Alumni Spotlight: Tom Harman Design Manager at Buzzfeed, New York City

by Jason R. October 25, 2016

We caught up with Tom Harman for our latest Alumni Spotlight, who told us a little about his current work at BuzzFeed, taking big risks after graduation, and a few of the people, places, and things inspiring his work today.

Catch us up with where you are? Still in New York? Full-time/part-time?

Last year I joined BuzzFeed in NYC as a product design manager. I lead the design team responsible for all consumer facing digital products—specifically buzzfeed.com, our iOS and Android apps, and a few editorial tools that curate and publish content to these platforms. In the 3 years since graduating I seem to have (unintentionally) collected experience across a broad range of organizations; from moving to Hawaii to run a startup, freelancing for big and small companies like Google Maps and Smart Design, to designing a product ecosystem for a stealth health hardware startup.

Tell us a little about your current work and some other projects you’ve been involved since graduating?

Right now is a particularly interesting time at BuzzFeed. The company is maturing from a scrappy startup to a global company, building a foundation for long-term growth and structures that scale. A lot of my work has been thinking through the systems our design and tech teams have in place to enable design to operate effectively as the organization matures. One recent example is codifying and formalizing our design process, which has helped set clear expectations for the moments design overlaps with other disciplines. It’s also helped us internally, giving designers a shared vocabulary to improve clarity and precision in our critiques. I recently wrote a post and gave a talk on the topic if you’re curious.

Credit: Tom Harman

So you are still in New York, and have been for a while now! Do you feel like it is still influencing you, as a person and your work? Are you thinking of moving, or is your heart set here?

It’s been 7 years, the longest I’ve lived in any city! The diverse range of creative and inspiring people in such close proximity is hugely inspiring but NYC is an intense place and that intensity is something I’d love to dial back a little. Whether that means traveling more, living elsewhere or simply spending more time in the beautiful scenery nearby. I’m originally from a small town in England, so making time to visit family regularly is a constant consideration.

Credit: Tom Harman

What were the most telling/important moments since you left university? Have you taken any big risks? Did they pay off the way you imagined?

Well, immediately after graduation I moved to Hawaii with no money except what remained of a credit card limit to try and make a startup work. This was a risk in the traditional sense, but deciding to leave the startup to freelance in NYC was a different sort of risk—I was choosing to sell my time for money again instead of creating a product that could scale without being bound by my involvement—both paths have plenty of opportunities, just a different set of risks. I’ve been very fortunate to fall into a number of great roles working with inspiring people, and this is really the best thing I could ask for.

Is there anything/anyone out there really inspiring you right now? A designer? Company? Artist? Musician? How has their work influenced yours?

I’m constantly impressed by Matthew Ogle’s team at Spotify—the folks who created Discover Weekly, Release Radar and Daily Mixes. I’m a huge music nerd and the quality of these playlists consistently amazes me, it’s also interesting to me that a great Spotify experience can be distilled to hitting play/pause on a single playlist. I’m also inspired by everything XXIX do. Jacob Heftmann and Jake Hobart are friends who run this exhibition space meets exploratory design practice. They recently launched their own product in Small Victories which takes files in a Dropbox folder and turns them into a website. The beauty is in how simple and elegant this interaction is. Another constant influence is the music of Steve Reich—there is nothing better to soundtrack a day of deep, focused work. You could say the theme here is minimalism and reducing music or interfaces or products to their simplest, most essential elements.

Credit: Tom Harman

And finally, what’s next for you?

I’m currently on a train to DC for SXSL, so this is the immediate thing on my horizon. I’m particularly drawn to the potential for positive social impact organizations like BuzzFeed possess and helping encourage this through organizational design in addition to designing products for their audiences.

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