Let's wrap up the year with a remix.
Last week, I came across this beautiful essay by Hillel Wayne, giving advice to early-career programmers. I was struck by the universality of every idea in it. It was meant for programmers, but it could have been for anyone.
This article is a remix of Hillel's advice. I basically copied-and-pasted his 13 bits of advice, and replaced "programmer" with "designer."
I did this to make a point.
Today, design is a very fragmented world, where UX designers, industrial designers, and architects rarely talk with each other – let alone with engineers, policymakers, and other professionals who "design" just as much as we do, only using materials that we don't always recognize as such.
These designers, who walk a narrow path that doesn't connect to the vastness of our multiverse, are going to be the first to lose their jobs to AI, or whatever the next wave of technology.
In reality, design is a meta-profession. The real designer, first of all, designs their own discipline of design. And over time, it is the job of design to constantly reinvent itself, in tune with the cultures, technologies, and economics of its time. The jobs, tools, and trends that many designers identify with today did not exist 10 years ago: Consider that Figma was first released in 2016, and was meant to be a meme generator, 3D modeling tool, and a photo editor before it became what it is today.
I made this remix to prove a point: That the best learnings for designers don't come from a narrow focus on the current things, but from a broadening of perspective. Your progress as a designer is a result of your progress as a person, not the other way around.
So here's 13 pieces of advice for designers that could be advice for any person:
- People don't listen to me because I'm a good designer, they listen to me because I'm a good communicator. The same is true of pretty much everybody who is a respected professional. There is very little about design that's objective, what matters is how you deliver it.
- Don't worry about learning the wrong thing. If you like an idea, try it out. As long as you're not actively sabotaging people, it will probably work out in the end, even if you look back and think, "I should have done different" – that's what learning is all about!
- Read books.
- At some point you will discover the Right Way to design, the way that makes sense, and you'll be convinced that the whole field would be so much better off if everybody else designed the Right Way too. For me, the Right Way is doing design and engineering together. For you, it might be Design Thinking, wireframes, a subscription agency, or one of a million other things. I won't tell you to not get swept up in the Right Way, because that's pretty much impossible. And honestly, it feels really great to discover the Right Way, and life's too short to not feel great. Just be mindful of the fact that you're getting swept up, and try not to make your identity the Right Way Guy. Eventually the honeymoon will end, and you'll learn that design is frustrating, and messy, regardless of which Right Way you use, and that you can also make great designs without doing it the Right Way. Over time you'll learn 50 other Right Ways, and learn to mix and match them to the problem at hand.
- When you first encounter the Right Way, it will likely be from someone who went full Right Way Guy™. Don't hold it against them. And don't conflate the actual technique with how the RWG™ pitches the technique. All ideas need modification from their purest form to integrate well with other ideas.
- "Behind every best practice is a horror story." If you don't understand a Best Practice, look for the horror story that inspired it. It might make the best practice make sense. Or, it might turn out to be something that's completely irrelevant to you, and then you can feel comfortable doing a different practice instead.
- A lot of best practices and conventions are path-dependent, arising from a mix of historical and cultural factors. There are things we do because our mentors do it, who do it because their mentors did it, who did it to address issues that aren't as relevant anymore. If something sounds like a just-so story, it very well might be. You can often retrace the whole path if you're willing to look.
- Take walks.
- Almost every tool you use has endless depth, from Figma to Framer to Photoshop. Don't feel like you have to become complete expert in every single tool. (In fact, that's often a waste of time.) But occasionally spend 5-10 minutes to learn a bit more about what they can do.
- Talk to people in other parts of your company: support, business, sales, engineering, etc. Ask to shadow them if you can. You'll be surprised by what you learn!
- If possible, try to do a few different types of design, earlier in your career. This doesn't have to mean switching jobs: most companies are doing several different kinds of design at once. If you're starting in a tech company, try some UI design, some brand, some research, some web design... This helps you learn, but far more importantly, it increases your chances of finding the kind of design work that you really, really like.
- You've probably heard that design as a field is changing all the time, and that you shouldn't get swept up in trends, just focus on learning fundamentals. This is a true, but doesn't explain why: For structural reasons, design reinvents itself constantly. This is because design is synonymous with invention. Design is about inventing new things that have meaning, that we can manufacture with the technologies of today. And human culture that situates the meaning, as well as the technologies we use to manufacture things, are changing all the time.
- Ultimately none of us can predict the future, just as none of us could have predicted the present. Just try to do the best you can, live according to your values, and enjoy the ride.
That's all from us for the year. See you in 2024!