Design Gurus Summit: Q&A with Karl Carstensen, Principal Design Technologist, frog design

A classic example of the design technology practice at frog, Karl is both an award winning visual designer and developer. Drawing from his diverse multi-disciplinary background, Karl brings a thoughtful and comprehensive perspective to frog teams in the creation of top-notch human-centered solutions that are equal parts design, technology, and usability. From design research to prototyping, he is equally comfortable leading teams or developing solutions for clients, discussing the nuances of design, the usability of a product, or making recommendations on implementation and an architecture stack of choice.

Having worked on projects ranging from rapid prototyping to enterprise-level software deployments, Karl is equipped with an extremely diverse skill set and extensive experience in modern development practices and team dynamics, and has worked with companies ranging in size from bootstrapping startups to fortune 500 companies.

He will be speaking at the Uncharted Minds Design Gurus Summit on September 19th. Click here to get 20% off tickets to the event.

Q. What were some early influences on your career choice?

A. I think everyone in my family, including myself, knew early on that I was never going to work in a traditional office environment. But at the same time, I also didn’t know where that left me in terms of career options. I worked a lot of random jobs in college trying to figure out the best fit. Technology, especially computers, has always clicked with me, and I was lucky to have access to computers and Photoshop growing up. That was the beginning of it all. I’ve always been a “gadget” guy, so product design and development is a natural fit.

Q. What did you study in college?

A. I have a degree in both business and fine arts, but during college I just took all of the classes that looked interesting and challenging. You never know quite how you’ll eventually use the things you learn, so it’s great to allow yourself to be passionate about various things and chase those passions however they manifest.

Q. What did your parents do?

A. My father worked in marketing at a large company and my mother is still a pediatric nurse.

Q. Tell me about your first design job.

A. I worked at a small independent design shop in Denver, Colorado right after college. Even at my first interview, I knew that I had found my career. It was an exciting environment, not your traditional office, and the work was diverse and stimulating. I was lucky to have a few different mentors that were super talented and patient. They pushed me to get better, while teaching me the fundamentals of design.

Q. Tell me about your role with frog design?

A. frog is a wonderful company and has some incredibly smart, talented people. I’m rapidly coming up on 4 years, and the time has been great. I’m continually impressed with the solutions that teams come up with when faced with hard problems. My role as a Design Technologist means I’m typically focused on ways to leverage technology to solve problems. In practice the role’s requirements are much blurrier than that — and I love that I’m not always doing just one thing. We work across a variety of industries, which keeps the work fresh because the problems are all so different.

Q. How do you approach brainstorming? How do you generate design solutions with your team?

A. Before we start brainstorming we work to fully understand the user and any specific needs that they have. Then we brainstorm ways to address those needs directly, so that we can improve their experience. At frog, we have a variety of toolkits that we use internally and with clients that help to generate ideas — and I’ve found that a structured approach to brainstorming or idea generation can work quite well, even though it might be counterintuitive. But our real secret sauce is the team members, who all bring diverse experience and perspective to potential solutions.

Q. What do you do for inspiration? How do you stay motivated and inspired?

A. There’s inspiration all around us, so I try not to say “no” to many things. I find a lot of inspiration in meetups, conferences, talks, or hearing about what different people in the industry are working on. I especially love hearing from different startups and what they’re creating. And as cheesy as it might sound, I’m continually inspired by the work here at frog, unique problems and the solutions that we’ve created for clients, especially the programs that I didn’t have a hand in.

Q. What advice to do you have for people in roles where they need to combine technology and creativity?

A. I don’t think that it’s possible to separate the two. Whether you’re writing code or building a prototype, there’s always going to be challenges that require solutions. But I think where the really good people distinguish themselves from the rest is in those solutions — by committing to working and refining and not settling until the results are great, and the thing is better than how it was before they started.

Q. What career advice would you give to young people today?

A. Follow your interests. Experiment. Try many many things. Say yes. Work hard. Stay late. Ask questions. Don’t settle. Learn to take criticism. Make mistakes and then fix them. Find a job that allows you to do something you’re passionate about. And maybe most important — Learn to recognize when things aren’t going well and be proactive about making it better.

Q. Hardest part of being a Design Technologist?

A. The hardest part for me is that there’s not enough time in the day to do everything that I want. There are so many exciting things happening in the world, and I want to learn about them all.

Q. Favorite part of being a Design Technologist?

A. The challenges — there’s a new one every day. I especially love creating things that don’t exist and seeing how people respond to them.