The importance of making something
Over the last month, someone I've known for a few years has made something — again.
This guy started 'making' a long time ago and he continues to do it over and over again. I'm fascinated by this because I love making things too. I love making things that provide value to people and solve real-world problems. Things that aren't just noise, but have relevance, meaning, and purpose in people's lives.
Nick has provided insight to this journal in the past, but this time he provides a tonne of value in an interview with me about his product design business, Kickstarter campaigns, learning from mistakes, mentorship, and a hell of a lot more.
Name: Nick Hallam
Location: Melbourne, Australia
What do you do?: Designer of many things
Why do you do it?: I love solving problems and that’s what design is. Our work also requires us to learn about all kinds of new industries and markets and that’s pretty fun too.
Job Title: Director & Product Designer
Let's start at Tiller. Tell me about this product of yours:
We’re obsessed with finding ways to use technology to improve people's day-to-day lives. Six months after starting Joan, we saw that we weren’t managing the business side of things well enough. One important element of running a services business (that sells time) is understanding where your time is going.
Who is working on what and for how long? Knowing it is really important because it allows you to understand things like efficiency and profitability of jobs. It also helps you budget and forecast better.
We tried a bunch of tracking apps but found we would forget to use those or leave our timers running. The experience wasn’t great. So we took a look at it as a design problem and asked ourselves how the experience might better be designed so that tracking your time was something that was easy to do, fast and not this additional annoying task that interrupted your work day.
We came up with Tiller - a hardware device that really turns time-tracking to this seamless experience.
The hardware and status light helps you to remember to track your time and the design of the device means that you only need one tap to start and stop your timers. Turning Tiller brings up a list of your projects, clients etc. allowing you to cycle through them quickly. We have a new feature where you double tap Tiller on an item to see advanced data like budgets and reports.
What does the Tiller roadmap look like? Where is it heading?
We’re really co-designing this with the community. There are things like integrations with other products and services that we know we will need to build. There are also some team features for larger agencies. The hardware will stay as is for the medium term.
Can you share some links of the development of the product?
We have this gif showing a lot of the interface development. The hardware has been crazy too.
When we first met we were both knee-deep in helping shape Design Victoria's policy and events - and you were neck deep in Positive Posters. How was that initiative born? Why?
I’m smiling at my screen right now because as long as I’m alive, people always ask me about Positive Posters. While I was completing my honours year I had a moment when I knew I didn’t want to go and design business cards and logos for clients right away. We’d been taught all these amazing communication design skills and I wanted to explore how they could be used to have a positive impact on the rest of the world.
Talking to some friends, I pitched the idea of covering city streets around the world in ad-free poster art that raised awareness for different causes, created by the international design community.
People really liked it, so we started working on it. We threw a party, raised $5k and got to work. I never thought we would end up with 125+ countries taking part, but that’s what happened. People are always surprised to hear that Iran was the third most active nation behind Australia and the United States.
If our website hadn’t been hacked and we had figured out the business model, it would still be running.
You've had an interesting career - you've been making things since day one. What is it about bringing a product to life that you enjoy so much?
I was 21 when I launched Positive Posters and what I learned from that was that with good design, an internet connection, a computer and a mission you can really change things and have an impact on people. It’s an addictive feeling. I know of people who got jobs because of PP. Talking about ideas and bringing them to life and not that closely related. In fact they are miles apart. I’ll probably sound super cliche here, but we honestly don’t have that much time on our hands. For me, making things and trying to have a positive impact on people through the design and creation of new products and services is what I want to do.
I’m also in a position of great privilege, so if I can use that to benefit others I should.
What were the last three books you read?:
Woman of Substances by Jenny Valentish (in progress)
The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen
Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth by Warsan Shire
What were the last three websites you visited?:
What do you listen to whilst you're working?:
Nine times out of ten it’s a DJ set on YouTube. Most recently Jamie XX Boiler Room set from Iceland.
What is the last TV Show you binged?:
Masters of None. It’s incredible.
