For Developers Learning Design

There are a few resources that I’ve found useful to teach developers about design.

  • Refactoring UI is a useful list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” that are a great starting point if you need tactical advice as a developer — I’d stop there if you don’t want to go any deeper because I know you’re busy <smile>.
  • Ellen Lupton’s eminently accessible book Design Is Storytelling is inexpensive and delightful to read as a starting point to get a sense of what design encompasses today.
  • If you want to go deeper on classical graphic design in particular, Ellen’s book on typography is fab. For learning pure page structures this one is great. If you want to show off and have a special design book on your desk this is the one to have.
  • There’s an article on Medium that is a good apertif as you get further along in your journey towards design. It draws upon ideas developed at a popular Temple of Design: the Bauhaus.
  • You may already know my work if you’ve landed here so this isn’t a surprise but I have two books on the subject of design: the Laws of Simplicity and a new book How To Speak Machine (this is less for developers and more for layfolks).
  • Computational design is my favorite flavor of design, and I have two ooooooold books on this subject entitled Maeda@Media, Creative Code, and Design By Numbers.

As a small courtesy the 2019 #DesignInTech Report PDF link and the 2018 #DesignInTech Report PDF link will be sent to you soon after you sign up! —@johnmaeda

Design and Developer Partnerships

I did an interview with Rachel Been that posted over here. —JM

Rachel Been: Designers are often labeled as dreamers, and developers as pragmatists. What’s at the root of this shorthand?

John Maeda: I think the education system has created this dichotomy. While studying at MIT, I had the engineer’s problem of being able to build anything, but not knowing what to build. It was only after attending art school—and discovering what to build—that I could combine the two. It takes a developer who’s gone to the design side to appreciate what engineering can be, and it takes a designer who understands that the “religion” they were taught is slightly incorrect, because it was conceived when there weren’t high-end computational systems. If you think of designing a chair out of wood, that religion still works fine, because that’s something that creates a great chair. However, if you’re making something on the computer, that religion has to adapt and change.

As a small courtesy the 2019 #DesignInTech Report PDF link and the 2018 #DesignInTech Report PDF link will be sent to you soon after you sign up! —@johnmaeda

RB: Does this new, updated “religion” follow a set philosophy?

JM: It does. First and foremost, understanding computation and how the medium works and behaves. Having more empathy for developers and how they came to be—because they don’t share this culture that’s so strong in design. And finally, including people on your team who come from the “other land” to create balance in the force.

RB: So this new philosophy calls for more collaboration between designers and developers, but what’s useful to remember in terms of how the two differ?

JM: In the same way that there’s all kinds of designers, there are only a few types of developers. There’s a broad range of developer methodologies, but they aren’t stuck in history. All variations of design are connected to an entity that’s been around for a few centuries, if not more. So a creative who comes from the traditional world—whether it’s a design thinker, typographer, or colorist—is going to cover more territory of imagination than what a modern developer might. But I caution that thought, because what really struck me about the Material Design team’s work was that you’re interweaving an array of design disciplines with development and not just approaching it from a single disciplinary angle. And I imagine that not everyone on your team understood the importance of these roles initially, especially if they’re classically trained. That’s an example of how the developer mindset has been augmented by the design mindset, and everyone’s winning.

RB: Yeah, and that adherence to thoroughness is really a benefit for the design system. This is a bit provocative, but do design systems ever inhibit creativity for design teams?

JM: It depends. There’s a kind of creativity rooted in unlimited scope and no constraints. And then there’s creativity within constraints. So, I would argue that design systems are able to push creativity within constraints, which improves quality. Whereas, on the other hand, if it’s wide open and dreamy, dreamy, dreamy all the time, you would end up with a million variations of things that don’t relate to anything.

RB: Is there a world where unlimited scope and constraints converge? And have you observed more success in one versus the other?

