Melissa Showalter

Art Director at Instrument

Melissa Showalter

Art Director at Instrument Episode 17

Episode Notes

Episode Transcript

Gary:
Hello, and welcome to Episode 17 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 Melissa Showalter. Melissa is originally from Virginia, where she graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a BFA in Graphic Design and Media Studies. With a curriculum heavily influenced by Modernist design and visited by influential guest lecturers such as Massimo Vignelli, Melissa was given the opportunity to grow a strong, visual esthetic and thoughtfulness to every design decision. After graduating, Melissa took on the role of Design Director of TODA’s New York Office; a multi-disciplinary design studio, she gained experience working on a range of products including identities, websites, exhibit design, product design, print design and editorial design for clients such as the AIGA, Daylong and the American Foundation for the Blind. Currently, Melissa’s an Art Director at an independent digital creative agency in Portland, Oregon, called Instrument, where she collaborates with clients, developers, designers, producers, strategists and writers to develop and create deceivingly simple and well-crafted digital experiences. Melissa’s work has been featured in The Dieline, The Noun Project, Print Magazine, HOW, DesignBureau, Communication Arts, and Graphis.

Welcome, Melissa.

Melissa:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Gary:
It’s my pleasure. Before we get started today, I wanted to give the listeners a little back story on how I met you. About a year and a half ago, I was in Portland to present at an AIGA Design Educators’ conference and I was still trying to figure out how I wanted to approach this project. At the last minute, I reached out to Portland Area Digital Agencies to have an informal conversation about the state of interactive education from the professional’s perspective. Obviously, Melissa was one of the people to get back in touch with me and we met for about an hour and our conversation helped fundamentally make me re-think how I approach interactive education. So, as you listen to this conversation, don’t be surprised if we reference our prior conversations. OK, Melissa; in one of your bios you wrote, “As an Art Director at Instrument, I collaborate with clients, developers, designers, producers, strategists and writers to develop and create deceivingly simple and well-craft digital experiences.” To me, titles are very loaded an don’t often truly reflect exactly what you’re doing. Can you give us an in-depth explanation of what an Art Director is at a Digital Agency?
Melissa:
Yeah, absolutely. The role of an Art Director at a Digital Agency varies, depending on the point of view and the type of work at that agency so at Instrument we’re basically what I like to call, I kind of made up this term, but a multi-disciplinary interactive company, so to me that we means we do a wide variety of projects within the realm of interactive, so working at Instrument as a designer or an Art Director is very different from working as, let’s say a UX specialist at Facebook, for instance. So, at Instrument, as an Art Director, I help create the visual vision for a project as early as the creative concept. Sometimes this entails thinking about the brand holistically and involving the brand; sometimes it means creating content like photos or videos; sometimes it means creating the look and feel for a website or an app and sometimes it means designing UX experiences, so it’s not to say I won’t dig into the nitty-gritty details of a website, depending on the team and what’s needed of me, but usually I work with another designer and under the guidance of a Creative Director, depending on the scope of the project, but I’d say ultimately I’m responsible for the creative vision of a project.
Gary:
So, you’ve had print experience before.
Melissa:
Yep.
Gary:
Do you feel that the role of an Art Director is different in a digital agency versus a traditional print agency, or are they pretty much the same?
Melissa:
I think they overlap; they have similar commonalities in terms of needing to have that broader understanding of what the visual language of a project will be. But at an interactive agency I’m primarily looking at projects under the scope of interactive, so, website and app, any kind of experience that you might come in contact with on a screen. So, because of that, it does vary a little bit but we still create content and we still create a visual message so it does overlap as well.
Gary:
OK. So, after reading through the Instrument website, there are very deliberate position titles in addition to Art Director, such as Creative Director, Technical Director, Producer, Designer, Writer, Developer. To me, they’re all just design. Can you explain how they’re different? Especially the Creative Director, the Technical Director, the Producer and the Designer?
Melissa:
Yeah, definitely. So, we have a lot of diverse people at Instrument with a lot of different types of backgrounds and some of the strengths of Instrument I think is how we mesh all of those specialties together in a project. So, a Creative Director is more top level; they’re overseeing the project, more from the view of, is it solving the big problem, is it being done in a thoughtful way. A Technical Director is that same top level voice and vision but for the development team, so they oversee all the front and back end developers on a project. At Instrument we also have Producers instead of Project Managers and Account Managers, so we have one role that oversees all the communication with the client and that allows more of a holistic voice in the project, so the same person that gets feedback from the client delivers that feedback to the creative team and helps to maintain the goals of the project. So, you know, there is a lot of different roles and people within design as well have different backgrounds; there are people, younger designers coming in to Instrument who have a pure interactive experience or background at School, and then there are also people in Creative Director roles who are self-taught design, so it varies a lot and I’d say that that’s actually one of the strengths of Instrument is all of those different viewpoints coming together to solve a problem.
