Jason Shellen — Designer To Entrepreneur Journey

{😎} — {  # Design Leaders Series }

In our Creative Journey, it’s always good to look up to someone. Learning from experienced mentors is not just inspiring, but also allows us to avoid mistakes we might have otherwise made.

We’re kicking off a new category on Phase Magazine called #DesignLeaders.

It’s a series of interviews with the world’s most impactful designers, entrepreneurs, and design executives who are making a difference with the design.

Today we’re having a chat with Jason Shellen.

Jason is a product visionary, with experience running product development teams at Slack, Pinterest, and Google along with a number of his own entrepreneurial ventures under his belt.

We’re talking with Jason about his personal creative roots, professional journey, and where he feels design and tech are headed.

Jason, hi! Would you tell us a bit how did you get into design? What was it that drew you to it?

I fell in love with graphic design in high school. Logos were particularly interesting to me.

I used to copy logos from my favorite bands or iconic sports brands like Billabong, Specialized Bicycles & Nike. Soon I was making my own designs and then managed to get people to pay me to make logos for community groups or design t-shirts for friends.

Back in that era, being a designer was largely designing for print so I was eager to see how my designs would look online, I thought it would be amazing.

In 1993, I saw a logo I had made on AOL for a design competition, and it looked terrible. I instantly wanted more control over what my designs looked like online.

Would you be able to talk a bit about how design has changed since you began your career?

Back in the early days of the web, the medium was so new that a lot of time was spent hacking around trying to find the limits.

Designers pulled from what they knew: print, multimedia design, video games, TV and a lot of it didn’t work. I remember spending a lot of time on speed optimization and compressing images because the Web was slow. You had to literally dial a phone number to connect.

Designers learned the constraints to make for usable experiences, but it was tough because there just weren’t that many people online yet.

The roles of a designer and a coder were fairly intertwined in the very early days. It was one role. As soon as e-commerce emerged, websites needed more serious backend systems like a product database or payment system. Then the division started to appear.

Designers realized that they could focus on delivering an important part of the solution without needing to code it.

Design as a practice began to specialize in things like information architecture, visual design, research & user-experience.

In some ways, design has come full circle because there are many talented designers who love to code beyond prototyping, but it’s not as desperate now. Now there are plenty of design patterns and best practices to pull from and so many ways to test.

So you are saying that designers just starting out in their careers must learn to code? What are other important things?

They might – and it can be essential if you don’t have an engineering team to help implementing your designs.

However, it’s the same thing as asking if every great master must excel at every possible medium, or can they specialize in one?

I’m in favor of whatever allows designers to focus on problem-solving and not necessarily coding. I love seeing designers being presented a clear problem to solve and then being allowed to run a process. It allows room for that artistic, creative spark to appear.

It actually does resonate with our mission at Phase. We believe designers can spend much more time being creative, and enjoying creativity. That’s why we’re making design visual.

Would you tell us how you found the transition from designer to founder?

When I had just started my career in technology, I was a print designer with a bit of web experience. But in an odd twist, I started to spend time working in marketing, business development, and eventually product management.

A lot of those early design exercises came in very useful for me. When you’re doing logo design, you’re taught not to fall in love with the first version. In business development and product management, those skills were very valuable too.

Don’t fall in love with the first solution, define it better and iterate.

What were other design skills that helped you in your founder career?

One of my core skills in being a designer was prototyping. I would prototype how things work myself, and later would hand it over to someone else to implement.

Prototyping, and iterating on products were very fundamental for me.

How is being a designer in a large company like Google or Pinterest different from small companies? How is a designer’s day-to-day different?

Being a designer (much like Product and Engineering) in a large company is like being one of the three legs of a stool. As a designer, you spend a lot of time collaborating with the other pillars making sure you’re focused on delivering the right solution for the stage of product you are in.

In bigger companies design is the whole practice.

There are design teams for every product group. Designers have a benefit of having group talks and design critiques. Products are created by hundreds of people and are later used by millions of users. It can be a lot of fun, and you know a lot of people will end up using your work.

When you’re a startup – you’re left to your own devices a lot more. You’re trying to see if your design solves the problem. Sometimes, a lot of work can be entirely fruitless.

In a startup, your contributions have more impact. It might even be something that would make or break the company.

If you were starting off as a designer now, would you join a small company or a large company?

When I was a designer, very early in my career, I made a lot of mistakes. A lot of designers are not given much direction, especially in small companies. In larger companies, it’s easier to get into the process and learn from others.

If you want more creative education and more safety, go for a bigger company. You’re going to learn a lot.

But if you’re dying to make an impact – go to a startup, and you might contribute towards a company that you’ll have more input on. It could even become really successful and large. Or… more often than not, it won’t. Sorry!

We wanted to talk more about design practice in larger companies. Would you talk about how you go about building a design culture in larger organizations? Is there anything specific you’ve learned here yourself?

I’ll try to make a comparison here. I’m not a big fan of country music, but I have an appreciation for it. And I gained that because I had friends who challenged me to listen to certain artists and I gave it a chance. They explained the history, the instruments and I was intrigued. I visited Nashville and learned a little more. I don’t often choose to listen to country music – but I have an appreciation for it now, and I let it change me a little.

Design teams often get that monoculture. Things can start looking very clean and sterile everywhere. Designers start thinking that if things work for one product, they will work for everything else in a company too.

When I joined a larger company to lead a large product team, I pushed product and design especially to bring in different perspectives. We made it a regular practice to share great designs from any source.

It didn’t mean that we were going to go and build a gaming app when we were working at the messaging. But we wanted to develop that appreciation for different ways to solve challenging problems.

I believe one of the core things when building a design culture is to build-in that appreciation inside of the team.

Design is definitely meant to solve the problem, but we can solve it with a bit of art and creativity.

You’ve worked on a number of very forward-looking and engaging products. What do you think are the most promising technologies now?

It’s hard to highlight just one thing here.

Products related to data are interesting to me right now. I think the old formats that we have are going to have a huge refresh. Companies like AirTable and Codable are doing interesting work and making databases more human.

Connected home IoT hasn’t really delivered yet, so that might be a case of doing something a little more interconnected. I think there is still a room for a Home OS.

I’m also hoping that AR in the medical field can be deployed in smart ways to save lives.

One thing I’m thinking about a lot: we’ve built all these things to save time, but what do we do with that time? When everything we do is perfectly productive, how will we use that time that’s freed?

Thank you Jason!

Stay tuned and subscribe to Phase Magazine Newsletter for more # Design Leaders articles coming up in the following issues!

If you want to contribute to next the issue of Phase Magazine, just drop us a line:

Nick Budden Avatar

Nick Budden / CEO @ Phase

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