Durham, NC – Designer & Prototyper
Nick Jones is an ever-student of Design, an adventurer, a husband and a father of 4. His life is peppered with moments of uncertainty, awesome leaps of faith, incredible discoveries. As you’ll see, pursuing purpose, not a plan, is always the priority with Nick. Though focused, he’s still figuring it out, everyday. Never pretending to be an expert at anything, Nick pursues the known like a tourist in a new city, with an open heart, deep-seated reverence and well full of elated curiosity. A little over 6-months ago, Nick left a great path at a smart agency to explore a new one. He set out to introduce a new breed of agency to the world. His raw materials: a vision, two other wild thinkers, and a shared passion for making consequential products and inventions. Not included in his raw materials: a map. Together, Trevor O’Brien, Nick Velloff and Nick Jones created The Experiment, a studio that’s best described as an honest design and technology practice committed to making fulfilling products and experiences. Since setting off on this path, they’ve worked with globally impactful brands like HBO and are incubating paradigm shifting products like Future Father. What I love in Nick’s interview is his call to appreciate more and want less. It’s a powerful notion worth wrapping into all of our individual Somewhere’s.
TSP: Can you please share a little bit about your past? Where you’ve been? What you’ve done?
NJ: My bones couldn’t handle the long winters in my native Minnesota so we moved our family to Durham, North Carolina in 2009. There, I pretended to be an Art Director in advertising for 5 years. Long before that, I beat the cold by copying the logos of my favorite skate brands, making graffiti I'd never throw up and drawing pictures depicting inner city violence I'd never witnessed. We lived in the suburbs. I tried to be a real artist a few times because my whole life, people had told me that I was creative. Turned out I was really just good at copying what I saw. If I'd have kept down that path, I’d be miserable. There was no real passion in me for fine art.
One day I did a drawing and scanned it into a computer so I could try out "digital art." It was over. I quit art school and chased my girlfriend to Arizona to learn how to use Photoshop and Maya (then called Power Animator) while she got a real education. We were both resigned to the fact that she was the only one capable of holding down a job that might one day pay enough to support us. This was 1997.
One Sunday in 1999, armed with an Associate’s Degree in something, I opened the newspaper classifieds to a listing for a web designer. It said something like “Make Celebrity Websites.” I assumed it was a scam but called just to confirm it. Turned out some genius had bought all the domain names of A-list actors and was giving them back in exchange for designing the actor’s dot com. None of them had a site yet. There weren’t any out of work web designers in 1999, so I got the gig based entirely on three illustrations I had done of the bartenders on an Irish Pub’s website my friend had made. In the next year, I got to design official sites for Matt Damon, John Travolta, Denzel Washington and a kid named Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher’s site was when I fell for Flash. I fell hard. That startup bombed but the next ten years I spent making movie sites and “digital advertising” from our basement in MN, which was starting to fill up with babies.
TSP: Walk us through the feeling of leaving fine art for another discipline?
NJ: Walking away from fine art felt like a major step forward. Computers and 3D seemed like the future and I've always wanted to be part of whatever that is. Plus, no matter how realistic my drawings of Bob Dylan got, nobody wanted to pay me for them. But I definitely felt I was letting my parents down by dropping out of school. They never made me feel guilty for it but I did anyway.
TSP: What about Design, or “Digital Advertising” kept you glued to the practice?
NJ: Design kept me. Digital advertising paid the bills, but I always resented it for that. It made me focus on problems I didn't care about and taught me to be manipulative in ways I sometimes wish I hadn't learned. There was a period where I was sure that brands were going to point their billions at real problems or at improving lives. And it seemed if they did, they'd draw customers far more effectively than if they pumped out mildly entertaining "ad funny" campaigns.
I remember passionately telling my parents how I was going to be part of making that happen. That my friends and I would help steer the now hundred-plus billion spent on ads each year toward meaningful use. It's a belief a lot of young creatives have when they get into advertising. It didn't happen while I was part of an agency but I'm still naive enough to believe that there are people in the industry now who'll tip the scales when the current leadership retires. They'll have to be bold and get fired sometimes to pull it off but I love that about the next generation. They don't have respect for establishment.
