Design Director at Unity Technologies


TimoniWest (Design Director at Unity Technologies)

Timoni West is an American digital designer who has worked on mobile, web, and 3D software for the last two decades.

they • Miami Beach, United States • April 2, 2024

What led you into design?

I had no idea what design was, growing up on the farm in Nebraska. It never occurred to me that someone had designed every chair I sat in or glass that I drank out of. To be fair, I don't think anyone around me had ever thought about it much, either. Hindsight is 20/20: I can see now that as a kid I was obsessed with design: everything from industrial design to software, print, animation, type design and technical drawing. It's the little things, right? My teacher in third grade remarked on how much detail I'd put into a drawing of our family's ancient standup piano, and once she told me, I realized that was unusual, and I remember it to this day. Is that how you learn how you will spend your life? Not in that moment, but you remember it later.

Computers were the real turning point for me. I grew up in a small town where whatever clear skills you had were immediately extrapolated to whatever you'd do for the rest of your life. I wasn't a great artist, so no one had high hopes for me there. But I instantly fell in love with computers and would spend hours doodling icons, making ASCII and pixel art, and creating animations. Computers were a creative tool, a way to make both art and utility. But I wasn't great at math, so, they thought, I couldn't possibly be a computer scientist, and nobody had ever heard of human-computer interaction. So what I did on computers remained a hobby, and I was simply one of those annoying kids who would beg the librarian to stay late in the lab.

Things finally came to a head one cold day in Minneapolis in 1999, as a freshman at a conservative bible college. My roommate and I were visiting a local bookstore. She was going to be a missionary; I was supposed to be a pastor's wife. I was rummaging through Communication Arts, as I usually did. Technically, I was an English & Bible major—everyone in our college graduated with a major in Bible—but I also ran the layout for the school newspaper, designed our floor newsletter, and made websites on the side. I had the itch, but I hadn't owned it yet. I didn't know a single designer, didn't know how to be a designer, and assumed illustration talent was a serious prerequisite to the job, which counted me out.

So, there I was, flipping through volume after volume of Communication Arts, pointing out great campaigns, showing great designs, and talking about how I wished I could do that, too.

My roommate finally looked at me and sighed. "You keep talking about it. Why don't you just do it?"

I stared at her. I genuinely had never considered that was possible. But somehow hearing it from a fellow student, someone who worked eighty hours a week cleaning hotel rooms on top of a full class schedule so she could become a missionary immediately after graduation, someone who was as devoted to her future career as any nineteen-year-old could be, suddenly made it a real option. Within a year, I transitioned from future pastor's wife to bible college dropout—and, a few years later, professional designer.

I haven't checked in lately, but I expect that future missionary was exceptionally good at her job.

What does a typical day look like?

Before I answer, I have to tell you this: One of the best things that happened to me in recent years was reading Till Roenneberg's Internal Time. I've always been a night owl, but felt guilty about it—especially living in San Francisco, there was always an element of competition around health, and early rising was no exception. Learning that not everyone can or should be an early riser, and that my cognitive abilities really are in a decline if I have to wake up early, was genuinely a huge relief.

Generally, I try to wake up (guilt-free!) somewhere around 9am. I have teams from Tel Aviv to Vancouver and SF, so the spread means being on the East Coast is an ideal time zone. In terms of routine, I do everything wrong: I instantly look at my phone and check email and Slack, I continue to fail to do early morning journaling or yoga consistently, and I do not meditate. Instead, I drink coffee and start working as soon as I wake up. I don't burn out easily, and I don't really care about work-life boundaries—I am a pretty canonical Enneagram 8 or ENTJ. What works for me pretty clearly doesn't work for most people, but no point in my beating around the bush: I just go with the flow of what I like to do.

I gradually moved from product design to product management over the last decade. Originally, when I joined Unity, my job was lots of 3D design, hardcore HCI and ergonomics, and neuroscience. We did prototypes and reviews in VR headsets, and constantly met with game studios, vfx and agencies, scientists, storytellers and artists to learn from them.

Now I am the GM of a 200-person business unit. Every day is meetings, meetings, meetings, starting 8-11am depending on which time zone I'm working with. They usually fall into three buckets: strategic, tactical, or organizational. I meet with other GMs often to talk about areas of overlap, collaboration, or dependencies, as well as talk about org-wide initiatives. I meet with my leadership & team constantly to discuss our own strategy and how we're executing it: product side, engineering side, process & program, QA, docs, business, finance, marketing, HR, you name it. And I meet routinely with existing partners and potential customers to learn about what they're working on, and what they want us to help with.

Design reviews are my favorite, of course, and I consider it the top skill that makes me better at my current job—design has been commoditized to the point that it's critical to the success of any digital product. Because my company is so engineering-heavy, having a design perspective in my role is especially useful.

It's been fascinating to move into management. When I was younger, I thought I'd be an IC forever. Now I find designing teams, organizations, businesses, and strategies equally compelling, but it was a gradual shift.

I do insist on using Inter for documents, though. Once a designer, always a designer.

Work generally ends anywhere between 5-8pm, again, depending on time zones. Despite not caring about crypto, I somehow still moved to Miami Beach last year, so if there's time I'll go explore new restaurants, go to talks, go on a bike ride, or just enjoy the Caribbean blue of the Atlantic Ocean in this part of the world. I love video games (if you don't think you're into video games, I highly recommend Night in the Woods: absolutely one of the funniest, coolest, neatest, best video games of all time), movies, TV and books, so often I'll be watching or reading or playing at night, too. If I'm interested in a specific research topic, I'll spend a good chunk of my nights working on that for a few weeks or months.

I generally go to bed between 1-2am, ignoring every good piece of advice on proper sleep hygiene on the way.

What's your workstation setup?

