Very few industries demand so little from those wishing to enter than the design and tech world. We live in a small, thriving bubble where anyone with a functioning computer can develop the basic skills to land a position. Knowing where to look, and studying the solutions to the simple puzzles of design, can quickly lead you into a position to take on real challenges and serve real people; to have a job, and to earn a living. It’s one of the industries where, provided you have what it takes, age is truly not an issue.
I began designing at a young age. You can look in any direction on any website and find a large selection of others who are doing the same: excited, young designers and engineers with a lot of potential and passion. They are doing it because they enjoy it, and because they can. In the constant race for talent in this industry, this can only be a fantastic sign for the years to come.
In five years time I hope to be in the position to teach some of the integral lessons of design, of how to be an artist while acting pragmatically, to solve problems worth solving. Until then, this is a brief letter to all those similar to who I was and who I am — young, inexperienced and wanting to build something worthwhile.
I moved to Berlin to join the Wunderlist design team when I was seventeen. Despite my best efforts I lacked ideas about how design truly works. I had even fewer ideas about how the world worked, and how to be part of a team. Sitting in your bedroom with Photoshop, or Sketch, shining on your screen, you learn solitude. You learn style and you learn to dream big. What you miss out on is practicality, teamwork and compromise. Joining a team of designers and, far more importantly, working directly with engineers, requires these skills.
In the early stages of your career, no matter where you go, you will join a team where every single person is far smarter and more experienced than you. They have been designing longer and they been working with the people around you for longer. Prepare to be terrified. It’s good, it forces humility.
For some time before joining Wunderlist I had been alone, freelancing through different projects and working with a variety of people and teams online. I, unsurprisingly, was using and browsing Dribbble heavily, discovering heroes and inspiration every way I looked. When I think back to that time I realise one, among many, large differences — I hadn’t separated the designer from the person. I admired the Wunderlist design team long before I joined, and I still cite them as one of my major inspirations today. I remember seeing Tim’s work, and I remember often trying to emulate everything he was doing. When I joined the company, I admired Tim the designer, and anticipated what he could teach me about Photoshop and gradients and textures (this was a very different time). Now, I love Tim the person as well as Tim the designer. We spend every day together and I’ve learned to work with him. I understand his taste, I know how to communicate with him, we share the same philosophies and my phone holds a variety of different selfies of us outside of our favourite table tennis bar.
Once you have separated your team member’s raw skills from who they are, you come to learn so much more. When you care about the person, rather than the designer, you excel. At Wunderlist the biggest criteria we hold for hiring is the prospect’s personality. Whether they gel with us as a design team, and whether they can work with all others in our company. The design talent out there is endless, the amount of people that you truly want to see every morning, is not. To be a part of, and grow inside, a great team the hours you spend studying empathy, and those you want to work with, will be worth far more than practicing different styles in Sketch.
Of course, the work. You want to be the best designer in the world, and that is a valid goal to have. To constantly push yourself and your skills is priceless. When I started I was arrogant and conceited. I loved what I created and thought, believed, that others should too. Fortunately getting to work with the people I do kicked this out of me rapidly. I can promise you that you will never be the best; our work is just too wide and subjective.
You must strive for the top of the industry, and to build the best products and to work with the best clients, undoubtedly. But sensibility, and self-awareness, are priceless skills for you as a designer; understand where you currently are, and who you could become. Believe in yourself and be conscious of what you create.
My final note is one of patience. Being young you have a lot of time ahead of you, and such a wonderful opportunity that very, very few others in the world have ever been afforded. Appreciate it. Cherish it. I have been designing Wunderlist for almost two years now, and at nineteen I have had the opportunity to work on and lead a variety of different projects, to travel and to collaborate with the most talented people I have ever met. I am endlessly grateful to Benedikt and the rest of my team for their belief and trust. I have progressed massively alongside them, both as a designer and as a human.
Work hard, and listen to everyone. Even if you don’t agree. You are talented, and everyone you come across will be more talented than you. Be patient, if you’ve made it this far then I promise only good things can come.
Lastly, good luck.
One final thing
If you can, study. One of the big regrets of my career so far is that I didn’t take enough time to appreciate the industry and history of design before jumping in. This doesn’t necessarily mean formal higher education, and the college conversation is a sensitive one that I wouldn’t want to mingle with, but it is one of my goals to study and discover the past of my work, and what it means for us as designers, going forward, and I would hope you can too.