James Cabrera is Head of Design & Special Projects at TheBlock, a self-taught User-Centered Visual Designer, formally educated in Math and Physics. He is currently the Head of Design at The Block, having previously held design roles at Gimlet Media, Refinery29, Say Media, and Foot Locker, Inc. His design experience spans from SEO Marketing Campaigns, Retail Marketing, Media Publishing, Editorial Design, Visual Design, User Interface, and User Experience Design. He has also given talks on User Interface Design, User Experience Design, and Design Strategy at various design conferences across the world.
I am a multifaceted designer who likes making things on the web, especially for emerging technologies and trends. I diverted from a life in Mathematics and Physics to pursue a career in design. Along the way I've found that my analytical and methodical approaches to problem-solving have been tremendously helpful to me as a Designer. Ultimately, my mission is to improve education for everyone and promote a passion for learning.
The story of how I began designing on the web started when I was 14 years old. I began making websites with various WYSIWYG editors from sites like GeoCities and Angelfire. Dissatisfied and unable to achieve designs I envisioned, I taught myself HTML and CSS by viewing the source codes of some of my favorite sites like Halovision, Spoono, and Kaliber10000. I dissected them to see how they were made to teach myself how to make my own designs from scratch. I then learned how to use an FTP client so I could put them on the internet. With this newfound knowledge I went on to design websites for Counter-Strike clans, local bands, and MySpace profiles.
At the same time I was in High School aggressively pursuing a path towards Mathematics and Physics. Science always fascinated me as a kid. I've always had an endless curiosity about the universe that I wanted to fulfill.
Meanwhile I began to get involved with the design community through forums such as yaXay and sitepoint under the alias ispec. This is where I further developed my design chops reading through critiques of other's designs and applying the feedback into my own work. Through these communities I also discovered I could make money by selling my designs. I even got scammed a fair number of times.
In 2005 I attended Stony Brook University, going for the double major in Math and Physics. However, in my junior year I was presented with a job opportunity to join an SEO marketing company that I had consistently been selling designs to. It was at this moment when I realized I could turn my hobby into a career. As a believer in always finishing anything I start, I opted to stack all of my classes in the following semester and graduate early to pursue design full-time.
Since then I've went on to work for companies both big and small. From tiny privately owned businesses to large corporations—and everything in between—I've been able to work through almost every type of team structure.
I really got in the trenches of e-commerce in the world of skateboarding as I worked for Foot Locker, Inc under their sub brand CCS (Foot Locker, Inc has since sold CCS). I was an influential part of the team that helped to transition product photography from flat shots to on-figure as a way to increase sales. I also worked on design iterations to the cart and check-out process that ended up being adopted by the other banner sites like Champs Sports, Footaction, EastBay, and Lady Foot Locker.
From there I went on to work for Say Media, under the guidance of Alex Schleifer. I helped to develop the underlying theming logic and design system of Tempest, their propietary content management system made to service medium scale digital publishers. I assisted onboarding the first 25 publishers onto the Tempest platform.
When Alex decided to take on an opportunity to become the Head of Design at Airbnb, I decided to join a former Say coworker, Aziz Hasan, at Refinery29. While there I was the Product Design lead for their first iOS app, ThisAm, which saw great success upon launch. I also was responsible for spearheading a card-based design system for the consumer-facing site to support rapid software development and build consistent patterns in the reading experience. Additionally I prototyped new site features, new products, and designed bespoke marketing landing pages to support previous editions of 29Rooms and NewFronts presentations.
I then took on an opportunity to join Gimlet Media to be their first staff Design Director. My main objective was to find ways to use design to bring new audiences into podcasts. I distilled the design of show art for new shows into a science and implemented new processes to support the sales team in scaling the pitch process as interest from new advertisers flooded the space. I also experimented with ways to use video to get Gimlet's content onto larger platforms and in front of more ears. I built and managed a team of designers alongside directing all software engineering intiatives.
Additionally, I spearheaded the effort to re-imagine the Gimlet visual brand. Over the course of 8 months I had sourced/vetted agencies, worked within allocated budgets, directed/coordinated/reinforced the overall brand mission/goals of the project between the agency and Gimlet executive leadership to arrive at a successful finished product.
All of these efforts were influential in accelerating Gimlet's growth to ultimately get acquired by Spotify in March 2019.
Following the Spotify acquisition, I personally made the decision to leave Gimlet Media to join The Block as their Head of Design and Special Projects. I truly believe in the future of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies, just as I believed in the emergence of podcasts as a medium. Through The Block I want to help spread education and information around developments in blockchain technology and expose any bad actors in the space to maintain a healthy community.
Over the years my work has been recognized by the Webby Awards, Clio Awards, Peabody Awards, and Cannes Lion.
Every year I set time aside to speak at design conferences across the world. In my old pursuit of Math and Physics, I dreamt of giving talks to packed out lecture halls. I still try to fulfill that desire in design. I enjoy sharing my war stories and experiences with those trying to break into the space today. I also jump at opportunities to speak at mentorship programs and career day events, especially for underserved youth.
As for my far future goals, I hope to one day get involved in redesigning what the modern day education system looks like. I believe that most of the ongoing issues in the world can be solved by developing completely new methods to foster better environments for learning.
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