Success Secrets from David Lai:
- The most important thing, no matter what area you choose to specialize in is, “Do good work.”
- Find people you admire, that are smarter and know more than you, and you’re off to a great start.
- Challenge yourself. Our field is still young, and that means there’s tons of opportunity to do things people have never imagined.
I didn’t go to design school. When I was in high school I had a real interest in design and art and started out by doing icon design. I did it more as a hobby, and really got into it when I realized there’s an application for this sort of thing.
I remember one company that had a really horrible set of interface icons. I designed a new set for them, and being young and naive I just sent them to the company and said, “Hey, these are better! You guys should use them.”
And they actually did. And you know I did it for no money. Next time around, the company came back to me, and paid me to do more work for them. So that was my first entry into design.
That led me to writing a book about icons, while I was still in high school. A friend of mine said, “Hey a lot of other people want to know how you do this.” And I thought, “Okay.”
At first I thought I’d just write something short, something that you could give out to people for user groups and situations like that. But a friend suggested, “Hey, you should submit this to a publisher.”
I did, and the publisher loved the idea. So we created a book called “Icons for the Masses.” It was an avenue of understanding for the icon and interface worlds
At that point, my parents were fairly typical, saying: “We’re not going to pay for you to go to school if you go to art school.” That was fine in the sense that they convinced me to get a liberal arts education.
They said, “if you want to go to design school you can always do that afterwards.” So I entered college as a biology major. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like science, it was that I realized in the end there’s a career that comes with that. Unfortunately it wasn’t something that was interesting to me.
So throughout college I found myself trying to design things on the side, whether it was for a school poster or just anything. I would jump at the chance to do something and get it out there and see how people responded to it. And I was pretty bad back then, I think. (Chuckling)
I learned a lot by doing that. I learned what was good and bad, just by doing. Fortunately it was an easy environment, because in college nobody cares, or at least nobody knows good design per se, at least where I was, since it wasn’t a design school.
In college I wrote another book called “Photoshop Type Magic.” I wrote the book because I wanted to teach myself Photoshop. The concept was, “Why don’t I write a book as if I was the person who would use it?” The whole idea was to create a recipe book where you’d go through, step-by-step, and end up with this result.
At the time, most of the Photoshop books had this magical end result and you didn’t know how they got there. It was like, you start with this and all of a sudden your type looks like wood. And they had skipped steps 1-20!
So, I learned layers and masking and things like that by actually understanding how the application actually works. It was a step-by-recipe book, similar to a cookbook, but for the digital creative realm.
The book did really, really well and became a bestseller. I think it led to the whole “magic” series. It’s still out there. I didn’t write the other books, but I created the concept. Now there’s Flash Web Magic and Illustrator Type Magic and there’s all these books that came out as a result of that. All I did was uncover the niche that a lot of people were hungry for. Learning something by doing it, that was my philosophy.
First job for a major firm:
While I was still in college, while in my junior year in Japan, I sent out my portfolio to a lot of different places and was given the opportunity to work with Clement Mok in San Francisco.
It was a great opportunity to learn from someone I admired and who was doing some amazing cutting edge work. His company was one of the few companies that were doing websites for big companies at the time. He had left Apple Computer and was already on his own.
I was there right there when they were transitioning from Clement Mok designs to Studio Archetype. It was when the company was shifting into new media. We were doing Nintendo 64 packaging, and at the same time we were doing Nintendo’s website.
It was one of my first big breaks in the sense I got a chance to throw my design ideas in the ring, so to speak, and since the client really liked my design, I got a chance to design Nintendo.com. That was really exciting and gave me some validation that I could work in this industry.
After working there, I went to a small design shop here in Santa Monica called cow. C-O-W, like the animal. That was probably well over 10 years ago. They were one of the first innovators. They were doing some great work in CD-ROM and touch screen, and obviously the web too.
That was an interesting time. There was a transition from more contained interactive media where it was on a disk but not really networked and shifting to something more internet based and open to anyone. That’s where I learned a lot, about interactive design as well. I think they were great conceptual thinkers.
I met my future business partner, Hiro Niwa, at cow as well. He was the first lead designer they had ever hired. He had spent pretty much, up to that point, his whole career at cow.
He was ready to go off on his own and that’s when we decided. I got a call from the Getty museum to come and pitch them, and invited Hiro. Long story short, we won that project and they became our first client.
So that’s how we got started and it’s been 10 years now. It’s happened quite quickly.
Acquiring new business at first:
I’ve always had a passion for design, but I also think I have a passion for business. I think I love both.
For some designers, the business side’s a burden. They really don’t enjoy it. And I’d probably say, Hiro, my partner, is more like that kind of person. He’s not so interested. He knows what’s happening on the business side, but it isn’t his passion per se. I think his passion is clearly in design.
For me, I sort of split down the middle. I love both. I love being involved in both. I knew, even in college, that I wanted to run a studio, my own studio one day, hopefully.
