Mike Kus Talks Design Process


If you’ve seen us at any conferences lately or follow us on Twitter, you’ve likely seen our beautifully designed t-shirt reading, “Design is at the heart of everything we do.”

This has become the motto of the Shopify Partner Program, and we teamed up with Mike Kus to design an exclusive t-shirt depicting these words.

Perhaps you’ve seen the video that Mike Kus put together documenting his design process. If not, it’s definitely worth taking a look:

Design is at the heart of everything we do from mike kus on Vimeo.

We chatted with Mike Kus to get behind the camera; to chat about the details behind his design process. He explains how the t-shirt came to life, but also how he works on other larger projects with clients. And he leaves us with some poignant advice for other designers trying to make a career for themselves.

The following comes from Mike Kus in his own words, taken from an interview with Courtney Symons.

The Beginning

Initially, the idea came from a conversation I had with Keir (Whitaker, Shopify Design Advocate). He mentioned the phrase, “Design is at the heart of everything we do.” I took that and we brainstormed some ideas, and we agreed to use the phrase as a strapline on a t-shirt. I started to think of ways to visualize that.

To be honest, the idea for the design came to my head pretty quickly. I always like to use the image of a real heart, the muscle, as opposed to just a symbol of a heart.

Really, it was just a matter of sketching ideas and words, and thinking about what is at the heart of the design process. I was looking for words that make up the content of the heart illustration. It’s really that marriage with the strapline that tells a story.

It’s hard to say exactly how long it took from start to finish. I did other stuff off-camera that I didn’t include – not all of it was going to be that interesting to watch. The first thing I did was spend half a day looking around the web for different pieces of inspiration, and I put together a personal moodboard of things I saw that inspired me. That’s a large part of the process for me, just sort of getting into a space where you just tackle it. I don’t ever just start. I spend a lot of time conceiving it first. I even have a little textpad on my computer that I type notes on. I’ll be working on other projects and jump to it to take notes on something else, just gathering imagery.

The Middle

In this case, after the half-day of inspiration research, I took another day to do some initial sketches. The stuff I caught on camera was probably about two hours of that.

That final part, the execution, is actually quicker than the research. The research and thinking about it takes longer. Executing the idea, as long as I’ve gotten it right, is faster. It’s not always the case, but this time it went quite smoothly.

As for the tools I use, I always start off with a pencil and paper for scribbling down notes, ideas, maybe some icon design for page layouts. There’s not anything quicker than a pencil and paper, really. Once I’m past that stage, depending on how big the project is or if it’s for a website, I’ll mock up some wireframes in Balsamiq, then I’ll use Illustrator and Photoshop to do some vector graphic work, iconography and illustratrations. I use Photoshop to lay it out for the web.

The End

There are two sides to knowing when a project is completed. There’s the technical side – implementing UI to tell the user they need to do this, and fill in this form. That stuff is all quite obvious when it’s finished. It’s about delivering information and following processes.

The other side – the creative side – is different. If I’m trying to do a website that’s a marketing site for a web agency or design agency, it’s really about conveying their message to their customers. That’s a lot less obvious when it’s finished. I’m always trying to do my best to convey what they’re all about, and that’s not just through words. It’s through style, illustration and layout. I know it’s finished when it stops nagging me; when I feel no need to change it any more.

A lot of work on the web is web design: delivering information and designing UI. That’s common sense and following conventions. You have to make sure it’s easy to understand, accessible and easy to use. The other side of the coin is when I’m conveying brand attributes and expressing what the company is all about. I start by gathering resources based on conversations I’ve had with the client. I get as much information about them as possible. What are they about, what do they want to get across? Then I create a moodboard of all the things I feel I can use to represent them.

Alongside this, I start brainstorming keywords – words that express who they are. I try to narrow it down until I have a strapline that sums them up. It’s usually about six words. For example, I did a site called mixd.co.uk and I came up with this strapline for them: Beautiful form, perfect function.

That strapline alone instantly conjures up images of how to visualize that. I use a combination of the strapline, the moodboard, and imagery I create from those themes. I use that as a basis to build upon, and hopefully it’s quite clever.

From there, it gets easier. Once I’ve solved that puzzle, the rest of the process and design comes from that. People come to me quite specifically to do this. I’ve created a little niche of being half web designer, half brand maker. I enjoy it. It’s the bit where I can be very creative. I never have any idea of what the end result will be. I’m always terrified of what I’ll come up with.

The Advice

If you’re a young designer trying to make a name for yourself, normally you have an idea of where you want your career path to go, and what sort of design you want to do. The only way to get there is to make sure you design the work you want to do.

Initially, this will probably mean you need to do projects for yourself, or do things for free because you want to get a web design portfolio that contains the work you want to do. If you’re working at an insurance job or something and you spend your life making forms for people to take out an insurance portfolio – if that’s all you have in your web design portfolio, that’s all you’ll ever do.

If you want to design record covers, you need to design record covers. I say this because I did this too. I did the work. Some of it was for friends, some of it was for myself. I did the work, and it wasn’t proper paying work, but I created a portfolio that I wanted to have. Then you can attract the kind of people that need that kind of work, and you end up doing the work you’ve always wanted to do.

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