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Ways We Work

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Alexander Mayes

Product Designer at Instagram

Alexander Mayes is a product designer at Instagram in California. He grew up in Bakersfield, California - a small town where his passionate interest in art and design was a unique one. He talks about honing his design skills by working design jobs during school and how doing both at once developed his work ethic. He also shares the importance of soft skills and accepting feedback from other designers. It may be something to do with the epic beard, but Alexander has some great wisdom to offer young designers and is honest about why he loves what he does.

Tell me about the work that you're currently doing?

I currently work at Instagram on the design team, as a product designer. Unfortunately, a lot of the work I’m doing right now I can’t really talk about [laughs]. I'm on a team comprised of around 15 or 16 designers, our team is growing a lot. I was the 8th designer that started on the team, and that was six months ago so we've grown a ton since then which is awesome.

As a product designer at Instagram each of us are working on different parts of the product. I'm in the monetization realm at the moment, but I've worked on some growth stuff as well in the past.

What was your path to design like? I noticed you actually went to school for it, so did you know early on it was what you wanted to do?

I did know really early on, which is funny considering my upbringing. I come from a small town in California called Bakersfield, which is sort of like a farming, agriculturally-based town. It's super conservative and super republican and they hate the arts and don't really have any artistic sort of mindset there [laughs].

I remember being in high school during the recession and they cut all of the extracurriculars. They cut all kinds of classes and they were laying off teachers too. The only teachers that they didn't lay off were the teachers that taught sports. I was in a web design class and I was the last person in the class. They shut down the class but they still needed somebody to run the website so they literally created a class for me to go in first period to work with a librarian who had no idea what to do when it came to web design. So I was in this one person class, called web design that consisted of me sitting on the computer in the library designing the school’s website.

At that point I realized I was doing something kind of different. Everybody was focusing on playing sports in high school, and I was just so interested in computers and making graphics on computers. People just didn't understand that. My parents definitely didn't understand that either. I think my grandfather was the one who really helped me figure out where I wanted to go to school.

When it came time to choose schools it seemed really obvious that I should go to design school. I thought, "there's a school for everything else, I guess I'll just go to design school because it's something that I really love to do." It really made sense to me. All of my friends were doing completely different things and didn't understand being able to make money from making graphics. I remember my first venture into that, I had a little business called Tonic Creations, and I used to make custom sliced out div websites for MySpace. I would do the div overlays with the different buttons and bands used to pay me $500 to do that. I was just this 15-year-old kid doing that stuff. So that was pretty empowering and I thought it was really cool.

My parents still don't know what Instagram is. I don't even think my dad has an email address [laughs].

Where did you end up going to school?

I went to the Art Institute in San Diego. I have an older sister who lived in San Diego at the time and I had never connected with her so I made a conscious choice to move and go to a design school in San Diego so I could develop a relationship with her more. AI wasn't necessarily the best school and sometimes I think that maybe I should have gone somewhere else but it doesn't really matter now.

At that time I met a ton of friends with all different majors like game design, animation and it was a good time.

“As far as learning to be a better designer that definitely came from working and learning from people who were much better designers than I was.”

There's a big trend in being self-taught, especially in design, so I'm wondering with all your hindsight now if you would still choose to go through school or not?

That's a really good question. I don't think I learned that much from school. I learned a lot of terms. I had four different typography classes and I learned a lot of the ways to speak about typography, but as far as appreciation of good design and art, and understanding how to become a good designer - I don't know.

In college I worked at a design agency and I kind of discredited all my classes at the time and just worked full-time. I remember being in one class and we'd have eleven weeks in a quarter, I went to the first week and then I didn't go back until the eleventh week to present our presentation and I still got an A on it. It's just that that class fell during the time that I had to work and I was working at an agency and learning so much about design.

I think being in school gave me the platform to push myself and be that student type of person. Staying up really late and finishing projects and being under deadlines and understanding the value of time.

As far as learning to be a better designer that definitely came out of working and learning from people who were much better designers than I was. Fighting with them and thinking I was right, and then figuring out that I was wrong and secretly doing what they said but not telling them that I did what they said [laughs].

“I didn't go to Stanford, I didn't do all this kind of crazy shit that people out here are used to. Sometimes I stop and look back and think "this is intense." It even makes me smile to this day.”

What would you say are the main challenges that you face in the work you're doing now?

Before coming to Instagram I was at a smaller startup called Curalate and the challenges there were just so different. Half of my time there the design team, which was super small, was trying to explain what design was and set design principles. I spent a lot of time trying to get the CEO and everyone else on board with shipping really awesome design. Then I’d have to tailor it back and understand that we didn't necessarily have the resources being a startup, and that business goals didn't always align with good design. So I had to push really hard but also tailor myself back to be somewhere in the middle.

