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Tobias van Schneider

By Tobias van Schneider

In this interview, Tobias van Schneider explains the role of a product designer, competing with Apple, and pursuing stupid side projects. He also explains what he looks for in other designers and how to become a better designer.

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“I love it when designers actually break out of their usual habits of just being a designer and take on new responsibilities. Do something that is completely out of your field and just f***ing do that project that you were talking about for so long.”

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Tobias van Schneider is a German award-winning designer raised in Austria & currently living in New York City. He had the privilege of working with companies such as Red Bull, BMW, Google, Wacom, Sony, Fantasy Interactive, Stinkdigital, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, Bwin & more. Tobias is building new products as Lead Product Designer & Art Director at Spotify in NYC.
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Tobias van Schneider is a German award-winning designer raised in Austria & currently living in New York City. He had the privilege of working with companies such as Red Bull, BMW, Google, Wacom, Sony, Fantasy Interactive, Stinkdigital, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, Bwin & more. Tobias is building new products as Lead Product Designer & Art Director at Spotify in NYC.
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Tobias van Schneider - Finding your Design Path

Tobias van Schneider
2015-08-16T16:34:16Z
In this interview, Tobias van Schneider explains the role of a product designer, competing with Apple, and pursuing stupid side projects. He also explains what he looks for in other designers and how to become a better designer.

N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Tobias. I'm currently living in Brooklyn, working in New York City in Manhattan at the company called Spotify. It's a music company you've probably heard of.

Yes, I use it everyday.

Of course I'm a designer, I'm a product designer, so that's what I'm focusing on at Spotify.

What's a product designer?

Great question.

I don't know when the term product designer really emerged, especially in the digital area. When we refer to a product design we usually think of an industrial designer with just tangible products. When we think of a product designer in the digital space I would always say that we had a lot of different titles in the production environment. We had visual designers, we had UX designers, we had prototypers. We had so many different titles. When the digital products basically emerged, we were looking for a title that combines all of them. Because as a product designer you have to basically do all of it.

You have to do the prototyping, you have to do the user research to a certain extent. You do the visual design, you also do the UX. What used to be split up in a lot of different job titles now is combined in one. You're working on this continuously over a couple of years because you're actually trying to support a product compared to a one-off project. I think that's what for me what a product designer is or how you can describe a product designer. Does that make sense?

It incorporates all those different fields into one.

Exactly. It incorporates all those different fields and it also means that you're working actually on a product that you try to make better over time rather than just having a one-off project, something that you're very familiar with when you work in an agency environment.

I see. You're the lead product designer?

Absolutely.

Does that involve managerial stuff as well or is it just you have the decisions about what goes into the app?

It depends. I think every company has different career tracks. We at Spotify, we like to differentiate between a manager role and a master, a master creative role in the way. One role means that you eventually try to go more into management and manage multiple people. The other path is more, is more like an expert path I would say. A little bit more hands on, a little bit more on the craft. This is what I'm trying to focus on mostly. I don't manage a lot of people at all.

So you guys are at war right now

Are we? I haven't heard about that.

How does one compete when a product is already good? Where else can you go when it comes to the UI? I'm not talking about the business, I'm not talking about distribution, I'm not talking about pricing models, I'm just talking about nailing that UX. Ensuring that when they use Spotify, it's like, this is better than Apple's.

Yeah. I think it will eventually come down to that because we know that at some point in many years everyone will have the same content available. Everyone owns the same licenses, there will be a lot of companies having exactly the same price model, the same content, providing the same speed, audio quality, whatsoever. It really comes down to how you actually differentiate yourself by delivering the content and also obviously how the product works, how the UI works. I guess we are all very much at the beginning and we're trying to find the way of differentiating ourselves.

You actually saw a couple weeks ago when we launched the new Spotify Now, we launched Running and we launched those dedicated moments where we can deliver music to you. That's one of those solutions that we're trying to figure out how to change the delivery of music, if that makes sense. It's just changing completely right now. Before it was more of an access model. You wanted to access the vast universe of music, the full catalog. That was magical a couple years ago. Now the access model is fading away a little bit because it just becomes this commodity. What's the next step? I don't think anyone has figured it out yet but we're of course working hard on it.

Are you happy with the current app now?

No, I don't think anyone is.

I really like it, I really like it. What don't you like or where do you see improvements to be made?

Of course I'm certainly happy with what we have but at the same time I know the fact that I'm unhappy with a lot of things also means that we have a lot of things to do, which is great. I hope everyone in the team will always strive to make it better and is always unhappy to a certain extent, like a healthy unhappiness.

Do you have a high standard?

Yeah, you do have a high standard. I think you also get used to what you have. You see so much opportunities. You see that there are of course millions of people using it, but then there's so many more millions out there who are not using it. You ask the question of why is that. Again, the actual app was more born out of a lot of utility cases. It is great for power users and for super users and it's great for utility, it's great for managing and musing and all of that. What if you're just a casual music listener? What if you don't want to create playlists all the time, what if you don't want to manage your music? What if you just want to listen to some good music and you want the product do the rest of it?

I think there's just so much opportunities and I guess that's why I'm always a little bit unhappy because I'm like, I think we can do it better. Because everyone is like listening to music very differently and is also very sensible about it. That's also one of the interesting things about designing for Spotify is because it's such a personal thing. It's one of those things where, imagine just a radio function. Imagine we give you 10 songs that are based on an algorithm or whatsoever and we think you would like them. 9 out of those 10 songs were actually fantastic, then there's one song that is completely wrong. For some reason it's almost like you feel personally insulted. You're like, oh my God, this is a shitty product, even though we only made one mistake. That only tells how personal this product is and how close music is to everyone's heart. You can't really make a big mistake.

What's going to get you to that place where you have the best product?

I certainly believe that we have the best product in my opinion. I'm using it every day and I really like it. We do a lot of prototyping. We do a lot of things that we're testing. We do so many things, I guess most of the things that we actually build, obviously they never see the light of the day. Maybe eventually they do but we're always trying to stay on our toes. I don't think there is a set path where we know that this is what we're going to do. In the end I also believe that the market itself is big enough where more than just one player, in any industry.

I'm as excited as I am about new opportunities on our product as much as I am excited about seeing other companies or people innovating in that industry, because you get inspired and you get a kick in your ass. I'm actually excited in both ways. It's not so much about the actual product, it's more about where the technology is taking the music or media consumption in general, because it's just changing. Because most of the things that we know or take for granted today, they originated very far in the past, like the fact that an album has 10 songs. That is defined by a limitation of the medium itself which was back in the days, maybe it was a vinyl, it was a cassette, it was a CD. A cassette had an A and a B side. That's how you knew how many songs are going to fit on one album and that's also how you knew that a song is going to have an average of 2 to 3 minutes or 3 minutes, 15 seconds length.

You don't have to do that anymore but we still do, which is kind of funny. Because now we have the Internet, we have streaming. Why does a song still have to be 3 minutes? It was born out of this physical medium and the limitation that came with it. You don't have that anymore. What I think is exciting is where is it going. Let's say 5, 10 years, how are music producers or artists creating their art? Are they still sticking to those limitations that were known for so many years or not? You don't know, I don't know, but that's exciting.

What makes you good at what you do? When Spotify said we want to hire you, what did they see in you? The reason why I asked that question is designers who want to progress in their career and get better. What is it that they saw in you?

I guess I have to ask them.

What are they hoping you'll bring to the table?

I'm trying to reflect that on when I look at candidates as well a little bit, because I suck at praising myself.

Okay, so when you're looking for somebody ...

You're putting me the spot. I think one of the biggest things, I think it's the curiosity. It's being open-minded and being very curious in so many different fields. It's not just focusing on the craft that you already know, just being a designer or being a good product designer but also thinking in terms of the bigger picture, thinking strategically. Being interested in many more things that are part of your responsibilities. I think this is something that we look forward to or we look for in candidates. I think it's also something that I personally have because I'm always jumping around and I'm interested in so many things.

