Life of a designer

Life of a designer

This piece is part of my ongoing thesis where I try to break down the life of a User Experience / Product designer. This work started developing when I noticed certain patterns in the journey of several designers I interacted with in my career. I am not sure if this is a global phenomenon or only an Indian one. I am also not sure if this is a startup only phenomenon or it transcends all type of work environment. Lastly, I am not sure if this is a phenomenon mostly experienced in digital space or it extends to other fields of design as well. Nevertheless, I have been able to add value to many designers by discussing these patterns, where they realized that the journey they are going through is common to many, and in turn learn, develop and find meaning to what they do.

I intend this piece to be a constant work in progress so that it develops further and get richer with collaboration, inputs, and association. This is for all you crazy ones! Keep designing :)

The journey

Most designers follow a journey where they move from being a solution-centric to a more problem-centric designer. This journey can be divided into 3 phases — the birth and growth, the age of dilemmas and the enlightenment. Each of this spans roughly half a decade plus minus few more years and vary greatly individual to individual.

Phase 1 — The birth and growth of a designer

When designers graduate or start their career they are presented with two most exciting opportunities — first is to execute and see their craft of execution improving with every piece of work they do, and second is to bring their ideas to life with the application of that craft.

These are undoubtedly the biggest drivers in a designer’s early life.

This is a good and happy phase, for the improvements are visual, the results are relatable and the ideas within our heads never seem to stop generating. As we discuss work with our collaborators, clients, and colleagues we can instantly see the solutions taking shape in our head. And there is that adrenaline rush to see those solutions come to life. We soon find ourselves busy on our tables, computers or any other tool busy shaping that solution up. And viola! we built something.

We all wish this phase stayed with us forever. But it does not. And that is normal.

Phase 2 — The age of dilemmas

In this phase, which kicks in at approximately 5–8 years time, designers start feeling lost. There is a sense that creeps in that they are doing repeated work. The ideas in their head no longer feel fresh. Designing, which once seemed to be the center of the world, looks like an unattractive prospect, marred by experiences from bad clients, unexecuted work, hardships and other such realities of life. I am sure each one of you will have your story to tell about how those feelings started creeping in. The reasons are varied but the effect seems to be the same.

So what is happening? Maybe life. Maybe a few other things. Let’s take a deeper look.

The first thing that is happening is that we are maxing out our craftsmanship improvement stage. And that’s an absolute letdown. The improvement graph is slowing down and we are not seeing the same amount of improvement in excellence. This is again quite natural. We are bound to reach that point where the slope of this graph is going to flatten. Solutioning improvement will continue but at a slower pace.

Second what is happening is our ideas are getting challenged, and we are getting tired of fighting for them. From insensitive clients to bossy managers, those brilliant shiny nuggets of ideas that used to light up our nights, seem to be getting lost in this frenetic world of business.

This phase is a difficult one. Designers change jobs, they travel and they fall in love. Also, they fall out of love. They start questioning the authenticity of their work. Many designers I have spoken to start considering quitting design and going back to something more visceral. Many wish they made movies and even more wished they pursued their dreams of opening a cafe. And some are thinking of wearing different hats — becoming a product manager (more coming later on the designer to PM conundrum), a marketing professional, a developer!

But here is the interesting part. Something deeper is happening during this phase behind the curtains. During this time designers are soaking in knowledge, experiencing life first hand and building a huge understanding of this convoluted world.

Let me give you an example. And this one is from my own life. I have had the opportunity to design for healthcare before. I did all the prerequisites before starting design; user study, research, data to understand the problems that I was solving for. I believed I knew the system well, have understood the emotions of the users and everything else. Man, I was so wrong.

Many years later when I went through one of the most grueling health issues, it opened my eyes to the complexities of the problems in a way I could have never understood before. I experienced health not only as a unidimensional issue but as a combination of medical, financial, emotional, professional and several other areas at once. I would have never understood the same in my earlier phase.

Designers are like wine, they need to be aged to get better.

Aren’t we supposed to build experiences? How can we unless we live one. This is the age of maturing, getting exposed to all domains of life and building a deeper understanding of their working. So that we can move to the next phase.

Phase 3 — The enlightenment

After we have struggled, lived and survived the phase of dilemmas, we emerge bruised and modified.

And enlightened.

But enlightened to what?

To the knowledge that the real contribution is in understanding the problem. The solution will follow if the problem is rightly understood. This happens because all the knowledge that we were soaking in the last phase, all that we experienced and all that thoughts that developed in our mind suddenly start coming together and we are able to make better sense of the problems that we are dealing with. The real task here is to look at the problem like no one else does. The real task is to explain it to others so that they can understand and act on it. The real task is to make sense of every aspect of human civilization in that tiny bit of problem briefing. And when this starts happening, there is new found joy in designing. The quantum of work no longer matters. The quality does. Screens, codes, and releases become secondary and words become important.

While in earlier phases our impact and success depended upon several other factors than our own brilliance, in this we are creating impact at each and every step. We can sense the joy of the journey irrespective of the outcome.

The journey thereafter

Maybe the designer lives happily ever after, maybe new struggles shape up, maybe there is more to the story beyond this. I am yet to experience that and happy to hear from those who have them already.

Till then as one of our famous Bollywood movie puts it, something absolutely true with designers —

You are alive, if you are living with a restless heart.

Joy, struggle , nd enlightenment


This is a work in progress and I will continue to do more research to develop on this.

I welcome and appreciate thoughts, comments and experiences relevant to improving this understanding. If you had a similar experience, please share your story.

What should a designer do in Phase II ? Do not lose faith in design. Keep moving.

More on the Designer to Product manager conundrum later.

Excellence, brilliance and success is possible at every stage. Acts and outcomes of brilliance are a function of several parameters like timing, opportunity, team etc. Such experiences can leapfrog the movement along the journey but the growth curve would still follow a similar trajectory.




Head of Design @ Practo, ex Head of Design @Commonfloor, ex frog.

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Shayak Sen

Shayak Sen

Head of Design @ Practo, ex Head of Design @Commonfloor, ex frog.

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