Courtney Burton Doker

Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?

Hi there, my name is Courtney Burton Doker and I’m currently based in Atlanta, Georgia. Last year my husband and I lived in our Airstream trailer for 7 months, traveling around the country while working remotely. Before that I was living in Brooklyn, New York. I’m passionate about houseplants, southern hospitably, intersectional feminism, inclusion, and the desert. I love vegetable gardening, watching documentaries, making collage art, and long road trips. 

Taos, New Mexico
Arcosanti, Arizona

How did you get started in product design?

The design school that I attended was very much focused on old-school design thinking, design history, and print. Because print has little room for error, the values taught there were geared more toward perfection, legacy, and craft. My personal values are more aligned with the love of imperfection, impermanence, and the incomplete. I bias hard towards constant evolution, so I gravitated more to the digital space as a playground for experimentation and iteration. I worked with one of the directors of the program to create a digital design track and was one of the first people to emerge from that program into the world of product design. I got my first job out of design school at Razorfish (now Publicis.Sapient) working on a team that redesigned Delta.com. The foundation of that work is something you can still see echoed through the site 8 years later.

Where do you work today? What is your title?

I work remotely for Automattic as a product designer leading the team that is building design systems.

My desk
Corner of my home office

How big is your company? How big is your design team?

Automattic has about 800 employees and the design team as a whole is around 60 people.

Automattic + Material Design Meetup in New York

What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?

For more context, the team I lead building design systems is cross-functional. Having a design language system enables our product teams to design, develop, and ship features faster while at the same time creating a more cohesive and usable customer experience. Practically speaking we do this by providing a comprehensive set of design principles, best practices, development guidelines, and by making our design and code reusable.

I’m responsible for working with our Engineering Lead and our Design Producer to set our team’s goals and roadmap, and then making sure our team is focused on the right work at the right time in service of those goals. We also need to make sure that our work is aligned with roadmaps and work streams across the organization in order to optimize our team’s ability to impact work in progress. I’m also responsible for making sure the other designer on our team has everything he needs to do his best work. I do my best to take on any work that might be distracting or blocking his progress. I also make sure that the work our team does gets shared more broadly across the organization so people understand and see the value.

Design systems is a fairly abstract concept and our team is introducing this idea to Automattic for the first time. Because of this a lot of my time is spent advocating for design systems which most frequently takes the form of giving systems feedback in org wide design reviews, answering questions around how to use the system, hosting AMA’s with teams, attending alignment meetings, and a lot of writing. I’ve learned that leaders of projects that bring big foundational changes across an organization spend a lot of their time doing the invisible work of change management. It’s hard not seeing the physical fruits of my labor as I once did but I try and stay focused on the long term vision we’re moving closer towards everyday and celebrate small wins as they come.

What do you love most about your work?

I really love collaboration. I’m energized by combining, remixing, and extending ideas to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Everything I’m the most proud of has come from teamwork or building upon the ideas of others.

Me with my co-worker / friend Ola at the Design Systems Meetup I help organize in Atlanta

What drains you at work?

Miscommunication is really hard to manage and is really draining. Things like differing terminology and naming conventions can cause conversations to spiral and lead to confusion that can sometimes take weeks or even months to untangle. Clarity and consistency are words I live by these days.

Can you walk us through your typical work day?

As an individual contributor my schedule was a lot more predictable and structured. My time was mostly my own to divide up as I saw fit. After transitioning into leadership the biggest unexpected shift was the unpredictability of my week. Most of my time is now spent in service of others and their work, and I have to make a concerted effort to block off time for myself. No day is the same, no week is the same, and I need to be a lot more available and flexible with my time.

Before my workday startsSetting the tone for the day
I like to have a lot of time in the morning to wake up and do things around the house. I generally make pour-over coffee, make my bed, and listen to an episode of a podcast while doing some light cleaning. I work from home so keeping things tidy is an important part of mental clarity and productivity for me. I also try and mediate and write for 15 minutes each morning.
Start of the workday
Catching up on asynchronous communication
I start my work day by catching up on messages in Slack and through our internal communication tool we call P2. Because design systems work spans across the entire organization it can take some time to stay caught up, and because our organization is fully distributed work is happening around the clock.
Late morningAlignment and collaboration
My first meetings for the day start. At the beginning of the week this takes the form of stand-ups, and during the rest of the week these meetings are usually for alignment, review, feedback, or collaboration. Depending on the day, meetings take up between 1 and 6 hours.
Early afternoonSmall breaks throughout the day
I would love to say that I take lunch breaks but honestly I frequently work through lunch either because of meetings or because I’m locked into whatever task I’m focusing on for the day. I find time to eat during smaller breaks here and there.
Late afternoonDeep work without interruptions 
When I was designing it was easy for me to focus on a singular task at hand, but as my work has shifted into leadership I have had to make more effort to give myself time to write, think, and plan. As a leader, part of my job is being available to answer questions and connect the dots from project to project. The constant alerts can sometimes lead to multi-tasking and a general feeling of being scattered. To alleviate that I fully close Slack while writing or planning so I’m not tempted to check in.
Early eveningAlignment and collaboration
Jump on Zoom or Slack to catch up on responding to questions or requests. I end my workday and set my computer to sleep 😴

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I find most of my inspiration from artists. I love experiencing art, reading about artist’s lives, and re-creating creative processes. The Creative Independent is an amazing resource of interviews where artists talk about various themes like making a name for yourself, the importance of being idle, or the value of starting over. 

What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).

I’m really the most proud of the work I’ve done building design systems at Automattic. It’s been challenging, rewarding, and has really pushed me out of my comfort zone into learning new skills. 

Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).

At this point in my career I do more information design and storytelling than product design. I work to make abstract ideas concrete and digestible. I do quick sketches on paper that I then share with my team to narrow in on the right direction, and then I do lots of iterations in Figma. A big idea or plan is usually communicated through a diagram or a verbal video walk through, as well as in written form. People process and understand information in a lot of different ways, and if you want your message to reach as many people as possible you should be inclusive and varied in the ways you teach and share. This is something I’ve learned from working in a remote company that I would definitely use future forward in an office environment as well.

What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?

The amount of skills that designers are “supposed” to have experience in nowadays is truly overwhelming. Start off by focusing on what you’re most passionate about and the rest will come over time. Also never underestimate the power of a network. The tech industry is smaller than you might think. In every job I’ve had as a product designer the people I’ve worked with have never been more than one or two degrees of separation from people I end up working with in the future.

Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?

You can get more info about me and my work on my website courtney-burton.com. If you want to look at photos I share of my life scroll on over to @scorpio.in.here on Instagram. If you’re in Atlanta swing through the ATL Design Systems meetup I help organize. I’d love to meet you!

Kristof Orts

Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?

Hi, I’m Kristof and I lead the product design team at Showpad. I enjoy reading a great book, listening to an interesting podcast and drinking a fresh brewed coffee.

How did you get started in product design?

I was working as a freelance digital designer for several agencies and start-ups, when I realized that rather than doing these short term projects, I’d rather spend time refining a product. I wanted to get a better understanding of the users and craft experiences that have an impact on people’s lives. So I started looking for more product focused companies and was able to get a job in New York as a senior product designer. I worked there for almost 2 years and then moved back to Belgium (where i’m originally from) and started at my current company, Showpad.

Where do you work today? What is your title?

Product Design Manager at Showpad. Founded in 2011, Showpad bridges the gap between sales and marketing to drive more revenue faster with a better buyer experience, intelligent sales content and impactful analytics. It’s the industry’s first integrated sales enablement platform. We have offices in Ghent, Munich, London, San Francisco, Chicago and Portland.

