A Conversation with Sebastien Gabriel of Google

Name: Sebastien Gabriel
Location: San Francisco, USA
Designation: Senior Designer
Associated with: Google

Sebastien moved to the US from France in 2012 to join Google. The story of his move is a courageous one and has inspired many, including me.

Sebastien spends most of his time at Google working on our favorite browser – Chrome. He’s a believer of simple, clean and precise UI design. I absolutely admire how he shares his design process, case studies and personal stories on Medium to help others improve on their own design and life as a whole. He’s also a wonderful photographer and often shares his photos for free on Unsplash.

Let’s learn more about Sebastien and his design journey.

Hey Sebastien, how’re you doing? Let’s get started with a little intro?

Sebastien: I’m a UI designer based in San Francisco and working at Google. I’ve been spending 6 years there working on both the Chrome browser and Chrome OS.

France is your country of origin. How was it like growing up there? Were you always interested in design?

Sebastien: It took me some time to understand what I wanted to do. I knew I was more suited for a creative career rather than a scientific one as I was pretty bad at anything involving Mathematics. It took me a while to direct my learning efforts towards design and digital/UI design in particular.

At the time, 10 years ago, we did have some curriculum and schools centered around “media production” but not as focused and centered around the product as you might find now. So, a lot of the knowledge and learnings had to come from outside of school by doing work on my own and by absorbing as much knowledge as I could from reading US-based blogs and sites.

I was lucky to know English well enough at the time to be able to teach myself skills that would become key in my career later on.

I started with graphic design, slowly moving towards web design. I became a UI designer after moving to the US in 2012 and working on the Chrome browser.

Chrome error pages by Sebastien Gabriel

You had been working as a web designer in France for about 5 years and then moved to San Francisco to join Google. How did it happen for you?

Sebastien: I was working alternatively between school and internship so I was only full-time for a year before being hired by Google. I continued my contract at the same place I did my internship the year before.

At the time, I was very active on Dribbble and was starting to get international freelance clients for myself. My presence on Dribbble is how I got noticed by Google and how the whole thing started. The freelance jobs I was doing were great tools to create a more substantial portfolio for myself.

I’ve also shared my detailed story of joining Google here.

Chrome for iOS by Sebastien Gabriel
Chrome for iOS by Sebastien Gabriel

How difficult was it to move to a new country? Did you enjoy the process?

Sebastien: Google made it very easy for me. My experience of moving to a new country was not what most people’s experience is. I was helped in every step of the way, from moving to dealing with all the immigration process (which was still stressful).

Of course, no matter how comfortable you can make your move, it’s always a big change to move on the other side of the world and it takes some time getting used to the new country, social norms and to create a new routine.

Your work on Chrome OS and browser is one commendable job done with much precision and detail. How would you describe your experience working on it?

Sebastien: The Chrome UX team, which was quite small when I joined (less than 10 people) gave me a lot of responsibilities very quickly. To be honest, I was very surprised by that. It allowed me to grow fast and get to know the product well. I was the sole visual designer on a lot of features and those responsibilities only grew with time.

The team was always supportive and my manager always available to discuss any issues I might have encountered. Working on Chrome meant being opinionated, pro-active and independent. Because of the small size of our group, it was exactly what was required if we wanted to get anything done. It also requires a lot of understanding of our technical structure and therefore good relationship with our talented engineers.

The Chrome OS team is very similar, I was working on Chrome OS at the same time I was working on the browser 6 years ago. Since we created a Chrome OS focused team, we kept a lot of the Chrome team culture built-in and we’re still very close to them.

Chrome for Chrome OS by Sebastien Gabriel
Chrome for Chrome OS by Sebastien Gabriel

You seem to be in love with pure interface work and appreciate the fine details. How did you develop an eye for it?

Sebastien: Obsessive attention to UI and a need to organize things, quite honestly. I just take pleasure in creating a very clean experience and get a sense of satisfaction when something is implemented as specced and provide a very simple way for the user to use something.

It’s like the same feeling you get out of building legos. You take your time, strategize, understand how it works and at the end, you’ve built a beautiful thing. I get the same pleasure through UI that I used to get when I was younger building legos, as simple as that.

Chrome OS Files app by Sebastien Gabriel
Chrome OS Files app by Sebastien Gabriel

Do you think having an online presence and contributing to the communities is crucial for a designer’s growth in his career and as a person?

