Successful under 25: how to manage a design studio and an IT company at the same time

Successful under 25: how to manage a design studio and an IT company at the same time

Nikita Smotrov on design, creativity and career

Цей матеріал також доступний українською Этот материал также доступен на русском
Successful under 25: how to manage a design studio and an IT company at the same time

Mind UA continues with the theme “Successful under 25”... 21-year old Nikita Smotrov is a co-founder and a creative director of the independent design studio “Smotrow Design” and the technology company “Justnote”. The clients of the studio include the Supreme Court, and they were responsible for the design of technological products commissioned by OSCE, Alfa-Bank, and a number of other big Ukrainian and international companies.

21-year old Nikita Smotrov is a co-founder and a creative director of the independent design studio “Smotrow Design” and the technology company “Jusnote”. The clients of the studio include the Supreme Court, and they were responsible for the design of technological products commissioned by OSCE, Alfa-Bank, and a number of other big Ukrainian and international companies. 

How did you understand that you want to be a designer? 

I want to tell, that this happened naturally. But if I dive deeper, I realise that I’ve always loved creating. Seeing how ideas go from abstract to concrete. Now I understand that urges like this have been there since the early age. I could spend the entire day trying to come up with something creative using LEGO, or filming and editing videos using some basic Nokia. It was the process of creation that I enjoyed the most. At some point I started following foreign designers, studying and analysing their works. I have discovered, that design is like a big island of sand, where you can build castles and shapes of various forms and sizes. And by doing so – influence the society, solve contemporary issues, and overall – add value to the lives of others. 

So when you arrived to this island, did you regret it? 

Not even for a second. Firstly, I am so into the process of creating and bringing various projects to life, that I don’t even know what else I’d like to do instead. Secondly, I am now working with the team, which is immensely inspiring, and together we create a great variety of products, and develop identity for big brands and organisations. 

Young people are often wondering how this transformation takes place: from not knowing what you want to do to the clear vision of your path. What did this process look like for you? 

Hmm, that’s a great question. Whenever I get interested in something, I start diving deeper and deeper, trying to find out as much as I can about the subject. Of course, this process has no end, because one isn’t able to reach a particular point, where one can confidently say: “yeah, that’s it – I reached the ultimate verity.” There’s simply not enough time for that. But in the process of this exploration, you get to understand what you like and don’t like doing. It’s kind of intuitive. So I’d say, that only by experimenting and putting myself out there I managed to find what I enjoy the most. You know how the say: “follow your heart”. (laughing)

To your mind, what is a good design? 

This one is actually a very complex question. I am convinced that every designer will have a different answer. For my team and for myself it’s the combination of such aspects, as simplicity, aesthetics, functionality, and non-intrusiveness. Simplicity refers to how user-friendly the product is: how easy it is for a person to understand it, and how compatible it is with his metal models. For example, if you create something brand new, very innovative and super-original, then you’ll also have to face additional challenges, because a user won’t have anything to compare it with. You’ll have to form the understanding of the product and behavioural patterns from scratch. 

Aesthetics is super important, because people are usually evaluating an attractive product as a more functional one. They would also readily forgive many of its shortcomings. An attractive product makes us experience more positive emotions and increases our desire to possess it.

Successful under 25: how to manage a design studio and an IT company at the same time

When it comes to functionality, it’s clear that the key task of design is to solve people’s problems and help them achieve their goals. And by non-intrusiveness I mean that when people are interacting with the product they are thinking about the product, and not that the designer did a great job. (laughing)

Is there a particular mindset, which one should have in order to create such design? In other words – what should you do in order to make a good design? 

It’s important to remember that design is created by the people for the people. Not for a portfolio, not an exhibition, not to please one’s ego. For the people. In order to create something truly valuable you always need to think about how a consumer would think. Would everything be clear and straightforward? Where can he or she encounter problems, and how can the team of the designers solve them in advance? These are only some of the questions, but they all ultimately lead to one thing: “How can this product help a consumer solve this particular issue?” I believe that if designers start to think more about the consumers, and less so about their portfolios on Dribbble or Behance, then everyone would benefit from it. 

