A User Experience (UX) designer, SCCA alumni Joe Brokken works at Getty Images with a team to solve problems and create user interfaces that streamline function and create beauty. “I’m helping great photographers sell their work. When I make that experience better, its got such a reach that it makes the whole internet better. Which is cool. Well, at least it makes all the Buzzfeed look better!” In Fall 2014 he worked to develop a Getty Images desktop app that lets you browse through the immense catalog of photography and enjoy images set as desktop wallpaper. The clean design and simple functionality won them a spot on Apple’s Best Desktop Apps of 2014.
Brokken’s path to design work was, like many, a journey and process. Having decided in his early twenties to be a designer, he originally intended to complete the four year design program through the University of Iowa. “After the first year of undergraduate study we still hadn’t used a computer and I thought: this isn’t giving me the skills that I want. We were using technical pens and following well-studied design philosophy that was built in the seventies. This was in 2000/2001.”
Floating around Iowa for years and then as a social worker Division of Vocational Rehabilitation helping people with disabilities find jobs, Brokken still knew he wanted to find a way to become a designer. “When I moved to Seattle I was really excited about all the different programs that are out there. I couldn’t afford to go back to school without it being a technical, practical, I’m-going-to-get-a-job-after-this kind of training.” Eager to get the technical competencies needed in a high-tech design climate but not able to afford to commit to a long program with uncertain end results. “When I moved to Seattle I was really excited about all the different programs that are out there. So Seattle Central was really a godsend. I don’t think I could’ve afforded to learn how to be an Interface Designer at one of the big schools, its too expensive.”
Brokken’s approach to attending SCCA was focused and driven. Working part time as a design freelancer creating infographics in his second year, he applied design principles and learning the pace of production in the industry and he reflected “was a power boost in my design aesthetic skills just because I did so much.” Working while in school isn’t for everyone, but can lead to interesting results. Brokken’s experience of freelancing while in school coupled with his development as a designer helped him clarify what type of work he wanted to do after graduation. Doing design work without the support of a relevant, studied curriculum in your background poses challenges to beginner designers. “You inherently have this sense of style or this sense of aesthetic if you want to be a designer, you just lean towards certain aesthetics. But whatever it is thats driving you to be a designer you still don’t have the skills to reach that level, to actually mimic that aesthetic until you go through school where you practice for a couple years. So for the first couple of years you are just kind of shooting in the dark and maybe you get lucky sometimes. The important thing is to do a lot of projects and be really busy until you get good.”
Starting his career right out of school, Brokken worked in Seattle for Ubermind (later becoming Deloitte Digital). One of the largest tech companies in the world, it was exactly where he wanted to go and where he had the opportunity to do design and user interface work on an array of projects. “I wanted to work on mobile apps because I like my phone so much. Seriously a love relationship. Plus the screen’s so tiny, how could anything go wrong?” Interested in the possibilities inherent in mobile UX design, Brokken worked on apps that explored the intersection of place and time for users. One project he worked on was REI’s mobile snow report.
Locating, aggregating and displaying the freshest snow conditions on the ski slopes, he worked to create a functional app that supported the outdoor-oriented Pacific Northwest culture. While working on Target projects, Brokken redesigned Target’s iPad app and helped launch Passbook—their coupon system with Apple. Featured in the Apple keynote when he worked on the Passbook, Brokken reflected “that was a keystone moment, if Apple likes what I’m doing I’m doing it right.”
Afterwards, Brokken went on to work for Eddie Bauer on a project called Adventure Guide which located hiking trails. “It was similar to the snow report app only Adventure Guide is more about guiding you and telling you what kind of trail you should go on based on who you are bringing with, how much time you have, if you want to go backpacking—we’ll find you that kind of trail, if you just want to bring your dog and your kids we’ll find you that kind of trail.” Creating an app that guides users to specific, customized content required different information architecture problem-solving and the rewarding aspects for Brokken of going deeper into the development of a project helped him to make decisions about what next career steps to make.
“I interviewed with several different companies before I left Ubermind—which at that point had been sold and become Deloitte Digital. I really took my time to find the right match. I think that it is really important when you are getting out of school you are setting yourself up for future jobs with your first job. Its sort of a point of entry—you can still shape your career after your first job but you’re going to have more and more people expecting you to do similar work to what they’ve seen you do professionally.” Interviewing with a slew of companies, Brokken looked to find a good fit for his goals and work environment. “Once I met the people at Getty Images I knew these were the people I wanted to work with, I want to work on this team and I want to solve the problems that they’re doing here.” SCCA pushed him to figure out what type of design work he wanted to do and to set criteria for what style of work culture made the most sense. “I found a place that I felt I could really get deeper into the process and the projects than I could as a consultant and really had a mission I could really believe in. Thats what made me decide to go to Getty Images.” At Getty since summer 2014, Brokken has gotten ready to ship new apps for all of their applications. All the applications are geared towards photography appreciation, the only exception being the market-oriented stream app.
Detailing the design process of developing the desktop app, Brokken noted that “A lot of designers will lean on their education and not on that spark that’s inside, they think “I’ll apply the design principles to this problem” but not give their whole soul into it. I’m happier when I’m putting my whole self into what I’m doing. At Getty Images I get to do that.” Soon after finishing the iPhone app, Apple requested a desktop version. The team thought deeply about how to innovate in the newer eco-system of desktop apps.
“So we were supposed to just copy that but we also did was just strip away all of the design—we undesigned all of it—we took off everything that didn’t need to be there.” The design solution fit the function of the app features and this won them a spot on the Best of 2014 desktop apps. Focusing on the core feature—showcasing beautiful, professional photography and setting it to desktop wallpaper—Getty Images succeeded in making sleek, useful app. “I feel really lucky everyday. I go into a job and I just enjoy solving the problems that I’m solving and thats what I wanted to do and thats why I wanted to go to school. I thought, I’m insightful, I’m smart enough, I can make cool stuff. Thats why we become designers, we want to make stuff we’ll be proud of.”
The SCCA program prepared Brokken for the workflow he has encountered in the field of digital design.“Now that I’m at Getty, we work directly with the back end engineers and they’re a part of the team. It’s design and development working together, sitting together, going out to lunch together.” Having gained experience in coding, front end development, visual design, and more in school, he found that he knew how to work effectively. “When I was in the design program our teams were very similar to the team I’m on now. Only the expectation was that each individual person was the team. When you’re in design school you are expected to code, to design, to create your own icons to do your own information architecture—(at work) all of those things are different people. People who excel in one of those areas. So school is really great at giving you the opportunity to complete something in all of those areas so you know how to work with those other people.”
Developing the Getty Images Desktop app for Yosemite OS X before the design guidelines were published required guesswork. “So in that situation you just have to not be afraid to fail and just build it, don’t hesitate, just keep going. And Apple really liked it. So breaking the rules sometimes is okay if you know why you’re breaking them.” Brokken encourages all beginner designers to be similarly bold: “Live it up. Do it. So you don’t have to settle, just do something you’re interested in.”
For more from alumni Joe Brokken check out joebrokken.com