David Klein's mellifluous design observations and opinions
the latest · updated 02-24-2021
Design and Write Separately
Designers beginning their careers or looking for their next gig often express similar frustrations when working on portfolio case studies: “Where do I begin?!” After writing a few paragraphs they become frustrated and unsure of their progress. The design must be beautiful! I’m a designer, right? My case study better be perfect! Fortunately there is a solution to this problem.
When working on your case study it is crucial that you separate the design from the content. Do not start with a blinking cursor. Do not jump right in to Wordpress or Squarespace or Tumblr (I once used Tumblr to build a portfolio). Look at the screenshot below. How can you possibly juggle how your portfolio should look while trying to write?
Just looking at this gives me anxiety.
Here is how I approach writing case studies. Remember high school or college English classes? Remember essays? Start with a pencil, Google Docs, Pages (I used Pages to write all of my essays at Cornell), or a basic text editor (I use iA Writer) and focus on the content at a high level. I quickly wrote an outline for an app I worked on in 2015. (Sadly it is gone forever because competing against Facebook in the social networking space is not ideal.) Here are some questions to consider:
- What is the problem you and your team tried to solve? Perhaps it’s “There are no apps for me to look at my friends’ product reviews.”
- What is the story you want to tell? Perhaps it’s “I worked with a small team to build a beautiful app but in the end we learned that we failed to find a real problem.”
- What sections do you need? Perhaps it’s introduction, problem, exploration, solution, and outcome.
- What images do you need to include? Perhaps you need screenshots of how product reviews look on typical social networking apps, prototypes, illustrations that convey the goals of a few prototypes, marketing materials, and final mockups.
- Where will you put images? Avoid using so many images that they get in the way of telling a story.
Write a thorough outline. Getting more information out of your head at this stage will help you efficiently write the details later.
Just fill out each section and prepare your screenshots!
Now convert each line of text into a few sentences or paragraph. Fill in the details. Get into a writing flow. Again: you are not thinking about design. You are focusing on content. Typography and colors come later. Tell your story!
Yes, writing is crucial for a successful designer. Deal with it.
Once you are confident that the content is ready (including images captions because they are a fun way to inject personality), you can select a content management system and browse templates. I’ve used so many (even Carbonmade!) and they all have pros and cons. If you want to discuss in detail please feel free to Tweet me. In my opinion it is wholly unnecessary to design and build a template from scratch now. Even Jekyll has templates (although most are pretty scrappy looking).
OK you’ve selected a template and you’re ready to write. Wait you already wrote everything in Pages (seriously give it a try)! Just simply copy and paste your text and upload your images. When your content is already written, building your portfolio is fast and easy. After inputting everything you can focus on the design. Tweak your typography. Mess with colors. Try different templates. You are free to experiment. You finished the hard part; now comes the fun.
As discussed last week in my post about portfolio presentations, designers inevitably have to share their work when applying for a job. What I witness often is the uninspiring real estate tour (or “harbor tour” if you are from the UK). Designers present a high fidelity mockup and talk about the navigation, content, buttons, personas, colors, etc. They are skipping the most important part: the problem.
Every project, flow, and mockup must be presented as part of a problem/solution pair. What is the problem you are trying to solve, and why is this solution ideal? For example, when I applied to become a product designer at Salesforce, I presented my work at iControl Networks (now Alarm.com). I did not start with an interface; I started with a very high-level problem: security systems are old. They run on POTS, are not connected to broadband, do not support new technologies like Zigbee or Z-Wave, and, most importantly, are difficult to use.
Wait! Is this the right problem? No! This immediately jumps to the technology. Why should the hiring manager care that security systems are old? How can you connect the hiring manager to a real world problem? People purchase a security system because they want to protect their family. But what happens when you leave your home?
Problem: I’m not home, and I want to know that my family is safe.
Solution: Build a system that allows people to quickly know that their family is safe.
By the way, I’m not exaggerating; this is really how I presented my portfolio. One slide to talk about the problem, and another for the solution.
Keynote > PDF > PowerPoint > Google Slides
If you’re presenting at a high level immediately tell them the solution
Family. Everyone can relate to that. After grounding the audience to the purpose of the company, it’s now time to discuss my team’s role. When you configure a home with a dozen sensors, a security panel, a few cameras, a couple thermostats, and a bunch of smart plugs, it becomes overwhelming trying to ascertain the state of your family and home. Instead of showing the final interface, demonstrate the design challenge.
Oh that’s not ideal. Should I jump to the main event here and show the final interface? No! First explain why a lot of data is overwhelming. The hiring manager can’t appreciate the awesome final mockup without first understanding why it’s awesome. In the image above the user is forced to scan a list of devices’ icons and states, and then make an interpretation about the state of their home. That’s time-consuming and frustrating. There must be a better way. Perhaps a symbol.
