September 19, 2018

Five Questions with Tanner Christensen: Lead Product Designer at Atlassian

An opening quote on Tanner Christensen’s LinkedIn profile describes him as “someone who figures out a way to get things done”. He has certainly demonstrated that throughout his career as, in his words, a “curious, multi-disciplinary product designer, writer, and developer.”

Currently Tanner is Lead Product Designer at Atlassian, a company that develops products for software developers, project managers, and content management. Prior to this role, Tanner was a Product Designer at Facebook and a writer for Adobe’s 99u and Inc.com. He is also the author of The Creativity Challenge and the independent designer behind several of today’s top creativity apps, including Wordid (a word game), Prompts (for beating writer’s block), and Brainbean, brain games for kids and grownups that hit #3 in the App Store worldwide.

Tanner gave us a peek into how his fabulous mind works when he answered some of our questions about living a creative life. We’re looking forward to hearing more about his experience and insights when he moderates the panel discussion at January 2019’s In/Visible Talks conference.

What is your relationship to the creative process?

“One of give-and-take. I find if I give creativity a little something—by doodling on the page or typing out a few words—it tends to give me something back in return, a fresh idea or the inspiration to keep writing. Even if what I’m doing isn’t *really* work, the act of making the motions tends to produce the results I want.

“To me, creativity is a lot like breathing: it happens whether or not I want it to, it keeps me alive, it’s part of me, it does its job as long as I keep doing mine. But it helps if I don’t try to force breathing, or intentionally hold it back or starve it of what it needs. The same goes for my creativity.”

How or where to you find inspiration?

“Everything can be a source of inspiration when I open my mind to possibilities or adjust my perspective of something. For example, I can be driving to work one day and start thinking about the road beneath me: Who poured the asphalt, who decided where the road should be and how wide it should be, what’s their story, how did they get into road design? What type of constraints do the road builders have to deal with every day and how do they decide what tradeoffs to make in their work? How do the road builders or city planners learn their craft? What can I learn from the way a city plans and develops roads? How can I apply that to my own work?

“I find this curiosity about the world around me to be a great means of conversation with strangers as well. Whenever I’m with someone I don’t know all that well, I’ll start asking them about their lives: Where are they from? What brought them here? Did they ever see themselves being where they are now? Was there anything in their bringing-up that drove or motivated them to be where they are now? How does their history, their travel, their childhood influence their perspective of the world now? What might I learn from their perspective, how can I broaden my picture of the world by understanding their picture of it?

“Anything, anyone, can be creatively inspiring if we take a minute to really look.”

What was one of your biggest creative challenges?

“How do you define a ‘big’ creative challenge? Writing a book in a few months was challenging, but that work was less about creativity and more about simply getting my butt into a chair to write. Designing and building an app that reached the #3 position in the App Store and is downloaded by more than a million people was difficult, but I didn’t really view the work as a challenge, and I certainly had no idea how ‘big’ the result would be until after the fact. What often can feel like a big challenge usually ends up being very small and forgettable, and what ends up being big and rewarding always felt like playing around at the time.”

When did you first realize you needed to be in a creative field?

“I was maybe eight or nine years old, and my best friend’s father at the time ran a successful design agency out of our small town in Utah. I didn’t know what design was or what designers did, but we stopped by the agency’s studio space one day, and I was blown away. Here were these large, bright computers—state of the art—illuminating the otherwise dimly lit room. Each desk was surrounded by so much color and vibrant imagery, everything from movie posters and comic books to action figures, cookbooks, and other gizmos or electronics. I had never seen anything like that space before. My mother was an elementary school teacher and my father was a surgeon in the Air Force, so I was used to much more mellow environments. I knew immediately that what I wanted to do with my life was somehow surround myself with that same creative energy, that same colorful, playful environment that seemed to make work into play and vice-versa.”

What was your first job?

“My first ‘real’ job was working the phones at a market research call center. I was good at it, and it taught me a lot about the psychology of people and communication. I had to call hundreds of people a day and convince them to give me five minutes of their time to answer questions. That job helped me understand the importance of research in design.

“My first ‘unofficial’ job was designing brands for people around the world. My clients didn’t know I was just a 16-year-old kid who had taught himself Photoshop. Here I was making thousands of dollars a month doing what I thought was just fun, but that had real results for these businesses out there.”

BONUS ROUND: What are you reading now?

“Smartcuts by Shane Snow. It’s a great book that explains the differences between shortcuts and ‘smartcuts’ and how entrepreneurs, artists, and inventors use smartcuts to achieve success at a faster-than-normal rate. I’m only a few pages in, but can already comfortably recommend the book to anyone interested in ‘hacker’ culture as it relates to business and the work we do every day.”