Joshua Söhn — Kontist
Designer based in Berlin, currently leading the design team at Kontist, where he works on a banking account tailored …
I've always been really into graphics and visual culture, as far back as I can remember. As a kid, I was really into album artwork and video games and loved messing around with computers.
I also became kind of obsessed with the early internet and found pockets of real creativity and experimental work which excited me and gave me the hunger to want to learn to make things myself.
So I spent a lot of my time over the following years teaching myself to code and designing sites as side projects. Basically, learning through making.
At some point, I realised the only way I could be hired to make stuff on the internet was if people could see I was capable. So I’ve always published work I create on my own site. I think visibility really helps.
The real career turning point for me came when I got a job working at London studio, Airside where I finally got my design education.
Being independent I tend to move around quite a bit through the course of the year, depending on what projects I’m working on. This sees me going into London quite a bit, but recently I’ve been doing a lot more remote consulting work combined with working on direct client projects from my small home studio.
A typical day when I’m working from home would involve getting up around 6.30 and shepherding my three kids to get ready for nursery and school. After dropping them off, I then normally head out into the countryside for a three or four-mile walk before sitting down at my desk. I find a good walk really clears my head and gives me space to think.
I’ll then kick off my working day by checking my emails and prioritising the day ahead. Typically when working remotely like this, I’ll have Slack open in the background and stay in the loop with my clients that way.
I'll then spend the day working away at my Mac or sketching at my desk, taking frequent breaks every hour or so for tea and a leg stretch.
I normally finish up around 6 to be with my family and kids for bedtime. Then I’ll often tinker away in Cinema 4D in the evening at some stage to experiment and make looping animations.
I have a small home studio that I’m gradually evolving into a pretty nice place to work. For me, it’s really important to have separation from the rest of the house and family life when working from home.
I have a Macbook Pro 2018 that I dock with an Apple Cinema Display. I’m thinking of getting one of the new LG ones, but not sure whether to hold out for Apple’s new display hardware which is rumoured to be coming.
I’ve got into the habit of moving distracting apps like Insta and Twitter onto my second home screen and turning off their notifications, so I just browse when I want to and not when I’m nudged to.
The big things for me are travel and getting outdoors. I find I do my best thinking when I’m away from computers and am outside in the fresh air, in nature. And going to new places always opens up new perspectives.
We recently moved out of London to the countryside north-west of the city and I can be in rolling fields and woods within a few minutes walk. I really make the most of this and try to get a few miles every morning.
We get a distinct four seasons in the UK and I love watching nature change through the course of the year. I feel pretty blessed and privileged to be able to do this.
My kids are also a constant source of inspiration. They question everything and I love that — it reminds me to never take anything for granted. Nor to assume that just because things are as they are, then this is how they have to be.
When I’m in front of a screen, I love digging through great examples of graphic design and animation. Klikkentheke has consistently good web stuff and there’s so much great art and animation work on Instagram.
When Florence was released last year by games studio, Mountains. I was blown away. They did such an amazing job of creating a game that brings a real human story to life. You help a young woman as she grows in the world and starts out in her first relationship.
It’s really poetic and the interaction design really elevates the experience to make it something really special. Storytelling and art are also just beautiful. The game really stood out for me because it's so unlike anything else I’d played before. I think there is a real room in the world for games and apps that delight and bring joy to the world. In these dark times, these are the things we need now more than ever.
On a more pragmatic front, I'm a huge fan of Withings hardware and software. I own a Withings scale and a Steel watch, both of which are great examples of products that do their jobs incredibly well. What I love about Withings’ approach is that they design to get out of the way.
The products are elegant and simple and feel like future design classics. I used to own an Apple Watch but had always found it a little ugly and hated the fact that by default it would always nag and pester me with notifications. I realised I was only really interested in the activity data and the Withings watch gives me the time and a little more. Perfect.
I hope we see a future with more calm, quiet hardware products like this. I think we’ll look back at these times where we’re bombarded with notifications and messages and think – what were we doing?
In terms of adding value to the world, GOV.UK has to be the stand out project I’ve worked on in my career to this point, a real case of team pride. The UK single domain has hugely changed how people get fundamental jobs done — like renewing a passport or paying road tax. Dry stuff, but so important and it’s great that the UK is a world leader in this area.
I love to balance the more serious, product design work with lighter, playful work and in this area, I’m proud that I’ve managed to add a string to my bow by moving into motion and animation alongside my web/product work. It’s really hard to find time to pick up new skills, especially with three kids, but I’m doing my best and chipping away, step by step.
Being independent everyday is a challenge. Thinking about where the next projects are coming from, how they line up with the work you want to be doing and how that lines up with bringing some value to the world.
The main design challenge as an independent is avoiding becoming isolated and having too narrow a field of view for the work. It’s so important to make the time to get out and about, meet with people and talk and share ideas. It can be easy to hide away, but this is not how good work happens.
I think this really depends on what area of design you want to get into. I can only really speak for digital design. But in that space, make sure you’re really considering the big picture before getting into the details of execution. There’s a lot of fetishism around execution these days (see Dribbble et al) where there’s a sea of output with no context. This is not how design works in good design companies imo. Rather, you research and then start with problems and hypotheses before designing to solve them. Testing and iterating as you go.
So it’s worth thinking – what research can you do to validate your ideas? What do you know of the people who will use the things you’re designing?
It’s good to share your work often, invite criticism – it can be scary but it’s how we grow and get better at our craft. That said, take care to avoid unsolicited criticism and negativity on the internet. There’s a lot of opinions these days and often not a lot of great work to back them up. You don’t need that kind of negative energy, it won’t help you.
Lastly, I’d say focus on the soft skills as much as the hard skills. Humility and compassion are as important as whether you can use Sketch or prototype in code.
No one likes to be a foghorn about their own work, but as a freelancer, you have to speak up a bit or you’ll never be heard. With that caveat in mind :p ...
I set up a little online shop earlier this year selling a few prints and things. I’ve got some other ideas for this, but you can check out my small range of prints at shop.futurefabric.co
I was recently commissioned by brilliant code school, SuperHi to design and develop a course on creative coding (which evolved out of some of the animation work on my site.) I’m really excited that the course should be launching next month and will teach students the basics of visual programming in the browser. If this is your thing, you can find out more at superhi.com/courses/creative-coding.
Lastly, I’m trying to move my work a bit more into the 3D animation space and I fairly regularly share my stuff on my Insta.
I also occasionally shout into the gaping abyss on Twitter.