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Digital Design Leadership: Greg Storey


From RC car racer in Alaska to barista to former CMO of Happy Cog, Greg Storey has truly done it all. In this interview, Greg talks about the importance of communication in the design world, as well as his rather unique path to becoming the digital design leader he is today.

[ftslist title=”Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed” tag=”digital-design-leader”]


Richard Banfield: Hi.

Greg Storey: Hello.

Richard Banfield: Please, introduce yourself.

Greg Storey: My name is Greg Storey, and I’m the … chief marketing officer at Happy Cog.

Richard Banfield: You had to think about that?

Greg Storey: I think about that for a second, yeah.

Richard Banfield: So, at some points in your path to becoming the CMO you realized that people looked at you and said, “I know this guy’s in charge, he’s in leadership.”

Greg Storey: Um-hum.

Richard Banfield: Do you remember that moment or is that something that happened in stages?

Greg Storey: I think that moment that you described didn’t happen here, or I don’t even think in design that happened way back in the past when I used to run a bunch of coffee shops. I kind of work myself up from, you know, barista to actually running the store to then running three stores in a wholesale operation. And at that point, I think that was a pretty dramatic change from what I was to where I ended up in like a year and a half, and that’s where I have that people looking and saying, “Oh, my gosh, you’re in charge.” Um, otherwise I kind of sense that it’s always been a leadership position for me … in one way or another.

Richard Banfield: And in the design sense becoming this whole design leader …

Greg Storey: Um-hum

Richard Banfield: … has that been constant in your evolution or you feel like you made a transition and then you’re just being … spinning your wheels or holding on to what you have?

Greg Storey: I think it’s sort … I guess I define leadership with somebody who speaks out, someone who leads other by example or pointing something out saying, “Hey, that’s not right” or “This is what’s right.” So, I get … I think in that regard I feel like probably in early 2000 when I started writing about design is I suppose when I kind of got in that position. I wasn’t an authority. I wasn’t necessarily teaching people how to do things, but trying to point out, like I said, things … whatever designs that were great, designers who were great, things that I didn’t think were so great, and I think it’s kind of where my position has been in this group for a while.

Richard Banfield: Along the way did you get advice or was this all just, you know, stuff along the way?

Greg Storey: I think it’s picking up stuff along the way. There were definitely people who resonated with me and kinda my own thinking and that’s always been Jeffrey Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, um, guys like Cameron Moll, Dan Cedarholm, Mike Davidson, you know, way, way back in the day. So let’s say that I don’t know if there’s particular advice as much as trying to … trying to be a voice for a lot of people who didn’t speak up. So that when you had people who were coming in and … I don’t know, just being disruptive, trolling our little neck of the woods, I always felt compelled to say something. Because I knew that others would not for one reason or another, and I felt like … so suppose that there was anything I kinda gravitated towards it.

Richard Banfield: Is there anyone of those people or maybe somebody else who’s acted as a mentor to you?

Greg Storey: Oh, man! Yeah, mentors and peers. I mean on and off Jeffrey Zeldman was definitely a mentor. He’s the one that told me I should quit my job and get into freelance, which was kind of funny, because I hired him at this job. And so he was basically saying, “You’re too good for this place, and your career, your path is bigger than what this place is ever gonna be able to do for you, so you really should just quit.” He was definitely the influence. A guy, Tom Dolan, who was a guy who ran a studio called Polychrome in Pasadena. He was definitely an influence in … I suppose a supportive role in those early years of kind of being outside validation of talent. Someone who wasn’t necessarily … I didn’t feel like he followed everybody else in what they were saying at the same time or at that time. He was somebody who didn’t know, kind of came out of the woods, yet his experience and the work that he had done really helped me get the confidence I needed to be able to say, “Okay, this combined with guys like Jeffrey Zeldman saying go out on your own,” that’s kind of what helped propelled that.

Richard Banfield: And your residence experience is really what’s driven this, rather than, say, design experience?

Greg Storey: Yeah, I’d say where I am today for sure. I’ve always been someone to start things. So, I remember, for example, back in Alaska where I’m from, and when I was younger I got involved into remote-control cars. You know, that was a big thing back then. And there wasn’t really anywhere to congregate with other enthusiasts. And at the time, too, I couldn’t exactly afford all the equipment that I needed. And so, I decided, “All right, I will start my own track, and I’ll congregate all these people, and I’ll get everything I need to kind of get the experience, you know, that I want from this.” And so, with my father’s help, we went and got an old, like a department store that had been vacant for a while. We negotiated the use of that every Friday night for at least a year—or it may have gone two—and got my parents to help kind run the front office, you know, register all the racers, deal with the money. And then as it grew, got guys to actually run the race, become like race marshals. So, this is me as like a freshman in high school, organizing something that turned into … I think we had about 75 to 80 racers at night. We actually had an audience because it was a department store, it was fairly big and so, we got it right up into the paper like, “Hey, here’s this thing to go do.” We had guys driving as far as 150 miles, just to race at this track …

Richard Banfield: Wow!

Greg Storey: Yeah, just trying to do this thing, so, that’s kind of been, you know, if something isn’t there, go start it. Um, that’s I suppose … it’s part of this and it’s also part of being entrepreneur. And thats … both of those had been kind of, I’d say more part of my path than just pure design.

Richard Banfield: Right.

Greg Storey: I didn’t go to school to study design. I studied architecture in high school. I was gonna be an architect until I found out that you … in addition to college you had to go through like eight more years. It was like being a doctor. And only then through all of that being a journeyman and that type of thing, did you finally get to design buildings. Which to me was the most creative part. And so, once I found out all of this, I was like, “Screw this! I’m gonna go to graphic design,” and you know, I’ve always been playing with “Max” and all this PageMaker and that type of thing.

Richard Banfield: Um-hum.

Greg Storey: And so, you know, once I kind of turned that avenue down and focused on graphic design, that was a lot easier. But then I studied advertising in college and history so, I didn’t go to design school. I just … I kind of feel like I’ve always been flanking design as a career, um, or trying to, I should say. And every time I think I’m gonna really get into this and just dive deep, then whatever business opportunity or something else kind of happens, and my focus is there, but design is always a part of it.

Richard Banfield: So, having taken a nondirect path to becoming where you are, do you think that there are ways for young, potentially great design or entrepreneurs or design leaders to find their own path? Is that clear to them? Or did they end up following the disjointed path that you followed?

Greg Storey: I think I’ve come across two paths. I’ve worked with and I’ve hired students who came out of design school where they have a lot of … I would call it tactical experience. You know they kind of paraded through applications and a little bit of history, a little bit of process, more of how-to stuff. And then, I’ve come across and worked with a lot of people who just taught themselves everything they needed to know along the way and kind of held more street smarts. So, let’s say that there’s definitely a place for both.  You don’t … I don’t think you have to go to design school, but you still can. You just need to be aware of kind of what you’re getting out of it, and what you need to augment what you’re not being caught in class. And vice versa, I think people who are self-starters, they learn street smarts along the way, right? They get that, because they’re constantly bumping into or creating problems or mistakes and having to pick themselves back up and fix that. But they’re not necessarily getting all the design education, you know, that someone at a school might.

Richard Banfield: Um-hum. And the mistakes that you’ve bumped into along the way, are there any that are super memorable?

