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‘All My Life I’ve Been Choosing between Tech and Design’

The Disney Channel’s youngest designer, Anastasia Zaitseva, is an IT Specialist by training. Why would a designer need a degree in engineering? What do you need an interdisciplinary education for? And how do you choose a major? The HSE alumna, who holds a bachelor’s from the Tikhonov Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics (MIEM HSE) and a master’s from the School of Art and Design, knows the answers to these questions.

From a Programmer to an Artist and Back

There is nothing unusual about the professional path I have taken. Within a year after earning my master’s, I met five people who transferred from MIEM to the School of Design. You learn how to use programmes like Photoshop, and after mastering them, you decide to study visualization and concepts of colour and style in a master’s programme. And there are artists who paint their whole lives and then decide to learn how to use digital tools so they can create digital art. So it’s not the most complicated maneuver.

Informatics and design are directly linked. If you visit the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art or the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), everything there is interactive; everything springs from the intersection of design and information technology. Of course, this trend is also commercially motivated: people are willing to pay more for something that they can see, hear, and feel all at once. At the moment, MIEM HSE is working closely with the HSE School of Art and Design and a lot of faculty members are doing cool collaborative projects.

Informatics is the Future

I came to HSE in 2012, when MIEM had just joined the university. New students could be divided into two camps. For some the merger was a boon, because they wanted to study at HSE, but the university at that time didn’t offer any tech majors. Other students didn’t understand why would a tech institute want to merge with some university specializing in economics?

Even back then, all our school teachers and parents were saying that the future lies in IT. It was easy to get in, but studying turned out to be complicated. The ‘Informatics and Computer Hardware and Softwar’ profile is very diverse—there are classes on assembling chips, soldering, computer graphics, and programming. Only after delving into something specific do you get an idea of where you’d like to work later.

Psychologists are more and more often writing about the problem of choice.

Theoretically, any graduate of HSE University has a ton of opportunities, but ultimately, a lot of people under 30 don’t know what they want to be

Students want one thing one day and something else the next. I always advise narrowing your focus as much as possible and developing skills within that specific trajectory. If you spread yourself too thin, you’re not going to have any success.

Foray into Design

In my second year, I figured out what trajectory I wanted to take, and it became easier for me to manage the stream of knowledge flowing from HSE, and to improve myself for my future career. I chose computer graphics, which was taught by Denis Korolev at the time, and Nadezhda Trubochkina taught the fundamentals of web design. They made me want to pursue this field further, and after that, I began studying graphic programmes on my own. For the next three years I immersed myself in computer graphics, letting all other subjects fall to the wayside. At this point I wasn’t involved with design; I was learning the technical aspects.

It was always difficult for me, as someone with a bachelor’s in engineering, to attend classes at the School of Art and Design or register for supplemental courses. First of all, you need to pay for a lot of those classes. And second of all, each lecture given by the designers was an engrossing discussion, and not some monotonous mumblings by a professor standing in front of a blackboard. I was afraid of getting pulled into the dialogue, which would then make it painfully clear that there was a lot I didn’t know and that I was an outsider from a completely different faculty.

MIEM also offered engineering internships, which didn’t have anything to do with design, at CROC (Russian IT company) and at IBM subsidiaries. And in the meantime, the HSE Job Fair offered really cool projects for students and graduates of the School of Art and Design. Then I learned to search for opportunities on my own. My first job involved graphic design. I began as a junior designer at a company specializing in branding and corporate identity for different companies. When you start working at a company that does the branding for Gazprom, and you’ve just learned how to draw sticks in Photoshop, it is very difficult. I thank them for not kicking me out. I was paid a very low, informal wage, but I got practical skills there.

A Return to Engineering

I worked at that company for a year and then left because I was starting my final project work. In my fourth year, I decided to devote myself to my studies at MIEM more seriously. I participated in conferences and my final project—a mobile AR app—was quite involved. When complete, it was supposed to produce 3D panoramas of space from your cell phone with the help of augmented reality glasses. In my final work, I outlined the concept and the beginning of its development. Usually, the depth of a 3D dive is created with two cameras, and a cell phone has only one camera—this was the challenge. Therefore, during my fourth year, I wrote a few research articles about how to achieve this effect with only one camera. (Anastasia published a total of nine articles in Scopus, and she was the 2016 winner of the Armensky Intercollegiate Science and Tech Conference for students, graduate students, and young specialists – editor’s note.)

