August 24, 2022

Working in Web3 with Neesh

Our wide-ranging conversation covers Neesh's journey into web3, advice for designers making their first foray into DAOs, and why product designers building in web3 have enormous responsibility.

An Introduction to Neesh

Our 'Working in Web3' interview series highlights the stories of some of our thirdwork members: freelancers, builders and experts doing incredible work in web3. 

Today, we’re talking to Neesh, aka LOSINGMYEGO, one of my favorite product designers and a founding member of thirdwork. She is a multi-disciplinary creative with over 10 years of experience exploring the realms of branding and creative direction, product design, front-end development, illustration and everything in-between. With experience as a senior product designer at both early stage startups and established companies, Neesh has also served as Creative Director in both the startup world and agency world. Since 2017, she has expanded her focus into branding and UI design for some of the most well-known web3 companies and teams. 

Our wide-ranging conversation covers her journey into web3, why working at an agency made her a better freelancer, advice for designers making their first foray into DAOs, and why product designers building in web3 have enormous responsibility for building the future of the internet.

- Gavin Yerxa | Founder @ Thirdwork

Can you tell us a bit about your early career journey? You have such an interesting creative path, from branding and visual work to product and UI/UX design (and even web development). How did you get here?

Even from the early days coming out of high school, I was always into design. But my first professional work as a designer actually came because I was working at restaurants. My first paid gig was rebranding the menu and a ton of print materials for a huge ramen restaurant in Washington DC. 

I used to charge $25 for a logo…I had no idea what was fair to charge, or what my time was worth. When you’re just getting started, it’s often the norm to do free or nearly-free work. I don’t even want to think about how many years I did work that I was wildly underpaid for. I was coming out of school and was passionate about the creative side, but had no exposure to the business side of things.

I remember at some point just googling “how do you price design services”, and coming across this design blog called The Futur, where I read all about Imposter Syndrome. I listened to a talk by a designer named Chris Do, where he talks about the challenges of building confidence and overcoming this nagging sense that you aren’t good enough. And I was like “that’s me!” You don’t know what you don’t know, and I had no sense that it was such a pervasive thing. I was fortunate in some ways that so early in my career, I was able to confront that challenge and advocate for my value. 

Leaving school and working at a startup

I had this interest in and passion for design, but I actually didn’t study design in college (at first). I really didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted to do when I first went to college. I ended up taking a year and half off of school, and decided to move to Louisiana. In a lot of ways, this was a huge accelerant for me, and kicked off my professional path in ways I couldn’t have expected. 

I had a cousin who ran a startup that was part of the LSU Startup Incubator. He knew I could ‘do design’, and he asked me to come work with him. He literally just threw things at me. It was a classic startup experience, in that I had no idea what I was doing but had to learn on the job. One day, he told me I needed to redo a website for a client. I had absolutely zero idea how to code beyond HTML, but I had to figure it out. Someone talked about vector graphics, so I had to google what those were.

In a lot of ways, that job was what I call my first two years of applied design school. Because of that experience, I had a much better idea of what I wanted to do. I went back to finish school as a graphic design major, and I now had this embedded interest in tech, UI/UX and product design because of that early startup experience.

My ambition coming out of school was probably not that different from most people…I wanted to be a designer, but I also wanted to make money and survive.  I had to be scrappy about how I found work. I made a portfolio of all of my projects; I even used that restaurant I had worked at as a case study, and figured out ways to tell this holistic story out of my varied experiences. It worked, and I ended up getting a job at a product design consulting firm that did a lot of UI/UX work for Fortune 500 companies.

Experience at a UI/UX consulting agency

My main takeaway from my time working as part of an agency was that I learned that I wanted to be a freelancer, primarily because I knew I didn’t want to be working for anyone else. 

However, the agency was a super interesting and valuable experience. They had all these talented people and interesting collaborative projects with big-time companies.

“My takeaway from that time is that if you’re at all curious about agency work—or even if you think you want to set out on your own one day, it’s a really good experience to have early in your career.”

It was a valuable learning experience for me, and that’s the way I approached it, almost as a continuation of my education. I worked on a range of really interesting projects. I’m a fast learner and I’m someone who learns by doing. At the agency, I felt that was accelerated because I was in an environment where I was learning and applying new skills every day.

