An Interview with Tim Van Damme of Instagram

If you’re reading this, you probably know who Tim Van Damme is – he’s one of those rare designers who needs no introduction. Even if you don’t know who he is, you’ve probably seen and interacted with his work. Tim’s behind the interfaces of both Instagram and the now-defunct Gowalla, both of which have been acquired by Facebook. Not only that, but he blogs as MaxVoltar, and squeals about retina Macs on Twitter under the same name.

Tim was kind enough to take a few hours out of his busy schedule to answer my questions, and provided some fascinating answers, and some great food for thought.

Tim Van Damme Interview

Hey Tim, thanks so much for joining us on The Industry. Tell us a bit about yourself and the work you’re doing.

Hey Conor! I’m currently a 27-year-old guy living in San Francisco with his wonderful wife Gwen and our precious 6-month-old daughter Spence, working for a tiny company you might’ve heard of called Instagram where I’m responsible for mobile design for both Android and iOS. Before that I lived in Austin, TX working for Gowalla after moving from Belgium to the US once we got our visa.

So how did you get into the design industry?

I got into it through making websites. The first time I had a “This is what I want to do as a job!”-moment was when I was helping out a friend maintaining a site. Even though it was nothing more than copying and pasting table rows, I was hooked. The idea that one person could build something every single person on the planet with an internet connection can access blew my mind. I started getting more and more comfortable with writing my own markup, and somewhere along the way I thought myself to design just so I had something to slice :)

If you hadn’t become a designer, what do you think you’d be doing now?

I honestly have no idea. Maybe something involving fixing computers? (I was a big PC guy back then) It’s hard to answer that question because I’ve been doing this for so long now. Building websites was the first time I actually liked doing something that could earn me a living. Before that I loved to play games or come up with my own LEGO creations.

Instagram - Tim Van Damme Interview

What does a typical day in the life of Tim Van Damme look like?

My day starts with checking Twitter, Instagram and mail on my phone while I’m still in bed, enjoying my wife and daughter sleeping next to me. After that I get dressed and ride my bike to work (first part of my commute is a steep downhill, always a lot of fun). Once arrived at the office I prepare myself a coffee and get to work. A typical day is spent 90% doing actual work, and maybe 10% meeting with people. I’m really, really happy Instagram doesn’t have hour-long meetings. I can’t even remember a meeting where we were in the room with more than 4 people. I jump back onto my bike, drive home, and enjoy the evening with my family.

You mentioned that you started off making websites, but now, of course, you’re best known for your app design work – Why did you make that transition? Which do you prefer, and why?

I’ve been interested in the iOS platform ever since the first iPhone was announced, but the transition happened when I started working for Gowalla. Keegan Jones and I were the only designers at the company, and we had to handle both web and mobile. Over the span of a couple of months, we kinda drifted into our own specialty, he doing web and I taking care of mobile. I can’t think of doing anything else, I love everything about the platform.

Before you got on board with Gowalla and now Instagram, you worked as a freelance designer. Do you prefer the role of in-house designer? Do you have any plans to return to freelance at some point in your career?

You can’t really compare freelancing with working as an in-house designer for a company that has one product. Freelancing is like juggling. You spend as much time doing paperwork and communicating with clients as you do designing (which is the reason I quit freelancing). As an in-house designer working on 1 product you can go way deeper, and take on more responsibility. I used to be nothing more but a pixel-pusher and markup-writer; now I’m responsible for the usability, interactions and implementation of what I design. As long as this job is challenging and pushes me to do better work every day, I don’t see myself going back to being a freelancer.

Not only do you design for Instagram, but you also use the service a lot, and are pretty popular on it. Does this make it easier to design for, or do you ever worry that you’re designing purely to suit the way you use it, rather than the various ways that everyone uses it?

Just like with Gowalla, I love using Instagram, and it would be pretty easy to design it for how I prefer to use it. As a designer, it’s your duty to learn how other people use the product you’re working on, and even recognize usage patterns the app wasn’t originally built for. Look at Twitter’s early days; the service right now is shaped by how people use it.

If you can’t take a step back and learn from your users, you’re not a good designer, no matter how polished your pixels are. The right decision isn’t always the best-looking.

MaxVoltar - Tim Van Damme Interview

What is your workspace like? Are there any design tools that you simply couldn’t live without?

My workspace right now consists out of a 15″ Retina MacBook Pro on an aluminum stand on the right (by day I use its screen for chat, Twitter, mail and previewing designs), right in front of me I have a 27″ Cinema Display (with Photoshop CS6 in the darkest mode), my iPhone is standing in an Elevation Dock with Skala running pretty much all day, a decent set of headphones (Sony MDR-7506) and Apple’s wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse.

This setup has been pretty much the same over the past couple of years, and I’m not planning on changing it :)

And finally, for those looking to get started in the big bad world of design, what tips or advice would you give?

Be patient, work hard, learn every day, ask questions, be a nice person.

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