Design Chats

A Look Inside the Design Team at Happy Cog

4 min read
Amanda Hackwith  •  Jul 15, 2014
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We’re tracking down InVision users inside the world’s most amazing companies to discover their favorite tools, inspirations, workspace must-haves and the philosophy behind what makes them so awesome.

This week, we chatted with Jason Dziak, design director at Happy Cog, an award-winning web design, development, and user experience consultancy with offices in New York, Philadelphia, and Austin. Founded in 1999, Happy Cog now has 30 employees working on clients such as MTV, Ben & Jerry’s, and AMC Theatres.

Here’s what Dziak had to say:

How did you get into design and ultimately end up at Happy Cog?

I got a traditional graphic design degree, but I was really intrigued by interactive. So when I graduated I moved to Columbus, Ohio, and took a job with a small studio called Studiomotiv where I only did interactive work and interface design. I didn’t end up doing print design professionally at all.

Studiomotiv eventually became Shift Global and I became their creative director for about eight years, and then they were bought by an advertising agency. I knew after about a year that advertising wasn’t a fit for me. So I tried to figure out what my next move was going to be, knowing that I wanted to go somewhere where design was seen as incredibly important: A great company puts design at the heart of anything it’s doing.Twitter Logo I wanted somewhere that really understood design as a problem-solving exercise. So I started looking around and Happy Cog had an opening. A couple of months later I was making plans to move to Austin with my family and take the design director position!

Do you feel a college degree in design is worthwhile these days?

Absolutely. I think most of the universities are woefully behind in terms of teaching interactive and UX, all of these new aspects of our profession. But there’s a really good underlying education that you get with a college degree. The fundamentals of visual communication never change – The context does.Twitter Logo At the end of the day, it’s still the same core ingredients that you need to understand, so I think graphic design education is really important.

I’ve worked with designers in the past who don’t have that traditional graphic design background. While I think they can meet and interpret challenges in a different way, I do feel like there’s always this missing piece in their knowledge-base they eventually backfill.

What is your role and responsibilities at Happy Cog?

One aspect is as the design lead on project work for one of Happy Cog’s three project teams. Designers here are very empowered and responsible for everything from stakeholder interviews and requirements to writing briefs, user experience design, wireframing and even front-end code. So I often lead that effort, which is very involved — whether I’m a practitioner doing a great deal of the work because the team is small, or projects where I’m a little less hands-on.

The other side of my role is as a design manager, to manage the professional development of a couple of our designers. That’s less project and work-oriented and more about helping them to get better and progress forward on a career path.

What are the biggest pain points in your job?

Oh, my goodness. Well, the toughest part about being a manager is that you want to be truly involved with your designers at every stage — to see the problems they are trying to solve so that your advice is really grounded in the reality they face and you can actively guide them. A good leader should be in the trenches with their designers.Twitter Logo Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. You always want more insight and be present for every challenge but it’s just not physically possible.

In terms of my own design work, I always want more time and the ability to rewind a little bit. Often, you get down a path and start to see aspects of the solution you wish you had realized earlier. So that’s always difficult, trying to figure out ways that you can pivot and change or accept those without being irresponsible. Sometimes in design, you have to take two steps back in order to take three forward.Twitter Logo

Designers need to stop thinking in terms of boxes and arrows, but in terms of moments in time. InVision helps to get your head around that a lot more quickly.

What separates a good designer from a great one?

It’s important to understand and accept the contrasts that exist in design. Right now there’s a big trend towards patterns and using frameworks, and there’s a lot of efficiency in that, but I think that can be at the cost of innovation. Relying on design patterns leaves no room for true innovation.Twitter Logo You have to balance that and figure out ways to use that to your advantage. Innovation is as important as pattern, emotion as important as logic, dark as important as light, variety as important as consistency. Design should be logical, but it also should connect with people on a human, emotional level.Twitter Logo

As a designer, you can’t be afraid to completely start over when something isn’t working.Twitter Logo Sometimes to get to the right solution you have to throw out things you thought were really important but at the end of the day were becoming a roadblock.

What are the wider industry trends changing the nature of your role?

Well, we live in great times, with incredible product design. Embrace the constant flux of design: Use it as an opportunity to think about things differently.Twitter Logo Because of this constant change, the big evolution is the fact that with responsive web design, the focus is on creating a design system that will be effective regardless of screen size.

That innovation is really exciting as a designer because, historically, it’s something that hasn’t really been done before. We always had a fixed canvas we were dealing with and designing around. Responsive web design has forced us to think deeply about context & flexible systems.Twitter Logo To me, that’s pretty exciting.

How do you use InVision?

One way I’ve used InVision is to quickly sketch out interactions. For example, say we’re designing an accordion menu that will live in a particular part of a page. I can sketch that out in a couple of minutes, then drop it into InVision and start to click around to see how it will feel in the overall design. I can also start to see flows really quickly, which is nice. Designers need to stop thinking in terms of boxes and arrows, but in terms of moments in time.Twitter Logo InVision helps to get your head around that a lot more quickly.

My team has also used InVision for higher-fidelity comps and as a presentation tool. I’ve struggled with that in the past — there’s never been a tool that would just let me put a JPG easily in a web browser. For years, I always hated how we would review static design comps in PDFs and have clients scaling them and printing them out and doing stuff that removed them from the context that a user would ever see them in. So one of the first things InVision for was to put some comps in so that we could just present them to a client and be able to click through them, and they could view them in their browser.

I’ve done some in-depth wireframe prototyping with InVision, too — I’ve designed a sequence of screens and then give the client a script for that prototype so they can click through it and get a feel for the flow. I’ve done that for both mobile and desktop.

What are the critical elements in your workspace?

I’m a big iPad user. I take all my notes on it with a stylus and do all of my sketching. Also, I always need good headphones to be able to zone out and focus.

Be willing to experiment and try new things. This industry will always need people who are brave enough to question what’s expected.

Other than InVision, what are the tools you use most in the design process?

I’m still a heavy Photoshop and Illustrator user. I use Illustrator to draw graphic elements and icons, and what little paper wireframing I do in Illustrator because it has the quickest learning curve. With Photoshop I do the visual design part and work through the problems, but also create graphic assets and some of the production work around the design.

I use Paper quite a bit on the iPad, as well as an app called Notes Plus. We need better tools, that allow us to think, and solve problems, within a responsive context.Twitter Logo

What music are you listening to?

Well, I co-founded the Dig Me Out Podcast, which is dedicated to unknown or forgotten indie rock, alt rock and hard rock of the 1990s, so if I’m not reviewing an album, which takes up most of my listening time, I’ll still be listening to some kind of rock or metal. The podcast is something I do on the side, with about 170 episodes now. Having a hobby completely separate from design is a great way to improve as a designer.Twitter Logo

Where do you get your design inspiration?

I’m always inspired by companies that rethink things that we’ve just accepted the way they are for years, not just a company like Apple but something like Tesla or Nest.

I’m also a big Twitter user, I’m constantly choosing new follows and trying to find new sources for things that are smart and innovative. It’s hard because our industry is so fleeting, with new figures coming up and others falling into the background, but Twitter is pretty good at keeping up. When somebody emerges with some new idea, it’s the first place you’re going to hear about it.

Who do you follow on Twitter?

One would be Paul Boag. I had a chance to see him speak and I was just blown away. I follow Sidebar, which has great design links. And, of course, Jeffrey Zeldman, founder of Happy Cog.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give other designers?

Never think of your work as precious.Twitter Logo And be willing to experiment and try new things. This industry will always need people who are brave enough to question what’s expected.Twitter Logo