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Interview with Nicolas Solerieu, designer at Github and early designer at Opendoor

10min read

Nicolas Solerieu is currently a designer at GitHub, making things for screens, growing his beard, a few tubers (unsuccessfully), and a little human, in Berkeley, CA.

This interview is part of a series by Compound. Compound provides everything you need to manage your personal finances (advice, tracking, investments, taxes, borrowing, estate, and more).

You maintain a really inspiring Dribbble account. What do you post on Dribbble and why do you do it? 

I use dribbble as my visual archive. My design process is 80% recycling-based. Whether it’s a layout, a detail, a typeset, I’ll probably reuse something or someone else has already done a similar version. There is something honest about Dribbble. It (still) feels like a space where everyone is doing his/her own thing. It contrasts with the super polished stuff in places like behance or other design showcases. That mimics a bit of the vibe I was getting back when I was working in an office. I love to creep and stalk designers, to see what they are up to, scrolling a feed makes sense here, to see evolution. I also like the idea of contributing to the pile without it being too much of an ego-driven process. Of course there is some ego, hopefully just enough to feed the creative process.

Like most designers these days, I spend most of my time in reviews, using templates and components. Design work in the tech environment is not what I’d call truly creative (at least from my experience). Most of my work never makes it to production, that’s normal. Instead of letting this reality crush my enthusiasm to explore stuff (even in the case of internal projects) I use dribbble as both a catalyst and excuse to try a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t if I didn’t have an outlet for it.

How did you hear about Opendoor? How did you find yourself working there? How did they find you? 

Very directly related to the previous question. I basically owe where I am today to dribbble. Here is the story: It started back in early 2016 when I finally got an invite to join dribbble. I started to post stuff and fantasized about a job abroad. Around that time I reached my 2 years at my agency job in France and started to feel the itch to move on, an itch that could have easily been killed by the fact that a stable job is a very desirable thing. I was enjoying a good life for my age and location (le Puy-en-Velay, France) but without much real hope or a plan I activated the “open to opportunities” status on my dribbble profile. Then mid-May I received an email from the head of design at Opendoor, Jessica Ko.

I got to chat with her a couple days later via skype. My english was functional but far from great, my vocabulary was basic, I was running 90% on enthusiasm which felt like bluff. I then talked (no real formal interviews back in those days) to 3 people in the following week, did a quick design exercise and even a technical interview in which I pretended to know the basics on Angular js. I read through the website a couple times and figured I could give it a shot, it felt like the right time to take that kind of bet.

I landed in San Francisco in September 2016 to join Opendoor where I stayed for 6 years. I didn’t know anything about tech or real estate, nor had the ambition to work in tech. 

What was Opendoor like when you first joined? What was your first project at Opendoor? How was it different from previous places you had worked? 

Before Opendoor I was working at an agency in center France called Iris interactive. I was doing all the regular agency stuff focusing on the needs of a specific client based in Paris. We specialized in Wordpress development. That taught me the basics of frontend dev and forced me to consider technical constraints in the design process. Agency meant agency pace and resources, high output, no money for extra and you are the only resource. I had to beg to buy a stock image. I made most of my icons and used free stuff I found online.

Landing at Opendoor was a cultural shock. The resources felt infinite. A whole company of 80 people working on one thing seemed bogus at the time. The culture of specialization was foreign to me. At the time I joined, the company was riding its early stage energy with all the known startup archetypes: scrappy, bleeding money everywhere, super fun, moving fast… everything was new to me and I enjoyed the transition into abundance (that’s literally what it felt like).

I was technically hired to take part in the redesign of the website. Opendoor was in the midst of a rebranding. The company had grown fast and was just beginning to invest in marketing. Most people were new, it was messy, human and overly enthusiastic about everything. I started the redesign the brute force way, page after page. A few weeks in, I actually learned the basics of angular and was able to code a lot of stuff myself, which allowed us to ship in early 2017. Design systems were just becoming a thing, everything was happening in sketch, no figma. Design was leading the website work, not much project management was involved, everything was happening live.

Talk to us about a project from Opendoor you have been the most proud of? Walk us through the end to end experience of taking an idea and turning it into something special. 

Opendoor was very much a classic startup in many ways. Lots of typical projects on the marketing side. Landing page after landing page. I used to joke that after 2 years, considering the turnover, we were redoing a lot of the same, just slightly differently, a sort of design groundhog-day. A good example of this is the Home Value product that we redesigned many times, with the same goal (more conversion) and similar resources (no marketing budget or engineering support). I love to redesign stuff. I could, and did do it for 6 years but a lot of it didn’t add much real value aside from changing the layout and playing around with illustrations. My proudest work often happened when I took the initiative to try something in the context of a “normal” project. 

