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6. Buying into Design Systems

Episode 6 - February 06, 2020

Chris chats with Marco Suárez about his design experiences in the early days, before the term 'design systems' was official. The two discuss:

  • How to drive adoption of a design system within an organization
  • Using branding and design in a physical space as well as digital
  • Marco's design experience and working with companies like MailChimp and Etsy on design systems
  • Getting bigger companies to sign on to design systems

Guest

Marco Suárez

Product Designer, Design System Consultant, Co-Owner of Methodical Coffee

Marco Suárez has built design systems at InVision and Etsy. Now he guides companies through the process of designing and adopting their own design systems. He's also one of the owners of Methodical Coffee, a cafe and roasting company in Greenville, SC.

Show Notes

In this episode, Chris and Marco discuss coffee, because sometimes it's too early in the morning for beer.

Methodical Coffee is located in Greenville, South Carolina, but you can order their beans online for an at-home experience. They serve single origin coffees, pour overs, siphons, and cold brew.

https://methodicalcoffee.com/

Follow @Methodical_SC on Twitter.

Episode Transcript

Chris Strahl:
Welcome to the Design Systems Podcast. We're all about the places where design and development overlap. We talk with the industry experts about trends in design, development and take a look at new ways to build digital experiences, typically over a beer or two.

Chris Strahl:
Today I'm here with Marco Suarez. Marco is a product designer and he also runs his own design system consultancy. He helps other businesses and large enterprises kind of get a handle on how to implement and use design systems really effectively. He's also the co-owner of Methodical Coffee, which I'm sure we'll get into today. Welcome Marco. Really glad you're able to make it. Thanks for coming.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah, thanks for having me.

Chris Strahl:
A lot of, in kind of figuring out what we were going to chat about today, a lot of it kind of came back to this idea of helping people create really great systems and how those systems apply very broadly across people's lives, across the decisions that businesses make, and I think a big part of this is I wanted to really get into your experience personally. I know you've worked with Etsy and MailChimp and InVision I believe. Right?

Marco Suarez:
Yeah.

Chris Strahl:
And so with those, one big company that is focused on design very heavily and then two actual real prevalent design systems, talk to me a little about what that was like. What was it like to be in an industry as it was kind of emerging and coming up and what were some of the things that you were trying to figure out along the way?

Marco Suarez:
It's interesting when you look back you see the common thread, but in the moment you just kind of, trying to figure out what to do. But previous all those, I worked for a startup called Zaarly and that was my first interaction with design systems even though we didn't call it that. And me and two engineers developed, what we called, a style guide. It was basically a design system, typography, colors, components. And the problem we were solving there is one, we wanted to create a catalog of all the things that we had in our UI, but then also design was having a hard time keeping up with engineering. So we wanted to give engineers a tool they could use to kind of get ahead.

Chris Strahl:
Gotcha. So what form did this early design system style guide take? Because it sounds a lot like my experience where the very first ones of these that I was building, we didn't know what to call them. What was this? Was this code? Was it a bunch of organized design files? Like what was the approach you guys took?

Marco Suarez:
It was code. So that application was Rebound Rails and this was, and I'm going to be hitting my lack of knowledge of engineering, it was a gem that we would distribute to the different parts of the app that the engineers could use. And we had the actual component that we had, I think Less and CSS, that they could toggle between to get all the code they needed to implement it and some very light documentation and nomenclature naming that kind of stuff. And we called it the hammer of justice. And justice was spelled J-U-S-T-I-C-S-S.

Chris Strahl:
That's an incredible name. Is there a picture of you in like Thor's armor at the front of that thing?

Marco Suarez:
I did not name it, but all the images we used were of kind of Nordic gods and then the fake copy were all DragonForce lyrics.

Chris Strahl:
Dude, I haven't heard that name in a while. I remember playing DragonForce on Guitar Hero back ya know a decade ago in my friend's living room. That's awesome.

