29th June 2022 · Matthew Achariam

Designing a world we can all truly believe in–Mackey Saturday, the principal designer behind Instagram, Unsplash, & Oculus.

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New York-based design Mackey Saturday is reimaging the future of design.

Do you want to start with just talking about your morning routine?

My morning routine? Absolutely. I have no morning routine. It's funny to think because a lot of people really do base their life on a certain routine. My life is very much dictated by a set of circumstances that are out of my control, and I adjust accordingly based on that. Those circumstances involve things like the weather or people or location. And so my morning is always in flux. Routines are something that I'm unable to have.

Can you describe yourself as a child?

I always enjoyed creativity of some sort. But it was mostly focused around art, traditional mediums—drawing, painting, sculpture, those kind of things.

I always had this sense where there was something in my mind that I wanted to get out into reality. But I always struggled with that. And that was something that drove me crazy, that my parents made fun of me for, but really guided a lot of my life. This desire to make things that were in my mind become real, to understand things in a way that I could then take them from nothing into something.

And so when I was very young, I would draw for hours and hours and hours every detail of something exactly as I saw it in my head. Then I would get frustrated and crumple these things up and throw them in the trash because it didn't look like what was in there. And my parents would freak out, 'What are you doing?' But it was always this battle of getting the ideas out.

And so that continued through the majority of my youth. I did the standard art things that you would do—went through school. My mom told me I should be a graphic designer and I told her it was cheating. So—listen to your mom.

Why did you say that was cheating?

I said it was cheating because in my mind (and this was me not being educated on the subject or on the profession), I just saw it as people who did art with a computer and that the computer was a crutch that made up for a lack of creativity or a lack of intelligence, even. And it really wasn't the case. It was just another tool to bring ideas into reality, to communicate visually, that offered you a faster way to do things. But at that point in time, I still just saw it as “people who couldn't be artists were graphic designers", which is very far from the truth.

If we came to you when you were six and asked, what do you want to be when you grow up, what would you have said?

I probably would have said an architect, because I assumed that was the only way I could do art and make money.

You mentioned your parents—who else introduced you to the world of art?

What's funny is that nobody in my family is really creative. I don't have parents who are artists, I don’t have any relatives that are in art or anything like that. It really came from something that I just liked to do. And then they promoted that.

That was something that I will give a lot of credit to my family for. That really has made me who I am in all things, not just in a professional capacity, but also in my hobbies, is that the things that I loved are the things that I fell in love with, they supported me wholeheartedly. And that was really, really impactful in terms of me pushing these things forward and realizing that I can pursue them. And so while I had no direct influences in my life in terms of arts or creative, I had people that really believed in me and wanted me to do that well and were proud of the work that I was making.

My start as a designer only happened because my father had my artwork hanging in his office and one of his clients said, “Who did that? I need to work with them.” And he said, “I don't know if that's really possible. It's my son, he's 13.” But we figured out a way. And so it came from support rather than me having a direct inspiration or a real teacher within that field.

What did that support look like?

That support came verbally, giving me the time, giving me the supplies that I needed. They would even encourage me to build the most basic things that I just wanted to try. My very first snowboard—I tried to build it. It didn't work out very well, but I tried. Having that understanding or solving the problems, realizing what you want. So that's where that support came from.

And it's kind of weird. It's not tough love. It's just love in a different way of, "Hey, we can't teach you this or we can't give you this, but we want to put you in an environment that supports the growth of this."

I think a lot of people assume that you do one big thing and then turn a corner and everything changed. But the work that really mattered was done way before.

Who were some of the mentors in your life who deeply influenced your work or career?

I have a variety of mentors that are both within the design and art world and outside of that. Somebody that very few people probably are familiar with in my circle now, this guy named Dave Nelson who lives in Omaha and runs a great creative studio there. He was one of the first people that I saw who took a love for art and a love for skateboarding and turned it into a career in design. And that was actually very inspirational to me. I looked up to him in a lot of ways when I was very young. It's a nontraditional inspiration, but those are the things that were tangible to me and the things that that I could understand and somebody that I knew and could relate to and saw them transitioning the things that they loved into something that functions for life. And so he was a big inspiration for me.

