Gage Salzano: Say yes to the hard stuff

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Aug 31, 2016
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Most recently, Nelson Cash created, a wildly popular site that lets you “strangify” any 2 words in the style of the Stranger Things logo.

This creative studio works with Google, Lean In, Trunk Club, Dev Bootcamp, and many more organizations to design and build brand experiences.

We talked to Nelson Cash Designer Gage Salzano—who’s been around since the company was founded in 2011—about their flat team structure, managing work-life balance, and what your design portfolio should always include.

Gage Salzano. Images by Nelson Cash.

How is your team set up?

We’re challenging ourselves to stay small. We’ve found our sweet spot is around 25 people. This size allows us to do things big companies would otherwise find challenging. We have a flat organization structure, which means no org charts, middle management, or fussy job titles.

We hire people based on skill sets, like visual design or front-end development, but we also look for people who are multi-disciplinary.

Being a smaller team means that every person takes on more responsibility, and we believe this leads to better work because people take more ownership—everyone can be heard and step up. We encourage doing over talking too much, which attracts a certain personality type that we love to work with.

Nelson Cash’s team structure, illustrated by their Designer/Dungeon Master Josh Liston.

How have you designed a great company culture?

Nelson Cash is family. It’s hard to avoid getting close when you’re sitting in a room full of people you love being around.

When engaging with each other, whether it’s telling a funny story over a few beers or delivering honest feedback during a critique, we’re expected to bring everything to the table. That willingness to open up and feel vulnerable creates an authentic cultureTwitter Logo, and ultimately better work.

Sometimes we hate each other for a day, but I think it takes a certain level of comfort working with each other to get to the point where you’re willing to pour it all out like that.

How does your team communicate with each other?

Our flat structure avoids the bottleneck of top-down information sharing and holds each individual accountable for staying in the loop. We try our damnedest to keep open lines of communication—and if we find a breakdown, we quickly put a solution in place to solve it.

Using tools like InVision, Slack, Trello, and Basecamp have all been imperative to solving some of those communication problems. We also hold bi-weekly “all hands on deck” meetings where we run through the status of every project together.

“The key to fostering trust: open, honest, and frequent communication.”

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At the end of the week, we have another all-hands meeting where we share what we’ve worked on, along with ideas about how to improve as a company.

Nothing is perfect, and miscommunications are going to happen in any team environment because people are people. But we found that by not looking at any one thing as a solution, and being open to trying new tools and processes, it helps avoid those miscommunications.

Does your team trust each other? How have you built that up?

Our flat structure means when one person succeeds, we all share in the success. On the flip side, when one fails, it’s on all of us to fight through it together.

In order for this to work, it’s imperative we trust each individual to bring their “A game.” We’ve found the key to fostering this trust is open, honest, and frequent communication. We do this in big and small ways, whether it’s going on a retreat or participating in our bi-weekly meetings. Every moment you communicate with each other is an opportunity to build trust.Twitter Logo

How do you hand off designs to the engineering team?

Typically, there’s no definitive hand off from a designer. Sometimes we need to work with a client’s workflow and we’ll prepare more thorough documentation and cleaned-up files.  

Our developers have their own unique perspective on design and want to be involved in the process, so our designers and developers collaborate throughout a project’s life. Involving developers from the start helps dodge conflicts down the line in development and ultimately pushes the work further.

“Involving developers from the start helps dodge conflicts down the line.”

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What catches your eye when you’re looking at someone’s portfolio?

A polished portfolio of the latest design trends won’t catch our eye. We’re more interested in learning the thought that went into a design. Listening to a designer peel back each layer of a mobile design is more interesting than seeing another shiny UI kit. The 2 biggest things we look for:

  1. How do they think through problems?
  2. How passionate are they about their field?

Beyond that, personality plays a big part in a person’s success here. Candidates are often brought to the studio for a hangout prior to getting hired—it’s a great opportunity for us to gauge how they’ll fit into our culture. Do they actively participate in conversations? Are they candid with their thoughts and opinions? Do they act independently?

