Jeremy Perez-Cruz is a design director and photographer currently living in New York. He is the Director of Brand at Buzzfeed Media where he works with major brands to create experiences and products to connect with a wider audience. I first came in to contact with Jeremy through his photography on Instagram but later learned about his expansive design career and knew I had to have him as a guest. Here are the To-Go Notes for the episode.
A huge thank you to Jeremy for taking the time to sit me for this episode. Make sure you stay tuned for part 2 of my interview with Jeremy as we dive into his work as a photographer and how he continues to push himself to create work everyday.
Jon: All of your Instagram is the photos that you take every day but you're also like a kick-ass designer kick-ass director which I was like really surprised about. I kind of was keyed up to you through a friend that you used to work with at Etsy. So you have such a design background such a seasoned background and you worked with some of the most influential brands so I'd like to kind of start with that you. So you went to Valencia College in Florida.
Jon: So where you grew up for the most part.
Jeremy: I'm a first generation American my mother's British my father's Mexican and they met it's a whole another podcast, but they met in the Bahamas. I was born in the Bahamas. So we bounced around a little bit moved back to Australia with all my mother's family migrated to Australia at some point from England. I was living in Australia for a little bit lived in the Bahamas kind of bounced around but for my formative years like mostly in Florida so in Miami and then Cocoa Beach for high school and then I went to college in Orlando.
Jon: I guess going through school were you like into art into painting and anything like that or did you kind of just fall into wanting to know more about design at some point?
Jeremy: My whole career is like a very non-traditional path to design. I think the thing that sort of sparks it all is my dad was a commercial artist looking to Carnegie Mellon. He was originally going for architecture and I think there was too much math involved in that and he focused more on like fine art and commercial art.
Jon: I said the same exact thing it's too much math get rid of that.
Jeremy: Yes. He's sort of a jack-of-all-trades and he was in the military for years like decorated like veteran. Then based on some like injuries both like through the military and through other things he ended up in the Bahamas because his doctor recommended that he swim more and that it would be better for him.
Jon: Sounds good.
Jeremy: Better for his knees and for his back and it would like help those things. So he moved to the Bahamas and he started a tourism magazine and used I think his skills that he learned in college through going to the commercial art school to like lay out and produce this magazine. It was called “What's What and Where”. I don't know if it still exists.
Jon: That sounds like a pretty cool name.
Jeremy: Yes and he was doing treasure hunting with Mel Fisher and so he's doing like scuba diving and finding like sunken ships and pulling out like gold doubloons and gold bars and stuff. That's sort of the thing that I like I can tell people about all this stuff around the Bahamas. I think he hired some writers. I don't know all the details this was like before I was born. He and my mom like he's still underneath the bed I remember as a kid had like color separations for the magazine like on film and I remember being fascinated by it. That's sort of like what started me down the like design path is my dad did that magazine and then he mostly worked as like a caricature artist at like tourism towns. So we live in the Bahamas, we lived in Miami and Cocoa Beach. In those places he would like go out to popular areas and he would do like photographs of people at the time on Polaroid and make key chains out of them and he would do like portraits and he would even do sign painting. As a kid my mom worked a full-time job and my dad was always this like free spirit. So like we couldn't afford daycare like we were we were like a fairly low income like immigrant and so I just hung out with my dad. so we would walk around and he would do portraits and sign painting and I would help him he would show me how to mask off the lettering and how do I keep your hand off of the paint with like a stick with a piece of rubber at the end and that really got my interest going. The first piece of art I sold was in Miami Beach he would give me like business cards I'd paint on the back of them with just stuff he had laying around and you put him up next to his stuff and that's sort of what like got me interested in art. But it wasn't until like many years later that I actually like considered doing it for real. So like there's always art around, I was always like painting and drawing and making things. But I think in high school when I am sort of like ignored it for a while and later on I got really into comic books which is like such a silly thing.
Jon: It's like a reoccurring introduction it's like comic. I went down a path for a little bit of like my mom bought me a video like a VCR, VHS I kind of taped to watch about comic book stuff and I had like a whole kit and there was just like kind of one of the first interest kind of being an artist and making stuff.
Jeremy: That's crazy right. So I did all this up as a kid and I kind of ignored it I started like surfing and skateboarding like the normal stuff you do. Then we had a certain point I just like discover comic books and just through a friend of mine and middle school. I was just like this is so great it's like storytelling and language I always loved reading and then I was just had this beautiful art. So like comic book artists like Jim Lee specifically around X-men and that sort of stuff was just like I was fascinated by it. Then I started like drawing my favorite comic book characters and that's what got me back into art. In high school I started taking like art classes and was like, oh like I can do this thing like I can like see something I like draw it photocopy it like somehow. That was sort of the like Oh like art is like a thing that's important to me. There's a period of time you forget right and particularly in like America art is like this thing that's champion you got to be a lawyer be a doctor do this stuff. But I was just really lucky to have a family that like believed in the arts and my dad was an artist for living. Then comic books were just that thing that like flipped the switch and made me realize that it was like possible just do things, not just for the joy of doing them you'd like do them and share it with other people it seemed valuable.
I mean like the big thing was like music. So around the same time like any adolescent you get into like rock and roll and like—
Jon: Linkin Park.
Jeremy: For me is Pearl Jam is the big thing for me or Nirvana these 90s grunge bands. I started playing at guitar, bass, drums and just like was all in on music and sort of mountain bands. That's where like it moved from like art and drawing that's a commercial art where I was like oh wait I guess I have to make a flyer on a band. I didn’t know what that meat like yes put the names and the date. Then through that I started to learn the principles of design like I really have to have like a focal point and the information needs to be clear and typography and that sort of stuff. So it was like flyers and CDs and t-shirts and that was really the thing that pushed me into like design more as a career than just as like something that I thought was beautiful and worth sharing.
Jon: One of your first design jobs while you're in Florida was a place called “Juicy Temples”.
Jeremy: Yes that was my first or it was actually my third design job oh my first leg would I consider real design.
