Sean Thompson

Sean Thompson — Twitter

Sean is a Boulder, Colorado-based product designer, and has been on Twitter’s design team for seven years. He is currently thinking about ways to give more people the confidence to speak in public on the platform and is always up for a hike or bike ride.

What led you into design?

I grew up in a snowy town near Buffalo, New York. Money was tight throughout my childhood, but I had a caring family and my grandmother asked her sons and daughter-in-law what she could do to have a real impact on my future. A computer was the answer, and she spent what limited funds she had on getting one for me at a very young age. My first computer provided me with a limitless creative outlet and was a needed escape from school bullies and challenges at home.

I got really into online gaming, and eventually discovered the care some gamers put into designing websites for their teams, and the elegance of user interfaces within games I played. This was my first experience with design, and I began to design many websites of my own, including a popular community for discussing philosophy that I eventually was able to sell for enough money to pay for college.

Despite my early interest in design, I did not initially think it was a “real” career, and studied political science in school, believing I was going to apply to law school. Eventually, after college and a few jobs that I struggled with, I convinced myself that design was not just a hobby—design was something I loved and could do for a living if I worked for it. In hindsight, I was listening too much to what others thought I should do, and not enough to myself.

I found my first creative job as a project manager for a small agency that did design work for the toy company, Fisher-Price. There I was able to design when we had an overflow of work, see industrial designers work on hardware which fascinated me, and eventually, our Creative Director saw my potential and told me to focus on design.

That experience led me to freelance with my partner Ryan, who was programming for fun at the time but working in a pizza shop to pay the bills. I found clients for us by reaching out to every agency I could find with my first portfolio in-hand, and eventually met a talented print designer, who studied under Paul Rand, and hired me to translate his print work to the web.

These experiences helped me establish a technical foundation, a proactive approach to pursuing my dreams, and a love of design that I still draw from today.

Eventually, after working as a designer for a few startups and agencies, I found Twitter. The inherent simplicity of Twitter as a communication platform, and the opportunity to learn from talented early designers, like Doug Bowman, drew me in. Six years later, I am still at Twitter because of a combination of supportive colleagues and endless opportunities to challenge myself. I started my career at Twitter, feeling like I did not belong, with extreme imposter syndrome, but through hard work and time, I have found my voice as a designer, leader, and mentor.

What does a typical day look like?

Until recently, I did not prioritize health or have a routine outside of work. I struggled with bouts of anxiety and frequently burned out. That changed when I moved to Boulder, Colorado—endless access to nature is now just a walk away.

Every morning before work, I alternate between cycling or a quick workout, followed by meditation or yoga.

After my morning routine, I start my day by looking through a feed of inspiring visuals and articles that I set up for myself. Some days I just go through the motions, other days I see or read something that sticks with me.

I then plan my day using Apple’s Reminders app. I also usually have a head start because of time zone differences, so my mornings are quiet and perfect for making progress on work I’ve committed to.

After lunch, I often dedicate time to collaborating with coworkers. Twitter is increasingly distributed across the world, so it’s important to find opportunities to work with others daily to feel connected, even if they are not conveniently in the same location.

Towards the afternoon, I used to join my awesome Boulder coworkers for a coffee walk but, with COVID-19, I’m having virtual coffees and taking socially-distant walks.

Depending on the day, work usually ends with a few more meetings or with some final extended periods to focus.

I finish my workday by journaling to reflect on what I have learned, how I felt throughout the day, and what I want to focus on next. I also usually take a walk with my partner Ryan. We rarely discuss work at home to reinforce work-life-balance, so our walks act as a nice segue.

What’s your workstation setup?

Where do you go to get inspired?

My primary source of inspiration is the outdoors. Nature is a place where I can daydream, where I can be calm, and where I can get some distance from what I am working on. I often struggle to come up with elegant solutions to problems I am solving for in front of my desk, but a quick walk or a weekend trip to the mountains usually helps me collect my thoughts and come up with something I am proud of. I have frequently been on bike rides where I have needed to hop off my saddle just so I can write down an idea or two that suddenly came to me—ideas and inspiration do not wait for the office.