JM: Well, I think of the art world. I love that Material’s visual language is influenced by art. I like to think that artists make questions and designers solve problems. I think all digital product teams should be exposed to art. It sounds silly, but Monday, on my team, is called “st(art).” And Monday, st(art) day, I draw upon an artist and point everyone’s attention to that artist, so it’s like a 52-week calendar. This Monday was the artist Jenny Holzer and last week was the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. People ask, “Why do you do this? This isn’t useful.” And my point is that’s the point. When I had no constraints in the ’90s, I used to draw lines on everything I created and I made a square dance around when you talk to it. Why did I do that? I don’t really know, but it was interesting to explore. Whereas on the constraint side, I appreciate a great library. If you think of Apple versus Microsoft in the ’80s and early ’90s, the reason why Photoshop was so good was because it used the QuickDraw library in the Apple graphics toolkit, whereas DirectX—the Windows equivalent—wasn’t designed to support a Photoshop-like application. So good constraints make for great things to be made with it. Having fewer good constraints means Photoshop wouldn’t have been invented.

RB: Have you seen product strategy or design work that’s been inspired by st(art)?

JM: I don’t expect st(art) to immediately inspire strategy or design work. I’m a believer in the Lorenz butterfly effect—that a small shift in one area can result in a larger shift in another area—and that the butterfly wing will release a storm somewhere, at some point. Only because I see it happen, all the time. We’ve all experienced it, when an action or idea you voiced months ago catches up with you in another context and you’re like, “Oh, wait.”

RB: You worked within venture capital, where the methodology is to build teams that produce a good return on investment. What did you learn from the process of building teams with that end goal in mind?

JM: While working at Kleiner, I had the opportunity to advise over 100 startups at different stages of development. And the main value I added was communication between the CEO and the design team, because it’s such a different language. It’s not a business or developer language in many cases. I’d argue that return on investment (ROI) motivates an organization to move fast and reduce friction. And a creative team is a pain in the neck, because they’re professional divergers and they want to question things.

RB: You operate in both worlds—as a creative and a leader advocating for structure, clarity, organization, and consistency. How do you maintain that organizational clarity while fostering creativity?

JM: There’s a stereotype that creative people don’t make good leaders. They’re all the stereotypes you shared earlier: they’re imaginers, dreamers, non-executors. But we live in a time that needs extremely agile, creative people who can manage ambiguous situations and effectively collaborate in teams. Part of my work is pointing out that there are exceptional leaders who are hybrids—they are creative, they can speak Bauhausian and can understand the slide deck, but they can also speak about ROI.

RB: Speaking of teamwork, inclusivity in the workplace is a pressing and continual conversation, and you’ve said that “diversity is vital to a functioning team.” What exactly does that mean?

JM: The thing I love about getting involved in the dialogue around inclusion is that it forces you to learn things. Inclusion covers so many types of inclusion—gender, sexual preference, body type, age, ability, neuro-ability, economic diversity, etc. There’s so many things. I feel like every day I’ve failed at understanding what it means to work and think inclusively in products. So, just off the bat, it means you fail a lot, and it’s awesome. Because failure is learning.

Working inclusively is beneficial because it increases your total address of the market, or TAM. That’s a favorite acronym in venture capital circles, “What’s your TAM?” You can increase your TAM materially, if you work inclusively. When I first started working in Silicon Valley, my primary interest was in socioeconomic diversity, because I noticed that the companies were mostly populated by graduates from top colleges—which tend to be less diverse—and it made me wonder who else was missing. Now I only think of inclusivity from a business perspective, which opens me to criticism from people who feel that I should be advancing social justice concerns. But I’ve intentionally chosen to solely focus on the product impact—I want to know how to increase TAM. Since it continually raises the stakes for building better tools to support everyone.

RB: We’ve heard many things around specialization versus generalization for a successful design career. What do you think about that division and which one is more effective?

JM: If you’re in an early-stage startup, you don’t want a specialized person. It doesn’t make any sense. But if you’re in a late-stage startup or public company, you need an orchestra, because you need people that cover the entire range. When it comes to leaders who can lead the complex tasks in a technology company, you want people who are broadly skilled. But regardless of skill set, how you relate to other people is really important. There’s nothing more valuable than the people skill.

