Reflections on my 10th year as a designer

Luis Ouriach
Jun 25, 2021 · 9 min read

This week marks my official 10th year as a professional designer, from my humble beginnings as an intern at an ecommerce company through to my position as a designer advocate at Figma.

I’ve learned a few things along the way, and here’s a snappy 10 point list of some key findings.

Before we do go into it though, I thought I’d ease you in with a funny anecdote.

Whilst interviewing at a charity for a junior front end developer job in 2013, my to-be boss and now good friend asked me to write code on paper.

You read that right – I had to write HTML and CSS with pen and paper.

I found out a few months ago that they had already decided the job was mine and hadn’t prepared too much for this stage of the interview, so instead of grilling me with questions, we had fun writing code on paper.

Enjoy.

1) No one knows what they are doing

Seriously.

Whether you work at a 2 person startup, or a 500 person enterprise people will still ask you basic questions where you think “why don’t you know that?”

The reality is that our industry moves so fast that most of the time we’re struggling to keep our head above water, rather than worry about how to make alternating row colours in a Google Sheet or how to create a nested auto layout component in Figma.

This means that your imposter syndrome can be kept at a safe distance, because there really is no need to worry that you don’t know a specific skill. The key is to be honest, transparent, and ask for help when you get stuck. We simply cannot know everything ourselves, and the only way we can grow as employees and humans is to work with others on growing as a unit.

2) It’s really hard to get a job

When I was 25, I worked at a company that I really needed to get out of. You’d think that at that point, having 4 years industry experience was enough to get my foot in the door of other companies, but you know what?

I applied for jobs for 12 months and wasn’t offered a single interview.

This was both soul destroying and a harsh realisation that the industry doesn’t owe us any favours.

My key learning from this experience is that no matter how much experience you think you have, there’s more to finding jobs than pinging out applications.

I ended up leaving London to move to Sydney, Australia for a little while and reinvented myself there as a product designer with a fresh start. I landed a first job via a Facebook jobs board, and my second was started through a conversation in a Slack channel. My first ever job (which I did whilst in my final term at university) was found through some unknown and obscure internship website, and my job on return from Australia was organised via a Twitter DM with the CEO — are you seeing a pattern? For “unknown” designers, we need to put the extra leg work in to discover opportunities that others aren’t finding themselves.

3) Networks trump pixels

No, not THAT Trump, geez pull yourself together.

This leads on from the previous point.

I believe that one of the reasons I struggled to find positions earlier in my career was because I was an unknown entity, and unfortunately a lot of companies rely on referrals for their recruitment process. I could write another post on why this sucks, but we’ll leave that for then. The reality is that you can be the most creative thinker of your generation, but if you work for a company no one has heard of you will be treated like a second class applicant.

There is a learning here for everyone though — the more you invest in relationships and knowing other people in the industry, the less you have to invest in perfecting your pixel work.

This will hurt, but most of us are churning out the same level of design work. Does this look familiar?

Or this?

Putting our similar case studies aside, what can we do as individuals to help our careers?

Community is becoming central not only for businesses in the industry, but in the core skill requirements of designers. Can you communicate effectively and demonstrate that you’re interested in pushing the industry forward? How are you currently supporting others or the industry?

Something as simple as joining a designer Slack community and chatting about pixels can be massively beneficial to your growth — heck, it even landed me an interview at a job I was ultimately offered.

Not interested in chatting in Slack? Maybe attend some virtual events. The more you appear in spaces consistently, the more people will start to recognise your name and associate you with the industry. Not interested in virtual events? Maybe an in person one would work, when that’s permitted.

As I mentioned before, I ended up leaving the country to exit a job I was stuck in, and this gave me a fresh start and a kick up the butt to work out “what I was”. As a result, I ended up rekindling my love of writing, found a regular schedule of live events, and kick started my interest in podcasting.

I appreciate that we don’t all have the time to juggle these types of projects, but proving that you’re more than just a designer can help give you that edge in the recruitment process.

Important — if you ever find yourself thinking the following, you’re probably overcommitting yourself

You know what? Showing you have interest outside of design can be a bonus. We shouldn’t shy away from highlighting our personalities in our job applications, because culture is just as important a part of your work experience as the screens you design.

4) It’s much better to learn by doing

Designers have a tendency to overthink. I know what you’re thinking — understatement of the century — but…it’s true!

People often prefer to read another Medium article (👋), buy another book about design systems, or attend another Zoom conference rather than you know…actually doing the work.

We have to bite the bullet, and learn by testing things out. Want to build a UI Kit? Give it a go! The best way to learn something is by learning from our own failures, rather than being given the answer by someone else.

The next time you’re faced with a new task, maybe have a go at solving it yourself before you reach for the 0800-help-me-please hotline, and see how far you can push yourself first.

