38: The Craft-led Design Executive (ft. Tim Allen)

In this episode, Peter and Jesse speak with Tim Allen, Global Head of Design and Research for Instacart, about his craft-forward approach to design leadership, how psychological safety enables innovation, partnering with strong operations leaders, and how growing up Black in Japan proved formative in his lifelong advocacy for inclusion in design.


Peter: I’m Peter Merholz.

Jesse: And I’m Jesse James Garrett,

And we’re finding our way

Peter: navigating the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership.

Jesse: On today’s show, we are talking with Tim Allen, Global Head of Design and Research for Instacart, about the leader’s relationship to the craft of design, the balance between creative and operational leadership, and how growing up as a Black child in rural Japan has shaped his thinking about inclusion in design.

Peter: Well, Tim, we’re so excited to have you with us today to talk about all kinds of things to do with design, design leadership. I think where it’ll be great to start, though, is just to get a sense of like, who you are today. What do you do? What’s your role, what are you accountable for? Set some context for us here.

Tim: I mean, well, first, thanks for having me Peter, Jesse, it’s great to be here. My name’s Tim Allen. I, I lead design and research at Instacart. And I spend my entire day looking after a community of designers, researchers, writers, operations folks, and specialists focused on providing access to food that people love, and hopefully giving them back time so that they can enjoy that food as well.

Peter: You mentioned looking after a community. One of the things that we’ve been probing in these conversations with design executives, and I’m curious your take on it, is how much time is spent with your team, managing this organization of however many folks, and how much time is spent being an executive, being with the “first team”, being with the C-suite, and your cross-functional peers?

How do you navigate?

Figuring out where to focus time and energy

Tim: Yeah, I think, well it varies according to the time, the fiscal calendar, as well as the development cycle of any one of our, like four, we’re a four-sided marketplace. You have four product ecosystems.

One is, you know, our Instacart consumer app, which, you know, most people are aware of. But most, a lot of people don’t understand that there’s a whole product and service ecosystem around shoppers fulfilling these these orders as well. So there’s a ecosystem designed for them as well.

Then you have our retailer segment as well, which is, you know, how do we empower retailers and provide a technology platform for them. And then we have an advertising ecosystem as well. So brands that would like to showcase, you know, what they have for, for customers as well on the platform.

So yeah, so depending on where we’re at within each one of those segments, I could be spending more time at the C-suite just in terms of, like, strategic conversations, setting visions roadmapping and so forth, down into like, where I like to spend a lot of my time, which is inspiring–…

You know, we mentioned the word community a bit. I try to reserve the lion’s share of my time in empowering the community, setting the conditions for the design team, especially to do the best design work they possibly can. And, you know, be a part in their development and transformation into, you know, wherever they, they want to be.

Of course that involves the product as well. So, you know, my approach to the product is to be down, you know, have hands on and eyes on, like down to the pixel, down to the comma, as much as possible. So very sort of detail-oriented there without, you know, micromanaging. But I do want to understand insights that led to decisions that led to pixels moving, that led to, you know, commas being placed and so forth.

Jesse: How do you walk that line with people that you want to give, you know, authority and autonomy to, to dig into those design problems, understand them deeply and make the best possible choices there, while also providing an appropriate level of oversight over those detail-level decisions from your perspective as an executive?

Leading through craft

Tim: Yeah, it involves, like, setting expectations of —we’re all peers before the object. And we’re all trying to make it as best as it can possibly be, and so we’re all on the same team. And sometimes that involves and necessitates a lot of autonomy, especially when, you know, there’s domain expertise involved and there’s you know, a keen understanding of the customer involved and so forth.

And then at a, at a certain level, especially during reviews and crit, there’s just craft involved and typically that’s where I want to get involved the most, along with you know, sort of envisioning and setting the vision of things. So like I’ll, I’ll come in, usually it’s, you know, you have this sort of divergence and convergence across the development cycle and I set the expectation that I’ll probably be most hands-on when we’re diverging.

