On becoming a boring adult
But it’s okay!
It is my first year working full time coming to an end. In September 2015 I became an enterprise product designer at an e-commerce start up in Singapore. What a year! <copy/paste cliche phrases>. But really though, the only one cliche phrase I am going to prominently type out is I learned a lot. The biggest take away from this past year, is to never stop learning. Funny enough, when I was graduating, I wanted “to never become a boring adult” (does writing a post on Medium.com make me a boring adult now? Oh, totes!).
Fresh design grads and those soon to be in their shoes, don’t panic over graduation. It is not the end, it is only the beginning. You might start becoming “a boring adult”, but it is in your hands to un-bore your journey. I have chosen the way of learning. And here are the shortlisted learnings of my first year in the industry. It is not intended to become your guide of navigating life, neither I foresee you having same learnings when you start working. But I do hope these learnings of mine will provoke thoughts and actions, and will give you a clue of what to expect when you are out there in the big world.
#1 Be pro-active
Before jumping into the learnings from the work, I want to emphasise on a few points about getting the job.
No one will throw offers at a fresh grad. In rare instances yes, but well do you wanna be framed by this one offer anyway? Go to the field and meet, meet, meet people. You will be surprised by the number of people around who would be happy to give you advice and share their experience. Most of these acquaintances won’t become your coworkers this time around. Yet they might become your coworkers in a year or two, they might become your boss or a client, or they might lead you to your potential coworkers. I also discovered it is a great bullshit test. You do not want to work at a company where people are not interested in meeting the fresh blood.
I did it gonzo way. I googled the heck out of world wide web, compiled a list of companies I am interested in, and started stalking those working there via LinkedIn. I looked up the email address or twitter and sent a short message. Followed by a GIF (that’s important!). Most of the people responded, with many I got to talk over a coffee, some connected me with their managers or friends in other companies, few offered me a job. And with some I am meeting regularly for a friendly chit chat every now and then.
What to do?
Stop whining about the over saturated market, get your elevator pitch together, and reach out. Craft a neat, engaging and short email, stating your intent and possibly the benefit for the other person & most likely you will get a response. Read upTobias Van Schneider’s article on how to email a busy person.
#2 Be bold
Do not accept every single offer you a handed. Yup, I know the fear, but do choose wisely. After I have had 67 coffees, 12 kale smoothies and 8 beers I was handed an offer I decided to accept. Why I have signed this specific offer over the others? Because this one was an enterprise position. Sounds cool, ya? Unfamiliar? Ya! I had no clue what it is, and it sounded way out of what i was doing before or was thinking of doing in the future. So I accepted. I was aiming to become a problem solver, it seemed like a good challenge to tackle.
What to do?
Be humble and adventurous. You are young, try out different things. It will help you to understand what makes your heart skip a beat. As an enterprise designer, I tried my self in numerous ventures throughout this year. I now know what I am aiming for and what I ought to explore more.
#3 Challenge yourself
(Extraverts, do skip the paragraph.) I am a recovering introvert. It means I am way better at social interactions today, than a year ago, and I was better a year ago than 5 years ago. But somehow this time around, I failed. I was frightened. The company I joined is quite big, approximately 150 people in the office. I was lost&confused on how to navigate through the office chapter of my life. So I decided to crawl into my shelter. Bad bad decision! In the end of the day it makes you feel miserable & invisible — what a combo strike.
What to do?
Again — a take on the first point — be pro active, be open to your new co-workers, be genuinely interested in getting to know them. Do not treat it as a burden. Easy way to go around it is to eat lunches and not skip social outings. Make time for socialising when you join the company. Investing time and energy into it in the first few weeks, will come back as a reward later, both in the work you do, and the way you feel being in the office most of the day.
#4 Accept you are not the cleverest in the room because you are a designer
When you are surrounded by the same breed of people, you find yourself in a design bubble: you start thinking design is the salvation, and designers are the cleverest. Then you salt&pepper it with movies like Design Disruptors and you start thinking designers are the only people capable of actually doing something. I agree, we live in a designed world, yet I tend to think designer is not a profession. Designer is the person who’s brains are wired a certain way. Quite often it intersects with visual taste. However, those working on automating processes in a warehouse or those working as CS agents might be designers as well. They have no clue what is Didot and why a mobile button should be 40px, hence they think in a way a designer is thinking. Or at least some of them do. I believe in that!