Gary:
OK. So, I want to follow up on that one with another thought. So, as an Art Director, you’re responsible for, like you said, the over-arching ideas behind the project. How is that different from the Creative Director above it?
Melissa:
Yeah, so that’s a great question. I think a Creative Director is more oversight, so they won’t…I mean it depends on the project and the scope, but for the most part they won’t be designing within the design files every day; there is overlap. On my project today that I’m working on, I have been working on the same file with my Creative Director and we’ve been passing it back and forth but typically they’re more of a support role rather than a detail role.
Gary:
OK, so that makes sense. I mean, you’re basically in charge of the visual language of the entire project and then you’ve got somebody kind of over that saying, kind of paying attention, to the fact that maybe you’re going astray or somebody to kind of bounce ideas back off of when you…
Melissa:
Totally.
Gary:
OK, that makes perfect sense.
Melissa:
And my favorite interaction with a Creative Director is really how inspiring their vision can be, so they’ll send me website links or mood boards or ideas, as it comes to them, about the project and they really keep the project more on that inspirational level, which is really helpful when you’re in the nitty-gritty of a project.
Gary:
So, the reason I ask that question is because I had an initial question that I wanted to ask and that is, I think students have the misconception, when they initially enter into the field. They’re used to being the Creative Director or the Art Director; they’re the ones that used to be like, this is what the visual language should be; this is how I see this project playing out when in reality, they don’t enter in and they don’t do that.
Melissa:
Yeah. That’s definitely something I see, I think that’s a great observation, when you’re coming from School, you’re in charge of every aspect of your project from start to finish, including the vision, and really in a professional situation, you not only share that vision with your peers, but you share that vision with the client and what the client’s needs are, so I think that I had that struggle when I started to enter the workforce and I watch younger designers have that struggle and it’s definitely real; you have to learn how to collaborate and share a vision rather than own it at certain times.
Gary:
OK, so for educators, how can they better replicate that in the classroom? Well, let me first make sure I understand this is…and I think Instrument has a typical set-up as most other digital agencies. So, you have a designer working under you.
Melissa:
Mm-hmm.
Gary:
They’re almost kind of like, if you’re going to compare it to the classroom, you’re giving them an assignment to design an interface, design an interaction where what happens when somebody clicks.
Melissa:
Yep.
Gary:
So, they aren’t necessarily doing the broad thinking; you’re kind of bringing that back to them, correct?
Melissa:
It depends. I mean, I love seeing what happens when you give a designer an open-ended problem to solve and watch the way that they attempt to solve it. I think no one, not even a Creative Director, always hits the mark right away; that’s not a level of experience, it’s more of…I mean sometimes, obviously, experience comes into play but having that open mind to collaborate and take direction has to happen at any level for sure, but also with a junior designer, being open to having more direction and being open to take more feedback is a really important element. So, for that I’d say, one of the things that I loved about VCU that I thought about before we had this conversation today was, how I was part of a program called Design Center and basically, we were a group of about eight students; we worked under a Professor who played the role of a Creative Director and we did non-profit projects for community projects, essentially, so we did a wide variety from brochures to billboards, you know, whatever was needed in the non-profit world, we were there to help and take on projects and that was a great way for me to kind of get a glimpse into how that works and how design is really solving a problem for people at the end of the day, so it could be solving a problem for a client; it could be an internal problem. Really, we’re creative problem solvers at the heart, so that collaboration element is so important and when Massimo Vignelli came to our School to talk he actually came by our Design Center class and we were in the middle of a really tough client and a tough project and it was fascinating because even with his celebrity status, being such an important figure in design, he had such empathy for what we were going through, and you could tell it was something he still dealt with and he talked about how sometimes he had to fire clients if they just couldn’t see eye to eye but all of the trials that you go through to try and make it work before getting to that point, so that was fascinating for me to watch and kind of understand through Design Center.