And then sort of definitely as we start to make the final convergence towards the end.

Peter: I’m curious and, and Jesse actually just wrote something about this on LinkedIn, because you’re mentioning craft and you mentioned the pixel or the comma. How selective do you have to be in terms of your attention? ‘Cause I’m assuming you can’t be at that level of detail across all four sides of the marketplace and all the experiences you’re offering each of them.

And so how do you navigate that? So that you’re not, I don’t know, overwhelmed or that you’re spending all your time in these details, like there’s so much surface area…

Tim: Yeah, definitely. I make those decisions based on just business priority. So, you know, in one quarter I may solely be focused on shoppers and fulfillment. And, and another quarter may be sort of like distributed across all four segments. It’s based on business priorities, what I would say.

And usually that forces a level of focus.

Peter: I’m looking at Jesse ’cause one of the contentions in his article, and it’s something I’m aligned with, is, as you grow in your career, right, as you develop in your career, as you become more senior, it becomes less about craft and those details, and more about setting up an organization that can execute on the details.

And so, but it sounds like you consider it important to maintain a pretty tight connection with details as needed. And so how do you navigate, like building the engine, focusing on, on the mechanics that enable success versus knowing when to dive in and get to those specific points.

Tim: Yeah, well, one, and you know, there’s a light and a shadow to this.

One, I can’t help myself. I love design and I love the craft of design. And so early on in my career traditionally you have this paradigm where the higher you go, the farther you get from the craft. And I never enjoyed that so much so that I almost wanted to stunt my own sort of career growth. And RGA was one place where the closer you got to the craft and the client and the work and the better that work became, and, and, and the more you use that work to influence the team and so forth, to empower them, like through the work, the, the more you are rewarded and the business thrives and so forth.

So I really, really clung to that. And what was the icing on the cake? Just most recently was, you know, and at Airbnb where, you know, the CEO is a designer as well, and he is directly related to, you know, the pixels and, and the commas at the highest level of, of the company. That where I was like, oh, okay, this is, it’s rare, definitely, but this is the type of leadership that I want to emulate.

I’m not saying that one way is better than the other. I think there’s pros and cons each way, but I, I can’t help myself from doing that. And I was just like, is that okay to do? And like, how can I mitigate the issues and concerns that that does raise?

Jesse: Yeah. I think that question of is it okay to do is an important one because I think a lot of it, you mentioned RGA, you mentioned Airbnb. These are companies that have very design-centric cultures historically. And… there is a question of, like, how much cultural permission you get to go deep on craft.

And I wonder about how you manage the expectations of your cross-functional peers when you decide to go deep on design. Do they feel… are they okay with that? Do you have to negotiate something to create that space, to get that permission to go deep?

Tim: Well, at some point it just all comes down to, like, output. I’ve been in situations, I, I maybe even dare to say recently where, you know, that approach wasn’t expected. And people like you could see the, like, why, why are you doing this? Like, you were very close. And, and as the output evolves you know, the design community in, in addition to cross-functional partners, start to understand, oh, this is a different way of approaching it, but like, I see the value. Where it’s not based on like control or power or anything like that.

It’s truly based on like contribution to making…

Jesse: mm.

Tim: … better products and just different levels of, of contribution.

Learning through making mistakes

Peter: When you were mentioning your, your leadership approach, you used the word “mitigate” to suggest that in order for you to have this detail orientation, at least at times you recognize that there needs to be something to kind of balance that out.

And I’m, I’m curious, over your career, what have those mitigations been? How, what have you done as you’ve established your leadership practices and as you’ve built teams, what have you found you’ve needed to do, organizationally, to support your desire to get into those details?

Tim: Yeah. Yes. Mainly just made a lot of mistakes,

Peter: That’s how we learn!

