Ten questions for...ustwo

Being huge fans of Monument Valley, we’re really excited to be kicking off our 2020 talks programme on February 26th at Arnolfini with ustwo. We asked Rachel, Chris and Neef to tell us about themselves and what inspires them. 

1. What was the Eureka moment that made you become a designer?

Rachel: Not sure there was a big aha’ moment, I was super into art and making things at school but also loved (strong word I know) maths and science. I guess the first time I realised I could combine these things (well!) was when I designed and made a board game for my graphics GCSE.

Chris: Similarly to Rachel, I just found that art clicked for me at school, and as a kid I was wholesomely making arts and crafts all the time: making comics about 80s and 90s toy and video game franchises. I designed board games and adventures for Happy Meal toy collections — including a Sonic the Hedgehog themed game that had rules which seemed to always be in my favour!

Neef: Mine is quite lame. I worked for a little while in bioinformatics (data science and genetics, together at last!). It was a lot of code and maths, so really hard for me to conceptualise what we were working on, even though DNA I always found to be an interesting thing to visualise. It has a well-known shape, is easily defined with coloured nucleotides, and has some a lot of motion involved in how it gets made and read. That frustration was what made me want to learn design properly, after years of being an interested onlooker, so I could communicate my work better.

2. What was the first thing you ever designed?

Rachel: When I was little I had a few different design phases’ ranging from being obsessed with theme parks, courtesy of Rollercoaster Tycoon, to wedding dresses (to be honest I’m still desperate to design both of those things!).

Chris: The first of my work that people saw in public was probably the horrendous flyers I did for my band and other local bands. Lots of paper texture overlays, Photoshop filters and use of the Impact font. 

Neef: When I was in school I made a handful of embarrassingly bad websites and blogs for my friends. Hopefully, I’ve improved since then!

Rollercoaster Tycoon

3. Where did you study and who taught you?

Rachel: I studied Architecture at the University of Nottingham. Maybe not the typical path into digital, but I’ve found the rigour of the design process and the way you’re taught to approach challenges and nurture creative ideas has been just as applicable to the problems we are trying to solve in our industry.

Chris: I studied Graphic Design at the University of Creative Arts Farnham. It was a surprisingly traditional course and was at the time when courses like this felt they ought to be catching up with industry tech standards. That meant as part of it they taught us Flash and Director, the latter wasn’t so useful but learning Flash actually was a good thing to get into (in 2002).

Neef: I studied Physics at Queen Mary University, which is maybe not the answer you want! In terms of design, I was really lucky to have a good friend (Iggy, founder of Dark Blue) during the early days of my interest in design. He was instrumental in giving me a lot of insight and advice, alongside a lot of YouTube videos!

4. Design heroes? Who influenced you in those early days? And who influences you now?

Rachel: Anything or anyone! I draw influence from all sorts of things. As a student I based my whole final year project on the mechanical Handspring puppets from the West End play War Horse. I can’t remember where it came from as I hadn’t seen the play, I think I just read an article about them and became obsessed (I have since seen a different play they did with a host of different animals — so good!). I love their meticulous attention to detail and how they’ve made mechanical so beautiful.

Currently I’m still on a bit of a Tokyo high, having travelled there with work last year. I visited the teamLab Borderless exhibition and if I sit and think about those spaces and my time there, I can still feel the playful serenity I felt on the day.

Chris: The Designers Republic had a huge influence on me as a kid, their work on the Wipeout games really blew me away. It marked a transition for me from loving cartoony Nintendo game art to thinking about design and branding for fictional hovercraft companies.

Now, I’ve really been enjoying Charles Huettners work lately. His animation is super expressive, the colour choices are also incredible. It’s all wrapped up with a surreal delivery which constantly surprises and inspires me.

Neef: Early days, it’s got to be Susan Kare for me. I remember always loving how playful and fun the Mac icons were, especially the Finder’ face! It was my introduction to iconography.

Now, Zach Liebermans work is currently a bit of an obsession of mine. I love the character, colours and motion in all his work.

teamLab Borderless exhibition // Susan Kare // Zach Lieberman

5. Where was your first creative job? What did you learn?

Rachel: My first proper job’ was an Experience Planner at Dare (London). I think the biggest thing I learnt was not to work in isolation as a designer. You need different perspectives to get good work!

Chris: My first job was as a junior designer at a design agency who worked with Microsoft primarily. All my Flash training paid off for making banner ads and microsites, which wasn’t super riveting work but really helped me understand a studio working mindset and how to collaborate with other creatives. Also trying to get a story into a 8kb gif across ten aspect ratios taught me what I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing!

