An AMA Session with Thomas Lowry on the Figma Africa Slack Group.
THOMAS LOWRY — Hi all! Thanks so much for inviting me to join you all today!
Q — Yeah, we are really particular about design — can you introduce yourself for the benefit of those that don’t know you?
THOMAS LOWRY — Sure! So my name is Thomas, most people call me Tom. I live just outside of Toronto, Canada, and I work in a city called Waterloo. Waterloo is lesser-known and much smaller than Toronto, but it is often described as “Silicon Valley North”, so it is like Canada’s technology hub. Many startups, startup incubators, and established companies are located here.
My background is in graphic design, but I’ve always had a passion for the digital side, so I’ve taught myself a fair bit about front-end development and coding in general to compliment the design side. I work for a company called OpenText — it is a large enterprise information management software provider — we have many software products (I’ve lost count). About a year ago I worked on the marketing side, and now I am working on the engineering side working on products on a Visual Design team which is nested within our User Experience team.
And other than design, I love music, bicycles, and building things out of wood. I have two identical twin boys as well, which keeps me very busy!
Q — Hi Thomas, have you encountered a UX project that didn’t go as planned and how did you address it
THOMAS LOWRY — It happens all the time. I think it’s important to try and identify what aspects of the problem are being influenced by someone’s opinion versus what is best for the user.
Sometimes I find this can happen with people less-familiar with the UX process, which could be someone you are working with outside of the UX team.
To give you a quick example, we were working on an internal portal to organize all of our brand assets. We (the designers) spent some time working on the information architecture and site map of the tool. A new person was added to the project, who was tasked with re-writing some of the copy. That person changed the entire structure of the site which impacted the design and the development!
In this case, we agreed to disagree, and wrote off our initial proposal as our opinion, and took the new proposal as another opinion, and instead tried to make sure both sides kept an open mind. We actually spent an hour in Figma to create two click through prototypes and tested them with users. The result of which performed best was very clear. Everyone participated in the testing process and we ended up on a result that everyone felt better about and we knew would work better :slightly_smiling_face:
Q — Hi Thomas, Again, So nice to have you. So do you think small startups should invest in design systems, giving the fact that they have limited resources and personnel?
THOMAS LOWRY — I think they absolutely should. It is easy to get ahead of yourself and become so executional. It becomes dangerous. When you are simply responding to requests and so focused on getting things out the door one by one, it can lead to inconsistency and bigger problems to fix down the line
I like to think of design systems as “playing the long game”. It is an upfront investment but it is a great opportunity to look at things as a whole. After you get starting point (which I would see as the foundations of documenting your UX/UI patterns in design tools, as well as code (code base), then you will ultimately end up being able to work much faster, which will be a huge benefit to the organization.
Q — Hi Thomas Lowry you do a bit of frontend, my question is should designers code and should developers design. What motivated you to do frontend?
THOMAS LOWRY — This is always a controversial question. I think everyone would take the opportunity to learn about areas outside of their core expertise. Both developers and designers.
I think it helps to define “code”. I don’t necessarily think designers should have to move from designing to always developing production code…
but i think it is to their benefit to learn how code works. Sometimes putting together a quick codepen or prototype with html/css/jquery will go a long way to clarify your intentions to developers.
And developers. being familiar with design, will develop a sensitivity to the details that you care about in your design. All those subtle alignments and things like that won’t go unnoticed during the development process.
As a designer, learning front-end code has been invaluable, and for those whom I’ve worked with, who have failed to see any benefit in learning code, I see it is a much harder road for them to communicate with developers/
Q — Thanks, but how much frontend is enough frontend for a designer and what of designers who prototype in code?
Sometimes just being able to translate your design to CSS and show how it will be be responsive can go along way. I also think it is good to spend some time to learn a bit about naming systems and things like that. For instance, BEM naming in CSS changed the way I write CSS. If you can align with the development team on those things, it can really shape how you build the design system and communicate (using the same terminology, variable names for colors, etc)
Q — Hi Thomas, so designers who are good have a problem marketing their works because they are under-appreciated, is there a business technique you advice designers to follow
THOMAS LOWRY — I think the best way, and I am still figuring this out too, is to tell a story with your projects. I am finding more and more, companies seeking designers are less interested in just the end result, but also how you arrived at that result.
