We're kicking off the new year by getting personal with Everett Katigbak, influential designer in Silicon Valley who will forever be the insider outsider. Everett will discuss lessons learned in building brands and cultivating culture at hyper-growth startups including Faceook, Pinterest, and now Stripe. We'll also explore how he's maintained his connection to his roots while pushing the edge of design in technology.
Designer + Filmmaker at Stripe
Everett is a Bay Area transplant and failed musician who exchanged the gen-X Hollywood grind for the millennial San Franciscan #yolo dream. Raised in the LA skate punk scene of the 80s-90s, he was naturally drawn to the counter culture epicenter known as Frisco. Come to find out, Silicon Valley had already begun it’s assimilation of the City, and the mission’s slippery slope from the latino hub of SF to fixie clad hipsters to tech bros was already set in motion.
After spending his early career in the music industry as a recording engineer, he decided that music was best kept as a personal passion, and began to pursue a career in design. Combined with his love for the city by the bay and his fresh design chops, he landed an in house job as one of the first communication designers at a young Facebook. There, he helped drive the companies early brand voice and most notably, was a cofounder of the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory. Through the Analog Lab, he combined his guerrilla punk roots with design technique to create provocative work that shaped the growing company.
After Facebook, he had the opportunity to have the same impact at a young Pinterest as their first brand creative manager. And currently, he’s once again helping build the creative voice at Stripe, through producing and directing film projects as well as contributing to the overall brand strategy of the company. He’s also returned to his musical roots, playing guitar and organ in the SF psychedelic pop group Young Elders.
"This is what it is. I said empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water. Now you put water into a cup. It becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend."
Yes. Be water, my friend. Words by the late great Bruce Lee. I know he's talking about martial arts, but this is definitely a quote that can be applicable to all forms of life. It's definitely something that has governed a lot of my decision making and helped guide me through my life's journey. That's what I'm going to talk about today. I'll start pretty far back.
I'm Everett. I'm a failed musician. I grew up playing music. It's part of my life. I started playing classical piano, like most good asian kids would do to appease their parents. I was a band geek. I graduated from playing piano to marching in the band with a saxophone. This was my first real band in high school. We thought we were super cool. This is us playing at my Chinese friend's uncle's seventieth birthday. We thought we had made it. This was big time.
I very much thought that music would be my career path, but it definitely was a big part of my life and my identity. It still is today. But I think that as I was going through this journey of playing music and trying to make it work, there were a lot of pivots that I made. A lot of kind of zigs and zags. Hopefully some of these experiences might resonate with some of you.
This is a young 20-something me. Pretty much sums up my attitude, at least at the time, towards a lot of things. Even though I'm older and a lot more buttoned up, I think there's a lot about this picture that still is with me, aside from flipping everyone the bird. I'm a lot calmer these days. There's something about this punk rock ethos that I grew up with that actually really stayed with me in my professional career, and helped get me through a lot of difficult situations.
But as I mentioned, I started off in the music industry. Right after high school, I immediately went to study recording engineering. This is George Martin. George Martin was the fifth Beatle. He's kind of responsible for shaping not just the Beatles, but a lot of different bands and their sounds inside of the studio. It was pretty amazing as a young musician. I could play music, or I could also be involved in collaborating with a lot of different artists, working in the studio and putting out hits. So I went and enrolled in a recording engineering program. Once I finished that, I did what anyone would do. I just starting pounding the pavement, knocking on doors and talking to all kinds of different people.
Eventually, I got a gig as a junior engineer at this recording studio and Melrose. It was this tiny little hole in the wall. I thought that I had made it. Again, I was like, "Yes! I'm going to be hanging out with people in the studio, making cool tracks or whatever." In my head that's what I thought, but I think on paper it actually was a little bit more grindy and a lot more of a technical role than I thought. I thought it would be much more creative.
I was grinding away and working with artists and creative folk. We're all kind of fussy people in particular. A lot of it was just about capturing their vision versus having creative input into some of that stuff. I was working sessions that were midnight to 10 in the morning. I was a 19-20 year old floating around Hollywood. I didn't have too much ambition. Nothing was really motivating me. I was down a little bit about my career choice.