When you start simple the audience can follow along
One symbol to summarize all activity in the home. The problem here is there’s so much device and sensor activity that you may not be confident you fully comprehend everything after glancing at one symbol. Windows may be open, people may be tripping motion sensors while walking around, the security panel may be in a specific arm state, etc. This can be solved by including a few words to summarize the state of the home.
You can see this concept coming together after a few slides. It’s important to note that the audience has still not seen high fidelity mockups. First I dedicated time to establish context by explaining the problem, and now I’m walking you through how we solved it. By now the audience should have a clear idea of the interface’s structure and purpose. It’s time to add fidelity.
High fidelity time. Check out that gradient.
We arrived. The symbol plus a couple text snippets like “Armed Stay. All Quiet.” tells the user that the security panel is armed, no sensors are tripped, and all devices are online. Here is where you remind the audience what the problem is and explain why this solution is ideal. There’s a lot of data produced by sensors and devices. This interface allows the user to launch the app, glance at the interface, and feel confident that their family and home are safe. We started with a list of devices and their individual states, and ended with a symbol paired with a few words.
Without context mockups are just pictures. They may be beautiful or innovative, but context is what enables the hiring manager to understand what they are looking at and why. A problem/solution pair connects your mockups to a complete user experience. At the end of your presentation the hiring manager should be confident that you can solve her problems.
After speaking with many designers through Out of Office Hours and, as a new design leader, interviewing many candidates for a position on my team, I detected a theme with portfolio presentations.
First, the candidate provides a link to a portfolio website, and the hiring manager is intrigued by both its content and aesthetics. The portfolio includes long-form posts that the manager can leisurely read. The candidate then excels during the initial phone screens with a fun conversation about their experiences and a summary of a recent project or two. Then comes the most exciting part: the group presentation.
A common mistake I witness is the recycling of materials: the candidate presents their website instead of an artifact that is appropriate for a presentation. A website is an asynchronous presentation. I can click around, read at my own pace, and take the necessary time to understand each detail. Take a look at the complexity of a website and imagine someone speaking to you while you attempt to decipher its content. Navigation, title, paragraphs of text, images, etc.
Some websites are much busier than this…
A presentation is different. People listening to your voice cannot simultaneously digest a detail-rich website. Listeners require something simple to view so they can subconsciously transition between the words you are speaking, and the content on screen. One moment your words are the primary focus and the content is on the periphery. The next moment they are interpreting the content and your voice moves to the periphery. If a website is on the screen it is highly unlikely that listeners can both follow your words and paragraphs of text. A PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides presentation is crucial for focus. The applicant is forced to reduce and simplify. Take a look at a simple slide.
All of my slides look like this.
With only a title, a few words, and an image I can quickly ascertain the information the applicant is conveying. Within a couple seconds my primary focus transitions from your voice to the slide and back to your voice. Listeners will miss less of the nuances of your speaking style, personality, and information.
I highly recommend preparing both a portfolio and a presentation when applying for a product design role. Please reach out on Twitter if you have questions. I’d be delighted to review your portfolio and presentation.
Normally I ignore Apple rumors, but it’s rare to read about one that indicates a reversal in design. MG Siegler writes about Apple laptop speculation:
Mainly, since Apple is clearly feeling nostalgic, I want them to bring back the glowing Apple logos on the back of MacBooks — something they seem to want to do themselves if you just look at all their recent marketing!
Nostalgic for the sake of nostalgia? Or is Apple considering returning to an era of prioritizing function over form?
Previously Apple’s PowerBook and original MacBook laptops had a number of features that provided reassurance. The MagSafe connector had a small light with two colors: orange to indicate charging, and green to indicate a full battery. Those tiny lights weren’t crucial features, but they helped reassure me that the computer was working properly. Do computers mostly work properly? Of course! But it’s nice to be reassured.
Older Apple laptops had a button on the battery (when batteries were visible and detachable). One tap of the button lit up 1, 2, 3, or 4 lights to indicate if the battery was 25%, 50%, 75%, or 100% charged. This saved me from opening the laptop and entering my password just to learn the battery’s charge state. Again, not crucial but reassuring.
There was also a white light that glowed when the laptop was in its sleep state. It increased and decreased in brightness like a person breathes in and out of their lungs. That subtle glow told me that there were no problems entering the sleep state. Once every couple of years my laptop (even the 2016 MacBook Pro) will be stubborn and not want to actually go to sleep. Is this problem that only occurs every few years worth building a feature to remedy? Of course not. But the light was there and I appreciated it.