Jon: What were you doing there?
Jeremy: So I had done a mentorship program through AIGA when I was in college and my mentor was Klaus who was the owner of Juicy Temples at the time. For me there's like basically two Studios in Orlando that were like it. So there was lore just like Jeff Matz and Sarah Blackshear and Palmer Honey and they do amazing work and then there was Juicy Temples which was like classy-ish. At the time Randy Hunt who I later worked with Etsy, Adam Wah who I later worked with at PepsiCo, but yes and like Juicy was just doing this amazing work and I just I was like fascinated by it. So I went in and I did this mentorship there AIGA and I got to work on the Audi art of the heist campaign which was done through Camp Fire it was sort of like they did the Blair Witch Project. They were like the writers and directors of Blair Witch Project and Mike Manila who works at Camp Fire lives in New York now. They used to hire Juicy because they shared an office. They’re like we’re doing this-- at the time there wasn't such a thing as viral campaign we did this thing for Blair Witch and they did really well so now we're going to like pivot into doing that for other companies. An ad agency without really being an ad agency and one of the first things was this Audi project where they created an online world and game where you have to solve the puzzle of like who stole the Audi. Our job as Juicy Temples was to make like hundreds of fake websites around this like world that didn't really exist and like pass them off as real websites. Then we had to like do photographs that we would hide on SD cards because the Audi had an SD card slot.
Jon: That's really intricate.
Jeremy: Yes. So like I worked on that and I worked on some personal projects and album covers like stuff that I was interested in through music and then I left and then I got a job in publishing doing like fine art publishing which was fine it was interesting. I worked in a gallery and we did limited-edition prints and we did like catalogs and I got to work with Rizzoli on a book and it was it was cool. But then like Klaus from Juicy called and was like “Hey man, we've got like this freelance project you want to help out with it?” I was like, oh my god this is the only place I've ever wanted to work. So I was like “Well how much does it pay?” And it was like “Well it's like a two-month contracts.” “I'm making like pretty good money in publishing.” It was it but “I don't know if I can quit my full-time paying job to like go do a freelance project.” Well I haven't talked to you in like a year come by with your portfolio. Okay so works over the weekend I put together a portfolio. At the time I was taking my solution was like alright I'm going to make these JPEG files out of my Photoshop and illustrator files and go to CVS and print them on photo paper and they have them into like a physical portfolio. I mean I don't know it looks like today, but that was a really good quality prints direct from the like design files and I walked in yeah we must leave this with me and I'll get back to you in a day. He was like “Hey man yeah come work full-time for me.”
Jon: That's cool.
Jeremy: I end up taking I think it was like a 40% pay cut to go work Juicy Temples.
Jon: At that point you kind of like I guess in your head right there's part of it were like this was the place. You wanted to work and you love the quality of work they're producing.
Jeremy: I mean the other thing was like this is like a reoccurring theme is sort of like doing something that I don't know how to do and then like betting on myself in some way. Alright well I'll take this risk right with the understanding that like this is the potential payoff and I'm willing to like put that on me. Being sort of the first exercise in that where I'd say all right well take a pay cut but instead of like laying out gallery guides all day and doing like gee clay prints look I can like design a film festival brand campaign and I can like work for Audi and do stuff for DreamWorks and it gets work on all these crazy things. Sure I'm not making as much money but like what I am getting out of that that's like worth more than money.
Jon: It's very much a reward right like being able to make something and see it through.
Jon: I mean even like personally doing side projects that don't pay me whatsoever it's still having complete control over it and thinking about it in a way that you don't do making and then in a regular job sometimes.
Jeremy: Yes and that's always it's sort of I don't know the opportunity for learning is like one of the most valuable things to me and certainly like it's like I talked with friends I'm okay I have this like input-output sort of like mentality. Either like I’m putting something into the world that's like contributing somehow positively whether that's through my design work for my full-time job or photography or whatever or I'm learning something about the world or myself or a craft. If I'm not doing one of those two things I'm like super anxious and I feel really uncomfortable with myself. It's like I say yes to a lot of things I probably shouldn't, but I found that in the long run it's really worked out for me in a way.
Jon: You had a few gigs maybe after Juicy Temples, but eventually 2011 came around and you decided that you were going to move to New York.
Jeremy: Yes 2010 look I had decided it I was going to move to New York like when I was 16 years old.
Jon: It was way before maybe you were just working up to that point where you said fuck it going for it.
Jeremy: Yes. There was so many times over the years where I was like alright well unlike finishing I applied to SVA out of high school and then I said well I was in a band. I had the opportunity to go on tour for like six months. I'm like well you know I can always go to school later I don't know what time my tool like go on Warped Tour.
Jon: You went on Warped Tour?
Jon: Yes I went there when I was younger like twice. So I remember the big show I want to go is go see Under Earth at the time.
Jeremy: There was another Florida band in Tampa. So like for me it was always like well you know here's an opportunity. I don't know how many opportunities I had but like this I'm going to have and I'm going to go play music and do this thing. So I was like all right well maybe spending a ton of money to go to like a design school whether it be SVA or Ringling or ad it's a serious investment. I was like all right I'm going to do this other thing for a bit and see where music takes me and you know the same mentality that what can I learn from it, what can I see and what can I do. As someone who like grew up not quite as privileged the opportunity for like my travel to be paid to go on tour you know 48 of the 50 states or go to Europe for six weeks was just like oh my god. I didn't make any money. I was broke.
Jon: I would do that for free.
Jeremy: Yes oh but I didn't necessarily lose money
Jeremy: Not just see like big cities and tourist spots, but I have got to see all these like blue highways of America and these small towns and through that experience like I made like my best friends in my life to this day through music. I think I met up with someone just over the Thanksgiving break we're recording this weekend for Thanksgiving. Anyway we were just talking about like all the stories we have just from like those few years of touring like will last us a lifetime. You have you're like you're on set like filming a TV commercial and it's like kind of crazy and it feels that way, but there's something about being like locked in a van sleeping on floors traveling across the country with like no money and promise of an audience that's just like it's very character building. I think again I input/output I think the learnings I took from that like learning how to talk to a crowd and like be on a stage and sell things and like build relationships and all of that I still use to this very day in my profession that pays me what music never used to.