Our staff is on the smaller side, so adding one person to the mix really impacts our company culture.

“Your portfolio should show the thought that went into your designs.”

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How do you think your design process differs from other agencies? 

We don’t have one. Every client comes to us with a unique problem, so why attempt to solve it with a one-size-fits-all approach?

Instead, we customize an approach for each client, pulling from our toolbox of methodologies that we’ve had success with in the past. We try not to restrict ourselves to a set of rules we must follow on every project, but if we find it useful, we can always refer back to our toolbox. Having choices in our process is liberating, and when it gets messy—and it will—we embrace it.

How did you personally get to where you are now?

I grew up in the glory days of the internet, when you were free to try anything and just have fun with it. We had to teach ourselves because no one else could. I spent a ton of time with my brother (hi, Corey) and friends building websites in tables and designing posters with enough Photoshop filters to crash a Gateway. We didn’t realize then that what we were doing in our parents’ basement could turn into a career.

Fast forward 20 years, and this industry is a goldmine. It’s cool to think about all of these amazing tech companies—whether it be new social platforms, VR, self-driving cars—and how they’re being built by the same people who grew up trying to hack their MySpace page or wrestle with HTML tables.  

Any tips on managing work-life balance?

It’s difficult to maintain a work-life balance in our field. We used to do this stuff for fun, and now it’s our career—so you have to try to find a way to “turn off” at some point. Not to mention that no matter how much time you spend on a project, it can always be better.

“You have to find a way to ‘turn off’ at some point.”

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You’re always looking at your work thinking of things like what navigation might’ve been easier to use or what color would’ve been more vibrant. Since we don’t have set studio hours here, it’s up to the individual to turn themselves off. We’ve actually found forcing yourself to step away from the work allows you to come back with a fresh perspective.

How do you use InVision as part of your design process?

InVision is great for quickly validating a conceptTwitter Logo and involving clients more efficiently in the creative process, with less back-and-forth and clearer feedback. In the past, your options were to either show static mockups and try to “act out” how it would feel to use the application or website, which would cause so much confusion for our clients. Or, it would take weeks to create a realistic prototype, which could be better spent actually thinking about the design.

“With InVision, we can immediately get more helpful feedback.”

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What advice do you have for young designers?

Say yes to the hard stuff.Twitter Logo Don’t avoid a project or job simply because you deem it too difficult or out of your comfort zone. Try new things and explore disciplines related to design, such as photography or project management. By facing challenges and pushing through discomfort, you will grow both as a person and designer.

Be your first client. When coming up as a designer, you’re always looking for that one job to catapult your career. One thing I love about this industry is you can always hire yourself. Write your dream project brief and complete the work.Twitter Logo Give the work as much attention to detail as you would a real client. Working on self-initiated projects is a great way to build a portfolio and show off skills to land your first gig. 

Show half-baked ideas.Twitter Logo Show your work as early and often as you can to people who will give you honest, actionable feedback. It’ll lead to better work, and I promise you won’t die in the process.

“If you’re willing to put in the time, the rest will work itself out.”

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Nelson Cash’s Chicago office.

Don’t fall into unhealthy patterns. If you’re working as a freelance designer, take your work seriously. Force yourself to get up before 9am, take a shower, get dressed, and make a to-do list. Simple, tried-and-true actions like these will keep you on task and help maintain momentum.

It’s not all about the Benjamins. A lot of people get their start working for next to nothing. Look at every opportunity as a long-term investment in your career. Just because it’s not paying off today doesn’t mean it won’t help you land an amazing job in one, 2, or even 5 years.

Make sure you love it first. People with a strong work ethic and unwavering drive are often motivated by a passion for their work. If you want it and you’re willing to put in the time, the rest will work itself out. No piece of advice will matter as much as that.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard