Episode 48

From mastering skeuomorphic design to building a global agency with Clay's Anton Zykin and Dmitry Tsozik

On Overtime, we dive into a little Dribbble history with Clay’s Anton Zykin and Dmitry Tsozik. If you were on Dribbble in the early days, you may remember the incredible skeuomorphic icons made by SoftFacade. In this episode, we hear how Anton and Dmitry got started, what happened when iOS 7 killed skeuomorphic design, their advice building an agency, and about their journey from Russia to San Francisco.

When I saw the style of iOS 7, I was pretty terrified to be honest with you. And I thought, ‘Okay, now what are we going do?’ Are we going to just fire those people who were producing those hyper-realistic icons, nobody would need them anymore because Apple just ditched them all together at once?

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  1. LifeKraze app icon icon icons identity logo softfacade
  2. Vegas Baby icons softfacade virtual gifts
  3. Coach's Eye app icon icon icons identity logo softfacade

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Dan Cederholm: Welcome to Overtime, Anton Zykin and Dmitry Tsozik.

Dmitry Tsozik: Hello. Hello.

Anton Zykin: Hi Dan.

Dan Cederholm: Hi. Yeah, it’s wonderful to have you both on for a variety of reasons, I have so many questions about, especially from the early days of Dribbble where you both were part of SoftFacade, right? That was the account on Dribbble, and your first or maybe not your first, but it was your, in early agency of yours. Is that right?

Anton Zykin: Yeah, that is correct.

Dan Cederholm: I have so many fond memories of that. Well, a lot of good memories of the early days of Dribbble and especially the accounts SoftFacade and admittedly it was a little mysterious to me in a way because whenever something was posted to that account, I’d get really excited and then just be amazed by what we were uploading, and we had theories in the office like, “How do they do this? How is it so realistic?” And we were like, “Well, they must be like a team of a thousand pixel pushers over there, that are just constantly creating these pixel perfect skeuomorphic things.” I wonder if you could bust that theory and tell us who thought SoftFacade was and how it came to be in, on those early days.

Anton Zykin: Sure, sure. So, originally I started SoftFacade back in 2004, so at the time it was a one man show, so I was, I believe in high school still. And I just started freelancing and wanted to pick a name for a company because I didn’t want to position myself just as a person. So I picked a name and started doing some work and it was around to 2004, 2005 I believe. Then the actually company started around 2007 or ‘8 even, and I just started hiring people and Dmitry was actually the number two employee of a SoftFacade, and it’s an interesting story how we met because I was looking for freelancers who could produce hyper realistic icons, and I came across Dimtry’s work on one of the freelance websites I believe, and just emailed him and I was based in Saint Petersburg, Russia, he was somewhere in Siberia. So we met over email and I actually hired him for a first job, which was actually an icon set for Smashing Magazine.

Anton Zykin: So it was around Christmas time and the set that we decided to do was based on the Christmas fun and all the Christmas related things. Dmitry finished that project and after that I said, “Okay, so why don’t you join SoftFacade and move to St Petersburg.” So, that’s how we met and that’s how the core company was started in the beginning. So, Dmitry maybe you can give an insight on your end, like how it looked and like what your thoughts were.

Dmitry Tsozik: Yeah, I actually have a little bit different version of that story. So initially even before like emailing each other and discussing the project, Anton been uploading his own icons, in some Russian network for designers, I don’t remember. And I kinda just started arguing with him about the style in commenting section, I was saying like, “No, this is not exactly like the Apple style, you should do it this way or that way.” And we were kinda going back and forth and only after that, I think it was like the first email and we were discussing this Christmas set of icons. Yeah.

Dan Cederholm: For Smashing Magazine?

Dmitry Tsozik: Yep.

Dan Cederholm: Wow. So that’s wild, Anton is in St Petersburg, Dmitry is in Siberia, to the other side of the country, right? And then you both joined up, started SoftFacade. Now, of the things that you were sharing on Dribbble in those early days, this is back in, I guess it’s 2010 actually.

Anton Zykin: Yeah, yeah.

