When you talk to Ivan Zhao, he’ll make one thing abundantly clear: product designers should stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.
“It’s like if you studied physics in high school and college and you didn’t know who Newton is. Come on!” The 32-year-old founder of Notion says, all while regularly dropping mentions of computing legends Alan Kay and Douglas Engelbart as his inspiration.
The ambition of Zhao and his team at Notion can’t be contained in any single decade. Eclipsing one million users, Notion (which bills itself as “the missing half of Slack”) is becoming one of the more interesting and unique productivity tools around.
From left to right: Ivan Zhao, Co-founder and CEO, Camille Ricketts, Marketing, Lillie Martin, Community & Support, and David Tibbitts, Community & Support.
It’s a modular product that aims to put the power of software in the hands of non-coders. Someone with little experience can quickly customize using “modules” like linked databases, task boards, customer queries, and wiki pages.
In the right hands, using Notion feels for non-developers like finally gaining the superpowers of a developer who can set up their own custom software. And its flexibility can be used by project managers, productivity superfans, recruiters, executives, product teams—pretty much anyone who needs to use computers to get things done (but can’t code).
Despite its success, Notion’s tiny 14-person team has remained heads down and somewhat mercurial. Good luck finding a picture of Ivan online. Even better luck trying to invest in his company:
We spoke to the designer/founder (who was born in China before moving to Canada as child) about why designers should get their inspiration from other fields (“One thing I personally do is go on Dribbble and look at what’s popular. And then I consciously don’t do that”), why the company is only hiring designers who can code, and why he thinks SaaS is a winner-take-all game won by those who truly appreciate the computer screen as a brand new medium.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Inside Design: How would you recommend designers start learning about the philosophical underpinnings that guide your thinking?
Study some history of computing stuff or pioneers of the seventies or sixties. Those early ideas are really pure. When the medium is so new, people have entire green fields in front of them, and there is less thinking about business. Those are really good ideas and there’s a lot of then.
“The romantic goal is: Can we make tools that allow people to use computers like a new medium? Can we give that to non-programmers?”
So for a company like Notion, we don’t need to do anything just to pick up those ideas and execute. And that’s one way. Look at how the business history of the past couple of decades. That’s useful. You need to know where are you coming from on a business side in order to know how to rebel against it.
Inside Design: As the founder, how close does this version of Notion match the one in your mind? How far along is Notion on its journey?
I think we have an early fit that we can double down on. The intention, at least for me, is a much larger market. I wonder what does it take for every company, every team, every student to run on Notion?
Or, if you have a laptop, you should be using Notion for thinking and collaboration, and communication. Microsoft Office did that in the 90s. We can reproduce that. And if that’s the goal, we’re still really early with that.
The romantic goal is: Can we make tools that allow people to use computers like a new medium? Can we give that to non-programmers? This topic is getting popular again. It was really popular in the 90s, but somehow people forgot that idea for a couple of decades.
Inside Design: Do you feel that like digital designers, UX designers, product designers are a little too narrow in their vision?
I feel really strongly about that. Stop looking at Dribbble. When you look there you can only see a little bit in front of you. But if you step back and look at history you have the entire world history to look at. You have all these other planes of vision.
Inside Design: When making Notion, do you ever see what’s possible and think: “I want to push us all the way over here!” but you realize you can’t quite yet?
Fundamentally, Notion is a tool to solve people’s problems. It’s more about UX. Does this solve people’s problems in the fewest clicks possible? Is this the simplest mental model we can use? And that becomes slightly more objective, less fashion-y, less Dribbble-y. Do that first, then figure out what skin you put on it. Now, our skin is fairly conservative too. Try to be conservative.
Inside Design: I know you take pride in keeping small and nimble. But if you’re truly growing so fast, why not add more people?
Sometimes I joke, “Moby Dick was written by one person.” Three of [Herman Melville] probably wouldn’t be much faster. Software is a lot like that. Without understanding what you’re trying to do, adding more people will actually slow you down. So the product side of Notion is four people or five people.
“You need to know where are you coming from on a business side in order to know how to rebel against it.”
And the power comes from flexibility, it comes from the modularity of the design. That’s what I mean by creating something that can do many different things, like Lego bricks, but it’s still fundamentally one product. All unified, it keeps your teams together, and keeps your thoughts together.
