Jake Knapp is a designer and New York Times bestselling author. He spent 10 years at Google and Google Ventures, where he created the Design Sprint, and he has since coached teams like Slack, Uber, Medium, and LEGO on the method.
Design Sprint is a five-day process of solving problems and testing new ideas, making him so popular for designers and entrepreneurs working in an agile environment. We are so fortunate to get him into an interview about design leadership. Read his responses to each question and how it can help you on your design leadership journey.
Aside from being a design celebrity, how does it feel to be one of the world’s tallest designer?
Hahaha, I can’t answer the “design celebrity” question, I don’t believe that’s true! But it is true that I am very tall, and I like it most of the time. I do hit my head on things a lot, that’s a downside.
Can you give us a glance of how you got your job at Google?
I applied once and they didn’t interview me, then I spent months studying code and web apps (I’d been working on desktop software and hardware at Microsoft) and applied again. This time I got an interview. They told me to read a book called “How Would You Move Mount Fuji?” to prepare for some logic puzzle questions they would ask in the interviews. So I did—I read the book, and spent a couple of weeks having my wife quiz me with sample problems. Then I went in for the interviews and… they didn’t ask anything about code, or web apps, and they didn’t ask me any logic questions. Instead we talked about projects from my portfolio and I did sample design problems—which was really cool, because I was much more excited about that stuff, and I had a really fun time. I was lucky, because at that point (late 2006 when I interviewed) Google had just opened up to hiring people who didn’t have a computer science degree, so I was among the first. I guess I was in the right place at the right time, in a lot of ways, which has been true throughout my career. Enthusiasm and persistence helped me, but luck played a big role.
What major challenges did you face while writing the Sprint book? How were you able to overcome those challenges?
I didn’t know what I was doing! So I got the best team possible—starting with my co-authors, who were my colleagues John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz, as well as bringing in Michael Margolis and Daniel Burka from our team to give insight and input. I have a policy of trying for the absolute dream thing I want, and then if it falls through, I might look for other options, but I always start with the dream, and with Sprint I got really lucky and kind of got the dream everything: The dream business book agency (Fletcher & Co, who had represented books like Made to Stick, Change by Design, Creativity Inc, Creative Confidence, The Happiness Project, and The Lean Startup) and the dream editor (Ben Loehnen, who had edited Made to Stick) and even the dream cover designer (Jessica Hische). So basically at every point, when things were hard, I had amazing people to help—my co-authors and colleagues, and my agent and my editor, and so on. Writing is a very personal thing, and there’s a lot of me in that book, but there’s a lot of a whole of other people too.
As a writer, how would you define design leadership? What’s the difference between your leadership now compared to when you were working with Google as a design partner?
Design leadership could mean a lot of different things. Most of my career as a designer inside big companies, I saw design leaders who were the “big bosses”—the people who led big teams of designers. And that is a very real kind of design leader, and that role is important, and I aspired to it for a long time, but eventually, I realized it wasn’t for me for a lot of reasons. I don’t know if I was a design leader at Google Ventures, I think of myself more as an assistant, someone who’s there to help people do their best work. I want to unlock what other people do, and that continues on to this day. The best way I know to do that these days is to teach workshops and give talks and sometimes write posts and record videos and things, so I guess my face might be in a lot of places and that might make me look like a design leader. But nobody should assume I know too much about design or leading big teams or anything like that.
What advice can you give to designers who want to be a design leader like you, someone who influences companies’ processes in building products?
If you want to influence process, it’s important to build things—at least it was for me. The insights that led me to the design sprint process came from years and years of building products. First as a kid coding simple games, building websites, designing newspapers, then working as a professional designer for a couple years at Oakley, five or six years at Microsoft, then three more at Google, and finally I started to see some things. Even then, it took around three years from the first design sprint at Google (which I ran in 2010) until it took a form that resembles what’s in the book (which was around 2012). A smarter person than me might have been able to see the changes that needed to happen right away, but it took me a really, really long time. If you’re excited about process, don’t worry if you don’t immediately know what to do with that excitement. You can always do what I did—read what other people write about it, see what makes sense to you, build products, and form opinions over time. The cool thing is that if you have that kind of experience, your ideas will be much more credible to people, because you’ll be speaking from experience.