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Emily Haasch

Lead Designer at Electric Objects

Emily Haasch is the lead designer for Electric Objects, previous to that she was the lead designer at Cards Against Humanity in Chicago. She shares how she ended up in each of those roles, her experience leading design for a team so early on in her career and her process for tackling the different challenges she faces in her work now. Emily shares some great insight into carving your own path and making the most of every opportunity.

Tell us a bit about the work you’re doing right now.

I’m the lead designer for Electric Objects — which is a very elegant way of saying that I do a little bit of everything. I split my time between doing work for product (iOS and Android), work for web, and visual design of the brand itself. I occasionally get to design for hardware, which is a unique challenge in itself.

Previously you were the lead designer at Cards Against Humanity, how did you end up in that role?

Well, I’m from Chicago. I went to an art school in the city (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) where I spent a number of years studying graphic design, making art, creating weird little websites, learning furniture-making, and writing critical theory. I happened to go to an institution where I had both the blessing and curse of not really having a set degree path, majors, or grades. It allowed us as students to create a unique practice of our own, but it also made it a little difficult for me — who should I now work for, after four years of working for myself?

Concurrently, I was also pretty active in the design community in Chicago at the time. As I was nearing graduation, I had few colleagues pester me about a design role at Cards Against Humanity, which is based there. I wasn’t initially sure about it being the right “fit” — I was aware of and enjoyed the game, but didn’t consider myself a hardcore gamer of any sort.

Regardless, I said to myself, fuck it. I applied anyways.

A few hours later, Max Temkin, one of the founders of the game, emailed me back, and asked me to come in for an interview. Having no idea what I was doing, I immediately freaked out and kept him on hold for while, until I was able to finally come in for an interview like a week and a half later. I only remember sitting in CAH’s cramped leaky office, converted from an old pharmacy store in Logan Square, surrounded by Euro-style board games and Shawnimals plushies, and having a brief conversation about MMORPGs and InDesign. I decided it was really weird and took the job offer. From there it was sort of a “Wild West” type role. CAH had never had a designer before, and I was the third hire for this already successful company that still had a lot left to accomplish. It was a very strange and opportune chance to basically lead design at such a young age, and figure out how to build a process, established brand standards, and execute in so many different directions. Overall, it was a pretty fun ride — there were some growing pains at first, but I’d like to say I accomplished a lot by the time I left there.

“I was drawn to San Francisco partially because of my familiarity with the city and Northern California — there is still a sense here that, despite all the bullshit, you can be whomever you want to be and make whatever you want of yourself.”

How did you end up in your current role?

I worked at CAH for a while, but over time felt I needed to make a move from Chicago. Chicago’s always been my home, and it’s the city that raised me, but I didn’t feel I’d really be able to love it more unless I left it. So, onwards and upwards.

I was drawn to San Francisco partially because of my familiarity with the city and Northern California — there is still a sense here that, despite all the bullshit, you can be whomever you want to be and make whatever you want of yourself. There’s also a lot of strange people in the Bay Area and the extreme culture shock from the Midwest was something I intentionally looked for.

I made the move out here a little over a year ago and started freelancing for Electric Objects shortly after. The product director (Luke Chamberlin) and I were both following each other on Twitter, and he happened to reach out to me asking for my availability to design a small minisite project EO was doing. That small project turned into a larger contract shortly after I left my previous gig, and eventually they somehow hired me. The lesson to remember here is that you, too, can get all your client work and jobs off posting memes on Twitter.

What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing now?

Well, it's not necessarily the work that's hard, it's the responsibility that's hard.

Being a lead designer for EO is somewhat similar to what I did for Cards Against Humanity where I still get to touch and oversee everything. Organizing it all and coordinating with so many different types of people is really, really difficult — especially when you are working with consumer facing products that have physical, digital, and cultural components. Everybody sees what you ship all the time, so you're constantly making and it can be difficult to manage that while making sure there is a baseline of consistency to everything.

I think the other biggest challenge with EO the day-to-day aspect of designing for a commercial product, but also keeping in mind this legacy of it being something that's tied to inherently non-commercial things — art, the art world, and artists. Every day, I remind myself that it’s an honor that we have artists making work for us, using our platform, and enthusiastic about what digital art can be. Figuring out how to respect and celebrate this community — the lifeblood of the product — while also getting it into a million homes isn’t easy. But, it’s a worthy challenge.

When you're faced with something that's unfamiliar to you, or that you haven’t done before, what is your process for approaching that?

