, Principal Designer at Abstract

This article is part of a series of 10 interviews with world-class designers. I’ve interviewed Junior to Senior designers from companies such as IDEO, Dropbox, Visa, Airbnb, Toptal, Shopify and others.

“Questions to your younger self” was the format I used because I believe that it’s easier to give advice to my younger self than to someone else. So, in order to make the life of my interviewees easy, they would just have to give recommendations and advice to their younger selves on what it takes to become a world-class designer and what they should avoid to speed up the process.

Without further ado, meet Tim Van Damme, Principal Designer at Abstract, and read the advice he would give his younger self to become a world-class designer.

Tim Van Damme is a designer based and raised in Belgium. Before starting his journey to build Abstract, a version control tool for designers, he was part of design teams for Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram and more.

Guidione: How would you explain Design to your younger self with one year of work experience?

Tim: One year in, I probably thought I could do anything. I probably thought I knew everything, that I was the best out there because I was very cocky, huge ego. I would tell that person that design takes time, not necessarily via the execution of design but learning how to design. There is no single way to approach a problem, every problem is different and over the years you basically start picking more and more tricks, shortcuts, or you start seeing the patterns in certain things, and then you can use your know-how to solve those specific issues.

The longer you do this, the bigger your bags of tricks becomes and the faster you can execute on things. Something else I would tell myself is that communication skills are more important than talent. You can be the best visual designer out there but if you can’t communicate with your team no one is gonna hire you and you will never be able to be part of a large project. By yourself, you can learn how to design, you can learn how to code and do things on your own. But you will always be limited by interacting with no one other than yourself so you limited by what you can build, by the size. If you wanna have a big impact you need to learn how to work with a team.

And that means work with engineers. Understanding the issues they face every single day, understanding how you can make their lives easier. How you can design something that’s not super easy but is doable for them to implement, it’s a realist design while on some time keeping your eyes on what’s new, what’s possible today that wasn’t possible yesterday. What are the new things that we can design, that we can build? Besides working with engineers it’s also about working with other designers. It’s not about you. It’s about people you surround yourself with. That’s how you make good design.

Guidione: How would you explain your design process to your younger self?

Tim: My younger self would just jump in and open Photoshop and start designing straight away. These days the process looks very different. The first thing is you need to design something. Understand the problems you’re trying to solve. Maybe for a website, not enough people go to a specific page, or not enough people are buying a specific item on that website. And if it’s an application, a lot of people are asking for a specific feature or you have this feature and it’s too complicated and something is wrong with the UX. Before I start working I need to fully understand why we are doing this.

The next thing is to understand the constraints. How much time do we have available to ship this? How much time do the engineers have to implement the design? If the engineer has a day, make sure that the design is very simple to implement. If the engineer has a week it might be worth going a bit deeper and making better use of that time. And there are also technical constraints, certain things you can do and certain things you can’t do.

As a designer, being informed about the current stage of technology definitely helps. After all, that, ask people for feedback. Talk to people that have more experience solving the problem. Go and talk to them.

After that, it’s usually a pen and paper. I start sketching the flows, what the screens will need, what the state of the screens is, what elements are necessary, list them all. And then I usually go to sketch the app. Instead of creating something new I will check what’s there. And say ‘OK, for the screens we need to build, there’s a way we can build them with pre-existing components. The more I use pre-existing components, the less time the engineers use to implement the screens. Depending on the path I’m taking, sometimes I’m confident that I’m on the right track and sometimes I am not, so I make sure that I continuously asking for feedback, make some tweaks and ask for more feedback, and so on. Ask for approval from someone who has the authority to give you approval. Sometimes, it might be the CEO, sometimes it might be the engineer. It depends. And that’s it. We launch it, and we get more feedback from the real world and go back and make some tweaks to address the feedback. That is the life-span of a product from start to end.

Guidione: Which mistakes would you tell your younger self to make?

Tim: Burn out at least once. Burn yourself out. It’s not fun and takes a lot of energy to go through it. Pushing yourself too far, doing too much work, not taking care of yourself… You end up in a state of depression, basically. It’s the temporary stage of depression where you don’t want to do anything. You realize that you have been running too fast for too long and you are exhausted. And if you are exhausted you won’t do good work. I have reached that point at least two times now. And every single time takes me weeks to recover but something in there you learn. You learn how far you can push yourself. And you learn to recognize the first signs of burnout coming. And you know that you have to take a break and care of yourself. You learn to see when you need to slow down, reorganize your life to make sure that you’re not overloaded and ask for help. We do not expect you to know everything. There is always something you don’t know how to do or something that you don’t have the time to do. Ask for help. There is always someone else in the building that can give you advice, that can help you with a specific project. And if you’re not able to recognize the early signs, you’ll walk straight toward burnout.

