Jan Cavan Boulas

Jan Cavan Boulas — Automattic

Jan is a Designer based in sunny Southern California. She currently designs for Automattic, makers of WordPress.

What led you into design?

Growing up, I always drew a lot and wanted to become a cartoonist. My dad is a great illustrator so I would watch him doodle and he would always draw for me. In the early 2000s, I started a site I named Dawghouse Design Studio. I wanted to name it “Doghouse” as a tribute to our family dog that passed away, but the domain was already taken. Admittedly, I couldn’t come up with a good alternative so I named it “Dawghouse.” I wanted it to be a place where I could share my illustrations online; a place where, as written on my old site’s home page, "I’ll be sharing my drawings in a shared effort to improve my own skills and others’.” But because of my limited knowledge at that time, this idea was never fully materialized.

But that changed in the coming years. My mom stumbled upon this school outside of the university I was studying Computer Engineering that taught animation. The course package included HTML, Animation, PERL Programming, MySQL, etc. I didn’t realize until after I’d attended the class that the “animation” they meant was actually the HTML marquee tag! So in a way, it kind of just fell on my lap, but it also felt like fate. I fell in love with it on day one. It felt so empowering to finally learn how to build my own site from scratch and create my own graphics.

I started designing websites for free (or for really cheap) for people I found on Craigslist in order to build my portfolio. Straight out of college, I found a job as a Junior Designer at a design and development agency. This company had given me my wings; it was now clear to me what I wanted to do. And as they always say, the rest is history.

What does a typical day look like?

My days are always hectic. I have a one-year-old and many nights, my sleep is broken. I get up at around 6:30-7:00 am to walk my dog, make breakfast, feed my daughter and my dog who also gets homemade food, then I catch up on never-ending chores, then I start getting my daughter around for the day. I start work at around 9:00 am, catch up on Slack, P2s, and emails; sometimes I have meetings early in the morning. I spend a huge chunk of my day in Sketch, Flinto, Sublime, and GitHub.

I have a work and personal to-do list which I always update the night before so it helps not having to scramble in the mornings. I normally eat lunch at my desk then I go take my dog out for a quick walk right after. I take a break at around 3-4:00 pm to take my daughter to the park or playground. I take my dog for her afternoon walk at the same time to try to hit two birds with one stone. Some days we would go get ice cream. When we’re back home, we all eat dinner together. We try to meal prep on Sundays so we don’t have to cook or do takeout. By 6:00 pm, we get our daughter ready for bed and she’s asleep by 7:00 pm. I jump back to work for a few more hours. Before I hit the sack, I put together my to-do list for the next day. I’m usually in bed by 10:30 pm, but depending on my workload, I sometimes stay up really late.

What’s your setup?

I have a MacBook Pro and Thunderbolt display. I mainly use pen and paper for sketching. For mobile work testing, I have an iPhone 6 and Samsung Note 4. I love my Autonomous Smart Desk.

My most used desktop apps are Sketch, Flinto, Slack, Evernote, Chrome, Sublime Text 2, Terminal, and Evernote. I’m almost as dependent on Evernote as I am on my glasses.

Where do you go to get inspired?

I don’t have a single place that I get inspiration from. It’s really tough when none of your ideas are working and deadlines are creeping up on you, but I find that stepping away from the computer to go out for a walk or just try to go about my day without looking at screens is really helpful when I’m stuck in a creative rut. I also try to just switch gears by working on something else, hoping that when I revisit whatever it is I’m stuck on again, newer and fresher ideas come to mind.

For online inspiration, my go tos are Product Hunt, Little Big Details, Dribbble, and The Best Designs.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I constantly try to find ways to be more productive. I’ve recently started using Forest. It’s basically a time management app that lets you set a timer to focus on a particular task. For each session, you plant a tree which starts out as a small seedling and eventually grows into a tree once you complete a session. If you get distracted and exit the app, the tree will perish. The goal is to grow a lush forest at the end of the day without too many dead trees! I not only find it useful for work, but for non work-related things like spending time with my daughter. I used to find myself constantly fiddling with my phone or doing something else, but with Forest, I’m able to focus more and be in the moment. I really like the app's simplicity and how it easy it was to get started.

I’m also constantly on the lookout for money management apps, but haven’t quite found one that suits my needs. But I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with Joy app’s onboarding experience.

For non-digital products, I was really impressed with Owlet. It’s a device that tracks your baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels while they're sleeping.

Lots of these baby products are really bulky with horrendous colors and patterns. Not to mention, you’re going to want to pull your hair out when assembling them. It feels like these companies just churn out products knowing that mindless consumers are going to just gobble them all up, while keeping design an afterthought.

But with Owlet, you can tell that a lot of thought and care were really put into their designs - from their packaging to their app, to the actual Smart Sock itself. When my daughter was sleeping, the Base Station would light up green and slowly pulsate; kind of simulating her breathing. It made me feel some sort of calmness and reassurance just by looking at it. Unfortunately, outside of design, it was glitchy so we had to give it up.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I’m always proudest of the work I’ve done for my old site, Dawghouse Design Studio; the tutorials and design resources I’ve handcrafted because these brought me to where I am today. Looking at them now, they feel really dated, albeit it’s great to see how much I think I’ve improved as a designer. But even though they’re old, lots of beginners still stumble upon them and use these tutorials to train themselves. Non-designers are also able to put together a creative piece using the resources I’ve provided without the need to hire a professional. Up to this day, I still get emails from up and comers telling me how I’ve somehow helped them in their careers. It feels really rewarding.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

It’s not uncommon to get siloed even in an office environment. This is especially challenging for us because everyone in the company is remote, spread across different time zones and different products. This makes communication even more vital.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Never stop learning. Ask a lot of questions. Don’t make it personal. When I was starting out, I would get so emotionally attached to my work which led me to being resistant to hearing any type of critique, but constructive feedback will make your work and yourself better. Just be reminded that you aren’t designing for yourself. You’re designing something that other people will be using.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

You can follow my work on JanCavan.com. I can also be found on Dribbble, Twitter, or Instagram.

If you’re interested in building a website for yourself or your business, sign up for WordPress.com!

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