Product designer at ustwo, Kota Kobayashi: “Stay humble. Stay hungry. Take risks. Be seen”
Japanese-born product designer Kota Kobayashi recently made the move from the ustwo office in New York to Shoreditch in London, where you can catch him skateboarding into the digital design studio every morning. With a double major in psychology and art, Kota sees design as the natural meeting point between the two – something that informs his desire to work on products that make a meaningful difference. The soon-to-be father also runs a small charity beer brand in support of those affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We meet to find out how his role ended up being so much more than using Photoshop.
Product Designer at ustwo, (April 2017–present)
Product Designer, ustwo, New York (2014–2017)
Senior Visual Designer, Huge, New York (2012–2014)
BA Double Major in Visual Art and Psychology, Union College, New York (2002–2006)
Personal Social Media
How would you describe your job?
It’s not so easy to answer this question these days. I have a background in graphic design, and then I became a visual designer. During that time, I worked to make websites and apps more usable and emotionally expressive by adding aesthetic layers. Those were the simple days. Now I work as a product designer at ustwo. My responsibility includes researching, concepting, facilitating workshops with clients, running usability tests, writing thought leadership pieces, and providing feedback to other designers.
What does a typical working day look like?
I ride my skateboard into the studio around 9am. I make a coffee and a scrambled egg prosciutto sandwich if I have not had breakfast. I work eight to nine hours a day, and on one project most of the time, but the tasks I have for the day vary heavily depending on the type and the stage of the project.
How did you land your current job?
The previous studio head at ustwo New York, Jules, reached out to me via Linkedin. We were in touch for over a year. The size and the type of ustwo’s work was aligned with my interests, so I decided to join.
“New York is a city that is merciless to anyone who is starting a career. You’ve got to work your ass off and respect others.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
In the studio in Shoreditch. Sometimes we make a trip to a client’s office for workshops or presentations. Other times we are out on the streets to do research.
How collaborative is your role?
Very – I work with other designers (including UX, motion and sound), researchers and developers.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Doing timesheets would be the least favourite part about my job. It is boring, but super-important for a business.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
A conceptual project for one of the most respected car manufacturers. They came us to explore the user-experience of autonomous vehicles. I worked with a talented team of designers and a developer, including Tim Smith, Harsha Vardhan, Elana Jeeaooo, Jamaine Obeng and Marit Hartshorn.
What skills are essential to your job?
Not being a dickhead. A curiosity for technology. A good design foundation. A willingness to keep learning and taking risks.
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I launched a small charity beer brand called Ippon Matsu Beer, which supports people who were affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I brew the beer, design the package, throw fundraiser parties, donate the funds, and we make a video for documentation.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use a sketchbook; everything starts from a pen. Then I execute the ideas on Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Sketch, and Cinema 4D.
“Be curious. In this ever-changing time and the industry, we need to keep learning and be aware of what is going on.”
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I once thought I wanted to be an archeologist. I think Jurassic Park influenced me heavily...
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I grew up in Japan. Perhaps my fondness for simplicity came from Japanese aesthetic.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied Psychology and fine Art. Psychology is about human behaviour and mind. Art is about making things as a means of expression. If you combine these two, in hindsight, design seems like the natural solution.
What were your first jobs?
My first job was working in real estate sales in Japan. But in the design industry, my first job was at Tender Creative (now part of VSA Partners) in New York.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Being in New York. That city is merciless to anyone who is starting a career. You’ve got to work your ass off and respect others, or else you will be removed from the city, one way or the other.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
A few years back, I got to work on a project for Google Cardboard. We created a VR experience that taught design principles for VR. At the time, I had no experience in VR work whatsoever. But along with an ever-curious and dedicated team, I was able to concept, design, and launch the product in a medium that I had never even thought about. The product was very well received from the users.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
To always be curious. In this ever-changing time and the industry, we need to keep learning and be aware of what is going on. It forced me to be humble.
“Stay humble. Stay hungry. Take risks. Be seen.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Making time to do my own projects, whether something big or small. Client work does not allow for a lot of experimentation, but those are the times we can take risks and learn new things.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
It’s very different from what I imagined. I thought I would be just be on Photoshop or Sketch all day. But it turns out that it is so much more.
What would you like to do next?
I am going be a father soon, which is an undertaking of its own. But I do have an entrepreneurial spirit inside of me. I will have to let it see the world at some point.
Could you do this job forever?
I am not sure if I will. But I could, as long as I continue to work on products that make a meaningful difference to the world.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Refining the quality of the work, and spreading the knowledge to others within and outside of the organisation.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a product designer?
Stay humble. Stay hungry. Take risks. Be seen.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on ustwo.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography by Sophie Stafford
Mention Kota Kobayashi
Mention Ippon Matsu Beer