March 17, 2011

Keeping Design Just Enough: Mari Sheibley, Foursquare’s First Designer


It was through Mobile UI Patterns, a great design pattern library, that I discovered the creative work of Mari Sheibley, who is currently the lead designer at location-based social networking Foursquare. Here she shares her takes on simplicity, the importance of side projects and the just-do-it attitude when it comes to making things:

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself?
Where are you from?
What do you do for a living?
I’m a graphic designer. I was raised in Indiana, went to an art school in Columbus, Ohio, and have resided in New York for the past 6 years. Over the years, I’ve worked in advertising, retail branding, interactive and most recently as the lead designer for a start-up called Foursquare. I manage the overall brand, work on the UI for our iPhone app and design the Foursquare badges (above).

Character “Little Mars”

What is your statement about being a designer?
Generally, I try to use the least amount of elements possible to convey a message or concept. That doesn’t necessarily mean less is more though. As Milton Glaser says, “Just enough is more.” I try and use this approach whether designing interfaces, logos or icons. There’s a balance to include just enough to make something understandable, and finding that balance is the key.

What is your opinion on going from graphic design
to web and mobile design, and how did you make the transition?
I highly recommend it, although I know it’s not always the easiest transition for some people. I was lucky and had opportunities where I could learn web (at a small studio that was just dipping its toes in web design) and later mobile design (with Foursquare) in a forgiving environment where we were all learning.

Writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called
“Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?”.
Where are the Ladies in Design?
The word ‘design’ covers a huge spectrum of specialization and I think there are a lot of really talented women designers out there. They may skew heavy or light in certain design disciples but I think we’re all over the place.

What tools and materials do you use to work on your ideas
and make them grow?

Generally, I have full wireframes created by a UX designer when working on mobile which often times means I can jump straight to the computer. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t also have to go back to the drawing board. I love grid paper (above). Once I get a general idea ready, I use Photoshop for interfaces and Illustrator for icons or badges.

How does time factor into your designing?
It makes me make decisions faster. Sometimes it’s easy to go back and forth on a decision. Is this the right interaction? Is this the right shade of gray? Is that drop shadow the right opacity? Does this make sense for the user? When I’m strapped for time sometimes, I just go with my gut feeling. The great thing about working on interactive (and more importantly on one product) is that you’re never finished. If you hustle to get a build out and it turns out something isn’t right you can always go back and fix it. There’s something truly amazing (and a little frustrating) when you know your work is never finished.

What is the most rewarding part of being a designer?
Knowing that something I made is making someone’s life easier, more enjoyable or more beautiful. Seeing a random person at a restaurant checking into Foursquare or someone I’ve never met sporting a Mayor Crown shirt or someone tweeting at me that they’re using to help them design their own app is a great feeling.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying
and how did you deal with it?

The hardest part is thinking about things holistically and keeping everything consistent. It’s easy to make one view or screen of the app beautiful, but do those patterns and interactions make sense elsewhere in the app? And not only elsewhere in the app, but does it make sense in the Android app and on the website? Sometimes you just have to think big picture and accept when you have to let go of something because it doesn’t work everywhere.

The New Adventures of Superman

Bear Mountain Bridge, New York

Painting in Progress

How do you stay creative? Do you draw? Or keep a journal?
To help combat working on one thing, I take a lot of photos (above) and give myself little side projects; anything from videos to typography projects. I still draw a little (self-portrait above), although not as much as I’d like and recently started painting again (above). I keep a journal as well; I’ve done so since I was 13 years old. It’s important for reflection and remembering certain parts of my life that would otherwise be lost in the jumble of my brain.

What are some of your sources of inspiration?

It sounds completely cliché but New York City is a huge inspiration to me. There’s always weirdly beautiful things happening everywhere. My friends are also really inspiring and keep me trying to work harder and be better at everything I do. Other than that, I use my Tumblr dashboard for bursts of inspiration. I follow a handful of artists, designers, photographers and writers whose short form posts always inspire me.

What is your advice to people who aspire to be a designer?

Just do it, you only get better with practice.

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Update, April 29, 2013: After four years, Foursquare’s first designer Mari Sheibley left the company “to tackle new problems and help other entrepreneurs bring their vision to life.”

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Read more from Design Feast Series of 101 (so far) Interviews
with people who love making things.

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