How giving a f%#! about growing green onions made me a better designer.

Let me tell you a story about growing green onions and the danger of not caring. Bear with me, we’ll get there.

Andy Slopsema


My wife decided she could grow her own green onions. Perhaps this is part of her shelter in place mindset, or she has decided now is the time to rage against “Big Produce.” Regardless of the reason, the growing has started. The process consists of saving the root (bottom white part) of the onion after you’ve chopped up the bits you’re currently using, and putting it in a cup of water. These roots will start sprouting at which point you can transplant them, and soon green onions are everywhere and you have one less item on your Trader Joe’s list.

After I had prepped for cooking she said “Don’t forget to save the bottoms of the onion and put them in water”. No problem. I took the little root stubs and put them in a rocks glass with some water. They didn’t want to stand up. I tried “leaning” them up against the side of the glass. It kind of worked, but I had to get back to cooking. Soon the onions were all over the place.

I didn’t think about it too much but the next morning I saw this!

I did a double take. That is an elegant solution! There are certainly other ways to approach the problem, but that is nice! Why didn’t I think of that? I will tell you why. Because I didn’t really care. I was focused on another task at the time, but even so I didn’t have a personal investment in the onion project.

I’m a designer, not a farmer.

Indeed you are! As a designer and a leader I’ve come across what I guess I’ll call the checking the boxes syndrome (pithy). We’re all trying to accomplish so much, so quickly that we’re concentrating too much on “getting done.” I would offer that productivity isn’t moving through a list. Productivity is meeting a goal that creates impact. When we get into the mindset of completion we fail to open ourselves up to the range of possible solutions to a given problem.

It takes time to care, we need to take that time. We may push up against a deadline, or the end of a coming sprint. But I would say that if we’re honest with ourselves and our team, and if we need that time to make sure we’ve come up with the best solution — one we have put care into all would be forgiven. We obviously can’t spin out forever, never shipping anything. But through clear, open communication we can create the time to care.

When we get into the mindset of completion we fail to open ourselves up to the range of possible solutions to a given problem.

How do we do it?

For me part of every new project or challenge is finding a way into it. Finding a connection that makes you care. On my team we say that everyone needs to think like the CEO. The CEO is taking the success of your company personally. We as designers need to do the same thing. We need to get outside of the project mindset. By that I mean a passive way of thinking that waits to be given a task or a brief, that waits to be told what is needed and what to do. We need to be active in thinking about what success looks like.

Even if you’re a junior designer who has been tasked with designing a button, you can design that button like a CEO (who would probably explore options and test it around the office), or you can just get it done. Knock it out and get on to the next task, with your eye on the clock, thinking about the Netflix you’ll watch that evening. Is that why we became designers?

Top down or bottom up.

When do you really care about something you’re working on? When you have ownership. Leaders — find ways to foster this sense of ownership among your team. Bring problems that everyone can own a piece of solving, not solutions that need executing. Designers — if your manager isn’t yet empowering you, think hard about what you’ve been tasked with. This will certainly lead to questions. The questions are a way for you to have some ownership. Even if the task doesn’t change hopefully the questioning has made you a part of the process in which you are now more invested.

What now?

I am now the CEO of the green onion project. Well, not really. But I approach it that way, and you can too. We’re in a strange time right now. We’ve been forced to pause. So use the time to take a step back. Find a connection to what you’re working on. Take the time to really care, and create some amazing things.