Marco Suarez: Again, I had nothing to do with that. The two engineers were the ones that came up with all of that. But the fun thing was we had a certain brand and we rebranded the company and we had to implement all these changes and it made implementing those changes really easy. And it was that kind of magical moment you see where you make these changes, you save it, you ship out, cut a new gem or whatever, it implements and you're like, "Wow, that was actually really easy."

Chris Strahl:
Was that the intent from the beginning, was to try to make it so that updates and changes were going to be easier?

Marco Suarez:
I think so. I think that was part of the value that we foresaw. And this was, again because this is my first experience, I didn't have a lot of opinions or thoughts on what this was or what we should be doing with it. It was more so of like, "We kind of have this need." And working with engineers like, "Okay we'll build this thing." And it was kind of the brainchild of the engineers more so than me and I was the designer that was helping out. And then after that I was like, "Oh, this is the way everything should be done." And that's where interesting... When I was at MailChimp kind of asking this question is do we have style guide code repository of the components and they didn't have anything when I started there and then they started working on one. I got a little bit of time to contribute to it before I moved on from MailChimp. Obviously they have a really great resource and I also worked a bit on their content style guide as well.

Chris Strahl:
So you had this experience where you sort of saw the light, if you will, around design systems. You saw how practical and how easy they could be in order to help maintain systems, to update things, change things and then you go over to this really gigantic company. I guess MailChimp, maybe it wasn't as super gigantic then as they are now and you go in, you're like, "Let's go do this same thing." And so the idea was trying to get buy-in, trying to get traction, was it already in progress and you were trying to figure out how best to contribute? What was the landscape when you got there?

Marco Suarez:
I saw the value of it at Zaarly, but it wasn't until I was at Etsy where I saw like, "This is a big deal. This is really helpful." When I was at MailChimp, it was like, "Man, this is really cool. We should do this." And I wasn't on the product team at the time, I was on the marketing team so I wasn't involved. But because I had experience with it, then I was kind of brought on like more of a consultant relationship than it was actually contributing to it and looking through the designs and kind of giving like, "Oh, if you did topography this way then you can achieve these things." And it was years after I left before they, I think, actually used it.

Chris Strahl:
Gotcha.

Marco Suarez:
It's interesting because the same issues where you would... I remember talking with one of the product designers about the web app and talking about how there's so much inconsistency with the typography and kind of like, "Well yeah, what happened with that style guide or is that being built out or are you using it?" And he was like, "Well." The typical story of we don't have time to work on it and we don't have the resources or it's not a priority. But it's funny to see, even looking back then, and this was when MailChimp was much smaller, that they were experiencing the same pain points that pretty much every company does. And they were having to the same conclusion that a design system is how we can help with this.

Chris Strahl:
Right. And trying to find that time and that prioritization, we were actually, we were just at An Event Apart last week in San Francisco and Mia Markham gave this great talk about the mythical when I have time. And her big emphasis for that was make sure you actually, if you're valuing a design system and truly valuing it, make sure it ends up on a roadmap. And because that's knowing that you need to take that time to actually make a system that ultimately is there to save you time and address those things like inconsistencies of typography and stuff like that you brought up. The amount of wasted resources that go into fixing topography, if you have to do that every six months, why not just fix it once and build a system and make it so you don't ever have to fix it again.

Chris Strahl:
I guess it's kind of like what you and I mean when we talk about the trade offs and the decisions you're making about as a business when you include something in the design system and when you don't. And so you were about to talk about Etsy. I'm curious about that experience but as specifically how it relates to making those decisions about what this design system was going to be and how it was going to get implemented.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah. So Etsy was a really awesome experience and when I started there it was a bit of a shock honestly to be like, "Okay, here's a large company that's been around for a while, almost 10 years when I joined there, and they didn't have anything, everything was bespoke." And their CSS was just a hot mess. And I remember kind of poking around and calling out some errors in how things were built, like the actual CSS, like the wrong border radius leads on one thing and other and I was like, "Hey, are we going to fix these?" And it was kind of like a in our extra time we go through these paper cuts and fix them.

