Design Leader Insights - Fonz Morris

January 16, 2023

Alex Smith: Hey Fonz, thanks so much for taking some time to join the show today.

Fonz Morris: Yeah, what's up, Alex? I'm glad to be here. Thank you for the invite. I love talking about design and talking to the community.

Alex Smith: To get started, can you give the audience a little context and background on your journey and history in UX design? 

Fonz Morris: Sure. So I'm Fonz Morris, I'm based out of San Jose, California now, but I'm originally from New York. I am lead product designer for global conversion at Netflix. And I started my career actually, as a engineer, I got a computer science degree, but my university opened up a multimedia computer lab. And I pretty much just moved into the lab for like two years, and taught myself all of the skills I needed to become a graphic designer, because I always loved design, being from New York, the architecture and the culture, things like that, I always had design in me. And once I graduated college, I was like, I don't know, if I really want to be an engineer that much, I really still want to be creative. So by learning all of these different programs and tools, and studying every day, I was able to build the skills that I needed to build a design agency that ended up getting acquired, and the company that acquired us put up money for us to build our first product. And that's when I made the transition from graphic web design into product design. I did that, like I had my first startup for about five years. And then I went back into corporate America, I worked at a video game company, which was great. And then I went over to Comcast. And then from Comcast, I went back into entrepreneurship, again, started another company which was a video conferencing program, very similar to zoom. And then after that, I was married, I had a kid, I really couldn't dedicate the time to entrepreneurship as much and I needed stability. And that's when I ended up getting a job at Coursera, the leading online education platform, as lead growth designer over there. And then from there, I went over to Netflix. So I've bounced around a lot, because I believe in my path being organic, as opposed to just being like, a straight line. So I'm happy where I am. But it's definitely been

just trying things out, taking risks and believing in myself and staying focused on the bigger prize.

Alex Smith: Yeah, I think there's a lot of learning to be had when working on all those different environments, from entrepreneurship to corporate, one of the things that I'm interested in is learning what skills you think, you know, in these smaller companies, when you're really at a startup, or have your own company or in that entrepreneurial mindset, and then you go to a big corporation, you worked at some very large corporations. Are there any skills you took with you that you thought were beneficial or helpful? 

Fonz Morris: Yes, communication is what I'm gonna say is the biggest skill of all time, because it's so broad, but designers are communicators. So you need to be able to communicate. There's just so many different levels of communication that design requires and building a product requires.  So I would say that and like being able to just express yourself, whether it's verbally or design-wise, communication is number one. And then number two, this is not something that you can really just pinpoint. But every team needs a visionary. Every team needs somebody who can come up with good ideas and think about the future and plan for the future. Always being able to come up with ideas and be innovative is another important skill that I think never gets old. And then lastly, I would say being able to execute man. Like a lot of people can talk it, but not a lot of people can walk it. Those are the top three that will actually help you at any company, whether you're at a small company, or a big one.

Alex Smith: Yeah, totally agree. Let's switch gears to leading design teams, tell us about what you've learned about how to be an effective design manager?

Fonz Morris: Well, for me, I feel I'm a very people oriented person. So I don't think you're going to be successful as a design manager or a design leader if you can't build relationships with people. And if you can't get people to trust you, then you can't build relationships, either. So I focus on building true relationships with people where we're on a first name basis. It's not designer to manager, or boss to direct report. It's Fonz to Alex, you know, where are these relationships are there. Where we're happy. We really like working with each other. We're supportive. So I'm big on culture. I want that sense of camaraderie amongst everybody because when you have that the vibe is great. Everybody's putting out their best work. Everybody's fun. It's exciting as opposed to it's like, I'm just doing things to not get fired or not getting any kind of a write up or something like that. And I've worked in some environments that felt like that and it was very uncomfortable to go to work. 

Alex Smith: So Fonz, what advice do you have for maybe new designers entering the field today?