Beyond the technical skills, it forces you to uplevel and understand business. This is something I think a lot of creatives might struggle with. How do you work with demanding clients? How do you encourage accountability? How do you manage your workflow with a bunch of other people when you all depend on each other? As much as you’ll get to flex technical skills, it’s the soft skills that are equally valuable. You're always getting critiqued multiple levels up the chain. Sure, it can be ego deflating early on, but it forces you to uplevel your game when your creative director is focusing on every little nit. You’ve got your daily check-in every morning, so everyone knows if you’re delivering or not.

When you’re early in your career, that accountability is important. I learned that while I didn’t like being on someone else’s clock, I could still be accountable while being on my own time and my own schedule.

[Gavin’s note: This point is super important for all freelancers out there. To really have success as a freelancer you can have tremendous freedom and autonomy, but it’s also because you’ve proven time and time again that you do what you say you will do. You’re running a business.]

So I scratched that itch at an agency. There are all kinds of agencies, from consulting agencies to boutique design to more marketing-focused agencies. If you’re at all interested in going that route, I think it’s a valuable experience to have early on in your career. Even if you only last 6 months, give it a shot. I’m glad I did it early on, because it allowed me to graduate and really kick off my freelance career, and eventually co-found my own agency, Room9.

Let’s talk about your dive down the web3 rabbithole

It was early 2017, and I kept seeing all these articles about these 15 year old kids making million dollars off of this thing called ‘Ethereum’. Honestly, I was sick of seeing all of these news flashes and not knowing what they were talking about.

So I started diving into it. I had heard of Bitcoin before, but I got really into learning more about Ethereum’s ecosystem. This was around the time that ETH went from a few cents up to $100. I became obsessed with blockchain technology itself. I wasn’t even trading at first and didn’t buy any Ethereum until 6 months later.

In the beginning, I was so interested in potential real-world applications, like promoting financial inclusion and providing solutions to the under and unbanked population of the world. In fact, if I had limitless resources, that’s probably what I would focus most on, because I think it’s possibly the best application of blockchain technology.

So I was diving really deep. I told people I was giving myself a Masters degree in crypto. I was on Reddit and 4chan, because there weren’t that many other places to dive into it. There wasn’t even a ‘Crypto Twitter’ the same way there is today. 

My first real foray in crypto professionally was actually not in design. I got a job editing whitepapers for a marketing agency during the ICO boom, when everyone was pumping out whitepapers left and right. I felt like it was a great way to apply all the learning I had been doing.

I’m so thankful I did that, because not only was it my first (non-investment) dollar I ever made in crypto, but it really deepened my technical understanding, and that’s something I’ve carried with me as I design experiences in web3.

As a designer, why is it helpful to have this technical grounding in web3? 

There are so many layers to that question. For one, I think it’s just generally helpful to understand what you’re talking about in this space. A lot of the projects are still technology-heavy, either protocols or infrastructure. So at minimum, you want to understand what they are doing, and why they are doing it. 

[Gavin note: This is a really good point, and you see this even in web2. If you’re an enterprise software company looking to hire a product designer, it’s going to help if you find someone with a grounding in enterprise software. That person is going to have a deeper understanding of the customer, the problem, the pain points, and might be able to look around corners another designer wouldn’t be able to.]

One of the biggest challenges when you’re designing a product in web3 is designing for a broad array of knowledge bases and a spectrum of users, and doing it without many guardrails or guideposts.

What I mean by a lack of guideposts is that in web3 design, I have to rely on instinct and assumptions so much more than in web2.

“In web2, you have clear patterns of user behavior and often you have reams of historical data to inform decisions. Or at least you have a clear understanding of what a user might expect the experience to be like, and can design with that in mind.You don’t have that in web3. By definition, so much of what we work on is more experimental. And that’s an opportunity, but also a challenge. It pushes me every day, because I don’t have typical patterns to rely on as a fallback”

I also think there’s this misunderstanding of what it means to be technical. When I say” it’s helpful to have a technical understanding”, some designers think that means you need to learn to code. That’s definitely not the whole picture. It’s more ‘do you understand what a blockchain is’? ‘How it works’? ‘What a merkle tree is’? ‘What a smart contract is and how it’s constructed?’