Being able to show your initial sketches/wireframes based on your assumptions, and how you evolved your project based on feedback and added polish at the end will go a long way. These types of in-depth stories will communicate your breadth of knowledge more than a fancy shot on Dribbble! :slightly_smiling_face:
Q — Most techies understand what it means to be a senior developer. What does it mean exactly to be a senior designer?
THOMAS LOWRY — I think to be a senior designer, you obviously need to have good foundations in design, but you also need to do a number of other skills.
- my experience with junior roles, is that you have some design skills and will refine them in the role working with seniors, so seniors need to be able to mentor, and fill in the gaps.
- juniors are often very good at communicating WITHIN the design team using design terminology. As a Sr, you will most likely be communicating directly with stakeholders and business-people outside the design world. I think it’s important to develop your skills at articulating design decisions. Think of it as a currency exchange. You can’t buy anything with your design-language currency, so sometimes you need to convert your intents with the design into language that resonates with them so they understand the benefits of what you are proposing in a way that makes sense to them.
- seniors I think can also do really well to take initiative. It’s easy to look around to see what other people are doing, but if you see something not being done, or have an idea about how something can be better, I have had success just taking a crack at it and trying to propose my idea. However rough it is. They say an image is worth 1000 words :slightly_smiling_face:
Sometimes with the last approach you want to be careful to step on other people’s toes. So it’s good to communicate with those people that you would like to put together an alternate suggestion and get their feedback. Most times, if you take initiative to do something that is not necessarily asked for…it very quickly gets people on board — sometimes the silence on a project is because other people you are working with are also confused as to where to start.
I don’t know if that answers your question, but in short: Communication, Initiative, and Mentorship!
Q — Hi Tom, my question goes thus — I am a UX Designer with a startup, the only designer to be honest. My foundation is core web ui/ux. But being the only designer in the company I am also given graphics design tasks. I believe web design and graphics design have a slight difference in terms of principles. To be honest it’s been a struggle to do graphics work. What is your advice to me and pls can you recommend materials to help improve my graphics skills
THOMAS LOWRY — Oh this is a good one. This happens all the time. As soon as you know “design” you must know how to design “everything”. This is just a company trying to do more with less.
I think the outcomes of UI/UX and traditional graphic design are different but many of the visual principles are the same. It may seem like a deviation from what you love, but I can assure you those skill sets will come in handy in your other work.
I think typography and grids is one of the most relevant and important subjects which will may help. Josef Müller-Brockmann’s “Grid Systems in Graphic Design” is a great text book.
Any books on typography, and layout will be beneficial. You can translate them to either medium.
As for tools. Figma can work, but Illustrator or Indesign are worth learning for print, particularly Indesign if you have to create multiple page documents.
My other recommendation would be to go down that path to learn and benefit the company, but if the workload becomes too intense, open up the conversation to try and get another designer on board and explain how they are different. Your willingness to work with them in the short term will help them plan for more designers in the future. As you grow, it will also give you the opportunity to mentor new designers as they join the team :slightly_smiling_face:
Q — So this is more of a personal question — how do you juggle projects and tasks especially when most of them all have same deadlines.
THOMAS LOWRY — We track all of our projects with Jira, and we make sure that we work with the product managers to ensure they are prioritized. So within each project we have specific sub tasks ranked my priority.
Then within our team, we have team members in all different time zones, so we can shift priorities from designer to designer if any of them are at risk of not being met, and we all just try to help each other out. When someone is waiting for feedback, sometimes you can reach out and get them to help you. If you build a culture where everyone helps each other, than you can count on one another when it’s crunch time.
As far as tactics, I am very old school in that I keep a long list of things to do in my notebook.
I try to do the small things that take very little time first. I find accomplishing those small things first thing in the morning, sort of builds up some “productivity momentum” and the rest of the day is much easier. I feel like I am on a roll!
Communication is also key. If you feel like you are understaffed and simply can’t get all the work done. Don’t be afraid to communicate this to those enforcing the deadlines. The truth is, if you don’t and you start taking work home every night, it will become a very slippery slope. You will feel the pain, and others will see the benefit of your hard work. No one wants their personal/family life to suffer. AND Good product managers will build in wiggle room/buffers into their deadlines. So often they can buy you a bit of extra time if you have another deadline that is competing with another.
