When Simon Sok applied to be one of the Google Creative Lab Five—an elite group that annually recruits a handful of young professionals for a year of freewheeling innovation—he knew he was going up against a huge pool of applicants, many with graduate degrees from top art and design schools.
Sok, a Chattanooga native who completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2012, made the cut.
“Simon is the youngest hire ever in the Five,” says Sarah Lowe, associate professor in the Graphic Design Program, who recommended that he apply.
Now, as he finishes his year at Google, Sok is in the enviable position of selecting where he’d like to work next. “I’m slowly compiling a list of different places I want to check out and different design approaches I want to try.”
He’s among the latest of a growing number of Graphic Design alumni whose careers bring together design and technology—sometimes in ways that didn’t even exist a decade ago.
“I graduated in 2005—there was Internet, but it wasn’t a field that designers would even think about,” says Jeff Baxter, who works with Sok at Google Creative Lab. Originally from Johnson City, Tennessee, Baxter has been working with Google in various capacities since 2009. “I told Sarah Lowe that I never wanted to do web design,” he says, laughing. “I was doing very traditional design, print and branding, and it wasn’t until my last semester that I got into digital stuff.”
Thanks to visiting designer Nick Law, Baxter left his senior thesis critique with the offer of a New York job at international design firm R/GA. “I got really lucky,” Baxter says. After helping develop the Nike+ platform at R/GA, he went to work for a smaller firm before joining with two other designers to start their own company.
Baxter came to Google along with one of his UT classmates, Nashville native Paul Schlacter (’05). The two had been frequent collaborators in school and continued to work together on side projects after graduation. One of those was a 2009 video for Google Chrome. “And that introduced us to the Creative Lab at Google,” says Baxter. The two continue to collaborate when they’re able, and they live just a few blocks from each other in Brooklyn.
Schlacter, who was doing long-term contract work at Google before recently accepting a full-time position as a mobile product developer at Yahoo, describes his own entry into tech as “kind of roundabout.” He had become interested in motion graphics at UT. After graduation he came to New York and worked at Trollbäck + Company, creating designs and animations for branding, commercials, movie title sequences, and events.
He left Trollbäck after four years and spent the next several months traveling in the Virgin Islands, Malaysia, and Thailand. When he returned to New York—“I spent all my money and I had to come home,” he laughs—he set up shop as a freelancer. That work led him to Google and eventually to Yahoo.
Even Sok, whose degree is only a year old, says that while he dabbled in digital work at UT, he expected to start out working in a traditional studio. “Though I love design and technology, I never thought I’d get an opportunity to work at one of the biggest technology companies out there, especially right out of school,” he says.
“We work for a tech company, but we do a lot of traditional design work,” says Baxter. Both he and Sok worked on last year’s Chromebook launch. “It was a big international ad campaign,” he says, “so it was TV spots and banner ads. Simon got to do wrappers for all the windows at Best Buy and other digital takeovers.”
But it’s not all traditional. Among Baxter’s recent projects is Racer, a mobile game that allows direct competition across Androids and iPhones. “It helps promote Google products, all the way from their browser to their server structure. So that’s at the fun extreme of what we do,” he says.
He still draws upon the animation skills he began developing at UT. “They’ve come in handy, because often rather than showing stills of how something might work before we have a prototype, we make animated videos to show how an app might function. If you have a video on your phone you can show people exactly how it’s going to work, what the buttons will do, and what the transitions will look like.”
All three say that UT prepared them exceptionally well for the work they’re doing. “I’ve really grown to appreciate how much the faculty pushed us to think conceptually first, and then visually as a way to support an idea,” says Schlacter. “And we did a little bit of everything: We designed forms, we designed posters, we made alphabets. I’m noticing now with mobile and app design it’s been much more important to think in systems, and you really pay attention to hierarchy and all the basic graphic design principles that we were taught in school.”
Baxter agrees. “One of the things I picked up at UT was collaborating with lots of different people as much as possible. Particularly in design and art, you can get really focused on just you making something—but if you quickly learn how to work with lots of different people on things, which is how the real world works, it really helps you. And I think the design department at UT does a really great job of that.
“I wish I had paid more attention to the advertising group, the business and ad guys….now we work with all those guys,” he adds.
According to Sok, that’s an element that was being incorporated into the program by his senior year, when a panel of outside jurors, most from business fields, was included in thesis presentations. “I think that was a good collaboration, seeing the different sides of how things work. I got to learn and interact with different people and not just specifically art students.”
Baxter recalls, “My perspective when I was at UT was ‘I can’t go to New York and work, because there’s all those other designers that went to awesome art schools.’ But we’re here, and we’re just as good or better.
“When I talk to design students at UT I always tell them it doesn’t mean you’re not better than the kids who went to art school in New York. UT is a good art school!”