The majority of our time is spent using computers, smartphones, mobile apps and the like. And because there’s this expected level of sophistication and function in the digital world we inhibit, it’s easy to take the things that have been so beautifully designed for us for granted.
It’s also easy to constantly demand more and overlook the fact that there are people who spend their lives creating things to make ours easier. Which is one of the reasons I reached out to Matt Vandrick (@MattVandrick), a senior designer at Marvel Entertainment, to learn more about the design process.
In addition to his work at Marvel, Matt has had a hand in designing for Gilt Groupe, AT&T, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and much more. Here, he’ll talk about working on some of those projects, how he got into design, what his biggest design pet peeves are and he’ll provide some great advice for anyone who may be looking to pursue a career in this industry.
Hashtags + Stilettos (H+S): You are currently a designer at Marvel Entertainment. Can you describe your role in more detail?
Matt Vandrick (MV): I work within the Digital Media Group, which is responsible for almost everything digital that comes out of Marvel Entertainment. Marvel.com and mobile apps like the Marvel Comics and Marvel Unlimited (both comic reader apps) are some of the larger products we handle. In addition we create digital experiences that support the different lines of business (i.e. Publishing, Games, Studios, Animation and now live action TV with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
H+S: You used to work at Gilt Groupe and had a hand in the design of the brand identity for Gilt City. How/when did you make the transition from Gilt to Marvel?
MV: I left Gilt in April of 2012. I interviewed at Marvel twice — once in 2009 before even going to Gilt and then again in 2012, which obviously went better the second time around. I consider it a testimony to everything being in God’s time. I was meant to work at Marvel, just not in 2009.
H+S: You’ve done design work for a lot of great brands. Which one of your gigs would you say was your big break?
MV: Honestly it was my first job. I worked at IMG, which had an array of sports and fashion accounts. The largest probably being Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. I was on a small team and had the opportunity to be really hands on right out of the gate whereas some recent graduates don’t get trusted with larger clients that early on. So in a sense, that was my ‘big break’.
[Working at] Gilt was also a big turning point though. They’re extremely well regarded in digital and e-commerce and, again, I was apart of a relatively small department that was responsible for a lot. It was also the first time I’d experienced the general public being really excited when I mentioned my workplace. Marvel continues that torch… which is nice.
H+S: I know this is tough because it’s like picking a favorite child, but which one of your projects is your favorite or which one was the most fun to work on?
MV: You’re right, they all have a special place in one way or another and they all serve a purpose in my full body of work. BUT… In terms of fun perhaps I’ll have to say the rebranding of Marvel.com. It was exciting to gather information from all the different divisions and make sure we really conveyed the true essence of Marvel. The main goal from the very start was to show the boldness of the brand by letting the characters and artwork shine. We did that by keeping the interface high contrast black and white which let the color and movement of the art take the lead. The angles and slants are a nod to vintage comic paneling, while the large type keeps things front and center. It’s also probably my most visible and globally recognized work to date which is an added level of excitement for me.
H+S: How did you get into design? Was it something you always wanted to do or did you just fall into it?
MV: I always had an interest in design but never considered it a career goal. At a very young age magazine ads, billboards, commercials, and movie intros fascinated me. Graphics/communication in general always peaked my curiosity. Why those colors? Why that font? and so forth. I wanted to know who made those decisions and how.
When AOL hit us hard in the 90’s my interest shifted to the interactive realm in addition to print/tv. I took my first web design/HTML class at NYU STEP when I was 12, and got into Photoshop when I was 13. It was always cool for me but very much just a hobby. In fact after high school I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) on a math scholarship. I figured I’d go into finance or something. RIT is a career focused institution so freshman year you’re already liaising with companies and brainstorming an ACTUAL ROLE you’d like to fill instead of simply working toward a degree just for the sake of it.
This helped a lot because I knew pretty early that the path I was on wasn’t for me. I almost dropped out of RIT but a classmate and close friend recommended I get into something that interested me. She was a photo major. When I said I liked graphic design she suggested New Media Design because it was more than just print and was very in line with emerging technologies. Transferring wasn’t easy though. It was a very small and competitive major with a portfolio requirement and every other student had been drawing and painting from what seemed like birth. The head of the department suggested I take a drawing class in order to qualify and apply for the major. I did, and struggled and created a portfolio as best I could. I was blessed to have it pay off and I was welcomed into the program. It was there that I learned design at the very foundation (typography, color theory, grid systems, etc.), which helped me tap more into what felt innate my whole life. Continuing on in the major expanded that thinking to digital with web design, motion graphics and some 3D as well. I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
H+S: Every designer has at least one. What are your biggest design pet peeves? (ex: incorrect use of white space, overcrowded webpages, etc.)
MV: The ones you mentioned are big for me. But in general, my biggest pet peeve is when designers DON’T design.
Design at it’s core is problem solving, it’s not just about making things pretty. This is across industries. If you’re a furniture designer and make the most beautiful chair in the world, but I can’t sit in it — you failed. Period. And I see this all the time, even with really large brands. Designers get caught up in how cool or trendy it looks while completely ignoring that it has to be functional and satisfy a need. Fusing a little of yourself into the craft is only natural but it should be user-centric at every step of the way… satisfying both form AND function.
