7 bits of advice for new Designers…from Hollywood

Fresh-faced, fresh-moleskin

There are two ways to look at a blank sheet of paper. It can be the most frightening thing in the world, because you have to make the first mark on it. Or it can be the greatest opportunity in the world, because you get to make the first mark — you can let your imagination fly in any direction, and create whole new worlds!
Marty Sklar, International Ambassador at Walt Disney Imagineering

Now imagine staring at a blank piece of paper and a Sketch artboard…and an XD artboard…and an Illustrator artboard…

Being a junior designer can be intimidating — but there is wisdom and guidance hidden in the words of the creatives that have gone before you. We’ve dug up some of Hollywood’s iconic moments to unearth some of the lessons we’d wished we’d learned sooner as junior designers and product-people.

Have a read, and shout out in the comments section if we’re missing yours!


“Aim small, miss small” — Benjamin Martin, The Patriot

When you watch magic, the most amazing stuff is often the small details, not the grandiose reveal. The same is true of design. Great design is in the micro-moments — the little interactions and interventions that bring a smile to your face. FJORD highlighted these in their 2016 Trends report (it’s generally a good read each year for designers at all levels), and Google dedicates a portion of their ‘Think with Google’ resources to them.

I can vividly remember the last time I experienced one. It was when Apple rolled out a neat little feature that automatically fills a two-factor authentication (2FA) text code into a password field. What does that mean? It means no more frantically trying to type in the code whilst the text preview is at the top of the screen, or no more exiting the app to retrieve it (often a real problem for financial apps that don’t allow you to return to the flow for security reasons).

Someone made the decision to design that feature, because they knew how annoying it was. And i’d like to find them and buy them a drink.

Where do we find the groundwork for these micro-moments ? Research of course! Unearthing and designing for the small details, the little workarounds or offhand emotions are what really make a product sing. The big picture is of course important, but you really make a difference when you go big on the small. ‘The Devil is in the detail’ — but the dollar and design awards live their too.

These details are often buried in the ‘Why’s’: why a user is using the product, why they think something is important, why they’ve come to our site, why they feel that way, etc…and usually buried several levels deep.

Business folks — and i’m speaking as one — haven’t quite got their heads around this yet. They’re still in the mindset of mass cohorts and requirements gathering (“we know millennials want social sharing buttons because we asked them ‘Do you want social sharing buttons’ and they said yes”). It’s understandable — they’re looking for the big, bulge bracket ‘average x’ to maximise the potential market for their product.

But understanding the real, non-obvious nuances of our user’s behaviours, needs and wants is what will really drive innovation and impact. Want an example that features milkshakes? You got it:

Clayton Christensen: Jobs To Be Done, as applied to new product development in the fast food industry

Relevant techniques and resources: The 5 Whys, Jobs to be Done

“Show me the money” — Jerry Maguire, Jerry Maguire

Design is going through a rebirth in the corporate environment. Good news: Design gets a seat at a more senior table. Bad news: there’s a lot of clients and colleagues hiring designers and not knowing a) what they are, b) what they do, or, most importantly, c) how they can make a real business impact beyond “making things look prettier”. Whilst design gets a seat at the table, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have to continuously demonstrate their value.

Root your value not in lofty aspirations of “better customer experience”, but in data — preferably data that comes prefixed with ‘$’ (other currencies are available). Retention, acquisition, activation, conversion, cross/up-sell, basket size can all be tracked and traced back to a dollar value. Work with other divisions such as Product Management and Digital Marketing to understand the growth levers of your company (i.e. what are the improvable metrics that get the most amount back for the least invested), and use your empathetic powers to remove frictions or design interventions that can increase these metrics.

These will differ depending on your products business model (e.g. transaction-based vs subscription-based) and your site/apps objectives (eCommerce vs brochureware), so it’w worth taking the time as a junior to truly understand what makes your business, or client’s business, tick. Best piece of advice i’ve ever received? Go to your company’s investor relation site and download some of their earnings presentations. They’re generally easier to digest than the full annual report but give you a sense of the most important details that senior management are focused on. If you’re company is small, or private, talk to the finance or strategy department and see if you can get a copy of the latest material they’ve presented to shareholders.

Your design decisions will always be a balance between your users and your business — ideally finding the harmonious point of the Venn diagram where both objectives are optimised and everyone gets ice cream. There’s no hard and fast rules for the instances where tradeoffs must be made — evaluate each on a case-by-case basis and make sure that whatever decision you take, you do so in a way that makes it easy and cheap to change your mind!

A great place to start? Pirate Metrics:

Relevant techniques and resources: lean start-up, lean analytics, funnel marketing, ‘pirate’ metrics, The Service Startup by Tenny Pinheiro

“Keep it simple, keep it safe” — Gandalf the Grey, The Lord of the Rings (sort of)

Okay, so i’ve been a tad liberal with this one — but the point still stands. As junior designers, we have a penchant to try and make things overly complex and intricate — probably in a bid to make our ideas so impressive that they get through the gauntlet to production.

I point to Dribbble as a possible source of this. We’re so in awe of the beautiful illustrations and motion animations that we come over all giddy. But have you ever noticed how many of those Dribbble postings you see walking around in the real world? <1%. Why? Probably because the development team take one look at it and simply state “You want me to build that? You must be joking.” And even if they don’t, the product manager probably chips in with “You want me to spend how many engineering and development hours on that…for what return?”

