UX Designer to Watch: Meet Ben Johnson of Elegant Seagulls

Ben Johnson is one of Adobe’s UX Designers to Watch. The list, unveiled on World Interaction Design Day (September 24), features up-and-coming designers who are breaking creative boundaries. Follow the Creative Cloud blog and @adobedesigners to meet more UX Designers to Watch throughout October.

Do you have to live in a major tech hub to “make it” in UX design? Ben Johnson, owner/creative director of design agency Elegant Seagulls, would argue no – and he has the client portfolio to prove it. While freelancing and job searching over a decade ago, Ben was determined to parlay his passion for design into a career that enabled him to stay in Northern Michigan, where he could simultaneously pursue his love of the outdoors and snowboarding.

When he didn’t find a job locally, he created his own, founding Elegant Seagulls in Marquette, MI to offer design and branding services to businesses in the region. The agency has now been in business for more than 13 years, employs a team of 13 designers and developers, and has serviced over 100 clients – including ESPN, Forbes, Yelp, Audible, Invision and Panasonic.

We talked with Ben to learn more about his career in design and what keeps him inspired.

Thanks for joining us, Ben. Can you tell us about how you got started in design?

I’m really into snowboarding and growing up I made a snowboarding movie every year. As they became more elaborate, I needed custom graphics, posters, and branding for each new film. Video was what really sparked my transition from art to digital/design. I remember saying, “I like computers, I like art… I’ll be a designer.”

Makes total sense. Is there a moment that stands out as pivotal in your career?

The first time I received an email from someone random saying they liked my work. I still have it saved somewhere. It was so inspiring to me that someone liked what I was doing enough to reach out. It was a small moment, but it motivated me – someone is always watching.

What is your favorite project that you’ve created?

Probably my work for what I called, the “Jack Dusty Experiment.” Basically, I committed to doing one personal web design project each month, really trying to explore new styles, e-commerce flows, and grid structures. It was a few years ago but it helped me grow as a creative and sparked some amazing client opportunities. I still try to do one or two “Jack Dusty” projects each year.

Credit: Ben Johnson

It’s tough to commit to side projects on top of work – kudos to you. From your perspective, what’s the biggest challenge in being a designer today?

A lot of this industry is more about relationships, so I think the biggest challenge is remembering that there are people involved. Sometimes you just need to take a step back and look at the other person’s perspective. Understand the situation and know when to push back, when to fold, and when to just say no.

That’s great advice. Speaking of, what’s the best career advice you’ve received?

The best advice I ever received was that sometimes your favorite part of a design is the part not working. This comes back to help me all the time. Also, sometimes you just need to start over.

Personally, the best advice I could give is when you are feeling uncomfortable in a design and in uncharted territory take the risk and go for it, push through being uncomfortable because this is where great design happens.

I think that’s something every creative can relate to. What about the worst advice you’ve ever received?

The worst advice I ever received was, “Don’t buy Bitcoin.”

Kidding! No, actually, someone said I needed to move to the Bay Area to be successful. I don’t think it matters where you are if you are creating great work and happy.

So, the reason we’re talking today is because you’re on Adobe’s list of UX Designers to Watch in 2019. What does that mean to you?

Being from a small remote town and making it on this list is humbling. This affirms I need to keep trusting in what we are doing and never settle for mediocre.

And it’s kinda crazy because I don’t really consider myself a UX designer. For me UX should be a part of every good designer’s process, no matter what your focus.

That’s a smart way to frame it – so what inspires you in UX and beyond?

I try not to take a ton of inspiration from other web designers, but I would say my earliest inspiration was graphic designer David Carson, and others who have a similar style.

Now I draw most of my inspiration from print, the outdoors, and Myles Kedrowski, our Art Director here at Elegant Seagulls. Having a colleague who pushes you is one of the best things you can do for your career, it forces you to not settle and continue evolving as a designer.

What about outside of work – when you’re not designing, what do you do for inspiration, or just for fun?

I love being outside, drawing, doing CrossFit, and collecting original comic book art. But I would say my most interesting hobby is knife making. I have been making knives for the last three to four years and it’s an amazing way to step away from the computer and create something usable with your hands. More people need to get off the computer and create.

Credit: Ben Johnson

Are there any causes you’re passionate about? Have you been able to use your UX design skills to further that cause?

I try to donate or offer discounts on projects whenever possible to causes the team and I believe in. Being an outdoor enthusiast and growing up snowboarding and surfing, nature is something especially near and dear to my heart. Having a chance to partner with likeminded organizations is a dream come true. One client that comes to mind is Waves For Water, an organization committed to improving access to clean water. The CEO Jon Rose is an ex-pro surfer and when we met, it felt like we were long lost brothers.

How do you stay involved in the design industry?

I usually attend at least one design conference every year. They always leave me feeling motivated and excited to create. I had a chance to talk at Circles, which was an amazing experience, but my favorites were the early Epicurrence events. I made a ton of friends and connections that I still stay in touch with today.

Credit: Ben Johnson

It’s been great getting to know you Ben. Tell us – what’s next for you?

The goal is to continue growing my creative agency Elegant Seagulls. We have some of the best talent in the world and I want to expand the team without sacrificing quality. I want us to be the go-to creative agency for clients looking for something unique, yet conversion focused.

Check out more of Ben’s work at Elegant Seagulls, and meet the rest of the UX Designers to Watch here.