How Intercom brings play into their design process

An Interview with Stewart Scott-Curran, Director of Brand Design

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Intercom is the darling of the brand design world. With its playful, raw illustrations and the feel-good animations, it’s no wonder they’ve snagged the eye of users as well as its peers. They not only build quality customer communication products, but their entire team is clearly passionate about extending their curiosity to design philosophy, team collaboration, and in their latest repertoire – book publishing.

We all gush over the brand work Intercom has continued to build over the years, so we wanted to dig deeper and uncover their secrets. We sat down with Stewart Scott-Curran, who leads the brand design team, to discuss what inspires them, how they work together, and how Wake plays a role in their design collaboration.

When and how did you get started at Intercom?

I joined Intercom to lead the brand design team just a little over a year ago. Before I joined, there was a small brand design team that worked within the marketing team, but they really wanted to build that team out and extend the team’s reach beyond just working on the marketing side. So within a year, we went from four to a team of 10, which we have now. We obviously continue to do all of the marketing work, events, and work with the content team, but we are also printing books and doing our own fun projects.

Stewart Scott-Curran, director of brand design

How do you decide what pieces you want to work on and what elements are going to communicate a brand message?

It’s a great question. Intercom’s goal is to make business personal, so anywhere we can bring a human touch to the design is fair game for us. Anytime we connect with people – whether it’s a customer or someone that is just interested in us – we want to connect with them on a personal or emotional level.

For example, we print physical books because that’s a more tactile way of connecting with people. All of the illustrations that we use should feel like they’ve been created by a human. We generally try to stay away from anything that is super clean and obviously computer generated. Anything that has that organic and tactile feel is something that we gravitate towards.

Who would you say you’re designing for? How would you describe that person?

We’re designing for anybody who is a little bit jaded by the usual spammy-type messages. We definitely want to push back on that. We think there’s space to be a lot more personal – people who like people. For anyone who feels as though they want to have an actual conversation with people is who we like to connect with.

How does design fit in with Intercom’s overall culture?

We’re definitely very design and product-led, and we all work very closely together. Our teams go deep and want to understand the problems we’re trying to solve very intimately before we start producing solutions. And then a lot of that is filtered through design and through research.

“Design is one of the ways you can really communicate what you stand for.”

We want to be creative, we want to have fun, and we want that to come across. Design is one of the ways we try to spread that.

Cover design for Starting Up

What have some of the challenges been as your design team has grown?

I think the main challenge for us has been process. As you get bigger, you can’t rely on the same single process that worked when you were three people. We work on so many more projects now, it’s important the process grows as well.

“As we get bigger, we have to be more rigorous in how we document our process, how we communicate, and how we work best with other people.”

As you grow, you start to lose the intimate knowledge of what everybody is working on and what the outcomes are. So you need to work hard to try and maintain that, but at the same time stay efficient. It can easily get out of control as you scale, so tracking projects and being rigorous with that process has probably been the biggest challenge we have faced.

Has your team been able to keep that same level of collaboration?

Definitely. It’s exacerbated by the fact that we have three remote designers, so that obviously becomes a bigger challenge. They need to feel connected to the team and that’s tough when the bulk of the team is sitting here in San Francisco. Honestly, that is one of the reasons why Wake is really great for us.

“Wake allows us to collaborate in real time and is a really great way for leadership on the team to stay up-to-date with what everybody is working on.”

But it’s also great for remote designers who aren’t able to just look over the shoulder of somebody who is sitting in the San Francisco office. They can have a conversation about what they are working on all within Wake. That is one of the biggest advantages for us – we can drop in work in-progress and know that remote team members, or maybe people in a different timezone, are able to stay updated on what everybody’s working on and what the progress is and they’re able to give some feedback on their timeline as well. And they can do all that when it’s convenient for them and not have to wait for the next design review meeting.

What kind of things were you guys doing before you found Wake?

Before Wake, we were trying to get together once a week for a design review meeting. We still get together regularly, but because the team grew so quickly, there were so many more projects than we could possibly cover in a meeting. We would get through three or four projects, and then there would be still four or five projects waiting on the agenda that we didn’t have time to cover.

“Wake allows us to be a lot more efficient with our communication. We don’t feel the pressure of going through every single project in our design review meetings.”

Also, if you get feedback on a project, you don’t have to wait those seven days to get back in front of the whole team. Wake allows us to get that feedback a lot quicker, whenever people need it.

Are you doing anything outside of meetings and new technology that is helping with collaboration?

We have managed to carve out a little bit more space for dedicated projects. Every Thursday we have what we call a “studio day” which is a day for everybody to work on some self-initiated project – if we have the time of course.

We have a little print shop we set up here so we can work on posters for the office, sticker packs, badges, and just fun little projects. It allows everybody to break out of their day-to-day work and have a little bit of fun, get a bit silly. It keeps us fresh.

The only reason we can actually do this is because we don’t have such long design review meetings. We’ve become more efficient with Wake and other technologies, and now have more time for fun.

“Wake gives us some space where we can play a little bit more and then in turn helps with the work that we do.”

What is the biggest challenge that the design world is facing today?

We spend too much time looking at other designers, looking at their work, reading what they have to say. It’s become an obsession to see what are other are companies doing, and what are other designers doing. I think we just become a little bit of an echo chamber, and we’re all saying similar things but in different ways. I think it’s tough because it doesn’t really help us break out of existent patterns, it doesn’t really help us get to a different way of thinking about the work. The more we can almost stop thinking about design, the better. The more we can look to other disciplines, the better off we’re going to be.

Do you have an example of something that you look to or that you spend your time thinking or looking at to help break away from that echo chamber?

I think that even getting engaged with local organizations, or thinking about politics in your local community is a great way to break the design bubble. The more we can start thinking about the consequences and impact of our work on our communities, the better off we will be. It’s important to interact and experience life outside of our design bubble.

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