That’s why I think it’s helpful to have a theoretical grounding in crypto and web3 as a designer. Because whether you’re designing an infographic or a landing page or a user flow, you’ll know who you’re designing for and what it means. 

I’ve always found that when I understand something really deeply, I can explain it simply. There are many theoretical and technical concepts in web3. Some of them need to be understood by users, some of them don’t. But if you have a deep enough understanding of the concepts, you can do a better job of actually abstracting away the complexity and conveying it to them in the simplest way necessary to achieve your objective.

[Gavin note: if you haven’t built product before, you might think that product design is just pushing pixels around in Figma. But nothing could be further from the truth, and if you have a product designer with a deep understanding of your user and your industry/ecosystem, it can be an unbelievable force multiplier for your business.

In your work, how do you think about bridging web2 and web3? Do you think you need to design for a web2 audience or web3 audience? Why?

I don’t think there’s any one right answer to that question, rather you need to look at the goals of the project. 

For example, let’s say you’re designing a dApp (decentralized application) or some type of infra solution where your user base are inherently going to be web3 devs or builders in the space. In that case, you’re going to be able to start from a pretty technical level. You won’t be worried about ‘onboarding’ them onto web3, and don’t need to shy away from the complexity. 

On the other hand, you have a lot of projects that explicitly have the goal of bringing more people into web3. A lot of DAOs are a good example of this; many DAOs wanted to bring more engagement from web2 and so they needed to frame themselves as more approachable. In that case, you see more web2 patterns being applied to web3, more seamless onboarding flows, more understandable explanations of web3 concepts. Because that’s an entirely different goal.

Then you have other projects (things like larger brands doing NFT drops) where they don’t even call them NFTs, they call them digital collectibles. In that case, you’re almost abstracting away the entire technology and focusing only on the value to the user in the most straightforward terms. 

So there’s different grades of how innovative you need to be, and it’s something I think more projects need to grapple with. If you’re building only for a web3-native audience…what comes next? Even though the crypto space can feel all encompassing, it’s really not. 

Only a fraction of people even own NFTs (note: 4% of Americans have ever owned an NFT). While that’s not bad (9+ million people), it still means the VAST majority of people never have. So once you’ve proven out your MVP, how are you going to expand beyond those web3-native people? How are you going to grow your audience beyond Crypto Twitter?

“I think that designers in this space actually have a huge responsibility, because they are going to be one of the core pillars of growth and mass adoption.”

The web3 projects I work on are only going to mean something in the future if web3 mainstream adoption becomes real. And I think that design is one of the gateways for that to happen. It’s the synthesis of the what, the why, and the how that elicits a reaction in users. So I’m always thinking about how I can scale my designs, how we can get more people to interact with my tools, and how they can derive value from it.

It’s both this huge responsibility, but also this lighthearted challenge because it means we always need to be finding new ways to engage people. As a designer, that’s a fun challenge.

On this topic of knowing when to experiment and when to focus on mainstream audiences in web3, tell us about some of the coolest projects you’ve worked on!

There’s actually two projects I can talk about, and I think they’re interesting because they both were on different ends of the web2 and web3 audience spectrum.

Bringing NFTs and POAPs (Proof of Attendance Protocols) to a mainstream audience

I worked as a designer and front-end developer on a project where the use case was designing an NFT-based experience for fans who attend a large stadium event, and we did this in partnership with a major sports league. If a fan attends a game and scans a QR code that is shown on a screen at a game, they’ll be taken to a customized fan experience site. Once there, they can either login to the site with an email address or with their Ethereum wallet, and they can receive badges, perks linked to their attendance, special offers, and more.

It sounds simple, but we wanted to make it accessible for all fans while integrating NFTs into the experience. That meant we had to build a web2 experience and a web3 experience. Plus we wanted to incentivize fans to connect their wallet and experience digital collectibles on the blockchain, so we had this third pathway to design for.

