The designer's dilemma: Tips from Canva’s CPO on mastering focus and intentional work
Cameron Adams

The designer's dilemma: Tips from Canva’s CPO on mastering focus and intentional work

As designers we are constantly being reminded that we need to be inclusive in our processes, that we should be earning a seat at the table, building out our design system, making best friends with engineers, delving into data, sprinting, sketching, prototyping, coding (not coding), testing, researching and writing. Then taking some ‘me’ time for inspiration and side projects too. Phew!

I think that if you did everything that Medium articles recommend you do as a designer then you’d probably be working about 128 hours a week, meeting with 36 people a day, and facilitating 5 workshops every afternoon.

Over the years, as Canva has scaled to millions of users and the design team has grown from just me to a truly international partnership of many skilled individuals, I’ve tried out a bunch of ways to focus effectively while working with product teams and help the designers around me to do that too. It’s often a tricky balance, one that you have to constantly tinker with depending on who you’re working with and the projects you’re working on. But there are some core things I’ve picked up that can help it all run much more smoothly, and I’d love to pass those onto you.

The responsibilities of a product designer (particularly at Canva) are numerous, but in terms of providing focus I think there are three key areas that we can talk about and use to help shape the way we—as designers—spend our days and weeks. I’ll tackle each of these areas one by one and they are:

  1. We are at the nexus of product development.
  2. We are social creatures that love collaboration.
  3. The breadth of product design encompasses many roles.

Canvas CPO

We are the nexus of product development

As I see it, product design is sandwiched firmly between the initial phases of product management and the final stages of engineering, and as such it is the nexus between the two. It’s when you are that bridge, however, that you find yourself being pulled in every odd direction—you’ve got product ideas, data, and requests coming in as stakeholders grapple with the product that’s going to be built, and then you’ve got engineers to work with: making sure they’re heading in the right direction, implementing ideas as per the design vision, and iterating on changes that will improve it.

Juggling so many elements is no easy task. I find that having techniques and strategies in place to deal with this variety of work can decrease the time stress that is put on us as designers.

Put in the time up front

With product managers

When working with the flood of information channeled to you by product managers and stakeholders it’s important that you have all the information upfront, getting everything out of their head and onto paper.

Often you’ll find that a PM or stakeholder will come to you and say “hey we want to do this” but you don’t quite understand why. You’ll start designing anyway, and then two weeks later they’re saying, “I totally meant this other thing. Why are we doing that?” The reason this happens is because they didn’t fully explain what was in their head the first time—the real problems and the project objectives were not clearly identified.

Although it can sometimes feel like you’re holding up the train by stepping back and clarifying the problem that we’re trying to solve, getting that information out of their heads is extremely important and can save you and your team a lot of time in the long run.

As an added bonus, fully understanding the problem also helps you solve the root cause rather than the symptoms. It’s not your job to make what the PM tells you, it’s your job to solve a problem for your users.

Working with product managers

With engineers

Getting input early from your engineering team is a really great idea as well. It can sometimes feel like you’re being more creative if you’re not constrained by technology choices, but just handing a bunch of designs off to an engineer without taking into consideration the technical challenges will always result in a worse product.

Including engineers in brainstorming sessions, informally running ideas past them, and working with them to create documentation that’s actually useful in their process will ensure that features are implemented the right way the first time around, instead of wasting everyone’s time on several iterations of the same thing. Setting up a proper cadence for checking in on progress will help you catch things before they go off course, and prevent you from having to unwind a bunch of work that’s already been done, or worse: having to ship something that doesn’t do what’s needed.

Some advice:

  • Understand what the real problem you are trying to solve is.
  • Determine the scope, resources, and tasks before devoting yourself to a project appropriately.
  • Define expectations early on and clarify the intent of the implementations.

Working on these processes can save you time, leave you feeling a lot less stressed, and save you from working on unnecessary iterations. Ultimately, it’s about giving you time to focus on intentional work.

Communicate in the right language

No matter how often we repeat the mantra “sketch before pixels”, it’s always tempting to skip straight to Sketch (capital “S”). Sometimes that can be the right decision, often it’s not. You have to communicate in the way that’s appropriate for the stage that your project is at. This could mean that you’re writing stories to define the scenarios that you’re tackling, or it could mean you’re sitting down with a product owner to sketch and brainstorm during the kickoff to a project.

Your communication medium should revolve around the idea that you’re trying to convey and the audience that you’re delivering it to. Sometimes the idea is messy and half formed, sometimes the audience is inexperienced and needs more visual cues to understand where you’re going. Utilise your full arsenal of talking, writing, sketching, whiteboarding, prototyping and finished art to get it done effectively.

