Designing while Travelling, an Interview with Meng To

For this week's interview, we have Meng To. Meng is designer and the maker of Design+Code Book. He's currently travelling around the World from North America to all the way to Asia. Let's enjoy this beautiful interview from a genuine designer.

Tell me about yourself?

My name is Meng and I’ve been traveling and designing for the past year. I come from a pretty modest background; born in Cambodia and immigrant to Canada. I never went to College. I am completely self-taught. In school, my classmates thought I was the shy kid who could draw well. I remember selling my drawings and made a dollar each. I won a few drawing contests. That’s my humble beginning as a creative person.

I absolutely hated school though. Especially for the homework. My time at home was my sanctuary — that’s when I immersed myself in vivid computer games. My fondest memories were made during games. That’s when I felt the most engaged, though resulting in sleep during classes. In a way, games have the most amazing interactions; it’s no wonder that kids love playing them and get really good at them. When you make things interactive, people just learn better. I guess that’s reflected in the way I design things. I brought experience points to an art site that I built 10 years ago and it was one of the most used features. Some people got so obsessed with it that they would post hundreds of comments per day.

Sketch + Xcode book

I wrote my Design+Code book in a pretty controversial way. I gave almost no explanation about the theory, code and syntax. Instead, I provided hundreds of real examples, videos and resources. Traditionally, a book is entirely text-driven and a course has hour-long videos. I tried to marry the two. I have 300+ mini videos with texts, code and images for each step. Every time a person scrolls, the video starts, making it look like a GIF. If a video auto-starts, then the reader would have no choice but to go through it. If the video is short and un-intrusive, the reader gets the feeling that it’s just a moving image. With videos, I could save a lot of explanations and condense many lessons in an intuitive way. The challenge was to make them feel approachable. People can learn piece by piece and easily come back to the content.

Things tend to be scary when you look at the whole scope. I don’t think too hard of what’s ahead. I try to avoid planning too much and focus on immediate results. Like that, it’s just me and what I love doing. When you break things down, it’s much easier to digest. It’s like slowly savoring a meal or sipping tea, you can always go back to the flavor.

I never gave homework. You probably know why.

Tell us about Design + Code

I’ve always dreamed of making an iPhone app. Over the course of 14 years building Websites, I grew dissatisfied with the Web experience. I guess native apps kinda opened our eyes on how far we can push interactions. The adverse effect was that we began to expect more from the Web. It’s like upgrading to high-speed and going back to 56k. Every time I tried to imitate the native experience, I faced a barrage of technical difficulties. It’s like re-inventing the wheel every time.

When I traveled to Hong Kong and finally had the opportunity to seriously transition to mobile development, I knew I had to share that experience somehow. I began writing blog posts “Learning Xcode as a designer”, which garnered close to a million views. That infused with my passion to bring Sketch to designers spawned the book. I aimed pretty high with this book, covering design studies, learning Sketch and building an app in Xcode. I could have easily written a thousand pages and it could have taken a year to write. Instead, I just focused on execution. In the end, the more I write, the more people would have to read. And the book wouldn’t be able to deliver on the promise of learning iOS in a matter of days.

In Hong Kong, we built a Car sharing app

By marrying design and code, interesting things happened. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of iOS books out there, very few designers attempted to learn Xcode, much less write a book about it. A designer learns code differently. They focus on UI, animations and delivering assets. Storyboards, a visual editor in Xcode has been pushed for years by Apple, but developers have been hesitant to make the jump. They’re comfortable with doing everything in code. But for a designer, that’s the true opportunity to bring something new and efficient. Styling doesn’t need to exist in code. For one, it makes code cleaner. I was lucky to have worked with a developer who embraced Storyboards. That allowed tight collaboration and in 3 months, we launched 3 apps together in an iterative fashion. There was no wait, no bullshit. The communication was great.

