Originally from the foothills of Colorado, but now living and working in Greenville, SC, Matthew Smith is a designer rooted in studio art. His professional career spans design work for a variety of clients including The Gates Foundation, the US Postal Service, Fox, MIT, and Seth Godin. Matthew has led creative for top startups, founded one of the most respected coworking locations in the country, and launched an event called Greenville Grok, which attracts incredible talent from around the world. The main dish on Matthew’s plate is fulfilling the role of Creative Director at Relay Foods, with sides of international speaking, photography, and now, invention of physical products. He’s also a doting husband and father of three wild-eyed kids.
Interview date: April 2, 2013
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It’s an honor to finally have Matthew Smith on TGD! We have followed Matthew’s work online for some time and finally had the chance to meet him in person last October at Brooklyn Beta. This guy is the real deal! He is super talented and has a heart of gold. After a long journey from hopeful fine artist to designer and entrepreneur, Matthew’s path has taken shape to reveal a man who truly cares about the work he does, but it goes beyond that. His desire to make a meaningful mark on those around him is evident in all he has accomplished in the last few years and we know this is just the beginning. Read on to learn about Matthew’s journey, be encouraged by his story, and be challenged by his bravery to ask the tough questions about the work we do and what really matters.
Describe your path to becoming a designer.
Design isn’t something I planned to do. In fact, I’d been on a straight path to becoming a studio artist since the third grade. The catalyst of that was winning an art contest for a library book stamp for the Werner Wildcats, my elementary school’s mascot. It was a monumental moment for me. I grew up in a tough home with high expectations and a lot of anger. My dad and I butted heads for years because we didn’t understand each other. I was a sensitive kid; he was a hard-ass engineer and I think kids scared the shit out of him. That situation drove me to seek approval from anyone, whenever and wherever I could find it. When I won that contest, I felt accepted for my artistic abilities and that’s when my interest in fine art started. From that day on, I buried my head in my sketchbook.
With the encouragement from my mom and grandparents, I continued to draw. I paged through hunting catalogs and ads in the paper and tried to emulate what I saw. I watched Mark Kistler on TV and learned how to draw perspective. I learned about line and density from an older cousin, Linda Miller, a successful painter in the Hondo Valley of New Mexico. I remember visiting her once when I was young. I had my no. 2 pencil and sketchbook in hand, hungry for her instruction. She threw my pencil away and gave me two new ones, probably a 6H and a 5B. She taught me to press hard on the page to create varying line density to define emotion and tell stories within a drawing. It blew my mind!
By the time I was in high school, I could draw my way through anything; I was the art guy now. It shaped everything I did and I thought I had it down until Ms. Bassani taught me a great lesson. I was working on a large drawing of a frilled lizard and was holding my pencil tight, in total control. Mrs. Bassani noticed and said to me, “Even though the rest of the class has three more days to finish this, you have one hour. Now loosen up and complete your drawing.” Then she showed me how to hold my pencil loosely, like a stick. I frantically drew for the full hour and finished the drawing. Looking back, that was probably one of the better pieces I’ve done. That wasn’t just a great art lesson; it was a wonderful design and business lesson about understanding constraints and trusting myself and I’ll never forget it.
After high school, an art degree seemed the natural next step. I decided that I would become a teacher to support my art habit. I was living in Fort Collins, Colorado, and there was no way to become a famous young artist there. I attended Colorado State University and had to take all the foundational liberal arts classes in addition to my major. I chose to ignore my other classes in order to focus on photography and pottery, which I aced and earned some of the few A’s those professors have ever handed out—or so they told me. Of all things, I actually flunked my computer science course, which is funny now (laughing).
I was getting tired of the lack of art focus at a liberal arts college, so after completing a relatively few number of credits in two years, I left Fort Collins, CO, to do a ceramics apprenticeship at the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico. On a side note, ceramics is my background and is still the heartbeat of everything I do. I throw once or twice a year when I can borrow a wheel and I love hand-building. What’s most interesting to me about ceramics is the internal and external space because every pot, every cup and plate tells a story.
