Inspiration

I Design: Interfaces (Jonas Downey, Basecamp)

Designer Jonas Downey on how to design meaningful software that helps people.

Chicago-based designer Jonas Downey creates interfaces and products for Basecamp, a program for team communication and collaboration. He’s also an advocate of side projects, human-centered software design, and flexible work schedules. I spoke to him about his design process, his thoughts on the future of UI design, and his favorite books:

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Brittany: You’re a UI/interface designer at Basecamp. How do you explain your job to non-designers?

Jonas: I usually say that I’m a software designer — most people have some idea what that means.

If they’re curious, I’ll explain that it’s my job to decide what the software should do, what the interface looks like, and how you interact with it. To do that, I write words, draw pictures, and build interactions with code.

What’s a typical workday like for you?

Most days I wake up early and make breakfast for my daughter, then I work from my kitchen, home office, or the back porch if it’s nice outside. I commute to the Basecamp office in Chicago once or twice a week.

Regardless of where I am, I generally spend the day working through new design work on my Mac and iPad with a combination of Basecamp, text editors, web browsers, Git, Sketch, and GoodNotes. And lots of coffee of course!

You’ve written about designing with heart – about approaching design with friendliness and honesty. How do you implement those ideas in your day-to-day work?

It helps to think of the design process as an act of service to others. The whole point of creating software is to help people accomplish something meaningful.

In practice, this means:

  1. Researching and deeply understanding problems so you can get to the root of what’s really important, rather than guessing or assuming you know
  2. Reducing complexity by iterating through many potential solutions and narrowing down to the most essential elements of a design
  3. Being willing to take on difficult challenges when the end result will make a better experience for your customers
  4. Using casual, clear language in marketing materials and UI copy (and editing over and over until you nail it)
  5. Treating people with respect, and taking care to avoid tricks, gimmicks, nagging, and jargon in your messaging
  6. Evaluating your decisions based on what *you* would personally want as a customer, if someone else was offering this product or service to you
  7. Finding ways to put your voice, imagination, and personality into the work, until it properly communicates your point of view and feels truthful and right in your gut. You should be proud to stand behind it!

What do you think the future of UI design looks like?

UI design tools have improved a lot in the last few years, but making software still feels like concocting a Rube Goldberg machine that’s held together by a loose assembly of parts. Even professional IDEs like Apple’s Xcode are painfully complex and finicky on the UI side.

“The whole point of creating software is to help people accomplish something meaningful.”

The effect of that complexity is that it’s still too difficult to get down to the bare metal and design real interfaces. Modern prototyping tools like Framer.js and InVision help bridge the gap, but they’re one or more levels of abstraction removed from the real thing. I think in the future, that distance will continue to shrink, so eventually prototyping and production won’t be independent steps with different tooling. The lower the barrier between designer and programmer, the better.

I’m also curious to see what “UI” even means 10-20 years from now. I suspect we’ll have many more biological and sensor-based inputs, and smarter, more contextually-aware software embedded in everything. That way, basic communication and productivity tasks won’t require us to stare at little glowing rectangles quite so much.

Basecamp is well-known for pioneering the idea of remote work and flexible work hours. How does this impact your work/design process?

Creative work is not something you can force just by sticking people in an office building from 8-5. Sometimes you do your best work at 2am in the dark, or at 6am when you’re inspired after rolling out of bed. Sometimes it helps to be in a room with other people, and other times you really need to be alone and focus.

At Basecamp, our flexible arrangement allows for all of that. If you’re in a groove, you don’t have to interrupt your day with a commute. If you’re in a rut, you can take a few hours to regroup and come back later. If you don’t like your working environment, you can change it.

“Creative work is not something you can force just by sticking people in an office building from 8-5”

It’s natural and it just works. I can’t imagine going back to working any other way.

What are you working on in your free time?

For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a useful little iPhone app called Hello Weather with my friend Trevor. It was born out of frustration with all the over-designed and absurdly complicated weather apps that were already out there. None of them showed the most important info in a straightforward way—so that’s what we did! It’s turned into a fun playground for us to try crazy ideas and learn some stuff along the way.

Prior to that, I designed a marketing campaign to save a local movie theater, and made a silly app called Emojisaurus with some of my pals from Basecamp.

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From Emojisaurus.

Can you tell me about one of your favorite books – design-related, or otherwise – that influenced your career in some way?

The one book that recently affected my career in a practical way was Revising Prose by Richard Lanham. Jason Fried recommended it a few years ago. It’s a punishing takedown of dry, bland, bureaucratic prose, and it completely reshapes how you think about copywriting and editing. I think it’s an essential read for any designer, especially since most of us come out of academia with a bad habit for overly formal, jargon-filled writing — which is the opposite of what you want for software design (or anything, really.)

Featured image: Basecamp office.


Brittany Jezouit

About the Author Brittany Jezouit

Brittany is the editor of the Envato blog. You can follow her on Twitter @brittanyjezouit.