Jon: That I mean it's very much like a practice run.
Jon: In a way building merch, selling ticket its marketing. It is very much marketing design, central design thinking in a way.
Jeremy: It forced me to design like I didn’t know what design really was at the time. I had a couple David Carson books which probably didn't teach me the best way to design, but it's like that Blue Sky world where like I was my own client and it let me explore ideas that I probably never would have explored if like my personal was a Fast Signs or somewhere.
Jon: What was your band called?
Jeremy: I had a bunch of them.
Jon: What about the one that you toured with?
Jeremy: A few of them. So I was a band called Preferred 53 which we were real big time in Coco Beach Florida. We had some interest like Jive Records reached out to us around that time I think it was like 1998-9 and they were really interested in moving away from there like boy band stuff. They ended up signing like other rock bands and we just imploded. We like hated each other. I mean it's like any band. Then out of that was a band called Spit Vowels which was a style band that did really well and we toured with like all the other big style bands. I was the band that did probably the bulk of my touring with all over the place. Then later I was in a band called Sleep Girl Drowning ****which like an emo hardcore sort of rock and roll band.
Jon: Such a full spectrum of rock and roll styles.
Jeremy: Before I decided to do design I was studying to go to Berkley College of Music because I was playing jazz and I wanted to do performance base was sort of the like degree track that I was looking at. I had a couple friends who ended up going there and they were like don't go to Berkeley to like kill your love for music if you really love this thing don't do it and it scared the crap out of me. So I ended up being like I’m just going to tour for a bit. Through touring and like designing things that gave me like a love of design. But to bring that back around again I was going to move to New York out of high school and it didn't happen. I had visited New York a couple times with some friends. I did a road trip and it just like life-changing. There was a certain energy and electricity to the city that coming from you know small-town Florida I had never really experienced. I had a really great host. My friend Mark showed me around his house in Jersey City or Union City and it was just like an amazing time. I think I saw the Senate A Real Estate Reunion concert. I was like oh all the bands come to New York and it was just really special.
So out of high school I almost went to New York didn't move to New York and then I like toured for a while and then said I can't move here because they got my band in Florida and I was going to college when I was in between tours. Then it's, oh look I've got this job so I can't really move now and that's now a girlfriend. Whatever it may be there's always something that was like it's not the right time. In retrospect it's a good thing because I think like moving to New York when I was like 17 or 18 and having an apartment with like you know six roommates or whatever and making maybe minimum wage not even a design job, I think it would have drastically changed my interpretation of New York. Whereas I moved to New York when I was 29 and it was like finally like the culmination of like 12 years or whatever of like wanting to do this thing. It just happened to be the right time it was like the perfect job with Etsy and the perfect timing. I didn't make great money but I made enough money that I could like live in New York comfortably and like really enjoy the city for what it was. I don't know it's like a really special moment. I think like my first year in New York will be everyone has their like golden year. I'm sure they're cool like the first couple years of touring in a band was amazing like man that summer of eighth grade where I had my first kiss or whatever I think that was really cool.
I think like my first like a couple years of New York was just like this life altering like it's like the place I was supposed to be forever and I was finally there and it just like feels right.
Jon: So it was that time that you joined Etsy?
Jon: Was the design team at a very early kind of stage at that point when you joined? What was the status at the time?
Jeremy: Super early. So again like anything it's like a crazy thing. So I've been going up to New York and also Chicago my best friend lives in Chicago and I met him while touring and he had a band. “You know you should come join my band.” Maybe been doing design for a little bit. I was working in advertising which I learned a lot from, but I don't think it was like the thing I wanted to do. I was like maybe I'll just like take a break and do music for a while. I think maybe I'll go to culinary school was like an idea I had for a while. Eventually I was in interviewing in New York and I had a couple job offers at places that I was excited about and I was up for a final interview it was that OkCupid actually at the time. I went on Twitter and I saw Randy Hunt I worked with Juicy Temples tweeted he's like, “Hey, looking for like a graphic designer art director to work a contract to full-time at Etsy in New York like hit me up.” And so I was like, “Hey Randy, I'm in New York today can I come by?” And he was like “Oh man my days packed but can you come by tomorrow?” So I like paid like 300/400 dollars which I didn't have to move my flight back a day because I was like bet on myself all right we're going to try this thing. So I moved my flight back a day. I scheduled an interview at Etsy and it was just like it I went in and I met Randy Hunt and Jake Carlson and I met Camilla at the time. I think Jake and Camilla are both Betterment now. I just met a few people and the offices were incredible. I was an Etsy fan before but like I didn't understand like the breadth of things that Etsy did and it was just fascinating. The opportunity was perfect it's like, hey, there's no real Job Description this job doesn't exist. Right now the design team is like four or five product designers and no other designers you'd be the first non like digital product designer. I’m like cool sounds good.
So I talked to a few people. I think we talked about philosophy and like the kind of work that I like doing what they were up to. I left and I flew home and I kind of held off I think the other job offers for a week. I was like “Hey Randy man like I got to like take one of these what's going on?” He’s like “Yes we're in let's do it.” That I was sort of like the beginning of all of it.
Jon: I mean that's pretty cool, but I've heard so you said he joined with a team of like four product designers. So they're working on like the website like I guess the mobile app and you were joining as one of the only designers that weren’t in that kind of product mindset. Was that intimidating and like did you have to figure it out? What I'm kind of learning is that when you have that product experience and you join a team that doesn't it's a totally different language? So like did you have that kind of point where you needed to get on the same page it's not like? Talk me through that.