But then I had many more traditional inspirations as well in the art scene and in the design scene. I always was very fond of anybody who used their hands, people who really did make things. So that was a lot more of the more traditional designers or even people like Louise Feeley, who are still very known for a specific thing. I always admired the time that you could name someone and say this person is exceptional at this thing.

People talk about Paul Rand or people talk about Massimo Vignelli and they were all really, really good at certain things. And you knew if you needed that thing, you went to that person. Those are really the people that inspired me. The same can be true in a variety of different avenues. It's not just in design or just in art. I mean, it can be in something like skateboarding or surfing. And you think of who is your favorite for a reason or who does this thing the best. Those are the people that inspired me to want to become someone like that and someone who could point to other people that are like that.

Did you ever meet Dave? Can you talk about how it happened?

I met Dave when he was still touring for skateboarding because he was a professional skateboarder. And so I met him while he was doing that and had the chance to skate with him a few times.

And I saw his office in Omaha, which was really the first behind-the-scenes look at someone who had self-initiated a career within graphic design. Not a big agency, I was familiar with all of those things, but somebody who had grassroots built something that was very nontraditional and had his own style. He had his own take on things and people wanted that. He was introducing a style and a look to the digital world that was really nontraditional at that time. It's now incredibly popular, but it was really cool to see him pioneer that. And now we see that all the time. We see different individuals bringing new approaches or bringing new styles to this world and then those being repurposed across an array of different applications. But it's those individuals who have that, that always inspired me.

How did you start the relationship with Dave? Did you go up and say that you're a fan of his work?

Like when I really first met Dave, I wasn't super familiar with his work. I knew that he did some design and mostly had just seen skateboards and things like that. And it was less even that I was. His work is beautiful, but it was less that I admired his work and more that I admire the fact that he took something that he loved and he took art and his own style and put it into something that other people could use, and then could purchase, and then could create a business, and then could sustain multiple people's livelihoods in that place, and grow something for his community. That was really what inspired me.

There is a huge need to establish trust in this work because the work that we're doing is ideally meant to not change, and is meant to be that best foot forward or that first impression for you or your company or your product.

When things started taking off for you, at the earliest stages, how did that happen? How did it happen and who helped make it happen?

I don't know when things necessarily took off. I know that there's been a gradual build and that things got busier and busier and the needs got bigger. But it was not really at the moments that people imagine.

I think a lot of people assume that you do one big thing and then turn a corner and everything changed. But the work that really mattered was done way before some of the bigger or more familiar identities that I've had the chance to design, because I had to build up this this big foundation, working with people and gaining trust and showing that the work that I could deliver could last and was actually valuable before those opportunities ever came.

And then even when those opportunities come, the time it takes for the work that you've done to then go out into the world and get recognized is often a very long period of time. And then for people to see it last for a longer period of time, to then trust it again. It's a funny thing.

And so I would say that probably some of the most important things I did were some of the things I did in the first couple of years of my career and just working with companies that were maybe not as exciting to some people, but doing everything that I could in those moments to serve them well and ensure that I was really giving them the best work possible, so that then when the chances to talk to other up-and-coming or slightly more prominent brands came, I had a track record.

A lot of people refer to the work I did with Instagram as a moment of things changing. And what's funny is, that was by no means the type of work that I traditionally did. It was by no means the specific type of work I was trying to do in the future—speaking specifically about lettering or script, logotype design—but it's the fact that they had a brand that enough people fell in love with and a beautiful product that changed culture forever. And since I had the chance to work on something that was just a tiny part of that, you get carried with the company to an extent.

And that's how identity design as a whole works. If you align with the right people that are doing the right things and you give them this tool that works really well for them, that can actually serve their product, their brand, their users well and identify them clearly. You get carried along on those beautiful journeys and all of the associations that people have with those brands.

That was really what turned the corner for me—not necessarily Instagram or Oculus. What's funny is I did the logo for Boosted, this electric skateboard company, at the exact same time that I did the Instagram logo and they didn't know I was working on this or that. And both of those companies have gone on to have their success in different ways. And people reference both of those extremely different identities and a variety of ways and different levels of appreciation. And it's funny how they kind of just happen separate from one another. Yet down the line, people look back and assume that all of these dots are connected.

