Mike Chen — ShopBack
Mike is currently scaling the product design team at ShopBack. Prior to ShopBack, he made business software simple at …
My journey to design happened slowly, over many years, without ever really realizing where I was headed, or even why.
I became interested in computers at a very young age, starting with a Macintosh SE, and in particular I became really interested in the things you could make on them. It started with little comics and stories in Hypercard, and eventually started experimenting with making lightsabers in Photoshop (version 3, to date myself), building webpages on Geocities, eventually branched into Flash animation, and from there it really snowballed.
I dabbled in basically everything you could make on a computer, from video and music editing to full 3d animation. All of it was very experimental. I didn't set out to make anything in particular, I just wanted to know what every button in every app did.
In college I majored in Digital Art with a Technology, Arts, and Media minor, but it wasn't until late in my junior year when someone told me about the Advertising and Marketing program, and that was when I finally connected the dots of how these things I'd been doing as a hobby were actually something that could be a career.
I didn't get into graphic design directly, but I spent several years as an Art Director at various advertising agencies. I could go on forever about the reasons I would highly recommend and also vehemently discourage anyone from working at an ad agency, but I will say you learn a lot about the high intensity world of creative-for-hire.
When I figured out that producing print ads and TV commercials wasn't exactly what I wanted to be doing, I had an opportunity to be a Senior Designer at Character in San Francisco. It was a really interesting transition, as I hadn't really had any formal education on the traditional concepts of graphic design.
Since then I've had the privilege of working alongside some really incredible designers from all kinds of backgrounds, so I've been able to pick up the more traditional bits of information along the way. And I hope I've been able spread to other designers my love tackling technical challenges and code.
Ultimately, my curiosity when it comes to computer graphics is really what drove it all.
We usually start with a 9:30 status meeting with the full studio. In the before-time, that would have been done in-person in San Francisco, but now we often have team members dialing in from LA, Portland, Montreal, or even Europe.
After that we dive straight into design. With the exception of Matt and Seth (our founders) we're able to keep meetings to a minimum and stay focused on design. We've been doing a lot of remote work due to COVID, unfortunately. While design is often a solo endeavor, and we can certainly check in over the internet, there is no substitute for walking by someone's desk and reacting to a random thing on their screen, especially if it's a project you're not assigned to.
Our team has a fairly diverse set of skills, experience, and aesthetic preferences, so we find assembling teams for specific projects works better for us than an all-hands-on-deck approach, or more of an isolated, team based approach as I've seen in other studios.
The New Company is pretty lean, but also top heavy in terms of creative leadership, so we're able to handle a good number of parallel projects without overwhelming any individual designer with too many projects at one time. There are stretches where we are run a little thin, but for the most part we get to focus on one project at a time.
Quite a few of us have kids, and that drives some of our business decisions, as well. There's an understanding that we need keep work to work hours, so we can make the most of time spent at home with our families.
Our office in San Francisco is located in Potrero Hill, which is an amazing and calm residential neighborhood, far from the chaotic downtown areas, like the Finacial District or SOMA, where some of my previous studios have been located. I didn't realize how significant of a shift that would be, but I don't think I could go back to a studio space surrounded by all that noise.
Our ECD and Founder, Matt Luckhurst, has a incredible collection of books on design, art, photography, music, and many, much weirder subjects, like occult symbology, and all of it is kept at our office. Usually, new projects will start with a deep dive through that collection.
Obviously there is some degree of inspiration that we gather from contemporary design, but we really prefer to dig back into history, or even into just references that are a few steps away, a bit out there.
Near our office in San Franisco is an amazing organization called Letterform Archive, that has over 75,000 pieces of type and graphic design ephemera from the Bay Area and all over the world, including original Apple guidelines and catalogs, zines from Berkeley in the 60's, original Emigre font drawings, and all kinds of other goodies. They've been such an invaluable resource for us, and such a great way to step away from the typical things you see again and again on design blogs or Arena.
I saw Dune in IMAX the other day, and my jaw is still hanging open. There is such a tremendous amount of detail in that film that extends to everything you see, from costumes to makeup to sets and CG elements. Denis Villeneuve brought on DNEG, the same team who worked on Blade Runner 2049, and the way they were able to make locations and vehicles feel not only practical, but also worn down and ancient, was just incredible.
I would love to be able to take on the challenge of designing some of those sorts of world-building elements for a film. I think the perfect job for me would be designing logos for fake interplanetary corporations.
We just recently launched a new brand for League of Legends Esports, one of the most watched esports organizations in the world. The game takes place in a light-hearted, animated fantasy setting, but the underlying mechanics are wildly complex and at the professional skill level the game truly rises to the level of global sport. Finding a way to link the worlds of fantasy and sport was a really fun challenge to explore.
We're also fortunate to have a client roster that allows us to experiment with interesting formats and techniques. While most of our time is spent with end-to-end brand design, it's fun to dive into something a bit more unusual or expressive, like a credit card for Venmo or campaign for Nike Basketball.
As a small studio we're always trying to find the right balance of scale, resources, and creative opportunity. We don't have an endless supply of designers ready to take any random gig at the drop of a hat, and we're very selective with how much we want to grow and how fast.
It's been a really tricky thing to navigate, but luckily we have a very open and democratic way of approaching some of those decisions. When I was hired, the founders told me that we'd always make decisions on what projects to select as a full team, and so far that's been the case.
Never stop learning, and never be afraid to do something yourself. Collaboration is great and you can always find an amazing partner to help with motion, 3D, animation, etc., but it's incredibly fun and inspiring to challenge yourself to explore new technology, new media, and new ways to create. It's not too late to learn how to use a camera, or how to make prints, or how to start working in 3D.
The New Company is always on the hunt for passionate designers with a desire to push outside of their aesthetic comfort zones.