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A Talk With Peter Markatos: Global Design Director at Uber

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Taking time out to be in nature among the redwood trees, swimming, and “snoozing” his emails, is how Peter Markatos, Global Design Director at Uber, keeps things in balance. Having worked with an impressive roster of brands including Facebook and Amazon, Peter co-founded and ran a successful design firm in the Bay Area for many years before shifting gears in 2016 when he joined Uber as their head of brand design.

At Uber, he has a more demanding schedule than ever - one that has him globe-trotting while leading his team of designers at Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco. Recently, Peter oversaw Uber’s rebranding which was unveiled last fall and what he describes as the most challenging project of his career. We spoke with Peter to find out about how he creates work-life balance, takes time to slow down, and on being a father.

Tell us about how you’re able to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
It’s been a crazy journey, from having my own firm to running a creative team inside a large organization, and I’ve come up with several ways to maintain work-life balance. One is trying to work from home on Fridays, and letting my team feel comfortable to work from home on Fridays as well. Trying not to email folks over the weekend and obviously trying not to email them after 8pm.

I learned work-life balance kind-of the hard way when I started at Uber. I tried to tackle everything, to answer all the emails and stay on top of everything. But, what I realized soon after landing there, is that you can’t ever keep up and zero-out all the emails in your inbox by the end of the day. I came across this great quote from Tim Ferris: “Attention is a currency that determines the value of time and time has no practical value without attention.” To me, it means I value, more than responding to that email, my own time and space, my own work-life balance.

PHOTO BY Peter Markatos

I’ve adopted a few methods to keep that balance intact. I use an email program called Airmail, which allows me to snooze messages. Take that Friday afternoon example -- I’ll get some emails towards the end of the day on a Friday. Which by the way, I don’t understand, why send an email at the end of the day on a Friday? I snooze an email until Monday at 8am and it pops back into my inbox at that time. I’ve found that by doing that, by being very diligent about not checking email after 8pm, whether personal or professional, and trying to disconnect as much as possible, has actually led me to a better balanced work-life. I think that’s tough to do and harder to do the more senior you get in an organization but it’s essential. Especially as a creative. You need to be fresh and innovative in your thinking. You’ve got to get sleep and make sure that you’re not going to bed stressed out, there’s absolutely no benefit to it.

What are some things you do for self-care and to slow down?
It’s really hard to do when you travel for work. I try to adopt practices that help me reset. Exercise is one of them, specifically, swimming. I aim to swim two to three times a week. That has a huge impact on my health. I also love to spend time out in nature. I live near large redwood forest. Jogging or hiking in nature has a huge impact on my well-being. I also love to take my camera out in nature. It’s easy to forget to do the things that bring us joy but we have to try to remember, to go show up for those moments.

PHOTO BY Peter Markatos

Do you schedule time to be outdoors?
I don’t. I schedule literally everything else in my world, but that’s not a bad idea. If I were to show you my calendar, it would probably induce a seizure of some sort. As a director at a major corporation, my day is completely scheduled. Some use scheduling as a tactic for balancing. I used to put “focus time” on my calendar, but that, unfortunately, no longer works, as I just don’t have the time. It’s important to build that alone time into your calendar, otherwise other people will take that time away from you.

What about your work has had you inspired as of late?
One of the things I was concerned about when I went from having my own agency to going in-house was getting to work with a lot of different clients. It’s exciting, to change things up, and you learn a plurality of things. I was concerned that with Uber, I would be bored or lose that. And one of the amazing things at Uber is: it’s absolutely not boring. That’s the last word I would use to describe it. We work on so many different things. The scale on which we do brand work and design is incredibly unique. And that in itself is inspiring and exciting.

We had a big hand in a product called Uber Lite that launched in the Middle East and Latin American regions. It was designed for people who don’t have high-end phones that have limited space. We redesigned a 250MB product to be a 5MB instead. It had this huge impact on folks that needed to get around who didn’t have fancy phones that use our regular service. That was amazing to be able to design and create something that was accessible and inclusive. When I think back to why I wanted design in the first place, it sounds naïve, but like a lot of designers, I wanted my designs to help the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to find a job where the work we do affects millions of people. It’s an inspiring place to work.

For creative folks trying to find a place to work, once you’ve cut your teeth and have some experience, make sure you’re finding the right company, the right product, whatever it is, so you’re working on something that inspires you and feeds into an innate interest you have. Whenever the time comes for me to go beyond Uber, I’m going to have a very specific idea about the types of companies that I want to work for, the types of fields I want to get into. You spend so much of your time, so much of your life working, you better make sure it’s something you’re passionate about. Otherwise, you’re going to burn out.

Congratulations on Uber’s recent rebranding. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Thank you. That was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my professional career. That was the bulk of 2018 and it was incredibly difficult. We launched that in September 2018. We really saw it come to fruition with the IPO. The work we did from a visual standpoint on that day was pretty amazing. I’ve never worked with a brand on that scale. That was incredible and inspiring.

What are your thoughts on this newer definition of masculinity that has emerged in recent years?
Having a young boy and making sure that he grows up to be a respectful man is something that has always been important to me. In the advent of the #MeToo movement, it has been top of mind. We talk a lot about it now, especially now that he is getting older and starting to think about girls. I’m trying to make sure he understands what it means to respect women. For myself, it means being mindful of the language that I use. The other day we were watching one of the new Marvel movies and talking about Chris Hemsworth as Thor and I used the word “stud” to refer to the actor. I haven’t used that word in ages, and the moment that I said it, I could tell that I used almost an archaic word. We had a conversation about what being a stud “stud” means and where that word came from. By the end of that conversation, I felt, “you know, it’s not a bad word or anything, but it’s probably better to not use that word in conversation.” It’s a word from another time. As a parent, you have to pay attention to these things if you want to make sure your kids grow up looking forward and not looking back.

Your family heritage is Greek. Do you ever think about Mediterranean values or way of life? Have you visited the area where your family comes from?
I went to Greece for the first time this summer to the island where my surname comes from. It’s ridiculous that it’s taken me this long to visit. I’m inspired by Mediterranean values from a culinary and dietary standpoint.