Tobias van Schneider on Spotify, Macromedia, and how universities are failing designers
Tobias van Schneider lives and breathes design. A rock star of the industry, van Schneider has worked with Google, BMW, Ralph Lauren, and most recently as the Lead Designer at Spotify. Yet all this comes as sort of a shock considering he got rejected from every design program he applied to. Tobias van Schneider lives and breathes design. A rock star of the industry, van Schneider has worked with Google, BMW, Ralph Lauren, and most recently as the Lead Designer at Spotify. Yet all this comes as sort of a shock considering he got rejected from every design program he applied to. The bearded Austrian-raised designer has little patience for the failings of institutionalized education. He spoke to Hopes&Fears about bit torrents, what designers actually need to learn to be successful, and how the original layout of Photoshop was truly goofy.
HOPES&FEARS: Do you think education plays an important role in the development of a designer?
TOBIAS VAN SCHNEIDER: Education is very personal for me because I never went to a university. I always struggled to join formal education. I tried to follow the formal education path as much as possible, but I just couldn’t do it. I always hated it but I ended up doing what I love without doing any formal education. That’s why I talk about education.
H&F: What was your main issue with institutionalized education?
TVS: I never really fit into the traditional education system. I always had trouble learning, I always had trouble following traditional materials, I had trouble working with teachers. I wanted to pursue my own passions. I didn’t really know what those were at that time. I sucked at memorizing stuff. That’s what it’s like most of the time in school; just memorize something and then tell it. Traditional systems aren’t so much about learning. They are about memorizing something and keeping it in your brain.
When I was 15 I left high school and started working as a software engineer. After starting to work with design, I actually wanted to study it. I tried applying to design universities, but they all declined me because my portfolio was too bad or I didn’t have the background they needed. They told me that I wasn’t talented enough to be a designer. It was really weird, I felt like I didn’t fit into their system. If I would have listened to a lot of those people I would not be where I am today.
There are so many shitty designers out there who are going to do a very bad job and there are many talented designers who are going to do the same job very well. I think there are good schools. There are just as many bad teachers and bad designers as there are bad lawyers, or bad people who cook horrible food for brunch. I’m a fatalist, it just works like that.
Schools are responsible for this. When kids are getting judged by the grades they get it’s like brokering. Teachers are under pressure too, they’re not paid well, and they get judged by the grades that their kids make so if your class has bad grades you get fired. It’s not so much about whether the teacher is actually invested in you as a human being. It’s more like following the system because the teacher gets graded.
H&F: Where did you go to school?
TVS: I went to high school in Germany and Austria.
H&F: What do you think is the ideal way to measure a student’s progress?
TVS: Obviously I don’t think I can come up with a perfect answer right now. I know so many people around my age who are debt for like tons of money and most of them don’t actually like what they studied and ended up doing something completely different. Honestly, you could measure a student’s success just by looking at the people who actually landed the job that they wanted to work in, which is not a lot, at least from what I know. I know most of the people are either working in a completely different field or they studied for many years and now they’re sitting at Starbucks.
H&F: You review a lot of portfolios during your work time. Have you seen any trends?
TVS: Most designers that I see, especially the ones that are just starting out, are visual designers. They try to make things look pretty. It’s just like cleaning up your apartment. That’s what most of the designers out there do. There are very few designers who will think on a level deeper as far as actually solving problems. I love designers who have a very broad interest in many different industries and fields. I like a designer who really understands how business works, for example. There are not that many out there.
H&F: Do you think universities should have design faculty explain the business to designers?
TVS: Yes, each institution should definitely incorporate business lessons. When you look at universities, right now designers who study design are learning way too much about the craft, but they learn zero about business. Studying business is a completely different thing. A good designer should actually study both if you want to be at the top of your field because most designers come from this bubble and they join the business world and then they don’t even know how to work in it because they were just working in their magic bubble of the university.
You don’t have to necessarily be a great businessman to be a designer. You just have to understand the design goals of the business. As a good designer, you should ask your business partner the right questions, find out what the client really wants. That’s what a good designer should do. A designer should understand. Most designers are like “oh, you need a website, fine, I can do that, right?”
H&F: Do your ethics impact your career choices?
TVS: Yeah, of course. Your personal experiences and your beliefs influence your work. I wouldn’t work with a weapons company the same way that I would not work for a tobacco company even if I could do a much better design. They should not exist in my opinion. Maybe I would design a weapon that every time you shoot it a bubbles comes out and tweets something, maybe a message of peace.
