UX Designer at Square
Neil
Shankar

Neil Shankar is an Indian-American digital designer based in Berkeley, California. He is online as @tallneil.

Berkeley, United States • August 17, 2021

What led you into design?

My first encounter with design was through web programming. I was learning the ropes and having a lot of fun with the UI, before I knew what UI design was. That started around 2010. For the next few years, I put all my focus into computer science. I was a finalist in a few national coding competitions, and that felt like a certain trajectory toward becoming some hardcore programmer.

Sometime around my junior year of high school, UI/UX came onto my radar, and it really clicked with me. I was spending a lot of time on Medium, and back then, I saw Medium as this kind of elite online community where all the cool startup designers were hanging out. It was equal parts educational and aspirational. Eventually I started writing on Medium, and the more I wrote, the more I felt like, ok, maybe I can be part of this community, too.

In 2014, I graduated, I went off to college, and at the same time, I began freelancing and taking on design internships. Then in my sophomore year, I abandoned my computer science major. I used to think of that as a big transition, but really it was a minor inflection point in what has overall been a pretty straight career path. Computer science led me into design, and my technical knowledge still helps me every day.

What does a typical day look like?

I moved into a new apartment a few months ago, and now that I live alone, I've been enjoying more time ownership and flexibility with my schedule. I have some time for quick chores and yoga in the morning, and then I get my work day going around 9:30am. I aim to log off at 6:30pm, but it always takes a bit longer to get my brain out of work mode. Now that it's properly summer, I get outside for a run or a short hike before dinner.

What’s your workstation setup?

Neil Shankar's desk, chair, laptop, poster
Workstation photo (above) by Will Wang. Profile photo (hero) by Rebecca Dearden.
Screenshots of Neil Shankar's laptop desktop and mobile homescreen

Where do you go to get inspired?

To me, inspiration is synonymous with input, as in, I/O, input/output. So it's more like inspo/output. And it's a mindset, it's 24/7, when you have a certain lens. I think for all of us, anyone who considers themself a creative, we collect little fragments throughout daily life and then fold them into our work. That seems like a pretty universal concept across creative disciplines.

My focus is informational web design, so that's a lens for me. Whenever I'm online, no matter what I'm doing, I'm simultaneously looking for UI components, interactions, layouts, and styles. And when I come across something interesting, I take the time to really study it. That's a mentality that I have from my upbringing. I'll study a website like I'm studying for an exam. It makes the general experience of being online really rigorous and purposeful.

Recently I've tried to become more systematic about it, so now I screenshot anything that I may want to reference later. I use a Chrome extension to capture the URL and timestamp in the image. Then at the end of every month, I upload all of the screenshots to my Are.na. I've found that chronological organization works best for my memory, rather than trying to tag and categorize each screenshot.

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

Every MSCHF drop makes me smile. They're timely, a little irreverent, and extremely clever, in a Nathan For You kind of way. Alexagate has been my favorite.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

About a year ago, I put out a new personal website, tallneil.io. I made it using Webflow. What I'm most proud of is that I've been able to keep it up to date, with very little maintenance.

For a while, I was stuck in a pattern where I would wrap a project, write a long case study, and then phase it out a few months later. I always thought my site was outdated, and I wanted to minimize the obligation of upkeep. When I was exploring alternatives to traditional portfolio sites, I saw a few people using Notion in creative ways. I love the simplicity and bluntness of a single-page doc. So I started thinking of my site as a kind of premium resume: chronological, informational, to the point.

Just under the fold, I have a 5-minute walkthrough video. I'd been seeing embedded Loom videos here and there, and I think the format strikes a good balance between candid and professional. I've been really happy that some friends and family have seen my video and, for the first time, gotten a concrete sense for what kind of work I do.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

My design team is part of the comms team at Square. For me, this is a somewhat new context, whereas for most of my career, I've worked closer to marketing. I'm grossly oversimplifying here, but I would say that in tech, most UI designers work on product design. The UI designers who don't work on product design work on public web, which is mostly growth marketing. In my role at Square, I fall into an even smaller subset of UI designers. My role is to design informational websites to share insights with reporters, investors, candidates, and the public. So rather than growth metrics, our measures of success are largely qualitative. I've been here for about six months, and so far I've found the work and culture really refreshing.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

I work with the student design community at Berkeley as an adviser, and I've been so happy to see the undergraduate design scene really blossom over the past few years. One thing I often tell students is to prioritize growth over leadership. A lot of students want leadership all over their resumes, and so they'll spin, for example, Design Intern into Project Lead. Or they'll include a speculative case study in their portfolio without clearly labeling it. My advice is to be candid, call things what they are, and demonstrate willingness to grow above all else.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Join a local mutual aid group!