Haraldur Thorleifsson on working with Pinterest, Google, and Santa

The nomadic web designer explains making a site entirely out of PNGs and inspiration from the cities of the world.

Haraldur Thorleifsson is one of 10 nominees for Best Online Portfolio in the 2014 net Awards. He's a creative director who has worked on things like Google Drive, Google+ and Santa Tracker (did you see that?)

Web design started out for Haraldur as a means to fund his academic studies and has turned into a successful career. These days he travels the world with his wife and daughter, working remotely for San Francisco-based clients. We quizzed him to find out more.

What is your geographical location?

My wife, our 21-month-old daughter and I move around quite a bit - we usually stay 3-6 months in each city. In the last two years we've lived in places like Tokyo, Vancouver (the one in Canada), Portland, Rio and at the moment we're in Buenos Aires. I love being in a new place but I don't like being a tourist. Staying for a few months allows us to get a better feel for the different cultures, peoples and places.

Almost all my clients are however in the San Francisco Bay Area so I keep pacific office hours.

Give us a summary of your career so far.

I studied philosophy and business, graduating with dual BA and BS degrees. I went on to take a Masters degree in economics. I finished most of the classes but around the time I was looking for topics for my dissertation I realised I didn't really want to work as an economist.

I had started to do some web and motion design a few years earlier and I had been using it to support me through my studies. So when I left economics I just continued designing while I figured out what else I was going to do. I started a few courses in development studies and even went in to engineering at one point but nothing really stuck.

Later I moved to New York and worked for a digital agency called Cuban Council. They were small but had some really big clients so I got a taste for working on large scale international projects. I've been freelancing since I stopped working with them and earlier this year I made the leap and founded a new agency. It's called Ueno but we've been too busy to really put up anything more than a splash screen.

Haraldur's tiled portfolio design

What have you been working on over the last year?

Last year was kind of crazy. I worked on a lot of very different kinds of projects. I've always done a lot of communication design and last year was no different, working on marketing sites with a lot of interesting startups as well as companies like Google, The Economist and TiVO.

I also started to do more product design work. I did some concepting with Pinterest; I worked on a really cool app for Reuters that I can't share just yet; I collaborated with some amazing ex-Apple people on a new product that has the potential to be truly revolutionary; I worked on a fun year-end summary with Fitbit; designed a few web apps, mostly for startups, and then at the end of the year I led the amazing team that created the Google Santa Tracker, creating videos, games and all sorts of interactive experiences for the the man in red.

Santa Tracker enabled kids to follow Santa's progress across the world in real time on Google Maps

Tell us about the process of designing your portfolio site.

I've had a lot of different portfolios in the past. They've usually been based on some sort of theme system, easy to update but not very interesting. I don't code myself so that seemed like the easiest option. I've never been very happy with the results though, so about 18 months ago I started to design a new portfolio. I wanted to be able to get it out quickly and also to add sections and change designs without bringing in a developer. So I eventually just set the whole thing up as multiple PNGs (making a lot of developers and designers cringe!). But that way I could verify that the setup made sense, and I could jump on this when I had time and I could do it all in baby steps.

A good friend of mine, James Dickie, who also happens to be an amazing developer, kept bugging me and saying he could code out the site. I resisted for a while since I wanted to get it further along but eventually I caved and 'allowed' him to start working on it. We then worked on it for about two months on and off and eventually we had the site that's up now.

Who and what influences and inspires your work?

I think cities are fantastic, without a doubt our greatest achievement. Staying in a new city is always inspiring, meeting new people and experiencing the subtle differences that make each city unique.

Name an 'unsung hero', someone you admire who deserves more recognition for their work.

I think Markus Magnusson is amazing. He's a motion designer and his work is always interesting and extremely well executed. I brought him in to work with us on three videos for Santa Tracker. I was expecting quality but he really went above and beyond and delivered some truly great work. Super nice guy as well!

Vote in the net Awards!

Celebrating the best in web design and development, the 15th net Awards is open for public voting until 24 March. With a record breaking number of nominations this year, it's set to be the biggest and best yet. Have your say by casting your votes here.


Tanya Combrinck is digital editor on net magazine.