4 Ways To Build a Long, Happy Career in UX Design (or really anywhere)
My career began in the software industry (I say that because in 1992 the UX Design “glamour profession” we all know and love now simply didn’t yet exist) shortly after becoming a father. It feels like the time since then has passed in an instant.
My son Sam is 24 years old now. In his short lifetime, I’ve designed my way through the explosion of the internet, the triumph of Apple over Microsoft, the lifespan of Flash — not to mention Napster, social media, my own startup, mobile computing, the iPod, iPad, iPhone, AppleWatch, the internet of things… and, most importantly, the emergence of UX design as a distinct discipline, legitimate educational track, and viable career path.
So with the benefit of that experience — and gratitude for it — I’d like to share some bedrock principles internalized along the way, which I continue to practice today, however imperfectly; principles that will hopefully help you, too, create a long, happy career in UX design, wherever it may take you.
01 — Be Nice
Be nice. For one, nobody likes to work with a jerk. Moreover, positivity makes it safe for others to take risks around you. Today’s adversary may be tomorrow’s partner; it’s always better if they smile when they see you coming.
Once I stood up in a meeting and, in full voice, asserted that the gorgeous icons I had submitted, which were being challenged, were in fact the greatest ever designed, and I refused to change a single pixel. Yep — that little Kanye moment sent a valuable team member from the room in tears, and an intrepid developer simply changed the pixels himself overnight. It took a long time to mend those fences. Don’t be that person.
02 — Be Engaged
Our job is largely to help others realize something they imagine but cannot articulate. What a privilege, and how satisfying to help the blind men see the whole of the elephant for the first time!
To succeed, we must be genuinely interested in the perceptions of others; willing to undertake challenges we don’t see or agree with. Fortunately, design thinking is a deliberately naive method, enabling us to ask any question, to question any premise. It may reveal unexpected things, and we may happily adjust our own perceptions as a result.
In 2004, the Lightroom project had not yet found its legs; the team still needed a UX model it could get behind. I had been trying to “design” it… to no avail. Eventually, I stopped asserting and focused on listening, asking; then, informed by the perceptions of everybody around that table, we arrived together at a model that suddenly every individual on the team was excited about building. It was like thunder — very happy thunder.
03 — Be Large
Generosity is powerful: make others shine, and when you shine, illuminate others. Bring them along on your thrill-ride; it’s fun and costs you nothing! And mentor as much as you can. You’ll be surprised how much you have to offer, and how much you get in return.
Strive each day to outdo yourself. Try management or found a startup, write a book, give a talk, change jobs or employers. Whatever you do, it’s got to scare you just a little.
Two years ago I accepted an assignment running Adobe’s Digital Marketing design organization; a strange world, after designing Lightroom and other creative products for so many years. But no stranger than moving to India for a year to build out UX design teams for Adobe there. Both were large challenges filled with unknown obstacles; both have enhanced my career and life immeasurably.
04 — Be Human
Eat smartly, exercise, play and sleep. When away from work, be away from work. Use that time to do other things you love, and to learn new things as well: blow glass, make sourdough bread, write a musical, wrestle jackalopes, build clock escapements, anything not work related!
Then, let those things infuse your days as a designer and as a team member. Living a well-integrated life will improve the quality of your work, and help to build strong relationships with other humans; relationships which, over time, will be the lifeblood of your long, happy career.
These principles are less about ways of doing than ways of being. Of course you’re passionate about design; of course you keep your skills fresh and hot; of course you’re awesome and working on awesome things, right now. But as you develop your career, and as people, technologies, politics, and economies inevitably change all around you, it’s ways of being that will keep you constant and grounded.
Let’s conclude with this important question: are you enjoying what you are doing? If not, the principles enumerated above can certainly free you to enjoy your work much more than you otherwise might. In the words of my original mentor, Kai Krause: “Anybody can work hard and make cool stuff. The real trick is to work hard, make cool stuff, and have fun doing it.”
PHOTO NARRATIVE BY FARAN NAJAFI email@example.com
AND THANKS TO MY O.G. DESIGN COLLEAGUES: Jamie Myrold, Kai Gradert, Robert Bailey, Jaime Levy, and Andrei Herasimchuk
PHIL CLEVENGER is Director of Experience Design at Adobe Systems, responsible for their Marketing Cloud suite of products. Prior to that, Phil built out design teams for Adobe while living in India; and before that, he designed the original Adobe Lightroom user interface. He currently resides in San Francisco with his wife Pam, his son Sam, and his three incorrigible dogs.