Lubos Volkov: Working in the office? That stinks!

Hailing from Czech Republic, Luboš Volkov is the Lead Visual Designer at Toptal. Although he hasn’t visited Surf Office yet, he’s cut from the same cloth as us — whether it comes to travel or creative thinking. Besides working for Toptal, Luboš is trying to create the best icon set community in his project othericons. We talked about being a Uni drop-out, working for a Silicon Valley startup a year after finishing high school and thoughts on the office work.


Are you more a nomadic designer or a designer who likes to travel?

I personally prefer to travel for shorter periods and staying no more than three weeks at one place. It’s more hardcore because you need to be really good at balancing your time between exploring and work but that’s the way I like it!

How did you start working remotely and why did you choose this way instead of traditional office work?

That’s a super long story, I’ll try to make it short. After dropping out of college (it wasn’t for me) I spent more than a year locked at my home working on my skills and trying to get better and better every day. I woke up, started learning and creating until 4am and the next day repeated the some procedure.

After one year working only on my stuff (yes, that means almost no money on my end) I got an offer from Reachli. It was a San Francisco Bay area based startup and they were interested in my experience with product design. And that’s how it began — with hard work and a bit of luck. And working in the office? That stinks! I don’t want to spend my life in an office when the world can be my office!

You’re lead product designer in Toptal, a company known not only for remote working but also for rigorous interviews which admittedly pass only 10% of applicants (at least that is said about applying developers). What did your path to Toptal look like?

First of all, it’s only 3% of all applicants. Which is super crazy if you consider there are thousands and thousands of people applying every day! But only a few people make it through the funnel. Ex Google developers, MIT engineers and so on… And I have a big opportunity to help these people daily. I created the entire Toptal from the design point of view.

How did I get there? It was a bumpy ride! Three days after Christmas 2012 I got a contact request on Skype. I had no idea where did it come from as I accept them all the time so I accepted this one as well. Immediately when the video call started, I was shocked that Toptal were highly interested in having me as their lead product designer. And it was even crazier after a short while. Our conversation looked like this: “We are in Thailand now, come see us.” Me: “When?” Them: “Tomorrow!” So the very next day I was on a 12 hours long flight to join the most smart and craziest team ever.

Where in the world have you lived and traveled so far?

To be honest, I do like Czech Republic for various reasons: the location, living costs and quality of life in comparison with US. When I travel I like to return home every time. But I will never stop traveling and designing. Over the past two years I visited countries like Thailand, Morocco, Montenegro, Netherlands, England, Germany, France and some more.

Which country was your most favorite?

Definitely Thailand, for 1000%. It was the craziest and most awesome work experience I had in my entire life. I can’t forget waking up in this $6 000 000 villa on the top of the hill in Phuket. It was a remarkable experience and it literally changed my life! I spent there almost one month with Toptal core team (mostly Russians) so it was a bit intense!

And where would you like to go in near future?

I would definitely like to do some shorter trips here in Europe (Italy, Slovakia) and then during the summer a longer road trip in the US.

What is the essential stuff you travel with?

There is only one rule I live by — to take clothes and stuff you really need, such as Macbook, mouse, charger, external drive with all your data (yes, you might not have access to cloud everywhere), phone, change, credit card, basic clothes, basic medication (super-important) and the rest you can buy! :)

What does your daily schedule look like? How do you combine work and free time activities?

Haha! First of all, I schedule and create all my tasks in advance. That means every day before going to bed I make a list for the following day. So when I wake up I know exactly what I’m going to be up to without any struggle.

Usually I wake up at 12pm, have something for breakfast (cereal and coffee), check emails, maybe have some meetings. I work until 8pm, then go to the gym, get back to my desk and work until 4–5am. This is how I roll. Not every day is efficient like this, but I do design about 14 hours a day.

In regards to the leisure time, I used to do floorball on a professional level for 10 years but now I travel a lot and spend time with my family and my girlfriend. Plus I often try to read and learn new stuff.

As a designer, you’re expected to be creative at all times. Where do you get inspiration from? Do you have any personal productivity tips?

Actually, this is a wrong assumption. Creativity is endless, there are only roadblocks between you and that creativity. Those roadblocks are stress, deadlines, wrong people. I try to limit these factors to minimum (although it’s not possible all the time) and it works!

The best hack I can give you is to not push yourself. If you feel like going out and taking a ride, just go for it!

Icons are your specialty in graphic design. Why exactly icons?

Most people see me as that guy with icons, even though I don’t do them that much. But this is something I absolutely love and I believe I have a good ability to assess and pick a good icon set.

The issue we face now is that there are thousands and thousands of people looking for an awesome icon set on the internet but the market is extremely penetrated with low quality, inconsistent and expensive icons. I’d like to fix this so I’ve built my own startup othericons where we focus on offering only the best icon sets.

What’s your hardware and software setup?

I usually do everything on my iMac (21”) and I work on a Macbook (15”) when traveling. This is everything I need. My favorite work tools are a pen and a paper though. I know you would expect a management software or something, but I find it pretty distracting and inefficient (for smaller scale projects). Of course, at Toptal we use Asana and Slack a lot, but I’m personally not a fan of communication tools. Many people (although not at Toptal) spend too much time checking notifications rather than doing actual work so I try to limit these things to minimum.

Your favorite… country / destination / coworking space / book / blog / magazine?

According to your LinkedIn profile you finished high school in 2011 and a year later you were already working for Pinerly in San Francisco. How did this happen?

I started to study CVUT in Prague where I thought I would up my skills from high school to the next level. But I quickly realized this is a wrong direction and school-based education is never going to be a fit for me. I believe in continuous education. The whole university concept is just wrong and produces tons of basically useless people. Instead of that I literally locked myself at home and started to work on my design skills to get on a junior level.

I’ve been doing this “home study” for almost a year. I woke up, started to design, went to bed around 3am and repeated it every single day. No parties, no relationships, nothing, I swear! During this time I was working on almost everything for free and then one day Rick Kats from Pinerly (now Reachli) found me. That’s how it all started!

Thank you very much for this interview, it was a pleasure for me. You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram or Dribbble.

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