A Conversation With Rogie King

When I first decided to do these interviews, I said that I wanted to talk plainly with people I admire who have excelled at their craft. So it’s no surprise that Rogie King was right there at the top of my list.

Rogie is the sole proprietor of Komodo Media in Helena, Montana where he designs and develops beautiful web interfaces. He’s also recently been dabbling in illustration work, to much success, and working hard to open Fine Goods Market, a “hypertext boutique featuring fine goods” crafted by the man himself.

This is a bit of his story:

J: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me. You majored in math and computer science at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, right?

R: That is correct. You’ve done your homework.

J: What is your favorite thing about Montana?

R: I would say the outdoor culture—outdoor culture and freedom. I used to go hunting with my dad in California and it always felt like you’d go hunting and there were a million hunters and all over you. And you were actually more in fear of getting shot by hunters than actually seeing a deer. And chances are, if you saw a deer, they were all shooting at it before you. So the freedom of being able to go… it’s so raw still. It feels like maybe what settlers used to see when they first came. There are places that people have rarely been that you’ll set your foot on and that was something I never got in California. So it’s kind of a magical existence.

And also the lakes and rivers—there are so many lakes and rivers. There’s fly fishing and river floating and white-water rapids and then there’s snow skiing and water skiing. The outdoor activities—the hiking and the marathons and all this—there’s just so much. That’s what I think I love about it most.

J: So you’d say the adventure draws you to it?

R: Yeah, I think so. I grew up running around—my parents were like “No TV. Turn off the TV!” They didn’t want us to do any of that. We had movies and that was it. They would not allow TV or cable. They thought it was a waste of time. And we were homeschooled, so we would literally get done with school at 1 or 2 in the afternoon and we would be gone—we’d get lost, for like six hours at a time until dinner. My mom had one of those old-school bell things…

J: I was just going to ask you about that, that’s funny—we had one too!

R: Did you?! Oh my gosh. See, Jesse, we have more in common than you think. It’s our redneckery past. But she would “ding-a-ling-ding-ding… Dinnertime!” [Rogie’s mother apparently has a southern accent.] And we would come running out of the bushes. We were like the lost boys—with parents, of course.

J: Bangarang!

R: Exactly. We used to throw imaginary food at each other.

J: I’m curious, though. Was there ever a point growing up—because it sounds like the adventure and… you said the word magical—was there ever a point growing up where you had the desire to get into design? What drove you to choose math and science over design in college?

R: So growing up, no desire to get into design. At all. Really, my desires were more around what I was influenced by—adventure. I wanted to be a herpetologist. I wanted to be a reptile doctor. I loved reptiles and snakes and lizards. I loved animals. We went to the zoo all the time. I was an outdoorsman, so everything I wanted to do had to do with that. I either wanted to be a herpetologist or work at the zoo.

But as I started getting older, I was lost. I kind of wish my parents would have said, “Yeah! Go, do it. Be a herpetologist!” But I’d ask them, “What should I do?” and they’d say, “Well, you’re good at math.” So I literally started going to school to be an accountant.

J: Wow. Komodo Accounting.

R: Yeah. Komodo Accounting Firm. So I actually started accounting school because my parents told me to. Then I starting talking to this guy in my church and getting advice. My dad was always had this big desire for me to be an apprentice, to learn from others. Go and talk to people in the industry. A very old-school mindset.

So I went and talked to him. “So, Glen, what do you think of accounting?” And in my mind, I’m building it up to be this magical career. “Do you love it?! Do you love accounting?!” And he’s like: “Uhhhh… it’s ok?” And I remember his totally meh response and I thought: “I don’t want to do this.” So I started doing the classes and I was like: “I hate this.”

Luckily, I had taken a computer science class. It was a programming in QBasic class and I thought: “hmm, I like this” and I just started lily-pad jumping to my desires. From “I hate accounting” to “I like computer science”. Then I started talking to some more people in the industry, [Rogie’s switches to a fantastic Statler and Waldorf impression] “Well, yeah, if you go to Carroll College it’s a four-year college not a two-year college and you’ll have a good chance of getting hired on.”

