Francisco Contel-Martins, Product Design Manager at OLX Group and previous Product Design Manager at FARFETCH, shares his journey from visual designer to design manager and his learnings along the way.
Holly Camponez: My guest today is Francisco Contel-Martins, previous Product Design Manager at FARFETCH, where he led multiple design teams, and current Product Design Manager at OLX Group. Francisco has built multiple experience design organizations from the ground up, mentored hundreds of aspiring product designers, and contributed to curriculum at IADE, a prestigious design university in Portugal. Francisco, can you start by telling us what drew you to a career in product design?
Francisco Contel-Martins: As a student, I started in visual design, but I didn’t feel like I really belonged because I was more concerned with systems than illustration. My career started in a small agency where I took advertising shots for big brands and adapted them to small supports. In the meantime, I was learning how to code in Flash and ActionScript, which helped me build my first websites and apps.
I had my big break at a festival where I presented my work via digital projection. It caught the attention of the director of the Fullsix Group, who invited me to work for his engineering team, which was a huge challenge and taught me a lot. Working as a developer was one of the most enriching experiences in my career, and it still informs my management style today.
So I was somewhere between being an engineer and a designer, and I wanted to grow outside of just coding. I got this opportunity due to the recession hitting our company in 2009. At the time, most companies saw their websites as communication tools rather than ways of conducting business. The energy market changed this: instead of saying they wanted their websites to look and feel a certain way, they said they wanted their websites to work. I saw this transition and decided to take a chance: I presented my thoughts on how our company needed to evolve to our leadership team and asked them if I could lead the transition. They said yes, and I created a UX department.
After that I wanted to work more with innovation, so I went to work for a product company defining and scaling their product design. Within those two years, I became a design manager. Then I wanted to work for a company that was more aligned with my goals for internal culture, and I found FARFETCH. I was drawn to FARFETCH because they have senior design leadership, and I wanted to learn instead of being the most senior designer. This role also taught me a lot about how to be a better manager.
HC: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of moments when you’re transitioning and coming into a new scenario! I want to ask you about the unique challenges you’ve encountered at FARFETCH, such as white labeling in high fashion. How do you handle something like repurposing a design system to serve multiple brands?
FM: I work within FARFETCH Platform Solutions, which leverages FARFETCH tech for fashion businesses and supports them in transitioning into new markets. We build websites, but we also power everything beneath those sites: logistics, production, photoshoots, customer support, etc. Each client comes with a unique goal, such as scaling, rebuilding a website, or entering a new geography.
When I joined FARFETCH, my immediate thought was to apply what I already knew about white labeling and design systems: I wanted to create a very flexible system that could be customized and spun up, but that doesn't work for fashion because they are very creatively driven. For this sort of scale, everything related to the visual layer has to be totally custom.
But I have to create a back-end that will support any front-end, so the real white label power is actually on the APIs and the code and payment methods behind everything.
HC: Everything you’re saying is resonating because at .Design, we discovered something similar with our virtual design experience. We had prebuilt a beautiful design system we thought could be tailored, and then in actually working with design teams like Starbucks and Torrey Birch, we realized we needed to make each experience totally bespoke.
Let’s talk a little bit about your teaching career and mentoring. What’s one piece of advice you find yourself regularly giving to young product designers?
FM: “Forget about your design portfolio.” This is controversial advice, but if you are starting out as a designer, you probably don’t have a great portfolio; what you need to demonstrate is that you can conduct a process end-to-end and that you can understand problem statements, iterate, and test assumptions. You can do that with a ghost project.
As a design hiring manager, I can say I generally don’t have time to go through long and diverse portfolios. I used to assess applications for hard skills and pick the very best designer, but these are things you can learn on the job. What you cannot learn are soft skills. So focusing on demonstrating how you think is key for someone seeking an entry level position. Of course, hard skills are important for more senior positions.
HC: Speaking about mentoring and leadership, I want to go back to what you said about having a wake-up call about your own management style when you joined FARFETCH. What makes you proud about the leader you’ve grown into today?
FM: My hope is that my change in mindset has made me into someone who enables others to grow. When you’re an individual contributor, you’re celebrated as a designer, and what you come to learn is that you can't approach your work as a leader in the same way because you’ll just be trying to impart your knowledge and impose your ways of working on others.
I’ve learned how to create autonomous teams, which means providing people with an environment where they can grow and have self-accountability. Now, instead of saying, “This is what we want to achieve, and this is how we’re going to do it,” I say, “This is the challenge, and this is the goal; do you feel comfortable in achieving that goal? If not, I’m here to help you find more information, but not to hold your hand.”
Autonomy is scary, but it’s key. People will succeed, and they will fail, and both are learning moments. My mindset has shifted from “How can I use my team to achieve a certain outcome?” to “How can I create the best design team that can make those decisions for me?”
HC: In your opinion, what are the most important skills to be a successful product designer?
FM: The typical answer would be empathy, but if you look at the challenges designers are facing right now, they’re mostly related to how the maturity of their practice is not at the same level as the maturity of other practices. That means that, by virtue of being a designer, your opinion will not be as respected as other areas that are more mature.
Designers can combat this by emulating senior engineers who talk more about business than code quality. To have impact, you have to have a seat at the table. To have a seat at the table, you have to translate your skills into business terms.
Generally, engineering looks at tech feasibility and stability, design looks at human factors, and product management is visionary and sometimes operational. If everyone can bring their own expertise to bear in relation to business concerns, you get to leverage a common knowledge of what the business is but with unique perspectives on how to approach it.
Going back to the skillset, I think that if you worry too much about the issues that are proprietary to design, you are limiting yourself. Junior designers need to start there, but as a manager and someone who deals with stakeholders, you need to broaden your perspective.
Of course, one challenge for progressing in our careers as designers is that we’re often under the product division rather than having a seat at the table at the C-level.
HC: We see this globally: design is still fighting for greater maturity. But I think you’re right: if we can look at how design can be a contribution at the highest level and bring design to executive strategy decisions before the project even reaches a product division, that’s where we’re going to make a difference.
Francisco, thank you for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure having you with us!
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Holly Camponez is the Director of Design & Creative Services at Avenue Code. She is passionate about the potential of design thinking to create a positive impact both socially and economically. Holly lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and three cats.