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After graduating from an Ivy League school, Hello Design CEO and Creative Director David Lai considered attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He had heard great things about the school, but in the early days of interactive design, its program wasn't fully developed. Flash forward only six months and David was teaching at Art Center. It’s this passion to learn, discover, and teach that propelled Hello so quickly to the front of the interactive pack. With prestigious clients like Herman Miller, The Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Taylor Made Golf, they innovate as they create. Hello draws from a bottomless toolbox, trying the untried and making it sing.
In this installment of Creative Inspirations, watch an iPhone conduct a symphony orchestra, a golf club sell itself, and a talented designer learn to make a fine espresso as we present Hello Design, Interactive Design Studio.
(Music playing) (Male speaker: ?Herman Miller? so you see the cities like that.) (So each one of these? you know maybe in between is like?) David Lai: My parents used to say that I wouldn't go anywhere without my crayons and paper. I mean I kept loving to just draw stuff. For most kids, they like to draw, but I think for me, I carried on that love of drawing far into elementary school and high school and from an early age I really liked paper and pen and creating something out of that.
I actually started playing with computers through simple programming languages like BASIC and things like this. I think, I had taken an afterschool class or something and learned how to program really basic things like GOTO 10 and things like that. And you could make little basic programs run. And that was really exciting for me. So that was sort of my introduction to computers. Sort of the fact that it went beyond just writing things. It actually started to go in a really basic programming and understand you could create something that sort of could come alive.
So, as the Macintosh grew and evolved, I think I probably grew and evolved with it. I sort of kept upgrading to the next Mac. I think when the first color Mac came out, it was like 256 colors. And I remember looking at one of the graphics that you could create with it. And I just thought that was amazing. You could animate something. You could make it interactive. That was something I really hooked on, really early. (Music playing) The first book I ever wrote when I was a senior in high school.
I was doing a lot of icon design for fun and so my friends asked me, "Hey, like, we'd love to learn how to do that. Could you tell us?" And I thought, you know what, I will just write a little tutorial or something and share it with them. I wrote this book. I just sort of just decided to do it. It comes just like a floppy disk even. So back then, we had floppy disks. One of my first sort of experiences is this sort of design at the pixel level where literally pixel by pixel you create these little works of art that were 32x32 pixels in size.
Whether it was like a little person or animals, it didn't really matter what. I mean I think there is just something really fun about icons that you could really have a lot of expression in such a small space and so again I think at first we had something like 16 colors, I don't even remember. Not really many colors to work with and very few pixels that we could actually influence. But if you just look at the fact that you could actually create a thousand of these icons with that little space, it just tells you the potential what you can do.
For me, it was really about sort of just figuring it out. It could be frustrating at times. I mean there was points where I didn't know what I was doing or it didn't work and things like that. So, I had done design freelance or independently throughout high school and college where any opportunity to design something, whether it was a flier or a brochure, poster, whatever it was, I would jump at that opportunity. This initial sort of step of just doing icon design was really sort of naive in a sense that I just wanted to create something better.
I mean that's really where it started. I was using some applications that I really loved. I thought the user interfaces could be better so, I took that challenge upon myself to try and make them better. And being sort of naive, I sort of like packaged them up and emailed them to the company and said "Hey, you guy should use these icons. Here they are!" And funny enough, they emailed me back and said "Yeah sure, we like your icons. We would like to use them." And the next time that around that company, that software company called me up and said, "Hey, we are doing another program. Would you be interested in doing the icons for them?" And I said, "Yeah, sure, definitely. But I am going to have to charge you." And so that's sort of aspect of sometimes you just got to do it worked for me, being a business designer.
(Music Playing) I wrote my second book when I was a sophomore in college. I basically wrote this book because I wanted to teach myself how to use Photoshop. I actually didn't know. Huh. This is actually the book. So, this was the actual book that I have wrote, right here. So, this was the original. So, this basically became my cookbook.
It was more self-taught-- I mean of course I was learning from books. I mean I love books. I think books are a core sort of way to learn, but some of the stuff like I just sort of did just by learning on my own things, like what's a layer or what's a mask? Other things like, actually I went online and learn from other people too. I think if I looked at my work today and it's the same thing in ten years, I've probably stopped learning. Learning is constant, so you are never really the master of anything, and so the idea is that we are always trying to learn something new everyday and that was sort of the philosophy when I started and I think part of that reality was that by sort of thinking about that next thing that you wanted to learn, you got better.
For me, it was always about being okay with not knowing something. I didn't need to pretend that I was really good at everything, because I wasn't, and really the difference was being wiling to go out and learn it and try to figure out how to be better at it. My parents wanted me to find a secure profession, as any parent would. They pretty much said, "I really think you should go get a liberal arts education and you could always go to design school later." I think that's sort of how they convinced me of it.
I applied to Cornell as a sort of Arts and Science major. I was in biology and really headed on the premed track. I mean I think you know parents wanted me to be a doctor. For me, what I quickly realized is just because you are good at something like science or math, which is things that my parents thought why it would be good fit for me, is different than having a passion for what you want to do. Between my junior and senior year I had probably about six months to go and work and I got an offer to work at Clement Mok in San Francisco.
