Happy Sunday! My second podcast episode on design futures is up and it was another total pleasure I’m happy to share.
Randy J. Hunt has designed and built several multi-sided e-commerce marketplaces you might know: Etsy, Artsy, and Grab (Southeast Asia’s superapp). He also led product at coffee startup Morning. He wrote Product Design for the Web based on his work at Etsy, and also founded and directed a design studio called Citizen Scholar Inc. before all of that.
I was really happy to have an hour talking to him face to face from the other side of the world, in Singapore (13 hours ahead of New York). Technology is a trip.
Press the big button above to listen here / in the Substack app, or watch the video on YouTube.
5 questions and some favorite quotes
Listen to the episode or read the transcript for full context and more great insights!
How has 5 years living in Singapore changed your perspective?
I’ve never felt more American than once I lived outside of America. And I think that’s an interesting lens to have on yourself… The interesting thing to navigate in this corporate and professional context is at some level, the stereotypes or even the expectations about how an American person might behave, or American tech, is some of what people were hiring... Obviously, there’s me and my skills and experience and things, but sometimes you’re almost expected to show up in a certain way… they’re hiring someone with the expectation that that person would be very direct. Maybe in a way that made them uncomfortable… And so it was interesting to try to come to understand that I was both like, Myself, and representative of some archetypes… this American archetype, the expat archetype.
Were there ways that you realized you’d been designing only for Americans, or different design patterns that you started to see?
Language and information density is just different because the languages are different. The geometry of characters, and the space they take up, and how much meaning is packed into an amount of space with symbolic language; the history of information density… And so stuff that you or I would be like, “There’s just too much here. Too many characters, too many words,”—would like, surface read—if you start to change that, you’re like, “Well, where’d all the information go?” It’s just way more contextual and information dense…
And so because of that, even if you start to go to other languages or merge that with other technology traditions, there’s a way of using space and time and experiences that is different because of the expectations about how long things will take, how densely information can be communicated, how simplified or not they need to be.
In this era of disruptive tech, how is your process changing?
For maybe a decade or something, [I was trying] to be more of like a vehicle, like remove myself from the process, design in this neutral way… The general mindset—design as this practice and discipline—it was very analytical and we would try to root things in truth. Of course we’d embed them with our creativity from a problem solving standpoint, or inspiration. But it was maybe more like architecture…
Now, at a personal level, I’m interested in finding ways to show up professionally that are more intentionally where I put more of my full self into them. Meaning, there’s that aspect of myself that has been successful professionally in things that’s worked and applied, but there’s some other stuff that’s much more expressive... more playful. There’s more active, ongoing lateral thinking… And trying to find processes and environments, ways of working that allow you to behave that way and capture the good parts about it... That feels more alive to me personally, but I think has a role in provoking a more team-based creative practice to be more exciting, which can make it more durable. You can have a longer sustained relationship with the thing because it feels full of life and it’s not so boring. I think professionalized design in product in tech has arrived at a place where it’s gotten pretty boring.
If you were talking to students and junior designers right now, what skills would you be telling them to learn?
I think that there’s these meta skills that are really design skills: learning how to learn, adaptability, understanding your own learning style at a personal level, and what works for you is much more durable than saying, “Oh, you should learn this particular technology or this particular tech or this particular tool or something.”
What made you pull the trigger to actually write a book?
There was a moment in time of the team and the business and the brand of Etsy all growing. It was definitely one of the points I felt really… locked in what I was doing professionally. The momentum was right, there was a clear view, people were aligning, there was buy in, it was all feeling right. And I had authored some things to… help to make that happen, but then also capture it and reflect it back to the team: “Here’s some principles, here’s some ways we do things, here’s some ways we should think about stuff…” But at the same time, we had a decent reputation outside the team, within the tech community and New York design scene, and people would come and ask, “How are you doing what you’re doing at Etsy? What are you doing? What’s happening inside? How do you do this?” And I found myself repeating those stories and examples over and over again, and I was like, “Oh, I should put some effort into putting this all together in one coherent point of view and putting it out as a thing.”
Books, tools, and people mentioned:
The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
Chinese design references
Just Enough Design by Taku Satoh
Just Enough Research by Erika Hall
Product Design for the Web by Randy Hunt
Rob Fitzpatrick’s Write Useful Books group (and book)
Where to find Randy:
Please let me know if you enjoy this interview series, or if you have people you think I should interview. I’d also love to hear your own personal answers to these questions. Drop a comment on Substack or your social network of choice.