From Architecture to UX Design: Shopify Design Lead Will MacIvor Shares His Career Journey

by Linn Vizard

posted on 10-10-2017

Will MacIvor is currently a Design Lead at Shopify, and his path to getting there has been a winding one. MacIvor has a diverse set of education and experiences, including a physics degree, and work in architecture. He is no stranger to the startup world, having invested a portion of his career in leading design at Meta (formerly Sciencescape), a company aiming to accelerate the pace of scientific research. He has lead teams at organizations including Loblaw Companies (Canada’s largest retailer) and TD Bank. In conversation, MacIvor shared his experiences and advice on UX and beyond.

His dad was a photographer, which meant that MacIvor had access to the earliest versions of Photoshop in his home from a young age. He loved tinkering with computers and the internet. “I was obsessed with making covers for my mixtapes!” laughed MacIvor. “I spent tons of time playing around in Photoshop.”

Beginnings and the Remnants of a Physics Undergrad

Before jumping over to digital design, MacIvor did an undergrad in physics and a Masters in Architecture. These experiences stayed with him. “What really remains for me from my physics undergrad is the ability to break down a very complex problem into discrete parts. That has served me well in the analytical early design process! Coming out of my undergrad, I wanted to find a way to combine the creative and the technical, so I decided to do a Masters in Architecture. All along the way, I was doing freelance design and web development work,” said MacIvor.

From designing mixtape covers to banking applications!

On Realising UX was ‘A Thing’

MacIvor was working days as a Project Architect and evenings/weekends as a freelance web designer when a friend of his from undergrad approached him with a challenge to solve. With an archaic model of the journal-based distribution of peer-reviewed academic research, it was a struggle for researchers to remain current in their fields. There had to be a better way to push relevant information to science researchers. MacIvor contributed to the early proof of concept work for what became Sciencescape (now Meta), joined the two co-founders as employee number one, and went on to become Head of Product Design.

Transitioning from Architecture to Digital has meant a shift in some key aspects of the work MacIvor does.

“That’s when I started to really try to think about how to transmute the architectural design process to a digital one. I think some of the things that I had found most frustrating in architecture – the glacial pace of the project, the lack of access to users – were solved by working in a digital design process,” MacIvor shared.

Shopify’s offices in Toronto where MacIvor is based.

“Tech felt like a really good fit. Architecture can feel like an old man’s game, whereas in technology your youth is an asset, not a liability. When I took that plunge into a new industry, I didn’t want to fail so I tried to absorb everything I could. I talked to as many people as I could, and tried to understand all of the possible ways I could approach designing a digital product.”

On Preferring ‘Product Designer’ to ‘UX Designer’

MacIvor quickly found himself drawn to the world of lean UX, which involved talking to people, quickly prototyping, validation and rapid iteration. For MacIvor, designing in an in-house context needs to consider both user and market needs.

“I feel like I’ve spent the last few years advocating for the product designer title, rather than the UX designer title. While a UX designer does have to consider the needs of the market and the user, I think the distinction with product designers in an internal team is that we don’t have the luxury of only representing the needs of our users. We have to speak the language of the business and to understand that we are building a product that needs to find a market fit. As a product designer, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions – and ultimately build better products – if you understand as many of the constraints and opportunities up front. The real challenge is to do this while protecting the team’s ability to deliver the highest amount of value to the end user.”

Some sketches and wireframes from MacIvor’s work.

On Working In-house Versus Agency

Since leading the design practice at Meta in a startup environment, MacIvor has gone on to work in a variety of contexts. Designing a career that gave him access to many different ways of working was important to him. Each role and each organization were a rich growth experience, with a focus on ‘learning through doing’. MacIvor has worked freelance, with startups, in client services, and most recently leading internal design teams at TD, Loblaw, and now Shopify. For MacIvor, a common thread has been working with teams and leading design practice.

Throughout his career, MacIvor has naturally gravitated to working with teams and leading design practice.

“I went from a few years growing and leading the design team at a startup to working as a product manager with an agency. I wanted to learn as much as possible about how to effectively deliver complex projects, and I found that I loved being client facing and working with diverse teams of motivated specialists. Back at Meta, we all needed to be generalists and wear many hats. Working as a product manager in the agency model, it was satisfying helping to frame the project opportunity through target segments and user flows and then managing the team to deliver the work. While working at a bank, I was learning about working at scale in an organization that was not necessarily digital first. The opportunity to work at Loblaw as the first UX designer and design manager hired and build the team from there was too good to pass up. Now at Shopify, I’m bringing everything I’ve learned so far to a natively digital organization and business. Shopify’s culture is a great fit, and they inherently understand how to deliver digital products and services which means our designers can spend less time managing peripheral stakeholders and more energy focused on delivering the best possible experience for our merchants,” said MacIvor.

Advice for Designers Starting Out

Teaching and sharing his experience has been a natural fit for MacIvor. He is a lead educator at Brainstation, teaching their UX course. In his day job as a Design Lead at Shopify, he is often interviewing candidates for both internships and full-time positions. Some of the best UX designers he has come across have backgrounds in writing or film, and have a wonderful ability to empathize with people, get super-curious about their motivations, and tell really effective stories. MacIvor emphasizes the importance of all the soft-skills required to collaborate effectively as a team.

MacIvor with some of the product design team at Shopify.

“You can teach people everything, but you can’t teach them to care,” said MacIvor. “Having a growth mindset, being open to learning and challenging yourself is a powerful way to position yourself. Base knowledge of common tools and harder skills around design fundamentals are a minimum requirement, and it’s a natural place for new designers to focus. But don’t get caught up in empty formalism or pure aesthetics – design exists to solve complicated problems, and that means collaborating with large teams. So-called ‘soft-skills’ are essential. Can you rationalize your design decisions? Are you able to effectively collaborate with others? Are you mature enough to know when to ask for input and when to come with a recommendation? Soft skills are underrated, but they are so important.”

A portfolio site for an architecture firm that MacIvor designed and built as a way to practice his design skills and connect with people he admired.

In terms of learning the hard skills, MacIvor recommends finding ways to learn by doing. “Classes and boot camps offer great options for a structured introduction. I don’t think they necessarily qualify you for employment. Bootcamps and part-time courses are not job training but if it’s within your means that’s a pretty obvious place to start. Beyond that, volunteer your time by trying to work for friends or family. Do an unsolicited redesign for your local museum. Build event pages for your school clubs. Start your own clothing brand. Publish a zine on a topic you’re passionate about. Make something in the world – don’t get stuck in a screen. Tinker and play, and try to help other people solve problems using tools they didn’t know existed. Really spend time trying to help and understand people. Find ways to practice and apply your design skills,” advises MacIvor.

On the Future of Design

For MacIvor, the future of design is bright, as many organizations look to differentiate through well-designed experiences. He sees successful organizations moving away from legacy silos, and towards one holistic customer experience, regardless of technology or channel.

“As designers we are tasked with being the conductor of the orchestra, collaborating with the business and engineering side in order to deliver great experiences. Being able to bridge logistics and ops with the human side of things is a unique mindset in most orgs. Not too many other people think about how to help their colleagues be successful,” said MacIvor. “Staying focused on people, both the human beings using the products and services we’re designing and the human beings working alongside us inside these companies – will mean we’re always relevant.”

For more, you can check out Will MacIvor’s portfolio, LinkedIn profile, follow him on Twitter or read his writing about design on Medium.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Creativity, Design

Products: Photoshop, Creative Cloud