Astronauts, Bees and Sofas: Lessons for Those Starting a Career in Design
Our industry is special and I’m proud to be a part of shaping it in a small way, however there’s a lot of work for us to do to make it better and more inclusive – especially for those trying to crack into it. Some of us will have the fortune of landing incredible jobs from the start while others will not have access to these opportunities. This inconsistency can make it a deeply daunting step to take and result in varying degrees of satisfaction. When I started to follow my path after graduation, I struggled with anxiety due to a combination of this uncertainty and my own lack of direction.
The situations in which I’ve thrived the most have been largely thanks to the supportive people around me and their generosity of time and patience; something that I believe everyone deserves but unfortunately does not have access to. This post is a small step in attempting to address that.
I recently spoke at an event hosted by Ravensbourne University alongside some incredible talent from the creative industry, which was designed to share both linear and non-linear paths into design. Speaking to those interested in getting stuck into our industry has long been something I’ve enjoyed doing. Traditionally I would usually share my route and hope that it’d be useful for others. The past year has taught me the problem with an approach like this (which I touch upon this later), resulting in me putting together a more inclusive talk of important lessons I’ve learned along the way instead. This post captures the contents of that talk, where I share some of what I see as the important insights I’ve picked up along the way through my time at ustwo and DeepMind. So without hesitation…
1. The Way You Do Anything is the Way You Do Everything
I love the simplicity of this statement, it’s a beautifully basic concept – “how you handle and manage any situation, challenge, or experience in your life is how you probably handle all of them”. Every single thing we do, every task we engage with, every conversation we have is an opportunity to do good: to make others feel included and to do the best that we can in that situation (as large or small scale as it may be, in whatever context it sits).
Specifically what I love about this is how applicable it is, which I believe makes it an advantageous thing to be aware of when starting out with something new. While there’s often a lack of technical expertise and experience when getting started (which can feel like a barrier to entry) we’re able to communicate volumes about ourselves through the way in which we interact with those around us. We can communicate how we’ll operate within a team, the way in which we may tackle problems, what kind of learning style we have, and countless more qualities. Kind of like learning about your new housemate when they don’t change the toilet paper after it runs out.
Feeling like I didn’t have the professional track-record required to ‘sell’ my qualities was the cause of much of my anxiety during the application process. I had naively assumed that my lack of this experience would obscure the passion and drive which I believed would make me a good fit. Had I considered what my excitement and curiosity would say about me, I’d have likely been at greater ease during this stage.
It works both ways, too. It’s important for you to feel confident in the people that you could be working with. How is the interviewer making you feel? What are their actions saying about their attitude? Think of how these things will scale to their work ethic and try to imagine how you would fit into that environment. I vividly remember my first interview at ustwo, and how former Design Director, Joe Macleod made me feel so comfortable in the interview that I was happy to over-share while leaving the meeting room with him (I won’t go into what I shared).
One important thing to note before moving on is that this philosophy doesn’t mean you have to be “110% smashing it all the time” — not by any stretch of the imagination. To me, it simply speaks to the importance of authenticity. Many of us struggle, many of us have anxious days and sometimes they can get the better of us. We should not feel at risk of being judged for these moments. Struggling, dealing with or tolerating pain, while difficult, is still action.
2. Compassion is the Constant
The design industry appears to be facing a self-perpetuating identity crisis. In my three and a half years at ustwo everything changed, from what it meant to be a product studio to what it meant to be a designer. Titles, roles, work, people, everything can and will change which is unfortunate considering that we’re creatures of habit.
Change can be difficult. Some people thrive in it while others really struggle. One of the things that I witnessed to be a strengthening agent in these uncertain situations is compassion. Patience for those who are making difficult decisions, understanding for those who are frustrated, and support for those who are having a hard time. Being in a compassionate environment is a motivating and empowering thing which ultimately supports productivity. The stability we lose through being part of such a fluid industry can be offset by the interactions you have with those around you.
This is something I grew to understand by witnessing the way that ustwo had been set up. I remember the sense of relief I felt when learning about the personal support offered to us and how we weren’t expected to leave all of our baggage behind when we stepped into the studio.
