A Look Inside the Design Team at Treehouse

4 min read
Amanda Hackwith
  •  Jul 22, 2014
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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’re talking to Matthew Spiel, designer at Treehouse.

Initially going to college to become a pastor, Matthew experimented with design in college, and eventually became hooked on it. Starting off in print design, Matthew now works as a designer at Treehouse, a company that aims to improve the lives of its users through tech education. We chatted to Matthew about working remotely, getting away from the screen, and changing lives through design.

Hey Matthew, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Tell us about Treehouse, and your role there.

Treehouse is an online education platform – we primarily focus in on tech education: everything from HTML, CSS & JavaScript all the way up to iOS & Android development. We’re different from a traditional university and many boot camps because you can go at your own pace: Treehouse students pay monthly and get access to our library.

I’m a designer here and part of the product team – I work with 10 other designers and about 15+ developers, all of whom are focused on different parts of the product. Most of my time is spent working on the education side of the app and new-ish tool called Workspaces.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is hearing success stories from our students: people who knew absolutely nothing about code and design, then after six months with Treehouse will land a job they love, or get out of unemployment. They’re able to find work and pay their bills and live out their dreams. Knowing that your work is helping somebody improve & change their lives is incredibly fulfilling.Twitter Logo

Do you feel that that’s the true role of design – to change lives?

To be honest, I’m not sure. Personally, I strive to be a designer that contributes to something larger than myselfTwitter Logo – but a lot of that is just personal drive. I want my work to have quality & longevity: I want to design things that are built to last.Twitter Logo I definitely agree with the train of thought that designers are in a unique position to solve real problems that people are having in the world. And not just solve them, but do it with elegance. I can’t speak for design as a whole – I can only speak for myself. So for me, design isn’t just a job I clock in and out of, it’s a way to improve life for other humans.Twitter Logo

InVision allows each person on the team to be heard and to share their opinion on nearly any project.

How did you get into design?

Funny thing is, I had no clue that being a designer was even an option until I was a junior in college – I was never really exposed to it growing up. I always doodled around and sketched, and I did have creative outlets in school, but I never took art classes. I was into drama, played bass in a punk band for a while, wrote for the school newspaper. You know, that kinda stuff. I’ve always had some kind of creative outlet, but it’s never exclusively been design.

Once I finally discovered design, I remember spending hours and hours on Friday nights in college just sitting at my computer, scouring the internet for Photoshop brushes and the best free fonts I could find. It was at that point that I realized this was something I wanted to do. It was mostly a hobby at that point, not something I was studying, but it was gradually something that I found I could get paid money for and I really enjoyed.

I still continued with my course though: I was at a really, really tiny private Bible college in Missouri – I originally went because I wanted to be a pastor, but then discovered design and felt like that was where I really needed to put my time and efforts. So I have a degree in Biblical Literature, but am completely self-taught in design.

Do you think that designers need to get a formal education in design?

This isn’t a cut and dry issue by any means. I think requiring a formal education is something that more and more industries are starting to question: I firmly think that you don’t need a degree to get a good job. You do need skills and an education.Twitter Logo In the tech industry, designers absolutely need to be able to teach themselves, whether that’s formally through college, some kind of trade school, through Treehouse or just by Googling the heck out of an idea. The key is a willingness and ability to learn.Twitter Logo Everything moves so quickly, so if you stop learning, you’re going to become irrelevant pretty quick.Twitter Logo The struggle every person has to go through is around finding the right way to learn for themselves: If that’s college, great. If not, you have to keep looking.

We struggled with feedback for a few months and InVision was key for us getting through that as a team.

Tell us about your team at Treehouse.

The team I work with is amazing. I get to work alongside people that I admire and respect and who have a tremendous amount of skill and experience. I couldn’t ask for too much more, team-wise. It’s been a dream come true for me. We’re all mostly distributed as well. Treehouse does have offices in Portland and Orlando, but the majority of the team I work with is all over the country (sometimes out of it too.) One of the upsides to having a distributed team is that you’re not limited to where you need to hire – We’re able to draw talent from all over the world if we want. Most employers will either ask you to relocate, or they just won’t entertain the opportunity if you’re not going to join them on-site. I love how Treehouse lets us choose where we want to be, and where we want to build our lives.

I’m living in the town in which I went to college (Joplin, MO) and I work from the loft in my house. Working from home puts me closer to my wife and my son, which I am thankful for. I have lunch with them almost every day.

There are downsides to it though: It’s hard to connect with your co-workers in the same way when you’re full-time remote. There’s something about being in proximity with someone day in and day out that builds a level of familiarity and comfort you don’t get when you’re primarily interacting in HipChat or on a Google Hangout.

