Diego Zaks, design leader at Ramp on how building trust can make you a better designer

In each episode of our podcast, we talk to amazing product builders to learn about how they work, their processes, the tools they use, and the things that inspire them. It's an opportunity to get a sneak peek into how other builders and makers do their jobs.

In this episode, we interviewed Diego Zaks, Head of Design at Ramp, one of the fastest-growing fintech companies in the world. He talks about how he got started as a designer in Venezuela and ended up in the position he is in now at Ramp. He previously directed digital design at JUUL Labs, was an adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts, and was a senior designer at Studio Rodrigo.

In our episode, Diego shares how building trust can make you a better designer.

Irtefa: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the 100% Design podcast, where we speak to design leaders and where they share tips and tactics to level up as designers. My name is Irtefa, and I'm the co-founder of Jam. Today we're chatting with Diego Zaks, who's the head of design at Ramp, one of the fastest-growing companies in the world. Diego is joining us today to tell a story. We're going to cover things like how aspiring designers can get started early, how you can get better as a designer, and more. I had the good fortune of seeing Ramp and its different iterations, and the thing that stood out to me, among many other things, was how bold the creative direction was. We're not just talking about Ramp today. We're talking about the person behind that movement and how they're questioning the status quo. So, Diego, I'm curious when did you learn that you wanted to go into design in this creative direction?

Diego: First of all, thank you for that intro. That's really humbling. I really appreciate that. I was 14 at the time and essentially debating whether to be a doctor or a designer. So two very related fields, and it turns out I cannot stand blood, so it was an easy choice.

Initially, I got very lucky that I knew some people at J. Walter Thompson back in Venezuela, where I grew up, and they essentially allowed me to just hang out with them in their office and talk to them and come up with ideas. They started including me in the meetings, and pretty soon, I was an unpaid employee of the company, which was awesome. I was extremely happy to be there and liked the passion for being able to communicate and understand what makes people tick. How you elicit a reaction in someone was just really the most fascinating part about design, and that's the guiding principle of, at least, my career. How can I elicit a reaction in someone to make their day, their life? Is there something better or different in a way that allows us to have more of a lasting impact on their life?

Irtefa: And did you say you were 14 when you started doing this?

Diego: Yes, I was very lucky. I was still in high school and was basically spending my summer just going to an office and being with, like, truly amazing creative people. And they were the ones that really sparked that design career. I think I was already interested in arts and design. My grandfather was just an incredible Latin American painter, and I always knew that visuals were something there. I was somehow interested, but the business side of it because I'm not an artist. So discovering the business side of it was really interesting for me.

Irtefa: So you had these creative juices basically in your vein, like, you know, your grandfather's famous painter, and then you're in these offices learning all the business side of arts and creative, right? You also had this experience of working with iconic companies like JUUL, and then somehow, you ended up at Ramp; how did that happen?

Diego: The theme throughout every opportunity I've had has been because of someone else. I'll always appreciate that someone has given me a chance. I was a 14-year-old kid who was just interested in design and got to sit in with the creative director at J. Walter Thompson in Venezuela, the biggest agency in the country. I've known some people who were at JUUL or involved at JUUL. Through that network, those connections, and always being open about design and inviting people into my practice, I've nurtured relationships with people from all over the world and all different backgrounds.

So a couple of friends joined JUUL and said, We need someone to help us do design, and who do we know? And then, usually, that's as far as the network needs to go. It's like, Oh, you know, someone who knows someone, let's talk to them.

So I've always made it a point to meet people, always try to be helpful, and offer what I have, which is my knowledge and skill set. When I met you, it was how can I help you? I want to give you guys my advice. I want to help you guys build a product and do something special. And with my skills, how can I impact your life, product, and career?

So I ask myself that question about everyone I meet and how with my skillset, can I be of assistance to them? How can I have an impact on their careers and their lives? At the time, I was at a digital product studio called Studio Rodrigo, which was just one of the most fun places to work in New York. And then some friends said, Hey, come join us at JUUL; we need design. It's like, What kind of design do you need? There's no way. And then, like diving into it, truly, the challenge was just enormous in terms of product and software design.