Marco Suarez:
And so I advocated for a design system for a while and amongst the other designers it was a lot of like, "Yes, we need to do this, we need to do this." And it wasn't until another team kind of went, not necessarily rogue, but they decided to do it. And so they were working on a new feature and they decided to build a design system that powered that feature with the intent that this would eventually be kind of released to the wider team and could be contribute to and grown. And that's exactly what they did.

Chris Strahl:
So it started as an insurgency for them where there was this particular group within product that was like, "No, we're doing this, we're making this system to go address this problem."

Marco Suarez:
Yep. And they released it and when I saw I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is amazing. This is exactly what we need. When can I use this?" And eventually they opened it up and I was like, "Okay, it's good enough." Like I said, they just built enough to power this one feature and with some vision for the future, but it wasn't very comprehensive. And so they finally opened it up and then we created a working group that the design team would meet every other Friday and just work on it. And so we would have quarterly projects and we would have a big party at the end of the quarter and do kind of like a demo day and all of the things that we accomplish... And it was incredible because for one, it allowed us to work together when we normally wouldn't. We were all on our own discrete teams and this allowed us to get together, kind of hang out, have fun and contribute to something that we benefit from.

Marco Suarez:
And then it also grew the design system and grew the buzz in the company to the point where the leadership finally decided that we need to invest in this, that this is powering enough things and there's enough potential in this that we actually need a form of team around this and can continue to grow it.

Chris Strahl:
Yeah. So you guys were at critical mass and that critical mass then got the attention and got budget and got funding for the project. And so it's funny because there's a lot of parallels between kind of the process of building these design systems and very iterative agile approaches. And so when you had this working group that you guys met together, just the mere fact that you had a regular set time where you spent a couple of hours a month or a week working on this thing, I think that sort of speaks to the iterative nature of those sorts of design systems. What was the makeup of this team? Was this something that was really cross-functional, were there project managers, were there coders, were there designers, was it just the design team, who was really driving that? And was that you as a champion that was like, "This is awesome, we need to do more of this"? Or was this the original creators of the system? How did that come to pass?

Marco Suarez:
It started out as the original creators leading it, primarily a designer named Jessica Harley. She really spearheaded it and it was primarily the design team for most of that working group's existence. But then there were other things we needed to do with AB testing and stuff that we needed to bring in engineers. And we were able to rope in a couple engineers to contribute to it. But outside of that, not really anyone else. It wasn't any PMs and it was hard to get people to allocate resources. This was all in your free time, in your extra time, which no one has that. But it was like, "Over lunch we're going to get together and we're going to work on this, if anyone wants to join."

Chris Strahl:
Beer and pizza o'clock.

Marco Suarez:
Yep.

Chris Strahl:
What are some lessons that you take away from that? What is the learning from that really practical side of getting this off the ground?

Marco Suarez:
The biggest lesson I learned is in order to drive adoption, you have to get people involved. You have to create that perception of ownership. If it's a walled garden where only a few people own it and can contribute to it, it's going to be really hard to drive adoption and to get people to value it. Now if they have invested their own energy into it, then that creates that perception of ownership, therefore they're going to use it. They're invested in it. And so that was probably the biggest thing. And the lesson I took at InVision also kind of mirrored that type of work of distributing the work amongst the entire design team as opposed to me doing it all and getting other designers involved on discreet projects like iconography, typography, color, whatever it is. And that also worked great at InVision to get designers familiar with it. They invested in it and therefore they became ambassadors for it and they got their teams to use it. So it created that network spread that we really needed.

Chris Strahl:
So you're creating champions while you're creating the design system.

Marco Suarez:
Exactly.

Chris Strahl:
Yeah. And then those people see the value, they understand the value because they're in it and they're helping create it. Yeah, that's really insightful. I think that there's a lot of teams that we work with where there's a handful of folks that it's their responsibility to do it all. And I've always actually wondered how that works when you start to think about scale, right? So you launch your product or you launch your particular digital property website, whatever, on a design system, and then you go like, "Hey, I've built this really incredible thing. What's next?" And I think that that's another thing that I'd like to hear from you on. When you have this first nascent design system that yeah, it's valuable, but it's not comprehensive, maybe documentation isn't quite where you want it to be, maybe there's a few things that are missing that are really important pieces. How do you go from that sort of nascent prototypical design system to start to scale this across an organization?

