C Studio II: Project 2 — Connecting History

Task: Investigate an communication design alumni/alumnus from the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon in depth and then collaboratively map your discoveries in connection with those studied by others in the class.

Alumni: Sam Ahmed

Why did you decide to study design?

I’d always loved drawing and visual art from a young age. As I got older, this translated to my learning Adobe Creative Suite and being coerced into doing posters for the various clubs and events at my schools. In full honesty, I didn’t decide to study design. I had actually given into parental pressure and had applied as an engineering major at every other school. I didn’t know much about CMU and it was the last college app deadline I needed to meet. I was too bummed out about my future as an engineer to write one more essay about it, so for fun, I decided to submit a portfolio and write an essay on design. My application came back with an acceptance letter and tuition fully covered by a grant, and my life basically changed forever. Kinda crazy honestly.

What year did you graduate from CMU?


What were a few of your most memorable moments at CMU (courses, people, etc.) and why?

Dan is of course a fave. It was the first time I felt like I wasn’t pressured, and could find peace in learning to design, calmly working through exercises and figuring out how to improve. Time motion and design fiction were my two favorite classes. I’m also a dancer, so working with motion graphics felt like choreographing a dance. Same thing- visual effects, timing, momentum, etc. We say “design thinking” but I felt like that class had me using “dance thinking.” Bit funny way to approach it but it was the first time I felt like I used all my creative skills in a perfect combination. Design fiction was just damn fun. I love science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, so it was a great fit. I already loved overanalyzing what could realistically happen in the future. That’s usually something that gets you labeled as a crazy member of a fandom. Design fiction took that seriously and put weight behind how that creative thinking can be so useful.

What have you done professionally from the time you left CMU until now? (Please include a general timeline.)

I’ve worked at Amazon since I graduated. Amazon has been trying to build up a social platform of their own to encourage shoppers to write reviews and share content about products. My work has focused on designing the ecosystem on profiles, badging, and merging shopping with social.

Who/What has inspired/impacted you/your work throughout your career and in what way?

The designers that I’ve met who have really diverse crazy careers/lives are so inspirational to me. Janet Galore is a wonderful leader I met at Amazon who runs our creative studio (secret futuristic projects), but she also owns and runs a small art gallery that puts up large shows from installations to dance performances. Cameron Campbell is another leader who runs our internal design conference, but also works on giving presentations in the style of design fiction, simply to inspire teams! She talks a million miles an hour and the energy and passion just steams off of her. It’s so exciting to see the fire in both of these women every day. They’re not afraid to try anything new and to have it all.

What do you enjoy most and least about the work that you do and why?

Amazon is very functional. The visual design has improved but in my opinion, it’s well below the bar for the industry and scale of the company. Amazon also A:B tests everything, down to the granularity of word choice. This is both the biggest opportunity and the bane of my existence. I’ve had to spend days writing up documents just to justify basic things like why a pop of color improves a design simply from joy and delight, even though it may not necessarily earn more money. Sometimes you need to have arguments where people tell you to launch a page with 20 orange buttons because it got more clicks (well of course it did, the buttons are bright orange). This is wildly frustrating, but it has forced me to truly strip down my design thinking into what is necessity, what is an emotional improvement, and what is my personal designer brain needing nice things. It’s also made me incredibly good at verbalizing design thought process. When I do get to launch something that is beautiful, it’s a HUGE improvement. It means I got to educate an entire development team on the basics of good design and why the build had to be more complicated. I suppose it’s selfish, but don’t we all want to leave our mark?

What are your design aspirations for the future? What do you hope to do in the coming years?

I’m not really sure I have design-specific aspirations at all, so much as general creative aspirations. I’m currently in pre-professional training for dance at nights after work, and spent most of high school in intensive theatre training. I also did a lot of theatre scenery and art installation work throughout college, and am hoping to combine everything into one big career long term. I’d like to one day create art films and experiences that tell powerful emotional stories. I’d also like to run a venue or creative space where people can put this up or create it.

What do you wish you knew and/or had done when you were a student in the School of Design?

I honestly don’t think I have any regrets

What advice would you give a student pursuing a career in design?

If you know what you’re interested in and passionate about, push to create projects and opportunities to work on that. It’s a bit easier to slide by in college, but when you work full time, things get stale so quickly if you don’t care about it. Especially in a corporate job, what used to be 10 hours of design will turn into 4 hours of meetings, 3 hours arguing with someone about your decision, and 3 hours of actual designing. It gets very hard to sustain if your heart isn’t in the work, and when you have the weight of a salary and rent and bills, making changes gets way more stressful. Try as best you can to go in with your fire burning bright. It’s so satisfying to be doing “real work,” but make sure it’s the right work.

What do you see as potentially exciting opportunities for designers in the next several years?

Bringing the human touch back to technology

What do you see as important roles/responsibilities for designers to take in the coming years?

Designing under the repeal of net neutrality, end-of-life wicked problems for baby boomers, urban living and housing crises, political design, and MOST IMPORTANT: making good design accessible for everyone! It doesn’t matter how cute and useful your website is if half the country can’t access high speed internet in their home. It’s not exactly “our” job to solve this, but it’s going to end up being our job; we have to advocate for the people we design for.

