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AMA: Josh Brewer & Tim Van Damme - Abstract

almost 3 years ago from , Designer at Abstract

Hi everyone! We're Josh and Tim from Abstract.

We spent the past year working in "stealth mode", and announced the app a couple of weeks ago. It's a tool enabling better collaboration for design teams and everyone else involved in the design process. After a year not being able to talk about it, we're eager to answer any questions you might have!

Some background information about us:

Josh (CEO)

  • Founder of Habitat (out of which Abstract sprung)
  • Principal designer at Twitter
  • Director of UX at Socialcast

Tim (Head of design)

  • Product designer at Dropbox
  • Mobile designer at Instagram
  • Web and mobile designer at Gowalla
  • Freelance webdesigner at Made by Elephant

We’ll go live tomorrow (Wednesday December 6 at 10am EST), so feel free to start shooting us questions!

59 comments

  • Yitong ZhangYitong Zhang, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    A lot of great companies have tried to tackle version control for designers. Can you talk about what previous apps in this space got wrong and what you guys are doing differently to avoid the same issues?

    Thanks for doing this AMA! Excited to try out Abstract with my team.

    8 points
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

      We are very thankful for the companies that have tried to tackle this in the past. LayerVault and Pixelapse are probably the two that stand out the most. In both cases, the products took a sync-based approach and lacked an understanding of what had actually changed from one version of a file to the next. As well, they didn't offer the concepts that most people would expect from a version control system such as commits, branches, merging, diffs, etc.

      We started with the belief that in order to do proper version control for Designers, we needed to understand the entire file and be tightly integrated into the tools Designers use every day (we started with Sketch, working on more formats).

      3 points
    • Tim Van DammeTim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

      Like Josh said, it comes down to keeping things close together. We've got versioning and communicating design work, all directly connected to where the work happened. It's one package instead of syncing a bunch of PNG's to a handful of services.

      1 point
  • Tim Van DammeTim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

    /me puts on fake moustache

    Question for Josh: What do you think of this Tim guy?

    6 points
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

      /me goes off the record

      That guy… he's pretty wonderful really. Likes coffee more than me, I think. Sure does love his family. And he's pretty good at this design thing. But don't tell him I said so.

      3 points
  • Victoria Douka-Doukopoulou, almost 3 years ago

    is Frank ok ? :)

    4 points
  • Thomas Michael SemmlerThomas Michael Semmler, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    When I started out in the web industry, as a webdesigner, there were a few job titles. Webdesigner, frontend- & backenddeveloper, information architect, etc. Then people wanted to be UI Designers, because they suddenly found themselves in an era with almost no knowledge of the medium their design will land on, then they became UX designers, for whatever reason exactly. It does make sense. Nowadays, that is uncool as well, nowadays you are a "Product Designer", even though those people do exactly the same as before, + prototyping of course. And people are desperate to acquire the latest hot title that makes them part of "the cool people". (I am not shaming the profession itself, knowing that there is a difference between a product designer and a webdesigner / UI Designer, though most people that actually use that title to describe themselves, sorry - to describe their projected identity, actually don't do anything else then designing interfaces.) Its a form of narcissism; in the meaning of wanting to control how oneself is perceived.

    In short, imposter syndrome has become stronger and stronger, as more people become part of the industry and only want to be like the rest. You can see this on the dribbble popular page, or the awwwards sotd - trends are dominating like they never have imho. You can even associate regionality with trends - two rounded cards on a background with a nike shoe in an angle slightly overlapping on them? It'll be from Asia.

    I see the trend dominating the industry and the profession, used as a metric of success. This is dangerous imho, not just for the industry or the profession itself, but also for the people in it. Its a bad lesson to learn as a person: try as hard as you can, to be like everyone else. People are very often not getting praise for actual design, but for applying trends.

    I personally have stopped calling myself designer, even though I am designing, because you are not "one of them", if you don't do it like the others. At this point of time, I would be more comfortable with being a developer, rather then a designer, because the industry has become so poisonous.

    All of this disconnects people from the real world. Designers nowadays hardly design for non-designers, because they know how to market to their own kind of people. Now you have created a product for designers as well. Why?

    3 points
    • Steven CavinsSteven Cavins, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

      Josh did a talk a few years back where he addressed imposter syndrome by saying designers should be writing production code, which I thought was pretty unrealistic considering how specialized front-end has become (even Meagan Fisher eventually backtracked from a similar sentiment.)

      So I'm very curious how he'd address your question today.

      edit: Anecdotally, I have a programming background, both FE and BE, but the industry eventually pushed me solely towards UI/UX/whatever design (little to no programming expected or even desired.)

