Nate Hofer

Associate Creative Director at VML

So what exactly do you do?

The short answer is I’m a graphic designer at VML. The long answer is that I’m an Associate Creative Director at VML. Every day, I work on digital design projects, whether it be for web or for apps. Right now, I am working at the Sprint campus, so VML has a group of employees set up there. Instead of going to my home desk, I report to Sprint along with the rest of the group. We are working on a transformation project where we’re redesigning their website and apps. – nationwide. The thing I’m doing in particular is helping to oversee the creative and execute the creative for the Sprint app when it relaunches.

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What got you interested in graphic design?

I liked to draw, or liked being creative in general. I played with lots of Legos growing up. When it came time to go to college, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what my options were. I thought fine art was the closest thing to what I was interested in so I became a painting major. Had I known a little more about illustration or graphic design, I probably would’ve gone either of those directions. But I finished a painting degree at KU. I did okay but it really wasn’t my passion. My parents talked me into doing some graphic design courses. I did it grudgingly, but I ended up loving it. It came as a surprise to me. I had a friend doing graphic design at the same time that I was doing art and I kind of looked down on him, I thought he was selling out for commercial, but in hindsight I wish I had known more because I really learned a little late in the game that that is what I should’ve been doing. But at the time, I didn’t regret fine art either, it was fun and I learned a lot but when I came to graphic design studies at KU, a lot things made sense to me. There were a lot of things that I always liked about graphic design, I just didn’t know what it was called. Particularly, one thing I loved, and continue to love, is letterpress printing. One thing that was an “aha!” moment to me was when I was in Nashville, TN and toured the poster shop there, and I just fell in love with the look and feel of letterpress design. So that was particularly inspiring, and that was right at that time where I was “I don’t really know what I’m doing, painting is fine but graphic design makes more sense to me.”

I wish I had known more about the technical, developer side of how websites work.

Do you think taking a fine arts class helped you?

Yeah I think it did help, it helped me live in the process or be in the zone, creatively. I spent many hours in my painting studio just experimenting. All that stuff is important to finding creative design solutions.

After you graduated, what was your first design-related job?

My first full-time paying job was a little company that did trade magazine publishing. It was called PriMedia. They did a whole bunch of business trade publishing.

Do you have anything you wished you learned before taking that job that you didn’t find out until later?

Actually, I do have something I wish I knew more about when starting out. I wish I had known more about the technical, developer language side of how websites work. It’s not my passion but I know it would be helpful for you to know that stuff.

Do you have any advice that you think we [seniors] ought to know before getting into it the real world of design?

Yeah, just know what you want. I didn’t know what I wanted, in terms of my painting degree. It was just something that seemed semi-close to my interests. I would say, being your age, take more chances, most of you are probably not locked into a mortgage or have kids or car payments, stuff like that. So you don’t have a lot of overhead to worry about right away. My first job, I didn’t take until I was 27, it took me a long time to get through school, I eventually finished two undergrad degrees. And I was in a band, we’d go on tour periodically. So I liked having that sort of flexibility, I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities at that time. My point is that if you want to, I don’t know, try starting a startup company or you want to be a letterpress printer, you know, something that isn’t super lucrative right off the bat, I don’t think it should scare you. Graphic design can go a lot of different ways; you don’t have to go to VML or advertising right away or something like that. You can start small and do whatever you want. You could do freelance or something. Feel free to take chances.

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What part of design interests you the most?

Branding and typography, probably a lot of designers say that. But it’s true, I’m always evaluating new logos, logo redesign, etc. That’s always fascinating to me. Also web design, I just love great digital design for the web! Websites in particular. App design is nice, I’m learning more about that right now, actually with my current role. But in the last few years, responsive design has really taken off, the industry standard for web design, I love it. There’s more creative freedom now than there was 8 years ago when I started at VML. Back then you could plan for either like, Georgia or Arial as the font for your website. Now you can use whatever font you want.

If you want to, I don’t know, try something that isn’t super lucrative right off the bat, I don’t think it should scare you... Feel free to take chances.

Do you recommend that design students take web design classes?

