How did you get started in digital design and learn the necessary skills? I was studying finance, and as part of an information technology class, I had to make a simple web page. I loved the feeling of making something and instantly putting it out into the world. This was in the early days of Flash, so I got super deep into motion and code. I ended up supporting myself with freelance work as I completed the rest of my studies. The web was still kind of new at the time, and nobody knew what they were doing, so it wasn’t that hard to make something better. I worked on many different things and experimented with all kinds of tools. I picked up skills as I went along.
How has the experience of starting out in Iceland affected your work? Iceland is a very, very small country. And because of that, there isn’t a lot of room for specialization. As a designer in Iceland, I was responsible for branding, product design, marketing, production, copywriting, strategy, motion, concept, sales, account management and much more. I didn’t even know all these things had different names. Because that was my world, I assumed all other designers were the same. It took me a long time to understand this is not the case.
What led you to found Ueno? I had been sober for about two years, and my life was getting too easy. I figured I’d try something that would make it more difficult.
How have you safeguarded the agency’s culture and values as it has grown? While culture is important to us, I didn’t think about it much in the beginning. I had never worked at a company, and I had never managed anyone. My background was in freelancing, and I thought that the company would just be like that—a bunch of people doing their own thing without much structure.
But, while I didn’t think about culture, I knew what kind of company I wanted to work for, and the kind of people I wanted to work with. Our culture and our values slowly emerged from there. After a couple of years, as we started to grow, we knew we needed to make that scale. So we went through a process of figuring out what we were all about, and we came up with six values that make Ueno what it is. But that’s the easy part. Culture is something that’s lived and experienced every day, and we do a lot of things, big and small, that help us stay true to ours.
Has your life and work ever merged in unexpected ways? I want people at Ueno to not think about work when they’re off work and to delete Slack from their phones on the weekends. But that doesn’t really work for me. I love creating things and juggling multiple balls, so work and life blur for me.
How does the agency’s giving feed its work? We give money to good causes because it’s the right thing to do, and we can afford it. And because it helps us remember that we are lucky, and there are people out there who haven’t been as lucky as us. I’ve never thought about how it feeds into our work, but it’s very important for our culture.
What’s your goal for Ueno in the next few years? Our job is to help people solve problems and seize opportunities. Right now, we do that through things like digital design, but I want us to be able to do it on more levels. If somebody asks Ueno to design a spaceship, I want us to be able to deliver the best spaceship ever made.
What advice do you have for designers just starting out? A lot of young designers get into design for the final output. They want to make pretty things. But design is so much more. It’s about solving problems, telling stories and creating relationships. To become a great designer, you need to be curious. You need to be driven by the need to help people. You need to ask questions and understand different ideas, people and viewpoints. You need to experiment, approach the same problem from multiple directions and not fall in love with your solutions. Once you’ve done all that, then you can make it pretty.