Head of Design at Metalab


MikeWandelmaier (Head of Design at Metalab)

Mike Wandelmaier is a Head of Design at Metalab in Vancouver, Canada. He believes design should enrich our day-to-day through culture, co-creation & community.

He/Him • Vancouver, Canada • March 21, 2024

What led you into design?

I was in my 4th year of a Civil Engineering degree at Queen’s University (near Toronto, Canada) when it hit me that I loved my side gig designing layouts for the school newspaper way more than my classes.

I come from a family of people who were very creative in their personal lives but chose very science-heavy careers like medicine or biochemistry. I was marching down that same path, except I wanted to be a painter (unrealistic), or at the very least an illustrator. Maybe a graphic designer…

After stealing a print-production book and a burned CD with a pirate copy of Photoshop 4 and QuarkExpress from my housemate Jimmy, I found my way into my first design jobs by extremely stretching the truth about my experience and skill set.

I’ve gone from working at newspapers to making video games, designing at a brand and design studio, doing freelance editorial illustration, grinding at digital ad agencies, 5 years at a product and service innovation consultancy, and the last 10 years in product design work at Huge and Metalab.

It’s never stopped being fun. I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years. I look forward to the next 20. I don’t miss Civil Engineering.

What does a typical day look like?

For the past 5 years, I’ve been living in Vancouver, BC working at Metalab. Our design teams are fully remote and made up of people from around the world. In the last few months alone I’ve worked with designers in Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Brazil, New York, the UK, New Zealand… Our clients come from basically everywhere too.

To collaborate across distance and time zones I’m spending a good part of my days on video calls. Our team and clients are getting our digital hands dirty in Figma, Miro, Pitch, Notion, Loom, Frame, and any tool that helps us shape the work together.

I also spend a good chunk of time on my own thinking, and working through product problems. Sometimes that means designing UX/UI prototypes, but in my current role, it often comes down to strategy frameworks (lots of digital stickies in Miro), and storytelling: bringing the work of many people together into one cohesive narrative.

When I’m not at work, I spend a lot of time with my peers who grow the design department: we coach designers, assemble the right teams for projects, go out and find great work, evolve the practice and generally push the product forward.

What's your workstation setup?

I find myself quickly getting “stuck” when I spend too long in one place.

My actual workstation is intentionally really basic, inspired by Leonard Cohen’s "I choose the rooms that I live in with care / The windows are small and the walls almost bare,".

I try my hardest to linger in ideas and sketches far away from my computer. I find moving helps you think better so I walk my dog and talk into Google Recorder. I go anywhere I can make a mess and use my iPad to take notes. Only when I have a solid idea in mind do I lock up in my office to knock it out in design tools.

Where do you go to get inspired?

I get most inspired in the moments of magic that happen when you get a group of smart, fun, loud, eccentric people together bounce ideas around, and make sense of chaos and complexity. It’s an environment that encourages the unexpected, where you can truly connect.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

The New York Times design & dev teams constantly blow my mind. The whole digital experience is so thoughtful and balances great storytelling with very meticulous UX and product things. My favourite parts are the wonderful data visualizations and their immersive long-form articles.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I'm proud to get to work with the amazing designers, UX researchers, developers, product strategists, and passionate forward-thinking clients Metalab brings together. Every project is a growth experience that leaves memories and learnings with you. Some that stand out in the last few years have been with Upwork, NBC, Upstox, Google, lululemon, The Atlantic, SiriusXM, Wondery, Qatalog, CourseHero, Manifest Climate, and too many others to mention...

What design challenges do you face at your company?

I've lost count. We're in the business of diving feet-first into messy problems. Digital products are such a big part of all our lives — nothing about that is simple.

We're constantly struggling with how those products are made: having a point-of-view about the purpose, ethics, and aesthetics of any product we're a part of making.

There's the growing challenge of design systems and how products are made at scale by many teams.

There's the challenge of impact: systems thinking to understand what are the end results of our work for many communities.

There's the Pandora's Box of AI: how does that fit into our process and what are the best uses of new technology?

What is the role of an agency pushing the limits of products with early-stage startups and big-name companies?

Every day presents a new challenge. That's what keeps me going.

What music do you listen to while designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Be yourself. Make it personal. Be different. Have an opinion. Take risks. Product design has way too much repetition and following of trends and best practices.

Storytelling matters. If you're working with your team, with clients, with many teams, with a whole organization, then it's essential to be able to passionately and effectively communicate the "why", "what", "how", and even "what for" and "what next" of your work.

Find your voice and way of presenting your work. It's amazing how often great work dies in the telling and breaks down in the retelling. A designer's job is to help that great work make it out into the world with its intention intact.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Dig-in to more of the great work Metalab's doing! And more on my site at wandelmaier.com