An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Always make the simplest possible solution first.

No matter if you’re making an app, or making a new HR policy, the first draft should always answer the question ‘what’s the simplest possible way this can work?’ and go from there. If you can make something work and it’s simplest, it will work when you add bells and whistles.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Stewart.

Joe Stewart is a designer and founding partner at Work & Co, a global digital product company. Since co-founding the company less than 10 years ago, it’s grown to nearly 500 team members across eight offices, been featured on Ad Age’s A-List, named Digiday’s Agency of the Year, honored twice on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, and dubbed one of the “most consequential agencies of the decade” by Forbes.

Joe — who is based in Portland and continues to be a hands-on leader working actively on projects — was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business. He holds design patents for Apple, Google, and Target, and is a Cannes Lion winner for his designs for Virgin America and Apple.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My career backstory is more linear than most people’s. I’ve really just been doing the exact same thing — designing digital interfaces — for a very long time. I started as a Web design intern in 1998 at a tiny agency in the Bay Area of California, and I just never stopped. I was studying graphic design at the time in college and I was mostly interested in record covers and skateboard deck designs. But I got an internship during the very wild west days of Flash 3 and IE4, and fell in love with the tools, the medium, and the potential digital design had for the world and for me.

I dropped out of school during the ‘dot-com boom’ of 1999 to work full time at another agency and just kind of kept going. I have the type of personality where I like to do the same things over and over and try to get better at them — so the story of my career is simply just 25 years of trying to be a better digital designer.

Eventually I worked my way up to being a Partner at a pretty large digital agency called Huge, where I met my other co-founders, and we decided we needed to branch out on our own in order to do things right. At the time, most agencies were trying to do everything for everyone — and we knew that the only way to do digital products well was to focus solely on them. So we formed Work & Co nine years ago for the express purpose of designing and developing digital products that can transform companies. We’re about 500 people now with 8 offices around the world, and as I said to all our colleagues around the globe on our anniversary recently, I’m excited for the next nine years!

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The biggest accomplishment in my career to be disruptive, really, has been the advocacy for digital to have a seat at the table. It seems like an alternate reality now, but not that long ago companies really didn’t care about digital at all. A lot of us fought very hard to convince c-suites around the world that investing in digital products was one of the best paths to ROI there is. Trying to convince a CMO to invest in fixing their e-commerce site, or making better software for their employees instead of making another TV commercial was a battle we had over and over and over. It really wasn’t until the last few years that there was finally enough evidence to prove without a doubt that not only is digital product quite possibly the most valuable part of many companies, it is often intertwined with the brand itself.

I must say, it feels like quite a luxury at this point for everyone to agree that creating good tools for your customers and employees is a must. It seems obvious and inevitable in retrospect, but believe me, it was a fight to get us here. I feel immensely proud to contribute to this shift along with my co-founders and a lot of other folks who believe in Work & Co’s mission.

This manifests in the work I’m doing today by changing the power balance of the company / customer relationship. The way companies interact with their customers has changed from push to pull. It used to be that companies would do their best to tell their potential customers what to think and hope they could convince them to buy their goods. Now people expect a very different kind of relationship: they tell you what they want and if you have good tools in place for them to meet their goals, they take what they need, and be on their merry way. This creates much deeper bonds between brands and individuals, and makes for a much more pleasant way to deal with the world in general.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we were starting Work & Co, we had to come up with a name, get business cards, make a logo, and buy a URL for our website. I was working on a lot of that stuff, including getting the website domain name and we got ‘’ which took a lot of negotiation and back-and-forth, but I bought it finally and set it all up and forgot about it. About 3 years later, I got a very panicked phone call from someone in IT saying “The website is down! The domain ownership expired! You are the only one who can fix it, because you bought it and have been running it with your personal account!” Oh shit. I let the URL lapse. I let a technology company’s website go down, because I forgot to renew the domain. Hahaha — what a rookie move. Anyway — after some very panicked typing, I transferred it over so that it was on the company’s account, and it hasn’t been a problem ever since. Moral of the story is, I’m glad to be surrounded by a lot of very smart people now.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have had a few great mentors in my life, but I think what is most interesting is my current state of mentorship — because it’s cut into two very different categories. First is masters from the past, and second is rising talent right now.

