Designing for Today’s Digital Experiences
Having worked with Google and Airbnb, Steph Bain and Shaun Modi of TM discuss their approach to design, share advice for designers and note the latest trends
TM is an award-winning digital design firm in San Francisco and Paris founded by Steph Bain and Shaun Modi to support the visions of brilliant entrepreneurs. Having cut their chops at companies like Google, Airbnb, Motorola, and Nokia, Bain and Modi branched out to create their own team and have attracted notable clients ranging from Boosted Boards and Product Hunt, to Mesosphere and Radpad.
PSFK caught up with the duo in their San Francisco office to discuss their design approach, advice for designers, inspirations, plus the trends they’re seeing in the digital design space.
What’s your approach in designing digital experiences?
Steph Bain: What’s most important to us is developing true empathy for everyone involved, from our clients and their teams, down to their customers that will be impacted by the products. We take the time to get to know people on a personal level and we find that to be the best way to design something great. You have to have an intense understanding.
What that means is that we’ll spend a lot of time interviewing teams and their customers. For Boosted Boards, we went to rider meetups and immersed ourselves in their community. We made a synthesis of our observations and prioritized what was most important.
It’s all about solving problems. Designing digital experiences like a website or app is no different in our mind than designing a physical product. It requires a process of what we call 10/5/3/1, which you can also think of as an upside down triangle. It’s the path of starting with many ideas and distilling it down to the one gem based upon qualitative and quantitative feedback.
What gets you excited about the design projects you take on?
Shaun Modi: We’re selective about what we take on because the more excited we are, the better the work is going to turn out. Anything we do has to have the potential to make a large scale societal or cultural impact and become a great business.
We look for projects where design and technology can improve an underserved market. We have to feel like our skills are a really good fit for the opportunity and we love it when the clients are driven founders and skilled engineers because we don’t see these as one-off projects; they are long-term partnerships. So far we’ve had the opportunity to work in industries ranging from healthcare to social media and cyber security. It helps us become better designers because we learn about how to improve the human condition for a diverse audience.
To give you an example of how this plays out, we’re doing a lot of work with Product Hunt. The impact there is enormous because the platform empowers entrepreneurs, writers, and makers of all types to get discovered for free. There’s no red tape and it’s a great equalizer because anyone, whether they’re from a small village in Thailand or a large city, can gain enough traction to attract investors. Great ideas come from everywhere and it leverages the power of the Internet to change economic reality, no matter who you are. It’s opened up distribution and helps anyone broadcast their ideas. Plus, even if your idea isn’t quite there, you can get a lot of valuable feedback to improve.
We’re big fans of these community-driven marketplaces.
Advice time. What would you say designers can do to go above and beyond?
Steph Bain: Designers need to be willing to get their hands dirty and solve problems. I’d suggest focusing on empathy and honing your craft because that’s something that will remain valuable no matter how the world changes.
The best designers obsess over the details, but it’s also important to understand metrics and business objectives. It’s not always best to be a design purist because numbers matter and when you pay attention to the goals of your company, you’ll provide greater value. Great designers know how to create a usable experience to help a business grow. It’s not a trade off. You can create a great business while still doing good for the world.
Shaun Modi: Find a great partner with a complementary skill sets. I recommend building on your strengths. It’s not that you can’t improve your skills, but don’t spend too much time on what you’re not great at. Focus on what makes you happy and what you’re best at.
I also like to remind designers that you’re often creating something that people will spend a lot of time using collectively. It’s similar to writing an article that consumes 10 minutes of the reader’s day. If 10,000 people read it, that’s 100,000 minutes of time, so it should be well written and grammatically correct. The same idea applies to design.
Lastly, design is a craft just like being a welder or woodworker. You’ve got to constantly be evolving and learning to use new tools. Luckily, it’s more fun that way, too.
What are your sources of inspiration in design?
Steph Bain: Watching how teenagers use technology has been fascinating and it changes the way we design. It’s a remix and modification culture where the kids are hacking everything to make it their own. Technology is enabling and accelerating this.
Also, it’s been said, but failure can be an inspiration. With adversity and constraints come progress, and it’s the antidote to complacency. For the most successful people, failing lights the fire under them. Not being afraid to fail means you’ll take more risks and never accept the way things are, but also learn way more. Sometimes it’s necessary to break windows, just apologize profusely afterwards.
Shaun Modi: Architecture has always been an inspiration because the best examples of it are timeless and built to last. Even though we’re designing digital experiences, we like to use the same mindset and design as if it’s going to last forever.
Who is your design hero or heroine and why?
Shaun Modi: Marc Newson. He’s worked on everything from boats, cars, and jetpacks, to fashion and most recently, the Apple Watch. Marc is one of the most prolific, yet understated designers and his methodology of applying attention to detail, the craft, and empathy is something to be admired.
Steph Bain: I can’t give you just one. I find myself very much in the moment of discovering something on Dribbble that’s impressive. It’s constantly changing for me.
What are some current trends you notice in design? What can we expect to see happen in the next few years?
Shaun Modi: We’re seeing a lot more attention being paid to the education and healthcare technology industries. That’s great because they are going to help solve some of society’s most pressing issues. More people are also thinking about form and function in provocative ways. More digital product designs are being built to solve actual problems and not just follow a stylistic trend.
What are some companies you admire in the digital design space?
Shaun Modi: Slack is doing an exceptional job solving communication problems. They’ve been successful at bringing a fun flow to conversation and bringing a relative joy to important tasks. Facebook’s Messenger has been a breakout utility for communicating with colleagues and friends, and its subtle touches are appreciated. Lastly, even though we both came from there, we have to acknowledge that Airbnb is continuing to do excellent design work. We’ve learned a lot from both Joe (Gebbia) and Brian (Chesky).
What’s next for TM?
Steph Bain: Well, for one thing, be sure to check out our new rap album which we’re hoping goes at least double platinum. Jokes aside, we’ve just moved to a brand new office in San Francisco. Our team is growing fast and we’re super excited to take on more new projects.