POV: Interview with Wells Riley, Product Designer

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Wells Riley is an interaction designer, living in San Francisco. He started designing for the web about seven years ago and founded his first company, Bionic Hippo, while in high school. Riley and his team at Bionic Hippo worked within the music industry for several years doing websites and simple programs. They then pivoted to create minimum viable products (MVPs) on the web and iOS for startups. Riley is now the product designer at Kicksend, a company making it easy to share files, like photos and videos, with the people they love.

You published a personal statement by building and launching the site “Startups, this is how design works.” What prompted you to create this? What’s the most important piece of advice people should take away from the site’s message?

As a passionate designer and as a founder, I’m very interested in the intersection between design and business. Industrial designers like Dieter Rams and the Eameses proved that design is a crucial component to creating successful products back in the mid 20th century, and designers like Dustin Mierau (cofounder Path), Joe Gebbia (cofounder Airbnb) and Mike Matas (cofounder Push Pop Press and now at Facebook) are doing it again today. It’s an exciting time to be a designer, and I wanted everyone in the startup “industry” (designers and non-designers alike) to understand the value that design brings, whether it be interaction design, industrial design, visual design, or whatever.


The most important thing to take away from the site is to understand that aesthetic design (“make things pretty”) is only one component of design. Most of my work is ugly – my sketches aren’t pretty, my whiteboard drawings can be indecypherable, and there’s hardly a visual component to collecting user research at all. “Making it pretty” is only about one tenth of my design process, and many other designers would say the same. When considering whether or not to found a company with a designer, or found a company AS a designer, it’s very important to understand that they’re not just there for a logo and a pile of business cards. Designers can help define a product and make it a delight for customers to use.

That is a strong statement aimed at startups. What words of wisdom would you like to give those in the marketing and advertising industry?

I’m probably not the best person to answer this question… I’d just say that any advertising/marketing teams lacking a designer (or likely a team of designers) can’t possibly be doing their jobs effectively. Understanding customers and behaviors is crucial, and visual design is just as important to establish trust in a brand.

What are your design principals? What “rules” or values do you keep in mind when designing?

Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design is my bible.


On your blog, you say, “I observe trends and politely refuse them.” What does that mean? Have you ever spotted a trend that you decided to accept or adopt in some way? What made that trend special or noteworthy?

Heh. It means that I don’t like having a personal “style.” One, because styles almost always go out of date. A 1996 Ford Taurus is a great example of that — it just looks so dated today. I don’t think I could ever point to that car and call it a “classic”… ever. Second, I don’t follow trends or have a personal style because I find it restrictive. Every project solves a different problem and almost always requires a unique solution. That’s not to say I don’t follow ANY trends or work within a vacuum. You just have to be mindful of it and mindful of how you’re solving the problem.

What trends in design do you wish would go “out-of-style”?

I’ve never been a fan of horizontal scrolling.

In 2006, you founded Bionic Hippo in Boston. What were some of the challenges you found in owning your own design company?

It was challenging to deal with customers, financials, taxes — basically the business side of the company. As a 16-year-old whose first job was his own company, there was a very steep learning curve.

Towards the later years, I was still facing many of the same challenges, but magnified. Throw in payroll and a full course load at Northeastern University, I was spending more time as an administrator and less time actually designing anything. It took the fun out of it.

Now, you live in San Francisco. In your opinion, how do the East and West coasts differ in the design industry? Which do you prefer and why?

Now, this is only my observation so far, but it seems like there’s a much greater demand for designers here in San Francisco than in Boston. New York is also seeing a surge in design jobs, especially with startups. Agencies and consultancies seem to thrive in all three locales, but those in San Francisco and New York City are much more vocal and well-known.

I prefer San Francisco because I love startups. New York City is a very close second, but San Francisco is where I want to be right now, for a multitude of reasons.

Tell us about your experience working with ad agencies. What are some key things agencies should look for when considering an outside resource in graphic or UX design?

Design thinking. Many designers have stellar portfolios, but not much thought goes into a logo for a fake company or a wine bottle that never hits the shelves. People naturally create easier problems to solve for themselves than a client paying a few hundred thousand dollars can think up. If a designer can defend every decision they make or, at the very least, be able to say that they made every decision on purpose, then you’ve found someone who can adapt and think through complex situations. Any time a designer says “I don’t know” to a question about their work, it means they did something unintentional.

You describe yourself as an entrepreneur. Can you tell us anything about your next venture? How do you think your design expertise affects your efforts as an entrepreneur?

I don’t have any plans for a new venture yet. Being a designer means I can execute my ideas and prototype things quickly and easily. I can vet ideas, test ideas I normally wouldn’t spend money on, and show people something that they can become passionate about. David Kelley (cofounder of IDEO) says it much better than I can. General Assembly in general is all about this mentality — “Stop talking, start making.”

In entrepreneurship and development, the term “minimum viable product” is often used. Any words of advice or warning on this?

It’s important to vet an idea before spending lots of time and money on it. Execution is the most important part of building a product (look at Myspace vs. Facebook or iOS vs. Android) and a MVP is a great way to iterate on a set of implementations to make sure it’s usable and adequately solves the problem. A MVP also helps you acquire talent and woo investors.

I’d like to add that designers are crucial at this stage. Don’t mistake that statement for aesthetics though.

What are some of the challenges you see facing creative professionals in the next three to five years?

I think more designers will want to become founders, and there will be some growing pains along with that. Many designers will not have had experience with running a business, raising money, hiring developers, hiring a biz ops person, etc.

Who are some of your top people and/or companies to follow on Twitter for updates on topics related to design and entrepreneurship? Top blogs to follow?

The Designer Fund, Y Combinator, Hacker News, 500startups, Enrique Allen, Dave McClure, Mike Monteiro and Mule Design, Rogie King, Mike Matas — really any design lead at a startup, etc., in no particular order. There are dozens more than that.

One reason that you love what you do: Photoshop doesn’t judge me when I wear my silly pajamas.

Mentor: John Kane, among others.

Must read book: “The Lean Startup,” “Steve Jobs” biography and Rework.

Music that gets you in your zone: Marc Held’s “Hipster Music, yo” playlist on Spotify, and whatever Pandora channel is playing good music

Connect with Wells Riley by following him on Twitter @wellsriley, check out what he’s working on at Dribbble or on his website.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr user joshuaseye.

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