We’re moving from Capitalism to Talentism

I’ve been reading an old McKinsey report from HBR (2001) about the “War For Talent” by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth Axelrod and loved this table:

The Old Reality
The New Reality
People need companies Companies need people
Machines, capital, and
geography are the
competitive advantage
Talented people
are the competitive
Better talent makes
some difference
Better talent makes a
huge difference
Jobs are scarce Talented people are scarce
Employees are loyal and jobs are secure People are mobile and their
commitment is short term
People accept the standard
package they are offered
People demand much more

The main topic is executive leadership, but this applies to everyone these days.

It harks back to one of my favorite things I heard at Davos back in 2011:

When going into depth in the HR literature about the meaning of “talent” it tends to skew towards leaders, but I believe it applies to anyone and everyone working in an organization. When folks figure out their unique talent, they get excited about the work that they do — it’s important that each organization find each individual’s unique set of talents. Because it’s a great way to figure out how to grow. 

This holds especially true in remote work environments — because although there’s an incredible amount of freedom, I can see how it’s difficult for individuals to see where they stand within their field and within the institution itself. Because you literally can’t see all the people every day. So you tend to lose track of them — this happens in a physical environment too, but what’s different is you lose the ability to use your spatial/environmental memory.

As human beings who’ve all evolved as social animals, there’s a lot of knowledge that we distribute in our environment as attached to the people who are close to us, physically. Many of those bearings tend to get lost in a distributed work environment because there’s no persistence-of-view for the people who are around you. It is an exciting design challenge.

So, these days I’m prioritizing what I care about the most … which is understanding each of my team member’s unique set of talents. There is no team without people, and there’s no greatness of the team without developing the greatness of those people’s talents. And I am thinking about a pseudo-spatial way in which I can organize it all. Not as an org chart per se. I wonder what the right representation should be? —JM

Footnote: Dave Potter via LinkedIn wrote, “I find org charts inadequate for visualizing teams, both their talents and passions, and, I would add, with whom they like to work (not everyone within a team enjoys working together – which is natural; it’s helpful to keep track). I use Kumu as my visualizing tool. For a long-time remote employee, I find it helpful.:

Why videoconferencing is useful in an all-distributed team

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I am a fan of all modes of tele-anything because I find it to be one of the two great things that electricity enables for us (the second one being refrigeration).

When talking one-to-one on the phone, all is well because there is an understood “dance” we have all learned around taking turns. But when talking one-to-many on the phone, it works well if it is a 1-way broadcast — but a teleconference is a “conference” versus a tele-pontification. Instead, the painfully chaotic dance that comes to happen on a teleconference call with many-to-many is the subject of a lot of great Internet humor, like my all-time favorite:

Videoconferencing is just as challenging because there is never a clear protocol on how best to take turns — besides raising one’s hand or waving some sort of printed emoji-on-a-popsicle-stick to express yourself. The simultaneous chat windows that are available now alongside a videoconference are esp useful because they allows more information to get shared in parallel — in the event that one person is monopolizing the line with their blah-blah-blah.

Pure chat has the advantage of enabling everyone to talk at the same time, which has its own problems built into the paradigm. It is also problematic when you are running across multiple timezones as it is impossible to catch up on all communications left in a chat channel. It is akin to walking into a major party six hours after everyone has left, and you’re left to piece the puzzle of what happened on your own.

That said, chat and other text/image exchange forums are what we all depend upon when collaborating remotely. And I am definitely not knocking them down as they are the foundation of all-distributed work environments. They have served us well for decades, and will likely continue into the next century.

Thus oftentimes remote working veterans get puzzled when they see me favor using video for all of its stated misgivings — instead of relying solely on chat and other text/image repositories to communicate. The reason is twofold:

1. If we can’t collocate in space to show shared commitment, we can at least collocate in time to do so. By doing so, we are implicitly teaming.

2. Connections across people need to happen for strong collaboration — so I work to make explicit linkages between people during my videoconferences.