What is bad about Dribbble?

Nothing in particular. It’s just that designers sometimes forget that they are creating their products for other people, and not just for other designers. On Dribbble there are loads of beautiful projects, that’s true, but a lot of them are out of touch with reality. They are often lacking logic, refer to imaginary clients, imaginary situations and so on. When we are doing research for our products, we never use platforms like this. We always look at what is actually out the there in the market and research real companies with real products to understand how they work. 

What do you think about the profession of a designer? Is it topical right now?

How topical something is – to me this is a very contrived concept. What is “topical”? Every kind of work, even the most “insignificant” one, is topical if a person enjoys it. You can grow flowers, be happy and it’s going to be topical. I don’t think much about this. Design has a direct influence on the world. Every object you are daily interacting with – at home, in your office, at school, or in a public place – all of them are the end-products of particular designs. And that’s enough for me to be interested in this subject. 

Your team and yourself have successfully worked on the whole variety of different projects. Are there any you are particularly proud of? 

Every project brings in something new. One teaches you how to interact with clients. Another one brings you back down to earth and shows that you aren’t that great of a specialist as you thought (laughing). Some projects teach you how to work with difficult or even openly disagreeable clients. But ultimately, all of them make you better as a professional. Right now, I’d say that very important projects are the interface for the new system of the Supreme Court; the creation of Justnote – the biggest system for managing the legal practice in Ukraine; and also, one of the new products commissioned by the OSCE, but at the moment I can’t tell more about it. 

At what age have you completed you first project? 

I was 15 or 16, when we started working on “Dom Yurista” (“the Lawyer’s House”). This platform works to the present day, and automates legal services, so that they can be available to every person in just a few clicks. 

Companies are hiring marketeers in order to improve their sales. But is this a mistake? Should they hire designers instead, in order to create more attractive products and thus, increase their sales? 

Certainly. The appearance sells and always has. Why do we love BMW and Apple? Because of how they look like and the emotions they arouse in us. Marketing is important, for sure, but if your product doesn’t arouse any emotions, if it’s not interesting and if it’s unattractive, – then, trust me, no kind of logo or video is going to help. It’s like buying beautiful jeans, which are too tight, that you can’t even make a step in them. (laughing) Design is a silent salesman. It can help a company to grow, but it can also destroy even a very promising idea. 

What is more important: an idea or implementation? 

Everyone has ideas. But the problem is, many just keep storing them, so that these ideas create a kind of traffic in their heads, which doesn’t allow anything to move forward. Ideas have to be implemented. It’s better to fail at some steps or to end up with something different from what you initially anticipated, but at the end of the day, the fact that you tried for something, created something, is going to make you proud and bring you closer to your goal. 

How many people are there in your team, or is it a different team for every project? 

There are 9 people, who work every day. This is the core of the team, that holds everything together. Overall, however, we do engage other people when we are working on various projects. There are a lot of people from different towns and countries, with whom we keep in touch and whom we engage in different stages of production. The reasoning behind it is that, firstly, it’s not always that you have projects, requiring, for instance, sound-design. Secondly, “gluing” some narrowly-focused specialists to you, when you cannot consistently provide them with valuable projects, would diminish their potential, and that’s not right. 

What do you do, when there’s no inspiration? 

I’m getting angry. To be fair, just like appetite comes with eating, inspiration comes when you start working. You can’t be thinking about inspiration sitting on a couch. I don’t usually have this problem. Neither does my team. You just get to work, concentrate and let the flow carry you. Of course, sometimes you have these moments, when it just doesn’t work. In these situations, I get off the table and try to do something else or switch to a different task. 

How do you manage switching between two companies? 

