Product Designer and Design Systems Lead
Welcome to the second edition of Async Chats! This letter is all about candid conversations with people like yourself. If you’d like some more context see this letter. Otherwise, let’s get into this.
Karl is a Product Designer and Design Systems Lead. He lives in London, UK and is a hybrid worker.
Why Hybrid Work?
I’d much rather have the flexibility of being able to work from my own space the majority of the time. Although this was a symptom of Covid, I’m fortunate that my company has made this a permanent fixture of our set up which means we’ve been able to reduce office size and we’ve seen increased productivity off of the back of it all too. It’s a win win for everyone involved and it also means we can be more flexible about where we choose to live.
What are your interests outside of work?
I tend to spend my spare time doing design work for some of my contract clients as well as writing music or dabbling in building web or iOS/macOS projects.
What are some of your favorite digital or physical tools?
I have a few key staples, but I’m actually quite a stock tools kind of guy. The products I couldn’t live without are: M1 Mac mini and M1 MacBook Pro, iPad Air with Apple Pencil, Logi MX Master 3, Figma, VSCode, Craft, Fig, Xcode, Hand››over, Cosmic CMS and my personal bookmark syncing service built off of the back of my website’s CMS and built in SwiftUI.
Do you prefer to work/ communicate asynchronously or synchronously? Why?
I’m happy with both, I sometimes love to get inside a Figma file and thrash out ideas with the people it impacts in real time, but I also love to get into a flow and work in isolation for a longer block of time and then share where I’m at. So I’d say I’m probably 70/30 asynchronous to synchronous.
Questions of the week:
Based on this edition of The Gray Area.
As a designer, how do you feel about creating with constraints?
Well, I’d say Design is entirely about constraints. Whether you’re being provided a brief with pre-baked constraints, or you’re adding constraints yourself through research and exploration, or that the constraints are added when you start working more closely with engineering. So in that sense, I think we can’t avoid them and that’s a good thing. The real world is filled with constraints, from where you’re allowed to park to what choices are available at your local coffee shop. We learn to live with them and adapt to them, and the same can be said of Design. Constraints are there to keep us in check, to ensure that we don’t go off the rails designing something that’s out of scope, or undeliverable. That being said, constraints can get in the way of creativity if they’re put in place before you’ve even had a chance to explore. More on this below.
Do you feel that it limits your creative freedom?
Yes and no. I think what I tend to find is that you learn where to bend the rules and where to draw the line. When constraints are placed on the project from the outset, you immediately narrow the scope to a very small chunk of what it could be. This is what’s known as the “Discover” phase in the double diamond process. If we place too many and too rigid a set of constraints at this point of a project, we severely limit the amount that we can push the boundaries. I’ve also seen countless times that we can end up delivering the wrong solution to a problem, because in fact the problem we solved wasn’t a problem at all, it was something entirely different. If we chose to be more free of some of these constraints earlier on, we’d limit that happening and this is a big reason why the double diamond exists, we want to constraint it a little later in the process when we come to “Define” what we’re doing.
Do you see a design system as a constraint?
I’m a huge design systems fan. At Moneybox I led our transition from Sketch to Figma and led the complete rebuild of our design system from scratch. In the process, we had to define our own set of constraints around what we do and don’t do to update our components and library to leverage the power of Figma through variants and auto layout. So in building the system, you have to start with a set of constraints and the same applies to how you communicate usage to your team and how far you take documentation. So as a Design Systems Lead and owner, I firmly believe they are a set of constraints and that they do impact on the design process but it’s those very constraints that ensure that we deliver a consistent and valuable customer experience. This in turn would eventually erode customer trust and product reliability, let alone cause more complexity and problems in the engineering process.
Do you have any best practices to use creative constraints to benefit your design process?
I think ultimately the way I leverage constraints is to not introduce them too early in the process. A lot of designers will aim to be loose at the beginning, whether that’s starting with post-it notes or paper sketches, but you can be free of constraints by simply writing a journal or holding a workshop. The most important thing is to go as wide as possible in the beginning phases and be as free as possible in your thinking. The more free you are at the beginning, the more you can constrain in the following phase to narrow your focus on the best results. But importantly, we shouldn’t constrain an idea or set of ideas just for the sake of it, explore the broadest spread for as long as your project allows and make sure you allow yourself to go wide again when designing a solution. Following the double diamond process is a proven and excellent way to explore constraints and a lack of them in a well structured process. The double diamond in itself is a set of constraints but arguably you can’t escape all constraints. The choice is which constraints you take advantage of and which you challenge.
What is something few people know about you?
I’ve been fortunate enough to tour the UK and Europe several times in my band Echoes. Music is a great passion of mine and songwriting is something that brings me great catharsis.
Anything new or important you’d like to mention to the readers?
I’m always dropping new plugins for Figma if you’re a designer. If not, and you’re looking for your next content management system, check out Cosmic where we’re in the process of completely rethinking the future of headless content management.
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