A design or idea has no impact if it never existed. Keeping your ideas, simple not only has the benefit of increasing the likelihood that they’ll ship, but they’re also easier to iterate upon. Like a good speechwriter, get out a red pen and massacre your work until each and every item is there for a clear and obvious purpose.

Focus is paramount. Ask yourself “What’s the one idea, and one metric that matters?” Amazon have a great technique they use to align the team and keep things tight — the “internal press release”. The product team writes a press release for the day their new product launches and shares it internally.

Not only can this help the team visualise the end product and communicate it’s value proposition to the target user, it also helps the team focus and prioritise. News articles follow a strict hierarchical format — a structure called the inverted pyramid. Journalists are encouraged to write these articles so that a reader can read the first line (itself, typically the ‘lede’ — the most important succinct element of the story), and exit knowing what the article was about. Each line adds depth and layers to the story, but each sentence end ties the story off succinctly.

Designing products and services should be the same. The feature or flow should be able to be communicated in one concept, with each additional concept adding layers to the core ‘truth’. Spend the time editing your work — your designs as well as your communications to users and other stakeholders, so that the product can speak for itself!

Relevant techniques and resources: Editing, Feature Budgeting, Just One Thing, Internal Press Release, Elevator pitches.

“I’m not bad i’m just drawn that way” — Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

If only we could draw our own Jessica Rabbits *sigh*

As junior UX designers, our sketching tends to suck. We’re nervous at sticking anything in front of a user or colleague that doesn’t look professional or that it took 100s of backbreaking hours. Plus, we have the option of digital tooling that seems to get quicker and simpler every release (snaps for Invision Studio).

But, although your paper prototypes may look, well, bad, there’s a very powerful benefit to them being so. Presenting something that looks intentionally less finished communicates that you’re early in the process and that the cost to changing direction is still low. Polite users are also far less likely to give candid (read. useful) feedback when presented with something they consider to be ‘done’.

Relevant techniques and resources: Paper, pencils and Sharpie’s (yes really), The Daily UI challenge.

“I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle” — Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator

“Hello, nice to meet you, i’m a new product, please hand over your information and sign up to me”.

You’re going to get a lot of requests to work on sign up, sign in and data gathering flows. Why? Because it’s one of the most important points of conversion for new products and services, and where a lot of money can be made in preventing cart abandonment.

Being able to make a new user feel comfortable sharing their precious data with you, amidst a sea of data privacy fear and regulation, is already an incredibly useful skill to have. Building experience (and a portfolio) in customer and data acquisition challenges will put you in good stead when trying to convince companies to ‘acquire’ you…see what I did there?

Have a set of case studies at your disposal that you can dissect and talk to. Sites like UserOnboard.com have teardowns where they’ve done a load of the dissection for you . Have a flick through their DropBox example:

ReallyGoodUX have a load of great options to choose from. They’ve got a great Instagram feed to — something to look out for amongst the dog and donut shots.

Relevant techniques and resources: ReallyGoodUX, UserOnboard

“Why So Serious” — The Joker, The Dark Knight

You get to wear jeans, have visible tattoos and grow your hair out — It’s supposed to be fun dammit!

But seriously, being able to build a sense of humour into your designs and client communications is paramount. No one likes a boring story — but more importantly, no one remembers it. We have a free pass as designers to be creative in our communications. Taking a user or client through a story that they remember, and remember fondly, means they’re more likely to come back — to your website, to your product, or to your agency…

Specifically, a great read on humour in microcopy can be found on the Invision Blog, here:

A bonus — get REALLY good at PowerPoint and/or Keynote. Being able to tell entertaining but professional stories through these media is a rare, rare skill. As a junior, these tasks will tend to fall to you anyway, and senior folks are always on the lookout for excellent deck-builders. My advice: get templates and build a library of reusable slide formats and content (just like you would in a design system), and don’t worry about the number of slides. The problem is never the number of slides, but the amount on them. Each slide should be a little advert for an idea — an advert that has to be memorable, or support the impact of another. Websites, posters and adverts can be great sources of inspiration for layout!

Relevant techniques and resources: PowerPoint/Keynote; Dave Trott’s Blog (and books)

“Every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than what we are now, students. If they can do it, why not us?” — Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Because you wouldn’t’ve believed it if I hadn’t made it about Wizards.

It’s true, everyone started somewhere —9/10 times, the ones who ‘made it’ just persevered. This is particularly hard in creative industries, as beginners still have a good sense of what ‘good’ looks like — and it’s around to remind you what it looks like everyday. And although you might be able to see a great design in your minds eye, somewhere on the journey from your brain to your pencil or keyboard, it stops at the airport bar, loads up on one-to-many gin and tonics, and doesn’t quite make the best of itself at its final destination in your notebook or Sketch.

Fear not: this is normal, albeit irritating. Ira Glass says it best:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit…It’s going to take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” — Ira Glass

Bust through this period by getting your design reps up. Sketch early, sketch often, and revisit and iterate on your old ideas (just be sure to version properly!).

Relevant techniques and resources: humility, perseverance and blind, dogged ambition


Please do share any helpful hints and hacks you’re using as a junior in the comments section!