Ben Peck isn't just a designer and developer -- he's the founder of top design conference Front. And his experience in design, coding, leadership, and entrepreneurship has given him plenty of perspective in how to become a valuable employee and create the career you desire.
He sat down with DesignRush to share all the tools designers should use, how creating a conference has impacted his career overall, and how you too can snag the job of your dreams.
What inspired you to go into product design?
I like to think my journey seemed like a natural one when it comes to becoming a product designer. I graduated with a degree in visual arts with an emphasis in graphic design from Brigham Young University in 2005 and landed my first visual design job soon thereafter. However, I was also required to learn how to code what I designed.
That's probably a great skill to have now, when every company needs a Jack of All Trades.
It is! Overall, the first five years of my career was in the design agency world. I worked for a few design studios, including a year of designing and developing marketing-based websites on my own for a variety of small and large companies.
For the last seven years, I’d worked in-house for four different software companies, embedded in the product teams that create the vision for the product. I now currently work as a Product Design Director at Jane.com, where I lead a team of product designers who all also work on autonomous cross-functional teams.
Do you have any go-to design tools?
I moved to Sketch five years ago from Photoshop and haven’t looked back since. The speed and amount of integrations that it provides outweigh's anything else currently on the market. I love how focused it is on interaction designer's needs and how simple they’ve been able to keep it over the years by adding only the most important features.
This tool is a requirement in my design workflow. Not only does it allow me to create interactive prototypes that allow me to reduce the amount of confusion in the designs that I create while communicating with team members, but it also allows for commenting, pulling development specs and gathering shareable visual information to increase better vision for our brand across our organization. At its root, it solves the need to elevate our team communication overall with the designer mindset in mind.
When I need a tool that allows me to create the micro-interactions I need to communicate motion within my designs, I look to Principle. It's very lightweight, inexpensive and quick to turn around a prototype for internal purposes to help stakeholders and developers understand what we believe is the best website design. Motion is often overlooked when in the hustle and bustle of getting projects out the door. With Principle, I can create a prototype in a few hours that better allows me to show what I’m thinking way better than I could do trying to describe it with words.
As design teams get bigger and bigger with companies like IBM (1000+ designers), Facebook (400+ designers) and Airbnb (250+ designers), having a tool like Abstract allows for easy collaboration with our designers. We can learn a lot from the way developers have had to share their code for years working in large teams with tools like Github. With Abstract, we can work on design files at the same time without conflict. It's still in beta, but so far its been very helpful.
Product Design isn’t just putting pixels together, passing it to a developer and then calling it good. Once we’ve come up with what we feel is the best solution to the problem we’ve identified we need to validate that with the people that use our product, both new and returning users. Lookback allows us to take those designs we’ve built, discussed and iterated on in InVision and share them with users to get their feedback to know if we really did come up with a good solution.
Those are amazing overviews! Going off of the productivity they give you, what personal projects are you particularly proud of?
Well, this might be out of the norm for a designer but I’m very proud of the product design and management community that I’ve helped build alongside many others here in Utah through Product Hive, particularly Andrew Branch, Wade Shearer, Patrick Cox, Brandon Gardner, Joseph Draschil, Valerie Connell, Gilbert Lee, Mariah Hay and countless volunteers. I’ve been organizing product design and management events for almost five years and it's been amazing to see that grow from 20 people to over 3,000. I love learning and constantly improving myself and I’m proud of the opportunities I’ve helped create through bi-weekly events through Product Hive.
I also am very proud of the Front conference, which was born out of the efforts we’d done with Product Hive. Front is a product design and management conference co-created by Andrew Branch, Wade Shearer and I held in Salt Lake City Utah. We have two events that we call our Case Study Conference and our Bootcamp multi-track workshop series. Our Case Study Conference is held at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City in May and our Bootcamp is held at the Utah Olympic Sports Park in Park City in January. It's an amazing feeling to bring so many people together to continue pressing forward the important conversations that shape our industry.
Those sound like incredible projects to be involved in. What inspired you to start Front?
The Front conference is a child of a non-profit organization that my cofounders Andrew Branch, Wade Shearer and I had been running for many years. It started out as an IXDA chapter, then we created our own organization called the Product Design Association and started welcoming product managers as well as designers.
We merged with a couple other groups -- Lunch UX run by Patrick Cox and Product Management in Excellence run by Brandon Gardner -- and joined forces as of a year ago. That collaboration is now called Product Hive and holds at least two events a month. One product focused and the other design focused. We also, have a mentorship program, company visits program, and we’re working on a student program. There are 3,000+ members here in Utah now in a very thriving product community.