Dan Cederholm: It was just the two of you at that point then, or?

Anton Zykin: No, actually, it’s interesting because we had two teams, one team worked exclusively on enterprise products and they were doing some crazy UX design, back in those days where people, I mean, didn’t know what UX was. We had that team completely dedicated to those enterprise projects and that was, I believe around 85% of all of our revenue at the time.

Anton Zykin: Then another team, around maybe five to seven designers, I think it was five. That team was fully dedicated to the Dribbble stuff. So we were just producing those icons and trying to, I mean there were a few things that we wanted to achieve, we wanted to achieve a level of quality that Apple would do, and we had a few designers that we admired at the time and we wanted to do better than those guys. So at some point we joined Dribbble and for me was somewhat an exclusive community and I didn’t even think about that somebody, someday would invite me to join Dribbble. So I took that opportunity and we just started to post different things, and all the projects that we were showing to the Dribbble community were actually real projects, because these days people will just put out a lot of concepts and not real stuff, but everything that we showed in Dribbble, they were real projects by real clients, and essentially were getting paid for that work.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. That’s interesting, and that’s exactly what I thought at the time, I knew that these were real projects and real Apps that you were working on. That was what was so impressive about it too, I mean, the level of detail on these things is just incredible. So you said there was a team of folks, I mean, was I off with my 1000 people guess? People it takes to create one of those icons or I assumed is much smaller group than that, but.

Dmitry Tsozik: Yeah, I think it started with about three people working on the icon illustrations. In the very, very beginning I think it was one specific project, just the moment when the App Store thing happened. Sometime after that I kinda … Not as the moment when Apple made people realize that if you have two apps with similar functionality, but one of them has a prettier icon or better looking interface, you can sell more of that. I do remember clients started asking for that level of Iconography design. I specifically remember one, I guess it was my very first iOS icon in SoftFacade and it was some kind of a remote control App, like a TV remote App. I do remember the first version I created, that was in my old style and Anton actually disliked that and we had a discussion about that. But through that process, we came up with this approach, which eventually became an obsession I think, and insane standards how to approach an App icon so we don’t have to explain anything, you just look at it and see, okay, everything is done the way it should be done.

Dan Cederholm: Right, right. At that time, you’re right, I mean that was Apple kind of, that was the style of App icon, right?

Dmitry Tsozik: Yeah, yeah. Before iOS 7.

Dan Cederholm: Right, iOS 7 kind of flattened things out. So tell us about that transition, was that, for a group that was at the top of their game for skeuomorphic design, did you welcome that change or was it like, “Oh no, no one wants skeuomorphic stuff anymore, was that tough for the business?

Anton Zykin: Yeah. I think it was pretty tough. And at first when I saw the style of iOS 7, I was pretty terrified to be honest with you. And I thought, “Okay, now what we’re gonna do?” Are we going to just fire those people who were producing those hyper realistic icons, nobody would need them anymore because Apple just ditched them altogether at once. So, yeah, I mean, was little anxiety around that time, eventually what happened is, we had to fire some of those designers who couldn’t embrace the change and instead of producing icons, moved to the interface design or just create something along the lines of what Apple was doing. So we had to downsize in terms of the visual design team, I mean the icon design team and instead we took a path of becoming more like a full service agency where the main focus was going to be on user experience design and on a complete design of a digital product.

Dan Cederholm: Right, right. Of course. You’ve played that perfectly, right? ‘Cause now here we are years later and you have a very successful agency that we’re gonna get into a little bit later. It must have been a punch to the stomach a little bit, the change in style, and it’s interesting how Apple, they were leading the charge there, they could redesign things however they wanted to, and then a lot of businesses were built on Apps in the App ecosystem and then it was up to everyone else to follow along, so I imagine that was difficult. In terms of today, 2018 I feel like, and I might be wrong here, but I feel like skeuomorphic stuff maybe coming back in a way or not everything has to be completely flat in other words. I don’t know if that’s Apple loosening up or just tastes changing or I wonder what you guys think about that?

