Tabrez Ahmad, Lead Product Designer at Liv Bank

Looking back over your career, have there been any particular milestones where you thought “I’m a better visual designer now”?

I went to art school, and so I’ve a degree in graphic design. It was all about creativity, ideas are the most important thing, execution is something that came a bit later, which was a bit odd for me. When I graduated, worked in placements, there were things I was very good at like working with text and Photoshop work.

On the other hand, I knew a bit about grids and stuff like that, but I didn’t really know how to use them. There was a point where someone basically sat me down and gave me a really good lesson in grid systems. That was really crucial for me, because at times I would like stare at a blank page and I wouldn’t know how to create a system or something on it. As soon as you create a grid system, you’ve got some restrictions to work with.

Restrictions for a designer are a good thing. The more restrictions you’ve got, the tidier your design can be. The way I view restrictions, is like the alphabet. You’ve only got 26 letters, but that led to all of the books and poetry that have been written for a thousand years, so 26 letters isn’t that much of a restriction.

So for me that was one point where I thought I’m really good at, you know, getting really good at design because of this. I think another point probably was when I lived in New Zealand for a year and a half, and I was teaching design two days a week and freelancing in an agency three days a week.

That was brilliant because I was teaching the students everything I’d learnt at art school, about all the top designers and great exercises, you know, and then I’m like “if you want to be a designer, you’ve got to do ABC” you know, and then like the next day, I’m back at work and I’m like “oh man, this is great like, I feel like a student again”, so I’ve got all my energy. When you’re teaching you understand so many different audiences as well.

When you’re teaching 20 students, that’s 20 different brains that have got their own view point on something. It really helps you understand when you’re designing, that you’re not designing for yourself. It’s like you’re designing to get other people on board with your design, so it taught me a lot more about collaboration as well.

What was the situation when the person sat you down and taught you about grids?

I was an intern and I was stuck on something, so I said “Adrian can you help me out”. I had my illustrator document with all the inspiration and I’m like right “how do I do this”. He said “you can just set up a three column grid” and I though “oh my God”. It was funny, because I thought grids were generally for editorial work only, if you’re doing like a brochure or something.

This was about 2009, so before I really got into web design stuff. I was doing a poster and he was like you know “you can just drop a grid on there and that will help you with your typography”. It was weird because I knew about grids and after he said it I thought “oh God, that’s so obvious”, to use a grid for a poster.

While I worked for this guy I also worked on crazy deadlines, I worked super-fast. You’ve got to balance a lot of things to be a really good designer, especially if you’re an individual contributor, you know.

You’ve got to be good technically but you’ve also got to be creative. Also you’ve got to be able to communicate creativity to people that are not creatives. If you ask 20 people to picture a dog in their head, you’re going to get 20 different dogs. Some people are going to do Odie from Garfield, some people are going to think of their pet dog.

In the same way you can’t just say to a client, “yes, just imagine”. “We’re going to have a pink circle here and it’s going to fall over there into the green rectangle, just imagine, trust me it’s going to be good”. You can’t say that kind of stuff, so you’ve got to really be able to communicate your ideas properly.

These days with digital design you’ve got prototypes to help communicate things. I’m working client side now, which I’ve been doing for two weeks, and you’ve got to talk the client through the separate things and that’s a skill that every designer needs to have.

You know, you can’t just be navel-gazing, inside your own little bubble. It’s something that we’re all guilty of when we graduate. When we come out of art school, we think we’re the “dog’s bullocks”, it’s like “don’t tell me how to be a designer, I can do it all”. And then you just realise that you don’t know anything. But the energy you’ve got from art school is amazing.

Was the person who taught you about grids a strong mentor figure for you?

Yes, I guess he was a little bit of a mentor for me. We’ve stayed good friends. I went to his wedding, he came to mine. He was the first designer I worked for when I graduated as an intern for five months. I learnt quite a lot from him I think.

Can you talk more about the teaching position you had for two days a week?

It was with the local college, the equivalent of an HND. I started on one day a week and then moved to two days a week. This was back in 2013.

We lived in a small town in New Zealand, we had a college there with graphic designer students and there was a vacancy for teaching design, and I love teaching, love working with juniors.

