Freelance UX Designer

Rich
Brown

RichBrown (Freelance UX Designer)

Self-taught freelance UX/UI designer Rich Brown embarked on a journey from coding to UX/UI design that took him worldwide. Challenging norms, blending diverse influences, and honing evolving skillsets in an ever-changing landscape.

England, UK • December 13, 2023

What led you into design?

My journey into design was a bit of a eureka moment, but one that had been brewing for ages, like this creative itch I had as a kid that never really went away.

At the tender age of six, I was already immersed in the artistic world, busily copying my beloved cartoon characters and then going the extra mile by getting my dad to photocopy them so I could have a whole army of versions to colour in. I remember, at 10-years-old, I took on the task of illustrating an entire clipper ship at A0 scale for a school project. Two weeks of my life poured into this intricate masterpiece. Looking back, it's a tad odd for a kid that age to tackle a project of such magnitude, but I suppose I was always up for a challenge.

It was around this age I remember my mum buying me an architects drawing table, I loved this thing, I’d sit at it for hours. As I grew, my artistic prowess shifted to creating portraits of movie stars. I vividly remember my version of Indiana Jones with a hat that was a smidge too small for his head, but I couldn't be bothered to erase and redraw it. High school was a mixed bag academically, but when it came to projects and building a body of work, I was in my element.

Computers became my thing, I had early gaming escapades with the legendary Atari 2600 and the Spectrum 48 and 128k machines, even dipping my toes into coding to draw simple lines and shapes on the screen. During my high school years, I had a Commodore Amiga 4000, while the school IT rooms were equipped with Acorn Archimedes. My passion for technology was palpable during this time, as I wholeheartedly immersed myself in the world of computers.

But then came the fateful career advice meeting, and man, it still stings. Nobody in that room had the foresight to nudge me in the direction of a design career. I mean, I wasn’t even aware it was a real job! So, I ended high school with not much in the way of qualifications. But I did have my own gig going, buying and selling Amiga software from all over the world, creating my own CDRom’s which sold in the thousands and eventually game publication, all run from my bedroom. Even then, the part of this job I liked the best was designing the CDRom covers even though the designs were awful. I managed to keep that show running successfully for about three years after high school. But then, the tech world threw a curveball as Commodore got swallowed up. They just didn't quite get what the market needed, paving the way for IBM and Apple to steal the limelight. I didn't adapt quickly enough and found myself at a crossroads.

And that's where serendipity took centre stage. Some friends of mine had set up a small business designing bar and club flyers, scoring free entries and drinks. It suddenly hit me, I was like, “Hang on a sec, these guys are getting paid for this!" I knew I had to be a part of it.

So, with zero experience, zilch in design education or a degree, I went and bought a budget PC, a couple of books on HTML, CSS, design, and typography and hacked version of photoshop. I embarked on a year-long self-taught crash course, drawing inspiration from the design maestro himself, David Carson. This set me on a path of design and development. In the early days, I excelled in development, even earning the title of "CSS All Star" in Web Designer magazine—a distant memory now. Over time, I discovered the power of being taken more seriously by mastering one craft rather than dabbling in many. Given my stronger passion towards design, I decided to tread that path - I guess I just wanted to unfuck the world of bad design bit by bit. The landscape has evolved significantly since then, with creative development taking center stage, particularly with non-code platforms like Webflow and Readymag. These tools empower designers to unleash their creativity and bring their visions to life without the constraints of coding knowledge. Currently, I'm solely focused on design and honing my animation skills using After Effects. However, I'm contemplating diving into Webflow to explore new possibilities and see where that journey leads me.

What does a typical day look like?

There was a time, not so long ago, my work life was pretty exciting, spending time regularly in London, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Berlin to name a few. I'd receive calls out of the blue, I remember one Friday afternoon, Zalando DE rang me up with an offer. "Rich, we've got this project we think you’re perfect for. It's the German launch for Beyoncé's Ivy Park brand in Berlin, and we need you there by Monday." I messaged my wife to ensure our schedule was clear, booked a last-minute flight, and dove headfirst into a two-week collaboration with Zalando and B-Reel to set this project in motion.

One of the most ridiculous projects I had was when I got hired to create a digital hub for a smart city in Doha. I had to plant myself in Doha for a couple of weeks, with multiple return trips—some of them I still scratch my head about. There's this one trip that, to this day, I can't fathom why I made. I caught an afternoon flight from London, landed in Doha at a sleep-deprived 2 am Middle Eastern time, had a 9 am meeting right after, and then hopped on a 1 pm flight back home! As much as I miss those wild experiences, a lot has changed since COVID. Fast forward to my current reality, and life's a bit less jet-setting with a marriage and two kids in the mix.

I now rise around 7 am, greeted by my 2 year old twin boys. We engage in some baby entertainment until the caregiver arrives or it's time for nursery. Post-coffee pick-me-up, I take my place at the desk. The first hour is typically a blend of browsing award sites, sifting through emails, and queuing up some tunes for the day. I dive into work, interrupted occasionally by caffeine refuels and a quick cuddle or play with the little ones. Lucky for me, there's a home gym in the mix, and I occasionally squeeze in a session around midday then back to the desk in the early afternoon until roughly 6 pm.

