Why Hack Days Are Great For Designers

Why Hack Days Are Great For Designers
Why Hack Days Are Great For Designers

I love Hack Days. It might be one of my favourite things about working at Shopify. Every three months, Shopify dedicates two days to Hack Days. And it’s flippin’ crazy. You have 48 hours to plan, create and execute a project. The funny thing is that, although the concept of making something usable in such a short timeframe can be stressful, everyone is having a great time doing it.

In the weeks leading up to Hack Days, people are already talking about what they want to accomplish. Conversations in the lounge center around who is going to work with who and who else they want to join their team. The atmosphere is buzzing with energy, excitement and panic. It’s fantastic.

When Hack Days finally arrives, literally everyone is doing something out of the ordinary. Gurus are out talking to merchants, the chefs are hacking on delicious breakfasts and homemade ice cream flavours, and people are working with teams they normally might never get the chance to. It’s very inspiring and motivating.

In my year and a half as a designer at Shopify, I’ve been involved in a few Hack Day projects. Here are a few reasons why I get goosebumps every three months.

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Choose your own adventure

I thrive on change. Hack Days is an opportunity to take a break from my current responsibilities and be a part of something entirely different. I choose the project I want to work based on a few factors: the idea, the people working on the project, and what I can bring to the table as the designer.

One project I worked on was a game for Shopify employees called Cards Against Shopify. The challenge was to design a turn-based game and create our own set of cards that mimicked Cards Against Humanity’s content and gameplay.

Coming up with the content was so much fun. Cards like: “Merging and walking away”, “Why can’t HR sleep at night?”, and “Two urinals uncomfortably close together” (a joke about our old office). If you’re wondering about the more controversial cards, don’t worry — we had a lawyer on our team! I hadn’t designed a turn-based game before and the opportunity for stifled laughter and awkward silences sounded too good to be true. Of course I signed up!

Why Hack Days Are Great For Designers: Cards Against Shopify

Another project I worked on involved creating buttons and t-shirts for the admin team. This was around the time we refactored Shopify’s infrastructure in the admin. We were calling the undertaking “Admin Next” and the team was pretty pumped about it. I have to say, seeing people I didn’t know wearing the t-shirts and buttons was a pretty cool feeling. Also, the stories I heard from the individuals that wore their shirts outside of Shopify and were asked what it meant were quite funny.

At the time, I just really wanted to work on something that didn’t require any UX thinking or flow or UI component. I really wanted to focus on something tangible and manual that I could work on with my hands (while using photography and script fonts!).

Why Hack Days Are Great For Designers: Swag for Shopify Admin

Collaborate and listen

Talented people inspire me. Hack days is a chance to work with people I’ve wanted to work with but hadn’t had the opportunity to yet. Whether it’s the work they do that I find inspiring, or a project they worked on that I found exciting, working with someone new can be a really motivating experience. Every team works differently and every individual brings something unique to the table.

It’s great to work in a different environment with different people. It changes the dynamic and can help you see a new way of working together or working through a problem. I find it invigorating and such a great learning experience. Plus, you make new friends!

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Experiment

I’m a collector. I have a Dropbox full of Sketch and Photoshop plugins, CSS frameworks, books/articles to read, screenshots of design elements I find interesting, fonts, icon sets, photography, textures, brushes, style guides, toolkits, colour schemes, paintings...  I have Pinterest boards for website design inspiration and I use Pinboard to bookmark my favourites.

On any given day, I have three browser windows open with so many tabs that it has become a running  joke with friends and colleagues. Hack days is the perfect time to explore a different style, learn a new tool, or use that image you couldn’t find a place for. I worked on an app to help staff book flights and travel accommodations to other offices, conferences, and clients. We branded the app Tripify and I quickly designed a logo with a new font and icon set I had in my library.

Tripify

Refine your process

Design is a process. It can include; research, mood boards, wireframing, prototypes, UX testing, iteration, brainstorming, coding, and more. The depth at which a designer delves into these stages will vary depending on a number of criteria, including the scope of the project, resources available and time. In my freelance work, my time can be measured in days or weeks, but on Hack Days you only have 48 hours. Just two days to get your design shipped and fully functional. This is a great opportunity to refine and streamline your process.

In retrospect, I’ve learned where I’ve spent too much time on a certain stage and how to overcome that in future projects. The best part is that I’ve learned this in a project lifecycle of just two days! Talk about rapid development.

I made this!

At the end of a chaotic two days, you’re left with your baby before you. Isn’t it beautiful? What a rush. Now it’s time to present it and see what others have made. As fun as it is to be immersed in total pandemonium (huddled in a pod with your unshowered team for 48 hours), watching what other people have made in the same period of time is very humbling and awe-inspiring. I’m always blown away at the end results.

Some of my favourites are actually the more artistic hand-made projects. A video camera that activates when the office slide is being used then posts an animated gif in a chat channel. A wall of altered photographs of the exec team in old military attire. There are all the digital projects as well: beautiful new UIs, websites dedicated to showing new hires around Ottawa, new product features brought to the forefront for release, etc. Watching all of our accomplishments fills me with pride and respect for the people and company I work for. I leave feeling refreshed and energized to tackle the next items on my list.

All in all, Hack Days is a rewarding experience regardless of whether or not your project gets shipped — and many of them do. Setting aside the time to innovate for the sake of innovating can be a great way to release pent-up ideas and creative energy. If you haven’t had the chance to work through a Hack Days yet, get out there! Start your own or join one of the many city-wide groups out there. Embrace the scary. What you can gain personally, creatively, professionally and mentally from participating far outweighs the fear of a 48-hour deadline.

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About the Author

Denise is a full-time designer at Shopify. She is also one of the original organizers of Refresh Ottawa, a monthly meetup where developers and designers come together to discuss creative, technical, and professional culture in the Ottawa region.

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