How big is your company? How big is your design team?

It’s been a wild ride, our company has really grown a lot since I started. We’re getting close to 400 employees now. Same with the design team, when I started there were only 2 designers, now we have 6 product designers. We’re looking to grow the team even more this year, so really exciting times.

What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?

Typically I spend about 70% on leadership work. That includes mentoring, planning, reviewing, hiring and working on things like on-boarding and development plans. I spend the other 30% on hands-on design work, working out concepts or new features.

What do you love most about your work?

Making an impact. Not just on our customers who use the product daily and are able to be successful at their job, but also being able to help other designers grow. 

What drains you at work?

It can be mentally exhausting sometimes, I try to remind myself to take a break and step away from my desk from time to time. Walking actually stimulates creativity.

Can you walk us through your typical work day?

7:00amWake up super refreshed! Just kidding, I’m not a morning person.
8:00am
Get into the office, start my day by going through emails, looking at my calendar and figure out what to get done today.
8:30amBlocked to do some work. Can be related to hiring, internal meetings, sometimes hands-on design work.
11:30amStand-up with the product team
12:30pmLunch! Can be home made or usually I go out to get away from the desk for a moment.
1:00pmAnother work block, can be 1-1s, brainstorm sessions, …
3:30pmThis is when the meetings with the US teams begin. We also have regular design team collaboration meetings every week where we show and tell about current projects and give each other feedback. Design reviews on ongoing projects. 

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I think inspiration can come from anywhere, even unexpected places. There are a couple of podcasts that I listen to that are more about human behaviour and psychology, like Choiceology or Repeat Customer from Zendesk. Some books that have inspired me: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari,  The Coaching Habit, and First Break All the Rules

What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).

I’m really proud of the team we have today and how much the individual designers have grown. One of the projects that I started is creating Individual Development Plans and a career path for the team, which is still an ongoing project, but it’s already provided a lot of value. It’s based on the GROW framework and it includes steps to find out what team members want to achieve with their career and set up an action plan.

I’m also very proud of the fact that as a team we are elevating the product every day. We recently launched lots of cool features, like AR in our iOS app, content recommendations, dynamic page builder and we’re working on incorporating a learning platform right now.

Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).

Design at Showpad is very cross-functional. So we collaborate closely with the product managers, engineers and QA. Typically we start with research, interviewing customers and figuring out what the current problems are. Product managers will write out Product Specs, while product designers will iterate on quick prototypes and user test them. We’ll keep on iterating until we find a solution that works. At Showpad we really value design and we always strive to provide the best user experience for our users.

What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?

If you’re looking for a job in product design, spend time on creating a really solid resume and portfolio. It’s so important, I can’t tell you how many resumes I’ve seen that were really hard to read or way too complicated. Typically what I look for in a portfolio is work you’ve done before that’s relevant and really seeing the process and thinking behind it. Before doing any interviews, figure out what you’re looking for in a company. Read the job description carefully, prepare questions and you’ll do fine. I can really tell when people are well prepared and know what they want, that is already a huge advantage and get extra points.

If you’re looking to get better at designing, find someone that is better than you at the thing you want to be better at. Ask them questions and learn from them.  The most I’ve learned was by working with other people.

Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?

You can follow me on Twitter or read my thoughts on Medium or connect on Linkedin

Jordan Koschei

Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?

Hello! I’m Jordan Koschei, a product designer and full-stack developer based in the Hudson Valley, about 90 miles north of NYC. In the past, I’ve worked as a freelancer, in an agency, and at an early-stage startup.

One corner of the Hudson Valley, where I live and work.

I love building things. There’s something thoroughly addictive about having an idea and making it come to life through design, writing, and code. I’m passionate about using my skills to build meaningful things — I’m not interested in building the next big social-network-slash-ad-platform, but I love working on things that make life a little better for the people using them.

Outside of work, I love reading — mostly about history and the social sciences, and plenty of sci-fi. I actually keep an up-to-date list of my reading on my website. I also love exploring the Hudson Valley with my wife and dog; we live in a really interesting part of the world with great food, great culture, and lots to do.

Book Recommendations

Here are a handful I highly recommend:​​

How did you get started in product design?

When I was a kid, I was completely enamored of The Legend of Zelda. I thought it was so cool that somebody had created a world that I could step into, and I wanted to do the same for others. Around 8 or 9, I started tinkering around with QBasic on my family’s computer, and I caught the programming bug.

I got into design because I wanted the things I built to be intuitive and user-friendly; there’s no point making something cool if nobody can use it.

In college I started doing some freelance websites, back when I thought $400 was a lot of money for a freelance project. That eventually turned into a job at a boutique agency helping Fortune 500s figure out how to make their internal tools less awful, and that turned into a job as a product designer at a startup.

I love product work because it incorporates everything I’m interested in — design, engineering, and business strategy. I’ve sort of specialized in sitting in the gap between those three disciplines, with an emphasis on design.

Where do you work today? What is your title?

I work remotely for a company called Dwell, where we’re building an audio Bible for iOS. My title is Senior Designer/Developer — I’m the sole designer on the team, and one of three engineers working on the product.

Dwell is designed to be more similar to a music app than a Bible app. In addition to being able to listen to whole chapters and books at a time, there are themed playlists, notable passages, and daily listening plans. We’ve got custom illustrated album art for everything, and five full albums of original background music in different genres that can be toggled on and off. It’s meant to be a great experience from start to finish.

My home office.

How big is your company? How big is your design team?

The company itself is 9 people full-time, plus several more working on the audio side. I’m the only designer, but I’m privileged to work with a lot of people who have really strong design instincts.

What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?

I’m responsible for design on both the web and app side, as well as writing the front-end HTML, CSS, and JS. I’ve also had the opportunity to work in Ruby on Rails on the backend, and Swift on the iOS app. There are a lot of opportunities here to try different things.

Examples of some early sketches.

What do you love most about your work?

I love hearing from the people who use the products I create! Our customer support team always shares positive feedback we get via Twitter or email, and it’s so encouraging to hear how Dwell is impacting people.

This is the audio Bible app I’ve always wanted. The playlists and plans are awesome, the voice and background music choices are a nice touch. I love how the app is designed and how it’s used.

Feedback via Twitter

Especially working remotely, it’s easy to forget that the things we think about abstractly are actually touching real people — hearing from our users changes all that.

What drains you at work?

Being the only designer, occasionally there are tasks that are necessary but repetitive. One example I can think of is creating landing pages. We do a lot of seasonal promotions (Christmas, New Year’s, Black Friday, etc.), and each one has slightly different messaging and needs a slightly different landing page. I don’t mind the work, but I find it much less energizing than working on the product itself.

Can you walk us through your typical work day?

6:00amWake up, walk the dog, enjoy some morning quiet time 🌄
8:00am
Work on personal projects — write, design, code, etc. 🛠
9:00amCheck into Basecamp and see if I missed anything. Check any communities I’m part of on Slack, Dribbble, Twitter, etc. 💬
10:00amCheck off tasks in Things; usually design work in Sketch or code work in Sublime Text or Xcode ✅
11:30amLunch and walk the dog 🐕🚶‍♂️
12:30pmMore work in Sketch, Sublime, or Xcode. Sometimes I’ll do some thinking/strategic work using pen-and-paper or Bear, or write my thoughts directly in Basecamp 👨‍💻
4:00pmSomehow I become uber-productive for this one hour. I think it’s the sudden reality of 5:00pm approaching 👨‍💻
5:00pmWork on personal projects, or tend to anything around the house that needs doing. Probably walk the dog again 🐕🚶‍♂️
7:00pmDinner and relax 📺📖
10:00pmBedtime! 😴

What side projects are you currently working on?

