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Q&A with Eric Karjaluoto

Designer at smashLAB

I’m Eric Karjaluoto, but I often go by karj, just because my last name is such a schmozzle. I’m a designer at smashLAB, and I often write about design. My work typically involves planning projects, and then producing the required systems/visuals. This is generally split half-and-half between client work and internal projects.

How did you get started?

I always loved making things. For example, I sketched logos in the second grade, and created my own magazines, comics, and D&D modules. This was all done by pencil and using a photocopier. By the time I was 14, I was hand-painting my own line of t-shirts and selling them in decent quantities (low thousands). It was all pretty bush league, but this sort of thing was kind of harder at the time (I had neither Google, nor the internet to consult).

In 1991, I moved to Vancouver to study at Emily Carr. I then spent a few years as a painter while doing prepress work, to pay the bills. I built a few websites in the mid-90s, and increasingly wanted to find a way to merge my creative work with technology. So, in 2000, my friend Eric Shelkie and I started our own studio. We’ve been working together, since.

What are you working on now?

It’s sort of awesome and frantic around here, right now. In truth, I think we’re stretched a little thin, in working on so many projects. That said, it’s all fun, and we’re collaborating with some people/brands I admire—and enjoy working with.

On the client side, we have a number of large-ish projects underway. We’re helping a startup shape their product’s UX and design assets. We’re building a new identity and website for a long-running technology podcast.

We’re helping an environmental group use the web to illustrate how food/agriculture impacts the planet. I’m also helping a large brand clarify its design vision, so their design team is better aligned in what they create.

Internally, we’re working on an iOS game, but that’s sort of on the back burner at the moment. We’re also prototyping a new app that allows folks to share their knowledge with others. (I’m a little hyperactive when it comes to new projects―and I generally want to take on more than we actually have time for. )

What tools and software do you use for your work?

The vast bulk of my work in done in iA Writer, which I use for writing and planning. Outlook remains a staple, and I’ve recently moved to Kato for team chat. Our tasks are in Todoist until we’re working on QA, at which point we move over to BugHerd. Pomodoro One helps me focus my attention. I also use Alfred extensively, and feel like it’s essential to my Mac.

On the design end, I still use Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, but I find myself doing so less. Sketch is imperfect, but a good tool for UX design. VSCO is a nice way to reproduce certain film effects. Similarly, a whole new suite of light, affordable tools (e.g. the Affinity products) look good. All of my work happens on a older Macbook Air, which I plug into a Thunderbolt display while I’m at the office. Meanwhile, I continue to thumbnail in small notebooks, and on our office chalkboard walls.

What is your ideal work environment?

I like a desk that’s free of clutter. I’m a little obsessive in this respect, and sometimes find myself moving things so they’re perfectly aligned with my desk. The desktop on my Mac is the same: all clutter needs to be removed, so I can focus solely on the work in front of me.

a very clean desk

As for the workspace itself, I like windows that open, so I can smell/feel real air (I hate air-conditioning). Other than that, I’m pretty flexible: some music, decent light, and a good chair, and I’m happy.

view from office

Where are your favorite places for sharing experiences?

I live a simple, and somewhat routine-filled life. Every weekday morning starts with an espresso at one of the local coffee shops in Gastown. My business partner and I take these times (as well as lunch and afternoon coffee) to get out of the office and “shoot the shit.” I enjoy these times as they allow us to play with ideas, and imagine how we could approach them.

If I’m not working, I’m with my family. My wife is big on getting outside, as are our two boys. So, we tend to spend a lot of time hiking, skiing, biking, and running―typically in the forest or mountains. (Vancouver has plenty of both.) I like the fresh air, and how it gets us away from our computers―even when it’s raining and cold. After that, we often go out for sushi/pho, or just watch a movie on the couch, together.

Who are the creatives you admire most?

I get this question a lot, and I don’t have a great answer for it. It’s not as though I don’t admire folks for their talents. That said, for the kind of work I do, I’m more focused on the end product/experience than the personalities or reputations of those behind it.

The Material Design philosophy from Google’s design team is spectacular. It’s tight, adaptable, and feels good. My Salomon hydration pack is one of the best sport products I’ve ever owned, and every detail surrounding it seems perfectly considered. Similarly, I loved playing Monument Valley―even though I generally don’t like games. (It was just that beautiful of an experience.)