IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW: Joe Stewart of Huge

Joe Stewart is an inspirational figure within digital design. Since joining Huge in 2006 as the agency's first art director, he moved up to lead designer - working on many of the company's major and most influential projects - before progressing to creative director. In 2010, Stewart was appointed to the agency's management team as partner and head of creative.

With clients ranging from Target to HBO, Stewart is now one of New York's leading creatives.

In this exclusive interview we talk to Stewart about his career as a designer, his rise to prominence, his inspiration and why he thinks design is so important. Check it out ...

QUESTION: Hi Joe. Can you tell us how you started out in design?

"Funny story – my father was a developer for Adobe. He worked on Photoshop and Premiere. So, in high school, I just always had that stuff lying around. Being an encouraging parent, he bought me a Photoshop book and highlighted certain pages for me to study. I had always been into art in school, so it seemed like a good extension, in his eyes. Thank god for that. So, by the time I was 18, I was already working as a freelance designer, working on user interfaces for software companies.

So, I decided to drop out of school and pursue digital design full time

"In the midst of all this, I was lucky enough to be a college student in Silicon Valley during the Dot-Com boom. Some people got a hold of my portfolio and offered me a job at a small digital agency. At that time (this was about 15 years ago) you couldn’t study digital design in school, there was no curriculum. So, I decided to drop out of school and pursue digital design full time. I was the only designer at a small agency, so I was immediately faced with all the problems that digital had to offer. After that first job, I just kept with it, slowly working my way through the ranks.

"The hard part for me was having to discover all the theory on my own. Dropping out of school was the best way to learn digital, but I missed out on much of the design philosophy that you learn in school. So I’ve spent a lot of time studying design history to understand its roots. I’ve never stopped this learning, and it continually cements my love for design."

QUESTION: Where do you find inspiration?

"This is the big question for me. I’ve become pretty obsessed with the idea of inspiration. It’s everything, and, I try to always be inspired. I am now also working very hard to make sure the people I work with are inspired. The work is better, the mood is better, the project is easier, your whole life is easier and better when you are inspired by something. So, for me, I try to pay a lot of attention to this.

There are no masters of digital design yet.

"Since digital is a relatively new medium, I actually find it hard to be inspired by it. There's no history; it’s still in the earliest part of its development, so it’s difficult to pore back over the classic pieces that defined digital… because they don’t exist yet.

"Mostly, things from the past inspire me. I am very inspired by product design, especially functionalist product design. Like many people, I find Braun to be an endless source of inspiration. Their designers and business people stood by the philosophy that good design should be as simple as possible. And with that as a basis, you can have fun with that simplicity. Which, I love as a theory, and think it’s perfect for digital.

I’m super into early synth pop like Depeche Mode, Human League, Gary Numan and OMD

"I'm also tremendously inspired by certain music. I tend to like the music of the underdog. I sort of see digital as the underdog in the big, scary world of advertising, so certain kinds of music really speak to me. I’m super into early synth pop like Depeche Mode, Human League, Gary Numan and OMD. These were bands that had to invent the genre & their instruments as they went, which reminds me quite a bit of the current state of digital. They just wanted to do something they cared about, in an all-new way, and it worked for them. They were artistically satisfied and it changed the face of music forever. I hope to be lucky enough to be able to say the same things about design some day."

QUESTION: How did you get your break at Huge?

"A couple of years after my first job I, I was contacted by the senior designer at Huge, a woman named Jemma Hostetler (who has since moved on to be a pretty big name in the community), about coming aboard as a designer. This was about 12 years ago.

It was so exciting to move to NY and work at a firm I really loved and respected.

"Unfortunately, the economy was in rough shape after the Dot-Com era, and most of us got laid off. But, a few years later, Huge hired me back to be the company’s first Art Director. It was a very small agency at the time (I think I was the 17th person) but a very strong, design-led team where I immediately felt very at home. I was lucky enough to be the lead designer on most of the major projects Huge was doing at that time. So – I sort of just went through the ranks from AD to ACD to CD, etc.

I worked on as many things as I could, and always said “yes” to every project

"I was asked to fill in as head of creative when David Skokna, Huge’s original founder, moved on. It was a big honour for me. I felt very proud that in my first year as creative lead, Huge made it on to Ad Age’s A-List, doubled in size and doubled in revenue. I’ve been in my current position, going on two years, but it still feels like that small tight-knit company to me (even though we’re now more than 500 people with 6 offices)."

Joe Stewart at his desk

A young Joe at work. Image credit: Badrul Rupak

QUESTION: What design project, either personal or professional, are you most proud of to date and why?

"The number one thing I’m most proud of is the company. Building a world-class creative team has always been my number one priority, and my biggest project. I spend countless hours talking to people, interviewing, looking at portfolios, going to events, going to schools, etc. My first priority is to ensure the overall quality of our work, and that boils down to having amazing people. We have almost 150 designers, writers, motion designers, directors, animators, and production artists on staff.

"Our team is the best it has ever been, the best I have ever worked with, and, I think, the best in the world. I’m incredibly proud of the talent we have and the reputation Huge has for brilliant design. That is what I am most proud of."

QUESTION: You work in many different areas of design. From a design perspective, which do you enjoy the most and why?

"I'm less interested in the final product, be it a website or an album cover – I get really, really excited about concepts, strategy and good ideas.

Design, to me, is just solving problems.

And that’s what keeps me going. Whether you have a good solution for a book cover, or for a mobile app – that ‘aha’ moment is the same.

"For example, I really love designing record covers; it’s my only freelance project. My brother is in an amazing indie-pop band called Xiu Xiu, and he and I have collaborated on his albums covers for about 10 years. He’s a great client. There is no money involved ever, he has good ideas about what he wants to do, and he trusts me. But, whether I get that ‘aha’ moment from deciding to tattoo a record title on my leg and photograph it for cover, or by coming up with a strategy for solving an ecommerce problem – that ‘aha’ moment, for me, is design."

Joe has created several albums, posters, shirts and websites for avant-pop band Xiu Xiu

Joe has created several albums, posters, shirts and websites for avant-pop band Xiu Xiu

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