How I got over half a million views in a month on Unsplash

TL:DR: Deliver on user needs, with Unsplash quality and style.

A couple of months ago, as I was working through designs for an Unsplash integration for my company’s product, I decided that I wanted to present our customers — small business owners, who want DIY commercials — with curated collections of images that would give them a jump start for their videos. So, I went about searching the site for images and collections to test the results of different terms.

It wasn’t long after punching in some basic terms for me to stumble upon strange gaps in Unsplash’s library of images. For example, I simply searched for “Lego”, assuming I’d have my pick of shots of bricks — but the results didn’t match my expectations. I was sifting through beautiful shots of characters protected by copyright, artistic portrait shots with bokeh backgrounds, and straight-up photos that did not contain a singlelego brick.

I might get a call from Disney over throwing this in a commercial for my business.

I might get a call from Disney over throwing this in a commercial for my business.

I knew I was actually sitting on a few shots of legos I took on my iPhone from a visit to a local Lego store myself, that I thought might be suitable for people coming to Unsplash and looking for a more straight-forward approach to the imagery they were looking for. I decided to make an Unsplash account, upload those pictures, and take my chances. What I didn’tknow is that approach would pan out to be so successfulfor me.

Unsplash enforces a daily photo upload limit for new accounts to curb the thousands of photo submissions they get every day, so I kept returning to the site and adding more photos that I thought felt “Unsplash worthy” to my account, some shots of the Boston waterfront, carrots from a farmers market, fish from the New England Aquarium, and soon my photos were starting to be approved to appear in search results. Here’s the thing — Nothing I uploaded even came close to touching the number of views and downloads I was getting on my Lego photos.

I formed a theory that I thought could be an effective strategy to drive views and downloads of my work.

  1. Searching for something that I suspected people were looking for, with the terms they would use

  2. Thinking through the need they were trying to fulfill

  3. Parsing the results, and considering wether or not they fufill those needs

  4. Trying to address those needs with my own photos

In the previous case, I figured people wanted what I was looking for — simple shots, of just lego bricks, with no people, and no clear tie to intellectual property. So I turned my attention to another term — money.

Thirty one bucks. Nothing more, nothing less.

Thirty one bucks. Nothing more, nothing less.

Money turned out to be an even bigger gap for my taste in the Unsplash results. I got results with branded card readers from Square, people holding money with messages, piles of international coins, and one too many shots of bitcoins as physical objects (which I’m sure are all doing well with views and downloads). I was looking for basic, American, paper currency — not being held, or with a message or metaphor attached. So I whipped out some money from my wallet, found a spot in my office with decent lighting, shot it with my phone, and uploaded it to the site. 

The Results

A week or so later, my account crossed the 500,000 views mark — around the same time we launched our products Unsplash feature. All of the photos of practical “nouns” in isolation were doing better than my DSLR-shot images which had taken more time and creative investment. The views and downloads for my money images were closer to the lego images than the cityscapes and sea life.

I don’t think my photos of cash or legos are particularlyamazing, I don’t even think that they’re as good as they could be with careful planning and better equipment — and that could still prove to be the case over time — but I do think that they clearly checked boxes for people who otherwise couldn’t quite find what they’re looking for. Unsplash is amazing service, that is brimming with high-quality portraits, landscapes, interesting objects, and gorgeous interiors, so using this user-need approach, and delivering quality that curators at Unsplash feel belongs on their site, seems like a good strategy to garner attention and usage of your work on the site.

How I organize design files

On a subreddit I visit, a mod posted an open question to the community asking about what system people use to organize their local design files. I decided to jump in and answer the question, but it also inspired me to make sure I’m sharing it with the world here too.

I know it can be a dry topic, but digital tidiness is important, especially in a team environment. File management is a small part of my job that I’ve really come to enjoy over my career, and while I was at Apple, I picked up some great habits that informed how I organize things, and I've been using a similar systems for years since that serves me fairly well, it’s kind of my own personal Mari Kondo-esq approach to managing a file system, especially in conjunction with a cloud syncing service like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, or Box.

At the highest level, organize by team or business unit or function whatever (Currently we have folders like -Product, -Marketing, -Templates, all in a "Creative" folder).

Then in my -Product folder I maintain this structure

  • _System

    • Assets for my companies design system, fonts, shared resources, sketch library etc...

