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Designer Ale Urrutia: ‘I’ve always been an observer’

Ale Urrutia’s clever use of geometry caught our eye when he submitted his ‘FORMA’ card deck project, created in Affinity Designer, for our 1.6 update campaign.

We loved his work so much it now features on the Affinity Designer product page and in our 1.6 promo video.

In this profile Ale reveals the extraordinary way he got into design, the process behind his FORMA card deck project and how his switch from Adobe to Affinity has been a point of no return.

Tell us a little bit about your history as a designer.

I found my way into graphic design a bit by accident. The way we choose university degrees in Uruguay is different from other countries. During high school we have to decide which major and degree we want to apply for, and I intended to apply for a degree in Architecture.

At the end of the school year I asked a friend to apply for Architecture on my behalf because I was away camping in the forest. Once summer was over I discovered that I had been registered for Engineering by mistake!

I followed Engineering for a year, but it wasn’t really my thing. Seeing how disenchanted I was with what I was doing, my older brother and a group of friends introduced me to design. I decided to give it a try and started studying Visual Communications, which I loved from the very beginning!

I have two brothers, both are photographers and video artists, and one is also a scriptwriter. After retirement my father became interested in painting, so I believe there is some creative vein in my family.

Since graduating I’ve worked in five different countries: Uruguay, Spain, Japan, Peru and China, for a variety of different industries and domains of design. This has exposed me to different cultures and markets and enriched my perspective on design.

Currently I’m working as UX director for Huawei Home Products and chief innovation designer for Huawei Cloud Services.

How would you describe your approach to design?

I’ve always been an observer, I like to see what’s happening and see situations from different angles. That equips me with the empathy that is necessary to design and create products and experiences with meaning and purpose.

Probably because of my major, Visual Communications, I strongly focus on the message each design has to convey. This applies to any area of design: graphic, branding, interactive, product. Designers have the tools and knowledge to influence and shape the behaviour—at least to some extent—of anyone exposed to their products. That ‘power’ comes with responsibility so I try to choose who and what I work for in order to be ethically responsible.

“I’ve always been an observer, I like to see what’s happening and see situations from different angles. That equips me with the empathy that is necessary to design and create products and experiences with meaning and purpose.”

How did your project ‘FORMA’ come about?

Forma was a commissioned project. The first time I was contacted about the project I had to reject it since I had an exclusivity clause on my contract with my then employer. After I finished that contract I met the client again and I was easily convinced to join the project due to the enthusiasm and care he had towards design. He also gave me freedom to choose the direction and materials for the deck and packaging.

FORMA card deck
What was the inspiration behind the design?

Before I started working on FORMA I had a few projects where I was exploring geometry and basic shapes to compose more complex images. The deck was created for cardistry. In cardistry the visual effects are created by overlapping several cards, so I decided that a geometric style would fit the purpose of this deck perfectly and allow the cardistry performer to create several effects, while combining the design elements of each card.

You created FORMA using Affinity Designer. Tell us a bit about the process you went through.

It was the first print project I’d started with Affinity, so the process was a bit different to other screen only projects. Something unique with Affinity Designer is that you can control all the different tools to make very precise design decisions. I’m a very meticulous designer; from naming protocols, to object grouping and layer orders, and of course design itself—everything needs to be perfectly in place. Affinity Designer allowed me to work the way I wanted and achieve a high level of precision on design and production levels. Since each deck was designed by hand with paper shapes I had to overlay the Affinity Designer designs over the paper deck photos.

What was the most challenging part of the project?

The biggest challenge was to get the buy-in from the client with that particular direction. He had another style in mind at the beginning, but after seeing a few renders made in Affinity Photo he was in!

How long did it take to complete?

Three weeks from when I started playing with paper shapes to create the key visuals, concept, design and preproduction. Production and shipping took at least one more year because it was decided to go for a Kickstarter campaign (fully backed!) and we were following the printing process very carefully.