5) Proving your worth is hard

I’ve already explained that getting your foot in the door is a mean feat, but the bit before this is also pretty hard —showing off your skills.

Most of the work I have done in my career now doesn’t exist. Yes, that’s true. Either the company has folded, the projects cancelled, or you’ve signed a non disclosure agreement, meaning building a portfolio is preeeeeeetty hard.

The discussion on this thread is enough to scare anyone away:

But it doesn’t have to be scary! There are enough articles about writing portfolios that you could spend the rest of your life drowning in advice — I’ve even written one — but ultimately we need to communicate why we are appropriate for the job we’re applying for.

What this means is that in the 30 seconds a hiring manager takes to look at your CV / resume / portfolio, they need to understand that you will make an impact at their business.

Impact? Yes, think in actions. For example, having a bullet point of “increased conversions on our sign up form by 10%” on your application is something I can immediately be impressed by. Make the hiring manager nod in approval by offering actionable insights you can discuss, rather than statements such as “worked on the website” — this doesn’t tell anyone anything about what you actually did.

On the design case study side, the simplest thing we need to be demonstrating is…our impact. “Wait, you’ve already said that!” I can hear you cry, but it’s important.

Let people know:

  • Who worked on the project
  • What you built
  • Why you built it
  • When it was built
  • Where it was marketed / showcased
  • How you had impact

Following this format should hopefully allow you to keep your work concise enough to tell a story, and not long enough to send the person reading it to sleep; much like this article.

6) You can’t please everyone

People will like you, people will dislike you.

I’ve made lots of friends in my career, and some people have not enjoyed working with me. Why? This is human nature, and we need to understand that we can’t be best friends with everyone we work with, but we can be professional.

The same advice goes for your design work — your taste will not be matched by stakeholders and it will be very hard to let go of great ideas if others aren’t in agreement that the hot pink you chose for the buttons doesn’t pop enough.

So how do we navigate this? My top line advice for every single designer on the planet is:

Don’t be attached to your ideas, your designs are just pixels on a screen

Removing our emotional attachment to ideas means that we can firstly get on with our lives but most importantly, put the goal of the project at the front of our decision making processes.

If we approach design jobs rationally and without a “I’m the designer who knows everything” attitude, we can encourage a much wider culture of design across the business, reduce the design gatekeeping and generally promote better ideas as a whole.

7) Your grass is green enough

Do you know how lucky we are that we get to design for a living?

The answer is —incredibly.

With that in mind, it’s important to frequently appreciate what you have. The industry has a habit of showing off new shiny things and we can easily be distracted by this and ignore just how sweet we have it.

I‘ve been in jobs before and applied for others in the evenings just to see what happens, rather than trying to make my current job work better for me and the team. It’s this ease at which we look elsewhere for satisfaction that makes it hard to build reliable and efficient teams. Being transparent with our managers about any gripes we have is the only way the business can move forward, rather than jumping ship at the first sight of hard work.

8) Privilege is real

Related to the previous point, it’s alarming how much privilege has an impact on recruiting in our industry.

It took me many many years before I realised that a lot of high flying people are in that position because of an inherited network, or because they went to a specific university, or because maybe they are just white and male with a loud voice.

The industry needs to work hard to anonymise our hiring, so that we’re on a level playing field regardless of whether we work at a super shiny company or a small agency, or whether we have a certain look, or name, or follow a particular sports team.

9) Work is not your family

Companies have a habit of luring us in with snacks, and perks, and sofas, and table tennis, and beers to the point where we realise we’re spending more time at work than at home.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this isn’t wholly great for our overall mental health and work / life balance.

The sad fact is that we are replacable, and the amount of time we overinvest in our work is not paid back when we leave that position, so make sure you try to strike that healthy balance between staring at your laptop in the office and hanging out with your friends and family, going on vacation, and generally not burining your retinas out from too much screen action.

10) Become an asset

I’m not talking about assets in the component sense, but a reliable source of knowledge in the workplace.

A reliable whatnow? What I mean is that the more we invest in becoming a go-to person for answers to questions, the more we build an internal reputation as an expert, and the more valuable we become to that company.

Most of my jobs have been as a solo designer in a business, and this means that unless got on the level of my non-design colleagues, I was talking a different language to everyone in the business.

Spend a significant amount of time hanging out with sales, marketing, operations, heck even the CEO if you can. You will slowly but surely develop a much deeper understanding of what it means to have real impact on a business, rather than the person who delivers mockups once every 2 weeks.

Investing that time in the non-design side of your work will pay off tenfold when the company wants to grow and they need to turn to a creative person for advice on how that should happen.

Slide your chair up to the table, my friends.

Thanks for reading folks ♥️

8px Magazine

Life, by designers.