An Interview With BuzzFeed’s VP of Design Cap Watkins

Cap Watkins: 2016

Cap Watkins got his first job in the world of web design because the company hiring needed a designer on the cheap.

“That turned out to be me,” the now-VP of Design at Buzzfeed chuckles.

Fresh out of college, with no idea what to do with his creative writing degree, Cap spent a year soul-searching while serving coffee in Louisiana, before he was approached by friends launching a startup in San Francisco.

He’d learned HTML as a teen, and had a pirated copy of Photoshop back then (“We all did,” he adds). He enjoyed building and designing websites in his spare time, a hobby he continued well into his twenties.

“I would build my own blog, redesigning it over and over again, for like years,” he explains.

His first job as a designer meant moving out to California, and spending a few weeks on a friend’s floor until finding his own place. Cap says it was a formative moment in his life, where he suddenly woke up to all the possibilities of web design.

“That’s when I kinda realized I could do this for a living, this thing I liked.”

That was nine years ago.

Since his humble start, Cap’s moved up in the world of startups and tech, working at companies like Etsy, Zoosk, Formspring, and Amazon. He’s well-known on the conference circuit for his approachable and down-to-earth style, and his blog spits out inspiring and thoughtful words on management, leadership, and working with teams.

We sat down with Cap and asked him about a bunch of topics, like what it’s like to be a leader at BuzzFeed, how he personally overcomes creative blocks, and even where he sees the future of our industry.

*This interview has been edited for clarity.

What’s being VP of Design at Buzzfeed like?

CW: Different every day. I’m responsible for the product design team, which is the website, the apps, and all the internal tools. I’m also responsible for brand design and marketing design, which means that on any given day I’m moving around from user experience flows, to art direction stuff. It’s just all over the place, every day, which is rad. I like that. The variety is really helpful I think.

What do you do on a daily basis to spur creativity?

CW: I don’t know that I’m doing anything to make myself creative. I think my role now is to help others unlock and have the time to be creative, if that makes sense. The writing on my personal blog is as creative as I get at this point, which I’m really happy about, I really enjoy that as an outlet.

Okay, what did you used to do, to get those juices flowing?

CW: People say, “how do you inspire yourself?" and I feel like they’re looking for shortcut ways to doing that. But I’ve found it’s more a muscle you build over time.

People say, 'how do you inspire yourself?' and I feel like they’re looking for shortcut ways to doing that. But I’ve found it’s more a muscle you build over time.

That’s something they taught me in the creative writing department. The advice was, if you’re going to write, make sure you get up every day, and write at the same time every day, and have a ritual about it.

At first, it’s really hard because you don’t know what to say, and you don’t know what to write, and then over time, your brain starts to understand, ‘Oh, this is the time I’m supposed to be creative.’ Your brain will start to gear up ahead of time, so by the time you sit down, you’re ready to go.

It’s not much different in design — the more you can train yourself to slip in and out of that creative mode, the easier it comes. So you’re not looking for ways to get inspired or creative, you’re just able to turn it on. The best designers don’t get blocked that much; it’s just part of what they do.

What design magazines/websites do you keep up with?

CW: I don’t keep up with any design anything, really, at this point, unless I see something on Twitter. I do follow folks who write about management, leadership, and organizational things. There’s a great mailing list that’s called Software Lead Weekly, which includes five to eight links a week about management or leadership. Everything in it is really good; it’s so well curated.

A few individuals I like to read include:

Julie Zhou, who is like my spirit animal.

  • Camille Fournier, who is just killing it. All her stuff is great.
  • Julie Zhou, who is like my spirit animal. We finally met in person recently, and she’s so amazing, so great. Someday, I will work with Julie. I have to.
  • Harvard Business Review, great book series there too.

Why focus on process and management on your blog (rather than design)?

CW: Because that’s the thing I’m struggling with all the time. Actually, if you go far enough back, I do write about design stuff. I started the blog back when I was designing stuff full time, and over time it’s shifted into this.

I just write about what’s bothering me, or what I’m having a problem with generally. If it ever changes, it’s because my focus has changed to something else. But a lot of the time I’m not writing for other people; that’s a side effect. I’m writing for me. To try and understand how to solve my own problems.

Is there a relationship between design and good content right now? Does good content have an impact on design, or vice versa?

CW: The relationship that I believe exists is that if you have good content, and no design or no good design, you can still be super successful, because the content’s great, and that’s all that really matters.

You could have great design and bad content, and you’re not going to be successful at all. You could have the best design in the whole world, but if nobody wants to read it, and nobody wants to engage with it, it doesn’t matter what it looks like or how it works. And if both are great, then obviously, that’s the best place to be.

I think it’s our job as designers, especially in a media company, to create an experience that just gets out of your way.

Buzzfeed is an interesting example of that, I think. We are so heavily driven by the stuff our editors and video producers make, and I think it’s our job as designers, especially in a media company, to create an experience that just gets out of your way.

A lot of people get in their own way with design, they try to do something hyper-visual, or something that’s really complex and flashy to try and make the content look cooler. But that’s not helpful. The content just needs to be visible, legible, and easily scanned.

