Uber Creator Spotlight: Drawing for 27 Weeks
A designer starts drawing again and ends up surprised by how it has impacted his work.
Spotlight is a series of Q&A sessions with the multi-talented creators on Uber’s design team. In this session we hear from Ojai Mitchell, a product designer on the Rider team, who’s been exploring figure and portrait drawing.
You said you started drawing as a kid. What were your favorite subjects?
I drew my mom all the time. I remember the hairstyle she had back in the day. I would do these ruffles on top and a triangle to create the shape of it.
I’ve always been interested in drawing people. It’s a clear win if you are able to represent it somehow and people are able to recognize it. It’s really gratifying to get it right.
When you were young, did anybody inspire you?
As a teenager, I’d join these websites where people would share artwork like conceptart.com. So I got my inspiration from looking at other people drawing online. That’s how I got into making things digital — by transforming my art to put it on the web. Drawing eventually developed into building my first sites.
You studied graphic design at Ringling but took drawing courses there as well. Tell me about those.
During Freshman year, you do all traditional art classes. I did figure and still life drawing. It was about capturing form in this quick, rhythmic way. Embodying the feeling more than the accuracy of it.
What’s the best part of that quick method?
Being able to create a body that has weight and feels proportional.
I always wanted to be able to draw the body without reference. As a kid I had interest in X-Men and character development. Being able to draw a figure is super important to that.
How did you recently get back into drawing?
After Freshman year, you move into your major. Mine was Graphic Design, so I pretty much stopped illustrating and focused on typography, layout, and web design. My career started in advertising and there was not much drawing there either. Then I got to Uber, and we create an app, which is also detached from traditional drawing.
I realized we had an annual design education fund at Uber, and I wondered if I could use it on a drawing class at JHess Studios. My manager Russell was all for it because he had a drawing background and knew how those skills could translate. So I took the class.
The class wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be. I thought it was gonna be like my drawing class in college.
I got in there and they were like, “We’re gonna draw one pose for nine weeks.” I was like, “Okay. How’s that work?” It ended up being really awesome.
Drawing in your free time is one thing. Completing three nine-week courses is serious dedication. What motivated you to get through them?
I wasn’t drawing enough in my free time. I’d go home to a small apartment without much space. My place is messy. So, I realized if I take a class, the space is there and I feel obligated and I’d definitely show up.
What do you say to those people who say they’d like to explore their creative passions but don’t have time or go home and are too tired?
Committing to a class is one way to do it.
You have a teacher that’s waiting for you and a class of students that’s also cheering you on.
You said your class at JHess Studios was different than what you expected. Tell me about the sight-size method you learned there.
I’d describe it as drawing exactly as you see.
For example, I can draw something the way my brain is interpreting it, but it’s not exactly as it is. Sight-size is a way to look at things exactly as they are and train your eye to be able to see those things without aid later on.
I marked a viewing point on the floor with tape that stayed the same for weeks. Put my easel in the exact same place every week. Used a plum line, a string with this little thing hanging from it, to measure points on the model and use that to make initial dots on my easel. You slowly add detail as you go in. You can’t go fast. You just have to go with the process.
Are you erasing or just layering on detail?
You start out with almost a cocoon shape of the figure. My teacher likens it to sculpting. Imagine you have a block. You slowly start adding angles. Those angles get a little bit smoother and a little bit more precise until you get quite a lot of detail.
How challenging was it to capture the exact likeness of someone?
It was challenging, because by nature I’m not meticulous. I’m pretty loose with all of my work. I usually start really messy and slowly refine over time. But at work I need to be more meticulous. I was looking at drawing class to escape that, but I was surprised when my class was not that at all. It ended up being very good because being intentional and meticulous is an area I need to develop more. It was good for calming me down. Slowing me down. Allowing me to focus on smaller things. And to trust the process that it will work out eventually.
After my first class, I left with six marks on the paper after three hours.
How does your drawing influence your design work?
It influenced me in a way I didn’t quite expect it to.
I came to Uber from a different background. I wasn’t working in tech. When I came here I felt a little out of place, because working here is very process-driven. Very engineering-heavy.
That’s not quite me by nature. So, I was trying to find something that was more me again.
During the class I kind of regained a certain confidence in me just being as I am.
Maybe there is something a little bit different about me than everyone at Uber. Doing that drawing class and seeing what I was able to produce made me think, “Well, maybe that difference is pretty cool.” In realizing that, I became a lot more comfortable at work and okay with not understanding what everyone else is talking about. I’m able to say, “Here’s how I understand it.” And provide a different perspective on things.
I feel a lot more confident in sitting down and drawing my ideas and sharing them that way.
At Uber we enjoy celebrating our creative team members and the broad spectrum of design. We value the pursuit of various forms of creativity and believe those experiences inspire our team, improve our products, and ultimately enhance the experience of our end users.
Checkout the first edition of this series: Uber Creator Spotlight: Designers Who Photograph their Cities.
Learn more about our design team’s work, people, and events: www.uber.design.
Ojai Mitchell is a Jamaican-born designer living in Oakland, California. At Uber, he’s a part of the Financial Products team, which focuses on making Uber more affordable and easier to pay for. LinkedIn | Instagram
Eric Burns is curious. He is inspired by other creatives who pursue their passions. He’s a product design manager at Uber focusing on the employee experience to ensure that every Uber employee has opportunities to thrive.