Two things that I think we're hearing is the concept of trust and the long-term thinking, of how to go about building trust with folks. How did you early in your career think, “Okay, I'm just going to do this and not really think about it because this is the right thing to do?” Yeah, that's a really good question. There is a huge need to establish trust in this work because the work that we're doing is ideally meant to not change, and is meant to be that best foot forward or that first impression for you or your company or your product. So having trust in whoever you're working with is critical.

And the only way that I could establish trust was to show that I took this very seriously, that I had principles that I wasn't going to sway on, that I had a level of integrity that I was going to uphold and to assure them that I took all of that and carried it into every project. Again, trust really does usually come only from people seeing work that you've already done or seeing other successes, and then they recognize they can trust you. And I would say that kind of trust is what actually takes a career and moves it around that critical corner versus the work. It's just the trust. You're doing the same quality of work. But at a certain point, your trust level goes up and then people go, OK, I should work with this person.

But like, I'm almost miserable sometimes in going through my own brain to get these ideas out. And if I'm going to go through that process and focus my life on giving something to somebody else, I want it to stick around.

Why did you focus on identity design?

That really was an intentional choice, very early on. I didn't have many inspirations in that realm, and it's because it's super narrow and it does limit the work that I'm able to do. And it's a terrible business model because ideally I do the work and I never do it again and never work with the same client again.

But I loved that it was kind of an escape from the very short-lived world that is design. So much design is very impactful, but very short-lived. And if you do an identity, it can outlive you. If it's done well, if it serves the client well, it has that potential to last the way that art does. Work made by a great artist usually becomes even more famous after they're no longer here. And that idea of setting something into place that could outlive myself was very tempting. And I like that. I like the challenge.

But like, I'm almost miserable sometimes in going through my own brain to get these ideas out. And if I'm going to go through that process and focus my life on giving something to somebody else, I want it to stick around. I don't want to toil and live in this world of solving these problems of almost misery for something that's just going to get erased. And so I found a place where the level of dedication that I wanted to put into the work had a home. And that's where that long-term thinking really came to life.

I will say most of the really successful companies that I work with have incredibly thoughtful leadership.

Can you talk about how having principles has mostly affected you negatively, but also how it has set you up for success?

Yeah, having principles in design basically only ensures failure because most people don't understand why you would have these principles and why you're not just giving them what they want. Because design is still a service career. You still are in the business of client services. And the whole premise of client services is “give the customer what they want”.

But here you have a set of principles that you stick to that you've learned or that you've established over many, many years that most of the time are not what you're being asked to do. And you have to find a way to help educate a client to understand that they need these things to give them the right solution, all while telling them that basically everything they're asking for is probably wrong. And it really does ensure a lot of failure and a lot of pushback. It ensures that you're going to be challenged all the way through the process, but it forces you to become an excellent educator and an excellent communicator on why things work and to be able to demonstrate the realities of these things for your client. So the challenges that come with it really do make you much better.

They say if you really want to get good at something, try to teach it, because that exposes all of your holes. And if you have to teach a client something that they know nothing about, also while giving them a new identification that they're completely unfamiliar with, it's going to rip you to shreds a lot. And you're probably going to fail in many ways and have a lot of uncomfortable moments. But then you learn where those holes are and where those cracks are so that you don't have them next time, you fill them in, you solve the problem better. They really help identify what the true challenges of the situation will be, that then allow you to create the best design.

Is there any sort of anecdotal experience where you were challenged?

Sure, we have a kind of an ongoing joke here in the office about how when a client asks for feedback, it's funny because they're always going to end up back with the very first logo that we showed them. And it doesn't always happen, but probably 80 percent of the time, if there are tweaks requested within a mark or if there's a change, we end up back where we started. And what's funny is, instead of telling the client that over and over, oftentimes it is faster and a more successful process to just show them the difference. Visual explanation is a lot easier to understand and verbal, especially when you're talking about something that is so visual because explaining a graphic is extremely difficult.

So rather than having an argument or a back-and-forth where it's like, no, trust me, I'm the designer and they're like, no trust me I’m the client, we use visuals to walk through these challenges and then we can look at it objectively together. Sometimes there is something that's revealed that's magical. It's in there and sometimes it just gives people the peace of mind.