Guidione: What would you recommend your younger self to focus on?

Tim: Stay on top of tools. See where they are going. When I got started I did a lot of front-end work (HTML and CSS). I still do today. I still refine the way I write my CSS, making sure that I stay on top of what browsers are capable of. I wish that early on I had done more engineering myself just because it makes you so much more helpful as a designer. If something’s small enough that you can just go build it yourself, you don’t need to wait for an engineer to become available. And if not, you’ll know a lot more about things and how they work. Learn how to write your own code. Pay attention to tools, pay attention to visual design. Visual design is like fashion, what might be hot today may also be hot tomorrow, but probably not on the day after. It’s always changing. Figure out which companies are trendsetters, figure out a trend before it’s a trend. If you spend a lot of time on it you will start to figure out this crazy new design thing. A month from now everyone will be doing that new style.

Guidione: What do you advise your younger self to learn (to get extra skills on)?

Tim: Again, learn how to write code. Ideally, I would like to be able to write code for mobile apps and code for web apps. I think reactJS is the best tool for that because reactive works on web, react native works on desktop, and mobile react works inside electron and allows you to build desktop apps really quickly. Take some courses to learn how to do that. Make sure that you really understand the basics of design. I didn’t know how to use colours properly until five years into my career. One day, one engineer told me exactly how colours actually work. I wish had that knowledge before. The same with compositions. If you know how photographers compose their shots, you can learn that and apply it to design. Where the users are gonna look, where you want to guide their eyes, that is composition and information hierarchy and which types of typography to use. Its all about helping the user know what they have to do even when they only glimpse at the screen for half a second. On that half a second, they have to be able to figure out where they’re supposed to click, what is the information they are supposed to read.

Guidione: Which books would you encourage your younger self to read?

Tim: I read a lot of books about CSS and HTML, and then I started reading business books. These were useful in the end. You should read 5 books on CSS, or even just one. Once you figure out the lesson and how to use it, you should dive in and start using it immediately. Right-click on websites and view source, see how other people write their code. Go to GitHub, see open source projects and see how they work. There is a lot more value in that than any books you can read. I don’t read autobiographies, most of them are about how much money people made. I don’t know. For me, the biggest value you get today is from reading fiction and just escaping from reality for a couple of hours. I love science fiction because the writers create this non-exiting world, they create it with words and them kind of allow you to figure out how it looks like. For me, personally, it’s refreshing. It just resets my brain with something else to think about, instead of thinking in pixels, boxes, and text labels.

Guidione: Which people would you advise your younger self to follow?

Tim: Follow people that are not like yourself. People that have a unique voice, people that don’t try to rebroadcast what other people are saying. It’s fun following people like you because you probably agree with what they say but following someone who’s not like you helps you get a better perspective about how the world works. I think that’s a valuable thing for any profession for any person in the world, to just look beyond your comfort zone. I follow designers that don’t typically get hired by big companies just because what they have to say is of equal value as some of the most well-known designers in this industry. Follow weird accounts that post things that sometimes only you see as funny. Make sure that any feed you have, whether it be Twitter or Facebook, make sure that it has a great variety of things for you to look at. Again, just don’t waste hours listening to people repeat what you already think.

Guidione: What wouldn’t you tell your younger self?

Tim: There a lot of things I think I would like to tell that person but I know that that person wouldn’t listen. But I think I wouldn’t tell my younger self how much fun I’m having right now. How satisfying this job is even after 15 years. It’s fun figuring out how much fun you’re having. It’s surprising. Year after year I’m like: “Wow I still love doing this!”. I love doing it more today than yesterday. I did not think that was possible because you learn to surround yourself with better people because you keep pushing yourself to learn more. Your job becomes better every single day. It’s fun to figure it out by yourself. If I would tell my younger self like: “Hey, 15 years from now your life will be amazing and you will have a lot of fun” I don’t think my younger self would be driven to keep doing what I have been doing over the past decade.

Guidione: In talking to your younger self, how much of your current success would you attribute to hard work and how much would you attribute to luck?

Tim: I have been insanely lucky with all the opportunities I have gotten in my life. Even the beginning of my career was pure luck. I did some designs and for some reason, people thought there were good, and people started to talk about them and they wanted to hire me. I did not know how to work with a team. I knew only the basics and I was only doing the work that I wanted to do and not the work that had to be done. I’ve been lucky. I got more opportunities than I deserve and more talented and more driven people out there never get those opportunities. That makes feel privileged but also keeps me focused to do a better job, not only in my work but to do a better job including other people into the process. Keeping my eye on people that might not get the opportunities they deserve and help them grow, getting those people the opportunities they deserve, using my network to amplify their talents because they might not have the network to do that.

I hope you enjoyed the as much I did. See you around.

Later! Guid

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