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Interview with Matt Searston, Affinity Designer product expert

We caught up with Matt Searston, our in-house Affinity Designer product expert, to learn more about him and his role, and to get his top tips for using the app.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into graphic design.

So, I guess I first got into graphic design or just general image-making at a very early age. My parents always casually encouraged my sister and I to spend time drawing or painting when we were younger (she’s now an award-winning illustrator and printmaker, so I guess it paid off!), but I think because we were never forced or pressured into doing it, it definitely made it feel like it was our own choice to spend time doing it.

I think I first remember being particularly grabbed by graphic design when I saw the Gorillaz’s Clint Eastwood music video for the first time (around 2001). I’ve been a huge fan of Jamie Hewlett ever since but that was a really big turning point for me. I just remember really loving how everything was put together from the band’s logo to the CD packaging, and how all the animated elements in their videos were just so bold and stylish—it was something I connected with straight away and that really stuck with me. Plus, the music itself was pretty excellent so that definitely helped me get behind it without a doubt!

Ever since then, I guess I kept working on drawing and designing things and eventually went on to do a BTEC in Graphic Design, which I followed up with a BA in Graphic Design at uni.

How did you turn it into a career at Affinity?

While I was at uni, I was working in a music shop which I then went on to do full time when my degree finished. I was there for quite a few years after I graduated but I would keep working on my portfolio in the evenings and eventually ended up getting a few freelance design jobs here and there, which were all hugely valuable experiences, to be honest.

Spending all that time working on mostly self-initiated fun projects and freelance bits ended up giving me quite a lot of work towards a portfolio, so after a while, I very, very luckily found a Junior Designer job working at festivals, concerts and venues. I worked there for about three years overall. I had a really great time while I was there and met some amazing people, but after a while, I just felt like I wasn’t pushing myself enough and felt like I’d started to become a bit stagnant and predictable with what I was doing day-to-day.

Seemingly out of nowhere this incredible opportunity to work for Serif came up, and I totally jumped at the chance. It’s only been about a year and a half since I started here, but it’s already gone so fast—which is definitely a great sign!

What does your role as a product expert entail?

We generally cover quite a few areas, but the main thing we tend to focus on is the learning material and tutorials for our specific apps (Designer in my case). So a lot of the time we might be working on new designs or ways to show off certain tools and techniques, or we might be working directly with a company to help them learn the ropes of our apps too.

The main thing is generally looking after the Designer app itself and trying to be an ambassador for it whenever I can, especially when it comes to posting work on social media or interacting with other designers and illustrators out there who use Affinity. It’s always really great to see people creating amazing work and using our apps to their full potential!

Is there a part of your job that you enjoy the most?

One of the things I really love about the job is how varied it is. One day you’re recording a video, going though the best way to draw an illustration of a tiger, the next day you’re visiting an architectural firm in a different city advising them on the best keyboard shortcuts to use in Designer to speed up their workflow—so it really keeps you on your toes!

It’s always really fun working on the Spotlight tutorials too. They’re a great chance to design something new for a specific purpose and potentially share a new design technique with people at the same time, so another win-win situation right there.

Do you have any favourite designers whose work inspires you?

I’m going to be annoying and list way more than I should, but I really struggled to narrow it down so in no particular order: Yeaaah Studio, Tomer Hanuka, Andrew Fairclough, Shepard Fairey, Morning Breath Inc, Bicicleta Sem Freio, Boneface, Adams Carvalho, Matt Taylor, Becky Cloonan, Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy, Gemma O’Brien, Timba Smits, Jamie Hewlett, Iain Macarthur, Gina Kiel, Matthew Woodson, Faile, Will Barras and Carlina Rodriguez Fuenmayor.

Do you have a favourite Affinity Designer feature?

If I had to choose just one feature, it would have to be the fact that we can do both vector and raster design work all within the same app thanks to our Persona switching features. In the past, I would have to rely on multiple different apps to get the same outcome which would result in a frustrating amount of file variations and would end up taking a lot more time too. So being able to create something purely in vector form and then instantly switch to the Pixel Persona to add raster-based textures or bitmap elements is really amazing.

