What becoming a product designer, childhood dreams & Silicon Valley have in common?
It could be said that resourcefulness, talent, persistence and keeping up with trends, are the keys to success. This is an inspiring story about a hard-working designer that keeps herself busy at home in Croatia, while also networking in Europe and staying up late to catch up with work and her client in Silicon Valley. She’s also a mum and a wife that tries to stay active and enjoy nature to make up for the time spent in front of the screen. Meet Ivana!
Becoming a Designer
Ivana, what was behind your decision to start studying design? At that early stage of your life, how did you identify design as your future career?
I think I was born with the designer’s mindset, and nothing else was ever destined to me. When I was a child, one of my favourite pastimes was observing people while they used everyday things and imagining how that could be improved. Many years would pass before I’d realise what I was doing back then to entertain myself was a part of the design process. Thinking about how products can be redesigned and improved upon has always excited me. I’ve spent days sketching my ideas. At the time I started elementary school, my dream was to become an aeroplane or car designer.
But then, during school years, I liked mathematics and physics. I was not drawing that much anymore, and I started thinking about being an engineer. Who knows where that would lead my career if the war hadn’t started in Bosnia. During the siege in my home town Sarajevo, sketching and drawing became the way for me to cope with anxiety, depression, and fears. Once, a friend of my dad, an architect, visited us, and dad showed him a few drawings I’ve made. He thought I was very talented and that it would be a huge loss not to work on developing this talent. So, he asked his friend, a professor at The Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, to mentor me for free, and he accepted that. That led to a significant improvement in both my drawing techniques and ways of visual thinking. Soon after, I changed my school from the gymnasium to the school of applied arts and design, as I felt confident enough that was what I wanted to do in my life.
During the last year of high school, I moved to Zagreb, Croatia. By that time, I knew that I wanted to focus my career around design, so the School of Design at the Faculty of Architecture was my only option, although admitting only 25 students. I was extremely excited and happy about getting in, and the dream seemed to start turning into reality.
Since then, have you ever felt you would be good at something else, or had any other career desires?
I only felt that I would be a true disaster at many things, or quite unhappy with so many others. Still, very rarely, I question if being an engineer would be a better career choice. I’ve always been curious about how everything functions under the hood, and I like getting my nose into the code. But those moments pass quickly, as I get excited about my next design challenge.
Can you remember your first project, and was it successful?
I started working on various small design projects while still studying, so it’s a bit hard to pinpoint the very first one. During that college time, I participated with the group of marketing students at the International Student Advertising Competition (InterAd V). I designed everything, starting with our group branding and marketing collaterals, to all print and interactive presentations for the project itself, and we won the World Best of Category Award for PlansBook Design. I learned a lot, which helped me land my first full-time job as a designer at the publishing company.
My first project there was to design the educational sports magazine. I was inexperienced, and it was so exciting, challenging, and scary at the same time. Working with a great team helped a lot. My knowledge was enormously elevated in a short time, and that’s how I met a few of my best friends. So in that sense, that project was successful for me. But the project itself failed, only three issues of the magazine were ever published. I still think there was nothing wrong with the design, but the product-market fit was missing.
What was the first and most significant project that maybe scared you a little?
Honestly, every single project I still start working on scares me a bit. Once that feeling stops, I think that will be a sign to consider retiring from the design profession. It reminds me that I care, and if that stops and everything becomes just a routine, then all the joy and fun will be gone, and that’s something I don’t want to experience. However, I was probably the most scared while designing my first mobile (iOS) app. The deadline was super tight, and I needed to learn so many new things along the way. But that fear was good. It pushed me to deliver beyond expectations. The experience brings more confidence. Knowing that I already solved similar problems, reassures me I’ll be able to do it again, but the chills remain.
Algebra collaboration and love for digital design
I personally met you somewhere around 2014 at Algebra University. How did that story start? And, why did you decide to get certified on Adobe tools?
My story with Algebra goes back to 2006. Back then, I was already running my design studio. After a period of parental leave and with a toddler at home, I was somewhat struggling to find new projects. That pushed me to start thinking about what else I could do to improve my income and teaching sounded like an interesting option. After Algebra’s screening for the lecturer position, one of the requirements I had to fulfil before teaching others was passing the Adobe Certified Expert Photoshop exam, so that’s how I got certified for the first time. The truth is also that I like taking exams, and all the certification and recertification I did after was fun.
What was most challenging when you trained people?
People themselves, or maybe better said human psychology. You need to understand both the group and all individuals in it. Then find an appropriate way and rhythm in which to teach, so everyone is satisfied, and they all make reasonable progress in their learning. You listen to feedback all the time. Sometimes, the group is so versatile, and it takes a lot of energy, patience, and experience to be successful. Occasionally everything just clicks, and training becomes pure enjoyment. I think I’ve learned the same if not more by teaching than by working on designing. To transfer your knowledge, you need to structure everything you know way better than if everything stays only in your head. You’re also challenged to keep pace with all changes in the field. Also, conversations with students help broaden your perspectives.
