Rocket Science: Ken Seeno
Ken is a designer, musician, surfer, and Senior Manager of Product Design at Headspace.
You love tactile design experiences, how do you translate that appreciation of physical objects into your digital work?
I try to think about the digital, if possible, less in terms of just a purely digital experience and more as a real-life experience.
Even though you might be tapping through this mobile app or using that website, the reality is that you’re sitting or standing somewhere holding a piece of special glass and you are feeling things, you’re moving through time. I love to think about how you can attempt to create a digital experience that’s as gratifying as playing a vinyl record or sitting and strumming a guitar. Can you?
And you might wonder: how do you even do that? Because obviously there’s this physicality to something like a guitar that’s, for me, just innately beautiful. The way that I’ve come to reconcile it is less about the craft of the object and more purely about the feeling you get from it, right?
A lot of times designers will call this delight. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but if you’re gonna use this thing, do you have a good feeling using it, and does it add value to your life?
Last Friday, I was sitting after work winding down and someone reached out and asked if I would create a playlist. It was just a friend who was getting into a certain kind of music. I decided, “You know what? This is what I’m gonna do tonight. I’ll sit in my lounge chair and make you a playlist.” I made it on Spotify using my iPhone and I was observing the hybrid physical & digital experience of creating this playlist in my chair in my living room. What is it like? How do I feel doing it? Is it fun, am I enjoying it, is it taxing?
The more you lean into it being fun and engaging, and the less you define it as something like a “digital obligation,” the clearer and more intentional your thinking becomes about the human experience and therefore the design.
Who’s a creative person you really admire?
So many. I work with a designer here at Headspace named Tyler Hoehne, and he leads quite a lot of the brand efforts. He and I have collaborated a lot over the years, tons actually. We’re close friends.
He’s a master of color. He’s incredibly good at measuring different kinds of saturations and combinations of colors to create something different than I would have arrived at. I really appreciate his perspective, and I just genuinely enjoy collaborating with him.
How do you avoid “wellness” clichés when you’re working through your design process?
First, I try to be really intentional about ensuring that we’re creating something that’s diverse and equitable; that we’re trying to reach all walks of life and it isn’t just accessible to one kind of person. I also try to focus on creating this cultural wave of sorts around the brand, around the voice, and staying ahead of it and not falling into a place of comfort or repetition.
It’s like when you’re surfing, you wanna stay right on the edge of the wave, not behind it. If you’re right behind the wave, you’re gonna fall off it and it’s gonna go ahead in front of you. If you’re too far out in front, then you’re not capturing the energy. So you’re right on the cusp of what you know and what you do best, but also what’s coming up. That’s part intuition, part having the right leadership, and part awareness of what else is happening out there.
But the best way to avoid trends or clichés is to just be yourself, right? I mean, you can’t fail at just being yourself. That’s always going to ring true in the end. Whether it’s on a personal level or on a business level, I truly believe in that.
What’s an unexpectedly great place you’ve surfed?
I surfed on this island called Nusa Lembongan outside of Bali, and that was really, really fun and unexpected. There’s also this spot – I haven’t been there in a long time – called Sayulita in Mexico that’s really good.
But I would say that the best, unexpected spot is more so a place in the mind, which is anywhere that’s not gonna be super crowded or competitive. It’s not always the best wave, but there have been times where it’s just me and my best friend for four hours at a time, with no one else around and all the time in the world.
Having the time, the space, no one’s in your way, no one’s cutting you off or anything or competing with you … that’s the best place you can be.
You used to play guitar for the band Ponytail. What was your most Spin̈al Tap moment?
On one tour, we played Primavera, probably the biggest festival we ever did, and we were literally one stage over from My Bloody Valentine at the same time. People came to see us and I was like, “You guys, My Bloody Valentine is playing right there. Are you sure you don’t wanna go see them? Because I kinda wanna go see them right now.”
I mean, we didn’t even know how to play to that big of a stage. Then, on the same tour, I’m not even kidding, we played a show in a dude’s house in rural France. We rolled up in the van and we were like, “Where’s the venue?” He’s like, “You can just set it in my living room.”
We hung the t-shirts from the fireplace mantle, and a bunch of his friends came. His son was playing video games in his bedroom. It was like a birthday party for their friend, and we got fairly drunk on homemade wine and ended up dancing the night away. It was literally a show to eight people after playing to an 8,000-capacity stage days earlier.
One of the last shows we played was curated by Matt Groening, who created The Simpsons, and he was hanging out backstage. Everyone had a lanyard for the backstage pass and the game was, “Could you get Matt Groening to draw a Simpsons character on your badge?” So everyone was like, “Dude, I got Lisa,” “Oh, I got Maggie,” and stuff like that. I did get a Bart. My mom’s friend framed it for me and it’s in our bedroom.
It’s interesting, thinking about the ethos, the ambition, and the purely collaborative skills that I learned while being in a band. I literally see designing as kind of jamming and riffing … trying out different ideas in different ways and testing them.
What’s your favorite building in L.A.?
There are these structures a friend and I discovered unexpectedly while driving around: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power buildings. Amazing monolithic, mid-century buildings scattered around town randomly with awesome mid-century typography and deco ornamentation. They look like they’re from a new horror movie or something. My friend and I always try to imagine what it would be like to live in one.
That makes me want to suggest a different approach, which is to actually drive through Los Angeles, given the chance, and find your own favorite building, because the experience of driving in Los Angeles is akin to like walking through Manhattan, right?
When you’re walking through Manhattan, you just are overwhelmed with all of the buildings – you can’t even separate one from the next because it’s just this experience of being in it, right? The Los Angeles analog is to get in a car and drive around, get lost in the hills and see a cool view and then go to the beach in Malibu and be in a completely different environment.
Just so you know, that makes you the only person who actually advocates for driving in Los Angeles.
Ha, yes! It can be pretty frustrating and time-consuming. Okay, do it at night. Go driving at night. Driving at night in Los Angeles is amazing. There’s no traffic. There’s cool air coming in the windows…. yeah, don’t do it during rush hour. You’ll be like, “Who’s this guy? Why is he telling me to drive around?”
What’s your favorite guitar in your collection?
I’ve actually bought and sold a few guitars over the years, so my collection is always changing. My wife likes to joke that my favorite thing to say is, “I used to have one of those.” I have a kind of transience with objects where I tend to accumulate them second hand and then I let them go. I usually break even.
Have you ever heard of G&L Guitars? So, a lot of people know Fender Guitars, right? Well, after Leo Fender sold Fender, he went on and started another company called Music Man, and then in the ’80s, he started this company called G&L. And I’ve been really getting into these guitars from the ’90s that he was making as an older man.
One of the reasons why I brought this particular one up is because it shows the strand of iteration. A lot of Fender Guitars are considered very iconic designs, but Leo Fender didn’t stop there. He kept tweaking them and making them better.
They’re kind of like evolved Fenders, and it’s interesting to think about it in terms of design because it’s not the archetype. It’s the third or fourth iteration. He kept going and he kept tweaking and he kept kind of improving it.
That’s the nature of design – you never stop. You’re always changing and seeing where you can make improvements.
Cover illustration by Ryan Cox.