AMA: JD Hooge, Instrument

over 5 years ago from , CCO at instrument.com

Hi there. I'm JD Hooge, designer and co-owner of Instrument, an independent digital creative agency in Portland, Oregon.

I've had several lives as a digital creative person. Spent many years coding, designing and running various companies—all thanks to the internet.

Waaaay back in the day, I ran a small company called Fourm with 3 partners. We also started the type foundry, Miniml. Flash people know what that is.

I worked as an interactive designer for a few years at Second Story before starting another small shop, Gridplane.

For the past 5 years, I've been running Instrument (alongside my 2 partners). We build digital brands and products for every screen.

You can see a few examples of our recent work here and here and here.

Last year, we moved into our new office space. I've written about that here.

I'll start answering questions at 8:30am PST tomorrow (6/1). Ask me anything!


  • Matthew VernonMatthew Vernon, over 5 years ago

    Any tips for a 22 year old who wants to be in a similar position that you're in, in the future?

    8 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      Hey Matthew, I think the best thing I can say is there are no short cuts. Read Malcom Gladwell. He's not wrong about the 10,000 hours thing. You have to find the right balance of being really ambitious yet patient. You are going to fail and struggle at times. Learn from those times and leverage that knowledge in the future. Under promise and over deliver. And be humble about it. People respect someone who leads by doing and making with a great attitude.

      5 points
  • David Card, over 5 years ago

    "I could explain more about our model if you want." I would love to hear more about your model. Thanks. Huge fans.

    2 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      Ok, here goes...

      We build digital brands and products for every screen. That means we work on BOTH Digital Products AND Brand Communication.

      We have 5 disciplines - Design - Engineering - Strategy - Writing - Production (producers)

      We are set up in teams. Around 20-30 people in a team. Each team has a mix of all the disciplines and focuses on 1-5 clients at a time.

      We also have an integrated Film and Production team

      A couple important things:

      1. No silos within disciplines. No UX silo within design. Everyone is a UX designer AND everyone is a visual designer. No account managers. Producers are account managers AND project managers.

      2. No heavy emphasis on process or policies. We favor shared values and vision and let people choose their own tools, methods or processes.

      3. We basically eliminate things that are not needed. Examples: We don't do time tracking. We try to keep meetings small and projects lean. We don't hire anyone until we have to have them.

      "We make the complex simple."

      4 points
      • David Card, over 5 years ago

        If you don't track time, how do you know if a project is over-budget, or for that matter, profitable? or are these things not important as seen through your core values lens?

        0 points
        • , over 5 years ago

          Totally. We don't care about profitability at all. SO overrated!

          0 points
        • , over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

          Really though... We care a LOT about being profitable because its the thing that allows to take great care of our employees.

          Two key things that make it possible for us to skip employee time tracking:


          We have a blended hourly rate (no, I'm not going to tell you what it is).

          So... a new project comes in. We make an estimate based on people and time: The team that needs to work on it (let's say its 5 people) and the time we think it will take (let's say its 6 weeks). We have a little back and forth with the client and agree on the scope. We're transparent about the people and the hours and the hourly rate. If they want to negotiate, we can reduce scope to get the price down. Our producers are in constant contact with the client as the project begins and as soon as there is any scope creep, we have a discussion with them and address it. If it's our own fault, we eat the cost. This forces us to finish things on time and to stay on brief (and be good at estimating in the first place).


          We created our own app that we use to track efficiency, effectiveness and profitability of our teams. All team leaders and executives have access to this and can check in at any time. We also meet once a month as a group to go over these factors in great detail.

          2 points
  • Hunter CaronHunter Caron, over 5 years ago

    Hi! Any tips for keeping a team inspired and working at their potential? How do you go about making sure everyone is excited to come into work everyday?

    2 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      This is complicated. It has to be baked into everything you do. You really have to value your employees a whole lot to the point where all of your decisions factor this in. What projects you decide to take on, what benefits you offer, what kind of atmosphere and workspace you provide, how well and how often you recognize their accomplishments or their attitude, hiw well you yourself model the kind of excitement you're looking to get from them, how passionate their teammates are, how challenged they feel... I could go on and on.

      It's a big effort, carried out by a lot of core people who care deeply about their teams. We work hard to create a healthy, creative and positive atmosphere. If you can achieve this, then people can roll with the ups and downs of the job and come together to solve tough challenges.

      1 point
  • Eduardo HigaredaEduardo Higareda, over 5 years ago

    Hello JD Hooge, Thanks for do this.

    I'm a big fan of your work at INSTRUMENT, I love your philosophy and your projects.

    I'm super interested in the begining of projects, how they start, how the projects born, can you tell us about how INSTRUMENT starts, how you decide to make an agency, how was the first days at Instrument, how do you get your first clients?