Greg Storey: Yeah, I mean they’re all the classic stuff. So, I remember creating a logo for a trucking association. At their request, they wanted me to redesign their newsletter. This is before the web, right? So, redesign their quarterly newsletter and create a logo for them. And so, I did the work. And they loved the newsletter, and they said, “We would like the logo, and how much is this?” And, so I told them $300, and they balked and they said, “Wow, we’ll take the newsletter, we can’t take the logo.” So, I made it clear, and I said, “All right, but just so we’re clear, this is now my property, like … it’s always been my property, but I retain the rights for this. You can not use it.” And sure enough a couple of months later I found that they … the newsletter went out with the logo. And so, I had to quickly learn … basically I had to get the guts to go after these guys by myself and say, “You owe me 300 bucks,” you know? And I saw it coming, and you know, miles away. And I wasn’t really prepared for when it happened right. I thought, something in the back of my mind said these guys aren’t dumb enough, and they did it, so … It took a couple of really tense phone calls and letters, you know, writing back and forth, but I got my money.

Richard Banfield: Congratulations.

Greg Storey: Yeah, thank you. I got my money. Otherwise let’s say a lot of it has to do with communication issues. A lot of the problems if I look back in the early years are just communication issues. You know, and I’d say the one that I’ve learned that I had to quickly get over, especially getting into web design, was if I was behind as a designer and if I needed more time, I needed to call the client and tell them right away. Not bury myself in a Photoshop sand dune, right? That never works. And it took probably a year or two of just pissing people off in the early days of Airbag, the studio that I started, just pissing off clients, losing a client, like, a friend who was a client. It took all of that, kinda of that pain and stress and tension to realize that communication is more important than design in a design role. Right? So, I’d say that was a biggy. Yeah.

Richard Banfield: And so, these mistakes obviously developed a level of confidence for you.

Greg Storey: Um-hum.

Richard Banfield: Can you maybe explain a little bit how confidence changed your ability to make better decisions or to be a better leader?

Greg Storey: So, I think confidence comes through experience, for me anyway. After a while, you start seeing patterns, you start seeing cycles, you start seeing, identifying, “This client is gonna be like this,” or “This contractor is gonna be like this,” or “This employee is gonna kinda fit this role and this kind of mold.” So, I think after a while, when you start to see those patterns through your own experience and that’s that’s been the case for me is, I kind of know how to manage that, like what the expectations are, whether they’re communicated or not, and how I needed to change, to adapt, to help make that relationship as smooth as possible. So, that’s for to start. Second is, even as bad as some, a project went or, you know, how it went down or how it ended, nobody tried to kill me, nobody tried to take my home. Now, I know some people who, you know, they’ve been in worse situations, and they found themselves on the wrong side of a lawyer or a legal team, but still I don’t know anybody whose life was ultimately changed because of something bad that happened, because of the type of work that we do.

Richard Banfield: Right.

Greg Storey: And so, I do think that, you know, being level headed and knowing that it’s not that problems don’t matter or, you know, a person’s weird request don’t matter It’s just that it’s … in the big scheme of things, it’s all gonna play out. So, I just learned to be able to relax and, you know, just kinda see how the things go, do the best job I can, manage relationships the best that I can, improve communication constantly, and all along way I think that helps with the confidence and knowing what you need to do to improve.

Richard Banfield: Um-hum. How would you describe your style of leadership?

Greg Storey: I would say, it’s probably hands-off. I mean, I don’t know how many descriptions there are of styles, but I’m not … I don’t micromanage people. I may micromanage a design tweak just to get it right, but I don’t … I’m more interested in what my business partner Greg Hoy says, “throwing people in the pool.” Trying give them all the tools and support they need, but really trying push people to get their own confidence and get their own kind of two feet to stand up. So, try to lead by example.

Richard Banfield: Do you think your team would describe you the same way, or do you think they would have a different perspective?

Greg Storey: I would hope they would describe me that way. Yeah, I guess I … I mean we’ve come across people who … I suppose the opposite of that would be micromanaging people. Right? “This is what you need to be working on right now. This is how you need to be doing it.”

Richard Banfield: Um-hum.

Greg Storey: You know, even the type that just … they’re not seeing it, so they’re just, you know, “Get out of the way, I’ll do it.”

Richard Banfield: Yeah.

