Silicon Valley-based designer somewhat known for designing the Google Android logo. Has appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank, and redesigned Vurb for their victory in TechCrunch Disrupt 2014.
Silicon Valley-based designer somewhat known for designing the Google Android logo. Has appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank, and redesigned Vurb for their victory in TechCrunch Disrupt 2014.
So, let’s get started. Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
My early years [laughter]. I was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, into a whole family of engineers. Everybody is an engineer. My dad is an engineer, my mom is an engineer, my grandparents are engineers. But I am a designer. It’s really great that they allowed me to actually go to art school. When I was in preschool, we had a sculpting lesson. A whole bunch of kids were sculpting things, like a little ball, a little cube, little sausage, etc. I remember I sculpted the whole ship because my mom used to read me Greek mythology and I was so excited. I remember I was thinking, “Wow. You know I could make this whole ship with Jason and Medea and angels, and their supplies.” The ship was named Argo. It was supposed to take them from—I don’t know remember exactly the story, but that ship, I couldn’t get it out of my mind [laughter]. I remember I made this giant ship and I used all the play-doh that they had in this room [laughter]. Then, my parents came to pick me up. The teacher was kind of annoyed. She was like, “Look what your kid did [chuckles]. And they were like, “Oh my God. This is huge.” It was bigger than me. I thought it was completely normal to do that. My parents were shocked. They were like, “Art school. Mandatory.” [laughter] Since then, I was in the art school and that’s how my design career started.
Awesome. I love that story. What was the impetus for leaving Russia and coming to the States? Did you always know that you were going to leave your home? What brought you over here?
Well, my parents—as I said before—they are engineers and this is Silicon Valley. They came here for better opportunities and for work and I came with them. I was 18 years old and still living with my parents [laughter].
They brought me here and they were like, “Figure things out.” I remember one of my very first moments—it was actually in the grocery store. When I was growing up in Russia in the late seventies, there were times with pretty much no food. We only had this one item available. Seaweed. I’m not sure why, it’s very random. You would go to the store, and the only thing on the shelves is canned seaweed.
I remember going into a Safeway and I was stunned. To me, that was like a museum of food, to see all those different packaging and labels. I’m like, “Oh my God, there are like five hundred types of sausages.” It’s not just one sausage like in Soviet Russia—it would be just one sausage. There were three types of bread. And there were no brands. The government produced everything, so there was no need for brands. You just go to a store and you get food, if you’re lucky. There were some times where food was available and some times it wasn’t available because of the economic problems.
But here in the US.., you could have bananas actually year round. I remember when I first got a banana in Russia, my parents—we were treasuring it. We got this green banana and we had it in the drawer for months, and then every day I would open the drawer and check if it was ready to eat yet. But now, I could have a banana everyday. That was the biggest shock when I first got here. That, and also the fact I didn’t speak English. That was another part where you feel like you’re kind of just like an idiot—when everybody speaks English, except you.
Wow. Oh man, I’m like, where do I want to dig in from here? Growing up like that, did you have any idea that that was abnormal in a global context until you left?
It felt totally normal. I would not question it, because if you are in this type of environment and everybody else is, then you think it’s normal. I remember during winter in Russia, there’s all that snow, so everything’s white. You’d take the Metro and you get out in your station and you look, and in the distance, you could see kind of black dots. That’s a whole bunch of people standing in line, and you could see it on the snow. The first thing you do, you have to run there and join that line, usually because they’re selling something. You don’t know what they’re selling but you still have to get in this line [chuckle]. One day, I was coming home from art school. I saw this huge line, and I bought live catfish. And I brought this home in a bag. Another day, I bought some Polish deodorants. But again, you don’t know what you going to get [laughter].
When you are there, it’s a reality of life. But there are also amazing things like theatre and museums, architecture, and literature. You have lots of really close friends, and people that you feel you could really connect with. That’s one thing about Russian culture that’s different from the U.S. People are more open and more genuine. If you actually ask somebody, “How are you doing?” You will hear the whole life story. It’s not just a polite question—whether you want to hear it or not. [chuckle]
Wow. So, moving here, how long did it take you to not to feel like another?
