Move your Boundaries – Interview with Alex Cornell

Musician, Designer, Photographer, Filmmaker, Startup founder – Alex Cornell’s bio reads like a best-of creative professions. Browsing through his portfolio, you’ll be stunned by the sheer variety and extremely professional execution of side projects – to an extend where the producers of TV format “Shark Tank” believed that one of his projects was real. His works have been featured on Mashable, Fast Company, Business Insider and Wall Street Journal.

You might have come across Alex’ designs when using Facebook, where he is responsible for the UI of live videos – you know the little flying emoticons? That’s his work.

I came across Alex for the first time in 2014. I was working on the Midddle App and stumbled over a video called “No plans” – an on the point analysis of the issue we were trying to tackle with Midddle. When I saw he was speaking at Awwwards Conference in Los Angeles, I had to ask him a million questions about his successful sideprojects.

Meeting Alex in Los Angeles, I encountered a very open, humble and self-reflective man. The night before our interview, he gave a talk about how he didn’t feel ready to run his own studio yet and what he did to learn and move his creative boundaries. It was clearly the highlight of the conference – I was so impressed that threw away all my questions and completely changed the direction of my interview. Read for yourself:

Question: Alex, I originally wanted to speak with you about sideprojects, yet after seeing your talk, I threw everything over and decided to talk to you about boundaries instead.

Alex: Haha, okay.

Q: After founding your own studio Moonbase, you decided to stop it because you figured that you weren’t ready yet. How did you find out?

A: The problem with Moonbase was that in was in full control. Everything that occured would be in some way incepted by me. I would go look for new projects, I would decide I wanna try a new effect or say “The voiceover is wrong, we got to do it all over again”. While that’s very empowering, I also felt very limited in the amount I was able to grow - I was inherently limited by my own experience.

My work at Facebook is almost the complete opposite of everything I do. Everything I learn is the result of other people who are smarter than me. I found that this is a much faster way to grow, to get better and to learn in a much more exponential way – and that I’m more fulfilled by that feeling. The only way to do this is to surround myself with really great people.

I just didn’t feel I was ready yet to be in full control things. I guess I like having kind of been humble in that way in saying “I am not ready for this yet” – it’s been a good decision so far.

Q: Was there a specific moment in which you realized that?

A: Yes. I had a project towards the end that was very long and very complicated, in a way that client projects often are. You work hard on the integration with your client contact, then they show it to their boss who rejects it and you have to start all over again. That process is very normal but definitely frustrating – and I felt through that. During the whole progress of that project I felt “Sure, the project is getting a little bit better each time”, but only incrementally better, not exponentially better. I wasn’t learning anything.

At the same time I met Julie Zhou, who is the Design Director at Facebook. Talking to her about her team and live video mixed with how I was feeling at that time into a perfect storm of events to make me jump ship.

Q: Let’s talk about your side projects. You did a lot of amazing and very different projects. What criterias do you have in choosing these projects and what does it take to go from the idea to execution?

A: That’s a good question! I write all my ideas down in Evernote, no matter how small they are. There’s this point at which the idea would be elevated out of Evernote into a different form, either an article, or a video or a song or whatever it is. I’m looking at two things to decide whether or not that should happen:

First, whether the idea is compelling enough to the world. For example: “I like carpet better than hardwood because it feels nice on my feet” is a terrible idea, that idea doesn’t need anything else. There’s no reason to write an article about it, there’s no reason to make a video.

I was speaking to a friend earlier today and he was telling me that in South Africa they’re calling traffic lights “Robots” – I never heard that before. It made me think. Some hilarious cultural differences like that could lead to funny situations. So I wrote that down – that’s the type of thing that I would want to explore more. I start thinking about “What’s the best format for that idea to make its way to other people?”. In that case, I don’t think writing would be very effective, as there would be a lot of humor in visualizing that. It’s always a matter of matching the medium with the type of idea and the scale of it. If it was pretty small, I wouldn’t spend too much time on it.

The second thing is that I always try to incorporate some new technique in everything that I do. For example when I would do a video, I would say “Okay, this time I want to learn a bit of 3D” or “This time it would be fun to learn a certain technique in After Effects”.

Q: So you’re turning it into a learning experience for yourself?

A: Yes, I try to always to that, when possible. Take my “No Plans” video: It was pretty straight forward in terms of it’s execution but it’s a pretty simple idea turned into a much bigger expression of the idea itself. he idea was that cellphones make people flaky. You used to be very rigid with your plans and now cellphones make it so nobody cares ever. The idea could stop there, you get it. But when you stretch it out into a video and polish it in a much more rich way people understand the concept in a much deeper level and it becomes so much more interesting.

Q: How many of your ideas would you execute on?

A: I would say I execute about 70% of my ideas.

Q: That’s a lot, wow!

A: It’s more like that I don’t have so many ideas (laughs). My brain is throttling itself anyway, I don’t write down a lot of things that are worth turning. I don’t have as many as that may sound like – the ratio is high, but the absolute number is low.

Q: All of your ideas and sideprojects are executed in a form of video. Did you ever consider taking one or two a step further, partner up with somebody to turn them into real products?

A: Every once in a while that happens, and the reason why that hasn’t followed through is because of practical constraints like my job. Take Tickle: an app that triggers panic phonecalls when the user slightly strikes or tickles the surface of their phone. After I made the video for that hypothetical app, a few developers reached out and said they were interested in making it.

It actually happened 3 times that a developer would approach me and I would say “Great, let’s make it”. Each time, they started to build it and then they had a problem, coming back saying “It’s not possible” and then it never got off the ground.

