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A Field Guide to Design: Where to Begin

A Field Guide to Design: Where to Begin

Home Blog Digital Marketing A Field Guide to Design: Where to Begin


Alex Manthei is Mention’s Community Manager. When he’s not posting silly stuff in our “GIFs Only” Slack room, he tweets at @xoalexo and edits the online literary magazine

A few months back, the excellent (and highly recommended) design podcast On the Grid covered Airbnb’s new visual identity, including their new mark, the “Bélo.”

What interested me most about this episode was the idea that Airbnb (a company with a designer as a co-founder) had somehow broken the fourth wall when it comes to communicating a design.

In essence, they’d turned the lingo and reasonings used in an internal design pitch — things like emotional messaging, hero and palette colors, even bespoke typography — into outward-facing marketing designed to sell the new Airbnb brand.

They made the marketing all about how they reached the solution, not about the solution on its own. This approach, pioneered by Apple (I mean, how many videos have we seen of Jony Ive talking about “chamfer, diamond polish and texture” by now?), is becoming increasingly common as companies realize: good design tells a story that sells.

To continue our series of field guides, we asked a few of our favorite designers to share any advice for design novices just getting started — for people entering the field at this interesting point of evolution.

Here’s what they said:


Murat Mutlu

Product Designer, Co-Founder @ Marvel

You should always sleep on a piece of design work you’ve done. Get some rest and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. If you wake up in the morning and don’t hate it, it’s probably good to go!

Practice, practice, practice. If you can’t find client work, make your own clients. Come up with your own product ideas, and redesign things that you think could work better.

Once you’ve done that, put your ideas out there, whether that’s on a blog, Dribbble, or whatever. You never know who might pick it up. It could lead to a bit of client work, a new follower, or just a meeting with someone interesting.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I’ve accidentally deleted project archives for an entire agency that were unable to be recovered, I’ve sent the wrong ad campaign to 250,000 people, and probably a lot more.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you just need to be honest when you screw up and let people know so they can help you as quickly as possible. Don’t be afraid when that moment comes, we’re not fighting fires or saving lives, we’re designers, what’s the worst that could happen?

At Marvel, I love that we’re lowering the barrier to bringing people’s digital ideas to life. As the platform becomes more popular, we’re seeing it being used to teach kids how to prototype. That completely blew me away.

Building stuff that solves problems and working hard for users is the best feeling there is.

 Teaching kids how to prototype

By far our biggest win was building Marvel on top of the Dropbox API. It’s the smartest move we’ve made so far.

You basically ‘Bring your own’ storage by using your Dropbox account. That means our hosting costs are minimal and we can pass those savings back to the user by making Marvel free with no limits on projects or uploads.

In terms of other design tools, I really enjoy a lot of the stuff Made By Source makes. One of their latest releases is called iOS Hat. It turns Photoshop layers into Objective-C which has saved so much time developing our iPhone app.

Now I don’t have to keep bothering our dev when a button radius looks wrong, I just cut and paste the iOS Hat code into Slack and I’m done!

Julie Chabin

Product Designer @ Mention & Co-Founder of Kimd

Being a designer is not being an artist. Your work isn’t an extension of yourself, it’s an answer to a problem. There are certainly several answers to a specific problem. What makes the difference is how you explain why you think this solution is the one that should be tested, and yes, designs have to be tested.

There’s no way to know how to make something before you actually do it. Try, try again, and at some point you’ll succeed. Don’t be afraid to do shitty work, it’ll happen. Everything will be ok if you’re aware this work wasn’t good enough.

Always read the brief, even if it’s 20 pages long. If you talked about a project with the client, it’s fine, but if they send you a brief, read it. Sometimes it’s difficult for them to talk about what they want, and if they took the time to write something it’s because it’s important. And you won’t have to rework an entire project.

Also, working for people who think that design is just a way to make things pretty can really bring you down. If you’re not happy, seek happiness somewhere else.

One of my favorite thing about design is when someone asks what I designed on an interface. If it feels like it has always been there and that’s how the product should be, then I did good work.

If I had to choose my favorite design tool, it’d be Slack. I know it’s not a piece of design software or anything, but talking with your team is the best tool you can use to design.

Nathan Bashaw

Product Designer, Programmer @ GA DashProduct Hunt

When it comes to your gut instincts, do as the Russians do: trust, but verify. Every innovative and awesome design idea started as a crazy thought that popped into some designers mind, and it’s wonderful to stay in tune with your own thoughts, but ultimately our job is to make things that make sense to other people. The best habit you can possibly get into is to regularly watch people use the stuff you make. Without that, you’re flying blind.

Learn how to take criticism well. When I first got started, my boss regularly pushed me to make my designs better, to not call it done too early. It was hard for me to hear, because I thought my designs were pretty good, but later on, I realized that “like” has nothing to do with it.

Your work can always be better, no matter how good you are. You’re lucky to have someone older and wiser than you pushing you to do better. They’re not doing it because they don’t “like” your work, they’re doing it because it’s their job to make you better. Once you start to think of it that way, criticism becomes a lot easier to handle. You know it’s coming from a good place.

I was the second employee at Olark, and I left after a fairly short time to start my own startup. I don’t regret it, because I learned a lot and I think I needed to go through that to get over my romantic notions of what it meant to be a founder, but it was definitely a venture that was destined for failure.

Our idea was all wrong, my cofounder and I didn’t have the right skills to make it work, and I left my job with about four months of runway in my bank account. That being said — when our partnership fell apart I started working on a product that eventually got acquired by General Assembly and turned into Dash. The period after that was the most productive and creative of my career so far, so it all worked out.

As a product designer, it’s amazing to me that I can turn a random thought that pops into my head into a product that other people can use and, hopefully, love. There’s no better feeling than finding out that something you’ve helped create has touched someone’s life in some positive way.

Although I am most known for my work on Product Hunt, I am most proud of my work on Dash. It’s a website that teaches people how to make websites, and over 170,000 people have learned on it since we launched 11 months ago. I spent a very very long time pouring a lot of myself into that product, and I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to do it. If General Assembly hadn’t picked me up off the street after my failed startup attempt, I never would have been able to make it happen. We had a tiny team, and spent about a year working on it before we publicly launched, and that time was the happiest and most intense experience of my working life.

Justin Barr Young

UX Architect @ (mt) Media Temple

Have a side project (or two). As a designer, you’re constantly seeing cool shit online. Whether it’s a shot on Dribbble or some new CSS black magic on CodePen, you leave work every day inspired to create. Side projects always pay off, whether or not they’re actually paid. At best they can become portfolio pieces, and at worst you can say you learned something. In either case, you scratch the creative itch that doesn’t stop when you clock out.

You might not have the largest portfolio and you may not have the most glamorous assignments starting out, but do all of your work thoughtfully with close attention to detail. Execution matters. This means turn on the “snap to pixel grid” preference in your tool of choice, because while good design might not always be noticed, sloppy execution definitely is (in the form of blemishes like aliasing and inconsistent margins).

As a designer and developer, I love thinking about a project from start to finish. (Do I need to wrap this div in another div to achieve the layout I want? Maybe, but hopefully not. Will this beautiful hero image affect performance on a mobile device? Probably.) If you’re a designer, learn the fundamentals of HTML and CSS. If you’re a developer, learn design tools well enough to update, slice, and finesse mission-critical assets like PNGs and SVGs. The production process and the final product both improve when everyone can connect seamlessly like Megazord.

My biggest win is probably an ad I designed and built for Media Temple which ran for two months on the CodePen homepage. It was a ten second animated ad, made entirely with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The project was daunting for more than just technical reasons: I was hand-delivering (by email?) the project to Chris Coyier, creator of CSS-Tricks and industry titan, and it was scheduled to run prominently for 60 days on a site visited exclusively by front-end wizards.

I felt like I was putting my name and work out there in a very public, very high-stakes way. I could have obsessed over perfecting every detail indefinitely, but in the end I just had to pull the trigger and ship it. The response from Coyier is still a career highlight: “So awesome.” A thousand things can go wrong across every browser or resolution or device, and the best you can do is cross your T’s, dot your I’s, ship it, and fix it iterate tomorrow.

My favorite design tool is the whiteboard. Not only is it a great platform for thinking out loud about a design problem, it’s worth a thousand words (ha) for collaborating with teammates. But right now I’m spending most of my time wireframing, so my most-used design tool is UXPin. It’s a really robust, web-based wireframing and prototyping tool made by an awesome team. I bug their amazing community team every week on Twitter and their feedback forum, so I always try to give them a (highly, highly deserved) shout out when I can.

Maurice Svay

UXD @ Sketchfab

The most important thing I learned as a designer is that design is about solving problems elegantly. It is easy to focus on creating interfaces and forget that people will use them to do something they need. Design can not happen without understanding the problems people have.

Talk to people you are designing for. Talk to the stakeholders to understand why they are willing to invest money and time creating the product. Talk to the people who will use the product to learn how the product you are designing will fit into their lives. Start doing it very early and make regular reality checks. This will help you stay on the right track.

The biggest mistake I’ve made is sticking to a solution that first seemed obvious, but actually didn’t solve anything for too long. To recover, the first step was admitting that I was wrong. Then, I took the time to understand the problem, and explore and evaluate different designs until the right solution is found. The whole process can hurt your feelings but it is the right thing to do.

At Sketchfab, we are trying to build the best platform for posting 3D content on the web. What I love about designing for Sketchfab is that we are enabling talented people to do something they couldn’t do before: publish beautiful content in interactive 3D.

My biggest win has been helping companies better understand their customers through design techniques. What I usually do is use some of these design techniques (like user testing) in low-risk projects without asking for permission. It makes companies realize that the techniques can be easy to implement and worth the time (and money). As a designer, explaining the value of design is also part of the job.

My favorite tool has been code lately. Creating working interfaces is extremely powerful and easy now. It’s easier to get relevant feedback when people can use something that almost works as the final product. And for everything visual, I use the Adobe Creative Suite.

Do you have any tips for people just getting started in design? Or are you a beginner with a question that hasn’t been answered in this post? Leave them in the comments and we’ll find a pro to answer them for you!

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Matthieu Vaxelaire

Guest Blogger @Mention