Matt Safian

Matt Safian — Flipboard

Brooklyn-bred, San Francisco-based product designer and photographer working to improve the way we consume digital media.

What led you into design?

I think my active interest in design started back in high school. I was in the cast of the school’s musical at the time, and we needed a poster for the show. I volunteered to make one. That poster was my introduction to the world of visual design. I ended up making posters for many of school’s productions going forward.

Soon after, I began to develop an interest in building websites. I've always been fascinated by technology, and learning to make a website was the first time I felt that I could have some active control over the technology that I had historically used passively.

In college, I discovered psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Up until that point, I had thought about design as mostly visual or technical. Studying the social sciences showed me that understanding people—individuals, groups, and cultures—is one of the keys to great design.

What does a typical day look like?

The Flipboard office is in Palo Alto, so I catch the train from San Francisco at about 8 am. I use the commute to listen to music or podcasts, to read, or to get a head start on work for the day.

At the office, I’ll fix myself some oatmeal for breakfast and grab a cup of coffee. Back at my desk I’ll go through emails and Slack messages, then check my calendar to plan out the day.

The design team has two main meetings per week. On Monday mornings we have a quick“radar” meeting where we update each other on what we’ll be working on that week. Our design team is still small (three product designers and two brand designers) so it’s easy for everyone to go around and give a quick update. On Thursday mornings we have a critique. We’ll use that time to focus on one or two active projects or have a larger discussion about future product initiatives.

The rest of the day is spent either in various project status and planning meetings or on focused work time.

What’s your setup?

Where do you go to get inspired?

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a fascination with photography. I love to wander the streets of San Francisco or wherever I may be, camera in hand, and quietly observe. This quiet observation allows me to notice things, people, and moments that I tend to miss when I’m in a hurry. This physical wandering also provides an opportunity for the mind to wander too. As designer Frank Chimero says in his book, The Shape of Design,“If the mind needs to wander, best let the body do the same.” It’s so refreshing to step away from the screen and immerse yourself in the world in which we design for.

I also particularly love bookshops and magazine stands. Walking through the stacks, flipping through pages, I'm reminded that there is so much that I don't know. That thought is incredibly frightening, energizing, and humbling. As the scholar Peggy McIntosh said,“Allow your brain to hurt.” Staying curious, and having an intellectual vitality is so important given our constantly changing world.

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

I recently had the opportunity to visit London for the first time. As a native New Yorker, I was eager to ride the Underground and compare it to the Subway.

One thing that stood out to me, in particular, was the Underground signage used to aid in“platform confirmation.” On the wall of each tunnel is a"track plate" that lists the stops the train makes, with the current stop highlighted at the top. To know if you are at the correct platform and headed in the right direction, you simply need to locate your stop on the list. The London Underground Signs Manual describes the role of these signs as“a means of confirming arrival at the correct platform and orientating the customer, by the station position on the line.”

By comparison, the Subway displays only the final stop or general direction of the train, and provides no explicit form of platform or stop confirmation. To make such a confirmation you must find a map on the platform, locate your line, and scan to see if the train will stop at your station. This is a rather long process given the chaotic environment of metro systems, where quick decision-making is often required. This potentially anxious process is mitigated greatly by the Underground’s track plates, which help you quickly answer the question,“does this train take me to where I need to go?”

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

A little over a year ago we released an all-new version of Flipboard. Whereas the previous version was an undirected experience, the latest version focuses experience, giving people dedicated spaces to browse stories on the things that interest them most. It was an amazing opportunity to be a part of the team that got to rethink the app from the ground up, to build a new foundation. I’m incredibly excited for the new things we’re working on now that are building on that foundation.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

In the current media landscape, people are constantly inundated with infinite streams of information, stories, and posts, and it can be hard to separate the signal from the noise. Today's digital environments are drastically changing the way we consume information. And sometimes it can feel like we have no control over this change. But I feel that as designers we have a social responsibility to actively shape and reform these new forms of consumption—to help people feel that they are in control, and to restore a sense of calm among what is currently a chaotic stage.

I believe that Flipboard is poised to help reform the way people consume content, and it is invigorating to be part of a team working towards that change.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Remember that there is no“right way” to become a designer. As I mentioned earlier, I studied a mix of things in college; one of my co-workers studied graphic design, while another focused on photography. And now we all work together on the same team. Whatever has brought you to this point is the path that’s right for you. Keeping doing what you're doing, and follow your inspiration.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I recently discovered the podcast, The Daily, from The New York Times. It’s only 20-minutes long, and one of my favorite ways to stay plugged in to what’s happening in the news.

"Update: Matt recently joined the design team at Dropbox—this article was conducted in March of 2018 while Matt was still at Flipboard."

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