I think of videoconferencing as a vital means to strengthen a team in a distributed work environment. It is less about communicating, and more about bonding. That isn’t an easy thing to make happen when you are in a sea of talking heads, but activities like listening to the same music or doing corny things like holding hands across screens can do the trick sometimes. It is a space where a lot of creativity is needed, so I enjoy the challenges immensely. —JM

How to make a fully kitschy distributed company’s holiday video

Originally published December 20, 2017 on

Having been a longtime fan of the over-the-top First Round Capital holiday videos, I took it upon myself to imagine what a fully remote company could make. So I set off with Automattic’s Chief Semicolon Advocate Michelle Weber on a journey fueled by her reshaping of the lyrics of Jingle Bells to more accurately describe what it’s like in a remote company like Automattic. What’s it like? It’s a lot of joyous “pings and bells”(referring to the WordPress and Slack notifications that come in throughout the day). Without further ado, here it is:

As to how I made this video, I gave an open call to Automattic folks on our internal WordPress blog asking for folks to lend me some time to do three things:

  1. Sing the main verse of Jingle Bells via this CC BY 3.0 musical number.
  2. Call out a colleague somewhere in the world.
  3. Include some form of waving to the camera for 3 seconds.

And to be inclusive, I didn’t require that folks included their voice or video feed — artwork would do in the form of any expression.

You can imagine that there weren’t a lot of responses to my request — mainly because we’re super busy at the end of the year, of course. And this is something I ended up spending my nights and weekends doing because I’ve got stuff to do too (smile). But a few video entries started to trickle in that included some fantastic energy on video, clever stop-motion animation dropped in as well, and I started to feel there was a “there” to this idea.

But a holiday video has one fundamental challenge: it’s got to be musical.

I know. It has to sound like music. So I needed a few ringers who could be main voices and soloists. I was lucky to have colleagues like Bob, Marina, Dan, Caroline, and Kevin step forward to go “portrait” mode like the Snapchatters and provide their singing capabilities that gave this video greater coherence. Kevin was instrumental in pointing out how there needed to be a running harmony, which he graciously provided throughout.

Then there was this problem called timing. Many folks submitted videos where the timing was slightly off. So I had to hand-tune a few of the entries to fit the time constraints. Note to self for the future: Don’t give an instrumental track as the sample, and instead include a voice singing over the track so everyone knows where to place their syllables best. I also wish I gave lighting instructions, but that would have reduced the participation rate I believe.

Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 7.45.30 PM

Lastly, my favorite new editing software ScreenFlow was being pushed to the max. It kept crashing because it clearly wasn’t designed to handle as many assets as I was juggling. Video snippets kept disappearing … so I wasn’t sure if I could finish this. But it’s all done now. Phew. And it was fun to figure out how to make.

You can make one too now — so go forth and build! And happy holidays! —JM

Motivating your remote team can start (or stop) with a blogging habit

As a fan of the late John W. Gardner’s work on “renewal,” I am also a fan of his work on “excellence.” I know that word “excellence” makes some people feel either icky or excited, but his treatise of the topic is fair and sufficiently sublime that I come back to his book on the topic at least once every two months.

It’s not easy to summarize in a few sentences, but at its essence Gardner points out that we love excellence and we love equality. But the two concepts fundamentally contradict each other. And that makes leadership a challenging task because there is always a need to balance excellence AND equality. And because excellence will always mean something different to each team member, the leader needs to first determine each team member’s zone of excellence as a starting point — otherwise equality becomes the prevailing topic over excellence. Meanwhile they must ensure that there is an equal and fair playing field to the stage for any unexpected excellence to emerge. It is a complex balance to manage as a whole, but it is this challenge as set within a fully distributed company that I have found to be a satisfying opportunity for new learnings.

Gardner writes on pages 145-6 on the topic of Motives, Values, Vision:

Leaders don’t invent motivation in their followers, they unlock it. They work with what is there. Of course, “what is there” is generally a great tangle of motives. Leaders tap those that serve the purposes of group action in pursuit of shared goals.

One could argue that such capacity to motivate others is a quality to be expected of only the most exceptional human beings. Nonsense. Anyone with a reasonably broaf acquaintance can point to an athlete coach or Elementary School teacher or head of a Salesforce who is an excellent natural motivator. The gift is rare but not exceedingly so, and in fields such as those mentioned it is pulled to the surface quickly because the returns from high motivation are so promptly apparent. In other fields the effect of high or low motivation may be masked and leaders in those fields May ignore it — to their loss. In addition, we have all become so sophisticated that the task of motivating may seem so much juvenile anyway. You’re asking me in my pin-stripe suit to act like that like an athletic coach?

