The story of a designer encountering psychology.

“Hmm, I’m *not sure* about those colours…”
Why didn’t we centre the text?”
Can we try blah blah?! I really like that!”
Me: … (I thought I’d already finished the design…)

Even though I always dreamed to be a designer from childhood, I never expected the that I would encounter so many situations like this. Design reviews were all about what someone else liked.

Seriously, what kind of designer would imagine a good design to be defined by the likes and hates of other people, who themselves hadn’t made any effort to understand composition or typography? Sadly, this was a very common phenomena. I couldn’t help but feel increasingly dejected the longer I worked as a designer.

Back in 2016, I wondered how Apple designers dealt with the harsh reaction.

I decided to look after my mental health.

Whenever this kind of frustration grew inside my mind, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly depressed about it. My life felt even more miserable given my first language isn’t English; I often felt I couldn’t clearly communicate my intentions. Worried about this growing feeling, I decided I needed to visit a psychologist.

After mumbling a lot about work and life stresses, the psychologist started to analyse my situation and gave me some advice.

Your unhappiness originates from judging yourself from other people’s perspectives. Such as the way you are worried about whether your design is likeable or not, or whether your English is good or bad.

I was shocked. That was the exact view I had for my entire life! The psychologist continued.

You will be much happier if you find a different way to evaluate yourself. Regardless whether people like something or not, I think it’s very meaningful to complete something. For example, finishing a marathon!

By this point, my head was busy finding something I could finish without another person’s approval. It reminded me of one thing. A draft article I’d gave up on a while ago aka… an ESL person’s nightmare.

Overcoming my internal fear of writing English.

A long time ago at a previous job, we had a blog writing session. I’d never written any long articles in English at that time. I was desperately searching for the fastest way to escape this horror. I was terrified.

My chosen topic was colour. Fortunately, I noticed there seemed to be an unwritten convention for writing tech/design blog articles.

Title: {n} ways to {verb} for {something}.
Body #1: Briefly introduce some old theory
Body #2: Insert some analysis of a famous app
Body #3: Sell something(!) at the end

Alright, it seemed do-able. I started with the title — “3 simple ways to use colours for designing apps. Next, I created an illustration to represent the old theory part, followed by another example for analysising a famous app.

Let’s hope the company blogging trend is on the way out…

Even though I precisely followed the formula, my article wasn’t interesting. To be honest, I felt the entire thing didn’t make any sense at all. A professional article written by a writer with poor English? I immediately felt embarrassed about myself. As you may have guessed, I couldn’t finish writing the article and put it away.

Me: Well, this draft once traumatised me. Not anymore! Now is the time to beat the evil and finish it!
(However, there was a lingering problem)
Me: Well, it still looks shit. Okay, what if I write about something else and finish that instead?! 🙄 It must be easier if I pick something outside of work related topics. Something like…. maths & geometry!

Beyond just completing an article, I also wanted to share with others the beauty of mathematics in design. I started writing a story with a very casual voice aimed at someone with beginner level mathematical knowledge.

Compared to the colour article, I found the process of writing was much enjoyable with this time. It must be because I write about something I actually like to do in my own time. At the same time — it was somewhat strange to not need anyone’s approval before hitting the publish button.

Believe it or not, it became insanely popular.

After I published the post, the following things happened. 
Please note. Very surreal.

  • Over 800 (!) new people followed me on Twitter in one day
  • Paul Graham(!!) shared the article and even replied to compliment me
  • It ranked as #2 trending topic on Hacker News(!!!)
  • 3,000+ people viewed my LinkedIn profile (well, that was just scary…)
  • The article was even translated by others into different languages
I often make a joke about getting a tattoo of those screenshots!

My entire day was filled with seeing thousands of likes and compliments build up. I still remember how my heart was thumping like hell at that day — I was too nervous to comprehend what was going on with this amateur stuff I’d made!

The reaction and popularity was something I hadn’t expected or desired at all. Yet despite of all the craziness, I learnt a valuable lesson.

Getting liked by people isn’t always about exceptional knowledge or skills. Sometimes, genuine expression can overcome imperfect technical execution, language, and other fine details.

In other words, design is meant to be felt emotionally first, before being analysed or rationalised. Therefore, hearing things such as like and hate were visceral feedback — rather than some judgement of my talent or skills.

Discovering myself with psychology.

Upon further reflection, I also noticed a common emotion behind of my personal work. That was, the feeling of nostalgia. Such as the moment I re-drew the 1988 Seoul Olympics mascot using code, or creating an animation inspired by an arcade rhythm game — I subconsciously tried to summon a nostalgic memory to the present situation of my life in a foreign country.

Inspired from the art style of an arcade game — Sound Voltex 3
Creating geometric design reminds me of the time I strugged with Math

It finally helped me to evaluate myself better. No matter whether people like it or not, or how good I am or not — I don’t give up, I keep on trying. Yep, I think I’m a valuable person to exist on this planet! Now I could finally and proudly finish my psychology sessions.

I became motivated to experiment with different ways to design and communicate.

I used to be really stubborn about the tools I use. These days, I enjoy trying out new software to discover what kind of emotion can be easily created with them. Some examples include generative art, animation, 3D modelling.

I’m in love with creating 3D illustrations these days
And creating houses! =)

Of all the benefits this has brought, the best is having more chances to communicate with people around the world, through art and storytelling.

Thanks for reading.

I wish I’d learned more about psychology earlier in my life. These new discoveries brought so many benefits. Not only for my mental health, but it has made it a lot easier to interpret what people would feel from my design.

Even though I only briefly talked about the times I had psychological counselling, I sincerely recommend anyone to seek such help if you feel you might need it. (I was trying not to go too deep for this story 😅). Also, I hope this story helps a little bit for those who struggle in a foreign country using a second language.

If you are curious about my work, or want to ask a question, you can comment below, or use Twitter (@arle13) to check out all the small silly things I’m doing.