In Conversation with Ross Luebe

We’re pleased to share another installment of In Conversation, our series of friendly chats amongst Athletics colleagues and collaborators on subjects of personal or professional interest.

We’re joined this week by Ross Luebe, Athletics Technical Director. Ross is one of many Texans in the studio, and has lead the charge on just about all of our digital projects.

Listen below to his chat with Athletics Co-Founder Matt Owens, or read the transcript, and stay tuned for more conversations in the weeks to come.


Matt Owens:  Welcome to another episode of In Conversation, a series of discussions amongst Athletics team members and creative colleagues on subjects of personal and professional interest. For today’s chat, we welcome Ross Luebe, technical director at Athletics. As technical director, Ross manages the Athletics technology team and serves as project leader. Today, we’ll be talking to Ross to learn more about his background and his evolution from graph design to full stack developer, and now technical director. And with that, I welcome Ross to In Conversation. Hey, Ross.

Ross Luebe:  Hey, how’s it going?

Matt:  Great. Happy Friday. Tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, and how you got into graphic design originally.

Ross:  Yeah. I grew up in the Houston area, Southeast Houston, like Pasadena area, and I was very into skateboarding. I kind of came to skateboarding through the very first X Games, essentially. And with that, that whole culture, the MTV/X Games, early ’90s culture, was very I would say influenced by the David Carson style of design, which I did not know that name or that designer at the time. But you know, everything about that kind of sucked me in. And it just kind of … It was through everything, there was a thread of this disruptive design culture that was going through art, the zine culture, everything, you know. So in some ways, I would say I’m from that ’90s design aesthetic that everyone looks back on now and kind of cringes a little bit.

Matt:  And you went from Texas to Chicago for school, right?

Ross:  Yeah, that’s correct. I thought that … In my mind, Chicago had this culture that Houston was lacking in so many ways, and I wanted to be a part of that. And I like this idea that the school there, Art Institute of Chicago, had at the time. I think they were the only college that did it. They didn’t have … You didn’t have to select a major. You could go to the art college. There are tracks where you couldn’t progress unless you took a number of classes in that same department, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to screen print. I knew I wanted to make music, and I knew I thought graphic design was cool, but I didn’t know that was like a career for me. So, the Art Institute of Chicago was kind of nice because it was like this idea of I could just figure it out as I go.

Matt:  I know you went on to earn a master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in graphic design before transitioning into creative technology. Tell us a little bit about your experience at Cranbrook, and that arc from graphic design to Chicago and to creative technology.

Ross:  Right. So, there was a couple years after college where I worked in Chicago at a marketing company, doing some basic HTML stuff, more like graphic design proper. We were doing posters, we were doing website stuff, all sorts of things. I knew that I was kind of … I felt like I was lacking in the artistic side of what I thought graphic design could be. And at the time, I remember … I had already talked to … I think it was when I was an undergrad. I was in screen printing class and we had the head of the printmaking department come and talk to our class, and that was my first kind of experience of like, what is Cranbrook? I had friends from the Detroit area because Chicago and Detroit are so close to each other that when I went to the Detroit area, they showed me Cranbrook and I was just kind of blown away by the campus and everything that was going on there, the community. And I think in a lot of ways, it’s an extenuation of what drew me to the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s not this idea of lack of picking a major, per se, but it’s that kind of … Like, art is the real thread underneath everything.

So, I looked at other schools at the time. There was RISD and Yale and all that kind of stuff. And I think there was a lot more design with a capital D going on at some of those schools, and I really wanted more of an artistic expression experience again. And I also liked that … I think this still happens there, but at the time, Elliot brought in a lot of people with different backgrounds into the department. So, you get to learn from each other in ways that you would never get to if you were just self-taught. So I got to learn some 4D rendering, I got to learn more video stuff. I already had website as my background, and I was bringing screen printing to the table, so I got to teach a whole bunch of kids how to screen print there. So, I like that kind of mixing of experience and learning that happened.

Matt:  I think Cranbrook historically has been inherently multidisciplinary. And within the design department, you’re exposed to a wide range of disciplines, be it technology or video and traditional graphic design. I could see how even for me, that multidisciplinary kind of exposure allows you to see the through line between a variety of different creative efforts, and wanted to hear a little bit more about going into graduate school and then coming out and back into the workforce, back into graphic design, and then sort of transitioning into technology.