Greg Storey: And I’d say there’s some of that that I probably did early on, but I’m really trying not to do that. I think it just built stronger people.

Richard Banfield: Right.

Greg Storey: And also you find out quickly if those people are gonna be able to do this or not.

Richard Banfield: Um-hum.

Greg Storey: Right? So, rather than taking five years to figure out if that’s a really good person in your team, you’ll find it out in a year or two. Right? I think it’s valuable.

Richard Banfield: Right. You’ve just given us a tour of your office space, which is gorgeous, by the way.

Greg Storey: Thanks.

Richard Banfield: Can you reflect on why office space is important in this day and age that we can literally be working from home or have an actual teams, and what kind of role does the office space play in design and design world?

Greg Storey: So, we … when I say “we,” my group, my team, the people I’ve been working with for the last almost ten years, there’s been times where we were completely remote, all virtual, times when we were half remote, half virtual, or half remote, half in an office, and just in the last two years here in Austin, where we are all in an office. I think it depends on the person, but I do think whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert, getting together in the room with your team, it improves communication. You can have a Slack and IM and phones and all that other kind of stuff, but nothing beats the speed of sound. Right? My ability to just, “Hey, Richard! What do you think of this?” As opposed to typing, and then I gotta send you a screenshot, or call you, or like, whatever. I do think it helps build communication. It helps build a group. Whatever that dynamic might be, it’s still gonna be, you know, kind of like us, as a group. That’s hard to get virtually. Right?

Richard Banfield: Right.

Greg Storey: I do think that the office provides a place for you to go, a place for you to kind of flip that switch and say, “I’m at work now.” And also to be able to more importantly switch that off and say, “I am going home now.” Right? And then in terms of how the office and its importance to design, I think that’s just the matter of what you surround yourself with. You know, how you choose to lay things out, decorate your office. We have lots of books, we have old computers, we have cool stuff to look at. And it’s not to create the “hip” office per se, but create things that, you know, are nice to look at, might inspire you and that type of thing.

Richard Banfield: Um-hum. How long has Happy Cog been around?

Greg Storey: Well, Happy Cog’s been around since 1999.

Richard Banfield: Um-hum.

Greg Storey: I started my own studio, Airbag—Airbag Industries—in 2005. That became a Happy Cog office in 2009. And we were in California, and we’ve been here in Austin for about two and a half years.

Richard Banfield: So, now that you’ve had almost—over a decade in this space, what do you think the future holds for you as a design leader and for the company?

Greg Storey: I think with the ever-expanding array of devices and things that are gonna not just access information but display it, I think that’s just gonna provide an ever-changing landscape of both opportunity as a designer but also opportunity in business. It’s also, to me, becoming more … these devices that we have, and these different experiences where, you know, you’re not just sitting at a computer interacting with things. I think those are gonna become more important than some of the stuff that we have been working on, you know, where brands and companies and groups—tribes of people—will congregate first on your phones, or like devices, and these other things kind of become accessories to the experience. So, by that I mean, I think we’re gonna be designing, you know, towards that core experience of not a store, not an office, not a space. But that’s gonna become your phone or something that you have on you all the time. Websites and other things that used to be traditionally number one, not only are those gonna be like accessories, but by accessories I mean they may take on a different shape, a different look, kind of like an eclectic house where the rooms are different, right? And they appeal to different sensibilities or different groups or different themes. And that, I think … that excites me, because we have more devices, more things to design for, but we also have smaller audiences for each of these things that we’re gonna have to design for. And so, while you may have, you know, an iconic brand or logo or what not, I think, you know, in the future your experience of the brand may be very different than mine, and that’s just a matter of our tastes. And that’s design, I think, that will not only help propel that kind of thinking, but there’s also gonna be a lot of work to do, you know, to make that happen.

Richard Banfield: You’re certainly gonna be busy.

Greg Storey: Yeah.


This interview was recorded Summer 2014.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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