NYC, MTV, HBO and, of course, JMC. These are just a few of the places where multi-skilled designer Scott Petts has spent time and energy honing and perfecting his craft.
After relocating to New York in 2007, the JMC Design graduate wasted no time in cementing his reputation as a leading Designer and Creative Director through his work with some of the world's top entertainment brands, including MTV Networks, HBO and Rolling Stone. Scott’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, with multiple awards to his name including two Webby Awards and an Emmy Award for Best User Experience and Visual Design, which he received for his work on the re-imagined Game of Thrones Viewers Guide in 2014.
Currently, Petts has shifted his focus to the development of his own company, Labyrinth Training, where he uses his skills in interactive design and storytelling to deliver employee training solutions for companies such as Pandora, Spotify and Twitter. This new venture represents the culmination of years of experience, experimentation and success. So with this in mind, we set out to ask Scott for his insights into a sector where he has found so much success, and to offer his top tips for anyone considering a future in design…
You've worked with several big-name brands in various roles in your career to date, such as MTV, HBO and Rolling Stone. Could you tell us about some of your favourite experiences and how they have helped to shape your creative style?
Absolutely! I feel very fortunate to have worked with the brands you’ve mentioned.
While I was at MTV Networks (Spike TV specifically), our team was charged with designing and launching highly interactive voting experiences for celebrity-driven award shows such as The Video Game Awards, Scream Awards & Guys Choice. It was key that these web experiences were highly visual and attention grabbing, but also super sticky from a UX perspective to retain as many votes from each individual user as possible. It was challenging, high pressure, timely work that ultimately felt amazing [when we saw] the final experience contribute to a live award show!
There were so many amazing moments working within HBO, it’s such an iconic television network. The digital team was full of talented people, so the collaboration was a joy. I was fortunate enough to lead the design team where we worked on creating interactive digital experiences that engaged HBO’s audience outside of their marquee shows airing or being streamed at the time on HBO GO. We worked on shows such as True Blood, VEEP, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective and of course Game of Thrones. The highlight was reimagining the Game of Thrones Viewers Guide to be available multi-platform. We would end up winning an Emmy Award for Best Visual Design and User Experience.
Rolling Stone – Music is such an important part of my life, I’ve been a fan of Rolling Stone since I was a teen so it was a dream to work there. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing people and help build a creative, digital team from the ground up that worked across design & video.
From a hands-on perspective, having the opportunity to design the Rolling Stone Cover Wall in collaboration with Google was a huge highlight. The concept was to reimagine the iconic physical wall of Rolling Stone covers dating back to the first issue in 1967 in an interactive, timeline-based experience. We ended up winning a Webby Award!
Can you tell us about the role of JMC in the early days of your career? What were some of the key learnings that you have taken from your time here that you continue to draw upon today?
I loved my time at JMC! I was accepted at a really young age to attend so I was younger than most of my classmates. It was a little intimidating but a brilliant experience for me to have to prove myself from that perspective.
The biggest learning I drew from JMC was just being exposed to so many different creative techniques, software packages, mediums and ways of creating. This has had an immense effect on my career, as I’ve never really settled into one creative discipline or way of presenting an idea or concept in my work.
I also remember the teachers and the real world advice they would give that definitely held up and I have drawn upon in my career. One very specific lesson I still remember to this day was in our web design class, where our teacher said “Always have a 5 year old test your work, if they can understand it, most others will”. My kids still test my UI ideas!
How did you approach building a portfolio and showcasing your work to potential clients or employers in the early days of your career? How has this approach developed over the years?
I honestly don’t remember my early portfolio or what form it took. I’d love to see it now though! But I would give this advice, you should absolutely put together a broad representation of your best work and do a nice job with it, ask for feedback from classmates, friends, family, etc. But also work on telling your story and the way you present your journey. What makes you or your work unique and interesting. This is just as important as the physical portfolio. I had to really sharpen those skills, especially in a place like New York, to stand out. The accent helps as well haha! Your way of thinking, the ideation and your passion are super important when going to interviews and talking to clients.
You’ve been based in New York for fifteen years now, can you tell us about what led you to relocate specifically to the Big Apple and the steps you took to get yourself there?
I would love to say this was a career- led decision, but it was more a life decision! I moved to the US to marry my wife, she is American and grew up in New Jersey. Best decision I ever made.
From a career perspective, once I was here, I was keen to do anything I could to make a career for myself. I was given a VERY short term one week gig to do data entry for a television network, Spike TV at MTV Networks. Even though it wasn’t necessarily tied to my educational background I decided I would work my backside off and do as much as I could to prove my value, maybe it would lead to more opportunity. My one-week contract would lead to another week, then another and eventually I was hired ongoing, then eventually I got to show my design skills and became a Junior Designer for Spike TV. And that’s how I got my start in NY.
