Diversifying design strengths at SSENSE
A conversation with Eric Hu, Director of Design
Eric Hu is known internationally for pairing maximalist image-making with typographic nuance for a variety of work in fashion, music, architecture, and technology. He is the Director of Design at SSENSE, where he leads a team of art directors, product and communication designers. Eric’s appreciation of history, balanced with progressive influences, have helped define his approach to design and build his team at SSENSE from the ground up.
How did you start at SSENSE?
I was actually working with my own small studio in New York and collaborating with startups, small music clients, little cultural projects; everything I was working on was really a blank slate. Back then, most of SSENSE’s branding initiatives and engagement were outsourced, which is actually how we started working together. After SSENSE had enlisted my help on a couple projects they came to the realization that they need their own in-house design department and asked if I’d like to build that team.
What were some of the challenges you faced in that transition?
It was really interesting going to a company that had just entered a stage of hyper growth — in the year and a half I’ve been here the company has more than doubled.
A personal thing that I had to learn was to effectively lead. Previously, I was a solo creative working directly with clients most of the time so the big difficulty for me was starting with 2 designers and growing the team to 13. It’s been a quick pace to keep up with.
At first, it was easier to creatively direct things and focus on critiquing the work itself and the design. But after some point in time it became really difficult to balance operational administration tasks vs being the design mentor for my team. It got to the point where I was worried more about the timeline of projects, the schedules, getting people in a good workflow, and making sure all the stakeholders were aligned across multiple departments.
I think that’s where Wake made things really helpful, because it allowed me to reclaim creative time with my team and allowed a bird’s eye view of what everyone’s working on. It became really easy for people to share work with each other, whereas before people had to book time in my calendar just to get feedback - sometimes I’d be slammed with meetings and people wouldn’t get feedback until it was almost too late.
“At first, it was easier to creatively direct things and focus on critiquing the work itself and the design. But after some point in time it became really difficult to balance operational administration tasks vs being the design mentor for my team.”
SSENSE clearly has design at the forefront of its consumer facing business — was it always like this internally? What were some of the steps you took to bring the design team front and center at SSENSE?
A really big part of my job in the first year was to help rebrand the company. To me, it was something seen as a way to reinvigorate the brand and an opportunity to receive an organization-wide buy in for design. Getting the entire company to rethink design in a different way was really important for me.
“Changing how design was seen by the rest of the company was a major focus of mine. Opening up visibility to other verticals really helped bring design to the forefront of the company’s consciousness.”
SSENSE was founded by engineers and so having a design team for the first time people didn’t really know what our capabilities were. Wake was instrumental in that because we’re giving people access to exactly what the design team is working on. People began to realize that design wasn’t just banner ads but we were thinking of the shopping experience, doing user testing, making working prototypes, providing statistical reports, creating apparel design etc.
What were some of the challenges in that process?
Well I think that SSENSE has always cared about design and had been design conscious since we’re based in fashion. Before I came on we had the Director of Brand Strategy lay out some really important foundation for us to build from, the most challenging part was probably transforming how the company perceived design.
Most roles here are hyper-focused and people had very specific tasks but so many of our creatives here are really multi-disciplined, which I think really surprised a lot of people in a pleasant way. Design thinking allowed SSENSE to become a multi-dimensional company.
We set up company wide presentations once a quarter weekly status email sent to directors. Everyone’s excited about getting a TV to plug Wake into so everyone in the company can see it. It’s really nice for people to see the work materialize. People like seeing the material in front of them and at a company where there are new faces every week, Wake is the best ambassador for our team and helps open up a design dialogue.
What are some of the factors that make the team at SSENSE unique?
