PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 36, Landings: Brendan Elliot

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Brendan Elliot: I'm ready whenever.

Shoshana Swell: I think we're recording and God, I hope we're recording. Oh my God, I'm nervous. Okay. Okay. Well, hello, you're frozen. This is the worst start. You heard it here first, guys. Brendan. Put out the fire! Put out the fire! You can't see me. You can't see me.

Brendan Elliot: A-T-L-E-E-dot-design.

Shoshana Swell: Hello, everyone. Welcome to this episode of my podcast. I'm Shoshana Swell. I study Performing and Media Arts and Information Science at Cornell. I'm a senior and I'm joined by Brendan Elliott. I'm going to have him introduce himself, say what's up.

Brendan Elliot: Hey, Shoshana. Thanks for having me. I'm Brendan Elliott. I'm a recent grad of Cornell. I graduated in 2019, studied information science and user experience design. I'm currently a product designer living in the Bay area. Happy to be here.

Shoshana Swell: Amazing. Cool. So I kind of wanted to start this out in a very different way, just to kind of break the ice. So I have like a series of rapid-fire questions that I did not share with you before. So I'm just going to basically ask the question. You could answer it in a shortened version whenever you want, but we're supposed to just, whatever comes to mind first.

Brendan Elliot: Okay.

Shoshana Swell: Okay. So let's begin. So what is something that has inspired you most recently?

Brendan Elliot: I just saw the play “Hamilton” after being obsessed with it for three years and seeing it in person was absolutely incredible. Feeling inspired by both Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Shoshana Swell: Oh, very cool. I'm obsessed too. Next one. Who is your favorite musician?

Brendan Elliot: My favorite musician today. It's Flume because he pretty much started a whole new music genre based on other music genres and a bunch of other people followed suit. So I find that awesome.

Shoshana Swell: Super cool. Okay, next one. Favorite ice cream flavor.

Brendan Elliot: Am I basic if I say vanilla with sprinkles? Everyone always gives me crap for that, but I just, it's more of a vehicle for the sprinkles at that point.

Shoshana Swell: Interesting. Yeah. Can't say that's my fav, but we're all in different weird tracks. It's okay. Okay. Who has had the most impact on your career?

Brendan Elliot: Oh man. My parents probably.

Shoshana Swell: Okay. What was your favorite class at Cornell?

Brendan Elliot: My favorite class at Cornell was my first semester and I didn't know what major I was going to be and I took a government class on international relations with Professor Katzenstein. He's probably the best professor I had and one of my favorite classes because I have a love for politics, but also just how the class was structured. It was a great learning environment.

Shoshana Swell: If you could recommend any class, would that be it?

Brendan Elliot: Yes, but it doesn't exist anymore. If I could recommend any class... Oh man, it'd be intro to astronomy with Kaltenegger or Squires but Squires went to Blue Origin. So…

Shoshana Swell: He went off to the space race. It's okay. We'll be here. What do you dream of making in the future?

Brendan Elliot: I dream of making music and backpacks.

Shoshana Swell: Ooh, I hope we get to talk about that. Okay. Okay. I'm back to the past. What was the first thing you ever made?

Brendan Elliot: Probably a Lego set, but I was sketching many ideas before then, either phones or buildings. My grandpa was an architect and we can go into that later if that's any question. But yeah, I was mostly drawing when I was little.

Shoshana Swell: Wow. Very cool. Okay. So that was rapid fire. Are we feeling warmed up?

Brendan Elliot: We're feeling warmed up.

Shoshana Swell: Okay. So now we're gonna get into more things as of your journey, your career. These questions might not be in the direct order, but we're just gonna roll with it. Okay. So can you give us a bit of background of yourself, in your career and possibly how it brought you to what you're most passionate about now?

Brendan Elliot: Sure. So people who listen to this probably have heard me say this before. But I've always kind of wanted to be a designer and I give credit to my grandpa for that because he was an architect and from a young age he would give me books and notebooks and pens and tell me stories of his creative process. And so from that point I just kind of wanted to create experiences, although I probably couldn't articulate it at that point. I just started to like drawing buildings and from there we'd just read a ton of books on the creative process and products. And eventually my mom got the first iPhone and I fell in love with digital product design. Didn't know that that was digital product design at the time. But I would fill notebooks with sketches of screen layouts based on what my parents said they wanted to change in the iPhone. So designed phones for them, Mom Phone, Dad Phone, stuff like that. I still have the notebooks, they're pretty funny. But yeah, I've kind of always wanted to be interested in design and was lucky enough to have a family that fostered that creativity. And while I was interested in architecture and then industrial design for a while, eventually when I got to school at Cornell and in the information science program and the user experience design concentration, I fell back in love with product design. And yeah, from there I knew that's kind of what I wanted to do as a career and through resources at Cornell pursued it super hard and was lucky enough to get a job. And do it full time.

