Michael Neiling, Ocupop Creative Director, is livin’ the dream! Based in Hawaii (so you know there’s surfing involved), with the rest of the team scattered across Cali, Wisconsin and British Columbia, Michael chats about working with sustainability-minded organisations, ONLY having creative staff on the team and how to HUSTLE and STAND UP FOR YOURSELF (yes, in capital letters!)
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? I have a zoology degree – my plan was to go to medical school. I got a fucking Bachelors of Science and then in the eleventh hour, sort of freaked out and decided that snowboarding sounded like more fun than med school. Myself, my brother and my girlfriend (now my wife) moved to Colorado and we just rode all the time. I got shitty ski town jobs, I sold gear that I got for free from companies that were kind enough to support my questionable career choices and it was AWESOME. Until it wasn’t. I was not good enough to make a ‘job’ out of snowboarding and driving a shuttle bus was proving less and less fulfilling.
Though I never made any real money and I was increasingly disenchanted with the ski town life, becoming intimately involved with the snowboard industry in the late nineties had its benefits. With the industry being small and young, and accessible, I could watch (and talk to) the people running these small companies and learning and growing like crazy in the process. I got to see some wildly succeed and some fail miserably and be a part of it in a connected, but non-threatened way. That’s the beauty of not making any money I guess? A dirtbag kid who’s stoked to get some free boots and boards is not too terribly leveraged. I got to give feedback on product, on design, on ad campaigns – solely because I was in the room. And one time I was in the room when the owner of a company that had graciously agreed to donate boards to my ongoing personal experiment as an adult said to me, ‘we are going to have a website next year! It is going to be awesome! But it is going to cost $5000.’
‘Fuck that. I will build it for $500.’
‘Really? You know how to build websites?’
After going to the library and checking out a book on how to build websites and drafting a ‘contract’ in pencil on a sheet of legal paper, my professional design career was on its way.
What does a typical working day include for you right now? My working day is a little unusual due to a lot of different things. First of all, I run a design firm that has a few offices and a number of remote staff across a bunch of time zones, and on top of that I live in Hawaii which is three hours behind the west coast timezone-wise, so my day starts at 4AM every weekday. Beyond that insanity, I run the business side of things at Ocupop in addition to being the Creative Director, so for better or worse, less and less of my days over the past ten years have involved detailed design or wrangling the vectors in Illustrator. I still get to do a lot of creative work sketching and roughing out concepts, but I am definitely not working day in and day out as a designer any more. From 4-6AM I am talking with our team, processing through the never-ending deluge of emails, and sometimes doing a couple of quick client calls or video conferences – though if it is pre-6AM I usually lie and say my camera is broken – because fuck that, no one should have to try to look presentable at that hour. From 6AM until noon or 1PM is meeting time – with Hawaii being so far behind the continental US timezones, these hours are prime time for design reviews, new work conversations, check-ins with ongoing clients, and internal meetings. Generally around lunchtime meetings drop off and I transition into the most productive part of my day. 2PM in Hawaii is 8PM on the east coast, and so, as you’d imagine, I stop getting emails and phone calls and I can actually focus. Afternoons are when I get any design work or writing or strategic thought banged out, and then if I can, go surf before getting dinner with the family and reading for a bit before bed.
Any passion projects you would like to share? Nine years ago my daughter was born and it had a huge effect on my perspectives on work and life. At the time we were working on a lot of ‘cool’ projects, but not much of what we were doing would have really been classified as making the world a better place…and we had a couple of asshole clients. These revelations drove me to make two core changes to our firm’s culture. One was that I wanted to work on as much cause-based work as we could. I wanted to focus on clients that were making a positive impact – specifically we decided that we wanted to work with sustainability-minded organizations and organizations who were supporting open source and the open web. This focus led us to much of the core of what we do now: lots of work with wind, solar, EV, and other green startups, dozens and dozens of projects for Mozilla, Google, W3C, and others doing good on the web, and a variety of investment funds, foundations, and non-profits helping to catalyze positive change in the US and abroad. I am extremely proud of the work we do and honored to work with the people we work with – and we have managed to steer clear of the assholes too!
