Interview with Ryan Ford, Creative Director at deviantART

posted by Damian M. under Interviews on Aug 7th, 2009 with 1 Comments

7 Aug

Ryan FordIt's a privilege to have this interview with you, Ryan. Can you give us a brief overview on your career right now? Are you where you want to be?Thanks for having me. As far as brief overviews go, the best I can do for brevity would be to say that I've been an artist my whole life and towards my adult years I became interested in design. I pursued that passion through education and experience, and right now I've risen to serve the community of deviantART as the Creative Director.I think right now I'm very much where I want to be. I've worked for some agencies in the past under the assumption that I'd be happier doing design for big client names, but I quickly discovered that I didn't care at all about who I was working for. At deviantART I care a lot about the arts and our artists, and so I have a goal that is larger than just "do design to make money." So yeah, it's quite good.As the Creative Director at Deviantart it means you head up a very creative group. Can you tell us what it's like to lead this group of individuals?Leading a group of extremely talented individuals is kind of a funny thing. Early on in the role, I came into a company that had little to no brand direction. People made work however they wanted, and there was no cohesive identity to the site nor the company. With the release of version 6 in 2008 we changed that and built a cohesive UI environment that could easily be built upon. On the internal side of things, my team and I created a design language that could carry us forward. Since my whole team understands this design language pretty well, I no longer have to hold anyone's hand.I now mostly trust my teammates to do work the way they know is best, and only interject when I see a real problem or have to provide some direction. This means they get to be creative within known boundaries, and I get to actually design. Most Creative Directors become so far removed from actually designing that they forget how to do it, and I think that makes for a bad leader. So I try to take on design projects as much as I can. Overall it's a pleasant experience, because we all have mutual respect for one-another and we all like what we do. Being creative for the benefit of other creative people is really cool. Collaborative Conservation NetworkThere's a trend growing where virtual offices are on the rise due to team members being located anywhere. Is your office virtual? If yes, what tools/methods do you use to manage it and keep the creative flow in sync?My office is mostly virtual. The full-time members of the team are mostly located in Los Angeles, where the deviantART HQ is located. However, we have some members who work in other countries and share different time zones, meaning it can be tough to sync up with projects and meetings. In order to make sure everybody is aware of everything that goes on, I introduced Basecamp into our team's workflow and we've been using it for 2 years. It's going very smoothly, so much so that the rest of the company is starting to get on board and uses our project manager for their own team's projects.You have a great collection of logo designs in your portfolio, some of which are featured in various books. Can you tell us about your process in logo design?Back when I was in school, I was always taught to sketch ideas first on paper using pencil. Sometimes we'd even be required to draw our ideas inside little pre-built boxes to make sure our ideas were in a neat order. I honestly found this to be ridiculous, but in my professional life I make my sketches whenever and wherever I have the idea. I've got a sketchbook, which I sometimes use, but I also have an iPhone app that I can draw on. Sometimes I'll even have an idea and hop right into Adobe Illustrator to draw it.I think that creativity shouldn't be restrained to a process, so I basically draw out my thoughts wherever I can and let the ideas flow. From there I will usually clean up my creations and then leave them alone for a few days so I can come back to them with fresh eyes. That's where I'll typically find areas that need more attention. The rest is pretty typical: get client feedback, get friend feedback, etc. Fonce Foundry

Nobody can successfully design in a vacuum.

