Craft is relevance, confidence is impact

The sacred pairing for a successful design career.

Original photo by Iswanto Arif

Craft and confidence make today’s designer.

People like you and me who inhabit this industry, from a mix of backgrounds, carrying with us fuel that feeds our fire, and baggage that weighs us down.

Imagine your magic mouse has a genie inside. And that it’ll grant you one of two things: perfect craft or perfect confidence.

You can only choose one.

What would you pick?

The choice

Fortunately, we designers enjoy a certain amount of freedom in shaping the directions of our careers. Design is not—and will never be—a science. The lack of pure objective good or bad design choice makes our industry beautiful, but also overwhelming.

Some designers, myself included, live in this valley of uncertainty. Forces pull us to learn new tools or master the old, stay on trend or be timeless, walk the line or break the norms, bow to the business or serve users alone, earn more through career advancement or keep doing what we truly love.

There’s not much nuance to these conversations. They’re shallow. Based on an individual’s experience, and countered with another’s opposing experience.

Craft and confidence are two key words that aren’t often paired when talking about design careers. It’s a topic I’ve written on before, and I’m writing this to expand on the idea.

Working definitions

First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Here are my working definitions.

Craft is the practical, day to day skill of designing. Whatever design niche you inhabit. We practice our craft, hone our skill, and hope to achieve some mastery over our tools and medium. It is tangible and practical. It results in a wonderful thing, created by you. You crafty designer, you.

Confidence is even broader. It’s a belief that your opinions matter, and that you have the capacity to make the right design choices for the problem at hand. Confidence is finding your stance, and then speaking up to ensure its known. Confidence is not about steamrolling other opinions—it’s about owning what you believe is best, and fighting for it as long as you still believe it’s right.

Notions of craft & confidence

Craft and confidence don’t get discussed side by side. They’re not assessed as like terms. Apples and oranges, peanuts and pistachios, whole and skim milk.

Between them, craft is a front runner in the minds of designers. A designer with refined craft fits nicely in the box of how we define creative professionals. They impress, and illustrate value immediately by seeing or experiencing their creation. Designers with craft drew us into this field to begin with, and so of course we see perfected craft as a holy grail.

Confidence can manifest a tactic for pushing an agenda. Or, seen as something designers need to develop at some point, but only after their craft is on point. Confidence in presenting work to clients or supervisors is the main application of the skill we hear about.

Perhaps this is as far as it goes. Perhaps not.

Notions that one follows the other are common. “Once I’ve mastered my craft, I’ll be confident in my work.” Or, on the flipside, that “Being confident without mastery of craft means you’re a charlatan.”

Both of these stances are common, but oversimplify and hurt designers. Their distinctness reminds us that 1) being highly skilled does not make you confident, and 2) being confident doesn’t mean you’re an asshole.

They exist on independent planes.

But their non-dependence on one another doesn’t make them unrelated. In fact, they make a perfect pairing. But achieving them takes a different types of effort.

And—the point of this articlethey serve different ends.

Craft makes you relevant

I wrote in my last piece how the pursuit of craft in design is endless. With technology, trends, and new ideas about design constantly evolving, the skills of today’s designers will always change. This will stay true for us until artificially intelligent designers take our jobs.

Designers who don’t adapt and expand will be left behind. Their jobs lost to automation, or other services that make their outdated skills obsolete.

How we define craft will change, and we’ll change how we practice it. As long as we can keep up with the changes, we’ll stay relevant in our industry. Once we fall out of sync, we’ll fade away, and a new guard of relevant designers will readily replace us.

It’s inevitable that someday we’ll all be irrelevant, but the pursuit of craft keeps it at bay. Perfect craft ensures that we’re relevant to the work we believe we’re meant to do.

Confidence makes you impactful (for better or worse)

Confidence wields great power over our careers. Arguably much more power than craft can.

Designers who neglect confidence risk becoming dead weight over time, and negatively impact the ability of a design team to flourish. They’ll struggle to advocate for design. Their lack of design confidence will have a direct impact on a company’s ability to make money.

But too much confidence can make a designer completely insufferable. The kind that steamrolls others’ decisions because they know they’re right. Confidence can blind individual designers, and wreak havoc on a product. If the loudest voice—or, in this case, the most overconfident one—wins every argument, then only the work they want will be shipped.

Avoid these extremes.

A self-aware, empathetic, honest sense of confidence is the straightest path to impact your design career.

The designer with no confidence has no impact. A designer with some confidence will have some success, but struggle when they meet resistance. The overconfident designer has immense impact, for better or worse. Impact doesn’t imply things are good, but it does mean things move.

A designer who is confident, yet reasonable and open to conflicting information and perspectives, sits between these extremes. They develop strong opinions, present them with clarity and purpose, and adjust based on other opinions that make stronger cases for why a thing should be like this or that.

Confident design is confident decision making. Confident decision making opens the door to confident strategy, and instills confidence in design leadership. In time, confidence will be contagious to the company culture. Rendered intentionally. Designed by designers, with confidence.

s/o Jared M. Spool for my fav definition of design as “the rendering of intent”

Pair well, designers

I wrote this article to convey a few simple points. Points that I believe are overlooked by most designers.

Confidence and craft are distinct in how you pursue them, and distinct in what they give you in return. Confidence opens the door to impact, whatever your mission may be. Craft gives you the relevance to execute work relevant to the moment we live in.

On their own, they bring value. Paired together is a special sauce that can massively impact the trajectory of your designers career.