Jeremy: It was interesting this is like I was working at an advertising agency where I was doing art direction, but also like interactive design. So I had been doing like from Juicy Temples was my first time I ever did a website design. So I've been working on websites for years. I had applied at like RGA before for product design positions. I don't know I'm just going to apply for this thing sorry. I think I don't remember the rejection letter I'm sure I had it somewhere was basically like that's not what product design it is essentially you’re an idiot like oh.
Jeremy: Yes I didn’t know any better. When I got to Etsy I certainly knew about interactive design and web design and mobile was sort of like still early stages. This was 2010 yeah and so coming in there. I'm eternally fearless. I'll take some stupid chance.
Jon: You’ll learn if you have to.
Jeremy: Yes and so I go in there and they're just like am I cool what do you need done. The first thing was like they were launching like a gift card product essentially like a way to buy gift cards through Etsy. Similarly we need to design what that experience looks like. When someone gets a gift card what are the gift cards look like. When they get the package how is does the package look? What is the actual like physical card look like. What does the things that show up on the web look like? Then there was all these rules who's using a third party to fulfill the gift cards and so they had like print requirements and could only do certain packaging. It was my first time like working within a system quite that large where we had to figure out how all that stuff works. With advertising it’s like cool we'll just build it because the scale was so much smaller. So coming to Etsy we had ship these like I think was the US only launch but then they were like in partnership with Amazon. They're doing all this different stuff for maybe we were looking at how Amazon did it. Getting in there was like a lot to learn. Then I went to the first design meeting and it had the product design team which I got when I still didn't really know what product design was. I remember there was a bunch of engineers and their product managers and product designers and they were using all these words. That was the first time where I felt like in over my head where I was like and I remember we had it was I think the rooms called Blue Tank Clans all the conference rooms at Etsy were food and music. So there's like this open space and it had like a painted fireplace and just paint-by-numbers mural in these couches and there was TV over all and we're all sitting around. It was such like a warm environment that even though like I didn't really know what everyone was saying and I was a little scared to admit that it was like I felt comfortable enough to like power through and go home and research it and learn a little bit more.
Jon: Jot down the things that you don't know and research as soon as possible.
Jeremy: Yes and with anything you know the first time you hear and learn about something like I mean everyone feels a little stupid sometimes.
Jon: Consistently there's a moment every day when I do that.
Jeremy: Etsy I sort of did that. I think the more you're in it and we would have like design crits or twice a week and then we would have a product design all hands and have a company all hands once a week and like through that sort of exposure to the tech world like I learned a ton in like the first month. I felt like after I made it through that first month I kind of knew what was going on and I very quickly acclimated to all of the jargon and tech terms like what it meant to like build a web product versus a website like a web product that’s always being iterated upon. Etsy’s was complex because we were a two-sided marketplace. So we had buyers and sellers and they have different needs and they had a different interface and it was a huge learning experience it was really incredible.
Jon: I heard that a lot of designers there were able to push code just lives the site. Were you doing that and did you have to like learn? I had a brief stint at my last job where I was getting into command line and learning git flow and all that stuff and it was so scary.
Jeremy: It's super scary. So I was doing very minimum like product side design. So basically it was a small team so we all jumped in and I designed some interfaces some of the like shop. I think for a first-time seller side what that on-boarding experience was like yeah just design it I've been designing website so I kind of did a first pass like work with the team engineering team to like help build it out. I think everyone's first day I think the thing is like you deploy code and its to like update the about page with your like picture is nothing sort of the thing. They had this thing Deployinator which was through Github. What is any of this? Randy and Jay were really cool and they like walked me through it and your first day at Etsy you like deploy code. I was sort of to like get you into that mentality of like Facebook they say like whatever work fast and break things. Everyone's got some like stupid terminology but at Etsy it was all about like employee empowerment. Anyone can deploy live code to the site and it teaches you a level of responsibility if you break it then that’s tens of thousands of dollars per minute that company is losing.
Jon: Accountability is big on that.
Jeremy: The accountability was great in like Kellen and John Hall Spa, Chad who later became CEO who was like the CTO of the time was just like all about that. I think the engineering side the tech culture at Etsy was like I don't know what it's like today, but I still hear from friends like its like best-in-class. I think the engineers who work there is really talented. I think Etsy actually really Foster's that sense of like the ability to learn and the ability to grow and have responsibility. I think that's the thing like we shelter so many people these days from like taking risks that people grow a fear of in it whereas like you should have a fear but it should be a healthy fear where you have that sense of responsibility that you have the confidence to like hit that button and deploy to the site. At Etsy they had a blameless postmortem. So if something really bad happened it encouraged people to like say oh I did this thing and it caused this because it was blameless there was no was reprimanded it was all about a learning experience. I think that's like super powerful. I wish more places did those sort of blameless post-mortem. It takes a bit of work, but I think that combined with at the end of the year the 404 page used to be a three arm sweater. It had something like oh a stitch is gone right or there's some phrasing and I remember.
Anna Corey who was like a early Etsy employee who ended up being on the design team with me she had done an illustration she's super talented she's in Berlin now. She had done this little illustration of a three arm sweater that somebody made a mistake. At the end of the year we would give out a physical three arm sweater to the person who broke the sight the worst.
Jon: That's so cool.
Jeremy: I think that sort of sense of like humor and warmth just really helped people to like take responsibility for their actions and like just do really great work.
Jon: I really want that sweater now.
Jeremy: It’s usually hung above the person's desk in the office. I don’t know what they do now. As part of that Etsy culture that was like I don't think anyone can replicate it. Again I don't know what it's like today it certainly changed over the four and a half years that I worked there, but it's just really special place.
Jon: You eventually started the branding studio there. It was you in another in Grandville.
Jon: Was that out of just necessity that you guys needed someone to start focusing on these elements that were I guess customer-facing or was it also part of like these are the things I really want to do?
