Aarron Walter is the VP of Design Education at InVision, previous to his current role he spent eight years at MailChimp building the UX practice. He shares how he ended up in design leadership, and what he thinks is most challenging about his current role. We also spent some time talking about how you know when it's time to try something new and Aarron shares some wisdom for young designers looking to get into management and leadership roles. It was such a pleasure talking to Aarron, he has a lot of great learnings to share.
Tell me a bit about your current role and what that encompasses?
My title at InVision is Vice President of Design Education, which is a new practice area. Right now I’m doing a lot of research and writing about design best practices. Soon I’ll be speaking at conferences and companies sharing my findings to help establish strong design practices. I want to help elevate design in our industry.
You've been leading and building design teams for quite some time. What was your path into design leadership and education like?
My path is a little weird. My educational training is as a painter. I studied painting as both an undergrad and graduate student. After I left school, I became a teacher and spent about 8 or 9 years teaching in the United States and Europe. I taught design classes, technology, front-end development and a bit of server-side development. I also taught some hoity-toity things like non-linear narrative and history of communication media. I taught a lot about design and storytelling and how we can pull technology and culture together.
In 2007, I met Ben Chestnut, the CEO and co-founder of MailChimp. He was a guest speaker in a few of my classes and we got to know each other. I was writing my first book and wanted to write about MailChimp in one of the chapters. Through that, I ended up joining them. They said, “Well, great, you’re writing about us, why don’t you just join us and help us build this design team?”
At the time, we had a new engineer and myself, the designer. We worked together to rebuild MailChimp, rethink it and explore how the brand could evolve. We wanted to keep as much of the brand as possible. There was talk of making MailChimp more formal and business-like because some people looked at MailChimp as weird or juvenile. It was informal and had this personality. I’d been a customer for years before I joined and that’s what I loved about it, that there was this personality present.
As for how I started building teams, I fell into it, to be honest. Teaching taught me to learn and explore lots of new things on a regular basis, I was freelancing and working with clients at the same time. There was always an element of learning in my work.
That continued when I joined MailChimp. I was building a design team and learning on the job. We were given tremendous freedom to experiment with not just the product, but the business. We were learning and sharing, and that eventually turned into books and talks. The company grew and I had to build design teams, I had to consider the types of people I would hire.
Over the course of eight years at MailChimp I built the UX practice, and then ultimately that shifted to a new product team, where it was a different set of team values, and then an R&D team that was also a different value system.
“I’ve found that sometimes I don’t necessarily know what I really want to do, or what’s exciting to me. So, I could either sit and wait for some revelation of what I want to do, or I could try things.”
How did you go from painting and the fine arts into product design?
It was both accidental and on purpose. The paintings I made would just take so long to make. I’d produce two paintings in a month and I spent a lot of time in my studio. That was really painful. I wanted to prototype them faster, so I took a Photoshop class. Those images were interesting, but weren't really art, they were just weird and curious to me. This was the 90's when the web was young. We just got the image tag, and that was kind of a big deal[laughs].
That led me to learn about animation, so I studied After Effects. I wanted to create interaction, so I studied Macromedia Director. It taught me a bit of programming. Once I was bitten, I had to keep going. I had this feeling that I could change the world with painting. That was always my passion since I was a little kid. When I became an adult, I felt like I couldn't really change the world with painting. But, when I discovered the web that's where I felt, "Alright, this is the medium of my time where the power is. All the people will be here eventually."
That's how I made that transition.
You held a few different roles at MailChimp and now your role at InVision. Throughout your career, how and when do you know that it’s time for a new challenge?
I think your body tells you. At least that’s true for me. When I start feeling really tired, stressed or nervous. Those are usually a sign that something is going on in your mind. I make sure to ask myself if I’m emotionally engaged, and if I’m satisfied in what I’m doing.
For me, I'm so passionate about my work, I'm really invested in it. I see my work as me. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I think that's kind of a dangerous thing, actually. It makes it harder to go through a transition, to shift from one thing to another thing. I was a professor and that was my passion, now I’m a designer. I was a product designer before there were product designers. That was new territory for me.
I was familiar with the technology part, but managing people, hiring people, all of that was new. That’s scary, but I’ve found that when I make a transition, the fear is usually the thing that I let guide me. If it feels scary, that probably means that I'm going in the right direction, so I'm going to just keep going and trust that I'm going to be able to figure it out and do something on the other side.
I think it’s important to reflect on what’s meaningful to me and what I want to do. But, I’ve found that sometimes I don’t necessarily know what I really want to do, or what’s exciting to me. So, I could either sit and wait for some revelation of what I want to do, or I could try things. I’ve found that trying things is always better than not.