Marco Suarez:
And that's what I've also seen as a trend talking with other companies. If you're just talking about it, it's really hard to get buy-in from leadership. It's really hard to get resources, budgets and head count, but if you're able to show them something then it's a lot easier. And so I think there's this idea of going rogue and creating it and using it and then it's also a form, I guess, of twisting their arms where like, "Okay, this is getting a lot of buzz. It's getting a lot of attention. People are using it, we need to invest in it." It's a heck of a lot easier because from a leadership position it's much easier to say like, "Keep going." Than it is, "Start" or "let's spin this thing up."

Chris Strahl:
That's actually, that's a really good point. When you put yourself in the shoes of that director or that VP that is sitting there making a budget decision about a design system and trying to understand like, "Is this thing real? Is this working? Is there value that I can show for this budget or this time that my team has put into this?" That's something that's a major decision point. I'm going to go put a couple hundred grand or whatever, be that in direct cost, in agencies and headcount, whatever that is, that's a substantial expenditure. And then also to think about, so I've made this initial investment, now I have this thing that is its own product that I have to keep investing in and keep maintaining. And so it's very important to show the value of that. What are some of the ways that, and you talked kind of generally about leadership noticing this, what are some of the ways that you made it show up?

Marco Suarez:
That working group was a very tangible thing because it was a two hour meeting every other Friday on everyone's calendar. I have no idea what leadership's perception was of that, but they got really excited about it and really loved what we were doing, when they saw us taking this initiative. And also finding a use case, a case study of it actually working. And there was another team that had to rebuild part of Etsy and they used the design system and they were like the poster child for like, "This project could have taken us six months, ended up only taken us three." The bill time, the front end time was nothing compared to past projects because it was so easy to build. And so I got a nice case study that I was able to shop around. And when we talk about risk and time being risk and the longer it takes to do something, the risk increases. This is a great example of how to minimize your risk, how to get things out, do better work and be able to be more efficient.

Chris Strahl:
So who produced that case study? Did you guys have, maybe not physical paper but digital paper that was like, "This is what we did and this is the value that it brought"?

Marco Suarez:
I kind of interviewed that designer and wrote something up, asked her some questions, got some nice quotes and soundbites from their PM and engineers and stuff like that and was able to have that, copy, paste it, share it around. I think we even used it in a slide deck for some presentation as well. And also the product launch went well. Everything is measured at Etsy. And so when you see a project that everyone's really like, "Fingers crossed, hope this doesn't tank metrics." And it does well and you're like, "Sweet. We're going to use this.

Chris Strahl:
No and that's a great feather, right? To have that, not just a successful launch but also a writeup of what that successful launch kind of meant and what brought you there. And that seems like an incredible tool to get other parts of an organization really excited about the design system work that you're doing. Even if they're completely unaware of it existing in the first place, being able to say like, "Hey, we built this thing and it went well." And not just it went well, but here's actually some voice of the engineers, voice of the product owners, really kind of showcasing the value of this that they could then capture themselves.

Marco Suarez:
It got to the point when leadership decided to build a team around this design system. They talked to me, and at this point I was a huge champion of the design system, I contribute to it, but I wasn't necessarily one of the designers leading it, but they asked if I would be interested in being the designer on that team and at first I was like, "I think there are other designers that are more capable, but okay, we'll do this." It was during that time when it really sunk in and I really saw like, "Wow, this has a lot of potential." Because I feel like in every company when you have teams formed around discrete parts of an application, they're not going very wide, but they're going very deep into a subject and they kind of create these silos and when you're on those teams, you interface just with the teams that impact you or you impact them.

