What do you do?
I'm a designer/developer building a platform for communities called Spectrum, but most people know me as one-half of the Design Details podcast. A couple years ago we took the success we’d had with Design Details and turned it into a network called SpecFM - where I’m also the CEO. Now we have 9 podcasts that get a collective 100,000 listens each week and a Slack community of over 9,000 designers and developers.
What led you into design?
A series of mistakes. I went to school for audio engineering, but ended up doing a lot of peripheral activities like fixing old Mac hardware and designing Myspace headers and themes. I eventually ended up working in IT and just used the little design I knew to try and design solutions to problems our users had frequently. Eventually, someone inside the company took notice and asked me to do that full time.
This interview is brought to you by Squarespace. Look like an expert right from the start. Our award-winning templates are the most beautiful way to present your ideas online.
What’s your setup?
I use a 15" Macbook Pro with a Logitech MX Master mouse and a Dell Surface Keyboard. Nothing fancy, but they keep my wrists comfortable. I also use a Fully Jarvis standing desk to help my posture and an ErgoDriven Topo mat to make sure I can stand all day.
I’m really very angsty about docks generally. I’d rather use something like Alfred as a keyboard-driven launcher, rather than a mouse-driven launcher like the dock.
I choose my apps for my home screen very specifically. Basically, I have to use them every single day or they're getting moved to the Emoji Folder Screen of Shame™️
Where do you go to get inspired?
Cartoons and comic books. Seeing how concepts are represented in animation and illustration always blows my mind. I feel like it helps keep me open to new things. Some of my favourite illustration work in comics are the simplistic, tonal style from Matt Fraction and David Aja’s run on Hawkeye or really understated, emotive art styles like Erica Henderson’s work on Squirrel Girl. I’m also completely obsessed with the art style and visual puns from Steven Universe and Adventure Time.
What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?
My favorite “product” right now is React and I think it’s a fantastic example of matching a solution to a problem - especially for designers. Its component structure is fantastic for building design systems in production-ready code. Designers often talk about design systems as just a bunch of Sketch symbols, but a design system doesn't count until it's implemented in your codebase.
What pieces of work are you most proud of?
Spectrum and Spec.FM hands down. Spectrum has been in open beta for a couple months and the response has been incredible. With Spec, I've just been fortunate to do good work with an incredible group of humans. Knowing there's a lot we'd like to improve, I still couldn't be more proud of what we've built.
How do you handle design disagreements at your company?
Logical arguments. There's not a lot of "because I say so" or irrational, emotional bargaining, so it's pretty clear cut. That hasn’t always been my experience at companies because designers often like to make arguments for subjectivity, but those are lazy arguments. If you can’t defend your decision-making objectively and argue your point, you should keep trying other options. Design isn’t devoid of subjectivity, but if your goal is to help a large number of people unlike yourself, subjectivity doesn’t fit that model at all.
What do you use to plan initial design concepts?
Atom or Swipies for most things, but I do all my icon work in Figma. I think writing trumps wireframes as far as value. I find describing a problem to be more valuable than trying to draw a solution usually.
What’s your design process?
Talk to users a lot. Really understand their problems. In the design community we have a ton of workarounds for our tools, so people kind of forget that most of our tools are actually terrible. I don't really think there's a good excuse for that, so figuring out how those things should really work means digging deep, past all the layered up bullshit we've had to learn tricks to get around.
Then, I write until I can distill the problem down to a core set of needs. Sometimes, I have to step away from writing for a while to process, which is when I do illustration work or icons for an empty state or a set of features I expect. I find that vector editing clears my head.
When I feel like I have a really clear set of expectations, I'll jump into a code editor and start working on layout. I find that using design tools for layouts tends to be more work than I’d like. There’s a ton of constant nudging and often it’s irrelevant once I get to implementation because I already know I’m going to only use an 8pt grid and a set of existing variables when I actually build the thing.
How do you go about testing your design or gathering feedback?
Spend time with our users throughout the process. Show them what I'm doing early and often. Then, when it's ready, be sure to listen. As a community platform, Spectrum is inherently a quick feedback channel. Designers and developers are rarely shy about feedback.
What music do you listen to whilst designing?
Any advice for ambitious designers?