The incentives to design Shiny Products are huge.
I’ll confess that I smirked a little when I saw the list of designer colleagues and friends who recommended “I Only Work On Shiny Products” (which argues that we shouldn’t just work on Shiny Products). These are designers working for the shiniest of shiny companies: Senior designers hardened in the pre-exit crucibles of Zynga, YouTube, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Google Ventures. People who studied design at shiny schools, too, like Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon and Stanford. (I’m one of them.)
Like the author Jeff Domke, we’ve all seen the virtues of being a Shiny Designer. And also like Domke, certainly at this point in my career I prefer working on harder, nastier design problems than a weather app that can be explained by a single screenshot on Dribbble. In fact, I pretty much agree with Domke.
But if you’re hiring designers to choose Gritty Jobs over Shiny Jobs, you’ve got to take a look at what incents people to choose the Shiny in the first place. There are reasons that people choose Shiny Jobs, and you have to overcome their objections if you want to sell them on your Gritty Job.
Shiny Jobs build personal brand better than Gritty Jobs. In the shorter-term, a Gritty Job can teach you more, give you more leverage, and even earn you a lot more money (since Gritty Products are often ones that are sold for money to solve nasty problems that people will pay to have solved). But having a Shiny Job can give you all of the above, plus the name and brand recognition of having worked for a name-brand company. This brand works long-term, and serves as a leg up over the long run. It’s a form of social capital: we can spend it, and we can earn it.
Do you give your designers executive responsibilities? Are your fancy “Product Designers” just glorified visual designers who get their 2 weeks to work on each Agile story? Or do you let your senior designers / UX staff actually plan the product roadmap so they can prioritize the features that will create a great experience? And with that, do you give those people a path into product management, executive oversight of projects, and the mentoring and training they need to take on those responsibilities? These are the types of skills and experiences outweigh the downside of a Gritty Brand vs a Shiny Brand and will let that designer move into a stronger role in the future.
[Certain types of] Shiny Jobs pay more. We don’t talk enough about money in the Valley, at least as it impacts most of the individuals who are earning it. People talk about “Love your job! Feel passion for what you do!” That’s all well and good, but it’s an incredibly privileged stance to take. If you have, I don’t know, a mortgage and college tuitions and you’re hitting the marriage penalty because both you and your spouse have professional jobs and your family isn’t rich, you’re probably pretty happy to have a job that pays bank. Even if your true passion is being a philosopher or an artist. Joining an up-and-coming pre-IPO large startup, multiple times, pays.
Does your Gritty Job pay? And does it pay enough to compensate for the possible personal brand wash that the person will have to take? Do you give them bonuses? Do you let them hire the staff they need to do a great job?
Shiny Jobs get more press, adulation… and it all comes back to personal brand. The tech press often covers based on Shiny Cues like a Shiny VC firm, the founders’ previous Shiny companies, and other Shiny Symbols of Shinedom. Companies that are tackling difficult enterprise problems, or unsexy-but-useful problems don’t get Shiny Stories written about them. Thus there are fewer brand-building opportunities for companies that don’t start out with Shiny Cues.
Are you going to promote your designers? Are you going to sign them up for speaking at conferences? Are you going to hire one of your writers to help them regularly publish on your corporate blog? Are you going to publicly talk about the work your company does and highlight the work your designers do? Or are you going to lock down your product behind a maze of sales calls and “Sign up here for a demo”? Are you going to spend the money and time on good marketing and PR to create a great brand for your company in general?
You know what Gritty Product was awesome? TurboTax. All those people who invented TurboTax and then designed it and built it are my hero. But who loves TurboTax? Who loves the saps at SAP who are designing nuclear plant-monitoring systems and accounting software? How do you evaluate what they did in your 30-minute interview with them? How are you even capable of evaluating whether their work was good or not?
You want a designer to work on your Gritty Product? Understand what’s going to give them great opportunities that outweigh the benefits of Shiny Brand Acquisition on their resume.