The journey towards giving designers spotlight on Dribbble with its Design Director Noah Stokes

Juraj Mihalik

Hi Noah. Please tell us who you are and what you do and what do you like to do when you’re not working?

My name is Noah Stokes. I’ve been in the web/design industry going on 16 years now. I started getting interested in the web around 2002. I was working as an engineer at Palm. I admired the creativity around sites like CSS Zen Garden and Stylegala. I was enamoured. I wanted to do that! Turns out, I was horrible at it… so I picked up coding instead. I thought if I can’t design it, I can still be a part of it by coding it. 16 years later, and I’ve come full circle back to design as the Design Director at Dribbble.

Besides work I like to mountain bike. There are many miles of trails here in San Luis Obispo, some right along the ocean. I love to be out on my bike. I also enjoy music—both listening and playing. Lately I’ve been buying albums on vinyl that I love, end to end, first song to the last. Because of the nature of a record player, it firmly plants you in a chair to enjoy the entirety of an album (the way a great album should be heard). Oh, I also like to dance.

I also have 3 boys. I rarely talk about them online, and never share photos in public. I do this to respect their privacy and in a way protect them from the internet itself! My oldest is 14 and my youngest is 7. I love them all very much.

What was your design journey like? When was the moment you knew you wanted to work in design?

My design journey is one that almost never happened. As I went off to college the internet was just starting to blossom, we have a modem pool in the dormitory that you could dial into. Pages would take minutes to load. We’re talking slow. The next year, the dormitory got T1 lines, and Napster appeared and blew up. I moved off campus, forced to use the old modem pool for internet access… and because of that, never got the buzz of the web. Looking back, I’m confident I would have fallen in love with the web had I just been 1 year younger and lived in the dormitory when the T1 lines were installed. I would have changed my major to computer science. Instead, I graduated college with a degree in Industrial Engineering.

My design journey is one that almost never happened.

I worked a variety of jobs until 2002 or 2003 when I started discovering these personal blogs of designers like Doug Bowman, Dave Shea, Jeffrey Zeldman which lead me to sites like CSS Zen Garden, A List Apart and Stylegala (RIP). I fell in love with this world that I never knew existed. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a designer. Well, as it would turn out, you can’t just go and be a great designer on day one. Design did not come easy at all—remember, I have an engineering degree. I struggled to produce anything that I liked enough to share. At the same time, my friend Harold Emsheimer was looking for a freelancer to mark up his design work. The first day I started working with Harold was the first day I started my design journey.

As I got to do the code for Harold’s work, I spent hours and hours inside of his Photoshop comps, measuring, slicing, zooming in and out and in again and by doing this, I started to notice the details in the design, the magic that made Harold’s designs so great. Not only did I notice them, but because I had to covert them to code, I saw how he added those details because I was in the file itself. Things like using #333 instead of #000 for your blacks. Or like 1px drop shadow to add a touch of depth or measuring the distance between the typography and understanding vertical rhythm. Project after project I saw these details, I committed them to memory. And as time went on, and I continued to practice design, I started to put these principles into practice and I started getting more and more design work of my own.

Not only did I notice them, because I had to add them to code, I saw how he added those details because I was in the file itself! Things like using #333 instead of #000 for your blacks.

I would work nights and weekends teaching myself everything I could. I would take my favorite sites, and try to recreate them in Photoshop. I would then try to code them myself as front-end development came easy to me and was something I thoroughly enjoyed. Finally in 2003 I got an opportunity that would change the course of my career forever—I got my first job as a web designer for a small consultancy in the Bay Area. It’s been all over the place since then. I’ve designed and built over 100 client websites. I’ve coded entire SaaS apps in PHP and MySQL. I’ve started a company and worked with some amazing clients. I’ve had incredible, amazing opportunities, and I truly consider myself so lucky to have fallen into this industry at this time—even thought I still wish I was just a year younger.

You started your career working for Apple, but you weren’t happy with the job. Why?

Apple wasn’t my first job, but probably my first job at a company with a reputation. It was right before I kind of “found” the web. I worked there between 2002–2004. At that time, Apple wasn’t anywhere close to the company we know of today. For perspective, when I was there, I worked on the first 17” Powerbook. I was a Software Quality Engineer—in short my job was to insure that we did not break our software with the new hardware we were building. It was an amazing place to work, I grew up an Apple fanboy, so I was living my dream. At the same time it wasn’t the most challenging job and the hours were tough over the holidays because at that time they still used to participate in MacWorld which was in January.

I would see Steve Jobs and Jony Ive around. I got to see projects long before launch. I have friends that went onto do great things there, including work on the original iPhone side by side with Jobs every day. But for me, my time ended after 2 years. The commute was killing me, and I was newly married and wanted more time at home.

You, Garrett St. John and Chris Bowler founded Bold in 2010. Why did you decide to move on your own?