Jeremy: Yes it was a mix. So getting there again there wasn't a job description it was just sort of like yes we need someone to make stuff. The first ask were these gift cards. At the time the Etsy brand was very organically grown. People who were on the seller education team just makes some stuff as they had or they would hire Etsy sellers to like draw things and create which is great and we continued to do that over the whole time I was at Etsy. But it's certainly what we needed to like what is Etsy, what does it stand for and how do we use visual branding to like tie in all of the you know warm and fuzzy really positive a culture within Etsy and project it outward in a way that it made sense.
So we keep trying originally like the design studios we were just doing like graphic design and then we were doing like marketing design and eventually it became I think Global Brand Studio or something like that. Around that time there is Nicole Licht I think she was on the customer support team, but she was an Etsy seller and illustrator and artist. Rob Kalin who was the CEO at the time was like oh like you should have Nicole on the design team and Randy was like okay and so like brought Nicole into the design team. I had hired a Melissa Deckert who now Nicole must have their own studio they do just the best work. So Melissa was just out of college, she went to Pratt and she had done some stuff and she'd worked I want to say was that a conference HuffingtonPost somewhere and then so she came on over us and then we hired a studio management. Eventually it's not just like we're a team. We ended up over the four years crew the team it goes like 12 to 16 people at the end just for brand designer which was like again it was it was like more out of a necessity and that's sort of oh this is the natural evolution of what we need to be doing. It was never because really cool we're going to start this thing. It's just like everything at Etsy at that time it sort of happened organically and the project sort of reflected our personal feelings and what Etsy should be and then also just kind of everything we've learned by immersing ourselves within the culture of the company but also like the sellers and buyers for the site.
Jon: Sure. So you then went on to work at Pepsi which I'm familiar with now, but then you also went on to work with Uber as you run the design marketing or marketing.
Jeremy: Yes brand marketing essentially.
Jon: I kind of saw on a few talks that you did that you were very much working with a team that was remote.
Jon: Were you still in New York or California?
Jeremy: I was the remote person. Uber was I think my first couple years in New York including that Etsy experience was a really special. I think career-wise the time at Uber was a huge time of growth for me. I think throughout the years a few jobs that you have. I had worked at Pepsi and I had learned a lot about like managing global brands and I'd worked at Etsy where I learned about growing teams and like I was a really terrible manager at Etsy like it was my first time managing I didn't know what it meant and I made a lot of mistakes. Nicole and Melissa if you're listening I'm sorry, but I learned a lot coming out of that. Uber was my sort of all right I'm going to be the best manager I can possibly be because I was just managing studios and a few people like at Pepsi I was like building and managing a large team.
So I got to Uber asked it was like “Yes we're looking for a brand manager or like design manager for brand.” Okay great you know interviewed, flied to San Francisco and some of the questions like if you had to rebrand Uber what would you do. I’m like that's like a really big question.
Jon: That’s so loaded.
Jeremy: This is an interview.
Jon: Basically like exile if you say something wrong.
Jeremy: Yes very like openly about some ideas, but I never put myself there, well this is what you do. Yes that's ridiculous. At the time Uber was like the unicorn company like the fastest growing company in the history of the world, the highest valued private company that's why I was so excited to work with them. They were like changing employment and they're like changing the way that like cities worked. It was just incredible and living in New York I saw how I couldn't get a cab to Brooklyn from Lower East Side and then all of a sudden Uber came along and it was like safer. I was like a huge Uber fan. So I was under the impression that I was going to be working on like brand design which is the stuff that I've been doing at PepsiCo which was like building brand design systems and brand books and visual identities. So that at Pepsi for instance it's in 200 countries and we have different design studios like in Mexico City, in China and all over the place where they have to have consistent designer practices so we would build you know brand standards manuals. I did it a little bit of Etsy and certainly when I was working at Juicy Temples we built visual identity books.
So at Uber I thought that was sort of, ‘the ask’. So we went through this interview process and I interviewed with Andrea Crow at the time that was the head of design that’s like amazing. They're like congratulations you got the job, like great. Then I went in for my first day of work and I lived in San Francisco for the first month that I worked there. I flew up to San Francisco and the whole team had flown in and so I learned at that point that I was managing at the time I was called like regional design or something like that. I was like okay sure.
Jon: Things are changing.
Jeremy: I was like okay regional design and then they gave me a choice, oh cool you can move to San Francisco and be the head of global design or stay in New York you're going to be the head of regional design. I was like well I don't want to move to San Francisco so yes I’ll be the head of regional design. Are you sure? Yes that's fine. So I went over there and I met people and we had designers in DC and New York and LA and Chicago and I think they were looking to hire people in like Texas and Mexico City. My role was like the Americas, so like North America Central America and in Latin America. So I had designers from all over flew into San Francisco for the week to like learn the new brand which apparently had already been being worked on. So the whole thing I was interviewing I was like, oh I'm going to like rebrand Uber it's going to be like the best portfolio piece everything. They're like yes the rebrand is pretty much done.
Jon: Damn it.
Jeremy: Now you’re like the regional design manager.
Jon: Now you have to own and guard this
Jeremy: which isn't a bad place to be but it was kind of confusing. So literally my first day I pulled aside Bryan McMullen is one of the guys who hired me. I was like Bryan can you draw the design work for me because I don't know what's happening right now. It was a time of like real fear for me because I like taking a leap and I accepted this job and I looked at it as like a big step forward to learn. I was like who even is my team and what do I do. I was super scared that like first week, but at the end of it I had gotten to know the team that I would be managing and they were just like the most incredible people and all kind of in it together. So like I continued to work in San Francisco for the next like three weeks and learn the ins and outs and went to all the meetings sitting in them with Travis Kalanick. I got to really understand how we functioned and slowly understood the role of my team. As soon as I did that there was a massive rework and like everything shifted again. That was basically how it worked for the first of three months I was at Uber like a reorganization every like two or three weeks where eventually I ended up being like we labeled the team brand marketing so it was underneath the brand team, So we were basically taking the brand standards, applying them and then feeding them back into the brand team to like re-systemize things that just didn't work. That's where the remote aspect came from it's that we had designers who were hired into each city is that at the time Uber wasn't a centralized company. Basically every GM in each city kind of ran their own like mini corporation and they could do whatever they want to make sure that Uber was successful in that city. So we were sort of beholden to what they needed. So there was a lot of like promotional material. We did like new rider discount cards and flyers and just like window decals. It was stuff that is really important because there's a lot of it and that's like the first thing a lot of people at the time as it was growing were like seeing. But it was also like not fulfilling.
