About this episode
In this episode, we discuss how her natural curiosity helps her to work better with clients, focusing personal growth on long-term goals, and the importance of exploration in acquiring new skills.
Matthew Munger: Hey Francis. Thank you for joining me today.
Frances To: Hey Matthew. Thanks for having me.
Matthew Munger: Why don't we start off with getting to learn a little bit more about you?
Frances To: Sure. So my name's Francis and I'm currently an independent designer who specializes in designing bespoke websites and interactive stories.
Metro Manila, Philippines
Matthew Munger: Where are you located and what's it like living there?
Frances To: So I'm from metro Manila, Philippines. And in terms of what it's like living here, I would say it's quite good. Like there are a lot of great restaurants around the city. I get to hang with my friends, so yeah, but I would say it's big enough for you to get around and have a good time.
I guess there are a lot of malls nearby, so if I am feeling stressed on any given day, I can just go to the mall and then walk around, go shopping. That's one of the good things about living in metro Manila.
There's a place called Bonifacio Global City, and so there are a lot of areas for you to walk around. You can bring your dog and talk to other people who also bring their dogs.
Matthew Munger: Anything else that you like to do or around the city besides shopping?
Frances To: Besides shopping, well at home I like listening to a lot of classical music. My favorite composer is Frederick Chopin.
Matthew Munger: Do you ever visit like outside of the city?
Frances To: A few weeks ago, we had this thing in the Philippines called Holy Week. It's a very religious holiday, actually. During that week, a lot of people either go to the church and then they pray. Then some people go out of town for a vacation. So what I did was I went with my family to this wellness resort not too far from Manila. I think it's a two hour drive. And all their food’s like really healthy, a lot of fish, a lot of vegetables, some meat. You get lots of massages. You get to swim in a pool, so, you know, it's very relaxing. And I took a bunch of nice photos too, so it was great. It was like this huge plot of land. And then there are mostly coconut trees around. And the people who owned the plot of land turned that into a wellness resort.
Matthew Munger: I wouldn't mind going myself.
Frances To: You should go. It's really great.
Matthew Munger: What does your workspace look like?
Frances To: I think my workspace is pretty much like every other person's workspace. So, of course, my laptop’s there. And then on my left, there are a stack of design books which I read from time to time. On my right, there are two containers filled with different pens and pencils. So one container or one jar, is for colored ball pens. The other jar is for, let's say, black markers or black ball pens, everything black. And then behind the two jars is a small square canvas with an abstract painting that I made last year. I have this organizer where I put all my highlighters, my earphones, my bookmarks, everything there just so that it's organized in one tiny box.
Matthew Munger: So you're an artist as well, right?
Frances To: I used to be one, actually. When I was four, I was already into drawing and painting, and I guess that just translated into a design career later on.
Matthew Munger: What are you doing with all of your drawing utensils there? Are you sketching, like, is it for work or is it for fun?
Frances To: To be honest, I only use like maybe 20% of all the ball pins there. But sometimes though, when I need to call or code some stuff, I really need to grab a colored pen and then just, you know, write some stuff or color some stuff. So you never know when you'd be needing them, right? And I feel like having those ball pens ready is more convenient than, say, opening a huge box, getting the stuff out, and then getting that thing buried in the box.
Matthew Munger: What's your painting that you said that you have there?
Frances To: Mm-hmm.
Matthew Munger: You wanna tell us a bit more about that? What is it and what's the meaning?
Frances To: Sure. So last year, I had some experience and I kind of want to process that experience. So I decided to do an abstract painting, which I normally don't do, because in the past I’d draw a lot of still life, a lot of landscapes, seascapes. But I feel like abstract painting gets you to express ideas which you normally can't express when you draw something concrete, like say a bowl of fruits or the beach.
So I just did whatever I felt like doing. If I can give a title to that piece, a good title would be “Just Do Whatever You Want.” And then I got some oil pastels and then I would shade some parts of the canvas. And then I wanted to put silver glitter on the canvas, actually. But I didn't really have silver glitter, but I did have aluminum foil. So I folded the sheet and I got this grater that has very fine holes and I just grated the aluminum foil and that became a makeshift silver glitter.
So what I did was I got Mighty Bond, some strong glue, and then I drew a line and I scattered the aluminum foils as if it were glitter. And I guess that served as a shiny outline of the shapes I drew.
Matthew Munger: It sounds like it was a very therapeutic activity that you sat down to do and just kind of let it organically come out of you.