2/20/18 Visual Examples

We create a visual story for our persons. I timeline Sam’s growth as a designer at CMU and after to see where his interests lay at different times, and to see if one interested resulted in others.

2/27/18 Type Spec Sheets

Sam has a minimalist style, complimented by organic shapes seen in his logo and graphic designs. I take a preliminary look at modern fonts that compliment Sam’s design work well.

2/28/2018 Thumbnailing

I started creating thumbnails for my potential spreads. I begin by sticking closely to the grid, and never breaking it. While this looks too rigid to begin with, I believe it may help future steps.

3/06/18 Class takeaways

  • print tabloid with baseline grid and columns
  • whenever u use quotations u wanna hang them. Kicks the first line to the left.
  • all of you should get a ruler and draw horizontal lines. If something is off one baseline its gonna look weird.
  • better for the bottom to be ragged.
  • watch your line lengths.
  • align to the right side of the gutter.
  • 3 spreads (inner) all of the content in it and a stab at the website.
  • THURSDAY: relate code to content.

3/08/18 Print and Web Layouts

I feel that a different type spec sheet is appropriate for the web layout.

These are some of the initial web layouts I’m trying out. In terms of code, the first mockup would be easy to execute, but its strict adherence to the grid makes it less visually interesting.

After this first mockup, I realize it is starting to feel too much like a portfolio website. It is too segmented with its separate categories “About”, “Q + A” , and “Work.” I decide to redesign the entire layout and interaction in XD so that it feels more like a story.

3/22/18 Group Critique for Print

Page 2-3
Page 4-5
Page 6–7

Things to try/do for next iterations:

  • try bigger margins, try standardized margins
  • diagram post its in illustrator
  • chicago style citations in sequence of images
  • finish up content
  • track subtitles (25pt)
  • make the gaps between images and text consistent + smaller
  • TAKE MORE RISKS in type and scale. Try using type as img
  • make the caption lengths consistent
  • clean up the rags in text
  • Designer’s work across the page = disrespectful, unless it’s somewhere that can be creased.

3/23/18 Print pieces after the group crit.

After making the changes we discussed yesterday, I feel I am at a place where I can start diverging and doing multiple different images. I begin to play with

  • making the image collage margins smaller, and the page margins bigger
  • color into the page
  • graphic elements
  • pull out quotes
  • the type spec sheet
Page 2–3
Page 4–5
Page 5–6

To make sure that the vertical relationships make sense in this iteration, I visualize them with colored rectangles.

3/24/18 More tweaks + Adding graphics

After printing the spreads, folding them, and cutting off the excess margins, I discover more quick improvements. Christie also pointed out that the vertical relationships needed clarification in the Q + A section.

  • make the body copy font thicker so that it’s visible on the cream colored paper
  • make the captions smaller than the body copy
  • address confusion over who is Sam because of the photos of the girl.

3/27/18 In class group critique + BREAKING THE GRID

My piece was critiques on its content. My group with Elizabeth and Jacob critiqued our peer’s grid structue.

While Sam’s style is often minimalist, he uses a green highlighter color throughout his portfolio. I decide to incorporate a few graphic elements and include his picture to fix the confusion over the girl in his photography being the designer.

screenshot of the navigation bar on Sam’s portfolio

Critique + general advice from Natalie: this version is stronger than the previous no graphic version. Experiment with a few more colors, and make sure to have text hierarchy (thin sub headers make them less dominant than the designer’s work on the page.)

I also played around with overlaying the text and image.

I also decide that the bright green bar behind the headers are overpowering the text itself. I also try quotation marks to make it clearer that they aren’t blurbs.

I choose to go with the third version because it follows the horizontal theme and highlighter theme.

3/29/18 Feedback from Stacie

I ask myself whether every graphic included in the spread adds meaning. We looked at Swiss posters today and learned:

  1. figure ground reversals
  2. Graphic design: if you make people do a puzzle they feel good about themselves and are more likely to remember the graphic.
  3. Breaking the grid creates tension, and is well suited for things like the m murder poster.

More iterations after Stacie’s feedback.

3/30/18 Making Changed Based on feedback

At this stage, I have finalized the content, but there are still themes that I can make stronger. I assess my prints based on the 6 principles of design learned earlier in the year:

  • unity/harmony
  • balance
  • hierarchy
  • scale/proportion
  • dominance/emphasis
  • similarity and contrast

I ask myself whether every graphic included in the spread adds meaning, and look for ways to strengthen the horizontal theme. To figure this out I revisit the visual variables to achieve the aforementioned principles:

size, shape, weight, color, texture, value/contrast, position, line

Handy indesign I learned while creating the infographic!

3/31/18 Cleaning up rags, final changes

I decide the colored blocks and text color change aren’t enough to differentiate the Conclusion and Q + A section. The final solution for Q + A includes color, italics, and weight change. For Conclusion, there is a color change and font change.

Front and Back Cover Infographic

4/1/18 Web piece and more play

Because much of Sam’s work is photography, there is sharp contrast and a lot of harsh edges. I’m inspired by the cream color of the zine paper to include a cream background for web to downplay the white space.