The story of the unicorn designer is familiar enough: A designer was so fed up with the design-development workflow that they went to learn development themselves, and now they can do it all.
Even if the designer doesn’t become a senior developer, the approach makes sense. Mutual knowledge of coding gives designers and developers a common language—which can make-or-break the often fraught design-to-dev handoff.
But this whole process puts the onus on the designer to learn another skill—nay, another trade. Why do we so rarely hear about developers learning how to design?
Meet Nick Farina, the developer-designer. A three–time startup founder who’s been writing code since his teens, Nick learned to design as a way to prototype his ideas back to designers. After his second venture, Meridian, was acquired by Aruba Networks, he moved on to found Vota, a personal finance app where he’s currently working as CTO.
As for the rest of his story, let him tell you himself.
Inside Design: How do you define creativity in design? In development?
For me, creativity means solving problems by asking different questions.
Here’s an example. We used to build apps for museums, and one of our first iPhone apps was for the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. This museum is huge, over two million square feet, and it feels like a giant labyrinth inside since it’s been added to over 150 years. So they wanted maps within the app for people to get directions to popular exhibits.
This was 2008, so no one had done this before. Since GPS doesn’t work indoors, we were using a Wifi-based location system—the first of its kind. We used the location system to put a familiar “blue dot” on map images of the museum, but the accuracy was horrible. The dot would take forever to update, and then it would lurch from one side of a giant room to the other while you were standing still.
And everyone was focused on the problem: “How do we improve location accuracy?” And they’re hammering on the Wifi vendor to “fix” the problem, and they’re pressuring us to invent some magic “algorithm” to improve the bad data we were getting, and the whole project is now in jeopardy.
“When the iPhone was released, its UI was like a gift from an alien planet.”
After learning the technical details of how the location system worked, I could tell it wasn’t going to get any better. So instead we took a step back and focused on a different question: “How can we improve the user experience of this app?”
We came up with a number of design tricks to improve the situation. We drew a big blue circle around the dot to imply that you could be anywhere inside it. We filtered out new x/y locations that were very close to your old location, so the dot wouldn’t wander about the room aimlessly. We even artificially prevented the user from zooming into the map too much.
Essentially, we redesigned the app to eliminate the feeling that accuracy was important. And it worked: people could use the thing to get around. They didn’t care that the location wasn’t perfect.
Inside Design: When’s the first time you felt like you got design?
When the iPhone came out in 2007 it was a true revelation. I had been building mobile applications since the Palm Pilot—that’s before they were mainstream enough to be called “apps.”
Back then, apps were basically stripped-down versions of clunky desktop software. When the iPhone was released, its UI was like a gift from an alien planet. A touch-driven interface with fluid animations that normal people could pick up and use. Like many others in the industry, I soaked up every detail right away.
Inside Design: What’s the highlight of your design career to date? Your development career? Your design-development career?
“The highlight of my design “career” was when a client referred to me as a designer.”
We were hired to build one of the first iPhone apps ever, for Vogue Magazine. It was a huge technical challenge because of the technical limitations of the original iPhone; just getting a page to scroll smoothly was a big deal. We had to write our own XML parser just to make API calls, and we had to build a zoomable image slideshow component from scratch, so users could flip through these fashion runway photo galleries.
Look how tiny the original iPhone screen was!
After it was done, Apple got involved to help promote it, since they loved these big brands being in their new store. And I got an email from Apple one day that they wanted to feature the app in its own TV commercial. They needed some modifications for the shoot, so I spent a few days making a special version that would work offline.
Finally, they made the commercial and showed it to Steve. I was told he loved it. But by then the US economy was in the tank, and he (rightly) worried about promoting “high fashion” during a recession. So it never aired. But it’s still a high point in my career that Steve Jobs saw my work and thought it was great.
The highlight of my design “career” was when a client referred to me as a designer after I talked him out of yet another obviously bad UX idea. We had an actual designer on the project already, so I think he was just confused about my role, but I’ll take it!
“It’s still a high point in my career that Steve Jobs saw my work and thought it was great.”
Inside Design: Imagine you have carte blanche to add one person to your team. They can be a junior designer, copywriter, design lead, web developer, customer support…anyone. Who would you hire and why?
Definitely a design lead. Our new startup Vota is still early-stage, so our process is budget-limited—and a lot of the work they would do falls on me.
Typically I’ll start by whiteboarding ideas in Freehand—using the InVision mobile app and the Apple Pencil—with my remote cofounder Kiyo. Then I’ll build out the whole feature using my amateur design skills and see if it feels any good. If we like it, we’ll hire an actual designer to clean it up.
Freehand -> Prototype -> Final
If we had an in-house designer, they would be part of the whiteboarding session and we’d get to see our ideas visualized before committing to building anything. Having actual pixels to look at is a huge motivator for me as a developer. It’s much slower to design while building.
Inside Design: What’s the most important quality to highlight in a design portfolio? A development portfolio?
I love hiring both designers and developers because their work product is right there on the internet. Do I like this designer’s website? Does this developer have Github projects where I can look at the code, and would I want that code in my codebase? Come on in!
The man himself.
To that end, I would argue the most important quality in a portfolio is discoverability. You should make it super easy to find your past and current work. This isn’t really news to designers, as their work is inherently visual—they can just put screenshots on their personal website.
“I love hiring both designers and developers because their work product is right there on the internet. Do I like this designer’s website? Does this developer have Github projects where I can look at the code, and would I want that code in my codebase?”
For developers, it can be trickier since you typically have a large body of closed-source work. It’s a good idea to try and contribute to open-source projects or make a few of your own, just to have your skills out there and easily viewable before the interview.
You may not think you suffer from this problem yourself, so I challenge you: Open a private browsing tab and Google your name, plus your city. If you can’t find your best work in thirty seconds, and I mean detailed screenshots and/or actual code, then you’ve got room for improvement.
“I would argue the most important quality in a portfolio is discoverability.”
And for Pete’s sake, clean up your Github profile page! Make sure your avatar is decent and your project list isn’t mostly one-off abandoned ideas or code written for classes/tutorials.
Inside Design: What’s the one non-design or development skill that everyone needs to master?
Brevity in writing.
Inside Design: Name a designer who should be world-famous. Or, at least, Twitter-famous.
Our designer for Vota, Josh Holloran. We’ve worked on projects together for ten years now. He can transform a whiteboard with three boxes and two arrows into a fully-formed work of art, complete with finished copy and icons guaranteed not to look out of date for at least a few weeks.