Aarron Walter

Aarron Walter

“Designers often have to see further into the future than the rest of the world.”

What led you to become a designer? Have you always been interested in making things?

I remember very distinctly when I was six years old, I was over at a friend's house and made a drawing of Winnie the Pooh that actually looked like Winnie the Pooh. It was a freehand drawing, and my friend was blown away by it. Then I showed my parents, and they were blown away by it, too. And it was that one simple act, this one drawing that made me think, “Oh, I can draw and could do something with this.” You know, it made me feel good about myself, and it made me feel like this was my thing – that I'd figured something out. Since that moment, I always felt like making things, and drawing in particular, was something I wanted to pursue. Later on, in college, I ended up studying painting in undergrad and graduate school. I had this idea that I could change the world with painting, that I could convey a lot of meaning. I tend to see art as a mirror for the world that we can see ourselves in, and understand who we are in our time. But there was a point in graduate school when I decided that you can't really change the world with painting, but you might be able to with the web. At the time, I didn't know it was going to be the web – I was making CD-ROMs and other things, too. But I felt like digital media was the medium of our time where we could really do something to influence the world. So I kind of stumbled my way to becoming a designer, but at the same time it feels like a very purposeful stumbling, if that makes any sense. There were these crossroads where I had a discovery, and I decided I'd like to follow that thread further. 

Make a lot of mistakes, and be okay with it…And you take that little lesson to your next try.

What did you do after graduate school? 

After school, I got a job at an agency in Philadelphia. We had some really cool clients. We worked for David Bowie, Barnes and Noble, Hanson – you know, the MMMBop kids (laughing). I got this job because I was making weird CD-ROMs in graduate school that were more towards art, and weren't commercial at all. But they liked that about me, and they hired me to do CD-ROM design and development. To be honest, I didn't like design or designers when I was studying painting. There was a clear divide between our camps. Painters clung to ideas and the theory of ideas, and were always trying to do something bigger. And designers, we thought, were people with a benefactor that made money. We thought their ideas were tainted by money, basically. I just didn't get design at that age. Afterwards, I started to discover more about design. I started to make websites, so I had to think about typography and color in a different way. I was creating visual hierarchies that communicated well, and there was this great function and utility in that. And I started to learn to respect design, its history, the objects and things that I interact with throughout my life. I just totally changed my perspective one hundred and eighty degrees on design. And now, I can't really imagine my life without that connection to design. 

What do you value most about design?

I value clarity of direction, of activity, of how to solve a problem. Design is always serving a real function for humans. We have these limitations, whether it's limitations of our lifespan, or limitations of our height, or how far we can yell, and we design solutions for these problems that help us live a more fulfilled life. It's an individual thing, it's a community thing, it's a legacy thing that connects us with those who have come before us, and those that will come after us. I love the clarity that design gives us in our daily lives.

I'm not necessarily a believer in design perfection. I'm a believer in people actually doing stuff, putting stuff into the world, seeing how it works, and then making corrections.

What is the most difficult aspect of design?

In design practice, finding shared vision is really difficult. And once you find that shared vision, making sure that it ties back to what people actually need. As a designer, it's really easy to have a pie in the sky approach – here's a problem, and I'm going to create a revolution and do something totally new. In your quest for that, you end up missing a lot of simple solutions. You can create revolutions when all you needed were just refinements. That's one challenge with design – getting lost along the way. Getting a group of people that have shared vision, that are rallied around what a customer actually wants and needs, is hard. 

Designers often have to see further into the future than the rest of the world. Further in the future might just be a minute from now, not necessarily ten years from now. For example, a minute from now an elevator will have reached the seventy-fifth floor, and how will the interface change to tell a person where they are? If they get off the elevator on the wrong floor, is there an engineering solution that makes the elevator go back? Is there a way to recover from that mistake? Designers have to be in the future, and have to look into multiple futures simultaneously. That's not easy to do. 

Where do you see design in ten years?

I hope that it's looking backward as much as it is forward. I think that, as I mentioned earlier, it's really easy to get caught up in prognosticating and predicting. I think that there is so much we can learn from the past, from different mediums and different situations. I think, especially for web design, so often people look to other web designs for ideas and inspirations. If you look at product design, industrial design, or architectural design, there are a lot of common design solutions, or even design practice solutions, that can be discovered there. If I had one prediction for the future ten years from now, I'd say more people will be designing. Access to information about how to design is more widely available, and the tools are becoming more widely available, too. I think that will empower a lot of new designers, and will help people see what they can do to make their mark on the world. I hope that also helps consumers to be able to share their feedback, letting their voice be heard about what they'd like to see from design in the future. 

So you think there will be not only more designers, but a broader understanding of what design is from people outside the industry? 

