Advice for Designers: A conversation with Aarron Walter

Amandah Wood
May 5, 2016 · 8 min read
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Photo by Jason Thrasher

Aarron Walter is the Vice President of Design Education at InVision. He came into that role just a few weeks ago but has big plans to help elevate design in the industry. Having previously built the UX practice at MailChimp, Aarron has a lot to share on building design teams, fostering design culture and helping other designers craft their careers.

Today Aarron joined us for an AMA in the Ways We Work Slack group and answered some great questions from design leadership, to advice for young designers, and more. We’ve compiled some here so everyone can see Aarron’s answers!

We also published a full interview with Aarron on Ways We Work yesterday — read it here.

I’ve seen a similar trend. Designers often struggle to talk about their work’s relationship to strategy. If we only talk about aesthetics — which by the way is an important thing — we run the risk of people thinking of our work as cosmetic. We’ve got to talk about the relationship of design to business goals. How are we creating value for our company and our customers?

Mentorship is great! In my experience, people often ask for time but aren’t clear what they want to get out of it. It’s a pretty big ask to cold email someone and expect to get hours of their time free of charge. Mentorship on the job is IMHO a bit more constructive.

Your question touches on something I think is a big issue in product design today: designers want to solve the whole puzzle and find a system, engineers want to build quickly and incrementally. Incremental improvements to a product are important, but they need to be lead by a clear vision. Vision needs to be tied to a solid understanding of customers and the market. Software companies have to move fast, I don’t think that will ever change, but designers need to be out front a few sprints to form the vision to guide incremental development.

Incremental improvements to a product are important, but they need to be lead by a clear vision.

We’re still early in the process of developing design education at InVision, but look for a lot of content from us about design best practices taking many forms. We want to go deeper than design techniques. We’ll be sharing the experiences of many top product designers as they’ve struggled to build design teams and put design at the heart of their company’s strategy.

It can be hard to separate yourself from your work. Learning how to run a crit can help, though:

In art school we all struggled with separating ourselves from our work. We would never say “my work”, we would instead say “the work”.

Also, don’t get overly invested in a single design early one. Produce a lot of ideas so you’re not left feeling like you have to defend your one idea to the death. As for challenges I face: it’s hard to break big, monolithic ideas into small, actionable tasks. People who do that well are exceptionally productive.

Companies that are slow growing tend to have less space for designers to move up. Agencies, for example, are hard to scale for a number of reasons. Designers often get stuck in a specific position with few opportunities to move up. Software companies tend to have more directions to move, sometimes up and sometimes lateral.

Yeah, design on the web feels like an echo chamber to me. We simply need to look to other mediums and to other points in history for inspiration.

I simply set clear boundaries for myself. I know when I need to start work and when I need to stop. It’s great to love your work, but if you’re note careful you can give so much to it that you lose your passion.

I’ve found that taking the time to write or give a talk about the work I’ve been doing helps me understand my process better. It’s become an essential part of my workflow. But I still find writing to be excruciatingly hard to do.

I once heard an interview with Annie Lenox in which she said singing was painful. She has to spend so much time warming up and preparing to do it. She said she admired people like Aretha Franklin who can just bust out a song with seemingly little effort.

I identify with Annie Lenox’s pain. I have to really get in a flow to write. I usually write best in the morning when my mind is clearest. I need to turn off the internet to focus. I can’t look at email or Slack or my phone. Then I have to write a bunch of crap before I can find the what I really wanted to say.

My only advice for those who want to write about design but struggle is just start writing. Most of us have the same struggle. You just have to practice.

I’ve never had the chance to work on hardware so I don’t have any first hand experience to share, but I’ve heard that Tivo established some guiding design principles to guide them in both the UI and hardware design.

One principle they created said “It’s TV stupid”, reminding designers of the context: it’s controlled by a remote, at a distance, often in the dark, often by non-technical people. It shouldn’t feel like using a computer.

Love how a design principle can be so open for many teams to find meaning while being very specific at the same time.

There certainly are ways to measure certain emotional design experiments if you can tie them to specific outcomes you’re trying to achieve. For example, the Slackbot is fun and feels personal/human. The outcome it tries to facilitate is better on boarding with Slack.

But I am a believer in letting some things go unmeasured. The high five experience after sending a MailChimp email campaign is something we did without trying to measure outcomes. It was huge in spreading the word about the platform, and still today you can do a search on Twitter and see an endless stream of pics and gifs of people high fiving their computer.

I’ve heard similar things from designers in large orgs. To scale, designers get split into product teams and are pairs with a couple of devs. They like being closely connected to the build process, but long for the connection they had with fellow designers.

Companies like Spotify are creating a guild system that periodically brings together designers from across all teams to do design reviews/show and tells and talk about patterns.

Check out Chris Thelwell’s article for more info about the guild model:

I am biased but I love everything published by A Book Apart. Sprint from GV is great, Universal Principles of Design is a staple.

Do your best to start getting to know other designers. Attend conferences, meetups, etc. Get to know some people and stay in touch, not with the intention of getting a job but to broaden your network of people.

Also, don’t stop applying for the positions you want! Some people will shoot you down, but there are other people out there that are excited to meet you!

Want to join us at the next AMA? Join the Ways We Work Slack group. Also, you can subscribe to our newsletter to find out when new interviews are published!

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