Inside Design

Inside the Design Team at Razorfish

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We’re tracking down InVision users inside the world’s most amazing companies to discover their favorite tools, inspirations, workspace must-haves and the philosophy behind what makes them so awesome. Today, we’re talking to Dan Leon Krause, Art Director at Razorfish.

Razorfish is a digital agency—one of the world’s biggest—with over 2,000 employees and offices in 5 continents. Dan’s story within Razorfish is one of hard graft. He started as a junior and worked his way up through the ranks to Art Director. We chatted to Dan about mentorship, designing away from the screen, and inspiration.

Hi Dan! Thanks for taking to time to chat with us. Tell us a little bit about Razorfish and your role there.

Razorfish is a full-service global digital agency. We create everything from web products and services to marketing, social, and digital campaigns. Simply, it’s whatever is best for the client's needs. We come up with solutions to meet their business goals. It’s an exciting place to work as the digital realm is evolving rapidly, and so there’s a lot of variety and problem-solving.

I’m the Art Director, and my role is to oversee the visual output of the agency. I contribute in brainstorms from a visual execution perspective. I like to see myself as the bridge between conceptual ideas and the tangible product. I work closely with the UX designers and our tech team to achieve high fidelity user interfaces by realising the balance between function and beauty. I research trends in order to push design boundaries and share these learnings with the design team.

How did you get your start in design?

I’ve always been obsessed with graphics and branding. That fascination was expressed in art class, and then lead to me studying design at university, majoring in graphics and textiles. It was the details that fascinated me. I chose digital media electives like animation, motion graphics, web authoring, and was freelancing as a graphic designer at the same time. Once I finished my degree, I continued with my freelance work, designing promotional collateral for various bars and nightclubs, and creating promo ads at MTV. Then I worked for a hospitality and events company, designing for their bars, hotels, and music festivals. After another stint freelancing, I came across Razorfish. I started here as a Junior Designer and worked my way up quickly through the ranks to Art Director.

The process of communicating our ideas was disjointed, and InVision helped us rebuild it.

So you’ve done a lot of physical design. How does that influence your digital work?

I try to incorporate texture into my designs whenever I can. I want my designs to give you the same feeling as holding a high-quality printed book - to look like you could reach out and touch them. This depends on whether or not the project requires that, of course.

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And so what do you think of the flat design trend that seems to have taken over recently?

That’s an interesting one, because whilst I love texture in design, there’s a certain beauty in simplicity. The trend of flat design, however, has made the internet all look the same. There’s a difference between creating a good simple design and a well-crafted visual experience.

The challenge of a well-crafted visual experience is in the detail, not just aesthetic detail but also functional detail. This means considering the end user, as their needs influence the design. Through my experience, I realised that the end user is actually a person – not a faceless "idea" of a person – and that person has various needs. That is where web accessibility came to light for me.

Web accessibility, I feel, has partly influenced the reason why I use flat design. And the reason flat design works is because, if done correctly, it follows foundational design principles, derived from traditional Swiss design, such as using grid systems, high contrast colors, clean typography, space, and hierarchy. Ultimately, great design is about being aware of the audience you’re designing for. The user always comes first.

What challenges are your team facing at the moment?

One of the biggest challenges my team is facing right now is keeping up with the ever-evolving best practices for visual language, accessibility, and user experience, whilst keeping in mind the clients' business goals.

It’s a never-ending learning process. With every brief and problem to be solved, there are always new solutions as well as tried and tested good design principles. The best way to keep up with these best practices is to share your learnings on a regular basis with your team members and clients and ideally to record them, via case studies for example.

Designers sometimes need to step away from the screen, get dirty and get back to basics.

How do you guys use InVision in your process?

We use InVision as a tool for presenting our concepts, clickable prototypes, and final designs to get our idea across to clients. We’ll mock up our designs, upload them to InVision, apply transitions, gestures, and hotspot the areas that communicate the user journey on the exact device it was designed for. This way, the client receives what the user will be experiencing, which helps to communicate our ideas efficiently.

In the past this process was completely different, at times quite lengthy. We would have to send the client JPEGs, which they’d have to open in media browsers, not giving them the experience that we were trying to promote. It was a terrible exercise. The process of communicating our ideas was disjointed, and InVision helped us rebuild it.

