The U in Team

Relevance is a State of Mind

Dear U in Team,
I turned 40 this year. At every event — conference, local meet-up, industry happy hour — the participants get younger and younger. The speakers get younger and younger. They’re either talking about technologies I don’t understand or repeating concepts I’ve studied for decades as if they’d discovered it. I know I have something worthwhile to contribute, but it seems like my view of what makes a good designer is obsolete.
Am I still relevant?
Signed, — On the Internet Everybody Knows You’re Gray
From Wikipedia

Dear Everybody Knows You’re Gray,

A few years ago, at a small gathering of design agency owners, one of them said, “I realized I don’t have to be the best designer at my firm.” It was, for me, a life changing moment — one of those moments you don’t look at anything the same way ever again. It came at just the right time, when I was feeling like I couldn’t keep up.

Hearing that, I knew I had to change my relationship to design. I understood that there wasn’t just one way to participate in design. I could still do the work, but there are other ways I add value. As the co-owner of a design agency, I needed to understand this: the only way for agencies to thrive is to hire the best designer around. To put it differently, what’s the point of hiring designers who are less skilled than I am?

Despite reevaluating my relationship to design, I constantly find myself in this place: Wondering how relevant I can remain as younger designers come into the field better trained and better prepared than I ever was. I, too, attend industry events, and lamenting both the gaps in my knowledge and the endlessly recycled content. Paradoxically, I feel left behind in an industry that seems stagnant.

It’s hard to get perspective when you swing wildly between bristling curmudgeon and hyperventilating has-been.

From Wikipedia

1. Expand Your Horizons

The curmudgeon comes out when I read technical design books. As someone who writes design books, I acknowledge the hypocrisy I’m about to wade into. Reading books about design process or technique drives me bananas. Technical design books are poorly written, and the stilted prose makes me cringe.

Beyond the halting narrative, however, technical books are rife with poor descriptions, simplified scenarios, and pointless lists of three. Explaining techniques at in a general, one-size-fits all kind of way feel incomplete. Too detailed, on the other hand, and they seem impossible to apply to my particular situation.

For the book I’m working on now (cue irony alert) I read a lot of works that aren’t directly about design process. Philosophical books really exercise my neurons, and I drew on my own experience — two decades’ worth! — to reflect on what I learned. Psychological books offer insight into working with people and clients, and give me new perspectives on collaboration. Historical books put things in context and help me see the effort that came before, and how my work fits into that picture.

What I like about these books is that they don’t make any promises — to make the reader a better designer or more creative or have better business acumen. They don’t focus on what I should do. They instead offer new lenses with which to reflect on my work. They offer perspectives from tangential fields which, through my own experience, I can bring to bear. For an experienced designer, these insights help me make connections to my past efforts, and give me new ways to think about the projects to come.

From Flickr

2. Treat Your Experience as a Product

Your experience, the accumulated wisdom of your 20+ years of working, has value. It’s something that can be used by other people (through you as a conduit). Your experience is something you can channel to different platforms (writing, speaking, chatting, working). Your experience is a product.

(Oh, crap, I just realized I’m giving away my product for free right here on Medium.)

Your experience can’t stand on its own, however. Younger designers are the people who tap into that value, and it’s important to understand what they need. Because of some connections to our local General Assembly, I interact with design students regularly, and I get to hear about their concerns and interests. Here are just a few things people have asked about:

  • What soft skills will make me competitive in the market? (self-reflection first, everything comes after that)
  • As I transition full-time into development, what technical skills should I focus on? (I don’t know, but I know a guy…)
  • Are you worried about the flood of younger talent? (um, not until you asked me that question)
  • What’s the difference between working in-house and working at an agency? (variety vs depth, but so much more, too)
  • How did you start out? (bitten by a radioactive spider)

For those questions I can’t answer from my personal experience, I direct the student to someone who can. I can be a resource for them by understanding the challenges they face and tapping my experience to offer insights. My experience isn’t a wellspring of perfect answers, but it does offer a framework for looking at the industry. Unique perspectives give younger designers more fodder as they consider their own paths.

These questions also tell me a lot about what’s top-of-mind to young designers. They give me ideas on how to contribute to the industry dialog and how to mentor designers who I work with. By understanding what’s of interest to young designers, I can remain relevant to them by contributing to the ongoing industry dialog.

From Wikipedia

3. Don’t Settle for Bitterness

Our field is at a level of maturity now where many ideas and innovations are getting recycled. Break-throughs and new approaches from ten years ago make their way into the dialog, not as references to earlier work but positioned as innovative ideas yet again. It’s hard not to be bitter when you see some ideas you’d blogged about in the early 2000’s get rehashed on Medium as the Next Awesome Thing in Design.

Now I know how all those librarians must have felt at our first Information Architecture Summit.

Maybe it’s not bitterness. Maybe it’s exasperation. Maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s depression. As you watch younger designers “discover” new insights about the field, you feel a sense of doom, as if nothing you did in the past matters. I could spend the rest of this article listing all the ideas that I’ve seen rear their ugly heads time and again. I could mention colleagues confronted weekly by articles on topics that consumed their work 10–15 years ago, without a reference, nod, or hat-tip.

Few of my colleagues lash out in the comments with a “Didn’t you read…?” More of them resort to the subtweet “Don’t you hate it when…?” Most of us just exchange knowing looks, shaking our heads, rolling our eyes.

You could work in isolation, separating yourself from the madding crowd, oblivious and indifferent to the cacophony of our colleagues’ interminable recursive discussions. You could sit in your corner, emerging to write articles and give talks. You could retreat to the safety of that corner, none the wiser when some whipper snapper posts about the same thing weeks or months or years later.

But the harder thing to do, the behavior that starts from a position of growth, is to put the bitterness aside. This isn’t simply to bury negative feelings, but instead to channel frustration into productive action. Your comments on the blog post can be productive (“and what we learned when we did this…”) or you can reference this new material in your own talks. I tend to avoid direct, public participation in this way. If I’m especially intrigued by the article or the talk, I get in touch with the author to talk shop privately. Usually, however, I move onto the next thing, directing that energy into a new set of insights. In the best circumstances, I continue to elevate the conversation: not rehashing the old stuff, but building upon it.

Long after my book on collaboration came out, I kept seeing articles and talks about designer soft skills. Ugh, it was infuriating. No references to my work. No invitations to speak at conferences. It was easy to descend into a sense of hopelessness: What’s the point of doing what I do, if no one gets it. It’s in those moments I remind myself that the community, though a beneficiary of what I do, isn’t who I work for. Sadly, I still derive a sense of self-worth from retweets or faves or likes — I’m only human — but intellectually I understand it’s my clients and co-workers who ultimately must reap benefit of my effort.

I suppose I feel a responsibility now, one I haven’t felt before, to later generations of designers. I have an obligation to set a tone for the industry, at least to do my part. How do I want this next generation of designers to treat the ones that come later?


One way to share your wisdom is to play Surviving Design Projects, a game about dealing with difficult situations.

A light card game that you can play over lunch break, Surviving Design Projects helps you strategize about your projects’ toughest interpersonal interactions and how to handle them.

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