Did My Mother Make Me a Good Designer or Neurotic Mess?

Portrait of a bundled child, in which the mother slightly adjusts her son’s position

Whenever I’m visiting my family back home, it always feels like a giant timer starts the moment I walk through the front door. Before I even get settled, there’s a countdown blaring, “T-minus 4 minutes and 18 seconds until you’re completely over this.” It’s as if setting foot in my parents’ living room instantly transforms me into the irritable, angst-ridden teenager I was over ten years ago. Now, I’m a super complex person with an intricate tapestry of emotions, so I assume there’s a psych dissertation’s-worth of reasons I feel this way, but there’s one thing I know for certain: I have one trigger that immediately runs the clock down to 0, and that is my mother slightly adjusting the position of something right after I set it down.

A lot of people find it harmless or don’t even notice it at all, but among my mother’s many quirks is the uncontrollable urge to reposition everything. I’ll sit down at the kitchen table with a plate of food and a drink, and before I can even touch fork to mouth, she has nudged my glass 3.2 millimeters to the northeast. Maybe I just don’t like being corrected, but I usually think I do an above-average job arranging my beverages, so this sends me into somewhat of a wide-eyed rage spiral. I’ll usually just look up and ask, “Was that really necessary?” only to be met with, “Yeah it’s fine.” as she glides away to whatever corner of the house she was watching me from, patiently waiting for me to make the wrong decision about the relative placement of my cutlery.

So what does this have to do with being a designer?

Great question, you. I remember when I first started in design, the name of the game was Pixel Perfect™ or GTFO. Every designer’s point of pride was creating the crispest mocks in Photoshop — user or audience be damned. If you could painstakingly cobble together the freshest photo comp, you were a “world-class” designer.

So cut to me with my eyes glued to a monitor, tilting my head at various angles whilst standing 1, 5, and 10 feet from my desk in order to ensure that every perfectly letterpressed and beveled button landed on the wholiest of pixels. Is it possible that my mother’s constant futzing conditioned me to become a natural at UI design? A lot of people say that certain aspects of being a talented designer can’t be taught. Proportion, whitespace, balance: all principles of design that everyone can learn and understand, but for some people they come naturally. Maybe every nudge of a dish, every refolded towel, every adjusted picture frame was a lesson in alignment. Maybe my mom was on a mission to groom the greatest designer there ever was!

Or maybe my mother created a monster fueled entirely by perpetual anxiety

What can I say, I’m not a photographer

Almost everyone I’ve worked with has taken note of a particular quirk I have. Each morning when I get to my desk, I empty out my pockets. Lined up along the right edge of my desk are my keys, wallet, chapstick placed on top of a lens cloth, and then phone. It’s worth mentioning that the items in this column are all roughly the same width. It’s also worth mentioning that they’re arranged in order from least likely to be used during the day, to most likely to be used. It’s also worth mentioning that I am completely out of my mind.

At the beginning of my career, being a perfectionist really served me well, but the field of design has changed a lot since then. We’ve sashayed our way through lots of mantras: pixel perfect, content is king, fail fast, mobile first. It’s not that any one ideology suddenly becomes wrong, but there’s definitely such a thing as being fashionable when it comes to design thinking. Nowadays, with accessibility and usability at the forefront, many would say putting the user first is what’s in vogue. Gone are the days of obsessing over pixels. With design systems and atomic components being the standard in UI development, what matters is the final product and not how pristine your mocks are. Designers can focus more on understanding their users instead of nudging that arrow icon 2 pixels down to optically center it vertically with the text in the blah blah blah blah blah.

Now I find myself left with this pent up need to nudge that doesn’t always get fulfilled in my day-to-day work. Instead, it manifests in a number of (hopefully) charming habits.

This is how I live, feel free to judge me

The books on my shelf are grouped by height and width, then arranged in a tetris-like fashion to create platforms for my nicknacks. I’m convinced this is completely practical and not at all irrational. Because why on earth would you organize by genre or theme when the dimensions of On the Road are the same as A Wrinkle in Time?

I never said I was a role model

Then there’s my wardrobe, which is arranged ceiling to floor, not in the order I get dressed, but more or less from head to toe. Sweaters at the top sorted by weight. Then comes the meticulously folded shirts stacked from v-neck to crew neck to long sleeve. Then shorts of varying uses to sweatpants, followed by underwear, long socks, and short socks all in their corresponding bins. And finally shoes finishing things off at the bottom. I was inspired by those character creators in games where you just sort of carousel through hairstyles and clothing choices as your avatar stands casually amongst rows and rows of options. I’m also a lunatic.

I could go on, but we’re already at about 900 words here. So I’ll leave with a memory from my childhood. Growing up, we didn’t have family game night. I didn’t get bed time stories, or help with my homework. Time spent together at home usually involved the TV, and once I got one along with my own room, all bets were off. But I do remember this one time my mom and I were at the kitchen table coloring. I think I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade. I vividly remember my mom coloring this picture of a huge potted plant. It was one of those pages most kids would avoid, with so many leaves it felt more like a chore than a treat. Looking across the table, despite just having a small set of crayons, my mom’s page was awash with so many shades and textures. She was taking the green crayon and tracing firmly around the perimeter of each leaf, then pressing again down the center where *gasp* there was no outline to follow. Then with the same crayon she’d drag lightly back and forth to fill the rest in with a gradient. Each leaf. One by one. All perfect. All identical.

I marvel at this memory from time to time. I don’t think my mother ever fancied herself an artist, but looking back now, I see those skills in her. The care and the patience to execute something meticulously. The ingenuity in technique even in the absence of a teacher. It was something little, but it came so naturally to her. Whether it’s attained genetically, through observation, or subliminally via the ever-present arrangement of salt shaker relative to toothpick holder relative to pepper shaker relative to napkin holder on my parents’ kitchen table, I like to think I got some of this from my mom. And whether it’s set me up to succeed in the career that I love, or if it’s just helped me with the feng shui of my book shelf, I guess I’m grateful either way.