Another project I made was Gofor, a drone on demand service. We made a video and a full corporate identity – eventually Shark Tank, the TV show, would reach out thinking it was real, and they were asking us to audition for the show, so we ended up doing it – just for fun. We got all the way to the end, had the contracts ready to sign.

Q: What happened then?

A: The contract was crazy man. We looked at it and we decided to not sign it. I would have given away so much and such a wide range of our personal creativity. People would sign a lot to be on a TV show, but we didn’t feel comfortable with it. We wouldn’t have signed it even if Gofor would have been a real thing.

Q: With all these highly successful side projects, you’re still not comfortable in the space you are. You you need to move your boundaries, you need to still grow creatively. What kind of actions are you taking to do so?

A: There is this quote from Edsger W. Dijkstra, a computer scientist:

“Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.”

It has nothing to do with creativity, he speaks about research. He says the reasons why it would be useless to work on something that is too easy, you learn nothing because you’re just repeating skills that you already have. If it’s too hard you learn nothing because you’re not going anywhere. Being really selfaware of your own skillset and the problem that you’re working on is the most important thing. Thinking about it.

I do find that one easy way for me to gage whether or not I’m in the right place is how quickly it takes me to not like something that I did in the past. The time that it takes me to not like a design I did anymore is a good indicator of how fast I’m improving. So there’s times where I do something today and tomorrow I don’t like it anymore. Sometimes it takes a week. As long as this continues to happen I reckon this is good because presumebly I’m getting better and I learn to see why that thing might not work.

Sometimes if that is not happening and I feel like the work is always exceeding my expectation in a way that is too easy for me then I need to reevaluate what I’m doing. Also if I’m consistently frustrated in making any progress then I’m trying to revaluate the problem I’m working on. Maybe it’s a constraint that needs to be changed. I try to balance working on the problems with an awareness of how I’m experiencing the work, how objectively good or bad it is, how hard or easy it is for me to do.

Q: Any advice for other designers on how to do that?

A: There is some really good advice to be found in scientific research. It’s a totally different ball game – people like Dijkstra, scienticts who think about making progress and moving their field forward. You don’t see that kind of writing very often in the design world, people don’t really talk like that.

Q: You have a bit of a background in psychology yourself, does that help you?

A: Yes, definitly.

Q: Design is currently moving away from being a visual discipline and becoming more of a behavioural discipline, understanding how people think and how we can serve them, how we can create experiences for them. How much does that affect your own work?

A: As the field has matured, there is less discussions and decisions to be found around visuals like typography, colors, spacial relationships. A lot of these things tend to fall into patterns as people start to recognize them as the right way to do them. What’s left is the much more nuanced problems of experience and human computer interaction that you can abstract away from the visual layer. I find that really interesting - I rather be thinking about how the programm is helping people to solve a problem than things like “do these colors match?”. I feel very differently about things than I used to. I used to look at a place like Facebook and think: How boring, you never get to use any colors, there is only one typeface, all of this stuff has been systemized into a library where you don’t make these decisions anymore. What I realized is that with all of that stuff figured out it frees up my designer’s mind to focus on the more interesting and more fun problems.

Q: So will design become more of an experiential discipline?

A: I think so! There will always be a place for branding and visual arts, yet in the field of interaction design there is so much more objectivity to be found. The question of what design can do for people, that’s just so much more powerful.

Q: Speaking of visual arts – would you go back to filmmaking exclusively?

A: I plan to go back to music, not video. I haven’t done music professionally in a long time and I stopped doing it on the side. The day that I decide to move away from design, when I’m burned out, which I do think eventually will happen, then I would shift gears to go back to music. We are talking about how design is becoming more and more objective and it’s much less of an artistic expression – music is almost the exact inverse of that. It’s all subjective, all creative expression. I can see that as a very personally fulfilling thing to do later in live. I don’t think at the pace at which I work with my colleagues is sustainable in a very long period of time. So I guess one day I will have to tap out, and when I do, I just look forward to the calm pastures of music.

Q: Going back to your roots when you worked with Scott Hansen, who’s doing both functions at the same time, being a celebrated musician as TYCHO and a graphic designer as ISO50.

A: Scott has shaped the way that I think about a lot of these things. He’s able to hold these two creative minds together as one and make them both work. What he has done has really transformed from being a hybrid. For a long time I felt like ISO50 and TYCHO were equally focussed and equally well-known, and now TYCHO has exploded. I know that find great satisfaction in that and I know that he misses the design thing sometimes because he’ll do artwork for the band obviously. I consider him a great inspiration and hope that I too can one day make that same transition to focussing more on the artistic expression of music side of things.

Q: If you weren’t a designer, what would you rather do?

A: Musician would be one thing, but I always wanted to be a professional tennis player.

Q: Tennis player?

A: I love tennis. I think it’s the best sport. It’s one on one. Your skill is pitted against somebody else’s skill. It also reflects the way I work: I work alone, which I consider a weakness, but I think that’s where it comes from.

The game is spread out over so many points so it’s impossible to lose or win based on a fluke, like in soccer. In soccer you can lose on a fluke, and also it’s a team game, so your individual performance might not be as important, whereas in tennis, it’s not. You can’t win or lose by accent. I’m a very competitive person, so I always wished I had persued that. Yet it feels somewhat selfish these days to do something that doesn’t have an impact on the people in a positive way. Sport does, but not in a way that I would want. If I wasn’t older, I would still try to do that. (laughs)

Q: Thank you very much for the interview, Alex!

Head over to Alex’ Portfolio to check out the rest of his projects. How did you like interview? Should I do more of this in the future? Tell me on Twitter - thank you in advance!

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →