Aaron Shinn — Design Through Creative Play

Aaron Shinn is an amazing artist and designer, and one of the people who has mentored me in design and dance music over the years. I got a chance to sit down with him in his Los Angeles home over the holidays to interview him about his perspective on design, zen, and quality of life. Watch the full interview here or read some of the highlights bellow.

What kind of designer are you?

I’ve been calling myself a product designer because I think that’s the only thing that is appropriately broad, because I’m a generalist.

You know me as a graphic designer, which is the way I started my career and learned about design, but as I’ve been practicing for the past 15 years or so I’ve go through so many different disciplines that I can’t claim to specialise in anything. I tend to design things as systems or ecosystem rather than as individual artefacts or single elements that would live within someone else’s system. So I tend to be a systems designer I guess.

How did you branch out from graphic design?

I’ve always been predisposed to try something that I don’t know how to do — not in a “fake it ‘till you make it” kind of way — but as a form of play, just an “experiment and press all the buttons” kind of way.

So that’s how I got into graphic design as a teenager with a pirated copy of Photoshop; I saw stuff that I liked and wanted to emulate it and just mashed buttons until I started to get the results I wanted. That mindset propelled me forward into trying lots of other stuff.

I went to design school, dropped out, started a design firm, went back to school and took everything from motion graphics to sound design, to Maya, or whatever, I was just playing.

Art direction by Aaron Shinn for Louis Vuitton. Photography Dan Forbes.

Then I ended up working in Fashion and got exposed to Art Direction as a practice, which isn’t design exactly but it’s a design-adjacent visual practice. So I had the opportunity to play with that there and to experiment and so I started to add that to the repertoire.

Experiment and try everything and see what happens…

And then I ended up at IDEO when I left New York and IDEO is really the most cross-disciplinary design studio you can imagine. I worked on everything from software to control a brain implant, to passenger experience for future airport security, to designing a brand of gourmet frozen food ingredients: the brand, as well as the packaging, as well as the contents of the packaging. Now I’m at the point where there are few things that I haven’t played with. I’ve done a little bit of spacial design, a little bit of industrial design, my next project is to design a tea room and — you know I’m not an architect (laughs).

It’s the process of continuing play and “failing forward” some people say, where you experiment and try everything and see what happens. I’ve been screwing around enough that it’s propelled my career.

Selling yourself as a generalist is really hard, how do you do that?

All of my meaningful projects have come by referral. In terms of my own work, I’ve only ever been referred to somebody for a specific thing. When I left IDEO I had one public project that was actually sharable and someone hired me to do a similar thing. In this case it was story telling for future technology in video form, so it was basically film production — which I also I have no business working in. I mean I’m not trained in but… you know, just play with it.

Scanadu Medical Tricorder concept video.

So the goal, I think, is in getting yourself to the point where you know enough to get hired, and then making your clients happy and they’ll tell people. Personally that’s been my story. And frankly I’m terrible at marketing myself — even maintaining a website is too much trouble for me, even with Cargo or Squarespace and all of these amazing platforms that make it easy — I am always so focused on the next thing that I’m building that I rarely take a step back and document and make case studies. I could do much better.

Some of that’s hard to do in retrospect too.

Totally. Honestly I think it would be great to hire somebody else to do that. Someone who’s a good story-teller and knows what success looks and could tease out the details.

The video you made of the Kimochi laser cut stencil design process is an effective portfolio piece.

Yeah, I’d like to do more of that. I actually made that for an awards submission which I did not win. Video submissions were allowed so I made that video as my project documentation. It was fun to make that but I was highly motivated for this one purpose. The funny thing is that they ended up featuring the video and putting it in a featured gallery on the website but they didn’t give me the award for the project. Maybe they didn’t like the album artwork?

The marketing side I think is funny. Titles like fashion designer, graphic designer, whatever, are very convenient for employers. They’re very convenient for people to hire you because it allows them to draw a circle around the responsibilities they should give you. It’s a short-cut; it helps people to wrap their head around what kind of value exchange they can have with you.

When someone’s a generalist you have to actually evaluate their skills.

When someone’s a generalist you have to actually evaluate their skills. You have to engage with them and look at their work. There’s a cognitive load involved. It’s easier for everybody if you just say I’m an _____ designer, but also it’s limiting. If you do pigeon-hole yourself people will say “oh you’re a fashion designer, why are designing coffee accessories” or “you’re a product designer why are you making a typeface” but if you’re just interdisciplinary there is less cognitive dissonance.

