Design Leader Insights - Ryan Farina

January 16, 2023

Alex Smith: Hey Ryan, thanks so much for joining the show today.

Ryan Farina: Alex, nice to see you. Thanks for having me, man.

Alex Smith: Hell yeah. And to get started, can you give the audience a little bit of background and context on your journey in UX design?

Ryan Farina: Yeah, I've been in the design world for about 23-24 years, I got my start in music, and in graffiti, so like, I was just kind of a street punk doing stuff doing art. And that, you know, just as the internet evolved, so did the work. So I was going from, you know, spray painting walls to like making concert posters to like, you know, doing websites in the late 90s and early 2000s. But the thing is about that that was that it afforded me something that most people don't get these days, from what I've seen, and as I lead larger teams and meet younger designers, which is the fundamentals of graphic design, the fundamentals of like, layout, and just, you know, balance and all the things that come from studying basic graphic work and the like, the core tenets of it. Someone's, you know, girlfriend offered me a job to run her, she was working at a, she was managing, like a whole game studio, and they offered me a job to come like, run their design team at their games to be on I was like, oh, okay. And so I moved to San Francisco and did that. And from there, it was just like, you know, crazy. Once I moved to San Francisco, I worked at Ticketmaster, and Glassdoor, and a couple places doing things until somehow I don't know how I was blessed with getting a job at Apple in 2012, 2013. And I worked in the iTunes studio there. And then I did that. That for me I call that design school for me for modern design. I learned a lot in that space. And then I was at Facebook and Instagram and Lyft and Snap, and, you know, just kind of like, took off. 

Alex Smith: You go to these different companies with different design processes, different stakeholders, different collaborators. But I think you had an interesting point on like, finding inspiration outside of the career you're in at any moment.

Ryan Farina: Yeah. I mean, this is all connected, like, don't be somebody else, don't let somebody else tell you who you are. And don't let your story be written by, you know, whatever. I think I talked a lot in that talk about narrative and the idea that like, like, we are all like, our brains are these little like narrative engines that are constantly telling ourselves stories about who we are and what we do. And if you don't actively engage in that narrative, then marketing is a very powerful tool, and it will do it for you. So you know, this, and I think this was kind of the setup to that thing is like, look, we're super distracted, we're all on our phones, trying to be movie stars of our own movie. You know, and, and we've lost the sort of ability to sit still and kind of be and understand ourselves. And in that, we, you know, we allow Amazon to tell us what we should buy next, should buy next, you know, we allow Instagram to tell us where we should travel next. And there's almost this sort of loss of curiosity, there's this loss of the ability to be inspired, because you're looking to, you know, these platforms that tell you that, and I'm not saying don't be inspired by Instagram because there's inspiring shit on there. But at the same time, so much of it has come so far, it does an incredible job at making you want to be the person inspiring you instead of being inspired by the person. And I think that's like, a big point here. But ultimately, what I'm getting to is, look, have a life outside of work, have curiosity beyond work. If you don't have curiosity, I can give you some tricks on how to be curious about things and help you inspire yourself. We're talking about work life balance. And it's like, we're so focused on career ladders, and like the next  thing and pleasing the PM and doing all this shit, we've got so much work going on. And like yeah, but I want work life balance and I'm like you have no life. There's nothing to fill that life bucket to balance against. We suck at it. 

Alex Smith: What advice do you have for designers that are looking to maybe collaborate better with product and Dev and other stakeholders?

Ryan Farina: We're gonna talk about titles, which is gonna get confusing. But look, if you're a designer, in a tech company, or even in like a textile company, you work in the product, or you're making a product. And I think this is really important. Because what we end up seeing is product design. And I want to talk about product design, because what is, what does it mean to be a product designer? It's a bad term, misused in tech, it actually there is a very clear thing in my mind to what it is and my expectations of it.But we've sort of used it as a general paintbrush, right? But I'll get to that in a second. What's important is, you're going to work in product, your job is not design, your job is to make shit with other people. And I think it's almost like you got to stop talking about design as a designer, and you got to start talking about making shit. You can't make shit without product people. You also can't make shit without engineers. In fact, as a designer, you can't make shit. You can only make pretty pictures right? Basically. Now people probably come after me about that, but it's sort of true. The truth is, is that you need to collaborate with your partners, and they need to collaborate with you. And you need to value what they do and understand what they do, which is going to take us back to product design in a second. And that's, that's the whole thing. And so that is a game of trust, that is a game of trusting your product partner and your product partner trust in your designer. The thing about that is, is that those two people trust, trust is a function of respect, gotta respect each other's techniques, gotta respect other's disciplines and understand how you can use each other. And I don't mean that in the bad way. I mean, that in the way that like, these are functions that have to operate together to create something to finish a goal for a company for business. And so you have to understand how to operate as a team. And so I think the worst thing we can do is actually, like, funnel ourselves in these siloed spaces we are in. What is product doing? You know, as soon as you start hearing those conversations, we're not doing something right. 