I was really naïve and ambitious back then in thinking, “Maybe I’ll do this straight out of college.” I remember cold-calling clients out of my dorm room (chuckling). And I think that it could have worked. I think the problem was I felt like I needed more experience and I wanted to work with people who were a lot better than me.
And I did just that. That’s what gave me the experience and credibility to go out on our own.
When we started, Hiro and I had a reputation from work we had done previously. Hiro had done a project for Mercedes Benz for the E-class timeline and it was a CD-ROM piece. I think it won like 9 or 10 awards. It was really a well-recognized piece back in its day.
As an interface it’s still relevant. To me, that’s really the test, whether it’s a timeless design.
Our reputation helped us get word of mouth for clients. Our second client was NEC Design in Tokyo. Within our first year we grew quickly from 2 people to probably 10. And we were doing work for the Smithsonian, for National Geographic.
The Smithsonian called us, and not the other way around. But, I think it was both because of people who had known our work or maybe referred us. We weren’t really cold-calling to be honest.
Our awards drew the attention of the big companies. The awards we won for the Smithsonian work, prompted National Geographic to call us. And believe it or not, they called us the day after the CA annual came out. They said, “Hey, we saw your work in Communication Arts. We never call anyone unless we see them there.” So that was really nice.
Our philosophy is, “Do good work and everything else happens.” I think that was the case with National Geographic. And it’s always been our focus. If you focus on doing good quality work, the rest will happen, as opposed to going about it the other way.
We started out wanting to work for diverse clients. We didn’t just randomly choose whoever knocked on the door. We were selective about who we worked with because we wanted to create a place where we’d want to work, but also do the kind of work we’d enjoy. It wasn’t just to pay bills. It was to do work that we felt was rewarding or challenging, or gave us the chance to be innovative.
So we followed the rule of: “Do great work, quality work, work that gets you excited, and you will get more of that.”
David’s thoughts on new business development:
Believe it or not, we have no new business development program in place. We don’t have a Director of New Business or anything like that.
But a lot of clients who’ve knocked on our door are clients who seem to have been following our work. It’s been really exciting.
Last year, Nordstrom and even MoMA called us and said, “We’ve been following your work for a couple of years.” It was exciting to hear that, because we had no idea. It’s nice to know there are people out there watching us and seeing what we’re doing. Hearing that fuels us and keeps us going.
We work with interesting groups. Last year, we worked with SCI-Arc. Right now we’re working with Otis. We just did a project for the Broad Art Foundation. At the same time we’ll do a project for Callaway Golf, or Toyota or WIRED and so that diversity of work is one of the things that we’re really proud of, just because we’ve kept true to that idea of not just doing the same thing over and over again.
We have a passion for doing R&D work here, too. Back in the early 2000 era (chuckling) we did a project called, ‘Hello Code’. It’s still up there actually. I remember we showed it at a conference. I think it was Flash Forward in San Francisco. It was really exciting for us because we didn’t show any commercial work. It was just conceptual thinking, some interface design, some ideas. And we did it mainly to inspire people to do more of this, to push our medium.
I think I’m really proud of that because for us, that was trying to get our industry to move forward and to not just doing the same old thing and copying what other people do.
Today we’re building a multi-touch table in the studio. It’s not quite perfect but we’re doing it for ourselves. There’s no client paying us to do it. We’re trying to figure out the hardware, and we’re trying to create software for it. I think there’s something really exciting about learning things on your own. That’s really important for us in terms of saying that’s an accomplishment: to keep learning new things. If there’s anything I’m proud of, that’s one thing that we’re really excited about here.
David’s thoughts on the keys to success:
It’s definitely passion for what we do, and the fact that we care. I personally work on all our projects in some capacity, whether it’s conceptualizing, brainstorming, art directing, whatever it is. I look at every piece of work that comes out through the studio, but not as a dictator who says, “you gotta do this,” but more so out of caring for the work. I think if you lose that, and you don’t care anymore and it’s just good enough, I don’t think you’re going to be as successful.
Passion for design translates into doing better work, and the clients realize and can see that. There may be people who view work as work, but this is our life. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to build a place that can create things that we can be excited about and at the same time accomplish what our clients need them to do. They’re not pieces of art, just for us. We’re actually trying to create things that work for our clients.
You need to believe in your ideas though, because though we’re not “yes” men, at the same time we do listen to our clients.
It’s that delicate balance that you can bring your knowledge to the table and they can bring their knowledge to the table and if you work together, hopefully you’ve got a synergy and you create something that you couldn’t have created by yourself or visa-versa. That’s really important. And for us, this philosophy creates successful projects.
Also, you definitely need to have determination, the ability to keep going and to not give up. It’s not just talent. It’s not just about having the best designers on the planet. They must be people who can work together as a team, and people who can get up after they fall down. You may make some mistakes, or you may have some projects that you thought would be amazing and didn’t quite turn out the way you wanted, but you’ve got to be able to learn from that and keep going.
Thoughts on doing things differently:
It’s always different when you look at things in hindsight, I think.
The answer is probably yes and no. (Chuckling) I say “yes,” because there’s definitely things that you wish you may have done a little differently. I think “no” because you may not have ended up here if you had done those things.