What to do?
As a designer you are the forever mediator. Instead of being trapped in your design-y perfect bubble, break those walls and acquire as much knowledge from those around you as possible. You will have far more material to analyse and synthesise for you to find what might be the most appropriate solution.
#5 Be humble and practise active listening
It brings me to the next point. Be a sponge to everything and everyone around you. Often I meet designers with a crown — they think they are the rare type, the RedBook species, the only one with the right approach and therefore the best solution. They stay blind to the others in the room. How can we, as product designers, be empathetic with the users, if we can not be empathetic with our co-workers? I have zero knowledge about logistics and technology. I graduated with a Communication Design degree and can explain to you why there should not be more than three colors on a poster and the history of the Helvetica font. Hence, being an enterprise designer, I had to catch up. I asked and questioned almost everything. Once I asked the PM of CRM: “Why tickets? Can we call it something else?”. She looked at me and said “Well because it is an industry standard…” Fair enough, lets not reinvent the wheel here, I thought to myself. But I challenged the norm.
What to do?
Simple as it gets: practise being a sponge.
When I started working on the projects independently, I realised I am the sole warrior. And I embraced the war state. It took me a while to stop fighting for the users, for the correct blue hue, and for my place at the decision table. Instead I stated practicing facilitation and editing. You are always a facilitator and an editor, not a PM and a designer.
What to do?
Try different approaches and borrow from other professions. There are only that many different people you are working with, and everyone is an individual, therefore go full on human-centered approach. It echoes with the point #3 — if you know those around you on a more personal level, getting your thought across the table is x20 easier.
#7 Don’t follow trendy words for granted, think
Collaboration is a hype word, especially in the design bubble, yet often people do not quite get the soul of it. You get together with the team now and then for brainstorms and discussions. But the bulk of your work is produced in solitude. Here it gets tricky as different people need different surroundings to get in the flow. For some it is headphones and the favorite beat, for some it is crispy silence, for some it is mundane coffeeshop noises. For me I need to work from a silent space and I need to be able to get short breaks from my work to walk around or dance.
What to do?
Experiment to understand what gets you in the flow, and take time to explain it to those whom you are working with to prevent any misunderstandings (what if you create your best work at a night club?).
#8 Don’t let yourself be your own enemy
At some point throughout this year, I was taking on too many projects, treating every single one as the most important, attending to each stakeholder’s request. On top of it I was doing a few online courses. Soon, after a few months, I was completely burned out and simply lost interest to all of the work I was producing or was asked to do. I was still doing my job though, but without passion and curiosity.
What to do?
Treat yourself as your most important project. Analyse why, adapt or pivot.
#9 There is never NO work
Sometimes Slack is going cray cray because of the multiple requests from different teams. Those are busy days. And sometimes it gets too calm. It does not means there is no work to do though. Those days are for reading up, cleaning up and exploring new designs. Clean your Sketch files, annotate designs for the next iteration, update pattern library, learn how to produce static codes of your designs, etc, etc, etc.
What to do?
Do not waste time. Time is another capital you own, so use it wisely. You always will find to-do stuff in the Not Urgent/Not Important quadrant. If it is empty — put on your nikies and jog.
#10 Sometimes life sucks
The burnout was not address in time and escalated into lost motivation, I started realising I am not eager anymore to do any of the stuff I was doing. I became a bunny — I would agree to everything a PM would say, or would adjust the designs because an engineer told me so. Waking up in the morning was not exciting because I had to drag myself to the office. Why was it happening? What I can do to get out of the matrix and be excited again?
What to do?
Sometimes life sucks, accept it. Whine about it and pity yourself. For a day or two. Then reflect on it, find patterns and understand why it happened, and re-align accordingly. Or pivot!
But most importantly — know you are not the stupidest in the room because you are a junior designer. If people tell you something like “You don’t have experience” or “How come you know, you just graduated” .. pivot! NO, RUN!!! Because of course you have experience and brains and you are great — go conquer the world. Namaste.
Thanks for reading! I am open to share more learnings and am interested in conversations about design, management and a growth mindset. Do connect with me if you feel like we can have a chat! Say hello or ping me at email@example.com.
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