I'm one of the few people who works very cross functional across different teams because I'm just interested in all of those things. I'm not just interested in product design, I'm also interested in the brand, in the marketing, in the customer support. Because they all play together, it's one company, it's one product. I think that's something that I've heard that people like about me and it's also something that I try to look for in other candidates that I like to work with. Sure, there's a benefit in specialization and you should be good at one thing, you should be good maybe at 2 things that you should always be having your hands in many things because that will give you the ability to eventually connect the dots. Because if you don't spread out, you can't really find the dots and then connect them.

I read an article, First Round Capital. You emphasized the importance of side projects. Stupid side projects is what you coined them as. What are you working on now?

Yeah, absolutely. It's a range of, some of them are more stupid one off side projects, just like stupid little things you do on the side, like a funny website. Some of them are a little bit more sophisticated. One of the side projects that I'm doing right now is called Semplice which is a portfolio tool. It helps designers to build better portfolios and showcase their work the way it should be. It's not so much about just a tool, it's more about the mission that I really care that designer should do better portfolios. There's a little bit of a selfish reason to it because I have to review a ton of portfolios. Most of them are not really good. I actually like the ideas that designers build better portfolios and also do better work.

Another project I've been working on over the past year is something called Authentic Weather. It's a funny little app, it basically just tells you the weather in a really honest way. It's almost like a little grumpy person that is sitting in your phone and just tells you the weather the way it should be rather than giving you stats and numbers. It's just saying, it's just fucking raining. You can beep that out. It's a funny side project, but even Authentic Weather got more than a million downloads over the past year. Sometimes it's on the edge of being a funny side project, then sometimes also being a lot of work because you have to do all the maintenance because it reached a scale that you have to maintain it. You can't just say it's a stupid side project anymore.

When should somebody decide to pursue a side project? As creators we have an endless amount of ideas. I assume you want to pick a project that has potential, or is it just to keep your mind occupied?

It's more keep my mind occupied, yeah. I would actually avoid having feelings towards, or trying to find the potential in it. That's usually the number one reason why we don't do anything. We just sit there and we build up those expectations and we're trying to find this potential and were trying to answer all of those questions that are already inside of us, but also all of our questions of our friends and family who ask you, what's the potential, how are you going to make money with it? How is this going to scale? How are you going to monetize? Why are you doing this, why are you investing time in something that is just stupid?

I think that's the number one reason why most people don't do anything. They just freeze and they just sit there and they just think about it. I usually try to avoid that and actually do something completely out of my, based on my gut feeling. It really has to be stupid. It's almost like this question that I ask myself. Is it stupid? If I can say yeah, it is really stupid and even my friend say that, I usually go for it. Because then it's like this thing that, there are no expectations on your side but also on your friends and you can just do it. If it becomes successful or if there is actually potential that grows out of it, sure, that's amazing. Yeah, I try to keep it stupid and don't try to find the potential at first.

You think expectations do what to an idea or to a side project? You think it damages the initiative?

Yes. It depends on how much willpower you have in general. Usually expectations kill the idea. They slow it down, they give you more questions to work with and you have to answer them. You will never ever start doing anything. That's just based on my experience or even on the experience of everyone else I talked about. There's this thing, and you can try yourself. Talk to some of your friends, try to find out what their passion is, one of their deepest passions. Ask them what are the projects or the things that you would love to work on. Everyone will tell you, they're like, I would love to dance, I would love to write a book, I would love to do this app. I have this idea. Everyone has it, 100%, I can promise you.

It's usually not the thing that they do full time or they even do on the side. You ask them, why don't you do it? They're like, I have to find out how to make money with it, my family is not supporting me, they all think it's stupid. I have to prove to them. I don't know how to monetize it. I have family, I have to pay the bills. They come up with all of those excuses. That's only based on expectations, nothing else. It's only expectation. Because if you don't have expectations you would not have any of those excuses.

When you started off in your career you had a bad start. You dropped out. You were on this path of being self-taught. What was that path like of just learning anything on your own?

