I recently sent an email to some peers at my fellowship about “Design Resources” which got some positive responses. I decided to expand on those thoughts and thus this blog post was born. Hope you find it handy and if you are a professional designer, please help me correct my inevitable inaccuracies.

Design for Non-Designers
Photo Credit: NathanaelB via Compfight cc

Everyone does design work, so let’s get better at it

I’m not a designer. I have no formal training in art or design and I have not worked in the design space professionally.

And yet. I have designed. I have designed posters, presentations, websites, marketing collateral, business cards, spreadsheets, blog posts and more.

If you have ever participated in the creation of something that humans would use, read, or otherwise interact with, then you have done design work. In a sense, we are all amateur designers. In a perfect world, we could have professional design resources on hand when producing something important. In practice, that’s often not possible. So it behooves us to learn a bit more about how to design well.

As a non-des- I mean amateur designer – I’m either the worst person, or the best person to be writing an article about helping other amateur designers improve their craft. For what it’s worth, I’ve been told that my work is well-designed “for a non-designer” and I’ve learned tons from designers I’ve worked with like Suelyn Yu, Randy Pang, Al Abut, Seth Warrick, Garry Tan and David Merkoski.

But anyway, it’s my blog so I’ll do what I want. Let’s do it!

Above All Else, Remember Your Audience and Your Purpose

Who is your user/audience and what do you want them to do?

This is the most important question you can ask when designing something. Products are meant to be useful and design enhances it’s usefulness in some way.

  • A resume should highlight your strongest achievements for that specific recruiter and encourage them to contact you for an interview.
  • A targeted landing page for a invoicing software should convince freelance programmers to dive into a case study about the product or try a 30 free trial.
  • A photo sharing app should to help new parents easily and delightfully share photos of their kids with the entire family.

Keeping your purpose in mind allows you to not get bogged down in “what color should this button be” and more about “what will get this set of people to have a particular experience”.

General Guidelines

Some general things to keep in mind when designing most anything.

Focus / Simplicity

Our brains are easily distracted. Sometimes design is used to overwhelm and overstimulate, but I believe the best design is focused. Don’t try to do too much on any one slide, page or even sentence. Keep it simple and it’ll be a lot hard to f*** things up.

White space

Have you ever read an old book where the font is small and the text is really tight? It’s the worst. White space is about creating open space between elements on a page/screen.

Giving elements a lot of white space is good because 1) it forces you to make decisions about what you want to FOCUS on, as per the earlier point and 2) it gives each element “breathing room” to live and establish itself.

Resources for white space Continue reading

I live in San Francisco and work in Palo Alto. Having no car to call my own, I bike to the Caltrain station every morning and ride down from the city. Door to door, the commute is about 60 – 70 minutes each way. I’m writing this post because I got duped.

You see, I follow Megan Berry on Twitter and clicked on a link she posted about tips for commuters. Turns out, her tip was “Move closer to where you work” which of course is useful advice, but not for people committed to commuting. So I decided to write the post that I wanted to read.

Long commutes are mostly a pain. You commute because you value the place you live so much you’re willing to endure the cost, hassle and time-lost in a long commute. After doing one for about 9 months, I have at least a list of things you can do to better pass the time.