Communicate in the right language

Stay on the front foot

Just being reactive to other people’s demands can be frustrating and also mean you’re not thinking in a way that effectively lets you do your job—of designing a great product!

If you don’t structure your work properly, it’s easy to get lost in the chaos of it all. Taking the time to think about the future of the product means that you’re not just responding to other people’s demands. It’s important to stay one step ahead of those demands by considering and prioritizing what’s on the horizon, and understanding what level of ‘time fidelity’ to work at—should this thing take two hours or two weeks? Working on something for two weeks and then finding out that it’s totally in the wrong direction is not a great use of your time. Using your time wisely and staying on the front foot will free up time in your calendar, giving you a chance to focus on what’s important.

Stay on the front foot

We are social creatures and love collaboration

Design is a very social profession that lives and breathes contact with people—this means a lot of time and effort spent communicating with lots of different individuals. But we also can’t ignore the fact that design is also a craft that requires moments of intense focus and exploration.

Finding time for focus in the hustle and bustle of start-ups and modern product development can be extremely challenging. If you don’t get to do enough of it then your product will suffer, the teams you work with will be getting sub-par solutions, and—most importantly—you just won’t be a happy, well-rested designer who’s doing the best work of their life.

We all have very high standards for the quality of work that we put our names to, and when we can’t afford the time to do that work then it adversely affects the very core of who we are.

As we are the bridges between lots of different groups, it is rare to find ourselves with six straight hours of time to design, so I find that it’s necessary to have as many processes in place as possible that enable me to take advantage of those crucial hours of desk time that pop up.

Time management became a real focus for me at the start of 2018, and I’ve got some tips on techniques that have really paid off over the last few months.

Collaborative work

Here’s what I do to help work productively and take control of my time:

Plan your weeks

Now, I’m sure you’ve read more than a handful of click-bait articles that tell you about how amazingly successful people schedule their weeks. I read them all for five years and still nothing stuck. It wasn’t until I got into crisis mode with my schedule that I decided to start taking some small steps towards reclaiming my time. There are a bunch of different ways in which you can bring more order to your week and different ones will work for different people.

I use a combination of my notebook—because I really love crossing out a real, physical thing when I’ve finished it—and my native calendar app. You might prefer an all-in-one tool like Evernote or Wunderlist, but whatever you do, including your calendar as part of this process is vital.

When I first started planning out my week I felt like it was entirely schedule resistant, and I just wouldn’t be able to stick to it. Don’t worry: sometimes things don’t run to schedule, and when you first start out with this you won’t have much discipline. But as you practice you’ll get better and better at mapping out your day and making sure that you can stick to it.

  • On a Sunday night or Monday morning, I like to write out all the things that I want to achieve throughout the week, big and small. As you’re doing this, you can do a little bit of culling and assessment to make sure that they’re things you actually want to achieve.
  • Put everything in your calendar. Not just one thing, put everything. Every gap in your calendar should be accounted for—with a little bit of leeway here and there, because you know you’re going to stop for a chat in the stairwell or grab a coffee with Bob from accounts.
  • Start every day by reassessing your calendar and seeing whether you have to reorganize anything that you’d previously planned to do. This way, you’re constantly aware of your priorities and also relieved that you’ve already got a slot planned to get them done.

An example of my calendar

An example of my calendar

Plan your meetings

For me, collaborating with other people is one of the greatest things to do at Canva. We have so many smart, passionate people, and sitting down in front of a notepad with each of them always produces a better solution than what we started with. It’s important that you know when to have a meeting or not, and know how to make every meeting a productive use of your time.

There’s plenty of good articles on meeting hygiene, but if you’d like a 5-second summary, here’s a good checklist of things you can think about when someone asks you to have a meeting:

  • Should we not have this meeting?
  • What can we do before the meeting to make the meeting itself more useful?
  • What are we actually going to talk about in the meeting? Have an agenda.
  • What actions should we take now that the meeting is finished?

If you’re starting to reassess how your calendar works (after “Planning your week” from above) then bunching meetings together is a great idea, because that gives you empty blocks where you can schedule in some focused time. The tendency when someone asks “hey, can we have a meeting?” is to say “yes”. But if you’re in the middle of a great stretch of productive work, it’s better to take a quick look at your calendar and schedule the meeting into one of your gaps, or group it with another set of meetings. Then you’ll be in meeting mode and won’t disrupt some of that great flow you get in a productive work session.

You should also think about whether a meeting is the best format for what you want to communicate. There are some things that require deeper thought, some things that are not urgent, and some things just can’t be explained by typing. Knowing which is which is an important skill.

Writing something up in a document and sharing it can be a better first step than getting a bunch of busy people in a room, and will also allow them to think more deeply about the problem and give their own considered feedback. Conversely: sometimes docs, emails and Slack can devolve into a confusing mass of tangled discussions and a meeting can help get everyone aligned and heading in the same direction.


Turn off the tools

Being quick to respond on Slack, email, and a chat at my desk was a point of pride because my teammates could rely on me to be the oracle for their problems. However, it becomes amazingly addictive living like this. You get a buzz from each solution that you provide as the things you’d planned to get done are invisibly receding into the background.

While you want to be the person with the solution to everyone’s problems, I find that turning off notifications on everything—emails, Slack, Facebook—and instead making time to check and respond to them at certain points in the day is the best way to stay focused and on track.

Turn off tools

The breadth of product design encompasses many roles

Many of us often find ourselves wondering what our role actually is. What is a product designer? What do we bring to the table? Is it design? Research? Management? Is the role defined in the same way by everyone?

At Canva, I find that our product designers take on many roles and that product design is many and all of these aspects. Our best product designers are the ones that create the best products, and in order to do that effectively they have to be able to weave in and out of these roles effectively. Being able to call on those skills at the right time, and understanding where the project is and what it needs most right now is incredibly important.

Here’s some tips that will help you speed up your process as you wear each of the different ‘product designer’ hats:

As a researcher…

  • Show initiative. Research isn’t about following the same prescriptive steps every time you need to gather information. Do some quick competitive research, look at search trends, read related articles. Little nuggets of information are everywhere and it doesn’t always require primary research to find them.
  • Don’t wait for your ideal target market. Anyone with sufficient understanding of the subject is a starting point, you just have to be cognisant of their biases. While you’re waiting for those ideal interview candidates to reply you can still get an understanding of the landscape by quickly asking a friend or grabbing a colleague who performs the same task every couple of months.
  • Understand the product and the company. There’s a wealth of untapped knowledge within your own company, but it often means you need to able to call on the right person at the right time. So build connections, be interested in what people are doing and tie those threads together when you’re approaching a problem that needs them.

As a UX designer…

  • Work together with other designers to bridge gaps. If the company isn’t doing enough user research, band together to help each other and create a centralized resource/processes. If you’d like more communication within the design team, get them together for a weekly forum. Start small and work your way up.
  • Know which tool to use when. Good designers know lots of UX design techniques, but the best designers know when to use them. There’s lots of useful things you can include in the UX process—personas, empathy maps, co-designing, card sorting, task flows, and hundreds of other things—but it’s not necessary you use every single tool on every single project. Being able to select the couple of tools that are going to get you the quickest and best outcomes is an invaluable skill for a UX designer.

As a visual designer…

  • Work smarter not harder. Don’t just pump out a bunch of mockups. Think about whether there’s a scalable system that you can deliver to your team that avoids you having to mockup every state. One of the projects we had here used that to fantastic success by thinking laterally about what the design deliverable was, and ending up with a spreadsheet that helped the engineers configure views for all the different endpoints.
  • Merge documentation with design. Maintaining a massive specification alongside your Sketch artboards can take up a huge amount of your time and there’s tools that can help you deal with that, such as Zeplin or Invision Inspect. It’s important that you get your whole team on board with whatever process you use and make sure that it’s delivering value to them. If you’re spending all your time on red line docs then you need to make sure it’s worth it.

As a product manager…

  • “It’s not my job”. Working with a great PM can be such a fantastic experience, but sometimes there is no PM. In which case, it’s you. But you don’t have to shoulder the burden alone. You should know what you’re good at and what you really despise. If you’re no good at time management then try and find someone who’s really time driven and work with them to coordinate project delivery. If you don’t have coaching skills, see if there’s someone on the team who does and help them into the role. All of this plays into seeing your brilliant designs get out into the world, so if you want to see that happen then you have to make it happen.
  • Be realistic. PMs can help reconcile differences between what designers wants and what engineering wants, but great designers should be thinking about that already. Being able to strip back your design to core essentials, and planning out successive iterations that add in extra functionality is actually an interesting design problem and one that you should always be keen to tackle in order to get the greatest amount of value delivered to your customers in the shortest amount of time.

Give it a go

Focus is at the heart of being a great designer. It will help you work more productively, come up with better ideas, and collaborate more effectively with the people around you. Sometimes those moments of focus seem like a rarity in today’s work environment, but I’ve found that by taking the reins of your time and intentionally mapping out the work that you’re doing, it gives you a positive way to enact change in your work life. By employing both good time management and thinking more strategically about the bigger picture we can ease our stresses, increase our work quality, and ultimately become much happier people!

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