Q&A with Iris co-founder Shawn Park

Shawn Park is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, designer and co-founder of Iris—a startup focused on connecting like-minded individuals and helping published content find the right audience. He has since left Iris and joined Box, an enterprise-focused cloud service, as a product designer. He continues to teach the incredibly popular Web Design DeCal, which he co-founded in the fall 2013 semester as an undergraduate. Shawn teaches the design aspect of the course and focuses on UI design.

Let’s start with Iris and startups. After leaving Iris, do you think you will ever go back to the world of startups? Do you think Iris has a future?

As of now, I will for sure go back to startups. I’ve joined Box, and it’s nice to stop working on Iris because I want to learn, not to just give up on the startup world. I want to make the most amount of impact, and for me, I think the best way to do it is through startups. You have the most amount of creativity. Working in the industry has so many constraints. You don’t get to work on your personal vision. I think that with Iris, I wanted to connect people with a similar vision and empower people to share their ideas—that was my personal vision. I quit because I knew that Medium would do a better job than us. When I do come back to the startup world, it won’t be to Iris because Medium is already doing a better job. But, if you think about personal vision, the problems you want to solve keep coming back up. Right now, I’m leaning more towards design and how to make design more easily accessible. Anyone who wants to make a website or an online identity can come to us for consulting. But that’s a very nascent thought.

So, back to Iris, how did you balance working on a startup with being an undergrad?

I skipped all my lectures. I don’t think you should put this down in the article, but real talk. You can skip all your lectures and still get good grades. In the end if you look at the time you spend in your day, I’m pretty sure that 99% of people don’t utilize that time optimally. It’s all about minimizing the amount of time you spend doing other stuff. I try to have a to-do list every week—I don’t divide it by time slots but by days and weeks. A lot of the startup people I know are able to balance work and school. Plus I graduated in three years so it’s definitely possible.

Do you think working in the industry is better or worse than working at a startup?

I wouldn’t say it’s either better or worse, but it’s definitely worth it. I’m so glad I joined Box because I thought I was pretty good at UI design—but Berkeley is just a very small world. I went into the industry, we have a very small design team, and I met my mentor. He has a CS degree and he’s just like me: technical and design, but better in every way. Then there’s the VP of design, who’s just like my mentor but better in every way. There are so many people who are so good, and it’s totally worth it to go into the industry and just learn.

So you would consider that your graduate education?

Yeah, especially because there’s no design curriculum at Berkeley. I’ve only been at Box for two weeks but I’ve learned so much.

How did you get interested in design in the first place?

It’s a really hard question because I’m not sure how exactly I started. But I know for sure that I would have a notebook and sketch out, say, Windows 2001: a hypothetical operating system. I’ve been doing that for ten years. My mom would always tell me, “Shawn, you shouldn’t just be a consumer of products; you shouldn’t just use other people’s stuff—you should make your own stuff, and make it better.” That definitely influenced me in a lot of ways. When I see things, I don’t just try to consume it: I analyze how I can make it better and what would be the most optimal way to use it.

At Berkeley, how were you able to pursue your interest in design?

I pretty much had to learn everything about design on my own. What’s great about Berkeley is that it doesn’t give me a direct design education, but it provides me with resources: like the people that I meet with. In Berkeley, I was able to meet my great co-founders, who worked on Iris with me. Through working on Iris, I pretty much learned everything that I needed to know in design. I can show you Iris version one, from 2012, versus the final version—it’s completely different. I’ve learned everything in design: web design, technical skills and UI design through working on Iris as a side project. And I’m pretty sure that’s how a lot of students at Berkeley learn technical and design skills as well.

On to your future, where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

In 5-10 years, I’ll probably be back at a startup. I might work at a startup right after Box, or I might work at a design agency. What I want to do at my next startup is make beautiful interfaces and design available to everyone, and that goes in line right now with the type of design agencies that already exist. They mostly work with established companies, and the process is very complicated. You have to submit code, and it’s very roundabout; not very direct. I feel like I would learn a lot by working at a design agency, seeing how they work, before making my own startup. I also want to live in Europe—maybe Italy. I think one of the reasons why I quit Iris is because I love design more than startups and all the entrepreneurship that comes with them. I realized when I was traveling in Italy, looking at all the beautiful architecture and art, that I should spend at least 2-3 years just doing design. I want to live in Italy just to be immersed in that environment.

How did you start the Web Design DeCal? Why did you start it?