It’s so hard to go back and say, “What if I had done this” and “What if I hadn’t done this.” We have a policy here. If you give something 110%, and you really feel like you gave it your all, whether it’s on a project or a pitch or whatever it is and you don’t win, or the client didn’t love it, we say, “That’s OK.”
In essence, you have to go through life with no regrets. And that’s how we approach our work. That’s how we approach the clients that we work with too. We want clients that challenge us and want to be challenged by us.
If you never take a shot at the goal, you’ve already lost the game. So our philosophy is, “Take a shot at the goal and do your best, not just half-assed. And even if you don’t score, that’s okay.”
Thoughts on business advisors:
We do have advisors or consultants that we work with, but they were out of business necessity. Our attorney is a business advisor in a way because there are things that we need to watch out for with our agreements and so forth. We saw that as important because if they were done right, we could avoid problems. That’s the whole point of a contract, to keep you out of court, so you don’t get into trouble.
There’s also a financial advisor that we work with and have worked with for many, many years now as well in a similar capacity. I’m not an accountant. I didn’t go to business school. So for me to try to understand things that go into the nitty-gritty of accounting and so forth would be counterproductive.
It’s been the amazing to have a sounding board and a more objective outside party give you their thoughts.
David’s thoughts on seminars and workshops:
I’ve gone to several conferences. Sometimes I’ll go to lectures or when a certain person is speaking that I really admire. I definitely think those are great outlets to expand your thinking whether it’s on business or design as well as other topics.
Tips for people just starting out:
Our industry is so broad. There are so many different things you can do within it. There’s the design side. There’s the strategy and account side. There’s the technology side. Depending on your area of interest, I think I would give different pieces of advice. Depending on your skill set, and depending upon your passion and interest, there are different areas where you can achieve success.
On getting good clients:
The most important thing is, “Do good work.” Quality over quantity is the key. If you did one amazing piece of work, that’s all you need. You don’t need to do ten so-so projects. Nobody’s going to care, because at best you’re just a follower. Somebody will say, “Oh, your work just looks like everyone else’s. It doesn’t stand out.” Then you become a commodity and you become like every one else.
The way you get great clients is by doing great work. If you do something, even just one project that’s really innovative and interesting, more good work will follow.
Additional advice to someone just starting out:
The field is still young. We saw the first web browsers in the early 1990’s. It hasn’t been that long. There’s so much potential, in this medium. If anything it’s a huge opportunity for somebody to jump in there and do something new and push the medium.
Challenge yourself. It’s still early and that means there’s tons of opportunity to do things people have never imagined. That’s what excites me about this medium. I’m in this everyday and I still can’t keep up with it all. It’s definitely going to be different in five years. I guarantee it. And that’s exciting.
For anyone starting out in the field, realize you don’t have to know everything. It’s OK. Just jump in and keep learning. If you do that, at the end of the day you’ll have some ability to impact that evolution of the medium.
Who would have imagined we’d have multi-touch phones like the iPhone five years ago? So in five more years, who knows what there will be?
Find people you admire, that are smarter and know more than you, and you’re off to a great start. Just by putting yourself in that position you’re going to learn from those people.
One of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do is resigning a client, especially one that is paying most of our bills. One day I quickly realized I wasn’t happy coming to work and nor was my team. As soon as this client referred to us as a “vendor,” I knew we were going to be in trouble. They didn’t trust us and at the same time there was what we called “indecision by committee.” There wasn’t a visionary to help drive the project forward.
We realized that at the end of the day, it was best to resign this account and quite scary not knowing how we were going to pay the bills. In the end, it was the right decision, we landed amazing clients after that and found that we were once again smiling on our way into work.
On the importance of staying in balance:
Whenever I get a chance I love to go cycling. It’s great to do something where you can just get away and think, whether it’s going for a swim or going for a bike ride.
The other thing that I really, really like doing is traveling. My wife is Japanese so we go back to Tokyo every year. And every time I go back it’s always a new experience. Wherever you go, whether it’s a city that’s an hour away or New York City, it doesn’t really matter. It’s exciting not just for design inspiration, but because you’ll see a different culture or a different world. For me, it’s a great relief to go somewhere new and experience something new. It’s about throwing yourself into a new place and a new experience. I really enjoy doing that.
Also, I enjoy doing anything that gives me a chance to stop thinking about work. Even so, solutions to questions I’ve posed tend to seep into my awareness without my knowing it. While at the same time, I’m just enjoying the view and having a great time.
David is the CEO, Creative Director of Hello Design, an interaction design studio which he co-founded in Los Angeles in 1999.
Clients include Sony, USA Network, Yahoo!, General Mills, National Geographic, Oakley, Toyota and Nike. A graduate from Cornell University, David has won numerous awards for his work including a Cannes Cyber Lion, One Show Pencil, ADC Merit, and a Flash Film Festival award. His designs have also been featured in Communication Arts, HOW Design, I.D., Critique, eDesign and Print Magazine.