I think I also don’t feel like the “other” because—it’s interesting, you have like all the different spectrums. People come here from all over the world, but you’re not really truly 100% American, but you’re not really no longer Russian, so you’re somewhere in between. It’s kind of like this time capsule where you’re somewhere on that spectrum and everybody else is somewhere else on the same spectrum, but they might be a little more Russian, or a little more American. I always have this different perspective, which I think is nice because you get to meet a lot of people here that also came from somewhere else, and they have another perspective, and together everybody has something interesting. A unique point of view. Something unexpected.
Totally. Yeah. It’s different for me, but I was raised by a Norwegian, and mostly by a Norwegian. We almost grew up there, so my teenage years I was so conflicted about feeling not quite American and then wondering—is Norway where I’m supposed to be? Then finally when I can afford to go back, I went back a couple years ago and just concluded, “I’m somewhere right in the middle. I am not a normal American. I am not Norwegian. I am neither and it’s fine. I am a total mush of both.”
There are even people from different states. You see people from New York or California. They’re also very different. It’s even within the same country, you have all these different spectrums. It’s interesting you mentioned coming back, because I also did go back. When I worked at Google, I was helping to do some marketing at the Google office in Moscow. I noticed how everything changed. I felt completely foreign there, because that country that I remember, like 20 years ago, doesn’t exist. It’s like this moment of time, like it’s no longer there. All the businesses are different, people are different. I don’t feel at home there at all. I feel more at home here [chuckles].
It’s crazy how that happens. Walk me through arriving as an 18 year old person who couldn’t speak English to getting a job in Silicon Valley.
My parents chose to go to San Jose because their friends were here. So, we kind of started out in Silicon Valley, so that was a plus. Then the closest school near my house was San Jose State. At the time I’m like, “Okay, I’m just going to go to the closest school I could get in,” so I had this experience where I really didn’t understand that you have to apply to school and go through this whole process that is a semester. There are certain times and deadlines. I had no idea. It was just me, and I had a whole bunch of drawings in a giant folder, and I was carrying these drawings on the bus. I got on some random bus with a giant pile of drawings—I remember it was hard to get them on the bus—and I said to the driver, “I’m going to university; I’m going to school.” And the whole bus was laughing, the driver was just cracking up. That was just really bizarre. And I also had these really weird clothes – kind of like a big skirt. I don’t know. Looking back at this now, I just can’t believe I actually did that. I mean, it was so bizarre.
Then I actually got to San Jose State University—that was the closest school, wherever the bus driver took me. But the school was closed for the summer, or a break—there was some sort of break—because nobody was there. And I’m like, “Oh, this building. It says Art on it. So I’m going to knock on the door.” And I literally just knocked on those doors. There was this one guy, an architecture professor. He was there just cleaning up or just doing some paper work. And I’m like, “Hi. I’m this artist from Russia. I want to go to the school.” [chuckle] Surprisingly, he actually helped me. He helped me to go through the application process. I didn’t have their official transcripts. You have to do all this processes that I wasn’t familiar with. He helped me and I got into San Jose State. I eventually graduated from design program there.
When I was graduating, I was volunteering at the organization called The Art Director’s Club. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I think it was almost 15 years ago—they had these, kind of, portfolio reviews and my job was to take all the artwork out and lay it on the table so the judges could review it. There, I met an art rep, and he introduced me to people at Landor Associates. That was my dream job. At the time, it was most famous branding design company in the world—they created the original FedEx brand, they created HP. Pretty much every big brand that you’ve heard of, they worked on it. It’s crazy. For me, that was like winning design lottery. I’m like, “Oh my God! I actually could work there.” He was able to get me an interview, which was another favor. I think at every point of my life, there were always people propelling me forward and helping me. Which I think is amazing.
That’s another difference between Russia and the United States. In Russia, it’s all about your connections and which family you come from. But, here in U.S is really largely based on your talent and, it’s really based on how hard you work, and how much effort you put into something. You could really achieve anything [chuckle], and people are helping. They’re not saying, “Oh, you’re a foreigner so you can’t really even apply there.” But, they’re actually helping you.
I was at Landor for about a year, and my school friend was at a company called E-Luxury.com. The idea was one of the very first start-ups. They were like, “Okay, we’re going to sell luxury goods online and maybe people will buy them.” But apparently people didn’t want to buy them, [chuckles] because they were incredibly expensive. There I got to design an online store for Alessi, or an online store for Bottega Veneta. We created this a big fashion mall online. That was also a very different type of work for me. It was web design. It wasn’t branding. From there, I got laid off. Everybody got laid off. I think it was 2000 or 2001 probably. I don’t know. It was so long ago, oh my God. Where did the time go?
