Ask a Designer: Dave Gorum

Q&A with the designer and co-founder of Carbonmade |

I met Dave Gorum one night after Bakken & Baeck’s An Interesting Day conference—a truly unique event on a tiny island in the Oslofjord that feels like hanging out with a bunch of good friends and people who should be your good friends.

Dave is the creative director and co-founder of Carbonmade, a portfolio platform that makes it easy for designers, writers, and everyone in between to showcase their work online. Conceived in 2005 when Dave couldn’t find a viable and affordable way to share his illustrations with the world, Carbonmade is now home to more than 1.3 million portfolios. Dave’s current projects include revamping the platform, making live photo wallpapers called Wallypapes, and planning an ICO for his celebrity dogs on the blockchain startup. I spoke to him about how he got started, how reading and writing supplement his work, and what advice he has for fledgling designers.

Dave on the island of Steilene at An Interesting Day (Photo by Sebastiaan de With)

How did you find design?

The boring version of the story is, “making flyers and demo covers for my friend’s punk bands.” The SUPER COOL AND SEXY version involves downloading cracked copies of software from AOL chatrooms to see if they’d run on my parent’s 486sx, eventually finding a crashy copy of Photoshop 4. It was amazing, who knew you could just add five lens flares to an image and it would be instantly art.

Mostly though, it was the realization that there was an entire company dedicated to building fancy computer tools for people who make things. On top of that, the software was so bonkers expensive that whoever bought it must be raking in the dough. I figured that getting paid to add lens flares to images wouldn’t be a bad way to spend my time. AND HERE WE ARE.

Which hobbies or experiences have made you a better designer?

Reading fiction. Apart from being one of the only things you can do on a beach as an adult-human-who-doesn’t-want-to-play-volleyball-thanks, fiction saturates you in the two most important traits of a good (product/interaction) designer.

1. The ability to get inside the head of and empathize with a character. Designing product boils down to repeatedly asking and answering the question, “If I were my user, what would my ideal experience be right now?” Being able to glimpse the world through your user’s physical/societal/economic/emotional/etc perspective gives you a leg up on finding the right answer to that question.

2. An appreciation of words and their ability to communicate, inspire, manipulate, coerce, and thesaurus. The single most effective thing you can do to be a better designer is be a better writer. Microcopy, sellsite copy, campaign headlines, emails persuading your PM that you know what you’re talking about, and on and on and on. The difference between these things being decently written and not is the difference between your product feeling human and ERROR: A ERROR HAS HAPPEN. SENTENCE WILL NOW TERMINATE.

How have you dealt with failure over the years?

I’ve slathered my mind in the frictionless grease of delusion so the detritus of screwing up slides off my memory like so much water off the glossy back of a simile porpoise. So… poorly?

What do you think your greatest strength or weakness is as a designer?

I can add a lens flare to anything in Photoshop. I am terrible at the discipline iteration requires.

Photo by Sebastiaan de With

Do you have a design mentor or someone who has influenced your work a lot?

Nope. I envy designers who’ve been lucky enough to find a mentor. I imagine it cuts back on a lot of the time spent floundering your way through bad decisions.

What advice would you give to designers just starting their careers?

Find some way to get interested in economics. Understanding how irrational people are in their financial decision-making process will greatly inform how you design product for them. Also, research animation, fiddle with code, and do a ton of work.

This is the third piece in a series on getting started. Read previous interviews with Frank Chimero and Kathy Zheng, and stay tuned for more.