Interview: The Focus Lab Team

I was first introduced to the amazing work of  Focus Lab by browsing on Dribbble. Then I found their website and I fell in love with their branding article series from the Focus blog.

Their work has provided me personally with so much inspiration and motivation, I had to get to know their way of going about creativity and design. And that is exactly what I did in this interview.

Firstly, can you introduce yourselves to us ?

Alicja: Hi! I’m Alicja, the project manager and company photographer. I help the designers stick to their jobs and not, play with calendars and other logistical tools. Then I get to dive into photographing UI, Collateral, or shots for hero images.

Matt Yow: My name is Matt and I’m a designer. I pitch in with building brand identities.

Bill Kenney: I am co-founder a.k.a the crazy bald guy that leads the design team and high fives everyone.

Rocky Roark: My name is Rocky and I’m the new kid on the block.

Charlie: Lead designer, comic relief, health/fitness instructor, shoulder to cry on.

Sam Stratton: Designer, tank top wearing, young guy trying to make things prettier on the web and stuff.

How did the Focus Lab name came to the table ?

Bill: Choosing a name for us proved to be an extremely hard decision. I (Bill) was previously freelancing under the name Ideal Design Firm. We continued with that name after Erik and I joined forces for about another year but soon decided that was not the name for us. The biggest issue was it pigeonholed us with the word “Design” in the company name. That did not reflect the strength of the development team we were building and also the idea that down the road we might be building airplanes, who knows.

When deciding on a new name we wanted to be sure not to pigeonhole ourselves again and chose something completely free to build and scale around. We explored a variety of words that we felt were representative of who we were as a company and the services we were delivering. Focus was a word that continued to hang around as we were banging our heads against the wall trying to find the perfect company name. At the end of the day we got so exhausted with the search for perfection we landed on the word that we kept coming back to.

So why “Lab” right. Well the company name Focus was already registered so we had to slap another word on before we filed the paperwork. Lab was another instance of we are sick of thinking about it, let’s just add lab and get to work. Focus Lab was born and has been rocking for just under 4 years.


What route through education did you take to get where you are today?

Alicja: I graduated with a BFA in graphic design. Worked in the industry for 3 years and found I like managing the projects more than the doing them and creating the photography for the projects than finding them on iStock.

Matt: I recently graduated from SCAD with a BFA in graphic design.

Rocky: I graduated this year from Georgia Southern University with my BFA in graphic design. Before that, I have been working in graphic design and printing since I was a freshman in high school (about 8 years). When I wasn’t in class I was working hard doing freelance work or researching and finding new inspiration.

Bill: I was always in love with being creative and artistic expression. Although I was a pretty terrible high school student I still excelled in art class. After fighting the thought of being a starving artist for years and jumping through all typed of majors in College I finally gave in and became an art major.

From that point on I was a steady 4.0 student and graduated from the University of Tampa with a B.F.A. I moved to Savannah to get my M.F.A at SCAD ( Savannah College of Art and Design ) but soon decided I was ready to get to work and start pushing pixels. Masters program was passed on and Focus Lab was born.

Charlie: I graduated from the University of Mississippi back in 2003 with a BA in ART and emphasis in Graphic Design.

Sam: I currently attend Savannah College of Art and Design for Graphic Design while working full time at Focus Lab during the summers and part time during the school year.


Could you describe a typical day at Focus Lab ?

Alicja: Coffee, Instagram, Animated Gifs, Meetings, Lunch, Calendars, Answers, More Animated Gifs.

Bill: Walk to the office, meet about new leads, meet with the design team, a couple client meetings and then headphones and PS / Ai – Gif wars in between all of that

Charlie: Pixel Pushing, Animated Gifs, Go To Meeting video chats, Sketching, Laughing

Sam: Fixie bike ride into the office, design meetings, laughing, pushing pixels and make things pretty

What skill would you say people need to master in this industry ?

Alicja: Communicating and Collaboration

Bill: Communication, setting expectations

Matt: Research, investigation and discovery — learning everything about everything.

Rocky: Spontaneous Collaboration, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge (not just in design), and pretty much a love for what you do.

Charlie: Collaboration and being Humble

Sam:  Staying humble.  Design is one of the few fields that is driven by community and pride squelches community every time.


What has been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on so far?

Alicja: Snappy. It was the first whole (branding, website and UI design) that I did with Focus Lab. It also included great photography opportunities that I got to do 🙂

Matt: Ted Todd Insurance. Great client, great communication and just fun. Similar to Alicja, it was fun to see it from start to finish with good momentum.

