Interview with Shawn Petersen ahead of Semi-Permanent Portland

If you haven’t already checked out our chats with Holly Wales and GMunk ahead of their appearances at Semi-Permanent Portland then you’ve been missing out.

We caught up with amazing designer and Portland local Shawn Petersen ahead of his appearance at Semi-Permanent to talk the digital age, Rolling Stone, and all things Portland.

LAEM: As a designer living in the digital age, how do you keep things new and interesting?
S: Over the past 5 years or so, the emergence of online inspiration reservoirs like Pinterest, ffffound, Dribble, etc. have helped to democratize and spread design trends faster than ever. As a result, contemporary design culture has been homogenized to a certain degree. In our digital era, is anything really “new”? Does it even matter? As Paul Rand said “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good”.

Style is not as interesting or important to me as it once was, and it’s no longer the main goal that inspires me to work. I’m now driven less by how things look and more by how things work. In order to keep things interesting, I tend to focus on tinkering. For me, it’s about making functional design – tools that can be used for entertainment or utility. The more stuff I can make and send out into the world for people to use the more I learn.

The more I learn how to make useful things, the more skilled I become as a designer. Fundamentally, I want to create experiences that people can interact with. Something that can move them emotionally or something that makes their life easier. If I can do this then I’m always in a state of education, and keeping things new and interesting comes from educating myself – by learning from the people around me and by the experiences I make.

LAEM: What are the key elements (for you) that go into providing someone with the ultimate digital experience?
S: It all starts with innovation. Innovation in weaving together technology, development, and storytelling. This happens by creating an environment where designers and developers can sit side by side and collaborate. The more overlapping that happens between these two disciplines, the more amazing a project can become.

When designers and developers can come together to solve a visual and technical problem, innovative breakthroughs can happen. The more both disciplines are able to overlap, the more we’re able to discover and innovate. My two main goals for any digital project are to make it as simple as possible and to include surprising interactions that feel smart and effortless. These two ingredients underpin any great experience. Most great digital experiences start with a simple story that’s supported through the right features.

It always a disconnect for me to see an amazing digital design that doesn’t have a compelling story or to see behaviors that don’t fit a storyline. Interactive elements should feel like characteristics – essentially, the core personality of an experience.

LAEM: You’ve had some pretty big clients like Rolling Stone. Do you ever get nervous in these situations?
S: I was lucky enough to start out my design career working for large clients. Was I nervous at first? Yes. But, I’ve been working with large clients for so long now that it’s just what I do.

Much like surfing or teaching it’s become second-nature, but it never gets old or boring to me. Working with clients like Rolling Stone, Google or Nike is always a unique challenge and I always learn something new. Sometimes it might be where to start in solving a problem, or simply how to define the problem I’m trying to solve.

A lot of the time it’s about finding simple solutions to problems that appear to be really complex. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust the process involved in working with large clients, as messy as it can be. It’s always worth it and I know that it will always deliver something compelling.

LAEM: As a Portland local, what do you think is great about the Portland design community?
S: I moved to Portland in 2007 from San Francisco, so I’m not sure I consider myself a local yet. But, from the perspective of a non-local, there are two unique characteristics to the Portland design community that set it apart from any other. The first is community. Portland is home to the strongest and most active design community I’ve ever encountered. It’s a community built by individuals and studios that are constantly making, creating, and sharing. The studios support the design students, and the design students are energized and inspired by the studios.

It’s a wonderful reciprocal relationship that is thriving and producing talent in droves. There seems to be no bubble in the growth of the design industry here. Our design community is continually growing and thriving, and there seems to be a place for everyone who wants to be involved. The second is our can-do spirit. This is a city where it rains most of the year, yet we still have one of the highest rates of bicycle commuters in the U.S.

This should tell you a little something about the nature of the people who live here. We are do-ers. We are makers. Nothing stops us. This spirit is what transforms our community into a super active, supercharged group with an unmatched enthusiasm to create. It’s what shapes the authenticity of the work being made here.

Craft is at the core of the Portland design community, digital or physical. It’s about making and doing no matter what, and loving every minute of it.

LAEM: What made you want to get involved in Semi Permanent?
S: I’ve always admired Semi-Permanent’s commitment to creative people, both artists and designers. Plus, I’m a super fan of Design is Kinky: the DK people have been amazing advocates for artists, designers, creativity for a really long time.

To find out more, visit Semi-Permanent. Also, be sure to check out Shawn’s work on the interactive table in the video above.

About the author

Cormack is a Melbourne based freelance writer and photographer. He loves to travel, drink red wine, and spin records. On the weekends you’ll most likely find him eating pork buns or shaking up cocktails for his friends.