After completing my apprenticeship, I went to Portsmouth, UK, where I was immersed in conceptual art and a whole new way of thinking. The finality of my studio work was two pieces that explored perception. The first was dressing as a blind man with big black glasses, cane and all. I went to the art museum and recorded conversations I had with visitors. I asked them to share what they thought the paintings and sculptures looked like and what they meant. Normally people were befuddled by art, but the act of explaining it to a blind man brought it to life for them. It was thrilling! The second piece was a simple audio recording of Bob Ross, the iconic PBS painting teacher, during one of his hundreds of shows. I turned it into an installation with the transcripts of the show typed up and laid out in columns. Viewers could listen to Ross and read what he was saying, but mostly out of sequence, so the viewer had to imagine the painting in his or her mind, resulting in a mental picture much more vibrant than the pieces Ross is infamous for painting. The point being that our imaginations are powerful and play an authorial role when viewing the creative work of others. This idea is still a big part in helping me think about interface patterns in my current work.
Anyway, I ran out of money in the UK and went back to Colorado to finish up this college thing—after all, I was already seven years into school.
In the middle of all of this, I met Amy and we got married. We were planning to move to Philadelphia because I had an entrance into a school to work for a Masters program. I was told I was a shoo-in and that they loved my work. We got there and things didn’t pan out as promised—story of my life. We didn’t have any money saved. All my dreams collapsed and I started sinking into a depression. It was the early 2000s and joining the blogosphere seemed like a great way to be properly emo and get this stuff off my chest.
I got my blog set up, but like any good artist, I wasn’t satisfied with the available templates. I started messing around with hex values and patterned backgrounds and hosting images by referencing them—when I discovered that, I thought, “I have arrived!” The world changed for me (laughing). I stayed up late into the night playing around with the templates. I obsessed over the work of people like Jon Hicks, Veerle Pieters, and Khoi Vinh. And I’ve just continued that obsession with other’s design over the past six years. I’ve definitely learned so much by emulation.
“I’d been on a straight path to becoming a studio artist since the third grade. The catalyst of that was winning an art contest for a library book stamp for the Werner Wildcats, my elementary school’s mascot. It was a monumental moment for me.”
I still remember my first gig. I wanted to buy a digital camera that was $1,000, so I built a website for $750 using HTML and CSS and run on Textpattern. Then, I tried another; a website for my church in Philadelphia, which people liked. Now, I’m a really audacious person and I like to take risks, so when the next person came to me for a website, I said, “Okay. That’ll be $8,000.” It was a pretty silly jump, but I knew I needed a cushion so I could spend time on this and see if design was something I could do full-time. At the time, my wife was pregnant, we had a one year old, and we were all living on about $26,000 a year—I knew I had to think bigger, so I went for it. I got the first $8,000 job and then another. Then people started asking me to build more things, like customer databases. I would nod in agreement as if to say, “Of course I can do that,” and then I’d get off the phone, crap my pants, and go do research on Google, ask questions on forums, and figure it out in order to deliver a product to a client and make them happy with the results. Done!
Also, I’m obsessed with getting things right—not just work, but business, too. I had two perfectionist parents who were relentless. They treated me more like an employee of the Smith Corporation than a kid—I even had to do a profit-loss statement for my first lemonade stand. Although my childhood had a lot of hard stuff attached to it, I know everything I went through was for a reason. Because of my upbringing, I know how to make things happen.
I’ve been a very driven designer and, sadly, part of me is still really motivated by what people think. I once heard Jeffrey Zeldman say something like, “The most successful people you know are probably motivated by insecurity.” At the time, I thought, “What a sad, shallow statement.” I still think it’s sad, but it’s also true—I’m one of those people. I think most people like to say they aren’t driven by insecurity or how others perceive them, but I do think that most really driven people have some level of insecurity. Design is how I’m working out my own insecurities in a way that has meaning.
What a journey! So, have you freelanced the entire time you’ve been a designer?
My son, Brighton, was born in August 2005 and it was when my wife was pregnant with him that I started the process of going from fine artist to blogging. From then until about 2010, I moved from freelancing to growing a full web shop and about five years ago, I started a coworking space here in Greenville, SC. The company was first named Art-is-Work and then it became Squared Eye and the whale was born. I eventually hired a project manager, Jamin Jantz, and a designer, Marco Suarez. Around 2009, business was booming and we were doing the best work we’d ever done.
