What does a design prototyper do?
Mick Storm discusses protyping, his enjoyment of the learning process, and the connection between his profession and his personal work as an artist
Illustration by Gracia Lam
What do you do at Adobe?
I’m a design prototyper on the Design Engineering team. Prototyping projects range from small user interactions all the way to moonshot product ideas, but it typically involves building working versions of designs to learn from and iterate on before investing in building and shipping them.
One of the things I like about prototyping is that it allows you to focus on the experience you’re building without the constraints that accompany building something in a production environment. This frees you from worrying about factors like scalability, security, and other production engineering tasks, and allows you to quickly find answers to questions about the experience.
What’s your team working on?
The prototypers on our team have a wide range of individual skillsets and interests, and although two or more prototypers will occasionally work on the same project, it’s more common for us to work on prototypes individually. I typically work on web-based prototypes for Adobe’s creative software, but there are other prototypers who have specific domain knowledge in mobile development, 3D, and video editing. As a result, at any given time, our team is working on a wide range of projects.
What essential tool, product, or platform, helps you to do your best work?
My opinions on the tools I use as an artist are different than on the tools I use to prototype.
I’ve been building things for the web for long enough to realize just how ephemeral developer tool sets can be, so I try not to get too attached to tools or frameworks and instead find it more useful to understand the principles behind them. There are exceptions, but typically prototypes don’t have to be built in a particular way, so there’s quite a bit of leeway in the tools and frameworks you can use. Since I’ve found it helpful to stay close to what the final product will require, not being too attached gives me the flexibility to move between different tools, frameworks, and languages as often as necessary.
That said, one set of tools I find fascinating is game engines. They’re incredibly flexible and can be used for lots of things that are not games. I’ve had the opportunity to prototype with them, and they create a lot of possibilities that more common development environments do not.
As an artist, I often need to become an expert with specific tools or software in order to accomplish my goals. As a result, I have a much closer connection to the tools I use. And, since the cost of switching to another tool isn’t just the price of buying it, but also the cost of learning it, I tend to cling to tools that I've spent a lot of time learning. As an artist it's easy to feel like not having or knowing how to use a specific tool is holding you back from doing your best work. I’m sure every artist has said to themselves, “If only I had that drawing tablet, or those expensive brushes, or a better computer, my art would improve.” In my experience, buying more tools or more expensive versions of tools doesn’t automatically lead to any real improvement in the art. Tools are only as good as the person using them. I’m a sucker for new and interesting tools, though, so I’m guilty of this type of thinking too... and they can sometimes drive the creative process by opening my eyes to new possibilities.
What skill do you consider a superpower?
Being comfortable with being bad at things has become valuable in both my professional and personal work. Let’s face it, with anything that’s hard to do, you’re not going to be good at it right away. And if you can't get comfortable with being bad at something, you're never going to get good at it. So, being okay with being bad and enjoying that part of the learning process is invaluable for learning and developing new skills. Part of the irony is that as your skills increase you become more aware of your limitations, and even though others may see you as an expert, you might not view yourself as one, so it becomes even more important to enjoy the process of learning.
I’ll admit that social media makes "being bad at things” a bit tricky: When you want to learn a new skill and you go online, there are thousands of people who are not only already doing it, but who are doing it at the highest skill levels. So when you try it for the first time, it’s glaringly obvious how bad you are in comparison. What’s important to remember is that the people who are good didn't wake up one morning as experts; they spent years being bad.
What’s on your heads-down time-to-focus playlist?
I love music and up until now, I would have said that I have music on when I work just because I see myself as someone who listens to music while working, but the reality is that I usually don’t. When I’m in an office (where my go-to is usually a movie soundtrack) I listen to it as a strategy to tune out noise, but I don’t when I’m working at home. If I'm doing something challenging, even if it’s my own artwork, that I need to put all my attention toward, music can be too distracting. If I'm doing something I’ve done a thousand times before, I'll put something on. In those situations, the albums that have been getting a lot of play lately are “Electric Lady” by Janelle Monáe, “Physical Graffiti” by Led Zeppelin, “Balls” by Sparks, and just about anything by King Crimson or the Grateful Dead.
What's the best professional advice you've ever received?
Many years ago, at the first big company I worked for that had elaborate performance reviews and peer feedback, I had a manager who told me to look at feedback as a gift. I know that’s sort of cliché, and people say things like that all the time, but her perspective was a bit different: What she was trying to impart was to literally think about it as if someone had given you a gift. It may be something useful to you or not, something you value highly or something you don’t, but no matter how you feel about it, it’s always your choice to view and use it as you choose.
In a professional environment where everyone is expected to give feedback, you get a lot of it. If everyone chased around all the things that other people thought they should be improving on, none of us would get anywhere. Her advice supplies the mechanism for calling out what you're going to consider. Toss it, or use it, but don’t get hung up on negative feedback that isn’t useful to you. Instead, just try to appreciate that someone took the time to give it to you.
What excites you most about the work you're doing?
I've worked at a lot of different companies but at most places I was working on software that I wouldn't typically use myself. That’s not to say that the work wasn’t interesting or that there weren’t interesting problems to solve, I just didn’t have a connection with it beyond my professional life.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Adobe is because I’ve been using Adobe software since I was a kid, and its customers are a lot like me: artists and creators. It’s exciting and deeply gratifying to have a direct connection between my professional work and my personal passions, and to not only work on projects that improve my personal workflows as an artist, but to have an impact on software used by the entire creative community.
What’s a dream project you're currently involved with or want to take on?
Most of my current prototyping work is focused on the web and in the past I’ve worked in iOS and mobile, but a lot of my personal work revolves around 3D modeling software. I look forward to using my 3D knowledge for more prototyping projects; my last prototype project included only a small amount of 3D work, but it was enough for me to know that I’d love to do more.