Hey Paul! First, let's talk about your journey. How did you get into design? When did you know you were meant to be creative?
My interest in design sprouted a little later in life for me. When I was growing up I was more interested in learning about electronics and computers. I spent a lot of time soldering little circuits together, reading schematics, taking things apart and attempting to build and program robots.
Then we got Internet access at home. I tinkered with creating my own little AOL webpages and little slices of the web where I could, but I was deeply interested in computer hardware. I thought I wanted to design computer motherboards when I grew up. In high school I had a free period where I would help my computer science teacher with various technical tasks around school. When the work was light, he let me useMacromedia Fireworks and Dreamweaver on his Titanium PowerBook G4 to learn how to build a website that I hoped would let customers configure and buy custom built computers.
Around that time I joined my high school's yearbook staff as production editor and had my first real exposure to QuarkXPress, Adobe PageMaker and Photoshop. In college at Georgia Tech I spent my first year in electrical engineering courses before discovering anew major that coalesced bits of computer science, design and literature.
I became more interested in web development and learning how to style sites with CSS as I tinkered with personal websites and wiki software on the side. I always liked building things and was always amazed by well-designed and simple products. I thought that was a special talent that couldn't be learned by a normal person like me, especially one that didn't grow up doodling or taking art courses.
When I graduated I felt like I was not good at computer science or design. I ended up making my own job and co-founded 3 different startups over 5 years. I wore many hats during those years but really dove into web design and development. I got so much enjoyment out of the smallest little details in a product, as well as continually simplifying things. It was after those years of building and learning that I began to really consider design as a dedicated career.
What is your favorite design discipline, and why? How can young designers find out their own?
I get the most joy turning visual designs into high-fidelity, interactive prototypes. That's partially from the feeling of accomplishment you get when turning static designs into something you can tap around and feel come to life. I often try to think of things as a spatial system when I approach design, and maybe that's why I love motion and prototyping so much. Everything is just a set of connected surfaces that interact or live with each other in a certain way.
Prototyping so also helps me quickly validate concepts and interactions I may be on the fence about. But I also love prototyping as it's a venue to tinker with motion to inform how part of a design might work, add another form of expression or just purely to add delight.
That being said, prototyping is just one tool at your disposal in the design process to help you communicate your idea or validate concepts, either for yourself or for use in usability and research sessions. I originally became interested in high-fidelity prototyping as a curiosity in the Framer.js animation library back in 2014 while looking for a replacement to my "prototyping" use of Adobe After Effects at the time.
I think that's how all aspects of design disciplines should be approached. Be curious. Try things out. Set aside some time for personal development and learning new tools, processes and skills.
Set aside some time for personal development and learning new tools, processes and skills.
Do you think young designers should try to learn many disciplines or focus on mastering a single one?
Go far and go wide. As you're getting started in your design career I think it will be much more valuable to be able to take every aspect of a project from start to finish on your own, rather than solely focus at excelling at one part of it. Over the years you can hone specific parts of your talents you enjoy after you have acquired a solid grasp of design and product development fundamentals.
What is your creative process? Do you think young designers should have a set of processes or go with the flow?
I'm a very orange person and thrive on immediately jumping into high-fidelity designs when I have a new project. My mind immediately fills with interactions, interfaces and motion details and I feel the urge to try and catch them all down in Figma and prototype quickly in Framer.
But I have learned that's not a great way to work. It skips vital steps of the process like thinking more deeply about the problem and customer. I often need to remind myself to slow down a bit—well, maybe after getting a few quick mocks out of my system—and approach the problem in a way that does not immediately dictate particular solutions.
I often collaborate with fellow Twitter designer Sean Thompson on projects and I have always admired how he generates detailed design documents before starting on projects to help himself, and the team, frame the problem in a succinct manner to get on the same page.
So do I go with the flow or stick to a process? It depends. There can be projects where the problem is clearly defined and we just need to explore various solutions. But there are many times where we need to go through a process, and with a growth mindset.
I'd recommend the latter for designers starting out. It will force you to think more deeply about what you are setting out to solve, consider how to learn more about who you're solving it for and become adept at articulating these when presenting your work.
Go far and wide. Take every aspect of a project from start to finish on your own, rather than solely focus at excelling at one part of it.
How do you get inspired?
