In 2013, SiriusXM, the satellite radio giant, was looking to expand its footprint by offering its services across all digital properties in a cohesive UX/UI. The opportunity to be the creative partner for the product design was won by Code & Theory. I was hired to join the newly formed team inside of Code & Theory. A testament to the times, the team was 3-4 ux designers, a creative director, myself as a senior designer, and a jr designer. Additionally, they had tight oversight from 2 of the company's founders. Code & Theory had made a name for themselves, designing the digital entities of the most prominent fashion magazines like Vogue and Interview. They occupied a fashionable office in Soho and had the agency buzz as the brightest and sharpest in the industry.
Eager to make a name for myself at the small company, I dove headfirst into SiriusXM. I was working directly with someone I know as a creative lead. We had mutual respect and worked together like a glove in hand. I kept myself low profile and dedicated myself to executing quickly and at a high quality. Code & Theory at the time was like a clique, much like any studio environment. You had the cool kids that had been there for a while and were the best. Then you had the up-and-coming talent. Then, you had everyone else trying to be noticed. I felt challenged by having such talented people in such proximity. It hardened my skills and gave me a greater glimpse into how agencies interfaced with these massive companies.
Unfortunately, the lead I was working with was setting sail to a new company. I was paired with a new leader who is still one of the worst designers I've had the displeasure of working with. He was thrown into a big project that a massively talented person previously led. I watched as his fear and anxiety took over. His hands-on design skills were embarrassing, and the room would clam up in reviews. The natural response is to start grasping for something as you start drowning. He clung to the fact that he was a lead. He grabbed onto me as a talented designer and started to drown me. As much as I'd design and as much as I'd progress, he'd always come up behind me with small, meaningless, and utterly superficial requests. I was on fire at the time, hurt from my last role at R/GA, and unwilling to take requests from a dog shit designer. He was drowning with no control over me or inherent skills to lean on. So what does a desperate man do but go to the boss. They liked him. He was a yes-man. I was quiet and looked judgemental.
They decided to add another designer to the team. A newly hired "senior designer." He had little previous experience and an utterly lax approach to design that bordered on laziness (he was later fired after I left). It was all fine if the outcome were even partially good. He would cling to a (perceived) mastery of tools and processes. He stuck to "Are we using the right tool," taking us from an already lousy product for designing UI "photoshop" to another equally bad UI design program "indesign." The lead found himself an ally. They took months of work and spent time translating them into InDesign, forcing old processes for building books into the same concept as web design (Code and Theory had some more traditional designers because they sincerely wanted to translate editorial quality design into the web. Those designers also brought those older philosophies of design. Some good, some bad. Indesign...bad).
I learned valuable lessons about leadership and how people work with or against their deficiencies. That felt like a profound shift for me. I had to be open about my deficiencies. I was blind to so much of the world because I worked in a creative bubble in agencies. I wasn't interfacing with anyone outside this industry, which felt profoundly limiting.
Ultimately, Code & Theory gave me a deep pain in my stomach. I remember sitting in the bathroom with physical pain because I was anxious. The leadership ruled with a heavy bro hand. It was a kingdom I didn't want to be involved in. I also saw it as much smaller than what I was looking for. I wanted to build products for businesses. I wanted to be a part of a company's success and show the power of design. I wanted to be a piece of a giant puzzle to better understand what it was all about because I knew this agency life was a shallow puddle.
It was clear to me. The pattern I had identified in people was a larger one fueling agency growth. You have incompetent internal teams who need to understand design and technology and are tasked with building transformative campaigns and products. They spend excessive time debating and cobbling an RFP together, and then agencies spend a short amount of time creating a story about how they can solve it. Then, you spend the rest of the engagement in this awkward play where both sides perform for each other.
No thanks, I wanted to build real shit with smart people.
Luckily, Oscar Health, a new startup, reached out to me to join as their disruptive company's first product designer. They were located around the corner from Code & Theory in the old building on the same floor as my first NYC job at LBi. I saw that as a sign.
Again, I snuck out the backdoor of another agency, this time for the last time.