Generally Speaking: A Case for Smaller, More Versatile Creative Teams

HIDC-600x50-bannerPaytonJoshphoto.jpgJosh Payton, Huge‘s vice president of user experience for Europe and Asia, believes The digital world is at a turning point. He says companies want designers who are smart generalists. But what does that mean for today’s creative workforce?

In advance of his HOW Interactive Design Conference talk about this topic, we reached out to Payton to learn more about his ideas, his current projects and his biggest influences.

You’re doing a session called “The Rise of the Digital Polymath” at HIDC San Francisco. Can you explain what’s behind that title and what types of takeaways attendees can expect?

I grew up in Seattle and went to college thinking I was going to be the next Art Chantry. Between the influences of the music scene and Microsoft, I ended up graduating as a graphic designer who knew how to code. I got swept up in the original dotcom boom and have been in the digital industry ever since. Because of my background, I’ve always ended up wearing a lot of hats. My session will look at polymaths of the past, the history of design and digital, and how to be effective in a world of rapid evolution and disruption.

You talk about companies wanting designers who are smart generalists. After a decade of hearing that it was more important to become a specialist, why do you feel that the tide is turning?

I think it’s important to clarify that I don’t think specialization is a bad thing, I just think it’s very easy to overemphasize. As the world has become more and more reliant on complex digital systems, the natural human predilection toward reductivism has taken over. Some of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had have been where 15 “specialists” were stepping on each others toes trying to do a job that could have been done more effectively by a much smaller team of very smart and very versatile people.

No one likes bureaucracy, but that’s what over-reliance on specialization leads to. You set up a bucket brigade process where no one takes any real pride in their work, all notion of craft goes out the window, and you simultaneously drag down product and morale.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in your career so far?

Work hard, make friends, keep your eye on the big picture, and care A LOT about the work that you’re doing. If you don’t like your job, quit.

What are you especially excited about and/or challenged to be working on right now?

I moved to London about three years ago to help Huge expand in Europe and Asia. It’s been a wonderful experience and a massive challenge. Working internationally is so fundamentally different from working in North America, which has been great to get exposure to.

Everything is much more fragmented and fundamentally different from place to place; culture, economics, recruiting, maturity of industries, etc. It’s obvious when you say it, but when you actually commit to working in that environment, it’s pretty mind-blowing.

What’s your favorite part of the design process? Least favorite? Why?

My favorite part of the design process is the moment right after you have that big breakthrough and you just have to set about delivering on it. My least favorite part is getting there. Unpacking a problem is always a messy struggle—the cognitive equivalent of going swimming in a wool suit. Once you’ve cracked the problem, the rest is just fun.

Who are your design heroes or the biggest influences on your career and why?

I don’t really have an easily referenced list; my influences are always changing. As I already said, I loved Art Chantry when I was a teenager just because of where I lived.

I grew up on Jim Henson. I’d say he’s the guy who showed me really early on that art could be a career. His influence is unreal, from Sesame Street to The Muppet Show to Fraggle Rock, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Yoda. He’s an absolute legend.

Paul Rand is another big one. His body of work is obviously impressive, but his theory about art in general left a big impression on me when I was first getting interested in graphic design and commercial art.

There are a slew of others, obviously. Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Dieter Rams, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Seymour, Don Norman, Edward Tufte, Larry Tessler, Russ Ackoff. I hate lists like this.

While he may hate making lists, Payton loves sharing his ideas with like-minded creatives. Don’t miss his session at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco September 20-22. Register by August 20 and save $200!