But at Instagram, everybody is just pushing for super amazing design all of the time. We have some of the best designers, like famous designers that work here. You get to sit next to the people who you’ve really looked up to all day. Then all of the sudden you're showing your work in a design review with Kevin Systrom, and all that you can think about is the first Instagram post that you ever posted and how 5 years later you’re designing for an app that has been such a big part of your life with the people that literally created the first version, it's all kind of unreal. For me, coming from a small town and then a start up it’s... I mean I didn't go to Stanford, I didn't do all this crazy shit that people out here are used to. Sometimes I stop and look back and think "this is intense." It even makes me smile to this day.

So I love getting feedback from other designers here. Some designers that I’ve worked with in the past have been really egotistical about getting feedback, but I know the people at Instagram that are critiquing my work are just so good, so it's great for me. I think what I'm trying to do now is to put myself at that level too, and realize that I don't have to take all feedback and learning how to distil it better and be quicker on product thinking. Not really execution but getting to answers faster when it comes to the product. It's really important because if you spend hours thinking of product solutions you're never going to get anywhere. That's probably one of the main things that I'm really focusing on right now is how to be a better holistic product thinker.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Usually in the beginning of the week there's more time to actually sit and design. I don't have as many meetings.

Mornings are usually meeting heavy and then later in the afternoon or evening I'll actually sit and crank on design and learn and read. It depends quite a bit, we could have a review towards the afternoon, but a lot of it is meeting with our PMs and talking over things and meeting with the individual teams. The product that I'm working on right now has a very small team, so it's kind of nice because we can easily communicate, there's not a lot of facets to go through.

Meetings and design, meetings and design basically [laughs].

What are the top 5 tools you're usually regularly in your work?

Sketch - I've phased out Photoshop since I've been here.
Facebook Messenger - We use Facebook in general and Messenger quite a bit.
Keynote - I never thought I would say that, but we do really big presentations and they have to be nice.
Origami - Prototyping software.
Quartz Composer - Another kind of prototyping software.

How do you manage email and communications?

At my old company we used email heavily and a little bit of Slack. I think I've used Slack once since I've been at Instagram and it was to communicate with a single engineer, somewhere.

Most of the time we have private Facebook groups that our whole team is on and we consistently post stuff on that Facebook group. We use Facebook Messenger to communicate, kind of like Slack. We use that a lot and people will mention you if there’s something relevant for you to see. There's groups for everything. Each project will have multiple groups, whether it's a feedback group or an announcement group or something.

We do use email sometimes but it's very rare.

What would your advice be for a young designer?

That soft skills matter.

A lot of designers focus on being a really well-crafted artist and they focus on perfection, but they forget how to actually communicate and deal with other people. In my opinion, if you ever want to be a leader or be successful in the world, you need to be able to influence and deal with people in a meaningful manner.

When I first started out, I felt pretty special being a designer coming from a place where there wasn't any other designers and I was pretty good at it and I was getting jobs and doing really well. Over the last two years I've really been focusing on being less cocky and less arrogant. It doesn't help and it's just not good in general for you as a person.

People respect you more and people see you more as a leader and want to work with you more if you have those soft skills of being able to inspire and influence people.

How would you recommend that designers learn those skills if maybe they don't come naturally?

Right. So listening is a big thing. I think people tend to forget to listen and they're really just being quiet and thinking of what they want to say after the other person is done talking. I always talk about knee-jerk reactions and how they really come back and bite you, even if you're trying to stand your ground and be solidified in your beliefs. Being able to control those knee-jerk reactions and being intuitive with your own thought process, and what you’re saying and what you’re taking in. Listening is a really good start.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it worth it and meaningful to you?

It changes a lot.

I love design, but I don't think I can say that I do what I do right now because I love well-designed things - do you know what I mean? I think I do what I do now because when I get to show my friends what I do, or something I've worked on, that show-off moment - it’s really rewarding. Everyone craves attention and craves appreciation. I think the single most craved emotion for human beings is appreciation and if you can play into that in any sense for people I think that's really important.

I remember I did motion graphics for film for three months as an intern and I worked on Wreck-It Ralph and Cars 2 and I was sitting in the theater a couple months after that and saw some of the graphics that I worked on in the trailer with my friends and I was like "woah! Hey I totally did that!" That excitement to be able to show my friends and share in that joy is awesome. Maybe that's a really bad answer...

No, not at all. I really appreciate that answer because I think it's really honest. I hear all the time that it's meaningful to design for something that will impact thousands of people lives - not that that's not an honest answer. I just appreciate that you said what you really felt.

Yeah, I mean when people say that I totally get it. It's just not a very personal reason. They can't see those thousands of millions of people everyday and during work when you're sitting there, working at your desk, listening to music, drinking your coffee and looking at the pixels on Sketch, there's no way that you have all those people in mind. It's impossible. You do it because you want to feel appreciated - maybe not all the time - but for me when I sit down I'm thinking about what I can create that I'll be proud of.

For example, I'm working on the monetization team, and if I can get my friends excited about advertising - that's awesome. If you can have a smile when you're talking about your work you're probably doing something right.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Tobias van Schneider, he’s the director of design at Spotify and because #beardgoals.