Around this time I found out that I was going to be a father. A lot of folks at least in the design world know me as a dad. My daughter Drew pretty much grew up in this design environment. Pre-Drew I was on a very different trajectory. I was kind doing the music thing and this was like the first major pivot in my life. Having a kid is for anyone, but being super young and even more important, being crazy broke, kind of lights a fire under your ass. You really have to think about the decisions that you make. You're going to be supporting and providing for a family, and raising this little thing into something that has its own opinions. There's a lot of stuff that I had to think about. I took a long hard look in the mirror and asked, "What can I go into that might be a little bit more stable and ideally a little bit more lucrative.
This is my daughter. She really hates it when I do this. I post these side-by-side photos of serendipitous moments. I took this photo of her. She's a bass player. She's actually playing tonight, so thank you all for making me miss my daughter's gig. This is us at the same age. 13 year old Everett, 13 year old Drew. Both of our bands at the same age. 15 years old. Even though I kind of put music on the shelf professionally, I don't make any money and if anything, I more lose a ton of money on it. I'm able to live vicariously through my daughter. That's one of the joys of fatherhood.
Anyhow, little Drew was coming. I needed to make a move. I was grinding it out. I took that long hard look in the mirror. Being young and naive and super broke, I decided to take out a huge student loan and go to a fancy art school. What can go wrong? It sounds easy enough. Study art, get a degree, get paid. But we all know it's like not as linear as that. That's a lot of what my talk is about. It's not non-linear necessarily in your design decisions, but just being fluid with your path in life, as Master Bruce so eloquently stated.
This is my grad show. Two four-by-eight sheets of foam core to showcase four years of blood, sweat, and tears. It's a weird, anticlimactic way to sum up your education. I won't show you any of my really shitty student work, but more so what I want to emphasize is my approach to education and how I went about taking classes. I took as many non-design classes as possible, even though I was declared a graphic design major. I took fine art, photography, filmmaking, anything that was remotely interesting. Aside from design, which is weird because that's what I went there to study.
I didn't do it strategically to be this well-rounded person. If anything, it's just evidence of how my ADD governs a lot of my decisions. I am a little bit erratic. I was scratching my creative itch in different directions. Consequently, my grad show was pretty random. It was definitely different from other people's. In that sense, everyone had these beautiful vector illustrations and this impeccably set Swiss typography that was on this perfect angle. Mine was just a bunch of crap that I made with my hands. Even though it was very much a reflection of me, I still had this identity crisis as a designer. Who am I? I'm not a photographer, but I have lots of photography, and photo gravure. I had screen printed posters. I lived in this print shop down.
So it was difficult for myself to come out and talk about how I would be marketable as a new hire or candidate or something like that. I'm sure most of you are familiar with this idiom. A jack of all trades is a master of none. This loomed over me like a dark cloud. If you think about this idiom today, it actually kind of has a derogatory slant. Someone that's good at lots of things, they're probably not a master at any one thing. That's how I thought of myself. I thought, "Why can't I just focus on one thing and be super kick-ass at that thing?"
I guess that's just not the way that I'm wired. I'm sure a lot of people are not wired that way. There are definitely people that can devote their life's work and every waking minute to something. It's not me. But as I dug deeper into this idiom, because it's something that just rang in my head for years, I conveniently found the second half of this thing that we've omitted over time. A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one. This made me feel a lot better. I think back when this phrase was coined, it was actually a good thing. People saw it as something positive. Again, like a lot of people that I tell this to today, they're say, "Oh, I didn't know there was a second half to that thing."
This just made me feel a lot better about having lots of different skills, and a diverse background. It's not like a handyman. Like It's like you're a renaissance man. You can do a lot of different things, so it's cool. Over time, I learned to embrace this and even market myself as a designer. Every time I'm talking to folks, I can wear lots of different hats. That's actually an asset versus I'm the best blankety blank.
But, being this young, wide-eyed fresh grad neck deep in student loans, I thought I had to climb this ladder and kick and claw and do all that stuff. This was the very linear approach. There are definitely jobs and institutions where you'll have to climb up this hierarchy. I think for the most part, however, in this thing that we do, people can carve out their own journeys and find these different streams that they can follow. A lot of my career decisions were definitely non-linear. I've held different titles, and I've held no titles. The trick to it is just being fluid within these situations and being true to yourself as a creative folk.
