In The Spotlight: Siri Johansson, Senior Product Designer
To showcase our band members, every now and then we put a Spotifyer in the limelight. Today's headliner is Siri Johansson a Senior Designer in Stockholm. Put on your headphones, hit play, and read along!
What would your self-portrait look like?
Why are you a designer?
I think about design as your mind and hand taking turns. I’ve always loved making and fixing things that are broken, so the idea of crafting things for a living is really compelling—that’s the ‘hand’ part. When it comes to ‘mind,' I find great satisfaction in looking at complexity, spotting patterns, and identifying the right questions to solve for. To me, design is the perfect blend of understanding human behaviors, invention, and aesthetic expression. The other thing I love about it is the process of synthesis: to take otherwise insignificant parts and create something bigger and meaningful from it is really magic.
Describe your job at Spotify without using the words "design" or "designer."
At the moment I’m involved in a couple of projects that impact how we listen to music out loud, at home. Beyond practical considerations, my job is about more than just helping people hit play: it's about understanding where they are, what the room is like, what other activities they’re engaging in simultaneously, etc. I think a lot about how people use music to socialize and how they negotiate what to listen to, and try to help get the right mood going, focusing on the moments when they’re not alone.
Show us a picture of your desk, and explain why it looks how it does.
My workspace is very practical. I need some empty desk space and a few pens to doodle with. The result is often piles of sketches that end up collecting dust (1). I also like to have room to post-it my way through a problem, cluster, and make sense of stuff in my head (2), but you need vertical space to do that. When I first started at Spotify, my colleagues mocked me for putting up foam boards all around my desk, creating a little anti-social cubicle. It proved to be a quite social approach though because a lot of curious people stopped to ask what I was working on and how they could get in on the foam board action.
The Wacom board (3) has been my faithful friend since my years in industrial design when I used it to draw swooshy lines. Although less swooshy these days, I still use it for UX design—it feels like a more natural and direct way to interface with the screen when you’re working on visual things. Plus it’s more ergonomic, a real wrist saver when you spend a lot of time in front of the monitor.
Sometimes colleagues leave friendly post-its and I like to keep them around (4). Yes, I do need to up my pen jar game (5).
Tell us about a time you beat an intimidating design challenge.
One of my most formative challenges earlier in my career pre-Spotify, was a design research project I was involved in almost ten years ago. It focused on young children on the autism spectrum and helping them and their caregivers better manage everyday activities through a tablet-based interface. Cognitive function variation introduced me to a whole new level of complexity, far from what I was used to.
These kids often face difficulties with fine motor skills as well, and in that specific scenario, there was a conflict between what worked better cognitively and motorically. For example, it can be physically easier for someone to tap a button rather than to swipe on a screen interface, yet swiping is easier to grasp as a navigational model. At least the feedback was always very clear—if there was frustration with the experience, the tablet risked getting tossed across the room! I remember that it seemed impossible to meet all needs, but in the end, it was a stark example of how all design comes down to finding the most well-balanced compromise.
It was the best lesson in the value of staying humble and working closely with the end-users, immersing yourself in their everyday lives. I was already steeped in a user-centric school of thought, but this project really cemented my belief in that approach. It left me intrigued about cognitive science and contributed to me returning to school to do my master’s in interaction design.
Name three non-designers you feel inspired by when designing.
Fiction! Design is the kind of job where whatever you do and consume feeds into the work, and I think taking parts of many stories on the human condition helps you become a more well-rounded designer. I’ll name Zadie Smith because she’s a favourite author of mine. On my reading list now is Feel Free, a collection of her essays. I started on it and then lost the book in a recent move. Hoping to eventually come across it while unpacking (it might take a while...).
The podcast 99% Invisible for reminding me of the thinking that has gone into every human made item or process. I also love their storytelling that often starts from something seemingly trivial and then unfolds in surprising ways.
When it comes to art, I'm a big fan of spatial and interactive pieces, and James Turrell is a favorite. If you find yourself in proximity to one of his skyspaces, go, sit down, and meditate for a while.
Any final shout-outs or things you'd like to share?
I’ll wrap up with a couple of recs related to the inspirations I've mentioned above:
I loved the little series Articles of Interest from the makers of 99% Invisible. They discuss one garment per episode. Fashion is such a good springboard to great stories on science, history, and life in general.
I easily get stuck in a reading list of design and technology books I feel I ought to get through. It’s really refreshing when you come across a book that is relevant to design, but not written for designers. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, by Peter Turchi, is one such book I keep returning to. Many of the analogies he uses on map making and storytelling are super inspiring for design.
Also, my resolution for 2020 is to read more. I’ll just go ahead and state that here hoping someone will hold me accountable. That, and to get a plant for my desk :)