I don't know about a broader understanding, but maybe a greater appreciation for it. I think that we see that already in a lot of design. I know it's absolutely cliche to cite Apple when talking about design, but we just lost Steve Jobs. He was someone that people looked to as a paragon of design thinking, and trying to really think about design perfection. I'm not necessarily a believer in design perfection. I'm a believer in people actually doing stuff, putting stuff into the world, seeing how it works, and then making corrections. I don't necessarily believe in all of his design philosophies. But I think because Apple makes a number of products that people have seen the value of in their lives, they start to look at other products that don't have that level of detail, and they see a deficiency. And I don't think that people necessarily have to understand the principles of design, but to be able to recognize the absence of design thinking is a bigger thing for the general population. 

Design is always serving a real function for humans. We have these limitations, whether it's limitations of our lifespan, or limitations of our height, or how far we can yell, and we design solutions for these problems that help us live a more fulfilled life.

What led you to write “Designing for Emotion”?

I guess just some accidental research from my job as the user experience design lead at MailChimp. I got a really great opportunity to redesign an application from the ground up, when it already had a lot of users. To be able to design it from the ground up, see it change, see it grow, see its customer base grow, and see little moments of discovery in the app really light up someone's day, just make them feel really good – discovering those things made me curious: What's the psychology behind this? Why do people react so vocally about these things? I started to research that some more, and this idea of timing, and how interface design can influence a perception that a user is about to have – not a current perception, but a potential perception down the road. If you make them feel good in the beginning, then when they encounter tricky situations – maybe they can't figure out how to upload a mailing list, or create a campaign or something like that – if you make them feel good beforehand, then they're in a positive state of mind where they can troubleshoot. There's a perceived usability that's created because your brain is just better at problem solving when you're in a good mood instead of a bad mood. So I was curious about that, and started to research that more. I just felt like there was a lot to that idea. And I'm not the first person to discover it. There were a lot of people before me. Don Norman in particular wrote a book, “Emotional Design”, before I did, and I knew there were other people in the web design field thinking about it. I just saw these threads, and I saw a parallel in our industry, that there were a lot of designers who were starting to think about this stuff and how it influenced design. I felt like it wasn't just me, there were a lot of people in the design community who would benefit from some reference about how design and emotion are so intertwined. My hope was that it would inspire great design, and maybe help new designers discover a passion.

What are the most interesting responses to the book you've received?

It's interesting to see Tweets upon occasion. Someone will @ reply me and say, “I did this website, I built this website, I designed this website, and I was totally inspired by your book Designing for Emotion.” It just blows me away. It's one thing to inspire a person, but it's another thing to know you created a totally new direction for a company, or a product, or something like that. It's really gratifying to me.

What advice do you have for designers just starting out?

Make a lot of mistakes, and be okay with it. Anything that I've ever done – whether its painting, or design, or trying to make really good coffee – I just make a lot of mistakes. I look at it, and I see, “Oh, that didn't work out quite so well.” And you take that little lesson to your next try. Often we're just so excited about being rewarded and being right that we forget that being wrong is probably the best way to learn. So yeah, just make a lot of mistakes.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I think being a dad, and being a parent, is pretty amazing. My son just turned two, so I've got a long way to go to declare success (laughs). But that's a big one. I guess as a designer, I'm really proud of being part of MailChimp's evolution, seeing it change and grow over the years. Working with an amazing team of people that are putting their heart and soul into their work is really rewarding. It's sort of our informal motto that we just love what we do, and that's the thing that guides us. So, I'm really proud of that. And I used to be a teacher, I spent eight years teaching. Although I don't teach in a classroom today, I do a lot of travelling, and speaking, and writing. I feel like that's an important part of being happy in what I do. It's a big part of my happiness that I research, I try, I make mistakes, I discover, and I share. And that's a nice little loop that I think is great to have. 

It's a big part of my happiness that I research, I try, I make mistakes, I discover, and I share.

What lasting impressions do you want to leave with your work?

Wow, that's so heavy. I guess empathy. For interface designers, if there's one quality that they need help with, it's empathy. I wonder if my work will be lasting. I guess books can be long lasting but web interfaces change all the time. I don't know if it will be lasting. But one thing I hope that, the people using the interfaces that I work on, or that I work on with my team, I hope that they see that we care. We're trying hard to make a piece of their life a little bit better. I think that's a really rewarding thing, and it's a great reason to get out of bed every morning. 

About Aarron

Aarron Walter is the lead user experience designer for MailChimp, where he socializes with primates and ponders ways to make interfaces more human. Aarron is the author of Designing for Emotion, the purple stripe in the rainbow of knowledge from A Book Apart. He lives with his wife and son in Athens, Georgia, and is a wannabe barista. He tweets about design under the moniker @aarron on Twitter.

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