Valarie Hamm Carlson and Ian Collins: Design is not a department

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Aug 23, 2016
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Can design make banking less awful? It’s certainly working for Portland, Oregon-based Simple, a technology company that’s on a mission to help people feel confident with their money. Members of the InVision community, Simple defines their success by how happy their customers are.

We sat down with Senior Brand Director Valarie Hamm Carlson and Creative Director Ian Collins to talk about collaboration, work-life balance, and goofy office furniture.

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Tell us about Simple’s design team structure.

Ian: Val and I represent the creative collective at Simple. We have 2 distinct teams, the product design team and the brand studio team, that form one big, creative team. Together, we handle the visual and written expressions of the Simple brand.

In Simple’s early days, engineers became de facto designers, which meant that design was everyone’s job. That shared sense of ownership naturally evolved into our current design structure. I’m the Creative Director, but I also run the product design team. The brand studio is technically more on Val’s side, but even saying things like “side” starts to feel like the opposite of what we’re going for—we want to be one big team within the company.

“Find things that seem boring and challenge yourself to make them interesting.”

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How do you communicate with each other and how do you communicate with people on different teams?

Valarie: We use Slack quite a bit, and one of the best things is just being able to say, “Ian are you around? Can I hit you up and ask you about something? Where are you in our mega space?” Then we find each other.

Ian: We have an hour session every week where the entire team gets together. For the first 30 minutes, we share inspiration. For the second half, one person shares a particular design challenge they’re facing, to get feedback from across the entire creative community here at Simple.

It’s a great way to eliminate the divide between teams and people, and to think about product design and other types of visual design.

Something we found out right away: Conversations about something different are always the most engaging.Twitter Logo For example, our copywriter joined one of our product design meetings and shared some of his work. Creative people are always fascinated by the inner workings of another creative process.

What do you think it means to have a good work culture?

Valarie: Alignment around the mission, and the intent of the company. That’s how we attract a lot of talent—people see what Simple stands for, both in terms of design and our point of view, and they’re inspired. Not many people are inspired to go into the banking industry, but there’s an impact to be made. And people who come here are totally game for the challenge of working in such a heavily regulated industry.

Our mission is to help people feel confident with their money. We formalized our values last year around empathy, craft, efficacy, and curiosity. That plays a huge role in our design process and the type of copy we write, because we’re constantly asking, “How is the other person going to interpret this? Is it interesting? And does it feel human?”

What’s a typical day at Simple like for you?

Ian: I make myself available for anything—especially when someone needs me to come over and give feedback. I also survey a lot of work that happens across the company and use InVision heavily to see what’s going on.

I have a lot of conversations about what’s next, what’s doing well at the moment, and what we’re not doing well. I’m spending a ton of time right now on figuring out process because the product design group is relatively new. We’re figuring out how we can include more people and get more work done—and how we can be more collaborative.

Valarie: It’s a combination of looking at the small details that have cumulative impact over time, and then the big-picture vision. For example, Ian and I worked closely on the new space design and thought a lot about how our employees would live in this space.

Can you share anything interesting that you learned about designing a good work environment?

Ian: Functional chairs are a must.

One of the big things we decided was no high-concept furniture. Nobody actually wants to sit on a wobbly, goofy stoolTwitter Logo or in a hanging chair. It’s uncomfortable.

We wanted to stay true to the engineering-driven culture we have here. We have good, functional, and beautiful stuff, but a couple pieces—like the poofy ottomans in one room—slipped by and that was a lesson learned. Don’t try anything too different or cute or precious—it might not be functional. Stick with what works.

We set out to build a space that felt like home—even down to the style of molding we used. We used the cheap wooden trim because it looks more like a home. The rugs and lighting throughout the office are all different, so it feels like you’re in a living room.

“People don’t want to work in a corporate headquarters.”

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We just asked ourselves, “Would you have this in your home?” And if the answer is no, you should be really hesitant to have it in your office. Obviously things like whiteboards get a pass—that’s balancing that home-like feel with functionality.

Valarie: People don’t want to work in a corporate headquarters.

How do you hand off designs to the engineering team?

Ian: We like to say that “design is not a department”—meaning that everyone at the company is invested in design. Design is a collaborative process from the beginning.Twitter Logo In the very early stages, we get the product designer, engineer, and product manager into a room and just start sketching out some ideas so we can determine our design goals.

From there, we start designing and go from rough sketches directly into things that look like the real app. We don’t focus so much on exact sizing and layout. We find that as opposed to do mockups, InVision prototypes get much more reactive feedback from folks during user studies. Engineers are able to visualize what things do and give solid feedback.

“Design is not a department.”

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How do you use InVision as part of your design process?

Ian: Boards has been a critical tool for us. I create a lot of Boards because I work more on figuring out high-level guiding principles and visions for projects. Boards are a great way to collect inspirationTwitter Logo and get an idea of where we’re trying to go without having any of us do much design work in advance.

Valarie: InVision helps our design strategy come to life. Plus, it’s great as an engagement tool to make sure everybody’s on the same page.

“InVision helps our design strategy come to life.”

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What do you do when you’re having a hard time focusing?

Valarie: Sometimes when you’ve been at something for too long and nothing is working, you have to put it back in the corner and take a break. Another thing to try: Turn the challenge over to someone else. They’ll likely have a unique perspective and approach that’ll help you see things a different way.

Ian: A long walk can do wonders.

What have you worked on at Simple that you’re most proud of?

Valarie: For me, it’s not a project—it’s how strong our team is and the fact that people want to work here.

Ian: I love that we’ve created that sense that design is everyone’s responsibility here.

Valarie: Even our finance team, when they were designing an internal budget management tool, wanted it designed well and beautiful for internal clients. People here are proud to be advocates for good design.

How do you make sure everybody on your team has a good work-life balance?

Ian: It always comes down to culture: What are the norms and what is expected? I spent the first 7 or so years of my career in San Francisco working at startups. I worked at some places that were good, and I worked at some places where you were almost a pariah if you left at 5 because they gave you free dinner.

At first the free dinner was at 5:30, but then by the time I left, it wasn’t happening until 7:30. It was also a culture where everybody stayed late because we were all single white males. That was tough. I didn’t like that balance.

“Set a good example for work-life balance so others feel comfortable.”

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Moving to Portland has helped a lot. The culture here is much more around family-building and work-life balance. During our weekly all-hands meetings on Fridays, we’ve had sessions where we talk about a particular engineer who gets a lot of amazing work done. What we’ve pointed out specifically is that this person comes in at 9 and leaves at 5 every day—and he doesn’t work on weekends or evenings because he has 2 kids. It’s important to set the example so others feel more comfortable doing it.

Valarie: Though we’ve designed a beautiful workspace and we want everyone to feel comfortable here, people are welcome to go home or work from a coffee shop if they’d like.

It’s not about where you should be, but more about what you need right now to do your best work.

Do you have any advice for young designers?

Valarie: Always keep your audience first—they should be your muse.Twitter Logo Our best work is beautiful and smart but also meaningful and useful to the people who are consuming the content. That’s the magical combo.

As a young creative, there’s a tendency to measure yourself on getting a concept right the first time around. The process of gathering feedback and how you respond to that input is a better indicator of talent and your ability to hone your craft.

Find things that seem boring and challenge yourself to make them interesting.Twitter Logo Those are some of the opportunities where you can make the greatest difference.

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