I started here. This was my first gig right out of school. This is the J Paul Getty Museum. I was an exhibition designer there. I didn't have any experience in exhibition design, but working at the Art Center College I was able to dabble in a lot of things. I had an aptitude for making things. I thought this was like the bomb place. I was hanging out with curators and sipping cappuccinos while doing all this fine art stuff. It was very highbrow. But I also thought the recording studio was the bomb, and I thought playing my friend's uncle's gig was pretty awesome, too. Just a different journey.
I got to cut my teeth learning the trade exhibition design. Environmental graphics and immersive narratives. I had this aptitude for making things, but again it was here where I really learned how to detail and draw things for production. It was just being a sponge and soaking up these different aspects of design, and trying to fold that into who I was as essentially a graphic designer, with a pretty erratic sense of interest.
This is a cross-section of this digital stereoscopic viewer that I made. What was exciting about this was that I got to prototype things and model them. This is an early Sketchup model. I would make things with foamcore, and then see them installed in the gallery next door. It was this immediate thing, and it was very visceral. I learned a lot. It essentially was a protected space working at the museum. Again, I thought this was like the best thing, working with art. It was super rewarding.
If you have spent any time in L.A., you know there's this big dragon that's slowly killing everyone there. It's this traffic that serpentines throughout the Southland. I would drive 15 miles each way to work, which is not a ton, although it's bigger than two San Franciscos. It would take me two hours each way, so four hours of traffic, which is pretty gnarly. On top of that, museum workers don't get paid super well, which is kind of the antithesis of why I went to school to study. I wasn't intending to get rich as a designer, but I had a family to support. That being the case, I may as well have just stayed working in the studio.
One of my mentors in design school gave me this advice, which was not really designed related at all. He just said, "Figure out where in this world you want to live. Which city, which country, and move there."
That was pretty much his advice. The gist of it was to be comfortable in your surroundings. Then he followed up and said, "Don't move somewhere for a job. If you're not completely happy with it, you're going to be miserable, because you're just not going to be comfortable in your own skin."
I was in L.A. for a long time sitting in traffic. I had a ton of time to think and contemplate life. I knew L.A. I was kind of over it. I had been born and raised there. So I just packed up and shopped my portfolio around to all these places. Most of the places were other museums and architecture firms. This was the one tech company that actually gave me a shot. I'm forever grateful for them, but I also still have no idea why they hired me. I can't understand that. I had an exhibition design portfolio. from this fine art background, and this was just a tech company.
When I started there, there was no no marketing design and no communication design. There was a handful of interactive designers, but it was predominately an engineering company. It was growing pretty rapidly. They were smaller than Twitter. One of our colleagues back in the day said that we were committing career suicide by going here. That's how weird and unknown this world is.
In hindsight, after going through this a few times, meaning a couple of different companies, I find that there's a sweet spot where I really thrive. That helps me do my best work. There's definitely an early stage where people are very focused and super impactful. Then there's another early stage where you're out of the startup weeds with a lot of momentum, but you still need a lot of muscle to help do stuff. That's the part of a company that I really enjoy. That's my sweet spot. Then it gets big and then you're huge.
I think when I started at Facebook, it was a couple of hundred people, which is like a medium sized company. As I left, there were 8,000 people, and that was over the course of five years. Now I think there's officially a shit ton of people that work there. This was the early marketing design team. There were five of us. That's me wearing a Spongebob tie. The design team back then was less than 10 people. There were a handful of product designers, and then we broke off and became the marketing design, which is now basically an agency within the company. I don't know how many people are just in the design org alone, but I think it's several hundred, which is pretty insane.
We did a lot of public facing work. A lot of more typical marketing design, like landing pages and videos and stuff. But one of the things I get asked about a lot is this thing called the analog research lab. It was pretty much just a fancy name for a print shop. This is Ben Barry and I. We're the co-founders of this space, and the two of us were these fish-out-of-water designers. Ben had just come fresh out of Austin. He was working in a screen printing shop. I came from the museum with a print-making background. The two of us were in a sea of engineers and were blown away with where we were.
What business did we have inside of a tech company? We were just being like sponges. Analog is actually like the antithesis of this technological mindset. We didn't know better, and I think that worked out in our favor. We were just soaking up this engineering culture, soaking up this hacker mentality, and using means that we knew best to express this stuff in a visual language that started to eventually click with the engineers at Facebook. I think with post- Facebook companies now, it's become a little bit more acceptable to have this kind of street art language.