And we wanted to do all this in a way that subtly pulled people into web3 while not overwhelming them. This is maybe the most practical and mainstream project I’ve worked on, one where we really tried to bridge web2 and web3. 

Product design for crypto-native audience

One of the coolest projects I got to work on as a contributor was Camp Chaos, which operated under Songcamp. Camp Chaos was an experiment that brought together a group of 77 songwriters, visual artists, engineers, and storytellers from across the globe. The project members were grouped into teams to write and compose a series of songs, produce a podcast, create lore, and build a minting experience. Ultimately, 45 songs were written and recorded, and then released as NFTs, which were distributed in packs containing 4 songs.

I worked on the minting experience alongside Daniel Rojkind. The whole point of the design was to make it feel different, unique, experimental. The project did really well, and the experimentation paid off for our web3 audience. It got people really excited about it, and got a lot of buzz.

Many of the musicians involved in the project have a real web2 footprint. Some of them have large fan bases and big followings on platforms like Spotify. They’ve gone on tour, and are successful in their own right. So this was an opportunity to engage with this collective and do something really innovative and experimental.

But at the same time, we’ve been thinking about what the next step looks like. How can we potentially bridge the experience to include a web2 audience? For fans that may find our music on Spotify, how can we encourage them to support this music in a new way? Our experimentation earned us the right to take this next step.

This project forced me to reframe my perspective around experimentation. I think the first version of Chaos that we’ve built is really innovative, but for someone who has no background in NFTs, it could be overwhelming. So as we think about designing for a broader audience, I need to recognize that what I might find simple could actually be really innovative and exciting for someone else. It’s a reframing of my perspective that has been really valuable.

 [Gavin note: I think this is such a good point (and illustrates why one of the marks of a good product designer is empathy.) What a broader audience might feel is experimental is going to be a much different experience than what a web3-native person feels is experimental.]

You’ve been a contributor in a number of DAOs. For designers who have dipped their toes in and are curious but haven’t contributed yet, do you have any advice? What should they expect?

I'm laughing because I drafted a Twitter thread a while ago when I went through the process of working with seven DAOs/collectives over a few months. I wanted to share some of what I learned, but I never published it. I’m glad I get to share it here.

First, rely on your gut. I’ve had to rely on gut instinct so much more with DAOs than I ever did with clients in web2. Working with a DAO, it feels like you’re so much more exposed to the collective culture and personalities of all the contributors. That’s why I think it’s so important to do some ‘window shopping’ when you’re exploring DAOs. Whether you’re considering being a contributor or just want to see what’s going on, you definitely want to explore a few and get a sense for the general vibe. Not every DAO is going to fit you, and that’s alright.

I definitely have had varied experiences as a contributor, or when I’ve taken on a DAO as a client. I think my favorite model is when there’s a core team that’s responsible for the majority of decisions, and you get to work with them directly. In that situation, it’s almost like you’re working with all the key decision makers at a company; it’s collaborative, but organized.

Something I learned really quickly was how important it is to set expectations—particularly around community involvement—when working with a DAO as a client. You’re always going to want and need community input to varying degrees. For example, let’s say you're leading a rebranding project for a DAO. Depending on how the DAO is structured, you’re going to need to secure support and community buy-in for a big rebrand.

But it is important to set boundaries and guideposts for that community input. Because it can really quickly overwhelm the work, and takes up a lot of time. So you do need to be thoughtful about the process, and when it’s the right time to share information or take feedback.

I’ve seen situations where you’re just kicking off a project and you share three moodboards in the Discord, and there’s 20 people voting on it. Then you’ll have a contributor with really strong opinions side-messaging you in the Discord, telling you what they think you should do. It can become draining, stressful, and in a lot of ways negatively impact the creative process (not to mention that’s all work that you’re often not getting paid for). That’s why I’m always a bit wary when there’s no clear core team or decision-maker for the work. 

There are obviously huge benefits to having an engaged community when you’re designing and building. You just need to have a very clear understanding of who the stakeholders are, and lay out a precise process for feedback with strict boundaries and deadlines. 

[Gavin note: I hope you enjoyed our conversation with Neesh. If you know of a talented freelance builder in web3 who we should feature next, drop us a line!]

Working in Web3 with Neesh

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