Every year I was tasked to redesign the homepage. Some of my most ambitious stylistic and structural designs have emerged from this exercise. The project lifecycle of those large redesigns has often been jarring. Lots of meetings in the beginning to scramble for insights and data, a lot of ambition. The scope often ends up being unsatisfyingly reduced to fit the engineering resources (we had some severe front dev constraints as our homepage stayed in our main stack). Then copywriting, and wireframing that is supposed to last only a few days, because at that stage everyone thinks everything is clear, ends up taking weeks. As the copy gets in a good enough state I generally started to push the design to high fidelity to experiment and feed the delusion that I can just show up at the next review and get an approval. I was lucky to work with a great copywriter that indulged a lot of my ideas (and vice versa).

My proudest work at Opendoor curiously happened at the very end of my tenure. I designed and built design.opendoor.com the team’s hub, presenting and promoting design at Opendoor. The idea of building such a thing popped up a few times over the years but our head of design, Paul Smith, who saw enough value for hiring purposes, pushed to make it happen. Because the project had no marketing goals and was aiming at the design community I felt motivated to build something special. We kept the working group small, 3 people. We had regular check-ins without much time pressure and focused on designing something that was feasible based on the technical constraint. I was able to do my thing and try odd designs. I coded it in a separate wordpress install, bringing me back to my agency roots. It got me to finally learn how to make my first API call for the dribbble feed at the bottom of the page. Usually I don’t get to work in much motion but in this case I got the chance to have the right setup to heavily use some scroll reveal and even a custom hero transition (It took me a long time to dial the responsiveness of this thing). I’m not a great frontend dev, the code really shows the iteration and my javascript is probably insulting to any professional but without technical resources I’m still to this day proud of having shipped this.

You were at Opendoor for 6 years—how did your role change as the company scaled (and eventually went public)? 

I didn’t expect to stay this long, honestly I thought of bouncing at least every 2 years. In France jumping around is not normal and I certainly have been in a bit of a stoic mindset when things didn’t go the way I would have liked. The biggest shift in my role occurred early on, as I was not really expected to code but showed interest and some skill. I was given the title of designer/frontend dev - a lot of people used to call me a wizard just because I could speak both languages and thus get things done alone. Marketing people loved this. I want to make something clear tho: I am a really crappy frontend dev. After this I basically spent half of my time designing (mostly for the marketing website, sometimes supporting other things like product or brand) and the other half, building and maintaining the website. I supported the migration from our stack to wordpress in 2018 which was the apogee of my design + dev role. As the company kept growing, we outsourced a lot of the performance marketing build to an agency and I was left to do mostly maintenance. Over time the structure of the design team bounced between service teams (like a mini internal agency) to be embedded a few times. By the time the company went public I was part of the brand team which is where web design felt like it belonged.

You have now been at Github for a year. What is the culture like? What are some of the projects you have been working on while there? 

GitHub is a different beast. The company is truly remote native and has the best async communication habits and practices I’ve ever experienced. The concentration of talent and resources is quite amazing to experience from the inside. I’ve been working on the site design team, focusing on the logged out marketing pages. I’ve admired the flagship pages for a long time so getting to work on this really felt like a milestone in my career. Of course GitHub is a big company with the classic big-corp issues: things are slow, lots of stakeholders, async communication isn’t always satisfying… But for me the slower pace works and allows me to find the space to do the exploratory work I love. The more tedious reporting and meeting schedule forces a bit of structure that I believe will make me more mature in my process. Even though the organization is larger, collaboration still happens fairly spontaneously via slack/zoom. The diversity of perspective offsets the pain of asynchronicity.

You have helped a number of startups set up their early brands. What is your process like for building a startup’s brand? 

I’m lucky to be able to pick who I work with, often friends or friends of friends. That makes the introductions more human and avoids the transactional RFP process. If I’m interested I almost always have a few ideas, which I try to materialize as fast as possible to get something to look at and have a conversation around. 

I don’t do much benchmarking or moodboarding and prefer to lean on what inspires the clients then distill what I think appeals to them. I don’t have a strong personal style that I try to apply to all my work.

Once I have a good sense of what is worth exploring, I generally pick 2-3 conceptual approaches and proceed to a classic funnel-down exercise. In a couple rounds we are often able to identify the core attributes like color, font, logo, symbol, tone… I make sure to stress test the branding in-situ as much as possible along the way. Keeping things simple and ready to endure early startup stress tests is important so I generally prefer to define only the core element of the visual identity and help the founders understand the journey ahead.

What do you think most startups get wrong about branding? 

(Early) startups are more human than people think. By that I mean that all the biases we know of individuals apply, the biggest one in this case is overdoing or undergoing. Some founders care too much about having a strong brand from the beginning, others really don’t care and want only the bare minimum. Both have clear and easy to explain pros/cons.

If you don’t have a basic visual identity (it always feels like an overstatement to use the term brand at this point), you may end up having to put in a lot of work at some point. The later, the harder it will be. I hear this from founders that want to put all of their effort into the product, which makes sense. It’s often as a company starts to invest in marketing that branding gets in the game. For most product driven startups, that shock results in a lot of internal confusion as brand designers and marketer enter a software driven ecosystem.

On the other hand if you have something too fleshed out and opinionated you may face a sort of identity crisis and end up trying to reinvent yourself, leading to many rebrands, burning out designers and agencies and almost always facing some inconsistencies in your UI/UX.

