Tim Belonax is a man of letters and a man of books. He is a designer, writer, and design educator. Currently, he is graphic design lead at Airbnb where he works with design teams to craft the company’s global brand narrative. Concurrently, he is a Senior Lecturer at California College of the Arts (CCA), where he teaches graphic design. Previously, he was on the communication design team at Facebook where he lead the identity design for Internet.org, the redesign of the Like thumb, and the redesign of Facebook’s wordmark, along with leading the Analog Research Lab. He got his start as a Design Fellow at Chronicle Books and also worked at the San Francisco design studio MINE™.
On the back cover of his book of prompts for designers, The Reward is in the Process, he maintains “…it’s vital that designers (or those interested in pursuing design) challenge their abilities outside of today’s typical constraints. How else will designers find something new if they don’t go beyond what is asked?”
Tim Belonax in the Art Department of Airbnb in San Francisco.
How did you arrive at the idea for a book of design prompts?
The MFA program at CCA had an exhibition of works based on John Baldessari’s “Optional Assignments,” which is a list of prompts for making art. I enjoyed it and thought something like it would be beneficial for designers—product design, interaction design, anything—especially in the Bay Area. Design here tends to solve problems that are more obvious. I believe designers need to be more inventive, more aspirational, and more exploratory in their work and the book is a reaction to that. The project has really sent me down a rabbit hole of the art of instruction, which dovetails with my interest in teaching.
The Reward is in the Process: Optional Class Assignments for the Design-Minded contains over 100 prompts to stretch designers.
Do you view teaching as a “side project” to your work as a designer?
Based on the amount of time teaching takes one could look at it as a side project, but I don’t see it that way. Teaching fits into the way I’ve always wanted to practice design. I believe a good designer is a mentor or resource of some sort, and teaching allows me to practice that.
How do you start a side project, and how do you know if a project was a success?
Routines help. Treating a side project like a regular project is a way to get it done. Also, making yourself accountable to others is a good trick — writing checks that you have to cash. That’s how I end up getting a lot of things done.
Before you start, ask yourself: what is it that you want to do and why? A lot of it ends up being about setting up habits, again, it’s about routine. The 100 Days Project is a good example—setting up a construct that requires that you produce something every day seems to work. (More on How Rules and Repetition Inspire Creativity)
You get to define success for a side project based on your own parameters. When Rob Walker wrote about my book (on Design Observer) it felt like a success. The project was a win before that: it felt good to finish the book and the limited edition copies sold out, but interest from people I respect was one of the best feelings. It’s not a goal, but it’s nice to have.
That’s external validation. Why do you make the work? Do you make it for yourself or do you make it for the dialogue?
Neither, I make it because I want it to exist in the world. I think designers make the work that they want to be out there because it doesn’t exist. I definitely made the book and the assignments because it was something I thought people should be doing and they weren’t. In general, side projects can act as a transition phase for a designer. It is a way to make the work that a designer eventually wants to be making.
“I make side projects because I want them to exist in the world.”
It sounds very moral, like design morals. What’s the relationship between a side project and what you do at Airbnb?
One of the reasons why I decided to come to Airbnb was because of the focus on creativity and design. As you mentioned, it’s an alignment on design morals. Design, especially in technology, changes very rapidly. As long as I align on morals or values with the company—if our end goal is the same—it will all work out.
At any one time, what is your ideal ecosystem or mix of projects?
I think the perfect ecosystem is a mix of teaching and mentorship, pure form exploration, a bread and butter or standard workhorse type of project, and something that really stretches you. Something you are really struggling with, but in a good way: a little bit of comfort mixed with a little bit of pain.
“My ideal mix of projects is a little bit of comfort and a little bit of pain.”
Will you recommend some inspiring side projects?
• Christopher Simmons’ The Message is Medium Rare is hilarious.
• Everything Ji Lee does.
• I respect Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman’s 40 Days of Dating project.
• Just about any project from Jeff Greenspan, his statue of Edward Snowden, for example.
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