The Modern Art of UX Design

Brian Spencer St. John

Brian St. John is used to his work being on display. Such is life when you’re an artist. But it also perfectly suits his job as UX Manager at the SF Fed. UX is shorthand for user experience, but the simple title belies the complexities of the profession. Research analyst, data collector, and graphic design are all parts of the UX job description. He takes on all requests for anything from translating business requirements into visual designs to leading design thinking workshops—both internal and external, while also making sure nothing is going wrong. That variety extends to the types of projects he works on too, and it’s exactly what Brian loves most about the job.

“I kind of equate it to an actor getting into a role,” he says. “If you think about these actors and what they do to prepare for a role, they do research, they get in that character mindset, they learn a new accent or something. I love just being able to get into that part and just fall in love with that space of being creative and seeing where things go.”

A lifelong artist

Creativity has been running through Brian since he was a kid. And it was at a random outing the art bug bit him at a young age.

“There was an afterschool program that I was involved with, and the teacher took us all out on a little field trip,” Brian recalls. “We went to this park. I think I had to have been like 10 or younger. And there was an artist that was just drawing at the park. It was a heart and all sorts of cool designs around it. But it’s a memory that I replay, that just really got my imagination going and really excited about the idea of drawing.”

His parents saw his love of art and enrolled him in art classes at the local arts and crafts store, where the teacher was impressed with the charcoal drawing he produced. It was that encouragement that spurred him to continue to pursue art through high school and view it as a viable career.

Brian laying on the floor as he works on a mural that includes hands, an eye, and a skull
Brian working on a mural for the Attic, a small alternative music venue.

“Early on, that’s what I saw for myself,” he says. “I wanted to be sort of the next Picasso, or some type of artist that did this as a full-time career. Just the idea of being able to create, to put stuff out in the world and have people see it, I really liked that.”

The ultimate achievement for an artist is usually displaying their work in a gallery. It’s something they work their whole life for. And it was no different for Brian—except he was able to accomplish that feat at age 20. He didn’t know much about the art industry, but he knew he needed to paint—and that’s what he did. He painted canvases that he would ask to hang in a local coffee house in El Paso, Texas. They also littered his apartment, which is, ironically, where he was discovered. In an act of serendipity, a man selling a camera to Brian took notice of the art in his apartment and was struck by an idea to open an art gallery.

“I think I had an entrepreneurial bug in me—I’ve always had it. Maybe I was grasping at straws,” Brian laughs. “But I thought it sounds really cool, I do artwork, so let’s do it.”

A story in the El Paso Times about Brian’s art gallery.

Fed family

Although his parents supported his pursuit and love of art, he didn’t inherit it from them. He did however get his other lifelong passion—the Federal Reserve. His dad was a banker, while his stepmom Carmen was a manager at the El Paso Fed. And that’s exactly what spurred him to get his start. The job started as a necessity. The gallery he opened had closed after just two shows and painting murals for pizza parlors wasn’t cutting it financially. “I had my daughter, had a son, and at some point I was like, I really need to do the right thing,” Brian says. “I needed to be responsible. I was doing artsy stuff, but it really wasn’t enough to sustain me, let alone a family.”

In need of a job to pay the bills, Carmen notified him of a job in the check department at the El Paso Fed, a place where he spent a lot of his time when he was younger.

Brian at 7 years old with his stepmom Carmen.

“My stepmother would take me around as a young kid to the Bank, or parties, or gatherings after work. So, a lot of the folks that I worked with had seen me grow up over the years. They knew all my stories,” Brian remembers.

Over two decades later, with stints at three different Federal Reserve Banks, what started out as a means to an end has turned into a deep-rooted love.

“I’ve made a lot of great friends at the Fed going from El Paso, Dallas, San Francisco, back to Dallas, back to San Francisco, and then back to Dallas again,” he says. “The reason that I’ve stuck around with the Fed is really just the mission—the idea that the Fed is doing the best for the economy, doing the best for American citizens. I’m not an economist, but I’m part of a bigger picture, and I’m playing a part to support a robust economy.”

