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June 10, 2016
How's everything going?
Things are good. Onyx is super busy as usual, but we are in the process of evolving and changing our business.
Well, when we started we were building everything on the back of my contract work. At the time, I was designing websites, doing creative direction for a few brands, and consulting for product teams. After a year and half, I was being pulled in so many different directions, that I needed to start contracting work out to get help.
I also found my two partners at that time, Zach Nolan who is a full-stack developer, and Brandyn Morelli, who handles all of our business-side stuff.
We've been operating like a traditional 'Digital Agency', but over the last few years, we're realizing that the Agency world is drastically changing, and it turns out most of the clients that come to us are startups.
I think they like that we offer branding, UX design, & development all together. So it was a natural niche to fall into. That being said, we're beginning to work with startups a lot more, and getting away from one-off websites and projects. In fact, we're trying to evolve more into an accelerator of sorts to get MVPs out quickly and validate ideas.
It's interesting being in LA too, because it's a bit more rare compared to the bay since it's traditionally more entertainment focused. But with Snapchat down here and the whole Silicon Beach thing, it's been an interesting couple years seeing the scene here evolve.
Do you prefer the MVP approach?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of us came from backgrounds and jobs that approached things in a much slower, clunkier way. It's worth saying the Onyx culture is definitely focused on rebelling against things we hated from earlier experiences.
Although the MVP/Sprint-based process is the obvious, ubiquitous way to launch and build products today, a lot of clients who aren't actively building products on a daily basis aren't aware of it. We screen clients who we believe have great ideas and a solid commitment, and work with them to see if they have something worth building.
Ultimately, I believe our goal is to build our own products, but we experience the same dilemma that everyone has, which is how to balance client work and your own passion projects. It's a battle we're learning to fight.
Is it frustrating to work on an MVP for a while then release it back to the client? I imagine it's tough not to be able to follow through?
Yeah it's extremely frustrating. It's also frustrating when were only hired for design, and we see experiences butchered in development with their teams. The frustration comes from becoming emotionally invested into a project's success.
If we're lucky, we work with founders to launch their MVP, do recurring fixes and improvements, while consulting with them to build their own internal teams for a smooth hand-off.
Naturally, being only around 2 years old, we haven't been through that entire journey too many times. I'm sure as we gather more experience, we'll learn more and evolve further,.
We always communicate that we want to work with clients for the long haul. Sometimes we'll work to negotiate an agreement where we can stay on as advisors and have equity. But that's a case by case basis.
Client work is hard for me to grasp because it's so unpredictable
One day you're working on something you love and the next you're not
So do you gain most of your satisfaction from the craft itself?
I agree. The bright side is that you get to meet different people from entirely different parts of the spectrum, and you also get a diversity and range of work (if that's important to you).
The disadvantage is lack of ownership for sure.
is it important to *you*?
Why did you decide to go that route instead of joining X company
I gain most of my satisfaction from the craft and process of solving problems. The idea of always getting better, and getting to that breakthrough ah-ha moment is definitely one of the great pursuits.
When I quit my last full-time job (where I met you :)) I knew a few things. I knew I liked having independence and freedom. I also loved having the freedom to work on what I wanted to. I also knew, looking back on my career that I am someone who gets bored easily. I need a diversity of experiences to keep me captivated. This is not always a good thing.
At the time, I thought that running my own shop would give me all of that, but I have to admit, my perspective has changed a lot in the last few years.
I mean how many articles do you read or see on the internet that tell you to quit your job and 'do what you love'? I even wrote something like that. But It completely oversimplifies things, and it completely discounts the benefits of working for a larger company.
What's wrong with that?
We all hate bureaucracy and bullshit that can come with certain companies. We can also agree that taking orders from a boss that you don't trust or admire is infuriating. Sometimes working on one thing for an entire year can be dull and give you tunnel vision. Those are still things I hate.
But it is incorrect to assume that those are things always present at a full-time job. I believe the new 'wave' of companies are going to embrace a much different way of doing things, because we are reacting to the shared disdain for those things. You're already seeing it.
And you rarely hear about the advantages of working for a company. Like the access to super talented people and teams. Being surrounded with people who are smarter than you. The resources to be able to do things. The security of pay/benefits to be able to give you peace of mind.