Bill: They are all my children so that is extremely hard to answer but the one we are currently working on for FuneralOne might steal the show.

Charlie: All projects start and end with the client so having the opportunity to work with someone that let us push boundaries and pitch crazy ideas was an amazing experience.

Sam: I’ve loved every project I’ve been on since I’ve been here.  The leads team does an incredible job with picking the best clients possible.  They all have their rewarding part.  So D. All of the Above.


Do you guys have a client from hell story ? How did you handle it ?

Alicja: Who doesn’t? We overdeliver, try and try again, but have a clear ending point that both sides understand.

Bill: There are certainly bumps in the road, you just have to learn from the experience, take your share of the responsibility and implement what you learned in future projects.

Charlie: No comment all clients are awesome.

Sam: We have such a family feel around focus lab that even if we did have a client from hell we would all rally around each other to solve the problem/ absorb the blow.  But we love all of our clients.  They all bring something special to the table that makes me love coming to work every morning.


What helps you be productive on a daily basis ?

 Alicja: My work is different from the guys, but I have a routine. For me, each morning starts in a particular way that helps me deepen focus gradually. And music.. lots of Trance to help me drown out the others. (It doesn’t, however, block out the animated gifs.)

Bill: The fact that I love my job and team. Music is a must.

Matt: coffee and heavy metal.

Rocky: Music, a constant stream of visual inspiration (not only digital), and a great environment.

Charlie: Podcasts and Red Bull.

Sam: music, cool esthetic atmosphere to work in, i also keep inspiration sites up to keep my creative juices flowing. 


What are some of your favorite design books, articles, speeches, presentations, etc ?

Alicja: When we started at Focus Lab, Erik, our Technical Director, made us all watch John Cleese’s talk on Creativity. I have to say for me as the Project Manager and being a creative myself, it resonated a lot.

Rocky: I have a pretty big library of design and illustrations books/ magazines, but one of my favorite books is “Work for Money, Design for Love” by David Airey. I use my collection of books and magazines to help inspire me in my design process. Additionally though, I love to watch documentaries such as Objectified, Urbanized, Beautiful Losers, and many other great movies.

Charlie: Design as a Job, Execute, anything on Medium, The Great Discontent.

Bill:  I’ve really enjoyed attending a few conferences this year and find those to be a great way to learn about all types of subjects from personal growth to design related topics. Experiencing a story first hand is much more engaging for me. My top two talks of the year would have to be from Leadercast. A leadership event that was held in Atlanta GA and featured a slew of great speakers. The two stand out talks for me where Jack Welch ( former CEO of GM ) and Lieutenant Commander Rorke Denver. Jack spoke completely raw and from the hip about what it takes to succeed and be a great leader. Rorke stole the show ending the event with both an inspiring and emotional talk that brought goosebumps. It’s not always about learning new tools in photoshop but higher level growth that is truly rewarding.

Sam: I’m not much of a reader, but I really enjoyed watching a Steve Jobs documentary recently.  Not to be cliche about the relationship between designers and apple.  But I got a lot out of it.


What is the best piece of advice you would give to any newcomer in this industry ?

Alicja: For emerging Project Managers, collaborate with the designers and developers when plotting out course of projects. The longer you guys coordinate with them, it’ll be easier to plot project courses without them – but always be quick to hear and implement thoughts from them. We are to be the support and aid not the hinderance. 

Charlie: Find a company that will let you learn, collaborate and get your hands dirty.

Bill: Work, work, work. Hard work does pay off, so get out there and start doing.

Sam: The best thought that I could tell someone new to our industry is to know that there are no “correct” answers in design.  There are things that work better than others.  But if you start to get comfortable in the idea that “this is how it is HAS to be” you will never be creative which in my opinion is what our industry is all about.  Creatives should be the pioneers of new things, not just being able to recreate things in photoshop that others have already made.  Just because you know how to use photoshop and illustrator does not make you a designer… I hope that wasn’t too blunt.


Are you guys currently working on anything amazing ?

Alicja: Always! We’re blessed to not be pigeon-holed into one industry. Each project is unique to us and has it’s challenges.

Charlie: Everything! We choose projects based on the people involved versus the product. Which in the end makes all the projects amazing.

Sam: Always! Isn’t that our jobs? Making things amazing.

Bill: We are lucky enough to land really great projects, so we always have something awesome cooking in the kitchen 🙂 We definitely have some super secret but awesome projects that should go live by the end of the year or early 2014. Stay tuned 🙂