Each month, we have the privilege of bringing you a look inside an artist or designer’s creative space. Sometimes we hop on a train and head someplace nearby in Brooklyn, sometimes we hit the road to see friends a little farther from New York City, and every now and then a jet-setting contributor will helps us feel a little closer to a studio that seems worlds away. These adventures are always entertaining and inspiring, and they give us chances to get to know the people who make the goods we sell a little bit better.
While planning some upcoming Studio Tours and reminiscing about the many great experiences I’ve personally had seeing where our products are made and meeting the people behind them, something occurred to me: We make products. Right here at UncommonGoods, a team of product designers, developers, and managers is at work coming up with brand new uncommon creations.
I realized that despite all of the studios I’ve personally visited, the folders of photos from other folks’ tours I’ve sorted through, and the blog posts I’ve edited, I still haven’t given our readers a look at the place where we develop our very own designs. But that’s about to change. Welcome to this behind-the-scenes look at our Brooklyn office, where you’ll see works in progress, inspiration and advice from our Product Development team, and even a quote from The Boss (Springsteen, that is; not Dave Bolotsky).
Where do you find inspiration within the office? From what else do you draw inspiration?
Morgan: Honestly, much of the inspiration within the office comes from encounters with coworkers. We are quite collaborative with our projects, and showing or discussing a project, challenge, whatever with someone else often results in my seeing something from a new perspective. I’m also inspired by challenges from those I work with to not settle and to push things to be better than they’d be if I did. Outside of that, I’d say that inspiration, for me, is rooted in displays of principles like integrity, perseverance, and a greater meaning/purpose.
Tiffany: I draw inspiration mostly from just being in the world and paying attention to what interests me. For example, I’ve been on a big board game kick recently, and that has translated into the design and development of a new drinking game.
Elisha: Each quarter we have a [team] outing. Think of it as the adult version of a school field trip. We pick a museum or activity and find a place to eat nearby – Morgan always finds us a great spot to eat. We’ve gone shopping in Williamsburg to see what else is in the marketplace, visited the Liberty Science Center in Jersey and the Museum of the Moving Image, where we saw a very entertaining exhibit on how cats took over the internet. These outings allow us to relax, bond, and find inspiration and ideas in places we don’t normally look.
What are your most essential tools?
Elisha: For graphic design, I mainly use the Adobe programs – Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. As much as I use those programs, there are other skills and abilities that I use just as much – the ability to problem solve, troubleshoot, prioritize and think outside the box. We often are faced with a sample that isn’t quite perfect and we have to figure out the best solution for the item without sacrificing too much. It’s a constant balancing act between cost, design, and functionality.
Tiffany: Google, scratch paper and pen, and the ability to make connections in new or unexpected ways.
Morgan: A caliper and tape measure often come in handy for specific tasks, but for the most part and in a general sense, a growth mindset is significantly more important. Most of the projects we embark on are full of unknowns: What is possible? How will we overcome the challenges of the unknown? Where will we end up? If we were to go into each project with the perspective that we can only do what we’ve already done or what we currently know is possible, we’d probably only have a handful of items coming out of product development every year – and they’d probably be pretty derivative… So much of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a team has been the results of asking what if and why not. This has kept our project pipeline robust and our products the best they can be.
Where does collaboration come into play in your role?
Tiffany: It comes into play at almost every part of the product development process. We’re either working back and forth with the buyer, designers (inside and outside our team), manufacturers, photographers, copywriters, the marketing team… I work closely with everyone on my team to refine an idea and get the positioning, design, function, etc. right.
What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?
Carolyn: Customer reviews that recognize and appreciate what is special about the product that they were only able to find at UG and the PD team produced.
What quote keeps you motivated?
Emily: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” – Julia Child. It means to me exactly what it says – balance and restraint is important and essential to a healthy and fulfilling life, but it’s also important to know when it’s not the most important thing. There is a time and a place for overdoing, overindulging, overworking. A little inconsistency keeps things interesting.
Tiffany: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver
Carolyn: “Someday girl I don’t know when, we’re going to get to that place where we really want to go…” – Bruce Springsteen
Where does downtime fit into a day at work?