Fonz Morris: What I like to tell a lot of people is, make sure you remember why you became a designer. Make sure you're very in tune with your passion, make sure you're very in tune with the impact that you want to make. And make sure you understand what part about design you love that you really want to focus on. So that you don't find yourself in a dead end job or doing work that you don't love to do. So take that me time, take that personal time to do some research on yourself,  treat yourself as a product and go through the same phases you go through with the work that you do at work and make sure that you know where you want to go. And all the hours you put into, to these jobs into these other projects you've worked on, why not put that same time into yourself? Something else that I definitely want to make sure I stress is having patience with yourself. Like I know a lot of people, because things are moving so fast now, you look on LinkedIn and it's like, everybody has an amazing title. And everybody got a new job, and everybody's doing all this type of stuff. But you have to remember that social media is made to kind of show you the end result, they don't really show you the build up. And you need that patience in yourself, because it doesn't always go as fast as you want.  A way to avoid moving fast, and a way to have patience with yourself is to not compare yourself to other people. You don't know the details of how Mike got to where he did. And then also that's Mike's journey. That's not your journey.

Alex Smith: Yeah, I love that. And I think that's an important message not only for junior designers, but literally for anyone  interacting with social media, or LinkedIn is…

Fonz Morris: It's tricky.

Alex Smith: You know, I've heard comparison is the thief of joy. And I think that's oftentimes true. And like, it's just, it's just the highlight, right? Someone got that job, but you have no idea, the luck, or the hours of effort they put in to get that it could have you know, it's not worth thinking about. I think, what you could do if you're a junior designer is, reach out to that person and try to learn about their journey.

Fonz Morris: There you go Alex, like be inspired. See that. Woah, Alex just got this promotion to Director, I want to be a director, maybe I can ping Alex and ask him a couple of things that helped him get there, as opposed to only focusing on Alex's director, things that helped him get there, as opposed to only focusing on Alex is a director, I want to be a director. Do you even know why you want to be a director? Be inspired by that and try to learn from them as opposed to comparing yourself.

Alex Smith: Yeah. You just mentioned learning. Where would you want people to go to learn more?

Fonz Morris: I watched so much YouTube, I watch more YouTube than I watched Netflix, because I'm a UGC, specific type of content type of person. So there's a ton of content on YouTube, right? I love reading. There's nothing wrong with buying books from Amazon, and reading. I also think Twitter is an amazing place for information. There's a ton of amazing designers and product people on Twitter that you can follow. And then once you follow them, you can follow who they follow. And now you're involved in all these conversations. Same thing, LinkedIn is an amazing place to get access to content. And then last, I would say communities. Join these different design communities, I'm a member of so many design communities. Some of them I'm super active in. Some of them, I might not be but you know what, I'm there. I'm a part of the community so therefore, I have my ear to the streets now I understand what's going on. So if there's a new opportunity, or something that I could participate in, because I'm in those communities, I don't miss out on them. One last piece I want to talk about is I want everybody to think about how they can support the design community in any way possible. Whether it's, you are a mentor, or you're mentee, or you're giving feedback on people's products that they're launching online, or internally, you're trying to come up with maybe ways to have workshops to help people grow, help people learn. It's like the design community needs that. The design community needs us all to continue to support and give it the love it needs so we continue to grow. And I'm excited about that, like I do that every day.

Alex Smith: Totally agree. Yeah, needs, we got to fight for it. Because it's still,  you know, if you look at like NNGs, like design maturity framework, I think like 5% of companies are at the top. So there's just a long way to go in terms of how much impact UX can have.

Fonz Morris: We've made a lot of progress. But like you said, there's a long way to go. So I want everybody to be a part of that and be at the forefront of this new design revolution. So I'll see you there because I'm already there. And I'm going to stay there and I want to see more people to the left and to the right of me.

Alex Smith: By the way, thanks so much for being on the show today.

Fonz Morris: Oh yeah, for sure man.