How does IDEO have the permission to be so multidisciplinary?

There are historical reasons for that. They started out as a product design shop. In the beginning, a company would come to them and say “we have an idea for a product” or “we have a business need for you to make this thing” and then they would do everything from studying how people would use the product with user interviews and context research, to prototyping, to the finished design of the thing, to even the engineering and manufacturing support. It was a traditional product design company.

One of the things that IDEO pioneered was to come up with an integrated process for design, research, and strategy that had no presupposed outcome.

And one of the things that IDEO pioneered was to basically come up with an integrated process for design, research and strategy that had no presupposed outcome. So the process that IDEO tends to follow is to start with research and then synthesise that into “insights and opportunities” — and all of these terms are of course very loaded and mean slightly different things than the dictionary definitions of the words. Then once you have the insights and opportunities you can move on to prototyping design options and then eventually — once you’ve filtered to a smaller number of options — you start to do more refined design expression.

The beauty of that process is that it doesn’t have any disciplinary boundaries. It’s a process of thinking and a process of practice, it’s not a process that’s devoted to making just a building, or just a garment, or just a brand — you can use it for any of those things. And some clients started asking IDEO to only do the first half of the process; so essentially acting as a research and strategy firm and not as a design firm. So either of those offerings are equally relevant and both of them are, at the core, trans-disciplinary.

IDEO’s interdisciplinary offering comes from having talented people from all different stripes who they can put together based on a project’s needs.

Because IDEO is a big enough company to have subject matter experts from all different disciplines, they can build a project team with experts of any kind. So I would be responsible for Communication Design which was a combination of brand and strategy and messaging and visual design and I might be paired with a human factors researcher with an Anthropology background and I might also be paired with someone with an Architectural background.

IDEO likes to say that they hire ‘T-shaped’ people with the cross-bar of the T representing a breadth of interests and the vertical of the T representing depth in one particular discipline. Essentially IDEO’s interdisciplinary offering comes from having talented people from all different stripes who they can put together based on a project’s needs.

What kind of client is brave enough to go with that kind of process?

On my scale, when I’m operating as a design consultant on my own and not working with a big agency, my briefs are very tactical. When I am recommended for a project there is usually a very specific outcome. Maybe it’s an app or maybe it’s a brand or maybe it is this or that but the brief is always quite specific. This is a factor of the size of the business you are working with.

It’s a very rare and typically very large company that can afford to spend lots of money on speculative design explorations.

It’s typically a very large company that can afford to spend lots of money on speculative design explorations. It takes a lot of vision and capital to be speculative and future oriented rather than meeting an immediate market need like “we need a logo”.

Is that generally coming out of an R&D budget?

I couldn’t speak to how the clients are financing projects but there are only a few companies in the nation or the world who can afford to invest heavily in work that doesn’t necessarily result in an immediate return on investment. But work that we did, and that IDEO continues to do, creates value as a way of building organisational intelligence.

If you study an existing product you get an existing answer. If you study behaviour outside of a product then you have an opportunity to come up with an answer that nobody has thought of yet.

When you think about the future in a very human centric way, with a lot of research rigour, you have the ability to see around corners in a way that a more market focused competitor won’t. If you’re just being led by the market — for example in electronics — you get bigger features, smaller package, smaller price tag, and it becomes a race to the bottom.

Just look at the smart phone wars: everybody trying to make a cheaper iPhone that is better than the iPhone in one way or another. Everybody is still just looking at the iPhone. Nobody is really thinking about what a smart phone could do in a way that nobody is doing.

If you study an existing product you get an existing answer. If you study behaviour outside of a product then you have an opportunity to come up with an answer that nobody has thought of yet.

What’s your definition of design?

Design is funny because people think of it as a verb and a noun. And I think the word as a noun is almost meaningless and I think it is very meaningful as a verb.

Design at it’s core is about making plans.

Design at it’s core is about making plans. If you look it up in a dictionary design is essentially a plan. But for a designer, what is the practice? What’s the thing you are doing?

On one level, you are taking a set of criteria or constraints and you are, through a process of meaningful thought and strategy and whatever is part of your process, you’re turning those criteria into some sort of an outcome. Something new that’s being generated.

If you design clothing, you might be given a creative direction and a bunch of constraints in the form of materials, colors, and price point.

