An Event Apart: The Nimble Process

by February 17, 2014

In his presentation at An Event Apart in Atlanta GA 2014 Jason Santa Maria shared some insights from the evolution of his design process from agency work to start-ups and beyond. Here's my notes from his talk: The Nimble Process- Think Before You Design.

  • We're interested in process because we all want to work better, more effectively. We feel we could deliver more.
  • There is no one single way to do things. It all depends on who you are working with, what the project is, and the context of what your doing.
  • Process can be thought of a series of small, iterative steps that helps you get better over time. Think of it as a pattern of possibilities: a set of options that you can use when appropriate. Its kind of like choose your own adventure.
  • Trial and error is a critical to helping you work better. When you make mistakes you learn how to work differently the next time.
  • The classic process: plan, deign, code, and launch. Within this flat and fixed process, the deliverables were very flat and fixed like Photoshop comps.
  • With a flat process, we could do a lot of iteration in tools like Photoshop. We only had one canvas to design for: a desktop monitor. Today, a flat comp is not enough. You can’t sum up all the interactivity you need in dynamic Web apps. Plus we have mobile devices, tablets, and more to deal with.
  • When working with rapid prototyping and frequent code releases, you need to work differently. People can’t wait for design to be “finished” they need to keep working. this can be a scary transition. People will see and use your designs before they are “ready”.
  • You can't decide in Photoshop. Design is not an end-point, its part of an ongoing evolution. You need to ship, learn, and keep iterating.

Evolving the Process

  • A good design process is about communication. How can you explain to people what is in your head?
  • MVU: minimum viable understanding. What is the least amount of work you can do to get ideas across to the rest of the team? How you can communicate a design quickly and effectively?
  • Your clients and co-workers are not idiots. Bring people into the fold, they are your collaborators. Create a vernacular that helps people understand what you are doing. Tell a story that helps people understand your intent. What is the idea behind the design.
  • Being nimble means evolving your process so it can change as needed.
  • Good design happens with good constraints. Over time, you encounter more constraints as you make more decisions. These are good constraints as they help you focus. Early on you don’t want too many constraints, especially constraints that stem from bias.
  • The more constraints you have early on, the more limited you will be with your design.
  • Details take a lot of time early on and may not be right. So spending too much time on them can waste effort. Focus on the details after you get the big picture right.
  • Don’t really on grids too early. You’ll get limited by trying to fit things into them.
  • Paper is a great place to start. Keep the fidelity low and focus on making something that others will collaborate around.
  • Ideas want to be ugly. When others see that ugliness and want to participate to improve them. Lots of ugly ideas allows you to come up with new, more interesting solutions.
  • Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist, they are about being a good thinker. Don't make your sketches look like a browser Window. It's a sketchpad.
  • Paper is a great place to start: it's so fluid and cheap. Get your ideas out there, make them ugly so you can put out lots of them.
  • Take an inventory of what you are working with, collect them all -especially the content. These are the atomic units that you have to work with. They form the blocks and puzzle pieces you have to work with.
  • Slowly move those units toward a final design. This allows you to work backwards into a grid and end up with a grid that content needs to work.
  • Put content on the screen to see what it wants to be: how much space does it need, how does it relate to other elements on the screen?
  • The problem with wireframes: they deal with hierarchical aspects of content but not the visual aspects. Manage not just the placement but also the size of elements in a design.
  • Look at the type elements in a design first. This allows you to use text as baseline for all the elements on a screen/page.
  • Style tiles only focus on the way you are saying something but not what you are actually saying. Context and meaning are the most important part of the design process.
  • For an internal team, a style tile might help you organize your assets and get ideas out quickly but as an initial deliverable, it can miss the big picture.


  • What is the right tool: Photoshop or the browser? Both have a time and place. Make sure you are using the right tool at the right time.
  • Designing in the browser should really be deciding in the browser.
  • Different tools enable different people to participate in the design process: typecast, Keynote, gridset, and more. What you are comfortable workign with quickly can work for you.
  • Standardizing common elements can help you work in a more nimble manner with others. Design debt comes from using an excessive amount of variations for the same UI elements. Standardize your language so you can work better with others.
  • Its easier to revise than to create. Everything after a first draft can get better. That first version is going to be bad, but you have to get it out of your head and start thinking about the problem.
  • What stops lots of people from working on new ideas and being creative is that first step: putting a rough but first draft together.
  • Embrace the uncertainty of working with a more nimble dynamic process.