An Interview with Sebastian Speier, Product Design Lead at Instagram

Get to know Designers from some of the world's leading companies in our new series of interviews, Designers Spilling Tea.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to work in design?

How did you get to where you are now?

After I finished school, I worked in branding and marketing agencies for a while, and I moved from Montreal to Toronto where my salary nearly doubled because there was so much more design opportunity there. After working at a few big agencies there, I got scouted to work at an agency in New York called HUGE, and they relocated me to Brooklyn.

It was at HUGE that I started to transition from web design and digital marketing and doing real product work. I worked on HBO GO, Newsweek, and Puff Daddy’s Music Video platform called REVOLT.TV. It was during this transition that I realized I was much less interested in selling “the thing” and much more interested in building “the thing.” It became apparent to me that product design is about building products that people enjoy using and that they want to come back to regularly, instead of building a website or ad that sells them the product.

“It was during this transition that I realized I was much less interested in selling ‘the thing’ and much more interested in building ‘the thing'”.

A few of the folks I worked with at HUGE left to start their own small studio in Brooklyn called This Also, and they asked me to come on board as their first full-time employee. While I was there, I had the privilege of working on the new Google identity and how it translated into all of the digital products that Google owns. After the Google work got a lot of great press, Nike came to me and asked me if I wanted to be a part of something similar in their newly re-organized technology department. I was brought on to build and manage the design team within the newly formed Studio 23, also known as the Digital Product and Innovation Lab in New York.

And now, as of this past spring, I’m at Instagram focusing on the future of Stories.

Anything you’d do differently?

I don’t like to think about what could have been, because I am generally very happy with who I am and the choices I have made, but there are learnings that I know now, that I wish I could go back in time to tell myself as a young designer.

“I grew up trying to fit in everywhere I went. I was so afraid of being different, and eventually, I realized that being different is the most important thing about being a successful designer.”

I also wish I had learned to rely on my managers more. When I had good ones, I was always so busy trying to impress them instead of relying on them, which is totally self-sabotaging. Asking my manager for help and being honest and straightforward with them has helped accelerate my career more than anything.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

Too many to name! I like challenges, though. When things are too easy, you stop growing. I remember at one job, I felt like I was the best talent on the team, and it made me lazy and arrogant. It wasn’t until I moved to a bigger and better agency that I realized how important it is to feel like you’re constantly being challenged by your peers.

“When things are too easy, you stop growing.”

It forced me to work hard to be better and it made that growth possible. Having that growth mindset will make challenging and demanding environments less daunting.

“Setbacks, failures, and struggles are all part of the process and are great opportunities to grow both as a designer and as a human being.”

Have you applied design to any other areas of your life?

I apply design to almost everything I do. Design is not about pushing pixels or choosing typefaces—it’s about solving problems. Something in the kitchen is broken? I’ll figure out the best and most efficient way to fix this by planning, and executing on that plan. Planning a trip to Asia? I’ll figure out the best way to see everything I want to see by planning and executing. Design is making intentional choices to achieve a goal, and you can apply it to literally everything you do.

“Design is not about pushing pixels or choosing typefaces—it’s about solving problems.”

What makes a day, a good day, for you?

I know it’s not important, but validation and recognition are important to me. Both to receive it, and give it. Our team has a little “props” meeting every week where we thank and recognize people for the work they did, and being a part of that always makes me happy.

Something else that really makes my day, is checking things off the list. My team has a huge project tracker, but I also keep my own project tracker with a task list below each project. Checking those off is so rewarding because it reminds me that I am making progress on the things that I am setting out to do and that I am having an impact. Having an impact is an important part of self-worth and feeling valuable will make anyone feel good!

What’s it like to work for a big company like Nike, or Instagram?

Well, it’s certainly different from working at a studio or agency. When you work at an agency, there is a tribal camaraderie that you share with everyone else at the company. At an agency, your direct competitors are other agencies, all vying and competition for the same clients and projects. The very foundation of ‘the pitch’ is that you are showing that your agency can do the work better than all the other agencies. So, at your agency, you pool resources, share work, and influence each other in a way that allows you to beat the competition.

“When you work at a big company, your direct competitors are other teams within the same organization; Ones who are competing for the same resources, budgets, and headcount… So this naturally leads to people being competitive about their work, and it can be harder to collaborate on initiatives or goals that come from a company-wide strategy. Even though we all want the same results—for the product or company to be successful—a lot of ego or internal competition tends to get in the way of that.”

Thankfully, Instagram has a very contemporary and thoughtful process that mitigates this kind of culture in an amazing way. We have a flat design department, where designers own their own features, and we use data and research to validate the work before we even begin work. This means no one pulls rank on each other, and good ideas are seen as good ideas, no matter who they come from. We also have a culture that pushes a fluidity between teams and products, and people are encouraged to find teams and projects where their strengths will shine.

