Sahil's Craft at Instagram
Prior to starting StudentsWho.Design, you worked as a designer for top companies like Instagram, a16z, Intercom and dozens of YC companies. How has your craft evolved over the last 5 years?
When starting out, I think the goal was to get the design out as quickly as possible. This processed looked like getting all the information from the founder or PM, and slapping it onto the UI almost haphazardly. I think over the years, having multiple, collaborative iteration cycles with very focused outcomes has helped me develop my craft. What previously was getting a brief and spitting out the final design after a couple of days, I now break this all into chunks. Here’s what that looks like:
After we figure out what we need to make, I make sure we’re both on the same page about why we need to make it and if it’s all technically feasible. In Figma, it’s easy to make everything seem like its possible. Then you quickly find out that 50% of the work is extremely difficult to engineer. Once we’re on the same page, I’ll explore many variations of the same screen(s) in a grey-scale format, just to test out the content and the organization. The founder/PM will look at it together and discuss with information architecture best achieves the goal we set. Only then do we move into high-fidelity where I repeat the feedback loop with the founder/PM. This has led to a more fun, outcome-oriented process.
While at Instagram, what design decisions did you have to make and how did you make them?
When redesigning the login experience, I had to rethink how people with multiple accounts (ex: personal account, dog account, Finsta) would get in and out of their accounts in an app that was originally only built for one account. There were around 2 experiences I landed on—one where you would see a list of accounts that you own and another that gave each account a card and then you could swipe from account to account. The designer in me wanted to go with the cards since it was more aesthetic, but when looking at the data, the amount of people that have more than 3+ accounts is drastically less than the amount of people who have 1-2 accounts. Therefore, a card experience would be a really heavy interaction for only 2 cards.
That leaves us with the list, right? Well, we still had an issue with a generic list — its not engaging and it doesn’t emphasize the various identities that someone could have on Instagram. I then explored ways to make each cell in the list more emphatic—either through shadows, enlarged typed, playing around with the ‘Log In’ button. After some exploration, feedback, and iterations, we landed on a list design that accomplished the business goal, user goal, and fit the design system.
Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges you faced as a designer at Instagram?
I think one challenge I faced was actually relating to the design team - it was really a fit thing. Generally, I was one of the few people who didn’t have formal design education. A good percentage of people came from an agency or a design school, so there was an extreme focus on the craft. On the other hand, I appreciated the craft but was more focused on high-level business questions — how do we calculate churn? How do people interact with the app? How does growth work at Instagram? It was demotivating to go to my team looking for answers and be told it’s not something we really think about as a team. On a more practical level, I prefered to code prototypes, which isn’t what most people on my team did so it made it hard to ask questions and get help. Sometimes this made it difficult to connect with the team on both an interest and tool level.
What advice would you give to someone who is working on building their craft?
This applies to any craft you’re building — sports, arts, anything. Show up. Put in the hours. Most importantly, do it consistently. Even if its 10 min a day, the amount of time you put in will only compound. It’ll help lessen the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
What are some non-obvious things to understand in becoming a great designer?
Truly understand the business and how the system/product you’re working on functions fundamentally. As an in-house designer, you’re expected to contribute to both business and user goals. It’s how you earn your pay. At the end of the day, the question is: how do you add value? So, although all designers get grouped together, in-house designers have an added responsibility of understanding the business, the engineering and the design. Unless you can understand these three aspects, you’re limiting yourself and what you can create.
Tell us about SWD.
There’s a big gap between the design resources that exist today and people who want to get into design. If students don’t have a portfolio piece or know how to use Figma, they can’t apply a lot of the knowledge they’re gaining. There’s sort of a Catch 22 — you need a portfolio to get a design job, but you also need design experience to make a portfolio piece. In order to break this catch 22, a group of us at Cornell used to teach a class about design but we’ve now all graduated and see a need for the course beyond Cornell. This is where StudentsWho.Design comes into play.
StudentsWho.Design is a design school that helps aspiring designers go from zero to employed. We target people who haven’t done design before in industry or haven’t gotten a formal design education. We also offer a free three-week course that teaches students the fundamentals, paired with assignments that we give feedback on. At the end, every student leaves the three-week course with a complete, polished portfolio piece. We also offer additional mentorship for students who want our help in securing a job, so we pair students with a mentor who guides them through all sorts of things — portfolio reviews, interview prep, job searching, and so much more. Best part — we only get paid when the student gets hired.