Designer at Notion
Cory
Etzkorn

Cory is a designer at Notion. He cares about both form and function and believes in the power of simplicity.

Los Angeles, United States • April 16, 2021

What led you into design?

Design has always been part of my life. My mom is a designer, so I had access to a computer with Photoshop from a young age. I quickly learned that by double-spacing text and designing fancy covers, I could get good grades on book reports without having to comprehend much of the book.

On the technical side, my dad is a chemical engineer. I definitely picked up some of his analytical skills. He’d always be building something or doing some sort of home renovation project. I was putting up sheetrock walls and wiring circuits in gradeschool and learned quickly what it meant to build something with a high level of craft.

My general interest in building came long before my interest in design. I spent most of my summers building structures with Legos. I wasn’t a fan of following instructions and preferred to jump right into assembly. I liked building things that presented a structural design challenge: bridges, parking lots, roller coasters, apartment buildings. For me, design has always been about the whole package. I care about outward aesthetics, but what’s beneath the surface matters just as much.

Steve Jobs was known for obsessing over how the inside of Apple computers looked, saying, “Look at the memory chips. That’s ugly. The lines are too close together.” I relate to that sentiment a lot. Design isn’t just about what you see. It’s about what you feel. And I believe the only way for something to feel exceptional is to apply that level of craft to every detail. I can tell when something is duct-taped together under the hood.

One of the biggest challenges for me, as a designer, has been making the leap from someone with technical skills to someone with conceptually strong ideas. Design school was a nice reminder that Photoshop is just a tool. Execution certainly matters, but approaching problems in a thoughtful way will take a person much further.

What does a typical day look like?

I start most days with a run or yoga. I find the best way to prepare for eight hours of sitting is to move around as much as possible in the morning.

I teach yoga on the side and it’s proven to be a useful skill to have during a global pandemic. Keeping my body and mind in balance is a top priority.

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No two days at Notion are ever the same. When I joined, we had a design team of two, so I’ve gotten to wear all of the hats. I’ve worked on extending the brand, improving onboarding, starting our YouTube channel, designing many Notion templates (very meta design challenge), making swag, and building out our marketing design language. I also typically build everything I design, so at least half of my time is spent finessing code.

It’s no surprise that Notion runs on Notion. It’s truly special to be designing for a product I love and use every day.

Our entire company shares a workspace and a single tasks database. We add filters so tasks can be viewed by department.

We like to work asynchonously as much as possible. Most product changes start as collaborative written documents (RFCs). Notion is the main tool we use to build Notion.

All the lights in my home automatically turn red at sunset to remind me it’s time to start winding down. I’ll often go for a quick walk up in the hills to catch the sun as it sets over the Pacific.

What’s your workstation setup?

I’m a Taurus – an earth sign – so having an inspiring and comfortable workspace is important to me. It’s a simple space. A comfy chair, some sunshine, and (not pictured) a nice cross-breeze. I have a standing desk and have noticed there are certain tasks, like debugging code, that I perform better upright. I usually design sitting down.

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Before the world got turned upside down, I was working out of Notion’s headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission District. It was a gorgeous, cozy space that felt a lot like home.

Notion's office outside

We'd all take our shoes off at the door so there would always be an eclectic mix of Jordans, Doc Martens, and Japanese sandals to greet you. On a typical day, you’d enter and hear the soft ambience of neo-classical composer, Harold Budd.

A pile of shoes in the Notion office

When I first joined, the entire team could fit comfortably on our living room couches. We’ve since grown quite a bit and definitely need to order more.

Notion meeting room with chairs

For most of the day, the office would typically be on the quieter and focussed side, but we’d all gather for lunch. These tables bring back fond memories of Mission Chinese, Papalote Burritos, and Gyudon from Bon Nene. Zoom lunch isn’t quite the same.

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Where do you go to get inspired?

Inspiration is everywhere. I try to soak in as much beauty and culture as possible so when it comes time to make something new I have a well to draw from. I like to be outside and in nature. I love exploring new cities by foot and peeking into shop windows.

I occasionally catalog things I like on Pinterest. I use it more as a repository than a source of new inspiration. It’s mostly stuff I’ve added myself.

I also have a small collection of books with interesting layouts. If I’m designing something digital, I actually prefer to use something physical as a reference point. Seeing a bunch of app designs doesn’t inspire me to design an app.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I am a litttttle bit obsessed with physcial products from Hay. I am definitely a minimalist, but they’ve somehow found a way to bring a lot of character into their products while keeping them sleek and modern. It’s the kind of store where I walk in knowing I already own one of those fancy electric toothbrushes and end up walking out with eight analog brushes in assorted colors.

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What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the work I did on Hendrix. It’s a web app I designed and built as a place for musicians to meet and find collaborators. The site has been live for 5 years now and it is still actively used by musicians every day.

Hendrix mobile app
Responsive desktop app

Hendrix is the culmination of more than a decade of trial and error. Ever since I first began designing and writing code, my dream has always been to build an entire app from scratch. I’ve made many attempts over the years, but Hendrix was my first success.

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Hendrix UI components

I built everything. I came up with the idea, the name, and the brand. I wrote all the code, figured out deployment, and ran database migrations. I even started hosting monthly musician meetups in Brooklyn. It was a lot of fun and an incredible learning opportunity.

Primary mark
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I think people would be sad if I ever took it offline? That feels good... to know something I made connected with someone and brought them value.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

We’re facing challenges common to any fast-growing startup. Our team has trippled in size during a global pandemic, so we’ve had to learn how to operate at scale in the midst of a lot of macro uncertainty. Things that work with a team of 10 don’t work as well with a team of 100.

Notion has had a lot of early success for personal use cases like notetaking and organization. Our new challenge is communicating how Notion is also a game-changing tool for business.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

We’ve entered this weird meta-age of design where everything is so productized and industrialized. You don’t need to follow either of those trends to have a fulfilling career.

What brought you here in the first place? Was it a feeling? A worldview? An ethos? Don’t forget that.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Notion is growing and hiring designers, engineers, and many other roles.

I occasionally tweet things @coryetzkorn and may be hosting some Zoom yoga in the near future. Please stop by if you’re due for a stretch.