The Interview Series // 30

Scott Thomas, also known as Simple Scott (http://simplescott NULL.com/), was the Design Director who helped to get Barack Obama elected as American president in 2008. Scott is not your typical designer, that much is true, although the typical designer should certainly be more like Scott. He’s an incredibly articulate and clear thinker heavily influenced by architecture, modernism and the human experience. All of which make his work completely utilitarian in the best way possible; people seem to interact with the websites he creates and the communications he’s published in an astonishingly involved way. But aside from all that intellectual hoo-hah, Scott is a totally gracious bro from Chicago who knows his shit more than most. How to live life better, how to find meaning in your work, what to do when things aren’t working, how to have friends and still have a fulfilling career… At least all the stuff we were dying to know, cause, you know, if it’s good enough for Barry Obammy, it’s good enough for you.

Junior: Scott, something’s been bugging me about this ‘successful career’ thing for a little while now… How do you have friends and still find time to indulge in the deep-thinking and hard-work a ‘successful career’ requires? Especially when you’re young.

Scott Thomas: I think it’s important to understand time. Everyone is in a rush. Many people don’t spend time enjoying things and living in the present moment. With work, when there are those times that you can’t take it any longer, you have to step away from it. Go do something fun, go hang out with your friends.

However, I also feel in those same instances where it’s important to walk away from your work, it’s important to walk away from everything else for a while and just work. That’s where true concentration comes from. Concentration is hard nowadays; it’s becoming more and more difficult. iPhones are constantly buzzing, emails always coming through, YouTube clips to check out, Facebook messages popping up all over the place–you don’t really want all that distraction. In order to be truly successful and do something well you have to shut off the outside world for a while.

Jr: But how do you do that if your friends are persuasive people?

S: They’re persuasive, but you don’t let them persuade you.

Jr: So can I tell them to fuck off?

S: No, you shut them off. You close everything. You turn off your phone. You go out on the weekend and tell them, “Guys, I’m not going to see you for a week because I have to get stuff done. I’m not going to be accessible by phone and email and I won’t really respond much so… c’est la vie.”

Ideally, go someplace that doesn’t have internet. Then you can spend more time concentrating and working. It’s an ebb and flow. I’ve never really lived in NYC but I can imagine living here would be hard–I’m only here for a week or so once every couple of months and I don’t stop when I’m here, I’m constantly moving. I can see how NYC could be a distraction. But your network can grow vastly very quickly, especially if you can do something well.

Jr: New York is a great place to come when you are young and be social. But it’s not such a great place when you want to sit down and focus and do some work, especially work that is going to get you somewhere other than work that is just going to pay the bills.

S: Right. I think that’s the balancing act. For me I’ve always seen creatives struggle with it–“I’m going to go to New York to become famous!” No, you’re not, you’re going to go there and struggle paying for an apartment and struggle with your career. If you’re doing things well and you come here, and you already have some things established, then I think it’s the place to be. It’s just like everything else.

Personally I have a season where I don’t do anything. I hibernate in the winter. I keep in very mild contact with my friends, but it’s good for me. I need to be secluded when I work.

Jr: Have you always been like that?

S: Yeah, I studied architecture in college. Luckily the architecture studio is a quiet place. Typically I wouldn’t work there during the day, but I’d go there at night from about 7pm-3am. I’d spend hours working at night, and that was so helpful because I had no distraction, and no outside influence. If I have people around me I want to hear what they have to say.

Jr: Ah yes! I suppose that’s the difference between an office job and working freelance for yourself. At an office you have to deal with all the people around you and the politics that go with it. But when you’re freelancing, you get up in the morning, sit at your desk, and it’s just you. You have the decision whether you do work or not. There are no excuses.

S: I think that’s one thing that it definitely does–it allows you to form your own mind. I think the disease of a corporate environment is that you get stuck doing whatever they demand you to do. You’re a task man. You’re a yes man. You’re stuck in a world of checking things off the list your superiors are telling you to do, rather than following your passion, your desire, and asking the questions you wanted to ask.