A year before I formed Bold, I began working full-time freelance. I had built up enough clients over the years of night and weekend work, that I locked up a retainer for 85% of my monthly needs. A year later and those retainer clients were my smallest clients! Garrett and I decided that we should join our talents officially and so we began partnership talks. At the same time, we were doing some work for Chris over at Fusion Ads. Long story short, as we formed Bold, we also bought out Chris’ partner at Fusion Ads and acquired that platform as well. I remember phone calls between the three of us talking about what we’d name the studio. We settled on Bold because we wanted to be bold in all that we did. We were even lucky enough to get Aaron Draplin to do branding!

Airtraffic – A sales tool for small businesses

As time went on, we parted ways with Chris and Fusion Ads and continued on with a renewed focus on web design and development. We were an end to end design studio. We did consulting, design, development, support and retainer work. Garrett would handle the backend, I would handle the front-end. He did the books while I did the biz dev. We got to work on some amazing projects—with amazing clients. We got to work with clients like Github, npm, Clerky, College Track, Lookout, Rdio, RogueFitness, SneakerNews, Supra, The Music Bed and YouVersion among others.

NPM

Some projects went on to be acquired, one just went public the other day (Beyond Meat). Some were just a disaster, others were for non-profits that gave us a sense of purpose in what we were doing. We even built (and sold) a sales funnel tool for small businesses called AirTraffic. In the end we ran for 6 years and employed 7 people over the course of that time. I will always look back on that time fondly.

College Track

In 2018, you joined Dribbble team as a Design Director. How did you end up here?

I’m probably close to my sixth month mark at Dribbble. I came over from Creative Market where I was the Product Design Manager. I had an incredible mentor in Gerren Lamson at Creative Market who really helped set me up for my next step—which happened to be Dribbble. First of all, coolest company ever, right? Second, I knew a few folks before I joined and the opportunity to work with them was a double bonus. I couldn’t not make the move. So, as the Director of Design what do I do… great question, I’m glad I asked. Titles are a thing in our industry, aren’t they? Everyone’s a CEO. I kid, I’m grumpy. Get off my lawn.

Creative Market Pro

Back to it though, my role right now. Well, I work to help lead our designers and front-end developers. Dribbble is unique in that nearly all of our designers code and vice versa. It’s uncanny how my background where I wove in and out of design and front-end development prepared me for this very role. Sometimes I’m a full back and I’m blocking for one of our star running backs. Other times I’m the coach calling the plays, or trying to set the tone. Shall I go on with the sports metaphors? Outside of my team, I work with our leadership to help set, drive and support the goals, mission and vision of Dribbble. We’re 10 years old this year, but in a lot of ways, we’re just getting started.

Dribbble is unique in that nearly all of our designers code and vice versa.

What projects are you currently working on?

Our entire company is remote, mostly across the US and Canada, although we do have a few outliers. My team of 5 is spread out from the west coast to the east. They used on cross-functional teams with other designers, front-enders, engineers and a project manager. But we’ve recently changed that up to an internal studio model. Now all work comes through design as a team/studio. This way we’re able to work more collaboratively as a design team to ensure consistency across our platforms. We work across both our community and hiring platform. (Side note, did you know that Dribbble has a hiring platform? We’re working to help every designer get the design job they want.) Outside of cross-functional team work, we work on our own design initiatives. One of the biggest projects we’re working on is building a design system. We’ve completed it in Figma, and are now moving to bring those components to live in code. We’re looking to have it finished soon at which point we’ll initiate Project Double Dribbble… which unfortunately I can’t talk about.

One of the biggest projects we’re working on is building a design system. We’ve completed it in Figma.

Ok, maybe I’ll say just a little something. No, take it back, I won’t. I’ll tell you where we’re headed though. Our vision as designers at Dribbble is to shine the spotlight on the work of our community. Our design system principles are built around this idea. At the same time, we want the aesthetic of Dribbble to be instantly recognizable—we want to be the Stripe that everyone rips off. (Kidding, not kidding, kidding). But when you think about that challenge, how do you shine the light on each creator on the site, while at the same time looking damn fine while you’re holding up that spotlight, that’s the challenge we face every day.

Our vision as designers at Dribbble is to shine the spotlight on the work of our community.

After 15 years of experience in design, where does your passion lie now?

I love this question. It’s one I chat about with other friends at this place in their journey. To be perfectly honest, that itch, that need that I had to constantly be creating and designing has given way to wanting to work to enable others to do that now. I’m sure some of it is my age, but my move from IC to Management was very intentional. There are so many, so, so many insanely good designers out there. I get to work with two of them! I want to help them do what they do best. This isn’t unlike my early career where in order to remain involved in design, I taught myself front-end development, except this time, it’s getting to help designers do what they love. I’ve been in this type of role with two companies now, and I have to admit, these two teams I’ve worked with will be life long friends. I’m loving every step of the way in this chapter of my career.

Some of our NFP work from Bold

Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?

I’m only active on Twitter, where you can follow me @motherfuton. My DM’s are always open. Other than that you can find me online at noahstokes.com.

Bonus Question: What’s your favorite way to eat an avocado?

Favorite way to eat an avocado… probably on a sandwich. Or maybe some guacamole… but does that count?

Want to stay in touch with Noah? Find him on Twitter, Dribbble, LinkedIn or check his website.

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