Applied Creative Technology at Pinterest

Shana Hu
Shana Hu
Sep 4, 2019 · 6 min read

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:

1. Accelerate

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:

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.

2. Inspire

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.

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.

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.

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