Product Designer at Sketch
Rafael
Conde

Rafa is a product designer and an independent app developer.

He/Them • Amsterdam, Netherlands • January 9, 2023

What led you into design?

I went to study Computer Science because it was apparent that software was going to dominate the world, and as a control freak I needed to understand it — but my 3 years in college were a confusing contradiction:

On one hand I had become completely obsessed by Apple and its online community: from indie developers like Panic and Loren Brichter, exciting designers in the space like Tim Van Damme and Jessica Hische, to bloggers and podcasters like Gruber, Siracusa, etc… I had never felt so consistently excited about a world and community like this one, and I desperately wanted to be a part of it.

I sent a DM to Emanuel Sá (co-founder of Sketch), making my case for a Sketch promo code as a broke college student, and they graciously gave me a free copy! Around that same time, Facebook had just released Facebook Home, an Android launcher with some cool animations that we came to know were designed using Quartz Composer. So that year I got really into UI and interaction design, prototyping a bunch of (terrible) animations and doing unsolicited redesigns of apps I thought “could use a hand”.

On the other hand, I was bored and uninterested in the actual studies, just doing the bare minimum to not get kicked out… I felt guilty that I was wasting everybody’s time.

That following summer break, I reached a limit with my frustration and decided to look for a job: “if the point of getting a degree is to find a good job, then that means that if I find a good job first I don’t need a degree” I thought. I Googled “best startups in Lisbon”, picked a couple, got their addresses from their websites, and went on a field trip to the city knocking on their doors asking if they had use for a designer.

One of them offered me a job as long as I could also help out with some front-end work… and that’s how I was officially led into design.

What does a typical day look like?

My partner and I have a 1-year-old, we both work full time, and daycare in this country is expensive and hard to find (we got two days a week). So a typical day for me is waking up around 9 AM, making us some coffee and spending the whole day with my son.

This usually means going out to the playground, bike riding in the park, occasional play dates and coffee with friends, making lunch and prepping snacks, and a lot of playing in their room. It can be hard and exhausting some days, but also extremely rewarding to have the privilege of seeing them grow every single day.

Picture of me riding a bike with my son

4 PM is when my partner is done with their work and pick up “baby duty”, so that’s when I start my work-day, through the night until 1 AM.

Took me a while to get used to this schedule, but I really enjoy how quiet it can be. My biggest challenge is managing my own energy levels so that I’m not completely exhausted by dinner time. It takes practice, and a carefully managed coffee intake schedule.

I'm about to join a new team with a very flexible work schedule, so I'm sure I'll experiment more, but I really enjoy changing things up a bit and see what kind of differences it can produce in your work.

What's your workstation setup?

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Where do you go to get inspired?

4 years in and I’m still very much inspired by this city, Amsterdam — there’s so much history, personality, and character! And somehow you can see that in every little shop, the baseline for quality, attention to detail, and care seems to be at a level I haven’t seen in other places. When I need a break and look for inspiration, I often go out for a walk with no music nor podcasts, just be outside and pay attention to my surroundings.

On the software side, I’m constantly inspired by what people are doing and sharing on Twitter: we seem to go through a new era of emphasis on personality and fun in UI, and I’m here for it!

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

I can’t stop thinking about the T-Chair OW58, by Ole Wanscher for Carl Hansen & Son, ever since I first saw it. I mean just look at it!

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Also I’m no different from most software designers out there that got really excited when we first saw the Dynamic Island, on Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro. The way they managed to integrate hardware and software, turning a compromise into a feature, and adding such fluidity and bounciness really inspired me as a designer.

Showcase of the Dynamic Island on iPhone 14 Pro

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

Just before the holidays, I finally shipped a major update to Hand Mirror, and I am really proud of how far this side project has come — I wrote a whole bunch of custom UI while still making it honor and feel at home on macOS.

It is also filled with so many easter eggs and personal touches, which is always so much fun to work on! I wrote a Twitter thread with some of my favorite design details →

Screenshot of the Notch Trigger feature on Hand Mirror

Most recently, the whole onboarding experience we managed to build for Along. We did our best to turn what could very well just be a boring waitlist, into something hopefully a bit more interesting and fun (let’s just say there are lots of easter eggs). And when you’re through, we embraced the video format of our app and use it as the main onboarding flow, instead of relying on a paginated wizard, or modals.

You can watch the behind the scenes of the design process in this tape →

I am and always will be pretty proud of what we managed to build with the first version of Netlify’s UI. For the amount of time we had, and the size of the team (it was just me and my good friend Irene on the front-end) we managed to build a design system that would scale (still to this day) and roll it out across the whole app in two months. I was just starting my career as a product designer, and learned so so much from that project.

Also at Netlify, for a brief period I also took over the Marketing design side of things, and managed to redesign our site and brand, it was a really fun collaboration.

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What design challenges do you face at your company?

At my previous gig, Along, we were a super small and young startup, so I’d say the biggest challenge was to constantly ask yourself “is this the most important thing we should be doing right now?”. Be very mindful of our time and energy, and balance building the right things for the product, whilst staying energized and having fun doing it.

We allowed ourselves to always pursue waves of excitement, don’t let it go to waste. Oh did you just thought of a new interaction you think would be cool and it’s making you really excited? Go for it, see where that takes you, you can spend a whole day on it, and then let’s come back to our “regular schedule”.

These bursts of excitement are rare, impossible to “force”, and usually produce some of your best work, don’t waste them.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Don’t lose your ambition, but don’t let it control you.

Be nice, have fun, be someone people enjoy working with, make friends along the way — that’s the best way to get new opportunities in your career, and also to live a happier life.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Sure thing, two things: First, I’d love if y’all could check out the brand new version of Hand Mirror, a Mac app that lives in your menu bar and gives you a one-click access to your camera — just before the holidays I shipped Hand Mirror Plus, and a bunch of fun new features that I think people might enjoy!

Second, I'm really excited to announce that I'll be joining Sketch — feels like a dream job to work on one of the most impactful pieces of software in my life and career, and I'm really looking forward to finally contribute to the design tooling space!

It’s all on my website, but I also have some other side projects that I get excited over: Booby Track is a breastfeeding app for iOS and watchOS that we built when our son was born, Thwip is a soundboard for your Apple Watch, and Layout is a design podcast that I’ve been recording with my friend Kevin Clark for over 5 years!

Of course, you can also follow me on Mastodon and Twitter

interview