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Gaz Aston: from Entomologist to Head of Interaction Design

Social media handle(s): LinkedIn


A few words about me:

A headshot of Gaz, wearing glasses

I’m currently a Head of Interaction Design at dxw. I’ve been a designer of one flavour or another for more than 20 years.


When I'm not working, I'm cycling, running, eating, or hanging out at home with my partner, our dog Humphrey and rabbit Gigi.


Are there any professional experiences you've had that are quite unexpected compared to what you do nowadays?


Before I became a designer, I had been an entomologist, a barperson, a record shop manager, a deck chair attendant, and a recording studio tape operator.


Is your background more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or non-STEM related?


Non-STEM I think … it was a lot of theory, and pre-digital craft skills when I studied design at college (I am old).


Where did your professional journey start?


One night I was hanging out at a friend’s house while he was doing his college homework. He studied graphic design and was designing the artwork for a pizza box. I thought it looked like much more fun than flogging Take That cassettes and keeping kids from nicking t-shirts.


I hastily assembled a portfolio  -  that featured several pieces borrowed from friends  -  and took it to an interview to join the BTEC ND Advertising Design course at Wigan College. I’m certain the tutor knew the work was not entirely my own, but I think he was impressed with my desire to blag my way onto the course, and needed to get some bodies in.


The course was great and I got some valuable work experience at the incredibly swanky McCann Erickson agency. I followed the ND with an HND in Graphic Design & Communication, where things got serious. The HND differed to the BA in that the classroom was run like a studio, and the emphasis was very much on making things and building a portfolio.


In the mid 90s, graphic design was one of the most oversubscribed subjects in the UK which made getting a job in the industry hard. Over the course of the next 2 years, I did a few jobs to pay the bills: entomologist, barperson, deck chair attendant (living in Bournemouth for the summer, sleeping on a floor, and paying £10 a week rent while cashing a council cheque each Friday lunchtime). I also made it to the final round of interviews to become an RSPCA inspector.


At the tail end of 1999, I eventually got a job with a small agency in Colchester, had a fun couple of years, and made some friends for life.


From there I moved to an agency that had a team of 7 when I started, and 40+ when I left 8 years later. I got to work on a huge variety of things including newspaper, outdoor, radio, and TV ads, teaching myself how to use a pro video camera and editing software and we made interactive DVDs (2006!) and later, video for the web.


Starting as a middleweight designer, I worked my way up to creative director, managing a team of 13 designers, artworkers, and developers.


How did you get into tech and what motivated you?


When the web started to truly permeate every day life it was hard not to want to be a part of it as a designer. In the mid-'00s, I learned how to turn my own static designs into HTML and CSS, and made my first WordPress blog.


After the global financial crisis of 2008, the business took a bit of a hit and in 2010 I was one of a few people made redundant. I decided to go freelance and work exclusively doing digital design and front end development. I spent a few years jobbing my way around agencies, startups, and publishing companies, all the while getting more into human centred design.


Have you experienced any 'career in tech' challenges / stereotypes?


As a white, straight male, it would be a complete lie to say I've faced anything like the kind of obstacles others in our industry have to overcome.


That said, I've often found myself very conscious of (and have absolutely been judged upon more than once) my working class accent and pronunciation in the middle-class dominated environments of London-based tech companies. I'm fiercely proud of my working class background though, and have sometimes been known to lean into it in the face of snobbery.


"Your skill in forming meaningful and trusting relationships with a diverse set of people will be more valuable and enduring than any technological skill. Practice it daily."

What you wish you knew before getting started in tech...


That all software design challenges are really just people challenges in disguise.


What has been your biggest 'wow!' moment related to working in tech so far?


When I worked at The Amazings - realising that I could work in design and technology and my efforts could have a positive social outcome, and not just be about making some shareholders richer.


What do you like / not like about working in tech?


Like: The people I work with now and in the past; the (largely) progressive attitudes of the industry.


Don't like: VC, tech bro nonsense; legacy "big IT" and proprietary, non-open tech; next-big-thing snake oil vibes.


"Before I became a designer, I had been an entomologist, a barperson, a record shop manager, a deck chair attendant, and a recording studio tape operator."

What's been your favourite / most memorable / funniest 'career in tech' moment so far?


After 23 years there are too many memories to choose just one, but the moment I deployed my own first website in about 2006 is probably one of the most enduring. I knew my future had changed after that.


And to wrap up, is there any advice you'd like to give to others interested in a career in tech?


Your skill in forming meaningful and trusting relationships with a diverse set of people will be more valuable and enduring than any technological skill. Practice it daily.

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