From agency to product

The transition from a designer’s point of view.

USA!

It was quite unexpected, my first interview at Clay. Normally I’d have more time to prepare – but just making acquaintance couldn’t hurt, right? The night before I worked late to gather cases, all solid and made for agencies I worked at. While presenting them the next day I was enchanted by the energetic atmosphere and the Amsterdam based office. This ambitious company wanted me as their in-house designer, responsible for all their digital products – mostly visual design! It was like music to my ears: the contract was signed within 48 hours after the first meet. Without any doubt, and with much excitement. This would be my first job on the ‘product-side’ of design, and I felt like rocking it! If I were an American I would have shouted ‘USA!’ – just for the sake of it. I started March 1st 2015, and things went very different from what I expected…

Delicate designer-feelings

The first few weeks I dove deep into the first project: a new commercial website and visual identity for Clay. I’ve always considered these type of internal projects tricky – but wasn’t every project going to be internal here? I submerged myself for a while, exploring different directions for the new identity, combined with screen designs. The pressure was high so I was producing proposals on the fly, as good and quick as I could. Over a three week period I presented my work to the stakeholders.

One of many branding proposals

The proposals didn’t land as I hoped, and it went from bad to worse. I was unable to deliver a design that was fitting to the product. My reaction was to focus even more on design itself – rather than the product.
My work is not an ego-thing for me, yet the gravity of this situation was vast. People around me were visibly frustrated, as neither deadline nor design were moving. After many successful deliveries for hard-to-please-multinationals, this was an unexpected challenge.

If only I had a good ‘ol project-manager to protect my delicate designer-feelings now…

Meanwhile as a team we were defining our processes, and also just getting to know each other. I felt as if I had to deliver something top-notch, together with people that were (professional) strangers. It could be an intriguing reality show format – Elon Musk could be the host!

The tipping point

After two months my contribution to various projects was still not as good as I expected. Not for lack of trying everything – by that time I ran out of gradients and dropshadows. Yet nothing moderately beautiful had been delivered…
A new project started: an overhaul of the mobile apps. This was a big one for the company and myself as a designer, so it became the center of my work at Clay. And the focus was on functionality – not visuals. I followed my trusted process of first asking questions and sketching. Soon I presented high-level patterns and screens, receiving positive feedback. Very welcome from a personal stance, but also unexpected since I hadn’t practiced interaction design for years…

Traction

From that project on, my work gained traction, receiving positive feedback and proving of value to the team. Apparently Clay didn’t need visual design – it needed interaction design! Patterns, flows and optimal usability!
My interaction designs became a tool for the team to discuss functionalities, flows, technical boundaries and API endpoints. I had started my job thinking I was going to make things pretty – but I was doing something of more substance. This was about improving products for the end users.
After a while I naturally flowed back to visual design, with interaction designs as a steady base. Applying style was now so much easier, since the goal and use of any screen was thoroughly discussed already. Therefore the gradients and dropshadows applied easily…
And now, after more than two years working at Clay, I still practice both disciplines of design. Depending on the project or the phase it’s in, I will wear a different badge.

Close to the fire

I have a few reasons for sharing this, none of which involve my delicate-designer-feelings. These experiences have given me insight in what the implications for a designer can be, when transitioning from agencies to ‘product-side’.
First, the product. You have to know and get the product. Understand it’s technicalities, flows, possibilities and limitations, inside-out. It enables you to visually communicate from and for that product. Which by the way may take longer than designing a website for it – take my word on that.
Secondly, the people. Try to understand what makes them tick: why they believe in the product. Why they gladly pull all-nighters, or get into heated arguments over a seemingly simple design. Yes it’s painful to see team members getting frustrated with your work – but also a good sign. It means they have a fire burning on the inside for the product. Now I can apply my skills in design to fuel that fire, and work on the product.

And yes: that fire can burn you, but most of the time it just keeps you warm.

And finally, process. There is never a single factor that makes a collaboration work or fail. Looking back at my first time at Clay, I see that many processes have improved. Dramatically. First of all my own process, which should always be to collect the right input, and not get ahead of yourself just for deliveries-sake. Without the right input, I would never be able to create great output.

In the end…

The last two years at Clay I’ve experienced many highs and lows – although mostly highs of course. I feel these waves carry more weight than they did working at agencies. Which is why working at Clay has matured me professionally. Clay dragged me through puberty to become a man, sort of speak. I’ve taken a few punches, that normally would have been blocked by a manager, protecting my delicate-designer-feelings. But that’s ok now – since I am a real Brick. “USA”!