Experience design touches everything, reflects Stanley Hines Jr.
The more you immerse yourself in the discipline, the more you notice the tiny details that make every day experiences enjoyable or downright frustrating. Buying concert tickets. Navigating bike lanes. Driving our cars. For people like Stanley
, an experience designer and strategist currently working at Stink Studios, who is obsessed with user experience and the strategic thinking underpinning experiences, it can be somewhat distracting. He’s constantly noting down the aspects of life and work that could be vastly improved with a tiny tweak or a complete experience design overhaul.
“What really excites me is when you take experiencing design to a new level, and you go into like these unexpected places, “ he says. “There are places where people will have a really clear image of it and the image hasn’t been changed in a hundred years, and then you just do something different to enhance it.”
These days, in a world turned upside down by Covid-19, where ingrained behaviours and traditional ways of doing things are being ripped apart and rebuilt from the ground up, Stanley’s user experience and design brain has plenty to mull over. Professionally, he’s excited about the potential for change in the world of retail. But with teachers in his family and nephews at school, he has also been thinking a lot about how design and UX approaches could tackle systemic inadequacies in education.
But if experience design is everything to Stanley, it’s taken him quite some journey to find it. As a kid growing up in upstate New York, he was a little artist, and as he went through school he found himself drawn towards art that infused with Black culture. That love of art even led him to start out his degree at Temple University is Philadelphia as an art major –but a One Club event turned out to be lightbulb moment and he switched to Communications and decided he wanted to be an art director.
“What really helped propel that shift was that One Club had an event that I went to called Where Are All the Black People in Advertising. I went to something like my sophomore year of college and it was really cool to see all these different creatives and CCOs that looked like me and that were making some really dope work that I had seen across like my time in school,” he reflects.
He got his first taste of work in the advertising industry with an internship in New York – which meant a commute of two hours each way from Philadelphia. After some stints as an art director, he soon came to a realisation. It just wasn’t enough for his insatiable, problem-solving brain. And so a Masters in Experience Design at VSU beckoned.
“I realised I didn’t want to be an art director. It was just that something about it that I felt like I wasn't doing enough. It just became routine. Coming out with the concept of doing prep and stuff like that. It was wasn't really my thing. I actually went back to school and that's when I started studying experience design. And everything makes sense at that point because even as a creative person, I’m also a very rational person as well. I really try to figure out like what makes people tick or what is a way to improve something,” explains Stanley.
As he figured out where he wanted to go with his big bag of new skills, he landed the chance to visit the 2017 Cannes Lions festival as a winner of the AKQA Future Lions, an eye-opening experience that hurled him into the belly of the international creative industries.
In terms of where UX could take him, he knew that he wasn’t necessarily keen on a role with a full-on tech company or a huge, traditional agency. What he was looking for was a ‘sweet spot’ that combined technology and creativity, where he wouldn’t get lost in the machinery of a giant corporation.
That’s where Richmond-based start-up Arts & Letters came in. Stanley joined as the eleventh employee, as a creative and UX designer. However, as a hungry new studio, Stanley had to roll up his sleeves and jump in to help with a host of challenges, learning skills like video editing on the job and also building up his strategic skills too.
“It was definitely scary, definitely jumping into the unknown. I was there for two years. I think during my time there, I learned a lot about my craft. I learned a lot about like what I wanted to do, what didn't want to do, but also had the opportunity that most people don't really have - especially having just come out of school - to work on big brands and stuff like that,” he says.
That blend of UX and strategy has proven to be a useful combination, particularly when it came to landing a job at Stink Studios in New York. Joining Stink has been a ‘wild ride’ – particularly since Stanley started the role during the Covid-19 lockdown. He’s managed to meet his co-workers at monthly meetups in a nearby Brooklyn park, but other than that he’s collaborating with teams in New York, London, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles from his apartment.
As he’s navigated his career in the in-demand field of UX and experience design, Stanley has found that he’s had to be particularly thoughtful and careful. It’s a field that’s still very much in flux, only recently becoming formalised, and every agency, brand and studio is still working out how it fits into their organisation.
“I think it’s been around but we haven’t formalised a title for it until recently. But even that title is still so fluid. You have multiple different spaces that you can get into within that realm. It’s kind of like being a producer or a strategist – you can be a digital strategist, a brand strategist. A digital producer, a broadcast producer. And it’s the same with experience you have a lot of areas within that space. You have user researchers, UX strategists, UX designers, UI designers, visual designers, creative technologists… it’s so massive and every company, every agency, every brand has a different title or description for all this stuff,” he reflects. “But what remains the same is this idea of designer for the user.”
He’s even noticed that different organisations have been splitting it down into even finer specialisms. He advises newcomers to the field to think about job descriptions rather than job titles. “I think it's very fluid, which is good and bad,” he says. “I think with art direction and copywriting and maybe strategy, essentially, you know what you're getting. There are areas that you know what to ask for. Even when I was looking for a new job, I had to be very careful when looking at the description, even if it did say then UX designer, is that a role that I would want to have based on the company and based on the work?”
With Stink, he feels he’s found a particularly good fit. “My experience at Stink is that nothing’s the same, every project I’ve worked on has been totally different whether it’s a product or a pitch. So that keeps me on my toes, having that switch up and change,” he says.
Keeping fresh and keeping up with a steady stream of new challenges in a specialism that is itself constantly evolving is a lot of fun for Stanley – but that also needs creative fuel. For Stan, that fuel is music. “If there's a new album that comes out Friday, my next week is probably going to be a good week, because I’ll be listening to that all week,” he laughs.
And, as we noodle about the nerdier elements of UX design, we touch on the fact that sound and music is so often an overlooked part of experience.
“Sound can really change people’s viewpoint on something and also their emotion as well and that can really impact someone’s experience. Surround sound is game changing!” he says. “There are these little, tiny things that people are constantly overlooking - but then people like me are overthinking those things and the tiniest detail. Like, ‘that was a great swish sound’, tiny little things that you wouldn't notice, I love.”
As for which artists, musicians and creators particularly inspire him, when we talk Stanley is still reeling from the impact of Beyoncé’s new visual album “I'm just going to start off with Queen Bey first! Black is King was really dope. I think just from an artistic standpoint, it was just a really nice representation of this Black culture, and of African culture and it puts it together in a really beautiful way,” he says. Though, of course, this experience junkie is also looking forward to some live music after months of lockdown. “I'm really excited and counting down the days till I can go to concert and a festival. I’m craving that so much!”
Ultimately though, as someone for whom ‘experience’ is a framework for how he thinks about and understands the world, Stanley is someone who can draw inspiration from anywhere. He truly does look at life through design-coloured lenses.
“I know a lot of people like to ask, ‘what inspires you?’ Normally people may pick out a person or thing. I would say, ‘this life!’ Life is my inspiration,” he says, enthusiastically. “I like looking at it from a different viewpoint or angle based on my own personal experiences and other people's and saying, 'what areas can we help to improve this?'”