Apple’s modern laptops are svelte, minimalist, and vague similar to the iPhone. One could argue that the iPhone exterior could be more beneficial to the user with lights to indicate power, cellular strength, WiFi strength, and battery availability like the Status Bar. That would be more consistent with Apple’s older laptops. Each of those indicators are solved with software on the iPhone, and I assume Apple’s industrial design team arrived at the same conclusion for laptops: users can learn the state of the laptop by looking at the screen. The problem is laptops and phones are not used or perceived the same way. Phones are much closer to us in the sense that they are always one second away from use. They never go to sleep. They are never shut. Compare this to laptops which We walk away from for hours or days at a time. Laptops remain mysterious with more potential for problems.
Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the laptop’s sleek but helpless aesthetic and provide users with bits of information that build trust and confidence. A bunch of lights surrounding the surface may sound tacky, but there is a balance between reassuring and unattractive.
Throughout my career in user interface design I have sought to create balance and harmony through a combination of whitespace, typography, color, and content. One tool I have never fully embraced is the grid. I first began trying in approximately 2010 using GuideGuide, an early Photoshop plugin. With GuideGuide you can enter a few values and a perfect grid appears on your artboard. However, whenever I try to enforce a rigid grid I end up breaking it more often than allowing it to lead.
Elements on the page beg to be placed a few pixels away from a gutter. Text boxes become constrained. It’s frustrating as a designer to ignore something you carefully configured.
The above example from Figma and UI2, their updated design system, is a masterful example of both grid design and implementation. I plan on encouraging my team to think about how new designs can embrace a simple grid.
Starting 2021 with a New Home Screen
No, I do not normally show a photo of myself on my home screen
I was inspired by MG Siegler to share my homescreen at the start of this new year. According to Screen Time I look at my home screen around 80 times each day. It should be carefully curated and arranged to ensure I can quickly access the apps and content I’m seeking.
I’ve always strived to minimize the number of apps on my devices. If I stop using an app I delete it. This leads to a strictly simple home screen with just a few apps and folders. Also iOS 14 introduced a couple new features that can help reduce the number of visible app icons:
- You can now remove apps from your home screen(s) and access them either by search or the App Library.
- Widgets can launch their corresponding apps so you do not need their app icons on the home screen.
I love experimenting with widgets, and I can’t wait to see what developers build in 2021. Yes, I am aware that Android has had widgets for several years. Android is ugly and buggy. Move on.
Widgets force me to be even pickier about which apps are placed on the home screen. Now I’m down to just 12 (8 if you do not include the dock).
Seeing random photos from my collection that begins in 2002 when I purchased my first digital camera, a Canon S200, brings me so much joy. Occasionally there will be a photo with a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while, and I’ll immediately send it to them.
Things is my to do list app on iOS, macOS, and iPadOS. I’ve used it on and off for several years with the occasional break to try something new. The widget provides a glimpse of what I need to accomplish soon. I often switch to my work list when I know work-related tasks are piling up.
Fantastical is my calendar app on iOS, macOS, and iPadOS. It provides much more functionality and customization compared to the built-in Calendars app. Seeing what meetings are coming up helps me subconsciously prepare throughout the day.
I use the built-in Camera app for taking casual photos of objects and people. When I want to take a serious photo in RAW that I will curate, edit, and share later I launch Halide.
I use Photos to organize photos as part of a four step process: shot, approved, edited, shared on Instagram, and shared on Unsplash. Photos move from album to album throughout this process.
Clock isn’t the most exciting app, but I oscillate between a few different alarm times during the week.
1Password is my password manager on iOS, macOS, and iPadOS. Passwords and online security will be its own post someday. The summary is my passwords are usually 20 characters of letters, numbers, and symbols. Any service that offers two-factor authentication is also configured using 1Password. It is crucial to have quick access to this app to copy and paste passwords and one time codes.
Sadly I have an important friend group that includes a few Android phones. They are not interested in Signal, Telegram, etc. Hopefully I can remove this someday and be free of Facebook. Oh wait I still use Instagram. Uh oh.
Slack is crucial for informal communication. I don’t even check work email on my phone (mostly because of security restrictions).
Overcast is my podcast player on iOS (and on macOS using the web app). Someday when I have an M1-powered Mac I’ll be able to run the iOS app on my desk. I prefer Overcast over Apple’s built-in Podcasts app because of its simple design, and features like Smart Speed and Voice Boost which save time and enhance voices. According to Overcast Smart Speed has saved me 391 hours of listening time.
One of my goals for 2021 is to get my thoughts, concerns, ideas, etc. out of my head. Day One is feature-rich journaling app on iOS, macOS, and iPadOS, and for me it’s perfect for quickly launching and typing whatever is on my mind.
