Sam Schick

Sam Schick: Neversink

15 min read
Art Martori

Sam Schick operates Neversink, an agency based in Coastal Maine that offers a range of services that include brand-building and web design. Follow Sam on Instagram.

The who:

The website you built for your cousin’s pizzeria is so legit. Do you often get the opportunity to pitch creative ideas like that to your clients? How does the conversation go?

I think we always have that opportunity – often enough those pitches might even be expected, or at least hoped for – but it’s still a question of teasing out just how good a fit they are for the client’s vision and their own ability to see it through.

In every event, we begin all work with what we see as the “blue sky” questions: Where are we really trying to go? Wouldn’t it be amazing if … ? We’ll measure, SWOT, and try to identify possible breakpoints later, but we start by exploring the really big, unique possibilities, what we call the “get this” ideas: concepts that may take some explaining, exploring, and stress-testing, but “hear me out,” this could be good...

If they’re that exciting to us, and can survive some conceptual stress-testing, we know they’ll be stickier and more valuable to the client.

That concept does still have to deliver on functionality, and extensibility, and selling the client on delight the value of delight and seemingly gratuitous discourse can be a challenge, but we must at least begin from that more aspirational place.

With some brands, where you came up is a key component. Is there anything about New Jersey (and the Boss) that contributes to your own brand?

Everything about New Jersey (and Springsteen) contributes. The New Jersey I came up in – nearly every town off Exit 9 (of the Turnpike, of course) – was teeming with characters, like a mashup of Bellow, Dickens, Stephen Crane, and Springsteen, come colorfully, forcefully to life. Nobody worked the same job as their neighbor and the jobs they could get, find, or create for themselves were endlessly fascinating to me – the different hustles, the ways some were (and had to be) on the make, how everybody was trying to walk many fine lines.

I came to love and deeply appreciate people who were true characters, stories that were inimitable and natural, and a willingness to ask, as my friend Kostek would when someone was shining another on, “But what are your reasons, man??”

Springsteen fits into that. I didn’t find my way to him until I was a teenager, though I grew up just up the road. He seemed like a documentarian to me; his characters’ lives matched those around me exactly, they worried over getting caught on the wrong side of the same lines I still feel like I’m jumping over. They drank from that same mixture of audacity, desperation, vital impulse, and a sobering recognition of the stakes.

All of that becomes a design ideology when it leads to a fascination with different occupations, different ways and needs to tell one’s story, different needs from stories. I left my New Jersey with an abiding preference for earnestness and yearnestness (if you will) over being “cool.” I don’t want to waste time but get right to it. To delight.

How would you describe your professional experience and background?

I came into design through the side door, for sure, and had to break some locks to do it. I wasn’t without any tools – my brilliantly, sparklingly skilled mother practically raised me to understand hand-lettering, illustration, and how to think through the processes of making.

That and my New Jerseyan inclination to be on the make, saw me with my first business card in hand I was 13.

On the other hand, I pursued every “career” but for design. I was always doing commissions, from event posters to identity work, but it never crossed my mind that it could be my career. Instead, I threw myself into non-profit policy and outreach, managed bookstores from Seattle to Kraków, worked in oceanography on the high seas. Even my formal studies were merely design-adjacent; of my majors, Rhetoric & Discourse (essentially applied linguistics) was about as close as I got.

At some point, after years of traveling, I was back in Seattle, helping a few non-profits, and consulting businesses in development when a client asked if I would replace their designer. That project was even more of a “get this” concept than Dino’s, but it went over so well that commissions started coming out of the blue. It took more than two more years for me to trust it, but soon enough I’d hung out a funky little shingle and was full-time.

Could you describe the scope of your operation?

My shorthand for it all is “experience design," though brand storytelling is true enough. Typically, we (Neversink) or I come into a project after a client sees something else we did, really likes how it made them or others feel, and thinks it would probably be great if their project were able to communicate its value with an authentic resonance, impact, and earned lovability

As for what that entails, it’s been everything from packaging design to designing and developing wildly custom ecommerce platforms, architectural wayfinding and signage, or systems for Responsible AI documentation and toolkits.

We’re equally comfortable with and jazzed by hand-painting signage or crafting custom typefaces, as we are running website audits and talking through platform development. All of it feels like the work that goes into launching a new ship and is (almost) equally satisfying as a practice in ‘making.’