Shoshana Swell: Wow. So cool. So if anyone doesn't know Brendan, he is a creator of all sorts. So I was wondering if you could talk, so you talked about the sketching process, like what else went into your beginning work of becoming a creator and what was your process like for starting projects or trying to get after something you're passionate about?

Brendan Elliot: That's a good question. So my process is kind of all over the place. I am not a great ideator. Usually I'll have a general inspiration that'll ramble around in my mind for a bit and then I'll just kind of hit on something and then I'll just go. And usually what I make ends up looking a lot like... what my initial idea is, which sometimes isn't great. Sometimes you just roll with it. I found that's when I'm most productive at least in like personal projects that I work on. If I just think of something and then I put pen to paper and actually draw it out and actually start building it or start making it, then I can actually see those flaws more. So it's more of, I kind of sprint stumble through it. So I'd rather just start making it and then seeing how it looks and works and then adjust and iterate on the fly rather than make a hundred different ideas of what it could look like and then pick one. I'm much more productive just starting and figuring it out as I go along.

Shoshana Swell: Gotcha. When you do a lot of this like sketching and planning work, what helps you actually bring it to life?

Brendan Elliot: I mean it's kind of a mix of what I think would be a success depending on like the goal of the project. What I think would be successful or what I think aligns with my vision. And then usually if I can see that as a possibility of making that. I know we talk a lot about my side project and I'm making bags, like backpacks a few summers ago.

Shoshana Swell: Let's talk about it. What do you do?

Brendan Elliot: So for that it helps to have a specific example for what I was talking about. I was thinking a lot about wanting to make a backpack, and the nice backpacks and the stylish ones were too expensive and the ones that were affordable were pretty ugly. So I just decided I wanted to make my own and it was just a thought that I had for a long time. Until eventually I started sketching it out and then went through quickly a few ideas and okay, this is feasible and I could potentially actually make this myself. And once I got to that point where I was like, okay, I could do this design myself, then it kinda fills me with like a confidence to be like, okay, I'm just going to start making it. So once I see a close enough connection between my idea or sketch and to an actual product, then that initial confidence to move to the next step is kind of what brings me forward. So in that case I had a backpack design that I was like, okay I could sew this reasonably and then just decided to start doing that.

Shoshana Swell: Oh amazing. They're super cool, and new things coming out soon. Shhh, don't talk about it, don't talk about it. Our release is not here yet. So now I want to get into some of the things related to your experience at Cornell. So you do a lot of different side projects. You were always very involved at Cornell. So I wanted to ask some questions about the things you did outside of class that helped accelerate your career, help you find what you're passionate about now.

Brendan Elliot: Sure. So I'm going to talk from my experience ’cause I was going for a profession in tech industry, product design. So this is more, my experience is kind of centered around that. But I definitely found that there were holes in my academic curriculum or there was a gap between what my academic curriculum was teaching me and what the industry required. It definitely got me most of the way there, but I wanted to learn some more stuff that would bring me to the level of an industry product designer. And I was lucky enough that some awesome people before me had already seen that problem and created a class for that. And so for the this example, there's a class on digital product design that I was able to take and that kind of filled that hole for me. And I learned more industry-relevant skills and built a portfolio and was able to apply for internships and get my foot in the door.

Brendan Elliot: And I think, so the lesson in that is, and I don't know how this applies to other majors and professions, but if there's ever a hole in what you're being taught at school and what you want to do, then I recommend finding a way to fill that hole and pursuing like a self-taught curriculum in that sense. That's definitely what I pursued. And the classes, the digital product design class is one example of that. And then just finding projects to work on. So I worked on our newspaper’s, our college newspaper’s app, and that was just a side project I did with some friends and ended up using that case study to apply to my full-time job. So wherever there was a gap in what I was learning, I tried to find side projects that supplemented it.

Shoshana Swell: Wow. Super cool. Congrats. I'm a big fangirl. So about fangirls. So I want to learn more about who your biggest inspirations or mentors on campus were.

Brendan Elliot: Yeah, of course. So one of my biggest mentors was actually the creator of the class, one of the co-creators of the class, Indra Keno, who was teaching it. I took it his last semester of his senior year and I was lucky enough to take it under him and he taught me so much. And one person who was also taking the class, Sawhill Kojo, is actually now my roommate and good friend. But he was an awesome help to me initially. I definitely leaned on him a lot for support in applying to jobs and just in anything that I was working on. And so many people, yeah, there's truly so many people. I think it's definitely found in a lot of students on campus because it's kind of cliche, but I'll say it. I've always said it, that the people are the best resource that Cornell has to offer and there's endless opportunities to find people who will be willing to help. And those are just two specific examples of people who mentored me. Shout out to Tina. She's a mentor even though she doesn't like me calling her a mentor.