How did you hear about Affinity Designer and what made you want to try it?

I switched several years ago. I’m not sure exactly where I read about it first, but I remember watching a promo video of what was possible back then, so I decided to try it for a while. I made the switch from Adobe to Affinity when Affinity Designer included CMYK colour mode, since then it has been a point of no return for me.

What is your favourite tool in Affinity Designer?

There are so many tools in Affinity Designer that I love. Personas is something that I haven’t come across before in other tools and now is incorporated into my workflow. Being able to slice anything I want and automatically update the exported slices every time a change is made, is a very nice feature and saves a lot of time. Vector brushes and pixel layers are also amazing! There’s no need to switch between applications in order to make a pixel/vector ‘hybrid’ design. The ability to apply non-destructive effect layers is very handy too.

Will you continue to work with Affinity Designer?

Of course! For me it has been a point of no return and I’m looking forward to Affinity Publisher and other new tools from Serif. I’ve been praising Affinity with colleagues for quite some time.

You’ve worked on a wide range of creative projects for clients all over the world. Which stands out as your favourite?

What I’m currently working on for Huawei is pretty amazing and I’m looking forward to sharing what the team and I have achieved in terms of a new look, style and innovation, in the future.

Another important project was to build a digital presence for DJI, a market leader in aerial photography systems, from scratch.

DJI at IFA Berlin 2015 mini site

In around six months a small team of designers and coders launched a new responsive multi-language website and online store resulting in huge increase in transactions and revenue for the company and a well-functioning product. Personally, the design direction brought me some other rewards.

In the last few years I’ve seen several start-ups following the new design style that I created for DJI and clients approaching me with the request to follow the ‘DJI style’.

DJI at CES Las Vegas 2016 event slider

My favourite project has been Bandas Educativas. The project was created for Plan Ceibal, an initiative from the Uruguay government to implement a ‘one laptop per child’ model into primary and secondary schools. Bandas Educativas allows kids to learn History, Maths and Language through a web platform using comic books. The feedback from teachers and students has been key for everyone involved to keep supporting the project. After six years we keep receiving very positive feedback, there’s nothing better than helping a young student engage and enjoy learning. I’ve served the project as a design advisor and my contributions were branding, site architecture and design/development.

As well as designing for print, you also specialise in branding, UX/UI design, website development and digital campaigns. What is your favourite type of project and why?

I enjoy every design domain, each one of them has its own challenges and rewards. I would say that any design project that can positively impact the life of the people it is targeting is my favourite.

“I would say that any design project that can positively impact the life of the people it is targeting is my favourite.”

How do you approach the start of a new project?

I follow a pretty standard process with one small tweak that I’ve developed through the years. I tend to procrastinate and not jump straight into a project as soon as it starts. I purposely delay the beginning of the work for planning, concept and design. I believe that disconnecting from the process at an early stage allows me to digest the initial findings and think at a more subconscious level. I’ve found that the procrastination stage often leads to good ideas and solutions. It sometimes also leads to tight deadlines!

The process looks like this: 1. Research, 2. Procrastinate, 3. Plan, 4. Design, 5. Evaluate, 6. Iterate if necessary.

What would be your dream commission?

Mozilla because I love the product and its mission, Nike for being an icon of coolness and my choice of running shoes and Apple or Google because of their rich ecosystems. Those are the ones that come to mind now, but I’m more interested in working, at some point, in my own product/service.

Since starting your career, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given and why?

The best advice I was given was to specialise in one field, luckily, I didn’t follow it! Instead, I kept exploring and learning about other areas of design and technology until I became a multidisciplinary designer. That allowed me to work on many stages of a product and to collaborate with different teams. It has also opened many doors and given me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I specialised in only one field.

Finally, what tips would you give other designers who might be considering using Affinity Designer for their work?

Give it a try, you won’t regret. The learning curve is very gentle, and the benefits compared with other tools are very evident after using it.

You can see more of Ale’s stunning work on his Behance, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles and on his website