I build and run Hudson Valley Talentbase, an online creative community and showcase for the local creative scene. Anyone with a local zip code can create a profile, showcase their work (a la Dribbble), and connect with others nearby. I’ve heard of people finding work through the site, and meeting potential collaborators. The site is built in Laravel, but right now it’s in a holding pattern as I decide where to take it next.

I’m also building my first solo iOS app, an unguided meditation timer that you can use to carve out some space for meditation or prayer. It’s fairly basic — just a step above “Hello, world,” which is perfect for trying to grow as a developer. If you’re interested in joining the beta, send me an email!

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I love libraries. There’s a sense of unlimited possibility that comes from being around so many books; you can pick one at random and be in an entirely different world.

I get a lot of energy from switching up my environment, so when I’m feeling low on creative energy, I like to go to a nearby coffee shop. There are lots to choose from within 10 minutes, so I can pick a vibe based on how I’m feeling. I also love wandering the different towns in the Hudson Valley — each one has a different character. My favorites are New Paltz, a bohemian college town with rock climbing, breweries, and 60s-style head shops; and Beacon, which is more urbane and filled with galleries, coffee shops, and boutique hotels.

Online, I’ll sometimes go to Dribbble, though I find that everything there trends towards the same handful of styles; there’s a lot of work there that’s more decoration than design. I’ll also peruse some sites that I admire, such as anything by Stripe. Seeing what other people have done on their real-world projects is inspiring to me.

What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).

I just gave my personal website a refresh for the new year. It’s simple and typography-oriented, which is my favorite style but also one that I don’t get to use very often. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I think it’s a full expression of my current taste as a designer.

My new website design.

Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).

We recently redesigned the Dwell audio player, which is a screen our users spend a lot of time on.

It didn’t start out as an intentional redesign — I was trying to add a new button to the existing player, and I realized that it was getting too cluttered. It’s the cornerstone of the app, and the experience has to be top-notch, so I decided to play around with potential other layouts to avoid making it cramped.

I already had most of the assets in Sketch, so I decided to play around there. I took the existing buttons and began shuffling them around, starting with the ones that I knew had to be in certain places. (Play button needs to be centered, album art should be near the top, etc.)

Once I determined our constraints, I started trying out other possible configurations. Whenever I came up with a potential direction I liked, I’d put it into Basecamp and solicit feedback from the team. Some of the best ideas that made it into the new design came from my coworkers — it helps to have lots of feedback, even (especially) from non-designers who might have a different perspective.

I ended up creating a design that moved some of the settings to a second screen. Instead of having full-width album art, we made the album art into a card; when the user swipes left on the card, a Settings card slides in. We were able to move a bunch of related settings to that card.

We care a lot about accessibility at Dwell — one of our goals is to create the best audio Bible app for people with vision impairments. Since several of our player behaviors rely on gestures, such as swiping down to dismiss or swiping left to access settings, we wanted to make sure those features would be available to screen readers. I designed an alternate screen that would display whenever VoiceOver is active — additional buttons appear for Dismiss and Settings, to ensure that all users get a first-class experience, whether they’re using assistive technology or not.

The version on the left is the default; the version on the right includes two additional buttons in the header bar, to make those gestures explicit when using VoiceOver.

Once I was happy with the design, and the team had agreed that it was the right direction, we began implementing it. I actually got to write some of the presentation code myself — I’d been dabbling in learning Swift, the language used to write iOS apps, and this seemed like the perfect place to put that to use.

There’s usually some backlash when changing any major feature in a consumer app — users get accustomed to a certain way of doing things, and then it changes out from under them, a la the Facebook Newsfeed or the new Gutenberg editor in WordPress. I knew the new player was a success when we heard very little complaining about the change — overall, it seems people like it.

We did get a few confused people asking why we removed their favorite features, so to make sure the new interaction was crystal-clear, we added a slight bounce to the cards the first few times the user opens the player. When the settings card bounces slightly into view, you can’t help but want to swipe left to see what’s over there. It’s an elegant solution that makes the out-of-the-way settings more discoverable, and — like many of the best design decisions — it was inspired by listening to users.

The new Dwell player. The user can swipe left on the album artwork to reveal the playback rate and volume settings.

What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?

Learn how to work with engineers. You don’t have to learn to code to be a great designer, but it helps if you understand the fundamentals and are conversant in the terms your counterparts are using.

Always think about your users. I like to think of design as a form of hospitality — we’re creating digital environments in which our users will live for a time. Those environments should make our users feel comfortable and confident, and enable them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. A good product gives the user superpowers without drawing too much attention to itself. It’s better to leave the user thinking, “Hey, I’m awesome” than “Hey, that product’s awesome.”

Don’t forget the fundamentals. Beneath everything we do are the same principles of typography, color, layout, etc. Having a solid grasp of those will make you a better designer than your mastery of any tool or trend.

A good designer can create something great using any tool; a poor designer can use the best tools in the world and get a bad result.

Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?

The best way to learn more is to visit my website — it has my latest writing and projects: https://jordankoschei.com

You can also find me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jordankoschei

If you have any questions or just want to say hi, email me at jordan@jordankoschei.com. I’m always down to talk shop or help people starting out in the industry!

Header photo taken by Hovsep Agop

Matt West

Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?

Hello! I’m Matt West, a British designer working at Wildbit. I live in a small town called Market Harborough in central England with my wife and 1 year old daughter.

I’m passionate about design, business, and engineering and love it when those three areas converge together in a project I’m working on.

Outside of work I love the outdoors and regularly take long walks in the beautiful English countryside.

How did you get started in product design?

In my final couple years at high school I taught myself how to build websites and started taking on a few projects for local businesses. I was all set to go to University when I realised I didn’t need to run up crazy amounts of debt to get a job in the web industry, people were already paying me to do the work I wanted to do. So, driven by a mix of naivety and arrogance I spent the next five years working for myself designing websites and applications for small businesses.

After meeting Steph (who would later become my wife) I decided it was time to “grow up and get a real job”. I enjoyed working for myself but it was stressful and came with some tough times when I was between projects. I was happy to endure those challenges on my own, but I didn’t want to put Steph through it. I took a job as a developer at a small UK agency working with Dan Edwards and Ryan Taylor.

We had a lot of fun together, but I started to really miss design. After about 18 months I came to the realisation that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career solely writing code. Just as a master cabinet maker uses her hammer and saw to realise her vision for a beautiful piece of furniture. I realised programming is just a tool to realise my vision for a design.

My epiphany lead me to join Wildbit as a marketing designer. It gave me the freedom to work on a wide range of projects and hone my design skills. Over time I got more and more involved with product. Firstly helping to improve onboarding in the Postmark web app, and then spearheading the launch of a companion iOS app. I recently made the switch to working on product full-time.

The Postmark iOS app

Where do you work today? What is your title?

I just celebrated my two year anniversary at Wildbit. I originally joined the team as a marketing designer but now work on web and mobile applications for Postmark, our transactional email service.

Wildbit Retreat 2018 – Texas, US

How big is your company? How big is your design team?

We currently have 27 people working at Wildbit. There are just three designers, Derek and myself working on Postmark, and Eugene who works on our new product Conveyor.

Me and my wife with some of the Wildbit team in Philly – 2017

What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?