Tweetbot is my favorite third party Twitter client, and, most importantly, it has a feature I can’t live without: timeline sync. I’m a Twitter completionist, so it’s important to not lose track of where I am in my timeline. If I read a few Tweets on my iPhone and then open my Mac, I want to keep reading from where I left off. You cannot do this with Twitter’s own apps.
Superhuman is an email app that sits on top of Gmail. It’s available on iOS, macOS, and iPadOS. I like it because it’s extremely fast, and it has a minimalist aesthetic. I don’t want to see all the cruft and buttons and features and flags and whatever else Google decides to launch. Just text.
For personal web browsing I use Safari on iOS, macOS, and iPadOS. I like how tab syncing is built in to iCloud, and, anecdotally, Safari is faster and more stable than Chrome.
Obviously Messages is used on iOS, macOS, and iPadOS all day everyday. iMessage is awesome and I’m delighted to see Apple building new functionality for it like replies.
What’s on your home screen?
I’m a fan of Minimalissimo as a publication, email newsletter, Instagram account, and store. Imagery of minimalist architecture, books, furniture, environments, and products brings me joy.
Minimalissimo recently announced a new backpack:
The most comfortable backpack you’ll ever own. For daily grind and passions. For years to come. This is a collaborative project between Minimalissimo and ODA. This waterproof backpack offers extreme versatility. For work or play, in the city or the countryside, dressed up or dressed down. The minimalist design suits every situation. The approach is simple, the result is utilitarian with a minimalist aesthetic.
This backpack caught my eye as a potential future work bag. It’s simple and thin which is ideal for someone who only carries a laptop to and from work (although I tried a few times to leave my laptop at work in 2019 and it backfired once).
Budi Tanrim’s Portfolio Advice
Budi is a designer I’ve admired for a few years now. His advice for building an effective product design portfolio is something I have also told many young designers.
A poor portfolio for product designers is when it only shows the artifacts (e.g. the screen). I’d consider it as a weak portfolio. Because it doesn’t help me to know whether a designer can make a good decision or at least have a good line of thinking. I don’t even know if the outcome help the team achieve the goal or learn something.
It does not matter how beautiful your mockups or screenshots are. I just wonder where they come from, why they exist, what problems they solved, etc.
An okay portfolio describes the problem and the result. I generally encourage people who don’t have enough time to go with this format. I will mostly be interested in this portfolio when I hire a junior-mid level.
This is crucial. Beautiful mockups are a start, but what problem do they solve? Your portfolio and presentation should be a series of problem/solution pairs.
A great portfolio provides context on why this project started. What are the customer problems and business challenges? Then the result of their solution. The approach is a bonus tho, I’m still okay when it doesn’t show a detailed process. Because at this point, I’ll be interested if I see they solve a complex problem before and can articulate it clearly.
Context, context, context. Do not simply give a real estate tour of an interface you designed. Focus on the story. What was the problem, why did you and your team work on this, what did you learn, etc.
After reading reviews of the new M1-based MacBook Air, Mac mini, and 13″ MacBook Pro computers, one line stuck out at the very end of John Gruber’s article.
Steve Jobs would have fucking loved these M1 Macs.
I think Gruber is absolutely right.
I recommend listening to 20 Macs for 2020 podcast. There are several audio clips from Apple keynotes with Jobs talking about new products and features on stage. His confidence and enthusiasm are something I think Apple lacks to this day. It’s nice to reminisce about the period when keynotes felt like magic tricks: pulling an iPod nano out of a pocket, sliding a MacBook Air out of a manila envelope, etc.
It’s important to note that the beginning of this years-long process of transitioning from Intel to Apple silicon began with the debut of the Apple-designed A4 processor in the original iPad in 2010. One could argue that bringing the M1 to the Mac is the final Jobs-inspired magic trick.
I need to sell my 2016 MacBook Pro and pick up a new MacBook Air. Immediately.
Photo credit: Twelve South
For work I recently swapped my 2015 MacBook Pro for a 2019 Mac mini. As a result of transitioning into management I no longer need to worry about graphics cards and Sketch performance. The Mac mini is small and quiet (just like my new iPhone 12 mini).
Naturally I placed the Mac mini next to my LG 5K monitor. However, I recently observed that my monitor is far too low. A computer user’s eyes should point at the center of a monitor. After attaching my digital camera for proper video conferencing, the monitor was pushed to its lowest height setting. Every time I push it up it slides right back down again. Time for a new desk accessory.
I purchased a Twelve South Curve Riser which provides several benefits:
- My monitor is now at the correct height
- There is a compartment for the Mac mini as one can see in the photo
- There is another compartment for tablets, notebooks, pencils, and smart pencils
Now my monitor is in a good position, the Mac mini is hidden, and I have more desk space.