Q — What do you think about the design tools war in terms of a young designer deciding which should they go for?
THOMAS LOWRY — I like the design tool war, I think it is fantastic. Having choice is a great thing.
When I first started designing, Macromedia was separate from Adobe, and Flash was popular, but so were many tools from Adobe.
There was healthy competition.After Adobe acquired Macromedia, there was a real dead-zone in terms of progress for new design tools, and it felt like an Adobe monopoly, not much choice.
Now we have a dozen prototyping tools, and tools like Figma, Adobe XD, Sketch, Framer, etc etc
Those companies competing will lead to great innovation. I think you just need to be fluid and stay current. Use the tools that you like to use and help you do the types of project you need to do.
Q — What are you daily tools/apps you use for work?
THOMAS LOWRY — I use Figma for design. VS code for writing code. I like to use CodeKit app for mac for compiling code (like SCSS). It helps automate the process without having to use the command line.
There are a lot of legacy projects on the new team I am on, so we also use Adobe Illustrator, but I am in the process of migrating the team to use Figma. Everyone seems to be on board and excited to use Figma
Q — As the only designer i am bombarded with a lot of work asides my major deliverables. Today alone I got about 4 extra design briefs asides what I planned to do initially. It’s could be tiring and sometimes confusing especially for someone that likes to plan the day ahead. From experience how do you deal with this and still be able to deliver on major deliverables.
THOMAS LOWRY — This is so hard, and I have experienced this too. Similar to my last question…my experience when I was in more Junior roles… was to just take my laptop home and work late every-night, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. Obviously that is not healthy, or sustainable.
Are these requests coming from a single source, or from multiple people within the organization?
Basically I think it’s good for you to lay out your day with what you think you have time to accomplish. Build in a bit of extra time in case things take you longer than you think.
If you make that list it will be easier to respond to those asking you to do extra things. Once people understand that their requests may be putting other bigger picture requests at jeopardy….they are usually more reasonable to work with you on flexible timelines. Some time even a reduced scope.
For example. When I expressed I had no time due to other priorities and asked if there was any flexibility, or anything they could do to help, sometimes the requestor could actually do some of the leg work and then I would provide feedback, or some quick suggestions.
It’s hard to say without knowing how big the projects are, but I used to get overloaded with random things like people who wanted help with powerpoint presentations or pitch decks…. Those were not a good use of my time to to deviate away from bigger projects. But sometimes offering to take a look and offer some design suggestions, was a better way to go about it (rather than take on actually designing the whole presentation).
Not sure if this helps at all? But I would just encourage you to be open with your communication and make others aware of your priority. People need to respect your time and that doing good work doesn’t happen in 30 seconds.
Q — Hi Thomas Lowry how often do you do user testing before the final release of your product
THOMAS LOWRY — Yes we do. We routinely test solutions with customers to influence the design side. Sometimes this work gets quite segmented. I liked to work in sort of a UI/UX capacity, and work on both sides, but sometimes that work gets divided. Because I work on the visual design team, sometimes the UX team does this separate, but they try to include us.
One of the cool things that we do, is we host a user-conference every year. So in addition to our existing products, our team works very closely to refine and build new user interfaces, and net new products that we showcase to customers. These are super high fidelity prototypes before the products are released. We get lots of feedback on usability, but are also developing some methods to also measure the users response to the visual quality of our applications.
There are some studies that show that visually beautiful apps are perceived by users to be more usable. So anyone that doesn’t think the visual quality of your interfaces is missing out on some easy wins for your product. It can make a big difference, and speaking to users is invaluable in the process!
THOMAS LOWRY — Question for everyone here since I have a few extra minutes. Is everyone here using Figma for their UI/UX design? Are you starting to build dynamic components and shared libraries on projects, and if so, are you seeing the benefits in being able to work faster and get feedback earlier?
Q — So while I now use Figma for everything include graphics design, and Figma components has been a real help in increasing the work flow, can you explain how components work on a basic level for others just starting out?