It only sounds like “switching” between two companies. The truth is that I am a designer, and my job is essentially the same, regardless of who I’m doing it for. In addition to that, I diligently stick to my calendar and plans. I don’t have a free day, when there isn’t anything scheduled. Even when I’m spending time with friends, I have a little note in my calendar saying “switching off the brain”. (laughing) Just don’t tell that to them. 

Do you think Ukrainian companies are ready to invest a decent amount of money in good design, and what does the market of design look like in the country overall? 

The big companies – surely. Because design impacts their image, trust, income and attracts new people. This is something that allows them to stand out. But many, as it always has been, ignore design, and create unattractive products, which aren’t any different from others. I call this “heartless business”. Many companies still don’t get it that by ignoring design they are diminishing their own opportunities. 

But overall, the market here isn’t too big. That’s why from the very first day Smotrow Design has been presented in English and at the moment, we are creating some projects for the foreign companies. Strategically, this is where we’re aiming. 

What advice can you give to aspiring designers?

I don’t like this thing with advice. Nowadays it feels like everyone is trying to give you some kind of advice or teach you something. All these posts, bloggers … “have nothing better to do, so I’ll go teach something.” If we’re talking about some general advice, then read a lot, observe, look at the people in different situations, I would almost say, be obsessed with learning about people’s behaviour, and practice as much as you can. So overall, it’s pretty simple. The winner will be the one, who doesn’t just do his work, but who’s passionate about it. Passion is a powerful force. But I don’t think you can teach it. 

Where did you study design, and is the standard of education high enough in Ukraine? 

I think that in order to become a professional, just formal education isn’t enough. It can give you the basis, but only in the case if you have good tutors. I have mostly learnt on my own and by working with talented people, by observing, imitating, even making notes. And by practising. A lot. Ever since I started there hasn’t been a single day when I wouldn’t draw. 

To be fair, this process of learning is never over. When it comes to education, I’m not the best example here. (laughing) The thing is, I started working after Year 10. That was when we were creating “The Lawyer’s House”, so I haven’t properly finished school. I have only attended uni maybe like 30 times so far. And I have only been to around 10 lectures in my first year.

Successful under 25: how to manage a design studio and an IT company at the same time

You can make of it what you want, but I am convinced that I’m succeeding not because I am talented or lucky, though that is important too; but because I started trying earlier than others did. I have figured it earlier what I like and don’t like doing, where I’d like to be and work. You can’t understand this at uni, because practice is very different from theory. A student may even mistake about whom he wants to become.

Do you have role models? 

There are companies, that I like and who inspire me. But I only have one role model, and that’s my dad. I learn a lot form him and always consult with him before making big decisions. He is my friend, business partner and mentor. 

What can you recommend to read and what are your sources of inspiration? 

Everyone has his or her own preferences. Maybe I’d rather tell what NOT to read. (laughing). It’s business literature. Such a pointless thing. It’s better to read classics. You can google “world literature, 100 best books” and read at least a half of them. Afterwards you’ll be able to read people. (laughing)

How did the pandemics affect business and design? 

When I think about this question, a funny picture comes to my mind. The one where a person is shouting to the city in fire: “Do you need a logo?” (laughing) At Smotrow Design we have even made a video called “Thanks to those, who care”, expressing our gratitude to doctors and other people, who are helping to fight the pandemics. In a few days it has reached 60,000 views on Facebook.

I understand that the pandemics is a scary thing, and that loads of people, including my friends and acquaintances were affected by it. But at the same time, it helped me to rethink a couple of things. Firstly, before the pandemics, we had worked in the office, waking up early in the morning and finishing very late in the evening. I haven’t seen my family that much. That’s unfair and rather silly, because now that we are working from home, my team and I manage to get way more things done. Secondly, every day there had been some kind of hustle, creating the illusion of super busy and productive work, but now I realise that it wasn’t actually. Thirdly, I started to get more things done, because I have rearranged my schedule. So there’s been a lot of benefits in this regard. Luckily, the projects haven’t become any less plentiful.

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