Survive and Thrive as a Solo Designer

Insights from FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC, a monthly event and community that lives at the intersection of design, user experience, and technology. Design Driven highlights the stories behind the most interesting products and designers in the world. See all of our Design Driven talks here.

As the first designer at Boxed, Jillian Bromley knows well the challenges of being a solo designer.

Most of her experience as a designer was on a larger design team. When she found herself on a team of one, she immediately craved the advantages and comfort of working within a larger team, with the checks, balances, and feedback that helped bring out her best design work. Without peers to draw on, Jillian had to adapt her workflow and her mindset to continue delivering her best work.

In a talk at Design Driven NYC, Bromley discussed four tips for surviving and thriving as a solo designer.

You OWN the Design and Process

Taking on a role as a solo designer means leaving behind the like-minded peers that may have helped you get through projects in the past. There’s no longer a creative director to set the course or a senior designer to ping for feedback. There’s no one to catch you if you fall.

Bromley said this scenario forces the solo designer to develop a clear process that all other stakeholders in the company can understand. They may ask why wireframes are necessary or why the design process takes so long, but delivering a straightforward roadmap and quality work will help establish expectations and understanding for everyone involved.

Master the Art of Timing

People are always going to want things faster. Everyone is going to think their feature is the most important one. But, you’re only one person. You can multitask, but you can’t work on two things simultaneously.

Bromley said timing isn’t about designing faster, it’s about balance and empathy. Prioritization should be approached respectfully — designers need to give all jobs fair consideration, while those requesting work need to acknowledge what is realistically achievable from a single designer. Consider, though, that there are people in your organization that don’t really understand what designers do or what it takes to complete design work. You may need to educate others about the time it takes to do great design work.

Learn When to Say No

As a solo designer, you’re going to get requests from every angle. Your CTO wants a change to checkout functionality, your CEO wants a new homepage, your CMO needs a mock of a new ad campaign, and — on top of all of this — you’ve been asked to help pick out new board room decorations. You can’t do all of those things at once. Sometimes you just have to say no. If checkout is truly broken, it’s probably best to politely remove yourself from the company’s interior design projects and focus on the jobs that are going to be most impactful for the business.

There are going to be days when you have to step back and determine if the avalanche of work is an anomaly or if you’re always going to be this busy. It’s an opportunity to determine if you need to bring in help. Even if you’re trying to be a lean team, consider some third-party help to help speed urgent, unavoidable projects.

Fail, Get Feedback, and Move Forward

Be okay with failing. Eventually something is going to fall flat.

Also, don’t fail because you feel alone — even if you’re the only designer. There are great resources to leverage on a product team. Front end developers are a good resource for visual feedback. QA is the best resource for making sure you’ve accounted for everything. And, that pedant on Slack who is always correcting grammar is good for proofreading.

“It’s really hard to be the solo designer,” Bromley said. “It takes patience and integrity, but it’s also empowering and rewarding.”

To hear more from Bromley’s talk, “Survive and Thrive as a Solo Designer,” check out the full video below from FirstMark’s Design Driven NYC.

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