Tim: And learn… exactly, and learn from them, which is, you know, leaning in too hard. You know, I’ve leaned in too hard at some times and I’ve also pulled back too far at times. And so I’ve had to understand, like, as I’m giving direction, how can I give it in a way that allows people the flexibility to interpret it and also bring their own creative spirit to it and, and make that direction better. You know, I, early on, I must say I was probably spoiled by so much talent at like, places like RGA where just a little bit of direction comes back with a ton of improvement. And, you know, as I got into other spaces where that wasn’t necessarily the case, it was really about refining that approach.

Refining, like, reviews and crits and like, I feel like, you know, workshops or crits of work are where the magic kind of really happens, I think. And, and really setting those up so people feel accountable for one, but then also like fearless and creative too.

Jesse: How do you avoid being a bottleneck as you are engaging in these processes? Are people automatically expecting you to be engaged, or are you negotiating a different scale of engagement with that process of critique?

Tim: Yeah. I think it’s easy to become a bottleneck. Yeah. And that’s, and that’s also one of the mistakes that I’ve made in the past as well at least for priority projects. And, you know I think the team’s only as fast as, like, their leader. So that is very front of mind, we talked about mitigation, but concern, I’m, I’m always having, like, am I responding quick enough so that I am not a bottleneck?

I do in high priority business programs want to be a part of decisions and understanding like what insights are coming in, how are we interpreting data, how is that translating into design decisions, and so forth. And so I, what I’m trying to do is like limit, you know, speaking, speaking tactically, limit the amount of preparation needed for my involvement, too.

So, you know, in some cases what I’ve learned in the past through my own, again, mistakes is not understanding that some people can interpret presenting to people at my level as like, “Hey, we gotta circle the wagons and, and put as much thought into this presentation as we did into the work.”

And then sometimes more. And so that’s completely not the case. So I’m, I’m, I’m setting the expectation of, yes, we’re talking about sausage-making. So show the appropriate level of fidelity for the moment in time we are in the development cycle.

The importance of safety in creative work

Jesse: So it seems like a lot of this is about the expectations that you’re setting and the relationship that you’re creating with your team to get them to trust you, that it’s okay to be messy, and for the work to be a little unrefined and a little unpolished. What are some of the ways in which you create permission within your team for people to be messy when they know that you’re gonna be looking at their work?

Tim: Well, I think that’s where the safety comes in, I, I relate safety to like, fearlessness. You know, I think, like, we do best work when we’re not afraid. And, and that’s just hopefully establishing that, like, great ideas are just great ideas no matter what the fidelity is.

Jesse: Hmm.

Tim: So what’s the least amount of fidelity you can give to an idea that allows people to understand that it’s a great idea, you know? And, and in some cases it’s gonna be a functional prototype, so you’re gonna have to spend a lot of time on it because like, you can talk about, I don’t know, like swipe gestures and so forth and, you know, 10 different people will interpret that 10 different ways. Or it could be like a whiteboard sketch or, you know or maybe even a document.

So I think the expression of ideas is what I try to encourage the, the team to understand. Like, the tool set is very varied that you can use to express in an idea, and it’s up to you on, on how to do it.

Peter: How do you set expectations for quality? How do folks understand what you’re expecting of them in terms of what the quality bar is? What have you done to define that?

Tim: Principally, in terms of, like, principles, like we need you to do the best work of your life, like just straight up. So, but that can be interpreted a couple different ways, but that’s the, in, in terms of principles, that’s, like, what we’re trying to do, and it’s on us or, myself as a leader, to set those conditions so that that can happen.

But the expectation is for you to be doing the best work of your career. And so, so what does that actually mean? I think it means just being world class at solving customers problems, and that that means falling in love with the customers and their goals and their needs, you know, thinking deeply about them. And, you know, I interpret falling in love with problems as also thinking orthogonally about the solutions as well, right? So, you know, going down blind alleys which, you know, sometimes can be dangerous. Again, connecting disparate thoughts. And also because you’ve fallen in love with so many different people, with different contexts and so forth, you can start connecting them in different ways as well.