And on another level, you’re channeling your imagination into reality. So much of design is to imagine things and then to express them somehow in a way that can be used by other people.

Sometimes the outcome is very very far away from an object you can hold or regard with your eyes.

Design is so hard to generalise because of the difference in process and the difference in outcome. Some people design organisations, some people design services, some people design businesses, and sometimes the outcome is very very far away from an object you can hold or regard with your eyes.

So I think it is broad enough that it is difficult to generalise about without just saying it’s a process of constraint, creation, and expression.

I once had a conversation with Iwatani-san, who was the designer of Pacman, and he said that “a designer should design their life”. Have you designed your life?

That creativity within constraints is one of the things that keeps me engaged in design — it’s one of the things that makes me want to continue playing in it.

Oh wow. That statement really appeals to me; “design your life”. I think you can argue that in the act of design — in the best case,  —  there is a kind of heightened consciousness. A kind of hyper acuity. I’m sure you’re aware of the concept of the flow state or the psychology of the flow state. That attention, that quality of mind is a really beautiful thing. That creativity within constraints, that almost feeling of omniscience, is one of the things that keeps me engaged in design — it’s one of the things that makes me want to continue playing in it.

The idea of designing my life feels like a huge undertaking. We exist in a community, in a location, in a political climate, and a cultural context that we don’t necessarily get to choose. And also we have our internal divisions between our conscious behaviour and unconscious behaviour.

Record sleeve for Disco Demolition designed by Aaron Shinn.


For example, the collection of vinyl records behind me that I’ve been compulsively collecting since I was a teenager — this is very much a non-designed behaviour, this is a compulsion. In a way I love the idea of it but I’m also intimidated by the level of cold analytical precision i’d have to bring to my life in order to design all of it. None the less I think we can creativity and problem solving from design to our everyday lives. Asking, as a designer, how can I have a better quality of life?

As a designer, how can I have a better quality of life?

My wife and I go through this process a lot. Asking our selves the questions “where is my time going?” “What am I putting time into that’s not giving me anything back?” “What are the things that my life lacks?” “How can I remove time from the unrewarding things and give it to rewarding things?”

Time is my basic currency now, unfortunately.

This is why I’m a climber now instead of working out at a gym. There is a climbing gym close by, and it is delightful mentally, and it makes me feel good. It’s this great coincidence of factors — both within and without my control — that allows me to not drive all over town, or lift weights and count reps, I don’t have to do that now because I have a different way to satisfy the same needs that’s more delightful to me.

Likewise everything from how I eat, to the way that I cook, and the things that I buy vs the things that I don’t buy, and when I choose to get in the car and drive vs when I choose to mail-order something. All of these are design decisions in a way but there is a point at which you run out of cognitive energy to analyse everything and make informed decisions. At some point I just want to fall apart on the couch and make no decisions.

What relationship is there between zen and design?

I don’t think there is any more of a direct connection between Zen and Design as there is between Zen and Cooking, or Zen and House Keeping, or Zen and Child rearing. I think zen is a quality of mind, or a philosophical outlook, or a practice of being, and I think it can be expressed in design and I think that design can be a zen practice, but I don’t think that design is inherently zen. When we talk about design we have to include all the bad design, all of it. Everything from fast-food restaurant menus, to strip club logos — not that there aren’t good examples of those things, but they are hardly artefacts of high contemplation for most people. I think it is more that one can encompass the other, rather than one inherently has it or doesn’t.

What advice would you give to a young designer?

I think everything that I’ve ever done that has been beneficial for me in my career has been something that I’ve done out of passion. I’ve never done work that people care about if I was just doing it out of obligation. I think obligation is the enemy of creative play, in a way.

Obligation is the enemy of creative play

I didn’t aspire to be a certain kind of designer or to have a certain status — and I’m thinking of the very early stages of my career when I designed fliers for raves or when I did almost more illustration than design. I didn’t have a very specific purpose for any of it and all of it was just driven by my own curiosity, my own hunger to make something that had a certain aesthetic that I could imagine but that I had to make it in order to be able to see it. I think of that as work that comes from a place of passion versus obligation.

I really believe that if you are attuned to your passion, and you can express that, then everything is going to be fine.

I really believe that if you are attuned to your passion, and you can express that, then everything is going to be fine. You may need to change the context you’re in — because maybe you’re in a place where there is no support, no clients, no industry for the kind of designer you need to be. But if you can express your passion, you’ll be able to take that expression to a different context, and to find the work, and to find the career.