Last year I hit a very stressful point in my career where my body was beginning to break down. I was always working, and a lot of my relationships were suffering. Yeah there were moments of complete triumph and 'bad-assery' , but the lows were really low.
Onyx is self-funded. We added 6 people to the payroll after the first year. To have to do that yourself isn't easy, and the stress is real.
Instead of focusing on my passionate love for design, I was consumed with a lot of anxiety and spread pretty thin. Which is why I'm approaching things differently this year.
That's why I think the solution of just quitting your job is a fallacy. For some people it works great. But I think everyone should choose the path that works for them. We shouldn't discount the hard work involved, which I think our generation does a lot. Haha.
I'm sorry to hear that man
Was it the pressure of having 6 people on payroll?
I think part of it is that you can never take a day off. And the decisions you make will directly influence the livelihood of your crew. It feels both exhilarating and high-pressure.
It's also tough to have partners who think very different from you at times. It's a dynamic I didn't think about when we started.
That being said, the struggles and challenges are mirrored with huge feelings of accomplishment. There are times where you REALLY feel like you are affecting things directly with no barrier.
And to be able to just say "no I don't want to do that" is great too. We say no to a lot of projects that we don't want to work on.
So if you're okay with the emotional roller coaster, or if you're like me and you're addicted to the waves, starting your own thing is great.
Well there are a few different things you touched on
There is the autonomy of "doing what you want"
But there's also the decision to then "work for other people", in your case, clients
which seems like a necessity to balance personal projects and livelyhood
Right. You could argue that you always have a boss of sorts.
One of my fears is that the lack of a stable income would prevent me from addressing the problems I really want to tackle
I think that's a very valid fear.
There are certain qualities you need to have and nurture to be able to successfully grow your business. And a lot of them have nothing to do with your craft.
Like being a quiet introvert, or a designer who can't easily articulate and persuade will have a tougher time. However, knowing the right people in the right places is often enough to get going.
It's worth saying that freelancing feels so much different from starting a company. When you're freelancing, there's a strong feeling of freedom and non-commitment.
I think the biggest question everyone needs to ask themselves eventually, is:
How much of your values are you willing to compromise?
Some of us don't feel like our personal values need to drive what we do for work. I know a ton of people who see work as work, and outside of that they are able to be themselves.
I was making zines and going to punk shows when I was younger. I was constantly jumping around from place to place and doing weird stuff. I started off purely as an illustrator. So I'm someone who's always chasing different things. I think I have a restless nature.
It's hard for me to restrain my gut. So this life seems like it's right for me in a lot of ways.
Where do you fall on that spectrum? Are you willing to separate work from your values?
Right now, I'm not. There are a few foundational rules I have defined for myself.
(1) I personally won't work on a product that I wouldn't myself use. (2) I will not work on anything that takes advantage of people through snaky tactics. (3) I need to personally like the person I do business with... meaning I won't work with someone who I think is nasty.
From a business perspective, it's hugely important for me to hire a diverse (race and gender) staff, and be fully inclusive with all types of people.
We have men, women, gay, straight, and are racially diverse.
Why is diversity so important to you?
I'm Filipino American, but grew up in a very white, conservative suburb of LA (Simi Valley). I was called names growing up constantly, and didn't realize they were racist until much later. I remember one moment in elementary school where we were asked to draw ourselves. I remember coloring my skin with a light peach although I was obviously brown. A very complex issue to grow up with.
Additionally, the tech scene gets a lot of shit for not being diverse enough (well deserved). I want to be part of the solution and the future, not reinforce the stereotype.
Products and experiences will be better the more it can speak globally to all types of people. Shoutout to FB 'diverse hands' mockups.
I can definitely sympathize with that
I grew up always being the foreign kid so there's a lot of that I had to deal with
But, why and how do you prioritize diversity over something else?
Yeah definitely, your path has taken you all over the world! I always thought you were such a great example of the 'American Dream' :)
Well— as a designer or creative, your job is to communicate with others, tell stories, and to solve problems. I truly believe the more diverse your experiences are in your life, the more you have to tap into to create inspiring work.
To take that one step further, if were talking about a 'group' or 'collective' the more diversity you have within that group, the more likely it is you are likely to tap into a wider range of perspectives and experiences, which can only be a net positive.
Sometimes we will prioritize diversity over raw skill when hiring someone because in design or development, technical skill can be easily taught. But perspective and mindset is rarer. It also depends on the position we are talking about. Obviously if you're hiring an engineer you need them to be technically capable first.