I had the privilege of working with Jonny Ive at Airbnb and I, there’s many things fascinating about that individual, but one of the things I was completely blown away with was, like, the connections he was making, just like organically between, cultures and ways of seeing the world and perspectives, because he’s fallen in love, literally, with so many different types of people and contexts and so forth.

And so he has this like library he’s drawing on to make these connections. Just really truly stepping outside of yourself into other contexts.

Making space for a design

Peter: Airbnb and Apple are often held up as paragons of good design, but they’re also really weird companies, in part because of this. Because of this willingness to embrace design in, in such a elevated, robust, exploratory fashion. You’ve operated in environments, you’re possibly in one now, where design wasn’t that highest order bit the way it was at a place like Apple and Airbnb.

And I’m wondering what you’ve had to do to make space, say at a place like Instacart, for your team to take this really rich approach to practicing design in a context that maybe before you were there, didn’t necessarily enable it, right?

I look at the people I work with in other types of product-led, maybe even engineering-led organizations, sometimes design is a battle. Even when it’s not, and it’s seen as a partner, it’s still work on the part of the design leader to make space for design to really demonstrate that richness.

But it feels like that’s crucial in your world. And so what have you done to help your partners understand, in an environment where design isn’t the highest order bit, what have you done to help your partners understand just what it takes to deliver on truly great design?

Tim: Wow. I could talk about this for a while because I’ve not, I’ve, I’ve made some huge errors here. And then I think with Instacart I found a path that is, is proving to be successful. So if you, if you look at my career, it’s sort of like RGA, a couple of like huge legacy companies that like aren’t sort of like design-driven and then Airbnb.

I sort of call that my Goldilocks era of like, hey, I reached a level, almost terminal level at RGA. Like, what’s the next challenge? Right? And I would say there’s a mixture of like hubris mix in there along with curiosity of like, hmm, Microsoft needs a new design system. It would be great at that scale to kind of, like, be a part of transforming a company through design and,like, thinking, sure. I’m up with that challenge. That does take a, a bit of hubris.

And I would say, like, I mistakenly, I think, used a bit of brute force in that, just ’cause it’s, like, early on in my career I’m, like, I don’t really understand all of the layers of legacy and culture and so forth that turned out to make that very, very difficult task to do.

But, you know, sort of through that same, you know, I, I won’t speak in specifics with Amazon as well, but like, same thing sort of there, it’s like, yeah, like, why not? Let’s give this a try. Like, how can you take the utility of an Amazon and, like, the sheer, like, usefulness of it, but then also make it, like, lovable.

In my opinion, the Achilles heel with some of these, like, utility-based behemoths are, like, the moment there’s another utility that comes along that is, like, people slightly love a little bit more, or maybe it’s not quite as useful, but people love a lot more, you’re yesterday’s news, right? So in my mind, I think design plays a big role in that.

So, my whole thing was, like, how do you take visceral emotion and, and love for a brand and a product and an experience mixed that with utility and then just have, like, make it, you know, obviously almost unstoppable.

And that’s what Fluent design was designed for. That’s what, like, the Alexa platform and some of the work I, I was doing with Amazon was about, but getting back to your question in, you know, non-design led companies, how do you bring design to the table?

I learned from those companies that it’s not through brute force. It’s not through how much you know about design. There’s a quote that, you know, people will never care how much you know until they know how much you care. And so what I did with Airbnb and what I’m doing with Instacart is allowing people to understand that I care deeply about the mission and our shared belief in this mission.

That’s, like, the most, I think, critical common ground across functions we can ever have. And let me show you how the design community and the design function can bring that to life in addition to, like, the trust and respect we have for your function as well. And, like, showing how that happens leads to, I think, inspiration. And where I’ve seen the lights turn on, like, almost physically in, in rooms at Instacart is when they see that connection and they see what they believe in being upleveled and, and inspired through design.