My work varies a lot from day-to-day. Here are some of the things you might find me working on:

  • Wireframing a new feature idea.
  • Coordinating with the engineering team to spec out a new feature.
  • Writing frontend or Rails code.
  • Developing a new feature in the Postmark iOS app.
  • Making updates to the Postmark marketing site.
  • Managing a release of the iOS app.
  • Working with our CEO (Natalie) and Finance Director (Thi) to create reports that track how we’re doing.
  • Designing a slide deck for an upcoming webinar or conference talk.

What do you love most about your work?

The wide variety of problems I get to tackle. It’s rare that I’m working on the same thing for very long, which helps to keep the job exciting.

What drains you at work?

Working remotely has its challenges. Long periods of uninterrupted time are essential for doing great work, but I miss the excitement that builds up when you’ve got a bunch of people around a table discussing an idea.

Can you walk us through your typical work day?

6:30amI wake up sometime between 6 and 7am depending on when my daughter decides it’s time to start the day. I’ll usually kick things off by grabbing a cup of tea and reading for 30 minutes or so.
7:00am
Time for breakfast and to get ready for the day. I’ll usually get my daughter fed and dressed first to give my wife a little more time in bed.
8:30amI start my work day by heading to a local coffee shop (usually Starbucks). Working from home has many advantages, but I’ve found it’s really important to have a routine that gets me out the house in the morning. I’ll work through my email and then take care of any small tasks.
10:00amI’ll relocate back to my home office and do some focussed work for a few hours. This is when I’m feeling most creative so I’ll tackle any new design work on my task list.
1:00pmLunchtime. I try to get away from my desk. Taking a walk, reading a book, or playing LEGO with my daughter for a while helps to reset my brain ready for the afternoon.
2:00pmBack to work. Afternoons are often open spent coding up designs or catching up with members of my team. Most of the folks at Wildbit are based in the US, so late afternoon is the best time for anything that requires realtime collaboration.
5:00pmI finish up around 5pm every day. By now my wife has had my daughter all day and needs a break, so I’ll get her bathed and ready for bed. Then we’ll make some dinner before watching Netflix and playing with the ever-increasing mound of toys my daughter is accumulating (she’ll usually join in too).
7:45pmWe’ll put my daughter to bed and then get ready for bed ourselves. I’ll meditate with Headspace and read for a while to shut down my brain. I also just started writing a journal again so I’ll take some time to record my thoughts.
9:00pmSleep time. My daughter hasn’t mastered sleeping through yet, so we’ll be up at least three times during the night. Turning in early helps to offset that so I’m not a zombie the next day.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

Books. I love to read and try to find at least an hour each day to hide away with a good book. I do my best to read about a wide range of topics rather than focussing solely on design. 

I’m also a big fan of veteran designers like Dieter Rams. I spend very little time looking at the latest trends and instead prefer to focus on themes that have stood the test of time. It’s remarkable how relevant Rams’ 10 Principles of Good Design are today given they were written in the late 1970s.

What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).

The Postmark iOS app. It’s been my pet project for the past year and has given me the opportunity to learn a tonne of new things. Including iOS development with Swift.

Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).

I’m currently working on a re-design of Postmark’s weekly digest email. It shows users an overview of the sending activity on their account over the past 7 days and highlights any issues that they need to investigate. This project has followed a pretty typical process, which is:

  1. Research– Understanding why this thing is needed and what elements are crucial for it to be useful for customers.
  2. Sketches/Wireframes– These will usually be hand-drawn in a sketchbook. I’ve used various wireframing tools over the years but find the temptation is always there to dive into far more detail than is needed at this stage.
  3. Specs– If we’ll need to get engineering involved to realise a feature, I’ll work with them to put together a specification. This almost always changes further down the line, but it helps to make sure that everyone involved understands the purpose of a feature and what needs to be done to make it a reality.
  4. Mockups– Once we’re happy with the wireframes I’ll usually go straight to code for the high-definition design. In my experience, I get much better feedback if I can give people something real that they can interact with over a static mockup. If something will require a lot of effort to code, I’ll hit Sketch and create a high-definition design there to save time.
  5. Development– All of the designers at Wildbit also write frontend code, so I’ll generally handle the frontend and Rails development myself. More complex projects will involve someone from the engineering team.
  6. QA– After testing everything myself, I’ll send it over to Igor in QA who will give everything a thorough bashing. After years of having no formal QA process, I’m so grateful for the work Igor does to ensure the work I ship is robust.
  7. Launch– Pending on the project, releasing might be as simple as deploying an update to our Rails or iOS app, or we may have to do a more complex co-ordinated release of our backend infrastructure.
  8. Monitoring– Once a feature is live, Rian our Product Manager will check in with any customers that have requested it in the past. I’ll then listen out for any feedback and monitor how it’s being used over the next few weeks.

What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?

Design isn’t about pretty pictures. Taking the time to empathise with the people using your product, and gaining a deep understanding of why a particular feature is needed (or not!) will get you much further than whether you’re able to make something look in-keeping with the latest trends.

Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?

You can find me on twitter as @MattAntWest. I occasionally write on my personal blog and keep a note of my favourite books on my reading list.

Megs Fulton

Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?

I’m Megs Fulton, and I currently reside in Portland, Oregon but was born and raised north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I share my home and life with my partner, dog, two cats, and parrotlet. I’m passionate about social good, creative expression, and how those things intersect with technology.

I enjoy a wide array of hobbies. To me there’s nothing more satisfying than squishing paint, mixing dough, or exploring a random flea market. I also love visiting new places and am fortunate that I get to travel as part of my job working for a fully distributed company.

How did you get started in product design?

It was a bit of an accident but not a surprise. I had been dabbling in web design and development all throughout high school, mostly messing around with animation and building small games in Flash. It gave me an inkling that I wanted to be a “web designer.” When I started to look at college programs for design, I realized they were primarily at art schools which required a portfolio of non-digital artwork to get in. I had pretty much resigned myself that I would study computer science instead as an alternative way into the field. But then I was so fortunate to have a high school art teacher who saw potential in my weird Flash experiments. He helped me prepare a portfolio that art colleges would consider acceptable and recommended schools with strong graphic design programs for me to apply to. I ended up attending Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and studied in their Graphic and Interactive Design program. 

My professional design career began in advertising where I was the lone “Web Designer / Developer” at an advertising agency. I did that for over a year while I finished my degree. After graduating, I moved across the country to San Francisco mostly on a whim and for a change of scenery. It was the middle of the 2009 recession, and I moved without knowing anyone, without  work lined up, and with enough money to make rent for three months. I ended up taking the first job that came my way which was creating banner ads for a mobile gaming startup. The app experience was rough around the edges and I persuaded the powers that be to let me try my hand at designing for the product experience. I ended up loving it and taught myself as much as I could with what was available at the time. 

Where do you work today? What is your title?

I work for Automattic and I’m part of the design team working on mobile applications. I’m a Principal Product Designer. 

My cleanish desk

How big is your company? How big is your design team?

Automattic is over 800 people and the design team is over about 60 people now but always growing. 

Automattic designers at a meetup in Bilbao, Spain

What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?

Coordinating and communicating with the engineering and design teams, making sure that everyone has what they need from me so they’re not blocked, heads down work time to keep my work moving forward, and sharing progress on my work to get feedback early and often.

What do you love most about your work?

I love the variety that comes with being involved in all the stages of product development. From conducting user research, developing a strategy and goals, designing the user flows and interactions as well as the screens, collaborating with engineers, making sure everything is working according to spec before it ships, and analyzing data after it’s out in the wild and in users hands. Not being stuck in a particular phase of work means I’m never bored. 