This is me with my linoleum like button. This was our first office door. People always ask me, how did we get approval for this stuff? Or what were our budgets like? And how did we pitch these projects to people? The answer is we didn't. We just did stuff. Ben Barry and I stayed up a couple of nights when we were designing some of the first conferences for Facebook. We just wanted to bring what we were doing inside of the company out into the developer community. We didn't have any budgets. No one was telling us to design all this stuff. We just bought a ton of wood, oftentimes out of our own pocket, and we stayed up all night screen printing things and putting stuff together. Then we would just install stuff. This is what the inside of the event space looked like. This was the concourse.
It's not about the design. I'm not trying to emphasize that. It's more about the approach to things, and partly being naive but also partly trying to push forward things that we thought were really interesting. We were just trying to make a lot of things happen. The broader developer community really took to this aesthetic and I think embraced it as as their own. We even got them involved in making a lot of stuff. This is an assembly line that we had of people. We made this NFC experience inside of the van. All of this was hacked together by us. I made the pedestals and the acrylic casings. Again, I think a more linear path would be, let's find this event production place and rent a bunch of tables and have these tablecloths and stuff. It probably would have been more straightforward or kind of corporate. I think we were able to push and do something interesting there.
The calling card for the lab was this red typographic poster. They were always changing, but whenever we'd hear something in a meeting or in an all-hands, we would immediately go to the lab. We would screen print it. At night, we would paste it on the door, then someone would come in the next day and wonder who was doing all this stuff. Over time, it became like this landmark of Facebook culture, but back then it was actually pretty provocative and contentious. But I knew that it was something that was pretty lasting when, years after I had left, I was scrolling through my news feed and saw this photo of Miley Cyrus laid out in the analog research lab. I think I can retire as champ. I will never exceed this in my career.
Whether you love or hate Facebook, there's no denying that it's a company that was very unconventional and didn't succumb to being the status quo. I still have this very dear thing to me called music, which I put on the shelf. With all the design stuff, I was able to fold in some of my new skills that I went to design school for. I tried to weave music into my professional practice as much as possible.
So, Facebook was launching their first version of video-calling, which had a Skype integration. Naturally, it's going to need these ringtones and notifications, so I volunteered to do the sound design for them. I was able to apply my musical background, just in a very different context. If any of you guys play music, you know what this spells. It spells Face, and it was so self-evident and so dumb, but also just worked so well with all of the ringtone things that I had to run with this thing. There are a couple of intervals here that are interesting. Obviously we had major third intervals. Major thirds are the most common ringtone intervals. It also had this minor third in it, with a descending C to an A. A lot of doorbells are like this, but there's this mnemonic trigger that happens specifically with these two notes that hopefully a lot of you guys know, otherwise I'll feel super old about this.
This is how I pitched the early audio identity. This was just the initial pitch, and then since then like we did all these iterations and brought the Lassy thing into it.
I'd done the print shop, environmental design, and sound design. As I showed in the beginning, there's this stage of the company that I think I really thrive at. I didn't know that at the time. Facebook was growing pretty big. I left at about 8,000 people. I just knew that I wanted to go back and try and do this again in a different company.
So, I got a job at this place, Pinterest. It was very different than when I started at Facebook. It was a lot smaller. There were about 50 people when I started. I was a brand design manager at the time. The team was relatively small, but a lot of my role was hiring and managing folks, and building out this creative function. Part of it was me trying to do something else, or trying to wear a different hat through management, which I thought again was what you had to do. A lot of people think you move up as a designer. by eventually managing people. Sometimes that's not a good idea. If you're not a good manager, it's a very different skill, which I learned the hard way. This was my desk when I first moved into Pinterest. I parked myself in the middle of this warehouse. They still have this space, but now they've grown big enough where they occupy multiple spaces throughout the soma.
Having this environmental design background, one of my first tasks that I did was sit down and live with the architects to help envision this space. This was our first meeting space. This is the design team at the time. It was definitely not up to code. We were a seven-person design team. By the time I left, it was about 11-ish people, and now they're kind of into orc territory. We hired all different disciplines of creative folk. Skip was a filmmaker, we had illustrators. I was managing them. Eventually, towards the end of my tenure there, I moved back into individual contributor work, and hired this guy Brian Singer. I found out that management wasn't my thing, but I was still trying to trying to make things work within the company. My role was pretty strategic at the time, different than just making stuff.
