SCenE from ‘MoonRISE KINGDOM’ by WES Anderson

What kind of a designer are you?

No! I said…what kind of a designer are YOU?

In the short time since I started designing, I have had a bunch of titles to describe my role; some I chose myself when freelancing, and some were given by the companies that I worked for. I have been a web designer, a user interface designer, an interaction designer, a user experience designer and most recently, a product designer. As I have moved from one title to the other, the industry has evolved and it is much easier to see some of those patterns in hindsight. What does your role, really encompass when you say you are a designer at a startup, or more importantly what all can it encompass that will help you be better at what you are trying to be? What does it mean to be a designer for the digital medium? What does it mean to design a digital product?

The startup is the new agency

It is not the biggest surprise that some of the finest designers of products happen to work at tech companies and startups. I would argue that a startup or a larger tech company that cares deeply about design (I can definitely attest for Facebook being one) is a better place to bootstrap your career in design than any traditional design agency. There are lot of reasons for this but the biggest and most obvious ones in my head are the breadth of projects and the quick learning curve. Today you could be designing the logo and the larger brand of the new app that is about to launch, and the next day you are back to tweaking the flow of the app based on new user testing nuggets that your CEO passed on from one late-afternoon coffee shop testing. I traded my two year course in ‘interaction design’ for a crash course in design at Pulse. Never made a better decision in my life.

Products—not just apps or websites

What the hell do I even mean by that? Mostly that our work is no longer confined to interfaces inside a viewport in the browser or on our phones. The apps & the websites are just the means of interaction we enable. We are here to design the larger system of which the apps and websites are one aspect. It is equally our job (or should be, if it is not) to understand how they fit into the larger sphere of things. What is the product market fit? What do the release cycles of the app look like in terms of features? Does it make sense to launch feature A without sub feature 1, 2 and 3 which are part of the next release cycle? How similar do the app and the website need to be? Do they need to be optimized for particular use cases versus being at feature parity? What about our iPad app? How does the account creation flow work if a user connects via Facebook on iPhone but closes the app before they complete their profile? How do we handle this edge case if they open the app on a desktop device next? How does their data sync across platform and what are the design affordances for it? In a world of A/B tests and instrumentation of design, how do you tell the stories that need telling.

…[In] situations where the product is facing an incumbent and there are complimentary network effects, it’s simply not enough to launch a well designed product. - Johnnie Manzari


For most cases in the past, designing something meant working with a client on a project for a few weeks and giving a ‘final deliverable’ and working briefly with the engineers in some case. The client could always hire for the next project, but as far as the old project was concerned, that was it. Welcome to the world where the job is never done. The job really starts from What we are trying to build and ends on how what we released has been performing—which is arguably for as long as the product exists. Are there any major drop offs in the funnel? With tools of today, it is easier than ever to be in the know of the story that data has to tell about the product. What about the things that are not working as you had hoped, can we do a quick revision and submit to App store in 2 days? The feedback loop is shorter and tighter. This also means we have to be okay with things not being perfect. This one in particular is at odds to the perfectionist in us. The thing that makes it better to wrap our heads around is that you have forever to make it perfect. Keep iterating.


When you see a live, polished, interactable demo, you can instantly understand how something is meant to work and feel, in a way that words or long descriptions or wireframes will never be able to achieve. And that leads to better feedback, and better iterations, and ultimately a better end product. - Julie Zhuo

This is a medium that is not static. This is a medium that enables affordances that other mediums of the past did not. This is a medium for which photoshop should not be the end, but merely a milestone in the journey of creation. Use what you are comfortable in, Quartz, Framer or good old HTML/CSS/JS. The end goal is to get more insight and feedback and be able to better envision how the design works and not just what it looks like. Use all means necessary and at your disposal.

Own the product: Being proactive & executing

This might seem like an odd item to add to the list, but of all the above mentioned qualities, this has to be the one that is the most important. Gone are the days when someone will be carrying over a spec document of project requirements and leaving it on your desk for you to look at. You are responsible for the product. Think of it like your own baby. Does it need caressing, go do it. Nobody will be sending you emails about it, but it is implied that this is YOUR job. Worry less about the ideal process and more about the outcome—the impact. Hack your way around traditional UX practices that make it feasible for a 2 person design team to do everything from user research to communication design, while always knowing the magic sauce is the product and it’s execution and not the process. Maybe even ditch the traditional notion of UX for a far more opinionated product. Follow what works for you and your product.

We don’t have our journal of record, our vocabulary is splintered and vague, our processes are inconsistent, but this is the beginning of something important. - David Cole

The field of designing digital products has just begun to come together. There are common grounds and there are disagreements. New mediums are being added, while old ones fade away. In the coming years, what do you want to see when you look at your phone or through a pair of glasses or glance at your watch or stare at that screen that mimics the TV in your living room? What kind of products do you want to design for this medium? What kind of a designer will you be?