Anecdotally, one of my most cherished (and painful) memories from my time at ustwo is tied to this. It was around the tenth month of my employment and my dear uncle had just passed away. I hadn’t had to deal with death since starting work and had little-to-no idea of how to compose myself in such an environment. I took some time to spend with my family before starting to get back into the routine of life. I had a fantastic support network in my close family and friends (forever grateful, Will), and felt that this was luxury enough for me. I knew my wonderful colleagues would offer any support I needed yet I still decided to try and internalise things so I could move on. Spoilers – I did a far worse job than I thought; productivity took a big hit and I isolated myself somewhat.
I clearly remember heading up to the third floor to drop something off when I walked past Mills (one of ustwo’s larger-than-life founders), who was heading into a meeting room. He smiled at me and asked how I was doing. From my limp response of ‘okay thanks, how are things with you?’, he picked up that something was up.
He stopped walking, turned back and asked me if I was really okay or if I wanted to talk. Having a faint grasp of how ridiculously busy this man was, I replied ‘yeah, maybe one lunchtime.’ He shook his head, pointed at a sofa in the Games Team’s area and said ‘you grab that one, I’ll grab this one and let’s meet in Top Dog in 2 minutes’ (Top Dog was one of the studio’s meeting rooms). I watched him drag a sofa across the studio into the meeting room and did the same myself. He arranged the two sofas, facing each other, dropped down on one while I claimed the other.
“Are you okay?”
I knew I didn’t have to talk about anything if I didn’t want to. But I opened up and at that moment started to understand a little more about the environments we work in and what being ‘professional’ really means. That gesture alone shaped me in a big way. Thank you, Mills.
I hope this anecdote offers some comfort and/or aspiration. While this support may not be standard, we can all pledge to support each other in such a way given the opportunity. If we find ourselves in environments that don’t offer this support, we can try to be the ones to drive such change. The value brought to an individual’s happiness, as well as the team’s culture is irreplaceable.
3. Make Things to Change Things
I rewrote this section a good few times because I found it difficult to capture. In short, I think it’s something like this; the earlier we are in our journey, the more attainable the goal of ‘changing the world’ is. The more we’re exposed to the nature of the society we live in, the more that goal becomes obscured by more ‘realistic’ goals. Of course, not every child wants to change the world, but I remember how that statement felt like the end goal when I was younger. I also remember how getting older did in fact push that idea further and further away.
The lack of direction I felt while studying at school drove a fear and confusion of what should come next. Everyone around me seemed to be overachieving while I felt that there was nothing I was particularly good at. The world is a scary environment to find your place in. The idea of being one to change it can easily be traded simply for survival. ‘Never mind the ambition, I just need to find something that I can do and don’t hate.’
Eventually, I took a few steps into the design industry and through hard work, huge amounts of good fortune and privilege I started to find my feet. The confidence was coming back since I knew that I had found something I enjoyed and was improving at. This didn’t address the masterplan though — through my own short-sightedness combined with naivety I struggled to understand how a designer could meaningfully make a difference in the world. I knew that this was the ultimate desire, but didn’t know if it would be possible.
My work at both ustwo and DeepMind has taught me a lot about the practicality of this. Our world is similar to the design industry in that regardless of if we do anything or not, it is forever in a state of change. Whether or not we wake up tomorrow, the world will continue to change. Given the right environment, every single one of us has the ability to shape this change in some form. This is what I believe our collective duty is.
Another empowering discovery was that we could work towards this change, but make conscious decisions about the scale in which we wish to do so. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to see two versions of this in my career. ustwo is set up to make a measurable difference in the world by transforming people’s everyday lives. This could be as small scale as creating a tool which offers a little value every now and then, up to the large scale, high impact products that change things in a big way. DeepMind, on the other hand, are working on what could arguably be the largest scale imaginable. We’re an ethically driven company with our goal captured in the unchanging mission-statement, ‘Solve intelligence, use it to make the world a better place.’