I don’t know. My daughter just turned 11 today. It’s her birthday.
So I look back and I’m like, “Oh my God!” Biologically, I could be a grandma in maybe a year. [laughter]
Oh my God.
That’s depressing [laughter]. So, so, yes. After that, I got laid off and everybody was unemployed. It was basically impossible to find a job at the time. Silicon Valley was in a huge recession. There was this website called fuckedcompany.com, where everyone in tech would go. I don’t know if you remember but, it was really popular. They would leak internal company emails saying, “Sorry, you just all got laid off, and here’s what we going to do with you.” It was a collection of emails like that from all tech companies, and there would be multiple new emails every day [chuckle].
That was a really bad time. I would open yellow pages, and start cold calling to all the companies. I would be like, “Hi. I’m a designer looking for work. Are you hiring?” Most companies were like, “Are you an agent? Are you representing somebody? Why are you calling me? And then, there’s some random luck. Yahoo was hiring. They had the group called Brand Creative Group, and they had an opening there. And they were like, “Yeah. Come on in. Come for the interview.” I came in, and they hired me. There was also kind of interesting because, coming from an agency—my first day at Yahoo, I was like, “Oh my God, everything’s purple and it looks like this crazy style from Austin Powers—like this furniture.” Everything was goofy and over the top. I’m like, “What did I get myself into? This is really different from my design aesthetics, and it completely would be horrible.” But it wasn’t the case. It actually turned out to be one of the coolest jobs I ever had. I was there for five years. I was there really early where there were only 500 people. I was part of the original team helping build what Yahoo brand was. And at the time, it was really one of the greatest companies in Silicon Valley. So I was really cool. It was a really fun ride to be there.
After that, my boss went to Google, and she said, “Well, you either go to Google now, or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life [chuckles].” Most people Google hired at the time were graduates of Ivy league schools, like Yale and MIT, but I was from San Jose State.
Yeah. Tell me more—or tell me everything—about the opportunity to design the Android logo. How did that opportunity arise? Where did the idea come from? How was it like designing that brand system—the biggest brand system ever, if you like?
Crazy. It’s basically a combination of factors. It’s being there at the right time at the right place, being on the right team, and also being able to create something that resonated with people. As designers, we create a lot of stuff, every day. Most of the stuff never gets to see the light of day. We just create things that are disposable. Sometimes we create something that actually has life on its own, and it’s everywhere. It’s the same process. You could create something that nobody will see, or you create something that billions of people see every day, and it’s the same thing.
At Google, I was on the team called Google Creative Lab. Our job there was to use Google services to come up with new ways to market Google products. It was a launch of the open source Android system. The objective was “How do we get developers excited about developing on Android? How do we come up with some sort of identity that resonates with them?” Almost like the Linux Penguin.
It was originally a B2B identity, which not all people know. The platform was revolutionary and was open sourced for the first time—especially compared to Apple, I know with all the other systems everything was rigid and closed, really guarded and controlled. The Android logo was created as open source, because the operating system was open source, too. At the time, it was new. The logo also had to break some rules, and also become open source. Which, again, was completely against traditional brand guidelines. Now you see all these open source logos here and there. I think Android was one of the first open source identities out there.
I think this open sourcing really opened up creativity. It became almost like a hackathon and talent show for logos, which used to be against the rules—especially at Landor where you have all these traditional brands like Visa and HP. I remember working on the guidelines. They have these giant, multi-page guidelines outlining clear space, correct colors, etc for logos. And a brand police team that would just watch how everybody is using it and approve when. It’s a totally different approach to identity as well.
The original name of the company acquired by Google was Android. Basically the brief was, “How do you make Android human? How do you take this software and technology and humanize it? How do you make this into this brand that is likeable and exciting?” Actually, that was my very first sketch. We were doing a lot of sketches. It was a team of people, and everybody was doing sketches. My very first sketch got picked. Because it was so simple. It was almost like an essence of an android. If you think of man, woman, and android, that was what the android was. It didn’t need any embellishments or details. It just needed to be simple, scalable, and recognizable.