As I mentioned, we're building this company, and it's a brand that people use all the time, but we're also building a company that employs a lot of people. Wanting to focus more on internal culture, I think I spent a lot of time helping build out what the working environment is like at Pinterest. If you think back to the Facebook analog research laboratory stuff, it didn't quite make sense on paper as to why I was doing this at this specific company. But it made a ton of sense here at Pinterest.
Everyone is looking through Pinterest to find creative ideas and be a little bit crafty and more creative in their day-to-day. I was able to lead a lot of their early versions of Hackathons, which we called Makeathons. People would just embrace the product, find interesting things, and make posters. People were cooking and stuff, so it was very Pinteresty.
Again, being like any good designer, I kind of felt that I had done this before. I'm trying to push myself to do more creative and interesting things. I'm also having a team to help do a lot of the heavy conceptual lifting. This next project is actually my favorite thing in the world, next to Miley Cyrus on the analog lab. This is what we called the Pinnebago. If some of you guys were here last time, Laura Brunow Minor actually designed a lot of the branding and the swag. It's a Pinnebago. We drove it across the country. Originally it started as a ghetto way to get people from San Francisco to South by Southwest, because we were a super cheap company at the time. Then eventually it turned into this roving creative studio on wheels. Skip was a filmmaker. He was on the road, and he was filming little vignettes about everyone, and producing these things and putting them out in real time.
We were stopping at all of these interesting places along the way, and having creative meet-ups with different folks there. It was pretty exciting and energizing creatively. Everyone that touched this had a little bit of Pinterest dust on them. It was super fun.
These are the Pinnata letters. They love puns there, hence Pinnebago and Pinnata. This is the crew. If you've ever been to South by Southwest, you know that Spotify is flying in Snoop Dogg, and everyone is having these mega parties, and then all of the sudden this Winnebago rolls by, and we just pull out a keg and put it on the street. That was our ghetto and scrappy way of trying to have a presence at South by Southwest.
We stopped in Marfa, Texas, which was pretty cool. Some of these things we incorporated into our actual work. We'd play music and score stuff in real time to what we put out. This was just some work I did for Pinterest. Pinterest is still growing. There are a couple thousand people here in the soma alone. Between Facebook and Pinterest, I had been grinding, and getting a little bit burnt out. I took a step back, and had to reassess where I wanted to go next in my career.
I worked a couple of little things here and there, and eventually I ended up where I'm at now, which is called Stripe. It's a financial technology company. You would think that it's got a pretty buttoned-up culture. For the most part they're conservative. I tell people it's the sane-est company. Everyone is pretty sane there, which is weird to say because Facebook and Pinterest were these eclectic cultures. But here again, at a relatively early stage of the company, at the same same influction point of when I was at Facebook, I'm still able to call on my different skills to help have impact and contribute to the creative team and push things into different directions. I still focus a lot on internal culture. Shout out to Donald Trump for continually giving me fodder to make more posters. There's my family. Little baby girl Drew right here. Here are some stripes tooling up to go down to the Women's March, which is also happening this weekend.
I got back in the studio at Stripe, working with sound designers, doing stuff for animated pieces, and recording the foreign language over dub. Nothing necessarily different than what I've done before, I'm just able to be a little bit more deliberate about it. But for the most part, I'm kind of reinventing myself here as a filmmaker. I do some design projects here and there, but I think I'm able to focus on one medium. Coming from this jack of all trades mindset, filmmaking has a lot of different roles underneath it, but for the most part it's a very specific type of storytelling. Maybe I'm just getting older and I want to be able to focus, but I think that strength in these skills has actually reenergized me creatively, versus if I was just doing more graphic design things. I think I have moved into a different area of being a creative individual.
I've been fortunate enough and also naive enough to continually try and reinvent myself. Sometimes I feel like I'm starting over again, however at the same time I've learned to embrace that that's the way my brain works. Now I own up to that stuff, and I think it's actually been an asset versus a detriment.
Bringing it back to my younger self. It's difficult to maintain your sense of self in this world and this environment here that's rapidly changing, especially inside of a company that is very different from when you start. But I like to think that this younger dude here is still with me, and that he helps guide me through complicated adult decisions, and helps me to power through a lot of things.
To bring it back to my man Bruce over here: Be like water, my friends. I think the main thing is that instead of trying to shape the world around you to fit your expectations, try letting the environment shape you, and be a little bit more fluid. The trick again is trying to stay authentic to yourself as you're evolving and changing over time.