The Inner Game of Design

Kevin Cannon
Jan 23, 2018 · 8 min read

Designers often talk about the various aspects of design; our love of typography, pixels, materials or about the process around them. What we talk less about are some of the internal challenges we face over our careers.

Professional sports players talk about the inner game of sport, where psychological factors are often the difference between winning and losing. It’s important to discuss the inner challenges designers face and how managing our expectations and our emotions enables us to do better work.

Here, I’ll share key lessons I've learned about this over the years.

(If you prefer to watch a video of this content, then jump to the bottom)

1. The secret to good work

Talent is over-rated. There are many other ingredients needed to do good work. Perhaps the most important factor these days is not getting distracted by the internet. Grab yourself a browser extension to help you ignore distractions and get to work.

There’s a famous saying by Mary Heaton Vorse in writing circles:

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

I think we can now rephrase this for designers:

“The art of designing is the art of sitting down at a computer and not faffing around on the internet.”

2. Doubts during your first month/year in a job

Often, whenever you start a new job, we feel a bit like we don’t deserve to be there. Hell, it’s even got a name, Imposter Syndrome. The important thing to realise is that everyone feels that way at times, so acknowledge it, and then try go with the flow.

Perhaps most importantly, support your new colleagues when you see them in that position, give them a pep talk and help them settle in.

3. You are not your work

Left: What gets us into design. Right: What gets us in trouble.

At some point in our childhood, we made something. It was good and therefore it made us feel good. This created a lovely feedback loop that probably took us all the way to design school. Overall, it’s a positive thing. It’s what drives us to create.

The problem however, as John Kolko talks about, is what happens when we create something that’s bad. We then think to ourselves “I am bad” and question our entire being.

We need to remember an important rule: You are not your work.

By detaching our own self-confidence from what we create, it gives us the emotional strength to continue to push onwards, even when what we’re doing isn’t great at that moment.

4. The creative process is a roller-coaster

On many projects, we go through a similar series of emotions.

1. “This is great!”
2. “This is tricky.”
3. “This is shit.”
4. “This might be ok.”
5. “This is great … What was I ever even worried about?”

I go through this. Every. Single. Project!

My tip: Look for the do-ers.

Find the person in your team who is good at pushing forward and just keep going, regardless of whether they are a creative director or just an intern. That person is your greatest asset: look at them, watch them, follow them.

They will guide you in your darkest hours.

5. Your talent cannot exceed your taste

What gets most designers started is our taste. We see great products out there, and we think “Hey, I could do that!” Unfortunately, this is usually followed immediately by sharp disappointment once we realise the first thing we created wasn’t very good at all.

Our taste, our understanding of what is good or bad, is our key asset as designers. The gap between our taste and our own ability is what drives us to improve.

However, as you progress and improve, there is a risk. Barry T. Smith warns us, if your taste stays at the same level, there’s no way for your quality to improve, because you don’t know what better is. You need to always continue to improve your taste. How do you improve your taste? Seek out mentors, ask for honest feedback and participate in usability tests.

A few months ago, I participated in a usability test of a product I’d designed. Afterwards, myself and my team mate gave the test a rating of 3/10, one of the worst results I’ve ever had.

It was not a happy day.

Looking back on it however, while the result may have been poor, in that moment, our taste had just improved, we now knew things that we didn’t know before, so rather than being worse designers than we thought, our taste had just improved, and that could drive us to do even better work. After a redesign, a test a few months later passed with flying colours.

6. Don’t overestimate your ability

Our self-evaluation of our skills, is often wildly inaccurate.

There is a documented cognitive bias in psychology called the Dunning–Kruger effect. Essentially it means that often the skill needed to assess your ability, is the same skill needed to be good at something. It’s why bad singers (like me) don’t truly realise the pain they cause at the office karaoke event.

How does that affect us? Well, at the start of our careers, we are all terrible at self-evaluating. As we grow in our abilities, we tend to vastly overestimate our progress.

At some point, we hit a peak, and we start to realise we’re not nearly as good as we thought we were. I recommend hitting that peak as soon as possible, because the higher up you go, the harder you fall.

How can you manage this?

One of the best ways I've found to minimise this, is to surround yourself with the best people you can find. For me, when I attended Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design and then joined frog design both were very humbling experiences that helped me radically re-evaluate my skill.

“Try to never to be the smartest person in the room.”
— Michael Dell

If you think you’re hot shit, find people better than you and work with them. It will make you better and it will also soften the harder edges of your ego.

7. Junior vs Senior Designer

As a junior, you’re constantly trying to do good work and hone your skills. Alas, just when you start to master your craft, you learn that there’s a whole other spectrum that you didn’t see before

Bad & Right:
For example, in some situations, what is good just isn’t realistic. Let’s say you’re redesigning an online banking website. You might have an idea for something great, but that’s a 3 year, multi-million back-end infrastructure project, so it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. In this case, you have to be satisfied with making something better than before, even if it’s not very good.

Good & Wrong:
The most dangerous situation is one that is good, but wrong. Designers are perfectionists, and we see beauty as an abstract goal, rather than a business tool. It’s very easy for us to over-design and threaten the entire project. Ethan Imbode, who nearly killed his own startup, calls this design suicide. When you’re in this situation, he says you need to figure out a way to make your design more feasible or your product will die.

8. Effort vs estimation

If the effort we expected was needed for a task is lower than the effort actually required to do something, our caveman brain doesn’t understand and rather than think our plan was bad, it just tells us we’re stupid and incompetent.

So, when you find something harder than you expected, take a step back, don’t get disheartened, reflect that it’s not something that’s wrong with you, and keep on pushing forward.

One way to improve this is to make sure you have a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset. When you struggle with something, don’t see it a reflection as a lack of your ability, but just as a new challenge to be overcome.

9. Love what you make

At frog, we have the phrase “Love what you make.” I’ll admit, when I joined, I didn’t fully understand that, but over time, I've realised how important it is.

When I moved to Germany a few years ago, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool if I learned German?

Well, it turns out, I don’t like learning German at all. Learning German is hard. It means going to classes when you’d rather be having beers, it means feeling stupid in groups, it means learning about the wonders of German dative case. You see, I liked the idea of speaking German. The idea, not the learning itself.

I see a lot designers falling for the same thing. They see a product like AirBnb, Amazon Echo or fidget spinners and wish they’d worked on them. However, it’s critical to ask, what work would you have done on those teams? Because at the end of the day, while having a great vision is important, it’s critical you love the work itself, because that’s what you’ll be doing every day, and what gets you up in the morning.

So, find the work you love, and love doing it.


I’d love to hear the lessons you’ve learned in the comments, or on twitter.

You can also a video of a flash-talk where I discuss some of these same concepts:

Note: The audio is quite poor for the first few seconds in the video, but gets better.

Credits

Many thanks to Emilio Patuzzo for the illustrations, Bárbara Ferreira and John Lynch for the feedback, and to all my great colleagues at frog design from whom I’ve learned many of these lessons.

frog Voices

Thoughts on design from frogs around the world

Kevin Cannon

Written by

Designing the future of presentations at @Pitch. Previously @frogdesign, @ustwo, @CIIDnews.

frog Voices

Thoughts on design from frogs around the world