Then, we got a wild call from Zaarly. This was our first exposure to the world of products. We knew it was out there, but we weren’t exposed to it in Greenville the way we would be in the Bay Area. Zaarly said they were developing a product to change the economy and they approached us from a contract point of view. In fact, Cameron Koczon was the one who introduced us to Ian Hunter, Zaarly’s CTO. We said yes to the contract work and buckled down to knock out the mobile site for Zaarly in a really short time. We loved working with the team and the next question was if we would be interested in coming aboard, not as an acquisition of Squared Eye, but a desire to hire us as talent. We wanted to have a meaningful impact on the economy, so we joined Zaarly and amazing things happened. I was there for a year and learned a ton. I loved the team and the product so much, but wasn’t willing to move out to San Francisco at this point in my life with three kids, a dedication to family, and a desire to live a more reasonable life. Zaarly is hardcore and I love them for it, but it wasn’t a direction I wanted to go in.
Working at Zaarly taught me a lot about products and that’s where I landed next. I began working at Relay Foods, online grocery for local and sustainable foods and more. I had known the founder, Zach Buckner, from years ago when I built one of the versions of Relay Foods’ site. I love doing meaningful work and this is an amazing opportunity and problem to solve. We’re creating a better, far more sustainable, and transparent way for busy people to buy groceries and I’m very passionate about this work.
“I think we designed the wrong Internet. We’re creating rapidly for the Internet and we’re creating things that are life-changing for people. I think that smart people with good ethics need to make hard decisions about what we’re making.”
Are you full-time with Relay?
Yes, I’ve been full-time with Relay since August 2012. That means 55–60 hours every week and, somehow, I fill up the rest of my hours working with The Iron Yard on CoWork, planning for Greenville Grok, and doing stuff for OpenFrame.
Have you had any mentors?
At CSU, before I went to New Mexico, I had a professor named Richard DeVore. He was 60-something years old and his teachers came out of the Bauhaus movement. I have one very fond memory from Richard’s class. One of my peers had been working on a pot for a while and because the clay was in the process of drying, it was becoming hard to work with. The student kept trying to wet down the piece and work with it—it was like me holding my pencil really tight. Richard, who was a legit artist and has pottery in the MET, MOMA, the Louvre, and other museums, looked at my classmate and said, “I’ll let you break mine if you break yours.” We all shit our pants because his pots were worth about 45k. Everyone ran around the work table and my classmate took a hammer and trashed his piece first and then hers. It was an amazing moment of freedom for all of us. Richard knew he could reproduce his piece because it wasn’t about some special muse or genius—it was about hard work.
My other mentor is my wife, Amy. She means so much to me and I have such a deep love for her. I am a roller coaster of a man and can be all over the board, but she’s taught me to listen to my own voice more than what other people say. She’s been a big part of my healing in terms of being a designer who listens to my own intuition rather than letting the crowd sway me. That’s been a really important development for me and I owe it to her.
Oh, and Jesus—that guy is a badass.
You’ve talked about a few risks. Which one do you think was the biggest?
I don’t know that any of the things I did felt like a risk to me. They seemed more like opportunities and I felt like if I didn’t seize the opportunity, then something was wrong with me. Perhaps I’ve needed to have a greater sense of risk with some of the things I’ve done? Risks are funny, though. I kind of feel like asking you guys. Maybe it’s your turn to answer and I can ask you guys that question. What has been your biggest risk?
[Tina] Well, we moved from Michigan to New York a year ago yesterday [April 1, 2012] and even though it might have seemed like a risk to those around us, it felt like such as opportunity to us. That might be the biggest decision I’ve made, but similar to what you said, I don’t know that I considered it a risk when I did it.
