Creative Lives — Why being a team player trumps technical ability for ustwo’s product designer Dem Gerolemou
After a talk at his university left Dem Gerolemou ‘infatuated’ with ustwo, he set out on a mission to work at the London-based digital design studio. One email and a three-month internship later, he’s now in his third year as a product designer. But that’s not to say it was easy – despite graduating with a portfolio geared towards print, Dem’s career journey is proof that it’s never too late to change paths and pursue your passion. Today, he’s still every bit as infatuated, but full of hard-earned industry insight. Dem shares some of these learnings with us, and explains why he thinks teamwork often trumps technical skill.
Product Designer at ustwo (2014–present)
Design Intern, Moving Brands (August–November 2014)
BA Graphic Arts, Winchester School of Art, The University of Southampton (2011–2014)
Dem at work
How would you describe your job?
As a product designer, I work across UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) on various projects. I am currently working as a visual designer on a healthcare product. The design team for this project is made up of two UX designers, four visual designers and a service designer. The design and technical teams work together to design and build features, as well as to plan ahead for future releases. Each team is unique and defines their own roles and responsibilities, but traditionally UI designers work closely with UX designers to design the aesthetic of the interface, taking consistency and brand principles into consideration. Everything we do is for the users, so our design process is centred around them; we practice UCD (user-centric design).
What does a typical working day look like?
Our core working hours are from 10am to 4pm, with the ability to flex our working days to suit us. I tend to get in at around 8.30am so I have some time to sit down, have breakfast and filter through any outstanding emails or Slack messages from the day before. Following this, we have a design team stand-up to discuss our priority areas for the week and how we are progressing towards them. Following this, we have a full team stand-up to ensure that we know what the rest of the team are doing (a typical stand-up takes 5 to 10 minutes). Following the stand-ups, we get started on our work for the day. Depending on what the week’s priorities are, work can be anything from building screens in Sketch [design software] and having a team sketch session to ideate and research, to user-testing sessions. We have a project design room where we’re able to gather as a team to work through problems together.
How did you land your current job?
I saw Gyppsy [Matt Gypps], one of ustwo’s designers, speak at my university while in my third year. I became infatuated with ustwo and their ways of working which drove me to pursue an internship. Over the summer following my graduation, I attended all of the events I could that were hosted at ustwo which offered me a better understanding of the skill set a product designer needs while also getting to know some of the ustwo team. We kept the conversation going for a few months at which point I was offered a three month internship. Three years later and here I am!
“While I was studying, I was hung up on having the best technical skill set possible. I now understand that it’s far more important to be able to operate well in a team and to be able to learn quickly.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
This is dependent on the project that you’re on. We work collaboratively at ustwo, which means that we need to be located with the team we’re working with. In some cases, this means bringing the client into our studio and giving them space, encouraging them to integrate as part of the team. In other cases, it means working offsite and integrating in the client’s existing team & space. I’m currently working with DeepMind so am based with them in Google’s building in Kings Cross. We make an effort to come back to ustwo one or two days a week to stay engaged in the studio culture and happenings.
How collaborative is your role?
Very much so. Both in our discipline team as designers, but also cross-discipline. We work closely with the technical team, product managers and clinicians to ensure that we have a holistic understanding of the solution that we are designing.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable parts include being surrounded with like-minded people, who have become great friends, and working together every day. Having the opportunity to speak to users and hear about the impact that our work is having is also a highlight. Less enjoyable parts can be when you have a slow week. Sometimes after fast-paced working weeks, there’s less to do which may sound enjoyable, but can be quite frustrating and tiring.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Having the opportunity to work with DeepMind on Streams has been in incredible experience. I’ve been interested in healthcare for some time, but had always assumed that the ship had sailed and that it’d be too late to get involved, but this project has been an opportunity to learn about the work that clinicians do while being able to share our expertise to help design the best possible solutions. I’m resourced on this project as a UI designer, but have had the opportunity to contribute in other areas through the medium of research and strategy work.
What skills are essential to your job?
Being a team player and being able to learn. While I was studying, I was hung up on having the best technical skill-set possible, however I now understand that it’s far more important to be able to operate well in a team and to be able to learn quickly. Projects can be so different that a skill-set that suits one may be irrelevant on another. Being able to pick things up quickly and adapt to the work is a must, and since all the work we do is collaborative, so is being a team player.
Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
Aside from the current project that I’m working on, I’m also researching an area of interest to put together a thought-piece on holistic problem solving. It’s been a slow burner but a really interesting subject to explore. We’re given the space to lead self-initiated projects that support our development, which is something that drew me to ustwo.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Since we’re quite design heavy on this project, we spend a lot of time using Sketch, which is a tool to design UIs. There are three UI designers on the team, so we use multiple plugins to help ease collaborating on one file. Zeplin is great for sharing screens with developers, and you can’t go wrong with a notebook and mechanical pencil.
“My attitude is to try and make the most of any situation by looking for opportunities rather than agonising on negatives.”
Dem and Kota at work
Dem at work
Dem at work
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I had absolutely no idea. In my teenage years I became enamoured with the idea of being a musician, and began to pursue that during university before realising that although I loved music, I wanted to pursue it as a hobby and not a profession. My path into design was fortuitous, I chose to do a design degree because I felt lost, and design seemed like it could be fun.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
My father is a sculptor and I grew up playing with clay in his studio. This means that I’ve long enjoyed the idea of making things. While my father’s medium is in hard materials like marble and bronze, mine is designing for digital platforms.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
The skills I learned on my degree are hardly relevant to the work I do now. I spent my degree gearing towards working in print design and refining my skill-set accordingly. Leaving university I immediately gained an interest in product but feared that I had left it too late to start my career in it - events like those I attended at ustwo helped me to understand the challenge ahead and to gear myself towards my internship. University was where I learned how to learn. It gave me a problem solving mindset and helped me to understand that if you don’t know something, it’s okay to find your own path to the solution. For that, I am incredibly grateful.
What were your first jobs?
My first internship was at Moving Brands, a branding agency. I was incredibly excited to start there as I had been a fan of their work for the majority of my final year at university. The internship was invaluable as it taught me that just because I looked up to them and loved their work, it didn’t mean it’d be a good fit for me. It was a hard lesson to learn, but very valuable.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Gyppsy, from ustwo, and his generosity with his time and support. I remember emailing after speaking to him after his talk at my university. I thought he’d be busy and send a brief reply, but he took his time to offer advice, support and encouragement. That one email set me on the trajectory that’s taken me to where I am today.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Each and every project I have worked on has taught me something valuable. Sometimes it’s as simple as learning a new technical skill, other times it’s how to operate in a certain environment. I’m currently learning a lot about the role of design and how to maximise its function without designing for the sake of design.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
When I started my internship at ustwo, I began to explore some new technologies and platforms that the team was interested in. I looked into using Framer for prototyping, which was an area I was interested in. Later on, I picked up some web skills to make more functional prototypes. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how to operate well within a team under pressure.
“My path into design was fortuitous, I chose to do a design degree because I felt lost, and design seemed like it could be fun.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Worrying too much at the start. I became my own biggest enemy when I was searching for work. I got the idea into my head that I had to be the best of the best at whatever tools or skills studios are looking for. It set me back a long way, and took me time to learn that studios would hire junior talent for other reasons than to raise the bar for the design team. There’s so much a fresh set of eyes and young talent can add to a team. I wish I had learned this earlier.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Technically speaking, I had little idea of how the day-to-day of a job like this would look. Culturally, it’s exactly what I was hoping for. I’m still as infatuated with the studio as I was on my first day. I didn’t entirely know that roles like this existed while I was studying, so it’s been interesting to see what it can mean to be a designer in this generation.
Inside ustwo’s London studio
Inside ustwo’s London studio
What would you like to do next?
More of the same. My mission statement aligns closely to ustwo’s in that I want to work on things that simply do good and I’m currently very well placed to do that now. On the side, I’m excited to publish my thought piece and begin working on the next, which is seated in another area of interest of mine; space.
Could you do this job forever?
Our industry is forever growing and changing. The role of a designer seems to change slightly from year to year. So while the jobs that we do now may not be around forever, I could definitely do this kind of work with people I consider good friends for the rest of my days.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Traditionally speaking, it seems common to climb the design hierarchy ladder and then transition into a leadership role. It can be quite a comfortable transition, since it’s been well-documented previously, but the work comes when you begin to define your own progression goals.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a product designer?
Reach out to people you look up to, don’t be disheartened if you feel that you’re lacking in technical skills, and be comfortable in your own skin. Two great quotes I’ve heard along the way are relevant here: “How you do anything is how you do everything” and “It’s more important to find the right people with the wrong skills than it is to find the wrong people with the right skills.”
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on ustwo.