  • Read a Book. I read a lot of stuff online and on my phone, but I still really enjoy the pleasure of reading a physical book. In an age where 140 characters is the length of a thought, it is refreshing and important to step back and get the perspective of someone who has spent a year or more thing carefully and comprehensively about a specific topic. Long commutes are great for this.
  • Twitter. On the flip side of this, sometimes I use my commutes to read all the tweets I missed last night. I get caught up on the big issues in my industry and what’s happening with my friends and acquaintances. I retweet some links, @reply some people and try to add some value to my followers.
  • Meditation. Sometimes your day is going to be so busy that the best thing to do is to spend part of your ride focusing and preparing yourself for the chaos ahead. There are a lot meditation techniques available but my favorite is just taking 10 slow breaths while focusing solely on inhaling and exhaling. Great way to get grounded.
  • Email. Again, the flip side of meditating is doing email on the train. Sometimes what I really enjoy is pounding out a few emails before the day gets started. You’re focused on writing a good response without any distractions and you roll into the office having already knocked a couple items off your to-do list. Gotta say: not a bad feeling.
  • Napping. There is no shame in this. Sometimes you are just dead tired for whatever reason. If you can get a 4 seater to yourself or one of the upper level double seater, you can really stretch out, relax and drift away as the gentle rocking of the train lulls you into sleep. Just don’t forget to set an alarm!
  • Phone Calls. While it can be annoying to hear a guy near you (why is it always almost always a guy?) squawk on the phone for an entire trip, the train truly does offer a great opportunity for catching up with friends and family. You aren’t going anywhere so you know you can devote some time to the call. Just make sure you speak softly and watch out for the tunnels – easy to lose reception.
  • Networking. I’ve met some interesting people on the train like a business lawyer who helped a famous tech startup (I can’t remember which now) do their IPO or a former classmate who works at a firm near me. I’ve even gone on a date from someone I met on the train who worked really close to me. So don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the person next to, across from, or on the other side of,  you.
  • Movies and Games. It’s nice sometimes to just shut off from the world and watch a movie or play video games. Bring your laptop or pull out your iPhone/PSP/Nintendo DS and go for it. Just make sure to use headphones unless you’re planning to turn the train into a personal theater/arcade.
  • Writing. Writer’s block is something almost all writers deal with on a regular basis. I finished a 50,000 word novel in 2009 for NaNoWriMo in no small part because I bought a netbook and pounded away at it for weeks and weeks in a row. Fewer distractions means more stuff gets written.

On thing to avoid: – Doing “Brain-Intensive” Work. I’ve found that when I tried to crunch numbers or write something really sensitive, I have struggled on the train. The train doesn’t seem to be good for focused high intensity mental analysis. Maybe that’s just me. I don’t know how someone could handle heavy mental lifting while riding the train. But I know I can.

So there you have it: nine (9) things to try doing if you commute and one thig to avoid. I hope this has been helpful to you and feel free to email me or @reply me (Twitter.com/jasonshen) if you have any questions about it. Tell me if I missed anything!

I’ve been mulling two semi-related work habits/beliefs that I think really contribute to individual & team success. I see them in a lot of people I admire and to be honest, they are habits that I’m glad I’ve naturally adopted.

1) There is Always More You Can Do

A few months ago, my coworker/direct report said to me “Well, I finished my all my stuff for today so I’m taking off early.” She does a great job, but her attitude didn’t rub me the right way. The next day I told her:

“If you feel pretty ahead on your work and you’ve been putting in long hours, sure, an early day is fine. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re actually DONE with all your work.”

You are NEVER done.

There is always more you can do – more industry research to do, more analysis to perform on the metrics you track, more phone calls could be made to a potential clients / partners, more practice on the presentation you have next week, more emails to write (perhaps to a coworker saying “thanks for your help on project X”), hell, more icon cleaning on your desktop to perform.

People who are sucessful get ahead because they recognize that the number value-adding activities are endless and are always doing much more than is strictly required, because you don’t achieve great thing by doing just enough.

2) Take Initiative / Responsibility for Improving Everything

If you don’t like some aspect of your firm or your work life – salespeople aren’t closing, the payroll process sucks, your boss never responds your emails, the press releases the PR team sends out are super-bland – don’t just blame someone or throw your hands up in frustration.

Do something about it.

Build relationships with the various departments and stakeholders so they trust & respect you. Learn about what they do and study industry best practices. Ask the HR team if they’d like feedback from the staff, have a meaningful conversation with your boss, forward your PR team a press release you like, talk to customers about what closed the deal for them and send the insights to the sales team. I hate it when people say “that’s not my responsibility” because it is a sign of apathy and helplessness that is not productive.

I’m not advocating shirking your own job responsibilities, just that you ought to  proactively address other areas if you feel you can help the firm improve its performance.

These ideas may be a little off putting to some people and it’s possible that they can backfire (burn out & angry coworkers come to mind) but I do believe that people who adopt these mindsets will ultimately add more value to their organizations and be more successful.

We have all encountered this situation: you disagree with someone over some nontrivial issue -a friend, a classmate, a coworker – and you KNOW you are right and they are just so wrong. So you make sure they know it over and over again … but they still won’t budge.