Emily: It really doesn’t. I eat lunch away from my desk and often listen to a podcast while I eat.
Morgan: It’s important to me to step away from the computer every once in a while. My focus tends to narrow when I’m just sitting in front of a computer for hours on end, which is great when I’m trying to focus on something in front of me, but terrible when I need to think about something creatively or from a broader perspective. Behind our building is a wide, expansive view of Manhattan, Staten Island, New Jersey, the water and the sky. It is physically a very expansive place, and it opens the world around me up a bit. I like to step out there when I can.
How do you recharge your creativity?
Carolyn: By avoiding burn out and maintaining established boundaries on my work space in order to have blocks of time to be creative and do “thinking.”
Morgan: Those aforementioned outdoor strolls help a lot. For me, creativity is recharged when I can step away from what I was fully immersed in to regain perspective.
Emily: By switching to a new project. Unlike a lot of other design firms and design jobs, we are working on a wide variety of projects using a wide variety of production processes at a wide variety of price points in a wide variety of styles. This is what I really love about this job – I never feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again. We definitely have our core capabilities but we are free to try new things in new ways, a freedom that a lot of designers and firms do not have. When I am feeling uninspired by a particular project, I just switch focus to something else, often something that is at a different point in the design process. My time outside of the office is less about recharging creativity and more about general recharging. I find it difficult to snap into a creative mode after being out of it for a while, so my creativity recharging happens more regularly when I am on the job.
What was the toughest lesson you learned starting a new department?
Carolyn: Figuring out how to get a new product developed while also figuring out processes, structures, and responsibilities. Underestimating the value of having institutional knowledge and established capabilities and knowledge.
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer?
Emily: I think the toughest lesson was not to treat my work as precious; meaning getting stuck on the first or second iteration of a design, thinking it’s THE design, and not being able to push myself to the next–often better–idea. There is always a better version of what you are working on, a smarter, more attractive way to design it. Which brings me to the second toughest lesson: know when to stop! Time management is difficult when there isn’t a clear ending to your day, project, or job.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Emily: Lighten up. Have fun. Relax. Things work out the way they do for a reason, so you might as well enjoy the process.
Carolyn: I would have a completely different management approach knowing what I know today than 5 years ago.
Tiffany: Life doesn’t go to plan, so figure out how to be okay with it. And don’t underestimate yourself.
How do you set goals for yourself?
Emily: I am not a very conscious goal setter but my role at UncommonGoods and on the Product Development team has encouraged (forced) me to be more forward-thinking and goal-oriented. When I think about setting goals, I try to think about myself both as an individual and as a team member. I think about difficulties I’ve encountered, mistakes I’ve made, and skills I feel I’m lacking. It’s not an interesting process really, but Carolyn encourages us to think about where we are now and where we would like to be in six months, which is broad enough to keep options open but a short enough span to not feel overwhelming or unachievable.
Carolyn: Having a can-do mindset and measuring continuing improvement. Learning from previous mistakes.
What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
Emily: My degree is in industrial design, but this particular position leans heavily on graphic design skills so I am always working to fill in some of those gaps. A year or two ago I took a typography class at SVA that was very useful because I had only taken a basic typography class early on in college and I was lacking in that very important skill set. That class led to the design of the Anniversary Journal, which is a successful, typography heavy project that would have been difficult to do well without that class. I continue to hone those skills on the job as I regularly design prompt journals, product logos, stationary and product packaging.
Tiffany: I’m a big believer in learning about things that are slightly tangential to what you do everyday. I’ve been building up an education in storytelling in a bunch of ways (through classes/workshops, reading constantly, going to plays, attending design and tech talks, exploring game design, etc.) – basically trying to create my own version of a well-rounded storytelling curriculum.
How do you know when you’re onto a really special product idea?
Morgan: This sounds like a pat answer but I would say much of what we do starts as a special product idea. Things don’t always become the success that we’d like them to be, or turn out to be as feasible as we’d hoped from a financial or manufacturing perspective, but we don’t have the luxury of abundant time and resources to spend on things that aren’t special to us.
Carolyn: It is something you “feel.”