I feel like many designers you talk to can instantly mention dozens of discrete things that inspire them when it comes to their craft. It's not so systematic with me. I bookmark and screenshot interesting sites and visuals I see. I try out lots of apps and take note of scintillating motion, attention to detail, fit and finish (I don't really like saying polish as it makes those things feel purely aesthetic and as a result, superficial). I try to read at least a dozen books a year. I'm intrigued by modern architecture, furniture and art. I also get inspired by talking to coworkers, seeing them discuss their work and approaches to different problems.
I also really love photography and find that it helps me be perceptive to little details.When I'm out with my camera I feel like I'm in another mode. One where I'm hunting for interesting light, compositions, angles, expressions, framing, layering. The same applies when I spend hours in Lightroom culling thousands of photos, trying various crops and adjusting things.
Do you think having a portfolio is important for young designers?What would your dream young designer portfolio be?
I think having a portfolio is important but the irony is that I don't even have a recent one myself. I've been busy working at Twitter the last six and a half years that I never stopped to archive my work publicly, aside from one thing. A note to my younger self would be to at least take notes, organize project files and document projects for myself for the purpose of slowly incorporating into a continually updated portfolio.
I'm most interested in portfolios that go with a case study style approach to talking about their work. Work that has a story to tell and is not just a set of iOS screenshots in a carousel. This is particularly vital for product designer roles. I like to see the end to end design process and justification. I would explain what this means to me but I really think Julie Zhou nailed it in this thread on portfolios.
Take notes, organize project files and document projects for yourself for the purpose of continually update your portfolio.
What is the most important thing to know about design, in your opinion?
Sure, design is important, it's exceedingly visible and something a customer experiences and feels the entire time they use your product. But being a designer is just part of it.You're solving problems with your teammates: engineers, researchers, product managers, design managers.. et cetera. The most important thing about design is working collaboratively, assuming best intentions of your teammates and not thinking that your piece of the pie is more important than anyone else's.
How can young designers get their first internship/job? Is it essential to go to design school or not?
You just have to get out there and create, build, design, write.. publish your work, whatever it is, regardless of whether you think it's great or not. Stick to it.
I have been running my blog for over 14 years now. It's a creative outlet for my writing, projects, photography and most importantly, an avenue for me to constantly tinker with designs, tools and web technologies. It also helped open the door that led to my Yahoo! internship in 2006 and it was one of my articles that got the attention of folks at Twitter later on.
You can learn a ton on your own outside of any standardized design curriculum and courses as long as you're motivated, curious and make time to pursue it. You can do that with or without the help of design school.
To get your first job get out there and create, build, design, write.. publish your work, whatever it is.
Did you learn any tricks during your career? Do you have any tricks you would have loved your young-self to know?
If you're stuck on a design problem, you can solve a lot of it by talking to people. That could be project stakeholders, where by talking to them you help communicate design challenges and that ends up evolving some of your previously thought-of-as-set-in-stone constraints.
You could talk to other designers to work through a problem and in the act find out that there's a design pattern or upcoming component that could work. Or you could collaboratively come to the conclusion that there is no feasible solution addressing all of your needs and you will need to make some compromises. You could also show the work to someone entirely unfamiliar with the project to see how they think about it. The list goes on.
As such, it's important to be able to succinctly speak about what you're working on, and how you're going about it. In a very nerdy analogy, it's like a breakpoint in a browser debugger. It lets you see the entire environment the browser is dealing with—state and variables—so you can progress through things one step at a time to see where it went wrong.
Do you have any favorite books/resources you would have loved to read when you were younger to help boost your creative career?
I think the Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is a fundamental read for any designer. I was first introduced to it in an HCI course in college. In the book Norman talks about how design is the interface between an object and its user and how that interface can be enhanced to make using that object more intuitive. He goes into how objects have affordances that can help communicate how an object should be interacted with: concepts that can apply to all forms of design, including digital products.
To wrap up, do you have a favorite quote? How is it relative to your creative career?
"Styles come and go. Good design is a language, not a style."
- Massimo Vignelli
I think a lot of designers can get stuck chasing design trends and forget to learn and hone their experience with design fundamentals. Focusing on the problem you're solving, the people it's for and aiming to simplify the core interactions and flow will payoff much more than chasing the latest visual design trends.
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