The Value of Variety
The English poet William Cowper once said, “Variety’s the spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.”
People travel, have hobbies, try different cuisines, explore the wilderness, read books, watch movies, and make friends to experience all the various sources of wonder in the world. They yearn to fully inform themselves through different viewpoints — to supplement their understanding of things in the interest of curiosity, enjoyment, and personal growth.
As product designers, sometimes we aren’t afforded the opportunity to experience a great deal of variety in our daily roles — our company makes a product, and it’s our job to make that product better. That level of focus is what initially drew me to product design after spending so many years in the agency world; the idea that I could design something and then be given the opportunity to improve it over time, rather than just handing it over to a client never to be seen again, was very compelling to me. But the dilemma with that level of fixation, as I soon experienced, is the potential for skills to stagnate, vision to grow narrow, and boredom to set in.
An unintended side effect of being a product designer is that you don’t often get a chance to work on things outside your area of focus. Page layouts need to be tweaked, features need to be implemented, and before you know it six months have gone by and you’ve been staring at the same design the entire time. The unforeseen consequences of spending so much time on a single project or experience is that you begin to unknowingly lose some of the innate curiosity that comes with being a designer, and become lost in the creeping monotony of the task at hand.
“Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure.”
I’ve found that branching out and switching gears to something else will help to stimulate other parts of your creativity that may not be currently utilized. For me, I was able to find escape in the form of assorted side projects I was doing simply for fun, and to keep my design mind sharp and alert — but really any new, engaging activity will do.
Another inadvertent effect of product design I’ve noticed is increased difficulty in arriving at solutions. Often when we’re problem solving, the “ah-ha” moments come from the most unexpected places — usually when thinking about anything but what you’re working on. Unfortunately, if you don’t take the opportunity to switch gears and stimulate yourself with something new or different, you can miss out on these revelations, and get lost down a rabbit hole of ill-informed reasoning.
One way I’ve been encouraged by my UX Lead at 50onRed to alleviate this kind of mental block is to seek out other activities or projects that interest me — to shift my focus for a bit so that I can recalibrate and come back to the task with a fresh outlook, feeling rejuvenated.
For some designers, though, the reality is there may not be time left in the day to work on side projects, or they may not work in an environment that fosters the ability to switch to another project. For those who find themselves in such a position, I simply recommend reassessing how and where they spend their days.
If you’re working such long hours that you either don’t have the time or motivation for side projects when you get home, then it might be time to move on. Similarly, if the company you work for doesn’t encourage or condone a change of pace when the symptoms of design fatigue begin to set in, perhaps your time could be better spent elsewhere.
“Nothing is pleasant that is not spiced with variety.”
– Francis Bacon
One of the great things about our industry is that it’s very forgiving when it comes to career mobility. The companies that offer the kind of atmosphere you want to be a part of understand that finding the right match is crucial, and it might take a bit of job exploration to get there.
However, if the right company fit doesn’t seem to be the problem, then you might just need to reconsider product design as your niche — and there’s nothing wrong with that!
Some designers live for the constant iteration and prolonged lifecycle of a product, while others thrive on the variety of projects and clients that agencies can offer — the goal is to find the kind of environment where you can thrive as a designer and find yourself feeling the most satisfied.
No matter where you choose to work, or what kind of designer you want to be, fill your days with variety. Without it, you could begin to lose sight of the things that bring you joy and make you an effective problem-solver. Regardless of the route you embrace, utilize variety as a way to expose opportunities that may have otherwise remained undiscovered — in the end you’ll be a better, more fulfilled designer because of it.