Chris Strahl:
Right. There's little bridges they get built, but maybe not a wide network of them.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah. But when I was on this team and I was talking with all the designers and working with them, I realized that I was developing a very wide understanding of what was going on in the company and began to identify trends and was seeing how the design system could help us with some of the problems we had. Because it is standardization and that's one thing that we really needed and we needed to be able to document and explain and critique the different ways of which we work and the things that we value and how we just approach our design at Etsy.

Marco Suarez:
The thing that I liked about it is that it wasn't tribal knowledge, it was documentation, it was something that could be taught, it could be picked up by new designers and learned, it could be critiqued and refined and edited, and it existed outside of everyone's head. And that to me was really powerful because it started to create this gravitational pull to keep all of the design and the user experience of Etsy together as opposed to everything just shooting out in all these different directions and people doing what was right in their own eyes and creating this very fragmented experience.

Chris Strahl:
As always, this podcast is brought to you by Basalt, a full service digital agency. Basalt is committed to building a better web and specializes in creating design systems. Learn more at basalt.io.

Chris Strahl:
I really like what you said about something that's teachable, right? So when you think about how organizations share knowledge inside of their teams and how when you started to look at this problem of standardization. Standardization inside of a five person or even a 25 person team is maybe possible to hold predominantly in the brains of the people that work inside of that team. But once you start to look at standardization at scale, you all of a sudden end up in a place where the people that are absorbing that knowledge might not ever actually meet the people that created it. And I think that notion of a design system making a systematic approach to design teachable, I think that's a really powerful statement. I really like that.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah, and it's also nice because when you look at the org structures of tech companies, design is organized similarly to engineering. There's directors and there's managers and there's ICs, they're not structured in classical design with art directors and creative directors and production artists and stuff. And that structure is very hierarchical where you're doing the bidding of the art director or the creative director, whereas engineering structures are not like that. But design is different than engineering. And so you need something that is kind of a mix of the two. Yeah, as an IC, I did not want to just be dictated to what I should be changing in my designs. I wanted problems to solve, but I still needed this program or this guide for how I applied design to these problems and UI, which components I'm using, how I'm using them, being consistent and then even down to how I do user testing or the principles I'm applying in my UX design and IA, all of the pre-pixel to art board kind of stuff.

Marco Suarez:
The more you can set the expectation, then when you look at work and you're critiquing it, you're going to know, "Okay this person has done this amount of research because that's what they're supposed to do." And if they didn't like, "Well that's a red flag. What did you learn about when you talked to customers or the research when you worked with our research team, what are you basing this on?" And it sets the expectations for how to work with each other and you need that when you're in a large org because you're right, sometimes you don't have a lot of interaction with some of the people you're working with. You need to have as clear expectations as possible when you're working together.

Chris Strahl:
Yeah and so you played a lot of different parts in these sorts of organizations, right? You've had a lot of different roles in your career. You've had stuff that is very tech influenced, you've had stuff that's very design influenced, you have an expertise in coffee now. So when you look at these ideas of what goes into a system and what doesn't you, you talked about that a second ago. When you're looking at creating a teachable, scalable system that works across all these different groups of stakeholders, some of which are siloed, some of them may never have met each other, what goes in and what comes out? Or I guess that's maybe not the right way to put it. What do you try to wrap a system around and what do you just say like, "This is the domain of this particular discipline or this particular product and that doesn't need to exist elsewhere"?

Marco Suarez:
This is a great question. This might get heady but there's a size in which it's too small to really be viable and there's also a size that is too big to where it'll crumble under its own weight. I am fascinated with agriculture and farming and read any book I can on it. Farming, this is very true really of any industry but in particularly farming, if you want to be a professional farmer you can't just grow a little garden in your backyard because you're not can be able to produce enough product to make a living. On the opposite side of that with monoculture industrial farming, you're growing tens of thousands of acres of the same crop which introduces a whole other host of problems. Having the amount of inputs and costs that goes into that with machinery and herbicides, seed, fertilizers, that kind of stuff.

Marco Suarez:
But there is this sweet spot in the middle where a farm is self-sufficient, it's a closed system because all parts of it are contributing. It's large enough to where you're able to produce enough product to make a living. And in a lot of times that smaller farm, that farmer, can actually make a better living than this industrial farmer who's farming tens of thousands of acres with high tech. The same thing is true with design systems.

