Creative Lives — Making and breaking things with freelance product designer Matt Gardner

Posted 02 July 2019 Interview by Indi Davies
Written by Anoushka Khandwala

With a client base ranging from Net-a-Porter and Google to Tesco, as a product designer, Matt Gardner uses developing technologies to create worlds for his clients. Reminiscing about the importance of early childhood gaming, Matt credits this with getting him to think more strategically – something he uses on a daily basis in his current role. Here, he explains how his obsession with the world around him has proved instrumental in his practice, why awareness is so important in design, and how to-do lists can trigger a more active mindset.

Matt Gardner

Job Title

Freelance Product Designer

Based

London

Selected Clients

Coda Story, Tesco, DAZN, ClassPass, Net-a-Porter, Google

Previous Employment

Lead Designer, Method Inc (2013–2016)

Place of Study

BA Industrial Design, Loughborough University (2007–2010)

Matt

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
In short, I make things. This involves bringing to life companies’ digital products and services through strategy and planning, research and development, ideation sketches, turning conceptual products into real-world functioning ones, and everything in between.

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
With a lot of my contract roles, a typical day is spent at the client’s offices. It does offer structure – although I’m working on multiple products, which can make it feel like working for several companies at once.

I often try to get additional hours in to work on personal projects. Those evenings and weekends are spent sitting in my flat, fuelled with coffee, miso soup and soba noodles, and various notebooks filled with sketches. Working from home, I try to set up a nice balance between ‘living life’ and the notion of ‘constantly working’.

Having a routines is massively helpful for reducing the stressful act of juggling the small number hours left in the day. For example, I find that jotting down a list every morning can get help trigger a more active mindset.

“Cultivating the skills of awareness, empathy and truly listening to people, will be a differentiator in the industry.”

How collaborative is your role?
Improving or bringing a digital product to life requires a huge amount of people to work together. A large part of my role as a designer is to have discussions with developers, product owners, customers and various people within a company, to understand and grow the ideas of what a product should be and do. Team cohesiveness and a shared vision is what makes the product work and creates a worthwhile result.

Something great about working in-house is knowing all the ins and outs of the project I’m working on. There’s a huge difference when people’s decisions are made with as much contextual knowledge as possible. You are more likely to run into issues if, for example, you don’t know the capacity of a development team in the future, or what other projects people are working on.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable is problem solving and building out designs. My inner child still loves to build worlds (RollerCoaster Tycoon throwback!). Because of this I can quite easily spend hours diving into my organisational and strategic process to help create these worlds.

The least enjoyable is the occasional bout of imposter syndrome. The industry moves lightning quick and there’s never-ending pressure to be constantly innovating, not only for clients or the company, but in our own careers. Sometimes doubt kicks in: “Are my skillsets the best for this specific project?” What reassures me is that everyone goes through this at some point or another. Talking about it with colleagues has helped me realise how common this is.

Method's promotion of exhibition at the V&A

Work for the V&A with Method

Work for the V&A with Method

Work for the V&A with Method

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Writing an article for Lecture in Progress! This was a huge challenge as it’s something I haven’t really done before so the result was immensely rewarding.

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Awareness – not only of others but of yourself. This skill is the root of many others, such as listening. It helps you have a better understanding of how your team might need to improve. Empathy is also a major skill; taking a moment to see the world how others experience it is how we advance together in a positive way.

What do you like about working in London?
I do like the London underground. I find it a fascinating space to observe and reflect on how people interact. It can be so personal and isolated all in the same few metres.

I get this sort of existential zoomed-out view on life while riding the tube – from the sheer amount of people speeding around a city in the morning, to the infrastructure we have created in the world, and the systems we live by that seamlessly tick on. It gives me a lighter perspective on my world.

Work for Coda with Method

Work for Coda with Method

Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I’m becoming more interested in VR! There’s huge potential in its immersive capabilities. Specifically, I’m curious about VR’s ability to play a part in making and breaking habits. Particularly when something is so immersive, can it affect the brain in stronger ways than we have seen from previous technologies?

There are a lot of fascinating projects currently researching the ability of VR to help those suffering from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder – it can potentially help alter how the mind works. I became interested in how we experience life, and how we act when elements around us change or throw us off our game. This led me to ideate on a VR project that altered your sense of vision and had you navigate a once-familiar world.

“My number one daily tool is Spotify. Music is a huge stimulus for me and it’s rare to find me working in silence.”

What tools do you use most for your work? My trusted notebooks!
I flip between using Figma and Sketch for designing, dependent on clients’ needs. I love to animate ideas quickly in a bit of Keynote or Principle, as well as using Invision or Marvel for simple prototypes. Another favourite tool is Notion. It’s super-flexible – I can keep more detailed lists, and build schedules and trackers. The fundamentals of either Google Slides or Keynote help me communicate a project. However, my number one daily tool is Spotify. Music is a huge stimulus for me and it’s rare to find me working in silence.

Some of Matt’s experiments with VR

Some of Matt’s experiments with VR

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
As a kid, a fireman! As I got a bit older, an architect – that’s probably from playing too much Sims. I always thought designing things was fun – I still have fond memories of photoshopping cars to kit them out with spoilers and such. Spending so much time tinkering around in strategy and design games flowed pretty naturally into where I am today.

How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I definitely had a lot of freedom when growing up and this allowed me to find things to lose myself in. My Dad would read stories to me from a book he created, filled with entirely blank pages. Each time he read from it, he would make up these fantastical stories of Teddy and Charlie’s Adventures. It was great.

“Spending so much time tinkering around in strategy and design games flowed pretty naturally into where I am today.”

Matt at work

How useful have your studies been in your career?
Hugely so. I started studying design at an early age initially with things like resistance materials, trying not to melt my hand in a vacuum former or chop off a finger on a bandsaw. This quickly moved into a specific product design course for the last few years of school, setting me up for university.

Although I studied industrial product design, the skills of being user-focused and making things for people, spanning across experience, brand and production, was something inherent to the course. These skills were then transferable to working on digital products, simply having to adjust the medium I was working with.

After graduating what were your initial steps?
I was incredibly lucky to get connected to Seren (now EY-Seren), a design agency in London and worked as a junior designer during my placement year at uni. It was the beginning of my shift from physical products to digital design. Upon graduating, I was offered a job back at Seren which launched my career in the product design world.

“I struggled with my sense of creativity [...] and worried I wasn’t as creative as my peers.”

Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Working with the incredible minds at Method, a design agency in London, helped grow my skillset and create the foundation of my abilities.

I would also credit various lucky breaks along the way too – one of the first was from my design teacher in school, taking me on for the next year of the course, even though I didn’t quite get the grades. It allowed me to find my true love of design in the following year and started me on my journey.

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
I struggled with my sense of creativity – I was insecure about my strengths residing in a more methodical, detail-oriented process, and worried I wasn’t as creative as my peers.

It wasn’t until I worked with a highly collaborative team that I saw how my own strengths could bring value, and also saw the strength in diversity. Having someone who was really great at spitballing new ideas matched really well with my skill of quickly sketching out ideas to make and break things.

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I’m interested in working for companies that have positive impacts on how we treat each other and how we treat the planet. I’m not sure where or how that will manifest, but I want to be involved in something that helps us all be kinder, healthier, more aware humans.

Could you do this job forever?
I hope to keep creating forever but who knows what form that will be in.

Matt at work

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Cultivating the skills of awareness, empathy and truly listening to people, will be a differentiator in the industry. These skills should be as strong as any others you have on your CV.

Posted 02 July 2019 Interview by Indi Davies
Written by Anoushka Khandwala
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Product Design
Mentions: Matt Gardner, Method

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