Jr: Then again, you need mentors, and motivation, and a firm kick in the ass if you don’t have a sense of urgency in what you do.

S: I think the trick is to have close friends that you work with that will give you that kick in the ass, that will push you, inspire you, and drive you. Doing something completely alone–there is no real way to get a good product in the end. In order to grow you need constant influence at a young age. Constantly adding fuel to the fire.

Jr: So how did it happen for you? On the way here you were saying you studied architecture then dropped out?

S: I didn’t drop out so much, I kind of switched. I transferred and went to Iowa State and found that graphic design interested me. I didn’t know why, but I felt that architecture was too engineering based, too structural and not artistic enough. I wondered if I needed the freedom that graphic design was going to offer me. It was a difficult challenge for me early on, and I found that I actually needed a math problem and some structure. That’s why the web made so much sense to me. I started building websites pretty early on, in 1998.

Jr: Is that what you do now? Mostly web stuff?

S: I’m very web focused. I did the Vote for Change website. I created the architecture concept and worked with the developers to do it.

Jr: So you never did print?

S: Of course I did. The thing that got me jobs was that I could open up Photoshop and I knew branding–I’m a very multi-faceted designer.

Jr: Although it’s probably one of the most hirable skills at the moment–having web knowledge.

S: It is, but even more so if you’re also a real designer. Not only can I make your website work, but I can make it look good.

Jr: Where did you go after you finished college?

S: I was really unsatisfied just doing graphic design and I didn’t really enjoy it. I wanted to explore, so I went to London for almost a year. I didn’t really have plans when I went, I ended up working in music distribution.

Jr: Putting shit in envelopes and sending it to people?

S: No, I designed CD covers, cases and packaging. Brand stuff. It was a good chance to allow me to explore. But I wouldn’t claim any of that work to be good stuff in my eyes. I was an intern so I was getting paid, you know, crap. I also worked at a pub. It was an experience that kind of altered my perspective on things. It was the first time I was in a different culture, and I realised that there was a big world out there. After that, I went back to Iowa where my family is from.

Jr: Did you have anything to show for it?

S: Not really, I mean, I had a new haircut and wore fancy clothes. I was on a completely different planet when I got back. The people in Iowa knew that. My mind was completely on another planet. I was only there for six months or so. It was hard. It was a culture shock. I had serious anxiety from not wanting to be there, you know, I went back to fucking Iowa. The coolest thing there is cornfields and hay-bales. I tried to work on small bullshit projects freelancing to save up some money so I could get out as soon as possible. The best thing about it was after that, I was never the same person. I become instantly clear as did my understanding of everything.

Jr: What changes?

S: I think it’s the reality that you can go anywhere and do whatever you want to do. You can say, “I can do it, this is my future, I’m going to do it,” and not blink.

Jr: Yes. That stage where you realise you’re in complete control of the rest of your life.

S: This brings up an interesting subject of lucid dreaming and many people’s fascination with being able to control their dreams. Why would you want to control your dreams when you have complete control of your life?

Jr: Many people think they aren’t in control of their lives; that life is continually swirling in a vortex of other peoples shit. But they completely are in control–it’s just a matter of perspective.

S: Totally. You get stuck by the system. You’ve got all these forces telling you that you have to do this and you have to get a job and you have to work in a cubicle and this is life. “This is life son, welcome.”

Jr: Were your parents like that?

S: No, I was lucky. They supported me. I think that they realised early on that I had my mind made up. I told them I was going to move to Oregon and go to school, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

Jr: Why was it crazy?

S: Because it was so far away from them.

Jr: They didn’t have to financially support you at all?

S: I think that was the problem, I was paying for a bit of it and was realising how much it was costing me.

Jr: Most parents these days seem to be happier with whatever you do as long as they don’t have to pay for it. Which can be harder in some ways because you need that.

S: That support?

Jr: Yeah.

S: Especially when you are beginning to realise the necessity of money. Try as hard as you want to fight it, at the end of the day, you need it.

Jr: A lot of money when you’re a kid turns out to be nothing when you’re older.

