Q&A with Randy Hunt


This Q&A is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond.

To get us started, if you would briefly describe your studio and your role.

I’m the creative director at Etsy where I lead all of our design efforts. What this really means is that I lead our team of designers. We have 30 people on our team in a company that’s almost 500 people. My role is to act as the voice and perspective of design among the senior leadership in decision-making. To do that, I source knowledge and perspective from the team itself, as well as from outside the company—the industry and the world at large.

I participate in these conversations not only as a designer, but also as a fan of Etsy, as someone from the inside who really cares about the brand. There are lots of high-level decisions that are impacted by design but may not look like “design” on the surface. For example, what branches do you need to partner with to do something? In what location do you choose to open an office? Those kinds of decisions end up having residual effects that will ultimately affect the design space.

Looking at the design team itself, there are two parts of the team, and those two parts are divided around the nature of the work that needs to be done. At Etsy, design touches the entire user experience. We’re shaping the brand from a marketing, messaging and communications capacity, as well as the experience of the built digital product itself. My team does lots of brand marketing and graphic design, and they deal with things like identity standards and general visual vocabulary. Roughly one-third of the group works on these elements, and the other two-thirds works on what we call product design: the website itself, native apps, any parts of the Etsy experience that you might embed in other websites or that live in the digital realm.

Our design studio functions much like an in-house communication design team. We’re touching on a broad range of items, including print, public marketing display ads, event design, video, motion graphics, advertising, et cetera. And these elements take the form of work generated internally and work made via collaborative efforts and the input of outside partners, including people from the Etsy community.

What are the major competencies and skill sets, new and established, that you think are crucial for the studio of 2015?

Well, I certainly think there are two layers. One is a real reliance on the fundamentals of whatever disciplines we’re dealing with, because the context around things changes so quickly. So basic, core skills will remain important. For the communications design team, it’s things like being able to think about the system, not just the individual solution. It’s about clarity of communication, information hierarchy and typography. None of those things I just mentioned have anything to do with any particular piece of software or any particular deliverable. They’re just really basic competencies.

Another key area is empathy with people inside and outside the company and the ability to collaborate. The very nature of our brand is one that requires participation and openness. Simply put, Etsy’s audience is a community of people, and many of them are highly creative. So making them feel like they participate in the experience rather than having it imposed upon them certainly resonates as more sincere. Our designers must be able to think in that capacity, and they must be as willing to ask questions as they are to propose answers.

When it comes to product design, the answer to this question is somewhat dry. It’s all about basics and fundamentals, which can be divided into two parts. One part is the source of the design, the experiential side. How can we make this the best experience possible? Members of a team must be able to ask that question and have answers that are not at all precious. Perhaps what’s most important is a desire to think of many possibilities and not be married to any one of them. We value people with a real sense of flexibility. On the communications side of things, we value people who can literally use their hands. The physical medium informs much of the end result, even if it passes through software.

We expect that every product designer be able to write code fairly efficiently. So there’s a blurry line between product design and engineering in our culture, and that is extremely important to us. We believe that designers must be able to build the things that they design. There are different ways to interpret that of course, and different degrees of proficiency, but because we are building a digital product we ultimately want to design a digital product, not create pictures of what the interface of a digital product should look like. Looking to the future, this will become an increasingly important distinction.

In terms of business development, Etsy has been going through a tremendous growth and transformation. Would you speak a little bit about where you’re headed and why, in terms of business development?

It’s interesting: As an in-house group of designers, we’re not preoccupied with acquiring design projects per se. On the product development side, the product designers share in the creation of the product roadmap with the rest of the organization. What are we building? When? Why? What are we trying to accomplish? These questions relate to overarching business objectives: some about new business, some about improvements to existing parts of the business, some about change we want to see happen in the world and what we see as our ability to influence things.

From a communication design standpoint, because we’re an in-house group, business development is tied to initiatives across the company. Certainly there are design-led and design initiated influences. Sometimes these things have to do with the employee’s experience of being at Etsy; sometimes they have to do with creating something special for the community.

You've talked a little bit about the structure of your team and the organization. How do you think your team will evolve in the future?

This is where the distinction between those two parts of the design team that I was speaking about earlier really becomes clear. From a product development standpoint, there is such an intimate day-to-day relationship—where knowledge is exchanged by two people sitting next to each other, literally touching the same code, checking it in and out of version control—that every one of our product designers are on staff full-time, 100 percent committed.

We have multiple offices, but the preference is for people working on the same thing to be in the same place. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be in the same place. We also place a high level of trust, freedom and responsibility in our team in terms of their access to the technical system. Every product designer can change production code on Etsy any time they want to. This approach is practically unheard of in the industry, but it’s true at Etsy.