Dmitry Tsozik: Well, speaking of it like drastic change in this style, actually, for me, I wasn’t so much in the business side of SoftFacade, I was more like designer and thinking creatively. So for me it was very exciting moment because at that time we basically went through, super detailed illustration styles and to like technical illustration style which was different and then to fully 3D illustrations and then that was it, like what’s next?

Dan Cederholm: Right, maybe you’ve done everything you can, right?

Dmitry Tsozik: Yeah. At some point I do recall some Apple, they were talking about how to design better icons for your Apps and they were showing our work where we have like a badge and every kind of fiber on that badge had a little fibers on top of it just to recreate the little details of how the light passes through the fibers, and it was example, and the guy was saying, “I’m working with this thing for many years, but I don’t understand why they’re doing this and how they’re doing this.” So it was kinda the end of this style for me personally.

Dan Cederholm: So, they were showing it in a way, how not to do it or-?

Anton Zykin: No, no, they actually liked … It was WWDC and one of the workshops and the guy would just, I believe he was showing different examples of App icons, and he highlighted the work that we did for one of the Apps and that icon is in Dribbble by the way and we can link it in the notes later on.

Dan Cederholm: Oh, excellent.

Dmitry Tsozik: He was just speaking about the … He didn’t understand how to create an icon like that, so he was amazed by the level of detail, and I think he regretted it a little bit that Apple doesn’t do that anymore.

Dan Cederholm: I see.

Dmitry Tsozik: That was the highlight on WWDC and we were like, wow, it’s incredible to see our work at such an event.

Dan Cederholm: That must have been great, that must have been amazing.

Anton Zykin: Yeah. But then how do you improve on that? Right.

Dan Cederholm: You all had done so much with that constraint. That is one thing I miss about that time in that you had this very … And Dribbble in itself was like that in terms of the constraint of the shot, but you have the App icon shape and then you have to get creative within that. And SoftFacade was a perfect example of pushing the envelope on how you can take that shape and bend things realistically into that shape because that’s the constraint, and did you guys like that constraint or were you happy to sort of move on to UI work and that kind of thing?

Dmitry Tsozik: I personally liked that constraint. Yeah, it was always a game, but basically you have your goal and you just finding out the way how to get to the goal. That’s it.

Anton Zykin: Yeah. To me Dribbble was like Instagram for designers and by posting those amazing works of art I would say, we actually, we were able to attract a lot of clients this way and we landed clients like Uber, so we worked with them when they were just, I believe around 10 people and like I think Ryan Graves from Uber reached out to me and said, “We’re a small startup in San Francisco and wanted to redesign our icon et Cetera, the website.” “Yeah, why not?” Then we landed clients like Path, SendGrid, designed everything for them. So in terms of business, it was life changing for us, and I believe that was because of the exposure that we got from just posting our work in Dribbble.

Dan Cederholm: Wow. You guys can confirm we’re not paying you to say that. That’s amazing though. Rightfully so, I think that the platform is there, but the work that you’re sharing is just off the charts. So it’s like, I’m not surprised that all these companies came to you and said, “Look, we want you to do this.” It’s Just incredible. Yeah, it really is. So SoftFacade, just to move along on the story a little bit, so you’re getting clients through SoftFacade, iOS 7 comes out, changes everything in the App world, and you did successfully move, sort of pivot to a full service agency, right?

Anton Zykin: Yeah. In fact it was happening even before the end of the skeuomorphic era, and in fact as I said previously, we had a team already of people who worked on enterprise projects and like very complex projects, and the type of work that we did was essentially completely redesigning the legacy enterprise piece of software or something like that. So we had the skills already and we just wanted to repurpose what we knew about design and apply it in a new way. So we combined both teams, before we had two teams, one was icon focused and the other was UX focused. So now it was one team of designers just working on complete projects, oftentimes includes everything from strategy in UX, all the way to beautiful illustrations and icons, so we still had the need for that kind of work, it wasn’t just like a stand-alone icon project. So I think we matured a little bit and that changed that Apple introduced the new style, it helped us in a way that we moved our business from being just essentially an illustration design agency to a more mature company I would say.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, that’s super. Before we move on because I have questions about your move to the US for instance next, but before we get there, was there an icon before iOS 7? Was there a specific icon that was your favorite or the most difficult to design or most memorable one that you have or? I’m thinking of Las Vegas perhaps.

