A behind-the-scenes look at the people who make us great.
Welcome to the September edition of the Cogent Crew series, where we’re inviting you to get to know the people who make Cogent what it is.
This month we spoke to Matt, Cogent’s Design Principal and resident author/artist. What’s an author-slash-artist you ask? Read below to find out, and see how Matt balances his time at Cogent with this not-so-secret career on the side.
Name: Matt Shanks
Job: Design Principal
Time at Cogent: 4 years
So Matt, what do you actually do at Cogent?
I’m a design principal and lead a team of six product designers who work closely with our engineering team so we’re always delivering excellent engineering with a really solid design practise.
When I joined Cogent I said, “I’m interested in three areas: health, energy and education. If I can do any of those three at any one time, that would be amazing.” Those areas are meaningful for me and I think they have massive problems to solve. Basically, for the last four years, I’ve either worked on health, energy, education or all three at the same time.
I’ve been involved in things like trying to save the world from Dengue fever with Eliminate Dengue and trying to revolutionise corporate education with Tribal Habits.
I’m currently working on a health product that aims to bring evidence based medicine to GPs more quickly. I’m also working with a couple of our energy clients, with a big focus on renewables and the big wave of electric vehicles that’s about to hit us. We’re designing experiences now that start to bridge the gap between digital and physical, which is really interesting.
Have you always been a designer?
Sort of. I got into design in a bit of a roundabout way. When I was applying for a uni course, I considered following a more science-y path. I think I had physio, optometry and pharmacy in there. My mum was steering me towards a more traditional career in science, law or medicine. At the same time, Pixar and Dreamworks were starting to get bigger and I had this real interest in 3D animation.
Flash was around at the time, so I thought, “Yeah, I’ll be a Flash programmer,” because it was bit of a mix of visual and code all at the same time. We all know how that story ends. I’ve always straddled visual and tech, but over the years design has evolved into more about of trying to understand humans, which I find fascinating.
What made you decide to work at Cogent?
Cogent came up in this kind of really weird, serendipitous way. I was burnt out from a previous consulting gig and knew I needed to be working around developers again. I went hunting around to a few different places that I knew of or had spoken to in the past. In the space of a few weeks, both a small design studio and a the GM of a big agency recommended checking out Cogent. I hadn’t really heard of Cogent before that, but thought maybe I should check it out.
It turned out too good to pass up. I don’t know whether I have a problem, but I like moving between different projects quite quickly. I just get quite bored if I’m working on the same thing for a long time. At Cogent I get oversight into all the projects going on, flexibility where I need it and variety in the type of projects I work on as well.
Is that why you’ve stayed for as long as you have?
Partly, but for me the people I work with are really important too. I’ve never seen teams of different people and skills be able to come together and just gel straight away like they do here. There’s no ego in the room, and nobody’s jostling for hierarchy. The work is the focus, and I think that that’s something that’s really unique to Cogent people.
I’ve actually said to my wife that as a designer, I’m not sure the actual work matters as much as the people you get to do it with. I think that if you’re surrounded by a bunch of people you like and who share the same values as you, great work almost a result of that.
Speaking of great work, you also double as a picture book illustrator. How did that happen?
Yeah, I’ve realised that Cogent has started to instil in me this really weird way of looking at the world more like an entrepreneur, so I’m seeing more opportunities. I stumbled into illustrating picture books as my side hustle by uploading a few sketches that I was doing on the couch after work at night to Instagram.
I didn’t really think anything of it beyond just that they were a bit of fun, but then Instagram users started asking me to do commissions. After a few of those, people started asking if I sold prints of the work on my Instagram account, which I didn’t. Then the wife of an ex-colleague promised a bunch of her family members that they’d get prints of my work for Christmas, so that forced me to organise prints.
Once they were sorted, I opened an Etsy store and then probably six months into that I got an email from Scholastic Australia asking if I’d ever thought about illustrating children’s books. At first I thought it was spam, and the timing wasn’t right for me, but about six months after that I contacted them and said I’d give it a try. Literally within a couple of days I had a three book deal and was scrambling to find an agent and navigate the book publishing world.
I realised that similar to what we’d do at Cogent, I took a really agile approach. I did a little bit, waited for a reaction, followed that user reaction, and then built up off the back of that. It’s evolved really organically, but also really fast.
How does Cogent fit in with that?
If I wasn’t at Cogent, there’s simply no way I’d be able to be doing what I do. It got to the point that I’d been working seven days a week across picture books and Cogent, and I wanted to go part-time. It was just so simple — I sent an email asking, “Can I do this?” and the response was “Yes, of course.” That was it.
I’ve even used Cogent people to review storyboards before I send them off to a publisher or read it to their kids to see if the story resonates.
I was awarded a fellowship run by the May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust which is basically four weeks in Adelaide funded for you to be able to just focus on writing and drawing. Again, it’s one of those things that Cogent just understands. I’d already used all my annual leave working on the books but they understood it’s an amazing opportunity, so were super flexible and supportive. I don’t think I would’ve even applied if I’d been working somewhere else.
Is there any advice that you’d give to your younger self?
I think that one thing that I’ve learned, particularly at Cogent, is how to be really comfortable with change, and actually embrace it. The old way of working was that a designer would sit and try to plan out how every little part’s going to work and look. All the interactions were predetermined and assumed.
Then you’d put it in front of a user and they don’t use the thing at all, and you’d think, “Well, that was a huge waste of time.” I’ve really changed my mindset now to be really be open to change. There’s actually no right answer and most of the time there are infinite possibilities.
I think I’ve also learnt that from my art practise. There’s literally a countless number of ways you could tell a story about Row, Row, Row Your Boat. One will be good and one will be good enough, and sometimes good enough is okay. Everyone’s expectations are always way higher about themselves than what others expect of them, which can be frustrating for a designer who wants everything perfect. In reality, you can’t anticipate all the problems coming, you can only do the best that you can.
Like the idea of joining the Cogent team? Head over to the Cogent Careers page and say hello
Want to get your hands on one of Matt’s books? You’ll find them all at mattshanks.com.au