After years of running the Product Design Association, growing the group from hundreds to over 1,800 in 2015 and having a few years of partnering with the AIGA for Salt Lake Design Week. Andy, Wade and I decided that there was a hungry audience for a more dedicated, larger event -- a conference that lived up to others that we’d attended in various cities. We felt like there should be a conference that focused on practicing UX design and product management, one that was more than just talking about the “craft” of design but processes and methods that designers and product people could use to build better products more cross-functionally. A conference that focused on internal cross-functional design and product teams that addressed the challenges they face. It's a single track conference meant for UX Designers, Product Managers, and User Researchers.
What has it been like watching Front grow?
In true startup fashion, we created a simple website, asked a few of our favorite speakers (locally and from out of state), found a fairly inexpensive venue and invited everyone we knew and started our first conference. With months of late night phone calls, messages, organizing vendors, sponsors, schwag, and signage we somehow convinced 350+ people to attend our first year. It was great!
The Front Conference has grown year over year and we’re excited to welcome speakers from Facebook, Lyft, Pinterest, Vivint, InVision, Abstract, Jane, and more. Selling out every previous year to 650+ professionals we’re expecting no less than 1,000 attendees this coming May for this year's amazing event.
Has creating these conferences cultivated any skills that you've been able to translate into your specific design career?
Building a community is no easy task. It's very grassroots. It takes a lot of patience, resilience, and grit. This wasn’t created overnight. It involved many hands, all working toward the same goal and often not getting paid a dime.
Creating this conference helped me learn how important the people are in what you create. Granted, it's a conference and you can’t have a conference without people. If you take that to the applications that you work on and you think about the people on the other side of it, it changes the way you think about what you’re creating. Working together to build something people love has a lot to do with empathy, understanding, and experience. Technology makes that possible but don't lose sight of the people using it.
We'd love to know a little more about you. What can we find you doing on your day off?
Spending as much time as I can with my dear wife Amber and our four children. My wife and I are fans of the theater, so we find ourselves at a lot of plays. Our children are very involved in extracurricular activities like dance, skateboarding, basketball, piano, and acting so they keep us busy.
Amber is also a fine art photographer finishing up her BFA degree so I support her career goals. Then there is the occasional snowboarding trip to take advantage of Utah’s amazing snow.
Are there any blogs, websites or apps that you check frequently for inspiration?
There are so many it's really hard to choose. Mostly I’m very involved in social media -- Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn, Spectrum, and the Product Hive Slack channel are where I keep up with what’s going on in the industry. Any articles that I should be paying attention to usually make their way into one of those feeds. I lean more toward books and individual people these days to keep me the most informed.
Definitely! Are there any brands or designers that speak to you professionally?
Many of the people I look up to have a strong understanding of business, design, and product. So for obvious reasons, people like my partners Andrew Branch and Wade Shearer have been strong influences for me.
I also respect the work of Nate Walkingshaw, Josh Penrod, Jared Fitch, Paul Mayne, Julie Zhuo, Katie Dill, Daniel Burka, Marc Hemeon, Paul Adams, Mia Blume, Mike Davidson, and many more. Too many to be named.
I actually find it sad that there are so many talented people out there that aren’t in the spotlight. There are too many talented people to play favorites anymore. Individual achievements are difficult for me because so much of what is built today is built by teams as a collaboration of effort.
That's such a great way to view collaboration. You have so much experience across many areas of the design industry. What advice do you have for designers who are new to their career, but hoping to grow quickly?
Always keep learning. Just because you might have gone through college, taken a course online or attended a bootcamp to expand your horizons. Ask people you look up to very specific questions of what you’d like to learn from them and they’ll be more than willing to share. Don’t ask people to be your mentor, just ask for their help on a thing you want to improve and they'll “end up” being your mentor.
Ask every company you interview with how they approach individual career growth within their company so you can know what to expect going in. Also, understand that career growth will look very different depending on the size and maturity of each company.
Alright, last one -- do you have any final thoughts, comments, or words of wisdom you’d like to share with someone in the industry?
Always learn and create. If you want to keep up with the design and tech industries, always find time to learn new skills, both soft and hard skills, then create as much as you can with those skills.
That could be anything that suits your interests. For me, in my leadership roles at this current state of my life, that very much revolves around organizational design, processes and community content. For you, it might be something very different. Find it and just run with it.
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