Your website skills are obvious, but prior to that you were an intelligence analyst and worked on an oceanographic research vessel. Could you describe your professional journey? What could up-and-comers learn from it?

It’s been a journey across professions, at least: Instead of charting a clear path through a single career, for better or worse I kept moving toward opportunities that I could learn from, that satisfied some curiosity or other, or simply fed my hunger for and interest in stories. I’d come up poor, and in bad schools, with no career counseling whatsoever; “good stories” and experiences were the entirety of my concept or expectation of wealth, maybe still what I value most, so I lit out in those many, many directions.

That hedonistic hunger for stories combined with a desperate desire to avoid getting caught on the wrong side of those lines, led to my seeing almost any “adventure” as a lead worth following. I worked in theaters, non-profit housing development, somehow even cryptography, all before I finally figured my way to a great college.

Somehow, I understood that each new and usually unpredictable turn in my path was greatly expanding my toolset.

I learned about curation and how critical it was to say “no” from a stint in literary editing. For a minute, I maintained the projection equipment for the Wachowskis, and saw a professional value to losing myself in the building of impossibly detailed little worlds. I learned about improvisation from a short career as a sous chef. And as the publicist for a thrilling and buzzed-about educational center, I learned the critical importance of speaking to potential. I learned HTML, CSS, and JavaScript for the fun of it, and found myself designing that first wild website that ultimately changed my life.

It would take forever to connect all of those experiences (40+ jobs now) to different design projects, but design – and the running of my own studio – seemed the perfect synthesis and use of all of those experiences: I went into almost every project with a personal connection, preexisting values, at least a modest number of tools, and an earned enthusiasm for exploring possibilities.

The what:

Not every project can be an homage to the early days of the internet… How would you describe the kind of work that keeps the lights on?

I wasn’t the first analog-inclined “visual” designer to find that it was the digital work, the UI design, platform development, systems designs – the more complex projects that may not clear a long runway for “get this” dreaming – that kept the lights on, and the next clients finding us, for that matter.

But that’s only half-true. Our reputation was being made by and we were gaining visibility for our more characteristic, quirky, lovable, often enough lower- or no-paying projects.

The better paying projects that kept and keep us in business? In almost every case, they’ve come our way borne on the ripples made by the quirkier, more inimitable projects. Every project of ours that feels like it has so much more cereal in the box will ultimately be a win, and directly and indirectly keep the lights on, inkwells full, devices charged. Just something I have to trust in.

How do people find you, and how do you evaluate potential clients?

Seventeen times out of 20, our client found us after seeing something else we did, feeling unexpectedly responsive to it, and delighted to find that we had as much technical facility as creative drive.

As for how we evaluate, it’s usually a run through three main concerns:

  • Ideological: Is this the kind of thing we want to see more of in the world, or is it antithetical to the kind of world we want to?
  • Budget: Assuming we feel good enough about the client and their work, does this help keep those lights on, maybe even subsidize other projects?
  • Is it interesting? Does it take us somewhere we haven’t been before, or give us an opportunity to ask new questions, try something new?

Sometimes we’re in a position where it’s necessary to turn down projects. What do those situations look like for you, and how do you manage them?

I’ve honestly always had a hard time turning down projects, wanting more experience, wanting to see the studio / business keep growing and growing, and frankly not trusting that there would always be enough work around the corner. For my first many years, the only projects I turned down were with businesses or even industries I felt were just beyond the pale, morally, and ultimately just bad actors whose role in and effect on society we didn’t want to enable.

Though some major changes in the industry have led to far more hot and cold waves than were even hinted at in my first years, I got better at realizing when it was healthier for all for me to bite down my knuckles and turn down work that, because of timetable, budget, complexity, or expectations, I could say with confidence nobody would be happy with.

Could you describe a project that you feel exemplifies you at your best?

Wow, I could go around the bend and back in trying to answer this, but I could also just say the website for Dino’s Tomato Pie: It’s lively, lovable, totally unexpected, earnest but cheeky, marked through and through by place, and so very reaffirming of the instinct to head off into uncharted waters, see an idea through, and just trust that it would appeal to others.

The how:

It looks like you’ve done (and continue doing) so much cool stuff. What motivates you professionally? Is there much overlap with your personal likes and dislikes?

