Tubular Labs’s Head of Design on when it’s okay to work for free

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  May 2, 2017
Link copied to clipboard

Tubular Labs analyzes over 2.5 billion videos and the viewing habits of more than 450 million consumers across multiple social platforms. In less than 4 years, they’ve become the leading video intelligence company, providing video data and insights to over 160 global businesses—including Time Inc, HGTV, Mattel, Viacom, and AwesomenessTV.

We sat down with Micheal Lopez, Head of Design at Tubular Labs, to hear about what makes a great portfolio, building team trust, and whether it’s okay for designers to work for free.

Micheal Lopez, Head of Design at Tubular Labs.

How does your team communicate with each other?

We’re a small design team in Mountain View, California, so we often give each other a nudge or chat through challenges and recommendations in person. Our vendor discussions and chats typically happen over Slack.

We also have offices in Los Angeles, London, Kiev, and New York, so we typically rely on the Highfive app or Google Hangouts for quick conversations and checkins.

How can companies and managers create a great work culture?

As it relates to design, the path to a great team culture starts from the top.Twitter Logo You must ensure you’re in an environment where the C-level understands the benefits of a data-driven design function that has influence across the organization.

“A design must always be tested and validated through the lens of your customer.”

Twitter Logo

Building a design function that spans the entire customer experience from beginning to end can impact culture in many positive ways. For starters, designers will be able to see how their work contributes to the bigger picture. The impact of design can and should contribute to lead generation and optimization at the very top of the funnel.

It’s not just about creating the shiniest object—it’s about having a customer-first approach.

These small engagements can help build a positive customer experience. The benefits of positive customer feedback and data-driven design can easily change how the overall culture takes shape.

How do you hand off designs to the engineering team?

We have weekly sprint planning meetings where we discuss upcoming sprints to ensure engineers have reviewed our SRDs (software requirements document) and design specs prior to beginning work. Those SRDs are detailed, long-form documentation of the features, structure, and expected behavior of a given piece of software.

Related: 6 tasty ways for designers and developers to collaborate better

We create the front-end design specs in Sketch, and often we’ll discuss and make changes leading up to the actual handoff. We have an amazing front-end team here, and we try to make sure they have what they need before rubber hits the road.

In a perfect world, our software gets published seamlessly—but there are always tradeoffs and challenges you don’t foresee that you work through with engineering. That’s where it’s beneficial to build an engineering function that understands the goals of design and is also flexible and passionate about the product experience.

Recent work by Micheal’s team at Tubular Labs.

How do you hire new people? What catches your eye when you’re looking at someone’s portfolio?

It often depends on the expectations for the role and the level I’m hiring for, but in general I look for 2 things:

  1. Detail about their process. In the product or experience design function, I expect them to not only have a strong design method but also a research and data-driven perspective. This should be demonstrated in their portfolio either through a case study example or detailed process overview.
  2. Work that’s actually shipped. I know this is tough to achieve, especially if you’re a younger designer trying to get your foot in the door. Often, one project can be enough to show your process and how successful you are at working cross-functionally.

“Your design portfolio should include work that’s actually shipped.”

Twitter Logo

It’s amazing how many portfolios are packed with projects that have never seen the light of day. It says a lot about the designer who created them.

How did you personally get to where you are now?

Hard work, great mentors, and some luck.

It’s not always easy to succeed as a designer in a revenue-driven organization, as certain metrics will always drive the conversation. Growing and learning as a designer is rare if you don’t have strong managers and selfless mentors along the way who ensure you’re growing.

I was lucky enough to have mentors who understood how powerful a design function can be with the right personnel and tools in place to nurture it.

Related: How to find your design mentor

Fill in the blank…

Great design starts with research.

All designers should learn how to write to tell a story.

My favorite album to listen to while I’m designing is James Blake, The Colour in Anything.

When I first started out, I wish I’d known quantity is no match for quality.

In 5 years, design will be a mission critical function across every organization.

Micheal’s favorite color palette.

Do you think it’s okay for designers to work for free?

If you’re good at something, never do it for free. I’m pretty sure that’s a Heath Ledger quote from Batman, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant.

You’ll often be asked by family members, peers, and even professionals in your space to look past payment and crank out something because, hey—you’re a designer, right?

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Twitter Logo

The best way I look past that is by never giving in and sticking to my principles as a designer and an adult. It does no benefit to yourself or other designers to cheapen our profession by allowing someone else who obviously has no respect for your craft to expect a freebie.

What can teams do to build trust with each other?

Trust is often the value teams tend to overlook when scaling, but trust can make or break a team in the long run.Twitter Logo

Building trust within a team happens sometimes when you’re not working. It might be during a team outing, happy hour, or just a walk to get some sunlight.

Our team here at Tubular was able to trust quite easily. This was due in a large part that the team is small and we each manage our own function within the team. We learned early if it would succeed or if it would all end in tears. So far it’s been a fun ride.

What is good design?

Good design is often judged at a very surface level. I’ve worked in SaaS software for quite some time and the lessons I’ve learned there are lessons that can be applied to both consumer and B2B design.

Regardless of how forward-thinking or beautiful a design solution might be, it must always be tested and validated through the lens of your customer. If we’re saving time for a customer by helping them to get home to their families in time for dinner then we’ve succeeded. If we’re allowing companies to make better business decisions through our product UI, then we’ve succeeded.

How do you use InVision?

Boards are my favorite feature within InVision. I started my creative journey as an artist, and the ability to tell a story is a skill that is so often incorporated into functions at startups. Whether it’s sales, product, or design, telling a story is often the best way to sell a product or pitch a new feature.Twitter Logo

“I use Boards to essentially inspire a design culture within our organization.”

Twitter Logo

Boards is a portable and visual way to make our brand tangible. It can serve as inspiration for any member of the organization as a representation of our brand. We also use the prototype function for marketing and product workflows that go beyond the design function.

What’s your best advice for young designers?

  • When looking at career opportunities, make sure there’s leadership in place in an organization that will challenge and teach you
  • Growing as a designer into a true design leader is the most important part of the journey
  • Understand your company metrics—having knowledge of how you contribute to the success of the organization is key
  • Prove your work is moving the needle—it’ll lead to greater responsibility and ownership in the future

Read more interviews with design leaders

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard