Shopify’s Director of Design Talks Tools, Trends, and How to Take Charge

Shopify's Director of Design: Ho

It’s not easy to create an online store that is both beautiful and functional – and there is no one who knows this better than Verne Ho.

Director of Design at Shopify, photographer, Instagram star, wordsmith, and all-around inspirational guy, Verne has made quite the name for himself in the world of design.

Once a freelancing creative and founder of his own design studio, today Verne regularly pumps out thought-provoking pieces for websites like Medium, and speaks at a mix of events and conferences throughout the year.

But it’s Verne’s daily work that drives him to the intersection of ecommerce and design – which is why we asked him to be one of our four judges for this year’s Ecommerce Design Awards. Who better to select visionaries taking ecommerce design to new heights than someone who regularly redefines the way people sell online?

With design inspiration in mind, we sat down with Verne to discuss his methods, muses, and any sage morsels of advice he might have for young designers.

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When did you decide you wanted to be a designer?

I wouldn’t say that there was any single point when I made the decision to be a designer. Rather, I started designing out of the need or desire to create something. Embarrassingly, the 13-year-old me was probably trying to create a profile page on

What do you do to spur on creativity?

A lot of browsing and reading – probably not dissimilar to what most people do. But I also find that the exercise of creation fuels further creativity, so I like getting hands-on with ideas quickly and just start experimenting (on paper, on a computer, etc).

What is your process like to bring ideas into reality at work?

A majority of the teams at Shopify flow through a standardized set of stages to help bring ideas and projects to life (we call those stages Idea, Think, Explore, Build, Launch, and Tweak). Each stage typically includes different types of activities for different disciplines, and a list of questions that the team should be able to answer before forging ahead. Of course, we look at this as just a general framework, so individual teams often create their own derivatives to suit their needs.

One of the most important artifacts of our process is the project brief, which helps teams clearly define the problem, stakeholders, and success metrics of the project. It’s a critical step in ensuring that we’re constantly working on the right things, which is increasingly important as the team grows.

What tools does your team use to facilitate great design and progress?

InVision is a notable tool our design team relies heavily on. We use InVision to facilitate a healthy pace of discussion and review between disciplines, and also to maintain a level of transparency with all the design work being done across the team.

Our toolset also includes apps and services, like:

While these are all common choices for most teams, we remain very intentional about the tools we choose to use since they play a massive role in shaping the way our team organizes, collaborates, and communicates.

What design magazines and blogs do you read to keep you up to date?

These days, I tend to do most of my reading on sites like Medium or on specific personal blogs. I’m really admiring the writing of people like Julie Zhuo and Cap Watkins right now – they’re both incredible at articulating their design and leadership knowledge into super tangible (and sometimes poetic) insights.

What hobbies and activities do you enjoy during your time away from the office?

Photography takes up the majority of my free time out of the office – I’m usually either out shooting or at home editing photos. The rest of my time is typically spent hanging out with friends over good food and drinks, and attempting to squeeze in a workout or two.

What are your tips for leading a large design team?

Firstly, I think it’s incredibly important to be really intentional about how a design team operates, especially as it gets bigger. The more you understand why things are done the way they’re done, the more empowered you are to affect change when you need to. This is why we’re very explicit about the way we run our design practice at Shopify. Whether it’s the tools we use, the approaches we take to solve problems, or the way we connect to each other as designers, we’re very intentional about how and why things are the way they are.

Secondly, focus on building habits, not just process. There’s a very fine line between the two, but understand that the purpose of building process is simply to build healthy habits within your team (rather than to just get something done). When a behaviour becomes a habit, the overhead of process begins to disappear, which is what great process should feel like.

Thirdly, leading a large team successfully relies on empowering individual team members with the ability to make decisions autonomously. The key is to provide your colleagues with all the knowledge, skillsets, and context needed to effectively own their day-to-day decisions. This also ensures that I’m not a bottleneck at any given point.

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What is your favorite project that you’ve worked on as a designer at Shopify? Why?

One of my recent favorite projects was organizing our first ever internal UX Summit. Last year, a handful of us scrappily put together a day-long conference-esque event for the entire UX team at Shopify. Team members submitted talks and took the stage in front of their peers to share stories, insights, and lessons that were geared towards improving UX at Shopify.

Not only was it fun to coordinate the programming for nearly 100 team members, it was also fulfilling to see how much value everyone got out of hearing from and connecting with their fellow team members. This year, the team has nearly doubled in size and our second UX Summit promises to be bigger than ever.

You have a sizeable following on Instagram. How did you build up such an audience?

A little bit of luck and a whole lot of perseverance. I started learning photography last year and have been using Instagram as my primary sandbox. A handful of my audience came from reaching out and engaging directly with people I admire from the photography community. The majority of my followers came from my short stint last summer as a Suggested User on Instagram. I guess one or two of my shots happen to land in front of the right set of eyes.

What do you think is a design trend to watch for 2016?

I think the trend towards small screens (e.g. mobile devices) as primary screens will continue to have a massive impact on the way we think about digital design. There’s a fundamental shift happening in the way we consume and use the web. How we think about design in an inevitable desktop-less world is an intriguing and equally exciting thing to imagine.

If you could go back and tell your younger designer self one thing, what would you say?

Keep working hard, everything will be okay. :)

Who is one designer that you look up to? Why?

One of the designers that I’ve consistently admired over the years is Julie Zhuo. She’s not only an incredible leader in the design community, but she’s also a fantastic writer. I can’t think of an article of hers that I’ve read that hasn’t made me want to become better at articulating the things I’m learning every day.

What advice would you share with a new designer starting out in the industry?

Put the time in and get a lot of work done. See this as a way to weed out all your bad ideas. Eventually, the good ones will emerge.

Ask ‘why’ every step of the way. Be curious and inquisitive about why things work or don’t work. The more you know, the more you can adjust in the right ways.

Define your truths. Get really good at articulating the things that define great design for you. It’s from these truths that your personal style and signature manifests.

Why is design so important at Shopify?

From the products our merchants rely on to the educational resources we offer them, we strive to help people become better entrepreneurs. As part of that mission, the design decisions we make play a critical role in helping our merchants get smarter about running their businesses, feel more confident in approaching the complex challenges they face, and get more things done with less effort.

Want a leg up on the competition?

Be sure to check the Web Design and Development blog next week for Part 2 of our interview with Verne. He will get direct about what he looks for in ecommerce design, and will spill a few beans on what will catch his eye as a judge for the 2016 Ecommerce Design Awards.

Update: After reviewing thousands of jaw-dropping entries, the verdict is in! Check out who won the 2016 Ecommerce Design Awards.

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