Read Time: 6 minutes
In this series, SEGD connects young designers with the design leaders they admire so they can ask their burning questions and find answers to help guide them on their career path. In this article, current North Carolina State University design studies major, Erin Delahunty, interviews Jason White, executive creative director at conceptual design studio Leviathan.
When thinking of potential designers to speak with, I was immediately drawn to the idea of large-scale installations that unite technology and design. From there, it took very little time to land upon the firm Leviathan, and its co-founder Jason White.
Jason White has been internationally renowned in his field since co-founding Leviathan in 2010 with Chad Hutson. Acting as executive creative director, Jason has consistently fused technological advancements with design in his work with clients from musical artists like Amon Tobin to large companies like BMW and Nike.
Personally, I am a young designer who is passionate about the power of design to change how people act, think and live. I am currently a design studies major at North Carolina State University with a concentration in business administration.
I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Jason White; his expertise and passion for his field was evident throughout the conversation. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed compiling it.
ED: Where does the name Leviathan come from and what significance does it hold?
JW: The short version is that the name implies an art movement. At the time, we really wanted to do something grand and different. Our logo represents the wild possibility of new technology and the line just above is that new technology trying to break free.
ED: For you, what is so important and enticing about the intersection of new media and traditional methods?
JW: I come from the fine arts world. My ambition has always been to take physical, tangible installations and combine them with digital media to create totally new experiences that people can touch, see and feel in the real world. We work with a lot of digital installations, but use familiar elements like buttons, dials and levers as means of interaction—as opposed to tapping on screens with your fingers.
ED: I think a great example of that is your work on Nike Test Stride.In an interview with SEGD, you mentioned your team faced some cultural barriers. What is your best advice for designing for a culture different from the designer’s own?
JW: We designed that installation in Chicago and had it fabricated in China. One thing to look out for is communication differences as little notions can get lost in translation. Working in different time zones can be frustrating; you often have to get up early and stay up late. In our case, we would jump on calls with China at the end of our work day. So that is something you have to be prepared for. Translation is a big part of it, too. When I was in China I absolutely needed a translator with me, and there wasn’t always one around. As a result, there was a lot of pointing at screens, drawing and trying to communicate.
ED: What is the Leviathan strategy for dealing with creative blocks?
JW: When you have a design challenge and don’t have the answer, I’ve always found it’s best to go for a walk or get some exercise. Go do non-design things to stimulate design thinking and usually the design answer will come to you. It's called default mode and it’s pretty fascinating how that works.
The other thing we do is user research. When we are troubleshooting a problem, say, with a big installation, we gather people for reviews and interview potential users. A good example would be a museum experience for children: We actually had to sit down with a bunch of kids and ask them what’s interesting to them, what they would like to see and use. Then we have them come to our studio and try to break the interactives, so we can see what works and what does not.
Lastly, nothing in our firm happens without teamwork. We constantly critique and review each other’s work so we can find the answers together.
ED: When building your team, what personalities do you look for?
JW: We look for passionate personalities, people that really have a passion for non-traditional formats and aren’t afraid of conceptual thinking. Most of what we do here is inventing the un-invented and the sort of personalities that thrive at Leviathan are those who embrace that ethos and really try to invent something that has never been done before.
ED: Technology changes so fast—how do you make sure the technology in your work stays relevant for users and clients?
JW: I feel good design transcends technology. We pay particular attention to cultivating and applying a high-end look, avoiding anything that appears too trendy.
ED: What have been your biggest hurdles in the design world?
JW: When I started out, I was working on projects I didn’t really care for because I needed the experience. Fast-forward twenty years: I find myself working with brands that I admire while creating meaningful art installations.
It took me a long time to get there; I had to build a portfolio that ascended to the level of the brands and partners that I wanted to speak to. We have just arrived at a place where we feel anything is possible with our portfolio.
ED: How can a young designer make their portfolio stand out?
JW: I can go on for days about this—crafting our portfolio is what I do for a living! My portfolio is similar to a student portfolio that gets reviewed by clients to determine whether or not they want to work with us. So how do I stand out from my competition?
The best advice I give to people is to be clear about who you are and what you want to do. I am hesitant to hire people that say they can do everything; I want to know what you do really well. And what you’re all about, too. Let your personality show through.
I very much like to see interviewees drawings and fine art, but I love to see process. On our website, you’ll see quite a bit of process, and behind the scenes. The more you can show me how you think, the more I can start to picture you on my team.
On your website, I would recommend showing your design thinking; show storyboards, show concept sketches. Write up a challenge and solution—what were you trying to fix or discover?
Additionally, make sure you photograph your work really well. If you can’t, have someone help you. Lastly, I would rather see a small handful of excellent projects than a whole lot of average projects.
ED: With the story being the most important?
JW: Exactly. Then I can start to see where you might fit on my team.
ED: What design books or blogs do you recommend?
JW: SEGD.org for sure. It’s probably my favorite and really is my go-to. Blog-wise, go to Creative Applicationswhere you’ll find plenty of new projects that merge art and tech.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.