From there, it just happened. We never even had a traditional design presentation like you have at the agency, or you have somewhere where you’re sitting at the table, and you have this fancy presentation with slides. The logo itself was kind of viral. So the source file got into some engineers hands. And a few weeks later, a whole bunch of engineers created multiple iterations of logo. They made a Hello Kitty Android. There was a Sarah Palin Android. There was Pokémon Android. There were just Android everywhere! And engineers had so much fun making it their own. After I left Google, the logo actually became also customer facing. It wasn’t designed to be customer facing, but because it had so much momentum and there were so many followers, it became kind of a movement—it almost became a viral movement on its own, which was amazing to see. Because everyone could customize it and it make it their own, it’s no longer about really pushing some marketing message, but it was something that people could have fun with and just be creative. It’s an interesting experience.
That’s amazing. What is it like to let your design go in that way and know that it’s bigger than you and that people are going to take it and make derivatives of it? What are the emotions of that, of knowing that it will be bigger than you and having to let it go?
I think it’s more like having a kid. It’s like with my daughter. I gave birth to her, but she’s a completely separate, independent human. She has her own opinions, and she has her own life. It’s kind of like you just send it out in the world, and you’re like a parent. You’ll be like, “Oh, that’s your baby. That’s kind of like a baby. That’s my baby, too.” I’m not as attached to it. In the beginning, I was always trying to change it. I would look at the logo and I’d be like, “Oh, this stroke is different. I don’t really like it, it’s looking too cartoony.” I would always try to finish it in my head, because I’m never satisfied. I’m trying to iterate on that. It’s never really fully finished. Then it’s just surprising. It’s like you have a kid, and the kid becomes famous, you’d be like, “Oh my god. I didn’t know that was just a little sketch on my computer. I didn’t know billions of people would see it every day.” It’s crazy. When I was working on that, it was such a small project. Android was not known, and it was just a tiny little thing compared to Apple. It was just like, “Let’s try this and let’s try that.”
If I would have one cent for each logo appearance, I would be really rich person. But unfortunately, it’s not the case.
Now you’ve moved on, and you’re at a great company. What do you look for in a job now compared to when you started?
I think when you first start in your career, you look for learning opportunities and to grow as a designer, and to work with really experienced people, and you’re trying to change the world. A lot of young designers are very ambitious and the schools breed a very competitive environment where you want to be the best out of the best [chuckles]. When you graduate, you just can’t believe that the real world is almost pedestrian compared to what you thought it would be. You’re looking for greatness, and you find a lot of mediocrity. That’s very disappointing—we actually live in the real world, and you have to learn how things work. And the job is not really necessarily 100% about design. It’s about working with other people, understanding business, and all the things that you don’t really learn in school.
Then if you’re really experienced, you are really trying to think what’s next. You think two years ahead. You think three years ahead. Like, “What is the future of this business segment, and how can design drive business innovation? How can design help business?”
I think that’s where the biggest growth is for any designer is—really understanding that design is not really about art or self-expression. It’s about business [chuckles]. It could sound really boring, but it’s really true. Especially today, where design has a seat at the table and designers are treated with the respect, especially if companies that are focused on design.
I just recently joined Zendesk design team. Zendesk is really focused on design, and design culture is at the core of the company. You didn’t have to campaign and actually educate people about how the design is important. At Zendesk, it’s already at the core and that’s why it’s so appealing, so inspiring for a designer to join Zendesk. The other thing is, it’s taking the most boring thing you could think of— it’s enterprise software—and making it sexy, making it beautiful. That juxtaposition and challenge is also really interesting.
I love that—something about it ties back to just being so humble about Android and just knowing that it’s not about you, necessarily. It’s about affecting people with your work and solving problems.
But it’s also very satisfying. It’s what can you do as a designer to help. That’s why the first thing I did when I joined Zendesk was become a support agent for a day. I wrote an article; it’s on the Zendesk blog. It was a really humbling experience. You just go in, and you start. You roll up your sleeves and do what you need to do to really, fully understand the space you are in, and do the best possible work.
It’s definitely—that’s the biggest difference between art and design. Art is about self-expression, and it’s about talent, and it is about you. But design is about somebody else. It’s about business. It’s about appealing to the right customers. It’s about creating a product that is solving somebody’s pain point or problem.
