Interview with Ilya Sizov

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

As a teenager in the late 90s, which was a time famous for its cultural (or, to be precise, subcultural) trends. Back then, I was listening to nu-metal and dreaming of playing bass and having a pair of aggressive inline skates (and ideally switching them to a snowboard in winter). All of that went hand in hand with the visual artifacts: album artworks, extreme sports magazines, broadcast graphics of early MTV (when it used to be cool), and that unique teenage millennial fashion. Today, these trends are recognized as a part of Y2K aesthetics — a remarkable domain of graphic culture legacy.

These years were also the time when I got my hands on the Internet; it was a completely different Internet compared to what it is now. I fell in love with all the experimental and quirky stuff that was happening online at that time, like web art and early Flash. I don’t want to go on about how unmanaged and liberating web graphics felt in that era; I just want to highlight that it was a completely new medium with a unique visual look, and it caused my inclination to digital design for years ahead.

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

The biggest hurdle actually was figuring out my real passion and switching to design after a couple of initial career mistakes. I started designing really early, at the age of 13 or 14, by creating random pictures in Corel Photo Paint. As far as I recall I was 14 when I got my first design gig: One of the clients my mom designed interiors for was opening a local shopping mall and needed a logo. I created something like a red-blue spiral with text sitting next to it and got my first payment for design (it was $50 or something like that).

At this time, I had to decide what to study after school. Sadly, there were no good places to study design where I grew up in the early 2000s. And, honestly, I didn’t seriously consider design as a job back then (actually, I don’t know why). So I ended up getting a master’s degree in political science. I was lucky enough to lose faith in this profession during my education: Getting a couple of political-related jobs helped me clearly realize that I hated political science. I did finish my degree, but right after graduation, I went to study graphic design at the British Higher School of Arts and Design. That was quite a move for me but I never regretted it. It was a post-graduate program that lasted a year and a half. After finishing it I landed my first real design job in a small, growing design studio.

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

I work more with agencies rather than end clients but for both types, the same approach applies. Networking and building up your reputation will bring you more and more clients. Word of mouth works really well. Even though some people might be reluctant to give out their precious resources, people will eventually know about you.

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

This is actually simple: Be responsible and responsive. Staying organized and meeting deadlines should be a part of everyone’s work ethic, but surprisingly, designers often neglect the aspect of discipline. You might not be the greatest designer in the world but as long as you provide what is required at the time that is required — you will be in demand and clients will love you.

And being responsive doesn’t mean that you should respond immediately 24/7 (when it happens, this is a sign of an unhealthy process). It means that you should listen to the clients carefully. You should be curious about what they need and they will see that you listen to them.

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

I see two ways of fixing this. First and foremost, it’s good to have a number of long-term clients you have trusting relationship with. It takes time and effort to establish this type of relationship, but it pays off.

Another piece of advice has to do with the process. Ask for an upfront 50% payment from your clients. This is not just a financial security thing but also a good way to set expectations for clients. Since they have already paid half of the cost, they will think about the project more responsibly. They will value your time more because they have paid for it and will less likely make erratic emotional decisions. After all, the clients who won’t agree to pay anything up front probably don’t value your professionalism enough and are likely to bombard you with the subjective “make-my-logo-bigger” feedback.

6. What does your typical workday look like?

My day is always packed and I don’t like it. I would prefer a less-busy schedule, fewer calls, fewer tasks and more spare time to fix my work-life balance. My day might be an example of how you shouldn’t spend your day.

I don’t like getting up early, but I have to be awake at about 8 am (yeah, it’s early for me). Almost right away I start working. 99% of my workdays start with a 1-hour team sync. Then, the calendar may vary but there are always calls and there is always time for uninterrupted work. Recently, I’ve been noticing more and more how strongly I crave longer periods of head-down work. Achieving a flow state gives me a lot of energy and contentment, while I always end up extremely unhappy when my day is broken down by emergencies, calls and pings.

Another thing that I miss a lot is the in-person work environment. I moved to the United States three years ago and since then I’ve been working from home. I don’t believe in remote-first. I feel that it’s crucial to feel a human connection with your teammates, which is hard to establish remotely. Additionally, office spaces help separate your work and daily life. Finally, they just force you to move more and help you see more (at least, you need to walk or commute to the office). To compensate for the lack of daily outings, I try to leave home for lunch and ideally have it on a bench outside.

When work ends, I go for a run (I like running in the dark) or do a workout at home. And after dinner with my girlfriend, I can work long hours on my side projects or can be acquiring new skills (recently, I’ve been vigorously studying 3D techniques). If it’s a really lucky day and I don’t have much guilt for not pushing an extra mile, I would make music instead of design-related things at night (to a certain degree, I still consider music to be my true destiny).

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

Do only what you really like to do and what you consider meaningful. Don’t accept compromises. When you start sacrificing your passion and design dignity it will definitely lead you in the wrong direction. Among other consequences, you might suffer from burnout and a loss of interest in what you do. Don’t believe people who tell you that there are no ideal projects, clients or jobs. Putting up with meaningless projects, toxic clients or uninspiring jobs is a too high price for a stable income. Try to remember why you chose this career in the first place and trust your intuition.

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Ilya Sizov

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Ilya Sizov is a multidisciplinary designer and art director from New York. Currently, he collaborates with the startups Smartcat (the language translation and localization delivery platform) and TheXPlace (the community and marketplace for gaming professionals).

Before that, Ilya spent about 5 years working for digital agencies Red Keds and Friends on projects for Unilever, Panasonic, Range Rover, etc. Later, he led design in the transportation startup Fasten which competed with Uber and Lyft in Boston and Austin. Ilya is also known for some noteworthy side projects such as the app for creative thinkers Pixride or the audiovisual art project Northiness.

Interview published on: May 4, 2023

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