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Jonathan Smiley, Partner & Design Lead at ZURB

Posted on Feb 18, 2014 by

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Jonathan Smiley is a partner and design lead at ZURB, a product design company that has helped more than 200 startups since 1998 generate over $1 billion in market capitalization. Jonathan is also the creator of the immensely popular ZURB Foundation, the most advanced responsive front-end framework in the world.

Can you elaborate to us about yourself & your background?

I’m quite a nerd – I play a lot of games (mostly Xbox, some indie games on my computer) and I’m big into fantasy / Sci-fi movies and TV so…yeah, nerdy.

I grew up in a large part in Germany as an American military brat, so some of my design sensibilities (as well as cultural ones) have a European bend to them.

My background and education was fantastically multi-disciplinary including 3D modeling and design, video production, theme park design, Web design, AR gaming and more.

How and when did you get started with digital design (Whether it’s the first time you learned HTML, Photoshop, etc.)? Could you share some stories/experiences?

I’d say I started with design, at least in some limited capacity, when I was in middle school. I created a personal website on Geocities of all things, and had to learn how to write basic HTML and styling (this was before CSS). That at least got me interested in the Web and in front-end code.

I actually went to school to be a computer programmer, and in fact I went through 3 years of college toward that degree stopping just short of minors in both CS and Math before I decided that being a code monkey just didn’t sound like a lot of fun. I still enjoy algorithms and optimization, and it helps to have grounding in traditional programming, even as a designer, but creating experiences for people and ensuring that technology….worked, was much more interesting. I ended up graduating with more courses complete outside my major than inside it…which is why I was in school for 5 years, including every summer. It was…expensive.

When did you decide that you wanted to head into design professionally and why?

When I was working as a graphic artist in financial services (a company called SunGard Omni, which makes 401(k) recordkeeping software – something which is exactly as boring as it sounds), my responsibilities were entirely in the marketing department. However in my free time (of which I had a great deal) I would work with the software division to try and kick-start skunkworks projects that would put a new face on some very old software. I was much more interested in helping our users do more, and more easily, than I was with producing marketing collateral or trade show banners.

The real kicker and what pushed me into design as a career whether I was ready or not, was when SunGard Omni started to fold and most of the company was laid off, including me. It was a blessing in disguise.

Have you always been interested in working with a startup, and why?

The startup, or not, nature of a company is not that important to me – I’m much more interested in working with a company of any size or age which is trying to do something interesting, and forwards the cause of greater human / computer interaction. Startups can be good for this: they’re scrappy, and motivated, but they also have limited reach and resources. Larger companies have the manpower and the money, but not always the drive.

ZURB affords me the best of both worlds. ZURB has been around for 15 years now, so we’re not really a startup, but we are very small (8 [employees] when I started four and a half years ago, and about 22 now) so we can be scrappy about what we do. However with our credentials and network we can work with both startups and large companies on targeted, specific sprints that are almost always challenging and interesting.

Where do you get your design inspiration from? Who or what inspires you?

It sounds kitschy, but I’m constantly inspired by the people I work with. ZURB has extremely talented designers who can do everything from business strategy to UI design to visuals to incredible front-end code and while I certainly think I can hold my own they always impress me.

Beyond that rather sentimental answer, I get inspired by anything that tries to break the mold. I was especially taken with an exercise that was part of a UX course from MIT’s OpenCourseware, which asked you to do this: consider every heuristic that makes up a common email client. For example, new messages are usually on top (location), unread messages are usually bold (visual treatment). Important messages usually have an icon flag. Etc. Now create a mail client which uses entirely different heuristics (color, location, size, etc). I did that exercise and I was so taken with the process (though what I came up with would have been rather annoying to use) that I still seek out new takes on old concepts, or ideas that push something forward in a new or even weird way.

What do you think it takes to become a good designer?

I suppose it depends on: designer of what? I’ll try for ‘designer of digital products’ and I think it takes a couple things:
– The ability to understand a system. This sounds trite, but digital products become more complex every day and being able to understand a system and hold that complexity in your head makes a huge difference when it comes to iterating on a design.
– Attention to detail. Nothing makes or breaks a design like considering the details, both of how something works (edge cases, conflicts) and how something looks (consistency, craft).

There’s a lot else that’s much more obvious, like knowing the tools, basic understandings of things like user behavior and color theory, etc., but those are two that I think are less obvious and just as important.

What do you think the future of design is?

Ubiquitous computing. We carry in our pockets computers more powerful than the ones we used to put men on the moon. Our TVs are increasingly computers, our cars are computers. Google wants to put computers on our eyes and scientists are starting human trials on computer interface in our brains. The simplest way for us to do more as humans is through technology, and design is what will make this more than just circuits and into something usable and helpful and fun. I believe design, perhaps more than any other industry, profession, or science, will determine how we progress socially and intellectually (as self-aggrandizing as that sounds).

What industry sites or blogs do you regularly read?

I read Smashing Magzine a fair bit. I read A List Apart now and then. The UK magazine .Net is quite good (and I don’t say that just because I write for it sometimes) and has a good online presence as well. To be honest, most of what I read comes from smaller sources and scrappy people, and typically I find it through tweets or just word of mouth.

What are a few of your favorite development tools, and why? (Web frameworks, or Adobe software, etc.)

Well I’m of course pretty fond of Foundation, since I created it (with a good bit of help from ZURBians). While I may be quite biased, I’m genuinely very proud of it, and we use it every day here at ZURB. So there’s that.

Beyond that – I use Photoshop a lot and while it may be expensive and overly burdened with features it’s still the best tool for pixel graphics work. I use Coda to code; I refuse to hop on the Sublime Text bandwagon until it’s a somewhat more polished experience.

Could you describe what a normal day of work looks like for you?

My days at ZURB are split between client work and internal projects. Every day starts with a 9AM scrum with the entire team where we all say what we’ll be working on – this is really the only ‘agile’ thing we do at ZURB.

As a Design Lead I will typically have one or two calls with clients to review deliverables and gather feedback (I lead between 4 and 6 projects at any given time). Those could be any time though I try to minimize how interruptive they are. I’ll spend some time during the day giving feedback to designers and steering their projects, which is the other half of being a Design Lead.

On top of that I might work on designs for apps or services we’re developing or iterating on, I might work on Foundation – either support, marketing or code. I have a number of back-burner projects I devote time to now and then to see if they’ve got legs, and I’ll probably have a work session or two with either the engineering team or our Connections (marketing) team to discuss projects we’re working on. It’s a pretty fluid place and no two days are all that similar.

What do you think is the most intimidating thing to first-time designers who want to become great designers? And how do you think they can overcome this?

The bar is very, very high these days for great product design. Don’t be intimidated by that – instead, take it as a challenge. No great design just popped out of someone’s head full-formed, it always takes iteration, and feedback and trying again and again until you get it right…and then you do it again. Even great designers screw it up the first time, almost every time.

If you could tell beginning designers 1 or 2 things, what would you tell them? What did you wish someone told you when you were younger?

Pay attention to what other designers are doing, and not just to imitate but sometimes to avoid it. Design is a very….ego-centric field. It’s very easy to think you have all the answers, that you’re the absolute best – and to clients, you need to project that, it’s part of the job. But when it’s not for show, pay attention to what other designers are doing. Inspect the details of their work and look for things you ought to be doing…and tell them things they ought not to. Feedback is a two-way street with anyone who’s worth a damn.


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