Gary:
You see, it’s fascinating but from all of these conversations that I have had and ones that are recorded, ones that haven’t been, every business, every design firm, every digital agency, whatever you want to label them as, they keep asking for that same thing; they want students to have more real world experience and I keep struggling with like, how do I get that back into the classroom?
Melissa:
Totally.
Gary:
Because I just…I can’t wrap my head around it because OK, yes, you can totally do work for non-profits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to synch up with the semester cycle, and there’s other things that have always gone wrong where students don’t want to work on it because it’s not…you know, they don’t believe in the organization; there’s more other philosophical issues or it just ends up…but it’s the one thing that every person I’ve talked to said that students need to be better aware of the business side of design.
Melissa:
Yeah, I think that’s so true. I mean, there is an art to design and there is an element of innate talent and an artistic vision and all of that’s so important, but there’s also another component of creative problem solving for your client and for what their needs are and sometimes you work for a client that you don’t believe in and that’s really hard, but you have to find reasons to believe in the client when you have no choice or…the worst case scenarios, you just claim you won’t work on that particular project but that is something that we have to balance; we have to balance that vision and that passion for design with the end result of where it lives and what it’s doing.
Gary:
Yeah, that’s a really hard reality for students when they first enter the field.
Melissa:
Yep, definitely.
Gary:
Do you have any suggestions on how to ease that or any things that I can do as an educator to better prepare them for that? The one you gave me, but do you have any other suggestions on a micro-level?
Melissa:
Yeah, I think the more you can team up students with other students on a project, the better their collaboration skills will develop, so, I remember personally actually hating group work or group projects in School because you’d lose a lot of the creative control and I’m the perfectionist, you know, so I remember being frustrated at those projects but when I look back on it, those were the projects that really made me grow the most as a designer. And then I guess secondly, just more of a tactic is the more critiques, the better; the more people have to get up in front of a group and defend their work and explain their reasoning, the stronger they’ll be as communicators verbally in a group. So, those two things would really be my more tactical advice aside from just taking on community projects for free and having students actually interact with a client figure.
Gary:
Another off-topic question; so, you mentioned…well, this will go back to you being an Art Director, but I think this an A-ha! moment for me. I heard somebody say, “We always tell students to do group work, but we never teach them how to work in a group.” And I was like…damn! That was like an A-ha! moment for me. So, what do you do to solve conflict or is there any strategies that you have for making a team, for helping a team work together?
Melissa:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think just having empathy for what people are going through is a big element; I understand that struggle that a junior designer has and that kind of shock; it’s like jumping in a pool of cold water sometimes when you find yourself in your first job and your first tough situation, so I just have honesty and I explain that I know what they’re going through and it’s tough but our job that we we’re being paid for, what we love to do, is solving problems for our clients and that we have to consider those moments as being important and not necessarily giving up creative vision but learning a new way to have vision, so for me it’s just trying to communicate and have empathy and also back off at times and give younger designers a chance to explore when they need to and have really thoughtful reasons for why something doesn’t work rather than just having a subjective opinion like, oh, I don’t like that color; instead there needs to be a thoughtful reason for why. So, I think it’s just those moments of empathy and understanding and compassion and also just communication and honesty that help groups of people work well together.
Gary:
Yeah, that’s a tough one, but I think that falls back on design educators: we need to be teaching them how to work together.
Melissa:
Yeah.
Gary:
So, as an Art Director, do you get to choose your own team members?
Melissa:
Yeah.
Gary:
Go ahead.
Melissa:
Sometimes I do. At Instrument, not so much; it’s more teams are created by the Executive Producer who is, well I guess to back up, at Instrument we have five different teams and on those teams we have a range of twenty to fifty people and every team has an Executive Producer and their role is to figure out the forecast for the projects coming in and who works on what, so a lot of that is pre-determined by our EP, but they do allow us a voice and an opinion to say that, you haven’t worked on a type of project before and you’re really interested, or you love the client; they take all of that into account. In the past at TODA, I did do a lot of figuring out who worked on what and it’s nice when passions align, when you have people on your team who love the brand or love an event and then you get to work on it, but that’s not always the case.
Gary:
