Product Designer at Thoughtbot


ColeTownsend (Product Designer at Thoughtbot)

A product designer based in Boston with a knack for visuals. He also builds things using HTML / CSS, ReactJS, and several animation tools.

Boston, USA • January 5, 2018

What do you do?

I’m a product designer at thoughtbot. I feel like that has a few definitions, but what it boils down to there is that I do product design (shout out to the product design sprint), UI/UX design, user testing, and front end code. I dabble in copywriting but I don’t do too much of that. I also run a lot! That’s my second job.

What led you into design?

I got into design when I made a running blog on Wordpress. I started changing fonts and hopped on that awful Museo Sans trend. I wanted a logo and got into some Branding stuff too. I was mostly interested in HTML/CSS first and bought my own domain. I completely copied — well I did it by hand and changed the content — the website of another designer named Stan. I did link back to it and stuff and wasn’t selling any services or showing it to anyone but I still feel kinda bad. One of my friends told me, “Shouldn’t you do, like, your own design?” And so is started spending time looking at other websites and finding a new look. But, thanks Stan for drawing me further into design. Since then it’s battled with running as my primary passion.

Describe your working environment

At the office I have the standard Cinema Display monitor and have my laptop on a stand and use the apple external mouse and keyboard. Not really a big fan of cords — I have an adjustable desk and move it up and down a ton so I try and keep clutter to a minimum. At home I have a little stand and mouse and keyboard plus a Sonos speaker. I wouldn’t say I am at all a workspace guru — I’ve done some of my best work sitting next to a wall outlet at an airport bar and in the back of an uber. All thanks to the handy dandy 13" MacBook Pro. I’d consider moving to a MacBook Air again but these things are all are so lightweight now.

What does your iOS screen look like?

I don’t use any crazy apps on my phone. I’ve been really into activity tracking lately so I’ve hooked up garmin connect and strava, and I track a bunch of habits alongside Todoist. I’d say Todoist, Twitter, and inbox as far as non-proprietary apps I couldn’t live without. I also have a bunch of finance apps — my favorite is Wallethub because you can check your credit score daily. Simple is awesome too!


What does your dock look like?

Ah my dock — i totally take that for granted. I don’t use it that much. I have the standard finder guy and trash can there and usually keep maybe sketch, atom, chrome, and safari. I use Alfred a ton and have that wired into my muscle memory.


What’s your design process?

I’m still tinkering with my design process, I don’t think I ever sit down and think to myself, “hey, how am I going to think about approaching this problem” unless I’m on a product design sprint. A lot of this is second nature which I realize isn’t always good to rely on. I tend to think, “how should I approach this? What are the goals, what are the constraints? Who am I designing for — both users and stakeholders?” With consulting there are so many different cases I come across that only a high level approach carries over.

What do you use to plan initial designs?

I sketch stuff out and tend to document ideas in paper or google docs. I think having a long conversation is more productive from a product standpoint than hopping too soon into any visuals. I’ll sketch though and then head in to Sketch itself and mock stuff up roughly. All about copying artboards and changing things up in a quick n dirty approach.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

The new design. I helped create a bunch of the individual pages and spearheaded the facelift of the overall design. You can see my favorite pages here. Meta search landing page — this was a big effort in marketing, site performance, and animations.

Where do you go to get inspired?

For inspiration — I think a lot of things. I get more passionate about design when I have more energy. Sometimes with client work you get worn down and lose that — then it’s time to take a step back and hang out with your friends for a weekend or take a vacation. Having conversations with people — especially if they care about the topic — gets me fired up. I like learning new things and that inspires me to try that new thing out. Visually, I stay up to date with Panda ( I use the cockpit setting and scan through a ton of content.

This isn’t always good — you don’t want to rely on other peoples stuff all the time but I feel like it helps me stay on the bleeding edge in terms of GitHub repos, design patterns, and typefaces. Having a large bank of visual knowledge to pull from can be really helpful. I love that I can think of a dozen typefaces to use — or have an idea of what I’m looking for when I’m working on something.

What apps do you use when designing?

When designing I use Sketch for UI, Framer for animation, and Redpen for visual feedback. Cool thing about Redpen is that you can also upload gifs and get feedback on animations! Shout out to Ali for showing me that. I also use Marvel for prototyping. That team has been immensely helpful to us at thoughtbot and at least in the Boston office we love how lightweight and easy it feels to use.

How do you go about testing your design?

