This month we sat down with Bryan Kulba, web wizard and founder of Kobot. We got to pick his brain about why he ended up back at school for design, where he thinks the industry is headed, and what he wished he understood as an eighteen year old “idiot.”
You did not have the most linear path getting into design, could you speak a bit to that and how that has shaped you as a designer?
So originally I had a degree in biology and I was doing research for the Royal Alberta Museum, doing bird research specifically. So I'd be in the mountains all summer doing research and then in the winter, while there were fewer birds in Alberta, they asked if I wanted to do some web design stuff, which I said yes to. And so I learned how to do that and it consistently became research in the summer and then web design in the winter. At this point I had kind of burned out from doing bird research because academic work is really hard. And so I transitioned into doing only web design. At first it was a little bit more dev heavy than design heavy because I didn't know a ton about design. I ended up going and working for a company in San Francisco, doing mostly development. I was mostly just helping with design because they were doing work with big companies like Apple and Nike and had some really good designers there. So I got to work with them a bunch and as a result I got really, really stoked on the idea of going back to school for design. Which I ended up doing. That's kind of how I ended up at the University of Alberta for design. At the same time, my work didn't really slowdown, I had brought on another person to help support the workload. He was really keen on the idea of development so I got the opportunity to focus more on design and that's kind of how I got the idea of going back to school for design, as more of an adult student then most people there.
“I could look at something and say yes that's good design, but I could not necessarily explain why it was good.”
I think the primary reason that I wanted to go back was that I had a really good understanding of design, I could look at something and say yes that's good design, but I could not necessarily explain why it was good. And if I designed something that worked really well I did not have the facilities to understand why. It was always luck, luck and instinct. So going to school gave me the skills to assess what was good, what was bad and why. That was really what I was looking for when I returned to school.
How has your relationship with design changed since leaving school?
I think that my relationship with design has changed in the sense that I worry about it a lot less. Spending four years focusing on design in school gave me the opportunity to build it into muscle memory, build it into habit. So I could work a lot faster, I could work with a lot less thought, and I could make those choices a lot quicker. So all of a sudden design no longer became something to agonize over. It became talking to yourself and saying okay, I've got the skills to do this, I can do it and not have to worry about it. So in the last two years that's changed in that I do not worry about it as much. I don't get so nervous about trying to design something. I just think - I got a job, and I know how to do it, I have those skills to do it, I just have to execute. Also in the time since I've graduated, as the business grows I've also had to learn how to be a better business person for design, and learn how to manage that business and of how a design agency works. Things like writing better proposals, dealing with clients a lot more, managing writers and designers that I am working with to help them get stuff done. I do a lot less design and a lot more big idea stuff.
To build on that a bit, why did you choose to open up your own small-scale studio?
Starting Kobot was really just a thing that kind of happened, I didn't really have a choice in it. When I was working for the museum it was mostly contract stuff and then all of a sudden the government had a new policy where you had to register a business to be a contractor for them. And so I just registered a business name, just so I could deal with that, and it just expanded and blossomed into existence. There was never any plan, I never said I want to create a big company, or any kind of company, it was just a thing that happened. I've also never really worked for anyone else in my life.
“All the websites that do their job really really well, the design is invisible. You don't notice them as being pretty, you just notice them as being useful, and I think that is just going to become more and more important.”
Where do you think design is heading in the next few years?
I think I can speak mostly for digital stuff. And I think design is splintering, it is getting more and more elaborate and more proficient in things. But I also think that design is becoming more and more invisible. Especially for digital. For our live session, Ask Kobot Anything, we were actually talking about websites we really like, and the one thing that we landed on was that all the websites that do their job really really well, the design is invisible. They're really easy to use, it's legible, the type is well done. You don't notice them as being pretty, you just notice them as being useful, and I think that is just going to become more and more important.
So what advice would you give students starting out?
The first thing is to go out and meet people, find a mentor if you can. Find people who are in career positions that you'd like to be. Get to know them, be yourself, and try to find ways to learn from their experiences because people are always willing to share. Second thing is to try and figure out what you are really good at as opposed to what you really want to do and make sure that those two things overlap. Make sure you’re not chasing something or not capitalizing on something you may be super talented at.
Diversify your interests. You've spent four years in design school focusing so hard on one thing, try to spread your interests out and find other really interesting parts of life that you can then bring back to your design work. Read books. Travel. And talk to people, talk to as many people as you can.
Do you have any projects that were unexpectedly rewarding or memorable?
I spent so many years working on my own, doing web stuff before I went to school. And then going to school and getting the chance to work with other people, share ideas, and learn how to take an idea from someone and help build it was great. Even if it's not your own, help others build their ideas. As I was going to school I took on a business partner, and we then started hiring people and learning how to work with other people. Collaborating in the sense that some people will have the same skills or similar skills to you, but you also work with people that have very different skills, and learning how to fold that all into something special. So work, work is the greatest collaboration for me.And the biggest part of that is people, it's always the people.
How do you find being a leader, and how do you manage that role in relation to team collaboration?
I spent a lot of my youth being in bands, touring, writing music. There were times when I would be the person to drive that momentum forward, but I've always felt that team collaboration is always best when that leadership is transparent. It should be very open and ready to change as things change. It’s not necessarily approaching things from an authoritarian way but in away that allows consensus to drive things. The role of a leader for me is to try to build that consensus and move into a direction that is going to lead us to a really well executed project. Because the truth of the matter is that even though I may be leading a project, there might be someone who is rightly more informed than I am on a certain aspect, and I've got to hear that. I've always got to be mindful that what I think is the right way to go is a valid but I've got to listen and if someone else has a better way we should go that way.
What is your most prominent memory from your time at school?
I've got three. When I went through my first degree I was eighteen/nineteen years old and a real idiot. I went to school and I didn't really know what I wanted and I just kind of wandered through the degree and I probably could've done way better. I did not have a plan, I do not have a goal. Everything worked out pretty alright but I didn't know what I was doing. And I did not see that until years later.
When I went back to school for my design degree I was a grownup and I had a real focus, a real drive. There were a lot of things I wanted to get out of it. I got into that program and I sat in a room where I was literally twice as old as some people in our design fundamentals. And at the time what was eye-opening for me was that of those 10 people there were a couple people that were just like me in my first degree, they could not have given a sh*t about being there. And at first I felt almost offended that they'd gotten into this program. It's not an easy program to get into, and it kind of bummed me out knowing that these people got such an opportunity. But I learned to accept that, because on the other hand there were people in that room that were eighteen years old that I felt were more or equally mature as I was and had the same sort of focus and drive to go through the program. So I think the big realization from that experience is that it's such a wide swing. I realized there were so many different goals for people in our program. This also humbled me because there were people that were so mature, so smart, so talented, and I think if I was 18-year-old Brian, such an idiot, I would've been one of those people who did not care. The second eye-opening experience was going on trips. I only went to the New York trip but I thought it was really nice to go to a place like New York and see it through the eyes of someone like Aidan, it was a neat experience.
The last one was creating the On-Design Talks. Getting that started, and bringing people in was super rewarding. The program did not bring in a ton of speakers and the thing that we wanted to do, when Ionata and I started that, was to try to bring a different dimension to the design program by bringing in people that would speak about things that were applicable to the students. That felt so rewarding, because the people who came and talked were so excited about the opportunity. And I know without a doubt that the speakers touched a lot of students, they gave them a lot of direction. So that was awesome. I think that also opened me up to getting involved in the GDC and trying to bring more people into the classroom to talk to students and make sure that they understood that there is an afterschool, there is the business of design, and there is so much going on that they should be aware of, even while they're still in school.
Listen to the interview here!