Why do you think thoughtfulness leads to success? You’ve mentioned that several times.

Yeah, I think it leads to success because the consideration of all potentials is what allows you to solve a problem correctly. When you get focused on something that's very temporary or a trend or something that's hot, it can lead to momentary success. But the problem is that those things don't have roots. They don't grow. And the people who think of what's going to happen and when something pivots and when everything goes wrong, what is it that somebody really needs? They're solving a much bigger problem, that is not as apparent. You have to dig to reveal those things that are true. You have to find those roots that are really far down there and what's feeding those, versus just looking at a leaf. The people that get deep and can think like that, can think like that very quickly and ask themselves those questions in succession while they're solving a problem, are the ones that I've seen have great success because they're already thinking six steps ahead of anything that we can even imagine.

You put a lot of thought and emphasis into the things you do—who are the thoughtful people you’ve encountered throughout your career?

There's a variety of extremely thoughtful people that I have encountered in my career. Most of them were clients, and I think that's telling—that a lot of people who are super successful are extremely thoughtful. They come to you with their baby, their company, and you have to take all of their knowledge and understanding and thoughtfulness and care for this company and extract something really beautiful from that. But it's learning how to communicate with them without stepping on any toes that has led to those best results.

Within design, I’ve worked with Tom Geismar for many years and he's a very well-established, graphic designer, has done many identities that have lasted longer than any in the world. He's incredibly thoughtful, but in an interesting way, and we think very differently. And that's also what's special there. I will say most of the really successful companies that I work with have incredibly thoughtful leadership. And it's less about people who just jump on something, but those who really do consider not just the temporary but the long-term, they almost give the same type of thought to their business as I put into design. And those people have been very interesting and inspiring to me. And I've also seen that play out well for them as a business.

I did an identity for a multibillion dollar publicly traded company very early on. I don't know why they trusted me, but they did... Those chances that they took on me really set me up to realize, "Hey, you can make something for anybody."

What advice would you give someone coming out of college?

The advice that I give basically every college student is to diversify your time and specialize your skills, because I think a wide array of experiences is going to guide you more than a variety of skills.

Testing out your ability to do a lot of things might be fun, but until you see the potential of doing something really well and where that can actually lead you, I think you will remain sort of lost. So spend time doing a lot of different things, experience a lot of different people, a lot of different industries, a lot of different cultures, so that you can decide which one you can be the most impactful in, and then make sure you have a skill that actually adds value. That’s not to say you're a specialist on one thing for life, but make sure you do something well enough that you can have an impact so you can see what having an impact feels like and then really decide, is that area right for you or is it time to pivot?

Can you recall a time some of your personal values were deeply challenged, but you held your ground despite everything?

We've had multiple identity projects where people will request something that works for now. And I can't do it. They have an intent—they know they're going to sell this company very soon, or they know that things are going to change, and I refuse to let that “just give me the quick solution" piece live. ...we just don't know how to operate halfway. They challenge these things that we know to be true, that we've built everything off of. Like all the work that I do is built off of these foundational principles. When people ask for just a portion of those, like, I can't do it. And so the answer is either no, we go all the way and you allow us to go all the way, or we don't do the project. I'm not going to be associated with something that's just a partially good version, which means therefore it's not functional.

Are there any questions that you wish more people would ask of you?

I wish more people cared about ideas, because I think ideas are the difference in most things. A lot of people ask about the technical side of things. You hear that with photographers all the time. What camera do you use? What lens do you use? They think that it's about the emulation of steps or the use of a tool that creates a great product when the root of all of these things is an idea or a vision. And I wish people thought more about where an idea comes from or how do I know that an idea is right, and that they would care deeply about figuring out that process. Or, how do I know what I'm seeing is beautiful? How do I know what I'm seeing is going to have impact? How do I know that this idea has potential? Those things are much deeper, and I feel like they're not taught. And not many people think that they're that valuable. They think it's just the literal.

But skills can be taught relatively quickly. People can learn how to use a program pretty fast. I mean, I'm very excited for the day that I just spend less and less time actually making the idea. The faster I can get the idea from my head into reality, the better. And that process, while important for something like an artist, sometimes it is the process. When you talk about design, the process is really not the valuable part, the idea and the output are. And so I wish people focused more on the idea.