Yeah, that's an interesting question. There was a lot of rejection in the path like I already mentioned. I tried to study design when I actually found that I want to be a designer, which wasn't really clear when I went to school. I'm not the perfect example of the kid that had two painters or two artists as a parent and started drawing as a kid and then became really good. I definitely was not like that. I always wanted to be a taxi driver when I was a kid. Don't ask me why but, there's a very good reason to it actually, a very logical reason. People always ask me, why you want to be a taxi driver? I'm like, because then I can see the world. Because for some reason it was for me, I thought taxi drivers had the best job because they drive around every day and they meet people and they see the world.

I think that was very logical as a kid for me to be a taxi driver. At some point I learned that this was not the career that I want to pursue. I started being a software engineer and a computer scientist because I was just really into taking computers apart and then ultimately trying to program them. That's when I moved more into software engineering, and based on software engineering I was always more concerned with how things look and how they work rather than the backend development.

That was the first time when I learned, oh, it looks like I'm more interested in being a designer apparently because I really sucked at being a developer. That's how everything started. I really tried to pursue the traditional education, I really tried to fit into the system which was really hard because I just only got rejected all the time, which was fine. It's not a big problem. At the time I really felt like everything is breaking apart and I don't know what I should do. In retrospect I think it was fantastic honestly because I really got challenged to teach myself.

Teach yourself what?

Teach myself design or teach myself to just survive I guess. I was just trying to survive on my own rather than being a designer. Ultimately that made me a better designer because I was forced to do good work, otherwise I couldn't survive because I had to make money, I had to pay my rent. I moved out of my parent’s home early.

Why did you move out so early?

So we were 5 siblings. My mom was like, hey Tobias, you're getting a little bit annoying. I agreed with her. I also said I want to get out of here. It was a mutual thing. We never had to fight or anything. It was just like, I think this apartment is too small for you and for your puberty stuff and all of that. I was like, yeah, you're totally right. I'm just going to get my own apartment. It was a very natural decision. I just needed space essentially. I had to obviously afford to rent and all of that myself. That forced me to survive and just learn stuff.

How did you learn stuff? Online tutorials? Did you have a mentor?

No, never. I didn't have any designer friends at the time. I was playing a lot of computer games, Counter Strike, Warcraft and those things. There was a little bit of a, what do you call, a GFX community, you might remember, like graphics. There was a little bit of a designer community there, people who designed little interfaces for torrent apps or designed signatures that you can put in a forum because you were active on 10 different forums and everyone loved to have this amazing signature, the graphic at the bottom. I think that got me into the feeling that there's other people who are interested in that stuff, because I didn't know that a designer is really something that you can make money with. I thought it was just people playing around with Photoshop doing signatures.

Ultimately I just played around more and more. I started designing websites for my own, my clan which I had in Counter Strike. It got a little bit more real because I could also combine that with everything that I knew about front-end development so I can actually build a website, I could design it. I think when I really started to learn a lot was when I basically made a couple of contacts outside of my computer, outside of the gaming industry. I promised them to design a logo or build a website.

Because some people, they knew that I was doing design, like friends outside of the gaming stuff in my city. They would ask me, hey, I have this new yoga company, fitness company, whatever. Can you do a website for me or a logo? Obviously I had no fucking idea how to do it but I said yes. I was like, sure, I can do it. I think that was the biggest reason for me to learn because now I said yes I can design a logo for you, yes I can design a folder or I can do a book and I give it to you in one month. Secretly I have never done this before. Now I have to deal with it, how to actually design a good logo. You can question if it was good at that time but I tried my best.

Also because you have to learn all the stuff with how to deal with a printer, how to do something print ready. I didn't know nothing. At the end I knew how to print a magazine, I knew exactly do all the color management, like what I should look for in the paper, the different papers, the materials. I think that really gave me a lot of education, just the fact that I lied to people about saying I can do something but actually I could not. Funny thing though, after I'm done with the project I usually knew how to do it. I just repeated it.

Learning on the go.