The overlap is almost absolute! Despite basically trafficking in rhetoric, I have a strong distaste for what is disingenuous, so I’m always trying to steer even the most rudderless of projects toward something that resonates. Which just might be what motivates me the most: The desire to experience, to feel resonance, and an enthusiasm, gratitude, and sense of responsibility for being in a position to create it.

Are there any resources (e.g. apps, processes) that you’d recommend to an up-and-comer?

Since I was a little me, I’ve been enamored with process, learning different ways that different processes can safeguard or lead to different results, products, experiences. Even as journeys unto themselves, they are different ways to enjoy the actual work. Which is to say that I’m a bit slutty when it’s come to process, and embrace everything from fully digital tools (Kanban-style project tickets through Trello) to analog (I hand-write lists five times a day). That said, some things that came to mind:

  • A time-keeping app (Harvest, Toggl, etc.) and a propensity for understanding the different, initially standalone elements needed for an effective creative process will go a long way. Even if the projects are your own, not billed by the hour, etc.
  • Procreate, iPad Pro, Apple pencil: go long on being able to develop loose ideas into adaptable, progressively improved visuals. I still use drafting paper, rulers, pencils, and a hundred other analog tools for every project, but more and more I turn to these digital tools not just for actual illustration, but quickly thinking through and iterating different visual “what ifs”, from typography to children’s books to app design.
  • Books on creative businesses and practices: Eli Altman’s Run Studio Run, Hoodpah Design’s Freelance, Business, and Stuff, Lisa Congdon’s Find Your Artistic Voice.
  • Miro, a digital whiteboard that is good for collaborative design thinking sessions, journey mapping, and visually organizing systems in their design.
  • Every single app that allows you to create, whether Adobe’s Character Animator or a code editor like Nova: learn how to bring new things to life, customize them, make them talk. You’ll find ways to bring those experiences together, or at least to bear on particular projects, but right now it’s most important to familiarize with them as tools.
  • Web developer tools native to browsers like Firefox help you look under-the-hood, and ultimately better understand cutting edge CSS or scripts, use of variable fonts, SVGs, or animations in web design. Invaluable, really.
  • A library card. Even with two young children, I find myself reading 160+ books a year, only a fraction of which are from my own collection, and many (most?) of them find their way into my work.

Imagine someone you’re mentoring can either hop on a ship for a long voyage at sea or take a lucrative gig at a top company. What advice do you give them?

Wow, that’s a tough call. For me the answer was to jump on a ship, but I’m not sure I ever had a choice. For one thing, I’d been reading London, Melville, Conrad books since I was a boy, and ultimately found myself lacking what might have been a healthy hesitancy to jump on any potential adventure. For another, I wasn’t being offered those lucrative, long-term salaries.

My resume could have been eight pages long, but may not have had the right combination of skills for those jobs, and so … I continued to be free to design and print my own ticket, as it were.

That said, all those decisions – managing bookstores in Europe, sailing the Pacific as an oceanographer, going to see about a girl, putting in 15,000 miles a year crossing the U.S., setting up addresses in four other countries – fed a stream of curiosity, perspective, empathy, and experience that has professionally sustained me. It’s hard to imagine that my interests in ethical AI development, business design and strategy, or education, would have been better served by my having sat still, awaiting my opportunity, which many of my peers were doing. Like Augie March, I really had no choice but to go at things my own way.

My only real advice is to make sure you’re not sitting still, but acquiring (knowledge, experience, ability) and moving, whether that’s in-house (maybe even well-paid) or by hopping on each next train that genuinely seems interesting.

What’s your parting shot for people who want to be like you when they grow up?

Ah, in what way?! The only way I can imagine another feeling that is with regard to getting to make things as an actual job, which is living the dream for a certain type of person. It’s not the only profession that has or might have truly satisfied me, by a long shot, but it does tickle that part of me that loves puzzles and unpuzzling, figuring out new ways things can work, and discussing this world we live in together.

If that’s what you want when you “grow up” (not sure when that’s supposed to happen / I’m still waiting), just keep leaning and tilting toward what you want to learn more about. How that learning comes together won’t make you like me (and good thing!), but it might get you someplace that is not only authentic to you, but feels actualizing.

Do you have any feedback or comments to share about GoDaddy Pro?

Only that it’s surprisingly, remarkably well-conceived, organized, and helpful a system. The dashboard has helped me maintain, manage, and customize so many different projects of such different needs, that I’ve begun to forget how much of a headache it all used to be.

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