It’s really rare to have a team that’s responsible for user testing as well as doing an exclusive collaboration sneaker for a huge brand. It still kind of wilds me out. Our diversity of work, skills, and projects that we take on is something you really don’t see in other companies I’ve worked with. With most teams you’re going to have product centric designers with similar influences but over here we have a team of Art Directors who are really conscious of art history alongside our UX team. If you’re in UX you may not be thinking about lighting and color and the history of fashion but in turn that art director might not be thinking about performance or a customer journey, etc. The conversations they have with each other are really cool and open up a lot of cross-disciplinary learning.
“…at a company where there are new faces every week, Wake is the best ambassador for our team and helps open up a design dialogue.”
What are some of the things you enjoy about working in the fashion industry?
Designing at SSENSE is really different than what it would be at Facebook or Adobe, making specific tools and products. I think San Francisco and the Bay Area are really good at bringing tech to tech if that makes sense. What’s been cool about moving to the east coast is often times people are applying tech to a legacy industry. For example, tech applied to music, art, literature, and in our case we’re applying tech to Fashion.
With that in mind, I really enjoy that perfect mix of using modern frameworks and applying them to something that has been around throughout history. It really has a grounding effect on you.
Touching on the differences between CA & NY as well as designing for tech and legacy industries like you mentioned, would you say designing for a legacy industry is also one of the biggest challenges you face? What are some of the things that help you in this?
Yeah, it’s funny because I’m from California and it’s really no surprise that design and tech really matured there. In graphic design the conversation is dominated historically by Europe and New York but when you think of Californian design, it was always building towards something new. My formative years in design really happened in California and this instilled almost an optimism in what was possible through design. If you compare that with the thinking in NY there’s a consciousness of building off of the historical foundation that I think crosses over into design. Cutting my teeth out on the East Coast helped me bring a level of respect to the historical significance of legacy industries and designing for them.
“Finding that balance between the progressive optimism of west coast design and balancing it with a more historically focused mindset has really helped in taking a fresh approach to design for a legacy industry like Fashion.”
Design and creative communities can be a bit of an echo chamber at times, what are some external influences that you draw from for inspiration?
Things can be a bit of an echo chamber at times but I think to keep things fresh it helps to draw inspiration from everywhere. For us it’s architecture, cinema, fine art. I think a big influence is also technology, like Donald Newth and his work with early computer typography in the 70’s to Vannevar Bush dreaming of this machine called the Memex and how that would share information. I think those things are on equal footings with Fluxus artists and John Cage.
Speaking for myself, brutalist architecture, taiwanese new wave films, and early European 15th century printing like Aldus Manutius, calligraphy from Rudolf Koch, and Joel Holmberg’s fine art have been big for me. The most boring design is inspired only by design and I think the cool thing about being around engineers in a fashion company is there’s a natural clash in influences and tastes that opens up a lot of discussion.
We did a recent editorial with Balenciaga called Big Data where an influence from tech can get pretty meta and work can become commentary on the influence itself.
What advice do you have for young designers?
Stay conscious about the direct and indirect effect of what you’re creating. Design has such an influence now that what we create can have large scale impact. For example the other day near Jerusalem, Facebook mistakenly translated “good morning” to “attack them” and some poor guy got arrested. In the past, poor design could result in a bad logo but now the stakes are much higher. It’s like we’re giving bazookas to kids you know? Creative kids yes, and if you hit the bullseye you’re creating something amazing, but if you’re off, you’re doing real damage.
The second piece is to not be pressured by trends, we’re in a state of design where there’s a new paradigm of working every week. You wake up and one day people are talking about Invision and how it’s going to kill Sketch and the next day Sketch has a new feature that’s going to kill Invision. It’s the same thing with people saying, “oh you should design like this” or “you should worry about these systems”. The hardest part is discerning between what’s a trend and what’s going to be useful moving forward.
I think to accomplish this it’s really important to stay grounded. Sometimes designers think they just invented flat design or the grid for example but even an icon color is derived from hundreds of years of semiotics. We’re working with new tools that were built just yesterday but also with ideas and philosophies that have been around for centuries so how you balance that is critical.