Developing a culture of curiosity

Jesse: I love the way that you described, the way that you went after these challenges as a mix of hubris and curiosity. And curiosity, well, cause I think that’s essential for a leader to continue to grow. They have to continue to believe that there are new challenges out there that are, you know, worthy of what they have to offer. Right?

But curiosity especially is something that I tend to think of as being one of the kind of the core values of design as a practice. And you know, when I think about hubris and curiosity in organizations that are not design-led or do not have a strong design culture, what I think of is a whole lot of hubris and maybe not so much curiosity.

And I wonder what your experiences have been in trying to drive a culture of curiosity in organizations that may not be all that interested in it to start.

Tim: Yeah. I’ve got war stories there, but I can’t say like, I’ve cracked that at all. \ What I was looking for and found at Instacart was a CEO that understood the power of design and wanted to be inspired by design and understood the gaps in the business as it related to design very, very well.

And so it was the fertile soil. The, the gap was there. But it could be cultivated into something great. So that’s when, like, you have curiosity, no longer hubris, right? ‘Cause it’s, like, no, you know you know, we did Nike, you know, we did blah, blah, blah. So, like it, Microsoft, whatever, right? It’s more, like, courage, I’m curious about this.

I know there’s a gap. It seems like there’s a way to fill the gap and, like, like, let’s approach this with courage. That’s the difference at Instacart.

Peter: You mentioned the CEO, are you reporting to the CEO or through? Through what teams do you report up to? The C-suite.

Tim: Yeah. So I report to the Chief Operating Officer Asha, who reports to the CEO.

Peter: That’s interesting. How is operations defined then at Instacart? You know, cause usually operations, you know, you don’t think of design reporting up through operations. It might report it through product or marketing. So what’s the…

Tim: well, yeah.


Peter: …logic behind operations?

Tim: Well, it’s probably a different approach in terms of operations, but the Chief Product Officer reports to Asha, the COO, the, the Chief Marketing Officer the CMO, reports also through operations. And yeah, like me sort of standing in as Chief Design Officer as well. That kind of makes sense.

Peter: And to what is she holding you accountable for, right? You’re, you’re peers now with the head of product, a Chief Product Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, they probably have very clear accountabilities, very clear numbers and metrics that they’re expected to deliver. Do you have something similar that she’s looking for you to bring or how, how is that accountability handled?

Tim: Yeah. It’s couple different ways. Attract higher, retain, best design talent possible and uplevel talent and craft across the board. Bring a level of strategic insight that’s design- and research-based into strategic conversations and help us deliver against our mission. Bring our mission, which is like human-centered. It’s like one of the most human-centered missions you can have. It’s food, right? Like, access to food front and center, and inspire us with that. You know and then help us grow awareness and love for the brand and, and product.

Peter: Are those measured or are those just understood?

Tim: Well, I think we are in the process of understanding how to measure those to be, to be honest. But they’re, yeah, they’re, they’re definitely understood. And that was like the, the, the process of me being recruited and, and, and vetted for the role was, like, okay, like, do you understand the challenges?

And all four of those things. I think there’s four, four things I mentioned. Have like great challenges, and then also, like, and some of them are easily measured. A lot of them definitely aren’t, and I, I actually really like that.

Maintaining visibility to keep others informed

Jesse: It seems to me that the challenge with some of these things that are potentially quite subjective is ensuring that what you’re doing is visible to people in a way that they can see the value that you’re providing, even if it is in a subjective way. How do you keep people in the loop with what’s going on for you and your team?

How do you maintain the level of visibility for your work necessary for people to reach that subjective consensus that you’re doing a good job?

Tim: That’s, a good question. It’s mainly through interrogating the work. So I think there’s a couple things that happens weekly. So just tactically speaking, weekly, we have, yeah, basically design and research workshops on Thursdays where all of the highest priority work for… the entire day is dedicated to reviewing work in, like, 45 minute to 90 minute sessions.