Inside Design: How do you stop the undeniable and neverending pressure for you guys to raise more money, go hire a hundred people, to expand?
It’s great that people believe in the company and believe in me. The capital is not going to add another Moby Dick directly. At this stage we’re blocked by our internal process, our team, and distribution. Not necessarily capital. We want to figure out how to turn incoming capital into Moby Dicks first before getting more capital.
Inside Design: You’ve hired four product designers. When you hire the fifth, what will you be you looking for?
Each person we’re looking for will be similar to what we have now. They need to do pixels, they need to do UX, they need to at least be able to code React. That keeps our workflow really quick.
There’s no final pixel-perfect design. It’s like 90% perfect. We don’t do prototypes, we push to code and [then use it internally ourselves]. If it doesn’t feel good, then we’ll go back to code and go back to design.
A drawing of computing pioneer Douglas Engelbart hangs in the Notion offices.
Inside Design: It sounds like each person needs to bring more than one skill set to the table. How high is the bar to be considered good at a skill?
It’s still case by case. You need master level of UX and pixel-perfect design. Front-end stuff you can be taught, it’s not that hard, right? But, UX and pixel-perfect design take some longer time. Nobody knows how to learn how to do them properly.
Inside Design: To me, your view on talent mirrors your product mindset: that all these SaaS tools are going to eventually coalesce into one. Do you view the same happening to a designer’s career? That you will have to have all these skillsets combined in one person?
I don’t know. It’s really hard to find good people that can do all those, right? Oftentimes when you are designing and building something, you’re shifting constraints. Sometimes something is really hard to code.
Then okay, you should go back to UX stage, maybe change the UX a little bit so it becomes really easy to implement. Or sometimes something is really easy to implement but it’s really hard to design. It’s easier to correct this [and move faster] if you know both disciplines.
“There’s no final pixel-perfect design. It’s like 90% perfect…If it doesn’t feel good, then we’ll go back to code and go back to design.”
Inside Design: I once had someone tell me that every startup or every company is a bet on a yet-to-be-realized future. What do you think is going to happen with digital products? What are you betting on?
I’m betting on that most people can create their own tools. The present comes from the past. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates… they copied Xerox PARC. Then Bill Gates won, so Microsoft Windows runs everywhere. Then from there, the tool that people used to think and work is Microsoft Office and it was one monolithic tool, maybe with a suite of different programs. That’s how the world’s business runs, that’s how people were educated. It became how people think, how people communicated.
“So for a company like Notion, we don’t need to do anything just to pick up those ideas and execute.”
Then the internet came along towards the mid-to-late nineties and that sort of breaks apart the monopoly of Microsoft. And then the web-first application came. So we went from one thing, Microsoft office, and it became many, many different SaaS products today.
Just look at Slack. One of the reasons it’s so popular is that it chains together all the notifications and the communications of the SaaS products together, right? So you don’t have to go out there to hunt for what’s new.
So I’m saying, and I’m seeing, and I’m hoping that we’re in this pendulum swing from one product, Microsoft Office, to too many SaaS products. And now the pendulum is swinging back towards something more bundled up again.
“Sometimes I joke, “Moby Dick was written by one person.” Three of (Herman Melville) probably wouldn’t be much faster. Software is a lot like that. Without understanding what you’re trying to do, adding more people will actually slow you down.”
I want Notion, or a company like Notion, to catch that wave. It can be a product that is as powerful as those five different SaaS tools.
Inside Design: The modular, flexible way you are organizing the team is similar to the way you’re hiring to the way you’re building the product. What was your inspiration or motivation for thinking around this?
I argue that’s the only way to solve a problem. Use first principles thinking, what some people call “systems thinking.” Don’t base your approach just on copying and tweaking a little bit what other people have done. Take a step back, and see how you can fundamentally solve it.
Inside Design: You’ve spoken about how designers should look “sideways” to other fields for inspiration. But if you were to tell me I should read more about architecture and fashion I may answer, “Does it help my work? Why would I do that?” How do you answer cynicism with curiosity?
Go to the edge of what is still acceptable to your peers and go to the far, far edge of that. And how do you go to the far edge of that? You distill from something not in the circular place you are living but look in a plane outside of what you are working. Imagine Andy Warhol, right? He said, “art is whatever you can get away with.”