Tara Mann walks the line between weird and sensible

A series of interesting conversations with interesting people

Tara Mann’s love for architecture and gadgets led her into the world of interaction design. We chatted about where she draws her inspiration from, how she makes her designs stand out, and last but not least, how glow-in-the-dark sneakers can be awkward in a movie theater.

You are a product designer at Basecamp. Prior to that you were at Twitter and Science, Inc. Tell us — how did you get into the field of product design?

I had always been interested in design, but more so industrial design and architecture, I had no idea that “product design,” as it applies to software even existed. I went to Parsons for design school, and it was there that I discovered the field of interaction design. I then realized I could combine my love of computers and gadgets with my love of design. I worked at a startup in college and that really helped me learn what it meant to make and ship a real product.

Walk us through a typical day-in-the-life for you.

I like to start work around 9:30am. I work from home so it’s a quick commute. I usually make coffee and read the news on my iPad before heading into my home office. Even though I work from home I’m strict about getting totally ready and dressed, and “at work” on time every morning. I like adding that self-imposed structure to my day. I find that having that physical separation in where I work and where I relax is important.

Tara’s home office

Where do you draw your inspiration from? And how do you work that inspiration into your own projects?

Industrial design, architecture, and art are huge sources of inspiration for me. I don’t generally look towards technology when I’m thinking about design because it can feel like an echo chamber at times. What I love about architecture and industrial design is the inherent constraint of usability that exists in those fields. You can make a pretty house but it has to be livable. You can make a beautiful fork but someone still needs to be able to eat with it. I keep usability in mind when I’m designing a feature, but I try to remember that in order to push things forward, you have to walk the line between weird and sensible.

Explore the world of design here »

You are a sneaker fanatic. What’s the craziest/coolest pair of sneakers you own?

I have a pair of high top glow in the dark Nike Dunks. They’re awkward when you’re in a movie theater.

Are there any designers that you hope to emulate?

I love how Massimo Vignelli worked in many different areas of design. From graphic design, to product, interior, and furniture design too. I don’t know what I’ll be designing in 20 years, but I like the idea of working in a variety of mediums. He’s the first “graphic designer” I had ever heard of when I was a kid. I actually wrote him some fanmail once and he replied, I still read his response from time to time, it makes me smile.

We are inundated with design from the moment we wake up every morning. How do you make your work stand out in such a crowded design space?

It’s difficult. A lot of software design looks the same these days, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it certainly presents a challenge when your work looks like everyone else’s. I think it’s important to be able to articulate clearly why you made the design decisions you made. It’s easy enough to copy the visual styles you see all over the place, but if you can’t explain the how and why, you probably aren’t thinking critically about the work you’re doing.

What are some recent developments in the industry that excite you most?

VR and AR are pretty interesting. I’m curious about how design will move into these spaces. Interfaces change and the metal rectangle I currently design software for probably won’t exist in 10 or 20 years. I’m excited to see what comes next. When I watch demos of social VR it’s hard to deny that that’s the future.

Explore Virtual Reality here »

What have you been finding interesting lately / what have you been saving and recommending about recently?

I like lots of pop-science articles, this one about space law is interesting: How an international treaty signed 50 years ago became the backbone for space law

I’m also a big fan of self-development stuff. I’m obsessed with social norms and figuring out what motivates people in this world, so this piece on why you should stop caring what other people think was a good one: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think

I also like articles about the history of food, like this one about how How the Chili Dog Transcended America’s Divisions.

I save a ton of super random stuff in Pocket. I like that it’s a catch all for text and videos. I don’t have a zillion tabs open like I used to, I just save everything for later and catch up at the end of the day or week. I don’t know how I’d live without it at this point.

What are your go-to places — sites, apps, people, etc — for finding new stories to read and watch in Pocket?

I love the videos on openculture.com, they offer a ton of free educational and cultural media, I can browse that site for hours. I’m also a big fan of mechanical watches, and Hodinkee.com is the best place for reading and learning more about those. Also their photos are beautiful. And whenever I go to The Atlantic I find myself saving every other article.

If you had the chance to escape and read all of your current Pocket saves where would you go to do it?

A house by the beach. I don’t like swimming in the ocean but I like looking at it.

Who would you want to see us interview next?

Rachel Maddow. She strikes me as the most well informed person in the world, how does she do it?!

You can follow Tara’s design inspiration and commentary on Twitter & Instagram and follow what she is recommending on Pocket here.