Ben Westhoven is currently the design director at High Lantern Group, a boutique strategic consulting firm, where he marries strategic insight and visual storytelling to guide Fortune 500 companies towards consumer outreach. Prior to HLG, he worked on interactive design at Razorfish and package design/branding at Golden Road Brewing.
The week prior to starting at High Lantern Group as a graphic design intern, I nervously messaged Ben, who was going to be my supervisor for the next 3 months, a very important question:
I just wanted to ask which parking lot I should use when I come for work on Monday. I am very excited to start next week and meet finally everyone in person!”
Though this may seem like a trivial inquiry, any LA native knows how invaluable parking is, especially in a bustling metropolitan shopping district like Old Pasadena. Lined along the Brooklyn styled streets are hipster coffee shops and boutique clothing stores, usually populated with business men heading off to their next office meeting, fashionable couples Instagramming their aesthetic brunch or art students rushing to their next class at the prestigious Art Center, located just around the block. Frankly, to be able to work here is such a dream for me as a beginning designer with an appreciation for aesthetics.
Shortly after, he responded. Attached, was a map and a message which inevitably made me smile:
I’ve attached a secret treasure map (don’t tell anyone but the secret treasure is parking).
Needless to say, after reading that e-mail, I knew that I was going to enjoy working here.
Fast forward two months later, we find ourselves seated at Intelligentsia, a trendy coffee bar located across the street from our office. This time, I didn’t need a map as I have already familiarized myself with the area during my after-work hour ventures to aesthetic cafes.
We took a short 5-minute walk to the place and had a lighthearted conversation about how how he had just celebrated his birthday with a group of close friends this past weekend. It seemed to be good timing since Coffee with a Creative discussions often instigate conversations that might either trigger a quarter-life crisis or prompt an inspirational walk down memory lane. Either way, I was looking forward to it.
We ordered our regulars and found a cozy seat next to a brick wall. Once we were settled in, I decided to brief him once more on the three personal questions I would be loosely structuring the conversation around, to which he playfully responded, “well, I’m a Leo…” On that light note, we began our discussion.
I sipped my usual order, iced vanilla latte while Ben poured a nice traditional coffee brew to begin our conversation.
“So, what made you decide pursue design?”
“It actually started in senior year of high school when my friend and I made a short comedic film for a film festival,” he said.
Ben started his creative pursuit through directing a film that was essentially just a fun project. Interestingly enough, the comedic film won first place prize and this success ultimately earned him a scholarship to art school.
The fact that he started in film, at first, took me by surprise, but then it made a lot of sense. Ben has always been a funny guy–quite humorous and masterful at sending Slack gifs in our project channels. I can imagine that his humorous habits would translate into producing an award winning short film.
Unsure of his future, he went to pursue a film degree with the scholarship he was offered and like many college students, found his way after aimless navigation in the dark. After a year of taking film classes, he realized he enjoyed the graphic design classes much more because of the problem solving element it had to it. He mentioned how it’s still like visual storytelling so in a way, he did not really diverge from his original purpose.
I mentioned how many designers I have heard on podcasts never have a linear path to where they are now.
“It’s kind of like a zig zag,” I said as I drew an imaginary map in the air. He laughed, “yeah, definitely.”
His Design Path
During the summer between his junior year and senior year of college, Ben scored an internship as an interactive designer at Razorfish, which was, at the time, the largest website agency in it’s industry during the dot-com boom. He was placed on a Build-a-Bear website team and was able to contribute to interactive in-store experiences in collaboration with X-box Kinect. A story I thought was interesting was when he said he was given very plug-and-chug responsibilities, mainly production work. It was not until his supervisor looked over his shoulder one day and noticed that he drew well-illustrated doodles in his notes (which I also noticed in his notebook from time to time at HLG). They then suggested that he drew some illustrations for the sites and eventually incorporated it into the interactive designs for in-store experiences. In collaboration with X-Box Kinect, Ben was tasked to design icons for 3D interaction, where children in the stores would be able to select these icons to prompt specific characters (ballerina, football player etc.) whenever they selected it with their hands. I thought this was extremely fun project, especially for Ben’s character. He was able to place himself in a child-like mindset to design innocent and fun illustrations.
After graduation, he decided he did not want to stay in Atlanta, Georgia since he was craving a new experience in the cities. He applied to bigger cities like New York, San Francisco etc. and ended up in LA where he worked at a Golden Road Brewing as package design and branding lead. It was there, where he got in touch with the current HLG creative director, Jess Kemp.
“I worked with Jess’s husband, who was the brand manager I reported to at the time. He then referred me to Jess who hired me to become associate design director for HLG,” he said.
At HLG, he learned the strategic aspect of design. Being able to place yourself in different thinking “hats” is essential skill for a designer to have. Likewise, being able to foresee client feedback and adjust it before they can critique it is another level of insight that can be trained through design thinking. A valuable function of his job is to be able translate what design decisions might work and might not work based on client requests for consumer outreach. The clients HLG works with are often people in the C-suite and industry professionals who do not have a design eye. Oftentimes, requests from the client may not be the best next steps and it is up to the design team to guide their ideas into visual stories and information graphs.
I found this to be extremely true as I sat in on conversations in client meetings. Absorbing everything I could, I would observe how Ben would discuss feedback. Whenever a client came back with a different request or feedback on a design, Ben would first ask if they can change it in a different way to convey the same message or provide an alternative design that bridges the original design with the desired request. He would never just blindly accept feedback without first understanding why, and I found that quite admirable.
I mentioned to him that, eventually, I started noticing I did the same thing whenever he gave me feedback.
“I started looking at my designs and predicting what type of feedback you would give me. For example, you aren’t very fond of lines, so now whenever I draw lines, I would always think twice about it,” I laughed.
“And I think that’s great, that shows that you are starting to use empathy in design thinking, right?”
I nodded proudly.
Feeling validated, I decided to wrap up the discussion by asking one more question.
“If you had one piece of life advice for a young creative, what would it be?”
“Don’t be afraid to fail,” Ben said, “There’s so much great work out there so theres no need to compare yourself to that. Don’t be afraid because there is nothing wrong with failure.”
He then referenced his father and how his father’s regrets shaped his perspective on pursuing what he wanted at the risk of failure. He remembers one night where his father and him had a heart to heart, and told him that the one thing he regretted the most was being too scared to try baseball when he had a passion for it.
“My dad said he was a good baseball player, and looks back now and wonders what it would have been like if he had just tried.”
Since then, Ben has taken this life perspective and applied it to his own. He then ended his thoughts on this note:
“You only learn by doing. And just as Salvador Dali once said: Don’t fear perfection because you’ll never reach it.”