"Convince people with your work, not with your talking."
Tobias van Schneider has already lived more life than most of us.
He was born in Germany and raised in Austria. After leaving school at 15 and finding his way into software engineering, he found himself in a bit of a conundrum: he was not good at software engineering. However, fate would have it that design was right up his alley.
Now, van Schneider is a successful art director and designer in New York City, running his own studio and working on a digital portfolio system for designers called Semplice.
He sat down with DesignRush to discuss his transformation from high school dropout to in-demand designer and why sometimes, hearing "no" is the best indicator of the path you should be on.
DesignRush: What inspired you to go into design?
Tobias van Schneider: Computer games got me into design at a pretty young age. I loved playing games such as Counter-strike, Warcraft or Diablo and would design clan websites for myself and my friends. I was also inspired by interfaces like Winamp skins and was always creating little things like that for fun.
DR: Sounds pretty advanced. Did you jump right into "official" design, then?
TS: Not quite. I dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and, after several failed IT internships, landed a job that required me to learn software engineering. I truly sucked at it. Thankfully, I’d been learning Photoshop and Dreamweaver on the side and convinced them to find a design role for me in their marketing department. Quit that job too, but I never stopped designing. That’s the first version of what got me into design.
DR: We're sure it's so helpful in the industry to be able to work flexibly. Can you describe your design style in a few words?
TS: If there is one sure way to limit yourself and the work you do, it’s defining your own design style. I try not to limit or categorize myself. Instead, I aim to keep evolving and chase the unknown.
DR: Great point! Let's try again -- tell us about your creative process. Where do you find inspiration and how do you implement that?
TS: I find inspiration most often when I’m not waiting around for it – when I start doing something right now, whether it’s taking a walk, going to a movie or just getting to work. Inspiration hits once I am already in motion, not while I’m sitting there trying to force it. There is no process or secret aside from just doing it and figuring it out as I go.
DR: What kind of design do you gravitate towards?
TS: Originally it was UI design and branding, but now I don’t limit myself to one area. I enjoy everything from web to graphic to product design and experiment in new areas like VR design whenever I have the chance. If I had to choose, I’d say it’s the intersection of branding and product design that I enjoy the most.
DR: We'd love to know more about you. What can we find you doing in your spare time?
TS: When I’m not working, I’m usually traveling or wandering around NYC with my camera in hand. I love exploring new places and sharing my photos with friends. I’m also passionate about skateboarding and hit the skatepark any free hour I find.
DR: What projects of your own are you particularly proud of?
TS: My app, Authentic Weather, taught me to keep my side projects stupid. The best ideas die because we overthink and overcomplicate them. When we let our side projects be stupid and simple, they have a fighting chance to live outside our head in the real world.
DR: You have a few projects going on at once. Do you have any advice for managing people to maintain respect and an enjoyable work environment?
TS: The Semplice team is small with several of us working together across countries. Communication is one of the most important keys to managing any team, but especially a remote one.
I make it a point to over-communicate and ask my team to do the same. That way we are always on the same page: sharing our progress and ideas, hearing each other out, pushing each other along.
DR: Let’s talk clients. You’ve worked with some amazing companies – how do you find leads, make connections or score clients?
TS: I create and maintain relationships with people and the dots eventually connect. Twitter is great for that – I’ve made and kept up with a lot of friends through Twitter who often lead to new connections and opportunities. 100 percent of my clients reached out to me or found me through some word of mouth connection. As long as you put yourself out there and tell people what you do, they will eventually think of you. It took me a while to understand this myself.
DR: Do you have any tips for nailing a client pitch and “sealing the deal”?
TS: Do work so good that they can’t ignore you. That has always been my strategy.
I’ve never participated in any pitches. I work with people who want to work with me. This strategy works better the more established you are; I remember I had to do a lot of other random work to pay the bills when I started out because obviously, no one knew me. But I stayed true to myself and kept working on side projects that would eventually convince potential clients to trust me.
DR: You can't argue with good work. So tell us about Semplice. Where did the idea come from?
TS: The idea came from a conversation with a designer friend. We were frustrated by how limiting the standard portfolio templates were and the lack of freedom we felt to build our portfolios just the way we wanted them. We thought we could do better, so we co-founded Semplice.
DR: That's an excellent idea! What has it been like seeing it grow?
TS: It’s been pretty humbling to watch that community grow and see other designers build beautiful things with what was once just an idea. I still enjoy making Semplice better every day.
DR: You opened your own design studio – what motivated you to take your professional life into your own hands?
TS: To be honest, I never even dreamed of opening my own studio. I opened my own studio because I couldn’t get accepted in design universities and I couldn’t find a real full-time job as a designer.
Funnily enough, opening a design agency in my home country required zero traditional degrees or education, so it was basically my last resort. I opened my first design studio because I had no other choice.
DR: What was the hardest thing about starting your own studio?
TS: The hardest part is motivating yourself. There is no boss to scream at you, no one to motivate you or help you. It’s just you and no one else. There is nothing easy about anything.
DR: Alright, last one -- what advice do you have for designers who are new in their career but are looking to grow?
TS: Don’t wait for approval. If you think you have a good idea for a design or something, just do it. Convince people with your work, not with your talking.
Do work so good that they just can’t ignore you.
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