An Education part IV: currents with Miki Setlur

Published:  August 20, 2015


Miki Setlur

‘Currents’ is the final instalment of a 4-part mini interview series on design education, from the August/September desktop. 



You are a senior product designer at Twitter. In this digital context, what does ‘product designer’ mean? What does your role entail?

As a product designer, I focus on the whole process and move between different types of design, such as graphic, UI (user interface), interaction, motion and prototype. These used to be separate roles and, in some companies, they still are. Even at Twitter, we do have people specialising in motion, iconography or defining our visual language. I tend to spend most of my time on the interaction side.

A lot of my output consists of static flows or interactive prototypes, where I try to answer these questions: why is someone on this screen? How did they get there? What are they looking to achieve? What actions do they need to take? What happens when they click, tap or swipe? Is this the best layout to guide them easily to the next step?

This is just the beginning though. The complications lie in conflicting needs of different users, trade-offs with other goals, limited space and nuanced special cases to account for. These details expand the role of a product designer beyond just crafting one ideal experience, and more into problem solving, decision-making and prioritisation. That’s where my role incorporates user research, business strategy and understanding our data to inform designs and come up with the best solutions that delight the user and are also good for business.


Illustration by Daniel H Gray.

What are the main conversations around design education in the Bay Area concerned with?

I think the focus in the Bay Area right now is on specialised training. I’ve noticed a lot more students coming out of boot camps or intensive 12-week programs from schools like General Assembly. Since these programs are so new, it’s hard to tell whether they’re providing enough time and depth to shape a great designer. What they are doing is trying to fill the gap that traditional design schools have yet to catch up on. I see teachers at these specialised schools that are my peers and still practising digital product design. So they’re speaking from direct, recent experience.

In that sense, the conversation would be: do you need to go to traditional design school to work as a product designer for digital products? I still think it’s important. But until they catch up in teaching direct industry experience, designers will still need to be doing a lot of self-learning.

What skills and level of industry understanding do you see design graduates armed with? Are these enough to swim in the start-up scene?

Design schools are great at shaping the design attitude – the designer way of looking at the world. I see students coming out of graphic or visual arts programs who are able to convey concepts visually, who wield the traditional design tools with enough proficiency. I see those coming out of programs [that have] a focus on strategy and process [generally] have experience [in] using different models to gain an understanding of a problem.

What I don’t see is the understanding of how to apply these skills outside of fresh start, blue sky thinking – how to apply these skills to evolve an existing design, to iterate on an existing feature. It’s a rare opportunity in my field to get carte blanche.

I haven’t seen a strong sense of industry understanding coming from design school graduates as a result of their curriculum. Where I do see it is in the hackers, doers and builders. Those design students that took it upon themselves to work on a side project with non-designers.

How can design graduates be trained to think in a way that facilitates the complexities of problems they may be faced with in the future, in the industry you exist in?

Much of the work I do as a product designer is closely tied to my product team, most of whom are non-designers. Understanding their fields more allows me to build stronger relationships, communicate easier, grasp their challenges and identify opportunities. Design graduates should be taught to think like the people they’ll be working so closely with.

I recommend lots of project work where you as a designer at school are side-by-side with a user researcher, data scientist, product manager, developer and tester. That’s how I learned.

You studied a discipline other than design. What moves did you make in your self-education to learn how to apply your abilities in the digital space?

I studied commerce and economics. In high school, I had actually applied to new media arts as well as engineering physics. My interests were eclectic and business was the route I took when I couldn’t fully decide. I was most interested in the entrepreneurial side of business as well as an understanding of our world, the systems in play and how everything connects. While in school, I continued to design on the side as a hobby.

The best move I did was quit my job, team up with a software engineer friend and hack away on projects. We didn’t have a brilliant idea, just a craving to build products and a business. That craving and putting my livelihood on the line was the biggest incentive to soak up knowledge from everywhere. I wish I could point to one specific resource that got me to where I am. It’s just not that clean of a path. When I was learning on my own there weren’t nearly as many resources as there are now, for better or for worse. The challenge today is sifting through all the resources and staying focused.

So I actually wasn’t focused on getting a job as a product designer. In fact, at the time, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. As I started seeing job descriptions that matched what I was already doing, I started to understand the new role I had stepped into.

Miki Setlur is a senior product designer at Twitter, and the product design chair of AIGA San Francisco. Formerly, Setlur led the design of Evernote for Android, named one of Google’s Best Apps of 2012. 

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