Anton Zykin: That was the most expensive icon that we were able to sell. Initially it was the favorite one. Dimitry, Correct me if I’m wrong, which one is your favorite?

Dmitry Tsozik: I cannot pick one because for me it’s always the learning new things, and for me each project it’s not just the result but what I learnt and I have different attachments to different projects that I cannot explain.

Anton Zykin: Yeah. Speaking of the Las Vegas icon, was an interesting story because the company who hired us for that project, they were based somewhere in Europe and I think they created an aligned casino and they wanted to have a few illustrations and one of them was that miniature version of Las Vegas. So we started with just like Eiffel tower and I think there were a few casinos and the Egyptian Pyramids, all that stuff. They were adding more and more of that, and the project was just, we worked by the hour, so the hours kept piling up and I think the final bill of the icon was around 55k or something like that.

Anton Zykin: So that was pretty insane for just one piece of illustration, and it in fact like most of the projects that we did at that time were, I mean very profitable, I would say, especially for a small company based out of Russia.

Dan Cederholm: Wow. That’s insane, $55,000 for an icon. Sorry, I’m stuck on that, that’s incredible.

Dmitry Tsozik: Speaking of super expensive illustrations, I also remember another project where we were creating an illustration of a car or vehicle and it ended up costing more than the vehicle itself.

Anton Zykin: Yeah, that’s not unusual.

Dan Cederholm: That’s great. I love it, I love it. In some ways I’m not surprised the amount of time and energy that has to go into something that detailed, it makes sense in a way. I was gonna say what’s my favorite icon of yours from your early days, and that’s a tough one, I think I’m with Dmitry, they each have their own unique way of taking advantage of that shape and that space, and I always appreciated designers that took that in very creative way, like the, the coach’s eye app icon was one of those for me where it’s like, it’s the icon shape but it’s a hat with a camera in it.

Anton Zykin: Yeah, yeah. I remember that one.

Dan Cederholm: It’s so fun. ‘Cause it has to be that shape for the App, and then you can within that, Kinda bend reality in terms of what it is. I just love it, it’s awesome.

Anton Zykin: But it’s also like everything else in design, design is working within some limitations and having the restriction is actually good, so you can still do something and being creative about how you do it. So I think that was interesting for us in terms of creating those Apple icons for the iPhone specifically, because we also did a lot of very detailed illustrations, which I wouldn’t call icons.

Dan Cederholm: Right, right, right. Exactly. Yeah. No, you’re right. I think I’m the same way whenever I’m creating something, the more constraints the better really in terms of making it easier to get creative within it. So that makes sense.

Dan Cederholm: So now you’re in Russia until a certain point and you actually move the agency to New York, is that right?

Anton Zykin: Yeah, that was correct. So, for me, I always wanted to be in California because from my childhood memories, watching Terminator 2, and all of those movies. Someday I would move, I moved to California but at some point we just decided that New York was the best for us, primarily because we had still, most of our team members back in Russia and the time difference was the main reason for us we picked New York. But then working in New York for, I believe we moved around beginning of 2013. So, we were in New York for a little more than two years and it’s great, I still think it’s the best city in the world, I love the energy, everything else and the weather could be better, but we’ll skip that part. For us it was a good starting point because like people say, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.”

Anton Zykin: So we learned how to do business, we improved our service a lot because for us coming from Russia, a country with a completely different mentality, an ex-communist country where we didn’t have the notion of good service. So for us that was new, so we had to learn from scratch on how to serve clients more so than doing great designs you need to be able to present it well, you need to be able to communicate and all that stuff. So really took those two years on, it was a learning experience for us and I think we accomplished a lot. We had many great clients, but what we gained from that period, I believe is more the experience of servicing people.

