Flipboard, a company that truly values design, will participate for a fourth time in our upcoming Bridge 5 program. Head of Design Marcos Weskamp joined Flipboard’s founding team in 2010 and played a key role in shaping its product and also the company itself. At Flipboard, both designers and engineers sketch out their ideas and everyone is expected to contribute to design discussions. We talked recently with Marcos about Flipboard, the hardest lessons he has learned as a designer, and his advice for young designers today.
To start things off, can you talk a bit about when you first became interested in information visualization?
I was inundated with information back in 2002—overwhelmed with the amount of email, articles, and all the other stuff that I would get from the web. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one affected by this. So I began exploring and observing how we consume information, how we search, how we subscribe to things, how we communicate. I started dreaming about a more intelligent web browser, one that would understand me and the people and the things I care about and that would help me make sense out of it all.
How does that translate to what Flipboard does today?
Our day-to-day challenge at Flipboard is to refine our vision of a platform where anyone can find, consume, create, and share content they love. All without feeling overwhelmed by information overload. Presently, we discover content in disparate streams—emails from friends, on blogs, Twitter. Throughout the day we process a lot of information and our brains are constantly figuring out what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Flipboard is a platform where you can find, read, and share all of this different content, regardless of where it comes from—from your friends, from different communities. The content you love you can collect in your own magazines. And those magazines get shared with your community.
For example, as a kid I was really into astronomy. I was able to look up and tell you a story about each constellation in the night sky. Later in life, this interest faded away, perhaps due to moving to a big city where stargazing wasn’t possible anymore. Just recently a friend shared a magazine on Flipboard that is all about space and exploration. This simple interaction rekindled my passion for astronomy and made me look up again.
You can think of Flipboard the platform as a sort of a designer, editor, and photographer at work for you, every single day. This group will go out, go through all the stories from all your streams, and then every morning present you with a beautifully produced personal magazine full of all the content that matters to you.
What is your design team’s process like?
To begin, we use hand-drawn sketches and basic printouts. This allows us to iterate quickly without spending too much time on fidelity. From there we typically move to a graphics editor (Photoshop, Illustrator, or Sketch) and spend time fine-tuning details and typography. We print things out and put them up on the wall. This tactility and ability to see many variations all in one space is key to having group discussions.
Our engineering team is design driven. They often take part in the initial sketching phase. I’ve noticed many times that if we go too far into figuring out all the details without incorporating engineering (or the rest of the company for that matter) throughout the process, we’ll get many details wrong.
A great consumer product is not just design driven nor just engineering driven. Instead, a great product exists at the intersection of engineering capabilities and design vision—and often engineering is pushed by design and design is influenced deeply by engineering. At Flipboard we embrace this holistic philosophy.
When you encourage everyone to draw, to come up with ideas, to be involved in the design process, a designer becomes a catalyzer. By inviting engineers to think like a designer and encouraging designers to gain a deeper understanding of engineering, the product—and ultimately the user—benefits.
So the designer is more of an editor?
Definitely. We try to curate ideas, give them shape, bounce them around within the company. Other teams then build on the ideas and design follows back to further refine. It’s a very symbiotic, extremely iterative process. A constant conversation.
That’s probably not what most people think of as being a designer.
It’s interesting… People who use your product, all they see is the top layer, “the design.” I think the best product design teams create a framework of interaction upon which engineering, marketing, and other teams can build easily and confidently.
If you’re really passionate about getting into product design, you need to go beyond the surface of a product. There’s so much more below. You need to understand and care about what goes into building product. Understanding more of the structure underneath the surface will make you a better communicator, and great products are predicated on strong communication within a company.
How have you fostered a culture of design across Flipboard?
Paper and markers are a must during a discussion. Sketching allows different ideas to materialize in front of us as we discuss product. Without sketching, everyone might end up with different conceptions of the idea. Sketching gets the idea out of your head and into everyone’s head. Again, this improves communication. Everyone is on the same page, which ultimately allows for faster iteration and a better product.
What challenges do designers face?
The toughest thing to understand as a product designer in a startup is that 99 percent of your ideas will never work or see the light of day. If more than 1 percent of your ideas are making it into the finished product, then you aren’t coming up with enough ideas.
When I began my design career, I would get extremely impatient and run with the first idea that popped in my head. Invariably, it was never an ideal solution. Sort of like trying to force a really pretty round peg into the reality of a square hole in front of me. Today I start by asking many questions. And by making sure we have stacks and stacks of ideas for every product and design problem.
If I could tell my old design self one thing, it would be to ask more questions and be ready to fail often. In a way, it’s learning to work without ego. This is something you never learn in school. Back in school, you have a youthful and naïve pride in your work. Everything you produce is a perfect flower and you feel like your teachers just don’t understand you. Of course, that’s not the case.
It’s important to understand that as a designer, you are always at service to a greater purpose. Especially in product design. Especially when you have 100 million users. Each decision has a huge impact. Asking questions and listening to all the teams simply makes you better equipped to serve that greater purpose.
We are all very protective of our own work. It can be hard to be open to feedback sometimes. But I think the more feedback we receive, the better we all get. The secret is in knowing which parts of that feedback to focus on. You may not agree with everything, but there’s always that one gem that will give an idea a completely new spin and possibly make it a thousand times better. Don’t risk missing it! Kill the ego. There are no perfect flowers!
For me, exploring uncharted territory is the most exciting part of design. That’s also maybe why I enjoy traveling, especially traveling without much research, planning, or constraints. When I go out without a schedule, with a general direction but without a map, I know I will find new things.
The same thing happens in design. Most of the time you have this feeling of not knowing what you’re doing, but you know that if you keep going this way, there’s something out there. It’s actually very spiritual, in a way. There’s a great comfort that comes once you embrace that mode of travel, that mode of design. As the old adage goes: The journey is the reward, not the destination. Understanding that removes most of the stress you would otherwise incur working on a product in a startup.
What’s your advice to those who want to break into product design or into startups?
Find a theme that ignites you. That fills you with passion. Then concoct a project—even if it’s a side project—that you can build or explore that connects with that theme. Make the time for this thing that you absolutely love. Do it not because it is really good pay but because you know that you’re going to grow by doing it. Have faith in that process. If you truly put yourself into it, your project will eventually become something much larger than you. It happened to me. Newsmap was that one side project that I built because of a deeply rooted desire to solve a problem.
I kept working on Newsmap and similar personal projects. These were projects born from my passion for information visualization. Eventually that snowballed into larger things and connections to other people who wanted to build similar things. And almost 10 years later and through a number of other projects, I met Mike McCue and Evan Doll, who were talking about building something. That something became Flipboard.