Brands that don't stand for anything seem to be losing relevance and the best work will increasingly be done at agencies with a soul. Brands might still rake in money for being the fastest or cheapest but the best young business people are emulating Toms, Warby Parker and Bill Gates. They want to get rich solving problems the way Elon Musk is and I'm hoping they're successful. What's great is that they are trying to do good things while stealing the tricks that allowed Coke and Colgate to convince us that emptiness has value if you pitch it well and often.
To answer the first part of the question though, I keep at design because I really want to get good at it and to learn to use it effectively. It feels like that's within reach. There are things I care a lot about that could benefit from what I'm getting good at. The few times I've directed it successfully make me want to do it again for the rest of my life.
TSP: I agree, Nick. Not to rant, but it’s estimated we need about $12B to solve a growing national issue like hunger. In 2015, it’s estimated over $189B will be spent on advertising in the US alone.
TSP: Can you share a little bit about what’s going on right now in your life?
NJ: We are six months into our first year as The Experiment. Trevor O’Brien, Nick Velloff and I left great jobs at ad agencies (they at DeutschLA and me at McKinney) to see what would happen if we spent more time doing the things we love and are good at outside the agency model.
TSP: What is The Experiment?
NJ: What we are and what my role is hasn’t really solidified yet. I sort of hope it never does so I never get too comfortable. Mostly, I’m a designer who codes. “Prototyper” and “prototyping studio” are words we’ve been toying with but to most people, they don’t mean what we mean them to mean; so we are using them cautiously. What it means is, we figure things out and think mostly by making. So many smart people spend so many hours thinking through ideas, writing decks, designing comps and selling conclusions they believe in to clients who may or may not be savvy enough to buy them. That can be soul crushing. Our approach is more playful. We make things we think will solve a problem and be a joy to use. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we realize that we are trying to solve the wrong problem and have to start over. The trick is not believing we have any right answers before we have tried them out. It’s an approach that is resonating with a lot of people and that we feel is a viable way to operate the studio.
A few months back we entered a partnership with The Grid. It’s a startup with an incredible team using artificial intelligence and reverse engineering to make having beautiful, functional websites simple and enjoyable for anyone. We are involved in design, prototyping and product development. In the first three months, I’ve learned more than the last few years combined. We’re being really selective about the prototyping projects we take on beyond that. The last major project we completed was for the HBO series Game of Thrones. It isn’t live yet so I won’t say too much in case it hasn’t launched by the time this goes up.
Every day I learn a little more about what it takes to run a studio and be a teammate and how to balance that with being as present as possible in the lives of my wife and four kids. After working so many years as a solo freelancer and then as a “creative” who never fit the ad agency model or the culture, I formed bad habits. Spencer Harrison joined us as my apprentice a few months back. Being his mentor has been a great experience so far but it has highlighted a lot of what I’m bad at and how much there is to learn before I can be an effective, inspiring teacher.
TSP: When you dart down a new path, are there any common themes or emotions you experience?
NJ: There's a rush of excitement. A sort of maniacal belief that this is it. That everything else lead up to this moment and whatever new endeavor I'm about to dive into will be the most important thing I've ever done. That everything is different this time and all available options will lead to greatness. Blind optimism usually gives way to self-doubt and reality checks. Even if things go great, after a while I get bored and then the cycle starts over. That's how it has worked since I was a kid. I love the notion that design and creativity in general isn't meant to be fulfilling any more than a great meal is meant to sustain you forever. Frank Chimero wrote something about that and it brought me comfort. I was feeling like if I wasn't satisfied yet, I never would be. Now I like to think that I can enjoy what's going on right now with the understanding that I'll be hungry again soon.
TSP: Where do you hope to go next?