One of the interesting parts of your career is your time at CGH. Can you talk a little bit about what that has taught you, and what it was like working in partnership with those very well-respected designers?

The time that I spent at CGH was incredibly impactful because I got a chance to see a partnership and a pursuit that was unmatched anywhere else in the world. Throughout time, two individuals for 60 years focused on creating exceptional work together and changing the landscape for what is visual identity. How can we make something that has the chance to endure? I learned things that I can't even write down or I can't say—the intangibles of those moments of working as a peer with them, not just working under them, but them actually inviting me in to be a principal with them and to lead these projects was something that shifts the way that I look at all the work that I do.

I learned a lot about design and I learned a lot about seeing things, and I learned a lot about the value of knowing a good idea. But even more than that, I learned about the balance that is life and that the way in which you interact with people in your environment and that you set all of that up is what enables the best design. They had a beautiful balance of life in the city, outside of the city, with a variety of people that sat in all different realms of society and their mix of all of those things, and that balance sustained for so many years, I think is really what led to their impact. And that's probably the biggest lesson that I learned from them.

And how did they create and maintain those relationships? And how has that affected your practice in developing relationships?

Well, Tom and Ivan specifically were very different individuals. Ivan was very much a socialite. And Tom was very dedicated to the work and the craft. And he likes to spend his time making things. And so they each invested in different people in different ways. Ivan was very good at spending time with those people who are out and about and around town and had a big impact. So they had a big flag to raise, but they still needed a team to give them what that flag should be.

And then Tom was so deeply ingrained into a variety of systems and people that were doing very important things that anytime they knew they needed something and they were actively doing so many things, they had the person to go to. So the balance of those two allowed them to do very high profile things, as well as things that had huge impacts on society and collectively, I try to take a little bit of both to then create the environment and the relationships to do the work that we're able to do today.

Who are some of the people that you feel have taken a chance on you?

In my very early days, I did an identity and a website for a used car dealership. That was a big risk for them because we built a huge sign. We designed a whole new building. That's a big business decision for somebody that's quite young. I did an identity for a multibillion dollar publicly traded company very early on. I don't know why they trusted me, but they did. It just was enough of a relationship back and forth that they felt that we could work together in a positive way. I think those risks were really big. Those chances that they took on me really set me up to realize, "Hey, you can make something for anybody." It doesn't matter who they are and you're not limited by size or scale or execution.

What are some of the things that anyone can do to develop these kinds of relationships?

Well, I think the most important thing you can do is listen, spend a lot of time getting to know the people that you're talking to. Don't worry so much about telling them everything that you know or showing that you're an expert or worth being trusted, but demonstrate how well you can get to know them and see how much you can actually learn from them, because they're probably an expert in whatever it is that they're pursuing. And if you can learn from that and you can bring those things back to life and extend conversations, not just ask questions over and over, but actually learn in the moment and extend those conversations into new ideas and come into new thoughts together—that gets people excited. And it shows them that you're looking at a situation differently than somebody else and how you can even allow them to do more than they realized they could do just by interacting with you, compared to you ever telling or teaching them anything.

I wanted to talk to you about the time you spend skiing and surfing, outside of the office, and how that informs your practice.

Skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing. All of those things are huge for me. I don't think that I'm only inspired by those cultures in terms of what they do graphically, but it's more about what they enable my mind to do. I'm always having to solve a problem in those moments, or you're always having a chance to be creative, which is what I love about those different activities. There's millions of what-ifs. What if I did this? What if I did that, which is the same way you think in design, but it gives me a chance to express that and to use my body and the environment and to interact with so many different variables at any point in time that it's incredibly exciting. It takes your mind completely. So any activity that takes you totally out of where you were and forces your complete attention there is really, really beneficial. And I find that to be the most helpful part of those activities for my practice, because I need a chance to reset and I need a chance to stop thinking about these designs or these problems and those allow me to do that.

And lastly—three adjectives that your friends would describe you as?

I’ll say things I’d hope people would describe me as. I'm not sure if they would. Thoughtful, trustworthy, and reliable.

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