Regardless of the context, it always starts from a point of having a sense of empathy and desire for an end-action. With every project, I spend a lot of time talking to people, considering different edges cases and perspectives, and what’s actionable enough to be shipped today. This is not only for me to understand what the stakeholders actually want in the short-term, but also to for me understand our needs and preferences in the long-term. This all really comes in handy when you’re working in-house with the same people every day. The better I can understand and empathize with the personalities on my team, the better the design becomes and the more efficiently everybody works.

Are there any specific techniques that you use in terms of routines or processes that help you accomplish everything that you need to do in a day or a week?

Being in California and having most of the team in NYC, remote communication is huge for me. Thus, being available on Slack and holding regular hours is important (I shift my day to accommodate earlier East Coast hours, leaving my afternoon time for uninterrupted work).

I think it’s also important to take a little time out of every day for quick project management. Usually, the first half hour of my day is where I’ll step away from everything and just go through my tasks for the current and upcoming weeks, while identifying conflicts, emails I need to send, briefs I need more information on, freelancers I should wrangle, and other housekeeping. We use Trello, which is great for organizing lots of disparate things and seeing where projects are at across teams.

On top of that, I make sure to make time for a walk during the day at some point, because some of my best thinking happens under the hazy afternoon light we get here in California.

Being on a remote team, and keeping in touch with the team via email, and Slack, how do you balance your time spent on that versus the heads down work you need to do as a designer?

I let the West-to-East Coast time difference work to my advantage. I’m three hours behind the team in NYC, so the first half of my day is pretty functional. It’s all about meetings, checking-in, resolving conflicts, pair-coding, and making sure everything is on the right page. My afternoon is their evening, so that’s when I spend my time “heads-down”, getting work done and getting things ready for the next day. I have the rare pleasure of working for a company that keeps very regular hours and ends their day at a reasonable time (6:30p EST or earlier).

What would you say are the tools you're using on a daily basis?

Trello - For project management.

Slack - For communicating with the rest of the team. Also, emojis.

Google Hangouts - I’m checking in with people multiple times a day so it’s a great tool when it doesn’t crash.

Pen and paper - I start everything I design on paper.

Sketch - It’s fast and simple for interface work, it keeps my eyes on the screen.

Adobe Illustrator - Sketch still doesn’t treat vectors nicely or naturally, and I’m faster creating iconography in Illustrator.

Taking a walk - This is such a big tool for me, it helps me think. Also, bubble tea helps.

“Because I work at home I make it a huge point to get out of the house for a couple hours every day and constantly be going to music shows, art openings, socializing, and meeting people. It gives my brain a chance to relax and not look at my email and think about other things that put my work into perspective.”

Do you ever experience burnout and how you manage that? How you keep yourself motivated and going on multiple different things?

As a designer, I’d be a huge liar if I said I never experienced burnout. Sadly, with the industry as it is nowadays, it’s merely a matter of when, not if.

I think a huge part of it is communicating with my product director and other members of the team when I'm too swamped. There’s a mutual respect on each’s authority around what we do, so if we need to bring in a contractor or we need to move projects back, there’s always a good understanding of what needs to happen.

I think for me, having other hobbies and interests outside of my work day really helps to reset everything. Because I work at home, I make it a huge point to get out of the house for a couple hours every single day and constantly be going to music shows, art openings, socializing, and meeting people. It gives my brain a chance to think about other things that put my work into perspective. As a designers, we’re paid to be observant of the world around us, so the “down-time” to experience different facets of life is just as crucial as what you ship.

Why do you do what you do? What makes working in design so meaningful to you and why do you enjoy it?

I do what I do because honestly, makes the most sense to me. I love creating things that really resonate with people — things that cause emotion and affection, much like how art does. Design is another way for me to make art, but in the context of technology, accessibility, and collaborating towards a specific task with a little bit of expression built in.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Jenna Blazevich / Vitchcraft (Chicago) — She specializes in lettering and calligraphy, and has recently built a successful business from the ground up in doing so. I'm fond of her art projects and the ways she lends her skills to unusual projects, like iOS games.

Eileen Tjan / Other Studio (Chicago) — Eileen also built a business from the ground up, and is becoming an impressive designer and manager of her own studio. I love her work, her attitude, and her commitment to being a badass female-owned business in what's still primarily a male community.

Eddy Urcades (formerly Austin, now NYC) — Eddy and I met as online friends, and regularly hang out IRL when I'm in NYC. He has a really fascinating practice, having come from an industrial design background, to doing strange and surprising projects at IBM, and now as part of the product design team at Tumblr. He continues to do a lot of conceptual and art-based works in his spare time, which are above the norm for most designers I see in tech nowadays.