Educating the next generation of designers

Figma’s Design Education Manager Zach Grosser on finding his place, collaborating with other designers and design education.

Femke van Schoonhoven
The Creatives Series

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Figma’s Design Education Manager Zach Grosser recently left the Valley on a mission to help educate those interested in design, all the way from the canals of Amsterdam.

You have a very non-linear career path! From studying glassblowing in College to working at Apple, Square and now as Design Educator at Figma.

Do you think it’s important to find comfort in embracing change?

Absolutely. Adapting to ever-changing situations is super important. I think it’s helpful to try to take the stress out of change and see it for one of the positive effects it has: preventing personal and professional stagnation.

My path to finding comfort in change was — and is — quite a struggle. I especially never did well with navigating the, “What am I going to do next?” moments in my life. What to study in college, what to do for work, where to move next.

I started working at the Corning Museum of Glass when I was in high school, leading to my interest in glass and eventually going to school for glassblowing. I couldn’t decide where to go to university (not just because glass is a rare concentration) but knew I wanted a program that was well-rounded at a school that would expose me to other things. I studied at Alfred University in the Fine Arts program and worked across a ton of mediums including ceramics, metal, film photography, graphic design, performance art, video art, and sound design.

When I graduated, I didn’t have a job lined up and didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was looking for a position as a video editor but graduated in a time with a pretty high unemployment rate.

My brother offered me a couch to sleep on so I moved to San Francisco while job hunting. I spent three months applying to 950 jobs, as it turns out California had the highest unemployment rate of all U.S. states at the time.

I finally got an interview, which led to a job, at the Apple Store which I figured would be a great place to work while still networking and searching for my career. While there, I worked for an incredible senior manager, and when he took a leap and started working at Square, I followed him just a few months later.

I took an entry-level job working on the culinary team within office experience. A few months later a position opened on the Brand team as a presentation designer. This was the first step in my design career and I’m really grateful for how Square focuses on internal mobility. A few years and a reorg later, I started and grew the communications design function.

This past December, I moved to Amsterdam, and in January I shifted my career slightly to focus on design education at Figma.

Some of Zach’s work for Square

You’re now working remotely in Amsterdam. What’s been the biggest ‘culture shock’ from working in an office in downtown San Francisco, to working from home in Europe?

I joke that my startup’s micro kitchen is stocked with all my favorite snacks… that I have to go to the store and buy for myself.

Remote work is challenging. The adjustment period was about two months for me, but I’m really lucky to have a strong support system both at work and outside of it. My friends have a private Slack group where we hang out, including a channel for people that work remotely or entirely freelance. It’s really nice to be able to work “alongside” other people all day and have a support group of sorts, and it has eased the transition from working in an open floor plan office.

I also think there are two things to separate here: 1) working remotely, and 2) working in a different timezone. I’m definitely adjusting to both, but the timezone difference of nine hours from most of my coworkers has been surprising. We definitely make it work, and I surely have a lot fewer meetings per day, but it is sometimes harder to sync with my teammates.

I started a Twitter thread for things that I find interesting, different, or funny about Amsterdam and the Dutch, compared to my experience growing up in the U.S.

Figma

Education is changing — with a lot of up and coming designers turning more to the internet to learn about design than invest in traditional Education. What’s something that you’ve learnt via the internet that you value?

I think this is a really important time to address digital education. There is such a lack of access to traditional higher education, with only about 7% of the global population ever getting a chance at university.

At the same time, internet access continues to expand, and technology like Chromebooks, iPads, and smartphones are continuing to lower in cost and become more prevalent.

I’ve learned a lot via the internet. When I was in college, I took a Lynda.com course about Illustrator. I was spending most my time in the graphic design computer lab, which had a great environment of co-learning. So whenever any of us had questions, we would ask each other. I learned a ton from other students and ignited my passion for teaching, which really encouraged my recent career change into design education.

You recently started presentation.design which focuses on sharing practical tips for pitch decks, conference talks and more. How has having good presentations and effectively communicating to stakeholders influenced your design career?

I was the presentation designer at Square for about two years. In that time, I worked on a team of designers, reporting to a design director. When you work in an all-designer environment there is a level of understanding of what goes into everyone’s work.

When you show a finished design to other designers on your team, they are likely to understand the whole iceberg: the finished product that is visible, as well as the 90% of ice that is under the water supporting it.

When I became the sole designer on the Communications team, post-reorg, I learned some really tough lessons about communicating. My new manager told me that she expected more from me, and gave me a list of things I needed to start doing. I was already doing them, I just wasn’t communicating at all. It was such an incredible opportunity for growth, and from this experience I prefer working with non-designers. I had to learn to communicate about the work that goes into a final project that may not be visible in a completed design.

Left to right: podcast microphone, test devices, design-y books, 13" MacBook Pro, Barack Obama with a surfboard bottle opener, Buddha, Dutch exterior, 9.7" iPad Pro, 28" Acer monitor, “Pretty Okay Designer” pin, Google Pixelbook, bullet journal.

As an active member of the online design community, what advice would you have for designers who aren’t currently active in their or online or local network?

I’ve met a lot of my friends through Twitter. I think Twitter has its downsides, but it is a powerful tool for networking, organizing, and growing a personal brand.

If you’re approaching it for the first time, I understand how intimidating it can be. Look for people to follow that don’t consider themselves “internet famous,” and don’t let job titles restrict you from who to connect with. A product manager, user research, or data analyst may have a lot more insight into the design process than you would imagine.

As we talked about, I work remotely in a city that is new to me. It’s important to find other creatives in Amsterdam to meet up with. So I rely on connecting with people in online communities to then meet in-person.

If you aren’t currently active in a community, join a couple open Slack groups or forums and mark a few days of the week on your calendar or to-do list to engage in them. It doesn’t have to be a considerable time commitment, even five minutes a day. You’ll see that it makes a significant impact over time.

Through Slack, Twitter, and Medium I met most of my IRL friends and paved the way to getting my current job.

You previously worked as a designer on a team of non-designers. How do you convince others to understand the value in your work?

I feel like I got really lucky. The Communications team at Square, and most of the company at large, really understood the inherent value of design. There wasn’t a great deal of convincing necessary, just sharing ideas and completed work to help give them insight into what is possible.

I love, and often prefer, working with non-designers: getting different perspectives, hearing from people with different experiences, and working with people that have different goals for a project. It helps me clarify my work, too. If someone else doesn’t “get it,” then my design is obviously not being successful, and now that’s caught much earlier in the process.

I think finding the commonalities between the job of a designer and the jobs of your coworkers is really helpful for collaborating together. It usually always comes back to storytelling. How you communicate your design decisions out to the company, as well as the stories you tell in your designs.

Infographic for Square, 2017

If you could give designers one piece of advice to improve their workflow, what would it be?

There are so many tools right now to get work done. I like to keep trying them until I find something I really enjoy. I loved Figma so much that after using it for three years, I joined the company.

But I’m not just talking about design tools, find that email client that makes your life easier, switch operating systems, music streaming services — everything. There are so many great and new tools all the time that I’m sure you’ll find one you love. For example, I have 14 messaging apps on my phone right now. Some part of that is definitely a symptom of moving to another country, but I’m definitely still searching for the right one for me.

So keep trying new ways to change your workflows, because you’ll probably land on tools and processes that make your work better or easier to do.

Follow Zach Grosser on Twitter, Instagram or check out his website

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Femke van Schoonhoven
The Creatives Series

Kiwi in Canada, Product designer at Uber, Podcasting at @DesignLifeFM, Videos about design: https://t.co/Dh2EpDr6jT?amp=1