Neef: My first creative job was as a photographer and cameraman, which I started doing when I was 17, and it was mostly quite boring events to be honest. The main thing I learnt doing this was that rules are made to be broken. (rule of thirds, golden ratio etc., they’re all so boring!).

6. What’s your favourite piece of work you’ve created? And what’s your favourite piece of work someone else created?

Rachel: There’s been a few good ones including a pay-as-you-fly drone insurance app called Flock, but it’s probably the project I’m working on now. It’s in the health and fitness space for a company whose mission I’m really passionate about. I can’t wait to see the impact it will have on people.

As for someone else, I love it when ideas are seemingly simple and obvious but you just know it’s take some really clever questioning of the problem to get there. For me, a good example of this is the Smart Txtbks launched by Smart Communications and DM9 in the Philippines. They managed to improve kids’ performances at school by re-creating their textbooks as SMS messages. The kids could now concentrate in class because they weren’t falling asleep or injured from lugging huge bags of textbooks around for miles! 

Chris: Got to fly the Ustwo Games flag here and say that my favourite piece I’ve worked on is Assemble with Care, which was of course a group effort — but as Lead Artist I feel super proud and close to the final look and feel. In particular creating a cast of characters that really connected with the audience was very rewarding.

I pretty much adored Wattam by Keita Takahashi. A medley of bizarre characters all with hilarious and charming designs. Takahashi has such a distinctive and joyful art sense, I never get tired of his stuff.

Neef: I’m always most fond of small things that get noticed the least (or never!), so it’s probably this 404-page interaction on one of the ustwo websites. Quite a simple animation, but satisfyingly fiddly to pull off in code.

Someone else: Art Sqool by Julian Glander was such a cool surprise that I absolutely loved playing. So fun and colourful, it has to be one of my favourite pieces of work for a while.

7. When you’re stuck in a rut, how do you get creative ideas flowing?

Rachel: Exercise! I find it the best form of taking a break, especially if it’s a tough workout, because you are forced to stop thinking about what you’re working on. It’s amazing how the brain mulls things over subconsciously, you return to clarity every time.

Chris: Do something completely uncreative, or uncreative for me at least. Go for a walk, read, see friends, basically hop off the event horizon of the creativity black hole until I have enough energy to hop back on!

Neef: I never really try. Generally if I’m in a rut it’s for a reason (overworked, tired, bad mood etc.), so the best thing for me to do is just take a break or maybe do some admin for a while.

I find exercise is the best form of taking a break, especially if it’s a tough workout, because you are forced to stop thinking about what you’re working on. It’s amazing how the brain mulls things over subconsciously, you return to clarity every time.

— Rachel Jones, Senior Design Strategist, ustwo

8. The worst thing that ever happened to you during one of your talks?

Rachel: Erm… I can’t think of a specific example but I did work on a sexual wellbeing app recently and there were so many unintended (and intended) innuendos in every presentation then.

Chris: Made the mistake of reading from a script which made me sound super robotic and bored. I realised quite soon by looking down to read constantly does not make for an interesting speaker. I scrapped the script it a few slides in though and things got much better!

Neef: Currently, just a bad case of brainfog! I’m looking forward to having a more interesting answer here in the future…

9. The best book you’ve read lately?

Rachel: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. For a book with 12 different characters with different stories it’s so powerful at getting you to feel empathy towards each character (flaws and all) whose experiences were very different to my own.

Chris: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Contemporary retelling of Homer’s The Iliad from the perspective of Patroclus, from the day he meets Achilles right up the the siege of Troy and how he falls for him on the way. Super vivid and touching love story interpretation with lots of mythological goodness thrown in.

Neef: The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard. I finished it a few weeks ago in just a couple days! It’s a great (and really poignant) book from the 60s, set in a post-environmental-disaster world. Generally I’m a big sci-fi fan as I love the escapism.

10. If you could have a super power what would it be?

Rachel: Stretch Armstrong arms — so everything’s always in reach.

Chris: Time travel — I would pause for a decade to play all the games I have in my backlog. This also stops me ageing.

Neef: 100% teleportation.

Join WEDF and ustwo on Wednesday 26 February at The Arnolfini — more details here.
ustwo // twit​ter​.com/​ustwo // face​book​.com/​ustwo // https://​www​.insta​gram​.com/​u​stwo/

Rachel Jones, Senior Design Strategist // Chris Cox, Lead Games Artist // Neef Rehman, Creative Technologist & Investor