  • _Archive

    • projects that are more than 6 months old and not in active developmentin, and will make sure it's contents aren't downloaded locally on my machine.

  • YYYY-MM Project Name

    • _archive

      • Working files that aren't in use, or deprecated

    • _assets

      • files used in comps, related screenshots etc...

    • _exports

      • images/documents exported from working files (you can share a whole export folder w

    • YYYY-MM-DD Working File Name.sketch

    • YYYY-MM-DD Working File

    • YYYY-MM-DD Working File Name.psd

  • YYYY-MM Project Name

  • YYYY-MM Project Name

  • YYYY-MM Project Name

Essentially you get a few benefits with this system:

  1. You're stamping out dates yourself, so you're not relying on the file system's date management.

  2. Sorting by name sorts by date for free, and top level folders with underscores are always sorted first

  3. dedicated _archive folders can be de-synced if you're using a cloud solution like Google Drive, Dropbox or other stuff.

You end up with a folder that's both very searchable, and sortable, as well as the ability to differentiate between projects with simple date management, rather than having v2, v3, final_v2 etc... Plus if you go to reference design files that are from a long time ago, you get a sense at a glance without opening the file the contents and when individual tasks/projects took place.

If you're dealing with multiple contributors, I usually encourage people to add their initialsto file (YYYY-MM-DD WorkginFile-RQ.sketch) names, especially when versioning off other people files.

A look at my file system

A look at my file system

I’m Returning to Education

If you've followed my work for a long time, you know that very early in my career, I made it a mission to teach the software skills I learned through hours of practice, research, and an amalgamation of in person and online classes and tutorials. That work built my career and developed me by allowing me to reach an audience, and grow to thousands of YouTube subscribers, even though I haven’t made design tutorials since 2016, and haven’t really been serious about regularly publishing since 2013. That’s changing today.

The design tools space has exploded, and there are a lot of high quality classes and tutorials available for designers out there, but free learning content still remains inconsistent in production and style. So I’m returning to creating design video tutorials that I built my career on years ago in an effort to help new and old designers everywhere build the skills they’ll need to work in the industry.

It will be a little different this time around, focusing on creating series for people to learn from, rather than simply doing one off tutorials for particular techniques and effects. Though depending on response from my subscribers, I’ll consider returning to the format.

I’m also launching a Patreon alongside this work, though I want to be clear, I intend for all of my tutorial content to be free for all. The Patreon provides me motivation and is just a small way of supporting me on the journey, as my primary focus will remain with my full-time job as I don’t aim to become a content creator for a living.

I hope if you’re reading this that you’ll be someone who benefits from the work I’m returning too, or know someone who will. I can’t wait to get back to work.

Song - Miss Tyler

It’s been too long since I made some music, so I broke out the Teenage Engineering OP-1 and got inspired by one of my favorite classic Twilight Zone episodes.


Ryan’s Instant Pot Chicken Pad Thai

I couldn’t find a decent Chicken Pad Thai with a peanut sauce recipe that didn’t call for bespoke ingredients like fish oil or didn’t contain shrimp (shrimp allergy in the house) for the Instant Pot. so I just made one:

Shrimp and fish oil free.

Shrimp and fish oil free.


  • 3 green onions

  • Fresh ginger (2 Tbsp fresh chopped)

  • 4 garlic cloves

  • 3 tsp Paprika

  • 3 tsp dried basil

  • 3 Tbsp Sriracha 

  • 3/4 cup reduced sodium soy sauce

  • 3 limes 

  • 1 Tbsp of honey or brown sugar 🍯

  • 4-6oz peanuts 🥜 

  • 1 bunch fresh Cilantro

  • 1-1.5lbs boneless skinless chicken breasts 🍗

  • 12-16oz rice noodles 🍚🍜

  • (Optional) 2tsp Gochujang dry Korean chili flakes

  • Olive oil 🍈

  • 1/2 cup peanut butter 🥜


  1. Finley mince the garlic cloves and ginger. Thinly slice the white bottoms of the green onions and add all three to a bowl. Add in the basil, paprika, and gochujang.

  2. Thinly slice the darker green tops of the green onions and set aside for garnish.

  3. Using a micro plane or zester, zest two of the limes, then juice both of those limes into a bowl with the zest. Add a little chopped cilantro to the same bowl. 