I don't think it was very creative work. So I'd lean really heavily into management and it was even more difficult because it was a completely remote team. So I had my employees and I think I doubled the size of the team over my like two years that I was there but yes they were everywhere so I managed people. Originally I didn't manage San Francisco, but I managed Los Angeles, New York, DC Chicago. I think that was it and then eventually I went on to manage all of San Francisco and then also the Amsterdam and London offices.
Jeremy: So my back my days were really long. I would get up really early in the morning to take meetings in Europe and I would stay really late to take meetings for our Delhi office in India.
Jon: That's nuts. So working with like a team that's you know very much I guess flexible agile like a bunch of words come to mind and having to be so spread out right because you have all these different regions that you're now kind of managing. What are some of the ways that you were working? I think what I'm trying to get at is like what products in a sense where you're using or what ways of creating you know a good culture to critique work. What were some of the things that you were leveraging to kind of make sure that it felt like you were there?
Jeremy: I mean it was tough and I think like it helped that I was also remote in a way right. I was the leader of the team, but I was in New York and I had a team in New York but like the company was in San Francisco for the most part. So also at that time I was flying to San Francisco every month for like a week and then as we evolved the team into not just being like promo materials we ended up being like the in-house agency so we were doing brand marketing like advertising campaigns and stuff like that for every city. So we were doing like shoots in Montreal and like going in and photographing drivers in different cities and like building all of these assets which was like really amazing. I think the chaos of Uber reordering so much actually was like an opportunity for me to like become a leader and redefine what that team did. It worked out amazing and I think by the end it wasn't quite what I wanted it to be, but we did a really good job getting it to a place where I think everyone was really excited to do the work.
I mean coming back to it one I was gifted with like an amazing group of people to start with and I think they had already done a good job between like we used HipChat at the time and then later Uchat our internal chat system. Through that plus videoconferencing plus in person like summits they had already established like a really close relationship with everyone around the globe. There were designers in Amsterdam in South Africa and in London who were like really close friends with the designers in San Francisco in New York. So just coming in that helped me a ton that they already had a good really positive relationship working relationship with each other. I think if I didn't have that like right group and chemistry of people I would have failed immediately. So a lot of that is just out of my hands. It's nothing I did. They just happen to have almost by mistake hired just like a really great group of individuals.
Jon: Got it right the first time.
Jeremy: There wasn't one hiring manager like the GM's had hired them into their specific cities and it was just by chance and it really worked out. I think with that as the baseline I instituted critiques twice a week and we basically upload work to Basecamp. We would try to find some neutral time it was like 8:30 AM for San Francisco, but it was like 9:00 PM for Dallas. We did argue that like all right with a global team how do we find a couple times that work. Then we use Basecamp to catalogue all of the work and notes so that way we critique everything and if anyone missed it and can come back and leave a comment and things like that. So I think those weekly critiques were really great. We would just have like housekeeping meetings where we were just like hey this is what's going on and like at that time Uber there was a lot of friction beginning at Uber around the bad PR. It was my opportunity as a manager to be like how is everyone doing. I know there's all this noise out there. You heard this bad thing. How can I help you? Do you have any questions?
Jon: Do you feel any kind of type of way right now?
Jeremy: Yes. So a lot of that was just me trying to be empathetic and be a good leader but just also like I deeply cared about my employees and they deeply care about each other. Thankfully a lot of the answers were like yes we hear all this stuff, but thankfully like our team is really great they don't feel that. That wasn't always the case, but I felt very fortunate that that was sort of a signal that I was doing something right when they were just like yeah we're great.
Jon: The culture on the team can kind of outweigh. I've experienced that where you may hear something about the company that you work for it's definitely not in good taste or whatever but the culture that your team practices differs from that doesn't align with that kind of thinking or that. It makes you feel really good as an individual where you're just like proud to not be a part of which I think I'm sure was kind of the case.
Jeremy: I think also like to be fair to Uber like a lot of the stuff was overblown. There's some very legitimate stuff that happened that we needed to be addressed and I think they've done a good job of addressing it. But some of the stuff was just like the delete Uber thing and these opinions are up in my own of my representation of Uber. It was a handful of misunderstandings that just blew up. Josh was the GM of New York at the time was like we want people to be able to get from the airport during these protests and it was there was a taxi strike and he waited till the tech strike ended and then like took off surge. We didn't like get free rides just took off surge and then someone's like oh they turned serge off to like break the strike and that turn into something it was just like a bunch of misinformation. We've seen like since then we've had the 2016 election and now 2018 is like this crazy firestorm of like fake news and mistruths. That delete Uber thing was the first time it like had directly affected me was just like that just wasn't real. It really harmed like the company and like the people who worked there who were doing good work were just like what is going on. That was like a really tough thing. So to Uber’s credit not all of it was like deeply painful attributed to the company though some of it was, but again thankfully like my team made it through that.
I think like talking a bunch I always had weekly one-on-ones with every employee no matter where they were in the world. We tried our best to have open dialogue. I traveled to a lot of the different offices so I got FaceTime in and Uber was really great about having for that sort of stuff.
Jon: That's cool.
Jeremy: Then between base camp slash HipChat whatever, email and everything we just had a really good cadence and then eventually we would have in-person meetings where we would all fly into a city we would take some time to learn. I allocated a certain amount of budget for people to like go to conferences and for people to like have team outings even if I wasn't in the city looking at go to a museum or go to something go do something together. I think that really like built the camaraderie of the team. So I don't think it was a specific tool it was just like part my management philosophy and then part like how do we make the world smaller through technology. A lot of that was effort on my end having to work like 12 hours a day. But for me that that was worth the investment in order to you know create a path forward to all of these like younger talented amazing individuals to like be able to like continue to grow and learn and advance within the company. If I had to leave like find a really great job and help them find a job and they could be really proud to work on.