Frances To: Yes.
Matthew Munger: Do you listen to any music while you work? You mentioned Classical.
Frances To: A lot like 24/7. Um, I listen to Chopan all day and for some reason I never get tired of it, but I also listen to Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Mostly those two people for classical music. But I also have a variety of interests. So I like music from the early two thousands. You know, if you're a millennial, you like those tracks.
I have another for maybe K-Pop. I'm not a huge K-pop fan, but it's good to listen to music, you know, from around the world. Like there's K-Pop, there's Filipino pop, and then there's Classical.
Matthew Munger: Do you have any hobbies or interests?
Frances To: Well, listening to music. Sometimes I would go shopping online, retail therapy, but I don't spend, I just look at the nice clothes. Recently, I got into reading Philippine Vogue magazine. So they released their first issue in September last year and it's been great. I really appreciate how you get to see what fashion's like in the Philippines.
Matthew Munger: What is something that would surprise people to learn about you?
Frances To: Okay, so I don't think many people know this, but in the Philippines we have this airline called Philippine Airlines. When the pandemic started, there was some girl who did the voiceover of the flight attendant, right? And then she did a TikTok video about it. She became super viral and everybody began praising her because her voice was so good.
So I tried copying her voice and then I tricked some friends into thinking that it was a recording, but actually it's my real voice. So now I can say, “Well, I can do a flight attendant’s voiceover.”
Matthew Munger: How would you describe your role and what you do every day?
Frances To: So I'm an independent designer, and that means working on a variety of projects, every month or every two months. In the past month, I worked on an NFT website, and then this month it's something architecture related. So I would say it's doing a bunch of projects from different industries. And the great thing about that is that you can learn a lot from these different industries.
For example, this month I worked with this architect. I asked this architect, “So what do you think is the hardest type of building to design? Is it a mall? Is it a condominium?” And then he was like, “Oh no, those are quite easy. What's hard to design is actually a hospital. You have to manage the inflow and outflow of people. Then you know how some rooms couldn't be next to each other because you don't wanna spread some disease around. So I would say it's pretty difficult designing for healthcare.” So just by talking to this architect, I learned a lot about what architecture's like. And I would say it's a little bit similar to a UX design or web design in a way, except they make physical spaces and we make digital spaces. Yeah.
Matthew Munger: Yeah. It's very interesting. So do you ask those questions of your client when you're first getting to know them and the project, and does that help inform your build?
Frances To: You know, sometimes the questions I ask don't exactly have to be project related. I feel like I just ask these questions out of genuine curiosity, and it's also my way of building rapport with my clients. Because if I get to understand them a bit more, then that might help me work with them better.
Matthew Munger: What are some other interesting projects?
Frances To: Okay, so this one's still in the works. I'm working on two side projects, actually, with my friend Maxine Pinpin. So shout out to Maxine. One project is an interactive story. It's about fashioning the future of sustainable materials. So it talks about how in the future, your t-shirt could be made from mushrooms and could be dyed using some bacteria. That's actually very possible. If clothes are made out of biomaterials, it's actually eco-friendly. So that's one.
And then the other project is another interactive website, this time about the history of the terno. So the terno is one of the types of clothing that Filipinos would wear sometimes during formal events or sometimes during casual occasions. So it has two sleeves, flattened sleeves. They're actually called butterfly sleeves because they have a lot of folds and then yeah, they're teacup or bell shape.
Matthew Munger: So these, they're two very, sounds like story driven sites, huh?
Frances To: Yeah.
Matthew Munger: The first time that you came across my path was you built a website called The Haircut, is that right?
Frances To: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Matthew Munger: How did that project come to be?
Frances To: So when I was browsing through the internet, I just noticed that a lot of articles tend to be static. A bunch of static texts and then a photo, another bunch of texts. I just felt like this could have been done in a more interactive manner. But then I feel like, you know, there's nothing wrong with having a static article. And I get why businesses would do that.
But part of me wonders like, the web is a place where you can consume or absorb information, right? It's similar to reading a book, watching a movie. The only difference is that when you read a book, you can smell the scent of the pages, you could flip through it. It's a very tactile experience. When you watch a movie, you can see moving images flash before your eyes. So I was like, “Well if these two types of media are interactive, why can't websites do the same?” So The Haircut is my way of experimenting as to how far could static web stories be turned into something more interactive.
Matthew Munger: And how is building that experiment, how did it affect you personally and like your skills, as well as has it opened up opportunities for you?
