Inside Design

A Look Inside the Design Team at Morningstar

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We’re tracking down InVision users inside the world’s most amazing companies to discover their favorite tools, inspirations, workspace must-haves and the philosophy behind what makes them so awesome. Today, we talk with Sharlene King, senior designer at Morningstar.

A self-described “science geek” as a kid, Sharlene discovered her design mojo at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. After several years in the advertising agency trenches, King is now a senior designer at major investment research firm Morningstar, which, according to Forbes, is “an organization that is clearly putting design at the fore of their business thinking.”

Here’s what King had to say about everything from giant whiteboards and Chicago tacos to Jobs-to-Be-Done and design’s generation gap:

What is the design team like at Morningstar and what is your role?

We have about 90 people working in design. Many of our designers provide major financial institutions with reliable investment research, data and tools. I work on our flagship website, Morningstar.com, which we’re in the process of redesigning.

The problem I’ve seen across a lot of enterprise-level websites in terms of managing content is a lack of cohesion. Lack of cohesion is a big design problem for enterprise content. Individual stakeholders are asked to produce content and there’s no design to unify content in place. Rather than a single branded-store with different products, you end up with a chaotic mall.

To avoid that issue in our redesign, we've heavily emphasized user research and business strategy to figure out what our demographic really wants to get done on our website. We’re using a framework, Jobs-to-Be-Done (otherwise known as #JTBD), which is based on @claychristensen’s well-known “Milkshake” concept of focusing on figuring out why people really use your product. This keeps our product managers focused on what their departments do best and allows our design team to create a great platform for them to deliver their products.

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How did you end up at Morningstar?

I was approached to apply to Morningstar about four years after college and I thought it sounded terrible. At first, I hadn’t even heard of it. I thought the recruiter was talking about vegetarian patties [Morningstar Farms - ed.]. Then, when I found out it was a financial research firm, I thought I’d be so bored.

But I had been laid off from my advertising job and I had reached my boiling point -- I didn’t want to work in advertising anymore. I was tired of the political culture and the egos. At Morningstar, I know who I’m working for and I know what we’re trying to do as a design-centric company. That’s really cool.

I have a strong team of people at Morningstar that I draw mentorship from. There’s a heritage here: My boss has been with the company for 15 years, his boss has been here for 16 years, her boss has been here for 20 years.

Did you love to create as a kid?

Actually, I really hated art as a kid. I was more of a science geek. You know: a nerd! But at the end of sixth grade, I tested really well in the New York City Public Schools for the visual arts, so I was thrown into a magnet arts program at my junior high school. I was really mad about that and tried to switch to music, but I stuck with the arts program because I was like, “I don’t care, art isn’t even a real class.”

Things changed for me after high school. I had dropped out and ended up as a security guard, at, at all places, MoMA PS1, a New York City museum for contemporary art. I started talking to patrons -- which you tend to do when you’re bored and standing around for eight hours a day -- and the director of education made me a docent and encouraged to go to art classes there. I got my GED and applied to the School of Art Institute of Chicago. Believe it or not, I got in on a sculpture scholarship!

So you went to SAIC. Is formal education essential to be a good designer?

In a way, it doesn’t matter if you go to college or not, if it’s just about having a name on your resume for posterity. That’s worthless. If you went to Harvard and you’re not smart and not hard-working and not of that caliber, people will eventually realize you’re a charlatan, because your work speaks for itself. If you go to Nowhere College but you’re insanely talented, articulate, and visible in the community, no one will care.

Still, without a formal education, you do miss out on the networking and resources you get there. Right now, for example, I help with recruiting efforts at Morningstar and the fact that I still keep in touch with professors at SAIC is a huge advantage. And honestly, I know I wouldn’t want to try to find a job in this economy without a college degree. That would be rough. It’s easy to say “college isn’t necessary for design” when you’ve got a degree.

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What are the key skills and capabilities you need to be a top notch designer?

You need the ability to see the larger picture of how things relate to one another, as opposed to getting narrowly-focused on the specific part of a problem. For example, I don’t know how some companies get away with hiring designers who don't know anything about HTML.

I was talking to someone the other day who said people are hired more for specialties today, but in my experience it’s been different. When we hire people we look for people with forward and backward skills, so if you’re a developer you should understand UX and design because if you’re trying to optimize your code and you don’t know what the intentions are behind those two other disciplines you’ll probably make everyone around you mad. Or imagine a designer who doesn’t care about keeping their Photoshop files neat. That’s not just a pain for another designer who picks up your file, but if you add time to the development team’s workload you’re ultimately costing your own company money -- and killing budgeted hours for your own work.

