SpareFoot, a fun start-up headquartered in Austin, TX, is the world’s largest, simplest and best marketplace for providing web marketing solutions for storage operators. Michael recently had a chance to talk with lead designer Jeffery Cherewaty and pick his brain about the direction of the design industry and his history at SpareFoot.
As a designer at SpareFoot, what is a day in the work life of Jeffrey like? From wake up to close – Is it all design all day?
I’m as much a developer as I am a designer. Some days I’m head down at my desk writing PHP jobs, while other days I’m a UX designer out talking to users and running usability tests. I’m the perfect early employee at a startup. I can do a little of everything. As we’ve grown, we’ve added a whole team of back-end programmers much more talented at software engineering than I am, so I spend a greater portion of my time now focused on UI design and front-end development. Every once in a while I get to change things up by working on trade show materials, SpareFoot swag, or posters for our annual SXSW party.
Do you manage a team of designers or are you flying solo?
I have an intern and a contractor who work with me. All three of us are multi-functional—we all wear designer and developer hats.
SpareFoot has a fun space. Were you involved in the designing of the studio? How do you feel the building inspires the workplace?
I had a blast working on the paint scheme, furnishings, and environmental graphics for the SpareFoot office. We’re very proud of how thriftily we put it all together. After all, we’re a lean startup that’s still actively experimenting with its business model. The space reflects that youthful energy and pluckiness.
Our building, the Perry Brooks Tower, was at one time Austin’s tallest, and it’s right around the corner from The Driskill Hotel and The Paramount Theater, two of Austin’s most beloved old landmarks. Over the past few years, new owners gutted the building, refurbished the common areas, and replaced its brick facade with metal shingles. We left our space as raw and open as possible with exposed concrete floors and ceilings. In some spots on the floor you can see where the original walls stood.
At our space planner’s suggestion, we hired a local graffiti artist to paint a mural in our entryway. When we were meeting with him in the space, he showed us some work by other street artists that he liked. We all kept coming back to very geometric designs with shapes that resembled the vaulted windows of a church… a shape echoed by the metalwork on the church right outside our window. The final product is an homage to the beautiful mid-century modern stained glass in that church. It was a wonderful way to tie in the neighborhood.
Being an in-house designer, what do you feel are the benefits? Disadvantages?
As an in-house designer, I have ownership over the product that just isn’t possible in an agency setup. I never have to worry about timesheets or bend over backwards just to make a client happy. With all the product stakeholders in-house, decision making is so much easier. When there’s a disagreement, we run a test and let the numbers decide for us.
In-house designers rarely work in a culture that makes design a priority. I’m the only full-time designer on a team of 50, so it rests on my shoulders to be a champion for aesthetics. That can be a challenge, but I’m lucky to be in a company that encourages creative problem solving.
Sometimes in-house designers have to work on very similar projects year round. If you fall into this category, how do you stay motivated?
I would lie if I said it was easy to stay motivated while working on the same basic problem for three years. There have been times when I’ve gotten pretty tired of iterating on interfaces to help people book storage units, but that iteration pays off. Thinking about the same project for years opens up a level of depth and understanding for a problem that just isn’t possible when when working on one-and-done projects. That’s part of what I love about working on the web—your creations are living. If something isn’t working, just go fix it. In most creative fields, a project has a definitive point of completion that you can’t reverse.
How do you see the design industry changing in the next five years?
The best designers have always been Renaissance men and women, but I think that’s becoming increasingly important. It’s not enough for a designer to be skilled at decorating a piece of paper. They have to understand business objectives and cultural context and be able to write copy and code to be effective visual communicators. I’ll never hire a “web designer” that can’t code HTML/CSS or write a solid blog post.
How long have you been with SpareFoot? Was there something before?
I’ve been with SpareFoot nearly three years. While I was in college, I worked on websites for non-academic departments (i.e. Human Resources, Utilities, Police) at The University of Texas. I also spent a summer at an ad agency focused on interactive projects. Right out of school, I joined a startup in the inaugural class of Austin’s Capital Factory business incubator program. I met the SpareFoot co-founders at Capital Factory, and when it became clear the gig I had wasn’t going anywhere, I joined up with them. It’s been a rocket ship ride ever since.
What advice would you give young creatives looking to break out in the field?
Don’t limit yourself to traditional design careers. The most interesting work right now isn’t coming from creatives at ad agencies. It’s coming from freelancers, small design shops, and startups. Get excited about the uncertainty that comes with blazing your own trail.
If SpareFoot was burning to the ground, and you could only carry out one item – what would it be?
My co-workers! Seriously, there’s nothing in this office so sentimentally or financially valuable it couldn’t be replaced – except my fellow SpareFeet. As fun as the space is, it’s the people that make working here incredible.