What do you do?
You’ll learn how I finally answered that question with an analogy, revealing the processes of a battle-tested Designer.
We all get the question, “What do you do?”
If the person asking is unfamiliar with the industry you work in, your response typically paints a super broad picture of the influence you have at your company, and the aspirations you have of being more than your job title. When people ask me that question, I usually say something along the lines of “I’m a Product Designer at Company.” Typically, I’ll toggle ‘Product’ for Interaction, UX, or even Digital Interface, depending on who I’m talking to. The usual response is “Cool!”, then the conversation somehow traverses into how high rent prices are in the Bay Area, followed by recommendations on where to find breakfast burritos.
The real challenge is when someone follows up and asks,
“What’s it like being a designer? What do you do?”
You have to somehow organize everything you do in a week, month, or year, and try to break it down into some non-tactical summarization. For me, there is no day-to-day routine and it truly depends on what project I’m working on. So depending on the setting and the amount of time I have to answer, my response will generally get distilled down to what tools I use on a day-to-day basis, with a sizable dose of sarcasm.
“I use Photoshop everyday to create pretty pictures. At least that’s what engineers tell me.”
A year ago, my brother asked me the same question, and this is where I took it upon myself to create an analogy that felt honest to the process Designers experience when they get new project requests. First, I should give you some background on my brother. He’s my twin, and I’m older by five minutes (yes it matters!). He’s always been a creative person and has always had amazing penmanship. I loved it. It just so happens, he’s also the most empathetic person I know. So I’ve always seen him as someone I can open up to with complete transparency, without the fear of judgement. So, when he asked me, “What’s it like being a designer? What do you do?”, I wanted to break down not only my thought process, but how I’ve perceived how other designers take on new projects, where the solution is already pre-deteremined.
So I gave my dear brother the analogy, and now you:
Imagine you have two people, one Designer, and one Client. One night in the office, the Designer is working late. The Client comes to the Designer and says,
“I need a picture of a sunset.”
The Designer instinctively looks out the window, and realizes that the sky is near-black, and the sun is past the horizon. There’s no shot. The Designer turns to the Client and says, “Ok. I could book a flight, and fly across the world to capture a sunset somewhere. I’d send a few pics and we’d evaluate each one. However, there’s no real guarantee I’ll make it there on time for a sunset. Another option is to wait until tomorrow, and we could time-lapse a bunch of shots together. Or — we can research Sunsets together this week and find where to take the best one.”
The Client looks at the Designer, and replies, “I don’t care, just get me a picture of a sunset.”
The analogy was darker than I anticipated but it connected — at least metaphorically speaking. So I took it further. As Designers take on more projects, they’re exposed to new and different types of processes to solve different types of problems. Among those projects are going to be the rush projects (the flight), the collaborative projects, and the research driven projects. The more a Designer is exposed to these elements, the easier it is open up their process to other people, including the Clients.
I wanted my dear brother to understand that Designers don’t always have control over the process, nor do they always have control over the solution at hand. In this case, the Client just wanted a beautiful picture of a sunset, and it was the Designer’s job to deliver the best one.