    1 point
    • , over 5 years ago


      I was freelancing as a designer/developer and started getting busier and busier and needed to find a dev company to work with. Instrument was a small dev company who was in the opposite position. They were having a lot of success and needed design help. We hired eachother for a couple years back and forth and then eventually decided to merge into 1 company. The idea was to embrace design and technology equally. Be the company that sets the bar really high for BOTH.

      We got our first clients through friends.

      0 points
  • jonathan bowdenjonathan bowden, over 5 years ago

    Hi JD! I've been a big fan of your work for a while now. Here's my biggest question – what is your take on remote working teams?


    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago


      Its really hard for us. We're so collaborative that it's really hard when people are scattered.

      Our clients are all over the place and we're very collaborative with them, so we CAN make it work between Google Hangouts, phone calls and face to face visits.

      But when it comes to employees, we'd rather all be here together.

      0 points
  • Jeff Toll, over 5 years ago

    What would you say your ratio of time spent directing vs. designing is? And how do you best manage jumping around?

    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      Oh god I don't know. It really depends.

      Right for the past couple months I've been fully in the weeds on a few couple client projects so if I had to guess I'd say I've been about 20% designing, 50% directing and 30% running a business. Maybe. Something like that.

      I'm an edge case though. We have eight Creative Directors who don't have to do the running the business bit so they design a lot more than me.

      I can't explain how I manage jumping around. I'm just wired that way. I'm constantly zooming in and back out and switching gears.

      0 points
  • Jeff L, over 5 years ago

    What other companies or agencies right now, besides your team, do you think is putting out awesome work?

    0 points
  • Joel LundbladJoel Lundblad, over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )

    In your opinion, which sites offers the best user experiences on the web today? Anything from E-commerce to information sites for brands

    0 points
  • Jonathan SimcoeJonathan Simcoe, over 5 years ago

    Hey JD! Fellow Portlander here. Huge fan of what you guys are doing at Instrument. :)

    What advice do you have for a Product Designer wanting to grow their craft? How do you stay fresh in staying on top of new design trends and movements and as well as emerging tools and technology?

    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      I think being a product designer feels kind of limiting, to be honest.

      I'm not a huge fan of hyper specializing in one thing. Its sexy right now for a company (or individual) to go product (and service) design only. But I think time will tell that its a limited POV that will hold you back.

      You can't have a successful product without having a great brand strategy and brand communication. Its all tied together. So, if you're saying you only do product design, that means someone else is going to do the visual design language, tone of voice, photography, video content, etc that is going to explain what the thing is and connect to the brand's audience.

      Basically, I feel like creating a big divide between product and brand design is a mistake. If I were you, I would try to learn about both. Its okay to have an emphasis but the more understanding you have of the whole ecosystem, the better your work will be.

      0 points
      • Jonathan SimcoeJonathan Simcoe, over 5 years ago

        Appreciate the thoughtful reply here. My career path has taken me into a role dubbed as "Product Design" but I end of doing much crossover, generalist design work. I see email and support (typically relegated to marketing or brand design) as a part of the product.

        I like the holistic approach you espouse here. :)

        0 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      For your 2nd question: I can't get away from it if I tried. There is so much information and inspiration flying at my from all directions, my challenge is blocking things out and focusing. I ignore things (like the latest article everyone is talking about or video or new technology) until they come back to my attention about 10 times. Then I will give in and check it out. :)

      0 points
  • dave benton, over 5 years ago

    1a) What are the biggest challenges you still face in projects today 1b) How do you/instrument overcome these obstacles

    2) As a CD how have you effected your process to continually create great work.

    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago


      1. Oh man. So many. I am currently designing/CDing a couple big projects and I'd say the biggest challenges lately have been keeping the team small and focused on the goal. Its easy for people to involve more people than necessary when they are feeling the pressure of deadlines looming, but piling on more people never really helps. There is always that tough part in the creative process where things just get hard. You don't have the answers yet and you're starting to feel the pressure. You have to be able to expect that and embrace the weirdness of the creative process and just work through it. Its never perfectly smooth. Once you embrace that, it is really liberating.

      2. Good question. In general, I'm pretty light on process. Very open when it comes to what tools and methods we use to solve problems. The fact is, each project and each client is so different that they all require a slightly different approach. So, the things that are important to me are collaboration (both with the client and with the internal team). I work extremely collaboratively and in person. All of our CD's are designers, so we're not just over-the-shoulder directors. We're actively contributing as designers on projects. So the trick is to zoom way in and then zoom back out and see the forest through the trees. Being able to switch gears back and forth is important.

