How to grow as a designer and always be curious with Ramon Gilabert from Microsoft
Hey Ramon, let's start with you telling us a little about yourself.
Hey, thanks for having me, it's truly an honor to be featured in this series, as some of the folks that have been interviewed here have, directly or indirectly, helped me so much during my career.
I am Ramon Gilabert, an interaction designer from Tàrrega, a small town close to Barcelona. I am currently designing Lobe at Microsoft, and I have worked for companies such as Red Bull, Intersport, IKEA, and Domino's in the past.
My background is a bit non-traditional, since even though my passion for computers was clear since I was 10 - tinkering with the inside of my black Pentium IV, changing computer parts, or building my first websites for (or about) Greenpeace - I ended up studying Electronic Engineering, something that was not related pretty much at all to the things I liked.
I pretty much detested my degree until the very end, but with some money I had made during a couple of summer jobs, I bought my first Mac, installed Photoshop, Sketch 1, TacoHTML, and Xcode, and that changed my life forever.
Let's hear more about this. Tell us about your path to becoming a designer.
I was born in a nation that values sports more than anything else, and I clearly remember seeing my first football pitch when I was 8. "Mom, I want to play here, too". Like everybody else around me, becoming a soccer star was one of those early dreams you have, but something that changed quite radically as soon as I saw my first website in our Pentium IV at home.
I remember being 10 and discovering Google.com, going to Hotmail.com and creating my Messenger account, and going to Apple.com and configuring the dream computer I truly wanted. Above all, though, I remember reading about Greenpeace and wanting to give back to it in a way a 10-year-old could give back… so I created a website in a drag and drop service that allowed you to do read-only sites. My mom, fearing what Greenpeace would do to me, made me take it down, but the train never stopped from that point on, and the next stop, was to download Photoshop.
Online games had started to come out back then -it was around 2004 -and each game had an online forum attached to it, so you could post battles and meet people with the same interests as you had. I didn't know much English so I'd use my English to Catalan dictionary to translate the words that people used to type. I discovered a section in one of those forums that said "Signatures" - in it, people would compete head to head to see who had the most beautiful signature, and I wanted to be part of that, so I downloaded Photoshop, and I started doing signatures for online games, taking part in competitions, reading about Photoshop tutorials, asking people for their tricks, and downloading lots of renders from DeviantArt to blend in my creations.
Design at that point for me was art - and the only thing I had - was the drive to do something beautiful in the world I had just discovered online.
After a while, the iPhone was announced, and I remember seeing videos on this new website called YouTube about the camera animation, the keyboard recognition, and the overall interface that some folks at Apple had created. It was clear to me at that point that I wanted to create something for it - so I started reading about Objective C, much later Swift, Photoshop, and much later Sketch, and then, the whole world of design, from prototyping to interaction, visual and graphic design.
That's quite a story. Where did it lead you? What are you doing now?
I am currently working at Microsoft designing Lobe, a free, easy-to-use tool that lets you train custom machine learning models that you can later use in your app. Lobe makes machine learning accessible to everyone, not just a small group of experts with deep knowledge of data science and code.
What's interesting is that machine learning has often been thought of as a technology, but in reality, it's just a tool that has been sitting around in a dusty corner of scientists offices for the past 30 years, and, though the potential of that technology can, and will define the direction our world takes in the coming years, it has mostly been left out to just a small group of people.
With Lobe, we wanted to empower anybody to incorporate machine learning into their apps, so we made it universal, free and private.
Beyond Lobe, I try to regularly launch and support small side projects, such as a weekly podcast in Catalan called Safareig (safareig.fm) or a website to see the current state of fully vaccinated people in the world called Vacunat.
Can you describe your role at Lobe in more detail?
Machine learning will be in every pipeline and in every piece of software we create in the future, not only assisting and automating parts of it, but maybe creating the software itself. GitHub launched Copilot not long ago.
At Lobe, we are striving to empower more individuals to use machine learning, first with vision and images, and later by working on supporting more problem types and reducing the friction to get started with those. Lobe makes collecting data, labeling, training and using your model seamless, the same way shooting and editing a movie feels seamless with the iPhone.
Not too long ago, we partnered with Adafruit to launch a Raspberry Pi kit, so makers around the world could prototype their ideas using a Raspberry Pi. This March, we also launched a redesigned export page and the ability to select multiple camera sources, so data collection becomes even easier in your computer.
I am currently the lead designer for everything that has to do with Lobe at Microsoft, though Microsoft is a big company and priorities keep changing around.
How did you get to be the Lead Designer? I bet it was an exciting journey.
I started my journey in formal tech at Hyper, a small digital agency in the heart of Oslo focused on building products for companies such as Intersport, Varner, and IKEA. A friend called Elvis spotted some of the work I was posting on GitHub and on Dribbble, and reached out to do an interview.
After a couple of talks and a home exercise, I was moving my whole life to Norway to get started as an iOS engineer there. I spent two years in that new country, learning everything I could from the super talented people that worked there… Chris, Vadym, Markus, Johannes, Ola, Silje, Thuy, and many, many more. And though I started working as an engineer there, I quickly transitioned into interaction and visual design.
After my two-year stint in Norway, I flew back to Barcelona to start freelancing again, until Red Bull called because they needed help on their Red Bull TV and Red Bull.COM platforms.
The mission at Red Bull was to inspire people to do more through the content that Red Bull itself produced, and it was an amazing job, because the mission aligned really well with my values of inspiring people through beautiful content.
At Red Bull, we came up with many concepts like live channels, the player as the control center for consumption and discovery, engaging cards that would appear contextually as you'd read certain stories, and more. My time with Esa, David, Philipp, Flo and the folks at Dayy was awesome, but after a couple of years working remotely for Red Bull, I wanted to be closer to tech again, so I started working at Netlify with Rafa on two projects that saw the light of day: Netlify Docs, and private, server side Netlify Analytics. After a while at Netlify, I moved on to work on Lobe, the project I've been working on for the past two and a half years of my life.
I know you also host a podcast about how technology is changing the society around us, and it's exclusively in Catalan. What's the story behind it?
I like to think of the concept of a fly on a wall in the middle of a conversation when I think about podcasts, and in fact, I spent many years listening to podcasts and learning on the internet, so when the opportunity came about, I couldn't let it go, Marc proposed to start a podcast, and we called it Safareig.
Safareig is a very Catalan word that means both "laundry room" but also, the act of going to a place to gossip about ideas. This second definition comes from the days when people would go to a place to wash their clothes and they'd talk to others while they were cleaning them.
All in all, Safareig is a podcast about technology, culture and our society- the Catalan society - as it evolves with the constant reinvention of technology. Born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Safareig tries to answer the questions that people may have around up and coming concepts such as privacy, job seeking, mobility, design or machine learning, and historical events such as the Macintosh introduction, the iPhone event, or the organizational history of companies.
Safareig is in Catalan because we would be lying to ourselves otherwise. Catalan is a very minor language in the grand scheme of things, and technology, always going with the big first, is alienating a language that for many of us, is the first language that we used when we were born, and still use to this day. With this podcast, we try to bring two realities together, the reality of this minor, unprotected language and the reality of technology changing worlds and lives.
It sounds like you have good time-management skills to do all these things. Do you have some routine by now?
My partner's alarm goes off at around 7:15 AM, which means that my alarm is starting to warm up to tick at 7:50 AM. I wake up to a Catalan radio station that plays music, so I start the day with good vibes in my body. After I've woken up, I quickly lay down in the sofa for another 30 minutes again.
Every couple of days, I go on a 10 to 12km run in Collserola, the mountain that we have, limiting Barcelona on the west. I always feel fortunate to live close to nature, even if it's nature that's been prepared to be merged in the city. Barcelona doesn't have many green spots, but Collserola is one of the most beautiful ones I've seen.
After my run, I usually take a shower, have breakfast, record a podcast if it's Thursday, and then go to my home-office-space - I'll spend the majority of my day there. I usually start work around 11 or 12 PM and go on until 9 PM. Lobe is based pretty much entirely on the west coast, both in Seattle and San Francisco, so having as much overlap as possible is important to ensure a tight collaboration between designers, engineers, and other partners in the team.