Ross:  Yeah. That’s actually … It was a really interesting time. It was right around the time that the iPhone was really becoming more and more popular. People thought it would be a flop and it wasn’t, and there was a lot of whispers and rumors about how Flash was going to go away. And Flash was really where my technological interest was at the time. You know? I thought web development proper was a little cold and dead, and I just wanted this animation kind of experience on the web. So I thought that I’d probably not do that much web development actually coming out of grad school. I was trying to do a lot more design work. I was picking up a lot of design work at the time. I was doing some illustration work, and I thought that technology was in a weird way, progressing kind of antithesis to art, so I didn’t really want to be a part of it. But as all things go, the web started creating new avenues to basically do Flash, but in different ways, and it kind of drew me back into it. I feel like as much as people chide Flash for the bad parts of it, the good parts were really good, and it was really interesting what you’d see coming out of the web in the early 2000s. And I do see a lot of people kind of going back to that in certain ways, but maybe smarter now.

Matt:  You know, looking back at 2008 to 2010 and ’11, you see the sort of advent of responsive design in mobile and the demise of Flash. I’m curious to hear a little bit more about that transition from animation and Flash, or a little bit of the internet Wild West, into more rigorous technology as a discipline.

Ross:  Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of it started … And whenever I came back to Athletics … So, I entered Athletics, and that was kind of a big part of my ideas around design and design culture and how things can be blended. I got a chance to work under you, and I felt like there was this period of time in the early 2000s where designers were kind of everywhere, but at the same time, if you had design and something else, like you could do 4D or you could do After Effects, or you could build websites, you’re a little more in demand. So for me, I just started already touching on that, piquing on that interest.

And then when I came back to work for Athletics as an employee in 2012 or ’13, I was a UX designer. A lot of what I was doing was interactive design principle type things, and then building it. You know, helping the team build those parts of the project. I got to work with a lot of really talented developers who knew development a lot better than I could ever imagine I would know it. A part of that itched and scratched until I just couldn’t help but fall into that trap, you know? I think that the development aspects of things are really interesting, because in some ways, design is always going to be subjective. And I feel like there’s this way that you are always … For me at least, the way that I was doing design work, I always felt like I was working on an unfinished project. And then even whenever we delivered it, I just felt like I was a little unhappy with how it turned out, and not for any other reason than just … that’s the nature of my relationship with design and art.

Whereas development was a little more binary, you know? I knew what needed to be done, and it was easy to problem solve that and build something. So, that transition was nice. And then going back into the design aspects, I felt like as an actual designer, I probably was not that strong of a designer. But because of the background that I had, my input and guidance into the design team can be a little more helpful. You know, especially knowing what it takes to build something, and having that experience. So, I think where I [inaudible 00:09:45] now is a little more interesting to me, and I hope that it’s helpful for the team as well, because I think we build better products whenever we can make what we design correct.

Matt:  It’s interesting how you talk about the binary nature of technology, sort of it works or it doesn’t, where creativity in general is far more subjective. Athletics is sort of driven by design and brand and storytelling, and technology is largely in service of that mission. I think it’s very interesting for someone like yourself, because you can sort of occupy both of those spaces very, very well, understanding the certainty of technology and then having that inform and to some degree define some of the more subjective dimensions of design and storytelling.

Ross:  Yeah. I think this is a part of the history of Athletics that I’m kind of happy I was a little bit of a part of. You know, I think some of that storytelling does in my mind comes from the early days of volume one, and these literally … using the internet as a platform for storytelling. That’s the way that I always viewed it, and I think that that’s kind of something that was pervasive as Athletics started to form. When it was a collective, there was this interesting thread going on where people would get work at the various companies under Athletics and share that with team members, and I felt like there was a strong ethos happening there. I feel like I’m lucky enough to be one of the few people that’s able to still be a part of it, you know? I think the branding part of it is super interesting in its own right, and I think the things that we do with design are super interesting. But the technology part could’ve easily been pruned off years ago, and it’s still around because it’s still super important and more relevant than ever.

Matt:  Absolutely, and I completely agree. Technology has always been central and a tool in our arsenal as a brand, a design firm, and I think over the last five years or so, it’s become even more important in that ability to seamlessly tell stories across experience, design, and brand. Now, if you look over the last year and a half with the pandemic and all the challenges that we’ve faced, I’d be curious to know a little bit about any products that you’re particularly proud of that you’ve worked on recently.

Ross:  Yeah. One thing that happened this past year which I feel particularly proud of is we’ve fostered new relationships with clients that have a different appetite for what they want for digital presence on the web, and it’s given us a lot of space to grow and expand our offering beyond what we were doing in the past. In the past probably I would say five to six years, we were strictly working with WordPress, building traditional front-end websites. Now we’re working more in the app, kind of application as a website space, where we’re doing more React work, we’re doing more interesting data driven sites. We’re doing things that are a lot more interactive than we’ve ever done before in the sense that you can create entire pieces of music on a website, and I think all of that just comes from the support that the entire team brings to these projects. So for me, it’s really hard to pick out one specific project because I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in kind of a little piece of everything. And that diversity is actually like … blows my mind in this past year. You know, I think a lot of going into the pandemic, I thought that we would probably hunker down and just do some really [inaudible 00:13:41] work and kind of get through it. But we actually made some of the most interesting work I think we’ve ever done.

