Natalia Piana

Natalia Piana — Blinkist

Italian-born, Berlin-based product designer. She is an illustrator in her free time.

What led you into design?

I was particularly dedicated to art subjects at school. I loyally replicated the art masterpieces we were studying in class and my notebooks were covered in patterns and hand-drawn typefaces.

It didn’t cross my mind that “doodling” could be a real profession until I graduated from high school and was faced with choosing an academic path.

I thought about my skills and what I loved to do and discovered Communication Design. It was exactly what I wanted to pursue further.

During my time at university, I swung between print media, spatial design, and information graphics courses pathways. Adobe Illustrator became my true constant.

I morphed into an illustrator with a mission: translating complex information into uncomplicated visuals.

Later, I threw myself into UX design as I realised that illustration wasn’t the only way to visualise and simplify information. I felt there was a lot more that I could squeeze out of my brain, beyond crafting shapes, to communicate clearly with the help of good design.

Just over 3 years ago, I moved to Berlin to attend an intensive course in web design and to boost my user-centered thinking. Shortly after it, I joined Blinkist.

What does a typical day look like?

I try to wake up at 7:00 sharp but I’m a terrible snoozer. I turn the radio on right away to start the noise and set to the German language, it helps with the informal learning.

If the weather allows, I cycle 20 minutes to Blinkist HQ for a 9am start.

I begin my day with a coffee while going through Slack messages, emails, Asana tasks and Instagram posts. At this point, I write down small tasks I need to achieve during the day

Afterward, I fill my daily journal writing a paragraph about my previous day, I do this religiously pinpointing things or activities I carried out. I want to be able to recall what I work on as well as what I experience.

At 10:30, the Design Team has its daily stand-up. We report on what we have been working on the day before and then move on to what we will be doing on that day. We use a physical Kanban board to visualise our tasks and their progression from ‘upcoming’ to ‘done’.

After the stand-up, I focus on what I left off the previous day. I tend to never shut my computer down and Sketch, Illustrator, and Chrome are always open.

Depending on the type of project and what stage I am on, I will either be reading articles, researching, creating wireframes in Sketch, polishing final screens or creating mock-ups in Invision.

Lately, as our team has grown, I also spend time giving feedback on work from other teammates. We have a Slack channel dedicated to sharing design work and there’s usually a banner, an animation, wireframes or documents to review and comment on.

When I feel like I need a small break, I work on some old illustrations or go for a run in a nearby park or along the River Spree.

I leave work around 6 pm. In the evening, I usually do some physical activity, talk to my partner and dedicate time to my household. I would say I’m in bed around midnight.

What’s your setup?

15” Macbook Pro. Lots of pens, papers, and plants. And an external monitor that functions as a post-it board.

Where do you go to get inspired?

For a broader, constant dose of inspirations, I decided on city life. Berlin, as many other cities, has plenty of visual stimuli to offer: from great posters and old-fashion typefaces to questionable sculptures and cheap schnaps packaging labels. I take photos of things that amuse me and of texts I want to remember.

Every time I’m hit with a burst of inspiration, I write it in the notes app.

I also love 19th and 20th-century paintings and I always find valuable input in certain details when I visit modern art galleries. I have many pictures and notes from my visits.

Lastly, when in need of extra inspiration, I ask people around me questions about what they think, what they are reminded of when seeing x, why they prefer y to x etc.

My go-to online places for creative discovery are Dribbble, Pinterest, and Behance. I also check the AppStore almost every day for nice features.

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

I really liked The Inside the Head website. Weeks after visiting it, it’s still on my mind. The overall composition led me to read the whole poem before even thinking about whether I wanted to engage with it. I find it simple, elegant and calm. The typography together with the colours and the stocky characters make this page feel very fine and intriguing. I was pleased to discover such a lovely product by chance.

I’m also impressed with the functionality of modern online banks such as N26. I was recently on vacation abroad and in a moment of stress, I succeeded to rapidly change my bank card settings. All my expenses are accurately tagged and grouped and payments are effortless and fast. Personal finance management is incredibly accessible and easy.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

At Blinkist we know that typography plays an essential role within our visual components. Last year we noted that our typography wasn’t particularly efficient and that our typographic system could have benefitted the structure.

I went on a hunt for every typographic element we displayed in our iOS app realising we made use of over 13 different elements. Too many!

I dedicated time classifying all element, verifying its purpose and re-establishing appearance and responsiveness.
This task led me to understand even further the architecture of the app, and I’m happy I contributed to defining a core component of our product.

I’m also very pleased with the episode covers of our podcast, Simplify. I developed the art direction for the covers and find that the illustration style is clean, confident and minimal with only a bunch of facial traits in highlight.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

A permanent challenge is driving consistency across our visual communication channels. After Blinkist rebranded in 2016, we have been focussing on solidifying our design principles and shaping the brand traits we want to communicate.

As the team keeps growing and we increase the channels through which we communicate, we acknowledge that the art direction needs constant updating and precise specifications to feel cohesive in all places.
We, designers, find ourselves consulting each other to determine which shape or module suits our repository of design elements.

At the same time, we are overviewing the assets that non-designers are producing and that have an impact on the visual perception of our product.

The challenge is to collaborate effectively with all stakeholders involved in the making of visual communication, as well as prioritising the way we portray ourselves over time rather than looking exclusively at individual achievements.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Probably a little redundant but still relevant: don’t try hard to be original. It took me years to first shift to this ‘embrace familiarity’ mental model and secondly to adopt it in the creative process.

Forcing ourselves to be or to create novelty at all costs is very tiring and insincere; it takes away so much energy and personal input from all creative stages, and it compromises each outcome.

I felt very demotivated and overworked when trying to shape unique or different pieces to then realise there’s always a small component that is reminiscent of this and that.

Don’t try hard, original work doesn’t arise with the intention of being original.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

My illustrations on Instagram here. And our podcast Simplify

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