Finding a good balance and acknowledging the compromises made along the way while keeping in mind both ends of the spectrum is a complicated exercise. The ones willing to go with it seem to have a more pleasant journey. We all start somewhere, we all know it’s not ideal.  F. Scott Fitzgerald put things in perspective here (and for a lot of things in life): “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

You live at the intersection of front end development and design. What advice would you give to a designer learning to code or an engineering learning to design?  

I think that a designer learning to code or an engineer learning to design is already proof that things are going in the right direction. A mutual respect grounded in a basic understanding of each side is important and eases the communication, leading to a more pleasant process. I’ve also seen people refusing to learn about the other side and be amazing contributors by forcing a degree of communication that pushed each side to really make a case for itself.

There is so much chatter and content around the idea of “trusting the process”. That generally revolves around the idea that knowing the part of the process you don’t know will help improve the outcome. I personally don’t think it really matters what metaphor or domain you choose to get that realization from. 

What do you think about balancing speed with quality? 

I love to crank stuff, the messiness and intensity of the design process gives me a buzz. I’m generally okay with slightly imperfect things as long as the general idea or render is there. I’m okay with sloppy, don’t zoom in too close on my stuff, my bezier curves are often gross.

More seriously I’m getting comfortable giving the spiel everytime a project starts and asking what we are optimizing for. Keeping all stakeholders honest is often tough but everyone knows the reality of the cheap/fast/good framework: Pick one if you are reasonable, at best you get 2 of the goodies, if you want them all you are clearly delusional.

I often push for speed. I like to build things and iterate. If it doesn’t stick, I’m okay with moving on because I haven’t invested too much in the quality of it… perhaps this is a relic of my tech career. Thankfully not everyone in this world follows this logic.

You have keen taste. What are some of your favorite brands? Why? 

I’m probably not what people would expect. I tend to be willing to consider the brand of a product when it’s something local, often food. I have a sweet spot for our local institutions in Berkeley. For everything else I prefer to focus on utility. I like to believe that I don’t have an allegiance to any brand as I don’t own a car, much furniture or any other expensive item or subscriptions. I like the apple ecosystem, but I have had the privilege to not pay for it so I don’t feel attached to it emotionally. For me a brand I’d care about needs to mean something personally, hence Berkeley Bowl where I bonded over sashimi salmon with my then-girlfriend, now wife, means a lot more to me than apple ever will (even though we initially met on an app installed on my iphone).

Because of my day job I developed a strong skepticism around branding, especially for digital products. I don’t eat my own dog food, which feeds a lot of existential questions. I love craft and good execution, to that extent there are a lot of brands that have done things right and defined archetypes.

In no particular order:

  • The analog feel of Fuji cameras that is unique
  • The understated aesthetics and inspirational content of Rapha and Tracksmith
  • The Opal camera for its quality and website
  • The intentionality behind each book cover published by Verso
  • The clarity and transparency of Thorne that stayed away from pushy marketing strategies
  • The edginess of are.na
  • The boundary-pushing visual work of Wayward
  • The millennial/scientific vibe of seed stuff
  • The swissness of Grilli Type
  • The consistency and obsession with technical durability of casio watches

You used to publish a lot of writing. Why? What was the benefit you found from writing? 

I still write a lot, actually more than when I used to post stuff publicly. I decided to jump off medium, mostly because I didn’t identify with the audience of the platform and my stuff felt too random. Writing has felt like a creative frontier for me. I suck at it, the process is a torture I’m not familiar with. But I've had cathartic feelings of closure by pushing myself to write about things like the death of my attention span, socratic frustrations, stupid startup life… The spontaneity of the pieces was a bit of a struggle as I tend to obsess over a thing once I start. My wife jokingly calls this ‘finishism’ - rushing to get something out to feel free of it, always to get caught up into the next thing. Nowadays I’m mostly journaling on a regular cadence which has allowed me to get stuff out of my head, work, life and other specific relevant topics of the moment, without feeling like I need to polish the piece and think of it as an essay. That last part has been the game changer and has freed my writing. I’m so used to “pushing stuff out” that journaling and keeping stuff private has allowed me to finally acknowledge the reality of my day to day rather than getting caught up in weird thoughts I want to structure for an audience. I basically just complain about my kid and job and my only occasional reader is my wife.

I also do a decent amount of writing for work at GitHub that has a strong documenting culture and asks for a lot of reporting to carry context asynchronously in a complex ecosystem. I’m appreciating the structure that this creates in my weeks and process. Having to explain what I’m doing on a regular basis is teaching me to be a bit more rational about my process. Tracking creates accountability. It’s not perfect, but it’s doing something under the water.

I experimented with the footnotes on my website to give me a bit of space to make a sort of expanded and more personal about section. That’s not an essay by nature but has been a fun catalyst to publish some words publicly. I was not expecting anyone to read them, but of course the law of the universe decided otherwise. I’ve been getting an email per month about it.

This interview is part of a series by Compound. Compound provides everything you need to manage your personal finances (advice, tracking, investments, taxes, borrowing, estate, and more).