      0 points
      • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

        I'm afraid that there must have been some misunderstanding as I didn't say that writing production code is the answer for imposter syndrome. I also didn't say that designers should be writing production code. I suggested that html/css are the lingua franca of our industry and that you should have a working understanding of the materials (and their constraints) used to bring your designs to life :)

        3 points
    • Tim Van DammeTim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

      /me hugs Thomas Michael Semmler

      Design (whether you call it "product design" or something else) is a combination of fashion, and the technological capabilities of that point in time. Both of those aspects are changing all the time, and the same goes for job titles I think. It's a way of saying "I'm relevant, you should hire me." Part of the job of being a designer (or developer), is staying up to date with what's current.

      It's a weird profession to be in for sure, and I hope you can give it another try :)

      1 point
  • Rafael CondeRafael Conde, almost 3 years ago

    What does success look like for Abstract (both product and team)?

    2 points
    • Tim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

      This is my personal take on what success looks like: "Do you use Abstract?" becomes part of the design interview process.

      "Do you structure and document your work in a way everyone in the team can quickly understand what you've been doing where and why?" "Do you know how to design in a team?"

      For the team: We're extremely passionate about bringing more structure to the design process. Feedback from early testers has been very positive, so that definitely keeps us going :)

      0 points
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

      For both the team and the product, success looks a lot like designers everywhere finally having a platform that supports the entire lifecycle of the design process. Proper version control and a system-based approach to designing products becomes the new standard. Everyone in the company begins to understand the design process and can appreciate and contribute in meaningful ways. Decisions, normally stored in our heads, are now captured and available to others (how many times have you asked, "why did we do this?" and the person who did it no longer works at the company and no one else actually knows the reasons why...)

      Oh and eliminating "conflicted copy" from our collective vocabulary :)

      1 point
  • Rogie KingRogie King, almost 3 years ago

    Still waiting for my in...but anything you two are a part of, putting intentional thought into, I'm a fan of. Also, knowing its from an indie team that's building something for our industry seems so right.

    Cheers fellas.

    2 points
  • Daryl GinnDaryl Ginn, almost 3 years ago

    Should designers code their own portfolios?

    1 point
    • Rogie KingRogie King, almost 3 years ago

      Well, Daryl is here.

      2 points
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

      Should designers troll AMA's?

      Seriously, you and you alone can answer that question… for you. :)

      2 points
      • Daryl GinnDaryl Ginn, almost 3 years ago

        Excuse me, I'll have you know this is a very serious question. Everyone knows it's a never-ending debate whether designers should code, and more recently whether they should have a portfolio. Now tell me, if one should have a portfolio, should one code it? I look forward to your well thought out and detailed response.

        0 points
    • Tim Van DammeTim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

      Daryl!

      1 point
  • Ricky SynnotRicky Synnot, almost 3 years ago

    Hi guys! Congrats on the progress with Abstract so far.

    How has the private beta been going? Are there any test results, trends, or even verbatim statements from users you could share about the product?

    Obviously it's going to be a hit with the industry, but I'm keen to know how your basic feature set has been picked up and used.

    Please, are you able to talk to any planned or actual release timelines you're working to? I've applied for the private beta but haven't received a response back from you. Will there be a public beta soon?

    Again, hats off as it looks like you've done a ton of great work, can't wait to try out your product.

    Best wishes for the launch :) Ricky

    1 point
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

      The private beta has been going very well! Many teams are starting with a few people testing it out and then inviting the rest of the team quickly. A lot of what we are hearing is around how Abstract helps you be more deliberate in your decisions, improves collaboration (esp around design systems, etc) and improves visibility across the board for what is going on.

      And we are hearing that once you've gone through the basic workflow a few times, you've got it. And we've even heard people say, "I didn't think I would want to make commits but now I love it! Helps my team but it also helps me by leaving a breadcrumb of decisions for myself" And the first time you do a merge and it just works… pretty rad. ;)

      As for timelines, we are inviting new teams each week. We thank you ahead of time for your patience and are working to increase the number week over week! Look for a public release some time in Q1 2017.

      A couple quotes: “Optimizing for collaboration is critical to the design process at Mesosphere. We easily have 30 or more active projects in motion at any one time. Managing changes to our design files has always been mechanical, error prone, and inefficient. Abstract has changed all of that. For the first time we have a real version control solution built by designers for designers. They've really thought of everything.”—John

      “Abstract helped me become more aware of my own design process, which has led to quicker and easier collaboration with others.”
—Jenn

      “So just installed @goabstract to test version controlled Sketch files...Wow! really awesome piece of software, handles merges!”—Bryan

      1 point
  • Stef KorsStef Kors, almost 3 years ago

    Have you guys also thought about how to show the design process, showing where designs came from and which direction it goes?