My technical education was very valuable—I am constantly drawing upon it. My colleague and I have been working on a startup for a year now—a mobile app, where you can buy design and graphic products. My knowledge helps me find a programmer, understand how competent they are—and figure out a solution for the future product with them.

Back to Design

To get into the master’s programme at the School of Art and Design you need to have a portfolio. I had a few unfinished projects that didn’t really fit anywhere, but I had solid skills for further development. I also did the interview and completed a test assignment—one involved creating a visual research project.

I enrolled in the ‘Book Design’ programme and I did research on methods of visualization in scientific and technical literature. If you take, for example, a children’s encyclopedia, you can see a lot of cool stuff: a million headings, subheadings, different kinds of text, pictures, captions, and so on. But if you open, for example, a physics textbook—aside from the various scientific illustrations, there’s not much to see.

I searched for examples that were out of the ordinary that made a scientific or technical book work into a work of art

Our wonderful teacher Evgeny Korneev introduced us to Dutch and Swiss design, and after completing two years of the master’s programme, we created a site with different constructions of a book—at the moment there are more than a hundred there.  I made a book-piano with pages of different formats that formed a staircase: the biggest format was at the end and the smallest was at the beginning.

The Road to Disney

I was a student in the master’s programme and working at a company that specializes in Russian awards, ranging from the women’s forum to a prize in the food industry. Every prize or festival needs its own corporate identity, so that its printed products—pamphlets, posters, business cards, etc.—are all done in a consistent style. I did this for a year, working nights and weekends. I had to be a web designer, a mobile app designer, a large-scale advertising designer, a book designer, and even an animator. This is how everyone starts off. When a student goes to intern at McKinsey, Google, or Yandex, regardless of their specialization, they end up having to run back and forth between all kinds of areas—large companies do this all the time. But on the other hand, this gives you a ton of skills and allows you to determine what exactly you want to do.

It was there that I was fortunate to meet the good people who brought me to Disney. I’ve been at the Disney Channel now for two years. Recently I got promoted to motion designer—I started out as a graphic designer. The channel has a lot of its own graphics—everything that Walt Disney Pictures Studio produces, Pixar and other subsidiaries. The use of material is strictly regulated—you can’t even turn a character’s hand in a different way. Right now I’m doing a small animation for the channel: with clips that come up at the end of cartoons and give a preview of the next episode. It’s a difficult project. Some projects take months.

On Frameworks and Rules

At Disney, we are all a team and work together. For example, at our office we regularly have lectures by fellow employees. Everyone, regardless of their position or ranking, can tell their colleagues about what they’re doing, so that you, as an employee of the big company, understand how it works. As a designer, I can talk about what specifically falls in my wheelhouse. Colleagues from other departments need to be aware that they have to work together without overstepping any boundaries, assuming extra authority, or vice versa.

We also invite outside lecturers who, for example, teach us written business etiquette in English. There had been instances in the past of employees sending messages with ‘Hi, dude!’ to the head office in California. We have lectures almost every week, and attendance is optional.

Design isn’t just about creativity

After its many years of existence, Disney has a lot of rules, which are described in detail. Even if you’re in Russia, you can’t put Mickey Mouse on a box of cereal that contains a high amount of calories. In the US, obesity is a problem, and company policy prohibits the use of Disney characters on fast food. It’s all pretty serious.

But in fact, having these boundaries makes things easier—it’s easier to achieve the right result. We even had a lecture on this topic—we learned how to purposely set restrictions for ourselves in order to generate an idea. This is a practice that everyone should adopt. Otherwise you just find yourself staring at a blank page with no ideas. Disney has very diverse content right now, so it’s easier to work when you’re not overloaded by different possibilities and ideas.

I don’t consider myself a creative person. What I do is just see compositions and apply my technical skills. It’s not a matter of how well you draw. You don’t have to be able to draw well at all. So becoming a designer after graduating from MIEM is easy.

I would advise new students not to join the programme because of their parent’s unfulfilled hopes about their own lives, but rather to carefully listen to yourself and your own abilities. That will help you achieve your desired result—in a much less round-about way.