What drains you at work?

If you had asked me this a few years ago, I would have said commuting and open office floor plans. Now that I’ve successfully eliminated those stressors from my working life, I’d have to say that I miss being able to quickly and casually riff or bounce ideas around with a colleague. There’s a certain energy around it that’s not easily replicated remotely. I find having to schedule and plan a meeting for brainstorming isn’t draining per se, but it creates a formality around it that I’m not fond of. 

Can you walk us through your typical work day?

6:00amMy pets come first, so I start my day feeding and taking care of them. I make and eat breakfast with my husband and parrotlet, Oliver. Then I get ready for the day. Even though I work from home, I still make a point of getting dressed it’s a mental switch that the workday is about to begin. 
7:00am
I spend about 30 minutes journaling every morning before I open my computer. Then I spend the beginning of my day catching up on Slack messages and making my work to-do list.
8:00amIf I have meetings scheduled it’s usually during this time since I’m in a later time zone on the West Coast. If I don’t have meetings, this is my prime work time where I do my best thinking work. 
12:00pmI make and eat lunch around this time. I usually catch up on Twitter happenings or reading something related to work.
1:00pmMore focused work time. I try and save work that requires less thinking for the afternoons. Around 4pm I start winding down and making notes of what needs to be continued the following day. 
4:30pmThe lights in my office are on a timer and switch off at this time. I’m done for the day and use exercise as my evening mental switch. 

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I turn to sources outside of the design and technology industry because it’s so important to know what’s happening outside of the bubble that you’re operating in day to day. I follow fashion, visit museums and galleries, and attend local dance and theater performances. I also have a soft spot for kitsch and pop culture. To me inspiration is about getting out of your own head, a bit like a mental palette cleanser. Even just going on a walk around the neighborhood can be enough for me some days. 

What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).

Hands down the Spruce Dermatology Clinic. It was a mobile app where you could have a virtual visit with a licensed dermatologist to receive a diagnosis and treatment plan with prescriptions sent to your preferred pharmacy. I loved hearing people’s stories about how having access to affordable medical care made such a positive and meaningful impact on their life and well being.

Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).

My process varies so much project to project that it’s hard to pick which one to use as an example. So instead, I’ll share one part of my process that’s my favorite. When I’m ready to start getting into designing flows or screens, I always start sketching with paper and pencil so I don’t get too caught up in tiny details just yet. At this stage I tend to focus on the content and the interactions. Then for each screen in the flow I ask questions that are loosely based on an empathy map: 

  • “What are they thinking right now?”
  • “What are they feeling right now?” 

By asking and then answering those questions, I can start to understand and try to mitigate what fears, worries, anxieties, annoyances, and other complexities might be a barrier to helping a user accomplish what it was they set out to do. 

What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?

You don’t have to learn or know it all. The field of product design has expanded to include so many different disciplines that it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Pick what you’re most interested in and see where it takes you. But if you really can’t choose, start with typography because it’s fundamental to the art of visual communication. 

Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?

Probably over on Twitter

Porter Gieske

Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?

I am the only product designer at my work, which is McCormick & Co, Inc.  I am 50, left handed, green eyed, father, husband, brother, son.  I like to tinker on stuff, machines, mechanical devices like motor scooters, espresso machines, tractors, motors.  I like woodworking, bicycles, cooking, fixing things and cats.

How did you get started in product design?

I stumbled into the field of ID accidentally, in Boston, in the early 1990’s.  I spotted flyers stapled to street poles that announced a showcase of vintage cars, an event put on by the IDSA.  I called the number on the flyer and obtained tickets at Design Contiuum the next day.  There, I met a few employees from Contiuum and they asked if I would be interested in a paid internship position.  That certainly opened my eyes to design, and led to my earning a MID graduate degree from Pratt Institute in 1995.  I spent 15 years in NYC in many design jobs, and finally moved out for this job in Maryland.

Where do you work today? What is your title?

I am the Global Package Design Manager for McCormick & Co, Inc. I am located in the northern suburbs of Baltimore.

How big is your company? How big is your design team?

11,000 employees, revenue is 4.8 billion, I am the (package) design team.  I do work alongside many of the excellent Packaging Engineers, both local and worldwide.

What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?

I generally work in the front end development of product ideas.  I enjoy the process of finding the problems of the user experience within our cooking and eating environment.  My day can be consumer interviews, or Cad modeling bottles, or white space ideation of concept creation.  Mostly, my time is filled with development meetings, package research and innovation.

What do you love most about your work?

I love working on new ideas, because there’s always a better way to design for and provide people’s lives with products that offer flavor and enjoyment through the products we make.  It delights me that my tiny sculptures are in everyone’s kitchen cabinets.  I love to espouse design, it has taken over my life, and I see no sign of it stopping.  The enemy of good is better, and there is always better to be had out there.

What drains you at work?

Same old, same old.  The never ending cycle of not investigating new methods.  Choosing cost reduction over quality of goods.  Non-refillable packaging = landfill.  When slight adjustments are revered as innovation, then that is the death of the importance of the term.  

Can you walk us through your typical work day?

8:30amMy work day starts with an exceptional cup of coffee, period
9:00amDaily 1 hour product development meetings for various projects in the hopper
12 noonLunch – generally brought in
1:00pmDesign time – with more exceptional coffee
3:00pmMore project development meetings
4:30pmExit work for home

Where do you turn for inspiration?

Internet – blogs, magazines, news articles, core77, social media, motorcycle trends, vehicle designs, food specific magazines, luxury brands, architecture sites, staying aware of the liquor industry offerings.  In this era of negativity, I search for the goodness, the light hearted, and the satirical.  Without that, I’d be done.

What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).

Although most of the products that I have designed entered and left the marketplace in a relatively short time period, there are a few that stand out, to me.  A few perfume bottles, a one gallon container, a grinder or sauce bottle in glass.  I have been granted many patents to protect my work.  Some of the things I tinker on at home are my the ones I am most proud of. 

I created a steel cage frame for my existing espresso boiler, roughly 26 inches wide, 14 deep and 19 high.  From the cad model, I was able to precisely cut and glue together a foam core mock up.  From there, it was a quick welding job- and, it fit up perfectly.

Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).

I spent half of last year chasing after a particular glass bottle design, shaped like a chiseled skyscraper, a mixture of triangles and trapezoids that had to meet many criteria points in order for it to be viable.  The label was especially tricky, as it bent around the angled and tapered surfaces, it had to be of paper, so the die cut was 3 tapered rectangular panels with precise angles and widths.  I had to readjust the math many times over as the design criteria was a moving target.  The interior volume of the bottle had to be exact, the weight of the bottle was not working out to be cheaper than the one it was intending to replace.  The supplier was having great difficulty in achieving the design intent, but the project continued to the point where enough were produced for a consumer test.  The results of that were that the new bottle was equal in preference to the old, and offered little to no increase in sales.  The project was halted.

On another project (this past fall) was a deep dive into ethnographic interviews and research that led to a set of goals for the package and brand to strive for.  Solutions were judged and scored on this basis, giving merit to how many of the boxes the design checked.  Aesthetic adjustments were then blended into the choices, building families of shapes for the different package size offerings.  We then let consumers choose which bottles were to rise to the top of the rankings.

What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?

Truly ask yourself what it is about design that is most gripping, and aim for that to be your life focus.  It will give back to you what you invest into it. Empathy. Be good at problem finding by pushing off solving for them as long as permitted.  Just because you aren’t designing what you want to at work does not mean that you can’t design what you want to at home.  Make stuff. Life has chapters so don’t fret if the start is frustrating.

Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?

I’m weird, and so I get why no one wants to follow me, and that’s ok. I’m open to discuss, but I can’t say that happens often.  Email works.

Desirée Zamora García

Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?

Ahh! Hello! My name is Dezzie. I like to eat, think, and take things apart. 

How did you get started in product design?

Oh dear. There are a few stories. This is going to be long but it was complicated:

During high school, I started making websites. I was obsessed with modifying how my OS looked, I used to hack my Windows install so it would look like Mac OS, things like that. My very first website was on Geocities and it was a collection of things you could do to make your OS look like the dashboards in Starcraft. As I craved more control and freedom over what I could make, I would move my site to more “real” places, where I could use code, like Tripod, or Angelfire.

At the same time, unrelated, I was covering for a classmate who never did his homework because he went to too many raves (I was obsessed with electronic music, too, but didn’t get to go to shows). If I covered for him that week, he’d bring me a mix from that weekend. One time, he didn’t bring anything, and felt bad, so he offered me a burned copy of Adobe Photoshop 6. I asked him what that was, and he said, “It’s like MS Paint, but way better.” I took it home and it changed my life. Eventually I outgrew what I could do on the free hosts, and I started trying out for blog rings–which was a thing where, a person who owned a hosting account would give you a subdomain if they liked your stuff, and you just had to come up with a new layout for your website every week or so.

That was all a hobby, but it was all-consuming. If I wasn’t doing homework or at school, I was doing this. Once I was in college, this let me work for the university web group as a front-end developer, which, as far as work-study jobs go, it paid twice as much than other jobs on campus. Plus, I learned a ton from the people on the team. When the A List Apart article on responsive design came out, we started doing it immediately. When 37Signals came out with Ruby on Rails, the team made a timesheet app the next week. I got to work with a dedicated content strategist and an information architect. My code was clean and standards-compliant. Looking back at that situation, I had no idea how lucky I was and how much I would learn. It was such a blessing for the future. I loved what I did. I started skipping class. I did this in high school but in college it was not sustainable. A combination of working on websites for everyone, and also not being interested in my premed major landed me on academic probation, and then depression.

I got a strong message from professors and guidance counselors that this work was a bad idea, the the hobby was more like a vice. There was no “web design” major. People still remembered the dotcom crash. No one suggested computer science or graphic design because no one saw the connection between the two, and neither department took the web seriously. Plus, you don’t go to a fancy school, if your family is working-class and no one’s ever even graduated high school, to play on the computer. So at this point, for both practical and emotional reasons, I pushed it all away. I needed to get serious about graduating and landing a job after graduation. It turned out well in the short-term. I got deep into the psychology research scene at the university and started a PhD after graduation, intent on becoming a professor in academia. The irony in that turn of events is hilarious now, given the changes that academia and the tech industry have undergone since.

Once I was in grad school I sort of tried to bring back design and tech in my doctoral work, but it got major push-back, and pretty soon I was miserable again and ended up taking a leave of absence. Since I didn’t have my funding during that time, I started freelancing to pay the bills. I got a job as a Mac Genius too (which has its own story). I still fully intended to finish my PhD, I just wanted a break. But the Genius job, as much as it could suck, was one of the best decisions of my career, because it was watching users fail at using software day in and day out. It made me understand how things could be beautifully designed–but not always usable. And so the love affair with design started again. For the first time I realized that this was what I wanted to be doing, and I didn’t care about being successful in other people’s eyes. I kept failing at those careers anyway, and had to find a way to make a living.  By now both the tech industry and academia had changed enough that no one was denying that web stuff was just a hobby. Few people in academia were finding stable work as a professor.

When my leave of absence was up, and I went back to my program, I barely finished a semester of class. I remember going into my advisor’s office, where I just told him I was quitting and joining the tech industry. It was weird and freeing and awesome.

After that I worked for an immigration non-profit for about a year while I put together my portfolio and brought my skills back up to speed. Eventually I felt ready to start networking, and seeing if I could get my portfolio out there, since the DC tech scene was in a boom. I got lucky on my first try, probably because the president of that agency was incredibly wasted. They were hiring for a government contract, and sure, he’d interview me. I was not allowed to know who the agency was, or what I would be doing, which made me uneasy. I was planning to just go and do it for practice. The Space Shuttle was supposed to be doing a flyover of DC that day, and I really thought about skipping the interview to see it–luckily, I chose not to be a dumbass that day.

Audrey Chen was building a design and tech team at a brand new government agency called The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, who recently announced her presidential bid. We had a conversation in that interview, where she asked me why I had never pursued design until now, and I told her it was because I couldn’t see myself truly helping people through it the way I could in other jobs. So she told me her own story, about how after she was a newly minted designer with an art and math background, she got a great job–but was assigned the Phillip Morris account on her first day. She never went back to that job. After years of doing very neutral work, she took the CFPB position because it was the first time she felt she would be able to help people. That really resonated with me, and it’s why I took the job.

The setup at the CFPB was great, they had a fellowship where they hired senior-level people from around the country with amazing experiences to work remotely with us. On top of that, we were a government agency, so we had different motivators and indicators for success. It was a great environment to learn how to champion users. The foundation of how you work as a designer is shaped by your early experiences and habits, and having these folks and design problems to work with was again–super lucky.

After a few years there, I realized I just didn’t really see myself in government–even though I was fully invested in the mission of the agency and I was inspired by the work we were doing. I was just getting an itch to do something different and I didn’t like how everything found its way back to an election. I was also mad that I was making about 30K less than a government worker for the same exact work, could not be promoted or lead projects, and couldn’t go to conferences.

So I went and worked for an agency. They had a great UX team. I learned a lot from my manager there and got promoted really fast. But the drinking culture was too much–one time me and another female colleague were asked to go to a meetup where our president introduced us to his friends as, “The women I told you I’d bring you.” I think that experience just pissed me off and I went through a phase where I wondered where my place in the industry was. So I did what all frustrated cerebral people do–I applied to grad school. I got to the last, final interview phase of a famous product design program, then gave the worst interview of my life, and got rejected. That year was a lot of validation and rejection at the same time.

I had to think about what I was looking for–and it went back to trying to connect the dots in my background. This was around the time where companies were investing heavily in building in-house design orgs–and IBM was one of the industry leaders in the movement. Their artificial intelligence division seemed neat–and they were hiring. I crashed SXSW that year, literally loitering around, got into IBM Design’s party-and immediately decided I needed to work there. Apparently they felt similarly, because about a month later I was looking at a move from DC to Austin to start on their Watson design team.

I keep saying how I learn a ton in every job, but hands down, the experience I got working at IBM, is where I found product design and product design found me. It was the most formative job I have ever had. They are known for their design thinking work, but what they don’t always mention is that they have a lot of classically-trained designers behind it, and there is a lot you can learn from them. I worked for a lot of ex-industrial designers, who put our design research habits in the tech industry to shame. Many of these people worked there to fund their art practice. Learning from all of those perspectives transformed how I worked on the “computational” side of things. It was when I stopped thinking of my work as, “the thing that I seem to do very well and can pay the bills” to “this is my vocation.”

After a few years there though, the whole conversation around AI started to go places where–knowing I wasn’t working on anything evil was nice, but I wasn’t really working on anything good either. I felt confident in what I could do as a designer and I realized it was time to start choosing my work more intentionally—to align it more with my values. Without getting too much into it, I’ve always been passionate about the open web. I feel very strongly about the walled gardens we’ve built. I am not the type of person that can have a day job working on whatever so long as it funds the side project I really care about. Too many potential points of failure in that approach to life. So I applied to Automattic, which I had followed since WordPress 1.0, and seemed to be one of the few companies who actually were making the web a better place. Now I am here, hello.

