Jimmy Tomczak’s in-depth interview with Kyle Feliks, Chief Creative Officer at NewFoundry
Explain your role at NewFoundry right now.
I am responsible for the look and feel of the work we produce here, from something as simple in scope as an identity, to a full UI/UX project.
What I am doing now is very different from what I was doing a year ago, which is significantly different from 3-5 years ago. For years I was an employee at an agency. I worked on many different types of design projects but I was mostly just an art director. An art director sometimes has a checklist mentality. I was given a creative brief and I fulfilled it.
Now my role has taken an exponential leap. When I expanded my work with Scott and our previous company, Lingo, it became a lot more strategic. I spend as much time thinking about use cases as I do designing. I’m also much more involved in framing out the ideas themselves – not just the visual representation of them. I don’t just execute the creative briefs any more, I write them.
Today was a good example. We had a client in the office and we were working on user profiles, use cases and wireframes. I’m not just thinking about the visual part anymore, I’m considering the client’s entire journey along the way.
I liken it to driving: I used to just do the decorations on the shoulder; now I help plan the route and lay the road.
What’s your vision for the future five to ten years out?
For me personally, the idea of being a builder is huge. I was raised with a very blue-collar mentality. Do-it-yourself was the only way to do it. Every male in my family builds things.
I have this innate drive to want to build things. The transition from just design to here at NewFoundry where I can actually be involved in building and launching an app was inevitable.
I really feel like that’s what I’m doing now: building and launching products. That’s what I’m most passionate about. Five or ten years from now I might only be working on our own original apps – or whatever the five to ten year equivalent of that is as technology evolves.
For the company, I hope that we can continue to build products, riding the wave of new technology, taking the innovations and applying them in smart ways, to be part of all this new technology.
In the past when we just did client work we were always just a little bit behind on what’s possible. Now we’re at the point where we can define what’s possible. I want us to be the one’s defining what’s possible. I want to push the concept of the ‘internet of things’ and embedded technology to everywhere it makes sense. What will be the biggest difference ten years from now.
We’ve seen how new technology, specifically mobile, is part of most of our day-to-day activities. I want that go further, but I want it to be more seamless. Desktops were our primary connection to the web but that changed to smart phones. Now we are seeing so many more web-enabled products that maybe the concept of devices will become irrelevant. Maybe our connection to the web will happen at so many different places that we won’t even think of apps, they will just be ingrained in the experience. You’re trained as a commercial artist. You take someone’s thing and make it look good. You solve their problem with design in the best way you can. Given a blank canvas, what do you do?
I have a love/hate relationship with the blank canvas. It freaks me out a little. I struggle more with a blank canvas than, say, give me a safety pin, a crayon and a pizza box…Ok, I’m on that! The problem solving part has always been more inspiring and creative to me than just a blank canvas.
I guess the best answer, which is pretty vague, is I will continue to look for opportunities to enhance experiences and simplify experiences, and allow people to fully engage in the experience without wrestling with the steps and minutia around the process. Basically, how can we use technology to get to the good stuff quicker and not be distracted by the technology itself. What’s something that frustrates you in the design world?
I hate more than anything in the world an unrealized idea. When we’re having these pie in the sky discussions around concepts we have, I always just want to start doing it. I hate it when a great idea just flutters away because too many things are added or it loses its focus. I can’t stand it.
I always try to ask, “How can we make it happen? How can we make it work? I just want to dive in and get started.” What lens do you see the world through? Where does your innovation come from?
I’m not sure if this is a lens, but I feel like I can’t look at anything and not think how to do it better. That doesn’t mean I always have the solution but I can’t stand inefficiencies.
When I see that a process is causing confusion for a group of people that really drives me crazy. I feel I run a constant critique of everything and I feel the need to do something about it. If you can do something you can probably do it better.
Sometimes that’s subjective. You have to know when to turn that off. Evolution is just as valuable is revolution. You can’t have one with out the other. Tell me about your working relationship with the rest of the NewFoundry team.
There’s a great line in a Morphine song that I love. “I run good but I’m hard to start // And my brakes are bad so I’m hard to stop.” That’s totally me. If you put our excitement on a curve, Scott’s excited out of the gate. It takes me a bit longer to dive in and get excited about something, but once I do I can’t shut it off. How do you harness your passion?
I like to get my hands dirty. I remember my wife went away for the weekend and I started making this thing in the garage. Do you remember Plinko from the Price is Right? I made one. A 12-foot tall by 6-foot wide Plinko. I worked through most of the night. I forgot to eat a couple times and I was obsessed with finishing. I said I was going to build it for a while and when I got the opportunity I grabbed it. I couldn’t stop working on it. What is the first moment you remember in your Life?