I guess I didn’t have these huge, grandiose dreams anymore. It was just, “I need to get a job locally.” Pretty matter-of-fact. So then I went on to computer science and then I did math because my parents said, “you’re really good at math” and my teacher’s said, “you’re really good at math”. And I was like, “Yeah, ok.” So—that’s the story.

Once I went to Carroll, there was little thought of design. It was about halfway through; I was using computers all the time and this natural thing just broke out: I started designing. Just because I liked it. I started designing an Oracle-based application and that, I think, is where it really clicked. All of the sudden: “I like design.”

And everything after that was just self-discovery: looking at blogs; reading Dave Shea’s stuff and Jon Hick’s stuff and trying to replicate their styles to get good; Smashing Magazine and CSS galleries.

J: You’ve always said that Disney has been one of the biggest influences on your design. What Disney movie has had the biggest influence on your design style/aesthetic?

R: I’m not so sure aesthetically a Disney movie has… that I can point to one. I can point to Disney movies I like the most: Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. I would say movies that are starting to influence me now illustration-wise are really unique movies like 101 Dalmatians. It’s one of the most unique Disney movies as far as style goes. All the end scenes from Pixar movies… like the illustrated sequence after Tangled is a huge inspiration. A lot of the character design, of course, from the older Disney movies like Lion King. My golden era was The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast.

But I would say more than anything, the biggest influence Disney had on me was the complete picture. When you theme something, you theme it out to be the most detailed and rich. And the experience—not that I’ve nailed it—but it’s like when you walk into Disneyland. You feel like you step into another world. And that was my thought when I first made Komodo Media. When you step into Komodo Media, I want you to feel like you’re an adventurer and you’re in the jungle. And that was the beginning of Disney’s influence on me coming out.

J: The Foliage-o-meter—that was one of the things that struck me when I first visited your site. Because it was so gratuitous, but in a fun way, if that makes any sense.

R: Yeah, in a world of design where everyone’s saying, “Minimalism! Minimalism!”—and I get minimalism. Don’t put too much crap out in front of people because they’re not going to be able to find what they want; they’re going to be distracted by the things that don’t matter. Only put what does matter. And I get that, but I still think there’s a certain voice. This needs to be an experience and you need to put a smile on people’s faces. The two biggest names I can think that do this are Apple and Disney. There’s lots of hidden secrets in Apple’s designs that make you smile. There are rich touches that make you go, “They thought about that!”

That’s why they came to me to design the Fantastical calendar app. They came to me and said, “Your style reminds us of Disney in that we like your little flourishes.” For example, Michael Simmons, the lead UX guy and the mind behind Flexibits—when he was telling me about Fantastical, he kept pushing me… there are four little pages underneath the calendar, but when you keep going through the months, the pages drop out as if you were ripping them off the calendar. So there are these little details that he wanted; it’s like surprising delight. I want people to think, “Wow, they thought of that! Cool.” So that’s the influence from Disney, I think.

J: To follow up on that: you’ve called yourself this hybrid. We talked about your math and comp science degree; you’re obviously a savvy developer. But you’ve obviously established your reputation with your knockout design stuff. So in your mind, which is Jekyll and which is Hyde?

R: I think ultimately, what’s gonna win is who I was made to be. Whatever God created in me… I think God creates everyone unique and puts within them a desire and a gift to use for Him in some way. For me, that started when I was a kid. It was pretty obvious that I loved illustration and visuals and things like that. So I think who will win will be the more visual designer.

I’ll probably stay with website design. I hate to say this, but one day my Javascript skills and CSS skills and HTML skills… I’ve even stepped away from languages like PHP and server setups and Unix because I want to focus more [on design]. So I think it’s all shifting to visuals and illustration. I might just do UI, websites and illustration and be really good at all three, but I think I’m still better at UI and websites than illustration right now. But it’s a process. It’s getting back to my roots and then honing that skill.

