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Modern Design Paradigms — The North Sprint Review with Horia L.

In this North Sprint Review, we’ll discuss design, inspiration, discipline, and technology with Horia L. — a senior UX/UI Designer with art in his genes and craft on his mind.

Horia had a formal education focused on print design and then switched to building user interfaces early on in his career. He worked and studied for years in Rotterdam, and then moved back to Bucharest to join the team here at Telepat, as one of our core members. We fell for his impeccable taste in movies and literature, his dedication to quality, and the general positivity he manages to infuse into projects he’s part of.

Gabi: Could you introduce yourself? What’s your background? What do you do?

Horia: I’m a UX/UI Designer with over 10 years of experience in crafting all sorts of digital products. I’ve worked with well-established companies in Europe, like German media giant ProSieben or global shipping company Gebrüder Weiss, and a wide variety of Silicon Valley startups.

As a designer, I value clarity, quality content, and teamwork. I believe that a robust design process is crucial to any project’s success.

Gabi: When did you get interested in art and design?

Horia: Well, my parents are both visual artists, my dad is a painter, and my mom does sculpture, so as a kid, I was surrounded by all sorts of artworks and colourful art albums. This clearly set me on the path that I am now, and I’m not sure it could have gone any differently. I attended an art-oriented high school, continued my studies at the Design Academy in Bucharest, and followed a Design Master Course in The Netherlands. My formal education was print-based and trained me in the subtleties of colour theory, composition, and typography. Still, my knowledge of UX/UI principles is all based on self-learning and discovery.

Gabi: What was your first computer like?

Horia: My first interaction with a computer was in the early ’90s with an ancient-looking HC machine (a sort of Romanian clone of the ZX Spectrum). It was pretty basic, and I remember just playing Dizzy for hours and hours on end. The first computer I actually owned was a Pentium 4 that was the top of the line at the time. That’s when I started using a computer for more than just gams and got into playing around with Adobe Flash (Macromedia Flash as it was known then).

Gabi: Do you remember the first design work you’ve done? What about your first paid project?

Horia: Oh, yes! The first design work that I did was, to my amazement, also my first paid project. I was in high school, and because of my experience with Flash, I was tasked to build a digital catalog for a local company dealing with all sorts of floor and wall tiles. The project was massive. I had to painstakingly scan all the hundreds of tiles from the company’s physical paper catalogs and neatly arrange them into the layout that I had built. The end product was a CD that the company’s clients could pop in and see their whole collection. I think that’s when I realised that I could make a living from doing interface design.

Good Interface Is Like A Crystal Glass

Gabi: Can you describe beautiful UI?

Horia: Imagine a clear crystal glass in which you pour the most exquisite wine. As you slowly twirl it around, the proper glass feels natural; it directs the wine’s fragrance and reveals its rich colour. You can observe the liquid’s thickness and can almost anticipate the first taste… Of course, you could have the same wine in a green coffee cup with a funky straw, but that wouldn’t feel right, would it?

Like the crystal glass that complements the wine, a good interface must do justice to the content or mechanic it presents and should guide the user throughout the experience offered without becoming a distraction or a source of confusion. The exquisite wine in our case would be quality content (copy, photo, video, illustration) and a consistent, on-brand, visual language (typography, colour, iconography, microcopy). Beautiful UI emerges from these ingredients, and that is what I try to aim for in my work.

Gabi: How do you get unstuck creatively?

Horia: There’s nothing worse than just sitting there trying all sorts of ideas around and realising that none of them are quite on par. I usually deal with this by taking a break from the problem and letting things settle a bit. Even a 10–15m break can bring new perspectives and possible solutions. Sketching and doodling on paper also helps me unwind and quickly diversify my ideas.

Gabi: Do you have a routine? What does your day-to-day work look like, and what motivates you to do it each day?

Horia: I usually start my day browsing some of my favourite design blogs like AIGA Eye on Design, Webflow, Inside Design, Grafik, XD Ideas, just to name a few. This prompts me to get into a creative mindset and also stay informed on what other amazing designers are doing and thinking. I then plan out my day according to the tasks I have either on Trello or via Slack and create a sort of checklist with more granular subtasks. As I work, I go through the list and mark each item that’s completed. This process gives me an overview of what I finished, what is still left to do, and is also pretty satisfying when everything is ticked off.

A Framework For Design Process

Gabi: What sort of processes do you go through when you design? Do you think there’s a right way to develop UI/UX?

