Joe Stewart: The "Brute Force" School of Design


An interview with illustrator Joe Stewart of Work & Co.

An interview with illustrator Joe Stewart of Work & Co on his growth as a designer, leaving a large agency to start his own, and their "prototypes over presentation" policy. 
I have never met Joe in person but I am familiar with his work and the role he played shaping strong designers from Huge and his reputation from our firends at Juxt. I can't wait to get a beer next time we are in the same city at the same time.
Joe Stewart, founding partner of the digital design agency Work & Co and former partner at Huge, knows there is no substitute for hard work. Joe paid his dues during his early design days under the leadership of Todd Purgason at JUXT Interactive—a time he jokingly refers to as “Boot Camp for Designers”—where he learned that when trying to be one of the best, working harder than the rest of the pack is the only way to get ahead.
He’s instilled that lesson into his company, Work & Co. Specifically by structuring the company so that its 10 partners are in the trenches working hands-on, constantly designing and iterating on all projects. The company strongly believes that the fastest route to achieving optimal, user-friendly digital product design is through multiple working prototypes, employing a mantra of “prototyping over presentations.”
This philosophy helped the firm achieve the unlikely feat of completing a re-launch of the Virgin America website in nine months.
And with Joe recently named as one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business,” and with high-profile clients such as the NBA, Google, and YouTube, the process seems to be working.
What was your path to starting Work & Co?
I moved to New York to work for Huge while it was still really small. Then the economy really shit the bed in 2001 and they had to lay me off, so I started working at a publisher doing web designs for magazines. At that point, Todd Purgason from Juxt called me up and asked if I wanted to move to Newport Beach. It sounded like the greatest idea ever, and at the time they were a really prestigious agency, so I went. Todd is the hardest Creative Director I have ever worked for in my life—everyone will tell you the same thing. He really busts your ass, but I learned so much from him. My very first day I wasn’t even supposed to be working. I was just going in to say “Hi” and he worked me until 2:30 in the morning. That was just how it was the whole time I worked there.
But it was like going to Boot Camp for Designers. Everyone I knew there went off and did amazing stuff afterwards. But it was totally brutal, I’m not going to lie. After a year and a half there, which is a really long tenure for Juxt as most people don’t last more than four months, I went back to Huge in New York and stayed there seven years.
What was it like growing as a designer inside Huge as they grew from a small team of less than 20 in a single office to a 650-plus person team worldwide?
It was a roller coaster to be sure. There were really high highs and really low lows. The guy who founded it, David Skokna, was a super-inspiring Creative Director and super-talented [read his 99U interview here]. He had this completely brilliant design strategy: The way that other design agencies were making websites was just not working for users. The basic idea of usability just wasn’t a concept at this point so he and Gene Liebel (who is now my partner), bucked Flash and just said, “This isn’t good for the Internet.” They were the first agency to ditch Flash and go HTML, which was ludicrous in 2006, but clients really liked the idea of having a user-first approach.
Those guys were some of the pioneers of that and I really enjoyed those days. Then they sold to Interpublic, which changed Huge. David left after the sale and I took over as Creative Director. Huge started taking on new areas in order to grow, such as digital marketing and social and media buying. It’s great for them, but for me, I didn’t like it… I was overseeing a department of over 100 people and most of my job was in Outlook and Powerpoint, so I pretty much stopped designing.
I actually had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror. I’d lost respect for myself. I was the most senior person at a very hot agency but I wasn’t happy. I’d given up what I actually gave a fuck about, which was design.
How was that process of deciding to start your own shop and setting up?
There were a lot of us at that time who were very high up in the agency world sort of looking around evaluating if this was really the best path for us. There were two major problems we saw: First, there is a joke in the agency world that the better at design you get, the less you get to design. You sort of get promoted out of doing the thing you love.
Second, most of the digital products we love, websites and apps, were not made by agencies. Something was broken. It quickly became obvious that the only way to focus on what we really cared about was to start over. So Felipe & I talked to [my now co-founders] Gene Liebel, Mohan Ramaswamy, and Marcelo Eduardo, and everyone said, “Of course, yes!” There was no hesitation at all. Very soon after, we resigned and set up the new shop. We have one of the luckiest track records of any start up agency in history. We had clients almost immediately and were profitable from day one. Mostly because we lucked out into having a very beefy client roster very quickly, such as Virgin America and YouTube.