Irtefa: A crazy challenge, right? One thing that's common across the different parts of your life is this idea of reciprocity. Like other people help you out, you're helping them. Last year when we started working together, I remember how helpful you were with Jam, shaping Jam the way it is today, and continue to do that. What advice do you have for a 14-year-old person trying to break into the design and learn from others, what advice do you have for them?

Diego: One of the most important things is embracing what you don't know. There's this myth that people will only listen to you if you have something important to say to them, and that's not necessarily true. Most likely, you'll be able to reach out to someone that you admire with a question by just admitting; I don't know how to do this thing you do very well. Can you help me? I want to learn. And that is an invitation enough to get someone interested and invested in you to try and help you to share their knowledge. Obviously, some people are gonna say like, "No, I don't have time." And that's totally fair. Like never be offended by that. But it's a lot more likely that you get like a positive response from someone or at least someone who can put you in touch with someone else who might be able to help you or share some knowledge that might help you in your career.

Irtefa: When you are that young, the world can be intimidating. But it's incredible how many helpful people are out there. You have to shoot your shot. As you said, some people will say no to that, but some people will say yes and will help you out and will give you that big break you deserve. This segues into my next question pretty well. What advice do you have for designers who are trying to level up? What tactical tip can you share that can level designers up?

Diego: There are a couple of levels to that question. There's like, how do you get better at your craft? How do you get better at your thinking? And how do you make better connections between ideas? And then another very important thing is like, how do you scale yourself so that you can have a bigger impact wherever you go?

So let's start with the craft specifically for product designers. We need to go back to looking at the great designers of our time. Not just looking at the products that we're competing with that are around us, or like Dribble and all of these crazy, beautiful, incredible UI designs. But actually, taking a step back and looking at design in the broader context of what people were doing in the sixties, how, what can we learn from these posters, these crazy color compositions, print-like books, typography, color, like all these basics of design. To become a better product designer, dip your toes in graphic design and become a better graphic designer, which today is almost an insult to say to a product designer. Like, Oh, I'm not a graphic designer; I do product. Actually, doing graphics really helps a lot. So there's a lot of fundamentals there.

The second piece is how you connect and think bigger than the immediate project. When you're starting off, you get smaller chunks of a design. You don't get to design the whole thing all at once altogether. It's like pretty overwhelming to start there. But I always ask how the thing I'm doing connects and affects the rest of a product and the rest of the company. How does it connect to the business objectives and goals we've set as a company? How does this help revenue? How does this help sales go to market?

And then, finally, how do you scale yourself? You only have so many hours in a day. Some people who work 18 hours a day are good. But that's not a sustainable thing. And there's a limit to how much time you can put in. So especially if you go through a period of being a freelancer where you're charging by the hour, every hour counts—so investing a small percentage of your time every day in the tools. Getting better at the tool, getting faster, using the keyboard commands better, or getting a plugin like every day, I'm fast. I just found a different plugin that makes my job a little bit easier and a little bit faster. And over time, all of these little shortcuts start to add up. You can do the work of five people because you've invested in the process and the system that allows you to produce and have this incredible output from the same amount of hours you put in.

Irtefa: All of this advice is super practical, and I love how you can do small things like learning keyboard shortcuts to get better at the tools you're using every single day to scale you better. The thing that really caught my attention was when you're talking about designers in the sixties and designers in the late 18 hundreds. Interestingly, you point that out because I think what you are, talking about is the fundamentals. Designing could be different, but the fundamentals, those great designers that were using those principles, are still the same. What are your favorite designers?

Diego: Adrian Frutiger is the best type designer that ever lived. Even though I have never been able to successfully use Frutiger as a font in a project because it doesn't actually work, the fundamental things are just right about it. So, something that you just said really resonates, which is the fundamentals are innate in humans. We look for rhythm; we look for patterns. We look for contrast and balance. Learning to use these tools of visual language intentionally is almost like learning to speak English before you can write a book. You can technically write a book by copy-pasting a bunch of paragraphs from the internet. Still, you need to invest in knowing the fundamentals of language, music, or mathematics. All this stuff allows you to be much better when you go one level higher than that. So I'm going to stick with Adrian Frutiger.