Marco Suarez:
There was another company that I was interviewing with, they were telling me some of their problems, they're a larger company and they were basically trying to get their design system to power a lot of different things. And even at Etsy into my time there we were trying to like, "Okay, let's power everything with this one little design system. We can theme it, we can do all kinds of things with it." All kinds of dark magic to make it work for all these things. But the reality is you're creating a monoculture with that. And so there is, with the design system in a company, there is a size at which if it's too small, if it's powering too little, then you're not getting enough bang for your buck. The amount of energy and money you're putting into it, you're not going to get a return.

Chris Strahl:
It's, it's subsistence instead of scale.

Marco Suarez:
And then there is a size at which you're beyond its limits of what it can do. And that's where you run into problems and people being skeptical of design systems like, "They won't work." Well you're trying to apply a system to probably too large of a thing. And how you break it up can be very tricky. At a place like Etsy that has internal tools and it has seller tools and has a marketplace, there are very clear lines which you can say like, "We have a design system for this and for this and for this." And there is maybe a transcendent layer that goes over all of that, that is embodies the brand expression and these core things that we want to be consistent across all of them.

Chris Strahl:
Right. But those digital boundaries are sort of pre-drawn for you in a lot of cases.

Marco Suarez:
Right, right. So it's kind of tough to be able to find those lines in other organizations. But the reality of if you try to push something beyond its scale to where you're working with the diseconomies of scale as opposed to the economies of scale, you're going to run into problems. And that's where you get a lot of like people pushing back on design systems because it just can't meet every single use case.

Chris Strahl:
Yeah. It's funny, I was reminded of a conversation we were having earlier this week with a client where their product team had been using the design system and they're starting to get their marketing team engaged in it. And the thing that someone on their marketing team said was, "The moment that you can get me a digital design tool that I can create a 600 inch by 80 inch banner to sit behind me at a booth and have it look right, that's when I believe that the design system is a real thing here." And that really struck me as that's a use case in physical medium coming from a digital design system. That that was the leap that that person had to feel like they had to make in order for this to be useful for them and that's a big hurdle. That's the distance between, "Hey, I want to power my website with a bunch of components." And, "Hey I want to be able to print like a backdrop to a booth at a conference." That's pretty broad.

Chris Strahl:
Now I'm sure that like from an engineering or designing standpoint you can see a pathway there, there's a way there somehow. But that is more than any single tool, more than any single department, more than any single process that has to be engaged in that in order to make that possible. And there becomes a point where you wonder is that the right thing or is that a separate system that you need to think about for those other ways of building those things that don't necessarily fit within the core of the system.

Chris Strahl:
And kind of how we've always thought about that and I'd actually be curious to your opinion on this, is we think about those low level bits that link things together, like those design tokens as Salesforce and others call them, it's like, "Sure you might have something that's a giant piece of print medium, you might have a native app, you might have a website, but ultimately things like colors and typography tend to link those things together pretty well." Would those be the best practices of farming? The tools that you always use no matter what and then there's just a matter of understanding the scale beyond that, what's your opinion on that?

Marco Suarez:
How to draw the farming, it's a really good question. I mean, yeah, I call these parts the visual or design language and it's how you use things like typography and color, shape, space, which has a purpose and a style. And the purpose of that kind of transcends everything. You're going to use color on print the same way you use it in an application or whatever and that the style might change. So like at Etsy, the Etsy orange reads different in print than it does in digital, it's probably fine to have a different RGB value or a CMYK value as the hex value.

Chris Strahl:
HSL man.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah. But how you use it doesn't necessarily change. As far as like the farming analogy, you're right in a sense that a plant requires certain things. It requires sun and dirt and moisture, nitrogen, and that applies on your backyard as the fields of Nebraska or whatever. And there's those best practices that are applied whether it's in different scales and the output is different. It requires a lot of discipline and patience.

