My name is Nikolay. I am a designer currently based in Shanghai. I lead a small but courageous design team making all kinds of cool stuff in the sphere of management consulting, recruiting and leadership workshops. I love creating visual stories and this one is about myself.
I was born on 27 January in Samara — a city famous for being the best in the world. Until age 6 I didn’t do much of anything special. As far as I remember, it was mostly eating, sleeping, hanging out with friends and going camping with my mom.
Wanted to play guitar. . .
I wanted to learn to play guitar so badly. So when I turned 6, I tried to get into the elementary school that had all kinds of “art” classes, including music classes. At the very first entry test the teacher told me that I’m tone deaf, thus ending my music career before it even began.
But ended up in art class
After the fiasco with the music teacher, my mom took to me to the classroom next door, where exams for the art class happened to be going on. Out of desperation, I drew a UFO floating above mountains. Apparently it was a work of genius, as I was enrolled in the class right away.
Sentenced to 10 years of art
At the entry exam nobody told me that if I enrolled, I’d have to study all kinds of art every day for 10 years, which is exactly what happened. After regular school in the morning I would go to art class in the afternoon and when that one was finished, I would finally go home — to do homework for both.
Dropped out of school. . .
In 5th grade, I realised that I’d had enough of art. One day I decided to never return to school again. For the next couple of months I just walked around the town, enjoying spring and a carefree life. Eventually I got caught and was brought back to school. I had no choice but to study for another 6 years.
After graduation from high school, I had two options —continue studying art or go study architecture. I couldn’t stand hearing the “A” word anymore so I chose architecture . . . which is actually another “A” word anyway.
Architectural biennale in Venice
I joined an architectural contest for which I was awarded a trip to Venice and participation in a workshop that was a part of the architectural biennale. This was the most remarkable event at university, as it was not only my very first travel abroad, but was also a sort of a business trip.
Tried it all
I found my first job on my very first day at university and I’ve been working ever since. During the next 6 years I tried my hand at pretty much every design job I could find in Samara. I did interiors, worked as a graphic designer in an ad agency and of course designed web sites and interfaces.
I liked working much more than I liked studying. I would accept every project I was offered. At certain moments I had my studies, my primary job, and a couple of freelance projects all going on simultaneously. It was insane and now I don’t understand how I managed to get all that stuff done.
Work at Turbomilk
By my last year in university I understood that I wasn't going to become an architect, so right after graduation I joined the best (at the moment) design studio in Samara —Turbomilk, where I created tons of illustrations, characters, interfaces and icons for fantastic projects. Working there was a lot of fun and I made a lot of friends whom I'm still in touch with.
At the time, MacOS was getting more and more popular and Windows Vista had just come out, which meant everybody needed big, detailed icons. After designing hundreds of these I nearly broke my eyes and developed a maniacal attention to detail. As I heard afterwards, one of my icon sets was among the top search results if you Googled “icon design."
First international clients
I had always wanted to work with international clients and Turbomilk was the first company to give me this opportunity. Almost all of our clients were based either in the USA or in Europe. Here I wrote my first message in English on our Basecamp: "Check out the icons below. Look forward to hearing from you soon." To which I'd always get the reply: "Awesome. Great job!"
Relocating to Milan
One night I was home with my mom and my cat and we were talking about how awesome it would be to go abroad to study. I went online, did a quick research on universities, picked one, sent them my portfolio and in a few months I found myself on the airplane flying to Milan to study industrial design at IED.
This is where I say how great it was to meet new people from all around the world and blah blah blah. The truth is, I didn't feel that way at first. The second I got on a shuttle bus from Malpensa airport I realised that I was in foreign country where nobody spoke my language, I was most probably stuck here for a long long time, and what I really wanted was to go back home right that moment. This of course changed really quickly . . . and then changed back again . . . and has been changing back and forth ever since.
New career perspectives
There were plenty of classes in the master course — half of them were pretty useful and the other half were crap. The most valuable thing, however, wasn't the classes, it was the teachers. All of them were practicing designers from large and famous firms. Talking and working with them truly broadened my horizons. I suddenly realised that I could work anywhere worldwide.
1st work experience in Europe
I had been doing pretty well at school and after a couple of months I started working at my professor's studio. That was one of those moments when I was really proud of myself. I would walk to work through Milan's streets and think: “Here I am — only a few months ago I was in cold Russia, and now I'm acting like a real European designer.” Pathetic, I know, but it felt great back then.
After learning what was going on in the domain, we would create product concepts to demonstrate how the client’s technologies could benefit the market and the customers. The concepts were sketched, rendered, prototyped, assembled into impactful installations, and presented to the professional community and to potential customers.
Designing prototypes is one thing; presenting them to an audience is a different beast. We ideated experience concepts, be they a mobile demo-kit for salesmen or a customer centre at the client’s headquarters, and then saw them trough, working with experts (specialists in the respective areas). This felt like uncharted territory at the time, which made it even more exciting!
This was the very first step of every project. We would experiment with the given technologies to understand what they were capable of. Then we would look into the market we were designing for in order to understand its dynamics and internal processes, the roles and the needs of the parties involved —everything that could inform further design and give us insights.
This was my favourite part of the projects — imagining and showing our concepts in a real-life context, helping the stakeholders and the team to picture how our designs would look in the real world, used by real people. Paired with tangible prototypes, these stories made a powerful presentation instrument.
Innovation projects at DGI
We worked with various departments of a big multinational corporation, that specialised in the development of technologies and materials for every market one could imagine. Our job was to study these technologies, understand specifics of the domain they were meant for, translate this understanding into relevant design concepts, and finally present these designs to potential customers.
Moving to Shanghai
At the end of 2011, I felt a strong need for a change. I finished my projects at work, packed my bag and jumped on a flight to Shanghai. I looked around, researched firms here, went to several interviews and ended up going to work for my first non-design.
Reya was a management consulting firm specialising in organisational culture and located in a 100-year-old cottage in a historical centre of Shanghai. Although I didn’t completely understand what all this was about, I was attracted by the idea of transforming the way organisations work and decided to give it a try.
This was a truly unique experience of close collaboration between people of different cultures with completely different backgrounds. Unified by shared values, we exchanged knowledge and learned from one another every day. I contributed as a design lead, promoting a user-centered approach and using various design techniques to make our products and services more approachable, intuitive and engaging.
Culture assessment toolkit
Apart from other great things, we created a best in class toolkit for assessing organisational culture. Using this toolkit in culture change projects for large multinationals in Asia, we continuously improved and polished its components, finally shaping it into a solid and flawless experience.
Reya got acquired
In 2014, Reya was acquired by a big evil one of the leading executive search firms, which integrated our culture toolkit into their services. The team was disassembled and spread out around the globe. My casual work environment days were over; corporate life had begun.
Developing consulting tools
Our design team set out to discover the ways we could contribute in the new environment. Surprisingly enough in a non-design environment, pretty much everything could be improved using a good design. For starters, we focused on participating in the development of the new internal services and products. This included everything from UX concepts to UI to data visualisation.
Design for leadership workshops
This is my passion. We continuously improve the workshop experience, so that what once was just a typical training is now an engaging learning process with several stages and multiple touchpoints. We employ and mash up everything from traditional ‘’offline’’ mediums to mobile platforms and learning light apps.
Some of the internal design projects are completed by external suppliers and oftentimes we are approached by the project owners looking to get some design expertise on the deliverables. So yes, nothing is more satisfying than criticising other peoples’ work!