Anton Zykin: Being in New York for us it wasn’t the best experience because in terms of the kinds of clients you get in New York, it’s very fragmented, so you could get people who are ex-Wall Street guys, decided to design an App or just create a product and they have no idea on how to do it or it could be a large enterprise, which is good because obviously they can bring in a lot of revenue. So that’s how we started working with ADP for example, worked with them for three years or so. So, all that was good, but we really wanted to be in the epicenter of everything, and for us it was California and San Francisco specifically.

Anton Zykin: So we decided to take a leap of faith and just move the Agency from New York to San Francisco around September, 2015. Nobody knew us in SF and we again started from zero, it’s like in the GTA game when your house burns and you essentially move to a new location and start from scratch, for us that was the case a couple of times. First when we moved from Russia to New York, and then moving from New York to San Francisco.

Dan Cederholm: You start over. At that point when you moved to San Francisco, is that when you rebranded yourself to Clay?

Anton Zykin: Yeah. It’s an interesting story as well because like SoftFacade, when I first came up with the name, I didn’t know that it’d add a lot of not very positive connotations in English, because my English was very bad at the time. Then we tried to rebrand and the first effort was we just contracted the name to four letters, SFCD, we liked that because we were able to get the domain name, but clients couldn’t really pronounce that, and they were saying like S-F-D-C or something different because it’s sales force, SFDC and it could be something else.

Anton Zykin: That was especially true when we moved to San Francisco Because here you have all the different things like SFPG, SFFG, there is SFDC which is like San Francisco Design Center, SICO furniture store and things like SFCD, which was San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, so like a dance school essentially. So we thought that maybe we’ll pick a different name and we’re just trying the ideas around and trying to find a good one and something that we could also easily pronounce as not native english speakers, and came across Clay which was actually inspired by Clay Street, it’s close to our office here, and we usually walk to lunch and it just stuck in my head. And I asked Dmitry, “What do think about this one?” and he, I don’t remember what he said, but we just ended up taking that name, and it worked very well for us.

Anton Zykin: So after the name change a lot of positive things happened to our company, I mean, my personal belief is we were able to increase our revenue drastically, just because of the name change. Because it stucks in your head, it’s interesting like clay, you can mold it, you can be creative about it.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, I love it.

Anton Zykin: So, we like that too.

Dan Cederholm: I think it’s a great name for an agency and that’s interesting that you actually attribute large revenue change from that, it’s amazing-

Anton Zykin: By the way, that’s just a coincidence, but I still believe that a good name can go a long way.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah, I agree. So now you’ve set up in New York and then moved to San Francisco, how has that been and what’s the biggest differenCe between having an agency in one or the other?

Anton Zykin: Well, I think New York is great if you have connections. If you live in New York for a long time you meet people, it’s all about having good connections and referrals, and the type of work that you do in New York, I think it’s more related to, advertising or marketing websites, that kind of stuff. So it’s less about the product design work and the UX design and product design were the things we were excited about, so we didn’t have a lot of clients who would understand the importance of that in New York, and to be honest, most of them were not very serious about creating a product and it could be just because they all came from different backgrounds or maybe it’s just like a different mindset or something like that.

Anton Zykin: In San Francisco it’s a little bit different because you essentially speak the same language with your clients, all of them are, I mean at least our clients are in tech, so they have some tech background so they understand the product design process in detail. So it’s a lot easier for us to even communicate with the clients here, and the types of projects that we do are for the most popular brands or the apps that everyone uses in the world. So that’s the most exciting part for us of just been in San Francisco.

Dan Cederholm: That’s very cool. As you’re talking, I’m looking at some of your more recent work and I’m just sort of blown away by this, the logo for Pumpt.

Anton Zykin: That is actually for a New York based clients.

Dan Cederholm: Oh that was for New York. Okay.

Anton Zykin: Yeah, yeah.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Well okay, so, but I’m wondering, I’m looking at the motion aspect of it is incredible. Is that something that you as an agency have gotten into as well, motion design?

