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Ethan Martin is an art director and designer of uncommon skill and wide-ranging expertise, having set his eye to work on everything from multi-layered interactive web development to sports apparel. Martin joined BKWLD as a designer in the summer of 2010, quickly rising to the rank of art director thanks to his deft interactive work for a series of top-tier clients, including Toyota, Sony, Hurley, Spyder, and Coal Headwear. Prior to joining BKWLD, Martin brought his clean, expressive style to numerous design projects as a Sacramento-area freelancer, following his time spent as the lead graphic designer for a local sportswear brand.


Understand Human Nature

Who have been your most influential mentors? Hands down, my mom. She always encouraged my kooky creative tendencies, and she taught me to persevere.

What has been inspiring you lately? Just observing how people are behaving, and what they’re into—kids loitering at the mall, people in the self-checkout lane at the grocery store. My job is to figure out how to connect to people from all walks of life, so I’m inspired by the way people are naturally communicating.

What personal/pro-bono creative projects are you working on, if any? I’m getting married soon, and I’ve been totally treating it like I would a design project. My fiancée is acting as creative director, and I’m doing my best to execute her vision—we’ve got a logo, brand colors, a typography system, the whole nine yards.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your work, and what did you learn from it? Spreading myself too thin, and taking on more projects than I could handle. The work suffered, my health suffered and I burned bridges. On the bright side, I learned where my limit is, and how to push myself without blowing up. You can’t know your threshold until you actually cross it.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a designer? That’s like asking what a fish would do if it wasn’t busy swimming. I’ve always done this. I was drawing posters for imaginary movies when I was five, sketching sneakers and laying out ads for them when I was seven.

What’s your favorite quote on design? “If you can design one thing, you can design everything.” —Massimo Vignelli
To me this speaks to the essence of being a creative person; the inherent desire to solve problems. Design is not about tools or a specific application, it’s about finding a way to make something both useful and beautiful enough that people want to interact with it. This is applicable to digital, print, whatever. It’s about understanding how humans interact with each other and their environment.

Which designer (or design firm), other than yours, do you most admire, and why? At the moment, Instrument. They have a consistent output of fantastic work, and they seem to have a very humble, hardworking perspective that I really respect.

What’s the biggest challenge facing designers right now? The landscape is shifting so rapidly right now that you can’t ever get comfortable. The thing that was so great last year is now obsolete, or is so ubiquitous that it’s irrelevant. I think the only safe bet is to make sure your solutions cater to human nature, rather than gimmicks and technology.

What well-known identity is most desperately in need of a redesign? It’s not really an “identity,” but health care is desperate for an overhaul. The whole process, from doctor visits to billing, seems so inefficient and wasteful. If it was reconsidered from the ground up, through a user-experience perspective, it would change the world.

What excites you about design right now? The accessibility of information and support. I absolutely love that motivated kids in the middle of nowhere can go online and access a wealth of knowledge, educate themselves and get a foundation that becomes a design or programming career.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Work hard, do your best to be a good person and find other good people to work with. Any schmuck can learn Photoshop or typography. Real success requires the ability to listen and understand your client’s needs and their users’ needs, and the empathy to put yourself in their position. That comes from life experience, not a tutorial.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? That people are just people. I used to look from afar at some agencies and people, and think, “Wow, they just have it absolutely dialed, they’re on a superhuman level.” Now I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most revered companies around. Yes, they are extremely good at what they do, but the people who work there are just ordinary humans who eat, sleep, laugh and freak out.