For the next installment in our Meet the Designer series, we’re chatting with designer extraordinaire Michael Zindell of Salem, Massachusetts, a city he calls vibrant and creative. You may recognize Michael’s work from recent Spoonflower design challenges such as Kilim, where he won first place and Hygge, where he placed second. What you may not know is that Michael has been a product designer for over 15 years, creating thousands of home décor products for companies such as Pier 1, Home Depot, ROSS and Michaels among others. We’re so excited to introduce Michael today and can’t wait to dive right into his engaging interview!
How does your day start?
“I’m usually up by 6 a.m. or earlier. Weather permitting, I take my dog for an hour-long walk through town to the city common and back. Then I come home to make coffee and go right to the computer. Before I start my full-time job, I try to eke out an hour to myself to work on freelance or passion projects, as well as Spoonflower design challenges.”
I fell in love with design when…
“Honestly, I have been lucky to have been doing this my whole life. When I was in kindergarten, I made a purple and red cat one day and my teacher advised my parents to get me into Saturday art classes. I guess that was where it all started. Design came later when I realized that almost everything you touch, wear, own and use has been designed by someone, and that there is a way to make this into a career.”
What’s in your toolbox?
“I am pretty much unabashedly digital. Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Wacom tablet, Rhino 3d, a Surface Pro and Pinterest. Illustrator is my preferred tool, both for patterns and for product design. I like how fluid it is to move parts and pieces which somehow makes it feel less ‘concrete’. I sketch only as a way to work out an idea, but rarely more than that. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to ‘pinch- zoom’ or ‘control Z’ in my analog paper sketchbook! My brain has a real issue with making those ‘permanent’ marks. I really like to just jump right into the computer and get going.”
What is your process when creating a new design?
“In design challenges, as well as in other projects, I like to look right at the most basic, perhaps ‘obvious’ answer, and then scrap it convincing myself that there has to be a more quirky and original approach. Usually it starts with a single icon, and then I build around that. I also like to keep the eye moving and throw unexpected details in. Things that might make the viewer laugh or think twice. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t!”
When I’m in my studio, I feel…
“Is ‘too stressed to feel blessed’ a saying? I’m a full-time art director, studio manager and product designer. Then there is my freelance business, side projects, Spoonflower, licensing projects, all done from the same studio, often back-to-back. So when I am working I am ‘in the thick of it’. To me it’s a place to get sh*t done.
I like my studio to be uncluttered and clean so I can really focus on my work. I have a big table to work on, and a stand-up desk for computer work (which was a game changer for my back).”
If I could live in a painting, I would live in…
“I was always kind of obsessed with the ‘Beethoven Frieze’ by Gustav Klimt. I love how his work is as much about pattern as it is about the subject. It’s somehow flat 2D pattern, 3D forms, and strange, quirky, weird, atmospheric storytelling all at the same time. There is movement and detail in every square inch. My eyes keep bouncing and my brain keeps processing.”
What piece of your wardrobe best represents your style?
“This is a conundrum. Since I work from home, I am typically in sweatpants and a thermal of no particular style. I do like shoes with a bit of surprise. When I do dress up, I like a bit of the unexpected. I have two or three pairs of shoes that have bright yellow soles and a matching bright yellow belt. So even if relatively tame, there is still that pop of ‘Oh, that’s different’.”
What kinds of products do you have in mind when designing?
“Throughout my career I have been lucky to have designed many things for the mass market; mostly ‘hard home’ décor and housewares. I would love to get into more textile-based manufacturing, like clothing, bedding, upholstery, paper goods, and ‘soft home’ categories. I’m a good designer, but I am not a sewer. So I love when people out there make anything with one of my designs and share it with me.”
The secret to a strong collection is…
“Originality is key—there definitely has to be a strong point of view. I also think you need trending icons and themes, and definitely good color harmony. They also have to balance each other and play off each other just right. I like to think in terms of the Goldilocks story when I do collections of anything. Who is Goldilocks, who is the mama bear, who’s the papa bear, and who is the baby bear?”
My mantra is…
“Always know what you don’t know.”
What drew you to Spoonflower?
“I’ve been a product designer for years, and I was feeling stuck in a personal creative rut, always executing what someone else wanted. I don’t have many friends in creative roles that I could network with, so I had to look outside for something to challenge me. I had followed Spoonflower for years as a place to look for trends, but finally jumped in on my first design challenge entry. It was a perfect way to take a little more ‘me time’. Once a week I can let the challenges guide me and see where it goes. Plus you get the feedback from peers and meet other designers on Spoonflower and Instagram!”
Who or what influences or inspires your work and why?
“On one hand I love very natural objects, which I surround myself with—feathers, crystals, bones, insects. On the other hand I like very clean ‘manufactured-looking’ things like mid-century furniture, Pan Am travel posters, vintage illustrations and interior design photography. Then there is this fascination I have for cartoons that emulate the 1960s such as ‘Samurai Jack’ and ‘Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends’. I know, it’s quite a mix. I think maybe all of that is starting to gel lately in my Hygge and Kilim entries, and something I hope to keep pushing with some new ideas I’ve been having.”
For someone new to trying the design challenge, what advice would you give them?
“Don’t enter to win; enter to challenge yourself, meet people, test the waters. Also, try to find your own unique answer to the theme. Imagine you are trying to win over a client from their design brief, with the most unique spin you can think of. With that being said, stick to finding your own path, and don’t compare yourself too harshly against what others might be doing, or what is working for them.”