Dmitry Tsozik: Yeah. I think I can talk a little bit about that. So basically why we’re moving from 2D illustration then to 3D, adding another dimension, right? The next step for us was adding another dimension again, the dimension of time. So we started to do a lot of animations, some things like that. Eventually kinda building a new team, right now we have a dedicated team of people who only create animations for the products and specifications for developers and things like that, because our final goal is not just a movie right, but a product. That was new exciting thing for the team to try.

Dan Cederholm: It seems like such a natural progression, when you look at it like that, where you started and where you rolled with the punches in terms of the aesthetics changing from Apple or in whatever, and now you’re where you are, it’s amazing how resilient you’ve been, you’ve sort of been able to handle those changes at the same time out putting that same level of high level of work, so nice job.

Dmitry Tsozik: Thank you.

Dan Cederholm: Its very impressive. It’s really impressive. So now you have a team, you’re in San Francisco, how many people are on the team then in California?

Anton Zykin: We have about 15 designers now, some of them are here, some of them are remote, Some of them are still back in Russia. We also have a team of developers, because on a lot of projects people require development as well and that’s especially true here in the Bay area because developers are like, you can’t really find a developer, they all work at Facebook’s and Google’s and stuff. For a small company it’s nearly impossible to find one, so we do both, so starting with design but often times those projects evolve to complete development. So the team now is about 30 people spread across the entire globe with the headquarters being in San Francisco.

Dan Cederholm: What do you think your best piece of advice for folks that are starting agencies or maybe contemplating moving from one country to another? What would be like one thing to help them out with?

Anton Zykin: Well, I think I’ll answer it in two parts. So if, let’s say the part about starting an agency, first of all, you need to be ready for challenges and those challenges could be completely different things, oftentimes completely unrelated to the design work, so you need to be able to market yourself and that is everything from starting your own website to being current on Social networks and stuff.

Anton Zykin: From the organizational part, because like for us when we just moved to the US we had a lot of struggles with just like understanding the legal system here and had a few issues with employees and that kind of stuff. So just like with starting any small business you’re gonna wear a lot of hats at the same time and you need to be very resilient and stress proof to be able to make it. I think it’s about also a constant evolution, so just don’t stop where you are and create a goal for yourself and try to achieve that goal. But not forgetting the present and the process because that’s the most enjoyable part I think, in any business.

Anton Zykin: If you’re moving from one country to another country, well, learn the language because that’s the basis of all communications, you won’t be successful in your business unless you can speak their language, so that’s the main part.

Dan Cederholm: That makes good sense. I have a lot to learn and if I’m gonna move anywhere. I need to learn quickly. Dmitry and Anton, thanks so much for being on the show today. I think your story is pretty remarkable from where you started to where you are currently and that’s an inspiration. So thank you for all the work you’re sharing and we’re gonna keep watching and keep following.

Anton Zykin: Thanks a lot for having us again and a little bit about our plans, so, we were silent on Dribbble for I think about a year, but now we’re picking up again and-

Dan Cederholm: You’re back, yes.

Anton Zykin: Yeah, We’re back and I’m pretty sure were gonna be at the top again and make the trending charts on Dribbble again with some new stuff. So what we’re doing is two things, one, we’re gonna put out a lot of the work that we haven’t showed yet because of the NDAs, oftentimes you can only show it when it’s released or, it’s a complicated question for us. Plus we’re just going to have fun and put together a few series of charts if you will. So, those will be concepts around some real things, but we’re gonna produce them in the Dribbble format and hopefully that could be something new that other people will pick up, and you gonna hear from us very shortly, it’s in the progress right now.

Dan Cederholm: That’s exciting. I can’t wait. That’s gonna be fun, we’re gonna be following, so it’s is your username in Dribbble?

Anton Zykin: It is, yeah.

Dan Cederholm: Yep, and, can’t wait. That’s going to be super.

Anton Zykin: Sure. Thank you.

Dan Cederholm: Yeah. Well, thanks again. Thanks again to you both and keep up the great work.

Dmitry Tsozik: Thank you.

Dan Cederholm: Thank you.

Anton Zykin: Thanks Dan.