So you see designers as problem solvers?

I mean, there will always be a need for more craft-type designers, people who focus on more visuals and the artistic side. At the end of the day, literally everything in our world is visually designed and standardized for function. But the new arm of design is about taking deliberate steps to get very specific results.

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How does InVision fit with your team's workflow?

Well, let’s face it: Some financial analysts don’t understand abstract concepts about user flow. So we do a lot of high-level prototyping and wireframes in InVision to help communicate those ideas in our team. For us, InVision really is the vehicle that gets what we created to whomever we need to communicate with, whether it's a user or a stakeholder.

We also use InVision in partnership with UserTesting to help see where the holes are for the different users and stakeholders and how people are enjoying it.

InVision really is the vehicle that gets what we created to whomever we need to communicate with.

What was your design process prior to using InVision?

Before we started using InVision we relied on another software, but we were at the mercy of lower-level wireframes which are better for internal teams who already understand what a wireframe looks like. And the features we’re trying to test, like interaction flow, are so much easier to set up with InVision, rather than a more design-oriented tool, to help us communicate with users and stakeholders.

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What three critical elements you need in your workspace to have a great design session?

I love my giant whiteboard because I sketch a lot. It’s magnetic, too! Sketchbooks are nice for internal thinking -- and those are important, too -- but I work so collaboratively with my team, it would be hard not to be able to share ideas and proposals with them in a clear way. Some design discussions are best just gathered around the whiteboard.

I also always have a camera with me so I can send a photo to someone working remotely, to say, “Hey, is this what you were thinking of?”. Not the one on my iPhone, but a “real” camera that is better at adapting to light or size options.

Do you have any creative projects outside of work?

I’m on the slate to be the programming director for the Chicago chapter of the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), which is pretty rad. I’m also hoping to organize something here in Chicago called HikeCon, an educational conference for designers, which they just had in San Francisco. Then, I really like to eat, so I’m organizing a once-a-month Tacos of Chicago get-together, where we to go to five different taco places in one evening. That should end well!

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What do you find inspiring about Chicago?

I like to think of Chicago as the ignored middle child that gets to do really awesome stuff but without the same competitive pressure as New York or San Francisco.

We have top-notch tech companies here like Motorola, Orbitz, Nokia, Groupon, and Sprout Social but we also have fantastic start-ups and small businesses like Give Forward, Trunk Club (who was featured previously here), Cards Against Humanity, or We Are Mammoth. Ruby on Rails, for instance, was birthed by the fine folks at Basecamp back when they were 37 Signals. If you're not using Basecamp, you probably have a Field Notes book lying around somewhere.

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What's got your attention in terms of design industry trends?

I think the biggest trend I notice is a generational shift from bigger, top-down organizations that rely on professional “experts” to more peer groups where people want recommendations from like-minded folks they trust. The design industry is shifting from an emphasis on experts to emphasis on peer groups. There’s a book called The Big Sort that talks about the problems with this kind of voluntary segregation, because it can prevent us from benefiting from true diversity.

But it’s interesting to see how today’s designers aren’t waiting for an organization to tell them what to do, they’re doing it themselves. They’re reaping the benefits of this shift by designing and producing more quickly. People who are successful at Hack-a-thons are seeing their products launch with greater success. If you talk about agile or lean startups, all those buzzwords that people have put together into books, when you see people who actually think that way and put it into practice, you end up with things like Basecamp.

Is that part of the whole iterative movement, to take risks and publish quickly?

I always go back and forth on this. It’s so easy to say, take risks and fail quickly, or embrace failure. But you run the risk of being remembered for the failure. We need to leave room for failure, but also know how to resolve for failure.

We need to leave room for failure, but also know how to resolve for failure.

If you could give one piece of advice to other designers starting out, what would it be?

Probably the same thing my mentor told me: “Everything is important, nothing is necessary.” That is, it’s so easy to get caught up in what you think defines success for a designer but none of that stuff is really hard-coded. There are so many ways to define your own success and countless paths with different skillsets or interests that help you get there. Absolutisms are a folly to chase and live-by.

Author

Amanda Hackwith
Writer, editor, and lover of words, stories, games, and adventure. Tweets on @ajhackwith and at Google+.

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