[Ryan] I don’t like asking, “What if?” at all. I never want to live my life and ask, “What if I had done that?” New York wasn’t a big decision; there was an opportunity and it seemed obvious to say yes to it.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Yes, I do. That’s what is driving me to reconsider a lot of things right now. I’m not a very disciplined person and I’m concerned with the amount of time I’m spending on things, like social media and apps. I’ve been thinking a lot about how easy it is for me to tell my kids to hold on because I’m texting someone or sending an email; or, how often I’m not really listening to others because I’m posting another peak on Instagram. Some of these things are free, but the cost is time away from my family. Now, as an artist, I might be more sensitive to this stuff, but I do think that it’s a problem. We’re falling into a trap and the reason I know it’s not affecting just me is because I see other parents doing the same thing when our family is at the park; they’re on their phones instead of watching their children. I’m convicted by my own frustration and it’s been changing my behavior. I moved my email four pages in on my phone and turned off all my push notifications. It’s really helped; yet, in a moment of boredom, I still reach for my phone to check Instagram or Path.
To answer your question, though, there are two things driving me right now in terms of responsibility. One is the work I choose to do. If I am going to ask others to do meaningful work, I have to do the same myself, which is why I’m working at Relay. We’re improving the lives of the people who buy from Relay, but also the farmers who are supplying food. We’re trying to create a sustainable food economy and that’s amazing work. My biggest hope is that my influence in the web community can help activate people to get excited about having transparency in food. Right now, we’re working on a campaign to ask for complete transparency, so people can know where every part of their food comes from.
The second area I feel a responsibility in is the Internet. I think we designed the wrong Internet. We’re creating rapidly for the Internet and we’re creating things that are life-changing for people. I think that smart people with good ethics need to make hard decisions about what we’re making. For example, I think about the feed, which invites us to come, be obsessed, and compare ourselves to everyone, all the time. Who came up with the idea of endless content constantly streaming toward us? There’s this unlimitedness that concerns me because it is so unlike the rest of the human experience and I think it confuses the human mind and puts us into a space where we aren’t at our best. I want to make sure that no matter the project or company I’m involved with, I’m always asking if it’s serving the human best and helping us be at our best.
Are you satisfied creatively?
No. I will say that on a week-to-week basis, there are really special moments of elation when, prior to getting feedback from anybody, I know I’ve done something special and that’s enough. That keeps me going.
“Designers need to know how to solve business-oriented problems and ask questions that get at the heart of a things…we need to be well-versed in marketplace and business issues, otherwise we remain stylists.”
Is there anything you’re interested in exploring or trying in the next 5 to 10 years?
100%. In the next 5 to 10 years, I would like to be designing and building motorcycles.
I started riding this year. I had a Vespa before that and if you’re a motorcycle rider, you’ll laugh at that. I now have a 2010 Triumph Thruxton 900 and I love it; it’s gorgeous. The last time I really risked something was when I decided to give up fine art. For now, the risk is the adventure of starting to learn something again. I know nothing about engines. I know how to say the word “carburetor”; I do not know what it does. It’s embarrassing. I want to speak the language of the parts and mechanics of the machine well enough that to actually execute on my knowledge to design and build some café racer motorcycles.
What’s wild about motorcycle culture is that, in some ways, it’s similar to the web. I think I gravitate toward cultures like that, where there is a lot of sharing and camaraderie. When you’re on a motorcycle and see another guy on a two-wheeled vehicle, you throw out two fingers kinda low to say, “Hey buddy, I see you and acknowledge that you’re part of a tribe of motorcyclists.” Unless you’re on a “liquor-cicle”, which is the term we use here in SC to describe someone who is riding a scooter because they got a DUI (all laughing).
Another recent risk was OpenFrame. I had a belief that hanging posters and photos should be so much easier than it is. After researching to find a better solution, I decided to look into the cost of having someone custom manufacture frames because I thought there might be enough need to warrant a business. However, I had no interest in packing and shipping, but I knew a guy who did. I contacted Jeff Sheldon of Ugmonk to ask if he wanted to collaborate; I had met him previously and loved his work, plus he’s a wonderful dude. He wrote me back and said yes. I was so excited! It’s been a wild process and I’m so thankful. Jeff and I were thrilled to see the project take off on Kickstarter—we’ve now surpassed our goal by almost $20,000. This is a mark for me; I can now put “inventor” on my list of achievements. That’s cool.
If you could give advice to another designer starting out, what would you say?
I would say three things. One, spend time learning the visual language rather than just learning to style.