NJ: I never really had a plan nor am I goal oriented. Not on purpose, though. I'd like to have goals and to be focused enough to figure out the steps I'd need to take to reach a goal – That's not a muscle I've exercised.
The thing I’m working on now is wanting what I’ve got. If I can do that, I can be more helpful to the people around me who I work with and for. And I can be more present for my kids. There will always be some shiny object just beyond my reach but I’ve chased and caught enough of them to know that what they offer is not lasting happiness. There’s a lot more joy in helping other people get somewhere than in getting myself a little further. Finding creative ways to use what I’m good at to help others is really appealing but I’ve only managed to do it a few times. Whatever gets me on the road toward doing more of that is where I hope to go next.
TSP: Is there an example of that that you might be able to share with us?
NJ: One thing we have been working on is a platform called Future Father. I have three sons. They all have iPhones and we don’t use them for anything meaningful. We have a small window of time together on Earth and we spend a great deal of it apart. I need a way to make and store plans for that time so we can make the most of it when we are together. Then there’s my own Dad with whom I have no plans and even less time. Future Father is a place for us to create a shared bucket list, plan what we’re going to do any time between this weekend and this lifetime and for me to send them messages into the future. There are things I want to tell them some day. Advice I want to give them, just not yet. I want to ensure that those messages are delivered to the kids at the age I want them to receive them whether I’m still around or not.
TSP: Wanting what you’ve got, applying yourself to help others, how do you plan to get there?
NJ: Setting some goals would be a great place to start. Planning isn’t how I got here but it’s something I’ve been meaning to try. First I need to slow down. The last decade or so has been a race toward “The Future” with no real destination in mind. I’m trying hard to appreciate more and want less. To be available emotionally and creatively so I don’t miss all the opportunities that are in front of me. It’s tempting to play the eccentric creative card to avoid being held accountable for how I spend my time, talent and energy. But it’s a copout that I’ve employed too often. Using that time, talent and energy to help somebody who is struggling is something I aspire to do more of. The two projects that have been the most rewarding across a fifteen-year career were both for a local homeless shelter. It was my job to do them. I wasn’t a volunteer. But doing the best work of my life on them meant more to that little shelter and its residents than it would’ve meant to any major brand; and selfishly, more to my career and life’s purpose than anything I could’ve done for Nike or Apple. The work I did on those two projects taught me that what I am good at could be used to make people feel something, to change perspectives and lives. Without them, I’d never have the opportunity to do the sort of projects I get to do now. I'll forever be thankful to McKinney and the team I worked with for the opportunity. It showed me that I can make a living doing meaningful work. I hope it continues.
TSP: Are those projects for the homeless shelter still live? Where can we check them out?
NJ: They are. Spent is a game that makes you face a bunch of really tough situations in a sort of working poor simulator and it's still live at: Play Spent
Names for Change is a site where you can buy naming rights to every item in the local Durham shelter. So if you ever wanted to name a urinal or a fork after yourself or somebody you love, you can at: Names for Change
TSP: How can we, the TSP community, help you get to where you want to be?
NJ: Falling forward through life isn’t something I plan to do forever but it’s how I’ve done it so far and things are shaping up pretty great. So just say hello. Tell me how I can be helpful. Pass me some wisdom. Connect me to somebody I should know. Take a minute you wouldn’t have to be thankful for what you’ve got and to help somebody who is having trouble.
We are a busy studio and a busy family with little time to gain perspective on exactly where we are at or where we are headed but we can see that we are very lucky. Sign up for Future Father and tell everybody you know who could find it useful.
My wife Corly and I are finding that our favorite moments involve doing something that doesn’t help us. Trevor and I discussed the same sentiment years ago when the thought of The Experiment was first forming. Introducing us to organizations looking to solve problems with creative uses of design and technology would be amazing.
Corly spends her time and creative energy on feeding people in the community who are struggling. That has become a big part of our lives and personal inspiration for me. She has a very local focus but supporting any organization that is working to end food insecurity in a sustainable way would be a step toward the goals she has set and that I work to help support.