Matt:  I completely agree. In a strange way, the last year and a half has opened up new doors and new possibilities, and interesting ways of collaborating that have produced I think some of our strongest work. As we exit the summer and enter into the fall and look to next year, what larger trends in design and technology do you see on the horizon?

Ross:  Yeah. I would say … And this is like … I think to some people, it might seem like we’re well beyond the crest of this, and in my mind, we’re in the wave of websites becoming … There’s appetite for websites to be a lot bigger than they really need to be, in some ways. I think people see some of the flashiness of some of these applications disguised as websites and think that that’s what they need their smaller marketing site to be or whatnot. And we kind of work in both spaces, right? We work with start-ups. We build a single page, very lush application style website, and then we also build websites with hundreds of thousands of pages and templates that kind of need that whole support system of an application.

I think what’s really interesting is I’m surprised to see how many people are jumping into that space, that in between land, where you don’t … You need something more than just a single page website, but you don’t need a full-blown app, and you don’t have much of a budget. And there’s this land that exists with Webflow and Editor X and all of these companies that are essentially making the spiritual successor of Dreamweaver, so that designers can go in and build a website with just the smallest amount of information and knowledge on coding. That’s really, really interesting to me. In some ways, I think it gives us room to go bigger at Athletics, you know? I think having that in the back of our pocket gives us the ability to empower designers to help clients get there quicker. And then on the flip side, our technology team can kind of move on to some of these bigger avocation style projects that are looming in things that … You know, that’s basically the new request is our digital footprint has to grow because we no longer have that in-person footprint that we used to have. So yeah, I think that’s happening, you know? It’s there.

Matt:  It’s interesting. The web is becoming more re-democratized in a way with the rise of no code platforms and solutions, allowing designers to design and build more seamlessly. These trends, combined with rapid prototyping, allows for our technology and design teams to work together to produce something more efficiently and more high fidelity. Clients can better evaluate. I think this combined with reputable systems and processes frees up us to do work that’s far more experimental and more complex enterprise level challenges.

Ross:  Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and then the other part of it that’s also just kind of … It’s been a slow change, but I think we’re at the point where it’s boiling over, is there’s not really as much of a distinction. There used to be a real heavy kind of emphasis on full stack, people that can do back-end development, front-end development. There’s still back-end development that needs to be done, but a lot of the projects, when it comes to websites as a whole, a lot of them blend that a little bit more because people are using JavaScript and these front-end technologies for the back-end. So, we bump into that a lot more often, where we find people that … They don’t really refer to themselves as full stack developers anymore because the stack is so unified that that’s more and more common. You know? It’s kind of an interesting new landscape for us, especially when we’re looking for new talent and new projects.

Matt:  Completely. And I think of your role and your expertise, and unique background bridging design and technology, and as we see this convergence happening, folks like yourself who can speak fluidly and operate across the design, brand, and technology will become more and more important. And also, helping traditional designers who are having to embrace technology more fully and learn that vocabulary.

Ross:  Yeah. I mean, the writing’s on the wall. If you look at a lot of schools across America, they’re teaching coding to kids in high school, and some even younger, you know? There’s opportunities to learn how to code at a very young age, and that’s not to say that you’re just going to create an army of people who are computer science. It’s fostering that mentality so that even if you do go into the arts, even if you do go into the space, even … A good example actually is [inaudible 00:18:26]. Cranbrook used to be a 10 department college. I won’t list all the departments, but they’ve added a department in the last years. They’ve added a 4D design. 4D design is not sculpture. It’s not furniture. It’s not … It’s designing in the world of code and physical space, and hacking and making things kind of that blend, that line. And I think that’s just becoming more and more common. It’s interesting how that work’s going to feed back into the web and basically, how the web feeds back into the real world. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that, especially with the emergence of AR and VR and how those things can exist on websites. Like I said, it’s application disguising themselves as websites, but it’s everywhere. So, that’s what we’re going to be building for.

Matt:  Totally. We’re sort of at the cusp of a new renaissance when the web will be the Wild West again, in a way.

Ross:  I think so, absolutely.

Matt:  Well, thanks so much for your time, Ross. Really appreciate it, and this is In Conversation. Any parting thoughts?

Ross:  No, I feel like I’m looking forward to all the conversations with the folks at Athletics, and we’ve been growing so quickly that I feel like there’s a lot of new people, and I want to hear the story from them too, you know? We all come to this space from such different walks of life, and we’ve been creating some really good work because of it.

Matt:  Absolutely. Well, thanks so much.

Ross:  Absolutely. Bye-bye.