Once the little ones are tucked in, it's dinner duty, leaving me with a precious hour or so for a show or movie before hitting the pillow. My evenings are a rare commodity; that sliver of TV time only happens if the twins decide to cooperate, the little terrors have yet to grasp the fine art of sound sleep. So, from my somewhat limited snooze quota, I'm up and at it again as the cycle repeats itself. Occasionally I get to go on field trips, this week I have a photoshoot in London, it’s not so glamorous anymore, I have to be up super early just to get home later to enjoy what little sleep I already get.

What's your workstation setup?

Where do you go to get inspired?

I find motivation and inspiration tend to get a little mixed up in people's minds. Motivation comes from the beautiful chaos of my surroundings, soaking up the sensory delights like a neuro-aesthetic sponge. Cultural escapades, art gallery adventures, cozy hangouts in creative hubs, a symphony of tunes, and a delightful fusion of flavours. It's all part of this wild rewiring of our brains that gets triggered by the arts—lights, sounds, scents, tastes, and touches setting off a symphony of neurological fireworks. There's something magical about the interplay of neurotransmitters that stirs up billions of tiny shifts, shaping how we think, feel, and ultimately, how we create.

I can personally be inspired by these experiences but I think to be inspired for oneself is different to finding inspiration for your next project. If I can recall a real life experience to explain this in more detail, I’ll take you back to a time I fell head over heels for Barcelona. After a short trip there, I felt like I had returned home - incipiently to a place I’d never previously been, I had to return, so one day I just packed my bags, my trusty 27" iMac in tow, booked two flight tickets (one for me, one for the iMac), snagged an apartment in the Gothic Quarter, and off I went on a seven-month adventure. That place just oozes creativity, the colours, the aromas, the vibrant music scene, the art, and that mind-bending Goudi architecture—no other spot in the world vibes like Barcelona, which as an entire experience was this huge melting pot of inspiration for oneself to find that motivation to create. I still get the occasional pangs of nostalgia for that place and I miss my monthly visits to the MACBA Museum.

Now, this is probably the answer to the question you asked but I’ve gone off on a tangent there! So, when it's time to get down to business, I settle into my intentionally crafted office spaceand dig deep into the digital wilderness, exploring current trends and checking out what the big agencies are doing with new technologies to spin design narratives. It involves a lot of scouring through client competitors, curating a virtual scrapbook of design and typography that resonates, and occasionally taking a dive into my little treasure trove of design books (I tend to forget they exist until they shout at me from the shelf!).

There's this quote by either Wilson Mizner or Steven Wright (the sources seem a bit fuzzy on that one), goes something like, "To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research." Kind of rue, to a certain extent, but whatever ideas you stumble upon (or "research"), you've got to infuse them with your own unique spin. After all, the real secret sauce of good design isn't about cramming a flashy idea where it doesn't belong, but rather, it's all about finding that perfect puzzle piece that solves the problem at hand.

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

I've pondered this for a while, and since becoming a dad I haven’t really bought anything luxurious or something that I simply thought, that’s a fine piece of design - I can tell you now, there’s an open market for well designed baby products - from clothing designs to prams, there’s a lot of life unnecessary struggles as a parent I never thought I’d experience. Anyway - for this one, I’m going with something I use almost daily and it’s the only streaming platform that has what I would consider the most perfect browsing experience, and that’s Netflix. I swear it’s the perfect designed app, and there’s plenty of poor streaming services out there, whether you’re watching AppleTV, Amazon, NowTV, Paramount etc… they are all pretty poor to navigate, using your watch lists or simply pick up where you last left off, Netflix just nails it!

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

My recent projects are fresh in mind, but they are two of my favourite pieces. The first one has just won 3 Site of Day awards on FWA, Mindsparkle and CSS Winner, It’s an e-commerce store for a client called Bathmate.

I had the opportunity to partner with developer Matt Rogers and work closely with the Bathmate team, and they had so much trust in me and my vision to run with this project how I wanted, from totally revamping their brand identity, giving it a fresh tone of voice through both language and visuals. The goal was to strike a balance between being friendly and approachable while maintaining a sense of seriousness, particularly considering the sensitive nature of the topic of erectile dysfunction, which often remains a taboo subject.

The project was executed in three key stages. Initially, we concentrated on evolving the overall look and feel of the brand, preserving its masculinity while infusing a more approachable and welcoming vibe.

Moving forward, the second phase entailed a comprehensive redesign of the user experience (UX) and user interface (UI), along with the development of a compelling narrative for their e-commerce store. Our focus was on enhancing the user journey while also educating the users about the relevant aspects.

Finally, the third phase involved co-directing the video shoots, closely collaborating with the videographer, and capturing on-set stills. Additionally, I was responsible for the product photography that was featured on the e-commerce store, ensuring high-quality visuals that effectively showcased the products.

You can check it out here.