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We now save time and can be direct in communicating interactivity and user flows. The client can easily interpret wireframes, and – best of all – you don’t need to know how to code to use it.

I personally use InVision to test usability during the design process. I throw my designs into InVision, and I can test if buttons and text are big enough. If not, I can change my designs and quickly put them back into InVision and keep on testing and iterating. From there, I can share the prototype with the developers and the UX guys, who can really get a feel for how it’s going to work. InVision is such a great tool for communicating interactivity within your designs.

Are you working on any personal projects at the moment?

I did a sign painting course recently, which is on the complete opposite end of the design spectrum of what I do at work, but it really helped me in terms of color and typography. Working on timber and plastic and a bunch of other media really makes you consider texture, and a slower medium makes you think in a more deliberate way. Designers sometimes need to step away from the screen, get dirty, and get back to basics. I think it comes down to risk. There are few risks in screen-based work, because you’re never far from the undo button. But when you put that brush up to the surface, you’re having to take a huge risk. You’re having to trust your hand completely, and it won’t always work out the way you want it. Greater risk leads to greater results.

Being a creative, my mind never rests, and therefore I’m always sketching my ideas out. Sometimes they come out as type pieces, sometimes as character illustration, I never know. It’s self-expression that often leads to fun, meaningful personal projects.

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Where do you get inspiration for your work?

The design community is rapidly expanding more than ever. I remember being at uni and there were only a couple of design forums that I could hang out on, but these days there’s this massive wealth of design knowledge online. I love learning about new coding ideas, so often go to Smashing Magazine, Treehouse, and Codrops. I’ve been really inspired by studios like Teehan + Lax and UsTwo recently. They’re really pushing the boundaries in terms of new experiences and thought leadership.

Béhance is a big one for me. It’s a great place to see the breadth of work being done out there in design. It’s crazy to see how many designers from all these different countries are out there, and the variety of work they’re producing is incredible. Béhance is a great source of inspiration for me.

The fundamentals of design were around long before we were born, and will stay around long after.

I really appreciate award sites, like Awwwards or FWA, which do a great job recognising designers, and giving the design community incentives to do better work.

How important do you think it is for designers to get a formal education?

The best way to learn design is just to get stuck in. I wouldn’t discourage people from going to university though. It definitely helps to give you some structure. On the other hand, I think it’s easy to be too open and idealistic when doing university briefs, as there are no consequences. Where as when you have a client, you have to think a lot more in terms of project management, timelines, budgets, and how to communicate your ideas.

So I don’t really know: I think starting hands-on and freelancing is the best way to get ahead, but a formal structure helps to make you aware of things you might not have thought of.

What about mentoring? Do you see merit in that?

Definitely – If you find somebody already within the industry who is willing to help you, you will learn incredibly fast. I’m trying to create an intern program at the office at the moment, which is really exciting me. For young designers, having somebody around who can guide you - and more importantly inspire you - is so valuable. Coming into an agency will also give you a better idea of how work is produced. You see the shiny, polished work that gets presented online, but you can’t get a feel for the hard slog that comes before that. I think that’s a big reality-check for a lot of people.

But there are also benefits for the mentors. It’s really helped me in communicating my process and ideas clearly. When you’ve worked for a while in the industry, you can fall into a formula and having to explain every little step helps you to understand what you’re doing and the problems that you’re solving. Helping young designers helps your own ideas become stronger with the added reward that you’re making a difference in their life.

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Is there anything you wish you’d known before starting designing?

When you’re starting out in design, make sure you know the opportunities out there. I had a natural curiosity about design, tech, and metalwork and trying to find a hybrid of all that helped me to educate myself, but I wish my university lecturers had explained to me the breadth of the design field. There’s advertising, or branding, for example, but what may not be clear is the amount of even smaller categories within them. Design is a vast industry – that makes it exciting. Your possibilities within design are only limited by your creativity.

What do you think makes a great designer?

Great design comes from balance. There are a lot of things to keep in mind: different audiences, different devices, different abilities. You have to make sure there’s a balance between all of those. You also have to keep design principles in mind: space, colour, typography, hierarchy, the grid, etc. The fundamentals of design were around long before we were born and will stay around long after. If you can understand the basics – make them a part of you and be holistic with your approach – you will be a great designer.

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Author

Amanda Hackwith
Writer, editor, and lover of words, stories, games, and adventure. Tweets on @ajhackwith and at Google+.

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