So, what do you look for, then, in a Interactive Designer, because that’s what I’m kind of charged with preparing to go out into the world; what would make one jump out to you?
Melissa:
So, I think, like we’ve been talking about collaboration; I think that’s a huge component when you look for new people on your team, you want someone who will fit in with the culture and who seems open and flexible and has a passion for design. I also think having a foundation, a strong foundation in design basics is a really important element too; an eye for great typography, an understanding of good systems; even though that sounds like print, that comes into play so heavily on the web and in apps is having an understanding for those things. If you understand a grid system, then you can build a responsive site that works well in a huge screen, all the way down to a small smart-phone. So, I think those fundamentals can’t be denied; they have to happen. And then for an Interactive Designer, obviously if we’re hiring someone straight out of School, they won’t necessarily have client work, but having an understanding of the different types of interactive, whether it’s UX on a phone or an app or it could be all the way as broad as creating content for a website, I think those details are also important but not as important as a great foundational understanding of design.
Gary:
Well, following up on that fundamental knowledge of…the knowledge of design fundamentals. And using your print background as a guide, designing a grid for a magazine or for a newspaper etc; does that translate to also doing a responsive grid for an online app?
Melissa:
Yeah, personally I think it really does. I think that you learn about type hierarchy, which is a really important component; you learn how you can combine content together; so, how does typography interact with photography or video? It’s still such an important element. It does translate a little differently. I remember in Typography class in School, hand-kerning lines of type and that obviously doesn’t translate and you have to let go a little bit of details like how the rag looks; you can’t be as prescriptive, but if you understand what the fundamentals of how all of those kits of parts can kind of come together and play in an overall design, I think that’s a huge element.
Gary:
What about the idea of performance? Obviously I lump performance, and by performance I mean the speed of the site, and I lump that more onto front end development, but if the designer makes good decisions in the beginning, it just makes things a lot easier. Where do you see that fitting into the role of an Interactive Designer as considerations?
Melissa:
That’s a great question and I actually talked to some developers at Instrument before having this talk, that way I could see it from all angles and I think the key in a studio setting like Instrument is collaboration; I’m always sitting next to the developer that I’m working with on a project and I ask the developer lots of questions as I’m designing and then they ask me lots of questions as they’re developing, and that collaboration is key. There’s never a point where I unveil the final design to them and then I say: OK, take this and make it work. We’re always solving the problem together in tandem and then that helps the process because they can point out things that they’re seeing along the way that maybe won’t translate or don’t make sense and they think about things like performance and then I can push them a little bit back when I’m seeing them develop and I can point out: oh, that doesn’t quite look right, or we need to work on that hierarchy or whatever. That collaborative spirit is so important. And then that allows our value to really be in what our expertise is and we kind of combine into one brain; we’re like the left and the right brain coming together, which is great, but the more I obviously understand at the get-go of a project, the easier it’ll be on the developer and the project so it’s not to say that I don’t have a responsibility to know the fundamentals of how the product can come to life; that’s still my responsibility but I’m also, my value is as being a Designer.
Gary:
See, that’s where…I’m going to use typography for an example. So, that’s where I think the teaching for print and teaching for web, the design fundamentals are very different, and it boils down to performance. So, on a piece of paper, you could have five hundred different fonts; it’s probably not the best choice, but you could have it because it’s not going to hurt the performance of the page, whereas if you do that for a website, it’s going to just bomb out the site where it’s almost completely unusable and so I think the fundamentals of typography, they almost have to be taught different, because there are those differences.
Melissa:
Yeah; it’s funny you say that because right now, we’re working on a website where I was talking to my Creative Director about where we saw the typography going for the site and he was like, well you have a great print design background; your esthetic happens to be more in this with esthetic, in the Modern esthetic, so this is perfect, what we’re doing and I kind of realized at that moment that Modernism’s approach for typography is kind of similar to the web’s approach where it’s as few fonts, as few sizes as possible; there’s a system that’s created that you carry on and that strict typographic presence kind over overlaps. So I think it depends. At VCU, we were always told to use fewer fonts and to really streamline it and it was that Modernist esthetic so in that regard, I feel like I’ve been well prepared for the web but I know that’s not always the case, so I found that to be kind of an interesting nuance.