J: Your Google+ profile says you’re a “Religion-hating Jesus-lover.” What do you mean by that?

R: I think it’s probably taken out of context or it may be offending to some, but it’s something that’s a message for me. I grew up in a really staunch, religious church where people were shunned or pushed outside because of religious things—and by religious I mean the outside of people. Not their hearts, but their externals. You would meet someone who would judge you or condemn you for having a tattoo. There were churches where women would wear pants instead of dresses and they were judged. I came from that kind of background and to me, that was religion in its truest sense. It’s not a relationship with God, it’s not being connected to Someone greater, your Creator. Religion is man’s bastardization, his warping, his twisting of what knowing God is really like. And I hate that about it. I hate that people are judged for wearing pants. I’ve literally been in a church where women were kicked out; they were told, “You need to go back and put on a dress.” To the world, that probably seems absolutely ridiculous. And that’s what I hate.

But everything about Jesus, I love. I love his message—it’s pretty controversial: loving your enemies, loving your neighbor as yourself, sacrificing yourself for others. That, to me, is not religion. That’s following Jesus and that’s following what God meant for us.

J: You’ve always been pretty open about the fact that you’re a Christian, and I have to compliment you for that. I think sometimes people are ashamed of what makes them whole as a person. So tell me a little bit about your own spiritual journey. Has faith always come easy for you or have your struggled with doubt?

R: You know, I still struggle with doubt. I think it’s always going to be something. Faith didn’t always come easy for me. When I was a kid, I was single-minded: I wanted to play, I wanted to have fun. And then when I was young, I just wanted girls. I’m pretty much a typical human with a one-track mind, so I was thinking about girls and that was it. I think where it really became real for me, came alive for me and where I think I gained a lot of confidence was somewhere around twenty-two, twenty-three.

I had this upbringing in a Christian home and had been modeled a pretty good example by my dad. He would literally love his neighbor as himself. He would invite bums in off the road even at a risk to his family. He truly wanted to help repair people’s lives. And not just hand-them-a-dollar-repair, but literally “I want to make sure that this person does well. They were on a destructive path. If that means they live with us for six months and we take care of their bills and feed them and restore them, then that’s the case.”

And that was great. But it wasn’t ever really real to me until I had my own bout with partying. I was married and there was lots of drunkenness. It basically wreaked havoc on my life and my relationships. I don’t think I’ve ever been so deceived in my life. I actually, in that moment, felt like I was following my heart and doing so well; yet everything around me was falling apart. Who I was was falling apart. Who God made me to be was falling apart. My relationships were falling apart. I was becoming—forgive the French—an asshole.

So that really dawned on me about the time that my wife Toni and I were falling apart. It dawned on me: “There’s something wrong here.” I remember going through a Christian counseling session where I was literally confronted for a lot of the things I was doing wrong and a lot of the thing that had driven me to be so… I mean, I was drinking so much—insane amounts of alcohol. And a lot of what drove me to that was a lot of my bitterness toward my parents: things I wish they’d have done or things I thought they shouldn’t have done or things I judged them for. And all of this bitterness, as the Bible says, “a root of bitterness brings forth death”. It was doing that in my life. All this bitterness that I had built up inside myself was bringing forth death. And everyone else could see it, but not me.

Through that I cried out to God for forgiveness for my ways. I literally went cold turkey off alcohol for a year. I was ready either to give it up altogether or let Him bring it back to moderation. But by following in that and asking for forgiveness for all the bitterness and going to my dad. I was so bitter toward my dad. After that session, everything broke free. Suddenly, instead of looking at my dad and seeing bitterness and anger, I looked at him and all I saw was love. I didn’t see those things anymore. It reignited a relationship with my dad and everything started getting better.

The relationship with my wife started getting great. I prayed that God would bless my career, that he would bless my finances. I even asked him for a certain amount per year. I dreamed with God, I would say, “God, I want to work on my own. I want to work freelance. I want to be able to visit my family.” And literally, all of those things came true. My wife went through a crazy near-death experience with her pregnancy, blood clotting in her lungs. I never prayed so hard in my life. And God, I believe truly, answered my prayer and she lived. That happened twice with both children.