Maybe you want to design avant garde menswear but you live in Vietnam and there is no market for it. But if you can do an amazing job of illustrating it, and making sample garments, and whatever, and then you go to Paris and there is a market for avant garde menswear there! We live in a global society now and talent doesn’t necessarily have boundaries. It’s just a question of being able to force yourself to express the talent and to do things that you authentically care about.

That long running series of fliers for Crobar, where you used metallic inks, is an amazing, singular body of work, that should be collected into a book or something, or at least some kind of web gallery, but I guess you haven’t done that.

No, (laughs), it’s so long ago! I had a surprise about 4 or 5 years ago, I found a box of all of those fliers, I still have a couple dozen of all of them. I had so much pleasure from just looking at those and remembering everything that went into them.

Aaron’s box of fliers, circa 1999.

That was a really amazing assignment because I was basically given a blank canvas, and a decent budget, and the client just believed in my vision and said “Do whatever you want, just once a month make something cool” and I got to just experiment, I got to play, and they didn’t fight me for approval. The economy was great so they knew people would come anyway, so the pressure was really off of me to do anything that was very tactical and that had measurable effects. It was a really lovely period and a lot of the work that I did then was an elaborately decorative style that was influenced by a lot of other elaborately decorative graphic designers.

I had so much fun with all of that, it was wonderful.

When it comes to trying to collect a little bit more of the history, and put it somewhere, I would love to do that but it is going to be hard. I’ll kind of have to stop what I’m doing for a while. I know some some people who are far more successful than I am, a photographer in particular that I know has a staff archivist. And I’m unbelievably jealous of this, that this guy actually has the means to hire somebody to just catalogue and index and keep his work accessible. Even if it is private, just having a good private archive is a big deal. Once you are 15, 20 years in you forget half the stuff you made.

Generally how would you go about pricing?

Pricing is a black art. It is full of mystery and it is mysterious to everybody. But essentially the general principle is: keep pushing your fees up until things start to break down horribly. And generally, if you are good, and if you have the relevant experience, you can continue to push them up almost without limit.

Keep pushing your fees up until things start to break down horribly.

The thing is you won’t necessarily know when somebody passes on you because you are too expensive; they might not tell you. But as long as you have a lot of inquiries, a lot of people asking you for your time, the more that you charge the less busy you are, and the more that you charge, ideally, the quality of your work, the quality of your attention, the quality of your life goes up.

But of course this is very different for a designer working on assignment as a freelancer or a consultant versus a designer working in a salaried corporate position.

Every time you change jobs you have an opportunity to try to double your salary.

So there are a couple pieces of advice. I’d say that for a salaried designer, every time you change jobs you have an opportunity to try to double your salary. You might as well. You know, just ask, see what happens. Not because you are mercenary and evil and greedy, but because maybe you don’t know what you are worth. I think that is generally the case for designers.

As design starts to be seen more and more as a core practice of companies that make products for people, designers may be operating in the dark about how much value they are giving, and you might ask a company for a salary that actually puts you in a position of lower responsibility than you should have.

I got a very good piece of advice once when somebody told me: “When you tell them how much it is going to cost, if you don’t feel sick, you’re not asking for enough. And if they don’t flinch when they see the number, the number is not high enough.” If you want to negotiate from a position of strength, you have to start where a compromise will still be a good solution. Whereas if you start with the lowest number because you believe you are competing by having low prices – well, when someone asks you for less there is no where to go without making sacrifices that could make your life very hard.

Are you familiar with any of those freelance websites where it’s a race to the bottom in terms of pricing. Or you are even working on spec and it’s kind of a competition?

I’m aware of these and I don’t believe any designer should ever do work on spec, ever. Unless you have so much to gain and nothing to lose. For example: let’’s say you have no living expenses, no working expenses, basically you have unlimited time, and your time costs you nothing, and there is nothing else you’d rather be doing, and you have no experience? Sure, do some stuff for free, you know, just get it out there.

The real tragedy is that there are probably some very good designers who are toiling away in those digital sweat shops who are worth more and should be working in environments that acknowledge their value.