S: I try not to think about money as much as possible.

Jr: London is more expensive than anywhere though. How did you cope there?

S: Again, you don’t think about money.

Jr: What about when you get into debt?

S: Think about how you are going to pay it off.

Jr: So what did you do when you moved from Iowa?

S: I moved to Chicago. I met some friends who invited me to come live with them, so I did. It was right downtown and I loved it instantly. My roommates were great, they were creative, and it was nice to be around people who were constantly doing stuff. I worked for quite a few years in user-determined design at IA Collaborative (http://www NULL.iacollaborative NULL.com/), analyzing all sorts of things. Everything was very focused on user experience, mostly products. Not online.

Jr: Solving human problems, rather than wondering where to stick the logo?

S: Yes, absolutely. It wasn’t focused on stylizing. For me it was very focused on the sort of stuff that you look at and think, “Wow, that’s so simple, why didn’t I think of that?” Analyzing those things and how they work. Trying to innovate new solutions. It made me dive deep, it was very immersive, an all encompassing job.

Jr: That’s the sort of education people need for solving problems.

S: Oh absolutely, it taught me so much–I learned a lot about how to approach user experience design. Now that I consider myself a user experience designer, a lot of people say, “What the hell does that mean? What do you design?” I want to design the entire experience and not limit myself to one chunk, one part of it. I don’t want to just design the logo, I want to design the bottle, the product, the packaging, the experience of when you open that door at the convenience store–I want to control all those senses. I think that’s my architectural mind coming out as well as branding, communication, design–everything.

Jr: Maybe that’s more design thinking than architecture?

S: Not necessarily. I think great architects want to have the ability to design everything in their space. Everything makes a huge impact. I personally believe that architects want to control the entire experience.

Jr: Is architecture the next step for you then?

S: Yes, absolutely. For me it’s a personal thing, it’s where my mind is most of the time. When I go away I draw more buildings in spaces than anything else. I take notes on places; how the height of a stair affected me. I think that way. It’s natural. That’s why the internet and what is happening technologically is another area I’m successful in and I think that my brain works well in.

In the same way that an architect connects spaces with one another, a web/interaction designer is connecting how our interactions connect with one another. As a web designer you’re not designing a poster. In fact, I’m not sure I could even design a poster anymore, I just don’t have that mind. A web designer is constantly creating a connections within a page, then from one page to the next. It’s far more of an experience and a way-finding device than anything else, so you have to be good at directing people to where they want to go.

Jr: What do you think is the biggest failing of most online user experiences that you see? What are some good ideas for kids when they get an digital brief and they want to make it better?

S: I think the biggest problem is being stuck in the creative conceptual realm. The web is not a place to explore conceptual artwork. It’s just not. Personality is not necessarily something you want to inject into a website. They’re utilitarian. They are there to supply you with the ability to find information, gather information, and then leave. There are obviously some sites where you can be more conceptual but the truly powerful sites in our web world today are utilitarian, like twitter and Facebook and YouTube.

The reason they are popular is that people can use them. They can use them very effectively as a means to an end. I’m gathering all my friends here and I can upload a video and share it with all my friends, or I can find any book in the world. That’s what the web is today.

I also think it’s important to stay away from projects that are just bad ideas. Sometimes I struggle with that when someone wants to pay you, but when you start knocking it out you see the site is never going to go anywhere because it’s a bad idea. That’s always hard. I bet the same occurs in architecture.

Jr: Probably. Maybe the same occurs in everything.

S: I’m not sure why I think architecture is the next general step for me, I think it’s also due to the fact that after the Obama campaign it’s really hard to take on a project that has that level of significance and importance. I’m really not sure if I want to take on that level of importance again or do something that big again.

Jr: What was the importance? That it changed the direction of the United States?

S: That and the design of the campaign. I don’t think that design has ever been done like that in politics. We focused more on trying to do things right, and quickly, and make things look good, and look right. Rather than just making things.

Jr: What was the difference on the Obama campaign? Why was that so different?

