An interview with Haraldur Thorleifsson

By Ed Vinicombe on Oct 9th, 2014

Hey Halli, could you tell us about UENO? How long have you been

involved in this project and how’s 2014 shaping up for you guys?

UENO is a digital agency. It was founded in late 2013 so we’re only a few months in. 2014 is shaping up to be pretty great. We’re working on some very exciting projects for big brands as well as a few interesting start ups. This will be our first full year and I want to come out running!

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The work you’re doing with Eightly looks incredibly exciting, is there anything else you can tell us about this project? When can we expect to see this work out there for everyone to use?

I can’t really share much. Eightly was founded by some high ranking ex-Apple people. They were key players in designing and engineering the iPod and iPhone and now they want to help ordinary people create and share unique content across different platforms using their touch devices. That probably sounds a bit buzzwordy but that’s about as much detail as I can get into. It’s a very ambitious product with a lot of unique firsts. They’ll be launching the product this year so hopefully you’ll get to try it out for yourself soon. We’ve been working with them on their product design and development as well as some branding elements.

When did you discover that design was something you wanted to do & how did you break into the design community?

I was a late bloomer. I didn’t really think about design that much until I was in my 20’s. I was at University studying finance and there was a compulsory IT class. One of the assignments was to build a super simple site in HTML and that sparked an interest. I quickly found Flash and I used those skills to support myself through my studies, eventually graduating with a BS in finance and BA in philosophy. I moved on to take a MS in economics but as I was looking for subjects for my dissertation I realised I didn’t really want to work as an economist. So I went back to design while I figured out what I wanted to do. And I guess I’m trying to figure that out. I’ve been designing on and off for about 15 years but since I also considered it more of a side project I never really invested a lot of time into building a profile or trying to be a part of a design community. And then about 18 months ago I decided that I would focus on building my own brand (as cheesy as that sounds). The first step was to build a proper portfolio but I also decided to focus on building a Dribbble following. I quickly realised that Dribbble was not only being used by designers. Most of the big tech companies and startups also use it as a recruitment tool, both for full-time and contract work. Today I’d say it’s my main source for new work so as far as career moves go I’d say this one has paid off.

Have you had many mentors along the way?

Probably not in the formal sense. But I have worked with and known a lot of smart, hard working people that have taught me a lot.

Was there one defining moment where you decided to take a big risk to move forward in your career?

I moved to New York in 2006 to work for a company called Cuban Council. They were small but they had some very big clients. I stayed there for about a year, learned a lot and made some contacts that were invaluable.

How does living in San Francisco impact on your work?

Soon after our daughter was born 2 years ago, we packed up two suitcases, jumped on a plane and lived for 6 months in Tokyo. We really like the experience so we’ve decided to use the time before she needs to go to school and explore the world. Right now we are in Buenos Aires, where we’ve stayed for about 4 months and then we are heading over to Barcelona next week for 2 months. We’ve lived in Vancouver, Portland, Rio de Janeiro and we’ve got plans to stay in at least a dozen cities over the next few years. I think cities are amazing but I don’t really like being a tourist so this way we get to get a much better feeling for the places we go to. Almost all my clients are however in the San Francisco area so I need to keep pacific office hours.

Your work has attracted a lot of attention. Does the expectation for you to produce high quality work start to feel heavier the more people start to hear about you?

I’m from Iceland which has a population about 300,000. As a joke we sometimes refer to the local celebrities as “world famous in Iceland”. By the same token the design community is pretty small and the part that I inhabit is tiny. To say that somebody is a celebrity in a circle that small probably isn’t the right word. There are maybe a few thousand people that have heard my name at one point or another and I have yet to be stopped in the street and asked for an autograph. So I don’t feel any outside pressure but I always put a lot of pressure on my self to try and make something good.

Where do you go for inspiration/research? (books, web, magazines, tv, music etc)

Like I said before, I think cities are fantastic. A new city is the ultimate inspiration for me.

What kind of legacy to you hope to leave behind for the design community & if you could give a young aspiring designer some advice what would you say?

Most of the work I do will be obsolete in a couple of years, UI design gets old very fast. It’s not like art that can stand on it’s own for a long time. UI needs context, it’s based on function and the tools and devices we use at any given time. So as far as legacy goes I don’t think even the most gifted designer in our field will have work that can stand the test of time for very long. I would advice young designers to work hard, go out of your comfort zone, experience different things and be nice to people when you can.

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