Interview

My Design Journey From Agency World To In-House

David Paliwoda
Interface Designer at Snapchat
David Paliwoda is an Interface Designer at Snapchat. After spending six years working on multiple design projects in agencies, David recently joined Snapchat’s design team. What was it like transitioning to this new role and why did working for an agency help him become a better designer? He told us all about it in this interview!

So you’re currently a designer at Snapchat. What’s keeping you busy and what challenges are you facing now?

My day to day work at Snapchat is looking after our publishing platform - how companies like CNN, National Geographic and the Daily Mail get their content on Snapchat’s Discover page.

The world of digital journalism and how it works on Snapchat, in particular, is fascinating to me - how news is served digitally and the business models that drive it are constantly in flux.

At Snapchat we have always prioritised video content and reach an audience that is exclusive to our platform. This means partners face two challenges: how to tell stories that really resonate with our audience and how to build a sustainable business doing it.

We spent the majority of 2018 optimising our tools for publishers around the world. This ranged from making the tools simpler to use for new users, to initiatives that we hope will make it easier to produce mobile video content long term.

My favourite part of working in this area is looking at how we can make new formats that are unique to Snapchat - the recent Partner Curation launch being a great example of this.

Talks us through your career so far and what led you to design?

I came to product design by chance–I was aiming towards working in visual effects or 3D animation. Great ambitions aside, by the time I graduated, the job market for these industries was not in a good spot. Ambition doesn’t pay the rent.

In the midst of this, I was showing my work at New Designers (a graduate show that takes place in North London every year) with some of my friends from Brunel University’s Digital Media course. I was fortunate enough to meet Mike Albers, one of the founders of W12 Studios, who got lost on the way to the furniture design section of the show and came across our stand.

After a few conversations, myself and four friends joined W12 and started producing design work for clients. I spent five years at the studio, after which I joined Possible (a WPP advertising agency) and finally Snap at the end of 2017.

While I did not plan on becoming a product designer, the time I entered the field coincided with some pretty great leaps in the technology and tools that were available to build digital products. Having a mix of interests in motion design and prototyping allowed me to find my niche within the agency whilst my core product design skills were still in development.

I would suggest this route to anyone looking to enter a new field: Look at the skills you can already offer and use them to pay your way. This gives a much more stable foundation for learning and opens up novel ways of looking at problems. If it all goes well you might even find new opportunities that people without your mixed skill-set would miss.

“I would suggest this route to anyone looking to enter a new field: Look at the skills you can already offer and use them to pay your way.”

You previously worked in the agency world, what was it like transitioning to in-house?

Whilst I worked in agencies for six years, I’ve only been working in-house at Snapchat for just over a year, so take my observations with a grain of salt. There are different skills required for each, and a lot to learn when jumping from one to the other.

Working on the agency side was fantastic for developing my ability to communicate and present ideas. Whether it’s a studio review with other designers or a conference room full of stakeholders, it’s vital to be able to tell a story around every aspect of your work. The opportunity to work on different projects, for different companies, and in different industries gave me a bird’s eye view of how design, technology, and strategy work within a wide range of organisations faster than if I had been in a single role or company for the same amount of time.

Although it’s early days in my in-house journey, I’m already noticing the differences and unique challenges that come hand in hand with this environment. Working with a team of extremely capable engineers requires a level of confidence in your abilities and process that you wouldn’t necessarily exercise elsewhere.

“The opportunity to work on different projects, for different companies, and in different industries gave me a bird’s eye view of how design, technology, and strategy work within a wide range of organisations faster than if I had been in a single role or company for the same amount of time.”

What has been the most exciting thing you’ve done as a designer? Why is it meaningful to you?

Winning and delivering work for big clients and working on future-facing projects has always been exciting to me - you tangibly shape how a brand or piece of technology will be interpreted and experienced by the general public.

Going beyond this, some of my favourite projects were where we broke with tradition and expectation on existing platforms or interfaces. In an agency, it takes an ambitious and confident client team to be able to green light this kind of work, and a cohesive and open-minded group of designers to deliver it. Unfortunately, due to the clients involved, I can’t say much on specific projects, but a few great examples of similar projects have been published as case studies on the W12 Medium account.

You also have your own side projects, which has been your favorite and how do you juggle these projects with your full-time role?

For each project that has made it out into the world, I have notebooks filled to the brim with potential ideas I have failed to bring to life. These projects really act as my own form of therapy, allowing me to channel my anxieties or wayward thoughts into creativity, and freeze them in time.

My favourite side project is definitely an infographic I made back in 2013 portraying the distance to Mars in pixels. It taught me about the nature of going viral, and every now and then I still receive emails from teachers who use it to teach in science class. That’s really fulfilling.

“I have notebooks filled to the brim with potential ideas I have failed to bring to life. These projects really act as my own form of therapy, allowing me to channel my anxieties or wayward thoughts into creativity, and freeze them in time.”

Who are your biggest design influences?

My lack of interest in digital design led to me entering this industry with a fairly blank slate. While there are successful and famous designers I look up to, I’d like to focus on the mentors and resources that have influenced me over the years.

I owe a lot of my early career progression to the leadership and senior design team at W12 Studios. A lot of these folks got started at studios like IDEO, Frog, and Method and created a process that was their own.

I also have to draw attention to the free and open wealth of knowledge that the design community has written and shared, in particular, 52 Weeks of UX and Bret Victor’s Magic Ink. These two websites helped shape my understanding of interaction design at a critical point, and I come back to them every now and then, even today.

The open and free nature of writing within our industry community helps lower the barrier to entry - I’m keen to spend some of 2019 investing my time in giving back.

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were starting as a designer?

There is one metaphor in particular that resonated with me when I heard it - and sticks around in my head to this day.

When painting, the ability to mix the paints to make the right colours, to control the brush to make the right strokes and to know where you want the strokes to go, is only a small portion of the factors that affect the final result. A painter can spend years and years learning these technical skills and still create an average painting.

Despite all the effort, experience, care, and passion that goes into the piece, someone looking at the finished result will often not know or care about any of it, and only make comments based on face value.

Designing interfaces is like this - the sum of all your decisions, experiences, taste and opinions. It’s entirely fine to spend an afternoon agonising over a button when most people are just going to click it - that’s what the job is all about.

You’ve just attended JAM 2018, what did you enjoy most about the event?

It was more than enough to be able to learn from the slate of speakers - I particularly want to highlight Steve Kato-Spyrou’s talk about his experiences at John Lewis for being hilariously honest and authentic.

More than that though, I got to meet so many other members of our London design community for the first time - being able to turn usernames, avatars and LinkedIn profiles into faces and friends is great fun. Looking forward to doing it again this year!

“...being able to turn usernames, avatars and LinkedIn profiles into faces and friends is great fun.”

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