To summarize, this is probably a story that you don’t want to use to inspire people to get into product design. I got into product design because:

  • I got pirated software from a kid who was probably a drug dealer
  • I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but it was just my parents’ idea
  • I was on academic probation at Notre Dame
  • I couldn’t make it in academia
  • I got into a fight with a Mac Genius (I won, by the way)
  • I was broke and I don’t have parents who would just fund me like other Millennials do
  • I am good at this and it was about damn time

Where do you work today? What is your title?

I am a Senior Product Designer for Automattic, Inc. Automattic has been one of the companies I’ve admired in the industry for many years. I’ll point out that Matt Mullenweg either rejected or forgot about my application back in 2014. But four years later it worked out, probably for the better. 

How big is your company? How big is your design team?

800-ish, with 60-ish of those in the design organization. 

What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?

Everything. Right now I am responsible for all design research and execution related to my projects. The hardest parts are communication, alignment, scoping, and planning, because we are all-distributed. The easiest parts are focusing–because I don’t have to deal with a silly open office plan anymore.

What do you love most about your work?

I feel very lucky to work on something that helps run a large portion of the internet, but supports an open web. It would be nice to contribute in bringing down some walled gardens someday.

What drains you at work?

The tax of working in an all-distributed company. The tax pays for good things, but it is still a tax on the work, like not being able to have in-depth discussion or good critique sessions with everyone present and engaged. I was spoiled in this area earlier in my career. I have not found an equivalent alternative to sketching something out with a colleague. If I feel like I can’t dig into a design problem with my team, even if it’s through no fault of their own, it’s very draining.

Can you walk us through your typical work day?

6:00amCatch up on A List Apart editorial team stuff I do as a side project.
7:00am
Prepare daughter for her day. Cook breakfast. Family stuff.
8:00amWalk to neighborhood coffee shop and do deep-focus work (I work well from coffeeshops and do my best work in the morning). I will start the day in my home office if I need a large monitor though.
12:00pmNeighborhood gym for a 45-minute bootcamp. 
1:00pmConsume protein, plants, and fat. Stand in sun to absorb vitamin D. I hate lunch, it makes me sleepy and destroys my focus. I try to schedule all my meetings after lunch.
1:30pmSecond part of my day is in my home office. Meetings, teammate conversations, work that I don’t need to be as focused with.
4:00pmCease working, go downstairs, collect toddler, take her on a walk. From here to the end of the day I’m busy with running a household and spending time with my family. If I have to, I will work more, but I like my boundaries.
8:00pmStar Trek, right now it is Deep Space Nine. I don’t really watch other TV.
10:30pmFall asleep reading a book made of paper

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I actually don’t seek out inspiration. I’m a believer in the line, “Inspiration is for amateurs–the rest of us just show up to work.” It’s something that I have leftover from not having the luxury of starting my design career in a coddled way. A better line is, “Inspiration comes of working,” which I got off a folder made by the Japanese brand Delfonics–but which sounds very Mexican too.

I do intentionally think about what motivates me, what stimulates me, so I can I keep my creative energy healthy. For example, I need a consistent drip of intellectual stimulation–so I turn to books or critical articles on the web, or good conversations. They’re usually not about design either–the design (and tech) industry doesn’t do a good job at connecting its work to the broader world.

Usually if I have writer’s or designer’s block it’s also not so much a question of whether I have been sufficiently inspired, but because there is lack of alignment and clarity about the work. If it isn’t, it’s probably fatigue, which I’ll exacerbate by forcing myself to chase an invisible spark. At that point, the best thing I can do to keep my mind clear and creative is by shutting it off. I do that via exercise, sleep, manual labor, meditation, or playing with my child.

That’s a long-winded way of politely saying that I think most design inspiration sites, blogs, and communities are not good. Those are good for consuming, not thinking. They focus on popularity and trendiness, you’ll end up with all FOMO and little work to show for it.

What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).

This project is not publicly available anymore because it got taken down by IBM PR’s team. That in itself is part of why I’m proud of it. It was a skunkworks a few friends and I did in early 2016. Each of us needed a way to blow off some creative steam. In my case, I had been wrestling with this question about the effect of people’s personality on their thinking and behavior patterns. I had been observing much on how social media and the modern web held our time, and I was worried that the next presidential election in the US would be influenced by all that.

At the time, one of the few profitable uses of machine learning technology was for scaling up marketing campaigns. Having friends in government who had run presidential campaigns, and hearing them talk about how they approached the work, it seemed incredibly similar. There were a lot of what-ifs between psych and design and tech that I sort of didn’t want to know the real answer to, because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it–Facebook, for example, had caused a stir in the scientific community a few years before when it was revealed that they had been manipulating people at risk for depression without their consent and without providing a means to undo any damage.

So my friends and I created a little thing that would go through a person’s Twitter feed, and make a prediction of who they would vote for based on their personality, attitudes, and behaviors. The amount of content people produce on their social media profiles is more than enough to generate a full personality profile. This is in addition to the explicit content individual posts convey. At the time, there were tons of people in the running, and we hadn’t reached the primaries yet, so it made the project something that people could use to explore candidates that they hadn’t considered.

For me it was a lot of fun creating the personality profiles of all of those candidates. I used their social media feeds but also transcripts from debates and interviews, leaked emails, speeches, and content from years before they ever ran for president. But when we shipped the thing and started testing it, we saw that a ton of people aligned most with Donald Trump. If you followed the news at that time, no one took him seriously, especially in the time leading up to the primaries. The thing got shut down on the basis that it was obviously not working and would cause a PR backlash.

I remember how disappointed we were, and I personally felt like I had dragged my friends on this crazy idea. It kind of reminded me of the times I tried to connect my design and technology interests when I was a doctoral student, and no one would buy it. So I felt like I was both a bad “idea person” and a bad leader. Then of course, the election happened and we started finding out everything that was done on social media. This was a little vindicating, but it also meant that some of my biggest fears about what people would end up using the internet for were coming true.

What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?

I don’t think our work is ethically neutral anymore, as mundane as the project you think you’re working on is. Everything’s always been in flux. As the work we do now has broader impact over our lives, our minds, and our world, it’s important to know the context of how some things came to be. Some aspiring product designers almost worship the four big tech companies or startup culture. But do they actually know what the business models or histories of those products are? Are you going to be comfortable, as a designer, in being party to some of those things? If you want to be a product designer, you have to think about those broader things. If you don’t think you have to, you probably won’t be successful as a product designer, or you’ll need to be okay with having those skeletons (and their effects on all of your users) in your closet.

This is one of the reasons that I dislike most design inspiration sites, and the whole cult of celebrity that’s spawned around design teams and individual designers. Those sites rarely tell the story of the work, who really was involved, and how much of it is real.

I also urge people to get acquainted with internet history, and the careers of industry veterans. While the tech industry undeniably bankrolls much of the design work you see today, the design industry itself wasn’t always so welcoming to the tech industry, particularly when it came to the designer who taught themselves. The design industry didn’t take the web seriously for a long time. The people that paid it forward for us to enjoy the opportunities we have today, are more often from the early web community, not the classically-trained design community, or even the tech industry for that matter. Yet there’s this stigma towards people who used to work under titles such as Webmaster, or web designer.