H+S: A lot of people are starting businesses and/or websites and have no design background. What advice would you give to novices about hiring a designer?
MV: Before you even look for a designer, understand your business top to bottom in terms of goals, timelines and budgets. A solid business plan will help the designer create a solution that’ll satisfy the right needs and solve the right problems. Additionally, do some preliminary legwork. Examples of work you appreciate will only help the initial conversations and show that you’re serious about the work you want done.
H+S: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into the design business?
MV: The first piece would be to figure out which aspect you want to get into. In print there are folks that specialize in logos, iconography and stationary. In digital there will be user interface designers, motion graphics folks, and 3D artists, and those are just a few. There are so many facets and it might help to narrow it down a bit at least initially. If you aren’t going to attend school then do the research and put in the time. Buy books, attend one-day intensive courses, read, practice and repeat. Also keep your eyes peeled at all times. Look for inspiration in everything and take note of what’s happening in the field.
H+S: What challenges (or misconceptions) do you think creatives/designers currently face?
MV: One misconception that readily comes to mind is the idea that the work we do is easy. This is true across creative fields so with photographers, interior designers, etc. Creativity can certainly be a hobby, but when it’s how someone makes their living it should be respected and treated as any other industry.
Professionally we’re challenged with being on the cutting edge of technology and lifestyle. For example, mobile apps were around for a while but became a household notion with the iPhone in 2007, only six years ago. Fast forward to today and Instagram, a product created solely for mobile, sold for $1 billion. This goes back to my point about design being user driven. You have to meet people where they are and create solutions that fuse seamlessly into their lives. To do that successfully requires being in touch with how people live and coexist with technology (a landscape that changes everyday) and seize those opportunities. It’s so much deeper than playing in Photoshop.
H+S: Who or what inspires you?
MV: Creatively, I’m inspired by almost anything, you gotta keep your pores open and take in the whole world. The color of someone’s shirt or the angles in the architecture of a building can serve as a visual spark.
Professionally, I’m inspired by relentless drive and the undying will to succeed. It’s not gonna be easy, but if you really want something you put the energy in. Seeing other people’s motivation and subsequent success invigorates me. The notion that the digital landscape is flattening is another aspect of it. When you see world changing power plays in digital today they’re rarely from the 3-piece suit CEO. The young, hungry and passionate are changing the world at an ever-increasing rate and eating more and more of the pie. I want a slice.
H+S: Do you have any mentors in the industry? If so, what impact has their presence had on your career?
MV: I do have a few solid mentors that I keep in touch with, most of them being people I’ve worked for in the past like my very first art director at IMG, and some of the senior managers at Gilt. By watching them I learned the corporate side of things and how to present ideas to non-creatives. It was key. A CEO might not understand, or care, why you chose a font or how a certain layout kept you up at night. Get comfortable with conveying how creative directly contributes to what excites THEM. [Things like] the bottom line, increased brand awareness, more hits/ad revenue and so forth. If you support it with data you’re golden… and provided you’ve designed an actual solution and not just made it glossy, that shouldn’t be hard to do.
One tidbit I’d also like to touch on is to never overlook imaginary mentors. People you admire that you haven’t even met yet. Look for the folks that have done what you want to do and research how they did it. A quick look at someone’s trajectory can provide so much insight and inspiration regardless of whether you can pick up the phone and call them for advice.
H+S: What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career so far?
MV: The fact that your entire career is your responsibility is hands down the biggest lesson. There is rarely a magical connection that’ll get you everything you ever wanted in a job… regardless of what you see on TV.
Be realistic and hold yourself accountable. It’s a staircase, one foot after the other, and it’s on you to constantly learn, grow, network, and stay on top of the emerging trends within your industry. Gut check yourself regularly about where you’d like to be and whether or not the steps you’re taking are contributing to that bigger picture. If they aren’t… re-arrange a few things. Be bold!
Also when it comes to jobs and work environments make sure you do what works for you personally. In school, most of my counselors and professors pushed us to go directly into the ad or digital agency world. Technically they were right, as it seemed like a natural step. However in retrospect, I feel a lot of the opportunities I had early in my career were a direct result of not having gone to an agency, as they tend to have larger creative teams and less one-on-one mentoring. A lean team forces you to take on work with bigger stakes and higher visibility. This isn’t a knock to agency life by any means, but I’m not sure if I would have had the same experience and growth potential had I been 1 of 100 designers at a big agency.
H+S: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
MV: Let the quality of the product take the lead. If you truly create something of value the people will come without you having to force feed them. If you need to beat people over the head with the WHY, you need to re-evaluate the WHAT.
H+S: What is one big goal you hope to accomplish over the next year?
MV: I’m going to get into teaching. Sometimes when I see the work of recent graduates I fear that they aren’t being equipped with all the tools they need to succeed. Working with my interns over the years gave me the itch to show students how to create a solid portfolio and arm them with the confidence to speak to that work. It’s how you get the better jobs. Talent is great but you have to show you’re a thinker, and I want to help with that.
To see more of Matt’s work, visit www.mattvandrick.com.