The web was sort of coming to the marketplace, in a sense that not a lot of companies had done big web sites yet. Companies were still trying to figure it out and explore what is this web thing? What is this Netscape? There is a lot of limitations to that medium. We had 216 colors. At one point, we only had gray backgrounds. It was quite a challenge. Often it was sort of like you had to just jump in and figure it out.
A bunch of designers were working on the Nintendo web site. And I had asked one of the design directors if I could participate, if I could throw my hat in the ring. And he said "Sure, why not?" I think as I started to work on that design, he became, one of those design directors became like a mentor to me and really showed me how to do it. He would sit down next to me and I could watch. Overall the client liked my direction and I got to work on that web site. So, its one of the first web sites I got to work on actually, was Nintendo's. For me that really confirmed this was something I was really passionate about.
I think it was really a confirmation that I could do this. (Music playing) I have seriously thought about going to Art Center. I really admired the work that was coming out of there. But at the time, since the Internet and the web and digital was fairly new, there wasn't a lot of programs with that kind of education so the curriculum wasn't really there yet. Second option was go and work for a design firm that I admired. I worked for Cow where basically, when there were students here, they had actually set aside a little room in this building to do digital design, because there weren't digital design classes back then.
Clearly, whatever they have learned, I felt like they are passing on to me as well. So, in a way I was getting my education through these Art Center graduates. And one of them said "Hey, one of the directors of the digital program is looking for new teachers" and said they recommended that he talked to me. And so after talking to him, he basically offered me a position to teach atArt Center. So, the school that I thought I was going to apply to 6 months later I was actually teaching at.
It wasn't just about me telling students what they should do. In fact, students challenge you and they challenge the way you think as well. To hear from students and to get their thoughts about this space, this medium, this digital medium. What they wanted to do with it. What their hopes were of. What they wanted to learn. I definitely enjoyed that. I had a class that was pretty diverse. It was a digital media class and web design. So that basically meant that I was teaching classes that had students from all disciplines.
Transportation designers, product designers, graphic designers, you name it. Really what I was trying to teach is the fundamentals, how do you really learn to conceptualize and think about interface design as a real discipline? How do you actually take the fundamentals that you have already learned in design and apply those to this new medium? So, this is the classroom where I taught for nearly five years. I was here probably three hours a day every week. So, really this was an unusual place for some of the students because one of the first things that we did was actually draw with pencil on paper.
And actually try not to really touch the computer, get into Photoshop, maybe until halfway through the term. So I was really trying to teach the students things that they couldn't learn in books. We could literally sketch hundreds of interfaces and really its sort of paper prototyping, before you actually commit to the computer and you are sort of invested in that. You feel like "Oh, I have spend so much time in Photoshop, I have to keep going, whether this works or it doesn't." It was a lot of fun, but after five years, I realized that I really needed to focus on Hello and growing the business because Hello is really actually starting to gain a lot of momentum and I still do invite students to come into our studio every year.
We always have classes. Come in and visit. It's really nice to still have that connection back to school and I always told the students this is the place where you could really push yourself and you can experiment. You don't have a client and so in a way, it's sort of nice to be back in that environment where you can sort of have that "blue sky" thinking again, that reflection of how do I become better at what I do? (Music playing) (Instead of cities, what if it was a silhouette of like 5 cities that we're going to visit? And they're connected?) What I do best is the creative side, the conceptual side, the strategic side.
I don't know much about like health insurance and benefits and all the nitty-gritty of running a business but I have to deal with that day-in and day-out. To be able to have partners who can either give us advice, that can hook us up with the right partners, allowed us to sort of free of some of that concern. Early on when we started, we had a relationship with an ad agency called Crispin + Porter and Bogusky, and Chuck Porter, who was the chairman of Crispin, Crispin had basically sold a potion of themselves to MDC partners and he sort of introduced me to this idea and said "What do you think about becoming part of the MDC partners network?" We loved the idea of collaborating with other talented people and that was one thing that attracted us to this MDC network, that there was other talented people on this network that did other things that we didn't do.
Whether it was advertising, whether it was PR, whether it was-- it could be anything actually. It was really this diverse set of people and that was attractive to us, that we could collaborate with others within this network and so we don't have to pretend to be the experts anymore. We still are a fairly small agency, but with MDC partners, we have got the backing of public company basically. We never used to do monthly financial reports and things like this because you know, we are a creative company and it's very hard to have that side of the business discipline that you need to have.
We are able to just sort of balance the two, like how do we stay entrepreneurial but at the same time understand that there is this responsibility of how you measure your sort of business success, like to make sure that you do operate as a business. So, if we'e got ideas for expanding, they are there for us and it's more a decision of should we do it strategically then can we do it financially. So, we see them as a sounding board. The other thing was that they are hands-off.
MDC never wanted to meddle in our business and to this day, 5 plus years later, they don't. They don't meddle in our business. They let us run our business the way we should. So, they really are a partner. They invest in an equity stake in your business. But they don't outright own you, and the reason for that because they want us to be vested in this business. So in a way MDC allowed us to sort of do what we do best.
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