Where do you go for inspiration aside from Deviantart?DeviantART is such a huge source of creativity that it's oftentimes unnecessary to go elsewhere. I'm finding a ton of sites simply linking back to work on deviantART anyway. That said, some of the sites I visit are and essential do you think a designer's participation in sites like Deviantart is to their career and overall development?Nobody can successfully design in a vacuum. I think a solid foundation in traditional design techniques is important, but after that a good designer looks at what everybody else is doing. Not necessarily to copy it, but to at least see what other people are making so they can say "yeah that works" or "I don't like that idea at all." It's always important for a good designer to live in a creative environment so their brain keeps thinking in a creative way. Getting stale is always a danger. Community RelationsWhat books on design do you recommend as must-reads for designers?I'll probably sound like a broken record with this, but the most important book for any designer is The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. It's very much like the bible of typography. I recommend it at every chance I get because no designer can be a real "designer" without a solid understanding of typography. You can't design without type, and if you can't use type properly you're not really a designer. It's that simple.Everyone that's familiar with your work is aware that you're a type buff. What are some mistakes in typography you often see in web design?Web typography is a difficult environment since html and css aren't inherently supportive of things like kerning. They mostly just affect universal cases instead of individual cases. For example, you can track out a whole block of copy but you can't adjust the kerning between two letterforms. Stuff like that can be frustrating, but it tends to be forgivable since nobody has any real control.Still, one of the most common mistakes I see involves words per line. Too many designers and developers build a scalable website and then forget (or don't know) that 7-12 words per line is the ideal for legibility and reading comfort. What I tend to see are lines with 20+ words and it doesn't make for an inviting reading experience. I also sometimes see people overdoing the quantity of content they try to shove into a page. Too much content + too many word per line = something nobody wants to read. Fonce Sans ProOne of the things I noticed is that you don't have a blog, something that almost every designer has. I did notice you're a regular user of your journal on Why no interest in a blog? I ask because everywhere you look someone's saying, "Get a blog."Well, I actually do have a blog. It's my deviantART journal. But I assume you're talking about a blog on my primary website ( The reason I don't have a blog on my site is because it's completely unnecessary there. Despite the fact that I've been bad about updating my site frequently, I realize that people only visit it to look at my work. Few people who visit that site are concerned about my weekend activities, and I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that enough people will visit who give a damn.The journal on deviantART, though, is a different story. Since deviantART is a community, I have thousands of people who actually do watch my journals and my uploads, and they've elected to get informed of my updates. It's a whole different ball game, on deviantART, and it's the perfect environment for those ramblings that perhaps don't always belong on a "professional" blog.Sites like encourage designers to do creative work with little specification, giving contest holders hundreds of choices and no obligation to award a winner. What's your opinion on this topic?Sites like that are both encouraging and disappointing at the same time. It's awesome that there are a number of sites built to focus attention on design, but then again they basically exist to devalue the practice of design. I think it's acceptable when an organization holds a design contest from time to time, but building a whole site dedicated to the idea is offensive to designers around the world.We also have to be aware, though, that the people who willingly participate in those are usually not professionals. A professional designer would never devalue his work to that point. It's the amateurs and designer-hopefuls who participate, because they think that getting work as a designer is the end goal and never consider respect or the value of their talents.The good clients never bother with those sites, either. A good client will recognize the value of good design, and will seek out a professional. This doesn't mean they'll pay top dollar, necessarily, but they will typically understand that all professional services have a professional cost associated with them, and they almost always bring a huge amount of respect to the table too. American Village BuilderWas there ever a time when you thought that maybe this isn't the career for you? If so, what changed your mind?The only time I ever thought that design wasn't for me was when I didn't know what it was...when I was a teenager. When you're young and you don't have any designers around you in your day-to-day life or family, you can start to believe that it isn't a good career choice. Like "there aren't any designers around here, so maybe there's no money in it or no opportunities." Eventually that wears off, and the internet has certainly helped. Nowadays everybody thinks they're a designer or wants to be one. It's crazy.Thousands of designers are coming out from design institutions every year making this industry one of the most competitive. What three adjectives would you use to describe designers who manage to stick out from the rest, and how does one achieve these qualities?The three adjectives I'd use are: responsible, persistent, talented. Responsibility is a big deal in design. There are deadlines and there are best practices. Sometimes you can get lazy, like anybody does, but overall you've got to know what you're working on and have an end goal to work towards. Persistence is also part of's important to be in a project for the long-term and focus on the reward of completion. I see a lot of designers wanting to complete a project immediately so they can have the satisfaction of finishing, rather than spending their time ensuring high quality and craftsmanship.Craftsmanship is also a part of persistence, and I'd have listed the word separately had I been allowed to use four instead of three. As for talent, that's a given, but let's not confuse talent and skill. Skill is important, of course, but skill can be learned. Talent is just a part of you from day one, and you can't learn how to be talented. The best designers I know simply design great things almost without having to think about it. It just flows naturally, almost like breathing. Desert Practice Conference MailerAny advice for the budding designer you'd like to share?I'm usually not too good with advice, but if I had to share one thing I'd tell the "budding designer" to focus on a solid education in their craft and not get too caught up with trendiness. Focus on messaging and substance instead of just the cool factor. Explore Anywhere Sony Proposal BookletInterview Questions by: Damian Madray Edited by: Khadija Benn


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Vladimir P. said Aug 25th, 2009

Ryan has very smart things to teach us obviosly and his design are out there with the corporate best. He is the man for the job. However....
As a long time member at dA I must note that this community has failed at managing and accomplishing its primary ambitions, not all of them but this is MY general perception. This is also found as disapointment to many talented & skilled dA artists with true art to share.
Everyhting is being sufficated with teenage manga and cheap self promoting erotic photography. When I go to dA for inspiration it is like finding a mint candy deep in to a septic tank to refresh myself. (: unfortunatly.
I truly understand the liberal stand every dA manager will have for not interfering the art market community on dA... But lets be frank, it doesnt work. Either a unskilled person comes to dA and becomes an artist or an existing active artist joins, they all come in and stay in the labytinth of milions dA members. My hope is to see a way for dA to filter and promote its truly skilled and talented artists, developing them in dA and sending them out to the fronteers of todays global art world. Who will make a bridge between Saatchi's YBA program and dA community? Ryan is the man for the job. However...


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