We built Canvas to simplify iOS animations

People are already building apps with the book. Designers are learning code and developers are learning design. Most importantly, they learn to collaborate and to build holistically, using tools that encourage that approach.

A Dribbble app inspired by the book

Tell us about your philosophy about Design + Code?

Design+Code is my first book. My friends and family have a hard time believing that I’m an author now. Even for me, I never would have imagined that in a million years. But it made sense. I wanted to help people learn things that they wouldn’t otherwise. Coming from a designer background, I wanted to bring code to designers, and design to coders.

While I sing praises about the experience on the iPhone, there are many problems to solve. For one, developing for mobile takes way too long. As a designer, I remember preparing a design 3 to 6 months in advance. By the time it’s shipped, the design is already outdated. I already lost focus. Unless you’re a visionary company like Apple, products rarely succeed when they take 6 months to a year of development. That’s the lifespan of most startups. The most disruptive products were hacked in a matter of days with a team of 2 or 3 people. That team typically consists of one designer and one engineer. The closer the collaboration is, the better. So with Design+Code, that’s my goal. To create one-team armies. And there’s no better way to show that than to do it myself. And to sell over 4,000 copies. The work has to speak for itself.

I always focus on simplicity. And I am relentless at simplifying. To give real examples: I always pick my apartment a few blocks away from my work to avoid commute. I have one card in my wallet to prevent loosing everything. I force myself to use a Macbook Air so I can work anywhere in the world. I only cook meals that take about 5–15 mins to make. Yes, it’s called laziness. But laziness is a problem worth solving. If you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can tune your life around it. You can do more of something you wouldn’t otherwise. There is no time to get frustrated, only time to turn that frustration into a solution. After all, that’s why we’re designers, right?

How does traveling or where you live impact / help your work?

Before I traveled, I thought traveling was a waste of time and money. I didn’t think there was any other city than San Francisco where I could be happy working. I couldn’t be more wrong. I needed to face the visa issue to realize that. Traveling allowed me to get out of my comfort zone, to take risks and to observe more. I found Hong Kong, a city that may not have all the talents in the world in one area, but so humble and so hungry for learning. It changed my perspective on what it meant to be successful. Be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? Can we help each other grow?

Eventually, your playground is the world. I was no longer living in a bubble. And people connected with my story through my hardships and as I lived in their environment. I gained empathy and so did they.

We all live on one planet, there is no reason to feel alienated. We’re all connected by our humanity, our stories. If our designs don’t carry that humanity, then we may as well design for machines.

Do you get creative satisfaction on commercials projects? How much time have you got for personal work?

I get some satisfaction doing commercial projects. But it always ends badly. Every project begins with the honeymoon period where the client expects the moon and the money seems good. Then reality kicks in. In mid-project, you’re still working on a static design and you have to explain everything about it: create style guides, prepare assets based on assumptions, wait on iterations because nothing’s done, etc. Communication is a huge problem. Unfortunately, no tool does a good enough job to replace real human interactions. That’s why I always suggest my clients to do as much as possible themselves or to hire people in-house. I also try to be on-location.

For the book, I challenged myself to say no to freelance and give my whole attention to it for 2 months. I designed, coded and wrote new content. Within 2 weeks, I had a site up and running, ready to take pre-orders. I made over 12K that day. It was a huge validation and why I’m still adding content to the book.

I never stopped. I iterated based on the feedback, then adapted for iBooks, listed all the resources discussed, and I am about to launch Chapter 4 as a free add-on. Most books see their sales eclipse after a few weeks. Design+Code is still selling strong. The key, I found, is to never stop adding value.

iBooks format for offline reading

Today, I make enough money to pay my mom’s mortgage. At 50+ years old, she no longer has to work 70 hours a week to make ends meet. She’s the hardest working person I know, so nothing makes me happier. I don’t need the world’s money, I just need enough to do what I love.

After a year of travel, I decided to continue traveling for another year. This time, I will stop in Europe, Asia, Australia and back to America. I’ll do meet-ups and workshops to help people learn, from anywhere.

