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40 Under 40 - Class of 2013
Business Observer Friday, Oct. 4, 2013 6 years ago

Justin Davis, 33

Founder and User Experience Designer, Madera Labs

Justin Davis is a performer.

A former Nashville musician, Davis incorporates the value of drama and show while creating his designs. The loquacious technology geek says he’s in the business of designing “experiences,” in an ongoing effort to “leave an emotional dent.”

Though Davis says he started “building stuff online” in 1997, he never had an interest in doing it for a living. When he realized playing bar gigs at 2 a.m. was not going to cut it, he came back to technology by default.

He knew he wanted to own his own business. “I’m a terrible employee,” Davis confesses. “I think I have an authority issue.” So five years ago, he started Madera Labs, a design firm that focuses on assisting development teams to create memorable user experiences.

Despite his focus on interactive elements, Davis says he tends to be old school. “I work a lot on paper and pen, sketching to flush out design rather than jumping on a computer,” Davis says.

Madera Labs has worked with a wide range of clients, including Crispin Porter & Bogusky to design the interactive component of a Coke Zero marketing campaign. The company has also helped the United Methodist Church create publishing platforms for its magazines.

Davis credits his ability to objectively look at design to his education in architecture. He not so fondly recalls one professor “scaring the crap out of him” by asking Davis’s class to submit 50 different design concepts by the end of the week.

Instead of building his agency of two, Davis decided he wanted to focus on creating a product. A little more than a year ago, Madera Labs built its own social media travel app, Drawer.

Drawer allows users to keep track of friends’ recommendations for restaurants and cool places or things to do while traveling. According to Davis, a couple of international luxury boutique hotel chains have expressed interest in the app. The chains have talked about using the mobile application to work as a virtual concierge, replacing books found in hotel rooms.

In addition to his performance through design, Davis also cohosts a weekly design podcast called Distilled, which features his critiques of apps, technology and product design while drinking bourbon.

— Traci McMillan Beach


City of residence: Tampa

Birthplace: Knoxville, Tenn.

Years on the Gulf Coast: Two

Twitter handle: @jwd2a

Best place to network: Local and regional conferences and meetups, ala Barcamp, Geek Breakfast, local user groups.

Coolest business experience: I had the opportunity to present at a conference in Portugal about a really nerdy user experience design topic. Attendees in that talk included folks who literally wrote the foundational books on UX, who'd I learned from for years. Having them listening to *me* was surreal.

The most important business lesson I’ve learned: The importance of talking to customers early and often about your product. Getting something in their hands and getting candid feedback quickly is the fastest way to create a product they'll love. That, and the importance of being humble in the process.

Favorite off-hours activity: Checking out local breweries

Book you’re reading now: "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Best award you ever received: Regional Addy Award for design work

Who would play you in a movie about your life: Ryan Reynolds

If I had a magic wand I’d: Drive to Harry Potter World and sell it to some crazed fan outside the front gate.


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