I Only Work On Shiny Products

Designers who belong to the cult of shiny often miss their biggest opportunities.

I’m hiring designers right now for an unshiny commercial real-estate/tech startup. I’ve been talking to friends and candidates. As soon as I say “real-estate,” their eyes glaze over, and they start pondering their grocery list. What’s going on here?

A friend explained, “My designer friends only work on shiny products.”

Well put, friend. And I know what you mean.

Why do designers think this way? What is a “shiny product”?

On the surface, shiny describes simple, smart, beautiful interaction and visual design.

Under the surface, shiny signifies innovation: an interesting thesis, a mission that’s good for humanity, and the latest technology. It involves photos, music, videos or games. It’s glamorous. Fashion, food, and sex are at the forefront. You know, the good stuff. It’s a shiny product; something you want to dish about at Brooklyn Beta to make your friends super-envious.

Most of the world, and the companies that power it, are unshiny. Think back-office or enterprise software: stuff that deals with reality, numbers, and problems. I’m not talking about big companies vs. small ones. Just uncool ones of all types and sizes.

Let me be the first to admit: I belong to the cult of shiny. I moved to NYC, joined shiny studios, and tried to start some shiny startups. I like shiny. I want my job, my designs, my whole damn life to be shiny.

But I think the shiny-only attitude is elitist, and leads to missed opportunities.

These days, I only work on unshiny products. I focus on overlooked and underappreciated users who have crappy products and serious problems. I’ve learned that unshiny can be a breeding ground for greatness. Here’s why:

Unshiny = Impact

As a designer, your role is to rethink and transform: a disjointed flow into a smooth one, frustrated customers into happy ones, a broke company into a solvent one.

When you join a shiny company, some other designer has already done the transformational heavy lifting for you. You don’t want to follow this designer. You want to be this designer.

Unshiny = Learning

If you work on shiny products, you’ll enjoy it, and get some some shiny portfolio pieces.

You’ll be able to say, “I took an established product that people love, and made it shinier, smoother, and convert better.”

If you work on unshiny products, you’ll be knee-deep in shit that doesn’t work, and it will be on you to fix it — not decorate or polish — but make it viable. You’ll be confused and resource-constrained. You’ll learn the hard lessons.

In the end, assuming you don’t crash and burn, you’ll be able to say:

“We dove headfirst into an unshiny, undervalued industry, rethought the basics, and leapfrogged the competitors. Customers loved it, we made lots of money… and my thinking made it all happen.”

Which learning experience would you rather have? Which designer would you hire?

Unshiny = Passion

I hear many designers say, “I only work on stuff I’m passionate about.”

The shiny markets and companies you’re personally passionate about probably have thousands of designers already trained on them as you read this. At most shiny companies, the competition for hiring is fierce, and competition for market share is entrenched. The finances could be sketchy, if money has even entered the equation. It’s a very attractive (from the outside) slog (on the inside).

Your most passionate day will probably be day one.

An opposite approach to passion does exist. Find an unshiny, underdog team with big problems, and invest your energy. Build it up with solid design and product culture. Create shininess from scratch. Your passion will grow as you invest more and more in the people and their mission.

It will be a slow burn, but every day will be your most passionate day.

I started a network for design entrepreneurs: Design Founders. Many of us have started ultra-shiny products, but some of the fastest-growing, most solvent new ventures are solving unshiny problems in unshiny industries. Consider, for example:

Happy Inspector: making building inspection shiny.

Canary: making home security shiny.

Sols: making custom orthotics shiny.

These designers are transformative pioneers in their respective industries. They’re learning the hard lessons. And their passion is growing over time.

That’s why I only work on unshiny products.

If you’re a designer, a founder or you just work for an unshiny co like me, do me a favor and hit the recommend button below! Thx!

Image above: Waveform by Alex Szabo-Haslam