Meetings are over at 9 or 10 PM, and my partner just gets home. We cook a nice dinner, talk about our day, watch the Barcelona game, or just enjoy a bit of silence together. At 11:30 PM it's reading time, and at 12 PM lights are off.
How is remote work treating you?
I've been working remotely for the past 5 years, first in my studio in Barcelona, then in a co-working space, and finally in my apartments later on. Remote has been hard, especially at a time when nobody was doing remote life, and though it became easier once we were all remote for COVID, the circumstances sucked to a point where motivation was really low for all.
Remote work is both a curse and a blessing, though, for one, you can work from anywhere - you just need an internet connection, your computer, and motivation to do the work - you don't need to commute, you are closer to your family, you can meet people all around the world, and you can focus a lot more most of the time.
On the other hand, though, collaboration is harder, lack of motivation to achieve goals is present everywhere, work and life balance gets often broken, schedules get shifted, limited space makes it harder to pull work off, and inspiration is harder to find.
I believe that many innovations are happening for remote work as we speak, but nobody has been able to crack the beauty of seeing one another every day, of collaborating together, of coming up with ideas in impromptu brainstorm sessions, or on learning about your team's work whenever you are just wandering around the office.
As things open up again soon, I am hopeful remote work will stay, so many people that couldn't move countries, that had to help relatives around their houses, that had disabilities, or that simply needed or wanted to stay at home with their families, will still be able to work, but I, for one, I am excited to be able to go back to the office, at least every once in a while, to enjoy people's warmth again.
With such a tight schedule, do you still have time for hobbies?
Not all is work here, and it's been clear to me over the years, that, even though I had a rough period with them, sports have always been there when I needed them the most - not only as a consumer of sports, or as a creator of platforms for them at Red Bull - but also taking an active role in them. Three years ago, I started running regularly and that was one of the best decisions so far. In the past, I played football for 10 years and did rock climbing for 2.
Beyond enjoying the competitiveness of sports, the team-building experience, and the greatness of athletes such as Leo Messi, LeBron James, Eliud Kipchoge, Aitana Bonmatí or Simone Biles, I enjoy nature, traveling around, looking at architecture, reading books, watching good movies, and listening to good music. As of late, I've been also building my record collection—re-discovering classics such as Bob Dylan and Supertramp, and mixing them with the great Catalans like Manel or Els Amics de les Arts.
Do you have some tips on how you educate yourself?
Being self-thought is not easy, especially in a new area such as design - you are constantly questioning every decision you make, and you are constantly faking it, so it looks like you know more than what you actually know. Impostor syndrome is real, in the best, and in the worst weeks, and so, the little voice of the little guy in your head telling you "you are not good enough" is always present.
I am going to paraphrase Giannis Antetokounmpo here - a couple of weeks ago, he explained how he got past his ego, saying that when he focuses on the past, that's his ego talking, but when he focuses on the future, that's his pride. He finished by saying that he tries to focus on the moment, in the present. That's humility, he says, that's being humble. In a weird way, and without being as accomplished as Giannis, thinking about this framework makes sense, not in an achievement kind of way, but in an impostor syndrome kind of way. The truth of the matter is, everyone is trying to figure things out as they go, so read, learn, keep being curious, and be in the moment; nobody will fire you, or will fault you for wanting to learn more and wanting to push yourself harder, if anything, people will praise you for it.
As of myself, I'm always trying to look for opportunities to learn, new courses, new books, new talks, new people to meet, and I always try to stay curious. I recently finished my masters in Interaction Design as well, which helped me stay on track for a while, but as new things come on, as new opportunities come forward, that voice gets activated again, and you just need to push it aside, and try to push forward.
Last but very important question. What inspires you in your work and life to grow and better yourself?
Keep growing, keep pushing, keep building and above all, keep learning. The knowledge you can potentially learn is and will always be greater than the time you'll ever be alive, but regardless, learning shouldn't stop when you stop going to school, or when you are outside of your job. Life is for the curious, and curiosity is always a skill that I try to nurture.
As I did in my interview with Interface Lovers, I'd love to end with a quote attributed to Ira Glass:
"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn't have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you got to know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It's going to take a while. It's normal to take a while. You've just got to fight your way through."
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