  4. Combine the Sriracha, soy sauce, honey, and 3/4 cups of water and stir to combine.  Set aside. 

  5. Set the instant pot to Sauté add a tablespoon and let it heat up. Add the bowl of onions, ginger, garlic, and spices to the bowl and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until lightly browned and aerobatic. 

  6. Add in the chicken and season lightly with salt and pepper. Sear for an addition minute.

  7. Pour in the soy sauce mixture and the lime juice mixture. Add in a few extra un-chopped cilantro leaves.

  8. Turn off Sauté and set the instant pot to pressure cook for 15 minutes. You’ll release the pressure after 5-7 minutes of natural release. Be sure your not venting the pressure. 

  9. After the cooking has been set, boil a pot of water and cook the rice noodles as instructed. 

  10. While waiting for the water to boil, chopped or smash the peanuts into a bowl for garnish and quarter the remaining lime for serving.

  11. After boiling rinse the noodles in cold water so they stop cooking.

  12. Once the instant pot has finished and you’ve waited 5min to quick release the pressure. Open the pot and remove the chicken and set aside on a plate or bowl and pull apart with two forks.

  13. Set the instant pot to Sauté for just 2 minutes while you add in the peanut butter to the remaining liquid and a little soy sauce or sriracha to taste.

  14. Turn off the instant pot and Add the chicken back to to the sauce. Tossing and coating, then add the noodles and toss to combine. 

  15. Serve the Pad Thai garnished with green onions, cilantro and lime slice, and one last small pinch of salt and black pepper. 

Five ways to tell if a company is really Design-driven

TL;DR — Design representation in leadership, consideration as a stakeholder in projects, team processes, and design team feedback.

A quick gut-check for companies, and potential employees.

Over the past dozen years, or so tech companies started touting in interviews and jobs postings about how “design-driven” they are, and how they deeply value design. It’s a compelling thought for designers — getting to work at a place where design is at or near the top of the totem pole — and makes for very effective recruiting for the creative people who are idealistic, or who have experienced teams that don’t especially value their work. The problem is that it rarely ends up being true, and there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself as a barometer for how much an organization values design.

Is design represented in leadership?

Most tech companies talk the design-first talk, but in reality, aren’t concerned with walking the walk. Sometimes it’s by necessity, but often it’s a leadership and cultural issue. Especially when you look at start-up companies with founders and leadership teams that are comprised solely of former engineers, and business people. If Design isn’t in the room when important decisions are made, it’s unlikely that user experience and ascetic concerns will be fully represented in the product roadmap. Look at Apple as an example — Jony Ive is Chief Design Officer — a C-level employee that is either involved in critical decisions directly or privy to the decisions being made for one of the worlds wealthiest companies.

Creative people are sometimes passed over for leadership opportunities, as the methods, processes, and personality quirks of being creative read to many as unfit for leadership. Artists and designers can, however, showcase a very different style of management, especially in regards to process and organization of their teams. Look at the leaders in the organization and count how many come from a design or creative background.

For leaders, take a moment to think really hard, and stack rank the parts of your organization based on which teams are driving culture and the product roadmap, and see how far down design ends up on the list. I’m not advocating that design demands to be at the top of the list, but if you find design buried under marketing, sales, engineering, operations, customer support, and others, can you really consider your company design driven?

More importantly, there are designers who are excited to help any number of those teams, but without transparency in the hiring process, you may find you’ve oversold the importance of design within your organization, and find yourself with a design team that feels undervalued and overwhelmed as they try to meet the needs of everything but design.

Is design considered a critical stakeholder in projects?

I’ve had the amazing luck to work for some of my favorite companies on some of my favorite products over the past decade, and each of the companies I’ve been at is different in their own way, save for one thing — how they weighed Design’s objectives and opinions throughout projects.

Even though the team at Apple is big — their employees measure in the tens of thousands — design was venerated. You could feel the flow of projects bounce between art, technology, and business. Each of them representing their respective goals to collaborate and deliver products and features on some of the worlds most used and influential apps and operating systems.

At Squarespace, under the leadership of Anthony Casalena and David Lee, design always had a seat at the table. The company was completely unafraid to spend time considering the difference between 95% black and 98% black. We treated the brand as one of the marquee products of the company and experimented with aesthetics that were never going to see the light of day, in order to come to the conclusions that make the company and products so elegant. Anthony was an engineer by trade but demonstrates over and over his commitment to quality design, and his trust in the process.