Over the years you kind of garner different values, so like I started off with curiosity from art school, which I’ve kept, and the other one is learning, but it’s not just me learning, it’s about teaching other people as well. I used to run a mentoring platform and I believe that everyone can be a mentor and everyone can be a mentee.

How much of your improvement in visual design has been intentional and how much do you only notice now that you look back?

I think it’s always been intentional. I love design and I’m always looking to improve my designs. I always enjoy looking at the latest websites.

Back in London, I had a bookshelf with all my design books, which I sadly didn’t bring with me to Dubai. I had all these references like, every issue of Creative Review, and then obviously fancy design books.

There’s always an intent to keep improving, to keep looking at other work out there, how people have done it. I also think the company you keep matters as well. There’s some great Slack groups out there. When you're in a Slack group with people you admire you can ask questions like “what do you think of this?”

What would you say has been the hardest area of visual design to learn about?

Responsive grids on websites. There’s fluid layout features in Sketch and Figma that I haven’t bothered with because you can get by if you communicate properly with the developers. There’s never been a situation where someone came back to me and said, “you didn’t do a fluid grid in Sketch”. Clients don’t ask for a fluid grid, they ask for a website.

Another challenge, and you might notice this as well when you work on B2B stuff, but a lot of these websites look very similar now. You know, there’s a huge standardisation of certain websites. So sometimes, for example if you work in an agency, the people in the agency are very short sighted. They want to see stuff similar to other stuff and don’t really want to innovate. So that’s quite boring.

Luckily I get the odd client that just comes to me and wants me to do some private work. So I’m working with another client right now and they’re the perfect client, they just said “do what you want”.

A big challenge is also educating stakeholders about what’s possible in design. A lot of people just want something that they’ve seen somewhere else, because maybe Deliveroo did that really well or Monzo. There’s also the financial and time restrictions on the projects because clients often don’t know how long design can take.

If a client comes to you and says “do what you want”, do you not suffer from choice paralysis?

Not really, because then I just think “oh I can go crazy”. But then I realise the older I am, crazy for me isn’t what it used to be, five years ago.

I don’t really get the choice paralysis, because it allows you to play a lot as well. There was a website I did three years ago and the brief was, “our name looks like it’s got four circles in it, so just do anything you like that might have four circles”. The client even said “I might be wrong, so do what you want”, and that was cool.

I think when people say “do what you want” it’s like “cool, I can do what I want, but let’s talk about what that actually is”. It’s like hiring a band for a venue and saying “do what you want”. And they say “well, actually let’s be careful, are we going to do thrash metal or are we going to do synth pop”. When someone says “do what you want” it shows they’ve got an appetite to do something, but you have to show them references.

For me it’s showing them a bunch of websites and it’s “what do you think of this”. The website Klikkentheke is really good for inspiration. So I will show the client a bunch of websites, you know, and they’ll say “aww that’s a bit crazy, this one’s really nice”. We’re narrowing down then we can move on.

What do you think about the idea that some people naturally have an eye for visual design?

Yes, absolutely. One of my mates that I went to art school with was a brilliant person. He was so intelligent, he could do anything, and he was just amazing at design. We were into the exact same stuff, and we’d have the same time to do the work, and the stuff that he churned out was just phenomenal. He went off to work with some amazing agencies. What’s funny is that he hated design.

Then there are people like me. I knew so much about design when I was in art school, but I couldn’t apply it as well as other people. I was known as the one that knew a lot about the design industry and all the agencies, all the people in there, where they’d come from, the projects they’d worked on. I’d read Creative Review cover to cover basically for years.

My wife is a doctor, but she’s incredible at painting. She started again for the first time in five years and it was like “wow, you’re so talented”. But yes, people do naturally have an eye for things.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but a lot of wealthy people don’t have an eye for good design. There’s a millionaire in Glasgow that I met, and this guy’s worth about £700 million. He had his own personal graphic designer, and the work that he did was “crap”. I thought, “this is the richest guy in Glasgow”, and he’s not got an eye for design. He bought Lamborghinis and all that, because that’s what you do when you’re rich, but when he signed off on design work, it was just horrific. So that’s the opposite of someone having a clue about design.