Alex Smith: Yeah.

Ryan Farina: I put it on the leaders to, like, I think it's also leaders job to figure out how to partner and how to, you know, help bring together those, those teams. 

Alex Smith: What is your definition of product design?

Ryan Farina: Product design actually comes from the, the industrial design,like, that's where we originally had that term. And I was gonna do something recently, it was in a kitchen designer was talking about product design. And he's like, well, I want the product design school. And you know, the thing about product designers is we have to know how things are made, we have to know how it's made. And then we also have to have a design eye,that allows us to make it look good and work well. And I was like Jesus, that you've nailed it. And I think this is what's wrong with the product design thing today is that we're asking people to be generalists, but we're not asking them to know how it's made, we're not asking them to be, and this goes right back to the product, your product design partner should be more than curious about what the limitations technically are, what the limitations from a business standpoint are. They should really understand that space, in order to be able to build something within it to design something within it, that's going to create the experience that the customer needs, or that we you know, the business needs, or whatever it is you're building for. And so that's lost. And so as I start to work with more product design orgs, I'm more and more pushing my product design teams to actually have expectations around three things. Yes, general design, like it is today, like, okay, you have to have good craft, you have to perform well, blah, blah, blah, trust, probably more important, how well you trust, I'm going to measure you on trust, I'm going to look at you on trust, how much do your partner's trust you? How much are you going off on your own and blowing people out of the water and things like that? And then the last one is how well do you know, the infrastructure in which you're building it? Those three things make a product designer to me.

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

Ryan Farina: Yeah, I think I have a lot of advice. But I'll start with, I'll start with like, you know, be curious, not critical of the work you're doing. It's really easy, when you start coming out of the gate to be super critical of design work around you, supercritical of products around use of critical disciplines around you. And actually, you are at the beginning, and there's a lot to learn, and you can change a lot, but you need to be curious and understand it before you can do it. No challenge, no change, you know, like, you really got to go figure out what the challenge is. You can't just go change things. And so I mean, you can but that's not to say that it's gonna work, right? Like, you really need to understand the space, particularly as a designer. The other thing is, is, you know, let go of tools. Listen, I'm a huge fan of Figma, I think what they've done is  fantastic and incredible. And it's it's a long time coming in the design industry. It's great to see it. But it is again, just another design tool. And you know, a lot of times people when I was more in the IC space, what kind of tools you prototype with, you know, I was like... You know, and actually it wasn't tools, I wish they were asking me that. They were saying what do you prototype? You know, and I was like, oh, is that an origami? You know, you're like no, and the thing is, is that there's a smattering of prototyping tools out there and all of them do certain things better than other ones. Utility Belt, you know. And I think that, you know, computers become the wrong kind of constraint per design. There's a great quote by Milton Glasser, it's very famous says, computers are to designed as microwaves are to cooking. Right in front of me, I didn't just come up with it. But it's, I always think about that, because it's true. It's like we get in there and you start doing and you're just so locked in, but okay, well, what libraries am I using? What's the color palettes? You're just you're already distracted from like, actually thinking about the problem. I remember working at Apple, like a lot of the work we do was on just whiteboards before we'd ever get into any kind of design tool. And we designed in Keynote and Fireworks and you know ,and all kinds of all kinds of crazy tools there and you know, I think it's not about the tool, you know, you should be able to design with, I always say toothpicks and duct tape, like, that's part of the game. So I think there's that. And then lastly is, is, you know, be of the world. And in it, don't just be of a company and in it. And the company is going to want you to be. That's part of what a company wants you to do. Oh be part of our culture, we're so great. You know, whatever.  And that's cool, be a member. But also be a member of the planet, be a member of society and culture and be interested in follow your own whims and be inspired by the things that inspire you. Don't take on you know, the homonistic inspiration culture that exists within design. Have you seen x and y have you seen y&z?It's, you know, okay, but like, what, what makes you tick? What's interesting for you and follow those things and understand them and learn from them. 

Alex Smith: No, I love all that advice. And thank you so much for joining the show today.

Ryan Farina: Yeah, man. Thanks for having me. It's super fun. Always good to see you and yeah.