Gabriel Valdivia – Designing For Change

{ 🤗} — Introducing #DesignForChange

Creativity is most impactful when used for a good cause.

To truly explore its power, we’re starting a new category on Phase Magazine: #Design For Change.

In the upcoming weeks and months, we’ll be interviewing some of the world’s most inspiring designers, creating real impact with their work.

Today we got the chance to speak with Gabriel Valdivia, lead designer at Jigsaw. He’s part of a team tackling society’s biggest problems through design and technology.

Gabriel, hey! Would you tell us about your journey as a designer? Where did it first take roots?

Do you want the short or the long version? *laughs*

I’ve always been around design – I think it was in high school when I really got into it, though. Back in those times, I liked video games, drawing, and computers.

Initially, I thought of becoming an architect, but I was too intimidated by the models I’d have to build. So, I decided to go into graphic design.

And then few years later, the iPhone came out.

It immediately opened my eyes to a new industry – tech. It was making its own rules. People were making apps, startups were founded in Silicon Valley, and all that felt so refreshing.

So once I graduated, I joined an agency designing mobile apps.

It was fascinating. We were working on something brand new at the time, and no one really knew how to do what we were doing. I did make some of the worst apps in the App Store, but I learned a lot.

After changing a few agency jobs, I moved to San Francisco and joined Automatic. They developed a smart car adapter but needed help figuring out what to do with it.

When we were discussing my role, the CEO at the time told me that they didn’t have much money to give me, but they could certainly give me all the creative freedom. It was all I wanted.

Automatic was a small team. It was my first time taking ownership of a whole product: from UI design and packaging, to branding and marketing.

After two years working at Automatic though, I felt I’d given it all I had. The team had grown from 5 to 40 people, but I remained the only designer so there was not that much new I could do there.

I thought it might be a good idea to join a larger company and surround myself with people that I could learn from.  

Eventually, I took an offer from Facebook, where I spent 4 years. I worked on Facebook Pages, Facebook Photos, and the last two years working on the Social VR team.

While at Facebook, I spent a lot of time thinking about content creation. I was trying to help people express themselves through new emerging channels like 360 media and Social VR.

Most recently, I moved to Jigsaw, which looks at the nexus between design and social issues. We’re trying to identify communities at risk and use design and technology to help them feel safer.

How was working at Automatic different to Facebook? And how are both experiences different to Jigsaw?

At Automatic, as in most startups, we were fighting for our survival. Every problem was huge, and the environment was very dynamic. We stood behind our mission and were passionately fighting for it.

At Facebook,  I was still very driven by the mission, but — to put it bluntly — I was much more replaceable. I was one of thousands working on it, not one of the tens.

Working in a big company like Facebook, I was given the license to fail. People can work on a project for a year that doesn’t work out and still have a job after that. This affords them to think about the global impact of what they’re doing over the long term.

For example, it’s ambitious and bold to think about how people communicate, and how you can change that. Those are big questions that no single company can usually tackle. Only when you’re in a big monolith like Facebook, can you really afford to think like that.

The design process, in a nutshell, is similar everywhere. You work with just a handful of people in a small team. The process of defining and visualizing ideas is similar. You still have to come up with the story arch and then present it to stakeholders.

Jigsaw is the unique hybrid of the two. The team is really small — the whole company is just 50 people. That allows us to move faster and remain scrappy, which I love. But at the same time, we lean on Alphabet and Google’s powerful infrastructure to enable what we’re doing.

What’s the role of design at Jigsaw? How do designers contribute and collaborate with others?

At Jigsaw there are just two designers on a team. Each of us has a half a dozen projects. That requires us to do quite a bit of context switching.

One day you’re working on a presentation, the next day you’re working on a logo, the next day on a VR app. Depending on which stage the project is, your work might be different.

Day-to-day work is no different than other companies. The team is usually a designer, a couple of engineers, a researcher, and a PM.

What are the ongoing projects at Jigsaw, if that’s not a secret?

Yeah, we have a handful of public ones that I can talk about.

A lot of work here at Jigsaw is about using heavy technologies like AI and machine learning for a social cause.