Joan. Talk to me - what's this all about?:
Joan is a small independent digital product agency. That means we don’t really design and build websites for people and we don’t get too involved in brand design either. We really excel in helping companies imagine and validate new business opportunities and then translate them into things like apps or webapps. People would probably call it a mix of Ui, Ux, design thinking and research or something. We don’t tend to use those words because I’m not sure we really understand them any more. I’d say we’re about 50% design research and and 50% prototype building and product designing.
What makes a good design ops / product team?
The first thing that comes to mind is being good at giving and getting feedback and having a healthy relationship with ego. One thing I’ve had to learn to manage is my own relationship with my ideas.
Early on you’re like “I HAVE THE BEST IDEA TO SOLVE THIS THING” and you think you’ve nailed it. But a you get deeper into product design, you realise that people are complex, and how people use products are complex and while your initial idea might have some really good aspects to it, there will always be a percentage of it that is incorrect. A good product team will know this, believe in this and seek to find the holes in their solutions and fix them. Design is never done, so that is an ongoing process. Also, I believe a good design team starts with a pen and paper.
What makes a good leader?
My favourite leaders always manage to balance the long term mission driven side of what they are doing with the day to day of what’s going on. I think a good leader can always answer the question of “Why are you doing this?” Good leaders should also make sure they are looking after themselves and their team.
What makes a good strategic thinker?
Tough question. I feel like the answer to this is someone who is both broad in their knowledge and research and also deep. I might be a case where more is more. Finding someone who is really keen to ask why and get to the bottom of things is also a strong quality. Why did that product market in that way and was it successful. Did x actually cause y?
Do you take your own advice?
I try to, don’t we all? I’ve recently set up a semi-formal mentor-ish relationship with a close friend of mine, Tim. We try and check in weekly and he keeps me to account of everything I said I would do. He also helps me with my own creative confidence and advice.
Industry associations? Go:
I’m all about communities of like minded people. We’re a social species and coming together around common interests makes a lot of sense to me. Like a lot of businesses and organisations, it looks like some industry bodies have been challenged by the internet.
A lot of the value the industry bodies used to carry has be diluted. Design, in particular graphic design, has an interesting challenge because there is no formal accreditation and therefore no annual membership fees or professional development that is required (unlike law, medicine or architecture).
A question I think about a lot is, "what is the role of industry bodies in an age where everyone who wants to be connected can be and where most information is readily available at a low cost (most likely free)?"
I’d love to spend time working on that question. There needs to be some refreshed thinking there.
How important is being able to 'make stuff' for people in creative industries?
I believe that if you bring the idea and the making of the idea closer together you get better results. That might mean screen printing a poster, or taping boxes together for a prototype, of coding an app or website. Having some making skills means you have more empathy with the people who will end up building the thing you design or build. We always love working with people who enjoy getting their hands dirty. Computers only solve so much.
What does a normal day look like for you?:
I try and get to gym, shower and leave the house before 7am-ish. I also try and meditate daily, but lately I’ve been skipping it and I shouldn’t be. Breakfast is at the office, then coffee from our local place in Windsor. 7:30 - 9:30 am is my window to write, check emails and get prepared. Then we are in workshops, meetings etc. for most of the day. I’ll normally get out around 6pm.
What are you most proud of?:
Right now, I’m probably most proud of Joan + Tiller.
When we started the company we said we’d do client work and if we came up with a good idea for a product we’d invest in it and bring it to life. With the launch of Tiller, we’ve done that. Tiller is by far the most complex thing I’ve ever worked on. We’ve had to tackle branding, software design, software engineering, hardware design, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, marketing, business model design and more. All with a team of four people (with a fair bit of external help too). To have it come out and be cohesive and look as good as it does is a real achievement for our team. Side note - I’m also involved in a (very) small community of designers in Melbourne who are talking about and discussing inclusion and diversity in the industry. We haven’t published anything, but I’m proud to be involved in that and I’m excited to see what comes of it.