Horia: I think there’s definitely a tried and tested way to do UX/UI work. In short, when designing, you start by defining the problem, you collect information about it, you analyse it, brainstorm and develop solutions, you seek feedback & improve your work.

Here are the steps I go through with most of my projects:

  1. Have a deep understanding of key aspects of the project:
  • Scope & mission (the big picture).
  • Audience (who we’re communicating to / possible interactions between different types of users).
  • Key functionality specs (what’s expected of the user, what information is collected, and how it is used).
  • Project timeframe.

2. Create the User’s Journey through the product and identify the main UX challenges or pain points.

3. Layout & UI Pattern Research (that may address any of the challenges the user might have) & Wire-framing (laying out content and functionality on the page without worrying about the visual style — just the bare bones).

4. High Fidelity Mockups (this is where typography, colour, iconography come into play), Prototyping (inVision / Adobe XD / Webflow — depending on the complexity and requirements of the project).

5. Developer Hand-off (Zeplin or Webflow) & Support.

6. Testing. Iterating. Refining.

Gabi: What do you consider the most challenging part of design?

Horia: Keeping consistency (both visually and from a UX perspective) is probably one of the more difficult parts of the job, and it requires plenty of patience. You need to consider many factors before making a decision that you might have to stick with in the long run.

Gabi: You’ve been a Telepat member for more than five years now. How was your experience?

Horia: I have learned a lot while working with the team here at Telepat. As I mentioned earlier, my formal training was in print design, so much my UX/UI experience was gained in the last 5 years or so. Having access to all sorts of projects, from well-established companies to energetic startups, helped me polish my design and communication skills. I also got better with understanding the constraints that devs have to work with all the time, and I do my best to adapt my designs accordingly.

The Modern Design Swiss Knife

Gabi: Any new tools that you like to use or are excited about?

Horia: The tools for UI designers have evolved a lot in the last 2–3 years. Just a while ago, the only viable option for UI work was Photoshop — a great tool for a lot of stuff like editing photos, creating complex raster effects, 3d compositions, and sooo much more. It is a mammoth of a software, and this is exactly what makes it very slow to use when doing UI work. The files are huge, run slow, and most of the buttons on-screen will never be used in a typical UI workflow.

Things have changed dramatically in the last couple of years, with the rise of dedicated UX/UI software. Sketch, Adobe XD, Invision Studio, and Figma are the big 4 at the moment. These tools are light-weight and have features that greatly streamline both the design process and the developer handoff. The dark days of working in Photoshop are over. Blazing fast files with hundreds of artboards on the same screen, global colour management, reusable components, and interactive prototyping are just a few of the amazing features available to designers at the moment.

Designer-Developer Handoff tools have also evolved considerably. I remember when, not so long ago, I used to manually create guide documents with pixel values, colour codes, and font sizes to help developers translate my static images into working products. This time-consuming work is now a thing of the past with tools like Webflow and Zeplin.

Webflow can shave off many development hours since it manages to export pretty decent code that can actually be used. It also allows me to translate the mockups into code as accurately as possible. As a designer with a reasonable amount of OCD, I really appreciate that.

Zeplin doesn’t export code the way Webflow does, but it does provide information for each element on the artboard and also generates short ready-to-use CSS snippets.

Right now, I’m looking into Anima, a brand new tool that promises to export dev-friendly code right from XD or Sketch.

Gabi: How will UI/UX change the world of design in the following years?

Horia: I don’t think AI will replace UX/UI designers any time soon. Here’s a blast from the past, from way back in 2014 — The Grid was promising a fully automated website builder that can make layout and design decisions based on machine learning. Well, turns out it’s harder than expected to replicate the complex processes that a designer goes through. They’re still working on it, but I doubt it will see the light of day any time soon.

Hopefully, the tedious parts of doing UI work will keep getting more and more automated, leaving more time for designers to focus on creative thinking, communication, or details like micro-interactions and animation.

None Of Those “Shape583” Shenanigans

Gabi: What advice do you have for people who want to pursue a career in design?

Horia: Be organised. Keep your files clean, always name groups and layers — none of those Shape583 or Group369 shenanigans.

You’re not always right. Seek and truly consider other perspectives and always keep the user’s interests above personal preferences. Sometimes you might have to “kill your darlings” if it benefits the overall project.

You don’t need to always reinvent the wheel. Tired and trusted design patterns are always your safest bet and will ensure users feel comfortable with the interfaces you build.

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