Talking UX design @ ProtoHack Toronto

Last weekend we hosted Toronto’s first ProtoHack! ProtoHack provides non-coders the space to try out prototyping, equipped with popular UX tools and a supportive community.

Friday night kicked off with a panel of top UX talent, hosted by Ria Lupton.

Featuring design experts:

  • Tom Creighton – Product design freelancer, having worked for 500px, Shopify, and Wealthsimple. Lead Instructor at Bitmaker
  • Travis Hines – Senior Design Lead at Shopify. Lead Instructor at Bitmaker
  • Huda Idrees – Partner and Head of Product Design at Wealthsimple
  • Katerina Lyadova – Creative Director and co-founder at Oddbee
  • Chenny Xia – CEO and partner at Journey

Here are some highlights from their discussion on design ethos, industry trends and their reflections on the Toronto design scene.

Defining design

So, what does design mean? It’s creatively building a solution to a specific problem, and doing so in a reliable, repeatable way. This deviates from art, which is a creative pursuit unto itself, and the process is thoughtful and emotional.

Design is about how you tie what you’re creating to how it feels. Travis likened this feeling element to stand-up comedy. There’s a genuine intent behind making people feel a certain way. “Bad design, much like bad comedy, the second you come across it you realize ‘Wow... this is shit.’”

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Be your toughest critic

The panel agreed that designers should always be looking for ways to improve. For Huda, design is like yoga. “The whole point of being a yogi is to be free of ego. You’re never the best. As a designer, generally you’ve reached a high level of skill when you recognize that you are not ‘the best’. It’s an industry of constant learning, and constant improvement.”


Designers make educated assumptions throughout their process. These assumptions are then validated through testing and watching what people do with a product, Katerina explained. Chenny vouched for intuition more specifically. “There’s value in the gut, particularly during a work’s early stages. Iteration cycles can happen later to refine that.”

Being on-trend

Are design trends important? Yes they are, but it’s important to discern what is a fad – you don’t want to get your inspiration from something that will quickly become passé. “Some trends you have to go with. Users have expectations of things operating in a similar manner to what they are accustomed to. If you don’t do that, you stand out in a bad way,” said Travis.

Huda follows trends in respects to iteration and implementation. “I look for new forms of [a trend] in other places. A large part of my keeping up is not via dribbble shots, but looking at something that’s so different than what my work immerses me in. Like boardgames, for example.”

Keeping a brand fresh is a delicate process, particularly when customers perceive an aesthetic update as being unnecessary. Tom feels that Uber’s app icon rebrand is an example of this. “They blew up their sleek aesthetic [by taking away the 'U' logo] and replacing it with a graphic that is less intuitive. I think it’s done a bit of intangible damage to Uber’s overall brand – if you go out into the weeds and lose meaning with your audience, you need to know when to pull back.”

The Toronto community

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the design scene here in TO? The community is small, but growing rapidly. It’s the best place for tech in Canada in Travis’ opinion, with the upside of being a small scene is that there is “no bullshit” atmosphere. You can quickly receive quality feedback from people at events, without the air of competition and performativity that tends to plague Silicon Valley.

To Katerina, there is a big demand for quality UX design, but it can be challenging to sell your services. As the scene grows, there are more meetups to attend, and a wider variety of startups appearing. If you want to work on projects that focus on improvements for the general public, Chenny recommends checking out Civic Tech Toronto and its weekly hacknights.

Advising your past self

If you could go back in time to when you were just starting out in the design world, what advice would you give yourself? Take more risks. Get comfortable with change. Chenny highlighted the importance of ensuring that you are compensated fairly for the value of your work.

“A lot of people don’t understand the value of design. Learn business management – it’s important to speak the same language as the decision makers. Learning this language assists in tying what you do to a dollar sign.” This was echoed by Tom. “I would worry less about my work and pick up business skills earlier on. Asking yourself, ‘What are you selling when you are selling design?’ is crucial.”

Thanks to everyone who came out for ProtoHack! Interested in learning more about UX Design? Check out our immersive bootcamp and part-time courses!