Autobiography of a Product Designer

As far back as I can remember I was always fascinated by technology. By how computers work and how they can be utilized to create things.

And my parents got me one, at the age of eight. It was the legendary Commodore 64. It had a cassette player / recorder in place of a hard drive. When I couldn’t load a program or a game I had to use a screwdriver to fine tune the cassette player. It was a fun game for a kid.

I experimented with playing games, programming in basic and pascal.

High School

At the age of eighteen I got a dial up internet modem. I didn’t know much about html and wasn’t even aware that css exists. As a part of a high school project I played with Microsoft Front Page and designed a web site for a rock band that I loved.

I was hooked. Somehow I knew that this was what I wanted to do.

Besides drawing ninja turtles for fun I didn’t have any design background. In the late nineties there were no colleges specialized in teaching design for a computer screen.

College

What I wanted to study was not possible at the time. I didn’t know what decision to make. In that kind of situations decisions are made by others. You get a very simple choice. If you don’t know what you want, pick law or economics. I picked the second one.

And I hated it.

By working hard I managed to get to the second year of faculty of economics and business. I had zero interest in what I was learning there and strong passion for learning design for web. I decided to drop out. And needed to talk with my investors first. My parents did not only endow me with my life, love and support but they also paid for my school and their opinion and consent mattered. But I didn’t get the consent. They told me I was doing fine with economics, I tackled my first year and there were only three more left to go, so I should just get this over with it and after that I can do my design thing, or whatever I wanted to do.

Yeah, right.

Learn what you love

By learning what I hated, my motivation for learning what I loved became stronger. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, but didn’t want to disappoint myself either, so I started with self schooling in the design arena in parallel with my formal education.

By using whichever resources available at the time I learned basics of typography, grid systems, spacing, sizing, colors, html and css. In 2001 I got my first freelance clients, and started learning about communication.

And I didn’t have any idea about what I was doing.

Looking back at this I realized that the only way to learn these things was by doing them. To deliver good design, you need to know what good design is. To learn to ask right questions, you need to ask all kind of questions and figure out which are the right ones. The more you do it, the better you become.

Freelance

In 2002 I registered my first proper domain name at milanogw.net. I used is as my portfolio web site and a way of reaching new clients for many years. Today it is my personal page.

It was an era of blogging and most of my work was related to designing and coding blogs and company web sites.

As the years came by my design skills improved, my formal education got terribly neglected but I didn’t give up on it.

Master New Media

Somewhere in early 2000s I met online publisher from Rome, Italy, a guy who calls himself Robin Good. He needed design help with his publishing platform Master New Media and we made an agreement to work together.

This was a client who give me the worst time in my professional career, dissected me into little pieces and made me feel brutalized. Thinking back about that from this perspective I couldn’t be more thankful for the life and design lessons that I got from him.

We had daily progress meetings which lasted for about one hour. He talked a lot and fast. I wasn’t able to memorize or write down everything he said so he made me record our skype calls and listen to them over and over again, so I didn’t do something wrong again. He asked questions about every tiny detail of interfaces that I designed. I didn’t have answers. He always complained about my work, and seemed never to be happy, but for some reason was always coming back to me and we worked on multiple projects together for more than a year.

The overwhelming impression of mine while I was working with Robin was that I felt incompetent. In hindsight I think it was more than a feeling, a fact. At the time I couldn’t see the big picture. What I didn’t realize was that Robin was not an interface designer, but a publisher who was very interested in information design science. He introduced me to the books of Edward Tufte, he made me look for the rationale about why I do what I do. He made me read more. He made me think more. He made me talk more and improve my verbal skills.

Before this client I simply designed nice looking interfaces with eye-pleasing colors, gradients and drop shadows and I was happy to look at them.

Later I understood that this was my introduction to product design. From that stage I learned to take responsibility for my design decisions, and to be able to talk about them and explain them with words, and not to even start designing before I figure out “why”.

After this experience in my professional life everything has changed. It was so easy and smooth to talk with potential clients, to listen, to ask right questions, to give right answers, to do the work. At that point I had enough skill, experience and confidence to call myself a professional, not just because it was a job that was bringing food to my table, but because I felt confident that I could deliver design which would solve my client’s problem, look good, on time and with unwavering quality.

While I’m writing this and reflecting back on what happened many years ago I see that Robin’s approach in working with people brought me exactly to what his publishing platform name is, “Master New Media”.

Creative Direction

In 2005 I was approached by Implementek, a Los Angeles based interactive agency where I spent two years as a creative director. We had a good ride. It was nice to have a cool job title, not to worry about new business development and focus on work, mostly marketing web sites for LA night clubs and small businessess.

Startups and Product Companies

In 2007 I had my first experience with startups. I met Marcus, a good guy and developer from Austin, TX. He introduced me to a few people and in no time I became front end developer for Minggl, a technology startup, in a team of more than forty engineers distributed worldwide.

Feeling that we we were creating something bigger than ourselves was amazing, the feeling of failure was not. But it helped me learn the ropes. Minggl was a product which unified all social networks into one feed on one place. And it worked. But, it was a browser extension. And browser extension is not a product. At that time the iPhone and smartphone era was warming up.

Rockstar New Media

To gain more recognition in design community it is wise to redesign your portfolio or customer facing web site from time to time. In the mid 2000s I was a huge fan of going out to rock and roll events and had a lot of print design work for rock bands. I had this crazy idea of redesigning my portfolio under pseudonym Rockstar New Media. And I did it in 2008. I had great feedback from the design community and scored some nice rockstar freelance gigs for worldwide famous musicians, whose names I don’t like to use to brag about.

After some time I figured out that designing products which people will actually use on a daily basis gave me more joy and pleasure than did the designing of promo materials and marketing web sites.

Product design

In 2014 I moved to Novi Sad, Serbia. In the same where SemaphoreCI was located, a product company which is a world leader at providing continuous integration and deployment service for teams who want to ship stable applications faster. I knew about them for several years and got in touch. We ended up working together for almost two years. I was Interface designer in a team of 15.

By working directly with product owners who bootstraped the company from two guys to industry leader with zero investments in terms of VC or angel money I learned a lot about product strategy and issues of scaling. I helped them by redesigning product UX and UI, designing new product features, creating a reusable living style guide and front end strategy that allows scaling number of developers and rapid product prototyping.

And I had a pleasure of working with good and competent people in the same office space.

nLight

In 2014 I went inc and converted my freelance practice into formal company, a small independent interface design studio called nLight.

Today I help startups solve their business problems by using design as a skill and craft. I treat product as systems that scale. Important parts of my job are scaling user interface in terms of making it easy to add new product features and keep visual consistency, and scaling and optimizing css performance and modularity in terms of creating a system which allow developers to reuse and keep the code clean.


One more thing, if you remember the beginning of this story, when right after my first year in college I decided to drop out and my parents urged me to keep up because it’s only for three more years, well they were not quite right. I did not drop out, but ended up dedicating large amounts of energy to things I actually loved - so those three years, extended to thirteen years. Finally, in 2013 I obtained an MBA degree. I still don’t see how the dots connect here and if that’s a good or bad thing for me.

Posted by Emil Milanov

Interface designer based in Novi Sad, Serbia. Running independent interface design studio at nlight.co and helping startups convert to product companies.

Emil Milanov