Next Story — The hype of design
Currently Reading - The hype of design

The hype of design

A critique of “Designer Duds” but also a dialogue for design as a profession

[Originally published on Pangaea]

This will be a quick one. A lot of you have read Mills Baker’s Designer Duds: Losing Our Seat at the Table. It is an interesting piece, and if you have not read it, you totally should. I do not however, agree with a lot of the points or inferences. Calling some of these companies or apps as failure seems shortsighted. There are also some parts of the article that did not resonate so well with me. Here are some points, I wish the article had touched on or approached in a better way. There are lot of subtleties in issues like this, that are often glossed over, when discussed in public forum.


First things first. It is never ok to point fingers, especially in a public forum to make your point, especially if the work is still ongoing. The examples he claims as failure are a result of hard work of teams and people on those teams. To simply declare it as a failure and call it a day, seems not only premature and shortsighted but also amateur and unprofessional. To prove the point, Mokriya, the company where the author works also worked on Hipster, an app that solved none of the problems the article seems to champion for. See how easy it is to point flaws?

“By the way, what have you done that’s so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others work and belittle their motivations?” — Steve Jobs


Talking of naming names. There is something to be said of design as an iterative process. To choose a random time as a finish line and judge a design in the binary states of success or failure is not fair to anyone. Square, by any means is not a failure of design. It is a failure of a business model whose sole validity lies in being able to scale. Who knows they might as well be on their way to find the right partnership that will enable them to scale. Regarding Paper and Carousel, being on that list was honestly disappointing. Not to say that the apps are perfect and everything mentioned in the article is wrong. But they have also been barely out there. With minimal iteration and tweaks done since the initial launch. Sure there might be problems, but they are also fixable. This is why most of digital design is more an iteration than a milestone.

Foursquare is a great example of what iteration can get you. From a mere game, it has become a standard way for millions to find cool things to do in any city. Does it not have user growth or revenue issues? I am pretty sure they have their own share of issues too. But are they a failure — Hell No!


Or not at least in how we think of it today.

This is not simply a problem with the article but a much larger phenomenon, especially true amongst designers. Design is not a cure for cancer. It is not going to solve all your problems in one swipe of the wand. It is one of the many tools that a team has at their disposal to solve meaningful problems. Sometimes the primary motivation is to solve a business problem and to think that is somehow morally flawed is ridiculous. Design as a profession exists for this very purpose. The way design differentiates, is by finding the overlap of user needs with where there is a potential for business goals to be achieved simultaneously.

Design does not exist in isolation to just solve social problems. It is very much tied with the realities of business. See Everpix of how a well designed and thought product solving a real problem, can fail for the lack of no business opportunity existing. To say this is a failure of design, is thinking of design as a Holy Grail of all solutions. I would also urge you to read Johnnie Manzari’s “When good design is not enough”.

Some may argue, that design, when holistically thought through could have foreseen those problems mentioned in above articles. And yes. They are right. But then why are the examples of good looking but not thoroughly thought out apps so common? Maybe the answer lies in that coveted “Seat” that design is assumed to have.


A lot of the article is based on the assumption that design has a central seat at every organization. How many companies have a design equivalent for CEO, CTOs or CFOs? For design to truly have a seat at the table one should not have to think so hard for an answer to that question. How many companies have a partnership as healthy as one between Jobs and Jonny? How many even have someone with the same power and authority to command and steer a company, as Ive?

In most early stage startups I consult for, there is no “executive” team member responsible for design.

David Kaneda wrote a great article on this fallacy. Instead of trying to quote everything he said, you should simply read his version.


What makes a person a designer? If you were to look at the majority of job descriptions, ability to use Photoshop would be pretty high on that list. Once a profession starts identifying itself with knowledge of a tool than the understanding of a process, there is serious introspection to be done.

This is where Mills’ article is spot on and worth the discussion it has caused. Why are we so territorial having a Product Manager or an engineer who is great with holistic understanding of products, discuss ideas with us? Or even the assumption that it is only a designer’s decision to make? Why do we think the title “designer” makes us any better to understand products whereas everyone else is too stupid to be heard. As long as we keep debating about titles instead of the roles or the product itself, it’s a lost cause.

This is where we as an industry need to button up. How about we stop portraying Dribbble as “the place to find designers” but more the place to find visual designers. We have become too comfortable in the buckets of skills we have created. To the extent that we are having debates whether designers should learn to code. Has it ever hurt anyone to learn a new thing, if they are interested in it? Frank Chimero, wrote a long but beautiful post about these artificial divides we have created as an industry.


As an industry we need to be less territorial and more worried about the products we are building. There is also something to be said about this being primarily an organizational discussion whose value is inherently lost on public forums because of multiple agendas that people have when reading an article like this. For some it becomes an opportunity to throw dirt at the work of others, while for others it becomes a way to show the moral high-ground that they presumably hold over others. All this ends up leaving the genuine reaction and discussion too maligned.

In closing I think there are a lot of great points raised in the original article, but also a lot of subtleties missed in the discussion. Hopefully this provides enough perspective from both sides.

Let’s get back to building useful & delightful things.

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