You talk about re-anchoring on your blog. Can you speak a bit about that process and why it’s valuable to you?

CW: Re-anchoring is a way of looking at the things that you culturally, strongly believe, and questioning them. And saying, “Are these the right things to think, still?” It’s a really important exercise, in terms of not getting stuck in a way of thinking, without really examining why.

When I started two years ago, things were a little messy, so I just by fiat made a bunch of changes; I wrote career tracks, I implemented design critiques, I implemented design processes, I did all these things unilaterally.

And people came to really believe that this is the thing to do. This is the way we do things on this team. And it occurred to me that the only reason we’re doing these things at all on the design side is because I said we were going to do them, which is not a good reason to keep doing this. That’s why I decided to do a re-anchoring exercise with the design team.

At this point, we had really solid design management, and it felt like we were in a strong enough position as a culture to really question those things, and we’ve been doing them long enough to have enough data to talk about them.

We wrote down all the anchors ahead of time that we could think of, and curated the list down to those we thought were most important. We actually had two tracks: one that was manager-y type stuff, where the managers could talk about our anchors, and then another was design team things.

We made a lot of changes based on that exercise.

What tools do your team use to facilitate great design?

CW: Not a lot, actually. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Sketch — everyone is on Sketch.
  • Dropbox
  • Basecamp. We’re super transparent about our design process, and we post all feedback in Basecamp, so that anyone on the tech team can look at it.

What are your tips for leading a large design team?

CW: I think you need to hire really well — like really, really well. If the people on the team are not functioning well together, then you’ve got a problem. What I do, and the value I add, is I talk a lot about empathy. Not towards the user, but towards each other, and towards the rest of the organization. I focus a lot on building trust with people.

I’ve seen teams that are competitive, and that’s never good.

Building teams that are very close-knit and empathic towards each other, and that can really work as a unit, is important. I’ve seen teams that are competitive, and that’s never good. Everyone concentrates on the work, but I think that if you hire well, and create a strong culture — a transparent and empathic culture — I feel like the work will happen.

How do you see the design industry evolving over the next few years?

CW: I’ve been thinking about that a little bit, and it’s hard for me to take it out of the context of BuzzFeed. Two things will probably happen. The interfaces of design will become more invisible. Think about Amazon Echo, or Apple’s Siri: there’s some interface, but there’s not a lot to it.

It will become less visible on a lot of the interfaces we use. We won’t even know; there won’t even be something to look at. I think that’s pretty interesting. But you’ll still need user experience flow, you’ll just need to understand the experience of the person using it, how the system responds, and what it does when it responds. There’s a lot of systems work that will be more important over time.

For the actual product work, and this is my personal bias shining right through, it just seems to be more and more important that people are generalists, and not specialists. I feel like specialists in design are becoming rarer and rarer.

I don’t hire visual designers, I don't hire just UX designers, I don’t hire just front-end developers.

I don’t hire visual designers, I don't hire just UX designers, I don’t hire just front-end developers. We hire people who can do all that stuff. Designers at BuzzFeed do user experience design, visual design, front-end development, they even run their own user research stuff.

The reason I think that’s important isn’t because they can do all those things — I mean, it’s helpful obviously — but the people who can do that stuff are showing curiosity that will insulate them for the future.

If VR became really important tomorrow, I know that every designer at BuzzFeed would be really interested in trying to figure out how to design for that, how to build for that, and how that works. They’d be really excited to dig in.

A visual designer might look at it and be like, “I’m excited to do my part of whatever this is.” But how do you understand a system holistically if that’s your approach?

Especially somewhere like Buzzfeed, where we’re moving so quickly all the time, it’s really important to me that we have people who are curious about everything and who are generalist enough to tackle any problem.

Cap’s advice for young designers

After spending over an hour cooped up in a leafy, bamboo-styled corner of Shopify, you’d think this designer would be out of answers.

Some of his best pearls of wisdom, however, came right at the end, and were reserved for new designers to the industry. His biggest piece of advice?

“You’ve got to put the time in.”

Simple; clear; to-the-point. He minces no words, and adds that he often gets challenged on his feedback by young designers who don’t understand the reasoning behind his decisions.

“Young designers are trying not to make a mistake; that’s their goal. And the truth is that you have to burn your hand on the stove a lot of times before you understand not to touch the stove anymore.”

Young designers are trying not to make a mistake; that’s their goal.

He adds (laughing) that in reality, most people don’t touch a hot stove again after the first time, but the idea is that you have to get burned lots before you truly understand what works. And that means putting in the time.

“For the first four to five years of my career, I would design all weekend, I would come home and design every day. Every day I was working on stuff. I didn't really know why. I wasn’t planning it; it wasn't like I was trying to get better. I just loved doing it so much — and that made me better at it.”

That foundation of nearly-obsessive love for the craft gives designers the experience they need to make solid decisions throughout their careers.

“So, prepare to be wrong a lot, don’t have too much of an ego about it, and everything will be fine.”

Now go turn on that stove. (Not literally, though.)

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