When I tell people I’m a creative technologist on the Applied Creative Technology team (ACT for short) at Pinterest, I’m always asked the same thing:
“What does that mean?”
After several failed attempts at concisely explaining what I do, I lamented to my manager Tobias that ACT sounded like a fake title. He chuckled: “It may not sound like a real title, but I promise you it’s a real job.”
And he’s right. As a discipline, creative technology has existed for a while. In essence, it’s about understanding both the design and the technical world that design has to live in, shortening the feedback loop by having both design and engineering embodied in the same person.
At Pinterest, ACT is a small, flexible team with mixed backgrounds in design and engineering who sketch out our ideas with code. We’re like an internal consultancy at Pinterest, partnering with product teams, brand, marketing, and leadership across various projects that require early concept design, prototyping work and our general expertise as designers and technologists.
So, “creative technologist” is definitely a real job. Just one that’s a little unfamiliar to most.
ACT’s mission is to accelerate and inspire creativity. We want designers to have the knowledge they need to quickly test concepts through interactive prototyping, so they can iterate faster, explore design at a deeper level, and communicate more clearly with engineering. On the flip side, we want engineers to feel more empowered when it comes to making design decisions, especially around interaction and motion.
The types of projects our creative technologists work on can vary widely week to week, but tend to fall into two general categories:
We focus about half of our time on accelerating product exploration so our designers and teams can do more effective work. We do this through the following ways:
- We boost teams when they need help exploring new interactions or features during a sprint. Although we don’t build for production, we do often share prototype code with engineers to facilitate the design/eng handoff process.
- We help designers become better prototypers. Through classes, mentoring, and office hours, we teach designers the tools and techniques they need to explore their ideas effectively.
- We build tools to bring design and code closer together.
Accelerating other teams can also mean turning down work. Sometimes, we get requests to build prototypes which could be explored in tools like Principle or even Keynote — and these are great opportunities for us to show designers how they can explore ideas themselves, instead of relying on a technologist. This reframing helps grow the prototyping skills across our wider team, and it also prioritizes our focus on projects where we’re a better fit.
We also work on visionary projects that aren’t tied as closely to product, but may inspire our designers, teams, and the broader organization down the line.
- We do vision pieces to help create buy-in and alignment for larger overhauls for Pinterest. Vision pieces should be shared with the wider organization as much as possible, otherwise their value diminishes.
- We build externally facing projects in collaboration with Marketing and Brand, like interactive installations for festivals.
- We prototype for research and development purposes. Sometimes we work on projects that are meant to just explore an inkling. It’s totally okay if that work doesn’t go anywhere — as long as it helps move an idea, person, or team along. The process and the act of making something can help reframe the way we think.
How I found creative tech
I started at Pinterest as a product designer with a background in computer science and a desire to learn everything I could about design. But after a couple of years of mostly working in static mocks, I found myself seeking out opportunities to prototype more and more. I started wondering about a more technical but design-focused role, and Pinterest happened to be building our ACT team around the same time.
The time I spent on product teams was invaluable for learning what was worth prototyping, how to pick the right tool, and how to best position myself and my skills as a valued member of any team. Once I switched to ACT, I set a goal to grow my technical breadth and decided to pick up Swift for iOS prototyping. To get started, I worked with a more seasoned iOS technologist on a project for the Search team. We helped brainstorm ideas and design mocks, and then each built half of the prototype. It was the perfect opportunity for a two-way mentorship, with me learning more Swift and him learning more about design and strategy. The prototype we built ended up helping Pinterest’s Search team align on a vision for their product, and they’ve come to ACT several times since to partner on more projects.
For my second Swift project, I focused on building microinteractions on top of a pre-existing codebase, which let me explore how someone else structured an extensive prototype. And by my third project, I was able to put everything together myself.
How you can find creative tech, too!
If you’re interested in creative technology as a career, you might be able to convince your current company to let you transition your design or engineering role into a creative technology focus — either part or full-time. Here’s how to start that conversation.
- Identify your goals, gaps, and growth opportunities. Are you a product designer who wants to build more technical prototypes? An engineer who wants to improve your product thinking or visual design? Identifying where you want to grow and brainstorming how you can get there may open up opportunities you weren’t aware of before.
- Find a buddy. Transitioning to a more technical role can be intimidating, so it’s helpful to work alongside someone with more experience who’s down to help you get started. Just remember that there’s always something that you can teach them too, whether it be product strategy, design, another programming language, or something else.
- Show your value. Learn to build things quickly…and then show them to people. Is there a tool that could help your team move faster? Do you need a complex prototype for user research that pulls real content from an API? The more you build and share, the more people will come to you with ideas in mind.
- Create opportunities to learn. Find out if there are projects on your current team that could help you learn new skills, or ask to join another team that needs some help for a short amount of time to try out something new. Practicing picking up new tools and tech can help you stay relevant as a technologist and zero in on what kind of work you’re most passionate about.
- Build to think. Accept that many of your prototypes are going to be thrown away. What really matters is the experience that they bring to life — not how clean your code is. Treat building as a way to sketch out ideas, and you’ll find yourself creating more prototypes more quickly. When the time comes to actually build the real thing, you’ll feel better informed and more confident about your design choices.
- Embrace uncertainty. Creative tech as a role can mean working on a different project with a different team every week…sometimes with different tools and tech every week, too. The constant change ends up being opportunities to learn new skills and working styles — own it!
Even if your current company isn’t able to carve out a creative technology role specifically for you, there’s still a lot you can do to build the right skillset and mindset. Just like how you’d prototype out a new idea to see if it makes any sense, you can prototype your potential ACT career path as well. So make more things. Learn new tools. Stay curious, and find out what gets you excited when you put design and code together. Maybe you’ll realize that you’re okay with focusing on design with some light coding on the side, or as an engineer with a great product sense.
Or maybe creative tech is the path for you. In which case, then all you have to do is to figure out how to answer the question, “So, what does a creative technologist even do?”
But you know what? I think by then you’ll have a pretty good idea.