Intertwined interests

Brian had two professional loves in his life—art and the Fed—but while they were always happening simultaneously, they were never linked. He was successful at the Fed, but in the back of his mind he always thought, “This is great—but it’s not art.” That all changed when he discovered UX.

Check departments had become a thing of the past, and so he shifted to a technical analyst role.

“Around the year 2000 was my first introduction into web development, web design,” he says. “But it was just self-teaching. And then a few friends of mine were like, ‘hey, can you build a website?’ and I was like, ‘Sure, I know how to do that.’ So, I started to take on friends-and-family type of projects and just getting into it. So, I kind of did web design, UX, without knowing.”

Brian Spencer St. John, UX Manager, Application Services Group.

Almost a decade later, he got his first official job in UX. And as soon as he started, he realized that it was the perfect combination of his financial tech job and art. He was drawing, but instead of it being on a canvas, it was on a computer screen. And instead of being photo realism, his subjects were dropdown boxes and menu systems. It was art—just different. “It’s what I call the intersection of art and design,” Brian says.

Earlier this year, he was promoted to UX manager for the Application Services Group. Now he leads a team of three designers and two researchers. But why do all of this at the Federal Reserve? Why not pursue UX design at any tech company? It’s the variety of projects that keeps him coming back. For example, his team has worked with the Cash Product Office, where they are designing applications that support cash transactions and cash handling. He’s also partnered with the Boston Fed to design a portal for recruiting research assistants, which taught his team more about economic research. And every now and then, Brian even finds opportunity to use his fine arts skills in the office. “I like being able to support and illustrate our shared values, like diversity and inclusion and social justice, at the Bank,” he says.  This has led to murals and illustrations for Martin Luther King, Jr., Women’s History Month, and Pride Month, among others.

'Celebrate Women's History Month' mural with drawings of women in profile and facts about women in the workforce
A Women’s History Month mural Brian created for a “sounding board” at SF Fed headquarters in 2017, which shared that women represented 47% of the total workforce and 26% of people working in computer and mathematics.

“The thing that I really love about my role is we get a lot of exposure to a lot of different projects and efforts across the system,” he says. And no matter what project he’s tackling, art is always a part of it, which is exactly what Brian has always wanted. Art doesn’t need to be separate from work. His work is his art.

Timelapse of Brian drawing a “sounding board” mural for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the comments that SF Fed employees added to share what MLK’s words mean to them. (video, 00:39 seconds).


[ Background music ]

ON SCREEN TEXT: What do the words of Martin Luther King Jr. mean to you?

(Time-lapse of Brian drawing on a white board. On the left side, he draws two hands, interlocked in a handshake. Brian adds rays coming out from behind the hands. Above the hands, he draws a small dove, a heart, and the earth. He colors in in the drawings: one hand is a darker tone than the other, he uses the colors of the rainbow for the rays.

To the right of the hands, Brian writes “Celebrate MLK” in stylized letters, and a quote beneath that. To the right of that he writes “What do these words mean to you?” and draws an arrow that points to the quote.

An employee walks by the walk board, which now filled with sentences written in different colors. A photo of a Martin Luther King Jr. is above the hands with “MLK.” Beneath the drawing of the hands, “I Have a Written” is written in large letters.

The camera Zooms into different sentences written on the white board.)

ON SCREEN WHITEBOARD TEXT: Be true to yourself! (“Yes!” is written beneath it in a different color.)

ON SCREEN WHITEBOARD TEXT: The time is always right to do what is right (“Right” is emphasized with color.)

ON SCREEN WHITEBOARD TEXT: Do the right thing always! (always is underlined.)

ON SCREEN WHITEBOARD TEXT: The words of MLK, make me want to do more to make this world a better place.

(Wide view of the whole whiteboard. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco logo.)

[ Music fades ]

(Black screen)