And then even weird things would happen. Online, people would send me money and say, “I feel like God wants me to give you this to bless you.” For instance, I’d want an iPod but I wouldn’t want to spend the money on it; then someone would send the money and tell me to spend it on something I enjoy and it would be enough money to get that iPod. To me, it was re-encouragement along the way that God loved me and that He wanted me to do well, that He wanted to prosper me if I followed after Him.

So all of those little things along the way—and the fact that my life turned around—led me to a more thankful attitude toward God, an attitude of “I want to follow Him no matter what” instead of “I want to follow my way”.

J: You mentioned your boys—they’re great, beautiful boys. How did your life change when you became a father? Good luck trying to describe it.

R: No kidding. The one thing Toni and I always say: we try to warn all the people that are single. “You don’t know how much freedom you have right now! Take advantage of it! Do stuff!” Especially people that are single that hermit themselves and just stay at home. “Get out! Talk to people! Have friendships! Dream relationships! Don’t hole up in your house, you’re going to be stuck there!”

Everything. So many people lose their childhood. A lot of the things that hardened me about becoming an adult… When I first went to Carroll, I remember this distinctly. I was still kind of a kid at heart. And I remember my teacher, she loved me. Then she noticed this change in me after I’d been partying and the last year I was there, she looked at me and said, “Rogie, you’ve lost something. You used to have such spunk, such fire in your eyes and excitement about life. You’ve lost some of that.” And that was hugely impactful.

So to answer your question: Kids brought me right back—that youthful spark. You forgive easily. You love a lot. You hug a lot. You have a lot of joy.

J: You see the world through different eyes.

R: Right! The world becomes more colorful. There’s life everywhere. It’s not just this bitter existence. It’s wonderful. And I think that’s what kids do for me: they bring me back to that again. You probably learn more from them than they learn from you.

J: Related to that, I’ve often felt the tension of wanting to let my children grow into their own interests versus passing things on to them that matter to me. Have you felt that tension at all and if so, how do you handle it?

R: Yeah, I’m really, really conscious of that because I feel like from my childhood—no bitterness now, but—I wanted to go to college but my dad said, “You don’t need to go to college. You can just work your way up the corporate ladder.” The two messages I got from him were: “You don’t need to go to college” and “You should be an accountant.” I don’t know if that was me; I think that was him.

So my wife and I always have conversations about that. Jameson comes in and says, [another one of Rogie’s fantastic impression, this time of a pre-pubescent child] “I want to be a computer guy just like dad!” And I actually—it’s like the pendulum is swinging too far the other way—I actually push against that a little bit. “Are you sure? Are you sure you don’t want to be a firefighter.”

Heh. My mom once said, “Oh, look at him, he’s gonna be a janitor!” and I’m like thanks mom, set those sights high. Nothing against janitors, though!

J: It’s “custodian”, Rogie.

R: That’s right “custodial representative.” So… I’m conscious of it, and I push against it a lot. I try to say, “You don’t need to be me. What do you like doing? What do you love?

J: Important question here. You’ve posted several pictures of your boys peeing that will no doubt be a source of embarrassment for them when they’re older. Do you plan to distribute these photos to their girlfriends when they’re older?

R: Absolutely. It’s all part of the individuation process. You have to embarrass them tons.

J: To show love.

R: Are you going to do the same for your little guy?

J: Of course. Now you mentioned that you always dreamed of going off on your own. And I had the opportunity of talking with you quite a bit when you were making that decision about going off on your own. But since you’ve become a full-time self-employed individual, what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned? And along those lines, what’s the best part of it and the worst part of it.

R: That’s a hard question. I’ve learned a lot of lessons. Some of the lessons I learned at the beginning were about ego. You have this ego, “I want this to be my baby and my direction.” And after you work for several clients—especially if you leave a company where you were a lead designer and everything you say goes—you quickly lose the ego. Because people are constantly ripping you a new one.

