Behind the pretty pictures: how Shutterstock’s designers bring storytelling to UX

When your office is in one of the world’s most celebrated buildings in the heart of Manhattan, working remotely—as design and UX head Mark Sherrill has resigned to do today—isn’t the holiday it might seem. It’s particularly true when you work at Shutterstock, the stock-photography behemoth that recently moved its whimsical headquarters to two floors of the Empire State Building. At the office, Sherrill can meet a programmer in the Alice In Wonderland room, settle into a 15-foot sofa for a chat with a junior designer, or call a ping-pong match with an engineer. At home, confined to a desk and phone, he has to plumb his imagination.

He has it in droves, of course. Having climbed from design director to UX guru, Sherrill has watched Shutterstock grow from a team of about 70 to an international triumph of 600. Two years ago, Shutterstock pioneered the use of Mosaic, a new technology that displays search results in an interlocking grid.

In Sherrill’s four-and-a-half years at the company, UX has evolved with the type of content Shutterstock provides. Because outside artists began contributing stock—not only photos, but illustrations, vectors, and videos—Shutterstock had begun collaborating on branded content and editorial. Now its blog is a veritable glossy magazine, designed with the visual impact of Eye and the know-how of Wired. Articles like “How to retouch a photo” or “How to edit a vector” draw in potential customers, but even more importantly, support customers over time. And that support is where Sherrill is most focused.

“To us, UX means what makes a customer successful,” he says. “We want to empower them, whether they’re in design or marketing. They’re telling a story and we want to help them succeed.”

To wit, in about three minutes on the Shutterstock website, I learned how to illustrate my personal blog and chose a photo of a woman just like me, sitting at a desk just like mine, typing on my laptop.

Catering to more complicated requests means Sherrill might start his day by storyboarding or brainstorming on a white board with his team. “I’ll still sit down with them to come up with a design solution. I act as the guardrail.” He’ll move on to a meeting with developers and then consultations with the engineering team about whether his ideas can be put into practice. Meanwhile, he’s fielding calls from the marketing team to help them tell their stories.

Ultimately, he’s trying to get customers to that piece of content that will guide them through a task. “Often people can’t articulate what they’re looking for; they have a vague concept, but don’t know how to get a good search result. How do we get them to the right set of images—fast? Or how do we get a novice to their content?”

How does a non-UX designer become an approved member of the UX team? Sherrill likens it to matchmaking, naming empathy as the trait he seeks out foremost. “The candidate may have never held a UX job, but can understand and put themselves in someone else’s shoes.” What comes to mind next is relentlessness. “There’s always a better way,” says Sherrill, “and it’s our job to find out what that is.”

Ideally, however, a great UX candidate has to think independently, and that can come as easily to a young upstart as to someone with the dream CV. “I interviewed someone a year out of high school. He learned Photoshop as a senior and had three apps in the App Store,” says Sherrill. “Technology has created entrepreneurial people who are motivated and have the platform to do their own thing, and those are the sorts of people I gravitate towards.”

But just in case there’s any doubt that the self-motivated, experimental, resilient UX is in the wrong place, Sherrill has this strategy. “I ask people, ‘If you weren’t a designer, what would you do?’ And the right answer is, ‘I wouldn’t do anything else.’ They just know they have to do it. They don’t have a choice.”