S: Because of the way the organisation was structured. We didn’t have a top-down organisation, we had a bottom-down organisation. Lets take choices of typography for example. If we started to use Gotham, it wasn’t like we had to go and speak to our bosses who had to then ask Barack. Obviously Barack Obama has no thoughts on typography. I go home and have wet dreams on typography so clearly they are going to trust me on that decision; they’re too busy to think about it anyway. So if I was to write a report on why I wanted to switch from Gill Sans to Gotham, it probably would never have gotten read and it also would have been a waste of time.

Jr: Is that what usually happens?

S: I feel like in most corporations you have to justify all of your reasons and ask the person above you so you don’t get fired. There’s all those systems in place. I hate the word ‘systems’, because it also means boxes, and coffins.

Jr: So basically they just trusted you to do the right thing, and it was pure luck that you were incredibly good, otherwise it might not have been such a success.

S: Ha, yes, I guess you’re right. Although I’m sure they wouldn’t call it luck. You know, I think it’s important to understand what the power of design is. The power of design is not saying a single thing but communicating a whole lot. If you’re a writer the best sentence you could write is probably the one with the fewest words possible. If it communicates everything you want to say in the smallest number of words possible that’s what you’re reaching for.

Jr: Simple is better.

S: I call myself Simple Scott, so of course I agree with that.

Jr: How simple can we get? How do you choose between using a typeface? Something as simple as that?

S: We can’t go into something that specific straight away. We need to talk about what simplicity is. The important thing to understand about simplicity is you need to dive deep into the complexity of the situation.

It takes one person to think about all the complexities in order for true simplicity to be derived. That seems crazy right? You have to dive to the edge of oblivion before you know what’s going on. I think that’s true. I think that you have to do the largest amount of analysis before you can make the most simple and elegant solution.

Jr: So you’re saying before you worked on the Obama campaign you knew everything about him and his policies and everything he was trying to achieve.

S: During. It was a constant process of learning. You’re not going to be able to know everything about everything. But you need to know a little bit about what the problem is. Like the voting process. The notion is that voting registration in the USA is a complex process. You need to think about what the problems you’re trying to solve are. Then once you know and understand that, you try to make the most elegant solution, then walk people through the process.

Simplicity is a difficult thing to wrap ones mind around. The only things that are simple are the things that are truly empty (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=PG4uRmTJUU8), that are truly void. The second you start adding a second variable it becomes complex. The design of a spoon is really complex when you boil it down. Something as simple as a spoon requires a lot of knowledge and understanding about human needs and the way we do things.

I think the beauty of simplicity, the reason I call myself Simple Scott, the reason I chose to make that my life’s work, is because I think it’s something that I can be constantly challenged by for the rest of my life. I can spend the rest of my life making things simpler and never get bored. I think everyone should find something like that. You think about some of the greatest minds in existence, like Albert Einstein, who was trying to take two theories and bring them into one basic idea, one unified theory. He never really reached it, but I don’t think he was ever really bored.

Jr: That’s right. Being constantly challenged. Which is a problem for many people who get a job somewhere and end up working 9-5 for ten years and not being that happy.

S: It happens all the time. People getting bored as hell or living out somebody else’s dream.

Jr: For many young people, especially those reading this interview, thirty seems like the roof in career terms. From your experience, can you offer any advice on how you put yourself in the perfect position so you can continue to grow and challenge yourself?

S: I have two plants in my house. One is a spider plant, and the other is something I can’t remember the name of. The interesting thing about the second plant is I bought it the week that I started at the campaign. It was a real little guy with four leaves. I bought it because I wanted to watch it grow. I knew that by working on the campaign, I was going to grow too–the plant was a representation of my personal growth. A plant doesn’t grow in a set path. It grows based on where the sun is, how much rain it gets, how much water it receives, how much attention it is having. All these elements play into the plant’s growth. It applies the same to us. If you take this as an analogy for the question, you don’t know which way your leaves are going to grow until they grow that way. It’s important to respect that, appreciate that, and to not look too far ahead into things.

