Letter to a Junior Designer Things I wish I knew the first day of my design journey
Inclusive Design Explorer. White House LGBT Technology Fellow. Views are mine. #BlackLivesMatter
Welcome! I hope you have a lot of fun. Design is an awesome career and we’re glad to have you. I don’t know if it’s your first day or your first year. I wanted to share some thoughts and let you know you’re not alone. What follows are a few things I’ve picked up along my career. I hope they help you thrive and flourish in this exciting field.
1. Design is a Mindset
You’re new here, and that’s awesome. It’s an exciting time to be a designer, and there are so many different ways you can express yourself and your craft. The most important thing I can share with you is that Design is a mindset.
You may have gone to design school, you may not have. Your technical skills are table stakes, but the real work of design is facilitation. Your job is not to be the best at caring about the shades of gray in a design, it’s to help shape the outcomes of things on the teams you work in.
2. Questions, Not Answers
I hate to break it to you, but…in all likelihood design school did not prepare you for work in the real world. You were likely taught that design is to produce, and that’s true. But it’s only half-true at best. Design is also about helping others understand your rationale.
You’ll have to learn to ask questions more than you have answers. The best design is about good questions. Learn to listen, really listen to people, and embrace curiosity at every step. This will take time. You will make mistakes.
But you’ll learn over the long-curve of things that what matters most is the team and the shared understanding, not whether you came up with the solution that seems best to you.
3. Value Feedback
Speaking of listening, don’t mistake your expertise in your field for team work. As Jared Spool would say, “Design is a team sport,” and you are on a team. Your team will go a lot further if you embrace collaboration early and often.
Embrace your team, embrace the business, embrace conversations, challenges to your work, and critical feedback. Feedback, it turns out is worth way more than any degree or other experience. Welcome feedback and crave it. If you listen to others and invest in acting on feedback, you will get more. The more feedback you take in, the stronger a designer you will be.
When someone has an opinion that challenges you, welcome it like you would an old friend. If you can be gracious in accepting feedback, you will grow a lot faster than if you think you don’t need growth. Be great to work with, easy to give feedback to, and everything else will be easy to fix over time.
Boost your team on your projects and give credit where it’s due. Amplify their voices and their contributions. Recognize them pro-actively and be generous with credit. Credit is not a pie, there’s always more to give, share and you’ll be shared with. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also a kindness that keeps on giving.
4. Find a few Mentors
You’re passionate, you’re eager to prove your worth and your skill. That’s awesome. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You will miss great opportunities to learn if you’re always trying to prove yourself.
Find someone who’s better, someone who has a skill you want to learn and follow them on Twitter, ask them questions on Medium, reach out.
Find people who can mentor you, and recognize that they’re likely very busy. Have an agenda, a skill you want to learn, or a thing you want to focus on. Design the best way for someone more skilled to help you improve. Have a list of things you want to pick up.
For example, if you want to Fight Fascism, reach out to Mike Monteiro, who is writing at the core of design and ethics. If you don’t know what to learn, ask someone what their design super-power is.
Don’t just take my word for it, there are other designers writing advice too. Elliot Dahl has written a Letter to a Junior Designer, and Cennydd Bowles has a great piece on advice to junior designers too. Ask questions, and you will find answers.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Design is a creative act. Creativity in humans is often a remix of ideas. Embrace all the ideas. You will think bigger and better if you read more than just design books. Read ethics, philosophy, politics, novels, and magazines.
I learned in college that a book is a direct line to a mentor you can’t have in front of you. Books and essays are written to share ideas, to help you think, to inspire and educate. I like to pretend that technical books are like a lecture, and I imagine the whiteboard the author might use to explain the concepts on the page.
If you’re ever stuck trying to understand something, re-read it, and try to draw out the meaning. Literally.
5. Hone Your Craft
Ha Phan has a great article about honing design skills. You’re going to have to learn to steal. In fact, you’re going to Steal Like an Artist. The best way to develop your craft is to copy, remix, and redo. Get in someone else’s head and try to understand why they made the decisions they made.
The best thing you can do is study methods at this point, keep putting them under your tool belt, and grow in confidence. Practice them often. Knowing the workshops or other interventions you might use and why is crucial at this stage. Build exposure to them on your time, and try them out, rehearsing out loud, even with yourself will give you confidence, and help you learn the subject matter, and the agenda.
Your biggest contribution at this stage is doing your job well enough that it’s obvious you have the skills to ask them from someone else.
In addition to the technical skills of your craft, there are people skills. Do not overlook these. The best designers in the world can balance business and users, not overrule one or the other. Your job is to advocate for balance, and that’s the hardest thing to learn. The technical skills will come, and you will learn to move quickly, crank out wireframes and iterate on a design. Dive deep into those things, but don’t neglect the need to think critically and do the right thing.
When you are hired to design something, you are hired for your expertise. Your job is not just to produce that work but to evaluate the impact of that work. Your job is to relay the impact of that work to your client or employer.
–Mike Monteiro, A Designer’s Code of Ethics
It is imperative you learn to work with others, cherish their feedback, and be kind in areas where you have less exposure. Be patient with yourself and others, and you will learn through building relationships, which is the best kind of learning.
6. Embrace Imperfection
The most important thing you can do over and over is forget you’re an expert. You have some skill, and some talent. Do not let that go to your head. Forget design school, forget projects and names, focus on the here and now.
Walk in curious and eager to learn from your mistakes. You will make them. Your team will value your input a lot more if you can demonstrate the self-awareness to own mistakes, embrace imperfection, and work to do better at every step.
This doesn’t mean to give yourself no credit, but seek balance. Give yourself credit, but never rest on your laurels. Learning to listen with balance is going to be important to how you design, as well as how you grow. Julie Zhou has this counsel on balance in receiving feedback:
“Give as much attention to the positive points as you do to the problem areas. The recognition for things you’re doing well well are guideposts to where you can double down to have even greater impact.”
7. Always Be Kind
There is no excuse for being self-centered in Design. If you have an ego, do your best to seek out self-control. You cannot be a good designer and a self-centered person. Our craft is a service for others, and excellence requires an outward focus. Empathy is a muscle you can build.
Whoever you are, amplify your marginal colleagues. They’re all around you. Think about the under-represented users in your user-base. Microsoft has a really powerful take on inclusive design and you can learn a lot about recognizing exclusion.
Women, people of color, LGBT colleagues, transgender and other colleagues are people, and are often left out of consideration at the white board. If your team doesn’t consider these users too, find ways to create spaces for your team to listen to new voices. Don’t be that person who creates an out of touch maxi-pad pool float. Advocate for new and marginal voices in the design process.
Create room for feedback, and you will succeed.
I know that’s a lot to cover on day one. Come back to this letter often. I have these things written down in a notebook that I use to measure myself when I feel lost. Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.