Sebastien: It certainly helped me get where I’m today, but I can’t say it is the path to take and a sure way to follow to succeed. It only helps if you care about it and I was really involved and posting non-stop on Dribbble, creating freebies to share and freelancing on top of my day job. But this was my way, it doesn’t have to be everybody’s way.

There’s a strong push online to make you think it’s important to build your presence and I feel it might result in a lot of artificial tricks and self-promotion gimmicks to separate yourself from the pack. The most important thing is work and reputation.

You can build an entire career without approaching social media, as long as you do right by the people who trust you, deliver good work, connect cleverly and be pro-active about sending your profile to the places you want to work. In short: let the work speak for you.
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Related story: Importance of a Personal Website for a Designer/Maker

When you run short of inspiration while working on a project, where and how do you get your creative juices flowing again?

Sebastien: I look around on the web for inspiration or take a break. Best ideas often come at the weirdest of times. It also comes at the most peaceful times.

I also have another method which consists of working on a very small piece of UI in the project I’m working on and use it as a starting point for the entire work. It’s very similar to the drawings you do on paper where you let your mind go free, you start with a central shape and you improvise around it, filling the canvas as you go.

Chrome OS system menu by Sebastien Gabriel
Chrome OS system menu by Sebastien Gabriel

When taking a look at the job applications for a designer, what are some obvious but critical mistakes that you can point out?

Sebastien: Lack of depth in their case study, too much work showcased in their portfolio and not enough quality prioritization are the signs of a bad application for me.

Designers need to put forward their best work and put them forward very clearly.
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Be straight to the point. Also, when there seems to be even a little hint of dishonesty, it’s a direct no-go. If you artificially inflate your resume or portfolio, it will show and will work against you.

The important thing is, to be honest with yourself and the people you send your resume to. Be proud of your work, present it in the best way possible and mold your resume and portfolio to match your goals.

I believe that a good designer can also tell a good story and sell his ideas. You seem to do that quite nicely with your writing. Were you always a good writer or you developed your writing over the years?

Sebastien: I was lucky enough to be relatively good with English when I was young. I was a good philosophy and literature student (and I was horrible at anything scientific, which was a huge bummer for me because I love science, I just feel dumb).

I enjoyed writing and I got better at it by practicing, but overall I never had to push very hard. This is something common in my personality, I tend to reinforce the things I’m good at doing and I also tend not to be very motivated to really try to get myself to learn and get better at something I’m not naturally good at.

Chrome OS audio player by Sebastien Gabriel
Chrome OS audio player by Sebastien Gabriel

You’re also a book contributor at Unsplash and have been sharing your amazing photos for quite some time now. How did you develop photography as a hobby?

Sebastien: I took on photography as I was moving to the US and seeing new things. It made me appreciate cities and landscape even more. I also always enjoyed the creation process of thinking about the shot composition and then coming back and editing it. It’s part of what I was learning at school.

Two people at sunset by Sebastien Gabriel
Two people at sunset by Sebastien Gabriel

Your design is neat and your journey is an inspiring one. What piece of advice would you give to the up-and-coming designers?

Sebastien: Find your niche and your own values based on your interests. There are a lot of designers out there and there’s a wide variety of products, each requiring their own kind of work and skill set. Finding a place where your process feels at home is really a huge advantage and will help your career tremendously.

Don’t try to fit in a certain definition of a designer given by people in the community. Not all pieces of advice are bad but make sure you avoid absolute, the best design is the one that adapts to his or her environment and is able to establish a design culture where it might not exist and deliver adequate solutions to the precise problems at hand.
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Rapid Fire Round

Favorite websites for inspiration?
I still love Dribbble, purely for visual design.

You miss France for its _____.

In a sentence or two, describe the current design scene in San Francisco.
I don’t quite know. I’ve cut myself out of a lot of the community thing, mostly for lack of time. I know my colleagues are very talented, that’s all I care about.

Things that you get annoyed by?
Too many things to count, I’m a very stressed out person underneath a calm appearance.

If Sebastien wasn’t a designer, he would probably be______.
I have got no idea. I was actually envisioning joining the army (not joking) before I started my computer related studies.

The world could be a better place if ______.
It was less noisy.

Darshan is ______.
A person 😅

I thank Sebastien on behalf of the readers of this blog for being a part of the Conversations and sharing his inspiring stories.

You can know more about Sebastien on his website and follow him on Dribbble to keep an eye on his latest designs.

You can also follow him on Medium to read his inspiring stories & case studies and on Unsplash for the free and breathtaking photos he has to offer.

In case, you would like to reach out to Sebastien, tweeting him on @KounterB would be your best bet.

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