    Also does Abstract include a way to keep track of the research and sketching stages of a project?

    0 points
    • Tim Van DammeTim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

      The design process is a tricky thing, and, as we've learned from research, might be very different depending on which design team you're looking at. Our goal with Abstract has always been to imply certain workflows (not process), but keep things as open-ended as possible to cater towards however your team is structured.

      Abstract currently doesn't keep track of research and sketching (unless you do that work inside Sketch files), but it's something that's on our radar for sure.

      0 points
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

      We've heard of a few teams putting photos of sketches, whiteboard, etc in a Sketch file as a way to capture, share, and version this work. Often it’s on it’s own page and used a reference as the design begins to take shape. We are also looking at ways we can include links/references to documentation, research, planning, etc.

      0 points
  • Finlay CraigFinlay Craig, almost 3 years ago

    Managing the details of design work is definetly challenging, but so is the wider experiences that designs make up.

    Have you looked at the holisitic management of design projects?

    For example, about how several assets, screens, etc, come together to create larger experiences such as apps, or entire sites?

    0 points
    • Tim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

      We (currently) support whatever kinds of organization Sketch offers, with some project structures on top. That's a lot of different levels you can use however you want to structure your work. Design will always be messy, and keeping things clean and structured (layer names, page structures etc) is a big part of the job.

      1 point
  • Niels MulderNiels Mulder, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    Hi!

    1. Do you see a lot of different design process across companies?
    2. For what team members/disciplines is your product made for?
    0 points
    • Tim Van DammeTim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago
      1. Absolutely! The design process is a combination of people, team size, product type, market... Meaning that it's very different at every single company. Team members bring in tricks they learned at previous gigs, and the combination of all this is a process that will probably be different next month.
      2. Abstract is made for everyone who's even remotely involved in the design process. Designers (obviously), design managers, project managers, engineers, VP's, CEO's... Whoever wants to take a look at the work that's been done by the design team, can do so with Abstract.
      0 points
      • Niels MulderNiels Mulder, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

        Thanks.

        I often work with JIRA to keep track of open issues and to do's. Also a lot of engineers use these kind of tools to manage their work process. And tools like Zeppelin luckily help us document less and less in environments like Confluence.

        Where does Abstract fits in this field?

        0 points
        • Tim Van DammeTim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

          It fits however you want it to fit. Personally, we use Github Issues to keep track of our to do's, and I'll typically create a new branch in Abstract per issue. There are some nice parallels which keep coming back. Over time we'll learn more and see which other parts we can focus on.

          0 points
        • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

          We're planning to do integrations with products like JIRA, Github, etc so that we can help keep these things in sync. Abstract is the reliable record of all the work—ongoing and completed—allowing the design team, PMs, Engineers, Marketing, etc all to have one place to reference, leave feedback, and track the work.

          2 points
          • Jonathan SimcoeJonathan Simcoe, almost 3 years ago

            What would GitHub sync look like? Would it allow us to keep approved versions of .sketch assets in a GitHub repo? This would allow integration with out Git and npm tools we use to build UI from Sketch files.

            0 points
            • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

              We are just starting to think about that so I don't have a concrete answer for you just yet. But yes, generally, that would be something we would like to see happen.

              0 points
      • Matt Bond, almost 3 years ago

        It's cool if a VP can jump into see that work in progress but I sure as hell don't want someone that high up asking why something is 16px and not 20px -- I want to tell them a story about/present the work. Will abstract help with the storytelling side of design?

        0 points
        • Tim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

          Absolutely! In a couple of different ways even:

          1. Commits: Every time a designer creates a commit, we ask them to basically document why they made changes while we take care of the "what." This creates a rich history of how a design came to be, including comments made by other people inside the org.
          2. Merge history: The above history trail is easy to pick up across different branches, whether they're archived or merged.
          3. We're working on a pull request with a twist which will include some other mechanics of creating a story around what you're working on.
          0 points
        • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

          +1 to everything that Tim said. And if a VP is paying close enough attention to the design system that they can spot something out of whack, why are you afraid of that? Wouldn't you rather have anyone (including a VP) catch that before it goes out?

          0 points
          • Matt Bond, almost 3 years ago

            I think you've misunderstood -- I was referring to the case where higher ups ask clarifying questions, not pointing out that something is wrong.

            And if a VP is paying close enough attention to the design system that they can spot something out of whack, why are you afraid of that?