Marco Suarez:
Let's talk about shape. What are the different shapes that we use? How do we use them? How does that impact the visual language and differentiate one component from another and how can we use shape to do that? People want to jump to the design tokens and the components and stuff, but if you aren't consistent on that language layer it's going to cause problems with your components. Not only the way you build your components, but when you apply them together, it's not going to look quite right. But if you had that layer that filters down to everything consistently, then you can make things work. Isn't the be the same design system, it can be three different design systems that are powering different things. But if they all share that the higher level visual language, the style might be different, you know it might be a different hex code or a different type face or whatever, but how you use those things shouldn't change.

Marco Suarez:
And it's interesting to talk to other companies and other designers and even the companies that I consult with and kind of push them on those things, everyone has the same problems. It's kind of comical how we're all these separate businesses, but we're all trying to fix the same things. You realize when you push, especially designers, on those questions, what does that color used for? Why are you using that same color for this thing as that thing? What is the purpose of it? Is you start to unravel a lot of these like, "I didn't think about that." And then you can get to a place where you're able to standardize and get in the same page and then document it and everyone's able to keep moving.

Chris Strahl:
Or maybe you end up in a place where you gain a greater understanding of why they chose that color. I mean that's the positive side. Is that occasionally you get to a point where these are like very well thought out decisions and people can talk about why they're using this particular kind of soil or why their crop has this much sun every day. So I really love that analogy. One thing that I definitely didn't want to miss out on in this conversation is tell me a little bit more about the coffee business man. Why coffee and what do you take from tech into that business?

Marco Suarez:
I got into it because I had an entrepreneurial itch, I want to do something that was in real life versus digital. My entire career was digital and you push something to production, it gets overwritten and changed and edited. So so much of my labor over years and years and years as a designer had been deleted basically and-

Chris Strahl:
Right. Those text files that you can pass down to your children, right?

Marco Suarez:
Exactly. And I also thought that a coffee shop would be easy. My initial idea was I want to brand it, I want to design it. And I had a lot of opinions on how to use branding and design in a physical space. And then I wanted to kind of fade away into the shadows and then continue on my design career. But after we opened up our first location, you fall in love with it. But then also you get sucked into it. There's this countless problems to fix. It was that and I knew that at some point there would be a crossroads where I'd have to decide whether to continue my design career or whether to pursue running my business.

Marco Suarez:
The other thing too with coffee is it's a volume game because you're selling $3 or $4 cups of coffee. To really make any money, you've got to sell a lot of it, which requires a lot of strategy and marketing and labor to figure that out. Me and my partners were always kind of strategizing and trying to think of what to do next. And our first shop did really well initially in my town in Greenville, South Carolina, there was a void. There was an opportunity to create a modern coffee shop, one that takes coffee seriously, that the space is more contemporary and we're labeled the hipster coffee shop around here.

Chris Strahl:
Yeah. We have a dozen of those on my street in Portland. So I think you probably picked the right market.

Marco Suarez:
This is that scale question. One location of a coffee shop where you're buying other people's coffee, especially, and reselling it is too small to really make it worth it. And so we knew we needed to scale and so the next thing was roasting that we want to get into. So a couple of years after we opened our first location, we started roasting. And then last year, in 2018, we opened our second location. And this year, as of just well three weeks ago, we opened our third location.

Chris Strahl:
Oh, congratulations. That's awesome.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah, thanks. So our holiday party is the weekend after new year's and we're going to have, with everyone's significant other, over 60 people which two years ago, with everyone's significant others, it was 18 or 20.

Chris Strahl:
That's awesome.

Marco Suarez:
And so we've grown significantly which introduced a whole host of problems. And so beginning of spring I started thinking about that. As we're scaling it's introducing a lot of need for standardization. When we were just one location with seven employees or six employees, that tribal knowledge, it was really easy to pass and it was really easy for new people to come in and to learn our culture because there was one place to do it and we were all in at that one location, we were all there, we knew everything that was happening. And now we have three locations and we have a chef, we have a whole food program now. And so there's a lot and over 30 employees, so there's a lot more that we need to standardize. When do you decide to standardize? We started feeling the pain of not having that. We were screwing up on our training for new employees to where new employees were not getting the training and the work as we would when we were a smaller team and so we needed to standardize our training.