You mentioned in art school that you were the person who knew lots about design but couldn’t apply it. Do you think that balance has shifted through your career?

Absolutely. I don’t get the time to read stuff like that now, especially with two kids, I’m up 6 AM with the kids, and then I’m at work and I’ve got meetings, I’ve got work to do. When I finish work, more time with the kids, and then it’s 7:30 PM.

Definitely it’s not as easy to keep up with design stuff. Then annoyingly you’ll miss out on some great design stuff.

Have you developed more of an eye for visual design through your work, or are you still theory focused?

That’s a tricky one. I think I still view things through the same lens. If I look through lots of portfolios I can tell the minute I see one if it’s good or not. The way they use colour, type, presentation, that kind of stuff, you know. But I think that balance is about the same maybe.

Do you rely on any resources to keep your design skills sharp?

Slack groups are the best for it, you know when you’re in with different people and they’re posting great links. Twitter’s got some great stuff but I don’t really go on it much.

It’s tricky because you want to get into the tech side as well, because technically there’s more stuff that you can do. To stay sharp, it would be really good to learn more about what’s technically possible in these design tools. Can we add some animation in there or 3D. Your tools also form the design as well, you know what I mean?

It's an interesting topic. You hear people say that it doesn’t matter what tool you use, but do you think that’s shifted now?

I think it has absolutely shifted. It’s a bit like, if you’ve only got a frying pan, you can fry an egg or you can fry vegetables and all that, because that’s your tool, a frying pan.

But if you want to do pasta, you’re going to need another tool, you’ll need a saucepan, you’ll need to put water in it and all that sort of stuff, so the tools do make a difference. Maybe you level up once you realise you’ve got a pressure cooker, you can cook things that you’ve never dreamed of before because you only had a frying pan.

So if you stick to Illustrator, you’re going to be drawing square after square after square and button and button and button. Someone could just walk along and say “by the way you want Figma or Sketch, you’ve got a feature called components”. Only this week I learned about variants of components within Figma, which is insane. Then it’s like “I’ve learned about better tools, this is going to make life so much easier”.

When you think about that, it’s like “well okay cool, so that’s a four hour task that has been dropped down to two hours. I’ve got that free time to work on other stuff”.

I do some generative art work on the side as well, where the tool is the output. I use code to create visuals, so the tools definitely play a big part in what you can do. You think back to the 90’s, the way designers worked with stuff, they used photography, scanners, and digital stuff started coming in the 2000s. Pixel type faces, that sort of thing, all the stuff that Neville Brody did.

Are there any professional visual designers whose work you follow?

There’s loads. Do you want me to list a few of them off?

I mean visual design, then I guess we’re thinking about the classic design studios, you know, like Graphic Thought Facility, Made Thought, Pentagram, Wolf Ollins.

Matt Willey, one of the partners from Pentagram, his typographic work is really incredible. You’ve got Kris Sowersby, he’s a type designer that’s worked with a lot with global agencies, and the stuff he does is phenomenal.

Then there’s the generative visual artists, like Zack Lieberman, who’s incredible. There’s a guy called Patrik Hübner. Another guy called Tim Rodenbröker, who teaches classes in Processing. In this age you’re able to communicate a lot more one to one with your design heroes, so it’s great that people like him are around.

People are still looking at the Designers Republic, you know the work they did, and in fact, Matt Pyke from Universal Everything, that guy is incredible. There’s his ex-colleague, Michael C Place from Build.

Some of the stuff Matt Pyke did ten years ago, now you’d think “okay, that’s really cool” but when I saw it ten years ago, it blew my mind, the way he did some visuals. I couldn’t even fathom that you could do that. He’s an example of someone who understands a tool and what you can do with it. Although Matt Pyke never uses computers. Everything with him is sketched out, he does everything by hand and then collaborates with people that are the specialists in their tools.

If you learned visual design again from scratch, how would you approach it?

I would learn code, because every time I went to any of these huge inspirational talks, all my notes at the end will say “try to learn code”, but I’ve never learnt how to code.

I’ve been learning processing in the last year. That dropped off in the last six months, for personal reasons, but yes, I think learning code is a big thing that I would have pushed more for.