Tell me about one of your failures — how did you deal with it?:
Failure is interesting. Defining it is interesting and often comes down to a point of view and an attitude. Using Positive Posters as an example, if the goal of that was to make us independently wealthy then we failed big time. I put thousands of my own dollars into it and never saw any of it come back. But, it the goal was to learn, grow, open up doors and have a positive impact on the industry, then PP was a flying success. I would have liked PP to keep going though and it had to stop because of a failure to nail the business model so let’s look at that as the example.
How did you overcome it?:
Positive Posters didn’t die-in-a-day, it kinds of just vanished slowly from people's minds. I’m reading a great book at the moment called ‘Ends’ about the death of digital products which would have been helpful a few years ago. Once I started saying “PP isn’t alive now”, people were really supportive. They remembered the good parts of it. Personally, I needed to accept that while it was a good idea with lots of traffic and a community, we didn’t have the skills or experience to monetise it so we needed to let it go. The market is impartial.
What did you learn?:
The market is impartial! You can create value for thousands of people, but if you can’t capture any of that value for yourself then you won't stick around long. I think Marc Andreessen said that. If you have an idea that has traction, make sure you know how you’re going to monetise it or at least be able to afford to keep it going. The server traffic for PP go so high and so expensive that we couldn’t afford to keep it going. It sucked, but that’s the game.
Who are you inspired by? Why?:
I draw a huge amount of inspiration from people outside my space. Musicians, poets, artists who are constantly being vulnerable and publishing their thinking to the world. I love it. The list of individual people is long and includes people like Elon Musk (who isn’t inspired by that guy), Ev Williams, Kanye, and then people like my mate Gatsby. I’m also hugely inspired by the commitment, energy, intelligence and dedication of Nayuka Gorrie and Yassmin Abdel-Magied who I met almost 12 months ago. They fighting hard and moving our society forward. It’s really important to listen to what they are saying, please follow them.
What are you inspired by? Why:
My first thought was to say ‘nature’. Our planet has everything sorted on it’s own. The design is (was) perfect until we came along and f’d it all up. It’s an incredible complex system that is also incredibly designed through millions of years of evolution (iterations?). When making something new, there is a lot of inspiration right there.
How do you keep your skills sharp?:
For sure, my design skills are not as sharp as they once were. I can think pretty well at the moment, but colours and type are a bit rusty. I read a lot. Several articles a day about all kinds of things. I subscribe to some great newsletters and I also make sure I follow people who are different to me online and buy books that I normally wouldn’t read. That helps me keep things sharper.
How do you ensure you keep learning?:
As above, I read a lot. I’ve turned on tweet notifications for lots of people who are in different industries to me and/or are different to me. I save lots of articles and always make time to read them and listen and learn. You have to.
What does the Agency model of tomorrow look like?
God, who knows. Something about partnerships and not clients? That was kind of a joke, but that kind of thing does make more sense to me. You’re always going to have talented creatives who don’t want to work for one company and are attracted to the agency lifestyle. I’m really into the kinds of models that UsTwo, Josephmark and Work&Co. Are implementing. Where they are doing more venture related activity. Investing in companies with a mixture of cash and services. It promotes longer partnerships and has better value alignments.
What are you doing to invest in your own growth?:
Right now it’s all about Tiller. As a business, Joan has been really quiet over it’s three years. Word of mouth is what has driven all of our work. We haven’t spent time on case studies etc. Our energy is going into growing Tiller for now and then we might look to expand Joan.
Tell me something about mentors and mentorship. Yes? No?
Yes. I sought out mentors early on. Nothing super formal, just phone calls and emails convos. Shout out to Amy from IDEO who really helped me a few years back. I still get mentored today and probably always will.
What are the key traits you look for when hiring new talent?
A belief system. I don’t care if I disagree with you, but I think if someone has a strong point of view on why Apple is screwed, why inclusion matters, why Helvetica is a bad typeface for UI design etc. then we will make some great things. I also love to see problem solving done with a pen and paper. There is no replacement for that.
What's next for you, Joan and Tiller?
We hope to be able to fund Tiller on Kickstarter and then run it as a business alongside Joan. If that works out, then we will start looking for new projects and opportunities. There is a lot of work to do and many problems to be solved.
Thank you Nick. 🙏🏽