Who’s on the team, what are their roles and why do you love them? We are a very small firm. We have less than 20 full and part time staff spread across three studios. We ONLY have creative staff in our firm. We do not have account people, we do not have project managers, we just have designers, developers, and writers. In short, everyone on the team makes shit. There is no middle man with our clients. We work with decision makers and our clients work directly with the creative people building their brand. This arrangement requires an incredibly dynamic and collaborative crew. Everyone has a deep, passionate appreciation for the disciplines that they are not experts in – our designers are not engineers, but they understand the principles of web development and building a functional UI. Our developers write beautiful code, but they also appreciate sound strategy and eloquent copy and understand the value a compelling narrative brings. Everyone collaborates and leverages the talents of each other – and everyone communicates well. With a distributed team and clients everywhere, the core of what makes us who we are is how good we are at communicating – everyone’s ability to connect and collaborate with each other and with our clients is truly remarkable and inspires me every day.
What role does digital design play in your studio in 2016, and how to you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age? It is funny, when I am at a party and am introduced to someone new and they ask what we do, and I say, ‘We are a design firm,’ the response is often, ‘oh so you design websites and apps right?’ I usually respond that yeah, it is 2016, so much of what is designed in the world right now is digital. Apps, software, websites, web apps, etc. But we end up doing so much more than just ‘apps and websites’ as a design firm – and what makes us good at what we do is really much more than the design chops we bring to the table. Designers are such phenomenal problem solvers, and I believe really good designers are not only good problem solvers, they’re also incredible at understanding, and defending, the reasoning behind the solutions they use to solve problems. This ability, to think, to reason, and to communicate, applies to a VR interface as much as it does to a printed label – so whether you call those ‘traditional’ skills or just the core of what makes a great designer, I think they are as important as ever in this increasingly digital age.
What career advice would you give your 16yr old self? First of all, if 16 year old Michael saw what I get to do now, he would freak out. I have the best job in the world. I get to work with incredible people and global brands, many of which have become great friends…and I have a skateboard ramp in my office – that alone would buy me all the cred I’d ever need with the high school version of me. So knowing that I would listen to me, I would tell me what I tell lots of young designers – HUSTLE and STAND UP FOR YOURSELF. First, hustle: work your fucking ass off. Don’t sleep, don’t be a pansy – get after it. You have limitless energy when you’re 16, shit even when you’re 26, don’t waste that. Relish the struggle, embrace the challenge and never stop until you’re satisfied that you’ve done the best, most thorough, most well thought out job you possibly can. And that points to the second part: stand up for yourself. Be confident in yourself and your decisions – if you, as a designer, as an investigator, as a thinker, truly and passionately believe in your idea/decision/position, chances are you’ve thought about it more than most anyone else ever will and you should fight for it – unabashedly, without insecurity, whether you are 16, 26, or 56.
What advice would you give students starting out? I would answer this question by folding it in with two of the other questions you asked – namely: What do you look for in a great portfolio? What qualities and skills do you look for in a graduate? First and foremost, and this might be unique to our firm, but we strongly believe that attitude trumps aptitude every day of the week. Sure, we like to see strong strategy and ID work in a portfolio because that shows a solid foundation of design thought and we’ve found that strong work there often is more representative of a designer’s maturity than other less distilled work. And we do look for variety in a portfolio, but that generally is aiming toward the attitude assessment – is this a person who can apply exemplary design thinking and problem solving skills to all sorts of different challenges? When we talk to recent graduates, we always try to get a sense of how confident they are and how eager they are to learn and expand – school is a great baseline, and a great safety net, but real design in the real world is the most effective, and exhilarating, classroom there is, and we only hire people who are enthusiastic about rolling up their sleeves and doing the work.