I just know that a designer that looks 'good on paper' can be any kid that obsessively copies anything he sees on dribbble. A lot of recruiters could look at that kid's work and think he's the shit. Although there's something to be said about a designer that has a good sense of taste and trend, I just feel like it's easy to learn all that. When you're looking to build a team of people, you need to think of how all the sides and perspectives work together.
I couldn't agree more
You posted something recently talking about how you had a hugely productive day and it was a day where you didn't touch any pixels at all.
I think that's an important thing to remind young designers about, and is so true when you're at a higher level.
That's why I wanted to start this blog series. I feel like a lot of the work we do is in the *ideas* behind the pixels
Speaking of ideas — I think it's awesome that you've worked for a few sex-positive sites
What role do you think design plays in the taboo?
I love this question.
I absolutely love working on projects around taboo subjects, because you're already faced with an very present obstacle: Usually a generally negative perception of said subject.
We can use design to actively change the perception of the subject by going completely against the mass perception. For instance, for a sex brand, we immediately associate sex with porn, which brings up all this imagery or smutty ads, censoring, loud typography with cheesy effects, to the point where you can pretty much imagine the person designing on the other end.
Same thing goes for marijuana brands. How many stoner, overly-psychedelic, rough and crunchy visual associations are there? I'd say the majority of what you see.
What if you framed sex in a positive, colorful, and confident way, What if you portrayed confidence in sexuality by choosing a more refined and human path. What if you decided to emphasize the moments of beauty, connection, and openness, rather than superficial moments that don't feel real.
Cannabis is even more fun, because a sense of refinement and elegance just doesn't exist yet. It's starting to now. I'm proud to say that I think Foria did a lot in the space to push that conversation forward.
But the reason that it makes sense is because when I think of people who smoke weed (myself included), I am not a rastafarian stoner. I am not lazy. I don't only own things made of hemp, and I don't really have a strong connection to Jamaica. I'm not always in a dazed, cloudy headspace.
So designing for myself, and the countless others who like cannabis, but have a sense of taste and design is super fun.
I guess so much of the visual language of both sex and drugs is dictated by the fact that they're in the fringes of society, pushing boundaries for the sake of pushing them
Which is so funny, because sex is literally the most common thing that people share.
And cannabis, which, by all accounts is safer than both alcohol and cigarettes, has not yet been branded and designed for more sophisticate individuals. Although alcohol and cigarettes have been through the cycle of designing for specific audiences many times over.
I mean Alcohol... every ad about alcohol has nothing to do with the drink itself. It has everything to do with the type of person they want to drink it.
Cannabis is just such an obvious, wide open industry to design for. I'm happy to push the conversation forward whenever I can.
And to circle back to sex, we've shamed people for sexuality for far too long. It's time to move past that. So anything I can personally do to help frame sexuality in a positive, confident way, I am 100% for.
So, how can good design help that conversation?
A few ways. On a purely visual sense, if someone gets behind a product that is beautiful and elegant, the level of shame around it immediately decreases. In most cases, people like products that represent themselves on some level. If we create products and brands that feel confident, positive, and beautiful, the hope is that we can instill that feeling onto the person who is using it as well.
And that's great, because the goal, beyond having a successful product or turning a profit, is also to spread the idea of feeling comfortable and confident around who you are and what you like.
I get comments from women all the time that Foria reminds them of beauty products. People even show off the packaging to their friends with pride. Even that conversation... sharing the idea that you use cannabis, and that you have sex... is creating a conversation that may have never existed.
We're not focusing on the negatives of sex and cannabis, were focusing on the positives, and part of that is because I truly believe there are a lot of positive qualities about those two things that don't get talked about enough.
Isn't that a little misleading, though? To only show the positives.
I don't think so, because the negatives are what is currently prevalent. So we're pulling the pendulum back. It's also worth saying that any sex and cannabis product we work on always has very visible language about anything that may lead to harm or problems.
However, in the face of those brands and products we are trying to battle current negative perception, so we come from that angle very hard.
Yeah, that makes sense
Gotta jump on a meeting, brb!
Josh is a designer living in Los Angeles, CA. He is the founder of Onyx, a product design studio that works with Google as well as socially impactful start-ups. When he’s away from his computer he’s chasing dumplings and bourbon.
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