I am both insanely proud of my setup, because it is excellent, and insanely embarrassed by it, because it is hideous. I really did try to have a beautiful, designer-y setup, but I'm also an ergonomics wonk and do not want to end up having major back and knee surgery like my parents. Besides, moving keeps me sane. Think about your set-up for a second: if your coworkers are seeing you in the same place, in the same position, every day in every Zoom meeting, you need to get up and do some neck stretches right now.

And now, the beautiful hideousness that is my home setup.

Treadmill: RhythmFun Under Desk. It's a lie: it does not have Bluetooth. You will never be able to switch it from metric to imperial. God help you if you lose the tiny little remote. But it's quiet, relatively cheap, small and light, and it just works. It also perfectly fits under my...

Rolling standing desk: Something in my visual designer heart died a little the day I ordered the Ergotron® TeachWell® 24-220-055 Mobile Digital Workspace, but the UX designer was validated. This is an incredibly well-made beast of a desk, and I move it all over the house. I got the 80-105-064 CPU Mount to hold the APC 600VA Backup Battery Power Supply so I could unplug the station and move it around without turning off my green iMac, which is a nice, pretty, reasonable computer for being in meetings all day without needing a fancy DSLR bokeh-friendly video setup.

I also have a Macbook Pro M1 to replace the older Macbook Pro I just lost two weeks ago at the airport. The old Macbook Pro had a Touch Bar, and I loved it, so I planned on keeping that computer as long as possible. I like transient UIs and I'm annoyed that people dismissed the Touch Bar out of hand due to ergo issues—the reality is that re-mappable tiny displays are super useful in context, and they should just improve the physical design! But I digress...

I also have an iPad that I use all the time, especially with the stylus, a ReMarkable that I used a lot at first but not at all anymore, largely due to the lack of ecosystem interop, and a bunch of notebooks that I write in with Copic Multiliners .01-.05m.

Where do you go to get inspired?

Everywhere, everything, and everyone. Gosh. This isn't really a part of my brain that I can turn off. Instead of listing thousands of things, here are three buckets.

There's a class of designers that I consider sort of 'pure design designers'. I won't name names, but you know them when you see them, especially if you're reading this publication. They have published clothbound volumes, have amazing glasses, wear either muted pastels or loud prints, and their graphic illustrations and/or architectural works are top-notch. They inspire me.

Environment design is probably my favorite kind of design—if I could go back in time, freshman Timoni would have studied neuroscience and civic engineering. Shanghai Disneyland is the best theme park I've been to, Venice is a fun organic mess of a city you can really get lost in, and both Hong Kong and Capetown's Table Mountain rightfully inspire science fiction. Smaller scale, palaces tend to have incredible environment designs. Topkapı, the Hofburg, and Osaka Castle are all great places to visit for the sheer craft of understanding how to manipulate people through space (and if you want to get meta, analyze the modern tour design on top).

Most of all, humans inspire me. I really really like other humans. I like talking to them, observing them, reading what they write, seeing what they wear and why, what gets them excited, how they present themselves, how they talk to other people, how they get confused, how they write or interrupt or reenact basic social cues. I try to not be biased because I think humans are overall a pretty harmful, invasive species, but I also just find us delightful, and the most inspiring thing in my life.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

Digital: The Browser Company's Arc browser. They took a pretty tricky area—highly embedded, highly commoditized, daily workhorse software—and genuinely moved the needle. That is not easy. That requires exceptional design.

Physical: Blamo has been making some incredible wooden, cloth, and ceramic pieces that move beyond pop art into something that feels very connected to the past. Even though they are solemn, they remind me of the small Veracruz Remojadas sculptures in Mexico.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

For design:

Redesigning the Flickr homepage in 2009.

Running matrixed studies at Foursquare to test how little or much information we could ask for that would affect signup conversion rates (answer: no material difference regardless of how little or much info we asked for prior to account creation).

EditorXR, a Unity extension that allows any user to edit their scene in virtual reality. It was, in retrospect, an insane challenge. It was also incredibly fun.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

In the realm of software, we face all the challenges! Here are two concrete examples:

• The Unity editor is an old, established, professional-grade tool. This means that the workflows in the IDE are muscle-memory level for millions of dedicated users. Redesigning a workflow is akin to redesigning a grand piano: sure, you can make improvements, but at the expense of every single person trained on it. Improvements are an incredibly delicate balance.

• We have a multitude of excellent services that make our user's lives easier, but our users don't fit into any one bucket. Vivox, our in-game voice and chat software, needs to be useful to a five-person game studio launching their first game, and simultaneously scale to a hundred-person team maintaining a game with millions of daily active users. Tricky any way you slice it.

On a more meta level, I find the fundamental problem is describing things effectively so that everyone understands them the same way. It's not enough that everyone understands the concept: they have to understand the concept from beginning to end, following the same path, in order for any labelling to be useful. Liz England has an excellent inverse essay about this called the Door Problem, and it's one of my favorite essays on game design. Please read it. Once you're done, come back and think a while about how you'd try to create workflows for making a door in a game engine that allows all these people to do all these things to the door. That's the kind of problem Unity tackles daily.

What music do you listen to while designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Depends on what your ambitions are, because design is a huge field.

Here's the most universally applicable advice I can think of: Being excellent at your craft will get you a long way. Design is pretty genuinely, refreshingly meritocratic that way. But the reality is, once you get to a certain point, you will need other people to help you achieve your ambitions. So learn to read people as fast and accurately as you can. I don't mean this in a creepy, Gordon Gekko way: the point is not to use people. The point is you're a designer, and your job is to understand underlying systems and make them as human-friendly as possible. This also applies to the humans in your work relationships.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

The world is not where I expected it to be in 2015. Do your best to protect the earth we all live in, protect each other's rights to live freely, and enjoy every breath you take.