“As long as you’re learning, you’re not failing” – Bob Ross, painter/tv host

Six months have passed since Design Matters’18 and this statement is still fresh in my mind.

It sure hasn’t come from a designer guru or from a big tech company lead designer (like Google or Facebook, although I’m saving these to put at the end of the article).  In fact, it wasn’t even said by any of the speakers. But somehow I stumbled upon it online and now, after the conference, it makes more sense to me than ever before.

Design Matters’18

For those who don’t know, Design Matters is a conference that has been taking place, for the last four years, in Copenhagen, Denmark.

1 design matters

In their own words: “It’s a place for inspiring, competent, visionary, nerdy, engaging talks, workshops and discussions about the work and role of digital designers now and in the future”. In my words – It’s an awesome place to hear lead designers from the most relevant tech companies (such as Amazon, Dropbox or Netflix), to learn how they solve their own design challenges, to have a peek at their internal procedures and to keep up with the digital trends.

Overview and Expectations

  • Discover what’s trendy in the digital design scene = knowledge refreshment
  • Explore the 3 themes of the conference: Design for Change, Immersive Worlds & Mixed Realities, Be a Design Rebel
  • Learn from the best designers: How are the lead designers of great companies approaching their day-to-day challenges?
  • How do their internal procedures work?
  • What really matters when creating a product?
  • How can we integrate this new knowledge into MobiLab?

A Bar Set Too High?

It’s kind of a cliché, like something a job candidate would say at an interview when asked to reveal a weakness: “I always set the bar too high”.  But at the conference I felt like it really was the case, as it sounded like a lot to take in within just two days; and I was eager to find out if I can do it. Or, who knows, maybe it’s just because I don’t go to conferences as often as I should (sorry, just being honest over here).

It’s hard to sum up what more than 30 speakers said (including the workshops). Actually, it’s not hard. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to put it together in a nice-to-read-with-decent-length blog post. So I’ll focus on key concepts that not only mattered the most to me but that were also mentioned on several occasions by different speakers (if they’re all saying it, it must be important, right?).

1 – Design Is an Art Form of Making Predictions

Embrace that we won’t be able to measure every single improvement. Data tells you what happened, but can’t make decisions for you. Research and scientific knowledge can help you understand why, but you’re the one who needs to take the next step. And that’s where intuition and the art of making predictions (based on your experience and know-how) will fill in the gaps. A nuanced view, instead of a dogmatic one, will better guide your judgment and approach.

2 – Clean & Simple Can Easily Become Generic

“Lovely designs like this have become so commonplace that beautiful and clean are almost baseline constraints for new projects. It’s like every designer had the same Pinterest coffee shop fever dream, and decided the whole world had to become lifestyle-chic.”
– Jonas Downey, Basecamp

Software Design - clean and simple - example

Nowadays we all know that clean-and-simple is the most straightforward and (probably) the best approach to a design challenge. The problem is that if you become too generic, your brand becomes invisible.

What’s the solution then?

There isn’t only one solution, but multiple ones. In the sections below this post, I’ll mention a few that will surely make a difference.

3 – Design Against the Trends – Create Your Style

In an industry that tends to wrap things up in patterns, colors, shapes, and effects, the designers’ job is to unwrap it all. At least to the level that your brand will be distinguishable.

If you see the work of Tobias Røder, a designer from Copenhagen (that also designed the logo for the DesignMatters18’ conference), you can immediately understand his approach to design.

tobias roder artwork

Tobias Røder stands out from the crowd because he has his own voice. He has his own style and approach.

This kind of simplistic designs can be misleading: contrary to public belief, simplism is hard to achieve. Before getting to a simple result, you must first explore all possible directions and try out ideas that ultimately won’t work. Takes a lot of effort to question yourself, reply to your own questions, and even to sleep on it. Having time to think is underrated by almost all clients, and a problem may arise if after a long wait all they see is a simple solution.

Create something that everyone understands and that stays relevant over time.

Software Design that is relevant today
4 – Feelings Matter

We’re in a utilitarian paradigm. We focus on how to create utilities, but we focus less on how you feel while using those utilities. Most things are not quantifiable.

Is happiness quantifiable?
Is fun quantifiable?
Is delight quantifiable?

When we design apps & websites, we often design them as if emotionally engaging is in conflict with simplicity. Wrong. Simple and easy to use is not contrary to expressive & engaging storytelling. A good example is ommwriter, a typewriting app.

This topic was first brought up by Tobias Ahlin, Experience Designer director at Minecraft. It was also interesting to see how other speakers touched this subject over and over again, in different ways, but always with similar conclusions.

Creating an emotional connection between the product and the user can increase engagement, trust, and satisfaction.

The quality of an object and how it makes the person feel is directly related with the pleasure of using it and how effectively that product meets expectations.

Could the apps we make be better if we start taking into account the users’ feelings after each interaction with them? An app that only focuses on utility is like a musician that only focuses on hitting the right notes.

Be like Beyonce 💃💃💃.

Or like Zakk Wylde, if you prefer. He’s pretty cool. And has a badass beard.

