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A Breakdown of Basecamp’s Product Design Process for Software

By Rob Williams

How do you follow Basecamp’s awesome motto: “your company should be your best product,” when you’re not totally sure what that should look like?

That’s what I talk to Jonas Downey, product designer at Basecamp and co-founder of Hello Weather, about in this interview.

We jump into how and why Basecamp has designed a 6-week cycle structure for their team and why it’s helped them embark on scary new projects with confidence.

Key takeaways from the interview:

  • Jonas has a self-proclaimed “weird background” that includes writing, programming, fine art, web design, etc. As a result both Jonas and Basecamp have a healthy dose of design/tech industry skepticism. Basecamp’s values and principles are important and constantly guide the company.
  • Basecamp’s project planning and execution includes: 6-week work cycles, strategic pre-planning to avoid future failures caused by existential uncertainty, structure around how individuals pitch ideas, and grouping projects into Big Batch and Small Batch.
  • To guide execution and project management, Basecamp utilizes: epicenter design, the 80% rule, a constant examination of what’s core vs. what’s not, and incremental decisions that ask: is this better than what we had before?
  • To track and discuss work, Basecamp uses: one place for people to communicate across roles, not only in real-time, task organization by scope of work, not by responsibility, hill charts which allow them to seeing the big picture, and asynchronous discussions in a permanent place.
  • Takeaway trick for success: constantly zooming in and out: zoom out to reflect on your principles, vision, and process and zoom in to consider planning, scoping, and communication.
  • An aside on running successful side projects: they should be FUN, not a hustle, attention drain, or obligation, they should let you do all the things you don’t get to do at work, and they should turn your discontent into action.

Favorite quotes

“When you embark on a project, at the beginning there’s all these existential questions like “what should we build?” “why should we build this?” “when does this need to happen?” and “how are we going to do it?”

That stuff comes first and has to be decided on before you jump into the execution of the work. If we didn’t do that pre-planning upfront we’d have a lot more blowing budget and failing.” (14:30)

How Basecamp hires designers

I’ve never hired a web designer except for very small projects. I have, however, been hired to design or redesign about a dozen websites and spent the last 5 years collecting the top 10,000 web design job posts.

That puts me somewhere between expert and total noob on the subject. And if you ask me, that’s the best type of person to learn something from!

So here’s the first in a series of tips on how to make sure you hire the right person for your design project (as observed from some of the world’s smartest companies’ job posts):

Basecamp asks applicants to show why they want to work for Basecamp specifically.

When Basecamp posts a job, they don’t ask you to fill out a form or submit a resume.

At Basecamp, we have a long standing history of favoring candidates who put in extra effort in their applications. Whether that’s a video of you introducing yourself or making us a custom website — that’s all up to you. We want to know if you’re qualified, a good fit, and most importantly, you want this job and not just any job.

See, the truth is you can’t really tell whether you should hire someone from a resume or portfolio alone, no matter how awesome they might be.

Instead of trying to do that, Basecamp looks for effort.  

The result is Basecamp gets to see the actual design and communication skills that they’re hiring for — in action.

It essentially guarantees that the people they hire will be able to do the job because in order to get the job they have to do the job of communicating persuasively.

So the next time you hire designer, think about this:

One of the most design-centric companies in the world can’t make a decision of who to hire based solely on past work.

They need more context. They need to see something created from scratch before they make their decision. (Note: they also do a paid test project once they’ve narrowed down their candidates.)

If Basecamp can’t hire a designer based off of a resume and portfolio alone, why would you think you can?

Don’t.

Instead ask your design candidates to create a custom application that shows why they want to work on YOUR project — not just any project.

And don’t stop there. 

Follow through, and actually favor the designer or design firm that shows the most effort in the process. 

They’re likely to be the best person for the job. 


I’m going to be discussing more interesting ideas I’ve noticed in the next few weeks.

Want to share your company’s favorite hack for hiring a designer?

Tell me over at my new virtual coworking space. It’s a place for designers and founders to help each other build awesome companies.

I’m there and so are a lot of other cool people.

See you there!

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About Rob Williams...

I run Folyo which helps freelance designers find the work they were meant to do. I also host Freelance a podcast about how to be more effective at independent work featuring remote companies like Disney, Basecamp, YNAB, ConvertKit and more.