How do you think your background—coming from the other side of the world, how you first came here from Russia at 18, all of your life experiences—how do you feel that shaped the way that you put your work?
We live in a global world, especially now with the Internet. It gives you just a bigger, broader perspective on things, and also it gives you some sort of humility like, “I don’t know everything,” so I would be like, “It’s okay to not know everything.” I think it’s a good place to be.
Another part of that is perseverance. I read somewhere that there are two things that separates successful people from unsuccessful people. Successful people actually don’t take “No,” for an answer, but they keep on trying. They persevere and they try.
That’s one thing that I think was very helpful for me—to come here as an immigrant, and to be able to hear “No,” and be like, “Okay, why am I rejected so many times?”. When I applied to San Jose State, I was rejected from the Design Program and I had to wait a year and apply again. I was rejected from every company when I was doing cold calls, except Yahoo, because they happen to have this opening. It teaches you to just not take “No” as an answer, and you just get things done. Just continue to persevere and shake the tree, and that something will fall off. That’s my approach in life [chuckles].
Side note. I love that you could just call Yahoo and just call Yahoo’s phone, and talk to Yahoo.
They don’t even have phones anymore. None of the companies have desk phones now.
In 2001, you were able to—every person had a desk phone and there was a directory. The operator would connect you with the hiring manager, if you asked.
How do you feel about the current state of tech in 2016? You’re still really active. It’s mainstream entertainment now you’ve been on Shark Tank. It’s a funny, huge time for tech. I’m curious to know—what’s really exciting to you about it? What frustrates you about it?
Back in the last few years, tech is just revolutionizing all the areas of life that used to be the most horribly neglected from design perspective—like education, medicine, or finance. There are companies that are popping up everywhere that are helping solve problems and pain points. I think that’s exciting, living in a time where you could innovate using technology. That’s exciting. Hopefully it will last for a while.
I’m curious to see if there’s anything that you’d like to see change, even from a design standpoint, culturally? What would you like to see be different in design and tech in the future?
I see a lot of companies that are starting at the right place of the right mindset, but a lot of times they’re apps that nobody needs or nobody wants. There’s a lot of noise. I think it’s a side effect of there’s so many designers and engineers here, so there’s a lot of talent, but there’s a real shortage of really, truly good ideas. A lot of times you could start a company, get some funding, hire some staff, and the idea itself is not great. Then you run through their circle and just burn the money and create something that nobody really needs. That is what I see—there’s a lot of it—and that’s potentially the danger—why the bubble could burst again like it did in 2000. We might not reach that level of recession. But there’s a lot of bloat. There’s not a lot of depth. I feel like there is just a lot of people creating a lot of superficial ideas. They don’t do their market research. They don’t really truly understand the pain points of the customer. It’s a little immature [chuckle], and that’s okay, because it’s good to experiment and build things. But it’s not really “survival of the fittest.” It’s really more of “survival of who got the most VC money.” It’s not really the true test of the idea. There are companies that just live off selling stock, they don’t live off their product. That’s because the funds are readily available. I think that it will correct itself in about a year, probably. It will be a little more kind of manageable.
Yeah. I feel the same way. My last question for you would be, what kind of advice do you have for designers just starting out? Like what do you wish you had known in the beginning?
I think the good advice would be, just don’t give up. It’s really hard when are starting out; there are so many disappointments. It’s kind of like being in an idealistic world—you just graduated and you think everybody is a genius and everything is wonderful. You can still get there, but it’s really going to be a long road of learning. When you just graduate your school, the actual real learning starts in the workplace: where you start to really kind of understand what companies are trying to do, and how you could help.
Design is a superpower and a lot of people are underestimating it. It really is something that designers have where—if you have an idea, you can actually visualize it. And then people fall in love with it.
Another advice is don’t be afraid because a lot of times you are in the room with other people and they have really strong voices and your voice gets drowned, and your ideas get discarded. It’s hard to fight for your ideas, so instead of fighting just make them – make them on the side. Just go and create stuff on your own – work on your side projects and that’s a great way to just succeed as an artist. If you believe in it, just do it. Don’t ask for permission, beg for forgiveness.
© 2016 Techies Project, All Rights reserved
Made in San francisco & New york city