And so all of the highest priority work across all those segments is getting reviewed. I host that, sort of, I, I’m, I’m the main contributor, but it’s cross-functional. So depending on what phase of the cycle the project is in, you know, you could have like the full cross-functional team across, like, data science, engineering, product management, business, so forth, even business development in, in those reviews or workshops. Or you would just have, like, the design team, sometimes even just, like, special, like, motion team, maybe even. And so I think that allows people to, like, see work, for one, see how work transforms as well, contribute to that transformation, you know, and then, you know…

I don’t send out a weekly newsletter. We’re thinking about doing… I’ve done that in the past. I do send out a weekly note to the team, just like top of mind things. It’s not really, like, status or anything, it’s just, like, literally it’s meant to be inspirational. I think that helps my… and I copy my leadership team on that.

Peter: Your approach to leading a team at this size is different than the other people we’ve talked to and, and often the people I work with. You place a lot of value and importance on craft and practice, right? Whereas I think a lot of the leaders that I’ve worked with delegate that to their directors or even their managers because they have other things they need to be concerned with.

A long time ago, I thought there was a model, and I’m sounding this out with you, for design leadership, that was kind of like filmmaking, where you have director and a producer, right? You don’t get Ron Howard if you don’t have Brian Glazer, right? And, and I’m wondering if that resonates with you, if you’re able to really focus on creative leadership, because you partner with operational production-like leadership who you know you can trust to keep things running so that you can be a bit more of that visionary than we often see with people in design executive roles.

The “Hammer”

Tim: Yes, that’s a very, very good point. So, I talked to my wife about the role you’re talking about as my hammer, and I didn’t know I needed a hammer until just like understanding former roles. And so for me it’s the chief of staff and also, frankly, coming into Airbnb, my initial role was to sort of be the foil of Alex Schleifer at Airbnb.

Alex Schleifer was the Chief Design Officer at Airbnb during my tenure, and I was the VP of Design. Alex loved doing the approach that we’re talking about and needed someone, and was less concerned and less, like, honestly, probably enthused about the other facets of leadership that are needed as well.

And so I was playing that role just in terms of like operations, cultural, management, so forth, team morale, blah, blah, blah. And so now , I’ve sort of like reversed that a bit. And like my, I have an excellent chief of staff and along with the senior leadership team that helps out like evening out those more operational, administrative tasks of senior leadership too.

Peter: Is that, is that Taylor?

Tim: That is Tay– How do you…? That is Taylor.

Peter: Taylor, who will probably be listening to this, is a friend and an active member of the Design Ops community. And, she is your hammer. So that’s almost like, like Rahm Emanuel was for President Obama. Someone who does some of the work to make sure the things that you are wanting to see done can get operationalized and implemented. Is that similar to how you’re imagining it?

Tim: Indeed. Indeed, yes.

Peter: Hopefully with less swearing.

Inclusive Design

Jesse: So, I know that you worked at Microsoft on their inclusive design initiative, and I know that inclusion in design has been a bit of a theme for you through your career, and I know that that has a lot of different facets to it. For us as an industry, you know, the way that we approach inclusion in user research, the way that we approach inclusion in the design process the way that we approach inclusion in hiring and promoting people, I’m curious about what are the aspects of it that you feel like are the most interesting opportunities for design as an industry to level up around inclusion?

Tim: Yeah. Yeah. I, I’ll start out by saying I think the people that are most interested, and have moved inclusion forward the most are typically the people that have experienced the most exclusion. And so for me, exclusion has just been a part of my existence since day one. So I, I mean, I talk about the impetus first, which is, you know, I, I grew up in rural Japan.

My father was in the military, so Okinawa and, and Iwa Kuni. And, you know, back then, I dare to say even now, growing up as a black child in rural Japan is like a very

Jesse: Mm-hmm.

Tim: isolating experience. And so, you know, my, my parents helped me through that. And so at a very young age, I understood like, yeah, I, I looked different.

My hair is different. And it was quite a spectacle back then. And, and they just, my parents worked me through that. And you know, if you think about design school as well, I came into design school. No one looked like me. No one spoke like me. It was hard to relate to, to folks.