5 – Be Purposeful with the Details

The voice and tone you put into your copywriting; the shade of grey you pick for fonts; if you use rounded and curvy shapes or squares instead. If you look closely, you’ll see that great brands obsess with details. Maybe that’s because they’re great?

Christine Cha, product designer at Headspace (the app for meditation) mentioned this when she was explaining about how they built their brand. To start with, they had a huge work in front of them: change people’s perception of meditation. They chose to create a light and funny brand with colorful characters; they also used the “rounded everything technique”: shapes, characters, and buttons, thus reinforcing the friendly feeling. Last but not least, they relied on beautiful animations to engage, communicate and improve interactions with its users.

Headspace's friendly brand

All of these put together tell people’s subconsciousness that this is a friendly brand. That’s just how the human psyche works.

These same principles were also used by the N26 design team, led by Akarsh Sangh. N26 is a mobile bank that wants to change the banking industry overall image (which is boring and complicated). They bet in creating an emotional connection between the product and the user,  thus increasing the engagement, trust, and satisfaction.

How did they do it? Through design:

  • Making the experience more calm and comfortable with a beautiful UI and UX in the app: simple visuals, a light copywriting and effortless actions
  • Empowering users’ action on their account (lock, transfer, save..)
  • Empowering users’ control of the interface – changing the color scheme of the web app (from light to dark) was a detail people loved

This video they made for a new app feature conveys what their brand is all about by using meaningful animations.

Val Head, an animation designer expert, offered a great talk about how animations have the power to engage, to communicate and to improve interactions. If you’re interested in this topic, I’d suggest you take some minutes to watch her right here.

As the famous designer Charles Eames put it one day “The details are not the details. They make the Design.

6 – Build a Product for Persons, Not for Buyers

Designing for businesses means not designing for people. Make sure to have a design philosophy and how you can make designing for businesses enjoyable, interesting and impactful. Enterprise Software becomes a checklist of features focused on the seller/buyer relationship.

Also, anyone and everyone is a consumer. So how do you design something for a group of users with no common ground other than being potential buyers?

“Product design is about making life more enjoyable. The medium can be different, the craft is the same.” – Kyle Peatt, director of UX at Shopify.

When the Buyer = User, that’s where good design naturally happens. Services like Dropbox, Trello, GitHub… all of them are enterprise solutions that started by designing for consumers and kept on doing it ever since. Designing for consumers and businesses – try to build a product where both are true.

7 – Use Studies to Back You Up

Tobias Ahlin (yes, him again) revealed on stage one of Minecraft’s recent challenges: inconsistencies with the users’ OS was creating confusion and frustration for both the users and the company.

The negative impact followed by not applying to platform’s expectations has been highlighted by Nielsen Norman Group in their studies “list of most crucial application design mistakes”.

That problem exploration convinced stakeholders to invest more in design, and a new design infrastructure was funded.

Any creative knows how hard it is to sell innovative ideas to a tough conservative crowd,  but if you make them bulletproof it will certainly get easier.

8 – Netflix and Chill…Organizational Structure. Also, Good Ideas Can Come from Anywhere

We can take valuable lessons from how Netflix teams are structured.

Typical structure vs the one Netflix uses - software design

Accordingly to Alex Bronkie, Netflix’s Product Designer, this flat structure allows ideas to spread more rapidly because they don’t need to break through the different levels of a hierarchy. Brainstorming sessions are more efficient and bring more to the table, ultimately giving voice and responsibility to everyone.

I support the idea that this is even more important in the first steps of the product innovation framework.

product framework
Netflix’s product innovation framework

They test against each other all the ideas that come from the brainstorm sessions, even the ones that, at first, look dumb.

A good idea can come from anywhere.

Looking at how Julie Zhuo, Facebook’s VP of design, faces their design challenges, we can have a notion why this approach inspires Alex Bronkie and her team.

Julie Zhuo, VP of Design at Facebook

Making use of the advantages this role model brings, they brainstorm together starting on stage 1: “what is the people problem?”

Integrating This New Knowledge into MobiLab

I was happy to know that Mobilab is already aware of some of the major topics the speakers brought up. We make a big effort on creating our own style within the software agency industry; we try to be purposeful with details across every single element of our brand; every person has a voice inside the company; we put into every product we build a person-centric approach. Other topics, we still need to work them out better over time, as we grow.

We all struggle to implement the best development flows, approaches, and ways to tackle design challenges within our teams. Learning how the best designers in the tech scene are doing it can surely help us find the correct path out of the maze.

Thanks to the DesignMatters team for making my knowledge grow, and to all the speakers that shared their experiences. Don’t sue me if I stole too much content from you.

And thank you for reading my post! If you reached this far you certainly are a champ.

“This is a nice blog post but I didn’t learn much… can I just watch some of the talks myself?” Of course, you can and you definitely should!

Here’s the link: Design Matters’18 on Youtube.


Vasco is a Senior Designer at MobiLab. He is in charge of establishing a design system and processes in the company and making sure all the designs are of the highest quality.