Arta Team Spotlight
Q&A with Matt Johnson—Head of Design at Arta
Arta Team Spotlight
October 24, 2023
Matt Johnson is a distinguished design professional who’s left his mark at renowned companies like Apple, Frog Design, Punchcut, and Google's Material Design team. Matt honed his skills through university training, agency experience, and immersion in the world of big tech.
With a blend of technical mastery and artistry, Matt is now at the helm of design strategy at Arta. His approach is firmly rooted in three design principles he shares with us today.
Tell us about your early life. What did you want to be when you grew up?
My parents encouraged my innate creativity from an early age, allowing me to explore and uncover my passions. Alongside music and sports, I was drawn to computers and design. I pursued these interests by creating unique posters, t-shirts, websites, and other designs for my bands, teams, and clubs. If a school club needed a new flyer or t-shirt designed, I was on it. Initially, I didn’t see it as a career path, but I loved using my photography, computer skills, and creativity to make fun and unique artwork for my school.
In university, I attended a new program called Digital Design, which combined graphic design, coding, video photography, and 3D animation. The diversity of disciplines inspired me and I knew it would be a perfect fit.
The program's emphasis on theory and self-driven learning was especially beneficial. So, not only did I study design, but I also learned how to quickly pick up new software on my own - a crucial skill in today’s workplace.
All the programs at our D-School stood out because they alternated between school and work every quarter. Another perk was that the internships were required to be paid and considered-entry level design positions. That allowed me to test my skills with challenging assignments. The university's reputation for producing high-quality students helped me acquire internships at some of the most sought-after companies in the design field, including Apple and Frog Design.
Working with these companies allowed me to polish my visual aesthetics, storytelling, and branding skills while working on engineering and product design challenges.
One of your internships led to a full-time position in San Francisco.
Yes. My last internship was at Punchcut, where I gained experience in agency work and product design. Punchcut had a small, high-talent team of 20-30 people. I worked on a variety of projects for different clients in automotive, TV, mobile, websites, and operating systems, for well-known clients like Skype, Samsung, and Palm.
The fast-paced environment at Punchcut meant tackling different high-intensity projects every few weeks, providing ample exposure to client-facing work. As a result, selling and co-creating with clients became a fundamental skill set that has proved invaluable throughout my career.
What makes Punchcut a true standout in the industry is its visionary design approach and long tenure in the market. Even back when mobile screens were black and white and only 84 by 48 pixels, Punchcut was focused on the future of mobile experiences. This foresight and commitment to innovation helped the company build a reputation for creating future-forward designs for respected, cutting-edge clients. As a creative person, it was incredibly fulfilling to have the opportunity to work on products that were looking 2 - 4 years ahead, with clear business goals centered around the future.
It sounds like you loved agency life. So how did you end up in tech?
As much as I enjoyed my time at the agency, my wife and I always knew we wanted to live abroad. Yet we both knew that gaining experience in big tech or small startups while in San Francisco would benefit any future endeavors.
As luck would have it, Google was hiring for a full-time animation and motion design position around the same time. Naturally, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to work with smart and talented individuals in a field that I was genuinely passionate about.
I joined a small internal team split evenly into two disciplines: prototypers and animators. We worked on Android's product suite to help them think beyond their incremental release cycles across various devices, including automotive, TV, phones, and tablets.
The work was exciting and fast-paced. Our team crafted demos and prototypes with the goal of dazzling decision-makers. Once the managers were excited about the project, we moved to the next one. This experience taught me invaluable lessons about agency work and product design, all within Google itself.
When Material Design was first developed, our team was earmarked for a special research and development project under then VP of Design, Matias Duarte. This project eventually laid the groundwork for the ambient computing movement and Google's home devices. Our task was to explore how to create a virtual experience that could follow you in the real world, as well as how to create software that was as mobile as you were. Working with Material Design was a fantastic experience, and it gave us the tools and guidelines we needed to create the best user experience possible at such a massive scale.
With this experience and skills, my wife and I finally felt confident about taking our life and careers abroad.
Was that when you joined Caesar’s team on Next Billion Users in Singapore?
Yes. Their team was simply hiring a designer, but what they really needed was a branding expert with a knack for building narratives that connect with their target audience in niche markets. I envisioned this role as the perfect fit for my expertise and pitched the team on how I could help them find the ideal fit for their early products and users.
With an enticing move to Singapore and the opportunity to work alongside teams in India and South East Asia at large, I seized the chance to fully immerse myself in new cultures and gain insights into what clicks with different audiences.
Between your education, agency, and tech experience, you’ve had a high-impact career path. What guiding design principles did you take forward with you?
As a designer, I use three key principles in my craft to ensure my work is creative, effective, and user-focused.
First and foremost, I’m conscious about maintaining a beginner's mindset. While it's tempting to immerse myself in a topic, doing so entirely can hinder the ability to design for those new to it. Thus, I make a conscious effort to stay on the "right side" of understanding by not going too deep, which allows me to create approachable designs for laypeople and novices alike.
By partnering with experts at the intersection of finance and tech like Charles Dong and Ed Chiang, I can focus on a fresh take and deliver the most user-centric and practical solution without sacrificing the important technical details. I aim to make innovation come easier within an expert financial framework.
In my previous role on the Google Pay team, I discovered many challenges and intricacies with modern finance infrastructure. These issues mean the realm of financial technology and its products are ripe for innovative design advancements. Luckily, for people like me that approach finance with fresh eyes and a beginner’s mindset, there are ample opportunities to create effective, down-to-earth solutions through design. That’s my core goal at Arta.
Secondly, design is never finished. It’s in a perpetual process of simplification that never truly ends. Applying design thinking or a creative process can transform something into a simpler and more effective artifact. Better design changes the person's experience with it and opens new paths toward further simplification and integration. And then the entire process repeats itself.
Look at the major, timeless brands we know today with their minimal and globally recognizable logos. These designs weren't always simple or timeless. They were gradually simplified into familiar symbols through years of exposure, collective understanding, and coordinated brand messaging - then further design iteration.
This constant conversation with its environment makes design and simplification a never-ending process. Even when adding more features or functionality, the presentation should always be simpler than the previous iteration. Simplification is a never-ending journey.
The third thing, and this is pretty tactical - I design everything. One of my first bosses and mentors lived by this, claiming, “How can you call yourself a designer and not try to make everything around you better?” It has stuck with me ever since.
Design isn't just about aesthetics in your work - it's a process you can use to elevate everything you do. As a designer, I see it as my responsibility to enhance the appearance and details of everything I touch, from a website to a product to a simple email.
Your work is a reflection of yourself - so make it stunning, clean, and seemingly effortless. Strive for simplicity and beauty in all your designs, and enjoy the satisfaction of creating something that looks good and elevates the overall experience.
On a personal note, how does design influence your day-to-day?
One of the reasons we came to Japan was for my wife’s work, but I was always attracted to how this country, its history, and its values revolve around aesthetics.
Moving to Japan has transformed my creative appetite in new and unexpected ways. While I spend much time behind a computer, nature is one of my true muses. Japan’s culture and history are infused with timeless design principles rooted in nature from Shintoism and Buddhism. Being here is a dream come true, as I see my design values echoed in the real world around me.