What frustrates you most about your current design process and how are you trying to change it?

Pivoting off the previous question, working on a large product means having many teams working on all the different surfaces within it simultaneously. At my current job, we all love working together across the entire app, but it takes a lot of time and effort to coordinate and make sure everyone’s work has a lock-step consistency. We’ve always had templates, sticker-sheets, and we have one of the world’s most advanced component and interface libraries, but as the team expands, and as we work on our own team’s goals and interests, it isn’t necessarily enough to keep that consistent pattern language.

One thing we are working hard on right now is creating principles and primitives that keep everything consistent at a high-level so that when new things must be made, designers will have rules to guide them in their decision making.

What’s your creative sign off process like?

We use data to validate everything. As a lead on the team, I will sign off on designer and engineering work from our team, and I work on things to get them tested properly. When we get signal from those tests, I present it to leadership and, generally, if the data shows success, they approve it and we ship it to all of our users.

We use data for everything, and my immediate team has two data scientists and one researcher who do deep dives on data. We do this to validate ideas before we even work on them; then to study their success as we do tests; then beyond that to make sure we’re hitting our goals.

How do you communicate the future of the brand to your team?

Another portion of the work I do, and that I am really passionate about, is product vision work, or what we like to call “north star” work. We do north star work to show leadership the value of what a current feature could be, and we also use this work as a guiding set of principles to make sure that everyone on the team is aligned to what the visual language should be moving forward.

Wayne Gretzky once said, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it was,” and this holds tremendous value as all the designers on our team are working on individual features and tracks of work.”

Biggest learning from managing design teams?

“Managing designers is about creating a safe and productive space for them to do their best work. Hear what they need, help them by giving it to them, enable them to succeed.”

It’s super important that as a manager, you make enough time for this, and that you understand that it is emotionally draining and takes up a lot your time. At Instagram, managers don’t really do any design work, because they understand that managing people is a full-time job. As a manager, your people are your work, design work is not your work, so enabling them to succeed is how you prove your own success.

Managing people is also all about trust. It’s important to trust your designers, that they can do a good job, with the right tools and resources, and it’s important that they trust you. It is super motivating to your designers when you can step in and do something really smart in a matter of time. Even if it’s just showing them a great execution on a whiteboard, or a napkin sketch.

It not only gives them something to kickstart their explorations and discovery, but it also gives them an aspirational example of how you want them to work. Being good at the skills is important. You want to earn their trust so that they listen to your feedback, and align with the directions you give them.

Storytelling, presentation, and communication are as important as the design work itself. As a manager and product designer, most of my time is spent making decks and telling stories about our products. You have to sell the idea to leadership, other stakeholders, and most importantly, your team and peers who are executing it. It’s important that they believe in the idea they are working on, and it is your job to communicate why they should believe in it.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

I have been given so many good bits of advice, that it’s impossible to figure out which one is objectively the “best.” So, here’s a few highlights:

“Learn to say no, because no one else will say no for you.”

And the worst?

Design trends that should die?

I don’t really have issues with design trends. Trends are a signal of something that people like, and something that is probably solving a specific problem. When you design interface patterns, trends can actually help set standards across different products and enable users to intuitively understand your interface before they even use it. Trends come and trends go, and I have no problem with that.

I will say, I really don’t like how every website is asking me if I want to enable desktop notifications, lately. I wouldn’t really call this a trend, as so much an awful design pattern. But yeah, it’s kind of turning into the new pop-up ad, and it’s a slippery slope that I am seeing.

Thoughts on the future of design tools?

“As tools are becoming more and more powerful, and as machines slowly start to do more of our daily tasks for us, eventually we’re all going to be in the industry of making design tools.”

At Instagram, a large part of our design team is dedicated to working on internal tools because they enable us to do our jobs more efficiently, and that team is growing. Just recently, someone used one of our design tools to mock-up how the tool itself should function differently, and that proposal became a feature. There’s a meta quality to designing tools for design, but eventually, it will be the angle we are all working from.

What are you watching on Netflix right now?

On Netflix, Mind Hunter. This is a great character-driven show, which highlights the foundational moments of criminal profiling. I really like this show because I am really into David Fincher and his use of cinematography. If you have a minute to explore this even further, I highly recommend a series on cinematography called Every Frame a Painting by Tony Zhou.

I’m reading two books:

I’m listening to this semi-secret stream-of-consciousness Spotify playlist by Fourtet, where he is constantly uploading new, intriguing and weird tracks every day:

Whose work do you follow and admire?

Jeez too many, but here are some highlights from my current Instagram saves:

Writing for Marvel. Writing for fun. Eating everywhere, all the time.

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