Advice for Young Designers (Of Software anyway…)
Not too long ago, some high school students visited the company I work for, TechSmith, to learn about how our mobile teams work. Naturally, this sent my brain spinning, thinking about what tidbits of wisdom I might have to offer a young, developing designer. (If there’s any specks of wisdom to be found in me at all.)
So far, I’ve come up with a few things and thought I’d write ‘em down. I may think of more, but don’t hold me to that. And I may end up disagreeing with all of this in a few years. In fact, I probably will.
Not Being as Good as XYZ Designer
So, you’re browsing around on Dribbble and finding that there are many people out there who are just WAYYY better than you. Some of them might even be your age. Some may even be younger. It may baffle you, but one thing is for sure – you’re not as good as they are.
Well, count yourself lucky! Hold on to that feeling. As long as you can spot someone better than you, it means you can grow. As long as you are seeking out things to aspire to, you’re going to have somewhere to go. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll never be as good as XYZ. You will be that good if you keep working at it.
Besides, atleast you can tell you aren’t as good as some other designer. Some people are clueless. Those poor souls are doomed. But even worse than being clueless are those who rationalize why being good isn’t actually important. “Oh, impressive graphics aren’t all that they are cracked up to be.” Sometimes that’s actually true. But sometimes that’s just a rationalization from an insecure person who’s given up. Never be that person. If you become that person, you might as well quit.
Get Used to Negative Feedback
Learn to harvest valuable feedback from those around you. Feedback is just as important as great ideas – it’s a designer’s lifeblood. So when someone comes to you and gives it to you straight, count your lucky stars you found someone who is willing to be honest and open. Hold onto those people – their feedback will guide you well.
It’s going to hurt. You’ll want to impress people, you’ll want to be awesome. You aren’t always going to be. That’s OK. Being wrong is a step along the way to being right. Bad ideas are the kindling that light the bonfire of a good idea. Try as hard as you can not to take it personally. Getting negative feedback is vital to your growth.
Most importantly, find the people in your life who are brave enough to tell you the truth. You’ll be surrounded by people who are willing to be nice to you. Being nice is easy. It’s rare that someone cares enough about you or is brave enough to be direct. When you find those people, don’t get angry when they lay out their feedback openly. If you do that, you’re pissing away one of the best resources you’ll ever have.
Bottom line: never become a delicate flower. It’s your job to find value in the people around you. It’s not their job to figure out how to interact with you. You can’t control others, but you can control yourself. Find the gems in the rough and dig down to the meaning of the feedback you are hearing. Figure out how to encourage people to share their thoughts even more openly. The people around you are one of your greatest assets.
If you act overly hurt or defensive when receiving feedback, people won’t share with you as freely. If people aren’t sharing with you, you’re screwed. Whiny, overly sensitive designers hold themselves back and they often hold great teams back. Don’t ever be one.
Stand Up for What You Believe In
Not listening to feedback is a sure way to fail as a designer. However, listening to ALL feedback and caving into every single idea will also lead to poor design. Finding a healthy balance is a hard thing to do. I’ve screwed it up in the past. It took years for me to get to the point where I felt confident enough to make a call on what feedback is actually valuable and which ideas are worth pursuing. Even now, I probably screw it up.
But one way to certainly screw up is to just cave in to all feedback offered. Some ideas are NOT good. Some feedback is NOT valid. You can’t make everyone happy. If you know something is right, trust your gut. Put in the extra effort necessary to defend your idea. Prototype things, mock things up, test things… Don’t discard the ideas of others, but don’t roll over at the first sign of disagreement. If you do that, you’re not designing anything, you’re just pushing pixels.
One way to make sure you are making a good call is to understand why someone is providing feedback. Don’t take feedback at face value or directly interpret it. If they are suggesting a change, make sure you understand the problem they intend to solve or the benefit they are trying to provide. If you have that understanding, you may come up with an even better idea. You may find a way to integrate the value of their idea without compromising your design. Or you may decide that the benefit isn’t actually much benefit. Regardless, you’ll be armed with the value behind the feedback and more able to decide what to do with it.
A designer that can figure out how to quickly adapt to changing environments is a designer that is always learning and proving their worth. If you require that teams bend to YOUR needs, then you will always be falling behind the world around you. Technology changes, processes change, times change. What worked 5 years ago doesn’t work anymore. The best practices of yesterday are the laughable blunders of tomorrow.
Keep an eye on always producing the best work you can, but learn to bend to the needs of the situation you are facing. One day you may be working in agile, the next in a startup environment, the next in some big crazy complex waterfall process. Good design can happen in any process. Keep an open mind. Besides, you are more than process – don’t ever let process define you. Tools are just tools. A designer is so much more than the sum of their tools and techniques. As long as you are making awesome experiences that customers love, that’s all that matters.
Don’t Put Limits on Yourself
Coding isn’t as hard as you might think. In fact, it can be downright fun. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Always push yourself to learn new things – every experience is valuable ammo in your problem solving belt.
Should you be able to write code? Yes. Should you be able to make graphics? Yes. Should you be able to do interaction design? Yes. Research? Yes. Why is it that you can be expected to do all these things? Cause you’re a human. You’re the brightest, most adaptable thing on Earth. Don’t underestimate yourself.
Don’t Forget What You’re Here For
You’re a designer. You’re here to make amazing products that people love – things that solve real problems and are crazy desirable. A lot of things go into making products that people love: fixing bugs, testing, research, marketing, development, going to trade shows, talking to customers, etc… Every aspect of software creation is important for you to know and be involved in. Not so that you can control it – but so that you can understand and appreciate it.
But don’t forget what you’re here for. You’re here to make amazing things. This can be surprisingly easy to forget when you are staring at a wall of tasks. At the end of the day, though, you’re not around to check boxes on a task list. Checking those boxes may be important, but you don’t sell your checked list to customers. Customers don’t buy user stories, they buy great software. Never lose sight of your goal and constantly push harder and harder to achieve it. If you don’t, you may just find yourself trapped in a downward spiral of mediocrity.
Your task isn’t complete until your users are absolutely in love with your product and you are unspeakably proud of it. It takes a LOT of time and energy to get there. So keep your eye on that prize.
Make Mistakes Quickly
Don’t be afraid of screwing up. The second you have an idea, share it with someone you respect. Have them throw rocks at it. Break the idea, fast. You’ll find better ideas.
If you think an idea is dumb, say it anyway. Someone else might have the key to unlocking your bright ideas.
Don’t stress about people who judge you for making mistakes. They are either idiots, or playing political positioning games. Life is too short for either.
It’s always easier to spot flaws than it is to create brilliance. It’s easier to have a bad idea than a good one. So have your bad ideas – and tear them apart. Have people around you tear them apart. Always remember, nothing matters but the final product. It doesn’t matter how many mistakes happened along the way. It doesn’t matter if the final idea was someone else’s. All that matters is that your product is AMAZING. If that’s true, you’ve done your job.
Those are just some philosophies I consider important… If I think of more, I may write them down. I’m curious what others think, so please chime in. There’s always more than one path to success and finding your own way is vital. But the above philosophies have served me well and turned into core aspects of my life as a designer and human. So, I figured I’d share it out and see how wrong I am.