Featured Studio

Airlift

May 2018

We recently had a good ol' chat with Partner & Head of Design at Airlift Pete McClelland. We discuss the role of traditional graphic design skills within the digital world, working with clients who appreciate your craft, and Pete's obsession with small type and shitty dad music.

What is the design landscape like on your city and where do you fit in?

No surprise, San Francisco is pretty crowded when it comes to design — but not always in the best ways. We still find ourselves needing to educate those we work with on what design can do for them and how to use it effectively. Maybe it’s due to the startup and tech-driven landscape, but “design” is often pigeonholed as a production activity — rather than a more thoughtful, strategic, and integral part of a personality, product, service, brand, or experience.

In terms of how Airlift fits in to that landscape — well, we're not really looking to fit in. We're looking to uncover new landscapes, methods, and new futures altogether. While we still enjoy knocking out a logo, skinning an app, or working through UX flows, we're more intrigued with projects that challenge us and allow us to think of something new.

What role does digital design play in your studio in 2018, and how do you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age?

No doubt that pretty much everything is now digital. While that's cool and opens a ton of windows for design, those traditional graphic skills are ever-more important. We make an extra effort to exercise those analog skills — sketching sessions, color theory, agonizing over grid systems, and geeking out over paper weights.

Whether we're working on an autonomous driving experience, branding artificial intelligence, or building vr environments, those foundational design skills are still very prominent in our work and process.

What do you look for in a great client?

Probably the same traits you'd look for in a friend... trust, openness, respect, and a dose of weird. Someone who appreciates your craft, knows when to let you do your thing, and keeps you honest. The best clients are those that want to explore with you, see creativity as a chance for learning, and are willing to try some weird shit.

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In the first 30 seconds of looking at anyone's portfolio or resume my eyes are immediately scanning for solid use of grid and some badass type.

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What do you look for in a great portfolio?

I'd love to sound all cool here and say that I look for unique perspectives or some cool point of view. But honestly (and I realize this is rude AF), in the first 30 seconds of looking at anyone's portfolio or resume, I'm not looking at the big brand names or whatever awards you've won... my eyes are immediately scanning for solid use of grid and some badass type. I want to see the geeky design shit that lead to the result. Why'd you decide to kern it like that? How'd you come up with that color system? How many columns are in that layout?

Aside from those obnoxious details, I'm looking at how you represent your role on the project. Are you giving credit to the full team? Do you have a clear understanding of why certain design decisions were made? Does it just look cool — or did you learn something / try something new / leverage the talents of others? And ultimately, why are you proud of the work?

What advice would you give students starting out?

Try shit. Break something. Don't get lazy. Work with people that challenge you. Don't become reliant on the templatized formats of SquareSpace/Sketch/etc. There are some wonderful tools out there that can help you create a solid foundation, but don't stop there — build the rest of the house.

Don't just go for what's easy, expected, or safe. Get scared a bit. After two friggin decades of working, I still want to walk into work everyday with a challenge in front of me. Design intuition comes from experimenting, breaking things, and at times even failing. But own it. That's how you learn, grow, and can be an asset to others.

Who’s on the team, what are their roles and why do you love them?

At Airlift, we've got a small crew of badass designers (10 or so). While we're all traditionally trained in graphic design, each of us contribute something unique to the team — be it UI/UX, 3D, motion, illustration, you name it.

I love this crew cause they call me out on my shit. My obsession with small type, my love for monochromatic design, and my shitty dad music. Having worked at a dozen studios throughout my career, Airlift is where I feel the most encouraged, challenged, appreciated, and at home.

Website: weareairlift.com

Instagram: @weareairlift

Facebook: /weareairlift

Linkedin: /weareairlift

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