Hi. Welcome to Dear Designer, the column where I answer real questions sent by real designers. Unless I make the questions up. Either way, you’re getting good advice. Dear Abby made up all her questions too — and her name wasn’t even Abby. It was Pauline. But seriously, if you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question, and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know what the answer is anyway).
This column is an offshoot of Dear Design Student, a group project I and some other folks did a few years ago that you can still read. I’m kicking it up a notch for a working audience. So congratulations, you’ve all just graduated.
Which leads us in to our very first actual question from a reader, which I made up:
I just graduated from design school and landed my first real professional job as a designer. What do I need to know that I didn’t learn in school?
First of all, congratulations on landing your first job. That’s a big deal. You should be proud of yourself. I’ve got a few tips that might help you succeed on your first day and beyond. Read on!
Imposter syndrome happens to everyone
One of the biggest issues with designers (all of whom I love dearly) is being saddled with a crippling disease called “imposter syndrome.” I’ve seen it in new designers, and I’ve seen it in experienced designers. In a later column I’ll go over the reasons why it happens, but right now, I’m gonna do that thing you always wish your therapist would do, and just show you how to solve the problem.
My guess is it wasn’t easy to get this job. There were probably a couple of phone calls and possibly even some stupid test you had to pass before you even got to the interview phase. You probably had multiple interviews, yes? With multiple people in them? Possibly (hopefully) from a broad cross-section of teams in the company. You probably talked to an exhausting number of people for an exhausting amount of time, including a few who were wearing Allbirds shoes and Patagonia fleece vests, which means you got interviewed by managers. Fashion choices aside, that’s usually a good sign. It’s also a safe assumption that the company chose some of their brightest people to be part of the interview process (they generally keep the dummies in the back).
I’m also going to go out on a limb here and assume that you weren’t the only person who went through this process. Your company probably interviewed more than a few people for the position you won. So you were one of a few people who went through a tedious, mind-numbingly long process to get the very job you eventually got.
Okay, now this is the important part. There are two possibilities here: Either you were able to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and trick them into thinking you knew what you were doing, or… OR… you’re actually as good as all of those people thought you were. Which of those seems more reasonable? That’s right. The latter. You’re actually as good as all of those people thought you were.
You’re not an imposter. You got hired because you are good at what you do. Don’t forget that. You’re welcome.
Find out what people do
You’re going to meet a lot of people on your first week. Be fascinated by them! You’re a pair of ears with feet. Ask them what they do. Listen to what they say. You’re all (hopefully) working together on the same thing, and you’re going to collaborate with these people a lot during your time on the job. Show some interest in who they are and what they do. Learn as many names as possible. You want to impress your new co-workers? Listen to what they have to say. They’ve been there longer and they can teach you a lot more when they’re talking than when you’re talking.
Understand where the money comes from
How does your company make money? This is a trick question. Because you really should’ve found this out before you took the job. A lot of companies routinely need to change how they make money, especially if they’re startups. Companies need to make money to stay in business, and you’re going to be helping them do that. Know where the money comes from and know what your role is in making it happen. And for the love of society, make sure that it’s happening in an ethical way. You can always check with whoever’s in charge of ethics.
Which reminds me…
You are in charge of ethics
The work you do will affect people’s lives. You need to be more concerned with the consequences of your work than the cleverness of your ideas or the profits of your company. Everything that passes through your hands is an opportunity for an ethics check. It’s also a responsibility. And yes, I’d be saying this same exact thing to anyone in your company. You’re all in charge of ethics.
There are two words that every designer needs to be comfortable saying: “why” and “no.” With every project that crosses your desk, you need to ask “Why are we doing this?” Asking that question is part of the job. “Because I am telling you to,” is not an acceptable answer, and if there’s no answer beyond that, you need to reply with “no.”
Design is the solution to a problem. It’s your job to fully understand the problem. You ask why until you fully understand what the problem is. Wanting to squeeze more money out of your customers without improving their lives in some way is not a problem, it’s a character flaw. You cannot do that. You’ll have to say no. Will there be repercussions? Yes. But one of those might be that the people who hired you respect you for taking a stand. That’s how you know you’re working at the right place.
Don’t work for people who trick others. Life is too short, and the world is messed up enough.
You were not hired to make people happy
You got hired because your company needed someone with a set of skills that you have. That includes the labor and the counsel. You got hired to solve problems. That means solving the problems to the best of your ability, not to the best of someone else’s ability. Collaboration is awesome and necessary and smart, but it’s very different from just taking orders.
Carol in Accounting runs the numbers because it’s her job. She doesn’t ask anybody if they’re happy with the numbers. You solve design problems because it’s your job. Don’t go asking people if they’re happy with your solution. Ask them to collaborate on your solution. Ask them to double-check your solution. Ask them to test your solution. Ask them to break your solution. But do not ask them if they’re happy with it.
If you’re going to work somewhere that has an already established design practice, you should know what it is. Ideally you knew that before you took the job. If you’re going somewhere to establish a design practice, make sure you know how to do that and make sure you have the support of leadership. That means you get to actually establish the practice, so if Chip from Sales wants to see the work you’re presenting before you present it, and you don’t think that’s a good idea, then Chip from Sales doesn’t get to see the work.
And remember, you are a stakeholder at the company, as much as anyone is. You are an equal.
You work for the people
It’s super great that these people hired you and I hope they’re paying you well. But keep in mind that you don’t just work for the people signing your checks. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s going to come in handy when Brad from Marketing asks you to implement some shady-ass dark pattern on the site. You’re going to tell Brad (who’ll be wearing a fleece vest, BTW) that you’re not going to implement that dark pattern. Brad will remind you that you work for him, and you’ll know this isn’t true. Because the people you actually work for are the people who’d be tricked by Brad’s dark pattern. They’re the people you really work for. Protect them.
One more thing…
If this is a tech job, you’ll notice that most of your colleagues are white dudes. This sucks. It limits the points of view in the office — which means your design solutions are weaker, that people who are not white dudes are less likely to want to work there, and you’ll see a lot more fleece vests.
If you are not a white dude, congratulations on getting a job in tech despite everything being stacked against you. We desperately need you.
If you are a white dude, I need you to do me a favor: If you’re in a meeting and Maria is talking and Kevin from Engineering interrupts her, I want you to turn to Kevin and say, “Shut the fuck up, Kevin. I want to hear what Maria has to say.”
This not only allows everyone else to hear Maria’s idea, but it also increases the chances that Maria will encourage her non-white-dude friends to apply at the company. And that’s a good thing.
Hey, I just wrote a book about design ethics and activism, Ruined by Design. You should probably buy it.