Few companies have explored the relationship between art and design as well as Artsy. Dedicated to making art more accessible to anyone with an internet connection, Artsy caters to galleries, auction houses, and enthusiasts alike. With their design team spread across multiple products and platforms, collaboration presents some unique challenges.
We spoke to Katarina Batina, a product designer at Artsy, about the idiosyncrasies of designing for the art community. We also discussed design collaboration and how their team stays updated using both traditional critique meetings and tools like Wake that allow for constant, ephemeral sharing.
How did you end up joining Artsy?
I have always had a deep appreciation for the arts and Artsy captured my attention while I was still in school. This goes without saying now, but when Artsy launched — it made a huge statement considering flat design was not the default of the internet then as it is now. Graphic design was my focus of study and seeing Artsy was the first time I realized that what I was most passionate about, what I valued, and what principals I was learning for two dimensional work might actually be applicable to designing for the screen. My passion for product design was sparked after a formidable experience interning at Facebook, and after graduating I realized Artsy would be the best fit.
How does design fit in with Artsy’s culture?
Design is a leading force at Artsy. I think that’s true of a lot of companies now — the design process has a built-in, step-by-step system and provides a structure that naturally brings you towards building a strong product, starting from talking with stakeholders, looking at existing data, evaluating what the right first step is. This general process has made its way into different processes across the company.
I attribute much of that to Robert Lenne, our Head of Product, who came to Artsy from IDEO and design studios in Europe. He laid the foundation for having a design-centered organization, and it’s continued on from there. Most recently he lead us through a major product reorganization which has had a phenomenal impact on how design, engineering, and business leads work together.
How many designers does Artsy have?
We’re currently a team of six. We have four devoted product designers, one visual communication designer, and then Robert — our head of product — who’s a designer as well.
How does the design team collaborate?
At our current size, each designer owns one or two product areas. We’re working on an incredibly expansive set of products, ranging from defining the future of live bidding at auction houses from your phone, developing a first class editorial platform, and building a messaging service to facilitate collector and gallery introductions. As such, we hold design reviews three times a week to talk in depth about our current projects, give one another feedback, and determine if there’s crossover with other product areas that we can learn from or borrow.
Wake has played a pretty big role in lowering the barrier to sharing work. We now post throughout the day without having to worry about going to find somebody, and it allows us to put a pin in conversations that we want to pick up on later.
“The biggest place Wake has added value is in getting engineers and stakeholders involved in the design process from the beginning, which has been really powerful.”
The “design review” model has expanded out to the entire organization. We currently run a bi-weekly product meeting where we come together to share metrics and product roadmaps, and what we realized was that there was a lot of sharing out and it wasn’t particularly collaborative. We’ve now moved to a place where we’ve borrowed what we do in design reviews and scaled that out to the whole team. Now, teams present what they’re working on and challenges they’re facing, and we have a collaborative session where we try to work out how different teams might facilitate the goals of another, or how we might ask another team to implement a certain component of a larger feature that we’re hoping to ship. It’s been really powerful, and I think it’s a testament to the fact that the design process sits naturally in a lot of other ways in which a company can function more openly and bring more people into the fold.
What’s something the team does differently now than it did a year ago?
Well, Artsy is a lot bigger than it was a year ago — nearly double the size — and as such we realized a few months ago that our team structure needed a facelift to better suit the needs of our growing business. Previously, our product team was split across two big groups we called “user-facing” and “partner-facing,” and design and engineering worked in isolation to develop new features. In the absence of strong product team structure, the design team used to work pretty closely together, but what ended up happening was that we’d make decisions in a vacuum, not realizing that we were making incredibly important decisions early on in the process. It’s a classic image — designers sitting in a room making decisions, leaving out important people who may provide valuable context to problems we’re trying to solve.
We’ve moved away from that model and created smaller teams, each with its own designers, engineers, and stakeholders, focused on various product areas. We now use design reviews to discuss how to improve the user experience, and confer with our product teams directly about the roadmap and vision for our product area.
For instance, I work on the auctions product at Artsy, and I meet more frequently now with our engineers and our representative who works with the auction houses. We talk on a daily basis to figure out how we can make the product better, and that’s been a welcome and powerful change across the design team. We’re building greater context into our work, and we’re definitely building smarter and faster than ever before.