Lastly, I try to tell people not to model themselves or their idea of success against what they see on social media. A designer who has thousands of followers or who did something that went viral does not mean they’re a good designer. You’ll figure stuff out about some people as you progress in your career, and hear stuff through your networks and trusted communities. Work on your reputation and portfolio over your personal brand. You might feel like a little fish in a big pond but it’s actually a very small world.

Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?

I tweet sparingly @thedezzie, and have dusted off my blog at dezz.ie

Buzz Usborne

Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?

Hello! I’m Buzz, I’m a designer living in Sydney Australia where I work remotely for Help Scout. I’ve held a bunch of titles over the 15 years I’ve been designing professionally, from Graphic Designer to Founder and Director — but I’ve come to find that I’m happiest when I’m getting stuck into the design details, which is what I do now. Ultimately I’m my happiest when I’m problem solving…. the harder the problem the better. Specifically, I love breaking complex problems down to their absolute essence, then figuring out how to create a simple and beautiful solution in response. I really like solving business-related problems, because helping people do their jobs quicker and more effectively is a really great measure of my own success.

Outside of work I like to spend time with my wife and young son — we travel, explore and spend a lot of time on the beautiful Australian coastline where we live.

How did you get started in product design?

Shortly after I went solo as a freelance designer in London 2009, I was commissioned by Skype… which was an incredible and intimidating opportunity I couldn’t say no to! I honestly have no idea why they chose me, as I’d only worked on commercial stuff until then, mostly fashion sites and e-commerce… but my agent hooked me up, and I’m grateful for that. They had me working on their business platform on a multi-million dollar project, and surrounded me with designers and researchers 100x more experienced than me — so I kept my head down and worked my ass off, learning as much as I could along the way. It was really the experiences and connections I made there that helped set the tone for my career.

Where do you work today? What is your title?

Today I work for Help Scout, which is a fully remote company where my title is “Designer”, plain and simple. This is my first role in a while where I’m not managing a team anymore, and I’m loving getting back to my craft!

I give piggy-back rides

How big is your company? How big is your design team?

The company is around 80 people in total, although the design team is only 8 people split into product and marketing disciplines. I sit on the product side where there’s just the 3 of us.

What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?

I sit on a feature team, so the bulk of my responsibilities lie in making sure everyone has the visual design they need to complete the products and features we’re collectively working on. I oscillate between helping engineers meet the high quality bar that the company sets, and working on discovery items — which involves exploring fun and new ways to solve some ideas we have lined up. Outside of my main role I’m also responsible for our design systems, an initiative I started and nowadays have an involvement in maintaining and improving. 

Where the sketching happens

What do you love most about your work?

I love creating little delighter moments for customers, like little bits of unexpected functionality or really polished animation — things that make people stop and smile. That stuff really gets me out of bed in the mornings. I also judge my purpose in a team by the value I can add to others, so I really love making design systems and tooling that help other designers do their jobs just that little bit easier. I’m really grateful that I have the opportunity to do both of those things in my role here.

What drains you at work?

There can be a lot that gets lost in translation when working with a remote team — through no fault of any person, rather the nature of communicating asynchronously across timezones. I tend to get quite drained when subtle interactions and visual polish don’t get implemented how I expect, which requires quite a lot of effort and back-and-forth to get right. The kinds of issues that would take a 2 minute conversation in an office to resolve are the most frustrating to me. 

Where the pixel stuff happens

Can you walk us through your typical work day?

7amIn the summer, this is when I start my day (in winter it’s 6am) — so I’ll be sitting at my desk having showered, changed, eaten etc. First job is always to check my emails and notifications… catching up on Slack is always the most important task 
8am
Every day, usually around 8am I drive into town with my son to get coffee for my wife. It’s her time to prep for the day, and a chance for me to spend a bit of time with my family — it’s also a good way for me to properly wake up before I appear on camera
8:30amFrom now until about 10am I’m usually involved in video calls and real-time chat with my US colleagues, as this is our only overlapping time. Conversations here usually set me up with things to prioritize during the day
10amPretty much all of my meetings are done by 10am, so I usually try to squeeze in a bit of time to poke around my social feeds and find inspiration. I don’t always get the chance, but I find it a useful way to kickstart the design process and keep my head above water
10:30amBy now I’m usually deep into my work for the day as all my distractions are gone — so I’ll either be continuing work on a project, writing documentation or sketching ideas for some upcoming projects
12pmI always try to take at least half an hour at lunchtime to grab a bit of food with my family, otherwise I tend to forget to eat or drink anything!
1pmI have a Slack reminder set to 1pm every day as a prompt to share some designs that I’m currently working on — this tends to be a pretty good time to show a messy work-in-progress
2pmUsually by mid-afternoon my creative energy will be running low, so I usually use this time to move to more administrative parts of my work, like writing spec docs or coding prototypes. If I’m lucky I’ll have my head deep in a creative project and I’ll power through until 4pm
3pmI always end my day by recording a video of a prototype or walkthrough of my Sketch files, so that anyone who is currently offline (i.e. most people) can see my progress. That’ll get posted to Slack and I’ll start to wrap things up for the day. I always end my day as if I’ll get amnesia overnight, so I’ll write up a to-do list for the next day, set reminders, empty my trash and get to inbox zero before starting all over again
3:30pmWacom pen down. I’m done for the day 🙂

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I’m most inspired by things that happen outside of my immediate industry — so I tend to spend a lot of my time reading blogs on architecture, fashion and illustration. I save a lot of inspirational images offline, so I have my archives when I’m looking for a boost, and I share a few bits on my blog too. Some good sources of inspiration for me are Ueno, Coco Lapine, Architectural Digest, Swissmiss, BP&O and This Isn’t Happiness. Of course, if I’m in a creative rut I’ll disappear off for a walk, time away from the screen is always the best inspiration.

What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).

I’ll always be the most proud of Prevue, which was a little side-project I created in 2008 as a way to share my design work with freelance clients. Over the course of 10 years, in parallel to my day-job, I learned how to code and built the product into a profitable business which served as the concept sharing tool for over 25,000 design agencies worldwide. It was acquired in 2018, and for a decade served as a really humbling experience in what it takes to plan, design, build, ship and manage a successful product. The highs, lows and subsequent lessons were what helped me to become better at my day job.

Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).

My most recent project was to design the on-boarding for Help Scout, which by the time it arrived on my desk had been really well documented and briefed — this really saved me a heap of time in defining the problem, which is usually the first step. From there the creative process followed a pretty tried-and-tested path:

  • Wireframes
  • Sketches (loads and loads of sketches, like this)
  • Visual concepts (at least 3 different directions)
  • Technical review
  • Various rounds of revision
  • Polish and documentation
I spend a lot of time sketching

There are a couple of really important pieces for me in the above process, the first is to get technical involvement early and often — so whilst that’s listed later on in the process, engineers are realistically involved throughout. The second thing is to share and collaborate with other designers regularly, which is a practice I’ve built into my daily design process. Usually in the form of work-in-progress documents, Slack posts and walkthrough videos, I try to share as much insight into my progress as possible to allow other designers the ability to weigh-in and help me improve. Essentially by the time something is considered “done”, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I wrote a bit more about my process here.

What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?

Advocate for design. Whether you’re just starting out, or you’re an old gun — very few people are going to fight for good design on your behalf. It’s up to you to make informed, ethical decisions, design the right things, educate non-designers why the details matter and to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you! Be humble, inclusive, collaborative and considerate of the fact that design is just one component in any successful business.

Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?

My portfolio is over at https://buzzusborne.com/ and I’m most active on Twitter. Instagram also gives a little insight into what I do outside of office hours.