      I try to practice collective leadership and cultivate a setting where leadership is a collective activity. Meaning: I don't always have to be the one with the idea or the one presenting the work. I try to gauge when I'm needed to lead and when its the right moment for someone else to lead. Sometimes its another designer. Sometimes its a strategist. Sometimes its a writer. The point is to be self aware, be a good listener, and do whatever you need to do to make progress.

      Sometimes I think of creative direction as editing. Ideally, you are capable of doing a lot of the work yourself, but you don't have time so you have to get good at being an editor. Look at all the ideas an inputs and come up with a plan. Mobilize the team. Even when you don't know what the right answer is, you have to say, "I don't really know exactly what to do so, you do this, I'll do this, and let's meet back here and discuss." Everyone has to trust with one another and with the creative process.

      The key, for me, is to build relationships with the people you're working with and get deeply engaged with the project—with the client's business and culture. To really dive in, together and figure it out.

      “The reason I love graphic design is because it’s a way to get paid to learn new things. What really makes designing a book fun is being interested in whatever the book is about.” —Michael Beirut

      0 points
  • Max LindMax Lind, over 5 years ago

    Hey JD - thanks for joining us!

    re: New Office Space

    1. In your article, Building A Creative Space — The UX Of Instrument Headquarters, I really like this quote, “there is a difference between a creative-looking space and a space that fosters creativity”... talk a bit more about specific examples where the new office fosters creativity.
    2. Based on literal size/setup, what challenges have you encountered after opening? (i.e. encouraging employees to utilize certain aspects of the space)
    3. Anything you would change or modify now that you've been open 6+ months?...and/or how do you see the space changing over time?
    4. How do you juggle the office being an office, and the office being an event center of sorts?

    re: Instrument / Portland

    1. Generally speaking, you really seem to follow the 'less is more' design esthetic, do certain clients come to you specifically looking for that?...or do you have to convince them / show them?
    2. Do you ever envision Instrument physically existing outside of Portland?
    3. How has the Portland design culture influenced / inspired your projects?

    re: Random

    1. What's the coolest and/or most random thing on the internet you keep coming back to as of late? (could be a website, service, album on Spotify, etc)
    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      Holy shit. okay, let me try to answer all of these....

      1. It's about spacing planning and materials and furnishings. Its just a different mindset. Not worrying as much about whether it looks cool in photos as how well it functions. Here's an example: We have a lot of huge blank white walls. They could be filled with neatly framed artwork that we bought and framed and it would look great. But instead, they are all painted with whiteboard paint and they are constantly covered in stuff. People can use them for whatever they want. No rules.

      2. Honestly it has been very smooth. I wish we had a few more smaller, private spaces where 1 person could have a phone call. That's all I can think of.

      3. Its going to change and evolve. Right now we're pretty happy and just dialing in little details that pop up, like the doors on the conference room don't say push or pull and no one knows how to open them. :)

      4. We try to do events at night or over lunch hour.

      re: Instrument / Portland

      1. Clients come to us because they like our work so its a non issue. We attract certain types of clients. We tell all of our clients that we "Make the complex simple." Its a mantra here that goes way deeper than aesthetics.

      2. Nope. I doubt it. We've had plenty of chances to expand to other cities. We feel like being all in one place, fully present, fully focused is one of the things that makes us successful.

      3. There really wasn't that much of a digital design community/culture here when I moved here 13 years ago. So, I've really seen it bloom over the last several years.

      Portland just has an independent spirit. There is a reason why we all moved here. The city has a history of being progressive and creative. There have been so many creative pioneers from Gus Van Sant or Dan Wieden to Carrie Brownstein and Aaron Draplin (I could go on and on) who have cumulatively established an indy culture here that is very authentic.

      re: Random

      1. I've been listening to Lemonade on repeat for about two weeks.
      3 points
  • Jan-Maarten Schot, over 5 years ago

    Hi JD, thanks for taking the time to do an AMA here, love the work Instrument does, especially the philosophy behind it. I was wondering, is there a moment with your current (or former) partners which you identify as 'a break(through)'? A moment, or moments, which propelled you forwards in reaching your (business)goals at the time? Do the thoughts of your partners about that differ from yours?

    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago (edited over 5 years ago )


      I guess we are never satisfied. We are pretty relentless in pursuit of some ideal state of the company that is probably impossible to reach. For the last five years, we've frankly blown away most of the goals that we've set, but then we just have higher goals. And I'm not just talking about financial goal for growth, a lot of times our goals are more about efficiency and creative health and providing better benefits, etc. Our main goal is for our company to be sustainable. And by sustainable I mean we want to do this for a long time. We want to create an environment that is healthy and vibrant and beneficial to everyone there.

