Alec joined the design team in March 2018. I recently caught up with him to talk about challenging visual design homogeneity, using the written word to construct better visual narratives, and developing an illustration system.
What do you want to state for the record about yourself?
My name is Alec with a “C”.
Tell me what you do at Envoy?
I’m a visual designer, so I create things ranging from swag designs and illustrations to fliers and marketing pages, while also refining Envoy’s visual language.
So what does a “visual language” mean, anyway?
To me, for a technology company, a visual language can be separated into two big parts. The first would be what the interface looks like and the look and feel of the things you use to navigate, read, touch, and click. The second part is the graphic representation of things, whether that be photos or illustrations.
What do you think is the biggest stereotype about designers?
That we’re all calculated and analytical. I think there are a lot of designers that take more of a free-wheeling and artful approach to things.
Where do you place yourself between those two?
I’d say I started where the stereotype is because I got super into Product Design. Then I found myself wanting to go back to being more free-form and able to express ideas rather than analyze things.
Backtracking a bit, how did you end up in design?
I played in punk bands when I was younger and I vividly remember my first foray into “design” as a super special moment in my life. There was a kid in another band who was known for making fliers for all the bands in Albuquerque. I hit him up and asked to make the flier for their first show, but he emailed me back saying, no thanks. But I felt compelled to do it anyway so I stayed up all night and designed the most terrible flier ever.
I also learned HTML/CSS accidentally through fiddling with MySpace theme generators. I had no idea what they were, but when you make two or three of them you start seeing patterns. And I was customizing MySpace pages for a year without realizing that was CSS. I didn’t even really know what HTML and CSS meant. And when I did start learning about HTML/CSS it clicked that it was the same stuff that I was messing around with on MySpace. Eventually, I cared about design a lot more than anything else and shifted focus.
You were a product designer at one point, and also a brand designer. What led you to visual design? What do you think are the biggest differences?
I began as a visual designer and eventually made my way into product as the practice grew in popularity. I really started to miss the visual side after a while and found myself pretty burnt out, so I decided to start making my way back to the visual side of things. I think the biggest difference is that product design is more interactive and exists through a flow the user has to go through, whereas visual design isn’t as interactive and often involves more traditional graphic design.
What are you working on right now?
My main focus right now is defining an illustration style for Envoy with Amy Devereux. It’s been a fun project but extremely challenging. I’m also working on a clothing brand outside of Envoy that I hope to launch in the new year.
What’s a misconception about visual designers and the work that visual designers do?
That we are all graphic designers and we can all draw pictures effortlessly. In the process of developing our new illustration style, Amy and I are constantly reminded that hands and eyes are so hard to draw. I am super strong in the typography and layout world. Amy can whip up a webpage in a day. Doing a full illustration seems easy, but is very daunting. But I think a lot of people just assume any visual designer can easily produce stuff like that.
What’s the most challenging part of being a visual designer?
Staying ahead or away from trends. It’s super easy these days to “phone it in” and just copy something’s style from Dribbble or Instagram. I think the biggest challenge is staying creative and trying things that aren’t inspired by what everyone else is doing, especially in today’s social/digital landscape. Staying current and informed without following trends. Pushing the envelope a bit in the best way possible.
Especially early on, Amy and I were pretty clear about the style that we wanted to avoid, like the tiny head and wonky body style that a lot of big companies are doing right now. The best visual designers, in my opinion, are the people who see those trends and use parts of them but are taking it a step beyond. Part of that is being confident in what you’re doing. It’s going to be different and there’s no way to gauge anything about it until you put it out there. You see the “Dribbblization of design”. You see everyone doing the same thing, but the visual designers taking it a step beyond are the people that I respect the most.
How do you translate abstract concepts into visuals?
Lots and lots and lots of Google image searches and sketching, and Noun Project searches, and sketching, and searching other weird image galleries, and more sketching. I draw a lot of small sketches representing the concepts, and then I mix them together in a way that makes sense visually.
Have you ever encountered creative blocks or burnout? How did you go about it?
Many times. I think when someone is truly burnt it’s best to take some time off, go on a short vacation or do some self-care and detach yourself from the problem. I’m a big fan of exercise, particularly running. I try and detach myself from whatever I’m working on and get some stress off my shoulders. I also read a lot of comics or play video games to detach and get re-inspired.
What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on at Envoy?
Our core value notebooks. They took a lot of effort to complete but the result was well worth it. For me, they were worth the extra effort because I’ve never worked on a “set” of something like this before, and the idea I had going into the project was fully realized instead of sacrificing things along the way. Honestly one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on.
Where do you go to get inspiration?
I’ve got a million spots! One of my go-to’s is Fonts In Use. It’s my favorite thing ever. Bookmark that — it’s the best. The second thing I love is ForumFiftyFive, though they recently rebranded. It’s mad OG. One of my recent favorite things that I’ve ever seen ever is Future Fonts. The way they do pricing is also super cool, I love it.
What is your dream project?
I’m not sure if I still want to do this, but it was a big goal of mine for a long time to work on a logo that would eventually end up on the side of a shipping company train car.
How did this occur to you?
My dad worked on trains a lot during the 70’s in Chicago and often found himself traveling across the country in boxcars illegally. He would often point out a train when we’d see them during road trips across the midwest. My first awareness of branding at scale was seeing the familiar logos on the sides of these train cars and I always thought “Man, imagine being the person who drew that!” Shipping companies are so huge and elaborate that if you can get a logo onto the side of a train car, it means it cascaded through so many other levels. It’s a huge branding project.
Teespring was the biggest branding project I ever did. It took 9 months and was arguably the biggest project I’ve ever worked on. Those things are super cool because you get to ship it in such an impactful way where it impacts all these different mediums and you have to create a fool-proof system that cascades through the whole thing.
What’s your biggest design peeve?
Big egos and fluffy titles.
Do you have any advice for young designers?
Dribbble less. Reach out and read more. My favorite thing to tell younger designers is to reach out to people you look up to and find design mentors. It’s a smaller community than it seems like at first, and people are a lot more friendly than you’d think. I made a lot of friends and connections in the design world by reaching out. I would love to hang out with someone who wants to know more and wants to get into the industry.
And what should they read?
I would say read anything. As a visual designer, a lot of what you create starts with a narrative or a sentence. With reading, you increase your vocabulary and with that increased vocabulary, your ability to visualize metaphors improves. Think of an image as a composition of elements in the way a poem or sentences are constructed of words. I think reading can help you quickly articulate things visually and also gives you an edge when writing compelling copy. I read a lot of comics and that’s super helpful for me to pull from how they portray expressions and construct narratives.
Bonus round! What would you be doing if you weren’t a designer?
Chef. Cooking. Cooking food. I like making bread; lately, I’ve been making jams. Sandwiches, pizza, I’m obsessed with food. I wanted to be a chef before I knew what graphic design was. If my design career went south, I would go to culinary school. It’s my retirement dream to open up a cafe and sandwich shop that serves breakfast to late lunch.