Through exposure to both ustwo and DeepMind, I’ve found clarity in what it is that I wish to achieve in my life. I formulated this into a mission statement which sits on my website in place of a portfolio; to solve long-term problems for humanity by focusing on short-term impact and progress. Formulating a goal like this has helped me navigate my career in a healthier way. This is something I would encourage everyone to think about when they feel ready.
‘A single act of design is also an action to change the world’ — Haiyan Zhang
4. Acknowledge Your Privilege
Already in this post I have spoken of many luxuries that I have been afforded. Each of us has our own privileges. They may be hard to see, and may be even harder to admit, but they’re there and can result in unconsciously biased behaviours which further perpetuate this privilege. It can be demoralising to accept that we are perpetuating a problem that we may genuinely wish to solve, but acknowledgement is an important step. Similarly, it can be difficult to acknowledge that while we may have worked incredibly hard with what we’ve had, there are some benefits that are simply un-earned.
A privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group, often undeservedly. By being born in a certain place, to a certain family, with certain characteristics, certain paths in life have come easier to me than they would have had some of these things been different and similarly some things will be further out of reach for me than for others. This imbalance is a tragic truth of our society which we collectively need to work long and hard at to fix.
Early on in my time at ustwo, I jumped into the outreach program to try and ‘give back.’ I had initially found ustwo thanks to Gyppsy (ustwo’s longest standing designer and one of the most positive, kind people you’ll meet) visiting my university and speaking with us. I felt indebted to this action and wanted to do the same for others. In retrospect now, I understand that the advice I was giving only really worked for someone as privileged as myself. My family lived in London, so I had the ability to turn down full time jobs to apply for more relevant internships while I could stay at home. I encouraged others to try and find a way to make this happen without appreciating that it wasn’t always that simple.
It took time for me to realize this, but when I did, I was able to adjust my message to be more inclusive and supportive. I now make an effort to reach out past the usual places. Not everyone can afford to attend university — why should those people miss out on industry insight? I mentioned earlier that this post is a small attempt at addressing this, however by deciding to publish via Medium, I am already excluding many people. I am aware of this and trying to consider how I can solve this problem.
This may seem like quite a specific situation in which acknowledging privilege is important, but once again it works on multiple levels. It can be as simple as choice of language. I’m still encouraging myself to avoid the term ‘guys’ when addressing a group. It’s difficult, and I still catch myself doing it. It doesn’t come from a malicious place but can lead to exclusion. Ultimately, my intent is not important in this scenario, the individual who feels excluded is.
I’ve mentioned a few things that I used to be oblivious to and have now become aware of, but I have no doubt that there will be an array of my behaviours which still exclude or alienate others. This is one of the more important lessons to learn and accept. Only by acknowledging and accepting our privileges can we start to level the playing field. Even if we don’t believe we discriminate, by calling our privilege out we can help to raise awareness and begin to chip away at the institutionalised discrimination that so many face.
I think the Johari Window is a great reference here, it’s a technique to help us understand ourselves and our relationships better. Privilege fits into this, we really need to be comfortable in listening to others and how they’re being made to feel in order to better ourselves — for ourselves and for others. My advice here would be to listen and to learn. Where others are happy to open up to you about how they are being made to feel, listen. Where they are not comfortable doing so, make it your responsibility to do what you can to educate yourself and understand their position. Do not expect others to educate you. We need to do the heavy lifting ourselves: to get comfortable being uncomfortable, not to dismiss others, and to be an active ally to those who are underrepresented.
5. It’s More Important to Find the Right People with the Wrong Skills Than the Wrong People with the Right Skills
This speaks to the first point in this post. There’s more to a person than their technical abilities. While in my final year at university, in the midst of job applications, I tripped myself into the illusion that in order for me to make anything of myself I would have to convince all of these studios that I would be a technical asset to their team. I believed that I would have to polish my portfolio to the extent that these studios would simply need me to join their team to help increase their standard. Yes, I am cringing as I type this.
I now understand how delusional this was. Junior talent can contribute a vast amount to a team, but should not be expected to come with a fully refined skillset ready for heavy production (this is an absolute luxury). I didn’t stop to think of it the other way round; what did I already have that someone with those technical skills may lack?