I also find working closely with others to be a reliable source of inspiration. My current process aims to be inclusive of others every step of the way, so I’m never without sources of input. Writing design briefs, conducting brainstorms, and using emerging collaborative design tools like Figma, makes finding inspiration in the contributions of others so much more possible.

For general daily inspiration, I usually look to design work from outside of my industry, because elegant, type-focused sites, print, architecture, and industrial design seem somehow more timeless.

The following are my favorites:

Typewolf An extensive collection of regularly updated typographic samples by fellow Colorado designer Jeremiah Shoaf.

Minimalissimo A celebration of minimalism in design, showcasing the finest examples of architecture, interiors, furniture, and homewares.

Visual Journal A curated collection of branding and editorial design from Italian Art Director Alessandro Scarpellini.

Leibal A beautiful collection of minimal physical products.

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

I have always been most inspired by physical products and architecture. Rapha is a product and brand that is currently top of mind when I think of great design.

As a cyclist and lover of minimalism, Rapha’s products are attractive to me because of their use of bold yet intentional color palettes, and because of how they blend beauty with utility. For example, Rapha offers cycling shorts with pockets, which is unusual in cycling and makes taking a quick photo on a trail ride easy, and their jacket branding doubles as a reflector to keep you safe while riding.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

Edge” is the codename of a redesign I led, with guidance from one of my mentors, Mike Kruzeniski. During a time of low morale at Twitter, I was able to help revitalize the product in a way that excited our customer base and our internal teams. We impacted some of our most important product metrics by making Twitter friendlier in appearance and by simplifying our core navigation.

Another fun project I worked on is called “Twitter Camera.” Collaborating closely with design teammates Melissa Hribar, Paul Stamatiou, Mike Kruzeniski, and Andy Yang, I helped establish how a photo and video-first Tweet looks and behaves, emphasizing media versus text. For me, this was an exciting challenge because the work expanded the definition of what a Tweet is as a communication medium. Tweets can be for sharing what you have to say as text or for sharing what you see as photos and videos.

“Possible Futures” is a project I am proud to have worked on. The goal of the work was to identify opportunities for Twitter four years from now, using emerging technological and cultural trends as a source of inspiration, and “Jobs to be done” as a constraint to keep ideas relevant to Twitter. I collaborated with Lisa Dingand Dan Saffer closely, and some of the ideas and methods we developed continue to be a source of inspiration both internally and outside of Twitter.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

There are so many challenges to think about at Twitter. Given the platform’s prominence in the world, issues related to abuse, misinformation, and making the platform easy to use for everyone remain immense challenges for us to take on as an organization.

The good news is that we are increasingly focused on these core challenges as a company, and are making great progress. They also happen to be exciting challenges to take on as designers. Our Design and Research team is fortunate to be working on something as fundamental as improving global communication.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Find inspiring people
Kind, talented, and diverse perspectives have been a consistent source of inspiration and growth for me as a designer. Companies have ups and downs, but friends and colleagues can be a consistent source of growth, joy, and fulfillment.

Observe the world around you
I can often be found daydreaming and forgetting whatever it was I was doing in the physical world because I am continually attracted to beautiful design whenever I come across it. Be an active observer of the world and force yourself to articulate why something is appealing whenever you experience a design that catches your eye. Taste is a muscle that benefits from a consistent workout.

Advocate for yourself
For years I made the mistake of assuming my output would sell my value as a designer. The reality is that we need to be advocates of our abilities and of our need to grow. Share work you produce with colleagues for transparency and seek out opportunities to make an impact that will also help you grow.

Teach to learn
I used to be a college instructor, and one of my favorite things about teaching was how much I learned—my students approached design in so many different ways, so they were often teaching me more than I was teaching them. Seek out opportunities to be a mentor as an act of self-improvement.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I am pretty active on Twitter as @cyanhex, so please say hi!

The Boulder and Denver design community! It is a friendly, growing, and nature-loving community, that I hope continues to develop in prominence. Come check it out by attending Boulder Startup Week this year, where I’ll be helping organize design-related events.

We are also hiring a few Designers and Researchers in our Boulder, Atlanta, Washington DC, and New York offices, so please reach out if you want to learn more.

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