But that’s not the greatest lesson, that’s just one I learned early on. I think the greatest lesson was the one that I talked about at Valiocon: the lesson of relationships and sacrifice they take. Sometimes that means you lose money. You hear a lot of people say you’ve got to charge these astronomical rates, but you really put a huge gap between you and your client and it’s so buttoned up and professional. Whereas the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I want every client of mine to be like a close friend that I’ll go back and talk to, and collaborate with and talk about ideas with—off the clock, on the clock, whatever. That’s a great lesson that’s yielded a lot of awesome relationships—and repeat work. But the hard part of it is that it requires sacrifice. It means at times you may have to lose money, at times apologize. It’s a much more humble position.

J: One last question before my short list of ten. What’s the most played song in your music library right now?

R: The most played? [Clicking around.] Please don’t be Lady Gaga. Whoa, this is strange. I don’t play this song that much, but Stay Crunchy by Ronald Jenkees. Others on the list? Cascade, The Prodigy, Bob Marley, The Benassi Brothers and Daft Punk. I think I listen to Bob Marley a lot because I have this tendency to over-stress myself, so for some reason CCR and Bob Marley bring everything down. I’ve been listening to jazz a lot too, I’m surprised it’s not on this list.

J: All right I have a list of ten short questions that shouldn’t take long to answer—my own Proust list of sorts.

R: And if I can not be verbose then maybe we can get through them? I’m gonna try. Go.

J: What’s your favorite word?

R: Right now? It always changes. Tractor—when Jackson says it, because he says it like this [and his impression, of course, is spot on]: “Traaaacktr.” And it’s super cute.

J: What’s your least favorite word?

R: Hate.

J: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

R: Something to do with service projects. Being able to bring God to people through serving and building and helping and praying for them.

J: What profession would you not like to do?

R: Accounting.

J: Describe for me the most delicious meal you’ve ever eaten?

R: As a child it was this dish called gunky chicken. My mom made it and it was this rich teriyaki wing. But the most delicious meal I’ve had in the last couple of years was a filet mignon with lobster on the side with a caramelized onion, blue cheese reduction with thin sliced potatoes with layers of asiago cheese between them and everything on that plate was ridiculous. I had it for my tenth anniversary at Jakes in Delmar and it was amazing.

J: What is your main fault?

R: Over-stressing

J: What fault are you most tolerant of?

R: I don’t know. I have no clue. I tolerate everyone’s faults.

J: What does happiness mean to you?

R: In a nutshell, I feel the most happy when I’m serving others, when I’m giving to others. My heart soars when I’m building something for someone or I’m able to bless someone. The feeling of serving—even versus creating—is really amazing. I used to be a waiter forever and what I loved about that was service. I loved making people happy and serving them.

J: What does misery mean to you?

R: Death. What death in every form brings. War, lives wasting away, hopeless addiction to drugs or alcohol, the bitterness I was talking about—seeing that rip somebody’s life away from them. That’s misery.

J: If you could summarize your life in a motto, what would it be?

R: You have hard questions, dude!

J: It’s the last one, I had to make it tough.

R: I would say, “Love God, love others and love yourself too.”

J: And to make sure I didn’t miss anything, is there any other question I should have asked you?

R: Yes: “What advice do you have for people who want to get where you’re at?” And the answer is, from the outside everybody thinks that being good at something, or getting places, or being an independent contractor, or whatever your dream may be is really easy or that it’s just natural.

And I would say: hard work. I think that people have lost the art of super hard work, really focusing on something, working really hard and sacrificing while doing it. I think that’s probably my motto for success. Maybe I’m not as good a designer as others, which is pretty obvious. But what I lack in skill, I think I make up for in hard work and really trying to figure things out.

J: Rogie, thanks so much. I appreciate you taking almost an hour of your time to talk with me.

R: Dude, anytime. Well, anytime, but just not like every day.

Rogie’s home on the web is Komodo Media, but you’ll probably catch a better glimpse of what he’s working on currently by visiting his Dribbble profile.

Photo by Kyle Steed