Shoshana Swell: Amazing. If anyone wants to get into product design, how should they do it at Cornell?

Brendan Elliot: Take digital product design. 100% best starting course that you can take. It'll get you from no design experience to knowing a decent amount and having a case study that will allow you to apply to like some entry-level internships.

Shoshana Swell: Wow. Cool. So I want to go into some advice to first, graduating students. These are like, if you're going to send any messages towards seniors right now, what would you tell them?

Brendan Elliot: Seniors right now, and I don't know how qualified I am to give advice, but I finished my senior year, so I guess if have any advice. Don't work too hard and enjoy the time that you have with all of your friends on campus. Like I said, people are the best resource. You'll never again be within a square mile of as many interesting, smart, creative people as you are right now in such a beautiful place as Ithaca, so don't work too hard. Do something fun.

Shoshana Swell: Cool. Speaking of fun, what do you recommend people should do, or what did you like doing for fun here that people should definitely go try?

Brendan Elliot: I'm a big outdoors person and I love trail running so I recommend trail running on safe paths and trails throughout the gorges and in the area. What sucks though is that it probably won't be fun to do again until like the last three weeks of May, but it's one of my favorite things to do. And one of the reasons why I love Ithaca.

Shoshana Swell: So this is back to your career trajectory and everything. So currently you just started a job in product design. What are any of your future plans? This can be long-term, short-term, what you want to do next week, but we hope it's a little more long-term. Where do you like want to be in the future? What do you look forward to?

Brendan Elliot: I have no specific plans for the future right now. I'm still getting settled. I've only been at my job, but I would say I always want to be in a place where there are big problems to solve and big problems that impact a lot of people. So I will always be pursuing that space at whatever point in my career. And hopefully those problems will be helping lots of people, probably solving problems that are helping lots of people.

Shoshana Swell: So do you want to give us a little sneak peek on, I don't know, anything future, or what you're currently working on outside of this too?

Brendan Elliot: Yeah, yeah, sure. So I'm also working outside of my job, I love working on side projects, I wrote a Medium article online about how people should pursue side projects for fun. So check that out. But my, the one that I'm working on now, I'm kind of trying to create a new, a portfolio for myself of just fun, creative things. And the persona that I'm going under is called Atlee, which is my middle name. Which is a great family story. So I'll be pursuing music and making physical products, potentially digital products and writing things. So more of just an outlet for creative pursuits. But hopefully it'll be launching soon. I'm still working on getting the site built, but other than that, stay tuned. Stay tuned. Things will come.

Shoshana Swell: I'm open. You can't see me on this podcast, but I'm open. Podcasts suck. I think those are all my questions for now to get everyone started on learning about Brendan. Do you have any questions?

Brendan Elliot: Do I have any questions?

Shoshana Swell: Yeah, any questions? Rhetorical question. I don't know, anything for the people out there. Those things like what's my favorite ice cream flavor? I'm like coffee Oreo. Got you.

Brendan Elliot: Okay. Coffee Oreo, better than vanilla sprinkles. I'll give you that. I'm changing it to Deer Tracks to be more interesting.

Shoshana Swell: No, that's okay.

Brendan Elliot: What are you most excited for before you graduate?

Shoshana Swell: Oh my gosh. My series E experience. So sorry, series E. So that's all about prioritizing experiences and fun with people.

Brendan Elliot: There you go. See, following the advice.

Shoshana Swell: Yes. I'm taking all the advice. You gave it to me a while ago. Very helpful. We had a wonderful guest today. That's what they say, right? Oh, thank you so much for coming by. I hope we get to stay in touch, actually though. How can people stay in touch with you? Where can they find you and any information about you?

Brendan Elliot: In two weeks. Look up atlee.design.

Shoshana Swell: Oh God. You can't see me. You can't see me.

Brendan Elliot: A-T-L-E-E-dot-design. In two weeks. Do that.

Shoshana Swell: You heard it here first, guys. Cool. Okay, so I think, I think that's all for today. Thank you for joining us. I hope everyone listening really absorbed everything Brendan said. I look up to him. I'm a big fangirl, so I'm glad we're exposing more people to all your stories. Yay.

Brendan Elliot: Thanks for having me, Shoshana.

Shoshana Swell: Yes. I'm going to turn this off and make sure everything was recording, and I'll let you know if it did. Okay. Thank you, Brendan!