Can you speak to any potential challenges or opportunities that may arise as a result of increasing globalisation in the creative industries?
It’s so accessible and easy to collaborate with different creatives across the globe these days. We are collaborating with designers and creatives at a global level often and it really influences your work and pushes your creative boundaries. I really enjoy that aspect of modern design.
You are a Co-Founder of your interactive design company, Labyrinth Training. As ‘Co-’ is a prefix meaning ‘together’ or ‘with’, can you tell us about the role of CO-llaboration in your career and tell us about some of your favourite collabs to date?
For sure, at Labyrinth we are super collaborative with our clients, we like to make them feel part of the product and story-telling and it really makes the final piece authentic and relatable to their audience.
But one of my fundamental philosophies as a manager and Creative Director that has overseen my fair share of designers and creatives is that you must be open to collaboration and constructive feedback to make the best possible product. If you are part of a positive collaborative culture, it makes the work much more enjoyable, I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from other designers while we’ve worked through different creative problems. I recall working for an NY-based company and we partnered with a huge New York Agency, I collaborated almost daily with their lead designer and we literally designed against each other throughout the process (in the friendliest way possible!) and it led to some really amazing outcomes when we compared notes.
How important to you is networking and building relationships in the creative industries, and how do you go about it?
It is so important to build and grow your network as you work through your career. This is something I got better at as I evolved as a Designer & Creative Director in New York. I often say that jobs will come and go, but it’s the people you work with that will stay with you. The best advice I can give on growing a network is to be a great colleague or partner on any role you take. Be open to collaborating, be a good listener and find ways you can bring value to your teammates, not just in the role you are performing but in general. You will find people will naturally want to connect with you and stay in contact. Then it's about staying in touch and supporting those connections in their endeavors beyond your working together.
Continuous learning and skill development is inherent to working in the creative industries. Do you engage with any kind of training or continuing education to keep your skills sharp? What are your best tips for staying ahead of the game from a knowledge and skills-based perspective?
100%. You have to keep learning and evolving. I have been able to bring value to my roles by knowing hands on how to work across many design disciplines. I make sure I’m following influential designers across the design industry and keep my eye on how things are moving through social media. I often point people directly to YouTube if they are looking to patch any technical skills to their repertoire. There is so much free learning available, I would also say that for myself, I learn best by doing under pressure, so taking those lessons from the tutorials and applying them to a real project where you need to execute. Making some mistakes and working through them in real time is so good for learning and making things stick.
Storytelling plays a fundamental role in the design of your product at Labyrinth Training. What role do you think storytelling plays in creating memorable design experiences?
Story-telling is an incredible tool for engagement and memory retention in combination with other techniques. At our company Labyrinth Training we fuze story-telling with interactive design so at the most important or impactful points of the story you are making meaningful interactions that dictate the outcome of the journey. We are essentially hooking our audience with the narrative and doubling down by involving the audience in the outcome of the story. We like to put people in the drivers seat. We have found that while story-telling is a key ingredient on its own, it is not enough in our space, you have to be intentional with how this can be the foundation to an enjoyable and sometimes thought-provoking user experience.
How do you measure the success of your creative work? Are there any projects you have worked on that you are personally most proud of?
The success of each creative project is different and really based on the key stakeholder or clients expectations. I’ve worked based on a real range [of success metrics] in my career, from data-driven to opinion-based.
While I worked at The College Board (a mission-driven organization that connects students to college opportunities) we were evolving their design system. Data very much drives a lot of their thinking. We worked closely with an amazing research team and worked in an agile fashion, conducting user interviews and various user tests, then iterating to pressure test our work to build confidence in what we were doing internally before releasing to production. I have also worked with key objectives that were not founded in data at all. For example, does the show-runner feel this aligns with their vision and that of the television show? Does it continue the conversation? For me, it's always crucial to ask “what does success look like” and then come up with key objectives that can be measured somehow.
Can you share any tips for overcoming creative blocks or periods of low inspiration?
Yeah, at times when I feel I’m in a rut or on a project that feels a little uninspired especially working from home, I go and do something completely different that is super enjoyable then come back to it. For example I’ll go play the drums, or kick the soccer ball around, go for a walk with my family, switch off for a bit then hit it with fresh eyes. For longer periods where you feel maybe your job is feeling like it’s draining you a bit, I recommend considering switching it up, you learn so much from new experiences. Challenge yourself to explore new opportunities, it grows your network and patches on new learnings you couldn’t have imagined before.
What is your advice for anyone contemplating a future career in the creative industries?
Do it!! Don’t put yourself under pressure to know where it will lead you to immediately, just learn as much as you can and be open and ready for new opportunities. What are you waiting for?!?
Words and interview by Clare Neal.