The Napoleon Room at Jeffrey’s, Austin, Texas

Made by Matthew Santone: Understanding product design through anxiety-coping and fine wine.

an argomade series

Designer Matthew Santone might have grown up in a small town in Northeast Ohio (small, as in his mother was the school librarian and his father the mailman, small), but it didn’t take long for him to be noticed as a design powerhouse. He earned the nickname “the wizard” at advertising agency Resource Interactive where he received notoriety as the innovator of “Off the Wall,” the first end-to-end eCommerce experience in the Facebook stream. This helped propel the agency to A-List status and launched an in-house lab effort, co-led by Matthew, which focused on emerging trends in the market. Matthew also played an influential role in the company and snagged the attention of Forbes as reverse-mentor for the CEO. And he did all this before turning 30.

Now Matthew is one of argo’s resident designers, and we trust his eye as much as his taste in wine.

How’d you get here?

It was Saturday, January 25, 2014. I was in the air, flying back from a vacation in L.A., when I read the original GigaOm article on Mark Rolston leaving Frog to start argo. I had no idea it was just the four partners in Mark’s living room at this point, but I “cold call” emailed the info address I found on the argo website from the plane. Rolston replied a few hours later:

“We probably won’t put up a jobs board for a while. If you find yourself in Austin anytime soon, drop me a line and we’ll set something up. btw- looked at your site. Nice work.”

We had a phone interview on February 11, and I flew out at the end of March for an in-person interview. Rolston offered me a job that evening on the back patio of his house over a few Stellas. I accepted the job on April 3 and wrote an acceptance email that is now a poster on the wall of the argo kitchen. I packed up my life and moved across the country three weeks later.

Take us through your journey to find design.

I started taking college CAD classes in high school, inspired by my father doing the same on nights and weekends. By the time I was a senior, I had already started building embarrassing Flash websites. No, they are not online anymore.

After graduating from Youngstown State University, Summa Cum Laude, I embarked on a string of misfit endeavors: First, I spent a few weeks working at (and sleeping in) a Flash-based, Squarespace-esque build-your-own website agency in Chicago. It was a cool product, but ahead of its time. I ultimately declined the position. They smoked a lot of pot there. A lot. I passed. Next, I worked as a photographer and general visual fixer-upper at a studio for a number of years. I photographed weddings, senior pictures, drag queen proms, as well as removed ex-spouses and added dead relatives to photos. And let’s not forget a brief tour photographing a pop post-hardcore screamo band. Then I helped start and run a small boutique agency, which I passed on to a good friend of mine — it’s still around today. After a few years in non-profit producing events and digital marketing, I fell into advertising where my design career began in earnest.

Why are you a designer? What is the intention that drives your work?

Design allows me to be a part of creating things that didn’t exist. I think creating is one of the most influential things we can do. And honestly, that was a driving factor that led me away from advertising and into product design. In advertising, you create a puff of smoke around the creation. In product design, you create the thing itself. Without the product, there is no advertising. Design stands on its own.

What’s the unique element you add to the argodesign team?

A strong Midwestern work ethic, relentless attention to detail and a demand for a high level of excellence. And as my twitter bio says, “Absurdity. Provocation. Brute force simplicity.”

What personal characteristics are essential to your design work?

I have a general underlying (and not-so-underlying) anxiety about life. It has its upsides and downsides. Generally, it drives me to understand something deeply. I find peace in something only when I know it well enough to speak simply about it and design clearly for it. Starting a new endeavor is a high anxiety moment for me. I’m driven to push forward until I find peace in reducing or eliminating all of the unknowns I have. From this, I have learned to produce effective designs, while being able to explain my rationale as a compelling narrative. It’s the same reason that I’ve only had one ‘B’ since kindergarten, and I blame a girl for that grade. If it sounds exhausting, it really is.

What is your favorite design tool?

That’s a tough question. After years of Photoshop reigning supreme, the past few years have ushered in a wave of disruption to the designer’s toolbox. Compound this with the evolving and expanding role of design, and we are now seeing a whole slew of exciting tools — with new ones popping up everyday. My personal go-tos are Origami, Principle, and Sketch.

If I had to pick one, I’d say Facebook’s newly released Origami, which was previously Apple’s decade-old Quartz Composer that was brilliantly repurposed for rapid prototyping. I’ve been working with these tools for over three years now and I’ve seen them evolve from experimental to an integral part of my workflow.

Aside from photo editing, I can’t even recall the last time I opened Photoshop.

What does your workspace say about you?

I would say I am a dichotomy in a lot of ways. Creative and technical. Organized and chaotic. Focused and scattered. Abstract and detailed. Introvert and speaker. My physical and digital workspaces reflect this. My physical workspace is tidy and organized. Everything has a particular place. I feel anxious if too many things get out of place. Contrast this with my digital workspace which is an utter chaotic mess, organized by nothing more than my digital stream of consciousness.

What is the most challenging aspect of design?

The role of design itself. The days of “make pretty” are fleeting. I’d say there are two aspects of the growing challenge. The first is the growing number and ever-changing way in which design is experienced. Big screens, small screens, augmented reality, virtual reality. (And even better, how do you design when there is no screen at all?) The second aspect is the impact of data on design. Designers have to quickly become confident and proficient in designing with deeply complex and contextual data-sets, cognitive computing, and artificial intelligence. It was just last year that I found myself in a series of meetings with some of the world’s foremost authorities on cognitive computing being asked to concept what an augmented intelligence platform could look like. Challenging? Sure. Exciting? Absolutely. These are the very questions we are unravelling at argo everyday.

What do you collect?

I collect wine. Both the physical bottles and in knowledge. To me, wine is a unique passion. An unmatched blend of history, culture, geography, artistry and science. It’s analog. It’s intellectual while also wonderfully social and sensual. Like my work, I’m driven to understand and make sense of it all. And what excites me is that ‘it all’ is a seemingly insurmountable set of data and experiences that will take a lifetime to grasp.


Next week, we’ll talk to Creative Director Laura Seargeant Richardson, who has created a scent alphabet, walks around Austin in 3D glasses, uses food in her paintings and music to measure emotions all in an attempt to play with possibilities in creative problem solving for clients.

matthew santone | argodesign | facebook | twitter | linkedin | instagram