The passion that you showed for digital was a catalyst for me to join your course, but also for you to initiate it at Algebra. What has changed since then?
Not much, actually. Digital publishing has somewhat improved since, but not as much as I was expecting. Also, digital has not been adopted as much as I hoped it would. Things move super fast and slow at the same time. There are still many possibilities for improvement. I’m currently mainly designing for mobile and web apps in the fintech and insurance-tech space, so my passion moved slightly, and I don’t follow all the innovations in the field so timely and detailed as I used to.
I’ll move the conversation to another aspect of your work, and that’s your self-employment status and your own brand Emondo; how did you start, and how did the project grow?
The Emondo story started way back in 2002. At that time, I got an opportunity to work on a few larger projects as a contractor and decided to use that to start my own company. Since then, Emondo went through multiple ups and downs, influenced by my personal life and changes in the industry and the overall economic situation. Currently, besides me, two other designers are working at Emondo design full-time and two part-time. All the growth was organic; satisfied clients would contact us again or make a recommendation.
You are a member of Toptal, an online platform that connects top talents with top clients, some of them being Airbnb, Shopify and similar brands. Where are your clients located and what’s your secret on how to win a top gig?
I worked only on one gig through Toptal, but it lasted for about two and a half years, although initially, it was supposed to last for two weeks. The client was based in Silicon Valley. The secret to winning a top gig, in my opinion, is excellent and open communication, and some luck. When you are competing with extraordinary professionals, you need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and play according to them. It would be best if you were also passionate about your work and the project.
FlexWork and remote work, do you still have the office and how much do you work from home?
We still have the office, but since the COVID-19 outbreak, we haven’t used it. I just went there for a few days when I had a considerable work overload and needed to isolate myself from all the distractions at home. But before March, the Emondo Design team was mainly working from the office and I was switching between the home and the office. Since most of my clients were based in California, and I’m a night owl, I was usually working from the office during the early afternoon and then evening and night from home.
How does one regular day look for your team?
It now looks somewhat different than before COVID for sure since now we are entirely remote. Each of us is responsible for some of the projects. Many clients are with us long term, and their projects usually don’t require much internal communication. We track workload and tasks in Trello and make all other conversation on the Slack. When needed, we jump on a call. So on a regular day, everyone works on their stuff, communicates with their accounts. Then we quickly sync on chat. Usually, everything goes quite smoothly. From time to time, some problems occur, and then we deal with them as they come.
How much of your time do you spend on social media and do you find networks like LinkedIn more useful than others?
I don’t spend much time on any social media, LinkedIn included. Most often, I scroll through my feed once a day, usually during the morning. I use it to keep track of the changes and trends in the industry and the careers of my contacts. Also, I don’t post much, generally only about some cool projects we make or my speaking engagements.
Networking, conferences & trends
Speaking of networking, I noticed you travelled to some pretty cool destinations and conferences, what are your favourite professional trips?
I love travelling, and every trip was great in its own way. The last one I went to was to the Web Summit in Lisbon, and I liked it a lot. The event is huge, and I felt overwhelmed at the beginning. I didn’t want to miss anything and wanted to be at multiple places at the same time. But after I relaxed a bit and accepted that I’d need to lose something, I started enjoying it thoroughly. The other favourite was the one to Los Angeles, where I spent a week working onsite with the team.
What is your favourite design-related blog or a news-source?
I use Panda 5 and Muzli plugins for the Chrome browser that collect design news and inspiration from various places. Usually, I scan them at the beginning of the day when I start working, and eventually later during the day during some breaks. I follow multiple publications on Medium, and I probably read the most articles from the UX Collective and Prototypr. I also regularly check new products on Product Hunt.
You are collaborating with WeAreDevelopers, and the next Conference is scheduled for 2021?
The previous WeAreDevelopers conference happened while I had a speaking engagement at IT Camp Romania in Cluj-Napoca, so I missed it. My colleague went and what I heard from her was awe-inspiring. I hope to attend the 2021 one.
When you think about Croatian brands, which is the first to come to mind?
The first brand that crossed my mind was Kraš. Probably not because of the full brand identity but my love for Bajadera and sweets. Generally, I don’t make deep connections with brands. Some identities work well during specific times, and then others push them out.
And the best global example at the moment?
I don’t remember what the last time I felt excited about the branding project since I shifted my focus from branding and visual to the UX and product space, so this feels like quite a hard question. I would say Apple probably still stays on the top. I like Spotify and Airbnb, but perhaps more because I like their product design than the brand itself.