Yeah! I’ve got two little kids and I can’t wait for them to start getting into coding, I hear that schools today are doing that. Just having some foundational understanding of how stuff works is just going to benefit designers in the future. Like 7 or 8 years ago, you had to design a website for desktop and then for mobile phones. That was fine at the time but now everything operates on the same code base for every device and I love that universal flexibility.

Do you do all kinds of design “genres”, or do you specialize in certain things?

I like to think of myself as a generalist. I like doing the digital stuff every day but also I take on freelance projects for branding or for a family favor, I’d maybe make a t-shirt for somebody. All that stuff is a lot of fun too. I really started in print design in terms of what I did in graphic design, and now it’s more digitally-focused but I still like to do print design periodically.

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Do a lot of designers specialize in something, or are a lot of them generalists like you? And are designers allowed to just specialize in one particular area?

I think, from my own experience, I would say that being a generalist has helped me because it has given me more job options, and I enjoy that diversity in work, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t specialize. I think the people that do specialize in a particular area of design probably excel at it because that’s all they do. So, the answer is yes, you can go either way.

Do you know anything the difference between KU and JCCC’s programs?

I don’t know a lot of differences between JCCC’s 2-year program and KU’s 4-year program. I would recommend a 4-year program just because you’re going to get more classes and potentially learn more. You get to focus on more of design for longer periods of time. I think it depends on the individual too. If you’re a super dedicated designer, you’ll end up finding a way to learn and be successful regardless. It just depends on how you apply yourself.

Are there any professional designers without a graphic design education?

Yeah, they do what I do, or they do more than I do. Or they’re just, you know, smart, motivated guys who figured it out. They were self-taught. I think it’s mostly about your portfolio. If your work is solid, shows good thinking, and shows good craft, I’ll think you’ll be okay.

So in terms of design projects, what are your favorite steps of it? Or phase? Concepting, developing, etc.?

Concepting. I love the initial exploration, trying out colors and fonts. If you’re working for a particular client, you go and see what their competitors do, make sure that you differentiate. The strategy stuff is fun too. At VML, there are people that work on the up-front concepting, I guess I’m part of that. We also have a staff of people that are more production-oriented, that are more responsible for taking ideas and fleshing them out, getting them ready either for press, or to go to dev.

Do you think it’d be a good idea for freelancers to work with other designers or freelancers in something like a miniature firm, or work as individuals?

Well I prefer to work with other people, I think I’m a better designer with others. I’m a weaker designer when on my own. I like being pushed, I like being given different points of view. So I think it depends on the kind of person you are. I also know people who can do everything by themselves and they seem to be very successful. You probably have heroes online that you follow their work and it looks like they do what they do very well and they’re just kind of like a one-guy shop. I’m not really like that, it’d be cool if I could do it but I like showing up to a desk as part of a team, I like that dynamic. But that’s just me.

What or who inspires you or gives you inspiration?

That’s easy, I have a few heroes. Apple, in general, I love their approach to making things as simple as possible, both in UX and UI. For example, when they made Garage Band, like I mentioned before, I’m also a musician, and I never really aspired to be any kind of recording engineer or anything, that seemed like a completely different discipline and it seemed pretty opaque. It just seemed like that was a lot of work to even get anything started. When Apple launched Garage Band, it was like, “oh, I can do this, this is not that hard.” And that’s what I like about Apple, they make products that are highly technical and complicated and make them very easy for anybody. Plus, their design aesthetic is awesome, that’s sort of on the shiny, technical side. I also still love great letterpress design, great packaging design, you can touch it and feel it and smell it. My taste is schizophrenic when it comes to design. I love very simple and clean, Zen-like design but I also like messy, accidental-looking kind of design. Kind of like letterpress aesthetic, paint falls where it falls and that piece of paper or cardboard prints the way it prints and that’s what you get, and it could be awesome. I guess that might be the fine art side of me, it’s still a little bit alive inside of my soul.

Do you think it’d be a good idea for designers to take any sort of fine arts drawing class?

Oh yeah, definitely. The more you can draw, and I’m not a great illustrator, my draftsmanship is not awesome. But I can draw a little bit, and it helps sharpen your eye. And honestly, it’ll help make you a better UI designer too, because you’ll understand how light and shadow works. Google’s Material design approach to UI design is based on light, shadow, and physics. So if you understand even a little bit I think it’d make it a lot easier to understand and bring that to digital design.