You have to do that when you're forced to survive. Because at that time I had to pay my rent. I think if I wouldn't have that and I would have lived at home and I would have a cozy room or something like that, I think I would have not done it. Because I'm not forced to do something. In this case I was really forced. That made me not only a better designer but it also made me a better businessperson in a way because I had to build a business by myself. I think that helped a lot.

How do you think designers can challenge themselves more?

How designers can challenge themselves. One of the things that I like to do, it becomes harder especially if you think you're doing a great job is taking on new risks. Because maybe you do something, you do something twice or three times and you're doing a pretty good job and you're successful with it, the harder it will be for you to learn something new because you stopped taking risks. Those risks were usually forcing you to learn something new and get better and get challenged. I think what I like to do a lot is taking big risks in a way, sort of like quitting my job or trying something completely new or promising someone.

I'm not doing it right now but I'm doing it to a certain extent, but you get itchy, you want to learn something new. That's when I would try to maybe go back to my roots and say okay, you know what Tobias, you have to challenge yourself again. You have to take a big risk. You have to move somewhere else, you have to start something new or you have to just promise someone on the side that you're going to draw a portrait of them even though you cannot draw at all. This will force myself, because then you involve other people, you build up expectations on their side and you can't really opt out of it.

At least I'm the person who has to do it that way otherwise I'm not going to learn, because I'm too cozy. You know how that is. Sometimes you just get very cozy because you succeed at maybe the last one or two years. Everything is fine. You don't have to learn anything new. In order to challenge yourself as a designer I think risk-taking is actually pretty amazing. If you really feel it and you're getting shaky, that's when it's exciting.

Coming to a close now, is there anything that you'd want to leave a message to, in particular for designers and products folks?

I don't like to repeat myself, but one of the things that is really close to my heart and is really important to me is really, I love it when designers actually break out of their usual habits of just being a designer and take on new responsibilities. I think that's something I always try to tell all of my friends, I tell all of the designers I know is to do something that is completely out of your field and just fucking do this project that you were talking about for so long. Don't bother all those people every night and tell them about this idea that you have. Just do it. Just take it on and just do it. You have to keep moving.

That's something that a lot of people I think don't understand. I also have difficulties with it. If your goal is to run and keep running, you have to be walking first. It's much easier to start running if you're already walking. The problem is that most people talk about that they want to run but they're actually sitting on the couch. You need a lot more willpower and motivation to get up from the couch from a situation where you're not moving to start running. If you're already walking, it's very easy to transition into a sprint, into a run.

That's something I think a lot of people don't really understand, they're all just sitting there planning, they're doing this big life plans, but they never actually do it. It's better to just walk, have no expectations and just walk. You don't have to know where you're walking. I know it's hard because the moment you're walking it looks like you're going somewhere because you're walking. I'm like, William, where are you walking? That's what people do, they ask you the question because they see you walking and they think you have a goal. The thing is you don't know. You don't know where you're walking. You're just walking because you know that eventually that you have to sprint, you have to start running.

I think that's the biggest challenge for myself as well for many others is that people will always question you and they always think that you have to have this grand plan, you have to know where you're going. You don't have to know that at all. Just keep walking. You don't have to know what direction you're going. You don't have to know exactly what you want as long as you know what you don't want. There's a ton of stuff. When I look at the pile next to me of things that I don't want because I learned that I don't like them, it's much much larger than the pile where I say, this is where I want to go. Because I don't know where I want to go yet. I don't have this grand plan. I don't want to get too philosophical.

I think just having this attitude of just staying busy and keep walking and ignore the people around you who are constantly asking where you're walking towards. You don't have to answer them because eventually you're walking and they are just standing around. Eventually you will start running because you have to. Then you understand where you're going. I think that's something that's close to my heart. That's something that I love to tell most of the people, especially because I know that most people have that inside of them. Every time I meet with friends they talk about, oh, I would love to do this. I'm like, oh, shut up. Just do it. Stop talking about it. It's really annoying. I think that's the number one thing. I feel like everyone, all of us have that in common including me.

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