If a candidate turns up to an interview and has an incredibly deep technical understanding of their field with practical skills to apply this expertise, it does not automatically make them a great hire. The ability to collaborate with others, the capacity to care and the drive to improve aren’t requirements to design a beautiful flow or script efficient code, but are arguably just as important. While this may seem obvious to many people, it’s not necessarily something that’s taught, rather an anxiety that is slowly overcome with time and experience.
Let’s think of the ‘right person with the wrong skills’ as person A, and the ‘wrong person with the right skills’ as person B. While the short term gains may be more visible for person B, a company is far larger than their technical resources. Person A holds the ability to contribute to the team’s culture in a meaningful way. They are able to motivate others and to apply themselves to their own growth. Simply put, anyone can learn a technical skill given the right time and resources, but not anyone can learn to care.
A company willing to invest in person A is likely to be somewhere with an attitude towards supporting growth. I wish I had been more mindful of this when I was getting started, because my strongest asset at the time was my drive to do something meaningful.
Worth mentioning again, this comes from a position of privilege. I appreciate that not every company has the luxury of time and may be under pressure to deliver quickly, but the lesson here is around the important of culture in the workplace. You can contribute vast amounts to your team without being a ‘rockstar’. I think it’s far better to be a singer-songwriter.
6. Learn How You Best Grow
Really understanding how you best grow is tough. You can follow frameworks or the journeys that others have been on, but ultimately we are all different. It’s also quite an easy thing to offset. I know that this was my approach when I was getting on my feet. One of the mistakes that I made at the beginning of my career was going into an internship without setting myself clearly defined goals.
The excitement of joining an agency that I looked up to so much distracted me somewhat; the three months flew by. My eyes were wide open and I deeply enjoyed my time there, but by the end of the internship I realised that I didn’t have any tangible achievements that I drove. Of course I learned plenty, but upon completing the internship I started to understand the importance of setting goals. I had initially assumed that I could head into an internship with an open heart and mind, become a sponge and emerge from the other side as… well… I didn’t think that far ahead. A soggy sponge, I guess.
Thankfully this revelation was not for nothing, by the time that I was ready to start my next internship at ustwo, I understood that in order to make something of this opportunity I would have to hold myself accountable. I’d need to set goals in order to measure my progress, to understand what I was good at, what I struggled with and ultimately, how I could best grow.
While an open heart and mind is important, we owe our own development to ourselves. Being comfortable, coasting and observing is easy, but understanding how to push yourself and develop is a real skill. If you find yourself to be the right person with the wrong skills, then truly understanding what you need to achieve in order to grow can help you to make the transition to becoming both.
I found the design industry a very intimidating place to crack into, there were so many designers and companies that I looked up to. It was only once I had the chance to speak with some of them that I realised that these people we look up to were once less experienced than us. It’s purely by work and growth that they got to the positions they are now in.
As I’ve been typing this, an obnoxiously large bumble bee has been trying to break into my flat. It’s been flying at the window, oblivious to the obstacle, disappearing and returning a few minutes later only to try again. Of course, in my arrogance I’ve been too lazy to close the window to keep it out. Obviously it’s now in the flat and will hopefully be contributing to my upcoming council tax bill. It seems too perfect not to be a meaningful anecdote for this post, so here’s an attempt. Through brute force, we will all find our feet in the industry. However, it doesn’t have to be so draining. If those of us inside can open the window and help the bees come in, those entering will be in better shape to continue growing our industry.
Anyway, back to the closing note — I’ve wanted to externalize this for some time. The goal of this post is to try and help alleviate anxiety for those starting their careers and perhaps make things a little easier. I understand that I have been incredibly lucky to have had the experiences I have — I appreciate that I am able to write this post from a position of privilege. I understand that it won’t be like this for everyone.
Some of you reading this may end up in an environment that you feel hinders your development. Perhaps your experience will contradict some of these insights that I’ve picked up along my way. Maybe you disagree with some of them.
What I will say is that if something resonates with you — if there’s something here that you strongly agree with, then you can be the change that you want to see. Perhaps you can be the one responsible for helping to improve the environment that you’ll be starting your journey in.
My inbox is open, please feel free to email me with any comments, questions or feedback.