Marco Suarez:
Other thing too is what you standardize and what you don't is super important, as we were talking about earlier, because every manager is running to the restaurant equipment shop to pick up stuff. They're all ordering the same things. They're all ordering milk, they're all ordering chai, ordering cups and stuff. And that was a lot of this redundant work and like you were saying like, "Fix it once and then benefit from it as opposed to constantly be doing the same thing over and over and over again." I kind of felt like we were redrawing a button over and over and over and over again. And so we consolidated all that into a single, an operational position that my business partners took that role. And so we consolidated all that buying into one person. Greenville is a small town, all three of our locations are relatively close and I was worried that we would be cannibalizing ourselves. And so I was like, "These three shops need to have their own distinct personality, their own kind of take on the brand. They're siblings, but they're not twins or triplets."

Chris Strahl:
So you have this idea of like, "How does each of these things remain distinct yet still share in this common pool of resources and culture and those things that don't need to be repeated three times."

Marco Suarez:
Yeah. If you get a cappuccino at one location, it needs to be prepared with the same intentionality and thought and care as any other shop. So you want that to be consistent across all locations, but the offerings might change depending on where they're located. And we wanted to keep that agility and uniqueness and ability to do different things while also benefiting from the economies of scale of buying power and training and that kind of stuff.

Chris Strahl:
No, that's a very interesting sort of analogous idea. And it makes sense because we talked so much about how humans and process are really important part of this and seeing that it comes from a very human place for you is really interesting.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah.

Chris Strahl:
Hey Marco, thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us today. It's really great to get a take on people and coffee and design systems and all the interesting work you've done in your career. I just have a couple of questions left. First we just ordered a bunch of your coffee online and I want to make sure that we got the right thing. What are you drinking these days?

Marco Suarez:
Go-to is our Washed Ethiopian Guji.

Chris Strahl:
Oh yes. That was my number one pick.

Marco Suarez:
Oh really?

Chris Strahl:
I feel so good about that. Yeah.

Marco Suarez:
So Ethiopia is like the center of the coffee world, that's kind of where coffee was discovered hundreds of years ago and Guji isn't one of the main regions there and washed is the process. So there's different ways to process coffee. Natural and washed are the two primary ones. The natural one leaves the cherry on the bean to dry and that imparts a lot of that flavor, fruity flavor. And when they wash it, it's removed. So you don't get as much of that. So here's a hint of that kind of berry-ness. But having it on the natural, it's still really good and it's the same coffee, you're kind of going for a different flavor profile there. But with the washed you're able to still have a rich cup of coffee with a good body but it still has a little bit of that bright note to it.

Chris Strahl:
Awesome.

Marco Suarez:
And so just for a daily drinker, it's always my go to.

Chris Strahl:
Well I'm really looking forward to trying it. My personal thing with coffee has always been varietal. And varietal to me is kind of what makes a lot of difference. I believe this one was a bourbon, so I'm excited.

Marco Suarez:
You probably know more or better than I do because I can't remember off the top of my head.

Chris Strahl:
Yeah, no, well I was just looking last night. So again, Methodical Coffee. You can order online, I highly recommend it.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah, thanks.

Chris Strahl:
Though I have yet to taste it, I am very excited to try it.

Marco Suarez:
Hope it's good.

Chris Strahl:
Try it in a couple of days.

Marco Suarez:
Yeah.

Chris Strahl:
Awesome. Well, hey again, really appreciate you coming on the program. Great to talk with you. Look forward to running into you and hopefully sitting down and having a nice, delicious cup of coffee soon.

Marco Suarez:
Awesome. Thanks for having me. This has been a blast.

Chris Strahl:
That's all for today. We'd love to hear from me with questions, ideas for new episodes, beer recommendations or comments. You can find us on Twitter @TheDSPod. Cheers and thanks for listening to the Design Systems Podcast.