I also wrestle with the lack of rituals that go into working from a located office. For instance, the commute to work. It’s this routine that you go through every day and I think it helps people get in and out of a work mindset. It can be cleansing almost, that journey you take to and from work (however short or long it may be). When you work from home you don’t always have that. You often go from working to not working in an instant. It’s sometimes hard to come off whatever high or low you’re in from the day and be present with your family or friends. That’s something I am always working on and mindful of.

Has working remotely made you change your design process in any way?

Absolutely – There are just a lot of nuanced interactions when you’re sitting next to somebody that you don’t get when working remotely. It’s hard to tap somebody on the shoulder and have them take a look at your screen when you’re 1200 miles away. When you work remotely, you have to make sure your team knows what you’re thinking at all times.Twitter Logo Within a given day, I take loads of screenshots to get feedback from the team. It’s a matter of making sure that they know where your head’s at.

How do you use InVision within that process?

We struggled with feedback for a few months and InVision was key for us getting through that as a team. In the last year, our design team has doubled in size, from 5 designers to 10. There’s a lot more open projects and you can’t always keep tabs on it all so we use InVision to make sure that everybody on the team knows what’s going on. InVision allows each person on the team to be heard and to share their opinion on nearly any project. It keeps things contextual and clean. I know I am a big fan. The new LiveShare PS plugin is rad – It’s going to make collaboration that much better.

Success is not a state you achieve, it’s something to aspire to.

That collaboration aspect of InVision is really important when you’re working remotely. You could easily fall into a rut and not be aware of your own weaknesses if you’re not collaborating with other designers. Each designer has a unique perspective, a unique eye and a unique voiceTwitter Logo; and I’m grateful to work on a team with designers who have great instincts and can provide feedback that’s invaluable. Without feedback from my team, I’d be living in a vacuum of indecision.Twitter Logo

So you’re living in Joplin, Missouri – How does that impact on your life and your work?

Joplin is an interesting place – We got a lot of media coverage a few years back when a tornado came through. Originally it was a mining town. It saw its peak back in the 1910s and 20s. It’s still primarily blue collar – Lots of factories and logistics companies. The reason I stuck around after college is how inexpensive it is to live here. The cost of living in Joplin, compared to, say, Boulder, LA, San Francisco, New York or Chicago is – well, I probably shouldn’t talk about it, because people get mad. Let’s just say that it’s really good.

We’ve got a beautiful, historic downtown, full of hundred-year-old buildings with wonderful masonry. There’s a lot of hand-painted advertisements from the 20s and 30s still around and I find a lot of inspiration in that. Being in the Midwest is interesting because there are so many places like Joplin where design isn’t really valued or desired. I’m definitely the anomaly in town. I tell people what I do and who I work for and they get this confused look on their face.

You’d be surprised though how many designers come out of little towns in the Midwest, and even southwest Missouri. I know that Ryan Sims, who leads design at Rdio, grew up around here. Frank Chimero spent time in Springfield, MO which is just an hour away. Keegan Jones is also from Springfield. Some great designers and thought leaders have come out of fly-over country. Most end up leaving for bigger cities, it’s a pretty normal thing.

Do you have any personal projects outside of work?

I’m a family man, so I try to spend as much time with my 2-year-old son and my wife as I can. I prefer to be away from screens when I’m not working. I go fishing pretty often with my father-in-law. I do wish there were some mountains out here. Getting outdoors is something I did a lot growing up in Arizona. That desire to be outside has stuck with me. When you hit a road block in a design, it’s easy to just hop on Dribbble, Designspiration, Pinterest or whatever and consume. But that mentality turns you into a regurgitation machine – new ideas don’t come from that. For me, it’s important to get out & get away from the screen, not stay in and consume.Twitter Logo

If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

If I could go back in time, I’d go back to the me in junior high. I’d say to him, “Matt, focus more on the arts.” I’d tell myself to take the photography classes, take the art classes, and spend time learning the basics – perspective, lighting, shadowing. I always had an interest in it, but I never formally pursued it.

Design is about practice. Great designers are always trying new things; finding new ways to push themselves.Twitter Logo I think the earlier you can start practicing design, the better you’ll be at it.Twitter Logo

Do you consider yourself successful? How would you define success?

Success is an interesting thing. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work at Treehouse and for the team I work with. It’s a wonderful company full of great people who believe in our mission. So in that regard, I have definitely found success. But for me, success is not a state you achieve, it’s something to aspire to.Twitter Logo Some people define that success as having thousands of followers on Dribbble or Twitter, and don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to get attention, but you can have a massive following and still lead a very empty life.Twitter Logo


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