So organizations die of sophistication and more vibrant organizations replace them. Someone must see to maintenance of the morale necessary to undertake arduous endeavors. Someone has to call for the kind of effort and restraint, drive and discipline to make for great performance. Someone has to nurture a workable level of unity.

Such leaders must understand the wants and purposes and values of their people, and they must know how to overcome the inertia that afflicts most people most of the time. In this process, shared values are crucial.

I took from this passage above how it isn’t really about motivating individuals, but knowing the individuals first. In a remote working environment that is an extremely difficult thing to do. Although it is trivial to communicate with anyone in an all-distributed company, it is difficult to get to know them.

So a little over a year ago, I caused some waves within my design team around an idea of having them all blog regularly. I didn’t roll this idea out with any premeditated plan — it just felt like the right thing to get going because as a company we believe in the power of blogging. It almost failed for a variety of reasons that were mostly due to my being unaware of the many different factors at play within the existing managerial structures of our organization, but it also helped me find the various seismic lines within the company, too. All-distributed companies don’t reside within a physical building or campus, and so the politics that one can usually read from a perspective of geography (ie proximity to the CEO’s office) aren’t immediately obvious.

As someone who cares as much as they do about process as they care about results, the net result is as one central site where my entire design team is now blogging on a quarterly basis.

It has been a journey that has helped me to get to know their individual strengths, motivations, and curiosity levels as one step away from their daily work. And it has motivated ME to serve them better as a leader as I have gotten to know what their passions are for where design can head in the future with the 4 new design principles we have co-created.

Now, to be absolutely clear, the idea of making your whole team blog is not going to motivate them. It will likely be demotivating, at first. But for me as a leader, especially for an all remote team at the v large scale that we operate, it’s been helpful as one of my initial activities to learn how to best serve those who might choose to give me their trust. It’s frankly motivated me to do the work that I know that I need to lead them all, and now its my job to share that collective motivation back — through whatever means an all-remote jolt of team motivation can be delivered.

Exciting times! Now back to work for me … —JM

Drive by comments, or likes, while designing remotely

In a quick conversation this morning with Davide Casali, who is a founding member of our new Design Ops team led by Alison Rand, he brought up a phrase I often hear while working remotely of a “drive by” comment. On the one hand that can sound a bit macabre like in the case of how it’s often used in the media involving shootings.

But if we consider it in more of a “pop” way, we end up on a YT music video with close to 150MM views called “Drive By” — referring to driving by a potential love interest and missing out on love. In other words, it’s about being non-committal.

That’s the spirit with which Davide described a phenomenon where one can post design work within a remote organization hoping for substantive commentary, and instead just get a drive by. What does he mean by that? I think it’s one of three things:

  • A “like” — which is as useful as a wet tissue when you’ve just sneezed.
  • One positive word, such as “Awesome!” — which beats a “like” by 5%.
  • One negative word, such as “Awful!” — which does a ton of damage.

Any of these three options lack commitment and fall into the category of being marginally more useful or more damaging than saying nothing at all. I think for that reason remote cultures can easily degrade to going silent.

Why? Because sharing a longer comment that is more substantive can break the flow of your day while working async. You may say the wrong thing, and then somebody will appear out of nowhere and start to argue with you. And if you don’t respond to them (because everyone’s watching to and waiting to see what happens) then you’re a bad person. Hey, that sounds like … the Internet (smile). 

As drive by comments and likes go, if you’re curious about my own method when working with my team it is:

  1. I use a “like” to signify to someone that I’ve read what they posted. It doesn’t have to mean I agree with it.
  2. I use a comment to share an opinion I might have. But I don’t expect anyone to change their mind — my goal is to drive the overall direction, but not to actually micro-direct. 
  3. I use a comment to ask a question that I’d love to know the answer around — or at least I’d like to be sure that the person has asked the question themselves. Ultimately I don’t need the answer.

Okay, this is kind of a drive by blog post as I need to get back to work. I hope it’s useful to you. It was useful to me to write this, so let’s hope for win-win! —JM

Photo by anja. on Unsplash