Jon: So you're the director of brand now at BuzzFeed.
Jon: What's your day-to-day like?
Jeremy: It's interesting it's really different today than it was I think my first like two months there which is like kind of a pattern of my entire job. My day-to-day is a lot, so I spent a lot of time managing design for our like stable of lifestyle brands. So we've got BuzzFeed media brands and that's everything from Tasty which is like the world's largest cooking network.
Jon: Yes very familiar with that.
Jeremy: We’ve got like home decor and improvement. We've got As Is which is health and beauty through a body positivity lens.
Jon: That's like one of the newer ones.
Jeremy: Yes As Is new. We had a bunch of different beauty brands that we like brought together under one umbrella. Then Good Full which is our newest brand that we just launched which is like about health and wellness so like mindfulness and meditation and not necessarily like eating healthy but look eating right for your body. Not necessarily about exercise but about like physical well-being. We just want with a partnership also with Macy's where we did like a line of home goods that like support that mentality of the brand we got a lot of Bring Me which is our travel brand there's a bunch of stuff. So over the course of the past year we've slowly been like tackling each of these and creating a brand identity and rebranding them including brand guidelines and trying to teach the company about what it means to be consistent visually with a brand which is like it's a twelve year old company, but it's very young in the way that it works. The employees a lot of them I should say a lot of us no them it's like their first job and they've been there for a long time there's a first job ever and they're just learning how stuff works. So a lot of it is like design education and like teaching people and like not only how to work with designers like cool you need something, we're here to help you, here's how we can like make sure that at the end like we both get the most out of the relationship to like what is a brand really and like why is it important to make things look consistent over time. So there's a lot of education and then there's like just a ton of design. So my day-to-day is like managing design of those brands and reviewing work and managing my designers both like from a professional standpoint, but also like a design management standpoint. I work under the commerce team which is a newer team within BuzzFeed. It's basically a new revenue stream. So we make physical products, we do licensing, we do affiliate sales and there's all sorts of different stuff we do. But within that there's a subset called innovation. Jake Bronstein heads that up and he and I were super closely together just come up with ideas for other companies.
So sometimes we innovate for Buzzfeed or we'll invent something like the Tasty One top other times you know outside companies will hire us to solve a problem for them and we do these BuzzFeed design sprints. They're not like the Google sprints it's more like someone comes with an open-ended brief, we go into a room and based on the brief we'll bring in like 60 people of all sorts of disciplines. So there’ll be—
Jeremy: 60 so there will be industrial designers, illustrators, copywriters and interior designers. Depending on what the ask is we'll have on day one this giant group of people and we'll brainstorm. At the end of day one we'll have like a bunch of ideas when we cull it down to a few ideas, day two we like test the ideas and then by day three it's like executing a lot of them. So by day three we've cut loose a lot of the people all right well we don't need an industrial designer for this because it's going to be a marketing thing or we don't need an interior designer because it's going to be on the internet only or whatever. So the sprint's are like it's basically we do the work that an ad agency does in six months and we do it in five days essentially.
Jon: Is bringing that amount of people into the room at once to have as many ideas as possible but also to kind of remedy that no one feels left out in a sense?
Jeremy: Yes I mean for one it's like yeah as many ideas as possible, but more like because the brief is open-ended we don't know what we need so we bring everything in. So that if say we get really excited about like we did a lot of work for Scott's recently and so one of the big things that's come to fruition is this brand called Lunarly which is basically a plant based subscription service geared towards Millennials. It's about like mindfulness but it also has like this kind of witchcraft lean to it. We glean that off of our BuzzFeed data that we can see that the question is Scotts was all right like Millennials for lack of a better term like they like plants, but people are buying pets because they're scared they're going to kill them. How do we talk to Millennials and get them interested in plants and see that it's not such a scary thing? That's sort of like the brief and coming out of it we pitched a ton of ideas. The winning idea that has since gone into production assisting Lunarly and it basically you like sign up and it's got this like kind of lunar cycles at plants that go the lunar cycles and you get crystals and like candles to burn and sage and different things like that so it's sort of like this like mindfulness wellness through this fear of like plants. I say witchcraft and it sounds so silly, but it's kind of like this witchy—
Jon: As soon as you bring crystals into it I think of like all holistic healing and things like that.
Jeremy: But it's really great and you subscribe to get a plan every month and along with the plan you get you have this intention guide where you can set your intentions and through that you get different crystals and incense and it changes every month and you get different things. It's been a great success for Scotts and we've continued to work with them on other projects. So that's that kind of a sprint. At the end of day five they get everything so we have; branding we have; a logistics plan; we have like all of the numbers; we have marketing and like how we can sell it through BuzzFeed and what that looks like; what a media buy looks like; and here's where you source all the things. We literally give them everything that they need and we ask the question like you can take this and do it yourself, you can take this and we can help you fulfill it or we can continue to work with you and like run it for you. With Lunarly we've continued to run it for them and it's been great and we've done that with tons of other brands like Home Depot or Dunkin Donuts and Diageo who own everyone's favorite booze. Lots of different companies come to us. The Sprint's for me are probably the most fulfilling thing at Buzzfeed because it's like we have clients but it's like they're in the room with us and the decision-making is so quick that there's not too much time to be like I don’t really like blue. We’re like cool here's the data, this is what it says we should do, this is what we've designed here like three options. Option one great then we ship it.
Jon: How important is that? I've learned that the more time you have almost the further away you can drift from your original idea. How important and in some way satisfying is to have this limited window of time to get these things done?