When it comes to the communications side of our team, things are much more flexible. The volume of work comes and goes, and the complexity of needs will continue to fluctuate in the future. Certainly as we’re expanding internationally, both in different cultural contexts and across different languages, we may not have the need for full-time work in Greek, for example. So that’s when we’ll work with contractors and freelancers. Our preference is to have some of the team on staff—a full set of teams from junior design up through creative direction—but to keep it fairly thin. Basically, “just enough” staff tends toward the side of too small rather than too large.

Moving toward 2015, the goal is to keep the strategic vision, decision-making and creative direction in-house. Although strategic and creative direction will be centralized, we’ll continue to collaborate with a network of creatives on the outside.

I know the word “collaboration” gets thrown around quite a bit these days, but it does seem central to Etsy’s philosophy. Would you talk a bit about how you predict it will influence your work over the next few years?

Collaboration is actually kind of a loaded word. At the highest level, it’s important to have shared ownership and shared belief in what we’re doing. So that requires collaboration outside of design, with other leaders in the company. When it comes to getting projects, initiatives and work done, that sort of collaboration—research, idea generation, project workflows—feels contextual, but it’s probably better executed with some degree of collaboration than not.

At the individual level I have a similar answer. However, for different designers, I think it really depends on how they work. As a company, we try to be really sensitive to individual people’s needs in the context of what we’re trying to accomplish, and we try to find the best fits. There’s almost never a perfect fit, so you’re always bridging the gap between what you need and what the other person wants and what their style is. But most of the time, with some degree of collaboration, even if it’s just between a few designers, there’s somehow more joy in it. In the spirit of getting work done, perhaps they’re all somehow producing better work? Or perhaps because collaboration is quite literally the combination of two ideas, designers arrive at a better thing? It’s really hard to say. Again, I’d say there’s no hard and fast rule, but going forward the preference at Etsy leans toward collaborative effort. One should assume “yes” rather than “no” and we will change that assumption if there is some evidence that supports changing it.

Stepping back a bit, would you speak to what you think are the biggest challenges that you face in the near future?

That’s a difficult question. Global fashion seems to pop up overnight, and the established fashion houses are trying to figure out what it means. Their normal seasonal cycle and their ability to control flow and demand in the marketplace has started to break down. The same set of mechanics makes things happen in such a way that homegrown or small-scale ideas can be sourced from the ground level very, very quickly. They can be immediately co-opted, implemented and distributed by entities, whether formal or informal, at global levels, with varying degrees of relationship between the original source and the symbolism or style.

Maybe that’s always been the case, but it’s certainly accelerating because communication is easy and cheap and we’re all connected. I’m sure that someone in 1950 would be lamenting the same thing, about “the way it used to be in 1920.” It’s probably just part of the human condition. But the way this issue affects us now is that the volume and the general quality of execution can make the world exhausting to experience. The world has become such a designed experience. I think it is exhausting for the people we’re trying to communicate with; it’s exhausting for us; and it’s exhausting for all of the people who are generating these things. Sometimes you really want to engage with it, and sometimes you want to do nothing.

How will Etsy address that issue in the future?

While that’s not something Etsy is addressing directly, I think it’s important to keep these issues in mind when we’re dealing with a global community that is making, finding, curating and presenting things. This is a networked business, right? It’s not top-down. It’s a bottom-up, organic network growth model. It’s about production by the masses. And that has a degree of intimacy, I think, but what does that intimacy look like? When you try to talk about it and show it through the channels of communication you’re allowed to use, it’s hard to make it look or feel all that different from something else that just says it’s those things but isn’t. And that’s a huge challenge for us. It’s very easy to be co-opted.

I think in some ways we have to believe that the answer lies in leveraging that intimacy among our audience and community. An example: rather than producing a high-fidelity video about the exchange between a buyer and seller on Etsy, which is something that a mass retailer could also produce, we design a scenario in which we encourage or incentivize other people to tell the stories themselves. So rather than create those things, we create the situation in which other people create those things and use the network to tell the stories themselves. The quality or fidelity of the things that get produced may vary a lot more. And we’d have less control over it. But we’d be using our truly unique advantage, which is this critical mass of people who really care.

In closing, just one more question. What brings you the most joy when you think about the possibilities for Etsy in the future?

I think Etsy is a very durable idea, and so I think it’ll be around for a long time. Part of human nature is this desire to make things. You can interpret “make” somewhat loosely, but there’s a spirit of creativity that is a fundamental part of being human. Not everyone is in a position where they feel like they’ve been made aware of it or given permission to act on it, but everyone has the capacity to be creative. From a business standpoint, the most exciting realization is that we enable people to connect their creative impulse with an audience and to economically benefit from their creative abilities.

Access to the tools we’re making and distributing are much more readily available today, and they’ll be increasingly accessible in 2015 and beyond. This will make it easier and easier for someone to make something and get it in front of people. And that is so awesome: product development that truly influences networks of people.