In my field, there is no history yet. I can’t pick up a textbook and see how masters solved digital product problems. We are really the first ones to be able to make a life-long career out of it, so we look to the masters of other design disciplines — architecture, industrial design, graphic design, etc.

I read a lot, and really encourage people to read as much as possible about people they consider to be successful in their field, even if they don’t instinctively like their work. What you learn by doing so is not how to design, but how to think about design. How to approach a problem, where to begin, what to do when you get stuck, how not to be afraid. Design is fundamentally terrifying. You are handed a blank sheet of paper and told to produce an answer to a problem. In the early part of one’s career it’s a deer in the headlights moment. But as you learn more and more from others about what they do in those situations, you can apply that to your own life — and — eventually the deer disappears and the designer arrives. For me, Massimo Vignelli, Naoto Fukasawa, and Dieter Rams have probably influenced me the most.

When it comes to actual nuts and bolts application of process, my mentors are a younger generation of designers I am lucky enough to work with. I can think of two, in particular, who fundamentally changed the way I work forever — Dever Thomas and James Ayres, who both rose through our company and are now design partners at Work & Co.

Dever really taught me never to move on until I was really happy with something. Before her, things would often be ‘good enough’ because I had to move onto the 99 other things I needed to do, but not her. She wouldn’t move on until it was totally right and she loved it — and that made the other 99 things much much faster and be easier to do — contrary to my instincts. Going slower, and taking more time to get it all right, ends up being faster because you waste less time on making mistakes.

James changed the way I approach conceptual design. My typical method for design was to design full fidelity, perfectly kerned designs that looked great during the concepting period of a project. People were often impressed with the work, but the problem is I had to spend lots of time producing the design, and not as much time simply thinking about the concept. James did the exact opposite. His designs were literally 3 gray boxes with no words moving in a prototype — but it worked, and you knew what it was, and it made perfect sense. What was brilliant about this approach, is he would spend 6 hours thinking about what the right answer should be, and 10 minutes doing a prototype. So, it was a really really smart prototype. And since the level of effort was so low, he could do 20 in the time I could do 1 of my designs. And his 20th was better than my 1st, even though his was just a moving gray box. He really helped me create a process to detangle myself from the laborious side of conceptual design, and actually spend my time “concepting”. Once the gray boxes are perfect, you can see the entire app in your head and design it once.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I don’t think I have ever tried to intentionally “disrupt” anything. My goal has always been to make things simpler, meet peoples’ needs, and make tools that are a pleasure to use. What we often experience, though, is getting used to bad systems. We get used to things being hard to use, or barely working, or being a chore and we just accept it. Sometimes a technology, or an idea, or a group comes along that allows us to redo bad systems properly, how they should have been done in the first place, and only then do we realize just how awful the old way was — and sometimes people call that disruption. To me, it’s just making something good, which should always be your goal.

To go back to the question, ‘when is disruption a bad thing’ — or, in my framing — when do you stop trying to make something better? I think there are instances of things that are so good that any change can only make it worse. And, when that happens, you leave it alone. It’s pretty rare, but there are things that are done very well, and work very well, and if you try to re-invent them — they are worse than before. Don’t disrupt things that work better than any possible future version. Like… don’t do a cover of a Queen song. It will only be worse.

Here is a tiny concrete example of what I’m talking about, but it will illustrate the point. Not too long ago, designers always redesigned the scrollbars for the websites they were designing. They would change the colors, and the buttons, and the track — or sometimes totally re-write the entire scroll bar because they thought it would be better, or because they wanted to leave their fingerprints on the project. The problem was, the default scrollbars in Safari are REALLY well done. You can ONLY make them worse. Leave them alone.

