Joby Harris, NASA Visual Strategist Shares Career and Life Advice

This article is comprised of notes taken by the author during a presentation by Joby Harris in Perth on October 29th 2019 called Propulsion. The event was held in the Basement at FLUX and was organised by Perth photographer Josh Fernandes. Over the course of evening Joby told stories and shared anecdotes about his career that included powerful lessons around professional development and general life advice. Check it out below.

In the case of this article – all quotes are as close as I could get Joby’s exact words, but remain approximations for the sake of stated accuracy.

Introduction

Joby Harris is a designer/ illustrator/ artist/ visual strategist who currently works with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also known a JPL.

JPL are responsible for all of NASA’s unmanned missions, like sending rovers to Mars.

He works quite literally at the intersection where art meets science for the sake of triggering extreme emotions. His skill set often involves taking data and putting it through a lens of art and emotion, in order to make it more human.

To Joby, this process of constantly “human testing” design is epitomised through the following quote by David Kelley:

“The future of design is your personal frame of reference.” Founder of IDEO, David Kelley

Joby uses the example of the first ever visual images of Mars created back in the 1960s by NASA as a metaphor for this process:

The image was created in an almost paint by numbers style. Up close you can see the numbers that dictate what colour should go where.

Data – colour – image – story

———

Joby’s Philosophy and Process

What you design simply acts as a trigger for what’s going on inside your audience.

Think about a footpath that never gets used, because people always cut across the grass instead. That behaviour forms a desire path. A better designed footpath follows the desire path, adhering to the existing impulse of the user.

In Joby’s experience, leaving a little vagueness that guides people without explicitly telling them what to do or how to respond causes them to get there on their own. He finds this much more effective than if he were to fill in every detail and draw a complete map.

“You’ve got to look at people like cities” – they’re unique, they’ve been built up over time, and they’re full of complexities. 

“All I can do is build a bridge to you, to get to know you.” 

Stepping into a city and claiming the title of mayor without ever having spent time there makes about as much sense as presuming to know what’s best for people we’ve never met.

The major problem Joby seeks to solve when working with NASA scientists is getting lost in the data. For example, one of his projects was to humanise and explain the use of planet finding telescopes through art. 

A scientist is a city, the public is a city, designers and storytellers build the bridges between the two, so they can understand each other.

The process of design is sometimes as much investigation, deduction and translation as it is creation.

The Work

For a long time Joby’s team couldn’t refer to what they did at NASA as art, because it was seen as a waste of tax payer money. Hence, he was given the title was visual strategist.

Some of his work includes:

  • Designing covers for proposals
  • Redesigning spots in the lab to make them more aesthetically pleasing for scientists, the public, and the media.
  • Creating visual representations of scientific processes in a way the general public can understand.

For instance, take the giant radar dishes we have in Australia, Spain and California that form the basis of how we speak to space. Joby’s team found a way to visualise that process by connecting the signals to lights to tell the story of what that conversation looks like. It’s a beautiful art installation piece that also tells the viewer something about the way we talk to space.

  • Day to day, his team help the scientists talk through their missions, listen like a therapist, draw what they uncover and send it back to them in data visual form.

Joby’s Life Growing Up

  • Joby grew up in a small American town called Mars, Pennsylvania
  • He was heavily inspired by Star Wars as a kid which developed into a dream of working in film, special effects, costumes, and model making.
  • A special effects artist came back to Joby’s home town to do a workshop on Hollywood special effects and Joby was the only person to show up. 
  • The special effects artist saw it as “too much of a coincidence to ignore” so he decided to take Joby under his wing and mentor this young kid making robots out of junk from the dollar store.
  • The Mentor ended up working for Disney Imagineering and invited Joby to come to Disney after he finished art school with the promise of a job interview.
  • Joby was working at Boston Market Home Style Meals (think Nandos) during art school and credits that work as a crucial undertaking in his professional development.

“Cleaning or dealing with crappy people gives you an advantage later on when you’re working with crappy people as a designer.”

“Learn to be trustworthy with small things so you can be trustworthy with big things later on.”

Personal Check In…

  • Are you somebody who is trustworthy with small things?
  • How willing are you to be a master of your tools?
  • Even If you’re the greatest songwriter in the world, could you be a better guitarist?
  • Take a class, get better, don’t just use the free stuff, be better than that.
  • Learn to use the tools the best in the world are using.
  • And if you can’t afford them, get a job at Nandos until you can.

On working within a team environment…

The biggest lessons Joby learnt from working at Disney Imagineering came from watching and listening to the people around him:

“Any time you’re surrounded by people better than you, just hang out with them. Absorb their knowledge, watch them, learn how to get better.”

  • Get with a collective, hang out with each other, work with each other.
  • If you’re a loner working on your own, you’re giving yourself a glass ceiling.
  • I’d rather lose surrounded by friends than hoist a trophy alone.