“In the past, I would have to rely on multiple different apps to get the same outcome which would result in a frustrating amount of file variations and would end up taking a lot more time too. So being able to create something purely in vector form and then instantly switch to the Pixel Persona to add raster-based textures or bitmap elements is really amazing.”

It’s definitely one of those things you don’t necessarily know you need until you try it and then struggle to imagine designing anything without that feature!

Are there any ‘hidden gems’ (functionality) within the software that you think don’t get enough credit/use?

Absolutely—I think the Layer Adjustments as a whole are really beneficial, there’s just a huge range of things you can use there to drastically change up your design in a matter of seconds, which you wouldn’t usually have access to in other vector based design apps.

For me, HSL and Gradient Map are easily my most used adjustments too, it’s been so handy to come up with a design and then use either of those two options to instantly end up with completely different colour variations you might not have thought of before.

Bitmap fills are often overlooked too. There are loads of different applications for these but one thing I like to do is use a simple line or dot-based pattern and then use a Bitmap Fill inside a shape or section of an illustration I’ve made. So in this way it acts as like a halftone pattern fill, but one you can very easily resize or instantly adjust straight away, whereas traditionally, pattern fills can be quite tricky and cumbersome to tweak so I think the Bitmap Pattern route works even better. It works great with textures too!

Any top tips you have for using the apps for beginners?

I would say it’s a great idea to check out the starter guide and video tutorials. Getting familiar with the layout and where the tools and other elements are can really save you a lot of time before you dive in.

I think one of the biggest things is getting used to having different Personas within our apps too. If you didn’t know what they were for, you might get a little confused or be unsure why the tools had changed.

So the main thing to remember if you’re starting out is the Designer Persona is primarily for scalable, vector designs (logos, UI, typography and digital illustrations) and the Pixel Persona is primarily for raster-based image-making (pixel-based brush work and illustration, image editing with erase and selection tools etc).

The best part is you can chop and change at any time so it doesn’t matter if you change your mind mid-design, you can just quickly switch between the different Personas as and when you need them!

What about for more advanced users?

I think one thing that springs to mind is our Pen Tool functionality. I know a lot of designers and illustrators that use the Pen Tool to create the majority of their work (as opposed to using a graphics tablet with a stylus for example) and one of the things I love about Designer is how much more intuitive the Pen Tool options are.

We’ve essentially put everything you’d need to use all within the single Pen Tool itself and then given you a load of keyboard modifier options to help speed up the whole process. Usually you would need to change tools every time you wanted to add another node to your line or change tools again if you wanted to delete or change how it joins or appears on your design. With our system you can just work much more quickly and efficiently so I’d really recommend some of the more advanced users take a proper look at our Pen Tool and see if it’s better than they were imagining.

What are you doing when you’re not graphic designing/working? Any interests/hobbies you want to share?

Generally speaking, if I’m not working on something illustrated or design-based then I’m probably playing drums or messing around in some kind of music production software. I’ve actually got a handful of projects I’ve had in the works for a long, long time which should hopefully be released into the wild next year.

One of them is a clothing and print-based company (@thefilthbrand), another one is an electronic/alternative music project (@thescorpionclub), and the last one is a funk/hiphop/jazz band (@octopushotline) so if you’re curious to see/hear either of those then feel free to follow the Instagram pages or my main illustration one (@mattsearston) and I’ll be sure to shout about them on there in the not too distant future!

What do you hope to see from Affinity Designer in the future?

That’s a tricky one to answer but I think I’d just like to see us continue to try and do things a little differently as we have done so far. I think our main aim is to try and introduce new tools and features in a way they haven’t quite been done before or with a more up-to date approach, so I’m always really looking forward to the next updates we bring out as much as anyone else!

There are a couple of features on the horizon in particular that I’m definitely excited about but more than anything it’s always great to see how people implement them in different ways when they’re out in the open so I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next update to see how people use it in their own way without a doubt!

To see more of Matt’s work, check out his Instagram @mattsearston.