Who were your creative heroes at the start of your career and how has the view changed since?

Steve Jobs is most definitely my biggest inspiration in life. Even prior to knowing him, I had many emotional impulses, leading to me quitting many jobs. I’ve always viewed great products as the sum of its parts, not just limiting at one part. That’s why I decided to learn every step until the product breathe life. Sometimes, I don’t get satisfied with how words are expressed or how products are marketed. I don’t see design as just a static screen. Design is everything and I see it everywhere. I wake up to it and dream about it.

Reading about Steve Jobs is like magnifying all my thoughts and experiences by a thousand times, into one extraordinary story of hardships and successes. Almost everything I lived, thought or designed, he did it a thousand times better or worse.

Balance is not about living in the middle; it’s about living in the edges and finding the middle.

What is the one thing you learned at the beginning of your career, that you still go by today?

I learned early on to never take anything for granted. It doesn’t matter how rich or unfortunate you are, what matters is what you become. I never let myself give up. I always thank every person and treat each experience as new. I look for better ways to do things. People can change my home, but they can’t shake the foundation.

Hard work always pay off. What you do for others always come back tenfold. The key is to not expect it.

From your folio or career, what is the thing that you’re most proud of?

By far, it’s Design+Code. It’s the culmination of all the things I’ve learned. Success does change the course of a project. While Shadowness was 10x more popular back in the day (10M page views per month in 2004), I wasn’t smart enough to get commercial success and allow myself to take the project further. I took every lesson I learned to heart and applied for this book.

To anyone starting a project right now, I say validate your idea quickly and learn how to make enough money to do it full-time. Without that level of focus, you’ll never know what could have been.

I still think that my best work is ahead. This is just the start. I have so much left to do and learn. That’s why I set up my life to be around exploring and learning.

From your opinion, what is the common mistake that most designers make these days?

Designers don’t take enough risks. What seems easy isn’t always the best option. Simple isn’t easy. Be fierce and learn things before everyone else. Learn the tools that make your skills desirable and take them with you, everywhere you go. Build real projects facing real problems, you’ll multiply your chances of completing them.

Always do what you love, the money will follow. For one thing you do for free, sell another with conviction and purpose. Convincing people to buy your work is design. If you convince enough people, you’ll never have to worry about money again.

If you fail once, it doesn’t mean that you’ll fail again. Real failure is in not trying again.

How does Social Media affect your work OR promoting your business?

I completely self-published my book. I did all the promotion myself, without paying anyone. Twitter, Designer News and Product Hunt were instrumental to its success. From there, it just spread organically.

The first step was to convince a small amount people. If they find it interesting, they’ll share it. Understanding what is current and interesting is key to making that first connection. I told a story and I was very transparent about everything in the book, highlighting every page and section. I gave a free sample for every chapter. That sample wasn’t a teaser, it was very comprehensive and could be very well its own section. I didn’t want to give the idea that I did it to sell. There is a difference between designing to sell and selling to design. People will know.

Working while traveling

Many told me afterwards that they bought the book after reading my story. I couldn’t have hoped for a better introduction.

Where do you see your work / style evolving in the next few years?

I want to build a design cohesive experience by learning Mac, iPad and iPhone. I’ve always dreamed of creating my own Mac app because I use them all the time. But that’s me. I don’t think the future is on desktop. Good thing they all use Swift and Storyboards now, so the knowledge is easily transferrable.

I want to design the best product I can and inspire people by making stuff. That’s why I built the book from scratch. If I can do it, then perhaps they can too. I rarely take shortcuts because I love the process. The journey has to be more meaningful than the goal.

Luckily, there is no shortage of things to learn. Apple releases new materials every year. Tools get simpler and more efficient. For as long as people have problems to solve, I’ll have something to design, build and teach.

You can follow me on Twitter. I typically share thoughts and resources about design.

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