I didn’t know what design was. I came into design school through a fine arts scholarship, and I’d never known what design was. I was a painter and like had my own like airbrush business in high school.

I just like literally used that as my portfolio and, you know, landed in design school. Didn’t feel like I belonged. And then again, in the same way my parents helped me get through that, I had like a really great staff of instructors that helped me get through that too, which was like basically, hey, all the fear and uncertainty that you feel, and also the way you look at the world is extremely valuable. And like, we need that and it’s very valuable for you to get that out.

And so it’s just flipped my mind into like all of that being a superpower rather than a disability. And so then now you talk about the word disability and what that means and so forth. And my focus is on how do you unlock and harness the breadth of human diversity through design and, and research to allow people to shine.

And also not only altruistically, but you know, it’s been proven, but just in my experience, just to make like really, really kickass, like, products as well that are this magic combination of, like, viscerally, culturally compelling and, and emotionally engaging as well as, like, useful utility.

Peter: I mean, It feels like we’re still so early days, so many companies are not approaching design with an inclusive kind of mindset or approach. Is that still where we’re at is like foundational or are you finding a better conversation happening farther along that curve?

Tim: Yeah, I mean, shout out to like folks like Kat Holmes and like people that have like really, really dug into this wholeheartedly. But I do think we are in some of the beginning stages. I think the biggest challenge right now in my opinion, is moving from this, like, state of altruism and, you know, being a savior and things that kind of connote power dynamics into a very powerful strategic business tool. If you wanna talk about MAU and DAU and, you know, daily active users and, like, expanding the amount of people that use your product, thus expanding the financial impact into your business, then yes, you want to appeal to different types of people with different levels of ability and, and different cultural, you know, aspects.

It just makes sense. For me, it’s turning the corner from like, oh, it’s so nice to like, understand these people’s point of view and like how our product is hampering people with mobility issues and like, and isn’t it so great that we can allow them to use our great product? In terms of like, what do these people need? What are their pain points? And like, how do we solve them in a way that makes our product better for everyone? It’s a different lens and also, like, we probably will make more money as, as well.

Peter: This is interesting cause I think the history of design craft is somewhat ableist, right? The the things that have often been lauded are that which have served people who are able, and I’m wondering, you’ve talked a lot about craft and the importance of craft and practice, but those crafts and practices, a lot of those were developed for a pre-inclusive, let’s say, kind of approach to thinking about design.

And I’m wondering how you’ve seen design evolve the practice and the craft of design evolve to incorporate inclusivity, where it’s not about the grid necessarily anymore, and visual hierarchy or whatever the concerns we might have had 20 years ago, but, it’s something else. How are you embracing, like, that fundamental change that is necessary? What does it mean to fundamentally change to embrace inclusivity honestly and authentically?

Tim: Right. Well, I have a background in industrial design. And I think because that and architecture, for instance, are established practices that have to legally, and, you know, to a certain extent, yes, digital design as well, incorporate accessibility and inclusion into the very practice itself in a way that isn’t altruistic, that is in a way that is, like, crucial to just creating a product that is deemed successful at all.

Product design, experience design, digital product design, I would say as a whole, and research, it’s just nascent, it’s not proactive. It’s very reactive for the most part. And it is based on, Hey, we made something. Oh, and a few people have missed out on it. So, like, let’s, like, accommodate them to, like, what we made as opposed to including everyone.

Peter: You’re leading design and you’re an executive during what is a difficult time, in some ways, for many people, particularly our industry, layoffs, you know, those kinds of uncertainties.

And I’m wondering what you found that you’ve needed to do, that you’ve needed to change? How have you been handling being a leader? What have you been doing to kind of help lead your team through these challenging and uncertain times?

Managing through uncertainty

Tim: Yeah, that’s a really great, great question. I have yet to experience an aha moment or any moment of like, really, really critical success that hasn’t been preceded by overcoming some level of hardship, difficulty, uncertainty, and fear.