While I worked for those companies, Design was involved from inception to delivery of the projects that were being worked on, and next to nothing went out the door without the sign off from the designers.

Ask what projects teams have worked on that spawned from the design team, and how valued the design team is as a stakeholder in ongoing projects.

Is the design team treated like an engineering team?

Depending on the scope of projects being worked on, there is probably more than one engineer for every designer in a company, designers are almost always outnumbered by engineers, so it makes sense that a lot of places often have their design teams structure and document themselves like an engineering team. The truth is that designers can sprint plan, but Design doesn’t happen in sprints. Designers can estimate, but Design is unpredictable. Designers can pull Kanban tasks, but Design isn’t a linear process. Designers can ship, but Design is never finished.

It might be convenient for organizational or political reasons, but asking a team of designers to adapt their work to a foreign process usually results in compromises. From the engineering perspective, design can look messy. Projects can start and restart, entire solutions explored and thrown away, inspiration coming in waves rather than steady streams.

Almost all of the places I’ve been that were inflexible in terms of processes have comprised design output in one way or another. They ask designers to make something great, but make sure it fits neatly within a development sprint. It’s a joke. Asking designers to Fibonacci point estimate tasks is a dream. Other disciplines use tools for controlling and documenting predictable, quantifiable work. Most teams I’ve been of declare themselves Kanban or Agile in name alone. Within the team, it’s tacitly acknowledged that the process is mostly meaningless and an artifact to display progress to leadership that doesn’t understand or value the creative process. If interviewing for a team, ask about process, and why it was chosen. If you’re a leader, ask your team what’s working and what’s not about the process you’re using.

Design inspiration comes in fits and starts. It comes from talking with your customers and colleagues, exploring solutions, and collaboration. A dinner at a new restaurant, or traveling to a new country doesn’t need a point estimate but both of them can inspire the final product. Have leadership and product managers communicate business requirements and deadlines, and give creative teams room to do their job.

How great are the products?

No matter the size of an organization, you can judge it by the tools it builds and the tools it uses. Show the product to other designers, and ask them for their feedback. If you’re in an interview, ask for someone to show you or describe an internal tool they use. Design-driven companies often expect the tools that they use to be at least as beautiful and functional as the products that they create (I’ll carve out a notable exception to HR software in general, I consider most HR software a design hellscape.).

If you find something you consider sub-par, ask the team to assess it. It can be a good indication of the companies standards or the team’s standards. It’s also a good way to sort out where design sits in the organization. Was the team unable to accomplish the goal technically? Was the project delivered on a tight deadline? Are there plans to return to it and make improvements?

Internally developed tools are a good signal to employees how much a company cares about their experience, and can serve as a reflection of the nascent abilities of a team unburdened by customer expectations. If an organization lacks a taste for quality internal tools or doesn’t demonstrate quality in it’s shipped products, it’s unlikely that a single designer will be able to change that, there may be more fundamental cultural or political issues at play.

Ask the designers

It can be hard as a leader to get open and honest answers from people you manage who want you to be happy with their work. If you build relationships, harbor a culture of honesty, and demonstrate a willingness to listen to critique and discuss solutions, then the most important thing to do is simply talk with the designers about if they feel the company is design driven. It can be just as hard to get an honest and critical assessment from a team who’s looking to recruit you to join it. So candidates should listen to tone and sentiment in teams responses to questions in an interview.

Leaders, invite the designers to a discussion as a team, ask them how often they feel empowered to make decisions or explore alternatives. Ask them if they feel valued, and pay attention to the work that the team does. If you don’t typically interact with your design team, and you’re multiple levels separated from them, sitting down and having a conversation itself helps demonstrate that you care and are paying attention. If the room feels cold, make sure that the managers you trust to manage the team are asking and delivering that feedback in the most unfiltered way possible.

Even if you feel like your team needs to make progress in quality, or lacks that one rockstar designer, if you foster a good creative environment, and empower your design team to do their best work, accepting all that comes with working with creative people is a must. Word will spread and talent will come, and your with the right team in place, everyone’s work will build upon each other and create beautiful products that were previously out of reach.

Hopefully, this was a helpful way to reflect upon how your organization, or an organization you’re considering working for values design. Candidates considering investing years of your life in a company, it’s worth it to ask hard questions so you go into a situation with realistic expectations. Leaders, who are already invested, it’s worth it to support your design team through culture and influence.