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Q&A with Daniel Ritzenthaler

Digital product designer and consultant

Hi, my name is Daniel Ritzenthaler. I'm a designer just outside of Boston. I love helping people figure out what to build online. I also love helping them build it.

A while ago I worked as consultant with some pretty cool companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Motorola. More recently I've been a product designer for a company called HubSpot.

I share what I learn as often as I can on Twitter and Medium.

How did you get started?

I graduated with an art degree in 2002 and couldn't find a job. After a few months I was getting discouraged and considering moving back home. Then, out of nowhere, my college's work placement program found a job for me at a web design company.

It was for HTML/CSS. Not design. Damn.

I didn't want to go back home. So I took it.

At first it was a drag. I didn't appreciate what I was learning. After some nagging, I was able to design a few websites. Oddly enough, I didn't like that either. Something was missing.

Eventually I designed and built the same website. Immediately I knew. I needed to do both. This is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

It was a confusing and clumsy start, but I know I'm lucky to have found something I still enjoy more than 10 years later.

What is your creative process?

I'm an optimistic guy. I'm also a skeptical guy. There's always a little thrashing and messiness that comes out of this tension.

I'm happy with what I have, but always looking for holes. I think everything is good, but never quite good enough.

I've learned to enjoy this somewhat uncomfortable place. To get excited about flushing out an idea, then to get even more excited about tearing it all down. Then doing it all over again.

I had a professor in college who seemed to relish ripping apart people's work. I saw him make several people cry (he almost made me cry). At the time I hated the class, but now I'm grateful he took the time to show me how to handle a tough critique.

Or is it Stockholm syndrome? Who knows. :)

I think that class was the start of a process where I could openly and honestly critique my own work. I could be critical of myself without being insecure. Which has been my primary source of learning and growth as a designer.

What tools and software do you use for your work?

I try to keep sketching as long as possible. Notebooks, whiteboards, markers, and pens are core to my design process.

Lately, I've been buying loose construction paper and markers. I can move pages around, step back, and see a bunch of sketches at the same time without squinting. I might hang them on a wall, spread around a big table, or throw them on the floor--it doesn't matter. The idea is to move quickly from a local scope of work (pages, widgets, features) to a larger or global scope (flows, objectives, products) and back again as quickly as possible.

Then I'll spend a good amount of time with the language. I may have a technical explanation in my head, but how does it work for everyone else in plain english? Does it still make sense? Sometimes I'll try and write narratives through the flows of the larger goal and pull out the words I use for the headings, buttons, and other copy. I usually do this with iA Writer or Simplenote.

Once I'm confident enough that the major kinks are worked out of a set of screens I'll mock up a few to see how the aesthetics interact with the layouts and flows. Does it still feel right? Sometimes I only have to do one or two screens to feel confident, sometimes I have to do them all to work through all the little details and nuances. I do this all in Sketch.

It's really hard to say when coding starts or when anything gets shown to stakeholders or customers. I usually prefer to keep that a case-by-case choice for the team. It all depends on what we think it can teach us about what we're building. For image-based prototyping I use InVision, for browser-based prototyping I use Cactus, and for making the codes I use Atom.

What is your ideal work environment?

When I'm in an open environment, I want more privacy. When I'm working from home, I want to be around more people. I wonder sometimes if it's situational. While I'm doing one type of work I need privacy, while in another type of work I need cooperation.

Maybe one desk in one place isn't how it should be.

As you can see...I have no idea. I'm restless.

I'm not too concerned about it. I can relax and get comfortable when I'm not at work. Maybe someday that will change.

Who do you admire most?

The last few years I've been trying to branch out and find heroes who aren't designers. There are still few designers hanging around, but here's a partial set of people inspiring me right now:

There are so many more...but that would take all day.

Thanks for reading!