At thoughtbot we will both get user testers locally off of craigslist or use I tried out and it was a super fast turnaround but has a bit of work to do from a UX perspective. I had a hard time understanding some parts of setup and the last test I ran, while helpful, would have been lest frustrating for the testers if I knew more ahead of time. I’m really big on using redpen and that’s my favorite product for visual feedback. It is buggy, but like any product you learn the quirks. It can get really frustrating but when it works it is awesome.

What music do you listen to when designing?

I’m a huge fan of Alt J, Kanye and Avett Brothers. I a bunch of Spotify playlists and sometimes I’ll tune into Plug (Hypemachine for Mac) to get newer beats that all the cool bloggers picked up. We also have a music slack channel where we talked about that — I found out about Kaytranada there and I’ve been a big fan since.

What’s a great website for inspiration?

I love SiteInspire and land book. I’d say siteinspire wins out by a hair. Close third by typewolf but sometimes I want more than neat typefaces.

How do you keep improving yourself?

I try and work on stuff both inside and outside my comfort zones on a regular basis. I think it’s important to round out your weaknesses or skills that maybe aren’t at the same level as others. For me that is probably the product design sprints, mostly because I haven’t done too many. I think that the process itself is a skill, learnable but a skill. Also my javascript abilities are where I’d like to pick up a lot. It’s really cool being able to implement ideas and products — it’s easier to articulate ideas to devs or even cut that part out altogether saving everyone time.

Why did you join thoughtbot?

I joined thoughtbot after using their open source work for years. I used bourbon and neat a ton and read a lot of their blog posts. They are nearby to where I went to school so it made the interview process a lot easier while I was in class. They were so responsive and transparent about the interview process and I was a big fan of their open source work so it felt like the right fit!

What’s it like working at thoughtbot?

Working at thoughtbot is really solid. They take care of us really well here. Or I should say we take care of ourselves. We have a lot of independence which is surprising at first and a little intimidating but I’ve found I feel more invested here. Client work is our primary focus which can be pretty fatiguing but we have Fridays off client work to do Investment time — which is working on a new skill, blog post, open source, or for me it’s been working on the thoughtbot website a lot. It was really cool that even though I was only in my first year I could take on that sort of responsibility — and most people have a project like that or are somehow focused on their Friday investment work. It’s really cool seeing what people think up and work on in that time. We’ve pushed out a lot of new work on our website, some interesting products that are in the pipeline. It’s great to be sitting around such a smart group of people.


What design challenge do you face at thoughtbot?

The design challenges really change. For client work it’s a moving target. I won’t really speak to client work since a good amount of my stuff is NDA-ish, but like standard client problems related to product design. I like having the different paces for design, probably my favorite problem to tackle at a really low level is making something both designed well from a UX and usability perspective and visual perspective. I don’t like leaving things in an “MVP” visual state and will always try and push for better visuals if the product design aspect has been resolved.

How do you handle design disagreements?

We handle design disagreements in Slack or on Redpen. I prefer when it comes down to feedback in Redpen as generally when work goes into code it is less likely to change. Disagreements around UX we try to resolve. Disagreements around more visual stuff is debated but ultimately left up to the original designer.

Is thoughtbot currently hiring designers?

Thoughtbot is currently looking for designers, especially in the Boston location! If you’re an experienced product designer and front-end developer, reach out to me or visit out jobs page!

Any tips on getting a job at thoughtbot?

Tips for applying: read about our application process in the playbook. We’re straightforward in our interviewing process and there’s a quick turnaround. Be ready to think quickly and iterate! Things we like to see: strong visual work, completely comfortable with taking a design to HTML/SCSS, strong product design skills.

What product blew you away?

Anything Stripe has released in the last year has been incredible. They’re hitting home runs with their work. I am also a huge fan of paper. They so clearly put a ton of work into this because it feels like second nature using it.


Do you have a cool design trick?

Is it a trick if everyone knows it? ;) Ahh just kidding. I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’d say one of my favorite tricks is when trying to post animations to dribbble — use gifgen. It’s the highest quality mp4 to gif converter out there.

Any advice for ambitious designers?

To all you ambitious designers out there: take some time off work. Hustling all the time is a good way to get burned out, and when you’re toast you won’t produce your best work. If you feel this way, don’t panic. All that inspiration will come back with adequate rest and time away from whatever project you’re working on. I find that I get like this when I’m working on too many side projects. You need to be honest with yourself about how much time you have — if you’re starving yourself of personal time, you’ll start to resent your time spent working on side projects because you feel “behind”.

Where can folks follow you?

Folks can follow me on Twitter or check out my Dribbble.