Another big change is that we’re getting to a great point in our work where we’re working across multiple platforms. From our Folio product that helps galleries run their business from their iPad, to providing a suite of tools to help auction houses run their in-room sales, we’ve really started to work on is how we can systematize our design language. We’re starting to look more into how we can build from the component level and pull those across various platforms. Technologies like React are making that very easy, so it’s forced us to come to the table and talk about the various decisions we’ve made.
Being the sole designer on a particular product, you can get a lot of small inconsistencies pretty quickly — negligible to most of our users, but something that we’re aware of and our engineers are (painfully) aware of maintaining — and so one of the things we’ve been doing more recently is thinking about how to formalize how we design and how we build things together.
What are some of the unique challenges in designing for the art community?
One of the big challenges is that the art world has particular expectations about how art is talked about, written about, sold, and studied from an educational perspective. On all those fronts, Artsy really wants to have a fundamental role in changing those perceptions, all the while embracing the tradition of the art world.
One of the ways we’ve been able to do that is by providing a platform for all of the existing art world entities to coexist on. So instead of trying to become the canonical online gallery, museum, or art fair, we are the platform for all of these existing entities to meet and coalesce, and that’s been a challenge — getting all those players onboard — but we’re at a place now where we’ve won the trust of a lot of people in the art community, which is really exciting.
We have a vision of being the number one online platform for art online; one equally about providing an educational resource for people who are passionate about art, and the best place to buy and sell art. One of the challenges we’re facing is: how do we drive that clear message that this is a place where you can actually buy artwork and that we are the best resource for learning about artists?
From a design perspective, some of the classic ecommerce practices don’t necessarily apply to our audience as we’re trying to balance these two missions of being educational while signaling that this is a place where you can buy art.
I think one of the challenges has been that we’ve separated these two concepts — like education somehow eliminates the ability to be commercial and vice versa, but really one just feeds into the other. After you learn about a certain artist and become excited about discovering their work, presumably if you’re really interested you’d eventually want to own a piece of their art. It may not be a $20,000 sculpture, but perhaps it’s a smaller work on paper, an edition or print. The better we can teach people about the range of art an artist has to offer, the closer that person will get to satisfying their passion for an artist by acquiring one of their works. Closing the gap between those experiences is the big challenge we’re facing, and something we’re focused on in this coming year.
Looking through the site, it strikes me that Artsy has to work just as well visually with Rembrandt as it does with Kandinsky.
Our guiding principle is that the art is the most important asset and should be front and center. We’ve drawn from the way galleries and museums exhibit work as a guide to how we should show works online. In the art world, galleries, art fairs, auction houses, and museums are incredibly cognizant of their brands, and part of what has made Artsy successful has been that people value the great care and attention we put into celebrating artists and their work. Galleries and museums are often excited to showcase their artworks with us because they appreciate how the works online emulate how they look hanging on a gallery wall.
The current artwork page really goes the distance in celebrating the work and not cluttering the page with too much information, but practically speaking we have realized that we provide little context around the work such as biographical information about the artist, if the work is in a current show or a part of a museum collection. While we intend to continue to feature the artwork prominently, we’re restructuring the page to bring rich data about the artwork and artist to the forefront.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the design world today?
I think we’re in a really interesting time in the industry where startups in particular are asking a lot more of designers. I think it’s a good thing. We’ve found that, not only is design really important, but design thinking is powering a lot of processes in companies. It’s gone way beyond creating satisfying user experiences and has moved into a place where design thinking is what determines business structure. It’s what determines prioritization. And I think what’s challenging for designers is that we’re coming from a world that’s historically validated our work by how many followers we had on Dribbble or how satisfying our UI is to use, but our roles are growing into something entirely more important.
I hope that there is room in the industry for a very diverse subset of designers. I think right now the discussion revolves around this idea that: “You should have a full-stack designer who can code, who can come up with really innovative UI concepts in Sketch, who can prototype these things, who can look into their own analytics.” And while I think all of those are super important, I think the greatest value a designer can bring is their way of thinking about problems. That could be ten times more valuable than a lot of those deliverables they can ship. To me, the skills a designer needs in order to deliver a finished product are almost a given now. The real value designers are bringing are the ways that they approach problem-solving. A good designer will tell companies whether or not they should be developing certain features in the first place, instead of diving in headfirst into a concept that doesn’t directly contribute to the business.
Scott Belsky recently wrote that “As interfaces become companies, design will increasingly become THE business.” I think that’s going to continue to be true and I think it’s up to designers to figure out what their place is in that model. I hope the industry continues to have room for all kinds of designers.
Images of the Artsy office were taken by Nick Simmons and can be found here.