The question you have to ask yourself here is: “Am I more concerned with being RIGHT or being EFFECTIVE?” If it’s the former, then keep doing what you’re doing. They’ll see the brillance in your ideas, I’m sure. Meanwhile, nothing will move forward.

If it’s the latter, then I advise you change tactics. Admit your view has flaws. Think about how their values affect their decision making. Ask someone they trust to talk to them. Provide some data from the real world that solidifies your stance. Or just let them have this issue and use the chits elsewhere.

Being right is never enough. No one wants to hear “Well it would have worked if s/he had just listened to me”. It is YOUR responsibility to ensure the right outcome.

I recently met James, a senior studying Human Biology at Stanford, and we ended up spending lots of time talking about about the definition of leadership. After the weekend, he emailed me and I thought it would make another great email/blog post.

I was just thinking about your comment that leadership is bringing people to a brighter place… I actually agreed with your logic. I wonder if leadership might ultimately be about servanthood. Perhaps one imagines the perfect leader being one who truly has the interests of those he/she is leading in mind, such that success is determined by the well-being of those being lead.

In some ways that does seem correct—the entrepreneur is a leader insofar he enables those around him to engage in a fun project, or insofar she serves people in the world who are looking for this particular product.
In some ways of course, that concept is also somewhat flawed. Some of the best “leaders” in the world, at least nominally, are hardly thinking of others. I don’t know if Warren Buffet is thinking about serving his staff or his customers so much as getting rich sometimes. Doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a poor leader? Or does it?
Meh. Just food for thought. I really enjoyed talking with you, and I respect your will to action that’s so well tempered with a penchant for thoughtfulness. That’s something I will try to learn from you/emulate.
Haha :). Now you’re sorta my role model. Better do a good job ;).


Hey James,

Thanks for the email and bringing up the connection between leadership and service. It’s a great point: there is a reason why we often say someone “serves as the” CEO/Executive Director/Managing Partner of XYZ organization.

I believe that all leaders must think of those they lead because in the end, true leaders have followers that volunteer to be led. If you are the best computer programmer in the world, then you can choose to work at any company you want – you choose the leader/manager you want to serve under. So you’ve got to give that programmer a great work environment, exciting challenges and strong compensation to keep him. A bad boss isn’t a leader, (s)he’s a dictator.

If you are interested in the concept of service you should read more about “Servant Leadership” which says that leaders exist to help others grow as persons while they are being led.

The definition I gave of leadership, which I think makes the nebulous concept more clear, comes from a really great book called The One Thing You Need To Know by Marcus Buckingham, which you can see the extensive book notes for here. A taste:

  • Great leaders rally people to a better future
    • “You are a leader if, and only if, you are restless for change, impatient for progress, and deeply dissatisfied with the status quo.”
  • Leaders may be pessimists or even depressive (see Lincoln), but nothing, not their mood, not the reasoned arguments of others, not the bleak conditions of the present, can undermine their faith that things will get better.
  • “Properly defined, the opposite of a leader isn’t a follower. The opposite of a leader is a pessimist.”
  • “Despite their realistic assessment of the present challenges, they nonetheless believe that they have what it takes to overcome these challenges and forge ahead.”

It was great meeting you James and I respect your dedication to service and the young adults you worked with as well as your ongoing questions about how you can contribute more effectively to your issues. You’ve got some really good stuff going on – and hopefully I’ll live up to your expectations.

Warm Regards,

PS – Warren Buffett is actually a pretty thoughtful guy – I know you were using him as an example, but check out some of the things he’s said about management and money –

  • (When speaking of managers and executive compensation) “The .350 hitter expects, and also deserves, a big payoff for his performance – even if he plays for a cellar-dwelling team. And a .150 hitter should get no reward – even if he plays for a pennant winner.” (Link)
  • “I was wired at birth to allocate capital and was lucky enough to have people around me early on – my parents and teachers and Susie – who helped me to make the most of that … we agreed with Andrew Carnegie, who said that huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society.” (link to FORTUNE interview discussing why he gave $30B to the Gates Foundation)