Second, learn to be a businessperson. Designers need to know how to solve business-oriented problems and ask questions that get at the heart of things. If you don’t already listen to The Businessology Show with Dan Mall and Jason Blumer, that might be a good place to start. Jason was my CPA for a long time and is one of the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met and Dan is a business owner who is doing amazing things. As designers, we need to be well-versed in marketplace and business issues, otherwise we remain stylists.
Third, for those designers who have a similar story to mine, limit your exposure to approval. Find the people you trust the most and stick with them. Ask them to help you build your own set of judgements to know when you’re doing great work because the guys who tell you that you’re one pixel off are not doing you any favors.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
Some of the best people I’ve ever met in my entire life have been people from Greenville. It’s a really vibrant petri dish where anything can happen. Within a matter of six years, I’ve been able to make a national impact from Greenville and the amount of press CoWork has had over the past two years has been incredible. There’s an amazing vibe here; it’s small enough where what you do matters and has impact. I don’t know for sure if I’ll live here for the rest of my life, because I’m an adventurer at heart, but I at least have a few more years here.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Yes! Here at The Iron Yard, we have an accelerator, coworking space, events, an academy for digital product design and development, and other things for people to come together around. Some coworking spaces are set up to be transient and are a cheap alternative until moving to permanent office space. But the way CoWork, which is now part of The Iron Yard, is set up is more typical of a real community. People have been here for many years and don’t leave even when their businesses grow because the ultimate value of CoWork is that it helps them do better business. We can talk to one another about work, our ideas, life. We ask each other questions, offer feedback, and develop ideas together. We’re like a family. We’re doing amazing things and I’m proud of our community!
What does a typical day look like for you?
Wake up; enjoy a pour over coffee at home; try to remember who Jesus says I am; and work like hell and as hard as I can all day long to accomplish something meaningful. After work, I usually drink more coffee or maybe a beer or good bourbon. I spend time with my family, loving my kids as hard as I can and seeing if I can sucker my wife into giving me a really big hug, because she’s an introvert. Then, it’s finally time to snuggle up in bed and enjoy the last few minutes of cuddling with my wife before she turns over and puts the body pillow between us (all laughing).
Does Relay have an office near you?
Relay has offices in Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland, and DC, but none in Greenville. I work out of CoWork and my good friend, Chandler Van De Water, who is there also works at Relay with me. We use Voxer to voice text back and forth with the rest of the team when needed. I also fly up to DC about every six weeks.
Any music you’re listening to right now?
My father-in-law is famous for asking this question at family events: What three albums would you take to a deserted island?
My number one album of all time would be Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. It has a special place in my soul and I could play it on repeat forever. Second is Radiohead’s Kid A, which was a fucking great album—and worth the expletive. Third—and this might not be the most popular thing to say—is the most recent Coldplay album, Mylo Xyloto. I can turn that album on and dance like I’m a teeny-bopper. It’s great!
Favorite movies or TV shows?
I’m a very opinionated movie watcher. I recently saw Django Unchained and was blown away. In my opinion, it’s the first Tarantino film that has an ethic. It was a really honest, tough film.
I’m a huge Asian film buff and love the fantastical side of it. One of my favorite movies is Red Cliff, which is an incredible war film with a beautiful story of nature winning over force. I really like Hayao Miyazaki’s work, including Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. His films are rich, complicated, and profound.
As for TV shows, I watch The New Girl. I like that it’s funny and ridiculous because when you’re married with kids, it’s nice to watch relaxing TV shows that aren’t realistic or dramatic.
C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength is unbelievable. Also, there’s this amazing book called I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb. It’s about two brothers who are twins and one is schizophrenic. The non-schizophrenic one starts questioning his own sanity—it’s really good.
Do you have a favorite food?
Yes! There’s a slice of pizza at Barley’s in Greenville that is better than any New York pizza I’ve tried. It’s thin crust pizza, but not crazy thin. The one I like is topped with salami, feta, and spinach and what’s funny is they actually call it “The Matthew Slice” now (all laughing).
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
A couple of years ago, I think I would have said I wanted to be the Picasso of design and leave some kind of big mark. Now, all I want to do is make sure my children know that they are loved and that they’re free to do whatever they want to do. If that’s all I do, then I’ve won the day because that’s the most important thing to me. Everything I do is for my family and I want them to know that.