Cynthia Savard Saucier on design at Shopify

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: The sombrero-shaped designer, leading design teams, and designing for retail.

By Mary Treseler
June 8, 2017

This week, I sit down with Cynthia Savard Saucier, director of design at Shopify and author of Tragic Design. Saucier also is keynoting at Velocity in New York, October 1-4, 2017. We talk about moving from working in design to leading designers, the real and sometimes negative impact that design decisions can have on users, and how design is organized at Shopify.

Here are some highlights:

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Design at Shopify

At Shopify, we have more than 2,000 employees, so we’re starting to become quite large. We don’t have a design department per say; we have a UX umbrella, and under that UX umbrella, we have designers, content strategists, UX researchers, and front-end developers. So, it’s slightly different than some other companies, where front-end developers are working within the UX team. We try to have someone from all disciplines on every project.

Some projects require many designs; for example, when we designed the checkout experience at Shopify, we needed a lot of designers because it’s customer facing, and there are different pieces that had to tie together.

Sombrero-shaped designers

We often hear of ‘T’ shapes; I use something I call a ‘sombrero shape,’ or the Hershey Kiss shape. I want someone who is really good at one thing, but can be stretched at doing two or three other skills. These are my favorite types of employees. Once you have a bunch of sombreros, they usually cover the whole spectrum of design, and that’s perfect.

Another thing we always ask ourselves is, what would this new candidate add to our culture, add to our team? We actively want people who are not like us.

Tragic design

We tend to think design has an impact, but we only think about the positive impact. Our book outlines how designers need to ask the right questions when they’re designing.

In design school, we’re taught to make things look beautiful or create desirable experiences. We are never once exposed to the consequences of terrible design decisions. For example, some designers design with a single type of user in mind, or they forget that they’re designing for someone other than themselves; this leads to injustice and exclusion.

As a designer you have to think of all the different situations and make sure you try to prevent any mistakes from happening.

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