Irtefa: We're going to add a link for the audience. Thank you so much for sharing that. What books transformed you as a designer?

Diego: One of the biggest ones is this German-Venezuelan designer from the sixties through the eighties. Gared Leufert essentially went into this very deep exploration of shape and perception. And finally, like one of my dreams came true, I was able to find one of these books on eBay and just got it. It's just absolutely wonderful. And it's just a book of visual exploration. It's just a book of shapes. It doesn't do anything else.

Irtefa: Do you remember the name of that book?

Diego: Yeah, La Emblemática specifically is going through all these explorations of shape and logos and things that just happened over those years, and you can see they still hold up today, 40 ish, 50 years later. They're still just incredible logos that, if you saw them anywhere, would be striking. So one of my internship projects when I first graduated was scanning this book and putting it online. So I'm going to go find that from 2008; see if I find that link. I'm going to share it with you.

Irtefa: Yeah, please. Diego, one of my favorite things about doing these episodes is I get to learn about these like nuggets that most people don't know about. So thank you for sharing that. It's not just for our audience, but it's also adding to my reading list, so that's really cool. What podcasts are you listening to, or YouTube channels are you watching?

Diego: I don't actually listen to any design-related podcasts or YouTube. YouTube channels, some people go off and build cabins in the wilderness. That's design. You're designing a life, and you're designing your environment, designing all your things. But I don't know if that's more of a symptom of the pandemic and not leaving the house for so long or if it's an actual interest in going into the wilderness.

Irtefa: Do you have a specific channel you want to call out?

Diego: Yes, My Self Reliance. This guy has built an incredible compound up in; I think it's somewhere in like rural Canada. He just started building a second one, so I highly recommend following his adventure. It's just fascinating. It's just him and his dog—no one else.

Irtefa: How did you come across this channel?

Diego: Oh, that's YouTube magic. I have no idea.

Irtefa: YouTube rabbit hole.

Diego: Yeah, exactly.

Irtefa: Diego, thank you so much for sharing all the advice, books, podcasts, and YouTube channels. Before we say goodbye, do you have any advice for product managers and engineers who work with designers every single day? How can they have a better relationship? How can they work better and produce great work?

Diego: One of the strategies that make Ramp such a good place to work and also such an effective company that ships a lot of products out very quickly is that our main structure is for optimizing speed to decision making, speed to code, speed to production, and get things out there as fast as possible.

If you spend a lot of time thinking, debating and investing in stuff, the risk of getting it wrong goes up. Not that you're more likely to get it wrong, but the cost of getting it wrong is higher, so the risk equation is a little different. At Ramp, the overlap between product design and engineering is extremely big. It's big; it's the most overlap I've ever experienced. And I cannot overstate how important that is or how effective that is. When you have a product manager, an engineering lead, and a designer that can trust each other and trust their own decisions and trust that the other person is making decisions to the best of their knowledge, you can move very quickly. I would say to a product manager that you can leverage a designer for a lot more than the design itself. Give a designer a business problem and see what happens. Give them the more abstract thing and let them work laterally and explore all the different options because it's very cheap to explore something in Figma and very expensive to do eighteen iterations in code over the course of a year. So really, sharing the business side, the data side, those responsibilities and not thinking that you have to come to a designer with a solution, with an idea or the thing already solved, use them as a partner to solve the problem together.

Irtefa: The biggest takeaway is having trust, trusting your designer with, hey, this is a business problem. Often I've seen people say, and I've been in that state too, as a product manager, I would say, can you just design this UI? That's not enough. It's better to give someone a problem and let them come up with a solution; you have to trust them. And I also love treating these product exercises while keeping in mind that you have to ship fast. So you have to experiment and ship quickly. Because, as you said, if you wait too long, you know, you might not learn enough. And the cost is way too much.

Diego: Yeah, time is cost. So I think the most important thing is not to make the right decision, but to make a decision.

Irtefa: Move fast.

Diego: Yep. Exactly.

Irtefa: A hundred percent. Diego, thank you so much again for joining today and sharing your wisdom. So many golden nuggets. I can't wait to talk to you again sometime soon.

Diego: My pleasure. Anytime.

Here are links to things discussed in the podcast:

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