Jeremy: So I don't know I'm just a masochist crazy person, but I work really well when it's just like here's essentially an impossible task, but like I like stepping into that challenge and like making it really great. But I think like those limited time pairs we probably do it a little bit more compressed that is healthy for everyone. But in the long run I think there's a lot of value to it. We all work with clients at whether you work in advertising and you work in-house like everyone is your client. When I first went in-house it was okay this is going to be great I don't have clients that's like oh no everyone has clients and they’re not paying.
Jon: I'm like learning. I've had to learn that like very recently the last like year that like these are just guys in the department we'll just help them out whatever people. Then you start like realizing that like the other departments in within the company you have to build them still and you're like; oh wait so you pay me still okay you’re a client now.
Jeremy: Yes it's really interesting, but the more time you have okay well we're going to take this back to our team and get back to you is like the worst phrase ever because I know like I don't know who's on the team. At least in the Sprint's like the key decision-makers are there and we can like talk to them, we can sell to them for lack of a better term and help convince them like yeah this is the right solution here's why.
Jon: It's almost like it's when the decision-makers are there like when you have all those people in the room and you're working with them it doesn't become selling it's like where we want to work towards the same goal and it's like telling that story it's like how we get there can really impact someone's decision if they understand that and see that going on.
Jeremy: Absolutely and way back to my Juicy days it's like the goal is like always work with the decision maker. I think like Paula Scher talks about that a lot. So often it's just not possible for a lot of us even in like big companies at BuzzFeed or Pepsi or Uber. Uber was pretty good about it, but like most other places if you don't get in the room with like the final person. All right you talk to a marketing manager, the head of whatever or the CMO who needs to talk to this other person. Having the person in the room and it's not a gun to your head make a decision, but its okay here's what we think. We got to make a call in 30 minutes like sit on it and let us know. That's when I think really good leaders can, they'll make a decision, they'll put their reputation or taste or whatever on the line like this is the thing we're going to do.
The big thing about me is I don't care about becoming a chief creative officer, titles don't really mean anything to me. Salaries nice that that's not my driving force. I think really the best sphere of influence and I feel really comfortable being the person to be like this is what we're going to do. I'm not always right and I messed things up like everyone does, but I think that and having that sphere of influence and being able to be that decision maker is really valuable to me is like a creative leader and I wouldn't even call myself a designer anymore necessarily. It's just like I want more of that which is why I think I keep like, cool I'm going to be like design manager or art director and then a manager, the design manager, then a senior design manager, a creative director and then like a director of brand and VP of design. Whatever it may be it's not necessarily because I'm like a ladder climber. The other stuff really doesn't matter to me but like being entrusted to make that decision for maybe for better or worse when I have confidence in myself to like make that call and so that's something that drives me from like a creative standpoint. But like working with other people who like have that ability and are ready to do the thing I think just makes everyone's life easier. I mean you'll bomb sometimes, but I don't know it's like risk and reward. I think we all have to like if you don't take the chance then if you play everything safe and nothing is valuable in the end.
Jon: So not only in career in professional world, but like outside just kind of simplifying that idea down to its most human like I go to go get a jacket or something like that and I'll send a picture to my mom like hey what do you think about this jacket. I'll be like oh I like hesitate won't get it. Then like a day, two days, hours later I'm like I should have gotten that jacket. That experience I kind of just have learned. I think now that I'm older I'm starting to learn and actually react to those thoughts where I'm like I can't do that anymore. Professionally that's like if you don't put yourself out there and try to at least attempt whatever the task is you can for me personally they regret is worse it's not trying.
Jeremy: In a professional stamp when it's like that mutual sort of thing right when you have that key decision-maker and you're the creative decision maker and they're the business decision maker and you guys understand each other guys or girls excuse me. There's like inherent value in that relationship that I think is like really hard to beat. So it's not necessarily about me having the power. It's like all right, like having a mutual respect and understanding for people's expertise. Sometimes it's hard because you have socio-economic things that are demographics that maybe there's not enough women creative directors there's just not and its bullshit. AIGA is doing like the double or nothing thing and I'm working with a Built by Girls and all these other female leadership initiatives is like I think there should be way more like why aren't there more women creative directors.
Jon: Even at the table.
Jeremy: Yes it's so stupid, but like having those people be lifted up and I respected I certainly enjoyed it I think it's true for anyone, but like that relationship is really powerful. So it's not just about like owning the decision yourself, but it's about having that respect with the other key decision maker and so certainly what you said about the jacket I think it's true like that applies for me it's like photography. I do a very specific type of photography like street photography which is entirely candid, entirely spontaneous like I don't know that people I'm taking photos of. A lot of people ask are you scared that you're going to take a photo and they're going to be upset with you. I'm like, yes all right don't take the photo and I think about it for the next three days. I wish I would have taken that photo oh it's the same with a jacket like you can buy the jacket if maybe you end up hating it and you can donate it maybe you take a loss maybe you sell it on the Ebay or whatever. If you don't buy it and you sit there and I think that feeling of like God like if I wish I'd bought that jacket and now it's sold out, I very much feel that way about like lots of things. It's not necessarily FOMO, but it's just like learning to trust yourself a little bit.
Jon: FOMO has come around and that's like the easy way to label it. But I do really believe that it's learning about yourself and really kind of just like understanding that and reacting to it in a way that makes sense.
Jeremy: Absolutely. Photography like for me it's like the easiest thing to point to. I get like three questions it's like what camera do you use, how do you edit your photos and then like how do you take pictures of people without them getting mad at you. It's like the last part of that question I'm not worried about them getting mad at me I'm worried about me being mad that I didn't take the photo. Most of the time people are pretty chill like you got to learn to read a scene. I try to put myself in danger. For the most part like the worst that's going to happen if someone's going to yell at you. And certainly like it's exploitative as a street photographer I'm like taking photos of people without their permission, but for the most part I'd like to think I'm doing like no harm. Hopefully I'm not like getting someone deported or I don't know what.
Jon: You're not looking to capture like any embarrassing moments.
Jeremy: I just want to frame a beautiful moment because they're all around us and everyone's looking at their phones these days and there's something special about like paying attention and just seeing all this amazing stuff.