I don’t know what my absolute first one was but I have one very early on and it’s actually pretty visual.
Like I said before, my dad used to build things and one time in particular he made this balsa wood model airplane. I remember we had a slide in the backyard and for some reason my dad decided that he wanted to blow it up with firecrackers. I was about 3 or 4 years old and I remember him putting it on the top of the slide, lighting the firecrackers, and the thing exploding.
In my head I remember it as this massive explosion. A giant ball of flame followed by all the shavings of wood and ashes falling down on me like snowflakes.
I reality, it probably just cracked in half or something but I remember it as being surrounded in this swirl of snow. I’m sure why but I was captivated by that moment. How do you deal with pressure?
I don’t think I’ve ever missed a deadline in a career but I do not have the ability to hide my emotions. If I’m irritated with something, you’re going to know it. The people who love me recognize that and they say, “Well, at least you always know what he’s feeling”. When I’m happy you know I’m not faking it, and when I’m mad you know that too. Unfortunately, I think the people who don’t know me or particularly care for me just think I’m an asshole. How does that work for your client interactions?
As much as we want to be strategic, as much as we try to mitigate any of the subjectivity that comes along with this process, the work I do is still my work. I put passion into that logo. I poured myself into that GUI. I’ve developed a thick skin over the years but my work is still a part of me. And when a client doesn’t think we’ve succeeded, it still hurts a bit.
If they don’t like it and they are able to articulate why they don’t like it, I’m okay with that. I can see their point. I can see where they’re coming from. When they don’t like it for completely subjective reasons it’s a lot harder for me. If you don’t like it because it reminds you of your evil 2nd grade teacher, well, I’m not necessarily going to enjoy that feedback. What is the craziest belief – the one that fewest educated people will agree with – that you hold? Why do you believe it?
My immediate thought was to frame it in terms of this business environment that we’re in, and it that case it’s an easy one.
I don’t think that most people realize that most commercial artists are actually trying to solve their problem and help them.
Many clients that we’ve worked with have belief that designers are only interested in building their portfolio. It’s like they don’t believe us when we say that we really do want their profits to go up or their venture to succeed. What’s the best question you’ve ever been asked? How did you answer?
I guess it depends on how you define best. If you’re talking about what causes the gears to turn most, I have an idea:
I knew you were going to ask me that question about vision. Not just the company, not just Ann Arbor, but where society and where my vision for society is at. I was stressing over it a bit because I didn’t have a good answer. I still don’t have that answer but I did love that question because it forces us to examine our own priorities our own motivations. How those balance with society… What’s best for the collective good of society? Then I start asking myself, “Why don’t you have an answer for that? Why don’t you have a clear vision?” If you could only ask one question of everyone you met from now on in order to gain insight from or about them, what would it be?
When I meet new people and I want to figure out if we’re on the same wavelength…If I get you, if you get me…That I understand your viewpoint, I understand where you’re coming from and get a sense of if you’re a good person or not… It’s usually somewhere along the lines of, “What makes you laugh?
I can tell so much about a person by what they think is funny. It’s not like you have to be funny or we have to laugh at the same things, but it really helps me understand everyone’s perspective. That’s how I evaluate the majority of my relationships. In your opinion is there anything too serious to be joked about?
It depends on how you slice the motivation behind it. Are you saying that kind of joke because you’re trying to say something really offensive, or are you saying it because of the outlandishness of the offensiveness? Are you trying to shed light on the offensiveness?
That’s how I’m wired. I see everything behind the joke and how the joke paints the path, feelings, and an overall sense of the person for me. Share something you’ve never shared before.
I can’t say that I’ve never shared it – I’ve been married for a long time – but an art director once told me, “I can be as good as I believe myself to be.”
He noticed an insecurity in me. I feel like I’ve spent the majority of my career trying to prove to myself that I’m not a fraud…that I’m afraid that if I don’t give one-hundred percent of myself on every project, I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and I’m not going to be able to do my job any more and I was never that good.
That’s something I’m not particularly proud of. I wouldn’t want to broadcast that much of my motivation is driven by a fear of failure.
That sounds so horrible. But I guess no one’s deep secret is going to be “I’m actually a really great person.” Like, “My secret that I’ve never told anyone is that I can fly, and I’m a firefighter on the side, and I rescue baby harp seals from poachers.” That doesn’t happen.