Freedom is the most compelling thing to me about life. Having the freedom to try things out, the freedom to stop, to be wrong, and to learn something new. I want to always give myself that. If I ever find myself in a place where I’m not engaged, or not learning, that’s the signal that I’m giving up freedom. Then it's just a matter of trusting your gut.
“The hardest thing is being succinct. There are so many things that can be said about how to do design well, but what are the fewest number of things that can be shared that will have the greatest impact on a company?”
In your current role, or in design leadership in general, what do you find to be the biggest challenges?
Even though I’ve only been in this role for three weeks, it’s super fascinating to me and so perfect for where I am in my life. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned over the past eight years or so. Not just in my own career but also in our industry as a whole, it’s changed so much in the past eight years.
I want to translate those lessons into best practices and share that with companies. How design teams can be built, how they can be run and how they can make products really well. The hardest thing is being succinct. There are so many things that can be said about how to do design well, but what are the fewest number of things that can be shared that will have the greatest impact on a company?
It might be a company from an older industry and they see software just eating their lunch. There’re all these different competitors popping up and they’ve got to figure out how to compete in a new way. Not just on product offerings or features, but they’ve got to compete on quality, and design is at the heart of that.
The way that consumers buy and think about software is different. They’re so sophisticated, they can recognize good software and bad software. When they fire up their banking app on their phone and they know that it sucks, they’re going to complain and they’re going to switch. Even though it’s a painful process to switch your financial institution, they will, because their current experience doesn’t feel good.
That’s just one sector where I see a lot of disruption happening. For me, I want to try to figure out what I can do to help these companies see how design creates value and help them change as quickly as possible so they can survive and move forward.
Do you have any particular routines or processes you've developed that help you manage your time amongst communication versus heads down work you need to get done?
I’m new to remote work, and my new position is totally remote so I’m still trying to figure some of that stuff out.
I wake up early and make breakfast for my family. I’ve got two little boys so I make breakfast for them, get them dressed and off to school. Then I run, and running helps me. Now that I’m not commuting to Atlanta, I have that time. Before I was doing a 70-mile commute three days a week, now I get to run.
During that time, I’ll either listen to a book or a podcast, or I’m just quiet. It helps me collect thoughts and ideas. That’s the thing I feel most confident about, what I bring to the table in an organization is connecting lots of different ideas. That's from studying painting, that's what painting is all about. It's creatively connecting disconnected things. Having that time where I can run or focus, that helps me tremendously with that sort of work.
Then when I need to focus and be really productive, I just turn off the Internet. That’s probably the best tool for me, the off switch. I also have this desire to check e-mail in the morning, but I find that makes me a lot less creative and productive if I do. Instead, I try to check it at the end of the day, because the morning is where my head is the clearest. If I clutter it up with all these different inputs, it’s hard to be productive.
What are some of the main tools that make up your workflow?
Google Apps - I spend a ton of time in just Google apps, Google docs, Google spreadsheets. I use spreadsheets for writing, too, which is handy, to work through ideas. I use Google Hangouts. All of those apps are super useful to me.
IA Writer - I like IA Writer when I really need to focus on a new piece.
Espresso Machine - I have a fancy espresso machine that is one of my favourite tools [laughs]. It was custom made for me in Seattle. That's my best tool. I make a latte, I turn off the Internet, and I get to work.
“The best thing I do to prevent burnout is to give myself the space for inputs. I need to read, I need to consume lots of different ideas.”
Do you ever find yourself experiencing burnout? How does that manifest for you and how do you help manage that and deal with that?
Burnout, I've felt burnout. The times where I’ve had that, it's usually when I have too many constraints upon me. I'm the sort of person that feels most comfortable with open space to explore. As more constraints are put on what I need to do, it's just not very exciting to me. For a mind like mine, where I’m connecting lots of different things, that’s most interesting when I can look broadly at those things and I’m given the space to do that. When I am overly constrained in scope of what's possible, it's just not very interesting to me.
Burnout in terms of too much work is harder for me to detect. Usually I stop sleeping very well. At that point, just making some space, taking a vacation or a break is good.
The best thing I do to prevent burnout is to give myself the space for inputs. I need to read, I need to consume lots of different ideas. I need to be able to read tons of articles. I try to read books, but I find that I cannot sit still to read them so I listen to books, that helps me. Lots of podcasts too.
I've interviewed so many different leaders, CEOs, managers over the years. A common thread that I've heard is that they spend an inordinate amount of time to reading, 50% of their day will be devoted to reading. I don't devote 50% of my day to reading, but I definitely do make it an important part of what I do. I use Nuzzel to be able to find interesting articles that are being shared on Twitter. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters to find things. I try to set myself up so that the content is coming to me and then I can kind of pick and choose from there. I save a ton of things to Instapaper and then use the read out loud feature. I’ll queue up like eight articles and just listen to them in the car or while I’m running.
