Meeting the Worldbuilding Designer

We’re talking today with Kurtis Beavers, the designer of the Worldbuilding Stack Exchange site, about creative process, techniques, collaboration, and some of his early ideas for the site.

Kurtis, thanks for talking with us about your work on the Worldbuilding site design. Before we get into the design, could you tell our blog audience a little about yourself and the role you play at Stack Exchange?

Sure. I’ve been with Stack Exchange (Stack Overflow) for about a year and a half. I started as a senior product designer and earlier this year moved into the role of creative director. I come from a background in product design and illustration. And work both on SE Q&A site designs and new product features.

Do you still get to do a lot of hands-on design even though you’re now a creative director? Obviously you get to do some or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. :-)

Yes, I’d say about 50% of my time is still designing. We have some really talented designers on the team, so it makes everything easier when you’re working with people who, in a lot of ways, are more capable than me. But time to focus on one singular task is becoming more and more precious because of interruptions and meetings. Although, I try my best to be as generous with my time as possible.

It’s great to have peers, yes — being either super-junior or super-senior to everyone else seems like it would be frustrating.

How did you get the Worldbuilding assignment? Were you already following the site, or was it luck of the draw, or something else?

We have a queue of Q&A sites — when a new site is ready to get a theme we hand it out based on who has interest and availability. To be honest, when I saw worldbuilding hit the queue, I was excited and volunteered. It’s such a fun subject, and I knew it would be an opportunity to do something more creative than, say, designing for salesforce.stackexchange.com.

I hope so. :-) Were you following the site already?

I was a lurker :) The assignment fell at a great time too…

Any favorite topics?

I love any subject that takes a real-world issue like physics or politics and stretches it to new circumstances, like tides on planets with two moons or what political system is likely to follow capitalism given some major event.

I enjoy questions like that too. I feel like those are close enough to our world that we can apply stuff from our world to them.

Turning to our site design… early on you asked the community to brainstorm about the design and logo. Was this the start of the process for you, or did you already have some ideas in mind?

Just vague ideas regarding the overall feel, but nothing too solid. The community played a huge part in helping to form and sharpen the concept.

Early background artwork was not alien-enough, but a very nice green.

I don’t think I’d seen that “we’d like your ideas first” approach on other sites I’ve been part of at that stage of life. I suspect you knew you’d get lots of creative ideas from our folks. :-)

We started moodboarding artistic styles before the community brainstorming — these just happened to complement each other really well.

It’s an interesting social experiment — you definitely have communities who generate great creative ideas and then there are others who are overly literal. The aggregate personality of the community often reflects the subject of the site. Mathematicians are great, but they’re not the most artistically gifted bunch.

You mentioned the moodboard in the first post about the design. I’m not a designer, so — what is that? A collection of images that seem like they should influence a design? Something more formal?

Yes, we start collecting inspiration from different sources, it might be retro sci-fi movie posters, or old illustrated science books, or spending a few hours at a bookstore taking pictures with your iPhone.

the moodboard

Heh, I never thought of bookstore-and-iPhone research, but that makes sense! Probably more efficient than browsing Amazon.

Out of all that feedback came the first version that you shared with the community. You explained there some of the things from the brainstorming that inspired you, with the colors and the icon (we’ll come back to the icon) and the general feel. How did you come up with the poster? I haven’t seen that on a lot of other SE sites and it sure is cool! Is your background in illustration at work here?

DaaaahWhoosh’s sketch was a major source of inspiration. It was perfect — can’t take much credit for the subject. The illustration was mainly just seeing how creative we could be. We wanted to make artwork that would work as both a site header and a poster. Plus, it’s just plain fun to create things like this.

DaaaahWhoosh’s sketch

If I remember correctly, I think you mentioned the role of whimsy as an important factor in worldbuilding, which we tried to take into account.

That was my suggestion, yes. I like how that came through in the design.

It is fun to create! Did you have a story in mind for the two figures? (Or should I say four, because of the different version on meta.) Were you creating a scenario, in other words, while you were creating art?

Sort of, but not exactly. I remember reading somewhere that before C.S. Lewis started “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”; he had glimpses of a story, like a faun holding an umbrella and the story eventually evolved from the glimpse. The picture of the figures was clear, but their exact story wasn’t. My son and I had been watching a lot of the original Star Trek series at the time. That’s where the vibrant color came from — I love the simplicity of the alien landscape sets in the series.

We wanted it to be something that invoked exploration and a pioneering spirit (much like the authors on the site) and these characters just ‘seemed’ right. Non-threatening, but not definitely not weak.

In the first version the robot had a teddy-bear backpack, but that didn’t make it into the final execution.

Early robot concept, napkin + digital sketch

The backpack makes me chuckle. :-) You struck a nice balance there between non-threatening and substantial. And they have a possible destination, in the distance, which has its own mystery about it.

You have a particular fondness for balloon whales, I hear.