Post Disney Imagineering

After completing a major park design that came to fruition Joby quickly found himself looking for work. This was in large part because nobody had the money to build theme parks at the time.

This led to working in a special effect shop where Joby adopted a fake it til you make it approach, sculpting a Star Trek suit on his first day.

  • He got experience building wacky props for Malcolm in the Middle.
  • He was lucky enough to working in this space in the middle of JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon’s glory days.
  • As 3D special effects came to prominence props departments began laying off their staff. This transition made Joby adapt and redefine his role again using his skills as an illustrator.
  • This led to concept design – which effectively meant: 

“Draw it fast and fax it to the director.”

“This was before the glory days of having six months to do one design in photoshop.” 

During that time, Joby made concept designs for Alias, Cat in the Hat, Firefly, Buffy, Solaris and more…

Jar Jar Binks and The Phantom Menace was another cosmic shift in the prop and design industry which led to the start of everything going digital. Facing with the prospect of another career going extinct, Joby made the decision to change his outlook on what he was capable of.

The Ten Year Itch

“You may need to change your outlook after ten years of doing what you do.”

  • You may need to charge more money.
  • Work on a new platform
  • Learn a new skill
  • It’s time to change your lens – consciously. 
  • Preempt getting to a stage where you hate what you do and intercept that before it happens.

Adopt the mindset that – If I work my hardest in this ten week class I will live better for the next ten years. 

By bringing your traditional strengths into a world of new tools and new technology you give yourself an upper hand over the competition.

When you figure out what’s holding you back you spring way ahead.

Thinking About Legacy

“I came to a point in my life where I realised I wanted to be more influential than famous. Partly because after working in Hollywood I met a lot of famous people who were miserable!”

That desire drove Joby to take the Daft Punk route, the kind of legacy where you create things that move people, but nobody will ever recognise you on the street.

Think about Walt Disney and the way he created a culture and lifestyle around art. A way of life fuelled by art. There’s a power in that.

*Tactical Thought* Is there a restaurant that is just killing it, that just hasn’t put the work into their menu? I’m going to help them out.

Taking Responsibility

The next stage of Joby’s career forced him to confront feelings of needing to grow up. To be man, get a full time job, be a responsible person and put aside some savings. 

That’s when NASA came calling.

The pitch his friend gave him was that it was a “kind of creative job”.

*Recommendation* Check out – “Strange Angel” on Netflix – The wacky group who started the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had a chemist who was doing strange things at night with L. Ron Hubbard – The founder of the church of Scientology.

The Rise of Art at NASA

  • Through his work at NASA Joby plays the role of bridge and a translator.
  • He uses his skills as an illustrator and graphic designer to illustrate the importance of scientific discoveries like the importance of “Europa”.
  • His artwork is shown in schools to teach kids the kinds of jobs people could be tasked with completing living on Mars.
  • And making robots look less like they’re trying to kill you.

“It’s your perception that’s going to do 80% of the design.”

“Your kid’s kids could be talking to an astronaut live on Mars via VR in the next 8 to 10 years. Probably sooner.”

When you think about a laboratory at NASA what kind of image comes to mind?

We shouldn’t think of science as drab and boring, that’s why people within Joby’s studio are working to redesign sections of the Lab to make it better and more appealing.

That led Joby to design travel posters for different exo planets like Kepler 186f

One day during a tour someone asked for a copy of one of these posters so they put up an internal link up on NASA’s webpage.

A News site got hold of the link and within a couple of days the traffic to NASA’s website made it crash.

NASA Made These Gorgeous 1930s-Style Travel Posters for Earth-Like Exoplanets

“If people like what you’ve done the world will hear about it within 2 days.”

All the artwork made by NASA Is public domain. So Joby didn’t make a cent off of the explosion in popularity of these posters, but he didn’t let it get to him.

The lesson is to work hard on something, even if you think it’s only going end up in a hallway. That project made for a hallway ended up being the thing that launched NASA back into the public eye.

You never know what’s going to be the thing that’s going to launch you.

Conclusion

“I got to where I wanted to be as an artist because I wanted to be a responsible person.”

Joby took the opportunity to step into something where he could:

  • Be influential
  • Shift culture
  • Help people with what he did 
  • Work the hell out of the small things

The posters going viral started a bigger conversation where art became accepted at NASA. Which circles back to the point and one of the biggest take aways from this talk:

“I’d rather lose surrounded by friends than hoist a trophy alone.”

Lone wolves are doing themselves a disservice.

“In five years that trophy isn’t going to matter.

In ten years my relationships will still be priceless.

Not as an opportunist, but to go together as people.

Do that and you will never go hungry.”

“Use your creativity to help people.”

“If you’ve always worked hard on the small things I can trust you with the big things.”

Mike Drysdale

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.