Advice for New Designers
I just moved back to Seattle after eight years in San Francisco. It feels really great to be home. And it reminds me that I’ve been a designer for a while.
In Seattle, phantoms of my earlier life are everywhere. The University of Washington campus, where I stubbornly majored in painting, while slowly realizing I loved computers more than oils. The bus stops where I commuted to my first design jobs. The coffee shop where I scratched the schedules for what would go on to become the first Design Sprints in a spiral notebook. I’m in that just-moved honeymoon stage combined with some serious nostalgia. It’s fun.
While I’m looking back, I thought I’d share something I wish I’d heard when I was in school — not studying human computer interaction, computer science, or business — and in my first few years (and many times after!) as a designer, when I felt like I didn’t know what the hell was going on. If you’re just starting your own product design career, or are feeling stuck, listen to this:
You belong here
I say this because most designers have a secret inferiority complex. I sure do. Maybe you think you didn’t study at the right school, or didn’t study the right thing. Maybe you think your colleagues or the designers at other companies are impossibly smarter than you are. Maybe you aren’t sure you deserve the responsibility of designing products that your teammates will have to build and your customers will have to use — because whatever you’re in the business of designing, there is a lot of human time in your hands, and that can be overwhelming. Maybe you’re just afraid your designs will suck, that they won’t work, that nobody will care. I’ve definitely felt and do feel all of these things. I suspect that the annoyingly arrogant and overconfident designers we sometimes encounter in life are just expressing this feeling of self-doubt in an unfortunate way.
Hey, you know what? Self-doubt can either be your Achilles’ heel or the engine of great design. See, you’re worried because you care. Well, yeah, designers care. You’re worried because you realize you don’t know the right answer already. Yes, exactly! Design is not about already knowing, it’s about figuring out the right answer.
Great designers have to figure it out every time
You belong in design not because you already know everything or already have perfect taste or already have mastered technology and psychology and art and language, but because you’re going to be curious and learn and experiment every single time. In a weird way, it’s that worrying thing that means you’re qualified. You’re going to try to understand what technology can do right now and what’s best for people right now. People who already know the answer can’t do that — it requires an open mind.
And y’know what else, self-doubter? It’s not just that you belong. We need you to stay curious. Humanity is busting at the seams with change, and technology is making that change even faster. It is a damn complex world out there, and designers who aren’t curious enough to care about the consequences of their work are dangerous.
So rename your self-doubt as a beginner’s mind. Don’t get frozen, don’t hide it in posturing. Embrace your uncertainty.
And one more thing:
Great designers care
You’re not a great designer yet. That’s no diss, because you’re just starting. (I mean, hey, at best I’m only slightly above average myself and I’ve been doing this for 20 years.) But you DO care. You’ve got that flame now, so keep it burning.
Now get to it!