Shuya Gong is the co-founder and CTO of unsize. Recently, she and co-founder Katie Wilhoit wrapped up a semester long design project on unsize as clients of Scout, Northeastern’s student run design and development studio. Shuya continues to head up creative direction and product design at unsize. These are some learnings and takeaways from our project together.
This past academic semester, Katie and I had the great privilege of working with Scout, Northeastern’s student led design and development studio. We approached Scout seeking helping hands, creative energy, and talent to help us redesign our website, take our brand to the next level, and think through and build part of our user-facing product.
It was magical, it was amazing, it was humbling. It was all the positive adjectives which any layperson or design saavy professional, would respond to when looking at their formidable body of work (check it out at here). The work that comes out of this studio is the kind of stuff that gives you imposter syndrome as a designer, which only gets worse when you realize that they’re still all undergraduate students. But you’ll appreciate it regardless because the work that comes out of Scout is special. Its refreshing, it’s personable, it’s understanding, and it’s stuff that makes you say “Woah.”
Design has been important to unsize from day 0, from our customer experience, validating our business model, and our to aesthetic. We started with desirability, knowing that our product and experience needed to be human-centered through and through, so our brand, or the world and mission unsize users related to, were embedded into the whole process. Our approach to good design is less so methodical, and more so “we’ll know it when we see it”…a phrase with huge potential for pitfalls.
So we knew that the design journey would be one that we both, client and design studio team, needed to take some care navigating. We were determined not to let the scenario of working with designers become the cliched Client From Hell sketch comedy fodder it could become, and buckled in for a fantastic journey.
Here’s what I learned, as a designer turned client during a semester long engagement with Scout for unsize:
1. Enjoy the journey, the wander is the wonder.
When working on your own brand, it’s hard to see the forest beyond the trees. If you’re happy with something, do you still push for more? What if there isn’t more? There’s something egotistical about that as a designer — and Scout checks your ego at the door. It was humbling for me to come in every week and be delighted by something new. It would always inspire new thoughts and ideas. It reinstated the idea that design is not the outcome from the path of most efficiency — its the path, it’s the process. Trust the process, and it’ll get there better than if you arrived at an early conclusion.
Unsize started off as a rather vague brand. Full of personality, yes, but mostly with abstract shapes and doodles representing it. Somewhere along the journey, the evolved to be the inclusive illustrations we have today. I. Love. Them. It’s totally not what we were expecting, and it started with some simple, experimental sketches Katie and I loved — but didn’t feel as though they were totally right. They were cute, endearing, but a little too young. But then they matured — literally, into the figures we know and love today. They wouldn’t have gotten there if we had immediately shut it down because the initial sketches weren’t totally on brand or in our set of deliverables at the beginning! Thank goodness— they’re totally magical and unexpected, and one of my favorite things.
2. Trust your team, ask for the same
Unsize had a brand identity going in, and it was one that Katie and I loved (Shout out Adela! Check her work here! ). We had a logo, font, color palette, and style going in. The brand Adela made was something we had used for months before bringing it to Scout. We’d played around with it, made stuff with it, spent some time with it. We knew going into this that if Scout accepted us as a client, we would be happy with whatever was birthed out, but it was sort of scary, because our pre-existing brand was sort of precious. It was a lesson in letting go, and having full faith that Scout would work some magic.
But the trust ran both ways — Scout encouraged us to take whatever was produced and do the natural thing as designers — transform it, use it, adapt it — but keep the integrity and original spirit that it was created in.
But would it really be okay if we blatantly pushed back against a designer’s work? Or if we took something fresh off the press and totally transformed it? Is a brand expression that was explicitly meant for digital also okay if we blew it up and put it on a poster?
Turns out, yes. And it’s welcome. Doing so, making crappy prototypes, and sending them over to say “Hey! We did a thing with the things you gave us, it’s not perfect but how do you feel?” ended up informing some big turning points, and it wasn’t awkward to do so at all. If anything, we created some fodder for thought, and seeing the brand expressed in a certain way freed up Scout design team time to explore deeper in the same direction, or realized that it wasn’t right and paused it there.
2.5 Trust your team, ask for the same
We also quickly realized that Scout is also an environment that you can bring your team- your whole team- into. Although Katie and I experienced Scout as fellow designers, Ashlyn, Engineering Lead at unsize, brought solely an engineering background to our weekly meetings. Still, she felt comfortable enough to contribute and provide clarity to the process. Scout is experienced and flexible enough to work across disciplines and with any member of your team, a critical skill for any project’s success.
3. Fuel up on creative energy, don’t be afraid to be extra about it.
Sometimes the slog of the week would leave me wondering if it was a good idea to skip the Scout meeting and do some catching up on other unsize work. I never did, and thank goodness. There was something infectious about our Scout meetings every Wednesday morning. I left with the inspiration to MAKE SOMETHING, URGENTLY. Many a times we left the studio and briskly walked to a nearby coffee shop where we immediately immersed ourselves into a productive work session, fueled by all the creative energy that we were dunked in. Sometimes this meant that we created a large sized whiteboard out of our logo. Sometimes this meant that we made 100+ swag pins out of our logomark. Sometimes it meant that we filled a whole room with a market segmentation plan. Scout is like a shot of creativity espresso, and we rode that energy all day long. This was maybe more valuable than the deliverables from that week, because the domino effect of design productivity was in play. Katie and I got more done on Wednesday than we did any other day purely from the creative juice refueling.
4. Breakfasts & banter is good for the soul, good for work.
The agenda is a beautiful but sometimes evil thing. Whenever I looked at ours for unsize, it seemed like there was no time to hit pause and make time for team bonding and banter. But it was so important. Our meetings were productive, but genuinely fun — and it wasn’t strictly all about unsize! Our meetings had spurts of nerdiness about design, and appreciation for things that weren’t necessarily unsize related. Which was good. It helped us be real people, and relate on a level that helped lubricate other discussions that were more difficult to have around design decisions.
Also KT sometimes brought fried/baked/flayed potatoes for breakfast, so that was great.
One last point about the professionalism of Scout from a purely functional viewpoint:
I’m a huge proponent for DIYing but working with Scout gave us the whole, cohesive brand package, gifting us with a design language and library that is super flexible and allows unsize to keep churning out cool stuff without too much of a lift — letting Katie and I put out other fires around a start-up and be able to consider design stuff as a treat to work on. It was a luxury having all the fonts, brand variations, color hex codes, wireframes, website component guides, you name it, all in one place. Scout makes continued brand work for unsize easier, so we could focus on getting clothes that fit you easier.
The final thank you
I hope I’ve made it clear by now how much a fan of Scout I am, but let me gush a little bit more. This is a huge, huge thank you and kudos to the unsize team over at Scout, thank you for a fantastic semester.
In no particular order: Adam, Gabi, Jon, Josh, Madison, huge thank you for putting up with us and all our little requests and delighting us every Wednesday morning and going above and beyond our biggest expectations. You took unsize and bent and twisted and pushed our brand to the extreme, and we ended up with something that was totally not what we thought we would end up with — something that neither Katie nor I could have even imagined at the beginning of the semester. That’s the sort of magic I thought I would find this semester at Scout. I’m not surprised that I was right, but I’m ever so delighted that it happened. And to Christina, Molly, Nick, and Brennan, thank you for the structure and continued management. You do the work of running a (practically and functionally) professional design and development studio…while being full time students. I’m astounded. We were so lucky to have worked with ya’ll.
Here’s to hoping that this isn’t the last time.