Creating Your Own Path: Bypassing University and becoming a creative director at 23 — with Ales Nesetril
Ales Nesetril is a digital product designer from Prague, Czech Republic, who focuses on interactive experiences & mobile apps. At the age of 23, he currently co-leads a design team at STRV as a Creative Director. He is in charge of his team’s design process and design promotion/marketing. He also works for clients such as Flip, Start Daily and Roam (recently featured in Forbes and Vogue). Design is not the only passion of his—he also loves electronic music and skateboarding.
Why and how did you get into product design?
I have a lot of background in web design, but it started to be a bit boring back then. It was probably caused by types of clients I worked for. They usually wanted just a website but nothing else. For me it was important to focus on the whole experience. I decided to switch my role and I started working for a mobile development company. It brought me closer to building entire products which also gave me more freedom in creating.
I learned more about the process and realized how hard it is to make it right. What I love about product design and working with clients at STRV is I’m basically in charge of everything on my own. I can define everything people will experience when using apps or websites. It needs a lot of responsibility, but it perfectly fits with my temper. I love to be the one who decides how people will feel when using technology.
How long have you been a designer and what tools do you use?
It’s going to be almost 8 years now (wow). I started around 2008 while studying on high school. I remember the first app I used for designing, it was Photoshop CS 2. The first thing I played around were custom brushes. However, after all these years Photoshop—as a main tool for designing—was replaced by Sketch. I think it’s more suitable for digital product design. You spent most of you time designing UIs and components and doesn’t really need all those photo effects, right? I still use Adobe’s products for sure, but only for specific things from time to time.
If we talk other tools like hardware I can’t do a thing without my Wacom Intuos. I’m using it for everything. I also love pencil and paper for quick sketches and notes. I’ve actually partnered up with a local sketchbook brand for (almost) unlimited supply. Otherwise I don’t need any other special tools.
What was the moment that made you decide to pursue design professionally?
I didn’t go to college but started working as a freelance designer (with a little bit of experience in the field) right after high school. Parents told me it makes more sense to go study instead, but I didn’t want to waste my time. Once they learned more about what I do and saw my first success they realized it’s better to give me more space. We’re all joking about it these day. Still wondering what would happen if I’d go study for an engineer.
I’m curious more of your decision to not go to university. It’s quite clear that it worked in your favor, but did you have any doubts in yourself when you first decided to learn on your own?
It’s not a problem on my side. There were no “web design” or “digital design” oriented student programs in Czech Republic back then. I studied IT high school for 4 years, focused on programming and SW/HW. So let’s say I was already a bit experienced with computers in general. Since I already worked for a few companies as a freelance designer I decided to stop my studies and learn more by real practice in the field. When I see other young people in the same age as me working in IT or SW development they have a similar path as I did. “Official” education programs were too outdated for us so we learned ourselves. It sounds a bit funny but we kind of turned our hobbies into full-time jobs. For me it was the best decision I could make, because I already knew what I want to do. I just needed more freedom.
“You can’t move forward unless you challenge yourself.”
What’s the toughest challenge you face (or faced) as a designer?
For me it’s not about any specific design challenge right now, but more about the approach from the industry and clients. I find it really difficult to work with clients who don’t have a vision about the product we’re building together. Sometimes they expect our team of designers and developers to guide them through everything and even manage the project on their behalf. We want to build the best solution, but it’s not our job to distribute it and make it successful (we don’t offer such services right now.) It’s always sad to see some projects focusing just on raising money and then die. It’s quite rare to work with someone who really believes in building great products. I really enjoy working with people who have passion like this. It’s a great motivation and I feel like I’m part of something big.
Any designers you lookup to? Why?
Yes, of course! I’m a big fan of Anton Repponen. I first heard about him while he worked in Fi, but then they decided to start own agency with Irene. The reason why I love his work is the diversity of his portfolio. He is not focusing just on one thing or one field but trying completely different ideas (mostly side projects). I’ve never seen anyone else doing so many design projects, his archive is insane!
Are you working on any personal projects you’d like share?
Almost half of my works are side projects. I love designing completely new concepts or ideas from scratch. It’s a great way to practice, learn new things and eventually build something on the side while focusing on main client work. I usually spent at least 2-3h a day working on my side projects. I’ve switched my direction into something different recently. I’m now creating free resources and tutorial videos for other designers. I think it’s important to share more with the community and help to educate the new generation of designers (this sounds a bit funny, I’m just 23, haha). Everyone was really supportive when I worked on my past side projects. This was just a natural step how to give something back.
Since I’m doing more and more things I’ve noticed it’s needs to be unified under a strong brand. Some projects are created under our agency, but I’m also working on my own. That’s why I decided to do a little update to my personal branding. It’s not just about visual presence but also about my approach, goals and things I want to focus on in upcoming months.
Proti Produ Bistro
Do you have a favorite workspace outside of home and corporate offices?
I actually spend most of my time between those to, but I love to explore new places from time to time. One of my favorites in Prague is Bistro Proti Proudu. Our design team usually have a breakfast there every Thursday. The service is really nice every time and we usually have a quick chat. It’s a beautiful minimalistic place in Karlin with an amazing interior. They have these beautiful photos and paintings they change once in a while to set up a different mood for the place.
Proti Produ Bistro
There is also one more amazing coffee place near my apartment — AnonymouS Coffee. They also have a bar in the city center with similar name. Both are definitely worth of visiting.
What advice would you give a novice in product design?
It’s all about constantly challenging yourself and practice day and night. I feel like everyone is too scared of failing. They are afraid they’ll do it wrong, but on the other hand they are stuck and can’t learn new things. You can’t move forward unless you challenge yourself. You can read a thousands of articles about being a great designer. But the thing is you actually need to open that damn app and try it yourself.
I remember when I wanted to break into the industry myself. There were more people trying to do the same. They gave up over time because they were not interested in leaving their comfort zone. I’ve recently started using a little motto, that could be easily transferred into a hashtag as well, it goes “#neverstopcreating”. Try to keep that in mind!
Would you mind giving us tips on how to deal with a client that doesn’t have a clear vision?
The sooner they agree on minimal set of features for MVP (minimal viable product) the better. Clients usually want to include all the features in the first version to make sure they’ll succeed. But development for such a complex product could take months. We sometimes call those clients “feature creeps”.
You need to proof your expertise and build trust. Clients will see you as a leader and will listen to your advices. What worked for us in the past was to show some working examples of similar solutions we already build. We also gave them a little behind the scenes story as well. It was easy for them to understand those projects were in a similar stage and were curious about what kind of decisions were made in the process.
Make sure there is one responsible person as a main point of contact on client side. Two co-founders fighting over features they want to include is the worst scenario. It’s important to set up these roles upfront, because communication and iteration process can be much faster.