There are not a lot of things that live up to this standard — something so good it can only be made worse — but that should always be our goal with every design we do. We should aim for our designs to last for many years. It’s impossibly hard in digital, but the only goal worth aiming for.

Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1) Simple.

Always make the simplest possible solution first.

No matter if you’re making an app, or making a new HR policy, the first draft should always answer the question ‘what’s the simplest possible way this can work?’ and go from there. If you can make something work and it’s simplest, it will work when you add bells and whistles.

2) Be nice.

You will see everyone you work with again, so be nice.

It’s a very small world. The people you work with now could be your clients in the future. Your intern can become your boss. You will see everyone you work with again. Being nice to people means that when you see them again, you can pick up where you left off.

3) Never lie.

If you tell the truth, even when it’s bad news, your work will be 10,000x easier. If you are honest about a problem, people can help you solve it. If you obfuscate the problem, you’re on your own — and — you’ve probably made the problem worse.

4) Stick to your principles.

Do the things you think are right. If you get in trouble for doing the right thing, then you’re not in a good place. Be willing to walk away from a bad environment. In the long run, this will pay off.

5) You are the only one who will take care of you.

Prioritize your mental health, body, and spirit. The company you work for, no matter how benevolent, will never be able to know what you need like you do. You are the only one who can really take care of yourself, so do it. Never feel bad about prioritizing yourself and your family. As someone who has burned themselves out many, many times, I can tell you — it’s not worth it.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I think of it a little differently than that. I think my role as a designer is more like a river that moves and changes over time. I’ve always just been doing the same thing: just trying to improve tools for people. The tools change, the medium changes, the technology changes, people change. What’s next for me is to keep doing what I have been doing for whatever comes next. So, if I get to help improve blockchain tech or brain implants then I’ll just keep doing my best to make those things simple and enjoyable to use.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

The book that has had the most influence on me in the last couple years is ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’ by Thích Nhất Hạnh. I would recommend it to anyone. The book is a series of letters about the joy to be found in every moment. The universe is an amazing and beautiful place. If you practice stopping and letting go, your mind can become quiet and the beauty of the existential world can reveal itself.

This might not seem to have anything to do with digital, or business, or design but in reality it’s the key to all of it. I really believe that creativity comes from a place of stillness and calm. It’s why when we’re in the shower or falling asleep we have good ideas — we’re calm. You can be calm anytime you want through the practice of stillness — which can lead to great creative ideas for business or design or digital — but also throughout the rest of your life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One lesson I have tried to draw upon many times comes from my business partner and one my favorite designers ever, Felipe Memoria. Working in tech can be pretty stressful. There are always 1,000 things to worry about, and it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. Felipe once told me to only worry about what’s immediately in front of me — whether that’s my next meeting or my next hour of designing. It’s pretty genius, because it works on two levels. Firstly, it keeps things from getting overwhelming, and secondly, if you do a great job on each consecutive thing individually, you will eventually have done a great job on the whole thing. Focusing on the now ensures the future will be great. I love this idea from him.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

An idea that I am very interested in, and would like to spread as much as I can is: there is no such thing as “them” — there is only “us”.

This comes from Buddhism, but it has really changed the way I think and problem solve. I don’t believe you can change anyone’s mind by fighting, but only by working together. This requires dropping your guard, listening, letting go of your pretenses and prejudgments, getting to know someone, understanding their point of view, and really trying to put yourself in their shoes. This isn’t easy, but when you do this — that person is 1,000x more willing to do the same. This works in business and design, but it also works in real life and politics, and governments, and whatever. Humans don’t want to do this for some reason. We are naturally tribal and seek out differences and conflicts — but — if we recognize the truth that we are all “us” — then — we can come together and change things. I really believe this.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Meet The Disruptors: Joe Stewart Of Work & Co On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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