It seems you have chosen design for a career.
At this point, I probably cannot dissuade you from the horrible decision you have made, given you’ve thrown gobs of time and/or money (more than likely both) at this idea with the hope that you too can become The Next Great Designer. I think, after a few years at it, you will be like me — wondering why you didn’t go into cheesemaking.
But, at this point you’re as intractable in your desire as your creditors are in you needing to pay them. So I offer this long list of advice. You may take any part of it, leave other parts, or you can laugh at all of it publicly. But know that I’ve sat up nights fretting about all these things over my career, so unless you have really good sleep meds, you will too. Bonne chance!
1. As a designer, your first priority is to understand the problem given to you as fully as you possibly can.
Don’t ever think your job is just to provide solutions. Anyone can come up with a solution given a pen and a whiteboard. You’ll be hired because you have the skills to best comprehend and communicate the situation.
2. Don’t fall in love with tools.
You’re not A Real Designer just because You Use A Particular Design Tool. Focus on the problems and your strategy for solving them. As my friend Amanda says, “Tools before strategy, heading for tragedy.”
3. You can not do design without research.
You can also drive blindfolded. But both have expensive consequences and usually end in being upside down in a ditch.
4. People who speak at conferences and write books are not heroes.
They’re not gods. They’re human beings with mortgages to pay and a bevy of bad designs, failed relationships, and problematic beliefs they try to hide behind their online and onstage personas. Don’t worship them. Take what you need, leave what you don’t like. But know they are more scared than you are.
5. Trust, but verify.
- San Francisco, Seattle, New York, London, and Sydney need designers. But so do Tulsa, Sheboygan, Maputo, Dili, and Quito. The design world does not begin and end in the Bay Area or the Five Boroughs.
7. Your user does not share your skin color, your income level, your gender identity, your religious beliefs, your dreams, your eyesight, your hearing, your physical abilities. Never, ever forget this. And if you start forgetting, then your empathy is slipping, and you’re doing shoddy work.
Bad designers think they are the best thing going right now.
9. Find good mentors, people who will question and challenge you as well as encourage you. They’re not always older, and they’re not always in design.
10. Do not ever pull the ladder up behind you. Help others get to where you are. Mentor young designers, especially people who aren’t your usual white male designer suspects.
11. Never stop asking dumb questions. Never miss an opportunity to be the dumbest person in the room.
- You will work with toxic people, people who will gaslight you, use you, steal from you, tell you that you have no value. Learn to identify them and stay away. But also learn how they’re toxic… and ask yourself if you’re exhibiting those behaviors.
13. Not everyone communicates the way you do. Learn how to speak the language of the exasperated product manager, the micromanaging project manager, the CEO who doesn’t understand why they hired a designer. Design is communication. Learn to communicate.
- Most of your job won’t be making wireframes or arguing over colors. In my career I’ve been director of design, product manager, project manager, design facilitator, user interviewer, usability tester, accessibility advocate, teacher, trainer, content writer, content strategist, sympathetic ear and mentor to senior leaders, psychologist and counselor for harried and spooked junior designers, and maker of tea. And the whole time my title has been “user experience designer.” Don’t expect you’re going to just push pixels.
15. Burnout is a real thing, and by the time you think you’re burned out, you’ve been burned out for a while. Your job is less important than your own self-care. Design is a marathon, not a sprint. The best designers I know work 40 hours a week or less.
- You will not always get to do gigs where you’re helping make the world a better place. But do the work to make the world a better place regardless of where you are.
17. Don’t let anyone tell you diversity is a bad thing. A diversity of viewpoints doesn’t just make you a better designer, but also a better person. Do not ever tolerate racism or sexism or homophobia in your team. Bigotry and stereotyping are toxic to good design. They corrode team trust and impede empathy.
18. Think for yourself. Be different. Have a point-of-view. Question assumptions, especially your own.
- You will never not be evangelizing design, especially in the tech world. You will have to teach and preach; learn to do it. To paraphrase St. Francis, when necessary, use words.
Hold everything you do in design with an open hand. You are not a genius, and your designs can always be better. Critique with honesty and grace, receive critique with gratitude and transparency. You don’t have to do what they suggest, but you should at least think about it.
21. Work on a great team at least once, if only for one project. Don’t look to work with a “great name,” look to work with great teams. Learn to spot them. They’re usually happy and love their teammates.
22. Never work for assholes. Never work with assholes. And never hire assholes. It’s not worth the pain.
- Find your happy flow state. Mine involves 25 minute Pomodoros, a playlist of Eno, electronica, and soundtracks; good headphones; and Diet Dr Pepper. All followed by a 10 minute break to walk around and check how the world exploded while I was working. Yours will be different. The sooner you find it, the better you’ll be at creating that flow state no matter where you are.
24. Stay optimistic. It is very easy for design to make you hard. Frustration, exasperation, resignation will eat at you until you are dark humored and sarcastic. Fight back. The optimistic can see the vision clearly and will keep urging the team toward that goal. But never, ever mistake happy, sunny positivity for optimism. The most optimistic people I know are not rays of sunshine; they are realists who keep believing in the face of the frustration.
25. Cheesemaking is always an option.