Q&A with Dave Martin

Dave Martin is one of the world’s most experienced distributed designers and design leaders. I first found out about Dave’s work by reading one of his old blog posts where he described the challenges when hiring for an all-distributed design team. Dave left Automattic in 2015 for new adventures, and then three years later came back to join us — and I’ve greatly enjoyed learning tons and tons from him.

Read about product designers on User League by Dave Martin.

Dave has a new project called User League where he features Product Designers from all around the world who work in all modes, IRL and NIRL. I thought it apropos to feature Dave, himself, for once! —@johnmaeda

How long have you been working in a distributed form as a designer?

It will be nine years in September! I often tell people that I am ruined for normal work. I could never go back to working in an office. 😋

What have been the challenges of working in this fashion?

When you work for a distributed company you’ve got to get your fill of social interaction elsewhere. That is the biggest adjustment for most people.
Personally, I’m naturally a bit of an introvert and I have a relatively large family, so this has never really been an issue for me.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve thought, “I should be more social”, at which point I’ve located a co-working facility to work out of. I’ve done this two or three times now over the years and I rarely make it past lunchtime on the first day before I return to my little backyard office. 😛

What have been the advantages of working in this fashion?

No commute, increased trust, greater schedule flexibility, and an increase in output to name a few.

The schedule flexibility one is probably the biggest benefit for me personally. If my wife needs a hand with something, or if one of my kids has something at school that they’d like for me to attend, I just go. I don’t have to ask anyone. No one checks in with me and says, “Dave, I noticed you

weren’t online between 1pm and 3pm”. That has literally never happened.
To me, that communicates trust. As long as I get my work done, Automattic doesn’t care what hours I work.

How do you interleave your work life with your other lives? 

This changes on almost a daily basis. Things in my personal life generally take priority over work stuff. My goal is to get a solid 40 hours each week. No more and no less than that. This can come in the shape of a number of different routines. Sometimes I hit a wall midday, so I’ll just check out and head to a movie, or go take a nap. Some days I wake up early and clock in a bunch of hours before everyone else so that I can check out at 2 or 3 PM. It’s all flexible and constantly changing.

Tell us about User League and why you’ve started this project?

My goal with User League was to simply tell the stories of various product designers. I’ve learned a lot from these interviews. My hope is that other designers benefit from reading these stories as well.

Which interviews do you recommend to be read and why?

I’m biased. I think they’re all great! I think there are gems of insight throughout each one of them.

Tell me about the Four Planets — you reference it in your talk from France.

At Automattic one framework we use to encourage inclusion in everything we design is called The Four Planets:

The Four Planets illustrations are all by Adam Becker

There’s Planet Discovery:

Planet Discovery of the Four Planets of Design

This stage of a project is used primarily to help understand the current landscape of a product, who the users are, and what their needs are.

Next is Planet Hypothesis:

Planet Hypothesis of the Four Planets of Design

At this stage you’re coming up with assumptions and proposals for solutions that you might test.

Third is Planet Deliver:

Planet Deliver of the Four Planets of Design

This is the stage where ideas turn into reality. This is where your product ships.

Finally is Planet Listen:

Planet Listen of the Four Planets of Design

This is the stage where you measure the results of the thing you just shipped, and monitor usage to look for additional ways that you can iterate and improve.

Which planet is your favorite one to orbit? 

I’m a builder. Planet Deliver comes the most naturally to me. But that is why I appreciate this simple framework. It’s so easy as a designer to simply gravitate towards the planet that you’re most comfortable on. In fact, it’s natural to want to just build a home there. But each planet has its purpose. The Four Planets framework pushes us as designers to remain in orbit, circling each of the four planets as we navigate each individual project or feature release.

What advice do you have for designers who are mid-career working in a big agency or company?

If you wake up excited for work each day, congrats! You’ve found something special! If you wake up dreading each day, it’s probably time for a change. There is no need to be rash. Don’t just up and quit. But there are loads of options out there as a designer these days. You might be surprised at how much you can make as a designer at a distributed company.

What advice do you have for designers who are just starting out?

I’ve got a couple of posts for this. 😉

The biggest thing is to get yourself in a position where you can just start designing things. That could be for made up projects, freelance clients, or another company. Never be satisfied with good enough. Always keep learning. Always keep refining your craft.

What do you wish you knew five years ago?

Communication is everything, especially in a distributed environment. Do everything you can to pick up better communication skills, both written and verbal. Pretty much all workplace drama, concerns, arguments, hurt feelings, and successful product launches boil down to your ability to communicate clearly. 

You can catch a short talk by Dave Martin from our recent Automattic Design excursion to France. Or, check out his photos from his recent creative journey to Tokyo.

via YouTube

By John Maeda

I'm a learner. By training.