Tobias van Schneider on the importance of honesty and why he has a 'chaotic' workspace
Alongside being the proud owner of one of the most carefully coiffed beard and cash combos we’ve ever seen on a bio photo, designer Tobais Van Schneider also holds an enviable CV and portfolio to boot.
Describing himself as a German designer who was raised in Austria, he’s spent time living in Stockholm but currently resides in New York, where he serves on the AIGA’s Board of Directors.
Having previously held the role of lead product designer and art director at Spotify, Van Schnider has since worked with clients including Google, Ralph Lauren, Red Bull and BMW. And when he’s not honing his well-trained eye on these sort of design projects, he also finds the time to pen considered blogs on his site and put together a few mix-tapes and podcasts. Does the man ever sleep?!
We had a chat with him to find out a bit more about how he got to where he is now, and hear some reassuring nuggets of advice for those wishing to start their own studios.
How did you get into design? When did you realise you could make a career out of it?
I just recently wrote a blog post about my journey into design, but to keep it short: I honestly never thought of getting into design in the first place, all I knew was that I loved everything around computers.
So I started out in IT, slowly moved into programming and then ended up in design. I'm a self-taught designer and my path wasn't really straightforward, nothing I would recommend anyone to follow... I think it took a couple of years for me to really understand that I can make a career out of this.
Having lived in a number of different countries, what do you think this international background can bring to your design work?
Hard for me to say, but I honestly believe it's crucial not only for you as a designer but also as a human being. Traveling really opens my mind, it makes me appreciate things more and it helps me being more open. I think living just in one place or one country can make you too narrow-minded.
Of course, not everyone can travel, and even I started it very late, but every time I have some extra money I try to explore new countries or cities. Mostly because it just inspires me how other cultures think, what their design tastes are and how they solve certain problems.
Why did you choose to currently live in New York City?
I sometimes ask this myself to be honest. I visited New York first in 2011 when I also decided to move here and I just fell in love with the city. I think one of the main reasons I love New York is because it doesn't feel like a city in a specific country, but more like a city where everyone belongs and a city that is filled with people from all over the world. My friends in NYC come from all over the world, which kind of makes it like traveling the world just by being in New York.
How do you find the design scene there in terms of camaraderie, competition, support etc?
I have a very mixed feeling about it. On one hand, I find the design community very supportive, but then, on the other hand, we have tons of gatekeepers and the more our industry is maturing, the more "business" we become, the more we make it harder for newcomers to enter the industry.
It's one of my main motivations why I write my weekly email and start writing more on my blog. I like to lower the barrier and hope more newcomers are interested in joining the industry. On one hand we always complain that there aren't good designers to hire, and on the other hand, we're not doing a very good job at motivating people to enter the industry.
It was much easier ten years ago because no one really knew how things got done, but today we try to force people to work and think a certain way which can be very intimidating for newcomers. (In reality, no one really knows what they're doing anyway.)
Can you tell me a little more about your time as designer and art director at Spotify? What are the main design considerations when working on a platform like that?
Oh wow, I wish I could answer this in a short sentence. I loved working with Spotify and I do miss the design team a lot. I mean, the main design considerations are on one hand working at a company that has millions of users, and on the other hand, has an internal team that is constantly growing. When designing for Spotify your design as much for the person who is listening to music as you're designing for the person who is creating the music. It's a difficult task but a fun one.
I'm known for being very honest in work relationships, I'd be the first one to tell the client if I think they're doing something we could improve.
What makes a fun and a not-so-fun project to work on?
Always comes down to the people you work with. It's rarely anything else.
What is your approach to finding work, and retaining clients?
Pretty simple. It's honesty and just doing great work. It sounds so simple, but there is not much else to it. I'm known for being very honest in work relationships, I'd be the first one to tell the client if I think they're doing something we could improve, and I'm the first one who admits if I made a mistake. Being honest sounds so basic and cliche, but trust me, very few actually do it.
What makes a great client?
Someone who values your work. Someone who hired you because they trust in your ability as a designer. Doesn't mean that everything you do is right or great, but it means there is a certain level of respect for each other.
How would you describe your style?
Very solution driven. My style is always simple, I always use the tools and solutions that best fit the project. I'm not married to any specific tools or ways of doing things, I like doing unconventional things.
What advice would you give to people who are thinking of starting their own design studio?
Just do it. Give yourself at least ONE year to fully try it out. Have a back up plan, don't worry if it fails. Make sure you have enough cash in the bank to survive, let's say for three months in case you have zero clients, which is rarely the case. It's easier than you think, but also harder than you think. But you can do it.
What's your workspace like? For you, what makes a good working environment?
Chaotic. My workspace always looks like a mess. I still can find everything, but I like it being cozy and full of stuff. Not dirty, but chaotic. I work a lot from coffee shops as well.
What do you wish you'd known as a student that you know now?
The fact that no one has figured it out, some people are just really good at pretending they have.
If you weren't a designer, what would you be doing?
Watch-maker probably. It was always one of my dreams as a kid to repair and build classic watches.
Who are you art/design/illustration heroes and why?
Every time you ask me this question you'll probably get a different answer. The first person that came to mind right now is Robert Lindström aka DesignChapel. For the longest time he was one of my all time heroes in illustration, typography, design and even interactive design. He is now the founder of North Kingdom.