Pace of change as a metaphor for full-stack design

Jeff Veen on design teams, flat design and skinny jeans, and full-stack design.

I recently sat down with Jeff Veen, vice president of products at Adobe, and CEO and founder of Typekit. Veen has been a designer for more than 20 years; he is an entrepreneur, writer, cyclist, and lover of burritos. His resume includes Adaptive Path; Wired; WebMonkey; Google; and TypeKit, which was acquired by Adobe. Our conversation covered leadership, hiring designers, and the significance of trends.

Design’s leading role

Design is finally receiving the attention and respect of non-designers. Veen talks about a different dynamic, one in which design plays a leading role in the development of products and services:

“The analogy I always give is that when we started Adaptive Path in 2001, one of our stated values was to have design get a seat at the table, and we meant the board table — like the C level. I feel it is entirely possible to have your own table as a designer and invite other people to have their seats. That is still the exception to the rule, which is probably fine; it probably maps to the wide variety of businesses and products that are out there. But increasingly so, the kind of thinking beind the analytical process and the types of problem solving that designers are particularly good at tends to fit well with the kind of digital interactive, largely consumer-based product development that we’re doing these days.

“I think to embrace design means that you need to populate your company with leadership that has a design background. That is a true signifier — not like, “You know, we should hire a couple of designers. We should spruce up the website,” but really investing in design. Where is the leadership? Where’s the decision-making for the priorities, for the direction and vision of not just the product but the company itself? Where is that embodied? Is it embodied at the same level that a good engineer is? It obviously needs to be. [It’s a sign that] a company understands the value of design.”

Hiring great designers

I’ve recently noticed plenty of conversations on Twitter and Medium about the hiring process for designers. Veen is managing teams and has been in a leadership role for some time, so I was curious to hear his take on how he evaluates design hires:

“For engineers, there’s always urban legends about the kinds of problems you will encounter and try to solve in real time at a Google job interview, for instance. Those types of problems presented in job interviews are seeking to understand two things about a person. One is their understanding of the craft: let me see how you write the code on the whiteboard or something, and give me access to your GitHub repo so I can see you know the languages you say you know. That’s half of it. The other half is to see how somebody thinks; you want to try to get an understanding of somebody’s analytical ability: how do they approach problem solving and then how do they communicate what they’re doing. Those two things are a measure of how somebody is going to approach the kinds of challenges they’ll face in their day-to-day job.

“I think it’s exactly the same when hiring a designer. The only difference is instead of looking at lines of code, I look at a portfolio. That is actually the only difference, otherwise it’s exactly the same. How do you go about solving problems, how do you communicate the solutions that you have had — that is just the analytical ability and problem solving to me.”

Trends inform the design craft

I recently attended GigaOM Roadmap, where Veen gave his fantastic talk Why Flat Design is like Skinny Jeans. I asked Veen to share the meaning behind the title and talk about how design trends are shaping the craft:

“This came from a conversation that I had with my lead investor in Typekit, a partner at True Ventures named Tony Conrad. He and I were talking about iOS 7, so this goes back a couple of years, and iOS 7 was this huge shift; anything that wasn’t basically data was removed from the UI. Tony was like, “What’s the deal? What do you think?” iOS 7, yeah flat design. I saw it as a design trend, and I think design trends are very important and informative. I said to him, “It’s just like jeans. We’ve had jeans in society for 140 years maybe, like we’re on the gold rush or something, maybe longer,” but we’re on the gold rush and invented this new kind of pants for doing work, and in that time period since, the pendulum has swung back and forth. Sometimes we have giant bell bottoms, sometimes we have baggy, loose fit, acid-washed torn jeans. This keeps going and going and going. They have two legs and they’re made out of denim, and they hold up pretty well; that’s all they are, but when you look at the trends that are happening, like the fashion of jeans or of anything, the fashion in our society tends to be the first way in which we interpret the societal changes we’re going through and the way we work it out, like suddenly everybody’s wearing cargo pants. What does that mean? The flamboyancy of the ‘70s gave way to the minimalism of the ‘80s. Why is that? That’s really informative.

“So, we were probably getting enamored with processing power and screen resolution and things like that. We put on more and more and more until all of a sudden, everything was just dripping with decoration and looking broke and morphic. It was probably time to say, all right it’s time to go back and be a little bit more mature with our understanding of the capabilities of these devices and realize that even though phone screens are getting bigger, they’re getting bigger a quarter inch at a time, and really, we don’t have that much space. It’s not just how many pixels we have on the screen; it’s how much can you absorb when you’re on the go and you pull out this thing that fits in the palm of your hand and you hold it about 18 inches from your eyes.”

Full-stack design

In his talk, Veen also referenced Stewart Brand’s pace layer framework as a metaphor for full-stack design. I asked him to explain this a bit further:

“At the very bottom, [Brand’s got] nature, and then society, and then governance, and then infrastructure, and then commerce, and it goes all the way up to fashion. The layer of fashion is just like a squiggly line that goes back and forth all over the place. I saw this chart 15 years ago and found it so inspiring — he’s like, sure, this is a framework for understanding things that make up the world around us, but what’s most interesting is understanding the pace at which those things change, and as you work your way down the chart from fashion to the laws of nature, the rate of change slows and slows and slows. To fundamentally change in our world, it takes a very long time. He’s talking about what can you do to affect things that will take generations to change. We see that when it comes to things like governance and society, and we look and see like, “Oh my God, it’s taken so long for some things to change in our society.” He’s like, “Yeah not really. We’re actually going pretty fast in that we changed this in four generations.”

You can listen to the entire interview on the SoundCloud player above or on our SoundCloud stream.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigations into Experience Design and Business and Experience Design and the Internet of Things.

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