So you can go back, I, I talked about the design school thing I’ve talked about like just living, trying to like be a child in Japan. You know, coming into some of these legacy companies and so forth. So for me it’s just a growth mindset. And going back to that advice from design school of like this fear and certainty is where all the opportunity is.

Peter: Hmm.

Tim: Like literally. And, to me, that’s just the way I think, but I saw it be proved out before my eyes and was a part of it. At Airbnb when overnight we went from a business that was going warp speed, light speed to like zero miles an hour standstill overnight through the pandemic.

Peter: Right.

Tim: And the way that the leadership team led through that uncertainty making tough decisions, like, yeah, we did have to cut and reduce the workforce. But we approached it like a design challenge. What do people need right now? What are the pain points? What are the opportunities in this space?

We just embraced the uncertainty and, and then we doubled down on the shared belief. And by, by the way, these are the steps I’m using right now as well. Embrace the uncertainty. It’s, it’s there. But just because it’s cold outside it doesn’t prevent us from, like, eating soup, right?

Alright and what’s that shared belief? What’s the soup? For us right now, it’s the access to the food that you love and time to enjoy it with yourself, with your family. So with your loved ones. Once you focus on that belief, then visions start to, like, I think creativity just, like, abounds and that’s what allows you to adapt and I think disrupt.

Jesse: So you have, over the course of your career, you have seen design go through any number of evolutions and transformations. How design is practiced now is very different from how design was practiced 10 years ago, which is even more different from how it was practiced when you started your career back in the nineties.

So I find myself wondering from your perspective, what’s got you excited about the next stage in the evolution of design practice?

Tim: That’s a really good question. I, I would definitely say the topic of inclusion. Not only product inclusion, but team inclusion as well. I feel like, you know, homogenous teams make homogenous products, for homogenous audiences using homogenous strategies, right? So…

Jesse: yeah.

Tim: …the output comes from the input. Enabling and having a priority to bring other voices to the table to not create homogenous teams and thus make less homogenous products and so forth and address that more diverse customer audience is what I’m super excited about.

Working with a leadership team that believes in that as well. And, you know I won’t say that Having a female COO and CEO was not a part of my decision as well coming into Instacart. I think that’s, that’s been incredible for me. So yeah, that’s, the biggest thing for me.

I mean, you can’t have a conversation like this without mentioning machine learning and AI as well. I think that’s fascinating and we’re starting to understand how to, like, incorporate that even more at Instacart. So stay tuned there. But yeah, that’s that’s amazing.

Jesse: Tim, this has been great. Thank you so much.

Tim: Thank you,

Peter: Yes. Thank you.

Tim: Thanks Peter.

Peter: So Tim, where can people find you on the internet? Do you, do you write, do you publish? Where can people follow up with you?

Tim: I’m active on LinkedIn probably the most. So yeah, just you could search for Tim Allen there. Tim Allen.

Peter: Not that Tim Allen. The other Tim

Tim: Exactly. Yeah. And you know, on the Gram and Twitter @TimAllenDesign.

Jesse: Fantastic.

Of course the conversation doesn’t end here. Reach out to us. We’d love to hear your feedback. You can find both of us, Peter Merholz and Jesse James Garrett on LinkedIn. If you want to know more about us, check out our websites, petermerholz.com and jessejamesgarrett.com You can also contact us on our show website, findingourway.design where you’ll find audio and transcripts of every episode of finding our way, which we also recommend you subscribe to on apple, Google, or wherever fine podcasts are heard. If you do subscribe and you like what we’re doing, throw us a star rating on your favorite service to make it easier for other folks to find us too.

As always, thanks for everything you do for all of us. And thanks so much for listening.

I can’t believe we got through the whole hour before we finally got around to the Tim Allen joke.

Peter: I’m sure it never happens.

Tim: I knew it was coming.

Jesse: Yeah.

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