One area of work is around online safety and online harassment in online discussions. If you take a look at comments on Reddit or YouTube, for example, you’d see that conversations online can get pretty rough. Only a few NYT articles going live daily have comments enabled. That’s because they actually rely on real people to sit and read through every comment and approve or deny it.

We created the platform called Perspective that uses machine learning to score comments on their toxicity level. Publishers can now score every comment using the open-source API and automate their review process. As a result, NYT has enabled comments, and thus given a voice to its readers, in 10x as many articles as they did before using the Perspective API.

We start seeing real impact when publishers enable more comments on their content. We actually start having more conversations online without the fear of being harrassed by toxic comments or trolls.

Another project is focused on tackling censorship. In many countries, especially those with changing or unstable political regimes, journalists are being blocked and oppressed. Their websites and blogs are suffering from very targeted cyber attacks.

Jigsaw created Project Shield that protects public activists and journalists from cyber attacks leveraging Google’s infrastructure.

The one on which I spend most of my time on is focused around physical safety. We’re trying to use AI, and VR to create scenarios for police officers to prevent violent encounters with the community. That’s a long project that is just in its infancy, but we hope to leverage design thinking and emerging technologies to have a positive impact on the community’s sense of physical safety.

How do you create research material for your work?

At Jigsaw, we’re typically not part of the communities we’re designing for. So we try to collect the information first-hand whenever we can. To do this, we embark in research trips that we call UXpeditions. I spent two weeks in Zimbabwe recently, for example.

Now, that might sound random, but Zimbabwe is just going through their first democratic election in at least 30 years. We wanted to go there and talk to people to understand how they use technology and diseminate information in this time of transition.

Is it only designers going on UXpeditions?

They’re led by designers and researchers, but we have engineers and other team members joining too. It’s a research project, and everyone’s input is valuable. The fun bit is that for two weeks, everyone puts their daily jobs to the side and becomes a researcher.

How does the actual research happen? What’s the process?

We do quite a lot of research before going to a particular place. We also try to clearly define our goals and expectations beforehand.

But the exciting part happens when we get there. We talk to people a lot, sometimes we’d just stop someone on the street and have a conversation. That sometimes leads to unexpected insights, which we try to pursue.

By the end of the trip, the designer leads a Design Sprint where we distill the information we’ve learned and try to ideate on possible solutions to the problems we’ve uncovered.

When we get back, we prepare a debrief with the rest of the team at Jigsaw to share our learnings and potentially kickstart new project ideas that may have came up during the trip.

Are you hiring more people at Jigsaw currently?

Most of the companies I’ve work for in the past are focused on growth and revenues, but here at Jigsaw, we have the luxury of not having to focus on being profitable.

The team has figured out a number of people that works for us and enables us to stay nimble and bold.

Unlike other companies I’ve worked for in the past, we don’t focus on growth to create more impact.

So, currently, we are pretty confident about the amount of things that we can do, with the number of people we’ve got.

It’s a tough question, but you’re in the unique position to answer it. What are the things in technology and design that will create most impact in the next five years?

I think there’s an increasing need for the technology to grow a conscience. There are a lot of companies that see engagement as a proxy for delivering value. Their business models and incentives structures reward infinite growth and don’t seem to consider how much of it is enough. As a result, technology is creating and promoting behaviors that are unsustainable.

We need to educate people on how to use technology in ways that are beneficial to them. The incentives structure must change. The way startups are funded must change. Technology is transitioning from being the underdog to the leader of many industries, and it needs to adapt to fulfill its new role in a way that is at the service of people’s well being.

Designers, as the conduits of the user, are at a unique juncture. Now that we have a seat at the table, amazing tools to visualize our ideas, and exciting emerging platforms to design for, we can advocate for users in much more effective ways. That might be wishful thinking, but I think that’s the trend we’re going to see in the next few years. And it’s going to be very powerful.

Thank you, Gabriel!

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Nick Budden Avatar

Nick Budden / CEO @ Phase

Designer, and sometimes-writer. Canadian in Taiwan ✈ Berlin. Trying to help people enjoy being creative.