      In terms of breakthroughs, there have been so many along the way. Here are a couple that I can think of off the top of my head:

      About four years ago we were probably at around 50 employees when we decided to try and experiment and break the company into small teams. It felt like a big risk at the time to split up all the designers and split up all the developers, etc. But it only took about two or three months for us to see an incredible impact on the company and on our client work. It made us more collaborative across disciplines and it gave our teams more focus. It also allowed us to be way more efficient with how the resource projects. So, now we have a model that is scalable within reason that we know and work with the right people and an overall shared vision.

      As we've scaled, one thing that has always been very tempting to do is to break our disciplines into smaller segments or silos. So, for example, The design discipline. A lot of companies will have a separate user experience design group and brand design or visual design group. We realized early on that if we can resist that herbs and hire people who are both UX and visual designers, the work is better. So, we've stuck to our guns on this. We have about 35 designers and no silos. It makes hiring very difficult but the payoff is huge.

      To answer your last question: I have 2 partners and we are very very different. We have a shared vision and shared values but we come at things from different angles. So we compliment one another, which is great for good decision making. None of us could do it alone. The key is that we are very direct and honest with each other all the time. And we almost never email each other.

      2 points
  • Philip LesterPhilip Lester, over 5 years ago

    Thanks JD for taking the time to do this AMA. Been a fan of your work for years.

    1. How do you all find and win the work you want to be doing?

    2. Do you typically take on one time projects or work on retainer?

    3. There's been a lot of talk about the agency model dying. Have you seen this trend over the past few years, or is the agency model still strong?


    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      Thanks for the kind words.

      1. It finds us. We just try to do a really good job and people spread the word for us. We've never done any sales.

      2. We've avoided working on retainer from the beginning. We find everything works best when projects are tightly scoped and have the right people working on it. Of course we always hope for repeat business, but we'd rather do it on a project basis. We rarely sign a contract for more than 4 to 6 months.

      3. I read all of it. I guess we're just so different than a typical agency that usually it just reaffirms what we're doing. We've always been a technology company just as much as a design company, so we don't have the same issues that a lot of advertising agencies have (trying to remain relevant). Our model is working well for us. And we just keep tweaking it every day to try to make it better. I could explain more about our model if you want.

      1 point
  • Vikalp Gupta, over 5 years ago

    What do you recommend to a designer who started learning/designing few years back and is just going to start his/her career?

    What company should he/she join? An early stage startup or a company or a design agency.

    How can he/she improve his/her design?

    How can he/she work better as a team along with other non-design colleagues?

    How can he/she handle clients and explain the design better?

    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      There is no right answer.

      I think the best advice is probably to just jump in and try something. You don't have to have it all planned out. Start your own freelance business and see if you can pull it off. Or go get a job at the best agency or brand you can get yourself into and try that for a while.

      Through that process, try to figure out what you value. What makes you happy/healthy/challenged?

      To improve your design you need a good mentor. You need years of experience, working with people who inspire you by example.

      Being collaborative is very important. What does Joe Stewart say? Being nice is a great way to get people on board with your ideas? Something like that. Don't be a dick. Life is too short and you will be spending a lot of time with these people. Make friends. Be a good listener. Be direct with people and just, be human.

      If your design is good, you don't need to worry about explaining it better. So, I would focus on knowing your client better. Anticipate what they are going to say and beat them to it. Have another option in your back pocket. You have to find a good balance of pleasing them and scaring them a little. Show them what they want, then show them something different. Don't make it a presentation where you are making the choose. Make it a collaborative conversation. You want to show up and say, "here's where we're at." Talk them through the process and what the options are, what other ideas you're kicking around in your head. Then, "based on our discussion, here's where we're headed."

      Hopefully that helps!

      4 points
  • Kenneth JensenKenneth Jensen, over 5 years ago

    How did you grow as a company in terms of work vs employees?

    I'm running a small likeminded studio in Copenhagen and we're up at 8 employees now, but we're uncertain of the safest way to grow as a company right now. Business is really good, and we attract good staff, but we don't know if we have enough work for a new Designer for instance.

    In the past we always took in more work than we could handle, before hiring more hands. But now it might make sense to hire a Business Developer before taking on more Design and Development positions.

    Where do you stand on the question of internal growth?

    0 points
    • , over 5 years ago

      Never grow unless you have to.

      That has always been our approach. Just focus on making great work. When you are really good, the word spreads and you will get more work. Then you will need more people and you have to decide whether its worth it to you to grow, or not.

      We've never had a "business developer" or sales person. We've gone from 30 employees to 130 in 5 years, by word of mouth.

      Whether you want to grow or not is very subjective. For us, growth has provided a lot more, better opportunities for everyone here. We continue to get ourselves into more and more rich and challenging work that touches more and more people.

      Everyone is worried about losing the culture as you grow. My response to that is that culture is fluid and always changing. Don't cling to it. Cling to your values. Figure them out. What are the values that made you successful in the first place? Write them down and talk about them. Hire people that share those values.

      1 point