But if you are a professional, and somebody is going to make money off of your work? Good lord do not give it to them for free and don’t do it as a competition because that’s just a way of exploiting people who don’t know how to sell their talent. I find Fiver and 99designs and all those things infinitely depressing. Not because I think there is no talent there, not because I think it is destroying design or anything like that, or ruining the market, far from it. I just think the real tragedy is that there are probably some very good designers and very good artists who are toiling away in those digital sweat shops who are worth more and should be working in environments that acknowledge their value instead of treating them as contestants in a talent show where the prize is $5. It’s sad.

If the prize was prize was $500,000 would that be different?

I’d say so, yes. For example, the architecture world at the very very high levels is sometimes prize driven. Multiple firms will spend a lot of money building speculative design, in order to win the commission to build a real building. At that level, sure why not. But I mean, this is also similar to the way that pitch work is done in advertising. This is figured into the cost of doing business. The organisation can absorb that expense and people are being paid a living wage, hopefully, to do that work.

I think we have to be very careful not to universalize the advice of never do spec work. Because if you are in an organisation who’s business model is predicated on it, then I suppose that’s ok for your business. But the place where I have to be very decisive is when it comes down to the individual designer or freelancer. If you don’t have the sort of business savvy or restraint to hold back you might just give away all of your time and energy to people who will take advantage of you. And I’ve had that happen to me and everybody I know has had that happen to them. I think you really have to dig in, and draw a line in the sand — “I will do this much without a contract” — and then everything else afterwards has to be billed according to whatever terms you set up.

When you get into a funk, or a slump, or just feel uninspired, how do you pull yourself out of that?

I think it helps to exhaust yourself at the beginning so that you can be open to new ideas.

I think the first thing is, let’s say we’re in the context of a project, right? There is usually a beating your head against the wall process of trying to design something and never getting to anything that you like. I think it helps to exhaust yourself at the beginning so that you can be open to new ideas.

And then how you get those new ideas is kind of up to you. Like sometimes for me it is like flipping through old sketchbooks or looking at my old work, or sometimes it’s going to the library, like just the wall over here of design books and flipping through those. Or maybe it’s doing something completely unrelated to the task at hand. Maybe you’re designing a logo, or object, and the thing to do is to go have a beautiful meal somewhere. Of course I’m very food motivated and the experience of eating — the multi-sensory aspect of being in a restaurant  — can make me think about things entirely differently. I think a change of context and a change of environment can be really powerful.

You mentioned climbing before, what other activities do you do outside of your professional work — what kind of creative things are you up to?

Oh man, well I’m so busy right now that I don’t have much time for my other creative pursuits but probably the one that has been the most consistent during my design career, is dance music.

And that’s you know, all of this, for the most part, all of these records [pointing at the crates full of vinyl behind him] are dance records.

I have an insatiable hunger to follow my interests and continue to explore the world of dance music. A lot of that is in passionate research and exploration, and the way that gets expressed is through DJing or through DJ mixes, or sometimes making re-edits, sometimes making original music but I have less and less time for that unfortunately.

I rarely design without music, I rarely work without music, and I find that music is a huge influence, a huge aesthetic influence on the work that I do.

But music for me is a wonderful balance between the conscious and unconscious. There’s the deliberacy of, as a waking person, “I want to listen to something like this” or “ah there’s this one artist I want to hear again, or feeling that I want to have again”. But then the way that music works on you, the ways that music alters your mindset, is something deeply emotional, and physical, and sort of a brain stem level thing. And I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for art making, or design, or for anything, that there’s always that mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness.

I rarely design without music, I rarely work without music, and I find that music is a huge influence, a huge aesthetic influence on the work that I do. What I listen to affects the way I work and affects the outcomes of how I work, and even decisions about the aesthetics of something can be influenced by what i’m listening to. So I think that’s probably the biggest creative practice that I have. And I have no professional interest in music at all.

Thanks for joining us today, Aaron!

Thank you Thomas, it’s been fun.

More Information

Also on dxMag

Write for dxMag

If you have something to say about art, design, or craft, please let us know!

One thought on “Aaron Shinn — Design Through Creative Play”

  1. “Embracing design through creative play is a refreshing approach that breathes life into artistic expression. It’s a journey where imagination takes the lead, and experimentation becomes the compass. By fostering a playful mindset, designers unlock new perspectives, pushing boundaries and crafting innovative solutions. Whether it’s doodling, brainstorming, or playful prototyping, this blog celebrates the joy and freedom found in the intersection of design and creative play, reminding us that some of the most groundbreaking ideas emerge when we let our creativity run wild.”

Comment on this Article

Also on dxMag