Source: A List Apart
I admit it: you intimidate me. Your work is vivid and imaginative, far superior to my woeful scratchings at a similar age. The things I struggle to learn barely make you sweat. One day, you’ll be a better designer than me.
But for now, I can cling to my sole advantage, the one thing that makes me more valuable: I get results. I can put a dent in cast-iron CEO arguments. I can spot risks and complications months in advance. In the wager that is design, I usually bet on the right color. People trust me with their stake.
So, if you’ll humor me, maybe I can offer a few suggestions to speed you toward the inevitable.
You’re damn talented. But in your eagerness to prove it, you sometimes rush toward a solution. You pluck an idea from the branch and throw it onto the plate before it has time to ripen. Don’t mistake speed for precocity: the world doesn’t need wrong answers in record time.
Perhaps your teachers exalted The Idea as the gem of creative work; taught you The Idea is the hard part. I disagree. Ideas aren’t to be trusted. They need to be wrung dry, ripped apart. We have the rare luxury that our professional diligence often equates to playfulness: to do our job properly, we must disassemble our promising ideas and make them into something better.
The process feels mechanical and awkward initially. In time, the distinction between idea and iteration will blur. Eventually, the two become one.
So go deeper. Squander loose time on expanding your ideas, even if you’re sure they’re perfect or useless. Look closely at decisions you think are trivial. I guarantee you’ll find better solutions around the corner.
Think it through
We’d love to believe design speaks for itself, but a large part of the job is helping others hear its voice. Persuasive rationale—the why to your work—is what turns a great document into a great product.
If you haven’t already, sometime in your career you’ll meet an awkward sonofabitch who wants to know why every pixel is where you put it. You should be able to articulate an answer for that person—yes, for every pixel. What does this line do? Well, it defines. It distinguishes. But why here? Why that color? Why that thickness? “It looks better” won’t suffice. You’ll need a rationale that explains hierarchy, balance, gestalt—in other words, esoteric ways to say “it looks better,” but ways that reassure stakeholders that you understand the foundations of your craft. Similarly, be sure you can explain which alternatives you rejected, and why. (Working this through will also help you see if you have been diligent or if you’ve been clinging to a pet idea.) This might sound political. It is. Politics is just the complex art of navigating teams and people, and the more senior you get, the more time you’ll spend with people.
Temper your passion
Your words matter: be careful not to get carried away. Passion is useful, but you’ll be more effective when you demonstrate the evidence behind your beliefs, rather than the strength of those beliefs. Softer language earns fewer retweets but better results. If you have a hunch, call it a hunch; it shows honesty, and it leaves you headroom to be unequivocal about the things you’re sure of.
Similarly, your approach to your work will change. Right now design is an ache. You see all the brokenness in the world: stupid products, trivial mistakes, bad designs propped up with scribbled corrections. That stupidity never goes away, but in time you learn how to live with it. What matters is your ability to change things. Anyone can complain about the world, but only a good few can fix it.
That fury, that energy, fades with time, until the question becomes one of choosing which battles to arm yourself for, and which to surrender. Often this means gravitating toward the biggest problems. As you progress in the field, your attention may turn from tools and techniques to values and ethics. The history of the industry is instructive: give it proper attention. After all, all our futures shrink with time, until finally the past becomes all we have.
You’ll come to appreciate that it can be better to help others reach the right outcomes themselves than do it yourself. That, of course, is what we call leadership.
Finally, there may come a point when you realize you’re better served by thinking less about design. Work and life should always be partially separate, but there’s no doubt that the experiences you have in your life shape your work too. So please remember to be a broad, wise human being. Travel (thoughtfully) as much as you can. Read literature: a good novel will sometimes teach you more than another design book can. Remind yourself the sea exists. You’ll notice the empathy, sensitivity, cunning, and understanding you develop make your working life better too.
But you’re smart, and of course you realize this is really a letter to the younger me. And, alongside, it’s a lament at my nagging sense of obsolescence; the angst of a few grey hairs and the emerging trends I don’t quite understand. Which is mildly ridiculous at my age—but this is a mildly ridiculous industry. And you’ll inherit it all, in time. Good luck.
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