Frances To: Yeah, a lot. So, when I did that, I actually got exposed a bit to the world of journalism. So I still think that my main line of work is mostly on design and web development. But as a designer, I think it's very important to immerse oneself in different fields. So I had a piece of what journalism's like, “Okay, how do you get your readers to share about what you wrote? How do you pull them into the story?”
And then once the project ended, there was this competition by the Pudding. So the Pudding is this independent publication that showcases different data stories. So something like, “The Sizes of Women's Pockets,” or “What exactly makes standup comedy funny?” And then they go analyze the structure of it.
So they had this competition where people can just submit a visual story they made. So I submitted that. I didn't really expect anything, but when the results came out, I was actually the Honorable Mention Award, so that was quite good, I would say.
Matthew Munger: Nice. Yeah. And for folks who may not know, the story is that The Haircut website is about you, right? And you wrote the story, and turned it into an interactive website. How is what you're doing now building these kind of interactive story driven web or internet experiences, how is that different from what you might have imagined you'd be doing?
Frances To: So when I was a kid, I thought I would be a fine artist, so someone who would paint or draw for a living. When I got older, I thought maybe I'd be someone who designs billboards or ads that you see on tv. Then as I got older a bit, I thought maybe I'd be an illustrator. And later on, maybe I would be a product designer who works at this company or startup. If I look back, I actually didn’t expect that I would be an independent designer. I would say that my experience is in different fields from fine art, graphic design, illustration, product design– all of these past experiences really informed my work as an independent designer.
Matthew Munger: Do you have any aspirations for where you'd like to go from here, or what kind of challenges you'd like to take on next?
Frances To: Well, one of my dream projects actually is something fashion related. It would be great, I would say, to design an interactive story for a client. I think most of the interactive stories I make right now are side projects, but hopefully it turns into something more.
Matthew Munger: What excites and motivates you to be an independent digital designer?
Frances To:: I would say it's the mastery of the craft. I know being a really, really good designer takes a long time, maybe years, 10 years, 20 years. And I want to just take this time to actually maximize what I could do as a designer. I feel like it's a noble aim, a noble pursuit, and it's something worth exploring. That's what keeps me up every day. The other thing is that in every work that I do, I always want to put my best foot forward, to push the boundaries, to go beyond what I think I could do in the present. Because, it just really takes time to be a master. So I think it's about playing the long game.
Matthew Munger: Being satisfied, being content where you are and who you are at this moment, and keep striving for that. Like you said, the long game.
Matthew Munger: What is a resource that you think people in the community should know about?
Frances To: The funny thing is I don't really have a go-to resource. I feel like whatever I learned was just pulled from many different resources. But I would say maybe, for graphic design, So it's this nice kind of like a publication that features different work from different creatives, and it's just nice looking at how different people would approach their projects.
I just really think that my work is heavily influenced by graphic design, print design, what else? Awwwards for web designers. There's a lot of great web websites and Awwwards types that sometimes push the boundaries, and I feel like just looking at those would give you something to aspire or strive for when making your own website.
This book called “How To" and it's written by Michael Bierut. He's a partner from Pentagram and he's done a lot of great work, and all his work is compiled in this book. And whenever I'd open it, I would just be amazed, because when you look at his work, you might think, “Oh, it's so simple. I can do that too.” But if you really try to reverse engineer everything, you're going to realize that no, what he does is really complex. And to get to his level of craft would take a really, really long time.
Matthew Munger: So yeah, seeing the process that great designers go through to kind of get to that outcome, it can be very enlightening.
Matthew Munger: Is there someone in the Webflow community that inspires you?
Frances To: So I have one person in mind, so her name's Angela Chua. She's also an independent designer who's based in the Philippines. She's been freelancing. I would say just looking at her work makes me feel inspired, because I now have someone in the Philippines who I look up to as a role model. So shout out to Angela.
Matthew Munger: What is some advice that you would share with others?
Frances To: It's good to scratch your itch when it comes to following your curiosity. I think what has made me acquire different skills from graphic design to fine art and whatnot is because I just have this genuine curiosity for stuff that I like. And when I have this curiosity, I would always want to explore what's out there in that field.
Matthew Munger: All right, Francis, if others in the community would like to reach out and connect with you, how can they do that?
Frances To: So you could reach out to me on Instagram. So my IG handle is Francis To dot design and you could also find me on Twitter. My Twitter handle is Francis To 9 27. It's nine twenty seven because that's my birthday, September 27.