changes; you do one thing and the client pushes back for whatever reason, if it’s a business decision or even if it’s on your own team and it’s just another designer’s opinion, I just think there’s a lot more collaboration outside of School which is definitely a good thing. Also with the project timeline, at School you’re working on a project for three weeks in a ten week term and here at Happy Cog, at least some of our projects last over a year so there’s just a lot more heads down time working on something very, very specific within a project.
Gary:
How does the working in…well, it’s easy for educators and students to wrap its head around, OK, you’re going to be working as a designer, you’re going to be designing it but then you’re going to be working with a developer who’s then going to do the coding and further it, but also there’s a group of designers designing. So, what’s that experience like? Because I would assume that, I don’t teach…well, I’ve recently started, I lie. But generally we don’t teach students to design in teams; they’re the solo designer and like you said, they’re working for the art director which would be us. So, how is that different? What skills are necessary to work as a team?
Courtney:
I think just understanding, accepting feedback for sure is one and just really knowing what’s best for the project, so maybe you just agree with someone but sometimes it’s hard to say that, if they’ve worked there for a longer time, but it’s really just about talking everything through, finding different options, questioning everything that you’re doing and making sure that everyone on your team is really living up to their expectations.
Gary:
So kinda like, leave the ego at the door but also at the same time, be willing to question something?
Courtney:
Exactly, yeah.
Gary:
Don’t just sit there passive.
Courtney:
I think our team wouldn’t be a good team if we didn’t push each other and be like, no, that looks bad or that isn’t working for whatever reason.
Gary:
From my own personal experience, those are the magical classes when you have a group of students that are really good friends but are also super-competitive with each other because they just, even though they’re working on their own project, they just push each other; you really can’t…I wish there was a way to bottle that or re-create that as an educator but I really haven’t found a way to do that yet.
Courtney:
Yeah, that’s definitely how it was when I was in School, we would always push each other but really at the end of the day, you cared about your project the most. I think here it’s obviously like you’re doing well because it’s a group project and you want everyone to do well because you want your company to do well, so I think there’s just that mentality difference.
Gary:
Cool. I don’t know if you did a lot of interviews yourself or if the Co-Op was just kind of seamless coming into Happy Cog, but I’m going to assume that even if it was seamless, you’ve seen a lot of student portfolios, either at Happy Cog or from your classmates. So, with the benefit of hindsight, what kind of projects do you think would give students the best opportunity and the best portfolio to land an internship or a job at a digital agency?
Courtney:
I would say an internship, I would just show really strong design skills; I think most agencies are considerate that you maybe you don’t have all the experience that you could have gotten by that point, so maybe you miss out on a web class so you don’t have a ton of web work at that point but I think by the time you’re finished School and looking for a job, almost half of your portfolio should be digital work, if you didn’t come from an interactive design program, if you were just a graphic design program. But I think in general too, making sure that what you’re showing just isn’t design as decoration, that there is a lot of content, that it’s really strong and that it’s really well put together.

I think a lot of people make the excuse in design programs that they didn’t have web classes or digital classes in general so they don’t have that in their portfolio but really with all the resources online, there’s no reason you can’t spend some time on your own making things; College is your time to learn so if you’re sleeping instead of learning, then you’re doing something wrong, I think and I think too with that, just do inside projects; any Professor is willing to give you feedback on them, absolutely, so it’s just about learning on your own too.

Gary:
You know, that’s…and I didn’t go to School for web design; I taught myself a long time ago, and it’s so easy nowadays to learn that stuff on your own, like you said, Skillshare, lynda.com, Treehouse; there’s about a thousand different places now where you could learn that stuff. And I don’t know if you could answer this because I would assume that you’re probably pro-active and you just did it, but why do you think some students don’t? Is it a fear? Is it just a lack of…oh I do need to learn that?
Courtney:
I think it’s a fear in the sense that you look at a website and you’re like, whoa, this is a lot of stuff to learn, even though it’s not; when you break it down, it’s really not that many things. So I would say that to begin with. I would also just say, closed mindedness: you think you’re going to go into a job in advertising and make posters or whatever it may be and not really considering that there’s other things out there.
Gary:
OK. And so I guess from maybe like if you’re a print design instructor, that’s what you specialize in, you’re obviously going to teach to your specialty; you’re not going to teach outside of it but maybe just do you think if would be helpful if they would even say, hey, theoretically, just say hey, on your own time, I think I look at posters and then I look at full page screenshots of websites and I can see their could be a potential parallel between that, so maybe Professors that don’t have the skillset to teach that at least said, hey, this is something you need to learn. Do you think that kind of seeding that thought would be helpful? Do you think people would pay attention to that?
Courtney:
I think a lot of Professors are also in the same mindset they’re scared; I think web design is so fairly new compared to print anyway that you really don’t know the best way to teach it and maybe you don’t know the best advice to give to your students, so I really think it’s just kind of like this vicious circle of being fearful and not knowing what’s the best way to learn or teach it.
Gary:
When you stop and you really think, web design’s been around twenty plus years but in its current use, its current context, media queries started in 2010. It’s five years old. You’re talking about, in its current context, I see it as five years old: who does know what to do with it? We’re still figuring it out, and so I hope soon we could actually be adding to the conversation instead of just walking behind it and listening to it, as educators anyway.
Courtney:
Sure, sure.
Gary:
All right, well Courtney I just noticed we’re a little bit over on time so before I let you go, is there anything that you’re excited that you’re working on that you want to promote or maybe do you have any final piece of advice for design educators that you would like to give that we didn’t talk about?
Courtney:
Sure. I would say maybe it’s both educators and students right now that web design can be a super-scary thing to learn but at the end of the day, it’s really just another medium of design, so maybe you think you want to design posters or brand identities or something that is mainly in the print world but when you know how to design for the web it’s just going to make you a stronger designer overall but it’s really just going to help you in the long run, so you’ll learn something from print that you can bring to web and something from web that you can bring to print, so it really all just runs together.
Gary:
And just one comment: I hear people talk about, students talk about branding: I want to focus on branding. And when they say that, they’re thinking in terms of print but online branding is a huge, I would argue, almost bigger component of a brand now!
Courtney:
For sure, yeah. You’re sending all these brands into huge websites so every little piece of that website has to be a part of the brand, whether it’s the color and type obviously and their logo of course on the page, but also the interactions too; if something is bouncing or fading in, what does that say about the brand and how does that communicate what that is?
Gary:
And also the context too, because there’s Twitter, there’s Facebook, there’s all these different things that the identity’s going to go into.
Courtney:
Sure, sure.
Gary:
That needs to be taken into consideration.
Courtney:
It’s definitely, definitely outside print too.
Gary:
All right, well thank you so much, and so that’s all we have time for today on Episode 11 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Courtney Sabo of Happy Cog, for being so generous with her time. I want to thank the audience for listening and I want to thank the Design Edu 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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