Gary:
That’s pretty cool. Another thing; this I want to touch back to when we first talked. This was the one thing that really, really stuck in my head and was that we discussed the actual interaction, so you kind of made a general statement that you wished you had more experience from your education designing the interaction.
Melissa:
Yeah.
Gary:
Is that a fair recollection of the conversation?
Melissa:
Yeah, and I’ve been thinking about that a bit the last week and I kind of realized part of that happens to be more about the time and place in which I went to School; the iPhone came out my last year; it hadn’t really had an impact on our world yet, so I remember learning some Flash, which obviously isn’t really relevant any more, so some of that just happens to be because of the time, but I also think one really important element of interactive is just the movement and how things work together. Take Google’s new logo, for instance. They have motion as being a part of their brand guidelines, which is amazing; we live in a time where that’s happening and I think if I could go back in time, I’d love to have a stronger foundation in motion and that actual physical interaction, but it’s not to say that I can’t buff up on it now. It’s definitely important.
Gary:
And I’m glad you mentioned the iPhone in 2007 because I think the modern…when I taught web five, six, seven years ago, it was a lot different; it was a lot simpler. Now, not only…the iPhone set things in motion, but really I go back to 2010 when media queries and Ethan Marcotte’s essay on Responsive Design: that’s when truly, this is what our toolsets are now that we have to work with, and so now we have to design interactions, because prior to that I think the interactions were fairly simple.
Melissa:
Yeah; you click and then the whole screen just changes and there’s no movement, there’s no human element to that interaction and now, it’s such a big part of it.
Gary:
Yeah, and so now with just some CSS3, you can have a form that you click the button and the form shakes…I mean, the button shakes and turns red if you did it wrong, instead of having to pop up all these different kinds of screens. Do you see students, or do you see young designers, having more experience as they come in with this, or is this something that design education should really catch up on?
Melissa:
Yeah, I do see students coming in with this skill-set in a way that I didn’t’ and I’m not sure if it’s because they’re being taught it in School or if it’s just the nature of the time and people are self-teaching themselves in that understanding, or if it’s just more intuitive, but it has been a conscious effort of mine to really think about the motion or the interaction of an element just as much as the look and feel; what color the type is matters just as much as how it’s moving, so I think it is evolving; I see it more in younger designers as being a skill-set but it can always be pushed further.
Gary:
We’re getting close on time, so one last question about that before I let you go. Most design programs have a Motion Graphics class and a lot of assignments coming out of those Motion Graphics class are like, design movie credits, do a video or something like that. What can be done in those classes to better prepare students for animations in interactive design?
Melissa:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it comes down to the different types of interaction that you can teach to. So, you can have someone learn motion that is more about animation and you can animate an object or have something move in a way where it’s telling a full story or where it can be an element of design. What I mean by that is, a title sequence, it’s more of an animation where you can have full reign and it’s something that people watch, whereas an interaction is something that people click or interact with, so it’s kind of working in tandem with the user and it sounds like there’s more emphasis on the first element of interactive versus the second and I would push people to start thinking about interactive more as it relates to everyday sites or apps that we interact with and how you can take typography or a button or a page transition and make it feel different just by the way it’s moving, so I think they are two vastly different applications and teaching to both seems like the future. They’re both so important.
Gary:
That’s fantastic. So, Melissa, before I let you go, is there anything you’re working on that you’d like to share or something you want to promote, or maybe a final piece of advice you’d like to give design educators that we didn’t talk about?
Melissa:
No, I think we covered everything. I know I talked for a while! No, I think that’s everything; thanks for everything you guys are doing. It’s exciting to see new students coming out with new skill-sets and watch design evolve as a discipline.
Gary:
This is exciting times for design education when you stop and think about it; we’re on the cusp of, like I said, I go back to 2010; our design is five years old in its current context and we’re figuring out what to do with it as we go.
Melissa:
Yeah, it’s super-exciting.
Gary:
All right, well that’s all we have time for today on Episode 17 of Design Edu Today. I want to thank today’s guest, Melissa Showalter of Instrument, 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.

If you want to discover more about the Design Edu Today podcast and read the session notes and transcripts, visit us on the web at designedu.today. You can also follow us on Twitter @designedutoday, like our Facebook page, or subscribe to this podcast through the iTunes Store.

Thank you for listening to the Design Edu Today.