Lol, yes. I once visited Japan and bought a graphic novel because it had a balloon whale on the cover. I still don’t know what it’s about, but I love the cover.

For some reason, I like that I have to guess what the book is about.

Your explanation of how you came up with the logo blew me away, combining a globe, a brain, and a brain specifically highlighting the parts that are active during creative activities. How ever did you come up with that? Did you have a, err, brainstorm, or was there some method that led you there?

A lot of times the community has great ideas, but they’re too literal. We try to take those ideas and push them a bit or combine them with other concepts to try to create something new and unique…

A regular theme within the brainstorming session was the idea of an incomplete world, which seemed appropriate, but not unique enough for this community (plus everything we tried was reminiscent of the Death Star)

Then there was the idea of a brain with drafting tools, those two concepts got us thinking about ways that we could put them together to make something less expected.

And during the brainstorming you thought of a literal brain?

Yes. And wondered if there were any scans of brain activity during the act of imagining, and it all came together from there.

How did you find the scans? Is that something you can Google for?

Yeah, we basically did a google search of “brain activity during imagination”, and came across this article. We then abstracted the top view of those areas of activity as the land masses in the logo.

Credit: Alex Schlegel, Science Daily

That worked really well. If you don’t know the story it’s a planet with landmasses. If you do know the story, it’s that much cooler.

You’ve said “we” a lot. How much of a group effort was the design? Were y’all working as a team throughout, or did you mostly work on it by yourself with occasional input, or what?

There’s plenty of time where I go off and execute on my own, but a lot of the magic happens when sharing ideas with other teammates. I don’t feel comfortable taking full credit for work that is exponentially better because of the team… I spent a bit of time as a freelance illustrator, but quickly realized that I’m not that interesting by myself and gained a new appreciation for the people I’m surrounded by.

That’s one of the wonderful things about the different Stack Exchange communities — it gives people a ‘remote’ place to collaboratively grow ideas.

Teamwork is a great multiplier. It sounds like y’all are set up well for plenty of interactive designing there — other people to interact with, and still small enough that you can work with everyone.

Yes, and we’re 100% remote. We now have six product designers and four marketing designers — which is pretty much double the size of the team last year. Plus Jin, our Design Manager and designer #1 at SE who I think you worked with on the Mi Yodeya site and probably others.

Wow, that’s a lot bigger than I thought! With everybody being remote, how do you manage the collaboration and brainstorming so everyone’s able to share ideas and scribble on the whiteboard (or equivalent thereof)?

We spend a lot of time thinking about things that would happen naturally if we were co-located and make an effort to recreate those spaces and instances remotely. We even have a sort of remote happy hour.

What kinds of tools help with that?

We use a ton of digital tools, and spend a hefty amount of time in video chat. InVision is a big one — it’s where we create all of our prototypes and acts as a bulletin board for any work that’s ongoing (it’s the digital equivalent of being able to look over a coworker’s shoulder). There’s a lot of over-communication and Trello boards, plus a regularly scheduled sharing, critiques, and creative exercises.

It’s likely we write more Google documents than most design teams because it’s such a great tool for capturing thinking and feedback in the form of comments into the same place.

It makes all the difference that we’re a remote-focused company, and it’s part of our DNA. Even when we’re collaborating with teammates who are based in one of our offices, everyone goes to their office and jumps in a hangout rather than gathering in a conference room. This is great way to make remote workers feel equally included and heard.

What was most challenging about working on the Worldbuilding design, and what did you most enjoy?

I most enjoyed working with a community that’s so creative and open to ideas. It seemed like everyone had fun pitching in to help come up with the concept. Plus everyone seemed happy with the final outcome which is extremely rewarding.

I think everyone is happy, yes, and it’s no small accomplishment to please such a diverse group of creative people who are happy to share what they think. :-)

The biggest challenge was implementation. Performance is important to us, so we wanted to create a site that’s both performant, and visually rich, oh, and retina-quality. The result was a combination of SVGs and PNGs that finally worked out after a bit of experimentation.

Are we more challenging performance-wise than other sites, then? It sounds like you had to blaze some new paths.

Yeah, just a bit. We had to rebuild the design assets after the first implementation, but now all the files are optimized.

You talked about your background in illustration earlier. Can we see your other work somewhere, or was it all private hire? Got any book covers or the like?

Sure. You can see some of my work on my dribbble account. Illustration is as much a hobby as it is part of my job. I hope I’m lucky enough that my retirement years will be spent illustrating children’s books.

Thanks! I’m looking forward to browsing that.

We’ve reached the end of the questions I had prepared. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?

I don’t think so. Again, working with all of the contributors at the worldbuilding site has been a fantastic experience. We’re lucky to be able to be a part of such an engaged and creative community.

Thank you very much for talking with us, and for making our site so beautiful! Our community is lucky to have such great partners at Stack Overflow.

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