Often times we want to have the answer to where we’re bound to go, but the truth is, we’re just here. If you spend your entire life living in the future you’re never going to enjoy the present and you’re never going to enjoy now. Then when all of a sudden you don’t have anything in the future to look towards, you don’t know how to appreciate the present. You become a sad old man. So I would suggest that everyone lives like a plant.

Jr: Sometimes things just happen, much like when you switched from architecture to design–you just know it’s the right thing to do at the time. And now with architecture, you’re about to begin on that journey, but who knows what strange and interesting places it will take you.

S: I might go back and teach for the rest of my life.

Jr: That could be the calling. I guess you need to leave it open for that.

S: Everyone needs that understanding and appreciation. I have a hard time with the notion of committing to anything at the present moment, and I think it’s because I’m really enjoying now. In the past I spent so much time living in the future that I started to forget why I was excited about life.

Jr: Well it sounds like you’re in a pretty great spot existentially now anyway. But how do you get there? How did you get there?

S: Time. Flow. I just got back from Japan. I was in Japan for two months. One of the things that I learned and really appreciated, and I learned a lot there, was this notion of master. Sensei. The notion of apprentice vs master. The difference between doing things as young people and old people. Sometimes we lose sight of that. We don’t want to listen to our elders or someone who has been in it for a while. Obviously it’s a double-edged sword, but our masters here are jaded by the fact that no one will listen to them. In Japan though, they are respected, welcomed and embraced. They’re able to flourish with it as well. I like that dichotomy there, the notion that the master is getting something from the youth that he teaches and the people that he teaches are getting the lessons of a lifetime. It’s a very structural society. They deal in hierarchy all the time. At a meeting everyone puts their business cards on a table and they’re ordered by who is more superior. It’s very structured.

Jr: So would you say structure is a good thing?

S: I don’t think Japanese people would consider it a good thing. I just think it’s interesting. I don’t think it happens here in the States. I think there’s a constant wanting to trump and to be better than.

Jr: It’s a good reason to get out, see different cultures and do different things, because for others something else works.

S: Yeah totally. I’ve never been in a society that was that much of a utopia. You could set your laptop on the table and walk away, and it would still be there. There’s no crime. There’s such a regard for the other person that that just doesn’t happen. Even in a place that is so dense. We’re talking about half of the people in the USA condensed into the size of California. But because Japan is so mountainous they only use 20% of their country. The rest is basically uninhabitable. Isn’t that crazy?

Jr: It certainly is. And you went there on sabbatical, which is another interesting topic. Your mentors told to go or your head might explode.

S: Yeah, people were telling me my head might pop off. Obviously after you do something really large like the Obama campaign, you know, take on a really big project and you accomplish it, after you cross that thing off the list, which for me a was an item that said, ‘win this fucking thing’, once that was checked I had no idea what to do next. I knew I didn’t want to go to Washington DC. I was offered a job at the Whitehouse, but I knew I wasn’t the right guy, though I would love to help the democracy further. I don’t think that it was the right time for me to help my country in that way.

Jr: Who came up with the idea for Japan?

S: I did, it was always a place I had wanted to explore. I wanted to go someplace where I wouldn’t be able to read anything, I wouldn’t see any typography that I understood, I wouldn’t be able to read any adverts. Everything ended up looking cute and kind of silly because I couldn’t read it, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted an escape from all of that, and I found it there. I found a great peace in Japan, even in a city as busy as Tokyo, which is very peaceful in areas, and there’s a great connection to nature even within the city. And there was stuff everywhere! All these interactions make up your experience, having more experiences increases the amount of knowledge that you have and possess, and the more you can potentially experience, the more that you can potentially know. I think it’s true for anybody.

If you have any passion to know yourself better than you knew it before, go someplace that is completely and utterly foreign to you. Go with no one else, go by yourself, go with no plans, and no conceptions about what it is going to be.

If you want a more in-depth look into how Scott engineered the Obama campaign, watch this speech he gave (http://vimeo NULL.com/9145266) at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 07/04/2010