The second project on my agenda pertains to the design and development of my own portfolio. Designing a personal portfolio presents a distinct challenge, as personal preferences evolve, and technological advancements render projects outdated before they even launch. Most designers are sick to death of a design by the time they have finished with it so this has gone though mulitple iterations until I finally made a decision to stick and run with it. Having previously launched a portfolio site in 2017 that garnered recognition with Site of the Day awards, nearly seven years later, I have invested considerable effort in conceptualizing a design that diverges from prevailing trends to a point.

In contrast to my prior portfolio, which emphasized showcasing work prominently, the current iteration adopts a product-centric approach, positioning myself as the primary focus. Recognizing that clients engage my services based on personal attributes, creativity, and professional acumen, I have chosen to forefront these qualities before directing attention to my body of work. Collaborating with a videographer, I have incorporated visual elements to convey my personality and professional ethos.

This strategic shift aims to accentuate the individual behind the projects, acknowledging that clients are often drawn to the persona and creativity of the designer. Therefore, the portfolio invites viewers to acquaint themselves with the creator before exploring the showcased work. It reflects a deliberate departure from conventional portfolio structures, seeking to establish a nuanced connection between the personal and professional facets of my identity.

You can check it out here.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Making my design vision come alive for clients without the magic of motion. It's an evolving landscape, especially in product and web design, or UX/UI (or whatever name we want to give it). The thing is, it's no longer a linear journey; we're dealing with an intricate dance of micro-interactions and transitions that profoundly impact layout. The catch is, clients sometimes struggle to grasp these nuances from static designs alone.

Traditionally, I've presented clients with flat designs, trying to convey how they'd come to life, but it doesn't always quite click. And truth be told, there have been instances where what brewed in my head didn't play out as brilliantly in development. That's where the agile methodology steps in; we tweak and fine-tune elements during the development stage. Thankfully, we've got some nifty tools at our disposal now. Figma's got animation features, and I'm now dabbling in After Effects. But there's the rub—time. Charging for X amount of days for UX/UI is one thing, but clients aren't always thrilled about forking out extra for something they think should naturally be part of the process.

So, there's a trifecta of challenges here: mastering these new skills, carving out the time to do so, and persuading clients to allocate that extra budget for it. Many agencies can develop prototypes on the fly, which is the dream scenario as they have the resources available. As a freelance designer, I'm all in for this and I love working with these setups. However, it's not always in the cards, especially when I'm working directly with a budget-conscious client, and it's just me and one developer.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

I have advice pouring out of my pockets, and I may one day sit down and write that book on design, life and anecdotes, but until then, here’s some helpful (or not) insights! First… just design! You don’t need a degree you just need to design. Your portfolio is your calling card, and it's a reflection of your skills and creativity. If you don't have a body of work, build one. Design anything and everything—create your dream projects, experiment, and showcase your passion. Your portfolio is a living testament to your journey as a designer, so keep it vibrant and evolving. Procrastination is the enemy of progress, so always keep the creative wheels turning. Surround yourself with people who are better than you, because that's how you grow. Learn from them, collaborate, and absorb their expertise like a sponge, and don’t take feedback as criticism, if you step back and take comments onboard, very often you will find it helps your design. I still thrive on working with people better than me or those that are simply different - I've even learnt things from my own juniors! You can never master design, you can only keep learning and evolving.

Confront your fears and tackle every challenge that comes your way with unwavering determination. Stay far away from your comfort zone. It's a cozy place, but it's also a stagnant one. Take risks, venture into the unknown, and embrace the feeling of being a little uncomfortable. That's where you'll find innovation.

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned along my journey is the power of saying no. In the words of the renowned Charles Saatchi, "Unlock yourself from the neurotic need to please, it erodes the soul." I urge you to carry this wisdom not only in your professional endeavours but also in your personal life. It's about setting boundaries, whether it's declining low-budget offers, navigating challenging clients, friends or associates who may drain your energy, or employers who undervalue your worth. Remember, as Saatchi eloquently puts it, "Everybody is needy, arrogant, callous, aggrieved, self-absorbed, petty, mean-spirited, spiteful, and malicious, in some measure, some of the time. Only when you accept that much of the pleasure of being alive is to enjoy your own horribleness, and the character flaws in everyone around you, you will find harmony, and each day will pass more sweetly."

Finally, make choices that help you thrive, I remember working within a corporate environment in my early years… and man do they love a meeting! I remember often sitting in on these, and I’d express an idea only for it to pretty much go unnoticed, you start to feel insignificance and It makes you feel worthless. But the real kicker is when you come to the office a week later to find they’ve actually implemented your exact idea into the company marketing strategy under somebody else’s suggestion. Your idea literally stolen under your nose and somebody else reaping the credit. If this happens to you, get out, find a company that values your ideas and worth.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Only myself, I’ve just launched my new portfolio, so I welcome any feedback and come give me a follow on instagram @mr.richbrown, and I'm all ears for any thoughts you might have on this interview, hopefully I’ve inspired some people without being too self indulgent.