I started the Web Design DeCal because of a lack of UI design education at Berkeley. I found it difficult to learn these web design skills by myself. When we started the DeCal in fall 2013, I had learned a lot just by working on Iris and I wanted to share what I had learned with other people. It was at a time when I stopped working on Iris, the end of fall 2013, and I needed a side project to work on—I felt so empty without a side project. So I thought, you know, I should teach a DeCal. And it turned out, I think, more successful than Iris.

Why do you think it’s so popular?

Three reasons. Number one is that it caters to everyone, in that there is no prerequisite. You don’t have to be a CS major. In fact, we penalize CS majors in applications because we have so many applicants and we think that CS majors can learn these skills on their own pretty quickly whereas non-CS people would have difficulty learning it on their own. I know that there are some people who think that the DeCal is too slow, but we intentionally go slowly so that we can cater to the entire campus community. Number two is that there is no UI design class at UC Berkeley. CS160 [User Interface Design] is catered more towards technical people, and there isn’t a UI design or even an entry level programming or practical programming skills class for non-programmers. Number three is that we have an awesome staff of seven people, and we have a very intimate family-like environment. Because we have such an awesome staff who are so good at everything, when students see us, we look happy and it looks like we’re enjoying the class, and I think that kind of spreads to CS too. People come to the DeCal with an idea that they’re not really able to communicate, but by the end of the class, they’re able to communicate their idea with a view of design. In the same way, the DeCal has also really taught me how to communicate with other people about why their design is good—it’s helped me to reason why their design worked because I had to teach it to the class.

Has making it accessible been the main objective of the class since the beginning?

Yeah. I took a previous iteration of the Web Design DeCal in 2012, but it was way too fast. That class tried to bring together front-end and back-end—bring together everything about web technologies in one semester. People lagged behind, and it was really difficult to follow. When I went to start this class, I wanted to recreate the curriculum but make it for everyone because that had never been done before.

What is the main thing that you hope to teach your students about web design?

Design is all about organizing information optimally. Art is about making something look good, but design is about organizing information in an optimal way from most to least important element by making it look good. Basically, it uses the aesthetic element to provide a functional element to users. For anyone who wants to become a UI designer, your job title is user interface designer for a reason: you need to care about the user. As in, you shouldn’t approach design just to make something look good. No, you’re making the interface to solve the user’s problem and then provide features on top of that.

What are some examples of good design that you use on a daily basis?

Medium is number one. As much as I hate them, they’re so good. They’re simple but not barren, and they emphasize the important elements. Also, they’re creative. There are a lot of websites that use the same design over and over again—like the cards UI or the writing interface. At Medium the writing interface is different, I’ve never seen it done the same way anywhere else. Number two is the new Box. I can’t say too much about it, but it is amazing. That was one of the main reasons I joined actually.

Why did you join Box?

All my friends asked me that: “Why did you join Box? Isn’t it like Dropbox but worse?” I joined Box because there are a lot of good design companies, but if I joined a company that was already good, while I’m sure that I would be able to learn a lot, I wouldn’t be able to make as big of an impact. I wouldn’t be able to be the person transforming the design. Box was starting to become a more design-focused company like Dropbox or Airbnb, and I thought it would be good for me to have experienced that transition phase when I move on from Box.

Google just introduced Material Design, an innovative design philosophy based on the “meaningfulness” of every element. It’s won several design awards and made quite a splash in the design world, what are your thoughts on it?

I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a little too theoretical. According to Material Design: you have to have some colors, some animations and whatnot, but if you bother yourself too much with this theory, you don’t get to be creative with your design. There’s no such thing as one really awesome design. Material takes everybody’s design on a similar trajectory, and I think that stifles user’s creativity. It’s good for new designers because it helps them understand what good design is, but when you get enough experience, you shouldn’t be too dependent on that guideline. You should make your own guideline. That’s why in the DeCal we prevent people from using Twitter Bootstrap. It’s a kind of framework for website design, but if you depend too much on these frameworks, then your creativity won’t really shine.

Where do you think design trends will go next?

For sure, it’s going to be a lot more functional. On Dribble, I’m seeing a lot of trends back to the old days. It’s not quite skeuomorphic; there are no shadows or textures, but there has been a lot of focus on illustrations. Cutesy, stroke-based illustrations to decorate the interface. There have been a lot of photo and text UIs, but lately we’ve been seeing a lot of cute illustrations pop up. I’d like to be involved with this, and I’ve been experimenting with this a lot lately. I don’t really know too much about illustration, but I’m working on learning it.

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