Aarron Walter is the VP of Design Education at InVision, previous to his current role he spent eight years at MailChimp building the UX practice. He shares how he ended up in design leadership, and what he thinks is most challenging about his current role. We also spent some time talking about how you know when it's time to try something new and Aarron shares some wisdom for young designers looking to get into management and leadership roles. It was such a pleasure talking to Aarron, he has a lot of great learnings to share.
Tell me a bit about your current role and what that encompasses?
My title at InVision is Vice President of Design Education, which is a new practice area. Right now I’m doing a lot of research and writing about design best practices. Soon I’ll be speaking at conferences and companies sharing my findings to help establish strong design practices. I want to help elevate design in our industry.
You've been leading and building design teams for quite some time. What was your path into design leadership and education like?
My path is a little weird. My educational training is as a painter. I studied painting as both an undergrad and graduate student. After I left school, I became a teacher and spent about 8 or 9 years teaching in the United States and Europe. I taught design classes, technology, front-end development and a bit of server-side development. I also taught some hoity-toity things like non-linear narrative and history of communication media. I taught a lot about design and storytelling and how we can pull technology and culture together.
In 2007, I met Ben Chestnut, the CEO and co-founder of MailChimp. He was a guest speaker in a few of my classes and we got to know each other. I was writing my first book and wanted to write about MailChimp in one of the chapters. Through that, I ended up joining them. They said, “Well, great, you’re writing about us, why don’t you just join us and help us build this design team?”
At the time, we had a new engineer and myself, the designer. We worked together to rebuild MailChimp, rethink it and explore how the brand could evolve. We wanted to keep as much of the brand as possible. There was talk of making MailChimp more formal and business-like because some people looked at MailChimp as weird or juvenile. It was informal and had this personality. I’d been a customer for years before I joined and that’s what I loved about it, that there was this personality present.
As for how I started building teams, I fell into it, to be honest. Teaching taught me to learn and explore lots of new things on a regular basis, I was freelancing and working with clients at the same time. There was always an element of learning in my work.
That continued when I joined MailChimp. I was building a design team and learning on the job. We were given tremendous freedom to experiment with not just the product, but the business. We were learning and sharing, and that eventually turned into books and talks. The company grew and I had to build design teams, I had to consider the types of people I would hire.
Over the course of eight years at MailChimp I built the UX practice, and then ultimately that shifted to a new product team, where it was a different set of team values, and then an R&D team that was also a different value system.