How you do you make sure you still stay hands-on as your client list and company grow?
We are ridiculously top-heavy and have way more senior people than junior people, it’s like an upside-down pyramid. Because quality really is our focus, I am 100 percent on my projects. That’s all I do. And that’s how all of us work, so because of that we need a lot of partners and there are now 11 of us.
We are definitely not looking to the traditional agency model. Most digital shops are looking to ad agencies such as McCann as their business model on how to run a digital agency, which is fucking psychotic to me! This is a brand new thing, and maybe we need to do things a little bit differently. Most great apps and great products are not done by digital agencies, and maybe there’s a reason for that.
We love the way Pentagram works and study them a lot. They are clearly not in the business of creating the biggest design agency in the world, but rather the best one. We would love to be the “Pentagram of digital.” In 30 years, if we could be the first great digital design company, I will die a happy man.
How does not having money as your focus affect your process at Work & Co?
We took monster pay cuts and I would do it again 1,000 times. Why I didn’t do it earlier, I don’t know. There is so much joy in owning something, making something, crafting something, and having people use it and enjoy it. It’s 1,000 times more satisfying than having a crazy bonus. The core of it is this: Optimizing for making money is a fucking horrible way to make decisions.
I think that goes back to some of the dark days I had at my last job, where I was making decisions based on finance. What is the best financial decision for this agency? That was my job. Making great stuff wasn’t really my job, and it’s not a good way to be happy at all. Being a designer? That’s a great way to be happy.
Tell me about your company’s process of “prototyping, not presentations.”
For a long time, there was this idea that people at agencies were so much smarter and better informed than their clients. But nowadays, most clients are ex-agency people or founded their own companies. They know that building digital products is very important in creating interest in the company and generating brand love. So there is more of an appetite to be collaborative.
Not every client has the appetite to be as intense as we would like. Virgin America is a great example of a good client/agency relationship for us. At the start, [Work & Co. founding partner] Felipe Memoria moved to San Francisco for two months and I was there three or four days a week, and we just moved into their office. We were there every single day for months, and two years later, I still go every week. The whole goal is to break down the formality and not make it feel like a business relationship.
We never made a presentation once. Ever. We would just be in a room with our monitors set up, and they would look over my shoulder and I would explain what I was doing. When we were presenting our work, they had the Head of Technology, Head of Operations, Head of Marketing, Head of Branding, and Creative Director all there at once. We were all arguing, all at once, every day—and sometimes a couple of times a day.
As they were telling us what they liked and didn’t like, Felipe and I would be changing the wire frames and by the end of the meeting we would have the new answer. Everyone agreed to the design decisions in that way. We are not any smarter than our clients, and they know their business 50 times better than we do. I can’t do my job unless there is a really true partnership that is very honest, intense, and open. We never dress up or have an account guy talking for us—we are the ones talking to the CEO and designing as we talk. That is the layer of connection that we need to have that level of quality and speed.
We are firm believers that the highest way to get an idea across is prototyping. All of us are working on becoming better prototypers, because it is everything. You have to touch it and use it and love it. We race to prototypes as fast as possible. With Virgin America, we got to the first user test on the fifth week with real users. So because of that, by the time it goes live, we have done hundreds of user tests on the site before anyone ever sees it.
How do your clients respond to this process?
I think a lot of clients are dying for this. The last two years I have been more surprised by client willingness to embrace a real prototype-first design process than I would have expected. I think we have yet to come across a client who doesn’t want to be collaborative—people are hungry for it. We work with YouTube in the exact same way and talk to them constantly.
What advice would you have for a new digital product designer?
The unfortunate answer is that it’s just really hard. I think it is one of the hardest aspects of digital design for sure. It’s just hours and sweat. There’s no magic answer. We call our design process “brute force.” We just do a hundred versions of everything. We are the first generation of people to be doing digital design, so there are no masters yet. No one actually knows what they are doing and anyone claiming to be an expert is either ill-informed or full of shit. Everyone is making it up as they go along.
However I do think there are core, fundamental values if you really want to get into this. Learn your grids; they are everything. It is the language of what we do. The second thing is type. You can’t teach someone typography, because it takes like ten years to get decent with it. And the third thing is prototyping. Focusing on those three things is important, but honestly, the only way to get ahead is if you are working harder than the guy next to you.
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