Cameron Adams


Cameron Adams


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  • Hear from Cameron - Product Design at Canva

Hear from Cameron - Product Design at Canva

Tell us how you came to be part of Canva's founding team?

It all started with an email from Lars Rasmussen, one of the creators of Google Maps. We’d worked together on Google Wave, the ill-fated attempt to reinvent email, and in the meantime I had left Google to found my own email startup. He wanted me to give some advice to this young couple running a small school yearbook business. “They’re using Flash”, he told me, “They could use some advice on HTML5 and how to do things in the browser”. So I did what he asked, and wandered over to the office of Fusion Books, and that was the first time I met Mel (Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins).

“You must be here to apply for the Flex developer role!” she said. “I’m not here for a job”, I said, “I’m here to tell you how to do things!” But we got chatting, and that’s when she told me about the idea for Canva. She had a vision for a really egalitarian design platform which would enable anyone to design and put the power of professional tools into a really simple package that worked in your browser. That really intrigued me, because I’d always focused on making tools that help people be creative and unlock their ideas. But I still had my own startup to think of, even if it was actually in the process of winding up at the time.

I couldn’t get Mel’s idea out of my head though, and a few months later I got back in touch. Mel and Cliff had been brilliant and tenacious in running Fusion Books and had a massive vision for the future, but without a technical co-founder finding investment was hard. So I saw exactly where I could fit in. Between the three of us we had everything we needed to start a well-rounded company: technology, design and business. Once I signed on we got funding almost straight away and about 13 months later released the very first version of Canva with a team of eight. I was still writing some code then, as well as doing product design. Since then, Canva has grown 10,000 percent – it’s been an incredible journey.

What does a product designer do at Canva?

Product designers take the intangible and make it something that people can relate to and rally around. It’s a very powerful process, because it’s the first step from idea to execution. By defining an experience and giving it a concrete form with screens, layouts and buttons, the designer creates something tangible that engineers, marketers and the rest of the business can start talking about. One of the principles of the design team at Canva is to “show the future”. As designers we need to transport the rest of the company into a future that we’re yet to build.

Our design team is still small, so our designers have a very broad scope. We start from the very early stages to take an idea, expand on the problem it solves and refine it into a coherent solution. Product designers do ideation and brainstorming around features, sketching, prototyping and more detailed design work to ship to engineers. We try to really understand our users with user research, usability testing and data analysis, as well as wireframing, flowcharting and journey mapping to show the different stages that customers go through as they use the product. Recently we’ve started specialising more on the design team, so we have some people who are more focused on UX and others who are more focused on visual design and interaction design. By the time you’re reading this, we might have user research roles as well.   

Designers and engineers always work on the same team, they have a very symbiotic relationship. Part of design is knowing whether your design can be implemented, so designers talk to engineers about what can be done in the browser or on a mobile device, and get new inspiration when new technologies come out. On mobile the design work is platform oriented, so we have iOS designer and Android designer roles (although we’re currently standardising our mobile language so that we can streamline this process). On the desktop it’s based around functionality, so we have one team working on the canvas area within the editor, a Marketplace team that focuses on the panel where users select elements and templates, and another team focusing on the design publishing process.

Tell us a little about Canva’s product design philosophy?

One of our core principles is “Just simple enough”. We want to make products really simple to use, but not simplistic. Every line counts, we don’t add ornamentation for the sake of it. We also believe in “having great defaults”, which means that you should get a great result out of the product without having to fiddle with too many knobs and dials. The freedom should always be there to go beyond the defaults though, as the customer learns and grows with Canva; it’s those users that have started taking their first steps deeper into the product where we see some of our most exciting and heartwarming results.

It’s also important that people feel a connection with us – the people that make Canva – and get a sense of the personality behind the technology. Often an application can feel like a cold, sterile experience and connecting with our customers in a human way is vital to a great experience.

We also believe that real design gets shipped. It’s not just about making pretty concept videos that get thrown over the wall, but working with all of our team to make sure that our solution solves a real problem and delivers a workable solution. We want to really understand the problem we’re working on, not make assumptions based on our ideas about good design or what has been done before. And then we want to be flexible enough to adapt our solution as we discover new things (which you always do during the development of a product). Designers need to be able to constantly refine their designs to match this incoming stream of data and produce the best experience in the context of delivery.

What's a project you've worked on recently?

Recently we’ve built a library of reusable components, a shared design system for Canva. As with any startup, we started off very quickly, working autonomously and focusing on getting things shipped, which meant some duplication in the design process. Each team might design and code a particular button for themselves, even if it’s essentially the same button that’s used in 15 other places. We’re now focusing on standardising those things, both from an engineering and a design perspective.

We’ve undertaken an audit to look at every part of the product and decide which parts we want to turn into standardised components. When an engineer chooses a button for example, it should always have the same colour and border radius, and react in the same way to a user’s gestures and clicks. The same goes for input fields, dropdowns, cards, toolbars and every other aspect of the experience.

Now we’ve got a well documented design system that sits inside a shared UI Kit in Sketch. That means that rather than constantly focusing on the pixels we can spend more time thinking at a higher level about the experience and the workflow of people using our product. That makes for a better user experience and allows us to scale our design team much more efficiently.

How would you describe the culture of the Product Design team at Canva?

There’s a very strong bond between product designers at Canva. We get together regularly, have weekly meetings, brainstorm and do a lot of ad-hoc collaboration. Every week we get together for a “Design Salon” where we give presentations on topics we’re interested in and teach each other new skills. The connection between designers and engineers is also very important though, so most of our time is spent in cross-functional teams, whether that’s the iOS team or the Marketplace team on the web application for example.

What skills or experience are you looking for when hiring Product Designers at Canva?

We’re looking for people who are creative problem solvers and have a real empathy and rapport with the people who use Canva. You need to be able to think about the end-to-end experience, not just distinct pieces of the product. We’re also looking for great communicators and collaborators, because you’ll be working with a lot of different people, from engineers to product managers, coordinators, the CEO and other designers. In terms of your portfolio, it’s good if you’re tackled a broad range of problems and had a real individual impact on the products you’ve worked on.

Why is now a good time to join Canva?

We’re still very early in our journey. It might seem like we have a lot of users or a large team now, but we’ve only built a tiny fraction of the product and company we’re going to create. If you join now you’ll be taking part in that journey, shaping the future, and really creating your own career as well. There’s a lot of room for people to grow and learn within the company.