THOMAS LOWRY — Even though I use the tool daily. It is actually still a new thing for many. I think getting colleagues to make the leap to “google docs for design”, with no physical files to share, or store on a local server, is an adjustment for them. Once I show people the benefits to a great component system, it saves so much rework, and the performance and ease of use of the tool is great. I look forward to the day that everyone on our team is embracing it.
For sure.I really like to geek out on the component side of things. They are reusable elements within Figma. They can be useful in a lot of different ways, but I like to think of a component as an element in your design that will get repeated, and need to adapt to different states/variations. If you can structure the components correctly in Figma, in a way that makes sense, you can save designers from a lot of rework, and speed up your process because you can keep reusing these elements, and if they change, you can go back and edit your master component, and they update everywhere.
I actually like to start turning things into components very early on in the process. Even when things are subject to change frequently. Updating one thing is much easier than combing through all of your screen mockups to update the visuals.
Once you wrap your head around the workflow benefits, you can setup the components in all sorts of ways. I won’t go into all the different ways, but I wrote about some of them here, using one “list tile” component that we regularly use in our designers. https://blog.figma.com/component-architecture-in-figma-f16ae9cc4481
That one component can:
- scale in width and height
- list items can be swapped out for a different type of file list
- the search field and search state is contained within the header
- the list views are cropped so they can adapt to the size of the parent component
- all icons can be swapped out for different icons
This approach takes a bit of time to setup, but ensures the entire thing is modular, as it might be in code, and will make your life way easier once you have a library of these things. Then it is drag drop, override the text, resize, and you can focus your time not on rebuilding what already exists, but on the new things that will push your product further!
Q — Another question is, how do you go about teaching design to those coming from a zero design/tech background knowing how whatever you tell them must be broken down to the basics.
THOMAS LOWRY — From a visual design perspective:
I would encourage people to look to classic graphic design, and develop an appreciation for the gestalt principles, grids, typography, use of colour. Those won’t go away regardless of the medium. I always stress typography because it is like 90% of what we consume. Spending the time to make sure things are legible, and accessible, and organized in a way that helps the viewer understand the content and relationships between content, is really important.
From a UX side of things:
Observe how different apps work, and why you like some apps over others. Expand your reference points outside of just apps as well. Think about the things you encounter in your life.
This could be services, it could be flows within a shopping mall or street. Industrial design is also an important area to study. Look at the design of doors for example. The visual cues a designer can give someone to indicate that a door should be pushed or pulled. If you can develop an eye for those things, you will start being critical of those things in your mind and it will help your design process because you are already thinking that way. Chances, if you want to be a designer, you have noticed these things anyways.
Also, above all, I would say to be self-aware and critical of your own work. I don’t mean this in the sense that you shouldn’t be happy with what you create, but be honest with yourself if something can be better and learn from those experiences to make your work better. And don’t take criticism personally.
One thing that can sometimes be detrimental to a designers success is to be so focused on positive reinforcement. Emotionally detach yourself from your design and get honest feedback. You may hear something you don’t want to hear, but it’s not personal, and you can turn those criticisms into insight to make a better end result.
That is why I think sites like Dribbble are a great place to showcase, but not the best place to receive in-depth feedback in making your designs better.
Find a design mentor who is accessible, and you think produces great work, and get their honest opinion. You will learn so much :slightly_smiling_face:
Thank you all so much for having me, and thanks for all the great questions. I wish there was more time to chat. I hope if I ever have the opportunity to visit, we’ll cross paths in person. Don’t be strangers if you ever find yourself in Canada either! :slightly_smiling_face:
I will have to get back to work shortly, but I’m happy to stay logged into this slack channel should anyone else have some questions or figma questions in the future! It has been amazing to meet you all!
If I may leave with one last thought…this was analogy I made with a presentation recently.
This is a painting from René Magritte. Some of you are probably familiar with it. One of the concepts behind the painting was that it is not actually a pipe, it is just a painting/picture of one. I always found it suitable for describing the process of designing digital products. We spend a lot of time in design tools thinking about how things will look and showing our intent, but ultimately they are just pictures of the thing we want to make. If designers and developers work together, and fill in the grey area between their disciplines, you can do a great job to make the ACTUAL working thing :slightly_smiling_face:
Thank you for all for having me and thank you Namnso for inviting me. Let’s do it again one day! Pleasure to speak with you all!
Have a great evening!