I've got to have inputs, and lately what I've been doing is scheduling calls with people in the industry that I admire, that are experts on different topics. I'll just take notes, come in with a list of questions and I'll ask a lot of things to help me learn. That's always great.
Do you ever find that consuming a lot of new stuff like that can be overwhelming? There’s a lot out there and it can be a lot if you don’t have time to reflect on it or apply it to your own life.
Yeah, and there is so much right now. I feel, especially after Medium launched, there are just so many people publishing. To be honest, a lot of it is crap, a lot of it is not very good. You can sink two or three minutes per article before you realize, “this is actually not meaningful at all.” There is a point at which you can reach saturation, where you have just consumed so much and you have to stop.
For me, putting that in my brain and letting it stew, the meaningful stuff will come out. Of course, I take notes and jot things down in a Moleskine or Evernote, but I don't actually reference that writing as much, the act of writing is more about putting it in my head for the way that I learn.
What would your advice be for young designers that are eager to become better design leaders in their company, or on their teams?
I think they need to talk to people that have done it before wherever possible. Get coaching tips. The number one tip that I give people who are new to managing is that you need to be doing one on one meetings with all your direct reports. That's one of those things that I learned by not doing it.
You have to make space one on one to talk to people. It builds rapport. It helps you learn if something is going on in someone's life, if they feel dissatisfied, if they've got roadblocks in their work. These are all things that might cause them to quit. Or, it might cause them to not be very productive and they might miss a deadline. It might cause political backbiting because they’re not getting along with someone. If you make that space you can head that off.
The one thing I would say about designers who feel compelled to become managers is that you don't have to do it. You need to be honest about what that transition looks like, because it probably means you’re not going to be designing anymore. It means that you are going to be further and further away from making things.
To some people, that's okay. If you like talking to people, if you like coaching people and helping people see the big picture, that's great. I think that a lot of people feel compelled to move to a managerial role because they want to get paid more, or they want to improve their reputation in the company. They want to feel like they are growing, but you can either grow in craft by becoming a better designer, or you can grow in this new direction, which is to be a manager.
I don't feel like it's a path that everyone has to have, and in all honesty, not everyone is very good at it. It's hard to do.
“The one thing I would say about designers who feel compelled to become managers is that you don't have to do it. You need to be honest about what that transition looks like, because it probably means you’re not going to be designing anymore.”
From your experience, what aspects go along with being a design manager or leader that people don’t know until they do it?
There are a lot of therapy sessions that inevitably play out. Where people are lost and confused in their work, and they don't know what they want. They might be dissatisfied with a project or a company or they’re having a conflict with someone else. It’s a lot of conflict management and general coaching.
It was something I had to do all the time when I was a professor. Students would have issues and we would sit and talk to work through that stuff. I liked that. I liked being able to help people find joy in their life again.
A big part of being a manager is enabling people and clearing roadblocks. I always told my direct reports what their superpower was and what was their kryptonite. I would say, “This is your super power, you are really good at this, do you know that? I hired you for this.” It blows their mind, so many people don’t know what it is they’re good at.
Then I also tell them what they’re not very good at. Whether they struggle to work with others or to communicate their ideas. It gives them an honest perception of themselves so they can grow, but it also helps them collaborate with others.
If everyone knows their superpower and their kryptonite, they can collaborate better.
“Freedom is the most compelling thing to me about life. Having the freedom to try things out, the freedom to stop, to be wrong, and to learn something new. I want to always give myself that.”
Why do you do what you do, and what makes it so meaningful to you?
Software is such a part of daily life. I like that it’s changing us, changing humanity. I know that’s sort of a grand thing. I don’t feel like I’m necessarily pushing that forward in a big way, but in a small way being able to learn, try things and share that with other people. I think sharing knowledge can make us better at making software, and by making better software, it changes what’s possible for people.
In the next 15-20 years, life is going to look very different. I feel like the question of whether or not we’re going to survive on this planet will be connected to how well we make tools to solve the big problems that are in front of us. I like feeling connected—even in a very tiny way—to bigger goals like that.
I like that I get to learn all the time and work with smart people. That’s probably the most satisfying part, just the opportunity to work with incredibly smart people.
Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?
Julie Zhuo - She’s the VP of Product Design at Facebook. She’s super smart and has really interesting observations about being a designer and a manager.
Laura Martini - She went to MIT and studied engineering. With both an engineering and a UX background, she’s really gifted at seeing the big picture and how people work.