            Sweating those details, while it might seem like they truly care about design, is not something I want a VP doing. Trust your team, go back to doing VP things.

            Wouldn't you rather have anyone (including a VP) catch that before it goes out?

            Product teams I've worked on ship software, not Sketch files.

            1 point
  • Bobby GeorgeBobby George, almost 3 years ago

    We just wanted to say that we're so looking forward to using Abstract! Keep up the great work.

    0 points
  • Jonathan SimcoeJonathan Simcoe, almost 3 years ago

    Can you guys speak a bit for how you branded Abstract? Who took the lead and what drove you to land where you did. I love the use of patterns and shapes and thought it would be cool to see "behind the curtain" so to speak. ;)

    0 points
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

      The Abstract brand has been quite a journey. Frank took the lead and the two of us collaborated on the mark and the visual language. It’s interesting how versatile a mark needs to be today. Early on we determined that we wanted something playful but sturdy, built up from basic shapes, and if it worked, imply a sense of versioning/layering. Obviously, our starting point was the letter "A" but as you can imagine, there are so many marks already out there making a capital A out of geometric shapes.

      The explorations were endless, some in new and different directions. Some were pretty fun/interesting, but ultimately not what we wanted. We began developing the idea of patterns and shapes in parallel and started playing with the lower-case "a" and that’s when it started coming together. We both talked about Paul Renner's alternate "a" from his early sketches for Futura and looked at even using it directly (it had a similar approach to what we we’re exploring), but it didn't feel right.

      We use a stroked circle to represent a commit in the product, and the implied "up and to the right" arrow conveyed a sense of direction and refinement. Once we dialed in the proportions/spacing, we stepped back and everyone agreed we had nailed it.

      2 points
  • Krisztian PuskaKrisztian Puska, almost 3 years ago

    Hey guys!

    Can you share the tech-stack behind? I heard that some designers occasionally code, that's why I'm asking.

    Cheers :)

    0 points
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

      We wrote our own git infrastructure. The Desktop app is built with Electron. Everyone on the team can contribute in some fashion, which makes it’s pretty awesome IMO. :)

      0 points
  • Dominik SchmidtDominik Schmidt, almost 3 years ago

    Thanks for the opportunity and the AMA. What are the things in the backyard you are doing? I mean, are you powering Git or are you using a whole new "sync-mechanism"? Also, how the syncing working? Automatically like Dropbox, or manual commits?

    0 points
    • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, almost 3 years ago

      I’m sure Josh and Tim can provide a better answer than mine, but the Abstract website says:

      It’s a version controlled workflow, built on Git

      https://abstractapp.com

      1 point
    • Tim Van DammeTim Van Damme, almost 3 years ago

      We built Abstract on top of Git. We purposefully chose not to build a sync-based architecture (ala Dropbox, etc) because of the inherent issues (can't resolve conflicts, doesn't understand the files). And yes, you make a commit to record your work!

      Workflow-wise, we made some simplifications:

      • Auto-fetch
      • Auto-push
      • You're not allowed to work on Master (need to create a branch first)
      • You're not allowed to work on someone else's branch (you can branch off their work and update from their branch at any point)

      All this, combined with some secret sauce and a GUI makes it that you only need to do 2 things: Do the work, commit the work.

      1 point
  • John Myers, almost 3 years ago

    Thanks for doing this. When do you plan on releasing publicly or opening up the beta? Excited to try it out!

    0 points
  • Matt Bond, almost 3 years ago

    Designers are super fickle. We all abandoned PS for Sketch pretty quickly (admittedly a better tool for UI design) and now Figma is a thing.

    Have you thought about what the world looks like for Abstract if we all move work to Figma in the next year or so? Some designers at Dropbox already exclusively work out of Figma.

    0 points
    • Josh BrewerJosh Brewer, almost 3 years ago

      I don't know about fickle. I think Designers are an curious, adaptable bunch, constantly looking for new and improved ways to do the work. And to be fair, there are still tons of people happily using Adobe products to do their work every day. With XD, I think that there is yet another potentially great tool for proper UI/UX design. Similarly, Figma has a different take on what the world looks like and some people are really enjoying that experience. However, the switching costs to move a whole team from one drawing tool to another is substantial and most teams are probably already feeling some switching fatigue.

      This is one big reason we chose to focus on solving the problem that all the tools continue to contribute to: binary files without version control and no good tool for file management and proper collaboration.

      We are constantly thinking about what the world looks like in the near-term and a little further out, and we think that Abstract will be there supporting as many of these tools as we can!

      0 points