It comes down to the individual. For example, I know that for every project I put in a lot of my personality and a lot of my own beliefs. My portfolio for me is very, very important because I want to look at my portfolio over the course of my life and say that all of the projects I worked on I personally believed should exist and that they should be better. I don’t want to have any project in my portfolio that I worked on that I have no interest in. If I had zero interest in a chair, for example, thinking “well, it exists but I don’t really care about it,” I wouldn’t work on it. It could be a weapon, it could be as simple as sunglasses or whatever. If I don’t believe in it, I wouldn’t work on it.
H&F: But what about a company that offers you a fun project to work on, but the company itself is not something your political views align with. Would you take on that sort of project?
There are always double standards but obviously there are certain companies that have more of an evil face, like McDonald’s or Philip Morris, but that’s why I would always look at the route and see who will really benefit.
H&F: How do you choose people to work with?
TVS: I mean, it’s always different. If it’s designer, again, I love designers who are interested in many different fields and who are not just consumed in their design bubble. It also comes down to the personality. Is this the person that you want to spend every day with or not, do you share the same beliefs with this person, the same ethical rules? And of course, you’re always drawn to people who have good intentions and who don’t want to do anything shady.
H&F: What was the first thing that you ever designed?
TVS: It was an interface for a torrent app. I think that was in the early 2000s. Torrent apps generally used super shady designers who were very technically proficient because torrent apps were usually designed by the developers who coded them. At that time, interface designs were not very well established. It was established at companies like Apple or Microsoft who already had interfaces and they had teams but the idea was still very fresh for most companies. I wanted to redesign the app because I remember I wanted to make it more functional and better and easier to use.
H&F: How old were at the time?
TVS: I was 15. I was still in high school. I was playing around with computers. At that time, I didn’t know designer jobs existed. I knew that there were photographers and they used Photoshop but I didn’t know there were designers. I knew there were computer scientists and engineers and software developers. I actually thought that people who made websites, the people who designed and coded them, were called administrators or webmasters. I thought I wanted to be a webmaster. Companies were actually hiring webmasters. It was a job title.
H&F: How have the tools of the designer changed over these past 20 years?
TVS: When I first started, I was actually using Fireworks from Macromedia.
H&F: I love that one.
TVS: Yeah, that was my first. I started using that when I start painting like I did additional paintings and stuff for my website. You could also do Gifs with that program. I liked Gifs and I had this website where you use one of those website builders to make your own personalized site. I was using Fireworks. I actually switched to Photoshop quite late in the game. I switched to Photoshop after Macromedia got bought by Adobe. Then I slowly switched because I loved Freehand and Fireworks.
H&F: Yeah, Freehand was an amazing tool. Have you seen this article where they tried to do something with the first version of Photoshop and then the fifth version of Photoshop?
TVS: The difference between the first and fifth was huge but everything from 5.5 on didn’t change too much. The first version didn’t even support layers. It didn’t have any blend modes.
H&F: Is there a big difference between design in the States versus in Europe?
TVS: Well sure I mean the main difference for me obviously is that there is much more competition in New York. I think that depending on where you are in Europe design there is a bit more mature. At least when it’s about product design it’s a little bit more thoughtful. To me, New York seems to be more interested in advertising. It was not so much about good product design or the good product designers.
The clients are very different. I think people who will hire you in the States and people hire you in Europe are very, very different people. But I do think a lot of European designers work in States doing great products. If you look at digital designs from 10 years ago the main big digital shops in the States were all run by Swedish or Korean people or people from the UK.
It’s also harder because in Europe you usually compete locally. For example, if you’re in Austria and you’re a newspaper in Austria, that’s it. Austria is your audience that you have. You’re not going to go and try conquer France and Spain because you would have to change the language of the paper and hire new people. In Europe, you are in that one specific country. I don’t think people in Europe still look at Europe as one big continent. It’s like if I’m from France, I’m from France. Spain is also in Europe, but I’m French. This is where it ends in a way. Europe has these boundaries of segmentation with language barriers from country to country and there used to even be border boundaries and money boundaries as well. It’s generational. It will probably take another two generations when Europe will become more unified. I mean it got unified during our lifetime with the European Union. I think at some point it might catch up.